The flames, that night, burned thick with magic and hot as the sun. Hot enough to brand lingering snow upon the world, never to melt. Hot enough to leave corpses perfect mummies in the ashes, bound by the rings upon their fingers. Hot enough to melt the professor's mind.
Hot enough that those who were normal, unmarked by seals and spells, flashed away in an instant. Burst to white light, leaving nothing behind, not even ashes. Nothing but their shadows, seared where they'd been cast, eternal.
The chairman's aide adjusted the golden garters on his sleeves and picked through the rubble, slowly, counting. Eighty-seven. Eighty-eight. Not that he couldn't manage if all hundred weren't perfectly preserved, but it would be good to know just how much fuel had made it into his little cache. The professor was--not exactly well, no, but what he needed of him. All that was left was the counting.
He thought little enough of the first shadow. By the time he found the third, her slender fingers flickering where they were cast on a broken bit of marble, twisting in the unnatural weight of his own shadow, he had begun to laugh.
Michie didn't know the other two girls, not at first. They were friends, certainly, best friends for years, living in each other's pockets and dancing hand in hand down the halls. Even the tall solemn echoing halls of the special research building where they all snuck in to visit their boyfriends, slick floors that rung at the slightest footstep, thick smell of microfilm fixer wafting through. Michie would look into polished marble to make sure her headband was straight and listen to them whispering in the corner, giggling in perfect unison--
"Did you see, Aya, did you see?"
"What what what?"
"My boyfriend was holding another boy's hand! Ahhhhh, no wonder he keeps saying he won't go all the way with me--but he still keeps me around, the playboy!"
"Oh no, Emi! You must dump him immediately! In front of everybody! The shame, the shame. Buuut."
A giggle. "Buuut?"
Stage whisper. "I think I saw mine holding a boy's hand too."
Gasp! "Maybe they were holding each other's hands!"
"Maybe they're best friends too!"
In unison. "Ahhhhh, no wonder they understand us so well!"
Michie smoothed her hair back and twirled the tip of her ponytail around her finger and wondered why they were even there. Taking the risk just to fool around. The research building was strictly off limits to everyone but the boys who worked there, the close-mouthed handsome boys with their brazen confidence and pretty rings and smirks tugging at their mouths. Nobody knew what was going on there, she was pretty sure she'd seen somebody wheeling a coffin by in the middle of the night and she really didn't want to think about it. She loved him, her Osamu, she would put everything on the line for their love.
Not that she had much to put on the line, really. No friends. She wasn't even sure what Osamu felt for her, she was so awkward with people, he wasn't the confessing type--maybe he was just using her, maybe. But he was the only one who talked to her. Weird girl, monkey girl, sits with her legs all funny, wears woolen underwear. Shame, shame.
The part where they woke up afterwards was--blurry. Painful. Strange images filling their minds, roses and swords, light glimmering off fantastic uniforms, the glowing towers of eternity, illusions, illusions; the truth behind it, raw, overwhelming, blood dripping off glimmering swords, the bare skin of the Bride, the Gate, everything. Michie never liked to think on it. Particularly not the part where the End of the World carefully peeled up their shadows like water-soaked labels off a jar, his long fingers sliding under the skin of their being--no, they were all skin now, nothing else left--and pinning them up neatly against a smooth wall the next building over.
They saw, they knew, flickering echoes of living stories, and they began to move upon that wall, easier on the smooth marble in the sunset light, find their voices, find words in their reeling minds. And Akio laughed, low and brief, a little smile on his lips.
"It's been some time since this happened, and longer still since I did it on purpose. Very well. This game shall have a chorus. You should already understand your place well enough."
"You'd better not have done it on purpose," Emi muttered. "Jerk."
Michie stretched out her fingers very long, turned her hair into ears, tried to give herself a face but it didn't work.
"And you should understand also what I do," Akio said. "Even if you're too childish to accept it."
"Suuure," said Aya. "Jerk."
"You will know everything, and yet be powerless to speak of it openly, for you have been burned into the fabric of this place and cannot break its rules. That is your tragedy."
Aya just giggled at him, hands on her hips, head cocked to one side. "So we have been transformed into magic people! Can we have code names? Can I be A-ko?"
"That doesn't come out for fifteen years," Emi stage-whispered.
"We can see the futuuuuuuure~"
Akio raised a brow, mouth quirking, at the silly little girls who didn't face the brutal reality before them, who thought lonely eternity made them superheroes. Aya and Emi laced their fingers together in perfect girlish union, Michie just scuffed her heels on nothingness, but they knew, they all knew, they didn't even need to say it. They'd already realized they could reshape their shadows, cast an image of anything they liked. Nobody knows implications like a high-school girl, how to make somebody question the sweetest laugh. Only powerless to speak of it openly.
Osamu--must have cared for her after all. Michie didn't really, properly realize until later. Much later. After she'd already gotten used to being called C-ko by the others, constantly, wedded to their silly code-names. Silly wonderful code-names that let them forget they'd been human, because remembering hurt, so very much.
It had been in Osamu's contract, after all. All hundred of them--death by fire, glorious resurrection, eternity and miracles, scam, endless scam. They'd had this big party, she and Aya and Emi had all gotten to sneak in, and it was glorious, scandalous, Emi started getting them to play kissing games--and when it was over the other two snuck off with theirs, she'd never known what had happened. And she'd followed Osamu with stars in her eyes, he'd turned on her angry, told her to go, that he couldn't tell her why, and she'd thought he was dumping her and clung to his arm and wept, and--and--
Then the alarms had started.
She could make it so that nobody heard her at all, she discovered. Not even the other two, not even Akio. Hiding in the depths of a closed cabinet, no light, silence. It was good for crying.
They experimented with performances, found the results disheartening, and pestered Akio on his car phone for clarifications.
"Only special people can see you," Akio said.
They conversed in a flowerpot and came back later with exceptions.
"Only certain special people."
C-ko spent the next week stalking the line-faced green-haired boy in elementary school and putting ears on his stubbornly oblivious shadow. Chu. Chu.
They experimented with performances, and found just how openly they could speak. Not much at all. So little that it burned, frustrated them at every turn, A-ko and B-ko gave up for months and played princes and thieves on the colonnade walls as the Bride knelt and pushed rose seeds deep into the rich dark earth with one small finger. Watched them, tilted her head, smiled her empty smile.
They knew, of course. They knew everything. They saw her true shadow, thick with blades like a porcupine. Saw the annoyance, the disdain, the oblivion in other girls' eyes. The world hated her, and didn't know why.
They hated her, and knew exactly why, and knew it wasn't even their own feeling, and still. Melted into the storybook world, trapped in it like kicking birds, forgetting what wings were.
C-ko stood up one sunset. Gathered herself and smoothed her edges out perfect and her ponytail extra curly and stood. She'd never performed much, never put on a show, that was what the other two did. Just played in the shadows by herself. Played monkeys and robots and nothing that made sense to anyone but her. But she stood, just for the other two. "Extra, extra, extra!" Put on a jacket and tie and clutched her head in her hands.
"Ah, woe is me, woe is me! I who was once known as a genius has failed my college entrance exams! What can I possibly do? Nobody will help me now, nobody will love me now!"
Setting bravely forth on her journey. "Mr. Important-salaryman-san, would you please let me work for you?"
Making herself very fat with the jacket and tie. "No, you have failed your college entrance exams, you could never be good enough for this!"
Droop. Regather. Stride forth. Hands clasped in earnesty. "Mr. American-university-san, would you please let me study with you?"
Also fat with the jacket and tie with an eagle on her arm. "No, you have failed your college entrance exams, you could never be good enough for this!"
Droop and clutch her head. Regather. Slink forth. Hands clasped in desperation. "Mrs. Corner-shop-san, would you please let me run errands for you?"
Flowery dress, a hat, a big bundle of roses in her hand. "No, you have failed your college entrance exams, you could never be good enough for this!"
"You're a florist," B-ko muttered, and laughed.
They couldn't speak openly. Just make people question. B-ko made a slot machine and A-ko dramatically clutched her single last quarter in front of it, prostrate and reaching for the heavens. What else could they do?
Akio created the system, story and stage alike, yet he did not know its deepest secrets. They could see the future, all the potential paths on story and stage alike, yet it was not fixed. It took them all years to figure that part out.
Utena's path went further than anyone else's. Oh poor and meddlesome hero, to let the Bride have a taste of true friendship. "She could be the prince," C-ko said, kicking her feet in the air. It would be marvelous, after all, to free Anthy from him. Such perfect revenge. A-ko and B-ko were certainly plotting it, whispering behind their hands.
"Except she can't!" A-ko chirped. "Well. What do we mean by prince, after all?"
"Every prince is a horse," B-ko muttered.
"Not Utena!" A-ko said brightly, patting her shoulder.
"Well what's she then."
C-ko held up a finger. "A car."
"You're always so weird..."
Fitting, C-ko supposed, that when the weird came out to play, the lonely, the girls with no friends or funny legs or shame--then they let her take the stage. Flew off to be space aliens together (even thought C-ko was the space alien in the movie, but she didn't want to be a space alien, they'd be better space aliens, they said.)
So she played with them. She liked it. It was good. Utena saw her better than most, she really did. Hope was a fragile, painful thing.
"But it breaks my heart to see you like this," Tokiko murmured, as if she could see her, as if she knew everything, and C-ko felt the wall tremble where her heart was cast, and thought of her father who would make shadow animals on the wall when he came home from work too late for dinner, when she was about to go to bed, when she curled up with her teddy-chan and wiggled her toes under the kotatsu, she thought of her mother who would arrange her headband and do her hair just so in the bathroom mirror over their narrow sink, years, countless years, countless sunsets down an arched hallway with the golden clouds drifting over the ends of their world, they must have put up a headstone without a body, they must have wept, would they be old now, old and gray, Tokiko had been so young once and Mama already had those little wrinkles around her mouth--
C-ko put one hand up, then the other. Kept her chin up high, picked up her knees. She was playing a robot, the show must go on. Well. She was no longer playing a robot. Just the girl inside the robot, her robot shadow gone, but the dance didn't change. One hand after another. Never weep.
C-ko napped after Mikage's graduation for a while, curled in her old locker with Utena's extra sneakers--no, that hadn't been by chance either, girls sharing lockers decades apart, nothing was by chance here, that was part of the magic of the place. She was tired. So tired. Lulled and drifted listening to A-ko and B-ko chatting outside in the cloudy afternoon, blurry and distant.
"...I'm still not sure she got it."
"It's not her fault, he was playing his cards too close to his chest. Jeez, you'd think being about to die would make a guy be honest for once, but no. Men."
"...we should tell her."
They were so tired afterwards, flickering on even the smoothest walls. Casting themselves off campus, even to the hospital just down the road, was like running a marathon, C-ko had never even managed it. A-ko and B-ko slithered back and rested in the dark cozy depths of the locker with her, and she never asked how the show had gone, but she was sure they'd done it perfectly. Voice bright, chin up, no matter how much it hurt. They were mighty. They were pros.
"...oh my god seriously what even is a coelacanth..."
"Never mind that, is she seriously going to..."
"...uh, we could always see the future, you know."
With only one duel left, they started to get--fussy. Had Utena truly gone far enough, would she start the duel called revolution? They could see the future, yet it was not fixed. She was doing well, but A-ko and B-ko lay about with towels on their heads and their feet in the air, nobody could tell whether it was well enough.
So there was really only one thing to do. C-ko got to be the princess. Which was nice, really, it was a simple role without much dramatic meat--as A-ko expounded as she claimed the meaty role of the little sister, with her reveal and transformation, not a typical cast for the young ingenue like herself, but she's ambitious, after all--but C-ko was happy to be the princess. Somebody normal. Somebody loved.
"Can I be the Prince, can I be the Prince?"
"B-ko, I thought all princes were horses."
Just the introduction wore them out, A-ko and B-ko. They'd never made themselves solid before, solid in front of the big classroom windows, filled in their bodies, C-ko wished she could have seen it. Utena was falling deeper and deeper into illusions, further and further towards the truth, that at least helped. Chalking up the background, moving the chairs in, putting the spots on the audience--that was C-ko's job. At least nobody was looking at her. "What could not be told until now! The Tale of the Rose!" But one must give their all to a performance.
They couldn't even tell it properly, after all. Not even a little bit. Only dancing on Akio's shadowbox, only allowed to speak the simplest telling. But maybe they could stir something up. "Beware, beware! You too must beware!" To sweeten the taste of true friendship.
Utena left, and they fussed over auditions and left all their props out and bit their nails. The future still wasn't written, the future was beyond even their sight, as the wheel spun round and round. Still, as C-ko pointed out, it was a good sign.
Anthy left, and they danced in the full light of the sun, hot and brazen. They had already burnt, after all, they had hidden their blank faces from the sun for decades like shy girls holding out their first love letters--what had they to lose? Now, now when things were set right?
It wasn't easy, for them to come up to the chairman's room. Light and shadow there were so treacherous, after all, illusions everywhere, with the brutal backing of Akio's will. But they knew the truth, they could manage it if they wanted to.
Akio flung teacups at them. Saucers. His computer. Anthy's glasses, already cracked and fading. Every bit of his cool shattered, a drunken ne'er do well raging. They laughed, unharmed--what could he do to them, after all?
"You knew--useless misbegotten wenches, giggling frills--you knew Anthy would leave me and you didn't tell me?!"
A-ko draped on one of her shoulders, B-ko on the other. C-ko put an arm around each of their waists and smiled, small and real and bright, lost in the shadow of her face where nobody would ever see--but maybe, just maybe, the other two knew, they were her only friends after all, more or less.
"Well," she said innocently, "we couldn't speak of it openly, after all. That was our tragedy."