Notes and Disclaimers: About half the characters are mine, and the other half the creations of Kunihiko Ikuhara, Saito Chiho and Be-Papas. I’m too tired to list which is which. The ones you don’t recognize are mine. There – that was easy.
This story took me more than a year to complete, because between the time I conceived it and the time I finished it, I traveled to three continents, ran one convention, staffed two others, attended more than a dozen, and published three books. Nonetheless, I’m glad to get this over and done with.
This story is certainly less offensive and adult than the original anime, so I’m giving it a ‘G’ rating. However, if you are under 25, it is highly unlikely that you will understand *any* of it - and if you’re younger than 34, you’ll probably only get bits. Don’t worry – it’s not you.
As always, my sincere thanks to the Fanfic Revolution, especially Alan and Chris, for helping me to make this fanfic not suck. And to my wife, who had to listen to various iterations of this story more than anyone should ever have to.
If you enjoy it, by all means, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you do not enjoy it, or dont understand it, or anything else negative, don’t bother writing me, because after about a year and a half of working on this, it’s reasonably unlikely that I’ll change it for you, don’t you think? ;-)
“Worldshaking” Fanfic strongly supports the mission of Yuricon and ALC Publishing, and recommend that you pay them a visit and support them emotionally and financially in their efforts to create, disseminate and celebrate shoujoai and yuri in anime and manga.
Juri sat comfortably in the back seat as the limousine moved slowly along crowded roads. Holiday weekends brought holiday vacations – visiting families and friends, seeing sites. Wasn’t that what she was doing as well? Seeing her friends – of a sort, anyway. She leaned back and watched as the lines of cars crawled slowly past exit after exit.
The traffic thinned as they made their way north. By the time they had reached the limits of Ohtori, they were the only car on the road. The car’s lights broke through the blackness, illuminating the road ahead. Juri found with considerable surprise that her nails were biting into her palms. Her knuckles were white with tension.
After all, what *was* she doing here? She hadn’t been sorry to leave Ohtori, to take her place in society. She had hardly thought of the place for even a moment. After all she had been through there, one would assume that it would have been on her mind more than it had. In fact, her time at Ohtori had almost completely vanished from her thoughts, except when some small thing would bring back a vivid memory of a face, or a sound, or a smell.
Juri stared out the window at nothing as her memories skimmed over the people and events of her youth. Fencing, dances, the Student Council; all dreamlike. As if it happened to someone – not herself – someone who had related the tales so often that she knew the details intimately, even if she hadn’t been there.
But she had been there.
Rubbing her fingers across the smooth skin of her palm, Juri sighed heavily. There was a time when that hand had been calloused from hours of fencing practice. She glanced down at the pale length of skin along her thumb, wrist and arm. A paler thread gleamed dully in the intermittent light. Some scars never fade, she thought.
“Arisugawa-san,” the driver said, lifting his head to meet her gaze in the rear view mirror. “We’re approaching Ohtori Academy now.”
Juri’s hands clenched once again.
Lights and music and friends, that was all a party needed to be, Nanami thought. Well…”friends” was going too far, really. Peers was, perhaps, a fairer term – more accurate, at least. She smiled politely at an elderly couple who were introduced to her as Horinuku Rinkei and her husband Gobou. As they chatted about the usual nothings, Nanami watched them carefully; they were certainly old enough to be grandparents, but they moved lightly and lithely in their dove-grey uniforms.
“I was President of my year,” Rinkei said cheerfully, lifting a champagne flute off a tray as a waiter carried it past. “Gobou was my Treasurer.” At the sound of his name, Goubou’s teeth flashed brightly in the light from the chandelier, his champagne glass slicing through the air in a salute to the women.
“I was only an interim President,” Nanami responded automatically, as she had several times already this evening. “My brother, the President, had been injured.”
“Ah, yes,” Goubou nodded. “I remember having heard of that – and your Vice President was…otherwise occupied, if I remember correctly.”
“Yes,” Nanami parried smoothly. “I see my brother gesturing, please excuse me for a moment.” She bowed slightly and disengaged, heading across the room with purpose.
Touga’s red hair moved lightly in the breeze from the window. It shifted as his head turned, and again as he nodded to her. “A nice turnout, don’t you think?”
“Nanami?” Touga’s voice held no interest and only mild concern.
The blonde looked up at her brother. “I was wondering if you had seen anyone from our years yet.”
Touga pushed scarlet hair out of his eyes and smiled down at his sister. “I’m sure they’ll be here – they all responded in the positive.” His smile broadened slightly, “It will be a pleasure to duel with them once again.”
Nanami shot him a look, but he was already looking back across the room, the pleased smile fixed upon his lips. She watched him for some sign of subterfuge, but he seemed to be sincere. Well, as sincere as he was capable of these days. “I think I see Saionji,” she said suddenly.
“Saionji,” Touga’s voice spread each vowel out with pleasure. “An auspicious name for an unhappy young man.” He held his hand out to his sister. “Shall we see what kind of fate has met Saionji since we last saw him?”
Nanami took her brother’s arm. “We should greet our guests,” she said, her voice carefully neutral.
“Good evening. Kaoru-san, isn’t it?” The girl was small, dark haired and dark eyed. She smiled politely up at the tall young man.
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” he responded with something in between a leer and a grin. “And I’m certain I’d remember someone as beautiful as yourself.”
The blush was automatic – she was annoyed at herself for blushing, even as she knew it was beyond her control. Still, she always hated to be so superficial. Worse, she hated to give the wrong impression. When she spoke again, her voice was more formal and just a measure colder. “You are not mistaken – we have never met formally. My name is Hirofumi. Andou Hirofumi. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Her bow was sharp, and her eyes never left his.
“And you,” Kaoru Miki said, after introducing himself. “But I fear you have the better of me – you seem to know me from somewhere.”
Hirofumi pulled a stiff, dusky rose sleeve tight. “You had graduated by the time I joined the Council. I am one of your successors.”
“Ah,” Miki smiled pleasantly. “I see. I believe I owe you an apology. When I left, Council finances were a bit of a mess.”
Hirofumi bowed once again. “It was nothing. A year, perhaps two, and we were back on track. Your years were, how shall I say it…extraordinary? We, those who followed,” she paused, holding the tension for a long moment, then her words flicked out with unerring accuracy, “understood perfectly.”
Miki looked momentarily uncomfortable, at which Hirofumi’s smile was seen to broaden slightly. Having made her point, the young woman’s attitude thawed perceptibly. “This may be very forward of me, but – would you like to dance?”
Quickly regaining his composure, Karou Miki looked down into veiled eyes. He took the proffered hand lightly and bent over it, graciously conceding the victory. “It would be my great pleasure.”
Saionji held his glass defensively. His meeting with the Kiryuus – no, with Kiryuu Nanami and Ohtori Touga, he reminded himself – had been unsettling. He wasn’t sure what he had expected this to be; now that he was here, he wasn’t even sure what it *was.*
To all intents and appearance, tonight’s gathering seemed to be exactly what it purported to be – a reunion of all Duelists, past and present. Saionji noted the language with interest. Not “Student Council Members,” but “Duelists.” He looked around the room at the many unfamiliar faces and uniforms and wondered, once again, what the difference signified.
He sipped at his drink and watched…and wondered.
Juri looked up with surprise from the glass she was having refilled.
“It *is* you!”
The woman who spoke was only vaguely familiar – her long, stylish hair and attractive body recalled nothing to Juri’s mind. But she would never forget the voice. “Shiori?”
The unfamiliar face smiled brightly. “You remembered! I wasn’t sure you would.” She laughed lightly. “I don’t look much like I used to.”
“N…o,” Juri hesitated. “No, you don’t. But you sound exactly the same.” She smiled back at the woman. “How have you been? You look well.” Then Juri found her center within the comforting banality of the conversation and laughed. “Actually, you look fantastic.”
Shiori blushed prettily. “Thank you. I’ve been – well, working hard at it. I do a little modeling, here and there.” Shiori laughed lightly once again, “I’m told I have particularly nice hands.”
“And so you do.” Juri agreed. She took a sip of her drink and relaxed. The moment she had feared and dreaded for so long had come and gone and left her unscathed. Shiori stood before her and she felt absolutely nothing at all. Not a single vestige of her former obsession lay within her. Shiori was no more than a classmate from school, who had grown up and become a lovely young woman. No more, no less.
Shiori smiled into Juri’s eyes. Juri searched her former friend’s gaze and saw nothing to be wary of, nothing to desire…nothing more than pleasure at meeting an old friend.
“What have you been doing with yourself, Juri-san?” Shiori was asking. “You look good.” The smile again. “I see you’ve changed your jacket color.”
Juri laughed. “A small conceit – the idea of that orange…” she shuddered visibly and they both laughed. Juri lifted a dark chestnut curl and held it against her shoulder. Age had darkened absurdly orange locks into attractively mature auburn. She knew it suited her. “This matches my hair color, don’t you think?” Shiori nodded in agreement at this, as Juri continued. “I’ve been fine, thank you. In the family business now…nothing very interesting. But tell me,” Juri paused, cocking her head slightly. “What brings you here tonight?”
As Shiori’s lips shaped the words, Juri felt a cold blade of fear slide between her ribs. “Didn’t you know?” Shiori’s smile was unwavering as she brushed her black uniform jacket lightly. “I was a Duelist, too.”
Touga nodded graciously as a waiter took his empty glass. The party was going well, he thought. Drinks were being drunk, couples danced gracefully upon the parquet dance floor. Music filled the air. This is what it should feel like to be master of Ohtori Academy, he thought contentedly. He smiled at a woman in a appalling pink uniform jacket and grey trousers, then nodded at her companion, a tall, dark, mustachioed youth in dark green. They bowed slightly as they passed Touga, then moved onto the dance floor, looking like nothing so much as a psychedelic episode.
“Ohtori-san, thank you for inviting me to such a lovely party!” The speaker was not much younger than he, but her voice was childish, though pleasant.
“I’m very glad you could make it…” he hesitated for a second, then realized that he knew this girl. “Wakaba-san, is it not?”
The girl smiled brightly. “Yes! Correct the first time out.” She gestured to gathered partiers. “I can’t stay long, but I am very glad I came. It’s such a pleasure to see everyone looking so magnificent.” Wakaba unconsciously smoothed her jacket. “I…” she hesitated, letting her voice drop. “I was wondering if…” She stopped, then laughed, embarrassed. “Forget it, I’m just being silly. Thank you again.” Wakaba bowed, then disappeared rapidly into the crowd.
Touga sipped his drink as he watched Wakaba move away. “Not silly,” he answered the empty space where she had stood. “In fact, you may be the only one here who isn’t silly at all.”
Juri was in conversation with several secretaries from Councils before and after hers. She found herself fascinated by the easy humor and charm of Kawashimura Norie and the cynical humor of her partner, Yoshida Taka. Yoshida’s bitter humor was in keeping with his dark complexion and worldview. They were so sharp together that Juri felt as if she’d become the straight man in their comedy routine.
“And then, of course, he had to give up the duck, as well.” Norie was saying, with an amused glance at Taka, who just glowered in response. Juri laughed out loud, pleased to find herself with such interesting people.
“What a fascinating idea this party is,” Juri said, quite suddenly. “The idea of all the living Duelists together. I wonder if everyone is here yet?”
“I wonder,” Taka mused, “why the invitation specified “Duelists”? Do you know, Juri-san?”
“I believe I do, but…” Juri paused, not sure how much to say. She settled on, “when I was on the Council there was a…rivalry between our Council and Duelists from an elite seminar. We had some matches, but they eventually disbanded. I can only assume that they were invited as well. But still, I can’t help feeling as if something’s missing.”
“And what would that be?” Norie asked.
“Can’t you feel it?” Juri asked her companions. When they shook their heads, she cocked hers in response. “Well, then, ask yourselves this – why were we all Duelists in the first place?”
Norie and Taka exchanged blank looks, obviously not comprehending Juri’s comment at all.
All of a sudden, Juri felt the need for fresh air. She excused herself and rapidly made her way to the veranda. Why indeed, she thought to herself, as she leaned on the balcony, breathing slowly and carefully. If they were Duelists, then…where was the prize?
Nanami circumambulated the room. It was full, but there was still room to dance. She had accepted offers from several men, avoiding only those she knew. Miki, darling that he was, had asked her to dance, but she turned him down in favor of a handsome man old enough to be her father, followed by several other Council members. Now she was held lightly by a man in a Black Rose uniform that she did not recognize.
She smiled vapidly into his face, her eyes searching the room for her brother. She spotted him in conversation with the older couple she had spoken to earlier. So, she thought, they’ve made it to the second round. She sighed internally, and made herself concentrate on the dance, and her partner. She was safe, at least, until the next round. And then….
Miki felt very pleased with himself. He’d been dancing for who knew how long with a succession of beautiful women and girls – so many smiles, so many possibilities. His smile slipped slightly as he thought of his first dance with Hirofumi. There had been something unsettling about that girl, and yet, he had found himself drawn to her so strongly that it was a little disturbing. She reminded him of someone – that must have been it.
His smile returned as he spun his current partner away from him, and back into his arms, as the song concluded. She applauded happily, taking his hand into hers and dragging him off the floor and over to the refreshments.
“Kaoru-san, that was fabulous! You’re a really great dancer!” Her enthusiasm seemed genuine and Miki preened.
“Thank you – and you are quite graceful, my dear.” He held her eyes just a moment too long, until the color rose to her cheeks.
“Isn’t this party just terrific? It’s been insane meeting all these Duelists!”
Miki’s eyes roamed the room, looking for another dance partner. “Yes, a fascinating idea,” he spoke absently, as familiar face passed by. “Excuse me,” he said to the girl. “Excuse me.” Taking long steps, Miki jogged after the familiar back, calling out, “Saionji-san, Saionji-san!” But the figure did not turn or acknowledge him in any way. Frowning, Miki returned to his partner. For the first time, he actually *looked* at the girl…she was very young, perhaps still in Ohtori as a student. Miki felt quite disgusted at himself for flirting with her.
“Have you noticed,” he forced himself to concentrate, “any other Council members from your years?”
The girl scrunched up her face adorably in thought. “I think I saw Terao-san, but no, I haven’t actually danced with any of them, why do you ask?”
Miki’s grip was too tight, he knew, as the girl, no – as Miyuki-san – tried to pull away. “How many of them have you seen?” he asked, as the realization hit him.
“There are three of us here, I believe. Kaoru-san…you’re hurting me.” Miyuki’s voice was strained, and her face as pale as the white uniform jacket she wore.
Miki stared down at Miyuki, but his mind was far away – filled with images of fencing bouts from years passed. Epee’, foil and saber. Three rounds, three swords, three team members.
Miyuki tugged at her hand once again, trying to break free of his grasp. Miki pulled his attention back to the young woman with some effort. “My apologies,” he said as he let go quickly. “I’m sorry. Let me make it up to you…one more dance.” He smiled, his first genuine smile of the evening.
Miyuki’s face cleared. “One more, and then I have to move on.”
“Of course you do,” Miki said, holding out a hand. “Of course you do.”
Touga surveyed the room. The first round was nearing completion and his “team” was doing exceptionally well. He nodded pleasantly and spoke to his guests, as he made his way up the staircase to the upper level. At the head of the stairs stood a solitary figure, unmoving in the middle of a shifting sea of humanity. Touga looked up with anticipation, meeting the figure’s eyes evenly
Saionji looked down upon Touga with a disappointed gaze. He waited for Touga to join him at the top of the stairs, then turned and walked along the upper level. “I’m sorry, Touga. I can’t do this – not even for you.”
Touga kept his eyes on Saionji’s face, but his voice was cold. “Pity. I had such high hopes for you.” Touga paused, raising his hand and extending it out over the crowd. “Look,” he breathed. “Look at them all, Saionji. I brought them here tonight, for one last…”
“What?” Saionji laughed dryly. “She’s gone, Touga – the Rose Bride and her Prince are *gone.* What prize are you offering us this time?”
Touga smiled, pulling his eyes away from his old lover, to look out upon the dance floor. “The same prize as ever – the Power to…”
“Goodbye, Touga.” Saionji turned on his heel. “And good luck. I hope you find what you want.” And he was gone, swallowed immediately by the swirling eddies of party guests.
Nanami found Touga there, moments later. “We’re down one. Not bad, really, if you think about it.” A bitter look passed across her face. “Not that Saionji could have won, anyway.”
Touga smiled sadly down at her, “No, no he couldn’t have won. He already had the Power. We couldn’t have given it to him again.” He offered his arm. Nanami hesitated, then threaded her own through it. “It will be our turn, soon.”
Nanami nodded, her lips tight.
Miki was too tired to dance any more. His face hurt from smiling, his brain hurt from parrying painful thoughts and feinting with banal chatter that struck too close to home. He could see the game now, and he didn’t much like it.
Leaning against a wall, he thought about leaving the party. Assuming he would be allowed to leave, he thought wearily. A flash of chestnut in the corner of his eye almost made him turn, but he knew that that wouldn’t be right. If Juri was here, he needed to stay as far away from her as possible.
His eyes roamed, unfocused, over the dance floor. There was an older woman, smiling unpleasantly at a boy young enough to be her son…there was a man and a woman locked in an intimate embrace…there was…there….
Miki pushed himself off the wall, leaving his drink behind on a random surface. He crossed the floor quickly. Before the middle-aged gentleman dressed in unremitting black knew what had happened, Miki had struck him.
“I believe the lady has indicated that she does not wish to dance with you.” Miki released the girl’s arm from the man’s and stepped in front of her.
The man in black, stood, brushed himself down and flashed an unpleasant smile. “We’re all Duelists here,” he began insinuatingly. “You know what that means.”
Miki’s voice was cold. “It means we’re expected to behave ourselves with decorum – or, at least, that’s what it meant in my years.”
The man in black snorted. “Oh, yes, *that’s* what it meant?” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and sneered. “In my years it meant power and the ability to seek more…it mean that we took whatever we wanted, it meant…”
Miki stood to his full height and took the man’s shoulder in his grasp, as he moved close, dipping his head to speak. “It meant,” he whispered softly into the man’s ear,” that we were trapped by our desires and it meant,” he let out a soft breath, “that the weakest of us never–even–realized–it.”
Miki stepped away, then turned to the lady in question. She wore gold-trimmed blue slacks and matching jacket, the gold chains on her arms shining gaily in the light from the chandeliers. “May I have this dance?” he asked with a bow. When she smiled and accepted, Miki felt something as close to happiness as he’d had in a very, very long time.
The night was passing gently, with music and wine and dance. There were fewer people on the dance floor, Juri noted. She saw Shiori spin past in the arms of a beautiful dark-skinned youth, whose pale lavender jacket complemented his hair perfectly. She shivered at a sudden draft from the window.
Taking a new flute of champagne from a tray, Juri looked around for a suitable dance partner…she had the sudden urge to throw herself into some physical activity that would inspire nothing more than insipid conversation. Anything, she prayed, anything to not *think.*
Three young men walked by, one vaguely familiar. Juri nodded at him and was rewarded with a nod in return, but the blond did not stop. She watched his back as it disappeared into the crowd, noting that he wore the same black uniform that Shiori had worn.
For a second, Miki came into view, but Juri carefully avoided his gaze. She didn’t think she could stand to dance with him, although she wouldn’t have been able to say why, if questioned.
When she was approached by a tall man whose pale grey eyes were already red in the early stages of drunkenness, Juri considered refusing the offer. Instead, she accepted, surprising both herself and the man – who clearly had come over on a whim expecting to be rejected.
As they walked together to the dance floor, Juri was overwhelmed with pity for her partner. He seemed a shadow when compared with those around him.
It took a moment before Juri realized she had been asked a question and another before she could bring herself to respond.
“Yes, I was fencing captain here, but I haven’t done that in a very, very long time.” She couldn’t keep the sadness she felt out of her voice.
“Hmmm, yes, I’ve heard the story, but it happened long before I attended.”
“No, I’m sorry – I don’t remember…”
His voice murmured, disappearing almost as soon as the words were spoken. Juri found it hard to keep her mind on him as she formed each response. Her sentences were growing shorter, his reactions more heated. At last, Juri simply stopped where they stood in the middle of the dance floor. She dropped one hand to her side, and slid the other hand down from her partner’s shoulder until it rested lightly on his breast pocket.
“No.” she said simply, flicked an unseen mote of dust off the man’s uniform jacket, then turned away with a feeling that she had been sent to sandblast an insect off a wall.
“Seriously?” The young blond looked down at his partner with wide eyes. “You’re older than I am?”
Hirofumi’s smile wasn’t really a pleasant one. “I was held back from school due to illness. I believe,” her eyes narrowed slightly, “I should have been in your class.” Her eyes sliced across his face, then diagonally down his lanky body, dismissing the neat black uniform.
“I would have been Treasurer…” she began, but thought better of it. “Or maybe not,” she forced a laugh.
“Maybe,” Tsuwabuki spoke hopefully, “we might have been friends if you had.”
Hirofumi’s eyes barely recognized her partner as she completed the dance. “Perhaps.” Her voice was cold as she made her point. “Perhaps not.”
The dance floor was much less crowded now. Miki could see people leaving the party, in pairs, alone, with friends. He wondered why he could not bring himself to leave, but the answer came plainly to him, as if spoken. After a moment of internal silence, Miki formed a prayer, something that did not come easy to him.
“Dear Gods,” he whispered, “Please save me from this travesty.”
He was tired, but over and over, he found himself accepting dance requests, or making requests of his own. Even simple conversation ceased to be pleasant, as he noticed the thrust and riposte of every sentence. Words rang in his head like clashing steel. He felt ready to scream. Abruptly, he headed for the balcony where, if he could not gain his freedom, he could at least see where it lay.
He was alone. A single champagne flute stood on the stone parapet, and Miki stared at it for a long time, wondering who else had sought comfort in the knowledge that an outside world existed, although for the moment, unattainable.
Time passed, but Miki had no way of knowing how long he stood by himself. Certainly his head felt clearer here in the fresh air and he had no wish to return to the party.
There was a noise of movement as someone joined him on the balcony. Miki did not turn around – perhaps refusal to acknowledge their challenge would offer him a reprieve. He was tired; too tired to fight anymore.
“Miki?” The voice was gentle, yet he recognized it immediately.
“What are *you* doing here?” His voice was more bitter than he would have liked, but he was through with pretense.
“Don’t be silly. I was a Duelist too. You should remember that. Don’t you remember?”
“I’m tired, Kozue. I don’t feel like paying games. What is it you want to tell me?”
“Tell you? Nothing – only, it’s been a long time since I saw you last. I had hoped we might…catch up on things.”
Miki leaned heavily on the balcony, then turned to face his sister. She looked startlingly like their mother, he realized. The years had been good to her – much of her youthful desperation had been altered into more positive ambition.
“You look good,” he admitted grudgingly. “Success looks good on you.”
“And you,” she said, her voice still soft and pleasant. As if there were not years of abuse and violence and self-hatred and mutual loathing, attempted suicide and attempted homicide, lying between them.
Miki took a deep breath and held out a hand. “Come on, Kozue – let’s go ‘catch up on things.’”
Nanami found her brother by the refreshment table this time, surrounded by a coterie of women. She watched with impatience as Touga encouraged their sycophancy. After a period of time just long enough to be seen as inconsiderate, Touga turned his attention to his sister. The women melted away into the crowd after one glance at the strikingly beautiful blonde. There was no point in competing to be second in the running.
“Well?” Touga asked shortly, lifting his glass to his mouth.
“Miki is gone. We’re down to one horse.”
Touga laughed. “I always did like longshots. And?”
“And the rest goes as planned,” Nanami shot back at her brother. “Look.”
The two turned their eyes towards the dance floor as couples met, merged and parted. Songs were played, dances were danced, and as time passed, fewer people remained.
“It seems to go well,” Touga became fascinated by the swirl of activity around a dark middle-aged man. “His name is…?”
“Tomino Takehito,” Nanami supplied. “He was involved in that scuffle with Miki earlier.”
Touga paused the glass on the way to his mouth. “Longshots indeed.” He murmured.
Takehito’s dance partner curtseyed prettily and left him, looking a little frightened. The man’s dark gaze strayed around the room, seemingly at random, but when he turned towards his hosts his eyes stopped their motion. With a flourish and a bow, Takehito acknowledged both Nanami and Touga, then spun on his heel and walked in the opposite direction.
Nanami watched the black uniform move into the distance. “I’m going to enjoy it when that one is defeated.”
Touga laughed into his glass.
Fifth & Sixth Match
Two couples spun by on the dance floor in perfect time, as if practicing for a synchronized dance competition. The older of the two men, with a gentle, round face and firm touch, led his partner in a complex series of moves which just skirted the edge of her abilities.
The second pair was no less sprightly, and while a casual observer would assume that it was the young man in scarlet who led, a more practiced eye would see that it was the woman. She, too, was older, with an expression of genial good will that exactly matched her husband’s, as did their soft dove-grey uniforms.
Their partners desperately sped up their footwork as the music gained urgency. The music moved towards a climax, and the young couple gave up all pretense of control; clinging to their partners for dear life as they were whirled into an apparently frenetic, yet controlled and choreographed finish.
The crowd around them applauded, as the younger couple, dizzy and confused, thanked the older couple. They had to be leaving to see to their children, or they would surely ask for another dance, they explained, and made their escape.
Goubou and Rinkei walked serenely to the drink table, simultaneously lifting two delicate glasses. With a quick, melodious tap of glass to glass and a smile, they drank their toasts to each other, then turned swiftly and moved back to the dance floor.
As Nanami walked across the floor, she was filled with trepidation at what she was about to attempt. She had long recognized that her social skills, polished as they seemed, were, in fact, highly superficial. She had played hostess many times, but how often had she attended a party hosted by anyone else? She wasn’t sure at all, how to approach another person, how to break the ice; they had always come to her.
She could see the slim black jacket back, and noted the long dark hair with some envy. Hands moved gracefully through the air as Shiori spoke, but the voice was not audible until Nanami was almost within reach of the woman. She opened her mouth to speak, but was spared the effort of breaking into the conversation. Shiori had turned around to face her with a welcoming smile and outstretched hands.
“Kiryuu Nanami-san!” Shiori took Nanami’s hand into her own, as if they were long-lost friends newly reunited. “You look wonderful! And what a fantastic party.” Shiori’s smile was charming, to all appearances sincere, and Nanami found herself returning it, then regretting it instantly. She was not here to become friends with this woman. She was here to remove her from the game.
As if she had heard Nanami’s thoughts, Shiori said, “I always did think it was a shame that we never became friends. After all, we were both only one step removed from important Council members.” She laughed, as if that had been an odd coincidence.
“Yes,” Nanami agreed. “But you were never on the Council yourself, were you?” She kept her voice mild as she continued, “You weren’t really a Duelist at all.”
Shiori’s smile faded and she dropped Nanami’s hands from her own. But then the smile returned – this time, as an older, more mature expression. “True,” she agreed pleasantly. But when I received the invitation, I wanted to,” she laughed at herself, “see everyone again.” She paused and placed a hand on her chest. “You’re right, though, I never really was part of this. At that time, there was something I thought was important enough to fight over, but now, it just seems…” she paused, lengthening the silence, until Nanami’s tension was visible upon her face. “Silly,” she finished smoothly. She bowed to Nanami.
Nanami inclined her head. “It was good to see you, Tatatsuki-san.”
“You too, Kiryuu-san.” And Shiori turned her back on Nanami, dismissing her and everything in the room, all at once.
Touga had his arm across the older man’s shoulder. To all intents and purposes, they appeared drunk. Touga said something, at which the older gentlemen laughed. Touga spoke again, and the flush the passed across the other man’s face was visible to anyone facing in that general direction.
The two men moved off together, laughing, arm in arm. When the door to the library closed behind them, there was no one to see it. And some time later, when the door re-opened, and Touga moved into the hallway, buttoning up his jacket, the only thing that registered his motion was the mirror on the wall.
“It is periwinkle,” the words were said with a smile, but the challenge was implicit. “My mother’s favorite color. It is also a European flower.”
The young woman looked perplexed. Her dance partner seemed handsome enough, but every time he opened his mouth – despite the perfect Japanese in which he spoke – his words seemed completely foreign.
“A flower is a color?” she asked.
“The flower is the color, and so the color came to be named after the flower.”
“But which came first?” she asked, dizzied by the difficulty of the conversation. The black eyes and black hair were so beautiful, she thought, and those red lips so distracting, that it was hard to pay attention to the actual words.
“I don’t think it matters, do you? All that matters,” the black eyes burned into hers as the young Frenchman spun her into a tight embrace, “Is that you remember what it is called. My jacket is not blue,” his teeth gleamed. “It is periwinkle.”
When the dance was over, the young woman was overcome with the desire to return home. It had been a long night and all the names and faces were beginning to blur. As she made her excuses, she remembered the last vestiges of her manners. “I’m sorry, I seem to have forgotten – what did you say your name was?”
That smile struck again, and she had to force herself to hear the words over the hum in her brain. “Guillaume,” he was saying. “You can call me Guy.”
Juri had just about decided to make her excuses and leave, when a man in the uniform of one of the waiters found her. His words were whispered, for her ears only, but as she listened and her eyebrows rose, she could see that there were now very few people left to overhear.
“A private gathering?” She laughed at the man, who responded only with blank indifference. “Me?” She shook her head in disbelief. “Touga wants *me* to join *him*?” The smile on her face never reached her eyes as she laughed once again. “I could hardly pass up such a kind invitation.”
Even as the words left her lips, she felt uneasy. Whatever there might have been between her and Touga, it was long over before she had left Ohtori. It was probably over before it even started, if she were to be honest. But there it was – Touga had asked and she had agreed. Now she would have to carry this farce through to the end, whatever that might be.
“Please follow me,” the waiter said, and walked away from the diminishing crowd, down a long corridor. The walls between the columns disappeared, leaving the walkway open to the night breeze, which was redolent with honeysuckle and wet earth. Juri breathed deeply, remembering the smell with pleasure – until the memories came back; of that smell, mingled with exhaust, cologne and fear.
She covered her mouth with her handkerchief and kept her eyes on the back of the man in front of her.
After a few moments, Juri was able to make out a small, tiled courtyard, intimately lit by torches in wall sconces. Several faces turned as she entered, wreathed with pleasant smiles. She was surprised to recognize so few of them.
“Juri-san, you’ve decided to join us!” There was no mistaking the pleasure in Touga’s voice, or the welcoming gesture of arms spread, but Juri did not feel comforted by either.
“Touga, Nanami.” Juri bowed slightly to the only people she knew in the space, then turned her face individually to each of the gathered Duelists and introduced herself, her years and what position she had held in the Council. Name, rank and serial number, she thought acidly.
Touga stepped up lightly and introduced the others, but the names slipped away as they were spoken. Enjoying his position as host, Touga encouraged the others to drink and eat and dance, but he seated himself in a white iron chair and contented himself with smiling at them.
“Won’t our gracious host be dancing then?” An elderly woman asked with a smile.
“Perhaps later,” Touga said agreeably.
Juri’s attention was taken by the elderly gentleman wearing a grey uniform. “Do you dance?” he asked, laying his hand unthreateningly upon Juri’s elbow and gesturing to the open area in the center of the courtyard.
Juri looked directly into his eyes, which were on a level with hers, and saw nothing there that could be mistaken for a threat. “I’d be delighted,” she replied automatically.
Goubou bowed formally and held out his arms, Juri gave the barest of curtseys and stepped into position. The moment her hand touched his, she realized what she had gotten herself into. As they entered the dance, Juri’s eyes caught Touga’s glance, and the subsequent self-satisfied smile that crossed his face.
“So,” Juri turned her attention fully to her partner, seeking a way to test him without giving herself away. “It must be interesting for you to return to Ohtori for such a gala event.”
Goubou’s smile was open. “Oh, we come back from time to time – we like to keep our hand in with current events here.”
“So, you are still Duelists, you and your wife?” A soft probe, looking for a weakness.
“It might be more accurate to say that we are…” Goubou hesitated for a second too long.
“In the game?” Juri asked, her tone neutral.
Goubou’s face might have darkened at that, but it was hard to tell in the light from the torches. Instead he gestured with his shoulder and asked, “Aren’t we all?”
Juri’s gaze lingered on the older man for one long moment. Shaking her head, she allowed her eyes to drift over to where Touga sat, grinning at the dancers as they passed him. “No,” she said, “not all of us.”
As they passed by, both Juri and Goubou could see Touga rise and head towards the attractive foreigner who sat, alone, at the far end of the courtyard.
Laughing Juri said, “And not all of us want the same thing. Goubou-san – what is it you are playing for?”
Nanami wasn’t really sure what to make of this – was dancing with another woman too…something she was unwilling to think about?
She *was* sure that she had begun to loathe Horinuku Rinkei and her jocular husband, their unwavering good humor and their hubris. *That* she was sure of.
Rinkei had grabbed her by the hand and dragged her onto the dance floor, and Nanami, too well trained to stumble, followed; but underneath the cold civility with which she responded to Rinkei’s questions, she was seething. Whether she was angry at herself for feeling so foolish, or Rinkei for making her feel so, or her brother for being the person he was, was another thing about which Nanami was both unsure and unwilling to probe.
With a half an eye on the others who danced, and at least a quarter of an eye on her brother, who was busy seducing the beautiful Frenchman in the corner, Nanami decided that subtlety had no place in her life. This tediously cheerful woman who spun and twirled her like a rag doll needed to be removed. Immediately.
Nanami was dragged upright after a twirl. She used her free hand to flick back her hair and that smile which she had not used once this evening, switched on. She looked into Rinkei’s eyes with a sultry glance – enough raw sexuality to stop any man, and all but the dullest woman in their tracks. Rinkei’s eyes widened, and Nanami was once again pulled in close.
Lowering her eyelashes slightly, Nanami looked up into the older woman’s eyes. “What,” she breathed quietly, “will you do with the Power, when you get it?”
Rinkei’s reaction was all Nanami had hoped for. When a person’s fighting style is that subtle, a blunt object can, and will, make a significant impact. The older woman pushed away from the blonde, and stood, staring at her, shocked.
“What will I do with what?” But the question came a beat too late.
Nanami laughed cruelly. “I’m sure I can guess.” She glanced at Juri, who stood just outside Goubou’s reach, her beautiful, sculpted face, as cold as Nanami had always remembered it.
“What do you think, Juri-san?” Nanami called over to the older woman. Chestnut curls caught fire in the light of the torches, then subsided immediately as Juri turned to face the blonde Duelist. “Immortality for these two?”
Juri said nothing, but the look on the older couple’s faces spoke volumes.
“How many decades have you been playing, I wonder?” Nanami spit out. “Well, I’m tired of it and you already. You’ve lost – go home.” And with that, Nanami spun around to look for her brother – who was nowhere to be seen.
Hirofumi watched the older couple grab their things and leave in a huff, but never lost her step, or her grip on her partner. He was tall, dark and handsome, or would have been but for the self-important sneer he habitually wore. His dancing was decent, but his attempts at dominating her were laughable. She had grown up as the only daughter in a family of seven children. There was little she did not know about men and their ways of dealing with women.
“Takehito-san, I hear you were the Council President in your senior year?”
The man preened. Oh yes, Hirofumi, she thought to herself – flattery will get you everywhere with this one.
“Yes, actually, from my junior year on.” His eyes met hers meaningfully and she pretended to be impressed.
“Really? How did that come about?” She herself had been Treasurer from first year, as had her predecessor. Her thoughts moved to her earlier encounter with Kaoru Miki. He did not, apparently, make it this far. Hirofumi shrugged internally, while Takehito continued tell her of his exploits. She had no time for weak men and Kaoru had been weak.
And she was bored with this one. His self-important prattle was dull. It was time to end it and join the winners in the semi-final round. She was finished playing with this inferior Duelist.
Hirofumi’s eyes lighted on Nanami, who still stood where she had been when the older couple had left. As if it were a battle aura, her indignation and anger stood out around her, flaming in the torchlight. Now there, Hirofumi thought, there is an opponent, worthy of my time.
Takehito’s hand slipped from her back, past her waist, making an inevitable voyage towards her backside. Stepping back from Takehito, Hirofumi neatly disengaged from what he obviously assumed was an unbreakable, or irresistible, embrace. She lifted her hand casually, almost not noticing that his fingers were still caught up in it. Effortlessly, Hirofumi forced Takehito to his toes as the pressure she applied threatened to dislocate or break several of his finger joints.
“Woops,” she said, and flicked her hand with an apologetic smile. Turning towards Nanami, she caught the blonde’s eyes and smiled at her. “Excuse me – I just have to get rid of a little trash here. Then perhaps you and I could have a chat?” Nanami’s smile was most gratifying, thought Hirofumi. Most definitely gratifying.
By the time Touga returned, alone, he could not help but notice the significantly reduced numbers in the courtyard.
“Where is…what was his name?” Nanami asked.
“His name *is* Guy, he’s a beautiful young man and he is currently…well,” Touga pushed his hair back from his face with a cryptic smile. “It hardly matters. I see you have managed to chase off our guests, dear sister? I hope you played fair.”
“Of course not.” Nanami snapped. “This is your stupid game. I decline to play at all.”
“I’m delighted to hear that,” Rinkei said, stepping into the courtyard from outside. “On both counts.” She turned to Touga, as an athlete does to a referee. “I claim a foul and demand satisfaction.”
Touga looked from one woman to the other, then shrugged. “I’m sorry Nanami, I’ll have to disqualify you.”
“Thank god for that,” Nanami spun on her heel and strode out of the courtyard without a backwards glance. “I’ll leave you to it, shall I?”
In a few seconds, the sound of her shoes on the tiles had dissipated into the night, and there were four.
“Can we *please,*” Hirofumi spoke quite suddenly into the silence, “dispense with the nonsense?” Her body language was aggressive, but wary. “We’re Duelists, after all.”
Rinkei turned towards Touga. “I concur – we can decide this much more quickly with a simple fencing match.”
Touga turned to the fourth of their group. “Juri-san?”
“I don’t care,” she answered. “I don’t care at all.” But the only reaction she received was three disbelieving smiles.
“I challenge you,” Hirofumi faced off with Juri, eagerness apparent in her voice.
“Do you agree?” Touga asked.
Juri shrugged then, after a moment, nodded. Touga clapped his hands and swords, but not masks or gloves, were brought forward. Juri lifted a sword and inspected it – the tip was sharp enough to cut the skin. She nodded and moved the sword around in her hand. It would do.
Hirofumi finished her practice swings and nodded in Touga’s direction. “But,” she asked, looking around. “Where are our roses…and where is the Rose Bride?”
Rinkei laughed and answered before Touga could say a word. “It’s first blood, child – and the Rose Bride is long gone.”
“Then…the Power?” Hirofumi was confused now; the rules had changed too fast for her to comprehend.
“Oh…” Touga’s voice was languid. “It’s there to be won.”
Hirofumi turned to face Juri, but it was obvious she was not as sure as she had been. Juri stood immobile, her sword at the ready. As the younger woman leapt forward, Juri found herself responding to the motion reflexively, as if the years since she had last taken up a sword had never passed. It could have been any day in high school, when she had been considered one of the finest fencers in the country. But this, she reminded herself, as the tip of Hirofumi’s blade passed just shy of her ear, was not fencing. This was Dueling – and there was a palpable difference.
“Why?” panted Hirofumi, her eyes dark with resentment of the confidence that was visible in every line of her opponent’s stance. “You don’t even want the Power – why do you bother to fight for it?”
The question bothered Juri. She parried the younger woman’s attacks without her full concentration. She didn’t know why she was fighting now, anymore than she knew why she had come at in the first place.
Why couldn’t that be the reason, though? Juri allowed herself to be backed up across the courtyard, watching Hirofumi, waiting for her to give herself away, as she pondered the question. Perhaps, because she was a Duelist, this was what she was meant to do? Jumping back from a low attack Juri answered, “I don’t know. And until I do know – I duel.”
Hirofumi drew back in surprise at the words, coming some minutes after the initial question. “You’re dueling to find out why you duel?” Hirofumi gasped. “That doesn’t make any sense!”
Juri shrugged. “No, I guess it doesn’t.” And she stepped forward to press an attack against the already winded girl. It wouldn’t be long now, Juri thought. Upwards, side, thrust, any second Hirofumi would make the mistake that would end the match. Juri’s eyes were analytical tools, taking in foot placement, body movement, arms, head, eyes…there!
Juri stepped to the side as the younger woman thrust forward overhand. With a quick snap, Juri dropped the pommel of her sword, slicing upwards with the tip, catching Hirofumi along the inner arm towards the wrist. The sharp edge of the blade bit into the girl’s skin, just deep enough, just firmly enough, to leave a visible gash just outside the vein. If the girl were lucky, it might not scar. Pulling her hand back towards herself, Juri thought – if she were luckier, it would.
Rinkei saluted Touga, who returned the salute with a bow. They stood facing each other for a long, long moment. Neither moved – neither breathed, it seemed.
Time stretched out, while each waited for the other to move, for the second *before* the movement, for the match to be over before it had begun.
Juri drank from a fresh glass; cold water with lemon – very refreshing – and turned her attention to the two stone Duelists in the center of the courtyard. Lifting the glass to her lips, she began to drink without pausing, until the last drop was gone from the glass. She set the glass down on the table, where the ice settled with an audible clink.
Rinkei, lowered her sword slowly and bowed.
“Perhaps next time?” she asked with a rueful smile.
“Perhaps,” Touga responded graciously. He held out a hand, and helped the older woman into her coat, then saw her out of the courtyard. When he returned Juri stood in the center of the courtyard, waiting for him.
“If you meant it to end like this all along,” she spoke slowly, as if to a child, “why go through all of the rest of it?”
Touga’s smile was maddening. “What fun would that be?” He took up his sword once again, and set it in position. “We never dueled, you and I. Surely you wondered as well, which one of us would win?”
Juri’s surprise at the question was genuine. “No. Did you?”
Touga’s only response was the smile.
Juri lifted the sword, and looked at it. Thinner than her own sword, no edges of note, only a razor sharp point. Not truly a saber. Her eyes flicked to the katana her opponent held, then back to her weapon. “No, I don’t suppose you would.”
Her sword lifted in salute, then dropped it in challenge and she moved. It had to be fast, or he would overpower her. It had to be smooth, or he would counter her – and his blade could cut through her own. It had to be immediate…and it had to be final.
They moved towards each other at a run, their blades moved, their bodies passed and time stopped.
Standing on the opposite end of the courtyard near the entrance, Juri let the sword fall from her hands with a laugh of pure joy. Empty-handed, she turned to face her implacable enemy.
Touga turned to face her, his sword by his side, his mouth curled into a sneer. “You missed.”
Juri laughed and held up her sleeve where his sword had passed through the material. “No blood. You lose.” And she laughed again. “I understand it now, though – why I fought tonight. Why I came here at all.” She turned away and took a few steps towards the exit. “Oh, I suppose I should ask…may I keep these?” And she held up a long lock of red hair.
Touga’s hand flew to his head, where a noticeable gap in the hair in front of his eyes now resided. His eyes narrowed.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Juri turned away for the last time. “Thank you for the lovely party. Don’t invite me again, I won’t come back.” She lifted the hand that held his hair and waved over her shoulder as she walked away into the night.
It was so late that early morning traffic was already filling the roads. The eastern sky was visibly grey, as trucks passed them, moving as quickly as they could to reach their destination.
Despite her exhaustion, Juri was in no great rush. She stared down at the hair on her lap and thought about someone who had very, very different hair. Someone with bright, cheerful eyes, a charming smile and warm, welcoming arms that would embrace her when she returned. And she thought about the reason she left in the first place – the reason she fought.
“I did it,” she told the hair, as she lowered the window and let go of the lock one strand at a time, letting the wind carry it away, “to prove to myself that you had nothing – nothing at all – that I wanted.” The last strand of hair lifted itself into the wind and disappeared behind as they drove on, away from a past that held no power over her…into a future she embraced with everything she had in her.
“That’s the real Power to Revolutionize the World,” she laughed, closed the window, and lay back in the seat for a nap.