Warnings, Disclaimer and Notes

"Metamorphosis" is the prequel to this story, though you don't have to read it in order to understand "Ever After".

Spoilers for the entirety of "Shoujo Kakumei Utena", more or less. None for "Adolescence of Utena". If you don't know the anime, I strongly advise you to read a fairly detailed summary of at least the eps leading up to this story, namely eps 1 - 10 (preferrably more). I also advise you to get your hands on copies of the entire series as soon as you possibly can, because it's wonderful.

Rampant symbolism. Sex. Slash / yaoi. Kendo. Strange hair colors. General peculiarity. The hazards of interpretation.

This may or may not be an AU diverging from canon after episode 10. With "Utena", it's hard to be certain.

"Shoujo Kakumei Utena" and everyone in it are the intellectual property of Be-PaPas and various talented people, none of whom are me. I'm not making any profit, sad to say.

 

Ever After

by Sylvia

 

1. ~ Friendship ~


Anthy. Himemiya Anthy.

He'd never quite understood his fascination, his helplessness in the face of her strange, shy beauty and the sense of undefinable depth lurking behind her opaque green gaze. There was something... Part of it was that she was the Rose Bride, of course. This was, in fact, the only reason he had taken notice of her in the first place. Hers was not the kind of beauty to be noticed casually. It could not be taken in with just a glance; an indifferent eye swept over the readily available masses would glide by without seeing it.

There was something even more compelling beyond the beauty you saw so easily once you had learned to look... something you couldn't see, but only feel as a subtle thrum deep behind your eyes, in your chest, in your sex. A resonance sounding in your bones and flesh and blood, as though the presence of Himemiya Anthy struck a chord in the very essence of you.

It made him shiver, made his throat contract when she was near... every particle of his being bursting with an emotion too vast to encompass, neither love nor lust nor terror nor rage nor anything he'd felt for anyone else, ever.

He didn't see her as he walked through the halls of Ohtori Academy with measured steps and his head held high, his most haughty, distant expression frozen in place. It was impossible not to see the wide-eyed stares all around him. Even though he refused to look, he could feel the gazes branding his skin. He couldn't close his ears to the silence that fell where he walked and the low roar of speculation, astonishment, satisfaction he drew in his wake. It seemed like every single student of the academy had turned out to watch him leave in disgrace, excepting only her.

But then, he'd known she wouldn't be here.

Far more surprising than Anthy's absence was Touga's presence. Saionji didn't slow his steps when he caught sight of his former friend waiting by the gate, but for a shameful moment, he wanted to.

In all fairness, Saionji couldn't begrudge him his triumph. Not this time. Had Touga not been there, things might have ended far worse. Had Touga not thrown himself in front of his sword and shocked him to his senses... Saionji could not even remember just what had happened; events had blended into a fragmented cacophony of noise, color and motion in his memory, the familiar heft of his katana in his hands the only recollection he was certain of.

They'd said he might have killed the Tenjou girl.

He remembered the warmth of sunlight on his face like a promise. The castle in which eternity dwelled had moved into his grasp, just as the letter from Ends of the World had promised, and he had reached out to claim it, his Anthy by his side. That meddlesome chit Tenjou Utena had been there, interfering in things she didn't understand, as usual - glaring at him as though he were hurting Anthy, as though he were the one violating the rules, *he*, when he had been sent by Ends of the World

something terrible had happened. Something had gone horribly wrong, and everything had been lost, eternity shattered. All around Saionji towers had crumbled, pillars had collapsed, graves had yawned, living people lying there in the midst of a spray of rose petals, dying, dying, no hope of anything eternal, no hope of anything at all

A spray of rose petals surrounded his Rose Bride, lying so still, so cold, extinguished.

and then

the castle had been in the sky where it always was, untouchable, eternal, always and forever out of reach. But Anthy had still been there, and a kernel of eternity slumbered within her. He could still feel it even now, smothered in transience and dying rose petals but pristine, waiting to be wakened. He needed to waken her, needed her, *needed*, and he had reached out to sweep the Tenjou girl out of his path so he could be with Anthy, find eternity with Anthy.

Touga had been there ahead of him, like he always was. In front of him, blocking his path - stopping his sword.

There were few things Saionji knew as well as the weight of his sword in his hands. With the strength of Saionji's entire body behind the blade, Touga's uniform and skin and muscle barely jolted the hilt in Saionji's grip. But he had felt it. It took a long slow moment for the blood to well up, and by the time it did, Saionji's katana, the most precious thing he'd ever owned, had fallen from his grip to clatter unheeded to the stones.

Saionji had often thought the bond he and Touga shared had broken. Their friendship had started out earnest and joyful, but somewhere along the way, something essential had been lost; they'd turned it into a dark thing, sullen and tinged with malice. Sometimes he'd wished he could be free of the ties that forced him to see everything he had achieved in the shadow of Touga's greater successes. He'd always known it wasn't possible.

*But now you've killed him,* the sword sang to him as it fell from his hands. *You've killed him, and now you will be free.*

And he found, as his heart turned to ice in his chest, that he didn't want to be free. Not at that price. It hurt to look into a flame that blazed so brightly, you would burn to ash if you got too close, but how could you wish that much fierce beauty extinguished from a world where all else was cold and drab and unremarkable... even if it wouldn't last, yet while it burned, for that brief, fragile moment, it was to be treasured.

Of course he'd realized in the next instant, before his sword had rung out against unyielding stone, that he hadn't killed Touga. He'd dealt him no more than a shallow cut that would bleed copiously and need stitches, but wouldn't even slow him down. And by then Touga had been lying in the arms of the Tenjou girl, who'd been looking at him as though he'd fought his way through armies for her, caught all the stars from the sky and laid them at her feet, parted the seas... and at Saionji as though he were the devil incarnate.

And Anthy had been huddling behind her, the same look in her eyes.

Saionji hadn't been certain whether Touga, too, would believe Saionji's obsessive drive to find something eternal had led him to violate the dueling code and intentionally threaten Tenjou Utena's life... But then, Touga was probably the only person in existence who knew Saionji well enough to realize how absurd that suspicion was.

It seemed that there was still something of what they had once shared left, buried under the detritus of rivalry and aloofness. In spite of everything, they were friends.

It had been a long time since Saionji had felt anything but anger, regret and bitter loneliness in the other's presence. A sudden surge of shame and the familiar wish to recapture the closeness they had once shared made Saionji grope for some token he could offer Touga. The one thing left him - the only thing truly precious to him was the exchange diary he had kept with Anthy. He didn't want to keep it and have to look at it every day with the knowledge of what he had lost, but he couldn't give it away, either. Not to anyone, except, maybe...

Touga took the diary somberly, inclining his head in immediate understanding. "I will take responsibility for delivering it to her."

Saionji nodded numbly and stared at the patterned marble beneath their feet, unable to meet his friend's eyes. "I'm sorry for the trouble I've caused you."

For anyone else, it might even have meant a loss of face if their best friend had been expelled, but no one would think less of Student Council President Kiryuu Touga. He was a law unto himself, the undisputed ruler of the student body both in name and in spirit. This sordid little scandal could not touch him, and for that, Saionji was grateful.

They'd asked him how he could have started a duel without the permission of Ends of the World, and the only truthful answer he'd had to give was a lie. He *had* received permission, except that what he'd been promised had not happened. They'd asked him how he could have attacked an unarmed student. For that, he had no answer at all. His ears had been full of the noise the eternal castle had made when it fell, his body throbbing with the agony of a golden spire piercing his chest and tumbling masonry crushing his flesh. His sight had been filled with rose petals, fleeting, futile, doomed, and there had been someone standing in his path, blocking him from the one thing that was eternal, and he *needed* so much...

And so his sword had reached out and struck, and the body that had fallen before him had been Touga's.

The more Saionji tried to piece his memories together into a coherent chain of events, the more they splintered to fragments without meaning or purpose, incomprehensible, swirling loosely in his mind, refusing any kind of order.

He shook his head and cleared the clamoring splinters of recollection from his thoughts with a conscious effort.

More important now was that Himemiya Anthy had not come. She wasn't here, but he needed to see her. And so, since she would not come to him, had never come to him except when compelled by the rules that bound all who fought to bring revolution to the world, he went to her.

 

***

"Anthy..."

He didn't know what to say. He never knew what to say to her except that he loved her and needed her and would do anything for her, and now that he could not with honor speak any of the words that wanted to leap from his heart to his tongue, there was nothing left but silence.

But no matter that he had to stop after saying her name, helplessly casting around for anything to excuse his crimes, floundering before the embarrassed and slightly fearful expression on her face. No matter, because his entire being thrilled to her nearness. The familiar surge of wild emotion was rising in his chest; his heart was racing, his cock hardening.

"Saionji-sempai," Anthy said at last, lowering her gaze timidly. "I am engaged to Tenjou Utena."

"I - " His voice sounded strained and unfamiliar, and he stopped to clear his throat. "Anthy. No doubt you've heard that I have been expelled - but I need you to know that I received permission to duel from Ends of the World. I would never transgress against the dueling rules." But he had. He'd believed he'd been granted a special dispensation, yes, but he hadn't. The letters from Ends of the World couldn't be trusted. Another certainty gone, another illusion shattered. It was no more than he should have expected, but he hadn't been on his guard, and now there was no more hope for winning back Anthy, ever.

Nothing else, no one else, had ever made him feel the way Anthy did. He knew that everything he wanted, everything he needed was embodied in her slight form, and if he could only understand what it was, if he could only learn to look a little bit further beyond the prim hair and demure demeanor and see everything she was, it could all be his.

Except that he would never get the chance to understand, never know more of her. Not now. Not ever.

Frustration, shame, and longing lodged painfully in Saionji's throat, and there was a moment when the familiar tide of tangled wildness evoked by her nearness surged up violently

(because it was *her* fault, she'd never truly loved him)

and it was all he could do to prevent himself from hitting her. If she'd truly loved him, if she hadn't been so - it was her fault, this was all her fault...

No. *No.* *No!*

"Saionji-sempai."

Closer than before, and - from above?

Saionji lifted his head to find Anthy standing above him, looking uncomfortable. Probably wishing for Tenjou to come home and chase him off with his tail between his legs. Didn't want to witness this embarrassing spectacle of a former boyfriend making a fool of himself, falling to his knees at her doorstep...

When had he fallen to his knees?

He got up hastily, ignoring the dizziness that swept over him and threatened to make him stumble. Anthy was slightly blurry when he looked at her again, but at least the perspective was right again - her head was tipped back and she was looking up at him.

After today, he might never see her again.

The terrifying emptiness of his future unfolded before him. He needed to be near her. All he wanted was to see her every day, to feel her presence resonate in his soul. Yes, he'd wanted much more than that once, he'd *had* more, but now, he would have settled for being near her and counted himself the luckiest of men.

Anthy reached out and touched the back of his hand lightly, brushing the skin with her fingertips. It was an odd gesture, and it was the first time she had ever touched him without his prompting. "Cheer up, Saionji-sempai."

"Himemiya!"

The Tenjou girl was rounding the corner from the direction of the main school building. Alarm leapt into her face at the sight of him, and her steps sped up until she was running towards them. "Leave her alone! Get away from her! Don't you touch her, you - "

Saionji stepped away too quickly. Even a day ago, he wouldn't have backed down like this, but now...

"I was just leaving," he said coldly, turning on his heel and stalking off. He refused to think about the worried and questioning look Tenjou cast at her friend, checking to see whether he'd hurt or upset her.

At least he knew he'd only imagined the hint of a malicious smile that had seemed to be playing on Anthy's lips, because Anthy did not smile like that.

 

***

There was no point in taking the train to Tokyo. His parents would have nothing to say to him now that he'd brought disgrace upon himself. He could have stayed with Touga, but he didn't want to put Touga in such an awkward position; his parents were sure to disapprove. Apart from Touga, he could think of no one who might be willing to take him in. Saionji had never had many friends, though he'd been admired and courted by many - for his family's old and noble name, for his position as Captain of the kendo club, Vice-President of the Student Council and long-time Champion of the Rose Bride, for his achievements, even just for his looks.

None of that was left now... except for his looks, and though Saionji had always been rather appreciative of the way he looked, as much for the aesthetic value itself as for the practical benefits, he'd never taken any pride in it. It was something incidental. No one except chance could claim credit for it.

He wandered through quiet streets aimlessly for an uncertain length of time. He couldn't remember whether it had been morning, midday or afternoon when he'd walked off the school grounds and down to town. By the time he roused himself from his numb stupor, the bleached irreality of a world on the brink of night surrounded him.

The hotel he found was unprepossessing, but reasonably clean, and more importantly, inexpensive. He had a handful of change in his pocket and there was left-over money from his quarterly allowance on his bank account, and that was it. He'd have to make it last until he could come up with some idea of what to do with the rest of his life, now that everything he'd been studying and fighting and hoping for had moved forever beyond his grasp.

He didn't feel like eating; he lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling while the night grew darker outside the narrow window. When he finally slept, his dreams were washed-out and empty of meaning.

 

***

The pain of being burned alive woke him. He knew immediately that he was dying. It was impossible to survive anything so excruciating. It was far beyond the grasp of his pride, stoicism, or even stubbornness. If he could have, he would have screamed, or sobbed, or even whimpered. He couldn't. The agony had frozen every muscle into voiceless torment. He could not even draw breath.

There was no sense of time passing - every part of him was occupied with feeling the pain saturating every cell of his body. He didn't know how long he was caught in the glare of agony. All he knew was that at some point, it stopped.

He gasped for breath and curled into a ball on the sweat-damp blanket, prompted by an instinct he had no strength to resist. What the hell was happening to him? There hadn't been anything wrong with him yesterday - he'd never had seizures or attacks of this kind. His nerves were still sending painful twinges of aftershock through him, and he felt appallingly weak. When he tried to uncurl and sit up, he managed no more than some misdirected floundering before giving up and subsiding into a foetal ball again. His teeth were chattering, and he was shivering all over like a nervous horse.

This was not happening. He was *not* dying - he refused to die. This was not happening!

He tried some meditative relaxation techniques, but he wasn't sure if they had any effect. He couldn't concentrate properly through the fear and his body's trembling.

It was a long time before the tremors that shook him subsided and he felt back in control of his body. After an eternity of waiting, the sweat of pain and terror chilling his bare skin, he moved again, very carefully. He felt drained, every fiber strained beyond the limit. But he could move again, and the shivers that ran over his skin now were simply the result of cool air and wet skin. Nothing hurt anymore, at least nothing more ominous than the dull ache of severely overtaxed muscles.

He'd tried to brace himself for a renewed onslaught of the pain, but to his immense relief, it didn't come.

It took him several minutes to uncurl and lie on his back, partly because he stopped to rest several times and partly because he moved with deliberate care, still fearing the damage the attack might have inflicted. Once safely stretched out, he tested his limbs one by one, arched his spine and finally, when everything seemed to be more or less in order, lay still for another couple of minutes to gather his strength. His body was recovering; he felt stronger already, and when he lifted his hand to his head to scrape a sweat-drenched tangle of hair off his brow and out of his eyes, his fingers hardly trembled at all.

Longingly, he thought of a long soak in a hot bath to soothe and relax his muscles - but he couldn't take the risk he'd have another attack and drown, or even that he'd succumb to his exhaustion and fall asleep, with the same end result.

A hot shower, though... He would sit on the floor of the cubicle, just in case.

Another moment of gathering himself, and he sat up.

For long seconds, the information his senses sent him failed to register. Something was wrong after all, something was very odd, felt completely wrong -

He was up far more quickly than he would have believed possible after that. There was no full-length mirror in the tiny bathroom, but the small square of glass above the sink sufficed to show him that the person standing before it was no one he recognized. Only the hair was familiar, everything else was *wrong* - the texture of the skin, the too-rounded contours of the face, the strangely muted slant of the cheekbones, the subtly misaligned constellation of eyes and brows and nose, the nose itself, as it had always been but too *small*, the chin that should have jutted more aggressively - everything *shifted* and disarranged and horribly out of place.

The body, the body that he could *feel*, that moved when he moved, was both worse than the face and, at the same time, oddly reassuring for its very unfamiliarity. It was not *his* body, but at least it wasn't grotesquely disfigured; a woman's body, long-limbed and athletic with small, high breasts, slim hips and slender, muscular legs. Well-proportioned and obviously in excellent shape, attractive, but not *his* body.

But then he moved and feet shifted on the cold tile floor, drawing his gaze. He stared at them for a moment before lifting his - *the* hands in front of his body and staring at them, and back at the feet, and suddenly he realized that the bones of the knees weren't quite solid enough, but still terrifyingly familiar, and that the curly hair at the apex of the thighs was the exact shade of shaded green that it should have been, and that the navel was the same, and the small birthmark just above it to the left, and that -

Yes, the shoulders were different but the *same*, the straight line of tendon, muscle and bone, the curve of the clavicle too delicate, but unmistakable...

*Wake up,* Saionji admonished himself fiercely, closing his eyes. *Wake up, Saionji Kyouichi, you have enough problems already.*

He schooled his mind to reach for consciousness and rise through the many layers of sleep to wakefulness, but he couldn't. He was not asleep. This was not a dream.

For a split second after he opened his eyes, he saw a disheveled, sweaty and pallid, but nevertheless lovely young woman with striking lavender eyes stare at him in horrified disbelief. Then, the image fractured into a dozen shards of not-quite-familiar features distorted into a mocking travesty of what they should have been.

"Hell," he breathed, and his voice was shaky alto rather than smooth baritone.

 

 

2. ~ Choice ~


It took him a long time, but finally, he did manage to take a shower, washing hair lanky with sweat and then cleansing the face and body he didn't recognize. Familiar, changed and unfamiliar sensations blended into a confused cacophony; by the time he had towelled himself off and dried his hair, all without watching what he was doing, he was emotionally and physically exhausted, the nervous surge of energy his discovery had brought on completely burned up. A throbbing ache was beginning to beat behind his eyes, promising worse to come.

There was a spare blanket folded on the foot of the bed; Saionji wrapped himself in the dry fabric and collapsed on the bed, immediately dropping off into the sleep of the utterly exhausted.

He slept until pale sunlight on his face woke him, remaining motionless even then until the gnawing hunger in his gut drove him to move. He'd held hard to a desperate hope that when he did finally peel himself out of the blanket, he would be himself again, but even before he did, he knew better. He could feel the fabric abrade his chest in a way it shouldn't have, and when he shifted in preparation to scooting to the edge of the bed, nothing moved between his legs.

The body was still utterly wrong, but Saionji forced his mind away from that fact to consider the improvement in his condition. He was not in pain, and his customary ease of movement was back; he no longer had to strain for simple motions, and the subliminal trembling of exhaustion had subsided.

A few cursory stretches and he pushed the narrow bed back against the wall and went into an elementary kata, trying out his responses and strength. The familiar routine relaxed some of his tension and allowed him to blank his mind, filling it with the smooth harmony of motion and the counterpoint of his bare feet padding out an irregular, precise rhythm on the ground.

He moved quickly through some intermediate routines, advancing swiftly as the body responded to each demand he made on it with practiced ease. His balance was slightly off, his upper body strength was probably considerably reduced - hard to tell from this type of workout - but if it became necessary, the former would be corrected easily by a couple of intensive training sessions, and he would soon learn to compensate for the latter. An adjustment in fighting style, some different moves... If Arisugawa and the Tenjou girl could fight like this, then so could he. If he had to, he would.

Well, this was something, at least; at some point, he had decided he wanted to remain in martial arts. Perhaps he could adopt them professionally - he had been good enough before, and he was certain, could be at least as good again if he put his mind to it. It was a question of discipline more than anything else, even if - certain circumstances had changed rather drastically.

There were a couple of high-protein energy bars in a side pocket of his bag. Saionji downed them almost without chewing and washed them down with six glasses of water from the tap. He was still hungry afterwards - he needed to get breakfast, no matter what he looked like. Clothes were less of a problem than he'd initially feared. He quickly found a pair of pants in his bag that, when cinched together at the waist with a belt, fit fairly well, even if they were rather tight in the hips and clung to his thighs and buttocks more than they used to. His shirts still fit, though they weren't nearly as flattering on this strange new form. The shoes were the biggest problem - they were too large. Not by all that much, though; as long as he didn't try to run or fight, they would do well enough. He'd just have to buy some new ones when he got the chance.

Everything else went back into the bag and he was ready to go.

He went down the back stairs, sneaking out of the hotel quietly. It might have been his imagination, but he thought he caught a glimpse of a white and green school uniform and perky ponytail in the entrance hall when he slipped past the glass door separating the lobby from the corridor leading to the back exit, and it made his heart leap into his throat and his hand shake when he reached for the doorknob. He didn't want to be seen like this, not even by the dull-eyed and disinterested old woman who had greeted him when he'd checked in the day before, let alone by anyone who would know him, who would know what had happened - though maybe they *wouldn't* know him now, but - he'd -

"There you are. Right on time."

A delivery van was parked in the alley behind the hotel, the driver just unloading a large carton from the back. Before Saionji could react, the man had handed the box to him and slammed the van's back doors. "Good luck, honey. I hear it's a pretty tough school, but I'm sure you'll do fine."

Saionji glared at the delivery man in affront. *Honey?*

The man paused in the process of getting into his vehicle, leaning over with one hand on the open door. "I'll tell you one thing, if I were a teacher at Ohtori, I'd give you top marks in all my courses - something as pretty as you, you know?" And he winked, leaned over further, and *slapped Saionji's ass*.

It was very fortunate for the delivery man that Saionji was so stunned by the sheer audacity of it that he failed to react for several moments. By the time blank astonishment gave way to a hot surge of rage, the van had already turned the corner and could be heard accelerating.

The carton contained a large leather suitcase, key tied to the handle with a green ribbon. Saionji unlocked the case and snapped it open to reveal three neatly packed sets of the Ohtori school uniform for girls, several extremely short skirts, three pairs of long trousers, a stack each of blouses, T-shirts, and sweaters, a light jacket and a warm coat, socks, women's underwear, pajamas and a small pouch containing two pairs of shoes. A bag of toiletries was tucked away in one corner.

By far the most surprising, however, was the folder on the very bottom of the suitcase.

On top of a stack of papers lay an ID boasting the same face that he'd been so shocked to find staring at him from out of the mirror, signed in his handwriting, but not with his name. Below the ID lay admission papers to Ohtori Academy in the name of Yoshitoyo Sayuri, a computerized form letter welcoming Sayuri, a note of the dorm room she'd been assigned, a key, a class schedule, a handful of flyers for the kendo club, the fencing club, the tea ceremony club, the theater club, the manga club...

He did not understand any of what was happening, but even so, he was not going to pass up this chance. He had lost part of himself, but gained something infinitely precious in the process: the chance to go back to Ohtori.

Back to Anthy.

And this time, he was not going to slip up.

 

***

He looked like an idiot.

He had never thought the school uniforms for girls had much charm, but never before had he appreciated just how ridiculous they were. He felt half naked and painfully conspicuous. Every step he took made the silly little skirt flounce and bounce and Saionji was constantly fighting the urge to hold it down. The white socks looked laughably childish, just like the little sailor-type collar. Not to mention the ridiculous puffed sleeves of the blouse. These outfits had no dignity. They were both graceless and impractical. Every particle of his being resented the fact that he was forced to wear such a humiliating travesty.

But wearing this silly uniform with its ridiculous puffed sleeves and bouncy little skirt - wearing this distorted form - had allowed him to walk back up the road from the city, right past the giant stone griffins marking the property of the Ohtori Academy, and pass through the rosevine-entwined gate that he had thought never to see again.

The first familiar face to come his way belonged to Wakaba, who was looking even more woebegone than usual. When she caught sight of him, she stopped, jaw dropping. "Sai - uh -"

Oh, great. Saionji rolled his eyes. "Yoshitoyo Sayuri, if you must know. And you are?"

"Uhm, uh, Wakaba, Shinohara Wakaba," she stuttered. "You're - really - wow."

"Thank you *so* much for that charming and eloquent welcome," Saionji muttered, pushing past her. Silly chit.

He'd been assigned a room in the west dorm, but before heading to his new domicile, he stopped and stood in the courtyard for a moment, soaking up the inimitable, timeless atmosphere of the place. There was no place like Ohtori.

He was back. He would be able to see Anthy. Anything else, he could deal with.

"Sayuri-san, wait!" Wakaba barrelled into him from behind; he only narrowly avoided being tripped up. "Sayuri, you're new, let me show you around, let me introduce you to my friend Utena, she's my best friend and she's just the coolest, and we can -"

On and on she blathered, with neither pause nor sense. Saionji forced himself to wait for her to wind down before smiling with gritted teeth. "Thank you, Wakaba, but I want to get settled in. I'm sure we'll run into each other again." And no doubt they would; his luck just wasn't that good.

"Oh, sure, great, you know, it's really amazing but you look just like this boy I - well not *exactly*, obviously, you're a girl and all, but -"

She trailed after him for a bit longer before rushing off, no doubt in order to find the Tenjou girl and drag her over to meet the new student. Wonderful.

Oh well, he supposed it had to happen sooner or later. He might as well get it over with.

He paid special attention to the reaction of the people he passed after that, but even though he garnered some curious looks and one or two students stared at him with more intensity than he thought warranted, no one seemed particularly startled to see him. Wakaba had always been an unusually giddy chit; maybe that fact was all that was needed to explain her exaggerated reaction.

He'd been given a single room in the west dorm, a circumstance that filled him with deep relief. He really didn't want to be forced to handle a roommate right now.

There was a full-length mirror on the door of his closet, and after stowing the clothes away and shoving the suitcase underneath the bed, he spent a long time simply looking at himself and trying to accept the idea that the person he saw was him. The effort was not a success. When he managed to view her as a stranger, he thought her attractive; she had a shapely figure and a personable face. As soon as he allowed himself to realize that the form in the glass was his own reflection, it mutated into a creature from a cabinet of horrors, misshapen and disfigured.

At some point, he realized that his hands had begun shaking and he turned his back on the mirror and closed his eyes. He still *felt* like himself, and that was the most important thing. He could deal with this. He could.

There was no choice. He *would* deal with this.

 

***

He hadn't taken note of it before, but the halls were oddly quiet for this time of the day. Now that he thought of it, he hadn't heard the bells marking the beginnings and ends of class periods, either, but then he hadn't been paying attention.

Thursday was an odd day to be arriving at a new school, but Saionji hadn't had much say in any of this and was willing to go with the flow. At least he was willing to try; the headmaster's office was locked, however, though it was well before noon. So was the administrative secretary's office.

"I'm sorry, are you looking for someone? Maybe I can help you?"

Saionji turned to find himself face to face with one Saito Norio, a foolish and undisciplined boy who'd once attempted to join the kendo club because he'd thought it was "cool".

"Perhaps you can," he said curtly. Even idiots did sometimes come in useful, after all. "Is there a reason why nobody is working? I've just arrived and would like to get the administrative details out of the way as soon as possible."

The hopeful smile the boy had been wearing faltered slightly. "Well, uhm, at a wild guess I'd say that nobody's working because today is Sunday."

"Don't be -"

But Saionji cut the scornful rejoinder short before he could utter it fully.

Sunday? Ridiculous. It was Thursday. It had to be. He'd been - he'd left on Wednesday, and he'd spent one night in the hotel, where - after which he'd come straight back to Ohtori, pausing only to change in a public restroom on the way.

He turned away from the boy's curious gaze to stare blindly at the schedules and notices pinned up next to the secretary's door. Ridiculous. He couldn't have just lost three days. It made no sense. He'd never left the hotel, and he could hardly have spent days in the shabby little room without noticing.

Unless he'd slept for one night and three days.

Assuming it *was* Sunday. Just - he would just assume it was Sunday and go on from there. "Hey, are you all right?" Norio was much closer than he had been, one hand on Saionji's arm. "You look really pale. How about - I know, I'll make you some tea, I bet you'll feel lots better after a cup of tea and -"

It was like suddenly turning blind - waking up one morning and finding everything the same but changed, being forced to fumble and stumble clumsily through rooms that should have been familiar and safe, but that now loomed alien and filled with silent menace.

"Sunday," Saionji murmured to himself, willing himself to accept it and move on. It was nothing, after all, a minor detail that could easily be digested, especially when compared to... other things. And it did make sense of a sort - once, after a childhood illness that had sent him into a dim twilight of heat and bright strobing colors, he'd slept for almost 24 hours and dozed in semi-conscious torpor for almost that long again. This was considerably more serious than a bad case of the mumps.

So. Sunday.

Completely unbidden, the fact that Touga's birthday was next week and he didn't have a present popped into his head. He dismissed it as irrelevant. He hadn't given Touga a birthday present in years. Even if he'd wanted to, which he didn't, he could hardly give him one while he was in this state.

The world came into focus again reluctantly, and with a small start of surprise, Saionji realized that Norio had one arm around his waist and was in the process of dragging him down the hall to the dorms. "- my mom sent them to me specially, they're really good, you'll be sure to feel a lot better, and if not we can call the nurse and -"

He was severely tempted to toss the presumptuous blunderer across the corridor, but contented himself with stopping in his tracks and shaking off Norio's unwelcome touch with a single brusque movement. The last thing he needed was to collect demerits for brawling even before he'd officially enrolled.

Something of what he was feeling must have shown in his face; even Norio wasn't stupid enough to follow when Saionji stormed off.

 

***

He didn't think about where he was going - there was no need to. His steps led him automatically to the dojo. He'd already laid his hand on the door before he realized that it might not be a good idea to come here now.

The thought froze him in indecision. Granted that it seemed highly unlikely anyone would so much as entertain the thought of what had happened - Wakaba hadn't accepted the evidence of her eyes, and so far no one else had seemed to find his resemblance to the recently dismissed president of the kendo team remarkable.

But if there was one place where he *would* be recognized, it was here. Not only did he spend most of his time here, but kendoka were taught to pay attention to the way the people around them moved and held themselves - what their habitual motions and attitudes broadcast and what they concealed. Saionji was a good teacher. In a way, he'd be severely disappointed if any but the rawest new students failed to realize who he was merely by watching him walk in the door.

But... It was a simple choice, really. Entering the dojo increased the risk of discovery, however minimal it might be, while not entering the dojo might give him more time. He was already at the end of his rope, though, and there was only one thing that he knew would quiet the chaotic clamor of thought, emotion and fragmented memories battering at him. A wise man didn't try to push himself beyond his endurance.

He divested himself of his shoes and slid open the door. Kitamura and Iwamoto were sparring in the middle of the floor on the teacher's side of the dojo. At their end, a small handful of beginners were practicing the basic moves of the suburi beneath the watchful eyes of Inami. No one else was here yet, although the dojo would doubtless fill up as the afternoon progressed. No one took overt note of his arrival, which suited Saionji perfectly. He bowed politely to Inami and the others and walked to the tatami mats behind the sparring pair, sinking down and lowering his head.

The familiar sounds of bamboo blades, measured breathing, harshly called-out hits and the deliberate, light-footed dance of advancing and retreating warriors were the most soothing balm he could ask for; even the too-heavy and arrhythmic sounds that filtered through from beginners' practice could not lessen the effect.

It took him longer to clear his mind than it should have, but under the circumstances, he considered this a forgivable lapse.

Unsurprisingly, when he did manage to detach himself from his surroundings, Saionji stepped into chaos. He'd been aware that the calm he'd managed to uphold was only a thin veneer, but knowing it and being faced with the reality were two different things. Still, he knew when a battle could be avoided and when it had to be fought, and he was not afraid to face the enemy, no matter which shape it took.

The quicksilver stab of entwined fear and aggression and the dull metallic aftertaste of despairing rage were old and familiar enemies; these, he could disentangle and dispel. Underneath were tangled layers of emotions new and old, sending up a dissonant cacophony. Strangely, they seemed distant - vague and smothered beneath a stifling, pervasive numbness. Shock, he decided. Not surprising - not even necessarily a liability, considering that it had damped what he felt sufficiently to keep him functioning. All the same, it would not do in the long run, and Saionji was nothing if not persistent. After everything that had happened to him, he was not going to be defeated by his own mind.

He paused, gathered himself and then struck anew, every ounce of determination, strength of will and stubbornness he could summon backing the thrust. Piercing a vague blankness shot through with disbelief and denial, he finally came upon

the flash of sunlight on metal, clatter of steel on stone. Crumbling battlements fell all around him, golden spires piercing his chest, cold metal sinking into his heart

Darkness. There was cold stone beneath his thin-soled shoes, the chill slowly creeping up his ankles. Faded scent of smoke and flowers, faint tang of something else, something sickly-sweet and cloying. The low sound of every step echoed dully in wide-open spaces. Nothing felt real, not even the twin weight of the shinai he carried in one hand.

Anthy. Anthy. Himemiya

The subtle thrum of something indefinable, something powerful and alien, wrapped about his mind, seeped through his body until it almost seemed to own him. He stopped and turned to look at the girl on Touga's arm, previously only a nameless, faceless cypher, one anonymous representative of a vast and entirely homogenous whole: Touga's lovers.

You're my one and only best friend, aren't you, Kyouichi?

Bamboo blades, steel blades, the calculating glint in blue eyes, honey-smooth words twining around his heart, more jarring than the harsh iron scent of blood. His one and only best friend, twining a long strand of moss-dark hair around his fingers, smiling... You're beautiful. The petals of a green rose fluttering to the ground, stirred into a small drift by the wind. *Her*, eyes wide and dreamy, smiling... I am engaged to you now, Saionji-sama.

Inevitable loss of friendship, of hope, of self. Pain, pervasive and inescapable, eroding everything he was.

Cheer up, Saionji-sempai. Aren't you my one and only best friend?

Sweat-drenched hair clinging to his - *his* face and neck, eyes wide and horrified in the cracked mirror, reflecting a stranger. Reflecting himself, though grotesquely disfigured, distorted and twisted out of all recognition.

Good luck... The burn of an alien power, running through his blood like corrosive acid. I belong to you now, Saionji-sama.

Saionji was overwhelmed by the rush of fragmented memory, drowning in it; he allowed it to wash through him without attempting to master it. Only after it had ebbed slightly did he set to work disentangling the memories and their respective emotions.

It wasn't enough. Even when he'd done everything he could, pushing himself into a collected state of awareness mostly by dint of sheer stubbornness, unrest and fear were still gnawing at the edges of his consciousness. To achieve true inner balance, he would have to accept what had happened - from the catastrophic farce of a duel and resultant expulsion to the inexplicable change that had come over him. Accept it and move past it. He didn't know how, though. He couldn't even imagine where to start.

For now, he would content himself with calming the storm that had been raging unchecked. It would suffice. There would be other, better opportunities for attacking the underlying problems. Perhaps once he'd had a bit more time to accustom himself to his changed circumstances...

Saionji relaxed into the moment, reaching as deep as he could to center and ground himself, allowing the familiar silent strength to wash over him.

When he raised his head and opened his eyes, he looked directly into deep grey eyes and a familiar narrow face.

"I am Iwamoto," she said, bowing slightly. He returned the greeting automatically, stating his new name with a natural-sounding confidence that gratified him.

Her gaze was piercing, and only now did he realize that he'd walked into the part of the dojo reserved for advanced kendoka without so much as an introduction. Iwamoto did not seem to be offended by his presumption, though; her inspection was thorough, but seemed neutral and matter-of-fact.

When her eyes swept up to his again, Saionji thought for a long, breathless moment of mingled apprehension and illogical, misplaced hope that she'd recognized him.

"Come," she went on at last, not bothering with small talk. "You require equipment, Yoshitoyo-san."

Saionji smiled, pleased by as much by her easy acceptance as by the idea of a match with her. She was one of the best kendoka at the Academy, lesser only than Saionji himself and Touga... and perhaps that Tenjou girl.

There had been no kendo gear in the suitcase so mysteriously provided for him, and even though his old dogi and hakama presumably fit still, he hadn't brought them - they were locked away in a locker at the train station with the rest of his belongings. Iwamoto didn't waste time asking why he hadn't come to the dojo with the necessary equipment; instead, she showed him to the changing room and strode off briskly, returning after a brief delay with a set she'd presumably borrowed from the team's supply of spares.

They bowed and squared off. Iwamoto chose a jodan stance, shinai raised high above her head to indicate her intention to fight this match from the offensive. It was Saionji's own favored stance, but instead of copying it, he chose to start from a chudan position, weapon raised slightly to counter Iwamoto's stance.

Iwamoto was aggressive and confident; with a harsh cry, she opened the match with series of quick, almost brutal attacks flowing seamlessly into each other, a series that almost won her the match then and there. As Saionji had expected, his balance was slightly off and, as a result, he wasn't as swift or sure-footed as he expected himself to be. When he sprang forward to undercut a high stroke, stepping inside the attack and catching and trapping Iwamoto's shinai with his, Saionji nearly made yet another beginner's mistake, instinctively moving to exploit a momentary imbalance in Iwamoto's stance only to find that he couldn't bring to bear the measure of force he instinctively believed himself capable of.

Strength wasn't the decisive factor in kendo, but miscalculating it was a grave error. Iwamoto wasn't noticeably stronger than him even now; he should have been able to use the opening she'd given him to end the match. As it was, his miscalculation prevented him from freeing his shinai long enough to launch a successful attack, just as it had previously made for several unsatisfactory attacks that should have carried him through his opponent's defenses and had instead led only to stand-offs.

Iwamoto twisted to the side and away, stepping back to deliver a one-handed attack from the distance. Risky and flamboyant, and not something she made a habit of. Also ill-advised, in this particular case. Saionji noted the move to be analyzed later even as he scored a *kote* hit to Iwamoto's sword arm. His voice as he called out the hit was too high, hoarse and entirely unfamiliar, but Saionji barely noticed as Iwamoto regrouped and charged; he'd finally blanked his mind enough to let his body settle into the natural rhythms of the fight. Because he still miscalculated his own movements slightly, he left himself open a number of times, but he stored these mistakes away and went on without hesitation, moving with the flow of the battle.

Familiar. Soothing. The swift rhythm of attack, block flowing into counter-attack, repeated until the separate motions built into a single flowing exchange of quicksilver motion, bamboo blades whirring too rapidly to be controllable on any conscious level. After a moment, Iwamoto's movements began to open to him, unfolding from the minute evidence of the flick of her eyes, the shift of her balance, the subtle flex of muscles, the angle of her chin and set of her mouth.

Perhaps sensing that the balance of the match had shifted, Iwamoto pulled back, raising the shinai high above her head into jodan once more. Confident, even brash; Saionji approved. Perfect balance, the part of Saionji's attention that always watched for such things noted. Sword raised at the optimum angle. She rose on the balls of her feet, one shoulder dipping slightly, and just before her sword could blur into the lightning arc of her attack, Saionji struck. *Do*, a solid hit to her side, and even as he barked out the hit, he spun and went into jodan himself. She was nowhere near his blade when he brought it down. *Men* to finish the match.

There was a silence of several long moments as Iwamoto stared at him. She extended her right hand in respect when they bowed.

"You're good," she said as soon as she'd come up. "You're very good. You're going to join the club, right? With you on the team, we should be able to take the championship for the fourth year running."

Saionji smiled at her. For one fragile moment, the world seemed to be righting itself.

"What a shame the captain isn't in today," Iwamoto added. "I'd love to see the two of you spar. Your style is very similar. We have *got* to arrange for that."

"The captain?" He hadn't meant to ask that. It slipped out before he could stop himself, and even as Iwamoto nodded and opened her mouth to answer, Saionji knew what she would say. He knew, and he didn't want to hear it.

"Kiryuu Touga, the Captain of the Kendo Club and President of the Student Council."

 

***

Normally, Saionji would have practiced all through the afternoon, honing his own skills through free-form training and sparring sessions and later supervising evening practice. There were no regular practice sessions scheduled for Sunday, so the dojo would not fill up as much as it did on weekdays. The students that did come, however, would work hard and stay late. They were the ones Saionji approved of most - the ones for whom kendo was not a game or a diversion, but an art and a calling.

Later still, when even the last kendoka had left, Saionji would practice those kata that were performed best in complete silence, with the lights in the dojo turned low and night velvet-deep beyond the windows. He would lose himself in the elegant, deliberate movements until his body and mind were at peace, anchored in the silence of the night and soothed by the gentle darkness reaching in to calm and dampen the unrest and uncertainty of the day.

Not this Sunday, though.

By rights, Iwamoto's mention of Touga filling Saionji's position shouldn't have come as a surprise. With the captain gone, of course the deputy moved up to fill the vacant position, at least until a new captain could be determined by vote. It was why the deputy was there in the first place, after all. Even so, Saionji couldn't help but feel slighted. It was childish, but there it was. No one so much as mentioned that Touga hadn't always been the captain, when Saionji hadn't even been gone for a full week. No one hesitated over Touga's name when they spoke of the captain... and they spoke of him quite often.

Childish, Saionji chided himself savagely even as he stalked off. He'd made himself smile through the warm welcome the senior members of the club had given him and endured their congratulations on his well-fought match with gritted teeth, all the while trying not to let on that he was seething. When they'd started discussing his moves and, from there, naturally segued into a discussion of the favored moves of their esteemed Captain Kiryuu, who - rather charmingly, as Iwamoto threw in with a giggle that immediately lowered Saionji's estimation of her - insisted on being called Touga, Saionji excused himself abruptly. Enough was enough.

Once again, his feet automatically chose to carry him where he needed to go. It was time to see Anthy.

 

***

Anthy was not there. The colonnade lining the court seemed strangely empty, even though there were a number of students about. Saionji felt a hollow emptiness spread in his gut even as he turned onto the small gravel path leading to the glass dome's door.

His hand hovered above the doorknob for long moments before he drew it back. He couldn't see her inside of the greenhouse, and what was more, he *knew* she wasn't there. He would have known if she was. He always knew when she was near.

He stood on the carefully raked path for a long time, eyes locked unseeing on the elegant leaded glass door, before turning and slowly making his way back to the dorm.

Saionji woke up twice during the night, his heart racing and sweat cool on his skin, but he couldn't remember dreaming.

 

***

The beginning of the school week brought on a blur of classes and visits to the assorted administrative assistants, supervisors and deans Yoshitoyo Sayuri needed to consult before she could consider herself properly enrolled at Ohtori. When Saionji walked from one classroom to the next or when he was on the way to yet another office, he invariably passed through the courtyard, regardless of whether this was the shortest route or not. The greenhouse was always silent and deserted.

It was lunchtime on the third day when Wakaba finally cornered him, her overly cheerful greeting alerting him mere moments before she barrelled into him. "Sayuri-sempaaai! Hey, Utena, over here, over here! Oh, it's so wonderful to see you again! I hope you like it here so far, has everyone been nice? If you have time now we could show you around - Utena!"

Saionji straightened his shoulders and set his mouth. He could feel his nostrils flaring when he took a deep breath. He knew just how foreboding and arrogant he looked when he donned this expression, but neither Wakaba nor that Tenjou chit chose to take note.

"Wakaba, have you seen -"

"This is Sayuri-sempai! I've been telling you about her - and this is Utena-san, my best friend in the entire world!"

He and the Tenjou girl muttered all the appropriate things while Wakaba stood by and beamed, evidently believing that she had just forged an instant and lifelong friendship. Tenjou's smile seemed friendly enough, though distracted. For his part, Saionji did his best to appear like a neutral stranger. It wasn't easy, but he thought he managed to give an adequate performance... more than good enough, considering that his audience consisted of Wakaba, who wouldn't have been convinced they weren't getting on like a house on fire by anything less than a fistfight, and Tenjou, who was at this very moment glancing toward the door for the third time in the course of their extremely brief official acquaintance.

"Well, isn't it amazing?" Wakaba briefly snagged Saionji's undivided attention by bouncing on her toes. He hadn't thought anyone truly did that.

Tenjou frowned a little. "What?"

Wakaba gave her friend a playfully admonishing slap about the head. "How much she looks like Saionji-sempai, silly!"

Tenjou's frown deepened; she spent the short interval before she answered by giving the door yet another furtive glance. She was quite obviously waiting for someone. An assignation?

Saionji's eyes narrowed involuntarily as he ran through the short list of probable candidates.

"I don't know, Wakaba - I remember you talking about him, but I didn't know him. I never even saw him, so I have no idea -"

A chill crept through Saionji's heart. Wakaba's voluble protestations barely registered in his mind. He stared at Tenjou, barely managing to school his expression into something that he hoped would pass as polite interest when she turned back to him with an apologetic little smile.

No one except Wakaba seemed to remember him. No one else had seemed to note "Sayuri's" resemblance to him at all - not Iwamoto and not anyone else he'd met in his new form. No one had ever so much as mentioned him within his hearing, not even to gossip about his scandalous conduct or to speculate on the grounds for his expulsion. Considering that such a juicy bit of gossip should have kept the mills grinding for several weeks at least, that was perhaps the most ominous sign of all. Instead, the hottest item in the gossip-mongers' arsenal was Touga's impending birthday - who was and who wasn't invited, who would be turning up in whose company, who would get to stay overnight...

It was almost as though there were a conspiracy of silence afoot, but Saionji was convinced no one had to pretend to ignorance. That would have felt entirely different; there would have been sidelong glances, unfinished sentences, sudden silences and knowing half-smiles. Instead, there was nothing. They truly didn't remember.

It was as though Saionji had never existed.

Tenjou's eyes were clear and cheerful, her face open and devoid of guile. She shook her hair out of her eyes impatiently and gave him a friendly grin that he found himself completely unable to return. "I'm sorry, but I'm waiting for a friend, and I really should go and see what the hold-up is. I'm sure I'll see you around. Do you play basketball or soccer, by any chance?"

After a long moment, Saionji managed to drag his mind back to the conversation enough to shrug in response to the girl's question. He'd never had much interest in team sports, and even if he had, he had a vague recollection of overhearing the captain of the soccer team enthuse about Tenjou's unstoppable offensives. If there was a chance she was on the soccer or basketball team, he was going to stay as far away from them as he possibly could.

"I swim, though my times aren't particularly good. I'm a kendoka." Now his own eyes were going to the door, though he wasn't waiting for anyone, not even Anthy. Was she the friend Tenjou was waiting for? Was Touga?

When he forced himself to turn back to the Tenjou chit, she was watching him curiously, almost as though he'd revealed some kind of secret. "You must be the new student everyone's been talking about, then," she said at last.

Saionji knew her eyes would go to his hand even before they did. Tenjou was one of the least subtle people he had ever met; if she'd broadcast her moves in a swordfight as much as she did her everyday thoughts, a three-year-old could have beaten her.

In his first duel with her, Saionji had come to the realization that Tenjou fought purely on instinct; there was no forethought to any of her moves. It was just another thing to dislike her for. Not only did she have an enormous amount of raw talent, but even now, her instincts were those of a swordmaster, every aspect of battle coming to her as naturally as breathing - and instead of nurturing and schooling these rare gifts as they deserved, she lightheartedly left them to rot, only dragging them out every once in a while in order to fight for the Rose Bride.

Perhaps he wouldn't have been as resentful of this if she hadn't always won.

The chit's gaze lingered on Saionji's hand for a long moment before darting to the other one. He obligingly pushed an errant strand of hair behind one ear, casually displaying his bare fingers in the process.

"I've heard you're very good," Tenjou went on, her voice now tinged with curiosity. "Maybe we could spar sometime?"

His first impulse was to refuse, but he swallowed the violent denial that leapt to his tongue and forced a smile instead. "I look forward to it."

It was never a mistake to study your enemy's style.

 

***

He'd heard the quick footsteps behind him, but he hadn't thought to turn around. Students ran down the halls of Ohtori all the time, late for their classes or a private appointment, or sometimes just too filled with youth and high spirits to walk more sedately.

That was why the sudden, brutal grip on his arm caught him by surprise. By the time he'd been yanked around to face the attacker, however, he'd recovered, automatically falling into a neutral stance from which he could attack or defend with equal ease. He was best with a sword, but far from helpless without one.

Touga... unexpected only because of the unfamiliar expression on his face, stunned and wide-eyed.

Saionji had deliberately not dwelled on the question of why only Wakaba had found the resemblance the new student bore to an old one remarkable. He couldn't explain it, and brooding about it would only agitate him further, but bring him no closer to an explanation. It would serve no purpose.

He *had* wondered whether Anthy and Touga would realize who he was, or at least who he looked like. This was one question answered, at least. More than that, it was an opportunity too good to be passed up.

"A word of advice," Saionji intoned bitingly. "If you want a date that badly, ask politely instead of tearing the girl's arm off."

No one who didn't know Touga as well as he did would have noticed the very slight flare of his nostrils, or realized that it meant he was startled - trying hard not to show it but still too off-guard to hide it all under his usual mask of amused superiority.

Startled by the sound of Saionji's voice. Saionji could sympathize.

Touga's gaze slid downwards as though pulled on a string, gravitating to Saionji's chest and staying glued to his breasts.

"Don't tell me you've never seen any before," Saionji said, an even sharper edge creeping into his tone. He wasn't so used to this body that he felt comfortable being ogled, even if it was only by Touga. "You've never even heard of chivalry, have you?"

The instant the words left his mouth, Saionji realized with a feeling of deep satisfaction that he'd been waiting forever to say them.

The weight of Touga's gaze lifting from Saionji's breasts was an almost physical relief. Touga had recovered now; he was tilting his head just so to make a curtain of scarlet sheet forward and frame his face, and the smile that he conjured forth was his most charming, tinged with a hint of rueful apology.

"Forgive me." His voice was dark and smooth as honey. "I have been unpardonably rude. The only explanation I can offer is that you bear an amazing resemblance to an old friend of mine. If I didn't know he had no close female relatives, I'd -"

Saionji gave Touga a sub-zero smile and tugged his arm free of his weakened grip. "Not nearly good enough."

It was petty and childish, but it felt good. Hell *yes*, it felt good.

 

 

3. ~ Reason ~

 

Saionji estimated that it would take Touga two days to show up again - the necessary inquiries into the new girl's identity and habits would take about ten minutes and cost him one phone call, but he would not want to turn up again too quickly. He'd want to let the girl calm down and hear about the great Student Council President, rethink her harsh words and wish she'd been friendlier. He'd also want to make the meeting seem like coincidence. It wouldn't do to be caught seeming interested. Touga was pursued. He didn't pursue, even when he did. Especially when he did.

But he would show up again, that much was certain. Touga would rise to the challenge. He cultivated a cool and unflappable facade, but he was one of the proudest and most vengeful bastards around. Saionji knew him very well. They'd known each other for seven years when they'd come to Ohtori. It had been much longer than that, now, though Saionji would have been hard pressed to say exactly how much longer.

Saionji's estimate turned out to be wrong. It was less than two hours after their first run-in when Touga found him again.

 

***

"Sayuri-sempai!"

Saionji looked over automatically; fortunately, the name that had been chosen for him so inexplicably sounded enough like his own that it hadn't taken much to train himself to react to it. Wakaba and the Tenjou girl were sitting beneath the canopy of a large tree, around a low table set with tea things and a plate of cookies. His gaze slid over and past them with little interest, and he almost missed seeing Anthy's little rat creature crawling towards the cookies.

Interest immediately caught, he stepped closer. The table was set for three and Anthy's pet was there, but Anthy herself was nowhere to be seen. Maybe she would be joining her friends in a moment? "Wakaba. Utena."

"Have you seen Himemiya Anthy?" Tenjou asked immediately. "She was supposed to be meeting us, but she hasn't turned up."

The rat creature turned its face towards Saionji, cheeks stuffed and bulging. He tried not to watch as it chewed, dribbling cookie crumbs and saliva onto the tablecloth, but like so many disgusting things, it had a fascination of its own. He'd never understood what Anthy saw in the ugly little beast.

"She probably went to tend her roses and forgot the time," Saionji supplied. "I wouldn't worry. She's not punctual."

Tenjou gave him a strange look and he realized that he should not be displaying any knowledge of Anthy's habits. He spent a moment half-heartedly casting about for an explanation, but decided not to worry about it when nothing came immediately to mind. After all, it wasn't as though anyone was going to suspect him of being the former captain of the kendo club, returned in a brand new female body to be near his former girlfriend.

"That's true," the chit said slowly. After a moment, she shrugged and tugged a left-over cookie from the rat creature's paws. "Would you like to sit down and have a cup of tea with us, sempai?"

Saionji agreed politely and settled on the grass next to Tenjou, careful to keep her between Wakaba and himself. His transformation seemed to make astoundingly little difference in the way the Wakaba chit looked at him - as though she was just waiting for him to let his guard down for a second in order to pounce on him. It was disconcerting.

"We were just talking about you," Wakaba burbled happily. Next to Saionji, Tenjou started slightly, and he had to hide a grin behind his teacup. "We saw you at practice the other day. You're really good! Almost as good as Utena. Juri was there too, you know, and I think even she was impressed with you. She scares me a little sometimes, she's so perfect, but she's so cool, too. Almost as cool as Utena. But what everyone's been wondering, you don't have a boyfriend, do you? I bet you could have anyone you wanted. Your hair is so pretty. I wish mine was a pretty color like that, and it's nice and wavy, too. Mine just hangs straight down, that's why I wear it up like this. Do you like it?"

"It's not bad," Saionji said obligingly. Hopefully, Anthy would get a move on.

"Oh, I don't know, sometimes I think I should do something with it, braid it or something. Utena, what do you think?"

Did girls really talk like this all the time?

"I don't know," Tenjou said absently, playing with the only cookie that had escaped the greedy rat creature. The subject seemed less than riveting to her. Maybe it was just Wakaba who talked like this. "I like it the way you wear it now. It's perky."

"But isn't it too childish? I'm almost grown up, after all, and I think boys like it when it's loose like yours, or Sayuri's, you know. You two are just so cool - honest, I bet you'll get a lot of letters if you haven't already, Sayuri! Everyone's really smitten with you."

"You exaggerate," Saionji said as politely as he could.

"No, honest! I heard Yuuko say you were her new bestseller. All the boys are buying pictures of you."

"Remarkably stupid of them," he muttered. Honestly, what could be keeping Anthy?

Tenjou smiled at him, a smile that was an invitation to share something. It took Saionji completely off guard, and he stared at her for several long moments before he was able to summon up enough presence of mind to smile back.

"Utena, there you are."

Tenjou jumped a little, and her eyes went wide and hazy.

"Wakaba."

Wakaba managed a squeak.

"Sayuri." Touga's voice had turned almost smoky.

Saionji inclined his head regally, not deigning to reply.

"How fortuitous to find you together like this - I've been meaning to speak with all of you. As you may know, I am celebrating my birthday this evening, and I wanted to be sure you'd all received invitations. You will do me the favor of coming, won't you?"

Tenjou blinked and stuttered.

"Sure," Wakaba chimed in to rescue her friend. Now that she had recovered from her initial surprise, she seemed remarkably unimpressed by Touga's vicinity. Even coming on the heels of her brainless chatter moments earlier, this bought her several points in Saionji's estimation. Very few girls could conduct themselves with a modicum of dignity when Touga poured on the charm.

"That's wonderful. And you will come as well, won't you?"

This smile was solely for Saionji, a wonder of persuasion and promise.

Saionji gave a derisive snort. "I have nothing to wear," he bit out snappishly, glaring at Touga to make it perfectly clear that his wardrobe wasn't the issue. He didn't understand why, but the shameless way Touga was trying to flirt with him made him angry.

He knew he'd made a grave tactical error the instant the words had left his mouth. The brilliant smile and the victorious sparkle in Touga's eyes were unmistakable. "Leave that to me. I'll see you tonight, then, all of you. I'm looking forward to it."

And he was gone.

"Fuck," Saionji said.

Wakaba squeaked again. Tenjou looked shocked, but laughed after a moment. "He's like a force of nature, isn't he?"

That was one way of putting it. Saionji would just have called him a pushy bastard who didn't know when to quit.

 

***

A half-stifled shriek echoed through the school's empty hallway; Saionji stopped in his tracks. "No, no, no!" a girl's voice squealed, distress open in her tone.

Saionji turned on his heel and ran back the way he had come. The cries were coming from one of the club rooms halfway down the hall. Most of them would be deserted this time of day.

His hand was tightening on the doorknob when the girl spoke again, her voice thinning into a petulant whine. "That won't work. You're the Princess! The Princess can't be anyone's Prince."

"What, you think I don't know that?" a different girl's voice scoffed. "I'm not stupid, you know. But look - I have a sword! That means I'm a Prince. I'll be your Prince, you'll be my Princess, and everyone will live happily ever after."

"I have a sword too, and it's bigger than yours, so there!"

"Oh... It *is* bigger than mine... So that means you're the Prince?"

"No, silly, don't you see how sharp my teeth are? *I'm* not a Prince, I'm a - oh, wait, I forgot I wasn't going to tell you. Yes, that's right, *I'm* the Prince! The only Prince there is."

"Well, okay then. I'll be your Princess, you'll be my Prince, and, you know. Same thing, right?"

The first girl's voice turned into a loud stage whisper. "Uh oh - now what will I do? If I agree to be this lovely Princess's Prince, she'll see my furry ears and realize I've lied to her!"

"No, I won't be your Prince," she went on in her initial bright tones. "You're far too ugly. You think a classically handsome, thoroughly perfect Prince like me would sink to rescuing a runty little Princess like you?"

"But... but I'm almost as tall as you are! See, I can stretch a little, if I try really hard. And you told me I was beautiful..."

A tinkling laugh pealed forth. "Ah, Your Highness, you mustn't believe everything strange Princes tell you when the moonlight is glinting off your hair, making you look edible! No, no, you're much too plain for me. Goodbye, now, time's a-wasting! I have to go off and find some prettier Princesses to eat - uh, rescue."

Saionji hesitated for a long moment before lifting his hand from the door of the shadow play club and silently walking away.

 

***

The dress was waiting for him when he returned to the dorm, delivered by express courier and packed in snowy tissue paper and a box bearing the logo of the most expensive clothing store in town. Of course. Only the best would do for Kiryuu Touga. Snobbish bastard.

It was strapless, black and slinky. Saionji had to wriggle slightly in order to zip it up the last couple of inches, and he would have preferred it if it hadn't been cut quite so tight across the chest. He supposed it was passable, though, if barely. It helped that it wasn't cut particularly low and that it was almost long enough to sweep the ground. It didn't help that it was slit almost up to the hip on one side.

Oh well. He preferred it to the girls' uniform, at least.

Saionji inspected the small squares of carefully folded material still lying in the box. At first he thought the dress had come with a pair of long gloves; he was just about to put them back when he saw that they were sleeves. He snorted at the affectation of a dress that came with detached sleeves, but tried them on after brief deliberation. They were as tight and slinky as the dress itself, hugging his arms down to the wrist, but they seemed flexible enough not to hamper his movements.

He swept up the sheathed katana from its stand and tried a number of basic attacks on an imaginary opponent to make sure of this before deciding to wear the dress at it was apparently meant to be worn.

There was yet another bit of black cloth lying in the box, but this one was only a short length of velvet ribbon with carefully hidden fasteners set into the ends. Saionji stared at it for a couple of moments before deducing that it was meant to be worn around the throat. He tossed it back into the box derisively.

Once again, he thought longingly of his uniform.

And he *still* didn't have a present for Touga.

 

***

"Happy birthday," Saionji said, his voice gruff.

Birthday parties at the Kiryuu house had always been unpleasant affairs. Saionji remembered a time when he and Touga had conspired to escape from the reception just as soon as the stultifyingly official greeting of the guests had wound to its ponderous close and Touga was allowed to get up and mingle. They'd crept out through the last window on the side of the salon that led to the garden while all of the grown-ups were standing around discussing stock courses. They'd snuck through the formal garden pretending to be Indians and raced each other around the house, all the way to the pavilion in the back of the rose gardens, where Touga had imitated all of his mother's stuck-up cousins in turn until Saionji had been doubled up with laughter and begging him to stop.

Now, Touga sat on the throne-like chair dominating the room with regal composure, smiling as graciously as a sovereign granting his subjects an audience.

"I'm very glad you could come." Touga smiled his most kingly and gracious smile and held on to Saionji's hand for far longer than the congratulatory handshake would have warranted. Saionji was hard pressed not to roll his eyes.

"I don't have a present for you," he announced belligerently.

"Your presence here is -"

"Oh *please*, don't say it."

Damn! He hadn't meant to say that out loud. Had he?

Touga's eyes widened infinitesimally in startlement.

Okay, maybe he had.

"I am happy to see that you like the dress," Touga said, stepping smoothly into the conversational breach Saionji had created. "I knew it would suit you - it brings out the striking color of your hair and eyes."

"Thanks." Saionji watched Touga suspiciously, but this time, he kept his eyes above the neckline. "I'd tell you how well your uniform suits you, but then you already know."

Touga laughed and finally released Saionji's hand. "I am glad you could come, Sayuri - you're a very unusual young woman. I am looking forward to talking with you at more length."

In other words: Dismissed.

Saionji got the message and removed himself to the buffet, where he moodily picked up a rather suspiciously pink canapé with a shrimp and a sprig of parsley on top, just to have something in his hand. Maybe it would make him seem at somewhat less of a loss than he felt. He wasn't certain why he'd actually come, let alone in the idiotic dress Touga had sent. He'd never felt comfortable at the stiff gatherings the Kiryuus called "parties". Now that he wasn't comfortable with anything about himself anymore, putting on a clingy black dress that threatened to gape open every time he moved in order to stand in the middle of a bevy of semi-professional gossips and curious teenagers seemed less than wise.

The certainty of her presence hit him with the force of a sledgehammer to the stomach.

He turned just as she stepped through the portal, hesitating briefly before coming fully inside the room, like a lovely wild bird that might take flight at the first sign of danger. She was even more beautiful than he remembered, the shy little smile playing on her lips lighting up her features into immortal perfection. Catching the merest glimpse of her, the sculptors of ancient goddesses would have thrown down their chisels forever in despair of ever capturing her fey winsomeness in stone; no painter could have done her justice, no composer of this or any century could have produced a symphony worthy of the sound of her voice.

Anthy. At last.

He only noticed he'd started forward when the sight of the person Anthy had been smiling at stopped him in his tracks.

Tenjou Utena paused briefly, shoulders going back and up, chin raising a notch. Then, she took a firmer grasp on the flowers in her hand and strode up to Touga, looking almost as though she were marching into battle. Anthy tagged along just like an obedient Rose Bride. Her eyes were demurely lowered, and she only lifted them briefly to sweep a glance across the clusters of guests as she passed.

Saionji could not help but hold his breath as she turned her head. For one brief and infinitely precious moment, Anthy's gaze met his.

She did not pause; there was no spark of recognition in her eyes. Her expression did not change at all, remaining unruffled and quietly cheerful as she turned her full attention back to Touga and the girl at her side.

It took Saionji several moments to realize he was the one who'd made the choked sound echoing in his ears. There was something almost obscene in the sight of Anthy in the company of that - that - it was completely wrong that Anthy should be accompanying that *imposter*. He had to - he had to do something, to get her back, to make that Tenjou girl understand once and for all that Anthy was *his* -

Something brittle crumbled in his hand. He looked down to find that he had crushed the shrimp-topped canapé into an unidentifiable pink mess.

This was wrong. Something about this was wrong. The deep breath he drew in shuddered in his throat and pooled in his stomach like hot lead. Fragments of memory were battering at Saionji's mental defenses, demanding his attention. A wild and primal force was stirring in his blood, in his bones, in every cell, raging to be unleashed. Screaming for -

Blood soaking through a white uniform jacket, rose petals blowing on the breeze. The scent of cold incense and polished wood.

"What - hey!"

Saionji ignored the middle-aged Kiryuu cousin in his way, the fact that he shoved him aside with enough force to send him sprawling to the floor barely registering in his mind. He stormed out to the sound of Touga's deep laughter, the sight of him grinning at the Tenjou girl. A pair of gossips he passed were turning to each other with blissfully scandalized expressions, one of them trilling, "So Utena and Touga are an item after all!"

 

***

The pavilion in the back of the rose gardens had not changed at all in the years that had passed since he'd last been there. Saionji had always loved it; it was a graceful marble construction tastefully adorned with slender pillars, arches and decorative latticework, and it served no truer purpose than being ornamental.

Saionji wasn't certain how long it had been since he'd been here last, and in his already more than unsettled state, that realization disturbed him. There was something deeply wrong with the vagueness of his memory on this point, for no reason he could quite pin down. So what if he wasn't certain whether it had been five years, or eight, or ten - or more? Except, of course, that it couldn't have been, because he had only met Touga when they'd both been seven years old. And that had been... how many years ago?

When had time stopped flowing like a calm river? Now there were eddies and currents, and when he thought to look up from whatever it was he was doing, he'd find that he was still in the same place, even though he'd been moving all the while. Moving sideways. Turning on his own axis. Treading in place. Moving backwards.

Ridiculous. Wasn't it?

He sat down on one of the elegant wrought-iron benches set up on the pavilion's marble patio, but jumped up again almost instantly, pacing around the small building. His gaze passed indifferently across rose trellises richly adorned with deep red blooms, carefully clipped hedges and trees. After a moment, he gathered himself and concentrated on breathing. Meditation was out of the question right now, but at least he should be able to calm himself.

It did help. After long moments, he succeeded in subduing some of the agitation roiling in his blood and leaned against the pavilion's side tiredly, tilting his face towards the darkening sky. The moon was already up, even though the sun had not yet set. It was almost full and shone pale silver against the blue sky.

Saionji's hand was still sticky from the canapé. He sniffed at his fingers and grimaced at the heavy tang of fish overlaid by unidentifiable chemicals, prudently deciding against the course of licking them clean.

"Sayuri-sempai?"

The first name that flashed through his head, accompanied by a blinding surge of unreasoning, illogical hope, was Anthy; the second, crushing him with a steel grip that felt almost like fear, was Tenjou Utena; and then, strangest of all, with a vertiginous mixture of anxiety and elation, Touga.

Of course, it was none of these people. None of them had a reason to follow him, and what was more, the voice hadn't resembled any of theirs - least of all Touga's.

Wakaba stepped through the carefully arranged wilderness of flowering bushes and a spray of well-groomed ferns, her expression as uncertain as her voice had been.

"Wakaba," Saionji said quietly.

"Are you all right?" The girl stopped at some distance, her bearing marked by uncharacteristic diffidence. "Do you need anything?"

He shook his head and forced a smile. "I'm fine."

"It's just - I saw you leave." Wakaba watched him in silence for a moment before perching on the edge of one of the benches. There was open concern in the look she gave him. "I - if there's anything I can do to help, anything at all..."

She trailed off helplessly.

Oddly enough, the silence that fell in the wake of her offer was not uncomfortable. It was the first time Saionji had ever felt at ease in Wakaba's presence; she was different tonight. She was just *there*, not making any demands, not expecting anything, not even his attention. Just unobtrusively providing companionship, if he needed it... offering her friendship, if he cared to accept it.

He wavered for a long moment before giving in. "Thank you, Wakaba."

"It was because it looked as though there was something between them, wasn't it? Something special? That's why you're so upset."

For a long moment, Saionji slumped more heavily against the wall. At last, he hoisted himself up to sit on the windowsill behind him, legs dangling like a child's. "Not really... I don't know. Maybe."

"You're in love with Touga, aren't you?"

An inarticulate sound of protest broke free of Saionji's throat.

"It's okay," Wakaba went on, her voice now almost too low to understand. "A lot of the girls are, you know."

"But I'm *not*-"

"I understand," she said wistfully. "There's nothing you can do. It just happens. You see someone who's beautiful and talented and fascinating, perfect - almost like a prince in a fairytale. And just like that, all at once you *know* that this could be the one, this is *it*. But at the same time, you also know that no matter what you do, you won't ever get close enough for it to happen. It hurts every time you see them and it's worse when you don't see them, but you can't stop it, even though maybe you want to. Even though it's hopeless and you know it, you can't stop. Because it's so completely *right*, and it doesn't even matter that it's never going to come true."

Overly verbose as always, but... Saionji knew what she meant. He'd never been able to get close enough - not in any way that counted. He thought of Anthy and wondered if he knew anything of who and what she truly was, for all that he had studied her every move, every expression that passed across her face.

"Sometimes, all you want is to stop feeling that way."

Saionji started to pull one leg up onto his perch, but quickly reconsidered when the dress began to fall open. Instead, he shifted to be able to look at Wakaba more fully. She'd turned her face upwards to the rapidly darkening sky, eyes glistening with moisture in the fading light.

"At least I do."

Saionji said nothing.

"It gets to where it's the idea of it more than anything, you know?" Wakaba's voice sounded choked, but her face was still clear, almost distant. "The picture you have of what it could be like."

The girl sucked in a deep, shuddery breath and then turned to give Saionji one of her usual bright smiles. Her eyes shone with unshed tears, but the smile was genuine. For the first time, Saionji noticed that she was actually rather pretty.

"I'm sorry for carrying on like this. You must think I'm a complete idiot." Wakaba glanced off to her right and wiped at her eyes surreptitiously before smiling up at Saionji again. "It's not usually this bad. He was - he left, just before you came. I tried to find him because I think he needs help right now, and I don't think anyone else is going to be there for him, not the way they should. I almost found him, but... I just hope he's well." He'd known she had a crush on him, of course - there was no way he could have escaped the knowledge. Her face had begun crystallizing into that of an individual rather than merely part of a faceless crowd when she'd written him a ridiculous love-letter that he'd lost no time disposing of, but even before, he'd known. He'd seen her often enough, shrinking back into corners when he walked by or waiting outside of the dojo for him to come out. He'd always been discomfited by the looks that she and the others like her had given him, even while being oddly flattered at the same time. He'd interpreted them as covetousness, lust, the wish to annex his status and popularity through owning him... Any and all of those, plus a dozen other factors.

He'd never thought true caring might play into it. After all, none of these girls knew him. Wakaba had not so much as exchanged two sentences with him before he'd turned into Sayuri. Why would she care what happened to him now, when most of the things that must have attracted her - status, success, popularity and the like - were no longer his? Yet here she was, evidently willing to stick by him even when he'd fallen into disgrace. She thought of him when almost no one remembered he'd ever existed.

It was almost like friendship... It couldn't be, of course. Whatever it was, though, it was deeply felt and completely sincere. That in itself made it something to be valued rather than derided.

"I'm sorry," Saionji said softly. "I'm truly sorry."

She shrugged and gave an embarrassed little laugh. "Darn - I came out here to see whether I could do something to make you feel better, and instead I've been whining and moaning and probably depressing you even more."

Saionji resisted the impulse to slide down from the windowsill and sit on the bench next to Wakaba for several seconds before giving in.

They watched the sun set in silence. From where they sat, they couldn't actually see the sun dip beneath the horizon, but the silhouettes of trees and hedges hiding the sky turned into black lace, backlit by the reddening orange glow; above, clouds were transformed into fiery, serrated teeth of light that faded slowly into pastel and fog.

It had turned almost fully dark now, although the stars were still hidden by the sun's reflected light. The moon had wandered a short way across the sky and was glowing with a cold white light.

"You're really, really pretty," Wakaba said in a wistful tone. When Saionji turned his head, she was far closer than she had been before. He froze, and for several heartbeats they stared at each other from the closest of ranges. Wakaba's gaze wandered down to Saionji's lips and clung. For a moment, he was sure she was about to kiss him.

"Uh, I, I've got to go!" Wakaba jumped up without warning, moving so suddenly that Saionji jerked back in startlement. "I just remembered. I forgot. I mean, I forgot that I have to go, to, to meet up with Utena. See you!"

Saionji murmured something she couldn't have heard; she'd already disappeared behind shrubbery by the time he'd recovered from his surprise.

 

***

The neon pink canapés had been replaced by something vaguely green, but no less poisonous looking. Saionji gave the new selection a suspicious once-over as he passed the buffet. It was high time to wash the sticky remains of the pink shrimp thing off his hand.

A small cluster of students were gathered in front of the bathroom, heads together as they prattled. They fell silent at his approach. He ignored them.

It had been immediately apparent that something out of the ordinary had happened while he and Wakaba had been in the garden. The atmosphere of the gathering had changed completely. Before, it had been a somewhat stiff party; now, whatever festive air there had been was gone. Those guests who weren't conversing in too-bright tones or breaking into hearty laughter that sounded forced and far too loud were huddled together talking excitedly, occasionally casting greedy glances around the room. Searching for a sign of renewed scandal, no doubt.

The girls in front of the bathroom started chattering again as soon as the door fell shut behind him, evidently overestimating the soundproofing quality of the wood. Saionji made no particular effort to understand their gossip - not until he caught the name Utena, that was.

It seemed Nanami had challenged Tenjou to a duel because she blamed her for her beloved brother's injuries.

Peculiar. Of course, Nanami must have forgotten about Saionji's existence like almost everyone else, and it made sense that she would settle on a girl Touga was obviously interested in to place the blame; she'd always been given to erratic and unpredictable behavior when it came to Touga. Still, Saionji would have expected her brother to put a stop to any ridiculous notion Nanami might have hatched of dueling the Champion. The girl was talented, if undisciplined, but at her present level, she couldn't hope to hold her own against Tenjou... and Touga knew it.

On his way back to the ballroom, Saionji made it a point to scowl at the gossiping girls until they broke and scattered, tittering nervously.

Saionji made a quick circuit of the rooms opened up for the party, but Anthy was no longer here. On the bright side, that meant that Tenjou had likely gone home, as well - at least the chit was nowhere in evidence. He really didn't want to see her again - today or ever, if he could help it.

At least now that Anthy had come and gone, there was no more reason for Saionji to stay, either - because she was the reason he'd come in the first place, even though he hadn't exactly been in a partying mood. He'd known there was a chance she would be there, and he hadn't been able to resist. Obviously, she'd been the reason. What else?

Next time, he'd listen to his head rather than his heart.

"Sayuri! There you are."

Touga stepped into his path through one of the French doors, moonlight glinting on his hair. The effect was almost certainly calculated. "I've been hoping I would run into you again."

Without waiting for an answer, Touga supplied Saionji with a glass of champagne and steered him out onto the terrace. A handful of guests were leaning on the low banister and looking out over the moon-gilded garden, most of them too wrapped up in their respective romances to pay attention to anyone else. Those that were either more curious or less love-struck gave Touga's new companion a quick once-over before pretending to disinterest.

"How do you like Ohtori so far? I hope everyone has done their best to help you settle in quickly."

Saionji gave a meaningless, if vaguely affirmative answer.

"I'm sorry I haven't been able to come down to the dojo these past few days - council business, you know. But I'm going to make the time soon. I've heard so much about your skill that I'm eager to spar with you."

Saionji grunted noncommittally.

It took Touga a number of minutes to give up on trying to engage Saionji in insipid small talk. When he finally did, they shared several moments of silence, looking out into the night side by side. You couldn't see the moon from this side of the house, but it cast a cool white glow over the carefully raked paths and geometric trees and lawns of the formal garden. There was an artfully overgrown fountain off to the right, framed by crescent-shaped flowerbeds.

Saionji felt as though the silence and the steady presence at his side were soaking into him. It was almost peaceful - almost like it used to be. Touga could be good company when he wanted to be. Saionji remembered it well.

A knot of tension Saionji hadn't even been aware of began to dissolve, eased by the illusion of companionship, meaningless as it was. It had been a long time since he and Touga had spent time together without some sort of wrangling for advantage being sparked off of a challenging look, a smug grin, perceived condescension in a quirk of the mouth or turn of the head.

This didn't actually count, of course; for all intents and purposes, they weren't spending time together now. Touga was merely trying to find the right opening to make another conquest. Saionji knew this well, had watched it a hundred times. He knew it for what it was. He knew it meant less than nothing.

When Saionji looked to the side, he found that Touga was watching him, wearing a soft, contented smile. The expression made him look open, almost vulnerable.

Typical of Touga making a play for someone. Absurd, really. Saionji should just go and get some sleep. Maybe he'd be able to get in an extra hour or two of practice before class tomorrow, if he turned in early.

"I realize that this is going to sound strange... after all, I hardly know you." Touga said quietly. When Saionji turned to give him an inquisitive glance, he avoided meeting his gaze, looking out across the silent garden instead. The small, now noticeably rueful smile still hovered about his mouth.

It's not real, Saionji reminded himself. It's just Touga.

"You feel like someone I've known for a very long time," Touga went on after a long pause. "It's as though we've known each other forever. Don't you feel it?" Touga's eyes were almost black with the night. Saionji opened his mouth to reply and stopped, suddenly uncertain. Of course he felt it, but he knew that Touga didn't. It was just one of Touga's games. It meant nothing.

"It's as though whatever I felt, I'd just have to look at you and you'd know, without the need for words. As though I've watched you so often that every move is familiar, every step and frown and shake of your head..."

"What I know is that you're talking complete nonsense," Saionji announced flatly, trying to smooth the scowl from his features without success. Touga seemed amused, night-dark eyes glittering, mouth soft and smiling.

"You *do* feel it," Touga murmured. "I knew you did. I'm not surprised you think this is a cheap pick-up line, though. It sounds like it, doesn't it? 'Our souls have recognized each other across the crowded room.'"

He'd deepened his voice for the last bit, waggling his brows in comical over-dramatization. Saionji snorted lightly, trying to sound annoyed rather than amused.

Touga watched him a while longer. The intense scrutiny became discomfiting very soon; it was Saionji's turn to shift away and stare unseeingly into the garden, pretending to an interest in the shadowed greenery that he knew Touga wasn't buying any more than he himself had bought Touga's distraction a moment before.

"Sayuri."

Saionji started at the sound of the name and stepped back when Touga reached out a hand, retreated another step when Touga followed. "No. No, Touga, I don't feel it - I don't feel anything except the chill. I'm going inside. You can do what you like."

It wasn't particularly cold yet, but Saionji had once heard a girl use the excuse of the night's chill to escape an unwanted suitor. It was fairly obvious that it *was* an excuse, of course, but he was certain Touga's ego would survive the blow.

"Sayuri. May I show you something? It won't take long."

Saionji swung around impatiently. He was immediately engulfed in a warm, Touga-scented drift of white fabric.

The top buttons of Touga's shirt were undone and gaped slightly open, now unconstrained by the uniform jacket. Touga was smiling still, although now, there was an additional hint of something in his expression that Saionji wasn't certain he could place. "As a favor to me on my birthday. Humor a fanciful man who doesn't want to be alone just yet. Please."

"There are dozens of guests here who -"

Touga's mouth twisted. Saionji, who knew this expression of old, stopped speaking immediately. "No," Touga said, his tone considerably more harsh than before. "It isn't whether there are other people in physical proximity, Sayuri. I've been alone all day... until I snagged you just now."

Touga had always surrounded himself with as many people as he could. He'd always liked to be the center of attention, everyone looking to him. Even so, he'd always seemed aloof and untouchable, alone in the middle of the crowd he'd drawn together with himself at its center. Saionji was different - he'd never felt truly comfortable in large groups. Fortunately, he didn't mind being alone. Quite the contrary, he liked it - thrived on it, even. He'd always liked it. Always.

He'd never felt uncomfortable with Touga. Not then. It had been natural to spend every waking minute with the other boy. It had felt *right*.

"Will you walk with me? Please."

Saionji regarded Touga's extended arm for a long moment before reaching out to take it, gripping soft silk and hard muscle and bone in a grip that was probably too firm for that of a woman consenting to be escorted. He found, irrationally, that he was afraid. He didn't know why, and it made no sense, but... all of a sudden, he was afraid.

*Don't. Don't...* He clamped his mouth shut, trapping the words that wanted to escape.

Ridiculous, he chastised himself. It was only Touga.

And yet, his heart wouldn't settle back into a steadier rhythm, and his throat was tight with an unknown dread he refused to acknowledge even when it wouldn't dispel beneath his scrutiny. At last, he resorted to simply putting it out of his mind, backing up his resolve with a small surge of rage at his own fanciful stupidity.

Apparently, it was later than Saionji had thought. The gardens were almost deserted, although it was hard to be sure because Touga made certain to steer clear of any of the more obvious spots a couple might choose to be alone together. It wasn't cold at all - the night held no more than a slight nip, and Saionji preferred that to the muggy, stale air of those summer nights that brought no relief from the day's heat.

Saionji pulled Touga's uniform jacket more securely around his shoulders when it began to slip. Neither of them felt the need to talk, and in spite of Saionji's lingering unease, the silence between them was a comfortable one. They made a slight detour around the pond, where the sound of night insects was louder than elsewhere and occasionally, a frog could be heard calling, either for a mate or simply for the joy of the clear night. The moon was higher now, casting enough light to illuminate the narrow gravel path that snaked between carefully tended flowerbeds, past the miniature labyrinth, branching in front of the decorative bamboo glade. As Saionji had expected, Touga turned left, leaving the path after they'd walked it for no more than several minutes to head across an expanse of moonwashed lawn. When they stepped over the first of the low hedges that bordered the garden they were heading for, Touga's arm brushed the side of Saionji's breast, and he jerked away so violently that he almost stumbled because of the unexpected length of fabric restricting his legs.

"I hate dresses," Saionji snarled, tearing his hand free of Touga's grip. When had the other man pulled his arm in that tightly against his body - and when had he put his own hand above Saionji's where it rested on his shirt-clad sleeve?

"That's a pity," Touga said, straight-faced. Neither his tone of voice nor his expression betrayed any emotion other than polite concern, but Saionji knew that the bastard was laughing himself sick in the privacy of his own head.

"You would think so," Saionji muttered resentfully. *He* wasn't the one who had to go jumping over hedges in the idiotic slinky dress he'd picked out, after all.

"It's just behind that fence. Let me boost you up..."

Saionji stared at Touga's outstretched hands for a long, incredulous moment before staring into his friend's eyes. After several heartbeats, Touga shrugged and lowered his arms.

Now that Saionji was warned against the dangers of climbing in a tight dress, he had no problems at all in scaling the trellis along the house wall and jumping over onto the reinforced middle of the wrought-iron fence they had to climb in order to reach their goal. The ivy winding its way through the metal barely rustled as he searched for a foothold, another one higher up, and then vaulted straight up and over, landing in a perfect crouch on the other side. He remembered the uniform jacket just in time to snatch it from the air before it landed in the dirt.

Touga dropped down next to him in almost complete silence.

The garden hadn't changed at all. The small fountain in the center was tinkling in the same silvery note, the ivy and blooms gracing the trellises and elegantly wrought iron latticework tumbled in the same, artfully casual confusion. Even the marble benches framing the central arrangement of fountain, raked sand and roses were the same, still gleaming white and piled with multi-colored pillows.

"This is my favorite place," Touga said quietly. "The only place I can be truly alone, when I want to be."

They were silent, allowing the quiet to seep into their awareness. Touga was standing very close; close enough that Saionji wouldn't have to move much at all to touch him. All it would take would be a slight turn, or swaying sideways a little, and their shoulders would touch.

He was careful not to move.

"I've never taken anyone here before."

"Never?" Saionji's tone apparently gave Touga pause; he looked at him for a long moment before smiling slightly and shaking his head.

"Once, long ago... I used to come here with my best friend. But that was when we were both still children, and ever since then..."

Liar. He probably came here with every girl he wanted to tumble, to tell her this same story.

"It's different with you," his friend said abruptly, breaking the silence that had fallen. "You feel... familiar. Comfortable. Right."

Saionji waited a beat too long before pulling back when Touga leaned closer. He could see the knowledge of it in the other man's eyes, and it made his retort come out sharper than he had intended. "I expect that next, you'll be telling me you've been waiting for me your entire life."

Touga's laugh was low and husky and shivered through Saionji like a tangible thing. He shouldn't have come here - didn't know why he *had* come. Didn't know why he was staying when it was making him so uncomfortable. "I might have," Touga murmured. He was standing so close that Saionji could feel the warmth of his breath against his skin when he spoke. "If I had known there was someone like you."

Saionji's chest hurt. He should never have come, and he wasn't going to stay.

"I'm leaving," he said abruptly, stepping back. Touga stayed where he was, watching him. "It's late."

After a moment's hesitation, Touga gave a minute nod. His expression was very serious, not a hint of teasing or playfulness remaining.

Saionji was in no mood to climb back over the fence beneath his friend's watchful gaze. Running the gauntlet of the remaining gossips in the ballroom on his way out held even less appeal. The fastest way off the Kiryuu estate was through Touga's rooms, and at this point, Saionji didn't care if he betrayed more knowledge of the house and grounds than he should.

The glass door leading to Touga's study was unlocked and opened to a firm push. Saionji crossed the darkened room without waiting for Touga. He would find his own way out.

Touga caught up with him at the door to the corridor, his touch on Saionji's black-sleeved arm light. "I've made you uncomfortable. Forgive me."

"Never mind." Saionji's voice was low and far too raw, and he fought the urge to clear his throat. "I'm just - not quite myself tonight."

"You're beautiful," Touga murmured, and Saionji froze, his hand tightening on the door-handle.

The all but inaudible catch in Touga's voice, the arrested look in his eyes - even the hesitation before he moved forward to stand too close once again. It was masterfully done.

"Please stay."

Saionji said nothing. He should go. Instead, he let Touga tug his hand away from the handle to interlace their fingers, turning him skillfully with a gentle pull. Slowly, Touga raised his free hand to Saionji's face, trailing the lightest of touches along the line of his jaw and down the side of his neck. The shiver that rose at the caress was impossible to suppress.

Touga slowly brushed his hand through Saionji's hair, tugging gently, holding a handful up and letting the green strands run through his fingers.

"Lovely," he murmured, his voice deep and husky. "Exquisite, extraordinary, like silk to the touch..."

Saionji shook himself mentally and looked down, deliberately breaking the hold of his friend's gaze on his. "It's green and wavy. So?" It came out more belligerent than he'd intended, but he decided that was a good thing.

Not that it made a difference. Touga laughed a laugh low and intimate enough to bring a flush to Saionji's face. The laugh was familiar, as was the hypnotic gaze, the languid movements and intense focus. He knew what Touga was doing. It was all so familiar, but... not. Not like this. Not directed at Saionji.

"It's glorious, like all of you," Touga murmured, and his body was suddenly touching Saionji's from knee to chest, one knee gently nudging between his own. "How can you not know how breathtaking you are, Sayuri?"

The false name brought a sorely-needed measure of sanity back; Saionji rallied somewhat. "Touga, I -"

And that was as far as he got before Touga's mouth descended, muffling the rest of his sentence. Dimly, Saionji recognized the strategy - cut off the protest before it could be fully voiced, prevent her from speaking her doubts and use the time thus won to get her so fired up she forgets what she was going to say, forgets any reservations or injunctions she might have had, forgets everything but...

This.

"Touga," he murmured helplessly as his friend's lips moved lightly over his cheekbone on the way to his ear. How did he know how to do this, how to nibble on Saionji's lobe just the right side of pain, how to lip and suck and bite the sensitive skin behind Saionji's ear and move down the exquisitely tingling skin at the side of his neck - "Touga..."

"Mmmm," Touga rumbled, and Saionji could feel the vibration against the base of his throat.

Touga's thigh had insinuated itself far deeper between Saionji's legs than he had realized. He only noticed this development when Touga shifted position again, grasping Saionji's hips with both hands and pulling him forward. A hard, muscled thigh was pressing right up against Saionji's sex, moving very subtly, but with an unmistakable rhythm. The black dress's slit skirt had fallen open around Touga's leg in the front and was brushing Saionji's calves in the back, moving in counterpoint to the subtle rhythm Touga was setting. He could feel the heat of Touga's body through the thin cotton barrier of his underwear; the fabric of his friend's pants was chafing his inner thighs slightly as Touga moved.

Delicious pressure shuddered through Saionji like a slow explosion, making him gasp and jerk in surprise. Touga chuckled again, and his blue eyes were burning into Saionji's with the heavy-lidded heat of sheer lust. Saionji could hear the triumphant "Got you!" just as clearly as though the other man had shouted it out loud.

The small part of Saionji that was still coherent enough wondered at the forcefulness of Touga's seduction. Considering that until Touga's teeth had set into his throat just now, he'd truly thought he would get out of here without - this -

Another tug at his hips, and this time he followed Touga's directions willingly, eagerly even, leaning back at a different angle. Touga shifted his stance, moved in even closer and pressed up harder, and *yes*, right there, right *there*, this was good, this was very good, and Saionji pulled the dress up further, took hold of Touga's buttocks and pulled him in tight against his body, driving down against the next little thrust of Touga's thigh against the throbbing need between his legs, rubbing himself against muscled hardness. So strange to feel it like this, so strange and so delicious, and that it was Touga moving between his legs, Touga leaning forward to devour his mouth, Touga's hand gently kneading his strangely full breast, thumbing the nipple through several layers of cloth... Touga running a light hand down the side of his neck, tracing his collarbone, following the line of his sternum downwards and sliding smoothly into the dress.

Saionji moaned helplessly into Touga's mouth as an expert hand cupped his naked flesh, content to hold it only briefly before skilled fingertips began teasing at the nipple, sending sparks of surprised pleasure racing straight to Saionji's sex. How strange... how wonderful. He arched forward into the hand and drove himself down onto the thigh, and when Touga withdrew a second later, he followed blindly, snarling in protest.

"So hot," Touga whispered. "You are so gorgeous, so delicious, so eager..."

A deft arm slid around his waist and tugged him away from the door. Saionji found himself gathered in a crushing embrace, plastered to Touga for a searing, but brief kiss. Touga's tongue claimed his mouth with complete certainty of its welcome, delving deep as his hands lifted Saionji almost entirely off his feet and pressed him into the unmistakable bulge that lay against Touga's leg.

And God, it was strange to feel another man's erection pressed against him, almost as strange as being this fired up with desire and not having an erection of his own, but this different, deep, throbbing need instead. Strange and wonderful and - *Touga*.

"Come, my lovely Sayuri."

He followed without protest as Touga led him to the second room of the suite, the bedroom, dominated by the familiar canopy bed.

Even now - *especially* now - it was impossible not to see that Touga knew every movement of this dance inside out, had honed every move to perfection in countless sexual encounters with countless nameless girls. In front of the bed, he turned Saionji for another deep and probing kiss, his hand finding the slit in the skirt unerringly and sliding up Saionji's leg from mid-thigh. Saionji knew what the next step in the dance of seduction would be and spread his legs in anticipation, earning an approving chuckle and a renewed, husky litany of how responsive and desirable he was. Touga slipped his fingers beneath the elastic of the panties' leg opening and stroked lightly over Saionji's sex until Saionji snarled impatiently and pushed against him in demand.

Touga dipped into his folds gently, massaging and caressing, and then - slowly, slowly - slid a finger deep inside Saionji's body. The unfamiliar sensation cleared Saionji's head of some of the lust-induced fog, but Touga did something with his thumb, teased and stroked what could only be Saionji's clitoris, and that felt... beyond incredible.

"You're mine, my beauty," Touga told him. It was a terrible line, but Saionji didn't care. He moaned and trembled and shook in his oldest friend's arm, on his hand.

Only moments later Saionji had been stripped of his dress with practiced ease and laid back on the rose-colored spread. Touga divested himself of his own clothes with equal speed and expertise, eyes never leaving Saionji's body as he undressed.

As an experiment, Saionji stretched a little, raising his arms above his head to make his breasts protrude further. Touga's gaze gravitated to his chest with gratifying promptness, and his fingers sped up in their task of unbuttoning his shirt. A raised knee immediately drew the hot gaze to the mound of Saionji's sex. Amused even through his arousal, Saionji spread his legs invitingly.

Touga's eyes flew to his face, and something he saw there made him smile, a spark of warmth softening the open desire in his eyes. "Wanton creature," he murmured, stepping out of his briefs and walking around to the foot end of the bed.

It was a challenge, and Saionji met it head-on, arching his back in a cat-like stretch, spreading his legs a little wider. Touga's gaze lingered for a long moment. His expression was unreadable as he put a knee on the mattress between Saionji's ankles.

"Glad to see the color is natural," he purred, leaning forward.

"Can you say the same?" Saionji shot back.

That surprised a laugh out of him, and he stood back up at the foot of the bed and struck a pose, throwing his head back and displaying himself. Saionji abandoned his own posture, propping himself up on his elbows to get a better view. He had always known his friend was beautiful, but now, the fact was taking on a new and almost terrifying urgency. Long, flowing hair the color of fresh blood. Perfectly muscled arms, broad shoulders, and sculpted pectorals. Washboard stomach, slim hips, the cock so engorged with blood that it was lying up against the stomach, growing from a thatch of wine-dark curls. Long, long legs, slim and elegant and just as well-formed as the rest of him.

He wanted that, all of it. He could taste Touga's skin on his lips already, could feel silken skin and heat, sleek perfection beneath his hands, between his legs, and he *wanted* it.

Wanted Touga, whom he had known since childhood, whom he had loved and trusted like no other, whose body he had found aesthetically pleasing, but never before looked on with desire. It was a concept at once incomprehensible and strangely inevitable.

"Turn around," Saionji ordered.

Touga raised a sardonic eyebrow and complied, turning gracefully.

"Your hair is in the way," Saionji admonished, and Touga cast him a look over one shoulder before sweeping the long fall of scarlet over one shoulder, providing an unimpeded view of a broad back tapering to a slim waist and perfectly rounded, muscular buttocks. Saionji's mouth was dry as bone, and he had to clear his throat before speaking again.

"Come here, Touga," he commanded huskily.

Touga obeyed, flexing his muscles with more than his usual graceful economy of movement as he swung back around. Slowly, deliberately, he let himself down to the bed between Saionji's legs and prowled forward. Saionji watched him, their gazes locked in shared desire now mingled with a trace of challenge.

Saionji had gone down on women, and he'd enjoyed their stifled gasps and the way they writhed beneath his steadying hands, the way the small nub of flesh swelled with blood against the tip of his tongue, the way they cried out when he found just the right angle and pressure and rhythm. The way their bodies opened to him, the way they pulsed around his tongue, the way they pressed their thighs against him in the helpless desire for more... he knew all of this, knew the things to do to cause it, and yet he was completely unprepared when Touga did them to him.

"Touga!"

"Hrrrrmmmm," hummed Touga, sounding amused. He pulled back to lick slowly, unhurriedly along the folds of Saionji's sex, lapping up his juices, ignoring the sobbing moans Saionji could hear himself making. After what felt like an eternity, his mouth finally returned to the center of the pulse of pleasure spreading from Saionji's groin through his entire body.

"Oh."

Oh *yes*. Touga was so good at this, damn him, he knew exactly when to suck and when to lick and when to -

The finger finding its way back into him caught Saionji by surprise; he wondered almost stupidly at the sensation of being penetrated, gasping to the movements of Touga's mouth, unintentionally driving himself onto Touga's finger when he moved to heighten the stimulation from the tormenting tongue and lips. Strange, the sensation of something inside him, Touga, Touga inside him, Touga's mouth between his legs, beautiful Touga, beloved Touga...

"Now."

He had never heard this particular tone in Touga's voice; he would have remembered. Rough and dark and urgent, harsh with command, lust, need...

The mouth that had lifted to deliver the command descended once again, and abruptly, it was too much. Sensation spilled over and ignited, ripping through his body in a flash of torrential pleasure that tore a harsh cry from his throat, arched his spine off the bed and made his thighs clench around Touga's head.

Touga. Beautiful Touga, who extricated himself gently and moved up his body to lick and nip his breasts and kiss his lips when every nerve in Saionji's body was still thrumming in joy, every cell saturated with pleasure. Touga who was fondling his breast, Touga who was the best at everything he did, beloved Touga...

The sudden sharp, stabbing pain inside of him was unexpected and unwelcome. It chased away the lingering tingle of orgasm and replaced it with something harsh and ugly, and Saionji stiffened and snarled and opened his eyes to Touga's shocked expression.

"Sayuri," he rasped in his new voice, rough velvet the color of night. "You should have told me. I would have been more careful."

The idea was so grotesque that it took Touga's remark to make him realize what the hell was wrong.

Touga's expression turned guarded at Saionji's involuntary bark of incredulous laughter, and he cast about for the right thing to say, something that would bring the untempered glow of lust back into the other man's eyes.

"It never occurred to me," he finally said. It was the truth, and his friend could make of it whatever suited him best. "It doesn't hurt much - just caught me off guard. Don't stop."

This wasn't completely true, but it seemed to satisfy Touga, who began to move in long, slow thrusts, his breathing controlled and even, his face set in concentration. It hurt a great deal, but Saionji was prepared now and concealed the pain behind a mask of pleasure.

After a minute, Saionji ran his hands up Touga's back into his hair and pulled his head down firmly. The kiss was slow and deep and intense, tongues tangling, sucking and thrusting deep in blatant counterpoint to the movement of Touga's hips. By the time Touga reared back and parted their mouths, settling into a fractionally more demanding rhythm, the pain of his initial penetration had faded to a sharp but bearable discomfort that could be ignored in the face of the tumbling bevy of sensations rushing in from other parts of him.

Touga was biting down his neck, starting at that spot behind his ear and working his way down, stopping to suck and nibble. Sparks of pleasure shot straight from his friend's nibbling to Saionji's groin, and he arched his head back to expose as much of the sensitive skin as possible to Touga's touch. Silken hair slid beneath his fingers, a curtain of red sheeting forward to enclose the two of them in a private universe of hazed sensual pleasure.

Silken hair, silken skin, heated and damp with exertion, hard muscles shifting... infinitely graceful, vulnerable line of spine... Touga's breathing hitched and he thrust forward hard, breaking his steady rhythm.

Saionji grinned and repeated the caress, running his hands over Touga's lower back and down, lingering on the working buttocks briefly, sliding one hand between the other man's legs as far as he could reach to stroke hot, taut skin with the very tips of his fingers.

Another uncontrolled thrust, driving Touga's cock deep into Saionji's body. It was beyond strange, being filled this way, being crushed to the bed by Touga's weight, feeling Touga's body between his thighs, pumping into him, burning blue gaze locked hungrily on his face, his body. More than strange, and better than he could ever have imagined.

Touga slowed his rhythm and his breathing, tossing his head to get the hair out of his face. Saionji reached up and brushed the fiery mass back over Touga's shoulder, twisting it in a fist at the back of his neck, pulling him down into yet another kiss, open-mouthed, wet and wild.

"You feel good," Saionji gasped when they broke apart for breath, surprised at how true that was. As an experiment, he set his feet to the bed and lifted himself into Touga's next stroke, feeling him slide impossibly deeper. The friction and thick, heated slide of his cock as it was withdrawn and pushed in again to fill Saionji once more had begun to send excited ripples coursing through him. It wasn't enough, he needed more, and on Touga's next downstroke, he wrapped both legs around his lover's waist and pulled him in as deep as he could, both hands clenched on the other man's buttocks.

He relaxed his hold to allow Touga to move back and arched into him as he thrust home, devouring him, pressing him in deeper, deeper still... Still not enough, but close, the pressure was building and the subtle ripples of excitement had turned into heavy throbs that made him gasp and clutch Touga's body and bite down hard on his shoulder -

"Slow - down -"

*No.* He didn't want to slow down, he wanted Touga deeper, and faster, and harder, like that, just like that - still not quite enough; he clenched himself around Touga's shaft to increase the sensation, and Touga shuddered and gasped and grabbed his hips, pushing in harder, faster. He uncoiled his legs from around his lover and braced his feet against the sheets again, lifting up to meet him, harder, yes, deeper, yes, more...

Scarlet hair in his face. Saionji pried a hand loose from a clenching buttock and reached up to lay his arm over Touga's back and pull him down, crush him to his body so that smooth, hot skin rubbed over his breasts, nipples sensitized to the point of pain; so they were plastered together from groin to neck, parting and slapping together in the quick rhythm of Touga's increasingly urgent thrusts.

Come on, come *on*, damn you, come *on* Touga, again, again, again...

It was desperate and frantic and he was crying out with each hard thrust that seated Touga deliciously deep in his body, hoarse and inarticulate, his voice drowned out by Touga's harsh breathing and the rhythmic moans sounding right next to his ear. Saionji felt it coming, felt it build inside like a wave, carrying him up and up in a helpless, drawn-out rush that made him moan and shudder in despair, and then breaking with the force of a storm tide, smashing him to sparkling fragments, tearing him apart and rebuilding him in the same instant, drowning him in an electric blaze of pleasure.

Touga was lifting up above him in sweat-sheened perfection, tangled hair glued to his neck and chest and shoulders, a long strand of green twining about one arm. Saionji cried out in surprise and delight as he thrust with brute force, bereft now of rhythm, humping urgently, almost desperately. Once more, and a shiver ran through Saionji's lax body, forcing his spine into a tense bow and sparking echoes of fire along every sensitized nerve ending. And again, another wave building, quicker this time, fire cresting and pulling him down in a confused conflagration of heat, motion and sheer sensation.

Far away, he heard Touga cry out, and he was dimly aware of his body being impaled so forcefully it was lifted off the bed, once, twice, again, and then a hard, delicious jolt deep inside as liquid warmth filled him.

Heavy, heated, unmoving weight pressing his limp form into the mattress. A spill of damp hair lying across his face, tickling his nose. Touga.

Saionji sighed contentedly and nuzzled his face into the other man's neck. He was with Touga. For the first time since childhood, all was right with the world.

 

***

"Sayuri."

Sudden brightness fell into his eyes and he turned his face into the pillow, murmuring protest.

The bed shifted. Saionji hummed pleased assent and turned his face back into the light to be kissed, breathing in the mingled scent of Touga and sex.

No kiss was forthcoming. Instead, the mattress suddenly tilted beneath him, sending him tumbling to the floor tangled in sheets, heart racing, his own hair in his mouth.

"Damn you, what's the idea?" he snarled.

Touga was dressed already, impeccably groomed, hair shining and falling down his back in the usual smooth waterfall. Sun sparkled and caught on his uniform's gold trim as he turned, copper highlights glinting in his hair. He was already out the door when he turned to smile an edged, sarcastic little smile, pausing momentarily to slant a mocking glance at Saionji over one shoulder. "You'll be late for class."

And he was gone.

You had to say one thing for Touga... He certainly didn't leave you guessing. Crystal clear.

Saionji pushed his hair off his face, untangled himself from the bedding, and went to take a quick shower before hurrying back to Ohtori to change into a school uniform. He didn't take any particular care not to be noticed, although he didn't see anyone on his way to his room, either. He wasn't the first this had happened to, and he wouldn't be the last.

There was no time to wash his hair, but once he'd gotten the snags out and tied it back into a loose ponytail, it didn't look too bad.

It wasn't difficult to see this from Touga's perspective, and by the time first period was through and he was headed towards the next class room for the daily math lesson, Saionji had settled the matter in his mind. He'd never mistaken Touga's attentions for anything but what they were; he knew him far too well.

No doubt he'd now ruined any hope there'd been of regaining a measure of closeness to his friend, but the truth was that his chances had been all but non-existent from the start - at least in this body. Touga did not have female friends. He had admirers, and projects, and old rivals...

Perhaps he should have resisted the temptation to spend time with his old friend in any way, simply to avoid getting into just this situation, but he hadn't, and that was that. Touga had tumbled one more girl in a long row of girls, and there was nothing to distinguish the encounter from the one before it or the one that would come after. Saionji might have been making love to his best friend, but Touga had been fucking a stranger. It would have been hypocritical to lay the blame of the mess Saionji had made of things at Touga's door. Touga had merely been himself... something which could not be said of Saionji by any stretch of the imagination.

So. Sign it. File it. Put it in a box marked done.

Third period brought a surprise test in chemistry, and Saionji was the only student in the classroom who didn't groan in protest when the teacher reached into her briefcase and brought out the tell-tale sheaf of paper. He welcomed the chance to lose himself in the clean, logical world of molecular structure and the principles governing the most elemental interactions of all. Some things, at least, would never change. The laws governing the existence of everything and everyone were, at the most basic level, constant and logical, and Saionji found it an oddly comforting thought. No matter how incomprehensible, tangled and, yes, frightening his own circumstances were, on a different level everything was still basically the same, the same rules still governed, the same bonds held fast or dissolved as the laws governing them decreed.

Not eternal... But constant, logical, and - given the necessary information - predictable. Far more lasting than the feeble and fragile bonds human beings formed.

 

 

4. ~ Love ~

 

After lunch, Saionji went to the greenhouse to see Anthy, and again, she wasn't there.

He didn't understand it - she had always spent hours every day in the greenhouse, watering and pruning the roses, making certain they prospered. Where the hell was she? He knew her schedule by heart, and at this time, she should have been here.

In the hopes that Anthy was merely running late, Saionji let himself into the glass dome and wandered around, growing increasingly irritated as she failed to appear. When he attempted to entertain himself by prowling into the more inaccessible corners of the greenhouse, he tripped over some empty planters and half fell into a bed of scarlet roses, damp soil squishing beneath one outflung palm and thorns lodging painfully in his flesh.

It was the undignified sight of Saionji struggling to detach himself from the brambles - and not taking particular care not to harm the damned things, either - that met her eyes when she came at last. Her presence unfurled and swelled in Saionji's being like a rosebud opening to the sun, fearsome and uncontrollable and incomprehensible, making his heart leap and his chest ache, the familiar surge of passionate and incomprehensible emotion rising. At last. At last, after so long...

Anthy. Anthy. Himemiya -

"Well, well. What have we here?"

For a long, surreal moment, Saionji stared at the man before him and could only think that the same thing that had happened to him had happened to Anthy. He *felt* her, he knew she was near, and yet the only one here with him - in the greenhouse that was Anthy's - was a complete stranger.

A strange expression flitted across the man's face so briefly Saionji could not be certain he had not imagined it altogether. It had looked like surprise, closely chased by... amusement?

Haughtily, Saionji lifted his chin and surveyed the stranger from head to toe. Much too tall to be Anthy, and in no way resembling her except for the delicate cafe-au-lait tint of his complexion. His face was far too thin, the shape of his head entirely wrong, the nose too sharp and prominent and entirely lacking the sweet tip-tilted quality of Anthy's. The narrowed grey eyes had nothing in common with Anthy's wide, opaque green gaze - not to mention that his hair was platinum blond and tied back in a shaggy ponytail, forming the greatest imaginable contrast to Anthy's beautiful, gleaming dark tresses.

"Who the hell are you?" Saionji demanded, his tone rimed with frost. *And what are you doing in my Anthy's greenhouse?*

The man wasn't wearing a rose signet, so he couldn't be a new duelist.

One pale eyebrow shot up. "I might ask you the same question, young lady, considering that I came across you destroying the flowers my sister has toiled so hard to raise."

"Himemiya Anthy is your sister?"

"I have that honor." He held out a hand, flashing a sudden smile. "Ohtori Akio, at your service."

Ohtori Akio, the Dean of Students and Acting Chairman of Ohtori Academy? Wonderful.

Painfully aware of his less than immaculate attire and less than gracious behavior, Saionji shook some traces of soil from his fingers before taking the trustee chairman's hand. Ohtori's grip was warm and firm, and he held the contact for a fraction of a second too long.

"Yoshitoyo Sayuri."

"I am pleased to make your acquaintance." The brilliant smile was now echoed by a spark of warmth in his eyes. "I have heard many good things about you - the entire kendo club has been speaking of nothing but you lately. Perhaps you will soon be bringing glory to our school as part of one of our teams?"

Saionji inclined his head gracefully. "I am gratified that Iwamoto-san has seen fit to notice my modest skills."

"She is not the only one." The chairman's eyes drifted downward slightly and a frown creased his brow. "Allow me - you have a thorn caught in your uniform."

His touch was light as thistledown as he plucked a fragment of rose twig from Saionji's shoulder, but he could feel the light contact burn through the sturdy cotton of his uniform and lodge deep in his gut with the sear of corrosive acid.

What the hell...?

The chairman's touch lingered on his shoulder for longer than seemed necessary.

"Hmm." Ohtori's breath stirred the fine hairs at Saionji's temple. "How remarkable."

Even though the hand was now gone from his shoulder, Saionji could still feel the heavy burning of the touch sear through his nerves, pooling in his stomach, prickling over his skin.

"If you would allow me...?" Ohtori gently lifted a large handful of Saionji's curls in one hand, bringing them closer to his face as though to examine the structure, for whatever purpose. The ponytail must have opened when he fell into the roses, though he hadn't noticed it before. Saionji was having trouble thinking properly, and his breathing was beginning to rasp in his throat. It all felt strange, everything felt wrong, but even so, it was unmistakably arousal. If everything had been as it should, he would have had an erection impossible to hide, just as he'd often had when Anthy had been nearby.

"Remarkable indeed." Ohtori weighed the mass of curls in his palm and let a few strands escape to drift over and through his long fingers. The gesture was hauntingly familiar.

"Sayuri."

Saionji jerked as though shot. Ohtori bent forward and smiled into his eyes, and before releasing the handful of hair he still held, his thumb swept over it in a strangely intimate caress. It was the gesture of a lover, and Saionji could not understand why this stranger thought he had the right to offer it to him when they'd barely exchanged two sentences. He could understand even less why Saionji was allowing it, and why it made his mouth go dry.

Touga came into view behind Akio's shoulder, cool and collected as always. "Here you are - I've been looking for you."

Saionji barely registered the small smile Touga gave him. Ohtori's presence was singing in his blood like a thousand sirens, and Saionji was trying to remember why that particular gesture seemed so wrenchingly familiar.

He did register the arm Touga tried to slip around his waist. He batted the encroaching limb away with an impatient glower. "What do you want?"

Ohtori Akio. Living dawn. Born of flame. Burning like fire in Saionji's blood. Smiling into his eyes with the same expression that lurked in Kozue's bold stares, the same expression that Touga had worn not so very long ago.

"Kiryuu Touga," Ohtori was saying. "What a pleasure to run into you so unexpectedly."

Predatory.

"Were you looking for me, Chairman Ohtori?"

The numb astonishment receded slightly and Saionji had to suppress a mocking bark of laughter at the hint of coldness that was threaded through Touga's manner. How absurd. Touga had been going to give him his cell phone number and a brush-off that sounded like a promise, and when he'd found someone else making a play, he'd decided he wanted to bed his latest conquest once more, after all... just to bring it home to everyone that if anyone was going to do the dumping, it was going to be Touga.

Too bad for him, then.

*No.* Wait. He'd come here looking for Himemiya Anthy, not Ohtori Akio. He was looking for Anthy, and he wasn't looking to get laid by a different guy each night. His experience with Touga had been disturbing enough to last him for a long time, and he *knew* Touga - Touga was more familiar than Saionji's own reflection these days. Why the hell was Saionji behaving like an idiot empty-headed chit like Wakaba? Just because Ohtori was - somehow like Anthy, and - when Anthy was around Saionji felt -

"Excuse me for a moment, Chairman. Sayuri, might I have a word...?"

Instead of stepping back to let Saionji pass, Ohtori steered him past with a light touch at the small of his back while Touga gave them both a benign smile. Only someone who knew Touga as well as Saionji did - and there wasn't anyone who did - would have been able to see that not only was he not looking on with equinamity and good will, but he was probably picturing scenes of elaborate carnage in his head. Touga was a petty bastard underneath that cool and polished surface.

"I have tickets for the opera tonight," Touga said pleasantly once they'd stepped out of the dome and the glass door had fallen shut behind them. "Would you like to accompany me?"

Saionji looked at him for a long moment. He was willing to bet that Touga didn't have tickets; he was making this up on the spur of the moment, relying on his connections and his father's name to get the tickets at the last minute.

"I hate the opera," Saionji said brusquely. "Find someone else to accompany you."

It wasn't that simple, of course; Touga was up to the challenge. He laughed a little and smiled a quirky, rueful smile that must have taken him hours to perfect. "You want to know the truth? I don't like the opera either."

Saionji wasn't in the mood for this. He crossed his arms tightly in front of his chest. "Just say what you want to say and be done with it."

That sobered Touga. He gave Saionji a long, searching look and tried to take his hand, of all the stupid things. Saionji growled and batted it aside with more force than strictly necessary. "What's wrong, Sayuri?"

"I will not play these stupid games," Saionji bit out. "Don't invite me to the opera when you just want to have sex."

Touga's eyes widened slightly, but he caught himself almost immediately, giving Saionji an amused and more than slightly conspiratorial grin. "You really are a remarkable young woman."

Saionji snorted in disgust. There he went again, gearing up for another try, from another angle this time. He didn't even need to watch the glint in Touga's eye to know what the next words out of his mouth would be. In some things, Touga was utterly predictable.

"Would you like to have sex with me tonight?" Touga asked pleasantly, his tone the same as when he'd asked Saionji out to the opera.

The grin Saionji gave him in return bared more teeth than it should have. "No."

Touga's pride in his sexual prowess had always been ridiculously inflated, and Saionji could see that his arrow had hit the mark in the barely noticeable narrowing of his eyes, a mere split second before Touga threw back his head and laughed.

Oh, great. He was presenting a challenge - that was like waving a red cloth in front of a bull. It seemed that now the suggestion of a rival had rekindled Touga's waning interest, the only thing that would put him off would be if Saionji were to give in, sleep with him again, and perhaps fall hopelessly in love. *That* would get rid of him quickly enough. Saionji certainly wasn't going to go to those particular lengths, though. That he'd slept with Touga once had been bad enough; the last thing he needed was to compound the error.

But, possibly, if he handled it just right...

Saionji's eyes narrowed as he assembled a strategy on the spur of the moment, flinging out the opening attack in a voice halfway between belligerent and willing to be convinced. "Did you come here to find me?"

"Of course." Touga stepped into the perceived opening with a hopeful little smile that would certainly have fooled Saionji, if he hadn't known Touga for almost as long as he could remember. Although, way back when, he had never smiled like that unless he meant it. *Come on, Kyouichi, we can do our homework later, the sun is shining and our neighbors' cat had her kittens yesterday...*

He shook his head slightly to dispel the memory. Neither of them was the same now. "I see. Then you'll want to give me your cell phone number, won't you?"

Touga flicked him a curious gaze, but seemed no more than slightly surprised. Not that this was necessarily an indication of his true feelings on the matter. "Certainly - a good idea, really. Do you have something to write it down? It's -"

"No need." Saionji gave his friend a thin smile. "090-5479-8642, right?"

A hit. Touga's expression of slight surprise gave way to absolute unreadability; a very good sign.

"I'm sure I can call you any time, and that you'll be there for me whenever I need you. Always. Right?" It came out far more bitingly than he'd intended, but judging by the granite stillness of Touga's face, it didn't matter.

So far, Saionji's impromptu strategy had been a full success. The opponent had been taken off guard, led to overreach himself and give Saionji an open line of attack - now, all that remained was the killing stroke.

"My -" And that's where it all went wrong, because the tone was entirely wrong, and Saionji had to swallow back the remaining word before he could ruin everything. Touga was watching him with a predator's intensity, waiting for any sign of weakness, and the angry victory Saionji had imagined already in his grasp was snatched away in a wave of bitter resentment.

*Fucking bastard,* he thought, but didn't say - in part because it would have been idiotic to ruin his careful set-up with such an ineffective attack, but also because it wasn't that simple. This situation was as much, if not more, his doing as Touga's.

It had to be enough; staring into his friend's guarded blue gaze, Saionji couldn't think of a thing to say. He chose the next best course of action: retreat.

Touga didn't follow, and perhaps Saionji had done enough to make himself seem like someone to be avoided rather than a challenge.

*My hero.*

As if.

 

 

5. ~ Adoration ~

 

From one moment to the next, the breath left Saionji's lungs in a rush and he almost doubled over, every nerve going up in flames. The sensation of indefinable pressure in the air surrounding him thickened to the point where he was hard pressed to breathe because of the weight crushing down on him from all sides, echoed by an equal force pushing from the inside out, threatening to tear him open.

One eternal moment passed, then the throb of presence abated enough to let Saionji breathe. It was then that he recognized it for what it was - the familiar rush of elation, tangled emotion and merciless passion that had always overcome him in Anthy's presence, but magnified a hundredfold. He couldn't distinguish between the separate impulses of desire, terror and desperate, raging need - it was all mingled into one painful spear of too-intense sensation.

And, for the first time, he realized that this, whatever it was, was not his. He felt it when he was near Anthy, but it *wasn't his*. It came from outside -

Straightening up with one arm folded protectively over his stomach, Saionji met Anthy's eyes. The look she gave him struck like a physical blow, a bludgeon of undiluted, screaming power/sensation/emotion; he stumbled into the wall and gasped for air, chest heaving. When he looked down, he discovered that somehow, impossibly, there was a deep and gaping sword wound in his chest.

Absurd, patently ridiculous - preposterous -

He would have noticed. How could he possibly have failed to notice?

Anthy spoke his name, and the sound of her voice rang out clear and sharp and unbearable as a bronze bell, grating on his soul like iron claws on raw flesh. He wanted to scream and beg her not to look at him, not to speak to him, not to - do this...

Hot blood ran across his hand, escaping between the fingers he'd pressed against the impossible wound.

Don't touch me, he wanted to say, not even knowing why. Stay away from me.

He could not look away from her, bound fast by a kind of horrible fascination as she came closer, the graceful turn of her ankle without equal, every line of her body exquisite. Her dainty slipper crunched on brittle bones; her step was steady and sure in the rivers of gore she walked in. Her shape was backlit with the light of a thousand fires, raging in a thousand wars.

Saionji-sempai.

Her voice was gentle and sweet and overlaid with the voices of a thousand souls screaming in mindless rage and mortal agony.

Don't worry.

Her sweet, familiar smile was rife with hidden menace; the brief flash of light glancing off her glasses as she tucked her chin demurely was a spark of the inferno raging behind her, dogging her steps, licking at her slender ankles like an obedient dog. Her hair had come loose and was fanning out behind her like the ermine cape of an empress, borne aloft by the updraft.

Saionji was losing his mind. He closed his eyes, but it didn't help - on the contrary, vertigo immediately assaulted him with such force that he didn't know whether he was still sagging against the wall, or falling, or lying sprawled on the ground. Nausea rose with almost irresistible power, and opening his eyes again didn't do much to abate it.

He didn't want to see the creature that Anthy had become, didn't want to look at her terrible smile...

He turned to look at Touga.

Dull red, sullen flame. Bright silver gleam of teeth and claws, the graceful, lazy coil of supple muscle. Touga was gone; where he had been, the uncertain, brooding light of the fire glanced off a sinuous twist of body cloaked in shimmering scales. The eyes were the same, impossibly blue and piercing. Cruel. Coldly amused.

"No," Saionji gasped, choking immediately on the surge of liquid that welled up in his mouth. "*No*. Touga -"

He would have thought the low rasp of his voice too weak to be heard, particularly to the backdrop of the thousand voices screaming their anger and pain. As soon as he had spoken his friend's name, though, a small shape stirred, dwarfed between the armored paws of the beast coiling in Touga's place. The dragon uncurled slightly, one paw moving to draw the diminutive body closer to its chest. Hair the color of arterial blood spilled over the floor, the color vivid against the white marble.

"*Touga*!" It was a scream now, harsh and tearing and bubbling with blood. He wanted to move, but couldn't. He wanted to help Touga, but when he tried to straighten up, the trickle of liquid warmth running between his fingers increased to a gush and his legs gave way underneath him, dumping him to the cold floor. There was a sickening scent of incense in the air... Incense, roses and decay.

Don't worry, the terrible voice crooned, right next to his ear. This is how it has to be.

No! he screamed, voice gone now, drowning in gore.

You didn't think *all* boys could be princes, did you?

 

***

When Saionji was younger, there had been a stretch of several months in which he regularly woke up in the middle of the night to vomit. His mother had soon grown worried and took him to several doctors, none of whom had anything pertinent to say, and so Saionji had trained himself to wake up at the first onset of nausea. It didn't prevent him from throwing up, but it did give him enough time to reach the bathroom first. If he cleaned up after himself and opened the window until morning, no one noticed. He had known doctors wouldn't be able to help. He hadn't been sick, he'd merely been having bad dreams, and he didn't feel like talking about them.

It had been a long time since he'd last had one of these dreams, and Anthy had never before been in them.

 

***

Whatever Saionji had expected from the urgent storm of knocking at his door, it wasn't Wakaba, eyes swimming in tears and a hectic flush staining her cheeks. Before he'd had a chance to process her appearance, she'd already launched herself forward and seized his middle in a frantic grip, burying her face against his neck. In the first instant, Saionji was too startled to give her the scathing set-back this sort of behavior deserved; he'd just begun to draw in breath to deliver it when he realized that Wakaba was trembling with suppressed sobs and something very like true desperation.

Standing in an open door with a distraught girl clutching him was a situation Saionji had no experience with whatsoever. The impulse to lash out had passed when he realized her unfeigned distress, but that left him with no viable route of action at all.

After an eternal moment of sheer embarrassment, he lifted a hand to gingerly pat the silly chit's back. It was evidently an acceptable response, because Wakaba shuddered and seemed to straighten a bit. Saionji patted her again with more resolve, and after another moment, she pulled away and relaxed her death-grip on him in favor of wiping at her face as surreptitiously as possible under the circumstances.

"You have to come," she said when she looked up to meet his gaze. Her face was pale beneath the feverish spots of color, and there was something hard and entirely unfamiliar in her expression. A spark of mingled anger and determination, perhaps; something deep and immovable. Implacable, even. "Something's terribly wrong, Utena's all wrong, she's wearing the wrong uniform, I mean, it's the right one, but for her it's wrong because she never wore the right one in the first place, and that's not the worst thing, she's all *strange* and not the usual Utena at all, she's so sad and she won't even talk to me and she told me to leave her alone and I didn't understand but I *do* understand, not the details and everything but I *do*, she's -"

"Slow down!" Saionji snapped. She didn't seem to hear him. "Wakaba, stop!" This time, he emphasized the command by shaking her shoulder, and she finally wound to a stop.

Even through the sheen of unshed tears, it was impossible to miss the incomprehensible gleam of adoration. It had always been there when she looked at him, and he was beginning to despair of it ever fading. It still made him as uncomfortable as ever. He let go of her rather hurriedly and stepped back.

"So. Tenjou's acting strangely and you're upset about it."

Wakaba nodded vehemently, eyes huge and ridiculously trusting. For an incredulous moment, Saionji thought she'd hurl herself at him again. Only a firm reminder of his own dignity prevented him from retreating further.

"And why -" *Why the hell are you bothering me of all people with Tenjou's troubles?*

Saionji swallowed heavily. Somehow, he couldn't bring himself to say it, not with Wakaba hanging on his every word like an adoring puppy and clearly expecting him to solve all the troubles of the world with a wave of his hand.

"What makes you think it's anything to worry about?" As far as he could tell, girls always acted strangely. Hell, so did boys, for that matter. It was practically mandatory. Saionji himself had been too sensible to succumb, but he'd watched nearly everyone around him turn into a sullen or hyper or erratic stranger at one point or another, even -

But that really was another topic entirely, and Wakaba had already launched into an account of her friend's troubles, real or imagined.

"She didn't come to school, and when I came to see if she was sick she was - *that* way, all sad and quiet, and she wouldn't tell me what was wrong, but her school uniform was ripped and she didn't want me to repair it. She says she's always going to wear the girls' uniform from now on because it's *normal*, she kept saying she has to act *normal*, like something was wrong with the way she *is*, and she's *not* acting normal! She's not herself at all, and then when Touga was all over her, she didn't even *say* anything, she just *let* him -"

"Touga?"

Wakaba stopped and looked at him strangely for a moment before going on. "Yes, he asked her out for dinner on Sunday, and I know you like him but he was, it was like he thought he had a right to *touch* her, it was - and she wouldn't do anything, even though I could tell she didn't like it, she just *sat* there! And then she - I told Himemiya-san it was her fault for fighting with my Utena, and Utena - Utena hit me, and -"

Saionji lost track of Wakaba's rambling speech at this surprising pronouncement. Now that he was alerted to it, he could see that one of her cheeks was reddened by more than distress; to his surprise, a small, but burning dart of anger lodged in his chest at the thought of Tenjou striking out at someone as defenseless as Wakaba, who - even if she had probably been intensely annoying - had only been trying to help.

"It's all right," Wakaba said quietly. "She didn't mean it. She's not herself, you know, she's so upset. I was even a little relieved because it was the first sign of spirit she's shown all day. Besides..." She grinned. "I hit her back just as hard, so we're even."

"You don't -" He didn't know what he was going to say, so he stopped mid-sentence, feeling vaguely disquieted. He didn't like to think of anyone hitting Wakaba, who was trying, but harmless and well-meaning.

He'd hit Anthy, back when she was his Rose Bride. He'd hit her more than once, and when he thought back and tried to remember *why*, the only thing he could recall was the roiling anger that had coiled in his gut, the blinding burst of pain and despair and rage... but try as he might, he could not remember the reasons for it. Anthy couldn't have made him that angry, could she? It was impossible to imagine - she was so gentle, kind and compliant, and even if she *had* defied him, he would never have -

But he had. He *had*, so obviously he would. But -

Scent of roses, incense and decay. The echoes of footsteps, slowly dying away.

"It's Touga's fault," Wakaba was saying, her tone dogged. "It's all the Student Council President's fault! He's the reason she's not herself. I don't know exactly what's going on, but that much was obvious - you should have seen him, he was gloating, almost, like now he finally had her just where he wanted her. I don't know what he did exactly, but he did something, he did this to her on purpose. I know you like him, Sayuri, but -"

Touga had always been bad news for any girl who let herself be snared by his easy charm and good looks, and he'd been pursuing the Tenjou chit for a while now. If he'd finally caught up with her, it was no wonder she was acting strangely. Touga the chivalrous, crushing girls' dreams underfoot wherever he went.

Evidently, Wakaba had reached the end of her semi-coherent tale of woe. She was now looking up at Saionji in silence, clearly waiting for him to take action of some kind.

Saionji stared at Wakaba. Wakaba gazed back expectantly. Several moments passed.

"Why are you telling me this, anyway?" Saionji snapped when he could stand it no longer.

"Because you're my *friend*," Wakaba said. Her look spoke eloquently of just how silly his question had been.

Another slow moment passed in silence as Saionji stared at Wakaba, not knowing what to say. It was true that he'd gained a measure of respect for her since he'd returned to Ohtori, and that they'd shared a fleeting, but real moment of companionship in the Kiryuus' gardens... but he would never have thought of them as friends. It was obvious that Wakaba did, however. Her wide brown eyes were steady and open on his, and nothing Saionji knew of her led him to believe that she would pretend to friendship in order to gain his cooperation.

She was a giddy, silly chit, but she was sincere and loyal, and she fought for her friends with a fierceness befitting a true warrior.

Saionji came quietly.

 

***

They found Tenjou in the main hall, where she'd curled up on one of the windowsills to stare sightlessly into the schoolyard. Even if he hadn't been alerted by Wakaba's tale, Saionji would have noticed that the girl was upset. Her entire body was drooping, the characteristic vivaciousness wholly absent. And, for the first time since Saionji had known her, she was clad in the official Ohtori school uniform for girls. It did not become her.

"You look ridiculous in that," Saionji snapped by way of opening the conversation. Wakaba hovered anxiously at his shoulder, and he had to consciously prevent himself from stepping to the side to restore a comfortable distance between them.

After a noticeable pause, Tenjou lifted her head, looking at him with dull eyes. For a moment, he thought she wouldn't answer him at all, but she surprised him; she rallied slightly and even mustered the shadow of a glare to direct at him.

"It's what you wear," the Tenjou chit mumbled, her voice as flat and lifeless as her eyes. She'd always seemed to be bursting with energy and life; now, she was diminished, her light damped and almost extinguished. Saionji had never liked her, but even so it was hard to look at her now, so much less than she should be. "Why are you and Wakaba giving me a hard time about it? You wear it, Wakaba wears it. Every girl at Ohtori wears it. It's normal, isn't it?"

For some reason, that set Wakaba off. She darted forward to stand in front of her friend, arms akimbo, indignation bursting from every pore. "No it's not! It's not normal for you. You're not like every girl at Ohtori, and this normal isn't normal for you - *your* normal is being not normal!"

Saionji rolled his eyes at Wakaba's tangled phrasing.

"I was just... posing, I guess. But I wanted..." Tenjou trailed off listlessly. "My normal... this normal..."

She'd wanted to help Anthy. Tenjou was a silly, misguided and meddlesome chit and Saionji had never liked her, but she had more talent than she knew what to do with, and she had honor. From the beginning, she'd fought not for herself, but because she wanted to help Anthy.

"What about Anthy?" Saionji asked quietly.

Tenjou's drifting gaze again lifted slowly to fix on his face. "I thought I was helping her, but... I guess I was doing the wrong thing all along. Anthy... Touga will do a much better job."

That was who the dueling bells had rung out for yesterday, then. Saionji was not surprised. Touga was the new Champion - and Nanami's prior duel with Tenjou had evidently been more than merely a random result of Nanami's jealousy. Saionji hadn't needed to listen to the gossip making the rounds to find out who'd been the victor in that match. He'd seen Nanami walk to school, her small flock of sycophants trailing anxiously in her wake, and he remembered what despair looked like on her face. She'd worn just that pinched, white-lipped expression whenever Touga was displeased with her... her adored big brother, who could have stopped the duel before it happened, because he'd known as well as Saionji that Nanami would lose.

"He won't." It came out far more urgently than Saionji had meant it to, and he wasn't surprised that Tenjou seemed startled. "He's not the right Champion for the Rose Bride - he never fought for Anthy's sake."

"But you did," Wakaba cut in vehemently. "You're a Prince, and you're cool when you're being the real you, and you're normal when you're not being normal, but just *yourself*. This isn't you, Utena! Something was taken from you - take it back!"

Saionji narrowed his eyes at the silly Tenjou chit. Stupid girl, to believe anything Touga told her. "He has you believing you can't beat him, and as long as you believe it, it's true - but I've seen both of you fight. You're better, Tenjou."

"Take it back!" He wasn't certain what it was that got through to her, but something did. One of them had said the right thing; Saionji could fairly see resolve flowing back into Tenjou's slumped body. Her posture straightened, shoulders going back, head lifting; when she looked up at Wakaba, the familiar sparkle was back in her eye, and when she spoke, her voice was firm and gained confidence with every word.

"You're right," she said, beginning slowly, almost as though she were feeling her way. "Both of you are right. I'm sorry, Wakaba - I shouldn't have hit you. I haven't been my normal self at all, have I?"

Well, that had been strangely easy.

"I'm going to take it back."

Wonderful. Saionji had just convinced the Tenjou chit to become Champion once again. He had little doubt she would suceed, and then he'd be back to resenting her closeness to Anthy, this time with the added burden of knowing he himself had helped her get there.

He truly did think that Tenjou would be the better Champion, though - better than Touga, at any rate. Touga didn't care for Anthy; he only wanted to use the Rose Bride for his own plans, and he wouldn't care how she felt about it. At least Tenjou would watch out for Anthy, try to make sure she was happy. She wouldn't hurt her. She... wouldn't beat her.

"I'm going to the dojo," he announced brusquely, brushing Wakaba aside when she tried to hang onto his arm. He didn't feel like he had achieved a victory, but then, it hadn't been a defeat, either.

 

 

6. ~ Conviction ~

 

It was Touga who didn't come to class the day after the bells announced that yet another challenge was being fought out beneath the castle in which eternity dwelled. He didn't come to class the day after, either. Or the day after that.

 

***

The Kiryuus' gardener still hadn't cut down the gnarled old ginko growing next to the estate's eastern wall; its lower branches were leaning on the top of the barrier still, some curving into and around the stone familiarly, like a lover's embrace.

He couldn't remember how long ago he'd last been here, but he had many memories of the tree, all shading into one another with the soft, unfocussed blur of time. The motions were still familiar, as well, though he didn't have to strain nearly as much as he recalled in order to jump high enough to grasp hold of one of the lower branches and pull himself up. Even a faint tingle of the old delight returned, rich with the thrill of transgression, as he searched the surrounding garden for watchers before climbing on top of the wall itself and dropping down lightly on the other side.

The garden was deserted, as it had nearly always been; Touga's parents believed in the value of representative rose gardens, topiaries and pavilions, but they never spent time in them except when they served as a setting for the occasional summer reception. The elder Kiryuus were gone for most of the year anyway, leaving both house and garden in the care of employees.

It wasn't difficult to guess where Touga would be. Unhindered by that stupid dress, scaling the cast iron fence was even less of a problem than it had been some nights earlier. Saionji hardly made a sound, and if his weight hadn't made the fence tremble slightly, he would probably have caught Touga completely by surprise.

As it was, Touga had had time to smooth the startlement from his expression, if any had been there in the first place.

Touga stared at him in silence for a long moment before seeming to lose interest, turning back to standing at the French doors and staring out into his private section of the garden. It seemed as though he'd been standing there for some time; there was a look of immobility about him that made it seem as though he could stay in place indefinitely, waiting out the seasons, unchanging through budding green and summer sun and blowing leaves and snow until even the house around him was gone, leaving him alone as unchanged as a marble statue, pale face eternally cast into the noble indifference of a long-dead hero.

Saionji shivered a little at his fanciful thoughts. It was strange, that was all. Touga would snap out of it soon enough - he was far too vain to go long without his adoring court around him. Doubtless he'd have come back to school tomorrow, anyway. There really was no reason for Saionji to be here, especially considering everything that had happened in the last couple of weeks, but... but.

This was so unlike Touga.

"Hey," he said, refusing to feel awkward. He'd thought about what to say on his way to the Kiryuus' house, but because there was no reason for him to be here, he hadn't been able to come up with anything. He'd hoped something would arise naturally from the situation, but since that didn't seem to be happening, he would just have to muddle through. "You haven't been to school all week. I wanted to make sure you were all right."

Touga wasn't wearing his Student Council uniform. He didn't look as though he'd been injured in the duel, but - he was not wearing his uniform. He *always* wore that damned uniform, in school or out, even when he went out on a date, even on weekends and during vacation. Saionji had sometimes thought he'd sleep in that uniform, if not for the fact that it would cause unsightly wrinkles.

"Why aren't you wearing your uniform?" Saionji asked bluntly.

At first, he thought Touga wouldn't bother to even acknowledge the question. Even when he did respond, he didn't look at Saionji. "What do you care?"

His voice was low and quiet, deceptively gentle out of indifference.

Saionji was briefly at a loss for words before rallying. "I don't," he shot back. "It's just that you're being an idiot. This isn't the first match you've lost. You're not the best kendoka on the planet. In fact, if this is how you handle losing these days, you're not even a mediocre one."

That got a reaction, just as Saionji had known it would. Touga's hand tightened on the gauze curtain, his mouth thinning into a pale line.

"You understand nothing," he said after a noticeable interval. There was a definite hint of anger in his tone now, which Saionji decided to interpret as a good sign. "You don't know what you're talking about. Go home."

"Oh, I understand perfectly," Saionji spat. "Looks like Tenjou's better than you. That's just how it is - accept it and move on."

"Frankly, Yoshitoyo, it amazes me that you assume I would be interested in your puerile thoughts on a matter of which you know absolutely nothing," Touga said, his voice chill enough to freeze even the warmest aspirations.

Saionji shook his head and moved closer to his friend, leaning against the windowpane next to the door. Touga didn't deign to look at him, so Saionji took the opportunity to study his friend more closely. He looked coldly angry, and superior, and arrogant... and underneath it all, he looked frozen - locked into stony impassivity and dangerously close to shattering. Perhaps shattered already, held together by nothing more durable than the icy stillness of shock. Saionji had seen the same expression in the mirror far too often lately not to recognize it.

"So, tell me about it," Saionji said.

"About what?"

He snorted in disgust. "What happened to get you in this state. I know it was Tenjou - I may not know exactly what happened, but the basic facts are pretty clear. Still, according to you, I have no idea of what's really going on, so fine. Tell me about it. Prove my theory wrong."

Touga turned his head to stare at Saionji. Saionji stared back. Touga was too pale; he looked as though he hadn't slept or eaten in a long time.

"You can't honestly think such an infantile ploy would work with me."

Saionji shrugged. "Why not? You're acting like a four-year-old."

Touga was definitely paying attention now. Saionji could practically see him wrestle with the urge to snap out "Am not!"

"How I act is my own business," he shot back instead, stiffly. Not that much of a better choice, in Saionji's opinion. "Leave."

"That's not very chivalrous," Saionji said thoughtfully.

Touga said nothing. He didn't have to; his glance spoke for itself.

It was absurd, but Saionji found himself bristling at the implication that he didn't warrant chivalry. Of course he didn't - he wasn't even a woman. Even so, the intent to insult rankled. He should leave and let Touga sulk. He shouldn't have come in the first place. He should have...

"Come on," he commanded brusquely. "Get your shinai. You wanted to spar with me - now's the time."

Touga let go of the curtain. There was something wrong with the way he moved; Saionji watched him with narrowed eyes. Something to do with the stiffness of his shoulders, the uncharacteristic lack of grace.

"No."

Enough was enough. Saionji was beginning to grow angry. "*Yes.*" Who did Touga think he was, anyway? It wasn't as though Saionji had nothing better to do than to run after Touga because the idiot was feeling down after losing to a girl. The least the bastard could do was stop moping. "I've had enough of your self-pity and melodramatic posing. If you want to be Champion that badly, then do something about it. Either accept that Tenjou is better than you, or challenge her again and disprove it. Either way, stop acting like this! Why aren't you wearing your uniform?"

The look Touga gave him in response to his outburst was the closest thing to normal that Saionji had seen yet during the course of this conversation. "You're not wearing your uniform, either."

"My so-called uniform is an impractical atrocity. But yours - you always liked - you *always* wore that uniform, Touga. What's changed?" Saionji stepped closer in order to command his friend's full attention, going so far as to put a hand on his shoulder. Touga's muscles were tense and hard as wood beneath his touch.

After a long moment, Touga tipped his head back and sighed, closing his eyes. "Tenjou Utena came to Ohtori to find the prince who saved her when she was young," he murmured. Saionji had to strain to understand him. "A lonely princess, looking for her prince. A story's last scene always has to be of the prince and the princess."

Saionji turned his friend's cryptic utterings over in his mind a few times before answering. "You thought you could be her fairy-tale prince and carry her off on your white charger, but instead of proclaiming you her savior and adoring you for evermore, she turned around and kicked your ass."

Yes, it made sense. He'd been right; Touga wasn't taking this so hard merely because he'd lost a duel. He'd lost duels before, in and out of the Arena. It was more than that. Like Wakaba had said, he'd thought he had Tenjou right where he wanted her. He'd been certain she would capitulate, and Touga had gotten it into his head that her surrender would be a validation of some kind.

For a smart guy, Touga could be astoundingly stupid. Saionji sighed. "This isn't a story, Touga, and Tenjou is not a princess."

Touga opened his eyes. "Isn't she? What is she, then?"

"An irritating tomboy," Saionji snapped.

The ghost of a smile flew over Touga's face, giving way to the blank mask before Saionji could be certain he had seen it at all. "If you say so, Sayuri, then I'm sure it must be true."

It was about Tenjou's surrender... and, eclipsed by that concern but equally important in the end, about his own victory. Touga had always wanted to be the Champion. Anthy had never been more than an accessory to him, or a mildly pleasant bonus at most - for him, dueling had been all about being the Champion, right from the beginning, long before Tenjou had appeared on the scene.

"Touga." Saionji waited for Touga to look at him before going on. "What would you do with the power to revolutionize the world?"

So blue... Touga's eyes had always been so blue. Sky blue. Ice blue. Drowning blue.

"Break the world's shell, of course. What else?"

*If the egg's shell does not break, the chick will die without being born.*

Touga hadn't thought about the answer before giving it; it fell from his lips automatically, learned by rote. It was the phrase they all used to explain what they were fighting for, but it meant something different for each of them. By itself, it was meaningless.

"What would you do?" Saionji insisted.

"I told you. I would break the shell."

*If the world's shell does not break, we will die without being born.*

No... Not good enough. "What would you do?"

"I would become..."

The silence that followed had nothing in common with mere absence of sound. It was like the roar of a crowd, like the numbing boom of too many voices... too close, too loud.

Footsteps on marble. Roses and incense. An eternal castle coming down, its soaring butresses crumbling and collapsing, its golden spires piercing his heart. A Princess, lying in her coffin, red as blood, white as snow. Soft as silk, heavier than the finest damask, more luxuriant than sable. A Princess, with no Prince to wake her.

"Get your shinai," Saionji said quietly. The silence splintered into shards.

Touga turned and walked inside. Saionji watched him through the open door as he changed into his dogi and hakama. He was still moving too stiffly, almost as though he might break if he wasn't careful.

Saionji won every one of the bouts they fought that day, but both of them knew why; there was no glory in these victories, and he felt no triumph. It was the next day, when Touga found him after class - resplendent in his uniform, gliding through the assembled students like a particularly sleek and graceful predator - that Saionji smiled, taking pride in his victory.

 

***

The bells were tolling in the distance, but Saionji paid them no heed. It was a beautiful day, the sky cloudless and almost impossibly blue, the air crisp and invigorating.

"Hey," Touga said, wheeling his bicycle up the dorm's driveway, shinai in hand. "The sakura down by the river are in full bloom, Sayuri. Come on, let's go."

The way he flipped his hair back with a practiced toss of the head was familiar, as was the glint in his eye that made Saionji think of the scent of earth and crushed grass. It had been so long, but he could still remember. The cool touch of wind against his overheated skin, blowing back stray tendrils of hair that had escaped from his ponytail. Touga's rapid breaths in his ear, dried bits of grass in his hair, Touga flopping over onto his back after a while, blinking lazily at the sky, one hand stretched out to touch him. The slide of Touga's skin, sun-warm and drugging and no less familiar to his touch than his own. The sound of Touga's voice, low and open.

The smile, the special one reserved for him only... the real one, that touched Touga's eyes as well as his lips. He remembered it perfectly.

Saionji snagged his shinai and joined Touga on the bike, his heart light and full of the sun and wind and laughter of remembrance.

 

***

So many things were familiar, and Saionji submerged himself in them with determination. It worked, for a while. It was easy to believe, and it entirely eclipsed the fact that he still couldn't bear to look into a mirror, or even glance down at his distorted chest, the misformed legs, the spidery hands holding the shinai. What did it matter? *He* hadn't changed - not truly, not in any significant way. It didn't matter. He refused to let it matter.

What mattered was that Touga was back. Touga smiled at him, and sparred with him, and came to lean against the wall and watch him at odd moments, seeming content to observe long training sessions, or Saionji alone doing kata, or even Saionji inspecting the club-owned kendo gear for damage that would have to be repaired.

"You know," Touga said, his voice low and intimate. "You're one of the best and most dedicated kendoka I know, and you're a good teacher, as well. How would you like to be my second in the kendo club? The position's been open for too long, and you would be an inestimable asset to us."

Saionji dropped the kote he'd been examining. The surge of bitter rage that rose in his throat took him by surprise in its virulence; he barely managed to clamp his teeth shut over the heated rejoinder that would have informed Touga of just where he could shove that proposal. Saionji was the *captain*, damn it. Before his latest habit of hanging out ogling Saionji, Touga had hardly spent any time at all in the dojo. Not to mention that he was lousy as an instructor - impatient and invariably either far too harsh or ridiculously lenient, depending on his mood and the attractiveness of the student.

Touga had no right to the position of captain. The only reason he held it at all was that Saionji had left.

It was a long moment before Saionji had collected himself sufficiently to be able to answer without making his feelings clear. "No," he snapped at last, snatching up the padded glove and tossing it back onto the pile of others waiting to be inspected. His throat closed after the one harsh word, and he turned his back on Touga's expression of mildly surprised inquiry.

There was something shattering, breaking into a million edged pieces. Something fragile and transient, translucent... Saionji thought it might have been inside himself; he felt as though the broken shards were cutting him from the inside.

"Why not, Sayuri?" Touga asked softly. "I know you would do a wonderful job. I have complete confidence in you."

Saionji shook his head wordlessly. He didn't trust himself to speak. It was not the same. It was not the same at all, and it never was going to be, no matter how much he wanted it to.

He went to look for Anthy, and this time, he found her.

 

***

Anthy was in the greenhouse, tending to the roses as she always did at this time of day. He could feel her presence resonate ever stronger within him as he approached. By the time he stood with his hand on the door and saw her inside, the familiar vise had closed around him, her unique presence battering at the holds of his heart.

He paused for a long moment before entering, closing his eyes and collecting himself. He had to remind himself that he'd decided this wasn't real. He *had* decided that, hadn't he? That it was her, not him. He had to remember that or he would lose everything, and he couldn't afford to - not now. Not any time, never, not now or ever again, because he was

She turned when he came in, a gentle smile of greeting curving her lovely mouth.

blinding burst of *hazy iron stench of old blood, cold incense, the echo of footsteps on stone, the screams of a thousand soldiers dying in a thousand battles, the harsh shouts of a thousand people locked into raging hatred, silence, eternal silence broken only by the deafening, rushing tempest-howl of the inferno, by the bright ring of steel against steel, the harsh spitting rattle of gunfire, the whirring of arrows loosed from the bow*

"Sayuri-sempai," she said, clasping her hands in front of her.

flash of bloodied steel arcing down, the light of a thousand raging fires glittering on the blade

Blade, arcing down. Not aimed at him - not aimed at him specifically - but in a fire-bright burst of insight, Saionji caught the rhythm of the assault. He *knew* this. He knew the arc of the blade descending, knew the feel of the sword in his hands, knew the sound of steel as intimately as he knew the sound of his own heartbeat. The patterns and rhythms of battle, of the slide of body and blade in a sweeping sequence of attack-counter-attack, were as natural to him as the pattern of his breathing, the rhythm of the blood rushing through his veins.

A masterful offensive could be like a wave that crested and broke about the opponent, never giving him the chance to gain his footing and launch an effective attack of his own, never allowing him to single out an individual attack to counter and turn to his advantage - until he was swept away, losing his own rhythms in the attacker's.

But no offensive was so masterful it could not be broken apart and turned back on its instigator. Not even this one.

Separate threads of raw emotion and deafening force, hard to catch hold of and, for a heart-stopping moment just short of eternity, impossible to see, let alone to counter... but when Saionji visualized them as swords slashing through his defense, everything skewed, turned upside down, flew apart and came together again in patterns that unfolded to him naturally.

He gathered himself, shouted, and blocked the formless blade flying towards his heart. The impact shook him to the bone and made him shudder uncontrollably, but he gritted his teeth and steeled himself, refusing to succumb. On the next pass, he was better prepared for contact with the amorphous power.

"Sayuri-sempai," Anthy said, stepping towards him with a shy smile on her face. "I must leave now, or I will be too late to meet Utena-sama before soccer practice."

She seemed different than he remembered. She was still pretty, but her breathtaking, ethereal beauty hovered just out of reach; she was as she had always been, and yet she seemed irrevocably changed, a dark edge to her smile that should not have been there, a knowing glint in her eye that did not belong.

When she walked up to him, Saionji stepped back reflexively, unwilling to touch her for the first time since he'd known her.

Swords without blades battered at him, but he was prepared now, the attacker's wave breaking into swirls and eddies that licked ineffectually around him. The roar of the fires was muted, the harsh cries heard faintly as though from great distance.

"Was there something you wanted?" she asked; and that, too, was wrong, because Anthy never questioned.

There had been something he'd wanted, something he'd thought he wanted still, but he was beginning to wonder *why*. Had any of it been true - had his need for her originated in himself, or had it simply washed over him, overwhelming and subsuming him, swallowing him up?

Now, with Anthy smiling up at him, the voices of uncounted multitudes clamoring behind her smile, he was not certain she was even human. There was something terrible about her, a deep thrumming he couldn't hear, but felt deep in his bones, a wordless chanting, an ageless, formless malevolence flowing outwards. He resisted it at great cost, and only because she was not even trying.

When she reached up to adjust her glasses, he glanced at her fingers involuntarily, expecting to see the rusty stain of blood rather than the slight dusting of potting soil.

"You know who I am," he gritted out. He sounded angry, which he supposed was better than sounding afraid. "I know you remember, Anthy."

Anthy smiled. "Of course I know who you are, Sayuri-sempai. I remember."

Her eyes were bottomless; he made the mistake of glancing at them and almost fell in, nausea washing over him in a dizzy wave as his defense wavered and the shapeless sword of her presence pierced him.

*No*, he said, or thought, or screamed. Anthy smiled her sweet smile, and he stumbled aside as she reached for the door, desperate not to be brushed by those slender fingers. "Make it stop," he ordered harshly. "Stop it, Anthy."

"I am engaged to Tenjou Utena now," Anthy said, and smiled. The voices laughed at him, mocking him, and he had to strain to turn back the renewed onslaught of a wild storm of emotions that were not his own. Not his, but oh-so familiar, tempting almost. Almost irresistible.

He didn't try to stop her when she left. He knew now that he wouldn't have been able to, even if he had tried. She was still smiling, and he thought he could pick out her voice from the distant roaring in his ears. No matter how hard he strained, however, he could not make out the words she was saying.

 

***

"Are you interested in my brother?"

Saionji turned around to find Nanami glowering at him, the usual trio of sycophants hovering behind her. The black, white and orange dress she wore was no doubt the very latest in Parisian fashion; she'd pulled out all the stops for this party. It was probably just Saionji who thought the thing made her look like a cross between an exhibitionistic butler and a squash.

"Don't be an idiot, Nanami," Saionji said sharply.

"You are!" She was fairly vibrating with fury. "Don't bother to deny it - do you think I'm stupid? I've seen how you look at him, you algae-headed slut. How can you think you have a chance with him! Why, even the thought of someone like you hanging around my brother makes me ill."

Saionji stared at her in silence while the sycophants added their echo to Nanami's hysterical little speech. Nanami had been obsessed with Touga since she was tall enough to reach his knee, but had she always been quite this out of control?

A disdainful gaze worthy of Touga himself raked Saionji from head to toe. "Our maid dresses better than you, and you think Touga-sama would ever look at you twice? What a joke!" She gave a high-pitched trill that was evidently meant to be laughter, sparking some equally forced titters from her retinue.

They stared at each other in silence before Saionji shrugged and began to turn away. Instantly, Nanami was in his face, rage distorting her pretty features. "I'm warning you, slut. I won't allow even a single insect to swarm on my brother. Stay away from Touga-sama, or the kendo club will have no place for you anymore, and neither will any other club or association at Ohtori. Do you understand me?"

Saionji regarded her thoughtfully. Most people who learned that Nanami and Touga were siblings remarked on how dissimilar they were, and they were right, most of the time. In moments such as this, however, Saionji could see their shared blood in the bold force of Nanami's gaze, the arrogant confidence that spoke from her every word, even the strangely autocratic way she narrowed her eyes at him when he failed to accede to her demand.

"First of all, Nanami, you're making a spectacle of yourself," Saionji said at last. Nanami gasped in outrage, but he went on before she could respond. "Secondly, if you want to keep me away from your brother, why did you invite me to this party?"

A quick surge of red dashed across her features, immediately giving way to chalky white. "You're very sure of yourself," she hissed, and the amount of venom in her tone took Saionji aback. "Be careful that you do not overreach yourself, Sayuri."

With that parting threat, vague though it was, she took herself off.

Saionji shook his head and turned back to his plate. The food was marginally more edible than it had been at Touga's birthday party, presumably because this party had been given on short notice and there hadn't been time to order up the usual delicacies. Except for that difference, he might as well have been thrown back in time. The same people, the same stiff and formal atmosphere, the same bright, gossip-hungry stares... even the music was the same.

He wondered again why he'd come at all, and how soon he could leave without attracting undue attention. Hadn't he promised himself to show better sense than to attend any of these particular gatherings again?

At least this time, he wasn't wearing anything as ridiculous as Touga's black dress. Instead, he'd opted for a simple shirt and pants and felt as comfortable as he ever did these days. He'd gotten several curious and slightly disdainful looks for being underdressed, but he didn't particularly care.

Touga detached from a nearby cluster of students and made his way in Saionji's direction. He'd been making the rounds since the party began, ever the gracious host. He seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself, as inconceivable as that was.

"You look lovely tonight, Sayuri," Touga told him, giving him a roguish grin. "I do regret the absence of my favorite dress, though."

Saionji humphed. For a moment, he thought Touga might try to take his hand, or even kiss it, and he quickly busied himself with selecting one of the bite-sized canapés on his plate in order to prevent it. Touga seemed constitutionally unable to refrain from flirting. It was irritating - downright unsettling at times. Saionji did not want to be flirted with. It would have been dangerously easy to give in again. He'd already made that mistake, and it had very nearly ruined everything. It was only dumb luck that had allowed him to regain a measure of closeness to his friend.

"Something's wrong with Nanami," he said without preamble. "You should talk to her."

Coppery brows raised in amusement. "I should, should I?"

"Yes," Saionji replied shortly.

The conversation, such as it was, was interrupted as a student Saionji remembered as an indifferent fencer came up to exchange polite inanities with Touga. Saionji made use of the interval to study his friend. Touga was looking much better; the last lingering traces of the distracted, almost absent air that had clung to him even after he'd returned to school had faded at last. Maybe Nanami had had the right idea in throwing him a party.

"Would you mind if I asked you a question?"

The nameless fencer had gone. Saionji cast a suspicious glance at Touga. "I won't know until you ask it."

"Does the fact that you don't want to be the kendo club's second have anything to do with me?"

Saionji was momentarily at a loss. "It has to do with many things," he evaded after a too-long pause, painfully aware that it sounded like a lie.

"I can't think what else it could be. You've already taken on most of the duties and responsibilities that would fall to you. Everyone looks to you for instruction, and my lieutenants admire you. To hear Iwamoto talk of your skills, you are the reincarnation of Musashi, or at the very least some Yagyu or other." Red hair sheeted forward as Touga leaned closer, successfully snagging Saionji's hand in a snake-quick move. "I know you like to work with the less advanced kendoka, Sayuri, and you spend all of your free time in the dojo, anyway. The only thing I can think of is that you imagine we wouldn't be able to work together."

Saionji snatched his hand back and stepped back to put some space between them, giving his friend a half-hearted glare. "Touga -"

"We would be good together," Touga coaxed, his tone just short of seductive. "You know we would. Don't you, Sayuri?"

"There is no need to talk about this. I don't want the position, and I won't change my mind. That's all there is to say."

Just then, a familiar thrill stole into his heart, making him shiver and starting up a deeper resonance in his bones, his blood, his soul.

Anthy.

Perhaps he could have stopped his instinctive reaction if he'd been better prepared, but the senseless argument had distracted him too much. Even as he struggled to close his defense and shield himself with thoughts shaped into sharpened steel, he pivoted as though attached to a string. His eyes unfailingly sought out the delicate form of the girl accompanying Miki and - how could it be otherwise - Tenjou.

His scowl was automatic, but the stab of jealousy that had always pierced him at the sight of his Anthy smiling at her new Champion failed to materialize. The surge of passionate emotion Anthy unfailingly evoked was also absent, and for several heartbeats, the absence itself was more disquieting than the expected turmoil of tangled and mindless need/desire/greed/despair/anger/fear could have been. Strangest of all was that in a way, Saionji could feel it still, or imagined he could - outside of himself, where it should be, kept separate and apart by the slowly consolidating line of his defense.

Tenjou caught sight of him and waved, a wide grin splitting her face; Saionji was suddenly irrationally grateful to her for being herself so relentlessly. He could not fail to return the greeting without seeming ungracious, but he made sure that his own wave was fittingly dignified.

When he turned back, Touga was watching him with his eyes narrowed in speculation, expression turned inscrutable. "How remiss of me not to take this possibility into account. Are you planning on dueling for the Rose Bride?"

Saionji raised an eyebrow at him. "I am not wearing a rose signet."

"Not at the moment, but things change."

Across the room, Tenjou said something to Anthy and the girl ducked her head, smiling bashfully at the floor. The sight did nothing to Saionji. Lately, many of the things he'd thought he wanted with all of his soul had turned themselves inside out in front of his eyes. Yes, things did change, even - or perhaps particularly - those you expected to stay constant forever.

"No. I will not fight," Saionji said softly. He'd known he would never be a duelist again from the moment he'd been expelled, and in that respect, his return hadn't altered anything. The rules changed too quickly, the letters that were their only point of contact with Ends of the World could not be trusted... and most importantly, there was something very peculiar about Anthy, something deeply and fundamentally *wrong*. There was no point in fighting under these circumstances, and every reason not to.

A hand moved under his chin to turn his head, but Saionji shook it off impatiently and shot Touga a speaking look. Touga raised the offending hand slightly in a mocking gesture of apology. His voice was a dark, seductive purr when he spoke again. "What would you do with the power to bring the world revolution, Sayuri?"

"Nothing," Saionji said quietly. "Idiot. It doesn't exist."

Anthy was turning to collect her annoying rat creature from the floor behind her and, for the briefest of moments, her gaze brushed Saionji's. His breath caught; the familiar swell of not-quite-terror wanted to rise from his gut. Even now. Even now, she did this to him with just a glance...

This was not love, he reminded himself fiercely. This was not desire. Whatever it was, it was *not* that.

Touga's tone was thick with disbelief. "Saionji?"

 

***

"You should have told me."

Saionji had only very rarely seen Touga truly angry; he was one of the most self-possessed people Saionji had ever known. He was angry now - angry enough to make his nostrils flare and a flush stain his cheeks with blood. If Saionji hadn't allowed himself to be hauled off to the breakfast room, Touga might have tried to knock him down and drag him by the hair.

"Yeah, right," Saionji snapped. "I can see that going over well. Hey, Touga, guess what? It's me, Saionji, but I'm a girl now."

"I believe you, don't I?"

"Because you caught on yourself! Don't try to tell me you'd have believed it coming from anyone else."

Red hair lashed the windowpane with the sound of a dozen tiny explosions as Touga whirled around to glare at him. "What are you doing here, anyway? You've been expelled!"

"I have *not*. Saionji Kyouichi's been expelled. Yoshitoyo Sayuri has never so much as gotten a demerit."

"Is that why you did this?"

Saionji gave an incredulous bark of laughter. Why he'd *done* this? What, he thought Saionji had turned into a woman because he'd *felt* like it?

"I cannot believe you did this." Touga's voice had sunk even lower, the rasping purr pure threat as he stalked closer. "I absolutely cannot believe that you slept with me!"

"You threw yourself at me, stuck your tongue down my throat and practically did a lapdance! And now you're trying to blame *me* for taking advantage of *you*? Try not to be more of an idiot than you can help, Touga. You sleep with anything that moves, a roll in your bed is practically one of the requirements for graduation, and you can't tell me you didn't -"

"*Shut up!*"

For a long moment of shocked disbelief, Saionji was certain that Touga would hit him. Then, the other man spun away, every movement tight and graceless with barely checked violence.

"It should never have happened," Touga said fiercely, addressing the night beyond the window. "I would never have allowed this to happen if you had told me."

Saionji shook his head angrily. This was a senseless argument; he didn't even understand why Touga was this angry. Surely sex wasn't anything Touga would get worked up about, no matter who he had inadvertently slept with. Could he be disappointed over something he saw as a lack of trust on Saionji's part?

"But then, maybe that's why you didn't tell me," Touga went on slowly, eyes narrowing. His voice lowered and calmed, slipping back into the customary amused, sensual purr. Saionji immediately knew that he was unsheathing his sword, drawing back for the lethal stroke. "After all, I always knew that I could have you for the asking. You've been sniffing after me for years, haven't you, Saionji? Just like a bitch in heat."

It never ceased to astonish Saionji that even after all this time, even after everything that had passed between them, Touga still held the power to hurt him.

"Go to hell," he snarled.

Touga laughed lightly, good humor apparantly restored. "Saionji... Eloquent as always. I don't know why I didn't recognize you earlier."

He'd never had anything to counter Touga's killing words with. He wasn't stupid, but whenever he was confronted with the full force of Touga's fleet tongue and cruel wit, the inevitable end result was that he would be forced to fall silent and seethe in impotent rage.

Saionji's right hand curled; he could almost feel the grip of his katana in his palm.

"If it's any consolation," Touga murmured seductively, "I'd probably have taken you up on it long ago if you were anyone but who you are."

That remark gave Saionji pause; he had no idea just what Touga was trying to say. The only thing he was sure of was that whatever it was, he wouldn't want to know.

Touga made a graceful dismissive gesture with one hand, flipping his hair back over his shoulder as an afterthought. "Just see that you don't do anything like this again."

"What - turning into a woman or not telling you about it?" Saionji snapped.

Just when Saionji had thought this conversation couldn't get any more surreal, Touga turned, walked up to him, took hold of his shirtfront with both hands and ripped it open right down to Saionji's navel.

"So how did this happen, anyway?"

"You fucking bastard - take your fucking hands off of -"

The curse was smothered when Touga's mouth came down on his with bruising force. Touga's tongue and lips and teeth were devouring him, his body pressing him back into the wall, hands on his gaping shirt, inside, cupping and kneading his breasts roughly. After a moment, one of Touga's hands slid down to the juncture of his thighs; Saionji had hooked a leg around Touga's hip before he realized what was going on, had arched into the almost brutal touch and taken up the battle for dominance of the kiss.

"You want me," Touga spat, tearing his mouth free. "You've been lusting after me since before you knew what the hell it was you wanted."

Saionji never knew what he would have answered. There was no warning at all; from one moment to the next, his body erupted into unbearable agony. He gasped for breath and crumpled, desperately fighting to force air into his blazing lungs in spite of the pain.

Dimly, his mind registered that he'd collapsed forward and that someone was holding him up. Before his vision blurred into a wash of crimson and grey, he caught a brief glimpse of a hand clenched around his biceps. He couldn't feel it at all.

Saionji.

golden spires, bamboo swords, the scent of incense and flowers, cold stone beneath his naked feet, Anthy in her coffin, rosevines twining around her limbs, a storm of white and pink petals swirling by in the breeze, tinged by blood and stinking of death, Touga throwing down his sword, blood-red hair spilling out across marble and bone, the dragon's scales sprouting from his skin like armor

Saionji!

It was different this time - he could feel something inestimably huge and formless reaching for him, stealing his breath, rending, tearing, sifting through him and grasping hold at a level so deep Saionji couldn't even see, grasping and he was dying dying in flame, *taking*

Far away, he could hear the clash of swords, and for a moment, the sound offered him something to hold on to, a fixed point in a madly swirling maelstrom of blood and petals and fire. Almost, he could breathe, if he could struggle upright against the dragon sitting on his chest breathing fire into his mouth and rose-scented sulphur into his nose and digging silver claws into his heart, then he might almost be able to breathe

A single, clear note cut through everything with merciless purity, passing through him like an arrow through fog. It was the sound of a sword breaking.

Saionji arched against the dragon's hold and opened his mouth to scream with the loss, but he lacked the breath, and the Other was faster. The Other flew in the arrow's wake, faster than even the pain, glowing like coals, swirling with implacable purpose. It leapt for him, ripped him open and took hold of everything he was...

*Saionji,* mocked the dragon, its voice as musical as silver bells, the fire it breathed out along with the name burning Saionji's skin to ash. *Kyouichi.*

... and *twisted*.

 

 

7. ~ Self ~

 

The bed he woke in was not his own. It wasn't the scent of someone else on the pillowcase beneath his head, the cool slickness of the sheets, or even the angle of the light falling onto his face that alerted him to the fact. Long before these factors had a chance to register in his sleep-dazed mind, the leg pushed between his own and the warm body molded to his back startled him violently awake.

He jerked to wakefulness with a full-body start and attempted to sit up, only to flop over with an undignified grunt as the room suddenly flipped and the mattress reared up to slap him in the face.

Leg and body withdrew. "He wakes at last," Touga drawled.

Saionji ignored him. He thought that he might be sick if he moved again. Ever.

After an expectant pause, the mattress shifted and a pale arm and shoulder came into view as Touga sat up behind him. Saionji flinched a little as a cool hand brushed the hair off his face, but relaxed into the touch without protest. It made the warning throb pressing at his temples subside to a low ache... at least it did until Saionji's face was turned firmly, those same cool fingers gripping his jaw like a vise.

He glared at Touga, putting every bit of scathing he could muster into the expression. Touga tilted Saionji's face back into the light, incisive blue eyes gliding over the lines of his brows, cheekbones, nose and mouth so intently that it felt almost as though the gaze were cutting through skin, sinew and muscle, down to the naked bone.

Touga laughed at him and let him go with a subtle slide of fingertips against skin. It would have felt like a caress, if Saionji hadn't known better. "Remarkable. You look far more like her when you're awake."

Saionji huffed and tried to sit up again. Touga put a casual hand on the middle of his chest and leaned. It shouldn't have been possible for anyone to loom languidly, but he did.

"You'll have to leave Ohtori again now, Saionji - you realize that, don't you?"

Not now. He didn't want to deal with Touga in this mood at any time, but especially not now, when every muscle was tender with the echoes of overexertion and remembered agony, when he was weak from hunger as well as exhaustion, when his head was pounding a counterpoint to his heartbeat in blazing and ever-mounting pain... when what he wanted most in the world was to find a mirror and stand in front of it for the rest of the day just to convince himself that he was *himself* again.

"You've only made it harder on yourself." Touga had eased up on Saionji's chest. His hand was now trailing down over Saionji's stomach, slowly, as languid as the spare curl of a smile lingering on his lips. He hardly seemed aware of what his hand was doing. Saionji should stop him, *would* stop him, as soon as - "But then, you were always good at that."

His hand slid beneath the silken sheet and continued on without pause. Saionji gasped as it closed around him with a firm, expert grip, not too gentle, not too hard. And oh, to feel this again, to feel arousal pulse and flow and grow in this so-familiar and welcome way... that alone was heaven.

Touga let go after one long, slow stroke. "Everything still in working order, I see."

It took a conscious effort not to moan in protest at the abandonment, but Saionji dredged up the necessary energy from reserves he hadn't previously been aware of. The same spark of anger carried him through a second attempt at sitting up, and that took care of both his frustration and arousal. The roiling nausea and the pain of a body pushed far too close to its limits, if not beyond, left no room for anything else.

If Touga hadn't been lounging behind him, Saionji would have lain back down to rest some more before trying to do anything else. As it was, that simply wasn't an option.

He could feel Touga's eyes on him all the way to the bathroom door. The gaze burned more than his straining muscles and the cruel rasp of air in his lungs combined.

By the time Saionji came out again, Touga was gone.

 

***

"Saionji Kyouichi-kun."

Saionji turned, but didn't get up from his perch on the base of one of the statues littering the city park.

Ice-pale hair only a shade lighter than the skin; ice-hard eyes behind tinted glasses, watching him impassively, missing nothing. "It's been quite a while."

"Mikage," Saionji acknowledged, sounding more surprised than he would have liked. "How did you find me here?"

"The Black Rose Society is informed about every detail concerning the Academy, no matter how minute."

Highly doubtful and not really an answer at all, but Saionji let it slide, going back to watching the ducks paddle lazily across the pond. He'd spent a lot of time here during the past days, watching birds and thinking while his body recovered. The conclusions he'd come to hadn't served to lift his spirits; he wasn't in the mood to talk to anyone, and Mikage Souji's presence in particular was entirely unwelcome. Not that he had much hope the man would take the hint and leave - he never had been much inclined to subtlety.

There had been a time when Saionji had found Mikage's company pleasant. In a way, he was like Saionji. He, too, was looking for something beyond the fleeting illusions of everyday life, a deeper and lasting truth. In other ways, however - such as the way he watched people that he thought might prove advantageous, if they were handled correctly - he reminded Saionji of Touga. Saionji had always known to be cautious of him.

Now, for reasons he couldn't quite pin down, the man's presence grated on Saionji's nerves like a jarringly wrong note in a symphony.

"Your expulsion has been reversed," Mikage said matter-of-factly, not bothering with preamble. "The investigation into the circumstances of the duel has revealed that foul play was involved."

Saionji looked up sharply.

Mikage watched him without noticeable emotion, seeming neither surprised nor disconcerted by Saionji's unconcealed suspicion. "The letter authorizing the duel was not authentic, but it was an excellent forgery. It must have come from someone close to Ends of the World, who was familiar with and had access to previous such missives. The other members of the Student Council would be suspects, if they were not all above suspicion. It is clear you were acting in good faith, at any rate. As for the injury caused a student during the course of the unauthorized duel, the Acting Chairman has judged it to be an accident without malicious intent."

Mikage Souji wasn't particularly adept at kendo. Saionji, on the other hand, was accustomed to seeing the world in terms of balance, the flow, press and give of opposing forces. He recognized attempts to divert and channel them, whether or not they were made with a sword in hand.

Not that it made a difference. Saionji saw the trap laid out for him with perfect clarity, but he would step into it anyway. He had no real choice.

"It is gratifying that Chairman Ohtori has seen fit to investigate the matter personally," Saionji said neutrally. "I will return to the Academy immediately."

"The Student Council Vice President's dorm room has been empty while you were gone." Mikage held out a key that Saionji took carefully, avoiding the touch of the other man's skin. There was no reason to - no reason, except that the mere thought of touching him raised goosebumps on Saionji's arms and spread outwards from his chest with the same mixture of watchful readiness and absolute calm that preceded a duel.

Ridiculous, on the surface of it, but Saionji trusted his instincts.

"We are distressed that such deception was practiced at the Academy - it does not bode well for our future prospects." Mikage stood smoothly, expression still completely blank. Saionji wondered what passions moved beneath that tranquil surface. "You should have come to me when this first happened. Your talent is very valuable to us, Saionji-kun, and you know the power the Black Rose Society wields."

Wordlessly, Saionji inclined his head. Mikage bowed and left without fanfare.

It was unwise to return to Ohtori. It was clear that Saionji had once again been cast in the role of pawn in a game he couldn't even guess at. Whatever Anthy and Ohtori were, whatever was wrong with Mikage, whatever elaborate scheme the duels for the Rose Bride and the machinations of Ends of the World served... nothing good would come of it, certainly not for mere pawns. Saionji still couldn't remember how long he'd been caught up in the wrongness of Ohtori, but even with days and months and seasons blurring into each other seamlessly in his mind, he knew now that it had been far longer than it should have been. Even time seemed to bend to the rules of Ends of the World's elaborate game. Saionji had nothing to counter that kind of power with; he might simply be overwhelmed again if he returned. He might forget everything but the role designed for him... dance steps someone else had choreographed to further an oblique purpose Saionji could not hope to fathom.

But Touga was still at Ohtori, weaving his own nets, laying down rules of his own for others to dance by. Touga meant to become the Champion, to hell with the cost.

In retrospect, Saionji recognized the hand of Ends of the World everywhere - not just in the Rose Seal duels and the rules that governed the lives of the Student Council, but in the entire self-contained society of Ohtori, all of it clearly designed for a purpose, even if that purpose lay shrouded in mystery. He'd seen the power behind the manipulation, as well. There had been moments when the velvet sheath had slipped to reveal glimpses of razor-honed steel... glimpses like the obliviousness and forgetfulness that sealed Ohtori away from the outside world. The annihilating fall of the castle in which eternity dwelled. The restrained, terrible power lurking behind Anthy's gently smiling face. Ohtori's burning touch, pressing against Saionji's body and mind. Even Mikage, setting Saionji's teeth on edge with his *wrongness* - Mikage with his empty expression and a mind like a steel trap, passions so deeply hidden Saionji could not guess at where they ran beneath the ice-rimed mask of his serenity.

Touga's hand had become subtler as he grew older; his touch was now so light that it was rarely felt. Touga had mastered almost everyone he had ever met and bound the rare exceptions tight with invisible nets until they could not breathe, much less think to move against him. Touga always knew just where to strike, found any opening and took it with such consummate skill that the killing blow was never felt. His nets were far-flung, his schemes subtle, flexible and intricate.

Nanami, challenging Utena to a duel to avenge her brother's pain. Utena, slumping on a window ledge with dull eyes, giving up on herself. Dozens of pretty young things hanging on Touga's every word even after he'd dumped them, teachers arranging classes around the Student Council President's schedule, the school's director expelling someone who had crossed Touga for a minor infraction... Saionji himself, tumbling into Touga's bed like an empty-headed fool who didn't know any better.

Oh yes, Touga was good, but he was fallible - he slipped up sometimes, and he was human, with nothing more arcane than cunning and influence to back his schemes. Saionji had seen both Ends of the World and Touga at work, and Ends of the World was better. So much better that Touga would never see the killing blow coming, and possibly not realize he'd been dealt a lethal wound even then.

Touga was too used to victory to be careful.

No... there was no choice at all.

 

***

His old dorm room was unchanged, just as Mikage had promised. The school uniforms he'd left behind were still hanging in the closet, closet doors still open wide, exactly as he'd left them. The air was warm and stale and smelled strangely sour; Saionji strode to the window to air the room, setting down his bag next to the bed on the way.

That was when he discovered that the room was not quite unchanged, after all. A badly charred book rested on his desk next to the picture of two boys with shinai in hand, both of them smiling, Touga's hand resting on Kyouichi's shoulder.

Saionji's hesitant touch was enough to make the brittle remains crumble further. When he drew back, a slightly oily residue of ash clung to his fingertips. He rubbed them together, crushing blackened fragments of paper into silken powder. The blackened lump probably wouldn't have been recognizable as a book, let alone an exchange diary, if part of the cover hadn't miraculously escaped the blaze. Saionji's name had been erased by fire, but Anthy's was still readable.

The sour scent of ashes stung his sinuses, making his eyes tear before he shook his head angrily and turned away.

Incense heavy in the air, the taste of ashes in his mouth. The blown blooms of roses, petals dark and bruised, graceful arches collapsing, flash of sunlight on white stone, fracturing into a delirious kaleidoscope of spectral light and gleaming dust. Fire, violent heat rising around him with a sound as of giant wings beating, drowning out the sound of his own harsh breathing, drowning out the pain and rage and hate of everyone who had preceded him onto this field of blood and fire and flashing steel.

The fire would burn out, though; the blood would stop flowing eventually, the swords crumble into rust until there was nothing left but silence. Nothing lasted forever, after all.

He found a garbage bag in the drawer by the sink and swept the remains of the exchange diary into it. His hand was steady. He was too numb to be certain of what he was feeling, but he did find that he was not particularly surprised. Perhaps that would prove to be the most serious wound of all.

 

***

The elevator took a long time to reach its destination, but Saionji barely noticed. He felt as though he were only half there. When the wrought iron gate finally pulled back to admit him to the Student Council's viewing platform, he remained motionless for a long moment, looking out across the familiar expanse of empty space and open sky. It hadn't been that long since he'd last been here, but it seemed like a lifetime. He could hardly recall the person he'd been when he'd last made this trip.

His bare feet were cat-silent on sun-warmed marble. It was clear he wasn't expected; there were only three chairs at the Student Council's table, now, and all of them were occupied.

They were playing cards again. Juri saw him first, and her already chilly expression hardened further, saved from disdain by only the narrowest of margins. Miki merely looked surprised. Saionji ignored both of them.

"I challenge you." His voice came out very soft. Saionji half expected he'd have to repeat himself, but he didn't; after a too-long moment, the object of the challenge put down his cards and turned gracefully in his chair, faint amusement showing in his face.

"Saionji," he said, an elegant lift of one brow signaling mild interest. He didn't get up. "I didn't think we'd see you here again."

From their seats behind Touga, Juri and Miki looked Saionji over in silence. Neither of them remarked on his sudden return, let alone his attire of dogi and hakama. Neither one said a word about the sheathed katana in his hand, although it was obvious they were aware of its presence. Distantly, Saionji wondered whether it was a prerequisite for members of the Student Council to be so neurotically guarded.

Maybe it was the company they kept.

"No, I imagine you didn't." Saionji's voice was still very low. When he stepped closer, Touga's stance shifted immediately, his head tilting just so, one shoulder moving back infinitesimally to show off his slim, muscular figure to best advantage.

The sight gave Saionji an odd pang. Scales flashed in sunlight, teeth glinting bright as steel...

Touga should have looked different, at least to Saionji's eyes, but he was the same as always. He was still beautiful, still arrogant, still cool and calculating and distant. The same he'd been for too long, a careful illusion woven of lies and broken shards of truth to give the construct substance.

"I realize you've been out of the loop," Touga said, his voice rich with amusement and the kind of affection one might hold for a particularly thick, but devoted puppy. "But you really should make an effort to find out who the current Champion is before you go around challenging people, Saionji-kun. Not everyone would be as understanding as me, you know."

"I'm not here to challenge the Champion," Saionji said evenly. "I'm here to challenge you."

Juri's eyes narrowed even as Touga's eyebrows lifted. Saionji raised his hand so both of them could see his bare fingers. His rose signet had been lying on the dresser, just where he'd put it. He'd thought of throwing it out with the remains of the exchange diary, but had left it where it was instead. He hadn't wanted to touch it.

The expression on Touga's face was familiar - dispassionate and assessing. When was the last time Saionji had met that particular gaze without being discomfited? Perhaps he never had. Back when they'd laughed and sparred and sworn to be best friends forever, Touga's eyes had never been cold when he looked at Saionji, even when he was angry. Touga's anger had been explosive, once, hot and arid and blowing over with angry words and an occasional half-serious scuffle that almost inevitably ended in laughter.

But that was then, and this was not the same Touga. It had taken Saionji too long to see it, but he had, finally. Now, when this Touga uncoiled and rose to step closer, Saionji could allow it without feeling the strain his friend's proximity had meant before. The dull coil of pain and longing nesting deep in his belly slept on, not awakened by this Touga's nearness, not stirred even by the touch of the practiced fingers delivering a lingering caress to the side of Saionji's face.

"Saionji," Touga murmured, voice dark and low. His eyes were watchful, waiting for an opening. "We shouldn't fight without reason... after all, aren't you my one and only best friend?"

The empty words fell into silence, leaving Saionji untouched. It was hard to tell if Touga realized his blade had been blunted; nothing of the knowledge reflected in his slow smile, but that meant nothing. "I have tickets for the opera tonight. Wouldn't you like to accompany me?"

"No," Saionji answered. "Are you refusing the challenge?"

There was no way Touga could refuse, of course. That was why Saionji had chosen to confront him here, with Juri and Miki bearing silent witness. Alone, Touga might have laughed the challenge off. Under the eyes of the Student Council, he wouldn't risk it - it might be interpreted as weakness.

"Of course not," Touga said lightly. His fingers trailed slowly down Saionji's neck before he stepped back, affecting an air of regret. "But what is the point of a formal challenge without the Rose Bride, Saionji-kun? Tell me you didn't stage this little drama merely in order to ask me to spar with you."

"I challenge you for my best friend," Saionji said calmly. "It ends now."

"I thought Touga was Saionji's best friend," muttered Miki. Juri quietly but firmly ordered him to shut up.

Touga didn't say anything for a long moment, but the seduction had fled his pose. His back was very straight as he turned to throw a deliberate glance at the dueling arena. The castle above it was no more than an outline against the bright midday sky.

When Touga turned back, the mask had fallen away; with the silken sheath discarded, the razor-honed blade of his true nature glittered in his eyes like shards of frozen fire. An errant breeze whirled over the platform and blew the hair away from his face to stream out behind him like a banner, drenched in blood, lit by sullen flame. Hard glitter of perfect, pale skin in the sun. Flash of armor.

Teeth flashed as Touga smiled, the expression devoid of anything but threat. "If that is what you truly want, my Kyouichi-kun," he said, voice soft and musical as the song of steel in the air. "Far be it from me to save you from your folly."

 

***

They chose the dojo, deserted at this time of day. Touga arrived with a rose the color of arterial blood tucked into the pocket of his uniform; the bloom was no brighter than the blaze of his hair. Saionji still wore his dogi and hakama, untouched by any splash of color.

Touga raised a mocking eyebrow in greeting. "No rose, Saionji?"

"This is not a rose seal duel," Saionji repeated without emphasis. "I don't play by those rules anymore."

That got him an amused and slightly condescending quirk of the lips. "Then how will we determine the winner?"

"We'll know."

Touga watched him narrowly for a long moment and then shrugged. "Very well."

The katana gleamed as Touga raised it above his head, his slight smile fading into the impassive focus of complete concentration. Saionji fell into the natural counter position without thought, breath slowing and body relaxing.

When Touga struck, he struck with the swiftness of a snake, sword flying into an almost unstoppable arc of liquid silver. Saionji hadn't been able to predict the moment of attack, but it didn't matter. His body fitted itself to the familiar pattern without the need for decision. A fraction of a second passed in stillness before Saionji melted out of the blade's path at the last possible moment, his own sword whipping around.

Saionji came in low and from the side, and Touga barely managed to turn in time to counter; he was still off-balance from his strike into thin air. Before Saionji could follow up with a new attack that would secure his advantage, however, Touga stepped in close and caught Saionji's swordguard with his own.

His eyes were steady on Saionji's as they fought to push each other's weapon away. And then there was something - something in the way he inhaled, something in the way his lips softened as though about to open, some indefinable hint of hesitation, as though he were searching for the right words...

For a moment of mingled disbelief and anticipation, Saionji was certain that Touga would say something to him across the barrier of steel.

He didn't do any such thing, of course. What he did do was push down hard and leap back. Saionji's sword jerked upward as though he were a rank amateur. The lightning attack Touga launched at Saionji's middle almost connected, and if he'd had the time and concentration to spare, Saionji would have cursed.

The katanas' blades rang out harshly as Saionji's inelegant block turned aside the attack just far enough to let him twist away. The angled swing intended to carry Saionji in above Touga's guard came too late to succeed; scarlet petals fluttered as steel clashed directly in front of Touga's rose, but the match had turned. Saionji was following the rhythm Touga was setting.

Saionji disengaged for an instant and rotated the katana, lunging back in to try for the side of Touga's head with the flat of the blade. Another mistake - if they'd been wearing bogu, it would have worked, but without the protection of armor, Saionji had to slow the blow deliberately to weaken its force. The split second delay was all the time Touga needed.

This time, Touga slid Saionji's blade to the side rather than locking swords. The space he won allowed him to step out of range. His chuckle was husky with exertion and rich with amusement; it filled the dojo like a tangible thing.

Saionji hesitated, sword hovering in chudan.

In a move coordinated and smooth enough to seem slow even though it wasn't, Touga shouldered his blade. A well-practiced maneuver, obviously... Saionji himself had never had much use for the katsugi technique; it was flamboyant, risky, and liable to do more harm than good against anyone but a rash or inexperienced opponent who could be lulled into a false sense of security. It bordered on insult that Touga would -

Memory burst into Saionji's train of thought. *Iwamoto twisting to the side and away, stepping back to deliver a one-handed attack from the distance. A move he'd never seen her use before. A risky move - to carry it successfully against an opponent of Saionji's caliber, she would need a considerable tactical advantage. Either that, or Saionji would have to make a mistake. Saionji disapproved; she shouldn't have been hinging a strategy so risky on mistakes her opponent might or might not make.*

"Still my old Saionji." The corners of Touga's mouth lifted into the ghost of a smile. "You always think too much."

Someone had shown Iwamoto to fight like that, and it hadn't been Saionji.

As though he'd been waiting for Touga's words to meld with the memory and complete the picture, Touga's strategy crystallized in Saionji's mind. It made perfect sense; it fit all of Touga's moves. Even so, there was a long moment in which Saionji found himself unable to accept what his instincts told him. This... this was the strategy of someone who knew he was outmatched, and Touga had always been better than Saionji. By a very slim margin, certainly, but...

Always.

Touga was good, there was no doubt about that. Utena had been better than him from the beginning, though, and she had lost to him, once. Just as Saionji had lost to him, always.

*He has you believing you can't beat him, and as long as you believe it, it's true.*

The faint astonishment that lapped at the edges of his awareness was firmly rebuffed; this was not the time for it. Saionji raised the katana above his head, relaxing once more into battle-ready alertness. He stood fully in the moment, the sword in his hands an extension of his own body, as natural and necessary as any of the limbs he had been born with.

When it came, the attack was strong and whole-hearted. Touga shouted as he leaped forward, his sword blurring into an arc in front of his body. Time slowed; Saionji waited, relaxed and ready. He caught a brief glimpse of Touga's bared teeth, but his attention was focussed on the pattern his opponent's blade and body wove. Their language spoke to him on a level connected directly to muscle, bone and instinct, beyond any need for the focus of thought or words.

Breathe. Wait while razor-honed steel sliced towards his hip, parting the air with the musical sound of a perfectly executed stroke. React when the moment came. Spring from immobility into action without transition. Turn into the attack and bring down the katana with irresistible force.

Saionji's katana struck Touga's blade at the instant it reached its greatest momentum, jarring both of them to the bone. Saionji absorbed the impact and struck again instantly without lifting his blade, the strength of his entire body backing the stroke.

Steel sparked on steel; the subliminal vibration of straining metal thrummed through Saionji's body. A choked growl escaped from between Touga's clenched teeth.

A katana dropped to the hardwood floor.

Saionji reached out and plucked the rose whole from his opponent's chest. One petal clung, red as blood against snowy white.

"No," Touga growled, his voice scarcely recognizable with rage. "*No!*"

There was a moment of silence, filled only with their breathing, harsh with exertion and something more. Touga was on his knees, kneeling over his fallen sword; his hair had fallen forward to obscure his face.

The duel was over, and yet... Instinct prodded Saionji to kick his opponent's katana aside and swing his own up high once again. He took a quick step back from Touga, a dart of apprehension piercing the calm knowledge of his victory.

Something soft was being crushed between his hand and the grip of his weapon. He shifted his hold and shook loose a handful of petals that clung wetly to his palm before drifting to the ground. The scent of roses and incense brushed him. Saionji wiped his hand against his leg and retreated yet another step from his vanquished opponent, unreasoning foreboding tight in his throat.

In front of him, Touga hunched over, hands to either side of the fallen weapon. His hair spilled across the floor, burning fire-bright against the pale wood.

This was entirely wrong; Saionji knew this was wrong, but he could do nothing but watch, the calm focus of the duel now no more than a memory.

The knobs of Touga's spine were clearly visible, and they shouldn't have been - not through the thick fabric of his uniform jacket. The fabric itself looked peculiar, shining almost wetly in the soft light that fell through the dojo's windows. It was wrinkled, too, deep folds running its entire length on either side of Touga's spine. Saionji couldn't imagine what Touga had been doing; he was usually so meticulous about his appearance.

Shadows seemed to gather around Touga, and Saionji blinked as his vision blurred. It didn't help - the shape crouching in the middle of the dojo refused to come into focus. When Saionji glanced down at his own white-knuckled grip on the katana, his hands and sword stood out in sharp detail. When he looked back up -

Wings folded outwards from the back of the creature that crouched in front of Saionji, glistening jewel-like in the low light. The spiny crest running the length of its back flared, exposing a jewelled pattern in all the colors of flame.

The wings extended with a sound as of a thousand doves taking flight at once. They were too wide for the confines of the dojo. Where they would have touched the walls, wood and stone melted away, leaving blue sky and a distant image of spiralling towers, nebulous and insubstantial in the bright sunlight that struck sparks from glittering scales.

The dragon lifted its head. Its eyes were the color of ancient glaciers, freezing Saionji in place with the age and weight of their gaze. Its armor of scales was incandescent; every sinuous movement sent up a bright shower of sparks, all colors of the rainbow struck off the jewelled hide by the sunlight that glittered erratically across the dragon's skin like the dance of foxfire. Smoke curled from its nostrils, and its teeth were longer than Saionji's katana, curved inwards slightly and as silver-blue as the finest forged steel. It was beautiful, a creature of sheer power and majesty.

Between its paws, a small figure huddled, pale skin streaked with scarlet where the claws of the beast had dug deep. Fire licked at silver teeth as the creature spoke. Its voice rumbled through the stone beneath Saionji's feet, creeping up the soles of his feet to his ankles and knees and lodging deep in his gut. *No,* it repeated, and the shape of the word was more felt than heard. Its gaze lit into molten cobalt, searing into Saionji with a palpable force that almost made him stumble backwards. *I can't lose to you. Never to you.*

There was no time to brace for the attack. The long body coiled and sprang, teeth and claws flashing in the sullen glow of flame. Saionji reacted instinctively, diving to the side to evade the weapons as the dragon struck. He heard the bright ring of steel meeting steel as he landed lightly on the balls of his feet and whirled, raising his sword into jodan. The dragon was almost close enough to touch, turning to renew its own attack, and Saionji waited - as the agile neck snapped around, sinewy body aligning and drawing back in preparation - for the perfect moment, when the creature was beginning to extend into the lunge.

The sound of tempered steel meeting the diamond-girded curve of neck rang out lucent and pure. It was still hovering in the air when Saionji followed the deflected hit with a swift, forceful slice to the leg lifting toward him, claws extending and spreading as though in slow motion.

Had the dragon possessed the reflexes of a reptile, Saionji wouldn't have been able to widen the distance between them in time. Although the beast was fast, however, its speed was not inhuman. Before the massive head snapped around, Saionji had gained enough ground to be out of the immediate range of claws and teeth. The respite lasted no longer than an instant, though. Saber-like fangs flashed towards Saionji's shoulder; he dropped and leaped across the paw the creature had planted on the ground to support itself.

It evidently hadn't been expecting Saionji to move in closer. The second or so he'd gained was his chance to decide the battle - perhaps the last one he would get. Saionji wasn't at all certain how long he could hold out against a creature like this.

He turned even as he came out of the crouch, his katana describing a rising spiral around his body, and gathered himself into a single blade of purpose and power aimed at the creature's unprotected side -

- stepping squarely into the path of a glittering bludgeon of muscle and scale that hurtled towards his head.

Impossible to evade the battering force of the creature's tail. He'd been prepared for claws and fangs, reacting to the twofold danger as to a nito-attack by an opponent with two swords. That had been his mistake; he should have realized that the pattern would not fit this creature.

Following the lightning rhythm of battle without deliberation, Saionji used the instant left him to adjust his stance, flattening the angle of his sword, releasing himself fully into the last fraction of his turn and fitting his own motion to that of the bludgeon.

The impact was stunning, even though it missed his head and neck to land squarely across his shoulders. The pain didn't matter, though. Saionji's attack was set, his body committed to the pattern. He absorbed the force of the blow into his own momentum towards the dragon's flank, katana leading. The tip of his sword found the slight indentation behind and below the beast's left shoulder unerringly.

The shock of this impact was bone-jarring - almost bone-breaking. The dragon roared and reared back, long body twisting in midair like a whip.

The katana shattered into a thousand pieces, dusting apart into a cloud of seemingly weightless shards that glittered in the sun like silver and diamonds. An ephemeral web composed of light sparkled between the fragments and the jewelled armor for one timeless moment. Distantly, Saionji wondered at its beauty.

*You lose,* said the dragon. The thrumming vibration of the words speared directly into Saionji's chest and throat this time, transferred through the ice-fire fangs impaling Saionji's middle.

Saionji unclenched his hands and let the bladeless hilt clatter to the ground. The sky was very blue, the distant castle no more than a wisp of clouds - nothing but reflections and the mere notion of topless towers, rising above chimerical battlements with eternal grace.

The dragon was watching him with amusement burning in the magnesium glare of its gaze. "No," Saionji gasped, choking a little on the surge of liquid that welled up in his mouth. "Touga -"

A small shape stirred, dwarfed between the armored paws of the beast. The dragon turned slightly, one paw moving to draw the diminutive body closer. Hair the color of arterial blood spilled across the floor, vivid against snowy white marble.

"*Touga*!" He needed to move, to help Touga, but the sabers spearing him held him fast. He had to help his friend, but even when the dragon shook him once and then released him, his limbs refused to obey. He slid off the creature's teeth with a wet sound; his legs gave immediately and spilled him to the floor. His arms refused to break his fall. Even his head would not lift from the cold stone.

A sickening scent of incense clung to everything... incense, blood, roses and decay. *Don't worry,* the terrible voice crooned, right next to his ear. *I'll protect him.*

It wouldn't. It *couldn't*, not a creature such as this, it would -

No. *No.* He could not allow that to happen.

Saionji was captain of the kendo club for a reason. It wasn't just that he possessed a natural aptitude for swordplay. It wasn't just that he'd honed his talent diligently, working to improve for hours every day ever since he'd been old enough to hold a shinai. Talent and skill were vital, but there was something still more essential - something that could be neither learned nor compensated for. He wanted to move. He wanted to stand up. He wanted to go to his friend and make sure he would be all right. He wanted to eradicate the creature coiling where only Touga should have been. It should have had no place here. It should never have existed - it should not be allowed to exist, and he was the only one who could see it, the only one who could make certain it had no place in the world.

It didn't matter that the creature was wreathed in fire and sheathed in diamond, that his katana had shattered, that his body screamed with pain and his own blood coated his tongue with salt and rust. It didn't matter that when he pushed himself up to his hands and knees, his arms shook so hard that he wouldn't have been able to hold a sword, even if the katana had not broken. Nothing mattered except that he knew what had to be done, and he would do it. If he failed - if he died now, there would be no-one who would.

He gathered himself and pushed to his knees. The dragon laughed at him. Foolish creature.

Saionji smiled with teeth reddened by gore and reached for his sword. It slid into his grasp easily, blood-warm and more truly a part of him than even the katana had been.

"You lose," he rasped, and swung. This blade did not shatter against the diamond scales, as he had known it wouldn't.

Saionji brought the sword around again for the killing stroke, but stopped short of his mark as he realized that he had made a mistake. He hadn't been fighting a dragon at all, but a beautiful young man. What he had taken to be scales had truly been the long hair, spread glittering across pale skin. What he had mistaken for claws had been slender fingers, elegant and strong. What he had taken for the sinuous coil of a dragon's body was in reality a form of graceful perfection, limbs at once supple and muscular.

The creature turned in his arm, blood lacing its moon-glow skin. Its eyes were still dragon's eyes.

*You have won,* the young man whispered. *Let me live and I will share my kingdom with you. You and I, we will rule over everything, as far as your eye can see. You will be at my side always, as I will be at yours, and nothing will ever come between us. Nothing will be able to hurt you. Nothing will hold you back. You will never be alone again.* It smiled, glittering, sparkling. *We'll be good for each other, you and I.*

Saionji hesitated; his raised sword-arm trembled with something other than strain. *You would be mine?*

*Yours,* it said, and there was triumph in its voice, triumph in the sinuous twist of its body as it arched into his. It was hot and hard with muscle and arousal, and when it rubbed against him, Saionji gasped. *Only yours. And you'd be mine.*

*For how long?* he asked, yearning open in his voice.

It kissed him, and its tongue in his mouth was smooth and skilled, not forked as he had expected it to be. Its hand was no less skilled as it slid between their bodies. *Forever.*

And the lie splintered and washed away on the wave of dying petals, fragments glittering with feverish brilliance in the sunlight. Saionji cried out at the loss. The sound was echoed by the angry cry of the incubus as Saionji's sword pierced its heart.

It was proud; it showed no pain as it died, even though its skin was pearled with sweat, its mouth drawn tight with the effort of silence. *You're beautiful,* it whispered just before it spasmed in his arms, nearly tearing free of his hold before falling back across his lap in a limp sprawl. The cobalt light in its eyes was the last thing to die.

Its blood smelled of incense and decaying roses and burned like fire on his skin.

The world ended.

Saionji screamed.

 

***

"Kyouichi," said his best friend, clearly impatient with him. "What the hell are you doing?"

Saionji started and gasped, the remains of a scream stuck in his throat. The harsh sound of his own voice howling in wordless agony still rang in his ears. His arms were empty.

When he turned blindly to grope along the floor, there was smooth, polished wood beneath his fingertips rather than stone. Nothing but parquet and a wall, and nothing but parquet on his other side, either - except for a pair of jean-clad legs attached to the rest of Touga, who was frowning down at him.

"What -" Saionji's voice was rusty and hoarse, and he stopped to clear his throat. "Touga?"

Touga was different - as known as Saionji's own reflection and yet entirely unfamiliar. Saionji had never before seen him in jeans. Saionji had never before seen him with his hair cropped short, brushed up and forward with a few strands falling rakishly into his eyes.

He looked good, in an unfamiliar way; a handsome stranger in jeans and a black T-shirt that clung to his muscular form, emphasizing broad shoulders and narrow waist. His ears stuck out a little, so damn unfamiliar, and his neck was bare, naked, unprotected. He looked exposed, as though an intangible shield had been removed to leave him open and defenseless.

He was kneeling next to Saionji now, his grip firm on his upper arms, his hands urging him to turn and sit up against the wall. "Did something happen during training? Did you hit your head?"

Saionji looked around at the small living room, feeling dazed. His muscles were still thrumming from the exertion of the fight; the cloying stench of blood and incense still clogged his sinuses.

Touga had freed Saionji's hair from its ponytail and was probing his skull with gentle fingers, their touch barely firm enough to be felt. Saionji thought that he should probably object, but in truth, he didn't mind. He didn't mind even when Touga straddled his outstretched legs and got in his face, frowning in concentration, apparently attempting to study the dilation of Saionji's pupils. No, Saionji didn't mind at all, particularly since it made it easier to haul his friend into a bone-crushing hug and bury his face in the spiky hair. It looked different, but it smelled the same, and it was just as soft as he remembered.

Alive. He was *alive*. Touga was alive, and safe - wasn't he?

As soon as Saionji relaxed his hold, Touga moved back to stare at him, eyes wide and worried and entirely human.

"Do you remember the duel?" Saionji asked, and even before Touga frowned at him, the answer was clear in his expression.

"Which one?"

He wouldn't have needed to ask if he'd remembered. The last one, the only one that truly mattered anymore - the one in which Touga had lost, and lost again, and lost again to die in Saionji's arms, his blood corrosive and velvet-soft and scented of roses. The one in which Touga had told him he was beautiful, red froth bubbling on too-perfect lips. The one in which Touga's lies had shattered like glass.

Words fled his grasp and Saionji shook his head in frustration. He had never been good with words; rather than fumble fruitlessly for the right ones, he reached out and gripped two handfuls of body-warm cotton, unceremoniously hauling Touga's T-shirt upwards. Touga looked startled, but didn't protest as Saionji bared his friend's chest to expose a thin, unmistakable scar squarely over his heart.

He traced a finger over the faded line. It was an old scar, flush with the healthy skin and whitened by age - thin enough to be missed at a casual glance. All the same, it was the kind of mark that couldn't be mistaken for anything but what it was... the result of a deep cut with a very sharp blade.

"This duel," he said, caressing the damaged skin again. Touga leaned into the touch briefly before pulling back to look down at himself.

"How strange," he murmured. "I never realized how much that looks like a scar from a sword thrust."

A sudden thought made Saionji open his dogi to inspect his own torso. Where the dragon's teeth had run him through, an old sword wound cut across his middle. It bisected his torso from the left hip to just beneath the ribs, the scar more faded than Touga's, but just as unmistakable.

Touga made a stifled sound. If anyone else had uttered it, Saionji would have called it a gasp, but he couldn't imagine Touga gasping, certainly not because of a scar on an old - friend's? lover's? adversary's? - body. "Kyouichi, what the hell happened? That wasn't there this morning!"

Saionji couldn't sit still anymore. He pushed Touga off his legs and got up, walking over to the window. It was almost dark outside; he couldn't make out more than vague leafy shapes set before a solid mass of darkness, probably either a wall or a hedge. Above the wall, feathery black branches swayed against the lighter night sky, moving to the gentle rhythm of a breeze.

Inexplicably, he felt that he should be able to remember the garden in daylight. If he stopped resisting and opened his mind, he would almost certainly be able to picture delicate greens and earth-hues, Touga lounging on a deck chair clad only in a bathing suit and sunglasses, Touga stalking him across the grass to trap him against one of the old trees around the other side of the house, Touga staring at him in mingled disbelief and affront at the suggestion he weed the flower-beds.

He had a distant recollection of sunlight flashing on steel, just a short time ago. He'd been fighting. His katana had shattered against diamond-hard armor, but there had been another sword, indestructible and intrinsically *his*, as though it belonged to him in a way even the katana never had.

Impossible. He must have fallen asleep after training and had a nightmare.

Except... it had actually happened. And he had never seen Touga lounging in the sunlight with dark glasses pushed up into his spiky hair.

Anger rose in a blinding wave, scalding and surprisingly strong. Saionji turned it to his purpose and slashed it through the cobwebs trying to form in his mind. Trying to layer themselves over the sharpness of

*Touga flamboyantly shouldering his katana, Saionji's own sword shattering and clattering to the ground, the shards lost in heaps of rose petals, silver claws rending, the agony of a part of him tearing loose, beautiful flame-haired creature dying in his arms, their blood mingling*

until all that was left were vaguely remembered outlines.

The fragile veils tore and dissipated and Saionji whirled, nearly colliding with Touga, who was standing directly behind him. It looked as though he'd been waiting to catch Saionji if he fainted. "You remember the Rose Bride, don't you?"

Touga raised an elegant brow. "Himemiya Anthy? Of course I remember her. You made quite a fool of yourself over the girl at Ohtori."

Saionji shook his head and tried again. "Then you remember the Rose Seal duels? All of us fought for the hand of the Rose Bride, passing her back and forth between us until a new girl arrived. Tenjou Utena - you must remember her."

The faint frown on Touga's face smoothed out into a grin. "Jealous, Kyouichi?"

Saionji shoved him back roughly when he tried to lean in. "Touga, stop! Can't you *remember*?"

Touga shrugged. "Of course I remember. It was so long ago, though - why are you obsessing on the past all of a sudden?"

"It's not the past!"

A quick shadow fell over Touga's expression. He drew back, hesitating for a moment before leaning on the wall next to Saionji.

Neither of them spoke for a long moment. Saionji was trying to make sense of his strange surroundings and Touga's behavior; Touga, for his part, looked to be dwelling on something he emphatically did not want to think about, something that tightened his lips and brought tension to his every feature, settling over him like a vulture of air and darkness.

"I remember," Touga said at last. His voice was resonant and perfectly modulated, and the too-familiar sound sent chills down Saionji's back. "Of course I do. I remember that I would have done anything, sacrificed anyone to further my goals. I was certain of where I needed to go, what I had to be... And because I could never quite manage to do the impossible and turn myself into something I wasn't, I was forced to resort to increasingly drastic methods, until finally I overreached myself. I remember falling prey to someone even more devious and ruthless than I. I'd given you many reasons not to care what happened to me -" He paused, searching Saionji's face for something he evidently didn't find, to judge from the further tightening of his features. "I'll never forget that you were there for me in spite of everything, Kyouichi. Still, it *was* long ago. Let it rest."

It was too firm to be a plea, and yet... There was pain in Touga's eyes, buried deep down, but almost glaringly visible to Saionji. It shook him; he had never seen this kind of quiet but pervasive hurt in his friend, wouldn't have thought him capable of it. Not anymore. Not for a very long time.

"If I didn't know better, I'd think the stress was getting to you," Touga went on in a lighter tone, his eyes narrowing speculatively. The strange ache of regret was still there, layered deep but muted by other emotions. It *had* been long ago, in Touga's heart. He'd been forgiven. He thought he'd forgiven himself. "It can't be that, can it? You couldn't lose the championship if you tried. I've already requested a transfer to the University of Tokyo's faculty of law, you know. There's no doubt they're going to want you at the Tokyo Noma Dojo. You're the best I've seen."

The change of subject was far less elegant than it should have been, considering that this was Touga, grand master at shaping words into instruments that did exactly what he wanted them to. Saionji was suspicious for a moment, trying to picture the larger plan behind Touga's apparent fumble - the plan that was always there, in even the most seemingly mundane action.

But then, this Touga was different. Both more vulnerable and more resilient, more open... more *real*. Saionji wasn't certain how he knew so much about someone he'd only met several minutes ago, but he did; he could feel it at a level deeper than thought, deeper than emotion. The presence of Touga in his life was as natural and necessary as the weight of a sword in his hand, and Saionji knew him in the same way.

With a deep breath, he relaxed into the moment, letting go of his tension and confusion.

"Except for Utena," Saionji replied at last. "And except for you."

Touga laughed. "Don't be stupid. I haven't been as good as you for a long time, Kyouichi - at least not with that kind of sword."

Innuendo was thick in Touga's voice, and Saionji flushed slightly even as he searched his friend's expression for the hidden sting of that admission. As unbelievable as it seemed, though, it didn't look as though the acknowledgment of Saionji's superior kendo skills had cost Touga anything; there was no bitterness to be found in either his voice or the lines of his face. Saionji was very sure he would have seen it if it had been there; he was an expert on bitterness.

Or, perhaps... he had been. Long ago.

Touga's grin and the teasing quirk of one copper eyebrow were entirely unfamiliar, but Saionji felt he could get used to them very quickly.

"Who is this woman you keep talking about, anyway?" Touga went on, stepping closer still. When he exhaled, his breath brushed Saionji's cheek warmly. "Perhaps I should be the jealous one."

Saionji swallowed as lips followed the exhalation, nibbling teasingly along the line of his cheekbone. "It doesn't matter now." "Good," Touga murmured. There was no space between them anymore, and neither the hard body pressed against Saionji's nor the skillfully roaming hands felt at all unfamiliar. "That's what I hoped you'd say."

 

 

THE END

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