Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at https://archiveofourown.org/works/114248.

Speak Now

by

Summary

Utena Tenjou is a normal woman about to have a normal wedding that certainly isn't one last desperate attempt to quell the constant phantom pain in her chest. The florist has other ideas, and when the flowers arrive all semblance of normality crumbles into bizarre, bittersweet memories and a surrealistic struggle against ancient forces.

Subreality

The bride could not wear white, and so she wore red. At first her fiancé was disturbed by her insistence, partly because she rarely insisted on anything he objected to, partly because he would have preferred to pretend he did not understand what she meant. But he gave in quickly, because arguing about it would have required talking about it, and talking about it would have required thinking about it, and thinking about it might have permanently stained the picture of her that he carried in his heart. It was better that his princess wear red for one night, he decided, than be in his eyes forever tainted with it.

Sitting in her bridal chamber, looking herself over in the mirror, she wondered for the first time whether she should have picked a different color. Even knowing as little as she did about clothes and fashion, she might have recalled people saying that redheads should never wear pink and deduced that it worked the other way around as well. But the steel rattling between her ribs had rattled off red, and she wasn't foolish enough to defy it on a matter of so little importance.

The bride was currently very grateful for matters of little importance. She'd been blessed with an abundance of them. Fretting over the color of her dress kept her from dwelling on her dismay at having to wear a dress of any color. Then there was her hair, which refused no matter how she coaxed it to be confined to a tidy bun. And the flowers. She was starting to genuinely worry about the flowers. They should have been there by now. How could she think of frivolous things, like her childish desire to kick off her toe-pinching shoes and run barefoot through the streets until that monstrous dress was torn to shreds and the wind plucked the pins from her hair, when the big moment was less than an hour off and she didn't even have her bouquet?

The door opened, startling her. Just a crack at first, but that was all it took for the scent of rose petals to come wafting into the room. The fragrance took hold of the bride gently but irresistibly, like a lover's embrace, and reached down through her lungs to stir something hidden deep within the hollow of her chest. The something fluttered — briefly, before steel talons closed around it and cut it to ribbons. The bride brought her fist to her mouth and bit down on the diamond of her engagement ring to keep from crying out.

She got herself together and looked up to see, in the reflection of the shadows behind the door, a sliver of a face peering in at her, its one visible eye wide and shining with terror. The bride smiled into the mirror. "Come on in," she said. "I'm fine, really. You must be the florist."

The figure opened the door just wide enough to slip through it, then closed it behind her. "I'm sorry I'm late, Lady Utena," she said. "I did the best I could to find you." Her arms overflowed with multi-colored roses, and she was—

"Beautiful," Utena Tenjou breathed.

Swish-switch.

The bride grit her teeth and clutched at her old wound. "The flowers are beautiful. Thank you."

"You're welcome, Lady Utena."

The bride cringed. "You don't have to call me—" But suddenly the florist was beside her, laying the roses down on the vanity, and the scent of the flowers and the soft warmth of the other girl's hand as it brushed against hers set her chest rattling so violently that she had to bite her ring again. When the pain would not subside, she grabbed the picture of her fiancé from where it lay propped against the mirror and buried her mind in thoughts of him. Her eyes, frantic to scrub off the fantastic, frightening images that had risen behind them — images of castles and towers, flashing swords and galloping horses, and a dark skinned prince and princess in a coffin full of rose petals — traced over his familiar features. Here the curl of his rust-red hair, here his comforting, almost apologetic smile…

"He reminds me of Touga," said the florist.

"He's nothing like Touga," the bride snapped, feeling suddenly defensive. "Touga was—"

Swish-switch.

"Touga was..?" the florist prompted her.

But the bride could only stare helplessly at the photo before her. It was a long moment before she could gather back the strength to speak, and by that time whatever memory she'd managed to stumble onto had fled. "What was Touga?" she asked, glancing briefly down at her bouquet. One of the roses was red, and a shadow of a thought flitted across her mind. "Didn't I go to school with him?"

"Yes. He was the president of the student council."

There was more to it than that. The way the steel thorns had reacted to her almost speaking ill of him, the way they had crowded out her lungs and strangled off her voice, made her sure of it. Just for a moment, she wanted badly enough to remember that she was willing to risk their wrath. "Were we in love?" she asked. It was a wild guess, and yet…

The bride realized that she was still holding her fiancé's photograph and felt suddenly ashamed of herself. She tried to set it down, but found there was no room; the bouquet had taken over the dressing table.

"Oh, Lady Utena," the florist said. Her voice, already ethereally soft, was now little more than a whisper. "Don't you remember me at all?"

"But roses can't grow once they've been cut!" the bride objected, ignoring her. She watched, mystified, as the vines spilled over the edges of the vanity, wound down its legs, and crept their way across the floor, pausing every few inches to sprout a vividly hued bud, which then unfolded into bloom in a matter of seconds. The colors, the bride realized, were almost as impossible; she was fairly certain that roses were not supposed to be green, or blue, or quite that shade of orange.

"Lady Utena, look at me!"

There was such a ringing urgency to the other girl's tone that the bride tore her gaze away from the flowers. She searched out her image in the mirror, but when she found it saw that the florist's expression was perfectly placid, as smooth as the glass it was reflected upon. Such a soft, sad smile. It reminded her of —

Swish-switch.

No, the bride thought as she doubled over. Not this time. The picture slipped from her convulsing hand. This time it's important. She fell forward into the tangle of thorns and landed on a pillow of fragrant petals…

once upon a time there was a little princess and she was very sad because her mother and father had just died so she laid herself down on a bed of roses like this one and vowed to never ever get up but before the princess there appeared a prince on a white horse and she told him she needed something eternal so he showed her a

Witch-bitch! rang out the swords inside her.

"Lady Utena!" the (Witch! Bitch!) florist called to her. "Lady Utena, stay with me!" The bride felt a pair of arms wrap around her waist and pull her back up into a sitting position. She saw herself in the mirror. She was pale as a ghost. The abominable dress burned a hotter red than ever against her bloodlessly white skin.

"I'm glad that you haven't given up fighting yet," the florist said. "But I can't stand to see you hurting yourself so pointlessly." She had not let go her embrace now that the bride had steadied herself. If anything, she was holding her tighter. "Oh, Lady Utena. What have they done to you? What have I done to you?" She buried her face in the other woman's shoulder, and as she did the bride felt something like an electric shock stab through her back and come out somewhere just above her stomach.

"I remember you now," the bride said. "You're the one who gave me that scar." She felt the florist's breath hitch and her head move up and down in apparent affirmation. "You were…" How had it happened? "I was…" Why couldn't she recall it? "We were…"

Clashing sabers and ringing bells and fighting arenas and misplaced trust and…

"We were in the fencing club at school," the bride said slowly. "We were good friends, and we trusted each other too much, so one day when we were dueling we got sloppy, and—"

"No, Lady Utena."

…roses and kisses and sex and jealousy and a man with lavender hair and…

"We were fighting over a boy," she tried again. "Your brother. I was in love with him, but you couldn't stand me and didn't want me to have him, so one day you snuck up behind me and—"

"No."

a princess locked in a tower and a castle in the sky and a thousand, thousand swords and a broken promise and a broken hold and in the end I couldn't be a prince after all.

"No," the bride agreed. "I didn't love him. I was fighting him, because he had hurt you. I was trying to protect you, but I failed. And I couldn't stand to live with myself, so I knelt down before you and offered you my sword, and you raised it up over your head and—"

"No! That isn't what happened." Just a hint of desperation was creeping into the florist's voice. "You know that isn't what happened. You're alive, Lady Utena. We both are." She had yet to let go her hold on the bride, and in fact seemed to be trying to nestle even closer to her. "You didn't fail. That's what I came all this way to tell you. You won the Duel called Revolution. You saved me, my prince."

"I can never be your prince," the bride replied automatically. The words, stirred up by the whirlwind of steel inside her, rose in her throat and spewed from her mouth like bile. "I can never be your prince, because I am a girl."

The florist at last let go of her. She staggered backwards trippingly, as though struck off-balance by a blow to the face. "I'm sorry, Lady Utena," she said. "I shouldn't have said that. I'm just so used to lying. I'm used to telling people what I think they want to hear. You deserve better than that. So, you're right. You can never be my prince."

The roses had covered the floor and were now climbing the walls. It smelled, the bride thought, like a funeral. The bridal chamber was a petal-lined coffin, she was dead within it, and she wished the little murderess would leave her to her rest.

"But don't you think," the (Witch! Bitch!) other girl continued, "that I've had enough of princes? Don't you think we've all had enough of princes?" And just that once the bride caught a glimpse of the anger churning beneath the surface as it spilled over into her voice. The witch-bitch hesitated a moment, as though about to apologize, but changed her mind and plowed recklessly ahead. "I never needed a prince, Lady Utena. I needed you. You were the only one who could have saved me. Because you were so brave, because you understood me, because you were a girl."

Oh.

Oh!

Duels like dances and dances like duels (It was all coming together!) and swords drawn from the scabbard of another girl's breasts and dark hands hovering over her naked skin (At last, all the pieces of her shattered memory were falling into place!) and standing under the archway with her Bride, announced by a flurry of rose petals and a clamor of chapel bells…

But the bells had gotten free of her memory, and now they were striking the hour of her marriage.

With a cry the bride sprang from her seat at the mirror and, without sparing a sideways glance for the girl she was growing increasingly certain was not a florist, made a mad rush for the door of the chamber, only to find it barricaded by a tangle of thorny vines. In despair she sank to her knees on the rose-carpeted floor, where the fabric of her hated dress caught fast in the briars. "Open the door," she pleaded softly.

"I've seen what you're like when you want something, Lady Utena," came the dark, velvety voice from behind her. "This isn't it."

How dare she? What did she know? "Witch, open the door now!" the bride shrieked.

"Why?" Damn her, damn her, always so infuriatingly calm! "I don't believe you love him. If you loved him, you'd be clawing at those vines until your fingers bled."

"What do you mean I don't love him? I'm marrying him, aren't I?"

"At the moment it doesn't look that way, no." And damn her feigned innocence! If she was going to be snotty and sarcastic, she could at least sound it, the bitch.

"He loves me!" the bride said. "He swears up and down that he couldn't live without me."

"That isn't what I asked you."

"Open the door! Open it, you damned whore bitch!"

"I think I know why you want to marry," continued the witch-bitch-whore-tramp-trollop-harlot-cunt. "It's because of what's in your chest."

The bride let out a wordless cry of frustration. "Because of my heart? Fine! It's because of my heart! Just let me through!"

"Don't lie to me, Lady Utena. I know that you don't have a heart."

In the frozen, razor-filled hollow of Utena's breast, the million screaming metal voices ceased their cursing and went still. "How..?" she tried to ask, but her voice had broken from screaming.

"You think that if you just do what they want you to," the other girl continued, "they'll go away and leave you be. But they won't. Not ever."

"Please," the bride tried again. "I'm sorry I called you names. But if you somehow know about them…" How could she know? No, it didn't matter. "If I don't get there in time, I'm sure they'll kill me."

"Do you really think they'd let you go that easily?"

No. Of course they wouldn't. She felt ridiculous for not seeing that. "What do you want?" she asked, defeated. "What am I supposed to do?"

"Look at me." The bride turned back to the vanity, but the mirror was covered by vines. "No, Lady Utena. At me."

She did.

"Himemiya."

Subreality

This time there was no rush, no swell and crash of fractured recollections. She remembered simply, almost lazily, the way she might have remembered for years if she had never forgotten. There were the sunlit hours they'd passed idly chatting in the gilded, glass-warmed rose garden, or picnicking in the cool, shade-soaked grass beneath their favorite tree. There were the nights they'd spent hand-in-hand and face-to-face, bone-tired but unwilling to depart from each other's presence for the world of dreams, when they'd spoken in hushed tones of love and death and other airy things. There was also, of course, that one infinitely painful night, that evening of poisoned tea and hopeless promises, when they'd lain on that cold stone ledge in the dark and the pitiless wind and begged each other's forgiveness. The fleeting memories she'd grasped before, memories of duels and magic and princes, were all true. But they weren't real. Not like these.

"Himemiya."

She rose, not caring that the thorns tore her dress as she did so, and ran to the other girl, arms outstretched. Anthy, tears sparkling at the corners of her eyes, fell against her and folded into her embrace. They stood together, not speaking and not needing to speak, as the vines overtook the last reaches of the ceiling above them and stopped growing.

It was Anthy who pulled away first. She took Utena's hand in hers and guided it to the valley between her breasts. Utena blushed. "Himemiya, what are you—?"

She was answered by the glow that appeared as soon as her fingers brushed the other girl's clothes. A moment later her hand closed around the hilt of a sword, and in another moment she had drawn the blade and was staring at it in wonder. It was not the Sword of Dios that Anthy had produced this way once upon a time. It looked like that other sword, true, but Utena could tell by how it felt in her grasp that it was not. "This is my heart," she murmured, astonished. "But… it was broken! Himemiya, how did you get my heart?" Anthy just smiled.

Then, all at once, their shining moment shattered.

Shink went the swords as they sprouted from the vines, one for every thorn. Swish went the swords as they pulled free from the plants in a flurry of tattered rose petals. Switch went the swords as they gathered themselves into a ring around the two girls. Then in menacing silence they hovered, blades pointed inward.

"Himemiya!" Utena cried, looking around her frantically for a path of escape. There was none. "Himemiya, what do we do?"

Anthy took hold of her free hand and squeezed it gently. "Fight them."

"How? There's too many of them!"

"Fight them now, or be ruled by them forever."

"I…"

The swords were staring her down. They had no eyes, no faces at all, but the bride could feel their glare and their intentions. They would run her through. They would pierce her hands, her skull, her throat and lungs and heart and knees and hips and gut and every muscle, every bone, every centimeter of her rotten, tainted flesh. Because they hated her, oh how they hated her, and they would kill her and kill her and kill her and kill her and never let her die.

"…can't."

Swish-switch.

Utena shut her eyes tight, felt Anthy's hand slip from hers, felt a rush of air as the swords flew by, felt…

Nothing. Nothing happened.

Shink.

At the sound, Utena's eyes flew open. There was Anthy, just a little ways away from her, standing with her hands pierced together and held over her head by one of the swords. The two girls caught each other's glance for a moment, blue eyes wide with shock meeting green narrowed in pain. Utena, unable to speak, shook her head once. No. Don't do this. The other girl smiled back at her and nodded. Then the swords closed in, and Anthy vanished behind the wall of chattering steel.

Utena felt her stomach clench up. She felt her chest constrict, felt her knees shake, felt the sting of saltwater at the edges of her eyes. After all these years, Anthy Himemiya had come back to her, and then, just as quickly, she had left. All this time the person she loved more than anything in the world, the person she had forgotten because it hurt too much to remember her fate, had been alive and well, and now she was dying again. Dying for her. Dying because of her.

Her heart stirred and began to beat double-time. Her legs stiffened and straightened, bearing her up to her full height. The tears fell, unabashed, leaving streaks in the makeup she had spent hours getting right for her husband-to-be. It couldn't end like this. She wouldn't let it. The sob that had been building in the hollow of her gut hardened into a battle cry that tore free from her throat and echoed through the room. Utena raised her sword above her head and brought it down on the nearest hate-forged blade, which shattered and dissolved into a flash of red light.

One down, nine-hundred-ninety-nine-thousand and nine-hundred-ninety-nine to go. It would be hard. Utena didn't care.

She fought her way through the razor-edged swarm, breaking the blades when she could but more often resorting to shoving them out of her way, whether with her own sword or her free hand or, if both those were otherwise occupied, with her body. When she had waded a good distance in some of the swords from the outer edges, in their frenzy to get to Anthy, plunged themselves into her back. It hurt. She ignored them. At last through the tangle of gleaming silver she could make out a swatch of brown, a splash of violet. "Himemiya!" she called. "Stop this! I don't want it!"

The reply was so quiet, Utena wondered that she could hear it through the swishing, clanking din. "I know you don't."

"Then why..?"

"You wouldn't fight for yourself. I know you'll never stop fighting for me."

Of course. Of course that was why. It was manipulative, and more than a bit cruel, and altogether too much like something the Rose Bride would do. But it was Anthy, and it spoke of something that had never been possible between them when they were engaged. Anthy, Utena realized, trusted her completely.

Pain meant nothing in the face of that. Utena plunged deeper into the fray, not caring that she tore herself as she moved, not caring that the swords attacked her directly now and dealt her more blows than she could hope to repay them. Soon she was close enough to hack away the blades that bound her friend, not caring that she left herself open to attack from all sides as she did so. She was sure she was dying. It didn't matter. Tears blurred her vision, but she could still see Anthy. Her legs gave out beneath her, but she fell towards Anthy. Her strength was fading, but she had enough left yet to reach out and take Anthy's hand.

They touched. The swords pulled back as though pained or confused. Anthy, freed from her cage of sharpened steel, caught Utena in her arms and held her protectively. The swords quivered, whispered amongst themselves, prepared to strike again. Before they could, Anthy, with one small motion of her hand, pulled the vines that covered the floor up around herself and Utena, forming them into a matted, thorny shield. Safely beneath it, Utena slumped to her knees, and Anthy got down beside her.

"Himemiya," Utena murmured after a moment of the sort of silence that feels as though filling it would be somehow irreverent, "the floor is wood."

"Yes."

"It was carpeted just a little while ago."

"Oh dear. Was it really?"

She decided to let that one go. There were plenty of others. "I'm not bleeding."

"Isn't that a good thing?"

"I feel like I should be."

Anthy smiled in a way that was probably supposed to convey sympathy, somehow. "That's understandable."

"What's really going on here, Himemiya?"

"You are fighting the Million Swords of Human Hatred. And you're winning."

"There's thousands of them left! Hundreds of thousands!"

"You've already destroyed a dozen or so. That's more than I ever did." No response. "That's more than Akio ever did."

Utena stared at her unflinchingly. "Himemiya."

"I'm sorry." She sounded as though she meant it, even if she wasn't overly troubled by it. Another small change, Utena thought. "It's habit. But please, Lady Utena, don't give up. Keep fighting."

"What will you do if I won't? Offer yourself up again?"

Anthy's expression darkened. "No. I only did that to remind you how strong you really are. You have to save yourself now. If you wish to do so, I will help you as much as I can. If you do not, I can accept that. I will leave and get on with my life, you will marry the man the swords have chosen for you, and we will not see each other again in this lifetime."

Utena felt the jab of something colder and sharper than any steel.

"But," Anthy continued, "in the next one, sixty or seventy years from now, when your husband has passed on and the children you've borne him have grown, I will find you again, and I will ask you once more to summon the courage I know that you have within you. If you cannot, I will return to ask again in the next half-century, and again the next, and so on, and so on, until you decide that you have suffered enough and are ready to accept my help."

And the biting chill had passed, giving way to a warmth Utena was still not entirely sure she was comfortable with. "I'm not like you," she said. Then, to clarify, "I mean, I'd be gone in all that time." The sudden sadness in Anthy's eyes unsettled her. "Wouldn't I?"

"As I said before: do you really think they'd let you go that easily?" When she received no response, Anthy took both of Utena's hands in hers and laced their fingers together. "I love you," she said. "I have lived many years, and I have loved many times before, but it has never been this strong and deep, never this sweet, this pure. I love you more than I ever imagined it was possible to love. I will not throw my life away for you. I will not fight your battles for you or bear the consequences of your actions in your place, however nobly those actions may have been intended. The Utena I fell in love with would never want that. But if I have to wait one thousand lifetimes to spend just one with you, I will do that. After everything I did, after all the pain I caused, you never gave up on me. I remember that, I will always remember it, and I will never, ever give up on you."

If Anthy, who had never been forthcoming with her feelings and rarely spoke more than two sentences at a time, could say all that, then Utena was out of excuses. "I love you too." She forced the words out quickly to keep them from sticking in her throat, and as a result they came out sounding rushed and not at all as sincere as she felt. It was anticlimactic. Desperate to fix it, she stumbled boldly on. "I asked you, once, what it meant for a girl to love another girl. I still don't know, entirely, but that doesn't matter anymore, because I do. I mean love a girl. I mean you. I love you." Better than salmon and asparagus, whispered a cruel little voice in her head, but she shoved it out of the way. She was terrible at this. She always had been terrible at it, and she probably always would be, even if she lived to be however old Anthy was. She was a woman of action, not words.

With that thought, it seemed to her the only thing to do was lean in and kiss Anthy's lips.

Final Battle

In her sillier schoolgirl moments, Utena had sometimes wondered, before she could catch herself, what Anthy tasted like. Fragrant like rose petals? Sweet and rich like chocolate? Bitter like coffee? But of course, that was ridiculous. Anthy's lips, Utena now found, tasted like nothing so much as her own when she ran her tongue over them to keep them from chapping. They were slightly sweet with just a trace of salt and oh god oh god she was kissing Himemiya! The rose vines and the swords and the shape-shifting floor and phantom wounds were all one thing, but she was kissing Himemiya! It was as wonderful as it was impossible. Utena's stomach was tied in knots and turning somersaults in apprehension bordering on terror, but Anthy's palms pressed into hers, and Anthy's teeth clung gently to her lower lip, and as she pulled away she saw Anthy looking up at her with smiling lips still parted and eyes overflowing with adoration.

But this was that strange other world of swords and roses they were trapped in, so, inevitably, it all got suddenly twisted. A familiar pain — though not as familiar as that of the Million Swords — shot through Utena's chest. She gasped and arched over backwards. This wasn't right. Her sword was already drawn. Anthy'd had it, and now it was lying by her side where she'd dropped it when they'd joined hands. And yet, a hilt was rising out of her chest now — an unusually decorative one, fashioned from moon-white silver and blood-red gems. Anthy inhaled sharply at the sight of it. Dark hands twitched, hesitated, then darted out greedily like the hands of a starving child lunging for a proffered cake. The blade they drew was that of knife, not a sword. It was short, curved, and the color of dusk. Anthy held it and stared at it, saying nothing for a long time.

"It's yours, isn't it?" Utena said at last, when she'd recovered her breath. Anthy nodded. "Why didn't you have it?"

"I gave it to him a long time ago."

There was no need to ask whom she meant. "Then how..?"

"It's a miracle." There was no reverence in her voice, no trace of confusion or wonder. It was a statement of fact, and that was all. "Have you made your decision, Lady Utena?"

She had. A long time ago, in fact. "I'm going to fight."

"Then so will I."

No you won't, Utena did not say, because she managed to catch herself in time. I won't ever let them hurt you again. I won't ever let anything hurt you again. I can and will protect you. And besides, a prince would never let his princess put herself in danger. She kept it in. She knew better than that now. There were no princes or princesses present, only a pair of witches.

No. That was wrong, too. There was only a pair of girls — a pair of strong, beautiful, incredibly fucked-up girls in way over their heads. That was the truth, and it was good enough.

Anthy must have noticed her hesitance. "It's a ceremonial knife," she said. "I'm afraid it isn't really made for fighting. But it's good enough to guard your back."

Utena smiled at her, nodded, resisted the urge to kiss her again because they had work to do now. There would be time later. The two of them stood back to back, found each other's free hands without looking and briefly grasped them together for reassurance. Then the walls of vines came down, and the Million Swords laid on.

Utena swung with all the power of her newly steeled resolve. The first sword she struck split in two and vanished with a flash of red and a small sighing sound. At the same moment, another blade struck through her hips (slut you slut the brother wasn't enough you want the sister too) and by the time she'd hacked it off another one had plunged into her gut (whore gave yourself away like a whore barely even knew him whore whore whore). She let that one be for a moment, though it thrashed back and forth within her as though trying to saw her in half from the inside, because she had to block (had to break) yet another, this one headed for her heart. When she finally managed to cut the sword from her stomach, she was unsurprised to find that it left no hole. She was even less surprised that it nonetheless hurt as though it had.

That was four. Four and twelve out of a million, and already she was overwhelmed. She staggered back, felt her shoulder brush against Anthy's, gathered her breath and lunged again.

(weak so girly and weak fell for him just like a girl gave it all away)

"No," she told them as she brought her own sword down. "I made a mistake. That's all."

It wore on. It wore her down. She counted neither the blows she gave nor the ones she received, but both giving and taking grew harder with every passing moment. She could feel blood she couldn't see running from wounds that weren't there, feel it pooling in lungs that labored but did not cease to breathe, taste it gather in her mouth that no amount of spitting would clear. How long had she been fighting? Hours? Days? It might only have been minutes. It might have been weeks. Time felt all wrong here.

"Himemiya," she gasped when at last she felt she could take no more of it. "Have we even made a dent?"

"I think," Anthy said calmly, too calmly, like she'd always sounded when she was hiding her pain, "that we are about half-way through them."

"How can that be?" Utena asked, leaning against her for support. "Look at them, there's as many as ever!"

"It appears that way because the room is getting smaller."

Utena looked. It was true. Not only that, but the walls were shaped all wrong, widening as they rose until they met in an arched ceiling. And, she remembered, the floor had been made of wood. It all added up to one thing, one unavoidable and unendurable fact, and together with the pain in her body and the voices in her head and the knowledge that there was still as much ahead as there was behind her, it was just too much. She couldn't deal with it. She gave one last swing of her sword, which bounced off its target without damaging it, then dropped to her knees and did not resist as the Million Swords tore into her.

They closed in on her from every direction, laying on so thick that they blocked out the light. It was unbearable (failed yourself failed your prince failed her let her fall let her down what kind of prince leaves the princess to rescue herself?) at first, but nerve by nerve her body began to shut down, leaving her (pervert faggot you're sick you know it you dyke so much for a normal girl) cold, so cold, like a corpse but at least it didn't hurt anymore (bought and used and cast aside damaged you're damaged and no one will want you), or at least not as much, and so what if it felt like her mind was slipping away from her, struggling to escape to somewhere it wouldn't register the pain? It was almost like falling asleep (traitor you owe him everything turning your back after all he did saved your life your miserable worthless life) albeit on a bed of nails (pointless and small and doomed to death why live not worth it you can only postpone what's coming—)

"Lady Utena." A child's voice, so soft and clear amid the spitting, hissing hatred, broke through the darkness like a sunbeam. "Do you still play basketball?"

Basketball? What—? "I did, until a couple years ago." She was surprised to hear herself answer. Her own voice, she found, also sounded strangely childlike. "I remember I used to enjoy it. I think I'd like to try it again."

"You should. It's good to do things you enjoy."

Why? What did that matter now? What did anything matter now?

Her thoughts stuttered, stumbled, tried to switch themselves off. It would be so much easier that way, wrapped in the cold and the dark. Still, she wasn't ready, not yet, not while there was this one ray of warmth left to cling to "Hey, Himemiya!" she called out without quite knowing why. "Do you still keep animals?"

"Not as many. Chickens. Some cats. One goat."

"Are they still named Nanami?"

"Only one of them." A beat. "The goat's named for you."

Utena did not know whether to be honored or insulted. How was she supposed to respond to that? So strange, her Himemiya, and so strangely adorable. She wished things could have been different for them.

"Lady Utena?"

The world flashed red and silver. "Yes?"

A small hand closed on her wrist, its warmth flooding her body. The voice Utena heard now was that of a woman. "I've got you." And she was pulled free.

The light was blinding. Utena screamed as her wounds hit the air and burst into new agony. Anthy half held her up, half leaned on her for support as she once more summoned the rose vines into a shield around them. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "I should not have asked this of you. I forget how young you are."

"No," Utena gasped. "No, you were right. I forgot something too, for a moment. I forgot what I was fighting for. But I remember now, and I'm going to keep it up. We're going to finish this now."

"You can barely stand."

"Then I'll fight on my knees. I'm tired of waiting, Himemiya. I'm tired of keeping you waiting. I want to live, damn it! It's our time to live!"

Anthy did not respond except to cling to her more tightly and press a kiss into the base of her throat. The clatter of swords on the other side of the vines was a distant whisper, almost drowned out by the two girls' breathing. Though that breathing was labored, and though her phantom injuries hurt her, Utena felt a sort of peace wash over her. This was the eye of the storm, and she was there with the woman she loved. It was the sort of thing she could get used to.

"May I see your sword?" Anthy said suddenly. "There's one more thing I can try." Utena felt almost reluctant to disentangle herself from her friend in order to hand it over, but did so anyhow.

Anthy took Utena's blade in one hand and her own in the other and held them together at the hilt. "By the power that sleeps within my own true heart," she murmured as the sword and dagger merged into a single amorphous glow, "grant us the power to revolutionize the world!" The glow expanded then dissipated, and in its wake left a weapon unlike either of the ones that had occupied that space just a moment before. The blade was both long and curved and looked white in one light and black in another. The hilt was silver with a brass crossguard, the gem on its tip opalescent green with red fire. It seemed to Utena the strangest and most beautiful work of metal she had ever laid eyes upon.

Wordlessly Anthy handed the sword to Utena, who felt a jolt of power run through her like a static shock as her fingers closed around the hilt. She had no need to ask what had just taken place, or what was going to happen now; for once it all made perfect sense, surreal though it was. Wordlessly still the two of them pulled themselves to their feet, albeit unsteadily as newborn foals. Utena gathered her broken body into something resembling her usual fighting stance. "For us," she said.

"Yes," Anthy agreed simply, and with a gesture opened a gap in the wall of vines.

The swords of hatred, at the sight of the new blade, were instantly stirred into frenzy. Their whispers swelled into a sibilant roar as they rushed in not one-by-one like they had before but in a swarm as large as could fit through the break in the floral shield. The fused sword cut through them like taut string, taking out two or three at a time even with the diminished strength of its wielder.

Sometimes, through sheer force of numbers, they managed to drive her to her knees. She did not relent, and kept swinging even as Anthy dragged her back up to her feet. Her muscles burned with the strain. Her throat burned with thirst. The walls closed in and the ceiling came down and the swarm was as thick as ever. It now seemed to Utena that she had been trapped in this room not for days or years but forever, and that she would remain trapped forever more.

No, she told herself, focusing on the heat of Anthy's body as it leaned against her own. There was something before. Childhood. Mother and Father and Aunt Yuriko and her Prince. Ohtori. Wakaba. Basketball and the boys' uniform. There will be something after. Tea and cookies without poison. A new home. A career. More basketball and — why not? — a namesake goat.

A life with Anthy.

She fought on, and forever came and went. The last sword crumbled, and in its dying sigh Utena imagined she heard a note of relief.

The room was now just barely big enough to hold both of its occupants, but its too-familiar shape no longer seemed daunting. Utena lay a hand against the wall before her, and Anthy lay a hand over hers. Their fingers curled together, and together they pushed open the lid to their shared coffin.

End of the World

"And so, having conquered the Devil's army…"

The two women stumbled out into sickly yellow light. Before them a herd of white wooden horses moved rhythmically up and down, up and down. Beyond there loomed a twilit sky — and nothing else. Fairground music played dimly from all around them, redolent of summer dresses and ferris wheel lights viewed through a distant window. The ground beneath them was spinning — actually, literally spinning — and it wasn't even the most nauseating aspect of the setting.

"…the Prince broke off the wedding… "

"Himemiya, what is this?" Utena could not keep the accusing tone from her voice any more than she could keep the suspicion from creeping over her heart. This was the place it had all ended so badly ten years back, and though she had long ago forgiven she could never again forget.

"…and took to bride instead the true Princess…"

"I don't understand. We were so close." There was more sorrow than confusion in Anthy's voice, and Utena could just perceive her bracing herself, as though subconsciously preparing to be struck. Utena instantly felt terrible. In another instant that remorse was overcome by the urge to comfort and protect, and she wrapped an arm around Anthy's waist and drew her close.

"…and they lived happily ever after."

The carousel brought them around to face him just as he finished his mocking speech. He looked the same as he ever had, all legs and shoulders and handsome smiles. He was dressed all in white, as he had been on that day. With an air of nonchalance he leapt onto the platform as it passed, mounting the nearest horse in one fluid motion.

"So you see," he continued, "it's really just another fairy tale. Didn't I ever tell you that all roads lead to the End of the World?"

Anthy gave her friend's arm a quick, affectionate squeeze, then gently brushed it away and stepped forward. Utena was struck by a sudden panic and a strong urge to pull her back, to place herself physically between Anthy and her beautiful demon of a brother, to hold her tight and shoot him a glare that said she is mine, and I will never let you hurt her again. But Akio's cruelty had affected his sister more than it had her, and Anthy clearly wanted him to see her standing strong on her own. She deserved that much.

"That's not how it is at all," the former Rose Bride said to her brother with a small, unexpressive frown. "You're twisting it to make it work for you."

"That surprises you?" Utena noted, not without a twinge of dark amusement, that only Akio could manage to look menacing from the seat of a carousel horse. "Anthy, Sister, did you think that I, having worked and dreamed so persistently for well over a century, would simply lie down and give up once you were gone? I confess it almost came to that. At first, I thought your departure was the greatest setback I could possibly have suffered. But once I figured out what you were up to, I realized it could potentially work out to be the best thing that's happened since my fall from grace. Just look! The Million Swords are destroyed, and your lover," this word he said with a mocking leer, "holds in her hands a blade unquestionably capable of opening the Door to Eternity. Nothing now stands in my way of reawakening the world we long for."

"Speak for yourself; I long for no such thing," Anthy said calmly at the same moment that Utena blurted out, "I stand in your way! You'll have to get through me!"

"Girls, girls! Don't be spiteful. You wound me." He seemed, Utena thought, to be speaking entirely without irony. "I know I've misused you, but is that any reason to stand in the way of a miracle?" He dismounted elegantly, and bowed deeply before them. "Ladies, be gracious. Forgive a man his faults. I most humbly beseech you: help me make a revolution."

"The miracle happened ten years ago," Anthy replied. "The revolution has started without you, Brother."

"Where, Anthy?" Akio snapped, drawing himself up to his full height. She knows how to get to him, Utena realized, and wasn't sure whether she found that more satisfying or unsettling. "I see no revolution!"

"Then you are blind."

The projector clicked. The sky flickered, and suddenly there was Touga, sitting in an upscale bar, cocktail in hand, smiling apologetically at a pretty younger girl. "I'm already taken," he said. "So don't take it too—"

And suddenly, it was Juri talking as she removed her fencing mask and looked down at the foil pressed against her shoulder. "—hard to say at first, when it's so easy now."

"I love you too." The sword came down, the partner's mask came off, and Shiori smiled impishly back at her. "And I certainly wasn't any help, half the time behaving like a perfect little—"

"—monster the protagonist really is," Saionji said as he scribbled his name on the inside cover of a book. "But you asked about the rose motif. It actually came to me in a—"

"—dream big, girls." Wakaba and her two fellow actresses beamed into the cameras. "Some things are worth getting hurt for. When chances come, don't be afraid to—"

"—take 'em or leave 'em — not that I don't occasionally take 'em," Kozue told her brother (who responded with a good-natured groan) as she fastened a splint onto the wing of the budgie on the examination table. "Boys are fun, sure, but family has always been far more—"

"—important to be certain we're ready before you decide to stop taking them." Miki's wedding band caught the light as his fingers flitted across the piano keys.

"Well, obviously," Nanami sniffed, leaning against the hood. "And in the meantime, we have the cat." They laughed. "Besides, I don't want to steal my brother's thunder now that he finally—"

"—got engaged?" she squealed in delight, now speaking to Touga and a woman Utena did not know.

The woman was tall, lean, and muscular. She proudly displayed her ring. "See? Fixer-uppers can pay off!" Touga gave her a small, embarrassed nudge. She nudged right back. "I knew I was home free when I finally got him to stop trying to figure out who I remind him of."

The projector clicked again, and there was only sky.

"Is that all—?" Akio and Utena said together, but while his tone was dismissive, hers was full of awe.

"—because of me?" she finished.

Anthy turned her head toward her and smiled warmly. "No. But it most likely would not have happened without you."

She had only turned her back on her brother for a moment, but that was all the time he needed. Drawing his sword from the sheath hanging at his waist, he sprang forward and seized her by the wrist. Utena's reaction was just as quick, if a good deal less calculated. Akio narrowly dodged the thrust of her sword, but in doing so lost his grip on Anthy. Utena pursued him, forcing him further back and away from her friend. He did not try to parry but merely evaded her.

Though Utena's phantom wounds seemed to have vanished the moment she'd stepped through the portal, the fatigue from the battle with the Million Swords lingered. She realized immediately that she had no hope of keeping up with Akio. The carousel horses were certainly not helping; he leapt over or slid beneath them effortlessly while she stumbled to get around them. "Either let us go or stand and fight me!" she called after his smirking, retreating form. "There's no point running like a coward! I'll catch you sooner or later!"

"Oh? And what will you do then?" he asked with a flash of gleaming teeth. "Kill me?"

Utena froze. It was all the opening he needed. He struck out at her, cutting deep into the flesh of her sword arm. Real, visible blood poured forth from the wound. Her hand snapped open, and the fused blade clattered to the ground. Fighting back shock she reached for it with her off hand, but he kicked it out of reach.

"Lady Utena!" she heard Anthy call to her. "I've got it here!"

On a better day, Utena would have leapt backwards, passed face-to-face with Anthy mid-aerial somersault, and had the sword in her hands again by the time her feet touched the ground. Today, her body felt far too heavy, even without the dead weight of her wounded arm. Instead she turned to run. Akio was faster. He wrapped one long arm around her, pulled her back against his body, and pressed the edge of his blade to her throat. "You never were much good at thinking ahead," he said, sounding a bit sad, almost sympathetic. The carousel ground to a halt, and Utena could see out of the corner of her eye the bridge leading to the rose-sealed gate. "Anthy, won't you be a good girl and open the door for your brother?"

Anthy stood just a few meters away looking very small and very young. Her head tilted downward, casting a shadow over her eyes. She cradled the sword to her breast as though in an embrace. Without moving, she seemed somehow to waver, and to Utena she appeared as though a weak wind could scatter her like smoke.

"Anthy." The name itself seemed to instill tenderness in his voice — even as Utena felt his grip around her waist tighten as though he meant to snap her in two. "Don't be like that. Is the world that awaits beyond the door really so bad?"

"I didn't used to think so," Anthy replied evenly, not looking up. "But now I see how small it really is. We would have no place there."

"We would have..?"

Anthy was silent.

"Ah, of course. So I am no longer the other half of your 'we.'"

Anthy was silent.

"Anthy, don't be naïve. Do you think there is any place for you in this world?"

Anthy's silence was abyssal.

"We'll make a place!" Utena blurted out, unable to stand it any longer. "Himemiya, listen to me! I never cared about 'revolutionizing the world.' I didn't even understand what it meant, but I was sure it had nothing to do with me. But now I think I see. Revolution can be as simple as living without compromise. That ridiculous uniform… trying to be a girl and a prince at the same time… my whole life has been a failed revolution!" Failed. How had that word slipped from her mouth? "No… yes. Yes, I failed. But you didn't. You took my revolution. You lived it and kept it alive. Himemiya, let's live the revolution together now. If we're together, then without a doubt we can change the world!"

Akio sighed, chuckling sadly. "I think I truly did love that spirit in you," he whispered into her ear. "I'm glad to see these last cruel years have not destroyed that wonderful blind optimism. I envy you." The blade dug a bit deeper into the skin of her neck. She hardly noticed either his words or the pressure of steel on her throat; she'd seen Anthy's shoulders beginning to shake almost imperceptibly, and suddenly realized the glaring problem with the speech she'd just given.

"Don't, Himemiya. Not for me. Don't do anything just for me. I…" Her voice caught in her throat. She forced it out, at the cost of letting spill the tears she'd been trying to hold back. "I'm glad I got to see everyone again. I'm glad they're… better… now. I'm glad I got to see you again, Himemiya." Anthy didn't answer. "Go on, Himemiya! Tell him what you told me! Tell him we've all had enough of princes!"

"Is that so, Tenjou?" Akio asked. "Does that explain why your heart took the shape of the Sword of Dios? Or why it fused so readily with the goddess knife? Would you really do away with princes, or simply crown a new one in my place?"

"As always, Brother, you are exactly half right."

Anthy lifted her head, and everything about her was suddenly transformed. The light hit her eyes, and they shone with the green of young sprouting plants and the spark of life beginning. The frame of her body no longer seemed insubstantial in its smallness; she was a yew tree, slender, compact, not tall but sturdy, unbendable, unassailable. All those times a mere slap had crumpled her and sent her flying — had it been an act? It seemed impossible now. Her hair, too, had come alive. It was the storm clouds that mask stars and darken even the blackest of nights. It was the thick, tangled moss that grows rampant over fallen oaks and brings the tallest trees to dust.

"Anthy…" Utena heard herself breathe. She knew she must have been gaping stupidly. She didn't care. "Anthy Himemiya, you're beautiful. So beautiful…"

"And what do you mean by that, Sister?" Akio demanded, ignoring her babbling.

Anthy, in turn, ignored him. "Please, Brother," she said, "do not make me do this." Her voice was the ocean. "I will only ask once, and before you answer I suggest you try to remember the last time I asked you for anything."

Utena felt Akio's body suddenly tense around hers. It's going to be all right, she thought, and for a moment actually believed it. He's not a good person, but he does love her, and he isn't stupid. Surely he can see that something terrible is about to happen. Surely he won't let it. He was a prince once.

There was a long silence. When Akio at last broke it, his voice was uncharacteristically strained. "Open the door, Anthy. I won't ask you again either."

Anthy's face froze over and cracked into a cheery smile. Her hair rolled up, her glasses appeared from nowhere, her pink summer dress darkened and billowed out into a blood-red gown. The divine apparition of just a moment before had been replaced by an awkwardly pretty school girl. It was the most terrifying thing Utena had seen yet that nightmarish and eternally long day.

"Of course, Brother dear," Anthy said with a cheerful tilt of her head. "Whatever you wish." And, sword in hand, she trotted across the bridge.

"Stop her," Utena whispered. Anthy lifted the sword above her head — a horrifying thing to watch, since it must have weighed almost as much as she did — and brought it down against the rose-sealed gate, splitting one of the vines wrapped round it with a heart-stopping THWACK. "Akio, stop her!" Utena shouted.

THWACK.

"Why would I do that?"

THWACK.

"You fool! Can't you see she's trying to warn you?"

THWACK.

"Warn me about what?" he asked calmly, and Utena had no answer.

THWACK.

"It's unlocked, Brother dear!" Anthy called. "You can come open it now!"

And something — something in her eyes, or maybe her voice, or perhaps the way she stood — crystallized Utena's vague but overwhelming dread into a terrible certainty. Akio let go of her and began to walk past her. "Don't," she pleaded, and grabbed hold of his cape. "Akio, I despise you for what you did to Himemiya, but I don't want—"

He struck her with the flat of his sword and knocked her to the ground. Before she could struggle back to her feet, he was across the bridge and reaching for the handles of the double door.

Anthy stopped his hands by laying one of her own over them. "You must think I don't love you anymore," she said with a much softer smile than before. "Don't believe it. I do, and always will, if only for the man you once were."

Akio hesitated, turned to face her. "And that man will always love you," he replied.

"Good. I'm glad; thank you." She stood on her toes and reached up to kiss his face.

As she did so, she stabbed him through the heart.

This World Where We'll Meet

There was a moment where nothing moved. Breaths and heartbeats, thoughts, the dust in the air — everything was still.

And then he said, very simply, "Thank you, Anthy." It wasn't his own voice he spoke with; it was the voice of Dios the Prince.

Dark red rose petals dripped from his wound. Then he fell, and his whole body crumbled into rose petals as well. They lay scattered with his clothes on the threshold of eternity.

"He's dead," Utena whispered, only half-believing the words as they left her mouth. "The prince from my childhood is dead."

Anthy looked on her with a small, frozen smile and said nothing.

"Himemiya," she pleaded, "it's over. You can change back now."

"Isn't this 'back?'" Anthy asked pleasantly. Utena's only response was to stare at her in horror, so she explained, "I tried to be like you, but I guess in the end I'll always be the witch. It's just like in the beginning, taking him away from the world…"

Utena bristled. "That story was a lie!" she shouted. "You're lying to me, Himemiya!" She took a step forward. "Once upon a time, there was a little boy who tried to take care of everyone but himself. People said he was a prince, so he became one. But it was a lie, and lies break apart." She began to cross the bridge. "Once upon a time, there was a little girl who loved her brother very much and told a lie in order to save his life. The lie got her killed. But then it took on a life of its own." She stepped over the white silk and red petals and stood before Anthy. "Once upon a time — and I really don't know how long ago it was now — you told me that you loved me. I know that wasn't a lie, which means you're lying to me to me now, and I won't accept that, Himemiya! I won't!"

Wordlessly, smile fixed in place, Anthy held out the sword to her. Utena took it and threw it to the ground. "No," Anthy said, "I didn't think you'd want it back now."

"That's not it at all," Utena reached out to her and took hold of her hands. "It's just… it's only a symbol. I don't need it anymore. Our reality will be enough." Anthy didn't answer. "Himemiya… Anthy… What are you thinking?" Anthy didn't answer. "Are you sad?"

"Yes." The smile was still there, but it was cracking now.

"For him?"

"Yes."

"For yourself?"

A moment of hesitation, and then, "Yes."

"It's okay to be sad. He was your brother. I—" She felt tears pricking at the corners of her eyes and started to force them back, then realized that wasn't the sort of strength Anthy needed from her and let them flow freely. "I loved him too. For who he used to be. I—" Her voice caught. Anthy was visibly biting her lip. "Are you afraid?"

"Yes."

"Are you afraid they'll come back for you?"

"No!" Utena was startled by her sudden vehemence.

"Then what..?" And then she looked at Anthy, really looked at her, and saw something in her eyes she had hoped never to see there again.

"You're running away!" Leaping from a tower or pushing me away from you, it's the same intention. "You promised you wouldn't run away!" What are you running from? What about me has you so scared?

Then all at once she knew.

"You're afraid we'll hurt each other."

Anthy burst into tears and fell against her. Her hair came down. Her glasses and the red gown melted away. Utena wrapped her arms around her and kissed the top of her head.

"I will never be like him," she said. "I promise you, Anthy."

"I can't not be like me," Anthy said. "I tried to change, Utena, I really did, but…"

"You have changed," Utena insisted. "You saved me, Anthy. You've saved me so many ways, and you've changed me, too. Let's keep changing, both of us together." She tilted Anthy's chin up so that they were looking eye to eye, leaned down to kiss the tears from each of her cheeks, then planted a third kiss on her lips.

Behind them, the doors to eternity creaked open, and everything was bathed in light.


"Utena! Your bouquet is here!"

Whose voice..? Anthy, where..?

Utena opened her eyes, lifted her head, and found herself looking into the dressing room mirror. Her fiancé's younger sister was reflected there behind her, brandishing a spray of white roses — which she then suddenly dropped.

"Utena!" she cried in horror. "What happened to your dress?"

"My dress?" Utena asked, realizing with wicked delight that it had been thoroughly shredded to ribbons. "Shouldn't you be more worried about my arm?" She spun around in her chair, straddling the back of it in an entirely unladylike manner, and held out her right arm, which now bore a large, ugly scar that hadn't been present two minutes ago.

"Forget about that!" the other girl shouted, not even looking at it. "You can get married with a bad arm, but not without a proper dress! Oh my God, how did you even do that? I'm going to look like the worst maid of honor ever!"

Utena wasn't listening. She had just spotted a small piece of paper that had fallen from the bouquet, and leapt from her chair to scoop it up.

If you want to find me, I'm nearby, it said. And then there was the date. Odd, why would she date..?

Oh!

"There's been a mistake," she told the younger woman, then realized that wasn't sufficient to convey the situation. "I mean, I made a mistake. A big one. Please tell your brother not to go to the altar. He shouldn't have to wait there."

The other girl stared. "Oh no," she said. "Oh no, you cannot mean by that what I think you do."

"I do. I'm sorry. I forgot, but there's… I have a prior engagement for this day."

"This is no time for jokes!" her fiancé's sister shouted. "What does that note say? Let me see it!" She lunged, but Utena easily evaded her. "Did that florist stick it in there? I knew I didn't like her! This is all her fault, isn't it? She was weird. Yes, it's all her—!"

Utena's hand shot out and seized her shoulder. It was all she could do not to slap her, because the poor girl didn't deserve that, there was no way she could know. "Don't you ever say that," she said, as calmly as she could manage. "This is my decision and my responsibility. I know exactly how bad what I'm doing is, but I also know how much worse it would be to dig this hole any deeper. We'd all regret it, in the end. That's what you will tell him. Make no excuses for me. Understand?"

The sister, cowed into silence, nodded. Utena spared her a quick smile, then released her and walked out the door.


"Excuse me, do you know this area well?" she asked the first person she saw.

"Yes?" He stared at her. Unsurprising — she must have looked a mess.

"What's the nearest tea shop?"

"Ah… Well… That is…" Still staring. So were a lot of other people. She could ignore it. "There's Rosehips?"

"That's the one!" she half-shouted in her excitement. "That has to be it! Where is it?" He pointed dumbly. She thanked him profusely and ran.


Anthy was standing behind the counter when she got there, a tray with two cups and a plate of cookies laid out before her. When their eyes met, her lips parted into the widest, truest smile Utena had ever seen grace them. She ran to her. They both reached out and grasped each other by the wrists. Even more people were staring now — all the patrons of the reasonably busy shop — but it mattered less than ever.

"Hey, Himemiya." Eloquent. That was all right too; she didn't need words for this. They'd already gotten the most important ones out of the way.

"Hello hello, Lady Utena." And for the first time, it sounded like a joke.

"Did you set this place up all by yourself?"

Anthy beamed. "Chuu-chuu helped!"

"Chuu-chuu!" Utena laughed. "I almost forgot! Where is the little rascal?"

"At home. The health and safety people got upset with my having him here, for some reason."

"Welcome to the real world, Himemiya."

"Glad to be here, Lady Utena."

They let go of each other just long enough to get situated at a table. Both the tea and the cookies were warm and sweet, and neither were remotely poisonous.

"Hey, Himemiya," Utena said, "I left my job when I decided to get married. May I work here with you?"

"Of course, Lady Utena. If the inspectors don't mind."

"And Himemiya," she said, "I left my apartment when I decided to get married. May I move in with you?"

"Of course, Lady Utena. If the goat doesn't mind."

"And Anthy," she continued, her tone a bit softer now, "I left my fiancé when I decided not to get married after all. May I spend the rest of my life with you?" Her heart fluttered just a little, though she already knew the answer she'd get.

"Oh, Utena, of course." Anthy set down her cup and reached out across the table to lay a hand on her face. "Of course, unconditionally."

And that was the beginning of that.

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