Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn't there,
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away..
"I'm only nine years old," Utena Tenjou hears from her headphone. "I've just finished grade four." She glances at the monitor; in the battle royale game she's playing, she has queued up with a random player.
Hearing that line, from a voice so young - it feels to her like not too long ago, when she was in the garden, the roses sweet under the dewdrops, and Anthy attending to them.
When she struggled for Anthy's soul, through all the duels she's had with her classmates. Saionji.. Touga.. Nanami..
When she received Anthy's stab of betrayal as she was about to protest that Anthy is a person, like any other.
It's been 22 years. In Utena's pasttime, in her apartment, she hops on her computer for online gaming, as a way to unwind before she has to fight her alarm early morning. Here, it's one of the latest crazes, Fortnite. Players fight to the death on the island, with the ability to build walls, floors and stairs at will.
"You sound old," her duo partner says.
"No," Utena goes, with a hint of falsetto, "I'm actually only 16. And I suck at this game."
Sometimes, as Utena tries drifting away to sleep, she clutches at the pillow beside her, and for a faintest moment, feels Anthy, like a warm, comforting presence - before realising that it's just an empty pillow.
Sometimes, when she isn't weighted down by worries like her investments in a world gone mad, she dreams of feeling as youthful and alive as she was, when she really was a prince, saving everyone she cares about. It's hard, it's like a permanent drowsiness weighing her down, unless she drinks coffee - like a vice as sinful as cigarettes. Under caffeine's influence, she'd feel awake, and then find anxiety churning in her nerves, and then she'd snap at people, the printer at work which fails to do its job properly about 35% of the time (Utena mentally calculated that).
Sometimes, she'd reach down, inching gently between her legs, and recall the way Kaneki wanted her, being truly loved by another filling that aching void in her heart, before their marriage dissolved - the divorce papers signed, and Utena clutching onto the origami tiger he once made for her (a present), not even sure if she ought to throw it away, and then crying in the washroom.
And other times, the day passes. Tomorrow, she hopes to get that promotion, it would mean getting the weekends off, and being able to pay for a visit Ohtori Academy.. what remains of it, at least.
By the train station, she crams herself in, before the station officals shove the hordes of people into whatever space is left. Always, different faces each time. Once, it felt like someone kept molesting her butt under her skirt, and it turned out to be a young woman who was hastily texting her family.
It's pointless to put on perfume until after arriving at work, where Utena pulls out her bottle of Etoile (Fragonard), and surrepetitiously sprays herself on the neck and hair. It smells almost like the rose garden, lush and sweet.
She's a QA analyst at From Software. They're in the midst of making Eternum Souls, a gothic-themed game, and it's hard as heck. She admires the spooky design of the monsters, and the way the main character thrusts the rapier, but testing out the same section of area, over and over again can really wear out the novelty. It takes ten to fifteen playthroughs if she's lucky, until there are no bugs or design errors present - other times, the bosses are damn frustrating (one is a giant slug!), and her feedback gets ignored along the lines of "This is intentional, you just need to try harder."
One day, at her desk, while Utena holds the controller and tries rolling her character through a portcullis maze - she overhears the VA director: "Where is Miss Sayaka? I've been calling and texting her the last half-hour, she still hasn't shown! Oh, we're in for it now.. we have no one else on our roster to voice Elena.."
Utena's mind sparked. The end portion of the game isn't done yet, Elena is the arch-boss, and she's supposed to be a conceited, devious bitch, who Sayaka (a respected VA) is meant to handle.
But Utena has her own ideas for how Elena might be voiced..
She gets up from her station and approaches the VA director, a fire in her steps. "Sir - I have an interest in voice acting. I do it sometimes for fun on YouTube; let me be your Elena!"
The VA director and his goonies glance at each other. "But you're in the QA department.. you want to voice a key role in the game?"
Utena isn't going to be taken aback by their reluctance.
"I know who Elena's supposed to be. She's the sinister witch, responsible for the devestation of millions of lives; for making the world look like the bleak hellhole it is. She'll gleefully toss aside another million if it means finding her lost love, lost to the grave - believe me, I've been inside the game and out."
Sayaka Hashimoto has been known to be notoriously late, and why not, now that she's the unanimous voice of dozens of beloved femme leads.
"I can draw, I've done sound design.." Utena is being over her head now. "You'd be a fool to look me over!"
But she's impressed the VA director enough with her fiery assertion, and before she knows it, finds herself in the dimly lit recording booth, the lines she's supposed to read highlighted under the light, as she has several images and renders of Elena for her reference.
Utena nudges her sternum. She's repeated lines of the characters she's loved on YouTube, but this is something different, it's conjuring up a new, original character through the power of one's voice..
"Let me desire my lost love, once more-'
Maybe Utena has stumbled upon Elena's spirit. She is summoning the deepest recesses of her soul, the years of pain and passion, as she recites the lines - in accordance with the VA director's suggestions.
Beyond the obviously evil layer of Elena, there is downwardly a romantic aura about her, as if she wants to wear her heart on her sleeve, for just the right one..
"Yes, excellent! It's a wrap!"
The VA director cheers, and with that, a relief over Utena - her brow is sweaty, her breath trembling, voice acting is much more of an exercise than it initally seems. With that, Utena finds a part of her soul, being quenched in the creative process, yet also inviting further exploration into those parts yet unanswered..
At home, Utena tries to summon Anthy's voice in herself, but she's forgotten what Anthy sounds like, besides that she had a soft inflection upon her words, a timidity that belies her sensitivity and thoughtfulness.
She hops on Fortnite, and there, as she struggles with the building mechanics, she finds a man who plays. He is more confident than her in the game - he is basically summoning the Taj Mahal in every battle, overwhelming the enemy in superior positioning, and led her into her third victory royale.
It is something she admired, and so added him to her friends list.
"You remind me of someone," Utena says. "Someone I knew."
"Oh really? What's he like?"
"He's a nerd. He loves being in the library, typing his research reports, and being like a living computer."
"Hmm." A long beat. "I believe you might very well have described me. I used to be a school librarian. Was doing my Masters on the weight of a human soul."
"Who are you?" Utena asks, the computer screen shining her face, her reading glasses (she's grown far-sighted).
"I am Nemuro. Your friends had confided their deepest pain to me, and I promised them a solution - a possible road to eternity. All it took was the chance of defeating you in the duel for the rose bride.. Utena."
His words shake Utena to the core, such that she immediately closes out of the game, and goes through the coffee maker machine so that a steaming how French vanilla mocha would sooth her nerves. And as she leans by the kitchen counter, thinking, she glances out the window - at the familiar sight of the Yokohama cityscape, the ferris wheel a rainbow in the night.
How did Nemuro find her, in such a game? But moreso, he's a link to the Ohtori Academy she knew. Not the ideal person to bump into.. but the last thing she recalls of Ohtori is being swallowed behind the stone gates, trapped where Anthy once lay in her coffin, as she saw Anthy calling out for her - "Utena-sama!"
And like that, the gates shut closed, and there was darkness..
On the computer, she sees on the Epic Games launcher, Mikage Souji's game invite, leering at her.
"Okay, Souji.. I'll bite," Utena utters under her breath, and logs back into Fortnite.