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Fate of the Roses

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     On a hill, overlooking a small church, a white horse waited patiently for its next command.  It didn’t snort, nor did it try to paw at the grass as a sign of restlessness.  As far as the horse was concerned, the rider’s word was law, absolute and unquestioned.

     The rider would have thought that to be mildly ironic.  Much like his horse, he too was resplendent in white.  His clothes took on a regal, yet military look.  Golden epaulets adorned his shoulders, and at his side was a sword in its scabbard.  Thankfully, he had not had much occasion to use the sword recently.

     White gloves combed through short lavender hair.  The cool breeze and the light rain helped keep him awake.  He was exhausted almost beyond description.  It was no mere weariness of the body, but of the soul as well.  In those few moments when he dared to sleep, to give himself some measure of rest, that he could feel his thoughts take on a dark and selfish bent.

     Your name means “God,” it whispered to him.  You have power beyond what most could imagine.  Cease these trivial labors and show them what true peace is like.  Let them cry to you for help as often as they like, but answer only the few.  They don’t appreciate you and they never will.  No matter how many you save, they will always call for you.  How does it feel to be always reliable, always put upon, o noble savior?  Take what is rightfully yours.

     He sighed and looked at the ring on his left ring finger.  It bore the stylized symbol of a rose, but it was no mere decorative bauble.  Had events gone another way, it would have been the key to his relief.

     It would have been something wondrous, he thought to himself.  And it all started with his dear sister.

     Even she wasn't quite sure where she had gotten the idea.  She had been worrying about him, hoping that she could find some solution in their voluminous library.  There were neither solutions nor solace to his situation, though.  He was alone, the only Prince, and he had undeniable obligations to his people. 

     Exhausted, she went outside and sat on a bench near the lake.  She had hoped that the surroundings could quell the nagging sense of imminent defeat that she was feeling.

     Somewhere along the way, she had fallen asleep.  She claimed that a voice, gentle and kind, told her a story in her dreams.  It told a tale of a war for possession between seven mages.  It was a battle to seize a relic which would give the winner the ability to make a single wish come true.  No matter how noble, how twisted, how grand or how petty the wish, it would be granted.

     As she related this part to him, he had nodded abstractly.  A wish-granting relic, no matter how powerful, was a one-shot deal.  It was a danger to anyone who would voice a wish that could be misinterpreted in even the slightest manner.  A wish for world peace, for example, could result in a world that was totally devoid of life.  A wish for an end to famine and other forms of suffering might take a similar path.

     What truly caught his attention was the method of battle that these seven mages used.  Obviously, they used offensive and defensive spells.  Some of the later mages had modified conventional weaponry to counter even the strongest defenses.  A "magic bullet" was not an unattainable ideal.

     However, these were background noise to the true weapons.  Each mage, dubbed a Master, would summon a Servant and bind them to their will with a command seal.  Each Servant was a specialist in a certain class.  One might specialize in melee combat, another would be long-distance.  One Servant was even a powerful mage.

     All of them were the spirits of legendary heroes given flesh by magic.  As they fought each other, their ultimate weapons indicative of their identities would be revealed.  In the end, only one Master and one Servant could use that relic to grant that wish.

     The voice had told his sister that the battle had raged three times, leaving no clear victor.  On the fourth attempt to gain the relic, its physical form was destroyed by the victor, but at a terrible cost.  The fifth and final war had the relic, now corrupted as an instrument of destruction, destroyed once and for all.

     She awoke from her slumber and bolted from her bench at the lake.  With renewed vigor, she once again combed their library for hints and clues as to whether or not a miracle could occur.

     One Prince could not possibly hope to see to the needs of everyone in his realm.  However, seven Servants who could be sworn to his cause would lighten his burden immeasurably.  He saw the merit in this desperate plan, and offered what help he could.  She traveled far and wide for the materials that could offer salvation.  She even went so far as to craft a temporary receptacle for these heroic spirits, should they not be needed.  This Throne of Heroes, as she called it, would be used only in an emergency.

     The summoning, however, offered little except disappointment.  Of the seven heroic spirits that they had hoped for, only six had materialized.  The seventh Servant was but a small, glowing orb.  Upon touching it, he realized that it contained the memories and power of that missing Servant, but the soul was nowhere to be found.

     Unabashed, he tried to rally the remaining Servants to his cause.  It would be for the common good, he told them.  They would be heroes once again, and they would be living a second chance.

     It was around then that they started attacking each other.  They were not interested in being part of a greater good.  The remnants of a compulsion to battle were too strong for reasonable words to get through.  They were intent on killing each other and anyone who stood in their way.  Each and every one of them was determined to be the last one standing, and the surrounding country could have been laid waste if he hadn't acted.

     With regret, he did so.  He forced the six Servants who had materialized into the Throne of Heroes with his sister's help.  She then laid a seal upon the Throne so that only in desperate times could such power be accessed.  They, and only they, could free the spirits.

     That left the wayward orb of memories and power.  It seemed harmless enough, and he felt it almost calling to him.  Once again, he prevailed upon his sister to seal this odd phenomenon away, but not in the Throne.  The closest he could come to a command seal was the signet ring that he wore.

     That had been seven years ago.  He wandered his country, helping whomever he could when he felt their pain and anguish.  His empathy, he mused, was both his best and worst part.

     He was pulled away from his reminiscing by the solemn ringing of the church bells below.  Not knowing why, he had his horse go down the hill, closer to the church, but still some distance away.  His keen eyes spotted two young boys, no older than 10, walking out of the church.  One had long, straight red hair, and the other had long, vaguely wavy green hair.  The red-haired boy was marching resolutely out, and his companion was of a more disconsolate gait.

     "Wait!  Are we really going to let that girl do that?" the green-haired boy asked.

     "Then show her something eternal," his friend replied, not looking back.

     He watched them go, and he could feel someone in utter anguish.  It was obvious that this was a funeral, but there was an undeniable force that was pulling him to the church.

     Two men in dark suits stopped him.  He could forgive them for not recognizing him.  After all, it was dark, rainy, and he probably looked nothing like his usual self.

     "Sir, this is a private funeral," one of them began.  "I'm afraid you'll have to leave."

     His companion looked startled, then nudged the first man in the ribs.  There was a frantic whispered conversation and both men parted to let him through, horse and all.

     "My deepest apologies, sir, I didn't--"

     "It's all right," he reassured them with a confidence that he barely felt.  "Whose funeral is this?"

     They told him.  They also informed him of a missing girl that they'd been assigned to find.

     "I'll take it from here," he said simply, dismounting.  "You'll find her soon."

     It was dark in the church, as expected.  He trusted his instincts, and they led him to a small room with three coffins.  Three of them were occupied, but two of them had corpses, and recent ones at that.  He didn't have to open them to know.

     The third coffin, however, contained a young girl, curled up in a fetal position among the scattered flower petals within.  She had been crying, and she resolutely closed her eyes at the new intrusion.

     "Leave me alone," she said quietly.

     "Coffins are for the dead, little one," he replied.  "You still have a life ahead of you."

     "I don't want it," she told him and tried to bury herself under the petals.

     He sighed to himself.  This little girl's pain was calling to him?  And yet, there was something, a spark that could be fanned into something greater, if given the chance.  It would mean, of course, giving up his last link to a well-meaning experiment.

     Given how that experiment had turned out, it really wasn’t much of a sacrifice, now was it, he thought to himself.  His sister, of course, would ask questions, and he would have to answer to her.

     Despite his fatigue, he smiled.  He gently stroked the girl’s pink hair until, almost against her will, she rolled onto her back to face him.  For one disconcerting moment, he had the feeling that this was what she would look like if she were truly meant to be in the coffin.

     A whisper of power flowed through him as dormant candles flared to life.  The girl blinked at the unexpected light, each had their first good look at each other. 

     There was no pity in his eyes.  Those beautiful eyes were full of kindness, concern, and honest compassion.  He could see the trails that her tears had left from her blue eyes.  Without a word, he helped her upright and kissed the tears away.  He then gathered her into a hug and gently stroked her hair until she stopped shaking.

     They parted, and she saw his gentle smile.  She felt the weight in her heart lift, even if only slightly.

     “Little one who bears up under such sorrow,” he began, “never lose your nobility.”  He took off his rose signet ring and put on her left ring finger.  “This ring will lead you to me.” 

     He stood up and held out his hand.  In awe at how tall he was, she took his hand, and she stepped out of the coffin.  She took a glance at the two coffins that contained her parents, and for a moment thought that she was going to retreat back.  He felt relieved when she came forward with him.

     When they exited the church, the two men in suits were waiting.  He gently urged the pink-haired girl to her guardians, and she shuffled reluctantly to their protective custody.

     His job finished, the man in white turned to leave.  His horse was waiting patiently near the drive leading to the main road.  Nobody had gotten close to it, which was quite fortunate for all involved.  In these increasingly turbulent times, he had half-expected someone to try to make off with the horse.  They wouldn't have succeeded, but it was reassuring to know that he was still held in some esteem by the ordinary people.

     "Who are you?" the girl asked, her blue eyes wide with wonder.  He was happy to see that the shadows around her eyes had faded, at least for the moment.

     "You don't know, little miss?" one of the guards asked incredulously.  "That's none other than--"

     The guard was quietly hushed by a gesture from the man in white.  This was followed by a faintly mischievous smile as he put his index finger to his lips.

     Walking towards the girl, he knelt down and pointed to the ring she now wore.  He wasn't sure if she had seen him, or the uniform and its trappings.  He supposed that it didn't matter.

     "Remember what I said, little one," he murmured quietly.  "As for who I am, I am but a passing prince.  Saving people is part of what I do."  Getting up, he strode to his horse.  Before he got on, however, he gave her a little wave.

     As he rode off, the girl clutched her newfound treasure.  She no longer wanted to join her parents in death.  In her darkest hour, someone had come and given her hope.

     It was the gentle, quiet manner which impressed her the most.  He wasn't flashy or overbearing, but there was a certain confidence that she couldn't help but notice.  It seemed as if he knew exactly what to do in any situation, even rescuing a silly little depressed girl.

     How wonderful it must be, she thought, to be a prince like that.  Every parent called their girls their little princesses, but princesses were dependent on everyone else all the time. 

     Utena Tenjou fingered the rose signet ring on her finger and decided that she didn't want to be a little princess anymore.  She wanted to be like that prince, to help people in need.  Maybe someday they might meet again.  He certainly seemed like the kind of person who kept his promises.

     Some distance away, a young girl blinked.  Green eyes looked around inquisitively, and she angled her head as if she were trying to listen for something.

     <What's wrong, dear?> her mother asked, her words tinged with a British accent.

     <I'm not sure, Mom,> the girl replied.  <I thought that I heard someone call me.>

     The mother eyed her daughter for a moment.  <I didn't hear anything.  Are you sure about this?>

     The girl cocked her head and looked around one more time.  Upon hearing nothing, she shook her head and sighed.  <I guess I imagined it.  Weird.>

     The mother smiled indulgently and patted her daughter gently on the back.  <Come on, my little miracle girl.  Let's go home.>

     The girl smiled brightly as she grabbed her mother's hand.  She didn't quite tug her mother home.

Chapter Text

     Daylight wasn't quite breaking over Ohtori Academy.  In fact, the sky still held the pre-dawn gloom that was welcomed mostly by masochists and joggers, or perhaps masochistic joggers.

     The young lady who went through her morning routine was neither.  She awoke, cleaned up, and changed into the Ohtori Academy school uniform, complete with puffy shoulders and short, pleated blue skirt.  A few strokes with a brush and a handy elastic had tamed her brown locks from a shoulder-length mess to a tight, high ponytail.

     Shaking off the remaining drowsiness, she strapped on an apron and went to the small kitchenette.  Within minutes, almost everything was ready, with the exception of her sleeping roommate.

     Wakaba Shinohara had counted her blessings that her roommate was also her best friend.  She would not have adapted well to the single life, and anything more than a double dorm would have felt crowded.  However, since she knew her roommate's habits well, there wasn't terribly much conflict between them. 

     She paused before the bedroom door, wondering if she should knock.  Wakaba knew that she would most likely be dead to the world, maybe dreaming one of those vivid dreams that didn't quite make sense.

     She felt merciful today, but just a little.  She would wake Lillian up in five minutes when the food was ready.  Besides, she wasn't about to condemn her friend to the horrors of the dining hall.

     The young blonde teen was dreaming.  The images cascaded before her, in no particular order.  Men in knightly armor rode on horses, ready for battle.  Swords clashed and shields sparked as the call to battle was answered.  Surrounding her were her most trusted companions.

     She couldn't remember their names, nor could she see their faces.  But they were back to back, and their bearing indicated that they had been through many such battles.

     This image of battle faded, replaced by a scene of domestic tranquility.  It was a low kitchen table, full of breakfast foods.  She was struck by how wonderful everything smelled, even the miso soup.

     Wait, she asked herself, can you really smell in dreams?

     She opened one eye and was rewarded with a bowl of miso soup just under her chin.  Said bowl was being held by a slender, very feminine hand.  She opened her other eye and saw the owner of that hand, an attractive young woman with her brown hair tied into a tight ponytail.  She looked amused.

     "G'mrng Wakaba," she mumbled, her green eyes fuzzy with sleep.

     "Good morning," Wakaba greeted her.  "I was debating whether or not to trust the alarm, but I think this works better.  Breakfast is going to be on the table, just as soon as you get cleaned up."  With that, she placed the soup out of reach and thrust a cup and toothbrush into her friend's hands.  "Come on, Lily.  You don't want to be late for the first day of class and kendo team tryouts, do you?"

     Lily stretched and ran her fingers through her pale, back-length blonde hair.  It hung straight down, except for one incongruous cluster that sprung out in front like an antenna.  Accepting the mug and toothbrush, she noticed the time.

     "It's barely 5:30!" Lily protested.  "Not even the birds are up this early!"

     "You're not going back to bed now, are you?"  Wakaba asked.  She arched an eyebrow and Lily sighed.

     "Fine, fine..." the blonde said weakly.  She put the cup and toothbrush on the nightstand next to her and stretched.  Satisfied for the moment that she wasn't going to just burrow underneath the covers, she swung her legs off the bed and gently scratched the head of a lion plush doll.

     "Did Mr. Gao give you any good dreams last night?"  Wakaba asked, also scratching the little lion.  It had been a gift from Lily's parents, and the little toy was probably as old as Lily herself.  Lily joked that Mr. Gao was her dream protector.

     "I'm not sure if they were `good' dreams," Lily replied vaguely.  "There were a lot of knights and swords and battles and stuff like that.  It's all a jumble.  Maybe I'll feel better after I clean up a bit."  With that, Lily retreated to the bathroom.

     Wakaba sighed and laid breakfast on the table.  She wondered if it was her fate to be the relatively mature one.  Lily was your average girl, a little flighty, but kind and loyal. 

     Well, okay, in one case, Wakaba could be just as flighty as any girl her age had a right to be.  There was just something inherently cool about one of her other friends.  She was honest, forthright, and definitely willing to speak her mind.  Wakaba had to respect that.  There was, however, another person that just bypassed her usual, level-headed defenses.

     Almost surreptitiously, she felt in her skirt pocket for the letter she'd written last night.  She couldn't have done it while Lily was still awake.  She wondered why, of all the handsome males in Ohtori Academy, she was attracted to Kyouichi Saionji.  There were rumors that he was a total jerk, royally messed up, and had an ego the size of a mountain.  That didn't mean that he didn't have any good qualities.  For one thing, he was certainly easy on the eyes, and she could tell that he had his own rules.  She just never could figure out what rules he played by, and trying to unwrap that arrogant enigma of a man made her heart beat a bit faster.

     Her musings were interrupted as Lily emerged from the bathroom in her school uniform.  Not for the first time, the blonde fiddled with the hem of her skirt, uncomfortable with the length--or, in fact, the lack thereof.  She'd cleaned up, and pulled her hair into a high, full ponytail tied with a black bowtie ribbon.  Long bangs framed an attractive face, although the effect was marred by the faint circles under her eyes.

     "Do you feel any better?" Wakaba asked.

     Lily made a face.  "Hungry.  Food.  Now, please."

     Wakaba suppressed a chuckle.  Even when Lily was tired and hungry, and monosyllabic, she was still polite.  She guided her friend to the kitchen table with a smile.

     Ten minutes later, Lily wiped her mouth with a napkin as she surveyed the remains of her breakfast.  Wakaba just shook her head and cleared off enough dishes for three people.  For some odd reason, Lily always seemed to eat enough for two, and yet remained slender and petite. 

     "I wish I could bottle your appetite and your metabolism," Wakaba joked.  "I'd make a fortune."

     The blonde blushed and bowed her head slightly.  "I always eat food that tastes good," she said quietly.

     "Thanks for the compliment."  Wakaba put on some gloves and started cleaning up.  "I'm so glad that I learned to cook."

     "So am I."  Lily looked around.  "Have you seen my kendo gear?"

     "It's in the big bag to the left of the door.  Your school books are in the small bag next to it.  And before you ask whether we can go together, I'm afraid that I have to take care of something on my own..."  Even as she said it, she knew it was a mistake.

     The antenna-like hair twitched slightly as Lily raised an eyebrow.  "You're not going to try to ambush Tenjou this morning, are you?"

     "I'm not going to ambush her.  I'm just going to give her a little hug."

     "Your `little hugs' are done after a long run," Lily pointed out.  "What do you see in her, anyway?  I mean, I think that she seems nice, but nothing I'd go crazy for."

     "What are you talking about?  She's only athletic, smart, insanely cool, and she doesn't mind being different."

     "So...you're lusting after her?" 

     Wakaba held up a finger and tried to say something.  Her mouth was wide open for five seconds before she turned away, a blush evident on her cheeks.

     "Don't you have a kendo club meeting to go to?" Wakaba asked, flustered.

     Lily sighed and smiled.  Then she came up behind Wakaba and gave her a gentle hug.  The brunette blinked, then bowed her head.

     "It's okay, Wakaba," Lily said gently.  "You're my best friend, no matter which way you swing."

     “That’s reassuring,” the brunette mumbled.  “Go on, get going.  You don’t want Saionji to work you over, do you?”

     Lily released her friend and hefted the duffel and her school bag.  She may have been petite, but there was definitely some muscle in those slender limbs of hers.  With one last uncertain look, she went out for her club practice.

Chapter Text

     It was dark where he was, even though the room was well-lit.  He carried his darkness wherever he went, and sometimes the environment around him responded accordingly.

     The object that was before him had, until recently, gone unnoticed.  It was a throne of fine marble, with seven symbols carved into various places.  An engraved spear shot straight up from the seat on the throne's back, bisecting it.  A demon's head menaced the viewer where the head would be, although it was shifted to the sitter's left-hand side.  Just opposite of the demon's head were a pair of hands surrounding what was presumably a crystal ball.  On the seat itself was a horse with a bridle and a saddle.  On the left-hand grip of the throne was curved dagger, while on the opposite hand grip was a bow and arrow.

     All of these symbols were fully detailed, and in color.  However, the last symbol, a sword that made a cross with the spear, was vague and uncolored.

     She was a fool to think that she could keep this from me, he thought to himself.  Such power should not remain hidden and sealed.  If it weren't for certain safeguards, he would have it now.  It was a shame that he hadn't found out about this earlier.  The throne had been moldering in a dark room, its only companions being the spiders that had spun their webs.

     The discovery was almost accidental.  He'd found himself wandering the halls while trying to calm his mind.  The new duelist was almost within his grasp, but he had sensed something missing.  There was more to the game than what only he had lost.

     It had been barely a whisper, hardly a stray thought that urged him to this dark and spider-infested room.  When one is hungry enough, you look for even the smallest morsels to satisfy yourself.  This was a morsel that promised to be a full-course meal, if only there hadn't been some safeguards built in.

     No, gorging was for the immature and the impatient.  No matter how tempting it was, he would have to force himself to savor what could, bit by bit.  After all, he had the most wonderfully compliant assistant.

     "You will help me, won't you, dear sister?" he asked.  "After all, I can't imagine how I could forget such an obvious treasure.  And after all you've put me through, it's the least you could do."  He put his hands in his pockets and smiled at the young woman beside him.

     "Of course, dear brother," Anthy Himemiya said.  They shared the same dusky skin, as well as the same shade of green eyes.  She currently wore an Ohtori Academy girls' uniform, her hands clasped demurely in front of her pleated skirt.  She smiled, and though it might be taken for sincerity at first, there was an emptiness and sadness that he caught immediately.  That was fine, it was a reminder of her past sins.  "I owe you so very much."

     "All in good time, Anthy.  Now then, I think that it's time for you to go to school.  It simply wouldn't do for you to be late on your first day.  As for myself, I have some letters to write."  He waved her away, dismissing her for the moment.

     "Yes, Akio," Anthy said, bowing as she left.

     On a whim, he turned off the room lights and turned on the planetarium projector in the middle of the room.  His eyes traced the various constellations, but it was a planet that he was focused on.  He reached toward Venus, as if to hold it in his hand.  Then, he abruptly closed his fist around where the planet would have been.

     "Soon," he muttered quietly to himself.  "We shall see if the seeds that I planted have taken root."

Chapter Text

     Kyouichi Saionji was not happy.  He understood the necessity of discipline in kendo.  He knew that it was necessary to practice as much as possible while still allowing the kendo club members time to pursue their studies.  While he didn't mind the attention of the ladies, his heart belonged only to one woman, his Bride.

     It was another young woman, the one who had just arrived, duffel bag and all.  She was barely over five feet tall, and her ponytail bounced as she rushed to the locker room to change into her safety gear.

     The school is sending little waifs who think that all they have to do in the kendo club is swing a sword and hope that it connects, he thought, seething.  Look at that little blonde girl!  She probably doesn't even have a speck of athletic ability!  She'll probably hold her sword the wrong way, giggle, and waste her time talking to the other teammates without even making a contribution!

     He scowled as the team assembled.  Some of them were old hands, but a few of the freshmen thought that this was probably an easy and cool club to belong to.  The little blonde girl, to her credit, seemed to be taking it seriously.

     He drew a wooden practice sword from the rack.  He wasn't in protective gear; that was for the amateurs who couldn't dodge a good strike.  No, he was so confident of his abilities that he just wore a hakama and left the top open.

     "Good morning," he greeted the assembled group.  "I'd like to thank all of you for coming early.  For those of you who don't know me, my name is Kyouichi Saionji, and I am not only captain of this club, but also a member of the Student Council.  All you have to know is that whatever I say, goes."

     He paced the length of the training hall, his eyes shifting from one club member to the next.  Some of them were openly in awe of him.  Others looked nonplussed.  The little blonde girl, to her credit, seemed to be focused and paying attention.  She was even sitting correctly.

     "This is not the club for those who are looking something easy.  This is the club where I push you to the very edge of your abilities.  You may hate me in the end.  You may curse the very air I breathe.  If, by some miracle, you become better acquainted with the way of the sword, it might even be worth it."

     He turned dramatically and pointed his practice sword at the little blonde girl.  She blinked her green eyes in surprise.

     "You!  What is your name?" he demanded.

     "It's Lillian.  Lillian Mac--look, can I not say my last name out loud?  It's kind of embarrassing."  She dug into her nearby bag and presented her school ID.

     The green-haired leader scrutinized the ID and snorted.  "How'd you manage to get into the kendo club?"

     She rummaged around and presented a sheaf of paperwork.  "I have all the permissions from the office," Lily began, shortly before said sheaf was scattered across the length of the training hall.  Saionji had missed her fingers by a hair's breadth.

     "Paperwork tells me nothing," he scoffed.  "Show me what you have.  Prove to me that you deserve to be here."

     Lily blinked, then stood up.  She didn't try to gather the scattered paperwork.  If there was any nervousness in her demeanor, it was quickly silenced.

     "It'll take some time to put on the protective gear," she pointed out.

     "No gear!" he barked, and a few of the older team members giggled.  They'd seen this before.  Saionji would take whoever looked like the weakest link and beat them to within an inch of serious injury.  The poor victim would either quit, or would remain quiet for the rest of the year, trying not to arouse his wrath.

     “No gear?” she asked.  “Isn’t that against the school rules?  I mean, what if—“

     Saionji took a quick step forward and proceeded to loom over Lily.  The scowl on his face deepened, and there was a disturbing look in his lavender eyes.  Clearly, he was not used to having his authority challenged, even if it made sense.

     “Within these walls, I am the only authority that you answer to!  I decide what is best for the team, and right now, I want to see exactly how good you are.”

     “You want to fight me without protective gear?”

     Saionji nodded.  “Unless, of course, your skill is so poor that you cannot bear to face me.”

     Lily pressed her lips into a thin line.  Getting up, she gathered the scattered papers and tapped them into a neat pile.  She nonchalantly flipped through the pages.

     "Well?"  Saionji demanded.

     "I was just taking a look through some of the other clubs," she replied.  "From what I understand, Captain Arisugawa of the Fencing Club is harsh, but fair.  I don't think that she feels the need to bully her teammates."

     The green-haired captain smirked.  "You're going to run away.  You're going to start crying, and crawl over to the Fencing Team and beg them to have you--"  He stopped as Lily stood up and locked eyes with him.  There was neither fear nor uncertainty in those green eyes of hers.  There was only determination, and perhaps a hint of disappointment.

     "Maybe you missed it, Captain Saionji, but I just called you a bully," she said softly so that nobody else could hear her.  "Are you aware of what a bully is made of?"

     Saionji's smirk turned into a scowl.  How dare this little nobody insult him!  Oh, she did it quietly, but to have her just glare at him in defiance, that was too much!

     "You want your gear?" he asked, his voice low with menace.  "Fine.  The first one to score a point wins."

     It took a bit of doing to get the rest of the safety equipment on.  Not only was there protection for the head, but for the neck, the legs, and the hands.  Every bit of the safety gear was heavily padded.  As Lily knew from past experience, however, padding only meant that you probably wouldn't go to the hospital.  Against determined strikes, it only blunted the worst of it.  She remembered one sparring session with her old teacher that left bruises that were enough to make her mother panic.  Only her father's persuasive intervention kept her in the sport.  She hadn't been practicing long, about four years on and off, but she felt comfortable with a practice sword in her hand.  Technically, she could have tried for a higher rank, but she viewed it more as a hobby than anything else.

     Abstractly, she noted that Saionji's stance was impeccable, although the effect was marred by the scowl that she barely made out behind the grill of the mask.  She had very few illusions that going to win this fight, but at least it wouldn't end up with someone getting badly injured.

     The onlookers regarded the scene with amusement.  It was a given that the Captain would slaughter the new kid.  They wondered whether Saionji would play with her for a few moments to raise her hopes, or whether he would go straight for a strike on the helmet protector.

     Saionji charged, a full-throated scream erupting from his mouth as he went for a straightforward overhead strike.  He seemed intent on immediate retribution for the quiet insult that she gave him.  He wasn't too surprised that she blocked the blow, but smirked as it seemed to stagger her a bit.  He kept up the assault, battering her defenses with strikes just short of tournament strength. 

     Lily gritted her teeth as she kept blocking.  As expected, the blows rained down on her, and if she continued on the defensive, she would lose much quicker than if she took action.  Fortunately, since she was smaller, she was also a bit more agile and she had good footwork.  The value of that, however, was mitigated by the padded protector that covered her waist.

     It was enough, however, to allow her to dodge a lunge at her side, allowing her own attempt at a strike on Saionji's helmet.  The strike was blocked, but the two froze for a moment.

     "Not enough," he proclaimed, and forced her back.

     The crowd was surprised that the little blonde was lasting as long as she was.  Most of the older members had dueled Saionji and they knew that he was relentless and straightforward.  With the exception of one person outside of the club, none of them had won against their captain.

     Lily, however, had gone from being defensive to offensive.  In contrast to the yelling indicative of the sport, she was unnervingly silent.  It was as if a switch had turned on somewhere inside of her and she was accessing reserves of skill and strength that she'd never previously known about.  Disturbingly, their captain was actually being forced back into a corner.  The little blonde was attacking with such ferocity, it was almost as if she had gone from rank amateur to near-mastery in a matter of moments.

     Saionji grunted as his back hit the wall of the training hall.  The little blonde wasn't just striking out wildly or rashly.  Each blow was precise, the strength calculated for maximum effect with the minimum amount of effort.  This wasn't something that could be chalked up to an adrenaline high.  It was as if this duel had awakened some hidden talent buried within that petite frame.

     As their blades were locked, he could make out the ferocity and determination in her green eyes.  For the first time in as long as he could remember, he felt a twinge of fear.  It was as if he'd stared straight into the eyes of an angry lion.

     Then she blinked and looked confused.  He took this opportunity to deliver a blow to the top of her helmet.  She winced and backed off, saluting him.

     Saionji did not feel like he'd won; rather, it was more like he'd earned a temporary reprieve.  Doffing his helmet, he tried not to show that he was panting.

     "Well, that was interesting," he said.  He wanted to say that it was some of the finest fighting he'd seen with a sword since he'd watched some masters.  He wanted to grab her and ask exactly who had taught her such superb swordsmanship, and if said master was available.  However, his pride wouldn't let him say anything of that sort.  "That was...almost adequate," he pronounced.

     Lily took off her helmet, and she wasn't even bothering to hide her exhaustion.  Her hair was matted to her scalp, and even her ponytail seemed a little limp.  Still, she couldn't quite believe what he'd just said.

     "`Almost adequate?'" she repeated.  "I don't know how I did that, but I don't even get to make the cut after all that?"  Was he really going to be that petty, she wondered.

     Saionji sighed and regarded her with his lips pressed into a thin line.  Then, without preamble, he turned his back on her and headed to the showers.

     "If you truly wish to participate, I will not actively stop you," he said, not even turning to face her.  "Everyone else, you may consider yourselves dismissed until the afternoon gathering."

     It wasn't until Saionji had left the immediate area that Lily had found herself surrounded by some of the younger club members.  They swarmed around her, squealing about how cool she was, how much she overwhelmed Saionji, and how lucky she was to have actually had a duel with the captain on the first day.

     Oh God, she thought to herself, I have fangirls.  This is not the way I wanted to start the new school year.

     A quick shower later, she trudged out of the training hall and headed to the main area of the campus.  She had gently shooed away the younger club members, but stiffened slightly as she heard squeals of a similar nature.

     The object of said affection was a long-legged pink-haired girl in a dark boys' uniform jacket and red bicycle shorts.  Red sneakers and socks completed the image of someone who was confident and athletic.  She slung her briefcase-like school bag over her right shoulder and walked with easy assurance. 

     A breathy sigh next to Lily made her stiffen.  Taking a glance, she was a bit disturbed to see Wakaba hugging her book bag, a blush on her face.

     "Um, hi Wakaba," Lily began.  "When did you get here?"

     "Just now," the brunette replied with a dreamy tone.  "Isn't she something?  And she must have woken up early so that I couldn't give her a proper morning greeting, darn it!"

     "A flying tackle hug is a proper greeting?" Lily asked.

     "It gets the point across, doesn't it?"

     The blonde merely buried her face in her right hand.  Wakaba misinterpreted it, which was actually quite fortunate.

     "Hey, are you tired or something?" Wakaba asked.

     "Yeah, Captain Saionji really gave me a working over."  She put her hand down and started rolling her head around to alleviate her sore neck.  The protective gear she had worn was not light.

     The brunette arched an eyebrow.  "He did that on the first day?  Was he tough?"

     Lily nodded.  "Very.  For a while, though, I think that I was wearing him down.  I could use a nice, long soak after class, though."

     "Well, you have to survive the first day of class first.  Come on!"  With that, they walked together to class, stopping short before the central hallway as one of the teachers intercepted Utena Tenjou.  Said teacher was a middle-aged woman with her grey-green hair done up in a tight bun-like contrivance, and her eyes were hidden behind old-fashioned glasses with red mirrored lenses.

     "Utena Tenjou," she began, her voice imperious, "Do you intend to continue wearing that weird getup for this term as well?"

     "Weird getup?" Utena asked without a hint of duplicity.

     "Yes, weird," the teacher confirmed.

     The pink-haired girl looked up at the various floors above her, all occupied with students who were witnessing the spectacle.  They were all fairly certain that her iconoclastic ways were going to get her dressed down, so to speak.  Besides, the boys' uniform was an aquamarine color, not black with red piping, so she'd stood out even more.

     "It looks good enough on all the boys here," she said.

     "Except that you're a GIRL!"  the teacher screeched.  "So why are you wearing a boy's uniform?"  She finished that last part in an overwrought manner that not even a first-year drama student would use.

     Utena flipped through the rules and regulations book that every student had.  "There's no rule that says that a girl can't wear a boy's uniform," she informed the teacher.  Closing the book, she smiled and continued.  "Guess there's no problem."

     Bowing in a slightly apologetic manner, she held out her hand in front of her face, the edge of her hand towards the teacher.  With that, she smiled and headed to class.  The teacher was most assuredly not amused.

     "I think I like her style," Lily commented.

     "Are you lusting after her?"  Wakaba joked.

     "Nope."

     "Good.  More for me, then."

     Lily flinched slightly.  "Thank you for the wonderful image, Wakaba."

     "You're welcome," Wakaba returned sweetly.

     The day was, well, ordinary.  The first day of a new term wasn't usually rife with surprises.  It was when expectations were outlined, and coursework for the next few months were assigned.  In many respects, Ohtori Academy was like any other school.  Its prestige, however, gave it a certain amount of leeway when it came to the budget.  Certainly, Lily had never seen any signs of financial hardship.  Anyone who was attending could either afford the tuition, or had proven themselves worthy of a financial helping hand.

     It was during a free period that Wakaba had excused herself.  She left with the intention of making Utena pay somewhat for avoiding her attentions.  That was fine with Lily; best friends weren't joined at the hip.

     Looking back, it might have been better for all involved if she'd stayed with Wakaba.  It might have saved the brunette a modicum of pain.

     Unfortunately, when she found her friend, she was kneeling beside a tree, trying to control her sobs.  Immediately, Lily went over and knelt down beside her.  She placed a tentative hand on Wakaba's shoulder and felt every shudder.

     "What happened?" Lily asked.

     The story was a cruel one.  Punctuated by sobs and hiccups, and interrupted by stammered words, Wakaba told Lily that someone had posted a love letter on the bulletin board.  That very letter was the one that she'd written to Saionji to express her feelings.  She cried as a group of boys mocked the letter until Utena tore it off. 

     Lily reflected that it would have been far more considerate of the kendo captain to merely toss the letter away, or perhaps to burn it so that nobody else could mock her friend.  He had to have been either very careless or deliberately malicious in allowing that love letter to be posted in public.  It hurt Wakaba all the more because she wore her emotions on her sleeves.  That was one of the things that Lily admired about her friend.

     Something burned inside Lily.  Despite the fact that she had no real chance of doing so, she wanted to storm off to the training hall and beat the living hell out of Saionji.  Fair fight or otherwise, it was no less than he deserved for being so callous.  However, Utena had apparently beaten her to it.

     Drawing Wakaba into a gentle hug, she waited until the crying subsided.  After making sure that she was doing as well as could be expected, she dashed towards the training hall.

     She got there in time just to see Utena storming out with a wooden training sword.  Judging by her body language, she didn't seem in the mood to take questions, so Lily contented herself with checking inside.  Saionji was there, looking vaguely smug as he went through several routines with his practice sword.

     "You just missed Tenjou," he said conversationally.  "I'm given to understand that you two share a mutual friend."

     "That's right," Lily replied, trying to keep a hold on her anger.  "Did you post that letter on the board?"

     He stopped practicing and gave her something that was akin to a sneer.  "I didn't do it myself, but I thought that it might be amusing for everyone else to read.  It was such heartfelt drivel that I couldn't help but smile."

     Lily clenched her jaw, and her right hand started to twitch slightly.  Just a few short steps away was a rack of wooden practice swords.  It would have been so very easy just to take one and charge him.

     It would also have been monumentally stupid.  Saionji was no amateur; he was the kendo captain for a reason.  He also happened to be the vice-president of the student council.  As such, he could easily make a case that he was assaulted, which would lead to her immediate expulsion from school.  Even if she won, assuming that she didn't get seriously injured in the process, she would have lost.

     Saionji smirked as he saw her reaction.  "Oh, you want to have another duel?"  He shook his head, sending his green hair flying.  "Sorry, but I'm booked for after classes.  I intend to decisively deal with Tenjou."

     Lily blinked.  "Wait, you didn't fight her yet?"

     He leaned in close, clearly enjoying the discomfort that he caused her.  "That," he began in a whisper, "is none of your business."

     She steadied herself.  "It was my business the moment you decided to mess with my best friend."

     To her surprise, he started laughing.  It wasn't an entirely sane laugh.

     "Oh, I do so admire loyalty.  I have a best friend, too, you see.  There is very little that we do not know about each other.  The things we do for our friends--well, it boggles the mind at times."  Again, he leaned in closer.  "That is the reason why I am going to let you out that door without any consequences.  Right now, it is within my power to bring disciplinary action to you for threatening me, no matter how justified you think you are."

     He leaned back and waved at her dismissively.  Having done that, he resumed his interrupted routine.

     Lily did not stomp out of the training hall.  She did not scatter the training swords or commit any of a dozen petty but justifiable acts of destruction.  She most certainly did not tell Saionji what he could do with his vice-presidency, particularly with regards to its location.

     Instead, she walked out silently and took a few deep breaths.  They were ragged at first, but as she went on, they became smoother.  She forced the image of Saionji's bruised face out of her mind and instead thought about the tales of knights and chivalry that her father read to her when she was a little girl.

     The stiffness in her neck reminded her that she should probably have it taken care of.  Fortunately, the school nurse was situated nearby.  A few hours after that morning duel, and she was starting to feel its effects.  She'd probably get the sore muscles iced, and then she'd see how Wakaba was doing.

     Vivian Lochley was a bit of an enigma to the student body.  She looked barely older than twenty-five, yet carried herself as a very mature woman.  She had a way of putting a person at ease, and it didn't hurt that she was very attractive.  More than a few young men had gotten mysteriously sick with chronic complaints.  They had all returned to class, thoroughly chastened at having wasted her time.

     The most striking feature the nurse had were her eyes.  They were an odd shade of blue-green that reminded one of the ocean depths.  People who looked into those eyes described them as enigmatic, but kind.

     Nurse Lochley had an ice pack already handy when Lily walked through the door.  Wordlessly, she popped the membrane separating some water and crystals, and shook the bag.  That accomplished, she wrapped it in a small towel and handed it to Lily.

     "Are you psychic or something?"  Lily asked as she iced down the back of her neck.

     Nurse Lochley's laugh was almost musical.  "Hardly.  I just listen to people talk.  I thought that you might drop by after your interesting morning.  Some of the kendo club members were quite impressed."

     "I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen again."

     "Are you sure?"

     Lily arched an eyebrow.  The way that the nurse was talking, it was as if she knew something was going to happen.

     "Why do I have the feeling that my day hasn't stopped being interesting?" Lily asked.

     Nurse Lochley busied herself with some paperwork, but smiled as if she'd been privy to a joke.  "In my experience, that's usually the case.  It's rather like asking what else could possibly go wrong, and then being shocked when things get worse."

     "You know, you're doing a great job of creeping me out," Lily pointed out.  "At least you're not like Himemiya.  I mean, she goes around every day, smiling all the time.  I don't think that I've ever seen her voice her own opinion.  Of course, I just don't like being around her."  She shuddered slightly.  "It's like there's something missing from her."

     The nurse seemed to ponder this for a bit.  "You may be more correct than you know," she said softly, almost to herself.  Straightening up a bit, she cleared her throat.  "You appear to have good instincts and reflexes.  I'd trust them in the future if I were you."

     "Um, okay..." Lily said hesitantly.

     Wow, that was creepy, Lily thought to herself as she headed to her dorm room.  She was intercepted by Wakaba, who looked a bit bleary-eyed from earlier.

     "Wakaba--" she began, but the brunette held up a hand.

     "Could we just walk home?" she asked in a quiet voice.  "I really don't feel like talking much."

     "Sure," Lily agreed.  It would give her time to mull over the events of the past day.

     That was the plan, at least.  What actually happened was that she felt this irresistible desire to look at the forest behind the school.  The school regulations had stated that entry into the forest, with all its attendant dangers, was strictly forbidden and punishable by expulsion.

     DANGER, a voice boomed into her head.  If pressed, she could identify it as feminine and familiar, but not much more than that.  It was intense enough to startle her and make her almost miss her next step.  Stumbling slightly, she corrected herself and stopped.

     "Are you all right?"  Wakaba asked.

     HELP HER, the voice "said" in her mind.  Lily tried not to wince.

     "Um, Wakaba, I really hate to ask this, but could you go on ahead?  I think that I have to take care of something."

     "You `think' you have to take care of something?" Wakaba asked.

     "If I could explain it, I would.  Look, I'll be okay," she said, then started running towards the forest.

     I hope that whatever this is, it's worth making me ditch my best friend, she thought darkly.

*****

     Utena Tenjou gaped at the arena before her.  It was all made of some white stone, perhaps marble.  It was circular, lined with bricks that came up to her height, but only every other segment had a tall brick.  In the back of her mind, she didn't want to think about what would happen if she fell between the gaps, especially since she climbed a nearly endless spiral stairway to get here.  What was most amazing was that there was some sort of upside-down castle above the arena. 

     "How can a castle float in mid-air?" she asked.

     Saionji didn't quite saunter towards her.  "Oh yes.  You've never seen the castle before, have you?"

     "What is that thing?" she asked, angling her gaze heavenward.  "I couldn't see it from outside the forest."

     "A kind of mirage," Saionji replied smugly.  "Think of it as a trick of the light."

*****

     HURRY, the voice said in Lily's mind.  This time, it was almost painful.

     <Okay, okay, fine!> she yelled in English.  Fortunately, there wasn't anybody to wonder how odd the whole scene looked.

     The forest itself was not well-lit.  It was late afternoon, bordering on twilight, and the shadows were growing longer as she went deeper into the forest.  Oddly enough, she was more concerned about being caught and expelled than she was of being injured by any of the unknown inhabitants.

     Okay, she thought to herself, I'm going into a forest which is strictly forbidden on the advice of a voice in my head that I've never heard before, or at least, I don't think I've heard before.  If Mom and Dad ever find out about this, they'll probably have me wearing one of those ankle collars so that I don't do anything stupid.

     <At least I'm not talking to myself,> she muttered in English, then sighed and hit her forehead with the heel of her hand.  <Way to prove yourself wrong.>

     Her self-flagellation was interrupted by a light that came from just to the right of the path she was traveling.  It had a golden tinge to it, and most certainly wasn't daylight.

     She approached the source of the light cautiously, and it began to dim.  It wasn't harsh; rather, it was warm and comforting.  She could make out the outline of the source.  When the light finally faded, she was standing next to a sword.

     You've got to be kidding me, she thought to herself.  There's a sword buried in point-first in the ground, and there just happens to be a scabbard nearby.

     To be sure, it was probably the most beautiful sword that she'd ever seen.  The blade could be technically considered a broadsword, it was more slender than the bulky examples she'd seen in museums.  The fuller was a golden color, while the edge itself was silver.  Near the point and on the fuller were inscriptions that she couldn't read.  The cross guard was an ornate pattern of blue and gold, with two ruby-like gems set on the outside.  The grip and the tang were royal blue, with the pommel being some sort of blue gem.

     Almost without thinking, she reached out to it.  Then, she hesitated and checked over her shoulder.  She wasn't sure if it was booby-trapped or anything like that.  Also, legend had it that the last person who pulled a sword out of the stone got royally messed up (hah!) at the end.

     She turned her attention to where the sword was embedded.  It appeared to be just ordinary grass; no stones were nearby.  She examined the sword closer, and found that neither it nor the scabbard showed any signs of decay.  The grass had overgrown where the point had been driven, so it couldn't have been placed there recently.

     <Trust my instincts, huh?> she said to herself.  <Okay, here we go!>

     Taking a deep breath, she grabbed the sword and with the slightest effort, it came out smoothly.  The sound of metal scraping against stone, however, was unmistakable.  With a faint but growing sense of dread, Lily found that the sword had been embedded in a stone just below the surface of the grass.  Furthermore, she could now read the inscription on the sword:

     "Whosoe'er pulleth out this sword of this stone is rightwise king born of England."

     Lily hung her head.  At times like this, she really wished that her last name wasn't MacArthur.

     <Hail to the king, baby,> she muttered to herself as she gathered the scabbard and sheathed the sword.  There was no sense in waving the thing around and possibly hurting herself. 

     Before that annoyingly insistent voice could say anything, she sprinted down the road to some sort of ornate-looking gate.  It was in the process of closing, but when she approached, some sort of mechanism reversed.  The gate opened to let her pass, and ran straight through.

     She stopped quickly, however, when she saw the spiral staircase.  With a resigned sigh, she began running up the steps two and three at a time, pausing to make course corrections so that she wouldn't fall off. 

     I hope that this is worth it, she thought to herself.

*****

     Saionji had just forced Utena to the ground with a stroke of his sword.  She caught her breath and assumed a guard position when she realized that the wooden practice sword she was holding had been sliced through.

     "Wait a minute..." she began in disbelief.  "That trick sword...is it real?!"

     "I'm shocked.  You challenge the sword of Dios with a useless wooden practice sword?" Saionji asked contemptuously.

     Despite the surreal nature of the scene, everyone involved suddenly heard footsteps heading to the dueling arena, along with heavy breathing.  Saionji and Utena were shocked to find a bedraggled-looking Lily holding some sort of scabbard, gasping for breath.

     "Stairs..." was all she got out before leaning on the gate for support.  "Why are there so many bloody stupid stairs leading here?"

     "How did you get here without a Rose Seal?"  Saionji demanded.  "And how dare you interrupt a duel!"

     "Duel?"  Lily asked, then noticed the tableau.  Saionji was wielding a very sharp-looking, very real sword while Utena had just had her weapon sliced to nearly the grip.

     "No matter.  I'll cut that rose from your chest with a single stroke," he promised.

     He swing, and before anyone realized what was happening, the final stroke was blocked.

     <WHAT THE BLOODY HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?!> Lily shrieked in English.  Despite her fatigue, she'd managed to cross about twenty feet in less than a second, drawing her sword from its scabbard along the way.

     "How--?" was all that Saionji got out before Lily went on the offensive.  Once again, she forced him back with every attack.  If he hadn't been defending himself so frantically, he might have bowed to the intricacy of her attacks.  Her skill, however, was supplemented by a strength that seemed improbable with her slender build.  Truthfully, his wrists were starting to hurt.

     Once again, he saw the fury in those green eyes, and he could swear that it was like a lion's.

     "Is this your sense of fair play?" she demanded.  "You bully others instead of helping them?  What is your damage, Saionji?!"

     He couldn't answer.  She'd just forced him to the wall, and his breath had been knocked out of him.  His hands were growing numb, and he could barely hold the Sword of Dios.  Another attack or two, and he'd be disarmed.

     The final stroke never came.  Almost comically, the petite blonde stood still, the fury draining from her face.  She slumped to her right, her sword clattering to the floor as exhaustion finally made itself known.  It was as if someone had flipped a switch.

     Lily mustered her strength and rolled onto her back away from her sword.  Things became vague and indistinct, and she could have sworn that she heard two people yelling.  Before she could focus, a few green rose petals (green?) had wafted into her view.

     "Ow," was all she could say before her view was filled with Utena's face.  Then she closed her eyes and blackness enveloped her.

*****

     “That was interference!”  Saionji yelled.  “Anthy, you can’t leave me like this!”

     “I’m sorry, Saionji, but if the gate let her through, then she was meant to be here.  End of the World would have seen to that,” she reminded him primly. 

     “Anthy…” Saionji whispered and reached to her.  She didn’t seem to notice.  Instead, she bowed towards Utena, who was trying to rouse Lily.

     “Congratulations, Lady Utena,” Anthy said.  “You are the winner of this duel.”  She smiled, pointedly turning her back to Saionji.

     Then the bells rang.  They were loud enough to make Lily wince.  Looking around, she saw Saionji on his knees, almost as if he was begging for something.  Another look showed Anthy Himemiya's oddly placid smile in the clamor.  Then, Utena's face filled her vision, equal parts concerned and confused.

     "Are you okay?"  Utena asked.  She offered the blonde a hand, which was gratefully taken.  Lily managed to get herself upright, but was visibly swaying.  "What happened to you?  How'd you get here?  And...who are you?"

     Lily held up a finger as she swayed.  "I may need a little support here," she said.  "If I could just lean on your shoulder for a bit, I would really appreciate it."

     The pink-haired girl frowned, but allowed Lily to do as she wished.  She was surprised at how light the blonde was.

     "Oh yes, that feels so good," Lily said, almost babbling.  "Anyway, I've fought Saionji twice today, nearly beating him each time.  I've run up God knows how many thousands of steps in that deathtrap of a spiral staircase with no safety rails because this voice in my head that I've never heard before said that I had to help someone, most likely you.  Oh, and did I mention that I might have pulled the Sword in the Stone along the way?  So if that's true, I guess that I'm technically King of Britain, but since I'm in Japan right now, does that really count?  Of course, given that the British monarchy is populated mostly by a bunch of screwed-up people, do I really want to take charge of that mess, even if I'm a female King, because there's really not much that I can do about that.  I'm babbling, aren't I?"

     "Wow, your day sounds weirder than mine," Utena commented.  "You really pulled the Sword in the Stone?"

     "Oh, yes," Lily almost slurred.  She waved a hand vaguely to where the sword had fallen.  "It's right over there.  It's the most gorgeous sword I've ever seen--"  she blinked as she realized there was nothing but the white marble bricks in that area.  "And it's gone.  That figures."

     "I believe you," Utena said, trying to be reassuring.  "Well, I believe that you had a sword, anyway.  What's your name again?"

     The blonde drew herself upright and held out an unsteady hand.  Utena shook it with a firm grip.

     "My name's Lillian MacArthur, and I have a middle name, but Mom and Dad told me to never say all three out loud at the same time.  It has something to do with magic and people using your name or something like that.  Oh, and yes, I am related to General Douglas MacArthur.  He was my great grand-uncle on Dad's side, I think.  Well, yes, to keep the name, it'd have to be on Dad's side.  Oh, and I've been best friends with Wakaba since we met in grade school, and she really values your friendship and am I babbling again?"

     "Yes," Utena admitted, "but I think I understand most of what you're trying to say.  Do you need help getting down?"

     Lily swayed yet again, and Utena caught her.  The blonde had a very tired smile on her face.

     "Yes, please."

     The descent was much slower, given that Lily was running on fumes.  Utena herself was starting to feel a bit of the burn, especially after her duel with Saionji.  Lily resisted the urge to utter "ow" after each step.  If she had, she would have driven both of them insane in very short order.

     They were met by a surprise when they exited the forest.  Vivian Lochley was waiting patiently for them, as was Anthy Himemiya.  The nurse didn't seem to be acknowledging Himemiya's presence very much.  For her part, Anthy seemed to be totally focused on Utena.

     "I've been waiting for you, Miss Utena," Anthy greeted her.  "I am the Rose Bride, and from this day forward, I belong to you."

     Utena wasn't entirely sure what to say.  Thankfully, the awkward silence was broken when Nurse Lochley extended a hand to the exhausted Lily.

     "I'll take her home," the nurse promised.  "I know where she lives, and I suspect that you are going to have a very interesting semester."  With an almost impish smile, she supported Lily on her shoulder and left Utena alone with Anthy.

     Then Anthy did something unusual.  She blinked, and the ever-present, almost glassy-eyed smile faded for a moment to be replaced by an almost quizzical look.  She cocked her head slightly, as if she were trying to remember a familiar sound.

     "What's wrong?"  Utena asked.

     Anthy looked uncharacteristically contemplative.  "I thought that I'd heard her voice before from long ago."

     "It's probably nothing.  Some people sound alike, you know?"  Utena suggested.

     That seemed to put Anthy at ease.  She smiled once again, holding her book bag demurely in front of her.  "Yes, I suppose you're right, Miss Utena."

     "You found the sword?"  Nurse Lochley whispered as they made their way to the dorms.

     "Yeah.  How'd you know--?"

     "I can't explain now.  Things have been set in motion.  I promise that I'll tell you when the time is right.  Believe me, my promises are very binding."

     "Okay," was all Lily could manage.

     Wakaba was worried.  She hadn't expected Lily to be escorted by the school nurse.  Nurse Lochley recommended a good long soak, something that Lily found quite attractive.  The petite blonde seemed to be choosing her steps carefully, as if she could have stumbled at any moment.  Most disturbing was the fact that Lily's hands were shaking slightly.

     Wakaba had never seen her friend so exhausted.  It was a disturbing sight, and she filled the tub for her friend.  For now, all thoughts of Saionji were put off to the side.  Then she started cooking dinner.  It kept her mind preoccupied, anyway.

     Thirty minutes later, she knocked on the bathroom door.  "Lily!" she called out.  "You've been in the tub for over a half hour!  Are you okay?"

     There was a slight splash from behind the door, presumably Lily turning her body.  "Wakaba, every muscle below my neck is on fire.  Can I have a few more minutes?" she asked plaintively.

     The brunette sighed.  "Well, dinner's almost ready.  I guess that I could put aside a small portion for--"

     There was a sudden splash as Lily jolted upright in the tub.  Two seconds later, there was a thud, thankfully padded by a floor mat.

     "Are you okay?"  Wakaba asked.

     There was silence for a moment.  "A little help, please?" came Lily's voice, a bit muffled.  "I've fallen, and I can't seem to get up."

     Wakaba sighed and opened the bathroom door, grabbing a towel on the way.  Nobody bothered locking it anyway, since it was just the two of them, and there wasn't anything terribly unfamiliar between them.

     The brunette blinked as she saw Lily bent over at an awkward angle.  Her face and hands were on the bath mat, but the petite blonde's feet were still in the tub.  The principal pivot point between those extremities was, in fact, pointing upwards at an awkward angle.  The result looked rather like a failed attempt at a jackknife dive.

     Wakaba sighed and proceeded to put her friend in a slightly less awkward position.  Once again, she wondered how someone who ate so much could weigh so little.

     "Would you like me to towel you off?" Wakaba offered.

     "Oh yes, please," Lily replied dreamily, buoyed upon a mixture of exhaustion and muscular agony.  "That would be lovely."

     Wakaba arched an eyebrow as she dried her friend off.  "You know," she began, "Another girl like that Shirai would be happy to do any number of perverted things to you right now."

     "Well, you're not Kuroko Shirai," Lily pointed out.  "You like guys."

     "True," she replied.  "Well, mostly."

     For a moment, the blonde was gauging how much strength was left in her limbs, perhaps for a quick getaway.  She relaxed when Wakaba started giggling.

     "You actually thought I would--" she shook her head.  "Oh, Lily...that's just not going to happen."

     "Oh, good," Lily replied weakly.

     "Now, Utena, on the other hand, would be worth going after."  Wakaba looked thoughtful.  "I can just imagine her in a red bikini, the kind that follows every curve.  She'd be playing volleyball, all oiled up, her muscles tensed and ready for action.  She'd be bending over and showing that wonderful--"

     "Please stop," Lily interrupted.  "I'm too tired to be freaked out."

     "Fine, fine," Wakaba relented.  There was, however, an odd bit of melancholy about her mood, one that was almost camouflaged by her flippant behavior.

     "Wakaba, about Saionji--"

     "Well, I assume that you can put your clothes on by yourself, right?" the brunette asked brightly.

     Lily noted the abrupt change in subject and nodded.  "I'll be a few minutes, though."

     Dinner was quiet, punctuated only by Lily's carefully coordinated efforts at getting food to her mouth.  She'd made the joke that perhaps someone had put magnets underneath the table to make lifting the spoon harder.

     The day ended with Wakaba washing the dishes and Lily doing what homework she could.  Eventually, she finished up her math homework and thanked the relevant deities that the first day was a light one.

     Her intent to collapse in bed was interrupted by the phone.  Unlike other dorms, this was actually located in their room instead of a central location.

     "Hello?"  Lily croaked, then brightened up a bit. <Oh, hi Mom.  Where's Dad?>

     <He got pulled away for something, but he says `hello.'  Are you all right, dear?> her mother asked on the other line.  <You sound exhausted.>

     <It's been that kind of day.  Hey, how well-versed is Dad on Arthurian legend?>

     <Fairly.  Why do you ask?>

     <Oh, no reason.>

     <Is Mr. Gao protecting you?> her mother asked.

     This made Lily giggle.  <Yes, Mom, fierce Mr. Gao is ready to shred any bad dreams that try for me.>

     <Good.  Sleep tight, my little Miracle Girl,> her mother said with great affection.

     <G'night, Mom.  I love you.  And tell Dad the same, okay?>

     <I will, dear.  I love you too.>

     With that, Lily hung up the phone, burrowed underneath the covers, and hugged her little leonine protector.  She had no difficulty getting to sleep.

*****

     There was laughter in the darkened room.  It came from the tall man wearing the red shirt and dark pants, and his lavender ponytail shook with each mirthful convulsion.

     The Throne had changed in the last day.  The symbol of the sword had become far more defined, although it was still just a carving.  There was no coloring in it, but that didn't matter for now.

     "FINALLY!" he shouted exultantly, not caring who heard him.  He knew that the destined Duelist would shake things up with the student council.  That was his intention, from a seed that he barely remembered planting long ago.

     He had almost given up reclaiming the final bit of power that his sister had denied him.  He was oddly lacking detail on the importance of the ring that Utena Tenjou wore.  No doubt it was more of Anthy’s handiwork.

     Even he hadn’t anticipated that the gate would allow that little blonde entrance to the arena.  The sword she wielded he recognized as none other than Caliburn, the precursor to the legendary Excalibur.

     This made him concerned.  This did not worry him, as people who worry obviously did not plan enough.  Still, Caliburn was a match for the Sword of Dios.  If the legends were true about Excalibur, the Sword of Dios would be shattered with little effort.

     He wondered how this final piece had escaped him these last few years.  Was it an accident?  Was it a whim of a higher power?  He couldn’t say.  All he really knew was that everything was in easy reach.  He just had to manipulate the pieces in the right way.

     He set off to write some letters to the Student Council.  They would be useful enough.  After all, the game had just changed.

     Unlike what most people thought, it wasn't a matter of winning or losing.  The only outcome would be his eventual victory.  The fun was watching people deal with what he gave them.

     All in all, he thought to himself, not a bad start to the new term.  He would enjoy seeing how the rest of the term played out.  Oh, it was tempting to try to accelerate his victory, but there were limitations that he had to acknowledge.

     He smiled as he touched the Throne of Heroes.  In the darkness, it was as if a slash of white suddenly gleamed.

Chapter Text

     Utena Tenjou was still feeling some twinges of yesterday's duel as she entered the classroom.  In retrospect, helping Lily down the stairs was probably more taxing than the duel itself.

     Along the way, questions kept bombarding her mind.  What was the deal with the whole Rose Bride thing?  Why did the Student Council members have the same kind of ring she did?  What was that strange sense of power she'd felt when she took Saionji's rose?  How could Lily be so fast as to block a close-range sword strike?  For that matter, was she really serious about the whole Sword in the Stone thing?

     "Morning," a male student greeted her.  He was distinguished from the other guys by his ready smile and vaguely spiky short hair.  The Kansai dialect also made him stand out.

     "Morning...Sorata, right?"  Utena asked.  Most guys really didn't stick in her mind, but he was just so friendly that she couldn't help but like the guy a little.

     He grinned widely.  "That's me, Sorata Arisugawa, at your service."

     Utena blinked.  "Arisugawa?  Where have I heard that name before?"

     "My cousin's the head of the fencing team."

     There was a sudden lack of activity from most of the students in the classroom.  The only exceptions were Wakaba, who was apparently engrossed in a book, and Lily, who was sprawled out on her desk.  Utena felt the stare of every other student present.  Sorata, for his part, seemed inured to the reaction.

     "Juri Arisugawa is your cousin?"  Utena asked.

     "Yeah," Sorata replied simply.  "She's a nice girl, once you get to know her."  He subtly nodded towards Wakaba.  "Speaking of nice girls," he said in a softer tone, "I think you know what I mean, right?"

     Well, he was perceptive; she had to give him that.  Without another word, he went to take his seat, leaving her to deal with her suddenly withdrawn friend.

     Taking a deep breath, she approached her friend with her most chipper face.  Perhaps it might provoke some reaction.  Seeing Wakaba so quiet and introspective was disturbing, to say the least.

     "Morning, Wakaba!" she said with cheer that she didn't feel.  "Don't usually see you reading much!"  She bent down slightly.  "What's the book?"

     Wakaba showed no reaction.  However, next to her, Lily groaned slightly.  The expression on her face said that it was entirely too early for such chipper greetings.  Utena shot her a quick glance, but the blonde had slumped forward in her seat.  Whatever silent admonishment she might have intended to give Lily was lost.

     After a few moments, Utena decided that Wakaba needed a little bit more space.  She began to head to her seat when the brunette held up her book, "Magnolia Waltz."

     "Always," Wakaba began, not looking back at Utena.  "She's always loved this guy.  But, after she's rejected, the next day she recovers, another man appears and the heroine ends up with him."  Wakaba turned around and covered the lower part of her face with the book, looking rather unimpressed.  "When I read this before, I thought it was the lamest, stupidest book."  Her expression changed to one of near joy.  "Now I read it, and I think--"

     "--it's still lame, but oddly relevant," Lily said from her seat, not even lifting her head.

     If the comment had had any effect on Wakaba, it didn't show.  She bounded from her seat and proceeded to tackle hug Utena, proclaiming the pink-haired girl her love.

     "Um, Wakaba, could you please stop with the `you're my true love' stuff?"  Utena asked, nearly bent over from the brunette's weight.

     "Why?"  Wakaba asked, then noticed that the activity stopped once again.

     "Good morning," Anthy said, bowing to a student.  She turned her green-eyed gaze towards Utena and smiled.  "I will be attending class with you from now on, Miss Utena."

     "Eh?" Wakaba exclaimed, instinctively hugging Utena even tighter.

     "What?"  Utena exclaimed.

     "Huh?"  That was Lily, her response muffled by the desk.

*****

     The Ohtori Academy Student Council was known to be exclusive, somewhat mysterious, and highly influential.  The membership was currently limited to four people, and each of them had sworn allegiance to the mysterious End of the World for various reasons.

     These four members were also known to be extraordinarily quirky.  Three of them sat at a table in a spacious area with a view of not only the academy, but of the dueling arena as well.  They weren't planning dances or any other activities.  They were currently playing cards.

     "You've received your letters from End of the World?"  Touga Kiryuu asked.  His long, straight red hair accented his androgynous good looks.

     "I have," Juri Arisugawa confirmed.  Despite her apparently no-nonsense personality, she was sporting French curls that would have been the equal of any noblewoman.

     "So have I," said Miki Kaoru.  The youngest of the Student Council, his boyish looks were only accentuated by his short blue hair.

     "The game has changed," Touga said, discarding one of his cards.  "According to End of the World, we will be provided with a partner in future duels."

     "I don't need a partner," Juri said.  "How is it that Saionji was defeated?"

     "Utena Tenjou took Saionji's rose," Touga reported, "but it was with no small aid of an unknown girl wielding a broadsword."

     "How could End of the World let this happen?"  Juri asked.  She discarded two cards and took two new ones.  "I was given to understand that the duels would be solo."

     Miki clicked off his stopwatch.  "That doesn't appear to be the case anymore, Miss Juri.  As for the girl, I believe that her name is Lillian MacArthur, in the same class as Utena Tenjou and Wakaba Shinohara.  Utena Tenjou is also very popular in the middle school."

     “Very thorough, Miki,” Touga said.  Coming from him, it was merely an acknowledgment of effort rather than an actual compliment.  “End of the World has decreed that duels be put on a moratorium for now.  Until we understand the way things have changed, we would all be at a severe disadvantage.”

     The sound of the elevator door opening stopped any further conversation.  Saionji stormed out, his lavender eyes blazing.  All of them noticed that he was trying not to show the physical aftereffects of yesterday’s duel.  The mental aftereffects, however, were quite clear.

     Touga pulled a seat towards Saionji and smiled.  “Sit, old friend.  I’ll deal you in for a game of blackjack.”

     Miki cocked his head sideways.  “I thought we were playing poker.”

     “See what happens when I change the game on you?”  Touga asked, looking fairly smug.  “Please, old friend, have a seat.  You look tired, after all.”

     “Who’s your `old friend’?” Saionji muttered darkly, but he sat down anyway.  He tried not to show how his hands had been shaking by burying them in his pockets.

     "How is it that a girl we've never heard of manages to join the duels?"  Juri asked.  "Has she been receiving letters from End of the World as well?"

     "All I know is that she wears the same rose signet ring as we do," Saionji grumbled.  "I didn't stop to ask her about her biography."

     Touga laughed quietly.  "Straightforward to the last, my friend."  He turned his attention to the rest of the council.  "Now the question is, now that the rules have changed, is anyone here willing to drop out?"

     "I can't," Juri responded, her expression intense.  "What End of the World has written so far has come true.  I have too much to gain to just let it go."

     "Nor can I," Miki said, somehow juggling between keeping time, writing notes in his book, and holding his cards.  "Maybe what I'm looking for lies in that castle."

     "You know what I'm looking for," Saionji said bluntly to Touga.  The redheaded president took it in stride and laughed once again.

     "I, of course, have my own reasons for going to that castle."  He put his cards down and placed both hands on the table, drawing everyone's attention.  "We are all looking for the power to revolutionize the world.  Sadly, none of us can communicate with End of the World except through the letters.  I suppose that if any of you truly has objections to the new partner system, all you have to do is resign and turn in your ring."

     Touga was met with a stony silence from everyone, with the exception of Miki scribbling in his notebook.  He took another glance at the assembled council, smiled, and then stood up.

     "Well, then, I'm glad that we agree on something.  Now on to other business--"

     "I want to fight Tenjou now," Saionji said, his voice almost a growl.  "I want Anthy back."

     "Yes, I'm certain that the girl just misses the way you treat her."  Juri didn't have to put much sarcasm in her barb.  It was a well-known fact that Saionji was domineering and obnoxious.  Himemiya, in her own way, was probably worse for allowing herself to be treated like a doormat.

     It's not unlike the way someone else treated you so badly, a stray thought burbled from her subconscious.  With some effort, she clamped down on it and tossed it back to the abyss.

     If Saionji had any retort, it was cut short by a withering look from Touga.  Best friend or not, there were still the formalities of rank, and the redhead was still the president.  He suspected that his friend secretly enjoyed lording it over him, making him come in second place for just about everything.

     "Shall we review the new rules that End of the World has set for us?"  Touga asked.

*****

     "I can't believe that you got assigned to the East Dorm," Wakaba grumbled as they left class.  She was clinging onto Utena's arm.  The pink-haired girl didn't encourage it, but she thought that dislodging her friend would've been rude.

     "It can't be helped," Utena said reasonably.  "The student council decides these things.  Besides, you managed to get a dorm room with Lily, right?"

     "Well, I wouldn't mind having both of my friends in the same dorm.  Then I could cook for both of you."

     Utena stopped in the middle of the bridge they were walking on.  Actually, Utena had stopped, and Wakaba was riding on her piggyback style.

     "Wait.  You can cook?"  This wasn't something that the brunette had ever mentioned.  Of course, Utena never really thought to ask.

     "Yeah, I've been cooking since I was a kid.  I guess that Lily's the one who got me started.  She's hungry all the time.  I have no idea how she packs it away."

     "Yeah, she's really something," Utena said vaguely.  She changed the subject.  "So, what's the big deal with the East Dorm, anyway?  The way you're talking, it's like I was exiled to the North Pole or something."

     Wakaba dropped to the ground and dusted herself off.  "You didn't know?  That dorm hasn't been used for at least ten years!  I'd be surprised if it wasn't crawling with spiders or rats or things like that."  She shuddered for effect, then smiled.  "But, I'm sure that a cool girl like you can handle the cleanup, right?"

     Utena laughed weakly.  It wasn't as if she was afraid of spiders or rats.  The sheer cleanup would be monumental, and she was starting to feel a bit intimidated.

     They finally parted ways, and Wakaba offered Utena her dorm anytime she needed it.  If nothing else, it would get her away from what Wakaba called "the haunted house."

     When she finally arrived at the East Dorm, she was met with quite a few surprises.  First of all, the place wasn't as shabby as she'd been led to believe.  In fact, it was kind of pretty, and even the grass was maintained.  Second, it became quite apparent that there were no other occupants in this dorm.

     The third surprise came after she overcame her hesitation about her own dorm room.  Instead of a dank, dusty dungeon that she expected from a disused room, it was neat, well-kept, and currently occupied by Anthy Himemiya in cleaning gear.

     The final surprise was that she and Anthy would have the entire dorm to themselves.  Well, they would be with Chu Chu, whom Anthy described as being more of her friend than a pet.  It had something to do with the whole Rose Bride thing.  It was a result of Utena winning the duel, and so they had to be together.

     Truthfully, this was something that disturbed Utena.  Sure, you could go to the carnival, try a game, and win a prize like a stuffed doll or something like that.  That was something harmless.  The duels involved live steel, and the prize was an actual person.  Said person made a point of appearing not to desire any change to the circumstances.  They just...took the circumstances as they came.

     Another person might have just sighed and left it at that.  Utena was curious, and not just about why Anthy didn't seem to mind her lot in life.

     "What about the castle, and the trick sword?"  she asked over tea.

     "Mysteries," Anthy replied simply.

     Later in their friendship, Utena would realize that Anthy had the tendency of merely replying to her questions, not answering them.  The dark-skinned girl's replies could be considered maddeningly vague.

     "You mean you don't know?"  Utena asked.

     "Why do you dress like a boy, Miss Utena?"  Anthy asked.  Her gaze hadn't left the teacup.

     "Huh?  Well, I guess that I like it," Utena fumbled.

     "Then that's my answer," Anthy stated simply.

     Any further conversation was forestalled by a frantic knock at the door.  Leaving Anthy and Chu Chu behind, she opened the door and saw a scowling Saionji.

     "What do you want?"  Utena asked, trying to recover her composure.  She hadn't expected to see him again so soon, and she was still a bit sore from yesterday.

     "I want many things," he began, "but for now, I would prefer to have Anthy back as my Bride."

     "Whoa, there," she held up her hands.  "Aren't there supposed to be rules or something?"

     "There are.  Those rules are the only thing keeping me from shoving you aside and taking Anthy back with me.  She will not be my Bride unless we duel for her.  I intend to do so."

     "What rules are those?" Utena asked before Saionji contemptuously flicked a sealed envelope at her.  She caught it and broke the seal.  The faint scent of roses greeted her nose, and for a moment, she was a little girl being saved once more.

     "We will duel next week."

     "Next week?"  Utena asked.  "I'm surprised that you didn't just say that we'd go at it today or tomorrow."

     Saionji arched an eyebrow.  "Do you want to duel now or tomorrow?  I personally wouldn't have any problem with that, if we were dueling only each other.  However, both of us need to commune with our partners."

     "Partners?"  Utena repeated.  "You mean Lily?  I barely know her!"

     "Then I suggest that you begin to get acquainted with her quickly.  A good partner will learn to anticipate your moves and cover your weaknesses.  When we duel," he said, getting in her face, "we will both be at our best.  I don't want you to make any excuses for losing."

     Utena glared back at him.  "I could say the same thing about you.  Next week in the forest?"

     Saionji nodded.  "Until then, I will avoid contact with you, and I will minimize the drills for Lillian MacArthur."

     He turned to leave.

     “Why all the formality?” Utena asked before he’d gotten too far.  “You could’ve just let me stew for a week, challenged me out of the blue, and then you’d have the advantage.  Why are you trying to be the honorable sword fighter now?”

     He stopped, but didn’t turn around.  “Victory achieved by cheating really doesn’t feel as satisfying as going by the rules.  Besides,” and he turned his head, his lavender eyes smoldering with intensity, “is it beyond the realm of possibility that I may actually care about Anthy?”

     “You slapped her twice,” Utena pointed out.

     “I never said that I was particularly good at expressing those feelings.  Until next week, then.” 

     Utena watched him walk away, and she almost missed the fact that his right hand had twitched.  Saionji was also carrying himself a bit stiffer than she expected.  Lily had apparently put him through a tougher workout than he'd anticipated.

     Her attention was drawn to the envelope she was holding.  She closed the door and opened it as she went to her dorm room.  Anthy was waiting patiently for her, and Chu Chu had stuffed himself with whatever his little body could fit.  The little grey mouse (or was it a tiny monkey?) was sleeping peacefully on the table, and Anthy was scratching his head absent-mindedly.

     "Who was that, Miss Utena?"  she asked.

     "That was Saionji.  He just challenged me to a duel."

     Anthy cocked her head slightly.  "Oh?  When?"

     "He wanted to duel me a week from now.  He said something about having a partner.  Do you know anything about that?"

     It might have been Utena's imagination, but she saw Anthy hesitate slightly before answering.  "I've never heard of anything like that for a duel.  Of course, I don't make the rules; I merely observe them."

     Utena put the letter on the table for both of them to see.  Chu Chu had woken up and was drowsily making his way over to Anthy's lap.  Utena had to smile at the sight, then turned her attention back to the letter and started to read it aloud.

     "`Effective immediately, dueling for the Rose Bride will be conducted by new rules,'" Utena began.  "Wow, this really sounds formal," she muttered to herself, then continued.  "`Each Duelist will face the current champion with a partner.  This partner will only appear in the Dueling Arena.  You merely need to call the partner's name, and they fight beside you.'"

     It might have been a trick of the light, but Utena almost caught Anthy's eye twitching slightly.  What is she so worried about, she wondered.  Usually, she's smiling all the time.

     "`Your partner will defend you, but they cannot strike the opposing Duelist's rose.  Keep in mind that the opposing partner may not hold back,'" Utena read.  Now this is starting to sound really dangerous, she thought to herself.  "`The loser of the Duel will lose not only the right to be engaged to the Rose Bride, but the right to duel in the arena as well.  They will also forfeit their partner--'  WHAT?!"  Utena exclaimed.  "Anthy, are we really going to follow these rules?  I mean, if Lily is my partner, then I have to give her up and lose my ring?"

     "It would appear so, Miss Utena," Anthy replied quietly.  The dark-skinned girl stared at the low table, Chu Chu dozing fitfully on her lap.  She carefully cupped the little grey creature in her hands and got up.  She smiled at Utena.  "I should really get this cleaned up.  It's getting late, and we both have classes tomorrow."

     "Anthy?"

     "Yes, Miss Utena?"

     Utena hesitated.  "Have you ever wanted to do something different?  Have you ever wanted to...not do what everyone tells you to?"

     "I am who I am, Miss Utena.  I am the Rose Bride.  Why do you ask?"

     "I mean...I don't like being forced into doing things, you know?  I don't want to duel Saionji, or anybody for that matter."

     "Then, Miss Utena, you forfeit the ring, our engagement, and any right to duel again.  You are, of course, free to do so.  I don't mind."

     Utena slammed her hands on the low table.  "You don't mind?!" she exclaimed.  "You're being fought over as if you were some kind of possession!  It doesn't bother you to be treated that way?!"

     Anthy seemed to sigh, as if she'd just seen an adorable child throwing a temper tantrum.  She carefully set Chu Chu on a cushion and approached Utena.  Kneeling, she gently held Utena's left wrist and pointed to the ring.

     "This is important to you, isn't it?"  Anthy asked.  "The ring isn't alive, and it has no feelings, but this is something you cherish.  Why?"

     "Well..."  Utena hesitated.  "It's a reminder of someone I once met.  He saved me when I was--"  She shook her head and sighed.  "I was having a really bad day, and he was there to help."

     "Is that all?"

     "Well, maybe he inspired me a little bit," Utena admitted.  "It's kind of obvious when you look at me, right?"

     "We all have our roles, Miss Utena," Anthy said.  She sounded almost philosophical, but there was a faint hint that this was a well-worn phrase.  Perhaps Anthy had used it for herself.

     Anthy released Utena's hand and stood up.  She smiled once again, and started cleaning up the table.

     "Anthy--"

     "I think that the dining hall should still be open," Anthy said conversationally.  "I can arrange to have something brought here.  A good meal and a good night's rest will do you some good.  You've had a lot to think about, and I believe that you need to clear your mind.  Perhaps a long soak in the tub might help as well?  The hot water should be ready by the time we get done with dinner."

     Utena had the distinct feeling that she'd missed something very important.  She nodded vaguely at Anthy's well-meaning and eminently practical suggestions for food, a bath, and a good rest.

     All I wanted to do was to meet my prince, she thought to herself.  How did things get so complicated on the second day of school?  For that matter, what was the rest of the term going to be like?

*****

     Kyouichi Saionji sat in his dorm room, the lights dimmed.  He sat in a meditative pose in an attempt to calm himself down.  He still flinched slightly at his sore muscles, but the pain would fade in time.  He tried not to think about it, as that opened up a torrent of emotions that would render his attempt at inner peace moot.

     His new partner was based in his ring, the letter had said.  All he had to do was commune with it.  What the letter hadn't said was how to do so, so he was trying the most obvious method available to him.

     In principle, meditation wasn't hard.  It was a matter of calming one's thoughts so that one could learn focus.  However, he was not a peaceful man at heart.  While he would admit to having unrealistic expectations, meditation was one area where this was a severe impediment.  There were many times when he'd been focused and relaxed, only to be interrupted by some of the most trivial matters.  After that, he was so frustrated in trying to get back to that same focus that the rest of the day was a wash.  The day after, he'd ended up grumpier than when he'd started.

     Tonight, however, was a rare night.  Everything seemed to click into place.  His breathing was steady, and there was only one thought in his mind:

     "Answer me," he muttered repeatedly.

     In place of the usual emotional maelstrom that was his mind was an idealized version of his training hall.  Everything was in its proper place.

     Then he noticed the small red sphere floating in the middle of the hall.  Curious, he approached it.  As he drew nearer, he swore that he could have smelled hot iron and smoke.

     The sphere then expanded, painting the room with crimson.  It didn't just color the room, however.  The orderly surroundings of the training hall were covered over by red skies, ripples of heat, and smoke.  It was a sort of wasteland, but it wasn't a barren one.

     The background noise was a constant hammering of steel, loud enough to notice, but not enough to hurt his ears (so to speak).  The dry red earth beneath his feet was riddled with swords.  Swords of all kinds littered the earth as far as the horizon.

     He wasn't alone.  Instinctively, Saionji drew his sword and faced the intruder.

     The newcomer was moderately tall, probably a little over six feet tall, and he had dusky skin and white hair.  He wore some sort of dark grey bodysuit and a strange sort of coat that only covered his shoulders, arms, and the sides of his legs.  He held two swords in his hand, one that was black and the other white.  Grey eyes scanned Saionji, and the newcomer frowned.  He did, however, put away his weapons.  Actually, he seemed to dismiss them, as they faded into nothingness.

     "Who are you?" the newcomer asked, his voice deep.

     "I am Kyouichi Saionji, kendo captain of Ohtori Academy," Saionji introduced himself.

     "That name doesn't mean anything to me.  What do you want?"

     "Are you the partner that is supposed to be sealed in my ring?"

     "`Partner?'"  the newcomer asked.  One pale brow furrowed in thought, and then the dusky-skinned man sighed in resignation.  "Aren't you supposed to ask if I'm your Servant?"

     "`Servant?'"  It was Saionji's turn to be confused.  "Where is this place?  And for that matter, you haven't introduced yourself, though I have extended the courtesy."

     The man smirked.  "I haven't had much cause to be polite.  As for my name, well...you can have my name or my title.  Actually, my title is easier.  You can call me Archer.  I suppose that you're my Master."

     "I didn't ask for a Servant; I just wanted to know if you would fight with me."

     “Aren’t I already?”  Archer joked. 

     This did not go over well with Saionji.  He took a deep sigh and resisted the urge to smack Archer with the flat of his blade.

     “Will you fight alongside me?” Saionji asked through gritted teeth.

     “Before I answer that, could you tell me why you’re so desperate to call me?  Usually, I intervene when there are millions of lives to be lost.  Is what you’re fighting for that important?”

     “Do I really have to tell you?”  Saionji asked.

     Archer smirked again.  “You opened the link.  You came here.  I can find out either from you, or from eavesdropping on your dreams.”

     “Are all `Servants’ this difficult to be with?”  Saionji muttered.

     “No, you just had to be matched with me.  You still haven’t answered my question.”

     Saionji sighed once again.  It couldn’t hurt to tell Archer.

     “I want to find something eternal.  Winning my fight will bring me closer to that goal.”

     Archer started to laugh.  It began as a snicker, then worked its way to a belly laugh.  Saionji didn’t see what was so amusing.

     “You want eternity?”  Archer gestured at the crimson wasteland around them.  “Congratulations!  You’ve found it!  This is my eternity!”

     “I don’t under—“

     “Of course you don’t!”  Archer stopped laughing and swatted aside Saionji’s sword.  It embedded itself among the field of swords.  “When I was young, I had the idea that I wanted to be the eternal hero, the one who saves people.  When I died, I got my wish.”  His voice became a low, menacing whisper.  “Now, when I’m called, I have to kill the few to save the many.  I’ve killed thousands to save millions.  I hate myself for being so young and stupid at that time."  Archer snorted as his grey eyes bored right into Saionji's lavender ones.  "I have to wonder what kind of eternity you will actually get in the end."

     Saionji didn't flinch.  "I won't know until I win, will I?"

     The two of them stayed like that for long moments, then Archer snorted and looked away.  He backed off, and a door of white light appeared next to Saionji.

     "I'll fight beside you," Archer said, "if only to see what your wish brings you.  Call my name when you need me, and I'll be there."

     Saionji didn't take his eyes off Archer as he went through the door.  The next thing he knew, he was back in his room, sweat beading on his forehead.

     He knew that the connection had been made.  Although he was sarcastic, disrespectful and cynical, Saionji had no doubt that Archer would prove to be useful.  He wondered briefly if the other members of the Student Council had been successful.

*****

     Miki stared in shock as one man held back an entire army.  He was wearing a blue bodysuit with armored shoulders.  His short blue hair had a few strands hanging over his eyebrows, and earrings glittered as he moved about.  He was only armed with a crimson spear, but it didn't seem to be any disadvantage.

     "What do you want, boy?" the man in blue asked.  "I'm a little busy here!"

     "Are you my part--WHOA!"  Miki dodged a sword swipe, and the man in blue shoved him out of the way.

     "Watch it, boy!"  The man in blue stabbed the attacker in the heart, then tossed the corpse aside.  "That was a bit close.  Best to finish this off quickly!"

     "Who are--"

     The man in blue grinned savagely and winked.  Twirling his spear expertly, he muttered several words in a language that Miki couldn't immediately identify.  The spear started glowing, and then the man threw it into the oncoming horde.  Then there was nothing but bright light and a deafening explosion.

     When the smoke cleared, Miki found himself helped to his feet.  Dazed, he found himself a little intimidated at the easy way that the man held his spear.

     "Sorry about that, boy.  They come around every so often.  So, what's your name?"

     "Miki.  Miki Kaoru.  What's your name?"

     The man in blue smiled, but it was much gentler than the one he'd shown in battle.  "Well, I'm not supposed to tell you my real name, but you can call me Lancer.  You want me to be your Servant?"

     "Um, Servant?"  Miki asked, clearly confused.

     "That's why you're here, isn't it?  Otherwise, you wouldn't need my help.  Speaking of which...what are you fighting for, anyway?"

     Miki thought of Anthy and flushed slightly.  "There's someone who I think can help me.  She's--"

     "`She?'"  Lancer interrupted, and suddenly his smile turned sly.  "I've had some experience with the ladies myself.  You're defending someone's honor?"

     "We're not exactly like that," Miki said.

     "But you intend on protecting her?  You want to keep her safe?"

     Miki nodded.  He was wondering what Lancer would say.

     "Fair enough.  Call my name, and I'll be there."

     "Good!"  Miki blurted out.  "Um, thank you."  He couldn't believe that Lancer was so amiable.  A disturbing thought occurred to him, though.  "You're not going to kill anyone are you?"

     Lancer frowned.  "That would be tricky, but I guess I could hold back a bit.  Do we have a deal?"  He held out his hand.

     Miki took it and was surprised at the firm grip.  "Deal."

*****

     Juri Arisugawa tossed and turned in her sleep.  A flood of chaotic images, most of them of horrific violence, were passing by her dream self.  It was like being a leaf caught in a tornado; she couldn't help but be tossed aside.  In this maelstrom, she saw a large human figure, one eye glowing red.

     CALL ME, it boomed in her mind.  If she were standing, she would have been driven to her knees by the sheer "volume" of the voice.

     "No!"  she screamed.  "I don't need you!"

     Panicked, she gathered what strength she had and somehow found a door.  Scrambling through, she closed it and leaned against it from the other side.  Barricades formed from whatever stuff dreams are made of and reinforced the door.

     She awoke, drenched in sweat and her hands were shaking.  In the dim light, she looked at her signet ring as if were something foreign.  Carefully, she took it off and placed it on the nightstand next to her bed.

     She tried to calm herself down, but it was little use.  She was tempted just to toss the ring someplace and forget about everything.

     She was fortunate that she had a single dorm.  Nobody saw her as she cried herself to sleep.

*****

     Nanami Kiryu had the strangest feeling that something was going on with her brother.  She'd been woken out of a sound sleep and she was worried.

     Putting on her robe, she gently padded to Touga's room.  The door was unlocked, and it opened at her touch.

     "Big brother?"  she whispered, then stopped as she saw his face.  She studied for a few moments, the decided that nothing was wrong.

     Touga smiled all the time, she reflected.  However, she had rarely seen him smile in his sleep.

*****

     "You want me to what?"  Lily asked the next morning before class.  She'd been thankful that Saionji had been easing up on her for morning drills, but something in the back of her mind told her that there was a price.

     "I need you to be my partner," Utena replied.  Then she blinked as she realized the number of ways that her statement could be horribly misinterpreted.

     The blonde raised one eyebrow.  "I'm guessing that you're talking about the whole dueling thing?"

     "Yeah, well, we have less than a week before the next duel.  We need to practice or something.  I'm just not sure what to do now."

     Lily sighed and rubbed her temples.  "Somehow, I knew that Saionji was being too lenient with me.  Please tell me we're not having a rematch with him."

     "Um..."

     <Oh, God,> Lily muttered in English.  "Well, I guess that we're both in this together.  I'm not sure how I can help, though.  I mean, I'm not even sure where I put my sword--"

     The conversation was interrupted as her sword appeared in her hand with a flash of golden light.  Utena backed off, surprised.

     "Put it back!"  she urged.  "Put it back!"

     "I'm not sure where I got it from!"  Lily replied in a panic.  "I mean, it's not like I can just wish this thing away, right?"

     The sword disappeared with a few sparkles to mark its passing.  Lily found herself breathing hard, and her hands were trembling slightly.  If anyone else had seen that, it would have been very difficult to explain.

     "Okay, that was convenient," Lily tried to joke.  "Looks like my sword knows when it's needed or something."

     "Hey, at least you don't have to pull yours out of Anthy."

     The blonde gaped at Utena.  "You're serious."

     "Uh huh."

     Lily sighed and then proceeded to bury her face in her hands.  A faint groan could be heard, and it did not inspire confidence in Utena.

     "Cheer up," Utena said, trying to force a happy smile on her face.  "All we have to do is beat Saionji and he won't be able to challenge us again."

     "What about the rest of the Student Council?"  Lily asked.

     Utena hesitated.  "You know, I really hadn't thought that far down the road."

     "That's not the worst part."

     "It gets worse?"

     Lily shuddered slightly.  "Wakaba wants to make me a special outfit for dueling."

     "Wait, you told her about this?  I thought that the duels were supposed to be some sort of big secret."

     "She's my best friend!  I'm not used to keeping secrets from her!  Besides," she lifted a corner of her skirt, "I can't fight well in this flimsy thing.  There's no armor, and if the other person's partner has a nasty weapon, then I'm down in one hit."

     "Then do your best not to get hit, okay?"

     Lily gave her a look that was less than reassuring.  "I'll see you at your dorm before dinner, okay?"

*****

     Utena sat down on the stairs leading to the east dorm.  It wasn't a moment of leisure.  She and Lily had been sparring with practice swords "liberated" from the training hall.  They had been trying to get a feel for each other's styles, their weaknesses, and how they could cover each other when needed.

     It wasn't working out terribly well.  Outside of the dueling arena, Lily's style was straight kendo, structured and orderly.  She was good at what she did, but there were flaws that a more experienced duelist could take advantage of.  Utena's spontaneous, almost instinctive style had the advantage of confusing her opponent, but she would have also confused her ally as well. 

     Anthy had quietly placed a tray of drinks on the steps next to the two young ladies and then retreated back to the dorm.  Her reticence to be in groups did not go unnoticed by all involved.  Both of them were tired, although it seemed that Lily was feeling more of the aftereffects than Utena was.

     "I don't get it," Lily complained.  "In the dueling arena or in the training hall, I do much better than I do out here.  It's like there's something holding me back."

     Utena arched her back in an attempt to work out a knot that had formed.  She was also feeling a bit of the burn, and she was looking forward to dinner and some well-deserved rest.

     "Maybe there's something in the dueling arena," Utena suggested.  "I mean, when I beat Saionji, I felt this weird rush of power."  She tactfully did not mention that she thought she saw a figure in white descend from the upside-down floating castle. 

     Lily took a drink from the tray and took a tentative sip.  Deciding that Anthy's iced tea wasn't going to have any immediately harmful effect, she drained the glass.

     "I could say a lot of things about your style, but I couldn't figure out half of it.  I mean, sometimes it's straightforward and other times it's just weird.  I mean, there are some things that you do that shouldn't work, but you make them work.  Am I making any sense or am I babbling again?"  Lily asked.

     "You seem to do that when you're tired," Utena pointed out.  She, too, took a drink off the tray and drained its contents.  "Do we have any idea who Saionji's partner might be?  That could help.  I mean, there are only four student council members, right?  So that means there are only four partners to worry about."

     "Six," Lily said automatically, then blinked.  "Wait, how did I know that?"

     "Are you sure that you don't know anything more about this whole Duel thing?"  Utena asked.

     "If I did, I'd let you know," Lily said, a hint of irritation coloring her voice.  "Remember, I'm involved in this, too.  Right now, though, I don't think that we should second-guess ourselves."

     "Okay," Utena agreed, "so we just take care of Saionji and his partner and work our way through."  She changed the subject.  "That Touga guy doesn't seem too bad, though."

     "I suppose so, if you ignore all the rumors about him.  Mom and Dad warned me about guys like him."

     "What kind of guy?"

     Lily frowned slightly.  "Well, he's handsome, so I'm guessing that he has a long line of girls that he strings along.  He's also very charismatic, so that's how he probably gets away with it."

     "That sounds like good advice," Utena said lightly.  "Just the thing to keep a girl out of trouble."

     "What did your parents say about guys like him?"  Lily asked.

     There was a sudden, very uncomfortable silence as Utena turned pensive.  She hugged her knees, and for a moment, Lily thought that she was curling up into the fetal position.

     "Lily!  Utena!"  Wakaba called out, interrupting the awkward moment.  The brunette was holding two wrapped bundles as well as a thermos as she ran towards them.  She stopped at the steps and paused to catch her breath.

     "How's...the practice...going?"  she asked between pants.

     "We just finished," Utena said, snapping out of her silence.  "Did you run all the way here?  And what's with the bundles?"

     Wakaba shoved a bundle to Utena, then to Lily.  Unwrapping the cloth, both young ladies were rewarded with a boxed lunch--or, at this point in time, dinner.

     "I thought that you'd be hungry, so...hey, where's Himemiya?  Shouldn't she be out here watching you?"

     "She doesn't really know Lily all that well," Utena replied.  "She seems to have this thing where she doesn't like being around strangers.  Thanks for dinner, Wakaba."

     "You're welcome," Wakaba said, a blush spreading across her cheeks.  "Lily, I packed your dinner with your favorites."

     "I would hug you, but I'm all sweaty right now.  Thanks for the meal," Lily said.

     As Utena dug in, she noticed a disparity between the two boxed dinners.  "Hey, why is hers bigger than mine?"

     It was a testament to Lily's discipline that she did not choke on her dinner.  She did, however, turn her head slightly to the side so that Utena couldn't see her restrained snickers.

     "It's a good thing you weren't a guy," Wakaba said.  The corners of her mouth were curling up, and it was evident that she was trying hard not to laugh as well.  "That's a pretty obvious line."

     "It is?"  Utena blinked innocently.

     Wakaba decided to let it go.  For someone who could be so cool, Utena could be very naïve.  It was one of those attributes that made her so endearing at times.

     “Oh, I almost forgot!  Lily, I have the rough design for your new dress!”  Wakaba took out a few sheets from her blouse pocket and unfolded them.

     “New dress?”  Utena repeated.  She shoveled the food in her mouth and edged closer for a better look at the sheets.  “Hey, that looks really pretty!”

     Lily tried not to wince as she looked at the design.  “Why does it have detached sleeves?  That’s not going to help in a fight, you know.”

     “Well, detached sleeves just look cool!  And what do you think about the gloves?  They’re cute, aren’t they?”  Wakaba squealed.  "And the skirt is long, but not enough to trip you up.  As a nice little touch, the bottom of the skirt is arranged like flower petals!  What do you think?"

     "I'm seeing a lack of armor here," Lily pointed out.  "How am I supposed to take a hit and keep on going?"

     Wakaba blinked.  "Armor?  I just thought I'd design a dress that you'd look good in."

     Lily did not bury her face in her hands.  That would have been awkward and potentially painful, considering that she was holding chopsticks.

     "Well, it looks wonderful," Lily admitted, "but did you really have to make a design that included garter straps?  What color is this going to be, anyway?"

     Wakaba tapped her chin thoughtfully.  "I'm thinking that we should stick to the basics.  Maybe we'll go for white with a few black accents."

     Lily blinked.  "Oh, very funny.  You like white, as in lily white.  I get it," she deadpanned.

     "See?  Now you're getting into it!"  Wakaba said.

     "You know," Utena began, "this reminds me of a TV show I saw a while back.  It had this girl's friend designing all the special costumes.  I can't remember the name of it, though."

     "I know the one you're talking about," Lily said.  "When did we turn into magical girls?"

*****

     The days seemed to pass too quickly.  When Utena and Lily weren't practicing, they were having strategy meetings between classes.  Utena actually exercised some strategic forethought when she made notes about the Student Council members she saw in passing.  All of them seemed to be going about their business as usual, but there was one notable exception.

     "Are you okay?"  Sorata asked his cousin as they bumped into each other in the halls.  This was almost literal, as she didn't seem very alert.

     "I haven't been able to get much sleep lately," Juri admitted.  She glanced around to make sure that they were alone.  She rarely admitted her feelings to anyone, but Sorata was family--and a genuinely kind person, for all of his silliness.

     "Is there something on your mind--that you can talk about?" he added quickly.  A short time ago, Juri had fallen into something that vaguely resembled depression.  Actually, it was more like she'd gone silent and distanced herself from two people.  He didn't know the details and he didn't pry.  That didn't keep him from worrying, though.

     What was also worrying was the fact that Shiori Takatsuki, one of Juri’s classmates, had taken an interest in him.  She wasn’t bad-looking, but the little brunette really wasn’t his type.  He’d heard rumors that she was quite the little brat.  Whenever possible, his interactions with Shiori were distantly polite.

     She smiled gently and ruffled his hair.  "They're just nightmares, Sora.  I'll be fine.  I just need a good night's rest.  Besides, I'm not in any danger."

     He seemed to consider this, then nodded.  "Okay.  Just remember--"

     "I know, Sora.  Thank you.  You're in more danger than I am, though.  I can't believe you're still chasing after that girl," she said, changing the subject.

     "What, are you kidding?  Have you looked at her?"

     Juri almost chuckled.  "Sora, the girl's name means `storm.'  Nothing good can possibly come from this, you know."

     “Yeah, well, better her than some other girls—“

     “SO-RA-TAAA!” Shiori sang out as she skipped towards him.  There was a certain brightness in her eyes that would have made anyone nervous.

     “Miss Takatsuki,” he said stiffly.  He did not want to be in the same room as her.

     “Oh, just call me Shiori,” she said breezily.  “Can you walk me to class?”

     “You’re an upperclassman,” he pointed out.  “We don’t have the same classroom.”

     “Why should that stop you?” she asked flirtatiously.  Then she noticed Juri.  “Oh, hi Juri!”

     “Shiori,” Juri replied in as neutral a voice as she could muster.  She did not clench her fist, nor did she allow herself any outward show of weakness.

     This did not go unnoticed.  Sorata fired off a glance that said that he would be there if she wanted to talk.  Juri didn’t seem to respond.

     “Speaking of class,” he began awkwardly, “I’d better get going to my classroom.  I’ll see you around,” he said to Juri.

     Juri’s response was a microscopic nod.  Her entire demeanor had frozen over.

     Shiori sighed appreciatively as she watched Sorata leave.  There was something predatory and insincere in her smile.

     “He’s family, isn’t he?” Shiori asked.  She already knew the answer.

     “Yes,” Juri said stiffly.  She did not say, `leave him the hell alone,’ but the implication was there.

     Shiori tilted her head slightly.  “In his own way, he’s almost as cute as Ruka.  You and Sorata are both slender and good-looking.  I wonder if he’s athletic?”

     “Shiori—“

     The brunette took a look at a nearby clock.  “Oh, gotta go!  Nice talking to you, Juri,” she babbled with total insincerity.

     Juri could only watch as Shiori pranced her way to class.  She clenched her fist and resisted the urge to punch a hole in the wall.

*****

     Archer sat cross-legged in the dusty wasteland.  He could shape this world in almost any way he wanted.  He needed neither sleep nor rest, but he did need diversion.

     He held out one hand and an image formed.  It was of the girl who was king.  Her stern expression was lightened by her beautiful green eyes.

     It had been a long time, subjectively, since he thought about her.  Try as he might, she would always be a part of his life.  It was painful to think about, especially when he had been so idealistic.  He was a boy who was empty inside, and he tried filling the void with heroic dreams.

     A doorway of light opened, and Archer dismissed the image.  Now was not the time for woolgathering and reminiscing, especially not in front of Saionji.

     “Are you ready?” Saionji asked without preamble.  “The duel will be tomorrow.”

     “I kind of figured that,” Archer replied with a smirk.  “It’s not easy being at someone’s beck and call.”

     “You’re the one who’s going to help me,” Saionji reminded the dusky-skinned man.  “That was the agreement.”

     “Who said that I was talking about myself?” Archer asked.  “You seem like the kind of man who’s always in someone’s shadows.”

     Saionji glared at him darkly.  “What makes you say that?”

     Archer continued to smirk.  “I took a look at your dreams.  You really do have quite the inferiority—“  He stopped short as Saionji reached for his katana.

     "You are not here to analyze me," Saionji said with a dangerous edge in his voice.

     Archer tilted his head slightly and frowned.  "I'll fight at your side when you call.  In the meantime, take your hand away from your sword before I break you...boy."

     They glared at each other for a moment.  Without trying to be submissive in the least, Saionji lowered his hand.  They held the glare as the green-haired Duelist stepped back through the door.

*****

     Utena and Lily met at the gate to the dueling arena.  In the past few days, Wakaba had called in every favor she had in the school to get Lily's new dress assembled and ready.  Utena had to admit that it was very pretty.  With the sword in the scabbard, Lily looked like some kind of princess with a sword and said so.

     "Please don't call me a princess," Lily moaned.  "I'd rather have some armor on this thing."

     "Well, maybe it'll magically appear," Utena suggested.  "After all, your sword does."

     "Right.  All I have to do is wish for some armor, and it'll just attach itself onto this cute, but impractical dress--"

     She stopped herself as she realized that some kind of glowing material was forming around her shoes, her forearms, and across her chest.  The glow faded, to be replaced by silvery armor.  A tentative poke confirmed that it was, indeed, real.

     "Maybe I could get the answers to next week's math test?"  Lily asked hopefully.

     There was no response forthcoming.  Somehow, Lily suspected that would be the case.

     “You certainly took your time getting here,” Saionji said snidely.  Utena and Lily had walked up the spiral staircase with a combination of resignation and resolution, but not undue haste.  They didn’t want to tire themselves out before the main event.

     “Aren’t good things supposed to be worth the wait?”  Utena asked.  The bravado was an attempt to hide her uncertainties regarding this duel.  She didn’t know Lily all that well.  She wasn’t sure how she beat Saionji the first time around.  She wasn’t entirely sure what she was fighting for.  Nevertheless, she was here, all she had to do was win.

     A flash of golden light signaled the appearance of Lily’s sword.  She stood some distance away from Utena, holding the sword ready.

     “Where’s your partner?”  Lily asked. 

     The green-haired man smirked.  “Archer!”  he called out dramatically.

     An ornate circle appeared in the floor of the dueling arena next to Saionji, and both girls noticed that his ring was glowing.  A male figure appeared within, the details lost among sparkles of light.  The circle and the lights faded to reveal a moderately tall man with lightly dusky skin, grey eyes, and white hair.  His vaguely smug expression was an echo of Saionji’s own.  He wore an ensemble of red and black, and anybody could feel his confidence.  Taking a stance, he willed two curved swords, one black and one white, to appear in each hand.

     Then the man in red blinked.  He glanced at Utena, then at Lily.  He furrowed his brow in concentration, then realized why he was so focused on the blonde.

     “Saber,” Archer said, “That’s a new look for you.  It’s a bit more feminine than I’m used to seeing on you.  The ponytail’s a nice touch, though.  It’s very cute.”

     “Do I know you?”  Lily asked.  “Why did you call me `Saber’?”

     Archer gestured with one of his swords to her own blade.  “You’re holding Caliburn, aren’t you?  Not just anyone can wield the Sword in the Stone.  I’m surprised that you don’t have Excalibur.”

     “Maybe I don’t need Excalibur just yet,” Lily suggested, trying to keep her tone light.  There was something about the names that he invoked.  They were familiar, like the half-remembered memories of childhood.

     “Are you two lovebirds done yet?”  Saionji asked.  He was tapping his sheathed katana on the floor of the dueling arena.  The image would have been complete if he’d been looking at his watch.

     Lily and Archer eyed each other suspiciously, then took their places.  They waited as Saionji and Utena had roses pinned to their breast pockets.  Both of them blinked as Utena drew the Sword of Dios from within Anthy, something that they both found disturbing.  Archer winced a bit more than Lily did.  Then Anthy signaled the beginning of the duel.

     If Utena’s attention had been drawn away from her own conflict with Saionji, she would have marveled at how quickly Lily and Archer were moving.  However, she was concentrating more on the fact that Saionji had gotten better since their last fight.  There were fewer openings, and his lavender eyes almost crackled with intensity.  He wanted to win more than anything.

     “I wonder what kind of eternity you’ll actually get in the end,” Archer’s voice echoed in Saionji’s mind.  Damn the man for trying to undermine him!  He had a goal, to find eternity itself!  Did it really matter what kind of eternity he would achieve?

     Well, his inner voice said, it might matter a little if all we found was eternal suffering.  Archer seems acquainted with that.

     He took that thought and slammed it into the deepest mental cellar he could imagine.  Now was not a time to doubt.  Now was the time to show Tenjou that Anthy was his.

     Lily found fighting Archer to be frustrating.  The man was fast, although his weapons were fairly fragile.  Caliburn had managed to smash through them with some effort, but he merely called up more copies of those dual swords.

     “You really don’t remember?”  Archer asked when they had their weapons locked.  Sparks danced from his dual blades, and he knew that he wouldn’t be able to block her for long.  “How could you manifest outside of the arena?  There isn’t enough magic outside this place for us to exist.”

     “What are you talking about?”  Lily asked, pushing him back with an effort.  “I wasn’t summoned like you.  I’m just an ordinary girl.”

     That made him chuckle.  “No, Saber, you were never an ordinary girl.  Caliburn does not select `ordinary’ people.”  A disturbing thought occurred to him.  “Could you have been truly reborn?”

     “Archer!”  Saionji yelled as he was driving Utena into a corner.  “Don’t flirt with her, fight her!”  As he said that, his ring glowed even brighter, and Archer gritted his teeth.

     “Sorry,” the dusky-skinned man grunted to Lily, and then his dual swords disappeared.  They were replaced with a sword that was an exact copy of Caliburn, golden light and all.  His fighting style became more furious, almost frenzied.

     Utena was running on empty.  That surge of power and confidence she’d felt the first time around hadn’t made its appearance yet.  She knew why.

     She wasn’t sure why she was fighting.  Did she just want to keep her ring so that she could see her prince?  Did she get tricked into the whole affair?

     She managed to glance at Anthy, who had been watching both fights with an impassive look on her face.  Over the past week, Anthy had been pleasant and polite, the perfect roommate.  It was only during some brief moments that Utena had caught some signs of uncertainty and regret in Anthy’s face.

     Anthy didn’t want to be in her current situation, Utena thought to herself.  She just thought that if she agreed with everything, it would all work out.

     On some level, Utena decided, Anthy wanted to be free.  Despite her words to the contrary, she was holding some horrible burden inside of her.

     I want to help her, Utena thought to herself.  I want to set her free.  I want to save her.  That’s what princes do.

     With that, whatever hesitation and uncertainty she felt evaporated.  For a moment, she thought that she saw a figure descend from the castle above, and then she felt this enormous surge of power.  She went from blocking to almost contemptuously swatting aside Saionji's blade. 

     Archer could sense that the tide had turned for Saionji.  He instinctively moved to defend the green-haired Duelist, but Lily blocked his path.  The resolute look in her green eyes reminded him of another time, one that he barely remembered. 

     "What do you know about me?!"  she demanded.  Caliburn's golden glow brightened, and Archer was almost blinded.  "What's so special about me?  Why can I use this sword?"

     "You honestly don't remember?!" he exclaimed.  He tried once more to head to Saionji's side.

     "Remember what?!  Until last week, I was just your average 14 year-old girl!"  She forced him away from Saionji, pushing him back as their swords clashed.  Archer's facsimile of Caliburn was starting to show the strain as hairline cracks began forming along the blade.

     "You had a real second chance," Archer said, astonished.  "You're the same, and yet you're different--"

     That was all he had time to say before his copy of Caliburn shattered, and he was forced back almost halfway across the arena.  He propped himself up, only to have the point of Caliburn's sword dart just short of his nose.

     "New life or not, you haven't lost your touch," he commented. 

     "I don't want to kill you," she said.  "I just want some answers.  How do we know each other?  Why do you seem so familiar?"  She narrowed her eyes slightly.  "There's something about your eyes.  They're a different color, but..."

     "But what?"  Archer asked.  He wasn't sure where she was going with this.  Nobody could connect his past life with the way he was now.

     "Your eyes are so much like Shir--"

     "DON'T CALL ME THAT!" he roared, the twin blades forming in his hands once more.  He managed to take her by surprise, locking their blades once again.  "I am not that little idealistic idiot that you might have known.  Do not EVER call me by that name because he is DEAD, do you under--oh, no."

     Archer seemed to lose all of his strength, his dual blades fading.  He collapsed to his knees, and to Lily's horror, she could see that he was fading away.  Lily noted abstractly that a few green rose petals had flown past on the wind.

     "That's it?" he asked, his voice becoming less distinct.

     "Archer..." Lily held out her hand, but it passed through his fading form.

     "Arturia..." he said, and he was gone in a shower of sparkles.

     Lily turned around and saw that the Sword of Dios was fading as well.  Saionji was looking at his left hand in horror as his rose signet ring started glowing, then vanished.

     Anthy approached Utena and smiled.  "Congratulations, Miss Utena.  You are the winner of this duel."

     Lily was oddly pensive as they descended the staircase.  Both of them had been lucky that they hadn't been hurt, and even the dress that Wakaba had painstakingly sewed had made it through without any damage.  The armor had faded as soon as the battle was over.

     "Are you okay?"  Utena asked.

     "I'm not sure," Lily admitted.  "I mean, I'm not hurt, but that Archer guy knew me.  The funny thing is, part of me knew him.  I think that I knew who he was, and he didn't like himself very much back then.  He also said that I had a real second chance.  What do you think that means?"

     "I have no clue," Utena said.  "I didn't think that he'd fade away like that."

     "I wish I could have gotten more answers from him."

     "Maybe some of the other partners know more," Utena suggested, trying to keep things optimistic.

     "I hope so.  I really hate mysteries."

*****

     The man with the lavender ponytail smiled as the ring appeared in his hand.  It was a stepping stone, true, but every step counted when it came to power.

     It's my game now, he thought to himself.  It helped that he’d given himself something of an advantage.

Chapter Text

     It was said that music had charms to soothe the savage beast.  Certainly, it had attracted the attention of Nanami Kiryu, Touga's blonde-haired little sister.  She leaned on the piano, basking in the melody that was coming from very talented fingers.

     Despite his calm exterior, Miki Kaoru didn't feel at peace.  At best, every note that he played had a dull tone to it; at worst, the music he played was piercingly discordant.  As he came to the end of the song, he found himself frowning.  It was as if he'd hit some kind of wall in his ability to express himself.  It was akin to knowing exactly what to say, but the ability to say it had suddenly failed.

     He wanted this song to say all the right things to her, to that special person.  However, there was a vital piece missing, an almost ephemeral quality that added so much to the music.  Without that special quality, he might as well have been playing on a badly-tuned piano, no matter how well-scored the music was. 

     As Nanami chattered about how wonderful his piano playing was, he hit the key for A.  It didn't sound quite right to him.

     "I think this piano is a little off-key," he said.

     "Really?"  Nanami asked.  "It was tuned just recently."  She couldn't understand his melancholy mood.  If anything, he should have felt as if he had the world in the palm of his hand.  He was young, brilliant, handsome, talented in both music and fencing and the youngest member of the Student Council.  In her mind, he had every reason to feel proud.

     Once again, he hit the A key, and the sound echoed through the room.  "Then maybe I'm the one who needs tuning," he concluded.

*****

     Utena and Lily appeared to be in similar straits when they both dragged themselves into the classroom.  Neither of them looked like they'd gotten much sleep last night, and it was made worse for Lily because Saionji had increased her drills out of spite.

     "Good thing I didn't go to that dance last night," Lily said as she stifled a yawn.  "Did I miss anything?"

     "Oh, nothing much," Utena said in a too-casual tone.  "Himemiya had two dresses last night."

     Any request for clarification was interrupted by last week's math test being handed out.  There were some groans and some sighs of relief as the students noted their scores.  Lily sighed and tried not to smile at her hard-earned 85.  She was about to ask Utena what she'd gotten when Wakaba blurted out "no way!"

     Lily reflected that things were becoming more normal ever since Saionji's defeat.  As predicted, he'd taken it out on her in the most oblique and petty of ways, but he stayed away from the east dorm and Anthy.  It wasn't the most ideal solution, but it was all they had at the moment.

     Despite the fact that they worked well in the dueling arena, Lily and Utena were still partners by convenience.  Neither of them felt a deep connection to each other.  They were acquaintances, allies, but not quite friends.  Lily found this somehow dissatisfying, but she wasn't sure how to bridge the gap.  Oh, Wakaba was a common friend between them, but there was something else missing.

     Well, perhaps they could bond over a study session, she decided.  After all, Lily had passed the math test, and Utena probably could use some help studying for the makeup test.  It might have been a good way to become something other than sparring partners.  She caught up with Utena after lunch.

     "Hey," she began, "Wakaba mentioned how you did on the test.  Do you need some help studying?" she offered.

     Utena bowed slightly, chagrined.  "Actually, Miki Kaoru just offered to help.  We're going to study in my dorm tonight."

     Lily blinked.  "Did you say `Miki Kaoru?'  Are you telling me that the boy genius, the piano prodigy, the pride of the fencing team, is going to tutor you in math?"

     Utena put her hand behind her head and laughed nervously.  "Well, when you put it that way, I guess it does seem like kind of a big deal.  He just happened to help Himemiya out and we got to talking, that's all."

     "Do you know how many girls would kill to be in your place?"  Lily joked.

     "Are you one of them?"  Utena asked slyly.

     Lily assumed a thoughtful pose.  "Well, he is rather lean, agile and flexible.  He's definitely a fast learner, too.  I'm sure that he has plenty of stamina as well."

     Utena coughed awkwardly and started blushing.  "What do you mean by all that?"

     "I'm talking about fencing," Lily clarified.  "It's not an easy sport, you know?  Mom is a big fan of it.  Dad was more into kendo."

     "Oh, you were talking about fencing.  Right," Utena didn't quite babble.  "Silly me, what was I thinking?"

     Lily held the straight face for a moment longer, then burst out laughing.  She clapped Utena on the shoulder.

     "That was proof that you're a normal girl," the blonde said as she wiped tears from her eyes.  "That's actually very reassuring."

     "What, you had doubts?"  Utena tried to sound indignant, but it wasn't quite working.

     "You wear a modified boys' uniform, you talk a bit like a boy, and you're `engaged' to Anthy Himemiya.  Honestly, I was starting to get a little worried."

     "Well, worry no more, Lily," Utena said.  "I really do like guys."

     "Good to know.  Have fun with your study session, and try not to mess the poor kid up, okay?"

     "We're studying, not dueling.  I don't think we have to worry about fighting Miki," Utena said.

********

     She was the one, Miki decided as he prepared for bed.  Anthy Himemiya had shown a facility with the piano that went beyond mere technical ability.  When he had listened, he felt that ephemeral, almost indefinable quality that he thought was lost.

     There was also the fact that Anthy was unflappably polite to just about everyone and everything.  If she was capable of being unnerved, Miki hadn’t seen any evidence of it.  She exuded a calm, soothing aura about her.  Nanami’s little attempts at mischief during the study session had been effortlessly foiled.

     Of course, it would have been wonderful if Anthy could actually cook.  Having shaved ice for dinner was a bit odd.  Then again, having a charming flaw was better than having an obnoxious one.

     An image of earlier that day came to him.  He had been walking through the halls when his sister, Kozue, had exited a “private session” with Touga.  She looked smug and barely acknowledged his presence before she left.  Touga looked equally smug as he laid there, his shirt open.  It was then that the redhead told Miki to take what was rightfully his.

     Miki wanted—no, he needed Anthy Himemiya.  Nobody had ever brought out the full potential of his music like her.  He would treat her kindly, far better than Saionji.  Such a lovely person had to be protected.

     It was regrettable that he would have to fight Utena.  However, those were the rules.  He could only hope that one day, she would understand that it was all for the best.  Perhaps she could forgive him.  After all, Utena had been reluctant from the start to be “engaged” to Anthy.  It wasn’t very likely that she’d formed any real attachment in such a short time.

     He settled into bed and closed his eyes.  When he opened them again, he didn’t find himself on a battlefield.  Instead, it looked like an ordinary pier, with seagulls calling in the distance.  Sitting on the edge of the pier was Lancer, smoking a cigarette and holding a fishing rod in one hand.  In the other hand he held a large drink can.

     Lancer noticed his arrival and put both the can and his fishing rod down.  His hands free, he snubbed out the cigarette and tossed it away.

     “Yo,” he greeted Miki with a toothy grin.  “How do you like my vacation spot?”

     “It’s very…modern,” Miki replied.  “It’s not what I expected from an ancient Celtic hero.”

     Lancer arched an eyebrow appreciatively.  “You figured it out, huh?”  He gestured to the landscape.  “The last time I was out, this was one of my favorite spots.  When I wasn’t needed, I’d just kill time over here.”

     “Where are we?”

     Lancer shrugged.  “It’s a little pier at Fuyuki harbor.”  For a moment, he looked thoughtful.  “I wish I could’ve taken her here.  She would’ve loved it.”

     “`Her’?” Miki asked.  Then he blinked as a woman appeared beside Lancer.

     She was pretty, but she made an effort to tone it down.  Her short auburn hair barely reached her neck, and her expression was that of stony determination.  The business suit that she wore didn’t entirely hide the fact that she was well-endowed and fit.  Miki noted that she wore earrings identical to Lancer’s.

     “Her name was Bazett,” he began.  “She waited her entire life to try to summon me as her Servant.  She was—“  Lancer turned away for a moment.  “She was in love with me.  We would’ve made a great team.”

     “What happened?”

     Lancer gritted his teeth at the memories.  “A sick bastard snuck up on her and killed her.  He took her command seals and made me his Servant.”

     “Didn’t you want to do something to him?”  Miki asked incredulously.  “He just stole you, just like that?”

     Lancer looked at the image of Bazett he’d summoned with no small amount of regret.  Then, she was gone.

     “I couldn’t do anything,” he said after a pause.  “A Servant’s life isn’t a long one and it isn’t a happy one.  We’re summoned to fight, and I’m good at it.  If you want to protect someone, do a better job than I did, okay?”

     Miki nodded.  “We’re going to duel soon,” he told Lancer.

     “Really?  I hope that it’s a good fight.”  Lancer was grinning at the prospect.

     “You can’t kill anyone.”

     Lancer seemed taken aback at that.  “Sorry, what did you say?”

     Miki’s gaze turned intense.  “I ask you to give your word, as Cu Chulainn, to not kill or give life-threatening injuries to anyone in the dueling arena.  The legend says that your word is your bond.”

     Lancer sighed as he shook his head.  “You’ve done your homework.”  He summoned the crimson spear, and the head grew some very nasty spikes.  “Kid, you do know that you’re handicapping me?  Gae Bolg isn’t a toy.  I can pierce someone’s heart with it, or I can stab them and rip them apart from the inside.  If I can’t do either of those, I can’t fight at my best.”

     “Give me your word, Cu Chulainn,” Miki commanded.  Then his expression softened.  “Please.”

     Lancer spun his spear for a moment, then dismissed it.  He seemed to scrutinize Miki for a moment.

     “I give you my word as Cu Chulainn, the Hound of Chulainn, that I will not kill nor give life-threatening injuries in the duel arena,” he said solemnly.  “Anything else is fair play.  Is that what you wanted to hear?”

     Miki nodded.  “Thank you.”  Then he turned to leave.

     “Miki.”

     The blue-haired teen stopped short of the glowing door.  Lancer never called him by name.

     “Yes, Lancer?”

     Lancer looked both sad and thoughtful.  “It’s not really my business, but…family is important, you know?  You still have a chance to make things right.  I don’t.”

     Miki took a ragged breath.  He couldn’t quite seem to meet Lancer’s gaze.

     “My sister is lost to me,” he said in an unsteady voice.  “She has been for years.”

     “She’s not dead like my son,” Lancer pointed out.  “I never got to know him.”

     Miki was silent as he went through the door.  Lancer shook his head as the door disappeared.

     “That boy’s got a lot of issues,” he remarked to nobody in particular.

********

     The next day, an intense-looking Utena stopped Lily before they entered the classroom.  Her blue eyes were blazing, and she didn't seem like she was in the mood for small talk.

     "We're dueling Miki," she began without preamble.

     "What?!" Lily exclaimed, then waved off several bystanders when they stared.  She held off until the area was clear.  "Wait, didn't you say that we probably didn't have to worry about fighting Miki?  You said that the study sessions were going great!"

     "That was before he decided that Anthy is the only person who can possibly help him find his music or something like that.  Of course, we can't exactly loan Anthy out because she keeps going back to this whole bride thing."

     Lily sighed and started massaging her temples.  "Wonderful.  When is the duel?"

     "Tonight.  Miki wants her pretty badly.  I think that he's got a crush on her that's gone bad."

     Lily's green eyes rolled skyward.  "Marvelous.  Oh, in case you didn't know, Miki is considered to be the second-best fencer on the team, just under Captain Arisugawa."

     The late bell rang on that cheery thought.  They exchanged slightly nervous looks as they made their way to class.

*****

     The air at the dueling arena was still, without even the slightest breeze.  It was as if, in this small area, nature itself was holding its breath, waiting for the outcome.

     Utena and Miki faced each other, with Anthy waiting patiently between them.  Lily stood beside Utena and was dressed in what she now called her "Saber Lily" outfit, armor and all.  Caliburn was in her hands, a reassuring weight.

     "So, this is what it all comes down to, Miki," Utena said, resignation in her voice.

     "Yes, I have to get that music back," Miki replied, sounding no less determined.  "And, for that, I need the Bride, no matter what."

     Lily was a bit disturbed at how easily Miki referred to Anthy as "the Bride," not her name.  She supposed that the more people focused on their goals, the more likely they would forget about the small things.

     "I think that being at the piano suited you more," Utena said.  Regret tinged her voice, but she wasn't about to hold back, not even for someone she would have preferred to be her friend.

     Anthy placed the roses in the breast pockets of both Duelists.  Right now, even the normally-impossible blue rose in Miki's pocket didn't seem all that implausible.

     "I have a partner who told me that some things are worth fighting for," Miki said.  "I've asked him not to kill, but I can't guarantee that you might not get hurt.  Miss MacArthur, if you do not fight alongside Utena Tenjou, I will not call him.  If you do--"

     "Do what you have to," Lily said, her voice sounding oddly calm.  "I can take care of myself."

     Miki nodded, then took a deep breath.  "LANCER!" he called out.

     As with Archer before him, a red circle appeared next to Miki, filled with symbols that weren't easily recognizable.  The silhouette of a man and some long spear appeared, and then the details were filled in.

     He was a handsome man, around six feet tall, with mostly short blue hair, but a small ponytail had been tied back.  His blue bodysuit and silvery shoulder armor was an odd sight, but the crimson spear in his hands was intimidating.  It was at least a foot taller than he was, and judging by the way he twirled it, the spear was like a part of his own body.

     "Lancer, remember your promise," Miki reminded him.

     Lancer grinned fiercely.  "Don't worry, kid.  I'll just keep the pretty lady busy while you fight."

     "Good.  We don't have to hurt anybody.  We just have to win."

     "Yo, Saber," Lancer called out to Lily.  "I like the new look.  The ponytail's a nice touch, too.  It's very girlish."

     "Are we flirting or fighting?"  Lily asked.

     "Can you take a compliment?"

     "Yes, just not right now."

     Lancer shrugged.  “Fine, let’s go.”  

     With a speed that she didn’t expect, he dashed the length of the arena.  He was nearly upon Utena when Lily blocked the spear.  She tried not to grimace as she noted the barbs.  They looked like they were meant to pop out and shred the opponent.

     Even though Miki was their adversary, he was having Lancer hold back.  Lily shuddered to think what would happen if someone was stabbed with this monster spear.

     As she drew the fight away from Utena, Lily realized that Lancer was just a touch faster than her.  Every time he swung that spear, she just barely blocked it.  The way they were going, Lancer was leading the dance.  A fierce and satisfied smirk appeared on his face as she made that realization.

     "Surprised?" Lancer asked, jabbing his spear so quickly that Lily barely had time to dodge.  "You didn't think that I was this quick, did you?  That armor's slowing you down, isn't it?"

     Lily deflected one of the jabs and jumped back.  She concentrated for a moment, and the armor that she wore began to glow, then faded into sparkles of light.  She willed what was once her armor to merge with Caliburn, and the sword glowed even brighter.

     "Let's try that again," she said.

     Lancer paused and twirled his spear in an almost thoughtful manner.  His smirk became a broad grin as he realized what she'd done, and he laughed heartily.  Oddly enough, it wasn't a mocking laugh.

     "Not bad!" he exclaimed, and there was genuine admiration in his voice.  "You sacrificed your armor to increase your speed, agility and your offensive power."  He stopped twirling his spear and assumed a ready pose.  "Let's see how well it works out."

     Lily charged Lancer, screaming her defiance.  He did the same, but his scream was one of battle lust.  They were almost like blurs, one white and one blue, each clashing and retreating across the length of the dueling arena.  So preoccupied were they both with their own duel that they barely noticed the drama between Utena and Miki.

     He's good, Utena thought to herself.  He took full advantage of his greater height and reach by using lightning-fast thrusts, testing her defenses.  She barely parried them all, and he looked like he was barely getting started.

     There was a pause, and Utena took advantage of it by going on the offensive.  While her strikes weren't quite as accurate as his, it was enough to force him back for a moment.

     "Well done," he said, and there was no mockery in his voice.

     "Thanks for the compliment," she replied, her voice a bit tight.

     "But I'm going to have the Bride's piano playing," he said with determination.

     "Like this?"  she countered.  She still could not fathom how people could just treat Anthy like some kind of prize.  What baffled her even more was the fact that Anthy just allowed it to happen.

     They both stood there, swords extended, a classic picture of a duel.  To fight Miki, she instinctively mirrored the fencing stances that he used.  He knew, however, that instinct was no match for discipline and training.

     Miki paused, and for a moment he glanced at Anthy's quiet, smiling face.  She would be his when he won this duel, and he would be the one to free her!  He would be the one to protect her and her beautiful music.

     "En garde!" Utena exclaimed, breaking the temporary stalemate.  She took a step forward and charged him.  He was ready, the strike to knock off her rose so clear in his mind that it was just about done.

     "I won't lose!" he said.  "She's counting on me!"

     He was so certain that he was right, that what happened next totally blindsided him.

     "That's it, Miss Utena!  Get him!"  Anthy cheered.

     Across the duel arena, those words stopped three of the four fighters.  Lancer was stunned to hear the placid object of Miki's affections raise her voice.  Lily was shocked that Anthy could sound animated, even excited. 

     Miki was aghast at this betrayal of his ideals.  His perfect girl, the princess he would set free, was cheering her current captor.

     It was enough of an opening for Utena.  She struck, and blue rose petals were scattered to the wind.

     Lancer went pale immediately, and he fell to his knees.  He gripped his spear for support, but he was already beginning to fade away.

     "Lancer!" Lily exclaimed, holding out her left hand.  She knew that as he was, he couldn't possibly hurt her.  Unfortunately, by the rules of the duel, she couldn't help him, either.

     "Boy..." Lancer croaked out to Miki.  "Why?"  He trembled as he became less distinct.  With an effort, he looked at Lily.  "Saber...you're lucky," he said haltingly, as if every word was precious.  "Even if he'd won...you wouldn't fade...like me..."

     Miki, like Lancer, fell to his knees, then to his hands and knees.  He felt the rose signet ring he wore grow warm ever so slightly, then its weight faded from his finger.

     "I take it you're satisfied now?"  Utena asked.  She didn't wait for an answer.  Instead, she turned around to meet up Lily so that they could leave.

     The blonde looked at Miki with no small amount of compassion.  Judging by the brief contact that she saw between Lancer and Miki, they were more like friends than Master and Servant.  To lose the duel and a friend was a horrible thing, she thought to herself.  She found herself looking at Miki.

     "Don't," Utena warned her sternly.  "He has to deal with it."

     "Why can't I find someone to be my `shining thing'?"  Miki asked nobody in particular, looking utterly devastated.

     "Well done," Anthy said, and the serene smile that he'd fallen for reappeared on her face.  "I'd like to study with you again."

     He wasn't sure if it was meant to be kind or cruel.  He wasn't sure of a lot of things.

     "Inspiration can come from inside or outside," Lily said, apparently to nobody.  "True strength and creativity must come from inside.  If you're counting on others to always provide you with strength, then you're just being weak and dependent."  Her tone softened slightly.  "You can be better than that."

     "What was with that speech anyway?" Utena asked as they descended the stairway.  "You sounded a lot more mature than usual."

     "Oh, you mean I'm usually giggly and flighty?"  Lily asked.  She wondered if perhaps she could substitute different shoes with the "Saber Lily" outfit.  They looked good, but several thousand stair steps were enough to put a crimp in anybody's instep.

     "I don't know about that.  You just sounded different, like someone who's been around."

     "There are ways I could interpret that remark that aren't so flattering, Utena," Lily pointed out, but she was smiling faintly.  "Miki's not such a bad kid.  Yes, he's naive and stubborn and absolutely certain that he's right.  He does have one thing in common with you, though."

     "What's that?"  Utena stopped.

     Lily looked thoughtfully at Utena with those green eyes of hers.  "He wanted to save Himemiya too, in his own way."

     Utena was very quiet the rest of the way down.

*****

     Juri put down the opera glasses that she used to watch the duel.  She couldn't believe that Miki had lost, and she made a note to try to comfort him as best as she could later on.

     That thought was interrupted by what felt like a white-hot spike in her temple.  She suppressed the urge to grunt in pain; weakness was not something you wanted to show in front of Touga Kiryu.

     "Are you all right?" Touga asked.  He was sitting at a table while Saionji was scribbling furiously in what looked like some sort of diary.

     "I'm fine," she lied.  "I just need to get a good night's sleep."

     Touga tilted his head slightly.  "I notice that you haven't been wearing your ring during the day, except for when you come here.  Is there any particular reason for that?"

     "It's this whole `partner' business," she admitted.  "Whoever or whatever is supposed to be magically sealed in this ring, I don't think that it agrees with me."

     "Really?"  Touga asked.  "My partner and I get along quite well.  We have a great deal in common.  I'm not sure why End of the World would give you a partner that is causing you so much pain."

     "Why don't you ask any questions of this...`benefactor' of ours?"

     Touga sighed, as if the answer was already self-evident.  In deference to Juri's strength, he refrained from using a lecturing tone.

     "End of the World does as he, she, or it pleases.  I have not asked why we were selected, nor am I able to.  The envelopes come without any return address, and my attempts to find their source haven't gone well.  How's your cousin doing, if I may ask?"

     "Why do you ask?"  Juri was very wary about the sudden change in subject.

     "Oh, I just heard that you have a cousin on the campus.  I believe that Sorata is his name.  He's in the same class as our two reigning champions.  I understand that he's funny and charming."

     "He's a good person," she said, and the temperature seemed to go down by a few degrees.  "He's better than some people I know."  She glared pointedly at him, and to her satisfaction, he was the one who flinched first.

     He put his hand to his heart.  "You wound me, Juri.  Are we not fellow members of the Student Council?  Are we not both expert duelists?  You look at me, and you see arrogance.  I look at you, and I see someone who has a burning desire--for what, I'm not sure.  You wouldn't be here otherwise."

     "You do enjoy hearing your own voice, don't you?" she asked.

     Once again, Touga feigned being struck in the heart.  "Alas, another undeserved assault.  It tells me that you need rest.  I'd hate to think that you'd be beaten like our little Miki, distracted by a pretty face."

     She didn't dignify that with an answer.  She just concentrated on keeping the headache to a dull roar.

     Just a little earlier, Shiori had once again “coincidentally” bumped into her and Sorata.  Her cousin had expressed no small amount of concern as to her current state.

     Shiori had practically skipped towards them, a dangerous smile on her face.  She’d tried to grab Sorata’s arm and drag him off, but he evaded her and left for class.  Juri found some small satisfaction in his integrity.

     Then Shiori had offered to take her to the nurse.  It must have been glaringly obvious how exhausted Juri was.  The brunette offered to take her to the nurse when the bell rang.  Without a look back, Shiori ran to her classroom and left Juri almost slumped against the wall.

     As she gathered her strength, Juri did her best to walk calmly to the elevator.  Shiori’s suggestion sounded quite practical, even if the brunette hadn’t followed up on it.

*****

     Nurse Vivian Lochley was tending to a member of the basketball team.  He wasn’t in serious pain; he merely sprained his ankle.  It wasn’t as bad as he made it out to be, but it was a valid excuse to see her.  He wasn’t feeling much of anything, especially since he was enthralled with her at the moment.  Her blouse didn’t expose much in the way of cleavage, but it was more than the average high school boy could expect to see in person.

     “Now, I’ll expect you to keep that iced.”  She sighed, but smiled as she did so.  “Of course, if you run out of ice, I’m sure that the penguins in Antarctica will be more than happy to chip some off for you.  As I understand it, they work for fish.”

     “Uh huh,” he said dreamily.  Then he blinked as he went through the last few sentences in his mind.  “What’s that about penguins?”

     "I was just checking to see if you were paying attention.  You should be just fine now.  Just take it easy for the next few days, okay?"

     "Okay, Nurse Lochley," the boy replied, staring at her blouse.

     She sighed.  "My eyes are up here."  She got his attention, and he made a hasty retreat.

     Boys are just so predictable, she thought to herself, but not unkindly.  She turned to file some paperwork away when she heard the door open.  She recognized the source of the groan that came shortly thereafter and sighed.

     "Yes, Miss Arisugawa?  How can I help you?"

     Juri didn't quite stagger into the office.  She looked exhausted and disheveled, and even her French curls were slightly askew.  She plopped herself into a nearby chair and closed her eyes for a few moments.

     "The headache came back again?"  Nurse Lochley asked.

     "With a vengeance," Juri admitted, not even opening her eyes.  "I haven't been getting much sleep lately."

     "That could be a factor, yes," the nurse said.  What she did not say was that the main cause would be the Servant that Juri was pointedly refusing to bond with due to her pride.  For one thing, Juri wouldn't have believed her.  Even if the tall redhead acknowledged this fact, then questions would have arisen as to how a humble school nurse would know such a thing.

     Still, there were some questions that had to be asked.  It was really a formality, though.

     "Have you been under a lot of stress?  Maybe you've had a change in your environment?"  the nurse asked.

     Juri actually laughed ruefully for a few seconds, then stopped because doing so hurt.  "Do I have stress?  I have more than you can imagine, Nurse Lochley."

     The nurse frowned.  "Recurring headaches are never a good thing.  Look, you're not sure if you're prone to migraines or anything like that.  I can't even be sure if it's something as simple as a tension headache or something that needs a hospital to fully diagnose.  That's because you refuse to tell me much of anything."

     If Juri had been feeling any better, she would have spared some energy to glare at the nurse.  Her glares had been so intimidating, they were the stuff of school legends.  However, said glares did not work on Sorata.  She suspected that it was either his personality or a genetic immunity.

     "Look, can you just get me a mild sedative or something for tonight?  I just have to get some more sleep, that's all," Juri insisted.

     Suppressing a sigh, she reached for some pills and handed them to the stricken redhead.  She had to wait until Juri's hands stopped shaking.

     "Take these about 30 minutes before you go to bed.  These are just for tonight.  I'm not giving you any more of these because I don't want you getting hooked on these things."

     "Thank you," Juri croaked, and then heaved herself upright.  With little of her usual lithe grace, she shambled out of the office.

     Poor girl, the nurse thought to herself.  The way things are going, your pain won't be over until your Servant manifests.  If it's who I think it is...

     Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door.  She didn't even have to look.

     "Miss MacArthur.  Miss Tenjou.  Please come in," she said from her seat.

     "How do you do that?"  Utena asked.

     "You're going to tell us that it's magic, right?"  That was Lily.  She looked a bit anxious.

     "Alas, no.  In this case, it's simply a working knowledge of human behavior gained from years of observation.  Believe me, ladies, I've had plenty of time to observe.  Enough about me, though.  I'm guessing that you have questions."

     "I have a lot of them, yes," Lily admitted.  "For one thing, who was I in the past?  Why are we having the Duels?  Why do some of the other partners know me?  For that matter, who are you really?  You know a lot about this, don't you?"

     The nurse smiled faintly.  "Young one, it's a very good thing for you that I am not of the Fair Folk.  That would be expensive information indeed."  She turned her attention to Utena.  "Do you have a question, Miss Tenjou?"

     Utena stopped stretching.  It was an affectation she'd picked up somewhere along the line whenever she was idle.  "I just have one question:  Is my Prince here?"

     The nurse sighed and looked thoughtful for a moment.  Then, she waved her hand in a gesture that neither girl could quite catch, followed by whispers that they couldn't make out.  They did, however, feel some sort of power being used.

     "This is the best masking spell I can make at the moment," the nurse said, and her bearing was somehow more formal.  "We have thirty minutes.  During that time, whatever spies and ears are present will hear nothing of our conversation."

     "You know magic?"  That was Utena, who'd been shocked at how quickly the atmosphere had changed.

     "I know many things, Miss Tenjou.  I have lived much longer than you think, and I have seen much."  For a moment, those blue-green eyes looked old as the ocean itself.  "First of all, let me introduce myself properly.  I have been known as Ninianne, Nimue, and even Viviane.  My current last name, Lochley, is a bit of a joke, I must admit.  Instead of having to do with fine hair and a glade, I was more concerned with the Scottish loch.  It has dreadful weather at times, but any port in a storm, if you'll pardon the joke."

     Lily blinked.  "You're...the Lady?"

     Vivian Lochley nodded.  "I am.  I am she of the Lake, lover of Merlin, and keeper of Excalibur."

     Utena froze.  "You can't be serious.  That whole King Arthur legend is real?"

     "Why do you doubt your experiences?"  Lochley asked.  "You have seen magic and felt powers beyond comprehension.  You yourself have felt the power of your Prince in your duels, spurring you on to victory."

     "I..."  Utena faltered, unsure of what to say.  "Is he real?"

     "He is quite real, I assure you.  He is on this campus, hoping for your eventual triumph.  With Lillian at your side, you have a chance."

     "We have to fight them all?"  Lily asked.  She did not look enthusiastic about the prospect.

     "Indeed.  Lillian Ariel MacArthur, I will say that you have never been alone in your life.  Your very existence, as your parents have stated, is a miracle.

     "I will now answer some of your questions.  First of all, it is safe to say that part of you is, indeed, Arthur, King of Britain.  You have never been truly alone in your life, and it is because of this knight king that it has been so.  The other partners you have faced were...left over from a war of possession, a relic that no longer exists.  These Servants remember you because that part of you, the knight king, fought in that war.  Seven legendary heroes, all designated into classes based on their abilities, clashed with each other:  Saber, Archer, Lancer, Berserker, Assassin, Rider, and Caster all vied for power with their Masters."

     Utena frowned.  "If the war was over, how did they get over here?"

     "They were summoned.  More than that, Miss Tenjou, I cannot say."

     "If the relic's been destroyed, why are we fighting these Duels?"  Lily asked.

     Vivian Lochley was very quiet for a moment.  "The last one standing may claim the prize, or they may save a soul.  One poor soul has consigned themselves to a sort of damnation, yet they seek redemption for past deeds.  If you were the victors, you have the capacity to save them.  Or, you may take the power and the burden that goes with it.  It is your choice, and one that I must not make for you."

     "How do we know you're telling the truth?"  Utena asked.  She suspected she knew who the soul was that Vivian was referring to.

     "Take my hand, both of you."

     They did so, and the room darkened inexplicably.  Both of them panicked for a second as they realized that there was no floor.

     "We are going to see the King."

     There was a spot of royal blue on the "horizon," and they walked towards it.  As they got closer, it became clear that the spot was, in fact, a young woman in what looked like a royal blue formal dress, complete with puffy sleeves.  Her blonde hair was done up in a combination of a bun wrapped with the hair's braid around it.  She looked like she was sleeping.

     "Arturia?"  Vivian asked gently.  "Arturia Pendragon, can you hear me, my king?"

     Arturia opened one green eye and sighed.  She stretched, then got up from what would have been the floor if there had been more than just darkness.

     "Vivian.  Lillian.  Utena."  She nodded to each of them, and even in that simple gesture they could feel the unshakeable charisma that she had.  She was a person who was used to being the authority.

     "So...you're King Arthur?"  Lily asked awkwardly.  "And I like the dress.  Blue is really good on you."

     Arturia almost chuckled.  One had the distinct feeling that she was used to restraining herself.  "I am the basis for the legends of King Arthur, yes.  History, as you may guess, is often rewritten to make it more palatable for later generations.  For example, I once heard a rumor that the mad Roman Emperor Nero was, in fact, a woman.  She was made to be a madman because it suited historians."

     “So, what do you know about our situation?”   Utena asked.  “Is Nurse Lochley here telling the truth?”

     “Vivian is telling as much as she can without endangering either of you.  The duels both of you are fighting are not something that I am familiar with.  Thus, I must rely on Lillian’s perceptions and insights for the most part.”

     Lily blinked.  “Wait, you can read my mind?”

     Arturia smiled faintly.  “Lillian, were it not for me, you would not have survived your difficult birth.  Have you never wondered why your parents have called you their `miracle’?”

     “They’re a bit vague about that.  I guess it brings up bad memories.”

     Arturia nodded.  “We have been bound since your birth.  Most times, I am content to watch.  Other times, I have been a faint whisper.  Only once did I truly force my voice upon you, and for good reason.”

     "When I was in the forest," Lily said.  "You were yelling so loud that I thought I'd collapse."

     "I'm sorry; I didn't realize that my voice could be that loud.  It was the only way to get your attention, though."

     "Well, it worked--and if you remember everything that I've thought or experienced, then..."  Lily turned away so that Arturia couldn't see her blush.

     The woman in blue didn't seem to mind.  "Lillian, that's perfectly natural for your age.  I could tell you some stories about Galahad.  He might have been pure, but he was not what you would call unaware of certain matters.  He just chose not to make them a priority."

     She turned to face Utena.  "As for you, Utena Tenjou, I do sense that you have great nobility and strength.  I hope that you never have to make some of the choices that I did when I was king.  Also, while I am not aware of the identity of your prince, Vivian seems quite certain that he is nearby.  I wish I could say more, but most of my memories seem to be...elsewhere."

     Utena wasn't sure why, but she fingered her ring gently, slowly twisting it around the finger.  For the first time, she wondered if it was more than merely a memento.  She wasn't sure if it was possible, but given that she was talking to a female King Arthur, it didn't seem all that strange.

     "We should go," Vivian said gently.  "Our time is almost up."  She bowed slightly before Arturia.  "May our paths cross again, my king."

     Arturia nodded in acknowledgment, then smiled at Lillian.  The smile was simple, understated, and quiet, and it shocked everyone.

     "Thank you," she said to Lily.

     "For what?"

     "For letting me see what a family is like.  I never knew my parents, and the rest of my family..."  She trailed off as she closed her eyes, perhaps to suppress the memories of betrayal.  "You are a very lucky young woman, and I have no doubt that we will see each other again.  I only wish that I could fight by your side."

     Lily blinked.  "Well, you're never far away."

     Arturia nodded, then sat down and prepared to go to sleep.  She lay her hands across her chest and then closed her eyes.

     Vivian took a deep breath, and then the darkness fell away.  The details of the office banished the blank space, and all three were still holding hands.

     The girls took a moment to recover.  It wasn't everyday that you got to meet the soul of a famous king, much less King Arthur.  Of course, given that they had been transported to somewhere by the Lady of the Lake, the weirdness level for the day was probably well above average--even on days when the girls had been involved in duels.

     "Wow," Utena breathed.  "I never thought that King Arthur was so..."  she hesitated, not sure of what to say.

     "Short?"  Lily suggested.  "Female?  Petite?  Cute?"

     "I was about to say `sad.'  Did you see her eyes?"  Utena asked.

     Lily nodded.  "Even though she might not remember everything, she's still carrying a lot of pain.  I'm just wondering why she like seeing my life.  I mean, until these duels, I was pretty much ordinary."

     "That's the point," Utena said.  "She never had an ordinary life.  To her, the things that you lived through, complete with loving parents and all, must seem like a kind of heaven."

     "You're one to talk about being an ordinary girl?"  Lily asked with just a touch of irony.

     "Hey, I was pretty ordinary until..."  She closed her eyes and fell silent for a few moments.  "Until I met my Prince, I was pretty ordinary," she finished, this time in a quieter voice.

     Lily sensed that there was A Story behind this, and probably not a pleasant one at that.  She decided to remain silent.  Not for the first time, she was starting to see Utena as more than just the girl who was an oddball.  There was a real person there, and it was one that Lily could get to like as a friend.

     Vivian cleared her throat.  "I suspect that I know who your next opponent will be.  If I am correct, you will need an advantage for your upcoming duel."  She muttered a few words, and then the office was bathed in a golden glow.  Both girls looked away for a moment, and when the glow faded, Vivian was holding a sword.

     The sword looked thicker and heavier than Caliburn, giving it a sense that it was somehow a bit less refined in looks.  It was more practical, but there was no doubt as to its purpose.  A strange inscription was carved on the fuller, something that neither girl could read.

     "Excalibur?" Lily asked almost breathlessly.

     Vivian nodded.  She carefully handed it over to Lily, who held it with both hands.  Whereas Caliburn was like a shaped explosive charge, Excalibur was more like a nuclear bomb.  That was what she felt from the sword, anyway.  Perhaps the only fault of this sword was that it was a weapon of mass destruction, not one of finesse.

     "I would have preferred to have waited before giving you Excalibur, but we have little time.  You may want to wish it away for the time being."

     "How do I--?"  Lily began to ask, but she was interrupted by a golden flash of light.  Excalibur had vanished from her hand, much like Caliburn had when she first drew it by accident.

     "Neat trick," Utena commented.  "It's a lot less disturbing than drawing the Sword of Dios."

     Lily blinked as she tried to remember something.  "My Dad told me that Excalibur was the replacement for Caliburn after King Arthur shattered it.  How is it that Caliburn is whole?"

     Vivian smiled.  "Lillian, all stories are possible in this vast infinity.  In another time and place, Caliburn may very well have been shattered.  Perhaps it's possible that certain powers may have re-forged the sword.  Or, it's also very likely that the story is just that, a story.  Arturia may have just wanted a sword that was more powerful in order to keep her kingdom safe.  In this time, in this place, you have access to both."

     "I guess I'd better start learning how to dual wield," Lily muttered, then stretched in her chair.  "How long do we have left on your spell?"

     "We have two minutes left.  Do either of you have any further questions?  I may not be able to speak this frankly for a while," Vivian warned them.

     "Can we win this?"  Utena asked, her blue eyes oddly intense.

     "If you stay true to your path and to yourselves, I see no reason why victory should elude you.  I have two questions for both of you, and both should be considered.  First, how badly do you want to win?  Second, what would you do if you won?"

     Utena was about to say something when there was an odd popping in her ears.  She winced slightly, and found that Lily was doing the same.  She noticed that Nurse Lochley's body language had changed to something a bit more like, well, a nurse's demeanor.

     "Come on, Lily," Utena said, holding out her left hand.  Lily took it--

     --and for a brief eternity, the bottom fell out of her world.  Sights, sounds and memories of the past swirled around her, bombarding her at a dizzying pace.  She couldn't scream because everything was going too fast, as if she were riding a roller coaster that had just taken its first dive. 

     As suddenly as it had began, the assault ended.  Lily groaned faintly, but realized that she didn't have any sort of headache.

     THANK YOU, Arturia's voice echoed in her mind.  I REMEMBER.

     "Wow, that was convenient," Lily muttered to herself.  She would have said more, but the nurse had held her finger to her lips.  The time for talking was past.

     Both Utena and Lily left the office looking thoughtful.  They had plans to make.

     Nurse Lochley returned to her paperwork, only to be interrupted by a visitor.  She took one look at the newcomer and smiled indulgently.

     "Again, Tsuwabuki?" she asked, regarding the boy's bruises.  "You really have to be more careful."

********

     The sleeping pills had done their job, but only partially.  Juri had been able to get a few hours of blissful, dreamless rest before something urged her out of her bed.

     She stood there in the dark, not truly aware of her surroundings.  As her eyes adjusted to the early twilight gloom, she glanced at her nightstand.  It still had a few letters that she’d recently received.  The words that were written on them were sincere, genial, and kind.

     She couldn’t stand the sight of them.  With a quick motion, she swept the letters off the stand and began to cry.  They were tears born of anger, regret, sadness and frustration.  There was so much that she wanted to say, but she would never have the opportunity.

     Enough, she told herself.  Go outside and get some air.  Maybe that will clear my head enough to get back to sleep.

     “Come on, Chu Chu,” Utena pleaded with the little grey creature.  They were trying to get home, and they were passing by a small pond surrounded by statues.  Chu Chu was currently clamped to her shoulder, shuddering as it tried not to look.  “You are so afraid of the dark.  There, there, Chu Chu, please hurry up and go to sleep!  Huh?”

     If there was an image associated with Juri Arisugawa, it would be of the tall, lithe and elegant member of the Student Council.  The image would have been of someone with a cool demeanor and colder eyes when the occasion warranted it.  Of course, either the uniform of the Student Council or perhaps her fencing gear would have also been part of the image.

     Utena would never, ever have imagined Juri in a nightgown, a lavender shawl her only acknowledgment of the mid-spring chill that the night air brought.  She looked tired, but contemplative.  For the first time, Utena realized that Juri could have been a supermodel if she wanted; she was just that elegant-looking.

     “Oh, it’s you,” Juri said as she noticed Utena and her little grey passenger.

     “It’s you,” Utena said, and she approached the redhead.  She sat down cautiously next to her.  “You weren’t wearing your school uniform, so I couldn’t tell who you were at first.”

     “Oh?”  Juri was trying to be cordial, but her restlessness and lack of sleep had worn down her usual reserve.  “So, what brings you out at this hour of night?  I see you keep your uniform on even at night,” she observed.

     “Huh?  Uh, yeah.”  Utena wasn’t sure what to make of her, but she was starting to feel some sort of tension.  It was as if a hungry predator had just started to stir from a nap.

     “Why do you always wear a boy’s uniform?”

     “Well, let’s see…” Utena thought for a moment.  “I think that it might be because of the prince.”

     “Prince?”  Juri asked.

     “A long time ago, when I was little, I met a prince.  That prince told me something.  He said `never lose your strength or nobility.’  He also said that this ring would lead me to him.”

     “What about your partner?”  Juri stood up, and if Utena had noticed, she might have commented on how the redhead seemed to be wounded in some way.

     “Oh, Lily?  It’s a funny thing.”  Utena’s voice became contemplative.  “It just seems kind of like fate that we paired up as partners.  As for Anthy…you know, I don’t believe that the Rose Bride has this miraculous power that the Student Council is looking for.  I think that she’s just a girl.  But she, Lily and I seem to be linked together.  I guess you could call that kind of a miracle.  Come to think of it, Lily’s parents call her their little miracle.  So, I guess that miracles really do exist.”

     Juri smiled and came in close.  Her right hand slid down Utena’s left arm—

     --and whipped it upwards.  She held it in a grip of iron, and the redhead’s blue eyes were sparking with contempt and anger.

     “Throw that Rose Seal away!” she demanded.  “Take it off and throw it away!”  Juri’s voice grew softer, more dangerous.  “You make me sick.  That `nobility’ of yours, you have it because some guy tricked you into having it!  Besides, if dueling for the Rose Bride is stupid, then this sentimental mush for your `prince’ is just as stupid!” Juri declared.  “The Rose Seal isn’t meant for a girl like you!”

     Utena had been struggling to keep Juri from taking off her ring.  With one desperate kick, she forced the redhead back.  She held her left hand in her right, trying to keep it close.

     “This is the only link I have to him!” Utena yelled.  “I can’t lose it!”

     Juri was trembling with rage.  “Then show me the miracle you talked about!  You say your link to Anthy, to your partner, those are supposed to be miracles!  SHOW ME!”

     Nothing came to Utena’s lips.  All she could think was how close she had lost her link to her prince, and how quickly Juri had changed in the span of moments.  She sat there, almost curled up in a ball as she fought the shaking that racked her body.  Rarely had she been this terrified.

     “I’ll force the truth from you with my sword!” Juri declared.  She picked herself off the brick floor and proceeded to stride back home.

     For the first time in weeks, Juri fell asleep without any problems.  It was as if something in her had been satisfied by the prospect of battle, and it wasn’t her.

********

     Sorata Arisugawa was worried.  This in itself was a clue that bad things were going to happen.  Anyone who knew him remembered him as a happy-go-lucky sort of guy, one who didn’t seem to let anything bother him, and one who was almost incessantly friendly.

     What hardly anyone realized was that he was also rather observant.  Despite his inherent cheerfulness, he was not blind as to how people interacted with one another.  Even in his class, he could tell that something was off.  When Utena Tenjou came in, she was a strange combination of shaken and determined.  When Lily MacArthur took her seat, she looked oddly distracted and frustrated.

     During lunch, Juri blew off their usual talk.  She never did that.  She may have been remote to some people, perhaps even threatening, but she never did that to family.

     A year ago, Juri had frozen over, emotionally.  She didn’t try to put on an act; she just shut down.  He had suspicions as to how or why it happened, but she refused to talk about it.  It was pretty obvious that Shiori had something to do with it.  Shiori Takatsuki seemed to take great pleasure in making things worse.  It wasn’t as if she was truly attracted to him.  Every time Shiori and Juri were in the same area, it was like watching a sadistic child “accidentally” torture a favorite pet.  On more than one occasion, he’d been tempted to let her have it verbally.  Every time, Juri had stopped him with a look.

     While Sora had to respect Juri’s wishes, he didn’t have to like it.  He hoped that there was something he could do this time.  He hated seeing his cousin suffer. 

********

     “We have a problem,” Lily said after they were done with classes.

     “What’s wrong?” Utena asked.

     Lily frowned, as if frustrated.  “I can’t call forth Excalibur.”

     “What?!  What do you mean—“

     “I mean just that.  I can’t seem to call forth Excalibur.  Caliburn comes to my hand without any problem, but Excalibur just stays where it is.  I know that it’s where I left it, wherever that is, because I can feel its power.”

     “We should talk to Vivian—“

     “We don’t have time!” Lily exclaimed.  “Besides, Captain Arisugawa is waiting for us right now at the arena!”

     “Great,” Utena said without much enthusiasm.  “Which Servants are left?”

     “I think that there are four left:  Rider, Caster, Berserker and Assassin.  Which one do you think she has?”

     “There’s no way of telling.  I guess we’ll find out when we get there.  Do you need time to get changed?”  Utena asked.  Lily was still in her school uniform.

     Lily shook her head.  “Arturia showed me in a dream last night how to change clothes so that it’s more convenient.  It’s a good thing, too.  Those heels on the outfit kill my ankles.”

     They found Juri waiting alone at the dueling arena.  Anthy had taken her usual place, but held out her palm when Saber Lily tried to stand beside Utena.

     “The challenger has not summoned her Servant,” Anthy said calmly.  “As such, Saber Lily, you must stand back while both duelists fight.  You may only be called in defense of your partner.”

     "You haven't called your Servant?" the blonde asked, obviously confused.  She stood at the gate per Anthy's instructions.

     "I don't need one," Juri said, then turned her attention to Utena.  "I'll repeat what I said last night:  If you win using a miracle, you deserve your conceit."

     Utena stood defiantly before Juri.  "Even without a miracle, I won't lose to you!"

     Roses were pinned to the breast pocket of each duelist, and the Sword of Dios was drawn.  They each extended their swords towards each other, readying themselves.

     Lily stood by, anxiously trying to summon Excalibur.  She held Caliburn in her hand, but its weight didn't seem so reassuring now.

     The night before, she had asked her father about what he knew regarding the legendary sword.  He told her a vast number of facts, but what she most remembered had unsettled her a bit.

     According to legend, Excalibur was not necessarily bound to Arthur.  There was one time when his sister, Morgan, had made a copy and had given the real one to her lover at the time.  Arthur would have died if he didn't use his shield in a rather creative way.

     Niggling doubts started to worm their way into her thoughts.  What if Vivan had given her a fake?  What if Excalibur could never be drawn?  What would happen then?  Was she a fool to trust the nurse at her word?

     She watched as Utena and Juri clashed.  Even by looking at them, she knew that Utena was in trouble.  Juri was dominating the duel, and she was artfully dancing around Utena's strikes.  The redhead had a nickname in the Fencing Club:  The Beautiful Leopard.

     Utena flinched as the rapier's point came to within an inch of scratching her.  Juri stopped it almost contemptuously.

     "Let's go around a little more," the redhead suggested.  Then she went on the offensive, driving Utena back across the length of arena.  She relentlessly hammered Utena's defenses, and the pink-haired duelist was breathless.

     After a brief exchange, they faced each other once again.  Juri looked like she'd barely started to fight, but Utena was panting and sweaty.

     "Poor girl," Juri said without any compassion.  "You're already exhausted."  Her expression turned grim.  "But I absolutely won't let up on you."  She lunged, and Utena barely leapt out of the way.

     "Isn't your `miracle' going to happen, `Prince'?"  Juri mocked Utena.  She hesitated slightly as Utena charged, faster than expected.

     Juri's rose was mere inches away from being taken.  The Sword of Dios was inexorably moving towards the orange rose.  For a brief moment, it seemed that Utena was going to win--

     --only to be deflected by Juri's rapier.  The Sword of Dios spun away from Utena's grip, and the pink-haired duelist herself was thrown to the ground.  Juri prepared to slice off the rose.

     Saber Lily stopped her with a blow so hard, even Juri's wrists were rattled.  The blonde screamed in defiance as she glared straight into Juri's eyes.

     The Beautiful Leopard had just gotten an eyeful of angry lion, and it scared her.  Juri prided herself on being artful and skillful; while strong, she didn't rely on brute strength for her duels.  Since she was tall, she also had the reach advantage over most of her opponents.

     Saber Lily got in Juri's face and didn't let up.  Caliburn's golden glow seemed to energize the petite blonde, unnerving Juri in the process.  Finally, Saber Lily knocked Juri against the wall, and with an upward slash, sliced off a good portion of the rapier.  The point spun upwards, then landed in one of the cracks in the arena floor.

     Then Saber Lily got careless.  She moved to slice off the rose from Juri's pocket--

     --only to be forced back twenty feet.  It was as if someone had just pushed her back.  She was lucky that her armored heels stopped her from going too far.

     Juri looked in shock at her sword.  Her hands were shaking, and what she had seen in Saber Lily's eyes frightened her.

     CALL ME, a voice from within urged.

     "No..." she whimpered, and tears started streaming down her face.

     CALL ME, OR FACE DEFEAT.  This time, the voice wasn't being polite.  The force of that voice drove her to her knees and she clutched her head in her hands.

     "I...won't..."  She was defiant, but she did not want to lose.

     SAY MY NAME NOW, WOMAN!!!

     Shaking the entire time, she looked up.  Her blue eyes were angry, but unfocused.  Then she howled a name to the heavens.

     "BERSERKERRRRRRRR!!!!!"

     A magic circle formed next to Juri, who had collapsed.  The form within was huge, over eight feet tall, masculine, and rippled with muscles.  As the form gained definition, Utena and Lily could see that his skin was burnt umber and he wore what appeared to be a kilt of some sort of metal, as well as gunmetal grey anklets and bracelets.  If there was a picture in the dictionary for the word “brute,” this Servant would have easily qualified.  He carried in his hand some sort of cross between an axe and a sword, and it was made of stone.

     The giant loomed over the both of them.  He glanced at the girls, and they each felt a shiver of fear.  He threw back his head and let out a thunderous roar.  The arena seemed to shake with the sound, and both girls covered their ears.

     Then the giant blinked.  He looked around, slightly confused.

     “Well,” he said in a deep voice, “this is odd.”

     Both Utena and Lily gaped.  This Servant was obviously built for mass destruction.  The fact that he sounded intelligent contrasted with his brutish looks.

     “You don’t seem very berserk for, well, a Berserker class Servant,” Lily pointed out.  She still had Caliburn at the ready, just in case.

     “Yes, that’s confusing,” Berserker acknowledged.  “I should be frothing at the mouth with rage right now.”  He took the stone weapon that he carried and embedded it into the dueling arena floor.  The impact caused the floor to shudder.

     “What was that for?!”  Utena demanded as she righted herself.

     Berserker retrieved his weapon and gave it a few experimental swings.  They could feel the air pressure from the strokes almost slapping them.  If he had put more effort into it, the wind might have felt like it could cut.  He frowned, although it was hard to tell with his perpetual scowl.

     “I was merely testing my strength.  As a Berserker-class servant, I gain great boosts to strength, speed and endurance.  However, the process is also supposed to strip me of rational thought and render me little more than an animal.  Obviously, this is not the case,” Berserker concluded.

     “So, okay, you’re faster and stronger,” Utena agreed.  “Why aren’t you crazy?”

     Berserker almost smiled at her bluntness.  “Madness such as what I bore is not easily dismissed.  It must be somewhere nearby.”

     A low rumble got everyone’s attention, not by the volume, but by the source.  It turned into a feral growl, and Juri Arisugawa forced herself mostly upright.  She was hunched over slightly, her blue eyes narrowed and bloodshot.  The hand that wasn’t holding the remains of her rapier was flexing and twitching spasmodically, as if she were trying to grab something. 

     “No,” Berserker rumbled in shock.  “This cannot be!  My Master is holding the madness within her?”

     “This is bad, isn’t it?”  Lily asked.

     “For my Master, she could have no worse fate.  I bore the madness, but only while shackled by powerful spells.  This madness was never meant for an ordinary mind to bear!  I must—“

     Anything that Berserker might have said was lost as he collapsed to one knee.  He clutched his head in obvious agony as he let out a roar.

     “She wants…to fight…” he grunted in obvious agony.  “She is commanding me to kill!”

     It was then that Juri dashed towards Utena.  Instead of the artful style that she used before, she just kept on the offense with little attention to her defense.  Of course, putting Utena on the defensive was enough to preclude the need to be defensive herself.  It was all that Utena could to do to dodge and occasionally block Juri’s assault.

     Berserker charged Saber Lily.  The blonde decided that, with Berserker’s strength, it would have been better to dodge and wait for a weakness.  That strategy was made less practical due to the fact that even near-misses with that axe sword of his were enough to cut a few strands of her ponytail.  She didn’t want to think about what it would do to the rest of her, armor or not.

     “You must defeat either of us!” Berserker said as he missed Saber Lily yet again.  “The longer we fight, the more likely that the madness will become permanent!”

     “Then give me an opening!”  Saber Lily exclaimed.  “Help me end this!” 

     Once again, she mentally tried to call Excalibur to her.  Once again, she was denied.  Caliburn might not be enough to take down Berserker, but she felt certain that Excalibur would be more than enough.  Why couldn’t she call Excalibur?

     “I…cannot!” Berserker grunted.  “Once a command is given, I must fulfill it to the best of my ability!”  Once again, the stone axe sword came down, shattering the dueling floor where Saber Lily had been just a second ago.  “Prepare yourself!”

     Berserker began to batter Saber Lily with his axe sword.  Each blow drove her further down, but each successive strike became faster and more powerful.  Saber Lily blocked eight punishing strikes.

     She missed blocking the ninth strike by millimeters, but it was enough.  The strike shattered her armor and sent her flying headfirst across the dueling arena.  She hit her head on one of the stones and collapsed in a boneless, bloody heap.

     “LILY!” Utena screamed, then dodged another of Juri’s attacks.  She realized right then that she’d distanced herself from Lily.  She treated her as a partner, but didn’t really open up to her as a friend.  With the sword that she wielded, she seemed almost invincible, and it unnerved her on some level.

     Lily needed help.  She was human.  She wasn’t invincible. 

     What can I do, she asked herself.

     Lily wasn’t sure whether she would be better off being numb or in agony.  She was in such pain that she could barely move.  She abstractly noted the coppery scent of blood, and with a start, realized that it was her own.

     Oh God, she thought to herself.  Got to get up.  Get up, she urged herself.  I will not die like this!

     Her fingers fumbled around, and she found Caliburn.  Her right hand trembled as she lifted the sword up and planted it point-down into the stone of the dueling floor.  She was breathing shallowly; deep breaths were excruciating.  The blonde summoned her strength and propped herself up with Caliburn.

     “It’s over, Saber,” Berserker rumbled, and there was a hint of regret in his voice.  “You cannot survive another strike.”

     Caliburn’s glow seemed to fill the entire arena.  With all the strength she had left in her, Saber Lily swung her sword upwards, directly towards Berserker’s chest.  He tried to block it, but the axe sword shattered.  Caliburn embedded itself in Berserker’s heart and the giant warrior bellowed.

     Caliburn’s glow faded, and Saber Lily pulled it out.  Berserker went down to one knee, gasping for breath.  Saber Lily just watched him dully, and Caliburn slipped from her grasp to land noisily on the stone floor.

     “Well done, Saber,” Berserker rumbled between rasping breaths.  “When last I fought that sword, a mere copy of it killed me seven times at once.  This sword managed to kill me ten times over.”  He stood up, and the point that Saber Lily had stabbed was starting to heal.

     “How?” Saber Lily asked faintly, barely on her feet.  She had put everything she had into that strike.

     “My twelve labors are represented by twelve lives.  You did well to deplete ten of them.  Sadly, I have two lives left to me.”

     Utena saw that Saber Lily had nothing left.  It was up to her to stop Juri before Berserker finished off the blonde.

     Juri was foaming at the mouth now.  Her strikes were still powerful, but they were getting sloppy.  Utena caught Juri’s rapier in the same way that Juri had done to her and spun the weapon out of the redhead’s hand.  With a final downward stroke, Juri’s orange rose was scattered to the wind.

     Berserker’s raised fist never came down.  He fell down to one knee as soon as Juri had lost her rose. 

     “Never meant to hurt her,” Berserker muttered as he started to fade away.  “Megara?  Can I finally see you again?”

     Lily blinked.  “Hercules?” she asked.  Then the giant Servant was gone.  She was vaguely aware of Utena calling her name.

     “LILY!”  Utena screamed, running towards her fallen partner.  There was blood everywhere, staining the white dress.  It was like some sort of obscene flower that had bloomed in the middle of the pristine white arena. She knelt down and gently lifted Saber Lily’s head and cradled it on her lap.  “Hang on,” she pleaded the blonde, “I’ll get some help.  Just—just stay with me, okay?”

     Saber Lily coughed out a small glob of something; Utena didn’t want to know what it was.  The blonde winced in pain, and she was shaking.

     “Caliburn,” she muttered, “Caliburn is keeping me alive, I think.”  She groaned, then focused her green eyes to look straight at Utena’s blue ones.  “Get me to—to nurse.  I remember something that she might have.  Don’t know why she didn’t give it to me—“  Saber Lily winced once again.

     “Congratulations, Miss Utena, Saber Lily,” Anthy said formally.  “You are the winners of this duel.”

     For the first time, Utena had the urge to scream at Anthy in rage.  Her friend was lying in a pool of her own blood, and all the dark-skinned girl could do was follow some arcane bit of protocol.

     The urge faded, however, when she saw the look in Anthy’s eyes.  Instead of the mask of detachment and the distant smile, Anthy was shaking slightly as well.  Though her words were formal, the rest of her seemed very involved in what had just happened.  Utena saw a twinge of regret and sorrow in Anthy’s eyes.  Anthy knelt down beside Utena.

     “I will send both of you to the nurse’s office,” Anthy muttered in Utena’s ear.  “Miss Arisugawa will also be taken for medical attention.  Please close your eyes, both of you.”

     Utena didn’t hesitate.  She closed her eyes tight, and so did Saber Lily.  In the blonde’s case, however, it was because of the pain she was in.

     The next thing both of them knew, the quality of the air had changed.  There was the faint rustling of leaves, something that was definitely not present in the dueling arena.  Utena opened one eye and saw that they had somehow been deposited in front of the nurse’s office.  There was a sudden feeling of another presence, and Utena glanced to her right.  Somehow, Juri had been deposited the same way.  There was no sound, no light show involved.  One moment they were high above the school, the next moment, they were relatively safe.

     The door opened, and Vivian Lochley gasped at the sight.  She mustered her calm demeanor and moved to help Utena with Saber Lily.  After depositing the stricken blonde on a cot, the nurse hefted Juri easily onto another cot.

********

     The first thing that Lily noticed as she awoke was that she was in a darkened room.  The second thing she noticed that she was only feeling mildly sore, as if she’d been through a workout.  Then she noted that she was in her Ohtori school uniform, sans shoes, and resting above her was some sort of glowing object that covered most of her body.  Finally, she was blissfully aware of the comfortable cot that she was resting on.

     Nurse Lochley quietly entered the room.  She bent over Lily and there were faint worry lines on the nurse’s face.  She could tell because the mystery object that had been laid over her body provided some light, but it wasn’t blinding.

     “My king,” Lochley whispered.  “I hadn’t anticipated that I would have to use this so soon.  Here.”  She offered the blonde a glass of water with a straw, and Lily drank greedily.

     "I'm not dead.  I'm not even badly injured.  How did you do this?"  Lily asked.

     Lochley bowed her head slightly, as if gathering her thoughts.  "When I entrusted you with Excalibur, I did not give you its scabbard, Avalon.  The scabbard has healing properties, and it is what made your past self virtually invincible in battle."  She hesitated as she anticipated Lily's response.

     “I think that you owe me some answers,” the blonde rasped.  "For one thing, why can't I draw Excalibur?  For another, why did you hold onto the scabbard if you knew that it would heal me?"

     If it had been anyone else, the nurse would not have taken that tone from them.  In the old days, she would have punished them for even taking that tone with her, the Lady.  She acknowledged only a few who had earned her respect.

     Despite the fact that she had been reborn, the girl lying on the cot was one of them.  Lily was King Arthur, albeit with a far more normal childhood, and no pressures of ruling a kingdom.  As great as her pride was, she had to acknowledge that simple truth.  She owed Lily an explanation.

     "Are you aware of what Excalibur is?  I am not talking about its capabilities, though they are formidable.  I am asking if you know what this sword is, and what it represents?"

     "Isn't it supposed to be the ultimate weapon?"  Lily asked.

     "Excalibur is no mere weapon.  It was conceived of as a weapon, but that is only because weapons are the easiest way to represent power.  Excalibur does not have a will or a conscience; it cannot decide things for itself.  It can only be used in such a manner that represents the wishes of its current owner.  In short, it is not inherently `good' or `evil' as you understand the concept.  It is a tool, and an enormously powerful one at that.  It has no inherent loyalty to you or to Arturia.

     "When I gave Excalibur to you, I left a safeguard in place.  You can only draw the sword from its resting place if it is out of true need, and if you are acting true to the nature of a king.  This means that you could not draw the sword out of curiosity, or under the influence of others.  Once freed, it can be taken from you, perhaps even corrupted given the correct circumstances."

     Lily frowned, but it was tempered by the fact that even the soreness she had felt was fading.  She could see Nurse Lochley's point to a certain extent.

     "I guess you were nervous about giving Excalibur to a 14 year-old girl," Lily said.

     "I am The Lady.  I do not get `nervous.'"  Nurse Lochley looked away for a moment.  "I do, however, get concerned.  I am not without feelings, and I occasionally...miscalculate."

     "Like with Avalon?  I'm pretty sure that I could have gotten killed if it wasn't for Caliburn keeping me together.  It just wasn't healing me fast enough."

     For the first time since she revealed her identity, Vivian Lochley looked distinctly uncomfortable.  She cleared her throat and looked away for a second.

     "Avalon is yours from now on," Lochley told Lily.  "However, the conditions for drawing Excalibur must remain in place for now.  Be true to yourself, to your nature, and it will come when you call."

     Avalon's glow faded, and in the dim light, Lily could barely make out its shape.  She touched it and was amazed at how light it was.  Then, with a flash, it was gone.

     "I'm sorry," Nurse Lochley said softly.  "I was wrong."

     Lily regarded her in the near darkness and nodded.  She held out her hand, and the nurse took it, helping her off the cot.

     "No more secrets," Lily warned the nurse, and there was that flash of natural command presence that Arturia had mastered long ago.  It wasn't really a demand, but a plain statement.

     "I will offer you what help I can.  In the meantime, I think that your friends would like to see how you're doing."

     As soon as Nurse Lochley had opened the door, Lily was tackled by a very worried-looking Wakaba.  Utena was not far behind, and she looked restless.

     "Lily, I was so worried about you!  Thank God you're okay!  Utena told me that you took a hit or something in one of those things you're involved in and you had to be taken to the nurse and she wasn't sure how you'd be but you're obviously okay!" Wakaba babbled, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. 

     Utena blinked.  She was astonished that Lily had come out of the room without so much as a scratch on her.  She looked downcast as she realized that she really hadn't given the blonde a fair shake; not as a friend, anyway.

     "I'm okay," Lily insisted, hugging Wakaba.  "Really, both of you, I'm okay.  I'm just--"

     A cavernous growl seemed to fill the room.  Lily ducked her head in embarrassment.  Wakaba wiped a tear from her eye and smiled.

     "You're hungry?"  Wakaba asked.

     "Starving," Lily confirmed.  "Healing is hungry work."

     "I'll make you something when we get back to the dorm.  Do you think you can hold out that long, or do you want to grab something at the dining hall?"

     Lily winced.  "I'm not that desperate."

     Utena forced a laugh.  "You're definitely feeling better."  In her eyes was the unspoken question of how Lily had been healed so quickly.

     Lily shook her head slightly.  Now was not the time or place, and besides, she didn't want Wakaba worrying any more than she already was.

     "Miss Arisugawa should be fine," Nurse Lochley informed the assembled girls.  "She's in another room, sleeping off the worst of the incident."

     As it turned out, a few other people were waiting for Juri.  One was Miki, and he fidgeted slightly when he saw Utena and Lily.  He'd tried to make some amends for his past mistake, but he still felt somewhat uncomfortable around the two.  Sorata Arisugawa was also there, looking uncharacteristically grim.  A brunette underclassman was the third waiter, sitting demurely next to Sorata.  If she seemed the slightest bit worried about Juri's admittance to the nurse's office, it certainly didn't show.

     "I don't think I know you," Utena said to the short-haired brunette.  "Are you a friend of Juri's?"

     The brunette smiled with all the innocence of a serial killer.  "I'm Shiori Takatsuki, and Juri and I are old friends.  I think that she'll be glad to see me."

     Sorata did not roll up his eyes at that statement.  He pointedly ignored the fact that she was trying to hold his hand.  He was obviously concerned for the well-being of his cousin.

     "I'm going in," Sorata announced, getting up from his seat.  "As I recall, family members are entitled to sit next to the patient?"

     Nurse Lochley nodded.  "Please keep it quiet until she wakes up.  She's had quite a time."

*****

     The first thing that Juri realized upon waking up was that she could think fairly coherently.  It was a relief from the mental mélange and cacophony that she’d experienced a short while ago.  She was comfortable, and she decided that she was probably lying on a cot, perhaps in the nurse’s office.  Maybe Tenjou had shown some mercy on the vanquished, she thought a tad bitterly.

     She hadn’t opened her eyes yet.  She wasn’t sure if the slightest light was going to spear her brain through her eyes.  She still felt a little dizzy, though.  Considering the alternative of being totally insane, dizziness was a far more preferable impediment.

     She realized that she wasn’t alone.  Tentatively opening one eye, she was rewarded with the silhouette of someone with short, vaguely spiky hair peering over her.  The lights had been thoughtfully dimmed, but she knew that presence.

     “Hi Sora,” she rasped weakly.  “I think I need a hug.”

     Even in the dim light, she could see him smile.  He helped her off the cot and gently hugged her.  She savored the moment of simple contact with someone she truly trusted.  The moment was almost broken, however, when she saw the crowd that had gathered just outside the door.

     She glared at them.  Most of them dispersed of their own accord, although it wasn’t as quickly as she’d hoped.  She saw that Shiori was peacefully waiting on the couch outside.  Oddly enough, it didn't fill Juri with the odd mixture of regret, sadness and despair that it would have.

     "Maybe I should close the door," Sorata suggested as he gently released her.

     "That would probably be a very good idea," Juri agreed.  "I have a lot to tell you."

     She told him everything that she'd kept from him for the past year or so.  She started with the whole debacle between Shiori, Ruka and herself.  Then she related how she had been mysteriously recruited into the Student Council by the enigmatic and faceless End of the World.  She related what details she remembered, although fragmentary, about her final duel with Utena and Lily.

     Sorata listened and nodded.  He made barely intelligible grunts that urged her to continue speaking.  His expression changed from patient listening to confusion with a side order of shock.  Through it all, though, he was empathetic, even holding her hand as she related the tale of her whirlwind year.

     She didn't really finish speaking.  She just trailed off and ran out of things to say.

     Sorata looked thoughtful and pensive.  "Shiori, huh?" he asked.

     She nodded.  She wasn't really afraid of what he was going to say; she always valued his honesty.

     "You know, I was hoping that you'd go for someone..." he paused to try for an appropriate phrase.

     "You were hoping that I'd go for a guy?" Juri asked.

     He shook his head.  "No, I was actually hoping that the one you cared about was less bratty.  It was pretty obvious the way she's been trying to hit on me.  I guess she figured that going through me was a good way to hurt you."

     Juri sighed heavily.  "I know.  It's sad to see that she hasn't changed."

     "I was wondering about something, though," he said.

     "What's that?"

     "Let me try to understand something here.  For the last few weeks, the Student Council has been holding secret duels in order to obtain some mysterious power, right?"

     Juri nodded.

     "This unexplainable, unknowable power could possibly considered miraculous in that it doesn't follow the rules.  Am I getting this right?"

     "It's close enough," she said.

     "So, let me get this straight:  You've been fighting to obtain this miraculous power in order to disprove the very existence of miracles.  I'm seeing a contradiction here," Sorata concluded.

     Juri smiled weakly.  "It seemed like a good idea at the time," she joked.

     "Hmmm...no, not really.  No, it doesn't really make any sense to me."

     "I guess it doesn't," she agreed.  "I was just hurting and angry, and I needed some focus."

     "Next time, take an art class," Sorata suggested.  "Or maybe you should learn how to bake bread.  You've never seen an angry baker, right?  That's because they take it all out on the dough."

     Juri actually chuckled.  This made Sorata smile.

     "That's the cousin I remember.  Do you know what I think?"

     "What?" she asked.

     "I don't think you ever really needed that miracle power."  He pointed at her heart.  "You always had it right there."

     "Oh, stop..."

     "I'm serious," he insisted.

     She hesitated and saw the sincerity in his eyes.  "You are, aren't you?"

     He nodded.  That infuriatingly infectious grin reappeared.  She found herself smiling in the dim light.  It felt good.

     "Maybe you'll charm that Arashi girl someday," she admitted.

     "I'm working on it.  She's warming up to me."

     "Could you call Shiori in here, please?  I'd like some time to speak with her."

     "Alone?" he asked.

     "It's girl talk."

     He cocked his head sideways slightly, then shrugged.  Before he got up, he bent over her and gave Juri a gentle kiss on the forehead.

     "Feel better," he said quietly.

     "I will after this."

     Shiori tried to grab Sorata's hand as he passed by.  He just sort of dodged the attempt and left the office.

     The brunette looked quizzically at Sorata's retreating form, as if wondering why any sane male would refuse her attentions.  Shrugging, she went into the room and sat next to Juri.  Looking at how far the redhead had fallen, it gave Shiori no small amount of gratification.  The lower that Juri felt, the higher that Shiori felt.  It was an odd dynamic, one that the brunette did not see fit to change.

     "You don't look so good," Shiori began.  "Are you going to be okay?"

     "I'll be fine.  I just need a little rest," Juri replied.

     "Do you want me to leave?"

     Juri shook her head.  "No, I think there's something we should talk about."

     "What's that?" Shiori asked innocently.

     Juri took a deep breath to prepare herself.  It was much easier than she dreaded, actually.  When one has touched madness and returned from the trip, priorities tend to change a bit.  What seemed intimidating in the past was now a bit of a stumbling block.

     "I want you to know that I love you, Shiori."  Juri ignored the brunette's gasp and the overdramatic covering of her mouth.  "I have always loved you, and I always will."

     Shiori was actually shaking a little.  "Juri, I'm not sure what to say--"

     The redhead held up a finger.  "I'm not quite finished," she said quietly, but firmly.  "I want to also say that my love for you does not excuse or forgive what you have done to me, yourself, and to poor Ruka.  I find myself very disappointed by how you chose to manipulate Ruka and myself.  You put me in a lot of pain and you smiled while doing so.  I do not forget such things easily."

     Shiori found herself shaking.  She was amazed at how calm, how matter-of-fact Juri was laying things out.  She thought that Juri would be an emotional wreck, something that she could point and laugh at.  To find out that Juri loved her all this time was a shock.  For the first time in a long time, she found herself speechless.

     "I also want you to know that, should you attempt to harm me or mine again, we will talk.  This includes your little attempted flirtations with my cousin Sorata, bless his forgiving heart."

     Shiori found her voice.  "How can you say all these things?  You don't love me," she insisted.  "If you did, then you wouldn't be so...so..."

     "Hurtful?"  Juri suggested.  "Before today, I couldn't imagine even telling you how I felt.  And now, you know exactly where we stand.  Truthfully, that's far more than you gave me."  There was a faint undercurrent of steel in her next few words.  "If I truly wished to be hurtful, Shiori, you would know it.  You would run away from this Academy and never return.  I don't want that, but now, it's up to you.  I'm done talking now.  Please be a dear and send poor Miki in.  He's probably worried sick."

     Shiori got up from her seat on very unsteady legs.  In a span of a few minutes, the world had changed.  She was no longer able to draw strength from Juri's weaknesses, nor could she hide her own inadequacies in the redhead's flaws.  She had to face down her own faults herself.  She found that almost as daunting as the quiet confidence in Juri's voice.

     Shiori didn't say anything as she left the room.  She just jerked towards the door, and scampered off.

     Miki eyed her curiously, then went inside.  He stood there, uncertain of what to say or do.

     "I'm going to rest for a bit, Miki," Juri said.  "Could you stay with me for a while?"

     Miki took the seat next to the cot.  He gently held her hand as she smiled in the darkness.  “Of course, Miss Juri,” he said dutifully.

********

     In the room of artificial stars, there was a slap that sounded louder than it should.  It was followed by a slight body crumpling to the ground.

     The man in the red shirt and dark pants loomed over Anthy.  His usually handsome features were twisted into an ugly scowl.  Her right cheek burned with the backhanded slap she’d just endured, one of many.

     “Who told you to transport them from the dueling arena?!” he demanded harshly.  “I’m quite certain that I didn’t give you permission to do so.”

     “Brother, please,” Anthy began, “Saber Lily was so badly hurt, and Miss Arisugawa would not have been able to make the trip down—“

     “I DON’T CARE!” he bellowed.  “If that girl had died, it would have just been a bit ahead of schedule.  It would have been a bonus, something to keep me happy instead of bringing us to this sad state.”

     “Yes, brother,” Anthy said meekly, but there was something in her eyes that wasn’t so easily defeated.

     The door opened and in walked a tall, statuesque woman.  Her long hair was just a shade or two darker than his and went down to her ankles, although her skin was pale.  Her fuchsia-colored eyes, complete with odd square pupils, completed the image of someone exotic, perhaps a bit dangerous.  She currently wore a simple black sweater, some jeans, and she wore glasses with small lenses.

     “Is something wrong?”  she asked, her voice sultry even when she wasn’t trying.  “I thought I heard something fall.”

     Akio smiled.  “My sister tripped over something.  Please be a dear and help her up, would you?”

     The woman helped Anthy up, genuine concern in those odd eyes.  She couldn't help but notice the livid mark on Anthy's cheek and frowned.

     "Are you all right, Lady Anthy?" the tall woman asked.

     "I'm fine, thank you," Anthy said calmly as she looked away from Akio.  "This is nothing."

     The tall woman looked like she was about to respond, but held her tongue.  Instead, she waited patiently while Akio circled the room, apparently in frustration.

     "Anthy, dear, please see how the winners are doing."  It wasn't a request.

     "Yes, brother," she replied and got up to leave.  For the briefest flash of an instant, there was a look of pure hatred and loathing in her eyes, but it was so quick that Akio didn't see it.  He felt it, however, and merely smiled as his sister left.

     "You have something on your mind?"  He didn't even turn to face the woman, something that she noticed.

     "I was merely wondering something," she said in her sultry voice.  She brushed away a long lock of magenta hair.  "Why is it that I, among all the others, am allowed to exist out of the dueling arena?"

     Akio chuckled.  "My dear, I made the rules.  I can bend them within reason.  Besides, the Student Council members simply do not have the power that I do.  Having them manifest their Servant outside the arena would eventually render them comatose.  For them, the arena would be the only place that has enough power to sustain a Servant's body and abilities."

     "What of Saber?  And why am I an exception?" the magenta-haired woman asked.

     Akio turned around.  "Saber is an odd case.  I haven't quite figured her out.  The evidence seems to point that she was reborn not with a Servant's body, but with a truly human one.  This is unexpected, but not insurmountable."

     "And myself?" she asked.

     Akio smiled and strode over to her.  He gently stroked her cheek and she tried not to flinch.

     "My dear Servant, you are here because you are beautiful and I find you quite useful.  I have allowed you the freedom to explore the outside world for brief periods of time, have I not?"

     She shuddered.  "Yes.  And you have provided--" she stopped with a gasp as he drew close to her, almost close enough to kiss.

     "I provide you with the sustenance you need to stay alive and at my side."  Again, Akio smiled, and the magenta-haired Servant couldn't help but blush.

     "Does it have to be--"

     "Oh, no," he admitted.  "But it's so much more satisfying, isn't it?  How long has it been since you last partook of my energy?"

     "Three days," she admitted, shivering slightly.

     "Three long, aching days have passed.  My, but I thought that you were looking a little wan," he joked.  "Such a beautiful, beautiful woman," he whispered in her ear.  "So unfairly shunned by those who could not appreciate true art.  Not even the wisest of goddesses could stand it, could they?"

     She made one last attempt at a protest.  "Your sister, your fiancée, they might come in."

     "Shush, my dear Rider," he whispered.  "Nobody will disturb us.  Anthy and Kanae, they are nothing compared to you.  Now and forever, you are mine."

     Her last coherent thought before burning need consumed her was to curse herself for being so weak.  Then, there was nothing but shameful satisfaction.

Chapter Text

     Utena reflected that the last few days had been comparatively peaceful.  Of course, the operative word was "comparatively."  There hadn't been any further challengers to duel, and she was certainly glad for that.

     When she hadn't been spending time with Anthy, Wakaba or Lily in some way or another, she found herself sitting under a tree at lunchtime.  Plenty of girls gazed at her adoringly, but she was used to it, and at least they didn't barge in.

     It was at times like this that she thought of her Prince.  Her memories of him, once so very clear, had faded over time.  All she knew was that he was tall, and had a strong and confident bearing.  She wasn't even sure about his face or the color of his hair anymore.

     And now what, she asked herself.  What happens when you do find him?  Will he be there after the final duel is fought, waiting for you?  Will you run into his arms like some silly storybook princess, begging for him to take you away?  Will he see you as a misguided child and send you away in tears?  Or will he see you for the prince that you have become and ask to stand beside him as an equal?

     These were weighty thoughts, and her friends noticed the change in her mood.  She wasn't depressed; she was more contemplative than anything.

     On the plus side, she and Miki had managed to reconcile most of their differences.  The fact that he could no longer duel for Anthy was something of a relief.  Juri was cordial and restrained, quite the contrast to her younger cousin.  However, even Utena could see that a weight had been lifted off of her.

     Then the dreams came around.  They were vivid, but they weren't nightmares.  She caught a few glances of knights marching on a battlefield, fierce swordfights, and brief moments of peace afterwards.  These were definitely not normal for her, and she decided to ask Lily about them.

     "I used to have dreams like that before the duels started," the blonde admitted.  "Now I know that they were fragments of Arturia's memories.  The question is, why are you having them now?"

     "I don't know," Utena admitted.  Then she unconsciously fingered the ring.  "Maybe this thing's doing something to me.  I mean, it didn't do anything to me for years, but with all that's happening..."  She sighed, frustrated that the answer wasn't forthcoming.

     "If it's any consolation, I've been having weird dreams myself," Lily said.  She sat back against the tree they were under and sighed.  "I had this dream where I'm in a coffin and two boys are trying to talk me out of staying there.  It's weird, but I think that one of them had red hair and the other had green hair."

     "What?!"  Utena asked.  "What's that about a coffin?"

     "It's just like I said.  I don't know why I'm in the coffin, but I'm feeling this immense sense of sadness and despair, like nothing could ever go right again."  Lily paused as she realized why Utena was having such a dramatic reaction.  "You lived through this, didn't you?"

     Utena nodded slowly.  "That was before my prince came to save me.  How could you dream it in such detail when I can barely remember it?"

     "Maybe there's something about the whole Master and Servant link that goes deep.  I guess it could come in handy, since it's a team effort and all, but--hold on, did I say red and green hair for the boys?"

     "That's what you said," Utena agreed.  "I didn't get a good look at their faces.  I was too busy..."  Utena lowered her head slightly.  "I was too busy telling them that I wanted to stay with Mom and Dad."

     "I'm sorry," Lily said.

     "It was a long time ago.  So, why is it so important that you remember the hair color of two boys?"

     "Well, wouldn't it be a kick if they happened to be Touga Kiryu and Kyouichi Saionji?"  Lily joked.  "That would mean that we're all connected."

     Utena wasn't laughing.  She was still trying to go over something that she'd said in despair more than seven years ago.

     "`There's no such thing as something eternal,'" she quoted, her voice barely a whisper.  "Oh, God...I think that those two boys were Touga and Saionji from back then."

     Lily's good mood evaporated.  "Please tell me that you're kidding me."

     "I don't think I am.  I remember saying something like that to those boys."

     "If that's true, then you are at least partially responsible for making Kyouichi Saionji the wonderfully charming psychopath he is now.  That's a sobering thought, isn't it?"

     "Yeah," Utena replied uneasily.  “Funny how the past comes back to get us, isn’t it?”  Her tone indicated that it was anything but “funny.”

     “Well, Saionji made his own decision based upon his own interpretation.  `It is our choices, not our abilities, that make us who we are,’” Lily quoted.

     Utena tilted her head slightly.  “Where’d that come from?”

     “It’s a line from the Harry Potter books.  I’m British, so of course I’ve read them all,” Lily joked.

     “I never could get into that series,” Utena admitted.  “There were just too many coincidences, and it all smelled like a set-up.  I mean, what’s the likelihood that the kid just happens to survive all that and then discover that he has some sort of special destiny?  It just seemed unreal to me.”

     Lily’s distinct lack of response was enough to make Utena look away.  Blushing slightly, she decided to change the subject.

     “How British are you, anyway?  I mean, you’ve got really good Japanese, and you handle chopsticks like a pro.  I don’t think that I’ve ever seen you eat British food.”

     Lily frowned slightly.  “I’m 100% British, but I’ve been living in Japan since I was about 8.  And as for British food,”  the blonde shuddered slightly.  “Most of what I had was along the lines of `how much can we cram in the pot so that you have a full belly.’  I like stews, but if everything is cooked into an incomprehensible mush, it just seems wrong to me.”

     “There you are!”  Wakaba called out as she ran towards them.  She stopped and paused to catch her breath.  “If you guys don’t hurry up, you’ll be late for Home Economics.  We’re going to learn how to make curry!”

     “Are you okay with curry?”  Utena asked.

     Lily shrugged.  “Sure.  I’ll take care of the knife work.  I’m good at that.”

     Wakaba chuckled.  “Imagine that.  Don’t worry, this shouldn’t be too bad.  I mean, what’s the harm in cooking some curry?”

*****

     Next time, Utena reflected to herself, I should ask Wakaba to watch what she says.  That was just begging for something to happen.

     All things considered, she and Anthy were lucky not to be badly hurt in the explosion.  Of course, Utena wasn't exactly certain how the ingredients for curry could cause an explosion, but the mess was undeniable.  So was the fact that somehow, she and Anthy had switched bodies.

     When the two of them were brought to Nurse Lochley, it was for minor bumps and bruises.  It was upon further examination and interviewing that they discovered the rather disturbing development.  Oddly enough, the nurse didn't offer any magical solutions; she merely sighed and rubbed her temples.  Utena took that as a hint that her current situation was a bit beyond the nurse's area of expertise.

     Truthfully, Anthy's body was in pretty good shape for someone who claimed that they didn't like exercise.  There were some high points in this switcheroo.  Slapping one of the many bullies that Anthy dealt with daily was quite cathartic.

     Then there was the matter of Saionji.  The green-haired duelist simply refused to stop chasing after her.  The flirting and the winks weren't enough for him.  No, there were times when he got on his knees and had promised to get her back, to prove his worth by earning his ring back from End of the World, whoever or whatever that was.

     It was sort of touching, in a strange, demented sort of way.  She didn't brush him off, but she did find excuses to get some breathing room.

     "Saionji's really persistent," Utena complained in Anthy's body.  "He's also clueless.  He hasn't figured out that something's happened."

     "Actually," Lily began, "he has noticed that something's different.  He thinks that you--I mean, `Anthy' is being coy with him."

     Utena didn't even bother to suppress her shudder.  She considered the possibility that Anthy was either blissfully ignorant, willfully malicious, or possessed of greater fortitude than anyone knew.  Any one of those explanations would have been enough for her to deal with Saionji.

     "Lily, I don't think I can take much more of this.  I mean, I really hope that this gets fixed up soon.  Anthy doesn't seem to mind much of anything, but I have to be me!"  Utena exclaimed.

     Lily finished her lunch.  "You do know that you have an opportunity in front of you, right?"

     Utena slumped forward, apparently not interested in finishing her lunch.  "What's that?"

     "You could pump Saionji for information.  I mean, you don't have to go out with him or anything, but knowing his motivations might be useful.  Besides, there's nobody he trusts more than Anthy, right?"

     Utena raised her head and shuddered once more.  "That idea makes sense, and yet I'm creeped out by it.  I mean, what if he goes psychotic on me?"

     "I'm sure that you'll be able to handle yourself," Lily said before leaving.  She paused and gave Utena an oddly reassuring squeeze on the shoulder.

*****

     This is a bad idea, Utena thought to herself.  This is terrible, horrible, and I do not want to be alone with Saionji in a gym equipment storage room!

     Nevertheless, this was precisely where she found herself.  He had waylaid her on the way to class, and Anthy had just waved goodbye with that sunny smile of hers.

     "It's the second week," Saionji declared, "and we are here to reaffirm our love."  He began to unbutton his jacket.

     "Whoa!  Time out!"  Utena exclaimed, and it sounded oddly shrill in Anthy's voice.  "I mean, we never talk.  We just sort of...well, we just don't talk."

     Saionji gave her a quizzical look and, to her relief, took his hands away from his jacket buttons.  Hs nodded and smiled.

     "You're right, Anthy.  We never talk anymore," he agreed.  "We haven't had time for a good conversation.  So, how is Tenjou treating you?"

     That took Utena by surprise.  She half-expected him to start quoting bad haiku or something.

     "What do you mean?"  she asked.

     "Is she treating you well?  She's not...hurting you, is she?  She's not being cruel or anything?"  Saionji allowed a hint of anxiety to color his words.

     "No!  No, she's--I mean, Miss Utena is very fair-minded.  She doesn't...hurt me."  Utena didn't have to finish the sentence with what she was thinking.

     The green-haired duelist seemed to deflate slightly.  "Oh.  Well, that's good.  I'm glad that she didn't make my...mistake."  That last word was muttered, and it had obviously cost him a lot to say.  "If she had mistreated you, I would have crippled her before taking her rose."

     Utena did her best not to gulp.  As intense as those eyes were, she believed that he would do what he said.

     "No need for that," she said, holding up her hands.  "There's no need to be excessive."

     "Did you make her any promises?"

     "I'm sorry?"  Utena asked.

     "Promises," he repeated.  "Did you promise Tenjou anything when you became engaged to her?"

     Utena shook her head.  "No, I just do some cleaning and things like that.  I hadn't promised her anything.  She actually hasn't asked me for anything.  As for your promise...I don't quite remember all of it."

     "You've forgotten?"  He sounded aghast, and he grabbed Utena by the shoulders.  "We were going to see something eternal in the castle.  You promised me that.  If I had won in the end, we would go together."

     Utena blinked.  Did he just say "eternal?" she asked herself.

     Oh God, she thought to herself.  Oh God, that boy in the church was Saionji!  The way he is, it's partly my fault!

     She tried to laugh.  "Where did you get the idea of seeing something eternal?"  she asked weakly.

     He frowned.  "I remember a sad girl in a church, back when I was younger.  She said something about how nothing was eternal, and it stuck with me."

     "She must have had a hard time," Utena began.  "I mean, sometimes people say things when they've been through a lot."

     "Perhaps.  I saw her the next day, and she seemed like she'd found the will to live again.  Maybe she'd found something eternal.  I haven't seen her since.  From that day on, I was curious as to what she might have seen."

     "Well, you know that something eternal could be something good or bad.  I mean, what if what's in the castle is something that isn't what you expect?  What if it's something horrible?"

     "You'd be with me," he said simply.  "It could never be something horrible."

     Oh yeah, lucky me, she thought to herself.

     "Well, enough talk," he said, and resumed unbuttoning his jacket.  "It is the second week, and your turn to declare your love for me."

     Blushing, Utena hid her eyes behind her hands.  She really did not want to deal with Saionji right now.  She cursed her curiosity, however, and peeked through her fingers.

     She had to admit that he was in good shape.  Kendo was fairly unforgiving to a couch potato.  However, the thing that got her attention was the book that he extracted from his jacket, the same one that he offered to her.

     "Take it, Anthy," he said.  "It's your turn to write in our exchange diary."

     Utena blinked.  "You keep an--I mean, our exchange diary in your jacket?"

     "Of course," he replied, unperturbed.  "It's close to my heart, as our feelings for each other should be.  Besides, while I like to have our love be known, this isn't something I would care to have people see."

*****

     "That was quite a mess," Wakaba said a few days later.  They were all in their homeroom, but the teacher hadn't arrived yet.  "I'm glad that you and Anthy are back to normal."  She emphasized that with a hug.  Utena grimaced slightly.

     "So am I, but I don't think I'll ever feel like having curry again."

     "Me either," Anthy chimed in.  "It was an interesting experience, but nothing I would like to repeat, Miss Utena."

     "Did you find out anything interesting?"  Lily asked Utena.

     "Oh, yeah.  You know that thing we talked about, before this whole curry mess?  It turns out you were right."

     Lily's expression turned sober.  "I'm sorry to hear that."

*****

     Saionji noticed the letter when he entered his dorm room.  It was apparently a letter from End of the World, sealed with a rose seal.  He broke the seal and read what was inside:

     Your patience will be rewarded tonight.  Take the Rose    Bride.  The way will be clear.  You will find what you have      been seeking.  Bring your sword.

     He re-read it and smiled.  Then, he took his katana from its rack and began to look for Anthy.

     It didn't take long to find her.  She had just been finishing up with her roses.  The sun was setting, painting the sky with orange and yellow fire.  Saionji idly wondered if a simple sight like that could be made into something eternal.

     "Anthy," he breathed.

     She looked puzzled.  "Saionji?  What are you doing here?  Why are you carrying your sword?  There aren't any duels scheduled."

     He showed her the letter.  "I just received this.  End of the World has given permission to keep our promise together.  We are both going to the castle to see something eternal."

*****

     Utena was worried.  It was already getting dark, and Anthy hadn't shown up for dinner yet.  She glanced at their bedroom only to find Chu Chu gorging himself on some snacks. 

     She hadn’t had a good day.  She’d been thinking of her Prince just before Touga Kiryu had decided to sneak up on her.  The guy even had the nerve to start flirting, and implied that he might be her Prince. 

     He couldn’t be, she thought to herself.  Lily’s dream about her past, that fateful day had been accurate enough about Saionji.  Touga wouldn’t have been old enough to qualify as prince material.

     It was odd.  Touga and Saionji were supposed to be best friends, but there was a lot of antagonism between them.  Touga was an infamous playboy on the campus, and yet there seemed to be some note of sincerity in his flirtations.  She wasn’t sure of what to do until she heard the phone ringing.

     “Hi, east dorm, second floor,” she said.

     “Anthy Himemiya has been kidnapped,” a deep voice intoned from the other end of the line.

     “What?!”  Utena exclaimed.  “Who is this?!”

     “Check out the dueling arena.”  Then the line went dead.

     She held the receiver for a moment.  Putting it back in the cradle, she dashed off.  She couldn’t remember the last time she’d sprinted so fast.  By the time she got to the gate, she was winded.  A light fog had appeared, and she didn’t see Saionji so much as trip over him.

     He’d been unconscious, but not for long.  His head was partially submerged in the nearby stream.  A few bubbles floated to the top.

     Dragging him out, she started slapping him awake.  He stirred after the third try, coughing out what seemed to be a gallon of water.

     “You know,” he rasped, “you could have done mouth to mouth.”

     Utena glared at him.  She was in no mood for jokes.

     “All right, maybe not,” he admitted.  Grunting, he managed to sit up.  “Where’s Anthy?”

     “That’s what I was going to ask you!”  Utena exclaimed.  “I got a phone call earlier that she’d been kidnapped!”

     “Kidnapped?”  He looked confused for a moment, but that was probably due to having his head submerged.  “She wasn’t kidnapped.  I took her here.”

     “What?!  Why?  You don’t even have your ring to get to the dueling arena!”  Utena shouted.

     In response, Saionji pulled out a letter from within his jacket.  For a moment, Utena had a horrible flashback to the exchange diary.

     “I received a letter from End of the World,” he said.

     “Who?”  She cautiously took the letter and read it.  “You listen to these letters?”

     “That’s right, you wouldn’t know.  End of the World is the force behind the duels and the Rose Bride.  We take our orders from these letters, but nobody on the Student Council knows whether these are from an individual or a group.  I suppose that it’s an act of faith that we play this game, hoping to get the ultimate prize.”

     “Himemiya is not some kind of prize!”  Utena shouted.  “She’s a person!  She wants to be free!”  Then she noticed that the gate was open.  “Wait, who opened that gate?”

     “I don’t know,” Saionji replied.  He got up and picked up his sheathed katana.  “Since it’s open, we should go to the arena.”

*****

     He stood in the shadows, hidden from sight.  Next to him, a man in a voluminous lavender kimono waited patiently, part of his hair tied up in the topknot of a samurai.

     "Are you ready?"  he asked his Servant.

     "I am," the Servant confirmed.  "Are you certain of this course of action?  The recovery time--"

     "--is acceptable.  Besides, it gives someone I know a very good reason to accept what I have to offer.  If I know my old `friend,' he'll be shattered he thought that he harmed me.  Arisugawa seems to have grown content, and young Miki seems unfocused.  I shall claim the prize."

     "As you wish, my Master."

*****

     The run up the stairs was exhausting.  Now Utena had a very good idea of how tired Lily was the first time she had appeared.  Both of them stopped at the gate just before the arena itself.  It was almost funny how alike the both of them looked as they tried to catch their breaths.

     The sight that took that breath away was that of Anthy in a coffin full of flowers.  She had her eyes closed, and for one dreadful moment, neither of them were certain that she was alive.

     "Anthy," Saionji said softly.

     "Himemiya," Utena breathed.  The image was far too familiar, and even though it had been seven years, it still hurt.  It reminded her of her lowest point, when she thought that life could not be worth living.  Overcome by the memories, she almost staggered to her knees.  "No.  Not this," she said raggedly.

     Saionji was also having flashbacks to that day.  He thought that he would never meet that sad girl who hid herself in a coffin again.  He stood there, both horrified and transfixed at the sight when he saw Utena shaking out of the corner of his eye.

     He did not like Utena Tenjou.  It was safe to say that he mostly thought of her as an annoying obstacle, a know-nothing tomboy who happened to be in the right place and the right time.  He would shed no tears if she were to leave Ohtori Academy forever.

     That did not mean, however, that her current behavior invoked scorn.  There was obviously something horribly wrong; Utena had never shown such fear.

     "Tenjou!" he yelled.  "Get a hold of yourself!"

     I can't believe that I just said that, he thought to himself.

     With an effort, Utena forced down most of the shakes.  She held her hand in front of her, and it was mostly steady.  She looked oddly ashamed for some reason.

     Then the ground decided to shoot up.  Utena found herself on a brick that had suddenly become a pillar, the stone surging at least twenty feet upwards.  It was only due to her balance that she hadn't fallen off.  The coffin that contained Anthy also rose high into the air, and suddenly Utena did not care about what had happened seven years ago.  All that mattered was saving Anthy, even if she had to play hopscotch across the pillars like stepping stones.

     Saionji had been left behind.  It's oddly appropriate, he thought darkly.  Tenjou gets to be the hero, and I'm just sitting here, helpless to do anything.

     He wasn't exactly sure what happened next.  He thought he saw Utena leaping for Anthy's coffin, reaching out to the Rose Bride.  The castle in the sky began to crumble, and for a moment it seemed like a tower was about to--

     --and then everything was back to normal, as if nothing had happened.  His memory for the last few seconds was a total blank.

     Saionji stood there in a daze, still holding his katana.  He heard Utena urging Anthy to wake up.  The Rose Bride did so.

     It was always Tenjou, he thought to himself.  Tenjou gets to be the hero, and I am left with nothing!

     Unsure of why he was doing it, he unsheathed his katana.  Like a sleepwalker, he moved closer to Utena, whose back was turned to him.

     It would be so easy, he thought to himself.  All it would take is just one slash, quick and painless.  Then the Rose Bride will be mine again--

     --and then what, he asked himself.

     Kyouichi Saionji would readily admit that he was many things.  He was arrogant, cruel, psychopathic, obsessive and overly possessive.  If asked, he would agree that he had these qualities in abundance.

     He was not, however, a cold-blooded killer.  He had rules.  He was not a very nice person, but at least he had rules, and among them was attacking someone from behind.

     Then, before Saionji was fully aware of it, Touga had hurled himself between the green-haired duelist and Utena.  There was a slash of crimson that went diagonally across the president's back, and a cry of pain.  Touga collapsed, only to be caught by Utena.

     Saionji could have sworn that he did not make that swing.  He did not just slash his best friend in the back with his katana.  He had felt the katana move almost of its own accord, and a horrified glance confirmed that there was blood.

     "What have you done?!"  Utena asked in shock.

     "I'm chivalrous," Touga said through the pain.  "I'm an ally of all women."

     There was a clatter as the katana fell to the ground.  Saionji collapsed to his knees, his lavender eyes wide.

     There were footsteps near the entrance, and Saber Lily appeared.  She held Caliburn in its scabbard, fearing that something had gone wrong.  She gasped in shock as she looked at the scene before her.

     "What just happened here?!" she demanded.

     "I'm not sure myself," Saionji said, feeling very tired and very numb.

*****

     Touga Kiryu was feeling very satisfied as he rested in his bed.  All things considered, the wound could have been much worse.  His lovingly devoted sister was by his side, making sure that nothing would happen to him.  Of course, he still had to explain some things to End of the World.

     "I don't think we have to worry about Saionji anymore," he said smugly into the phone.  "He doesn't know about my Servant, and even if he did, he couldn't prove anything.  The poor deluded fool still thinks he's my best friend."  Touga paused.  "The wound isn't deep; Assassin was very good about that, and I should be healed shortly."

*****

     Saber Lily hated being a bystander.  She especially hated being a bystander in a fight where she wanted nothing more than to batter the enemy with Caliburn.  She still hadn't had much luck drawing Excalibur yet, and she figured out why.

     A good king did not do things for merely his own benefit; it was always for his country.  So, by that train of thought, it was only by defending Utena instead of herself that would be one of the qualifications.  That was why, when she faced Berserker, she was only defending herself, not Utena.  Had Berserker ignored her and tried to double-team Utena, then it might have been possible to draw Excalibur.

     Of course, this was all conjecture on her part.  She wouldn't know until she actually drew the sword.  Right now, though, Excalibur's power would have been overkill.

     She watched impatiently as Nanami Kiryu demonstrated her skills.  She was fast, Saber Lily had to admit, but she was fighting more from viciousness than actual skill.  Touga's sister hadn't summoned a Servant, and Saber Lily had the suspicion that there was none to be found in her ring.

     It was no surprise to Saber Lily, then, that Nanami was defeated fairly quickly.  When Nanami tried for revenge, she was stopped by her older brother.  Saber Lily felt oddly dissatisfied at this turn of events.

     "I could have used your help," Utena said.  "When she lunged after me with that knife--"

     "Utena, her style was sloppy and she was fighting from anger.  I wasn't really worried about you.  Besides, she didn't have a Servant in her ring."

     Utena stopped and blinked.  "What?"

     "It's not like Juri, where she just didn't want to summon her Servant.  In this case, Nanami didn't have a Servant available to summon in the first place."

     "Why would Touga do that to his sister?”  Utena asked.

     “I don’t know,” Saber Lily replied.  With an effort, her armor changed back to the Ohtori Academy uniform.  “I hear a lot of things about the President, not many of which are nice.”

     The pair was very quiet on the way down.  As they parted at the gate, they both tried to pretend that tomorrow would probably bring another ordinary day.  Lily reminded Utena that Wakaba would be packing lunch for everyone; the brunette had been cooking like mad since she’d arrived at the dorm, but just before Lily had to leave.

     Lily didn’t want to say that she thought that Touga was a snake.  At least Saionji would admit that he was a jerk, she thought to herself.

     “I’m home,” she announced after she closed the door.  She could smell the aromas of dinner and she smiled.  Other than the usual sounds of cooking, she heard the shower going.  “Hey, Wakaba, did you leave the water running?”

     Then the door to the bathroom opened and steam rolled out.  The occupant was most assuredly not Wakaba Shinohara.  He was currently wearing two towels, one wrapped around his long green hair and one wrapped around his waist.  He seemed oddly relaxed.

     “Sorry,” he began, apparently not noticing Lily, “I think that you’re almost out of shampoo…” He trailed off as he realized that the point of Caliburn was roughly two millimeters away from his nose.  The sword’s blade began to glow.

     <WHAT THE BLOODY HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE?!>  Lily shrieked angrily in English.  She held the blade steady, ready for any action that the intruder might take.

     Kyouichi Saionji, expelled captain of the kendo club, swallowed hard and kept still.  He was not a terribly religious man, but he prayed to whoever was listening that his waist towel would not fall down.

     Wakaba popped her head out of the small kitchen.  Her hair had been released from its usual ponytail, and she looked a bit tired and flushed.  Seeing the standoff, she rushed over to Lily and tried to pull her away from Saionji.

     “Lily, please put the sword down,” she urged the blonde.  She wasn’t having much success pulling Lily away; she’d gotten a lot stronger, thanks in part to Saionji’s relentless drilling.  It was an irony that he was now regretting.

     “What is he doing here?” Lily asked with no small amount of menace.  “What’s going on?”

     “What does it look like?”  Wakaba asked, then realized that perhaps those were not the wisest words to say.

     Lily still held the sword steady, but her expression changed from steely determination to that of aggrieved disbelief.  Her mind had immediately gone down the gutter.

     “Oh, God,” Lily said, “Please tell me that you two were careful.”

     Wakaba nodded emphatically.  “Nobody saw him come in.  I made sure of that.”

     “That’s not what I meant!”  Lily shouted.

     Saionji cleared his throat.  “Your roommate thinks that you and I—well, think about it!”

     Lily blinked.  “So you guys didn’t?”

     “NO!”  They both exclaimed.

     After one last meaningful glare, Lily sent Caliburn back to its hiding place.  Saionji quickly took the opportunity to tighten the knot on his waist towel.

     “That’s a nice trick,” he said, regaining some of his former poise.  “Can you teach me how to do that?”

     “No.  Now get dressed.  You’re not impressing anybody—“

     Wakaba sighed dreamily as she drank in the sight of Saionji’s current situation.  “I don’t know about that,” the brunette said.

     “Wakaba?  Dinner.  Please.”  Lily glared at Saionji.  “We are going to talk.”

     It was probably one of the most awkward dinners that Wakaba had ever seen.  Lily was coolly polite to Saionji, since there were certain rules to hospitality.  Saionji, for his part, looked nervous and didn’t even comment on Lily’s appetite.  Nearly being skewered will increase anybody’s anxiety, as well as social sensitivity.  Wakaba just wished that they would at least try to get along.  He’d dressed himself in a black sweatshirt and some slacks, a far cry from his uniform.

     After that, Saionji related his current situation.  He told them about the odd encounter up on the dueling arena.  He was very certain that he hadn’t been the one to slash Touga.  Sadly, all the evidence pointed to him, and he had been expelled.

     Lily looked like she was nursing a headache.  “Okay, you were expelled for something you didn’t do, even though the evidence points to you.  Now you’re trying to live here with the both of us!”  She smacked both hands on the kitchen table.  “What were you thinking?!  Do you even have a plan, other than possibly getting me and Wakaba expelled as well?!”

     “I have a plan,” Saionji said calmly, but it wasn’t very reassuring.

     “Really?”  Lily asked.

     He paused for a moment.  “Does planning to make a plan count?”

     “I have a plan!”  Wakaba exclaimed.

     Both Lily and Saionji gave the brunette a somewhat leery look.  Lily knew from personal experience that, while her friend had many admirable qualities, large-scale planning was not one of them.  Saionji seemed to pick that up as well.

     “Truce?”  Lily asked.

     “Truce.”  Saionji nodded a bit more emphatically than necessary.

     Wakaba frowned.  "It was a good plan, too!"

     Both Lily and Saionji were silent.

*****

     The worst time to be thinking about thoughts other than dueling is before the start of a duel, Utena thought to herself.  It had been several weeks since the duel with Nanami, and now Touga was pushing hard for a challenge.

     Utena knew that Anthy wanted to be free, deep inside.  She knew that the dark-skinned girl didn't want to be treated as an object for the rest of her life.  She knew it!

     What was bothering her was that Lily had been awfully quiet these last few weeks.  Wakaba had been covering for her friend as well.  Something was going on, and they were both keeping Utena out of the loop.

     Never mind that now, she chastised herself.  Focus on the duel.  Focus on winning, even though Touga might be your prince.  He certainly gave enough clues.  Lily had mentioned her doubts, but what did she know?  She didn't even have a boyfriend, much less anyone like her prince.

     "Assassin," Touga said softly before the duel began, and a magic circle formed next to him.  The silhouette of a man in a large kimono formed, and he was carrying a sword that was almost as long as he was tall, but it was also quite thin.  It was no mere katana, and the ease with which the Servant wielded it made him even more intimidating.

     "It's been a while, Saber," Assassin greeted Saber Lily with a bow.  Oddly enough, there was no mockery in his tone; it seemed quite genuine.  "I would very much like to duel you again.  Perhaps the outcome will be different."  He bowed slightly, then readied his long sword.

     Saber Lily acknowledged the bow and drew Caliburn.  Arturia's memories told her that this man was an amalgam of the rumors regarding the legendary Kojirou Sasaki, but he wasn't the legendary swordsman.  Moreover, she "knew" that any special attacks that Caliburn or Excalibur might have were simply too slow--the battle would have to be one of pure skill.

     Utena's doubts started piling up as the duel ran on.  Could she trust Lily as her partner?  If so, why was she holding something back?  Was Touga her prince or not?  Did Anthy really want to be free?

     "Show me the power of Dios!" Touga demanded, putting her into a corner.  He wasn't quite the dueling nightmare that Juri was, but there was a certain contempt in his attacks that made him all the more aggravating.

     She backed away, a defiant look on her face.  Touga could see a figure in white descending from the castle above, merging with Utena.  The pink-haired duelist charged him with a scream.

     "Magnificent," Assassin commented.  "Though your sword is different, you have not lost your skill.  Sadly, I must end this quickly.  I fear that your partner is less than committed."

     Saber Lily knocked away the long blade, and Caliburn chipped a good portion of it.  Assassin looked dismayed for a moment, then impressed as he backed off.  Then he did something--

     --at the same time Utena charged, Touga lowered his sword and held out his arms, as if welcoming the pink-haired duelist.  For the briefest of moments, her guard faltered.  She lowered her sword ever so slightly--

     --and two SIMULTANEOUS slashes from either side attacked Saber Lily.  Her instincts told her to dodge low, and she did, the slashes just barely missing the blonde hair antenna.  A third strike--never made it.  It stopped just short of her nose.

     White rose petals danced lazily on the wind, as if to flaunt Touga's victory.  Saber Lily started convulsing uncontrollably, and a shriek of pure agony filled the arena.  It felt was like she was being torn apart, and she could almost hear Arturia screaming alongside her.  Then, Arturia was silent.  She was still present, but unreachable.

     Lillian Ariel MacArthur, clad in her Ohtori Academy uniform, slumped forward on her knees.  Caliburn was still with her, and she steadied herself with the sword.  With trembling hands, she pushed herself upwards to see what had happened to Utena.

     The pink-haired duelist had, like her, collapsed to her knees.  Her rose was gone, and the ring was already fading from her hand.  Vaguely, Lily heard the cruel exchange between Touga and Utena, something about living an ordinary life.

     Assassin had sheathed his sword.  He looked vaguely disappointed.  "You are no longer Saber, and thus, our duel must be considered unfinished.  I fear that your partner has failed you."

     What did she do, Lily wondered.  She watched blankly as Assassin faded away in a shower of sparks.  Touga had already left the arena.

     She heaved herself over to where Utena was.  The pink-haired girl was still on her knees.  She curled up into a ball as Lily approached her.

     “What have you done?” Lily rasped.   

     Utena was silent, her blue eyes welling with tears.  She could offer no answer, not to herself and not to her partner.

     “How could you lose to him?”

     “I—“ Utena squeaked out softly.  “I couldn’t do it.”

     “You what?”  Lily asked in disbelief.  “Why couldn’t you do it?  Why couldn’t you take his rose?”

     Lily dismissed Caliburn and knelt down.  With trembling hands, she urged Utena to uncurl and face her.  The latter’s face was streaked with tears.

     “I think…I think he’s my Prince,” Utena said finally.  She couldn’t look Lily in the eye.

     “You think he’s your Prince?” Lily asked incredulously.  “You honestly think that?”

     “What other alternative is there?” Utena asked.

     Lily started trembling in rage.  She raised her hand and prepared to slap Utena, hard.

     <YOU.  BLOODY.  IDIOT!!!> she shrieked in English. 

     “Go ahead, slap me,” Utena said, her voice barely above a whisper.  “I deserve it, don’t I?”

     Lily hesitated.  Then she lowered her hand and prepared to haul Utena up.

     “What--?”

     “Not another word or I’ll pitch you off the side,” the blonde said darkly.  With that, the duo made a slow, painful descent down the stairs.

*****

     Akio Ohtori smiled as the wayward ring appeared in his hand.  For seven years, it had been lost, given to a girl in despair.  Now, it was his once again.

     He closed his eyes and felt for what was inside the ring.  There was power, yes, and there were memories of a noble knight king.  There was not, however, any soul present, despite the enchantments that he had had Anthy create.  Somehow, the new rules had been circumvented.

     He frowned, and Rider looked at him curiously.  She had been busying herself with some trifling matters regarding the Academy as his "special projects assistant."  He had even given her the name of Georgina Kephas, a pun on the unfortunate effect on those who wanted a good look at her.

     "Master?" she asked.  "What's wrong?"

     His hand balled up into a fist and he scowled deeply.  With an effort, he calmed himself down.

     "For the moment, Saber is denied to me," he said.  "I can only guess that her soul is somehow safeguarded from even my power."

     "What do you wish me to do?" Rider asked.

     He smiled.  "As tempting as it would be to just have Miss MacArthur killed, I have a better idea.  If Utena Tenjou is the type of person that I think she is, then I may have a small job for you."

     Rider bowed slightly.  "As you wish, Master," she said quietly.  She had long learned to suppress the feelings of disgust that he engendered in her.

*****

     Wakaba knew that something was horribly wrong.  She had known Lily for years, and she had never seen the blonde look so utterly defeated.  More telling was the fact that Lily ate somewhat listlessly before excusing herself from the table.  Even their illicit houseguest, Saionji, gave Lily a wide berth without even knowing why.

     She gave a tentative knock on Lily's door.  "Lily?"

     "I don't want to talk right now," came the muffled response.

     Normally, Wakaba might have left it at that.  She could have just walked away and hoped for the best.

     Then again, she thought to herself, what kind of best friend would I be?

     "Lily, please open up.  I'm not leaving until you do."  She tried to make herself sound firm, but the slight trembling in her voice made it less than convincing.

     There was a slight pause and then Lily opened up the door.  She had undone her ponytail, and she was dressed in her pajamas.  She was also hugging Mr. Gao, her stuffed lion, and it was obvious that she'd been crying.

     "I can hardly feel her," Lily said without any preamble.  "I know she's there, but it's like she's almost faded away."

     Those were her last words before she burst into a fresh round of tears.  Wakaba gently hugged Lily, not sure of what else to do.

     Unseen by both of them, Saionji frowned.  For a brief moment, he felt jealous of the bond that the two girls shared.  It was something that, despite his protests to the contrary, he never really shared with Touga.

     He said nothing, but slipped out into the night.  He was hoping to find some answers.

*****

     Wakaba's worries were only intensified by Utena's absence in school the following day.  After class, she decided to go to the East dorm to check up on her.  Lily had declined to follow her.

     She found Utena uncharacteristically depressed, still in her pajamas.  Anthy was nowhere to be found.

     First order of business:  Cheer Utena up.  It hurt to see her like this.

     "So, why'd you skip class today?" Wakaba asked, perhaps putting a bit more energy in it than she intended.  "Did you catch a cold or something?"

     A quick check dispelled that idea.  Utena didn't offer any resistance to Wakaba's amateur medical ministrations.

     "My diagnosis, the common goof-off," the brunette concluded.  "By the way, where's Himemiya?  And what happened to you and Lily?"

     "Well..."  Utena didn't elaborate.  She hung her head and hugged her pillow.

     "Did you guys have a fight or something?  Was there a duel?  Lily came home looking really depressed like you."

     Utena flinched, but she held her silence.

     Okay, Wakaba decided, this was getting us nowhere.  Looking around, she noticed that Utena's uniform jacket had a few cuts.

     "This is horrible!"  Wakaba declared.

     "Oh, that," Utena tried to sound nonchalant.  "I got a little careless."

     "Should I fix it for you?  I mean, I did make Lily's dress, after all."

     For a moment, there was a faint light in Utena's eyes.  Then it faded.

     "No, that's all right.  I have another uniform."

*****

     Wakaba was frustrated, angry, and disappointed the next morning.  Not only was Utena in a girl's uniform, short skirt and all, but she was acting like a total doormat!  Also, Lily had decided to skip her morning kendo club meeting, something she never did.  What was worse that neither Utena nor Lily could look each other in the eye.

     "Looks like the public likes your new look," Wakaba remarked somewhat snidely.

     "Yeah, it's normal," Utena said listlessly.

     "Good morning," said Anthy from behind with that ever-present smile.

     Utena seemed to muster up her courage.  She managed a "good morning Himemiya" in a somewhat shaky voice.

     "Good morning, Miss Tenjou," Anthy returned before heading to class.

     Lily looked like she was trying hard not to cringe.  She found her hands trembling slightly.

     "Have to be normal," Utena muttered to herself.  "Have to be normal."

     Lily clenched her jaw slightly, but said nothing.  Wakaba suspected that Lily was holding back a scorching retort.

     "It was a fight, wasn't it?  Or was it a duel?  Come on, don't be so gloomy, guys!  It's just not like you!"  Wakaba said.

     The mood had not lifted when it came time for lunch.  Wakaba was really starting to get sick of her friends' silent treatment. 

     "Both of you ignoring me isn't normal!  It's not like either of you!"  she said.

     There was a faint glimmer of hope as Lily started to open up her mouth.  That faded as the blonde kept her silence.

     "You guys are really starting to make me mad!  If you don't tell me what's going on, I'll never speak to either of you again!"

     "Excuse me," Touga said.  Anthy was in tow, and Chu Chu was perched on her shoulder.

     "Well, I'd heard the rumors," he continued, "but it's still a shock to see," he said genially.  Without being asked, he took a seat.  "That uniform really suits you."

     Wakaba watched in disbelief as Touga started to flirt with Utena.  What was bad was that Utena wasn't even indignant with him doing so.

     "Come on, Utena!  Tell him to buzz off!"

     "What's wrong?"  Touga asked, grasping Utena's left hand.  Wakaba realized with a shock that the rose signet ring that she always wore was gone.

     Suddenly, everything seemed so horribly clear.  Now she had a good idea of what had happened.  However, that wasn't stopping Touga from making his move.

     "Don't touch her..."  It sounded so feeble, so Wakaba turned it up by smacking her hands on the table.  "Don't touch my Utena!"

     Utena was still in some sort of daze.  She wasn't warming up to Touga, but she certainly wasn't resisting, either.  Lily's trembling increased, and it looked like she wasn't sure whether to run or punch someone out.

     Out of sheer frustration, Wakaba grabbed the water glass and dashed it towards Touga.  He dodged it, and Anthy was suddenly soaking wet.

     "I'm sorry--no, wait, I'm not!  I mean, you were just standing there in a daze!  Utena and Lily are this way because of--of something you did!  That's right, it's all your--"  That was all that Wakaba got out before Utena slapped her hard.

     The brunette flinched for a moment, then grinned.  This was more like the Utena she knew!

     Not to be outdone, Wakaba slapped her back.  Utena didn't even flinch, but instead looked mournfully away from everyone.

     "Well, maybe you CAN still react to some things!"  Wakaba declared.

     It was then that Touga had smugly excused himself.  Anthy accepted a handkerchief from Utena to wipe herself off.  The dark-skinned girl followed Touga.

     "I want you to stop criticizing me," Utena said.  "Both of you."

     "Forget it!  I won't stop!"  Wakaba declared. 

     "You--you don't understand!"  Utena said.

     "I do understand!" Wakaba insisted.  "And I won't stop!"  She ran off, leaving Utena with her heretofore silent partner.

     "She's right, you know," Lily said finally.  "And I am sorely disappointed in you."

     "`Disappointed?'" Utena asked.  "Is that all you have to say?"

     "You let him get to you," Lily continued.  "You threw a fight that you could have won.  Would the prince who saved you be that cruel?"

     "Is this Lillian MacArthur or King Arthur speaking?"  Utena tried to calm down and took a sip from her water glass.

     "Ever since the duel, I can barely feel her.  When you think about it, Arturia and I have shared everything from the moment I was born.  Don't take it the wrong way, but it's a very...intimate feeling."

     Utena choked on her water.  With a sigh, Lily got out of her seat and patted her back.

     "Of course you took it the wrong way," Lily said.  "Come on, let's go find Wakaba."

     The brunette was at a nearby gate, looking depressed.  Her two best friends had not only lost a duel, but their partnership was on the rocks, and it hurt her as well.

     "Wakaba, I..."  Utena began.

     "You can't just fix this by apologizing!"  Wakaba said.

     They sat down, all of them feeling a bit raw emotionally.  Lily was glad, however, that she'd told Wakaba something about the duels, although she kept the details vague.

     "It's because you guys lost, right?  I understand."  She paused then curled up so that her face met her knees.  "No, the truth of it is, I don't understand.  Like why are you wearing that uniform?"

     "This is normal, isn't it?"  Utena asked almost listlessly.

     Wakaba lifted her head.  "No it isn't!  Not being normal is normal for you!"  She started to get more worked up.  "This sort of normal isn't YOUR sort of normal!  Oh, that makes no sense!"   Now Wakaba looked like she was having a migraine.  "I mean BOTH  of you acting all mopey just isn't normal for either of you!"

     Utena went silent.  That was the worst response she could have chosen.

     "There you go again, holding it in!"  Wakaba exclaimed, standing up.  "I hate seeing what you've become.  It's like someone stole something from you and made you a coward!  I don't know what it is, but if you can get it back then get it!  And you, Lily," Wakaba pointed at the blonde, "You need to let it out, too!  I mean, I may be just the `normal' girl around here, but I'm still your best friend!"

     Utena's thoughts drifted to Anthy.  There was something that Anthy filled in her that made her all the more aware of her absence.  She missed Anthy.  She had taken the soft-spoken girl for granted, and it hurt when she was taken away.

     "Take it back!"  Wakaba insisted to Utena.  "Normal for you means being cool!  And...that uniform just isn't right for you!"

     Both Utena and Lily smiled.  "You're right, Wakaba, I'm sorry," they both said, then laughed.

     "Miss Utena Tenjou?"

     All three of them turned to see a statuesque woman with long, magenta hair approaching them.  She wore a dark sweater and jeans, and her glasses gave her the air of being some sort of secretary.

     "That's me," Utena confirmed.

     "I'm Georgina Kephas, special assistant to the Acting Chairman of the Academy.  And you must be Lillian MacArthur," she nodded towards the blonde.

     "I am--and wait, you look really familiar somehow.  Have we--?"

     "Georgina" held her finger to her lips.  "I'm not at liberty to say right now.  I've been sent to return some lost property to you, Miss Tenjou.  My superior hopes that you will take better care of it from now on." 

     She presented an envelope to Utena.  Opening it, Utena's blue eyes grew wide.

     "It's my ring," she breathed.

     "Are you sure?"  Lily asked.  "How do you know?"

     "Here, look at it," Utena handed the ring over to Lily, who immediately came down with a case of vertigo.  In the back of her mind, she could feel Arturia awakening.

     "Whoa," Lily commented.  "I didn't miss this roller-coaster ride.  It's real," she concluded, returning the ring to Utena.

     “Do you know what this means?”  Wakaba asked.  “You guys can go for a rematch!”

     Utena looked at “Georgina.”  “How did your—“

     “He has his reasons,” the magenta-haired beauty replied calmly.  “We may meet again.  I wish you luck.”

     The look on Touga’s face had been priceless when Utena and Lily demanded a rematch in Anthy’s rose garden.  Initially, he had been calm, certain that Utena had been broken.  That changed to utter shock as he saw that the ring had been returned.  Then his expression changed to a combination of amusement and contempt as he accepted their challenge.

     Then they tracked down Juri and Miki.  Juri offered Utena one of her rapiers and both of them wished the duo luck.  It was odd, but Juri seemed more settled after her defeat.  Miki had done some serious introspection, especially after what Lily had said.  Lancer’s advice had been on his mind as well.  He’d made some awkward attempts at an apology to his sister, but the cumulative pain wouldn’t fate quite that easily.

     “What’s the plan?”  Saber Lily asked as they ascended the stairs.

     “You take care of Assassin,” Utena said, determination reigniting in her eyes.  “Don’t help me with Touga.  I have to do this on my own.”

     “I still haven’t been able to draw Excalibur,” Saber Lily muttered.

     Utena paused on the steps and smiled at the blonde.  “You’ll be fine.  It’ll come when you really need it, right?”

     The blonde blinked.  This was probably the first time that Utena had expressed confidence and faith in her as a partner, not as an unwilling ally.

     Oddly enough, it was Saber Lily who spoke first.

     <We have returned,> she said in English.  She didn't even bother to hide her satisfied smirk.

     Utena gave her a questioning look.  Apparently, she'd forgotten about Lily's lineage.

     "So I see," Touga said.  It was oddly satisfying to see him a little wary.  "How is it that you were able to get your ring back?" he asked Utena.  "And why do you wish to duel me again?"

     "Someone gave me a second chance," Utena said defiantly.  "And I'm here to take back something important to me."

     Touga smirked.  "I see.  You want to take back yourself, and your Servant," he nodded to Saber Lily, "wants to prove herself against my Assassin.  Sadly, neither of us feels like losing.  Assassin!"

     The purple-robed Servant appeared.  Apparently, he'd already been summoned ahead of time.  "Master?"

     "Show the delicate flower the height of your skill."  Touga smirked once again.

     "As you wish, Master."  Assassin raised the long, curved sword and prepared to attack.

     Saber Lily ignored the lightshow when Anthy empowered the Sword of Dios.  She didn't even blink as a gust of wind from the blade nearly knocked Utena back.

     Utena said that she would handle Touga.  To interfere now would be a blow to her pride.  It would also imply that Saber Lily didn't trust her.

     It was all in the mind, she realized.  It all had to do with perception and motivation.  Saber Lily had never thought of herself as truly defending Utena, just herself.  The two of them were merely reluctant allies, but now things were different.

     "Your partner doesn't seem to be doing well," Assassin commented, barely parrying a strike.  "My Master appears to enjoy humiliating people."

     "She'll be fine," Saber Lily said.  "Do you actually like your Master?"

     "In many ways, we're quite alike.  We both enjoy the finer things in life like women, beauty, and the way of the sword."  Assassin's placid facade was beginning to crack; Saber Lily's strikes were getting stronger, and yet the speed of her attacks hadn't gotten any slower.  "It would be a pity to spill your blood, but my Master has commanded it."

     "You don't seem too unhappy with this," Saber Lily commented.  She proceeded to attack the part of Assassin's sword that she'd damaged earlier.

     "If I am to die, fighting my best against the finest Servant, I would be content," Assassin declared.  "Few have ever damaged my blade, and only one has survived my ultimate technique."

     "Then show me your best, and I shall do the same," Saber Lily promised.

     Assassin jumped backwards and raised his sword.  He concentrated for a moment as he steadied his footing.

     Saber Lily knew that if she were defeated, or even incapacitated, Assassin would go after Utena.  They would double-team her, and their victory would be all but assured.

     She would not let that happen.  She would defend her friend.

     Saber Lily did not see Utena's torn uniform, cut in strategic places by Touga's attacks.  She did not see Utena's borrowed rapier sliced by the Sword of Dios.  She did not hear Utena's declaration that, though she didn't know anything about Anthy, she was here to take back what she was.  Saber Lily felt, however, the almost overbearing pressure that came from the Sword of Dios, power that flickered as Touga tried to slice through the last of Utena's shattered sword--

     --until the power had been withdrawn.  The Sword of Dios was no longer empowered, and Utena forced Touga back.  She prepared to charge.

     Both sets of combatants did so.  It was oddly fitting that they clashed at virtually the same time.

     Saber Lily could see the reality-defying slashes that Assassin was about to make, even with the slight flaw in his technique from the notched blade.  She just needed something to block those two simultaneous first slashes.

     Almost as if it was planned, Excalibur found itself in her right hand while Caliburn was in her left.  She blocked both slashes from the side and dodged the remaining slash, attacking with both blades.

     Utena charged Touga with her shortened rapier, screaming defiantly.  The two met briefly--

     --and red was scattered from both Touga and Assassin.  Touga's rose had been sliced asunder, and Assassin had been fatally wounded.

     Touga fell to his knees, and the Sword of Dios and his ring disappeared.  His face, though hidden from Utena, was one of abject shock and despair.  It was like her own expression from the last time.

     Though Assassin was fading, he managed a smile.  "You drew the King of Swords and defeated my technique.  Well done.  I have no regrets..." his voice trailed off as he vanished into particles of light.

     "I've taken back what I was," Utena declared to the defeated Touga.  She turned and saw Anthy, a single tear rolling down her face.  "I couldn't have done it without my partner."

     Saber Lily watched with interest as Assassin's bloodstains faded from her swords.  She didn't feel jubilant over finally drawing Excalibur; rather, it was more like a sense of relief.

     "Let's go home," Utena said to both Saber Lily and Anthy.

*****

     "Rider," Akio said in the darkened room.  "Everything is in place.  Make your preparations."

     "Master, if I do this, then we risk the entire campus.  You already have great power.  Why do you need--"

     She was silenced by a single disapproving look from him.  "If I had more time, I might have obtained my rightful power through gentler means.  I might have been able to seduce Utena Tenjou into giving me my lost power on her own.  However, time is short.  Make your preparations, and I can assure you that you will get what you deserve."

     Rider wasn't sure that she liked the sound of that.  "Yes, my Master," she said dutifully.

     "And please do see if my sister is holding up.  She is pivotal to this whole affair, after all."

*****

     Touga Kiryu shuffled down the last few steps of the spiral staircase.  He looked dully at the castle above, then trudged out of the gate.

     He had underestimated Utena and Lily.  He thought that his manipulations would have been enough to keep her out of the game.  What was End of the World thinking by giving her a second chance?!

     That was his last thought before the world seemed to explode into stars.  He felt his jaw click together, and then he toppled over.

     Getting up, he was shocked to see Saionji standing over him in dark clothing.  He’d tied his green hair back, but there was no mistaking those flinty lavender eyes.

     “Hello, `old friend,’” Saionji greeted him sarcastically.  “I see that you’ve finally tasted defeat as well.”

     Touga felt his jaw gingerly.  Nothing had been broken, but that was by sheer luck.  He had never been hit this hard before, and especially not from Saionji.

     "What are you doing here?"  Touga tried to stall for time, but he knew that help wasn't going to be forthcoming.  He didn't have his katana; he didn't think he'd need anything more than the Sword of Dios.

     "I wanted to check on your progress.  You were supposed to help reverse my expulsion, correct?"

     "And you think that hitting me will help your case?"  Touga asked.  Of course, Touga hadn't made any attempt to help his "friend" out.  It would have been inconvenient to have the green-haired fool anywhere close to him--at least, while he had a chance at gaining power.  Now, he had lost.  That didn't mean that he had to be accommodating, though. 

     "Actually, no.  You never really lifted a finger unless it benefited yourself.  Now, you're out of the game, aren't you?"

     "I can get back in," Touga said, getting up.  "End of the World gave Tenjou another chance, after all."

     A sudden realization dawned on Saionji.  "You know who End of the World is, don't you?  You were the one who forged that letter!"

     Touga tried to look smug.  "Whatever gave you that idea?  As it stands now, I have no motivation to help YOUFFF!"

     That last word had turned into an explosive breath as Saionji punched Touga in the gut.  Then there was a right cross to the redheaded man's jaw.  By the time Touga regained his senses, Saionji had closed in and had the former's throat in an uncomfortable grip.

     "`No motivation,' you said, old friend?  Here's your motivation to help me:  You know how much damage I can do when I'm angry.  Everything in my path gets wrecked, friend or foe, even Anthy and you, my best friend.  Think about it," Saionji said in a low voice.

     Touga nodded and gasped for breath.  Saionji released him and pushed him against a tree with all the scorn he could muster.

     "Let's talk.  After we're done, we'll go see the others.  I'm sure that they'll be interested in what you have to say."

     "Bastard," Touga choked out.

     "No, old friend," Saionji corrected him, "that would be you."

*****

     "Where have you been?!"  Wakaba demanded as soon as he slipped into her dorm room.  "It's been hours--and what happened to your knuckles?"

     Saionji looked tired but vaguely satisfied.  He was holding a handkerchief to his right hand, and it was spotted with blood.

     "I was getting some answers.  Then I convened an emergency meeting of the Student Council," he joked.  "Touga had a tougher jaw than I expected."

     "You beat up the Student Council President?"  Wakaba was agape.  "What was so important that you had to do that?"

     "None of the Student Council are involved with the duels anymore; it's only Tenjou and your roommate now.  We didn't get any answers why, but Touga was kind enough to provide a name:  Akio Ohtori."

     Wakaba tried not to gasp.  "The Acting Chairman is behind the duels?  Why?"

     "I don't know.  All I know is that Touga thinks that something big is going to happen tomorrow."  His face softened ever so slightly.  "Are you scared?"
     "Yes!" she exclaimed.

     "So am I," he admitted softly.  "Whatever happens tomorrow, thank you for...everything."  He bowed stiffly, then called out to Lily's room.  "MacArthur, I know that you were listening.  Tell Tenjou what I just said.  It might prove useful."

     Lily opened the door and peeked out, clad in her pajamas.  In spite of the fact that she was holding Mr. Gao, she was in no mood to be trifled with.

     "I'll tell her," she promised.

     None of them had a good night's sleep after that.

Chapter Text

     Utena looked unusually sober as she prepared for the morning classes.  She and Anthy had talked into the night, and she felt that she was truly starting to know her roommate.  There were depths that she kept hidden, for fear that something horrible would happen.  Anthy described her fear as something that knocked on the walls in her mind, testing her strength every day.

     She had to save Anthy.  Whatever it took, she would save her.

     During the night, someone had slipped a sealed envelope underneath her door.  Anthy confirmed that it was indeed from the mysterious "End of the World" that Saionji had mentioned.

     The end of your journey is here.  Your Prince awaits you at the top of the dueling arena.  Come at noon with your Servant.

     Earlier that morning, Anthy had left the dorm with only a note.  Said note had mentioned something vague about duties to attend to, and that they would be together again shortly.

     It was during class that Utena and Lily sensed that something was terribly wrong.  Their first clue was of the usually perky Sorata shambling to his desk.  As the day ticked towards noon, more students started falling victim to this unknown malaise.

     Oddly enough, the only people who weren't affected were those who were involved in the duels.  None of the Student Council members (former and current) were yawning.  Rumor had it that Touga was sporting a few bruises, but that was due to some unknown "accident."

     Eleven o'clock came, and just about every student and teacher on the campus was dragging their heels.  Wakaba had fallen asleep at her desk and was quietly snoring.  The homeroom teacher was struggling through the current lesson before she fell asleep at the blackboard.

     Somehow, it came as no surprise that Nurse Lochley had been waiting outside the door for Utena and Lily.  She had managed to gather the Student Council members, but Anthy was not among their group.

     "Follow me to my office.  It's safe for the moment," she said.

     The group did so, and everyone took note of the students who had simply dropped in the hallways.  Thankfully, none of them seemed to have injured themselves in the process, but it was still quite a disconcerting sight.

     "Your `sponsor,' End of the World, Akio Ohtori, has made his move," Lochley announced to the Student Council.  "He has decided to sacrifice every living soul on this campus in order to regain his power."

     "What are you talking about?"  Touga demanded.  "How do you know all this?"

     Nurse Lochley merely glanced at him, and he flinched.  "Boy, I ask you to listen, for your life and the life of your sister is at stake as well."  She recomposed herself and cleared her throat.  "All that you need to know is that this spell is being generated by four stones set at the compass points of this campus.  I have managed to offer some protection against the spell, but it may not last long; even now, Rider's spell is wearing me down."

     "Rider?!"  Lily exclaimed.  "She's Ohtori's Servant?"

     "It appears so.  Her Noble Phantasm--her special ability, if you will--is to generate a dome which drains life energy and converts it to magical power."  Nurse Lochley blinked, then shook her head.  "The four stones you seek are guarded; since there are four of you on the Council, you must go alone.  I will provide enchantments for your weapons so that you can destroy the guards and the stone."

     "What about us?"  Utena asked, indicating herself and Lily.  "What do we do?"

     "You must confront and defeat Ohtori.  I had not anticipated that he would become this greedy so quickly.  If he is successful, he would not only reclaim his lost power, but he would have strength enough to restart a wretched cycle.  Lillian, you know of what I speak."

     Lily swallowed hard.  "He wants to rebuild the Holy Grail?"

     "And with it, the cycle of misery, of fighting, and of destructive power would begin anew on this world.  Untold suffering would scour this world if he is successful.  Worse, this will all be my fault,” she admitted.

     “Your fault?”  Utena asked.

     Nurse Lochley held up a hand to forestall any further questions.  She had to concentrate.

     “If we survive this, I will explain.  You have my word.”

*****

     Utena thought that she should have said something to the Student Council.  There should have been a speech for something this momentous.  Instead, there was only time for a quick “good luck” and they were off to their respective missions.

     "What's the Holy Grail?"  Utena asked as they started running.  "It's not the religious relic, is it?"

     Lily frowned.  "According to Arturia's memories, the best way to describe it would be a wish-granting machine.  There would be seven Masters and seven Servants, and whoever was the last pair alive would get to make the wish."

     Utena didn't quite grimace.  "There's a catch somewhere, isn't there?"

     Lily nodded.  "The wishes are granted only through destruction.  If you wanted world peace, the world would be destroyed.  Arturia had to destroy it twice; once for its physical form, and the other for its spiritual form."

     They both paused for a moment as Utena peeked around a corner.  Then there was a flash of light off to Utena's side, and she knew that Lily had changed to her armor.  She held Caliburn in her right hand, but Excalibur wasn’t present.  The blonde looked hesitant.

     “Aren’t you going to bring out Excalibur?”  Utena asked.

     Saber Lily shook her head.  “Not unless I really have to.  In the wrong hands, Excalibur can do a lot of damage.  Ohtori would be a fool not to want it.”

     “I guess you’re right,” Utena admitted.  “It’s been a strange term, huh?”  She held out her hand.

     Saber Lily not only took it, she drew Utena into a gentle hug.  Perhaps it was the moment, but Utena felt oddly exhilarated, as if there was a warm glow within her.

     “All we have to do is make it through the final,” Saber Lily joked.

Saber Lily and Utena small

 

 

*****

     Miki was the first to get to his destination.  A small stone obelisk had been planted at the north end of the school, just before the forest.  The obelisk was within some sort of circle, and it was also surrounded by skeletons of—well, he couldn’t tell what, but they were once animals.

     He hid behind a tree and tried to relax.  Unwittingly, three faces came to mind:  Juri, Anthy, and his estranged sister.  Oddly enough, instead of feeling despair or pain, thinking of his sister gave him hope.  Though he had often denied it, she was still important to him.

     Don't think, Lancer would have told him.  Charge in and give it your all.

     He did so.

*****

     Assassin had been a good match, Touga decided as he found the obelisk.  They often talked about the art of the sword, women, and strategies.

     Let the others charge in blindly, he thought to himself as he hid behind a tree.  Strike first and make it count.

     He thought of his sister Nanami and her sometimes disturbing adoration of him.  Despite the manipulation that he used, he also thought of how oddly beautiful Utena looked when she was being noble.

     He would be the first to admit that he was arrogant and deceitful.  He was also very, very good at whatever he focused on.

     He ducked behind another tree and prepared himself.

*****

     Saionji took a page from Archer's book.  He stood tall and firm for a moment before he charged the skeletal army.  Screaming defiance, he thought of Anthy and Wakaba.  He could not know two more different women.  He only hoped that he could at least make it up to one of them.

     He had enough regrets to last for all eternity if he decided to wallow in them.  Better to seize the moment and milk it dry than to wait for some undefined eternity.

*****

     Juri had never felt so oddly balanced in her life.  For most of her life, she had always been the one who was silent, taciturn and withdrawn.  Even though her immediate family was supportive, they didn't really understand her.

     Sorata understood her even when she wasn't quite sure of herself.  True, he could act like a total buffoon, but it was his sincerity that helped to open her up.  She loved him for that.

     She loved Shiori as well.  That would never change.  The past few days, the petite brunette had been giving her some uncertain looks, often turning away.  That was fine; she could wait until Shiori had settled her mind.

     With those two in mind, she charged the guardian skeletons.  A scream of fierce joy echoed through the southernmost point of the Academy, followed by the sound of bones shattering.

*****

     The sight that awaited Utena and Saber Lily was impressive.  The center of the dueling arena had a throne carved in what looked like the same white marble as the arena.  A man dressed in a red shirt and black slacks lounged lazily on it, his lavender ponytail tossed stylishly over his shoulder. 

     In front of him was Anthy, although she looked nothing like the demure young lady they knew.  Her hair was freed from its confines, and it spread down to her back.  Most disturbing were her eyes; the glasses were gone, and those green eyes of hers were anything but calm.  It was as if Anthy was suppressing a full-body shudder.

     Rider stood at the right of the throne.  She was wearing what looked like a modified black Greek dress, only cut to miniskirt length.  She also had thigh-high black boots and detached sleeves that went to almost her shoulder.  On her forehead was some sort of red squiggle, almost like the number "2", and she wore some sort of purple visor over her eyes.  By all rights, Rider shouldn't have been able to see, but she obviously got around.

     "Welcome, ladies," Akio said in his deep voice.  "I must admit, you've forced me to accelerate my timetable."  He got out of the throne and put his hands on Anthy's shoulders.  "But we're all together now and that's the important part.  Believe me, you will love what's coming next."

     "Where is my Prince?"  Utena asked.

     Akio blinked.  "Can't you tell, Utena?"  He spread out his arms.  "It's me.  I'm your prince."

     "I've heard that one before," Utena reminded him.

     "Perhaps this will convince you."  With a gesture, Akio's clothes turned into something more military, complete with golden epaulets and a short cape.

     Utena turned pale.  She started trembling, and it was only Saber Lily's gentle touch that enabled her to stop.

     "I remember a little girl in a church," he said almost fondly.  "She had lost her parents and the will to live.  So, I gave her the ring with the memories and power of a legendary knight king.  I am your Prince, Utena Tenjou."

     "What kind of `prince' is willing to kill the people he's sworn to protect?"  Saber Lily demanded.

     "Ah, the knight king speaks," Akio remarked, then started pacing the length of the arena.  The girls had the distinct impression that he stalking them.  "Let me tell you a little story about a hero.  He lived to protect the innocent from all sorts of dangers.  His power was second to none, and with his loving sister at his side, the people were happy.

     "Heroism, sadly, is a very taxing occupation.  The hero had tried to summon seven legendary heroes to aid in his cause, but only six of them arrived.  Those six were determined to kill one another.  So, with a heavy heart, the hero and his sister sealed them away in a throne."  He patted the marble throne, and Utena and Saber Lily could see the colorless designs.  "With no other choice, the hero stopped to rest, leaving his sister to watch over him.

     "The ungrateful masses came," he continued dramatically, "and they begged the sister to release the hero.  There was always someone to be saved!  But she could not, for the hero was near the brink of exhaustion."

     "What did they do?"  Utena asked, her voice a whisper.

     "He did nothing," Anthy said.  "I nearly killed them all."

     Utena's trembling reappeared, worse than before as she tried to catch her breath.  Anthy?  A killer?

     "And I stopped her," Akio said.  "I threw myself bodily between her and the masses, and I was struck by forces that nearly tore me apart.  I was dying."

     Anthy continued, tears rolling down the corners of her eyes.  "I had to do something to save my brother.  If only I could have somehow preserved all that was noble and good within him, then all was not lost.  So I did.  I sealed his power up there, so that people might be inspired by his example."  She pointed to the castle.

     "As it turns out, I wasn't quite dead.  My body survived, but without what Anthy had taken for me--well, what is lost must be reclaimed."  Akio smirked.  "So, I spent years wondering how I could lay my hands on my lost power.  You see, Anthy put in a safety."

     "Only by having the power and souls of all seven Servants present could the seal on his power be undone," Anthy said, almost reciting something from memory.  "I thought that this would make it impossible, since we never knew where the seventh hero's soul was."

     Utena had almost collapsed, if it weren't for Saber Lily's hold on her arm.  The tears were starting to flow from her blue eyes.

     "Anthy," she choked out.  "It doesn't matter."

     "Oh, but it does," Akio insisted.  "Prepare yourself, Utena Tenjou.  You may have the Sword of Dios; I have other weapons of my own."

     With a thought, two swords appeared in his hands, one black and one white.  He whirled them around and nodded appreciatively.

     "Those are Archer's swords," Saber Lily breathed.

     "That's right," Akio confirmed.  "You see, ladies, for every Servant that has been defeated, I gain their power.  Their souls are contained within Anthy.  It's a win-win proposition.  And as for the Throne—well, I believe that it’s served its purpose."  He sliced through the marble throne and it crumbled.  After a few moments, there wasn’t even rubble left behind.

     Utena drew herself up and gently pushed away Saber Lily's arm.  There were still tears running down her face, but the expression was one of determination.

     "I'll save you, Anthy," she said raggedly.  "I promise."

     Anthy pinned a rose to Akio’s breast pocket.  Then she turned and walked towards Utena with another rose.  Anthy seemed to be in a daze, and the tears were still flowing down the corners of her eyes.

     The Sword of Dios was pulled from its resting place within the Rose Bride, and Utena assumed a ready stance.  Beside her, Saber Lily did the same with Caliburn.

     “Where is Excalibur, knight king?”  Akio mocked.  “Surely you don’t think that you can defeat me with just that sword.”

     “Excalibur is not for the likes of you,” Saber Lily replied, tightening her grip on Caliburn.

     Akio laughed.  “Allow me to set the scene.  Rider, make sure that I’m not interrupted.”

     “Yes, my Master,” Rider replied, and there was an undercurrent of regret in her voice.  She lifted her visor from over her eyes, and Utena found that she couldn’t move.  She noticed that Rider had been crying as well.  Saber Lily took a step forward, apparently unaffected, but stopped when Akio meaningfully waved a sword near Anthy.

     “I am the bone of my sword.
     Steel is my flesh, and fire is my blood.
     I have created over a thousand blades.
     Unknown to death, nor known to life.
     I have withstood pain to create many weapons,
     And I shall have them all.
     And so I pray:
     UNLIMITED BLADE WORKS!”  he finished with a shout.

     The world turned white for a moment, and when everybody could see again, the sky had turned red and the barren earth was littered with swords.  There was a distant sound of metal clanging together, as if they were near a blacksmith.

     “Release them, Rider, my dear Medusa,” Akio ordered.  “I do want this fight to be entertaining.”

     “What is this place?”  Utena asked.  The stink of hot iron was everywhere.

     “This is another gift from Archer.  This is his pocket world, his ultimate technique:  Unlimited Blade Works."  Akio gestured expansively to the barren horizon.  "It's a pity that he never got the chance to use it on you."  

     Having said that, Akio seemed to blur.  One moment, he was twenty feet away; the next, he was right in Utena's face.  She barely blocked the double blades, and the force of the blow sent her skidding backwards.

     Saber Lily took the initiative and charged Rider.  The magenta-haired Servant responded by taking out a dagger that resembled a nail, linked to a long chain.  The taller Servant was slightly more agile than Saber Lily, and she managed to dodge many of the strikes from Caliburn.

     Utena was getting pummeled.  She had blocked every attack that Akio had launched, and each time he had a different sword.  Her wrists were starting to hurt, and she suspected that he was holding back to enjoy the duel.

     "Pathetic," he declared, stepping just out of her range.  "You can't save yourself, much less my sister.  Of course, Anthy chose to do this for me to make up for her horrible sin!"

     Utena prepared to charge, then sensed something quivering in the air.  It was like the world was a soap bubble on the verge of popping.

     "No," Akio breathed.  "How could this--"

     Before he could finish his sentence, the sky went white.  The harsh surroundings of the barren wasteland was again replaced by the stark white of the dueling arena.

     "Master," Rider said, dodging another of Saber Lily's swings, "The obelisks have been destroyed, all of them."

     "Can you reestablish the dome?"  There was actual tension in Akio's voice, something that gave Utena hope.  The Student Council members had done it!  For now, there was a chance that those below the arena could be saved.

     "Not without weeks of preparation," she reported, and yet there was a bit of relief in her voice.  "I mentioned this when I created the spell the first time."

     Akio snorted as he blocked Utena's attack.  "Well, there's nothing else we can do, then.  Do be a dear and stab yourself in the chest, would you?  That's an order."  Akio’s rose seal ring began to glow, enforcing his will.

     Rider stiffened, and she began to fight her own hands.  Trembling, she knelt down and prepared to deal herself the fatal blow.

     Saber Lily stopped her, but it was a struggle.  It was an odd sort of stalemate, and streaks of tears could be seen leaking from Rider's visor.

     "Don't," Saber Lily said softly.

     "Have to," Rider rasped.  "The ring is like a command seal.  I can't disobey."  She looked at Caliburn.  "Please.  Make it quick."

     Saber Lily nodded, and did as Rider asked.  She caught the tall woman as she collapsed.

     "And they called me a monster," Rider whispered.  "Forgot...that monsters can be of any shape.  I'm so sorry..."

     The blonde clenched her fist as Rider faded away into points of light.  Gritting her teeth, she stood up and readied Caliburn.

     "Why would you sacrifice your own Servant?"  Utena asked in shock.

     "She's a Servant," he said dismissively.  "In the end, she was disposable.  I have her power now, and that's all that matters."  He noted the anger on both girls' faces.  "Oh, does that bother you?  Fine, then.  I shall remove the restriction on Servants attacking Masters.  You may fight me one at a time or both at once, it's all the same to me."

     The clash that followed was almost too fast to be seen.  It was as if Utena and Saber Lily were reading each others' minds, coordinating their attacks.  Akio held them back with his twin swords, conjuring more weapons when they were destroyed.  The red spear wielded by Lancer was briefly brought out before being sliced by both the Sword of Dios and Caliburn.  The gigantic axe sword of Berserker appeared to give the girls the worst time, since it was so huge; on the other hand, it was also awkward for even Akio to wield, and it left him open.

     Utena scattered the petals of Akio's rose.  For a moment, all was still.

     Then Akio backhanded her, sending her sprawling.  He stood over her, barely paying attention to Saber Lily's attacks.

     "Fool," he declared.  "The rose means nothing now.  Did you think that I would actually give you a chance of winning?"

     That question was answered as Caliburn bit deeply into his shoulder.  Screaming in pain, he whirled around to counterattack, but found that his right hand was now missing.  The next thing he knew, Caliburn was filling the arena with blazing golden light as Saber Lily slammed it right at his heart.

     "YEAAAARRRRGH!" he screamed as the golden light burned him from within.  When it faded, he fell down to his knees, but he was still breathing.  Almost contemptuously, Saber Lily withdrew her sword from his chest.

     "Ten," he panted, managing a smirk.  "I still have two--GAHHHH!"

     "Eleven," Utena declared as she gutted him with the Sword of Dios.  "How much power does it take to heal from this?  We've cut off your power supply."

     Akio staggered unsteadily as his ruined chest began to heal.  His right hand began to grow back, a sight that could only be described as disturbing.

     "You threw your best shot at me," he said raggedly.  "Those attacks won't work again."

*****

     Unseen by all, a great struggle was being waged within Anthy Himemiya.  Though her face was calm, she was holding the souls of six legendary heroes in addition to herself.  One soul had been occupying her body for quite some time.  It had been able to make itself at home, creating some checks and balances within.

     With Rider's soul entering her, the walls began to crumble.  The Servant who had been with Anthy the longest began to destroy her mental defenses.  And, of course, there was Akio’s last command.

     The Rose Bride walked towards the battle, but she was not quite herself.  An iridescent dagger with a blade shaped like a lightning bolt formed in her hand.  All that was left was the moment to strike.

*****

     Despite all his power, Akio found himself against the wall.  The unrelenting assault of Utena and Saber Lily had pushed him back, and it was a combination of sheer luck and reflexes that they hadn't taken any serious damage.

     He cheered as he saw Anthy walking towards them.  She was always his, even when they were different people.  She would never, ever leave him.

     Then a fresh spike of agony hit as Caliburn lanced right through his belly and into the stone wall behind him.  He twitched and writhed, but only succeeded in wounding himself further.  Dropping his swords, he reached down and tried to pull Caliburn out of him.

     He failed.  No matter how much effort he put into it, the sword would not move!

     "WHY?!" he shouted.  "I have the strength of Berserker!  Why can't I pull this thing out?!"

     Saber Lily's face was grim.  "The answer is simple:  You do not have what it takes to be a king."

     He snarled.  "This won't kill me.  What are you going to do?"

     "I was thinking that maybe we could leave him here," Utena suggested.  "If he can't die, we can at least leave him in eternal pain, right?"

     Saber Lily sighed.  "We could, but it'd be a waste of a good sword.  I’m very fond of Caliburn, you know.  Besides, that won't set Anthy free," she reminded Utena.

     "Excuse me," Anthy said quietly.  Both Utena and Saber Lily gaped at her as she calmly glided towards Akio and caressed his face with her left hand.

     "Anthy," he breathed.  "I knew that you wouldn't desert me."

     "Never, dear brother," she said almost dreamily.  "I could never leave you to suffer.  Saber Lily, please remove your sword from my brother.  The duel is over," Anthy declared.

     Reluctantly, Saber Lily did so.  She flicked off some blood from the blade before holding it ready.

     Akio feigned exhaustion.  The wounds were already closing, and he could hear Utena begging for Anthy not to do anything else.  All he needed was a few moments to recuperate and--

     The next thing he knew, Anthy smiled and stuck a dagger just below his heart.  It wasn't a fatal wound, but it shocked him nonetheless.

     "What?" was all he had time to say before he felt his power drain away.

     "This is Rule Breaker, the Noble Phantasm of Caster," Anthy explained calmly.  "It's useless as a weapon, but its ability is to cancel any magical contract."

     Akio sagged to his knees, his power gone.  He saw Anthy raise a hand, and all the power that had been within him flow inside of her.  Her green eyes glowed, and she smiled.

     "Anthy, wait--"

     "Anthy isn't home right now," she corrected him.  "You're speaking to Caster, also known as Medea.  You look so tired.  I think that it's time for you to rest."

     She gently caressed his forehead.  Then, some invisible force launched him up and over the walls of the dueling arena.  His scream went on for a long while, ending suddenly.

     Caster/Anthy dusted herself off almost daintily and smiled at Utena and Saber Lily.  They moved towards her, and for a moment, Anthy's face was her own.

     "Miss Utena, Saber Lily," Anthy said urgently, "you have to stop Caster!  She's going to--"  Her head was thrown back, and the oddly serene expression returned.

     "What are you going to do?"  Utena asked, not sure if she could use the Sword of Dios on her friend.

     "I?  I am going to recreate the Holy Grail and have my wish," Caster/Anthy said simply.  "Do you think that you can stop me?"

     "If you make a new Grail, it will still be cursed!"  Saber Lily declared.  "If you make a wish on the Grail, it will fulfill it by destroying what you hold dear!"

     Caster/Anthy seemed to consider this.  "I don't care.  If you feel the urge to stop me or to save Anthy, it will not end well."

     "We will do what we feel is right," Saber Lily replied.

     "I see," said Caster/Anthy.  She turned around and shoved them back with that same invisible force.  "THEN DROWN IN YOUR IDEALS!"

     Suddenly, the arena was full of ghosts.  They were pale recreations of people, each presumably grouped in one of the seven classes of hero.  Some of them were recognizable while others weren't.  It was like a mishmash of many characters who could have been in any particular class of hero.

     Saber Lily pulled out Excalibur and held it in her right hand, switching Caliburn to her left in the process.  Utena prepared herself with the Sword of Dios.  Any moment now, their enemies would attack.

     A volley of arrows were fired at the two of them, some purple, some green, and others were crossbow bolts.  A figure in purple tried to compete with a figure in green, both silently trying to outdo the other.  Saber Lily paled at the sight of a blonde man with red eyes and golden armor.

     "Gilgamesh," she whispered.

     "Who?!"  Utena asked as she dodged another volley.

     "Ancient hero king, very powerful, very insane, just keep dodging!"  Saber Lily almost babbled.

     Utena did so, and she noticed that all the arrows were coming close, but they didn't quite hit their mark.  Likewise, the ghost warriors were somehow sluggish.  They were lacking in durability as well.  One sword swipe, and they just vanished.  She noted that Saber Lily took some pleasure in dispatching Gilgamesh with both her swords.

     The assault of arrows ended, but it was quickly followed by what Utena assumed were the Lancer-class Servants.  There were only two:  The Lancer they knew (Cu Chulainn, if Miki was right) and another one who wielded dual spears. 

     "Who's that?"  Utena asked.

     "Diarmuid Ua Duibhne," Saber Lily replied.  "Arturia fought with and against him in the Holy Grail War.  Just don't look at his face--"

     Too late, Utena caught the eye of the man wielding dual spears.  She felt herself grow oddly giddy, and a flush appeared on her cheeks.  She started fantasizing about him.

     The Diarmuid ghost seemed to hesitate.  He could have easily skewered Utena while she stood there in a lovesick daze.  He chose to lower his dual spears, just as Saber Lily slashed him.

     Utena shook herself out of it, just as the red spear of Cu Chulainn missed her.  He, too, didn't seem to have his full heart in the battle.  It was clear from looking at his eyes that he was not in control of his actions.

     Stop me, he seemed to be mouthing out.  End this now.

     Utena did so, and she felt some regret.  She wasn't killing anyone, she realized.  They were being forced to serve Caster, and not even at their full power.

     Saber Lily went back-to-back with Utena.  A group of--well, the best way Utena could describe it was a ninja convention.  About a half dozen fictional ninja were charging, and ghostly throwing stars, ninja blades, blasts of frost, and in one case, fans, were flying.

     "Assassins?"  Utena asked.

     "That would be my guess.  Do you notice something wrong?"

     "Other than the fact that they seem to be awfully sluggish?  They're pretty easy to beat, too," Utena observed.

     "HULK SMASH!" proclaimed a green-skinned shade.  He proceeded to rip some stones from the arena wall and threw them at the two girls.  They barely missed, but the impact made them flinch.

     "Sorry, ladies," came a rough voice, and suddenly Utena was blocking three blades that came out of a man's fist.  "Not exactly in control here."

     <You've got to be bloody kidding me!> Saber Lily shouted in English.  <Why don't you all just KNOB OFF?!>

     "Lily, you're speaking English," Utena observed delicately as she tried to parry the triple blades.  "That's not good, is it?"  She turned her attention to the short man who was halfheartedly attacking her.  "You're a Berserker, right?"

     "Been there, done that, best at what I do," he replied.  "As long as boss lady is calling the shots, I can't let up much.  Sorry."

     As if things weren't crowded enough, a wave of what appeared to be magic users entered the field.  Oddly enough, one held back to the rear.  He was tall, almost six and a half feet, wore a dark duster and carried a largish staff.  Fire began to coalesce in his hands, but he caught the eyes of both ladies.

     He winked.  Then he mouthed out "on three, duck."

     The shade mouthed out the countdown, and Utena and Saber Lily ducked as instructed.  They expected a conflagration of fire.

     The shade did not disappoint.

     "Fuego, FUEGO, PYROFUEGO!!!" he exclaimed and the fire blazed a path through the phantom army.  The Berserkers and the Assassins were burnt to nothingness.  This took a toll on the shade, as he began to fade away.  Before he did, he threw a thumbs-up at Utena and Saber Lily.

     "Who was that?!"  Utena asked, just before she dodged a ghostly motorcycle and its rider, a man with a flaming skull.

     "I don't know!  I guess we'll never find out!"  Saber Lily said.  She was currently blocking some bullets from a man on a white horse.  He was dressed in a blue shirt and wore a red kerchief around his neck, and he also wore a black domino mask below his white Stetson.

     "They're not really trying to kill us!"  Utena shouted.  "They're just here to delay us!"

     "They're doing a great job!"  Saber Lily admitted, dispatching the masked man.  "I can clear a path, and then we can--"  she hesitated, not sure that she liked what might be necessary.

     "What?  What do we do after that?"

     "Utena, Anthy is currently very dangerous right now.  She is trying to rebuild a deadly wish-granting machine.  She has to be stopped, no matter what!  If I were a king, I would have to place the safety of the land over one person.  I can't save her," Saber Lily emphasized.

     Utena pressed her lips into a thin line.  "No, you can't save her.  That's the duty of a Prince."

     "Is that all?"  Saber Lily asked.  "It's just your duty?"

     Utena lowered her gaze.  "No," she admitted quietly.  "There isn't anything in me that could ever take her place.  It's not the way she looks, or the way she acts.  I've seen her, the real Himemiya, and...I love her."

     Saber Lily was suddenly very far away as Arturia's memories overwhelmed her.  She was lying in a pool of her own blood, grievously wounded, but not nearly as badly as the young man who struggled to stand.

     {You must hold your life more precious than mine...}  her memory-self said.

     {There's nothing that I want more than you, Saber!} the young man exclaimed.

     {Shirou...} her memory-self said, shocked.

     {There isn't anything in me that could ever take your place.} he declared, standing out of sheer willpower.

     "What happened?"  Utena asked.  Now was not a good time to zone out!

     "You just reminded me of someone who was important to Arturia," Saber Lily replied.

     The rider with the flaming skull charged both of them, but veered off ever so slightly.  They still had to dodge, however, and then they were nearly run over by a chariot drawn by bulls.  Saber Lily gaped as she saw the occupant.

     "Iskandar," she whispered.

     The shade of Alexander the Great nodded, and he drew his sword in salute.  He said nothing, but looked pointedly at Caster/Anthy, then frowned.

     He charged, around the same time that the rider with a flaming skull turned around.  Both of them were on a collision course, with the girls in the middle.

     Both Saber Lily and Utena dodged at the last minute, and instead of a great crash, there was merely a mild explosion of air.  Both of them had vanished, leaving nothing behind.

     "I think I get it now," Utena said.  "Anthy can't control every move that these guys make, and she can still force them along."

     Saber Lily nodded.  "Have you ever tried to multitask over sixteen different tasks?  And Caster is trying to recreate the Holy Grail and force the souls of the other Servants away while doing so."

     They both realized that all had gone silent, with the exception of Anthy mumbling something to the castle above.  A single point of light seemed to be slowly descending from the castle.

     Then there were two pairs of very solid-sounding boot steps headed toward them.  They were both Saber, but they were very different.  One wore all black, her golden hair turned a sickly wheat color, and her skin looked pale as well.  The hair antenna that Saber Lily had wasn't there, and the hair itself was styled in the bun and braid combination that Arturia had favored.  Most disturbing were her golden eyes that seemed to bathe everything she saw in scorn.

     The other was slightly shorter, not even 5 feet tall, but considerably more mature in figure.  She wasn't shy about showing said figure, either.  The front panel of her military-style red dress (complete with epaulets) was a translucent white.  There was a certain haughtiness in her stride.

     "I think that Caster just got serious," Utena commented.

     "I'll hold them off," Saber Lily said as she stepped forward.  "You get going.  Trust what's in your heart.  Do what you feel is right."

     "Lily--"  Utena hesitated.

     Saber Lily glared at Utena.  "GO!"  Brandishing both Caliburn and Excalibur, she charged the two Sabers.  The one in black drew her sword, a dark counterpart to Excalibur.  The one in red drew her sword as well, a crimson, almost organic blade that had odd curves.

     "Foolish," the dark Saber declared, blocking Excalibur.  "You seek to be a hero, but the only role of a hero is to be hated.  You will always be alone.  I will force you to understand despair."

     "Artless," the red Saber said haughtily as Caliburn was blocked.  "You spread yourself too thin.  I was like you, sending all my love to my subjects.  They couldn't understand me, and it led to the fall of all I held dear."

     "You cannot win," the dark Saber said.  "I shall crush your ideals."

     Then, surprisingly, Saber Lily forced them both back.  Both the dark and red Sabers looked disconcerted.

     "May I know your names?"  Saber Lily asked, grinning fiercely.

     The red Saber bowed.  "I am Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, former emperor of Rome.  It pains me to be part of something so ugly and lacking in aesthetics, but I have little choice.  Your devotion to your friend is actually quite beautiful, and I admire that."

     The dark Saber brandished her corrupted version of Excalibur.  "I am Arturia Pendragon, Saber Alter.  I am you, hated and ostracized, the ultimate end of any `hero.'"

     Saber Lily gripped her swords tight, and both of them started glowing.  The golden light made her opponents wince.

     "I am Lillian Ariel MacArthur.  That's all you need to know."

     As she re-engaged the two Sabers, she prayed that Utena would be all right.  She didn't have to win; she just had to keep these two from trying to attack Utena.

     Caster/Anthy had somehow raised part of the dueling arena as a stairway to the castle above.  She calmly walked up, where point of light waited.

     "Soon," she muttered, her voice a combination of her own and that of Caster's sultry tones.  She held out her hands and tried to reach for what had been denied for so long.

     "HIMEMIYA!"  Utena shouted as she slashed through several ghostly guards.  "Don't do it!"

     "Anthy Himemiya isn't here right now," Caster/Anthy said, almost chiding Utena without even looking.  "Come back after I'm done."

     Utena kept climbing the steps, dodging attacks along the way.  She was so close, and yet Anthy was just beyond her reach!

     "Himemiya, please!"  Utena shouted.

     Anthy seemed to shudder, and stopped walking.  She turned around, an expression of anguish in her now-grey eyes.  Twin swords formed, one in each hand, and she threw them at Utena.  She threw another pair, and another, hoping that would be enough to stop this foolish girl!

     It wasn't.  With a strength and speed that astonished even her, Utena deflected all three pairs of flying swords.  She kept on coming.

     Anthy's eyes shifted to a red color, and suddenly the crimson spear of Cu Chulainn formed in her hand.  She threw the spear, but SOMEHOW Utena caught it before it would have pierced her heart.

     Was it the power of Dios sealed in the sword really doing this, Caster/Anthy wondered.  Or is it something else that was driving her forward?  How could she accomplish such impossible feats?!  She's only human!

     The long sword of Assassin was sliced in half by the Sword of Dios before it could even start its impossible feat.  The nail and chain that Rider had used was rendered useless, jerked out of Caster/Anthy's hand.

     Still, Utena kept coming.  There was something in her eyes that caught Caster/Anthy's attention.  It wasn't hate, nor fear, nor anger.  Caster had tasted of it a long time ago, and she sensed that Anthy yearned for the same thing.  Utena's eyes were full of compassion, understanding, acceptance, and yes, love.

     It was about then that Caster/Anthy found herself able to hear what Utena had been saying.  She'd been blocking it out all this time.

     "It's okay, Himemiya," Utena said earnestly.  "I know you're scared, and you want it to stop, but you're not alone.  I'm here, Himemiya.  I forgive you."

     She's too close, Caster shouted in her mind, trying to fight down the other Servants.  Stop her now!  She'll ruin everything!  Don't you want your wish to come true?!

     Utena dropped the sword and gently took Anthy in her arms.  She made soothing sounds as the dark-skinned girl trembled.

     "Himemiya, I love you," Utena said quietly.

     "Utena..."  Anthy said, tears forming in the corners of her eyes.  She didn't say "Miss Utena" or "Miss Tenjou."  It was a simple but powerful thing, to say one's name.

     "Himemiya, I--"

     That was all that Utena got out before Anthy's eyes changed color once again, this time to the purple associated with Caster.  The next thing Utena knew, there was horrible agony in her belly, and she was flying backwards.  She tumbled halfway down the stairs before she stopped.

     Utena suddenly realized that she couldn't see.  Everything was black, and all she could feel was the cool marble of the stairs, the agony in her belly, and the disconcerting feeling that things were being closed off.

     "Himemiya..." she raised an arm and feebly tried to get up.

*****

     Saber Lily saw the flash of horrible purple light, the splash of red, and the fall of her friend.  She watched helplessly as Caster/Anthy stood atop the stairs, smoke still wafting away from her hand.

     "UTENA!!!"  Saber Lily shrieked, and she managed to knock out the red Saber with the flat of Caliburn's blade.  The dark Saber, however, merely smirked as she saw Utena's fate.

     "All heroes eventually fall," Saber Alter declared.  "All will know despair."

     <OUT OF MY WAY!> Saber Lily exclaimed in English, her dual swords a dizzying dervish of destruction.  The dark Saber found herself being driven back, surprised at how strong her opponent was.

     Saber Alter jumped back to give herself some breathing room, the better to regroup.  That gave Saber Lily plenty of time to gather her strength.  Caliburn's glow dimmed, but Excalibur seemed to burn even brighter.  Saber Lily willed Caliburn to return to its hiding place; she needed two hands now.

     "EX--"  Saber Lily began an upward slice that would reach her opponent.

     "EX--"  Saber Alter gathered dark energy into her sword and prepared to strike Saber Lily down.

     "--CALIBUR!!!!"  Saber Lily finished, just a moment ahead of her dark counterpart.

     The arena was awash in golden light, and all of it struck Saber Alter.  It was only by some miracle that the sword's power hadn't demolished the entire arena.  Saber Alter allowed Saber Lily some respect before her own dark Excalibur had been overwhelmed, its power backfiring on her.

     Saber Lily panted grimly as she saw the broken, steaming body of Saber Alter land on the brick floor.  For a moment, the dark counterpart tried to get up.  She collapsed shortly after that, but there was an odd echo of a smile on her face.  Before Saber Alter faded away, for a moment, her coloration returned to normal.

*****

     Caster/Anthy looked at Utena almost impassively.  If the girl wasn't dead already, she wouldn't last much longer.  She looked at her hand, the one that had fired the mystic bolt.  It was no longer smoking, and yet it was trembling.

     {Himemiya, I love you.}

     She loves me, Anthy thought, trying to regain control of her body.  Utena loves me!  Really and truly, even though she knows what I did, she loves me!

     SHE NEEDS ME NOW!  Anthy shouted in her own mind, and even Caster, whose power surpassed most modern mages, was momentarily knocked out of control.

     Caster/Anthy started shaking uncontrollably.  Her eyes kept changing from purple to green, and it looked like she was having an epileptic fit.

     STOP IT, Caster tried to order Anthy.  Don't you want your wish to come true?

     It already has, Anthy countered mentally.  Haven't you ever loved someone?

     Images bombarded their shared minds.  There were instances of Utena's bravery.  There were moments of quiet companionship.  There were the duels, and prominent among those was the second duel with Touga, where Utena could have died for her.  All the little moments, the big moments, they washed over both Caster and Anthy.

     Caster remembered the kindness of a stern, almost unexpressive man at her lowest point.  In her past life, she felt that she had been wronged, thrown away for the convenience of others.  At her lowest point, the man who could never smile, who never had light in his eyes, showed her salvation.  Though her methods later would be considered evil, her only goal was to be with him as long as possible, her very existence continually rejected by the world.

     Caster had been the first Servant summoned, only to be quickly slain by Rider.  Again, she had been used for the sake of others!

     Anthy understood.  For one moment, they understood one another, and Caster stopped fighting her.

     Anthy ran down the steps as fast as she dared, her green eyes trailing tears.  She knelt down beside Utena and cradled her in her arms.

     "Himemiya?"  Utena asked weakly.  "Is that you?  I can't see you."

     "It's me, Utena," Anthy said, her voice trembling.  "Hold on.  Just hold on, please!"

     "Cold..."  Utena said, her voice growing weaker.

     There was the scrape of a metal boot, and then Saber Lily knelt down beside them.  Excalibur had been sent back to its hiding place, and the blonde gently took one of Utena's hands.

     "This is my fault," Anthy said, and suddenly, her eyes started shifting colors again.  They went from green, to yellow, to red, to grey, and then back to green again.  She started convulsing as she tried to hold back the Servants.  "Can't--can't hold on!  There are too many in me!"

     For a moment, Anthy's vision went black.  Then she found herself standing on top of what appeared to be a beach.  Just across from her was a woman in purple robes.  She wore a hood that covered her eyes.

     "Caster," Anthy breathed.  "Help her!"

     The purple-robed mage nodded and doffed her hood.  The face underneath the hood was beautiful, with long hair the color of periwinkles, one part of it tied in a braid, and gentle purple eyes.

     "You truly love her, don't you?"  Caster asked.

     Anthy nodded.  "I do.  Please, help her!"

     Caster looked thoughtful.  "There may be room for one last miracle.  Take my dagger and set us all free."  She materialized her dagger, Rule Breaker, and handed it to Anthy.

     The dream meeting ended, and Anthy found herself holding the dagger for real.  She knew what she had to do.

     To Saber Lily's shock, Anthy plunged the dagger just below her heart.  There was a little blood, but it didn't seem like a very deep wound.  As soon as that was done, the dagger disappeared.

     Six orbs of light shot forth from where Anthy had wounded herself with Rule Breaker.  Then she was surrounded by a column of magical power, and it shot upwards, meeting the single point of light that descended from the castle.

     Anthy looked tired, but she raised Utena's head to rest on her lap.  Utena's eyes fluttered open, and she looked confused.

     "Don't talk," Anthy warned her.  "We need to get you to the nurse."

     "I'm fine..."  Utena said weakly.  "I'm just really tired and hungry."

     "How can you think of food--"  Anthy blinked at the almost pedestrian responses that Utena was giving.  She was either in shock, or...

     With trembling hands, she gently wiped away the blood on Utena's abdomen.  Utena's belly was whole and unscarred.

     "It's a miracle," Anthy breathed.

     "No," Saber Lily corrected her, "It's planning."

     Utena and Anthy looked at her, confused.  The blonde managed a relieved smile.

     "Remember that hug I gave you before the battle?"  Saber Lily asked.  "Well, I temporarily transferred Excalibur's scabbard, Avalon within you.  It's what healed you."

     "Well done," said a deep voice from behind, a voice that was similar to Akio's, but had no false sincerity.  It startled all three of them.

     The shade of Prince Dios was smiling at the three of them.  Flanking him were the spirits of the six Servants.  Archer had allowed himself the smallest of smiles.  Lancer was grinning fiercely.  Berserker looked stern, but nodded in acknowledgment.  Rider was holding herself almost shyly, but she was smiling.  Assassin looked amused and oddly satisfied.  Caster, bereft of her hood, looked away in shame.

     “Brother,” Anthy breathed.  “Is it really you?”

     “It is,” he confirmed, and knelt down to face Utena.  “You’ve grown stronger.  I’m very proud of you.”

     Utena couldn’t help but blush.  That gentle tone and sincerity was what she remembered from her Prince.  She had no doubt in her heart or mind that it was him.

     And he’s dead, she thought with no small amount of regret.

     “So, um, what happens now?”  Utena asked.

     Prince Dios stood up and gave an almost careless wave.  In the background, somehow, they could hear the gears of the gate opening.  Saber Lily took a look in that direction, wondering what had happened to Nero.  She saw a faint sparkle of light, but she could have sworn that the disgraced emperor had been smiling.

     “Now we’ll have some visitors, and hopefully, some explanations.”  Prince Dios faced Saber Lily and bowed.  “Thank you both for helping.”

     The blonde returned the bow.  “You’re welcome.  Well, that’s from me, anyway.  Arturia can’t exactly—“

     Those were her last words before she found herself in the space where Arturia rested.  She found her sitting thoughtfully on the blank “ground.”  Lily looked at herself and saw that she was back in her Ohtori Academy uniform, at least for the moment.

     Lily sighed.  “A little more warning would be nice.”

     Arturia actually bowed her head slightly.  “I apologize.  We don’t have much time together left.”

     “What do you mean?”  Lily wasn’t sure that she liked the sound of that.

     Arturia stood up and faced her.  She looked at peace.

     “It means that your soul is strong enough to survive without my support.  You don’t need me to stay alive.  And, I think, you will have a very eventful life from now on.”

     Lily was stunned.  “You’re leaving?  Just like that?  Where are you going?”

     “Home,” Arturia said simply.  “The old heroes may inspire, but they must make way for new heroes and new legends.  Your time has just begun.”

     Lily wanted to protest, to say that she wanted Arturia to stay with her.  The woman had been part of her life since the beginning.  She loved her like a sister and a mentor.

     That was how she found the strength to let Arturia go.

     When Saber Lily opened her eyes, she was back in the dueling arena.  Arturia Pendragon, sans armor, dressed in blue, was standing beside her.

     Without saying anything, with no regard to whatever decorum or protocol there might have been, Saber Lily dismissed her armor and hugged Arturia tightly.  Momentarily shocked, Arturia gently returned the hug.

     The tapping of wood upon marble broke the moment, and both blonde women separated.  Six figures approached the gateway; Saber Lily, Utena and Anthy recognized five of them as the Student Council and Vivian Lochley.

     The sixth person was old, but he carried himself quite well.  His staff was gnarled, and it seemed that he was using it partly as a walking stick.  His white hair and beard were impeccably trimmed, in contrast to the long, rough thing that most illustrations reflected.  Oddly enough, he was dressed in a suit and tie.  Vivian had looped her arm around him with more than just support in mind.

     “Merlin,” Arturia said neutrally.

     “MERLIN?!”  That was Anthy, Utena and Saber Lily.

     “Indeed,” he confirmed, his voice deep and bereft of any creaking.  “It’s good to see you again, My King.”  He nodded to Arturia and the assembled spirits.  “No doubt, you all have questions.”

     “That’s putting it mildly,” Utena said.  Anthy tried to keep her prone, but she was waved off.  “Anthy, I’m fine, really.”

     “Why did you do all this?”  Anthy asked.  “Was this all planned?”

     Vivian smiled.  “I prefer to think of this whole situation as having been inspired.  `Planned’ implies that we manipulated you.”

     Anthy blinked.  “Your voice—I’ve heard that voice before, years ago.”

     Vivian nodded.  “I sang to you of the sad tale.  What I didn’t do, however, was force you to take the actions that you did.”

     “Why?”  Anthy repeated.

     Merlin gestured to the assembled spirits.  “This was all about salvation and redemption.”

     He started walking around, as if to gather his thoughts.  His staff tapped the brick floor in time with his pace.

     "With every action, there are consequences.  When my King destroyed the form of the Holy Grail not once, but twice, other players took action.  To simplify things, the Holy Grail that would have been summoned would act as a `key' to the `engine' driving the wish-granting machine.  However, now that the key is gone, steps have been taken to dismantle the engine as well.

     "The Grail does not truly care about anything except fulfilling its purpose.  When it selects legendary heroes to become Servants, they are dislocated from the natural progression of life and death, and whatever afterlife you subscribe to.  The six of you," Merlin gestured to the six Servants flanking Prince Dios's shade, "were effectively stranded, and still compelled to act out a senseless battle."

     "So, the Servants were just left over?"  Utena asked.  "That's...incredibly cruel."

     Merlin nodded.  "My King, though safe in the utopia of Avalon, was also not content with her lot.  It would take a miracle and great power to set things right.  In short, I needed the cooperation of this world."  He spread his arms wide.

     Saber Lily blinked.  "You talked to the world?"  She sounded vaguely dubious.

     Merlin nodded.  "Indeed, child.  I may be powerful, but freeing these heroes was beyond my ability without help.  Even so, I could not directly summon them, lacking the appropriate connections.  I could only place them where they could be brought forth."

     Vivian took a step forward.  "Merlin asked me to help however I could.  I suppose I still have a weakness for him, even after all these centuries," she said reflectively.

     Merlin didn't seem uncomfortable with the comment, but he did seem to pause for a moment longer than necessary.  He cleared his throat and meaningfully nudged Vivian.

     "I do wonder," Prince Dios began, "why it was that the soul of Saber was separated from her memories?  Was this part of your plan?"

     Merlin shook his head.  "No, it was a whim of this world.  My King has never been an ordinary girl, nor has she lived an ordinary life.  During her reign, she surrendered her emotions and her humanity for the sake of her country, but it was not enough.  Perhaps this world wished to make amends.  I do not think that we will ever truly know."

     The old mage turned his attention to Saber Lily and smiled.  He seemed to approve of her.

     "Lillian Ariel MacArthur, your original destiny was to die at birth, leaving your parents to bear the pain.  Other forces would have thought that to be a just punishment for past sins.  I am very glad that it did not turn out that way."

     "So," Utena began, "you're telling me that this was a grand plan in the beginning that kind of fell apart in the middle?  Couldn't you have done anything about it?"

     "Further meddling could have made things much worse.  Though it is difficult for those with power, Vivian and I had to stand back and hope.  Though there was pain, it turned out better in the end than we could have ever imagined."

     Utena nodded.  "Yeah, I guess so.  So, where are you guys all going?"

     "With any luck," Cu Chulainn began, "it'll be someplace exciting."

     "I'm not sure where I should go," Archer admitted.  "There's so much I've done--"

     "A moment of your time, if I may, Shirou Emiya?"  Merlin asked.

     Archer did not glare or overreact when Merlin called him by his old name.  The mage was powerful enough to take him apart without even trying.  He didn't resist as he was escorted some distance away.

     Merlin made him an offer.  It was a chance to pass on, or the chance to be reborn.  He saw nothing but compassion in those old eyes, and Archer felt a glimmer of hope in his heart.  He hadn't felt that in years.

     He made his decision and rejoined the formation of heroes.  He bowed his head as he saw Arturia and Saber Lily looking at him.  It had been centuries, and he could never forget those beautiful green eyes.

     "Prince Dios," Merlin began, "I have the aid of the world, but I also need your power as well."

     Prince Dios nodded.  "Take what you need to send these heroes to their peace."

     One by one, the Servants faded out.  Archer was next to last, and he had an oddly satisfied smile on his face.  He gave a little wave to Arturia and Saber Lily as he faded away.

     At last, only Arturia Pendragon and Prince Dios were left of the heroic spirits.  They both seemed hesitant.

     "Lillian," Arturia began, but was immediately gathered into a tight hug by her younger counterpart.

     "Thanks for saving my life," Saber Lily said, and there were tears in the corners of her eyes.

     Arturia returned the hug, if awkwardly.  "Thank you for saving me."

     "Where do you wish to go?"  Prince Dios asked.

     "Can you see into my heart?"

     Prince Dios nodded.  He smiled when he saw what she meant.

     "A fine choice," he said.

     Arturia Pendragon, daughter of Uther Pendragon, knight of the Round Table, faded away to her final destination.  She was smiling.

     "And now, dear sister, I must go as well.  My time is up."  He almost drifted over to his sword and looked at Utena.

     "I don't think I'll need that," Utena said.

     Prince Dios looked thoughtful.  "Perhaps you won't need this sword, but it seems unfair to leave you with nothing.  A Prince should never be unarmed; that would be pointless for defending those you care about.  It should be a weapon that reflects the personality of the wielder."

     "Brother, I have an idea."

     Prince Dios leaned in close as she whispered her thoughts.  He smiled and nodded agreeably.

     "By all means, please try it.  I think that it is worth the attempt--and the raw material is strong enough, I think."

     Anthy placed a hand above Utena's chest.  A white glowing orb formed, much like when Anthy was host to the Sword of Dios.  With some muttered words and more than a bit of effort, a sword hilt sprouted from the orb.  Utena leaned back, and Anthy pulled out the sword.  The orb faded, and Utena looked in amazement at the new sword.

     Anthy offered the sword to Prince Dios, and he gave it a few experimental swings.  He smiled in approval and gave it to Utena.  It might have been a trick of the light, but the sword that had just been forged seemed to shine when it was passed to Utena.

     "This is a sword forged from your very heart, Utena," he told her.  "Like your heart, it is strong, but not brittle, and capable of great things if given the opportunity.  I could not be more proud of you."  He leaned in close and gently kissed Utena on the eye, much like he did seven years ago.  Utena couldn't help but feel like that little girl again, at least for a moment.

     Standing, he encircled Anthy in a gentle hug.  There was neither malice nor menace in that simple gesture.  As he did so, he started to fade away.

     "Goodbye, sister," he said, his voice taking on an echo-like quality.  "Goodbye, Utena.  Be good to one another."

     There was silence for a moment, only to be broken by the clattering of a dropped sword.  Everyone turned to see who the culprit was, to interrupt this moment.

     "It's...it's all over?"  Touga Kiryu asked hesitantly.  It was probably one of the few times where he didn't at least pretend to be in control.

     Merlin nodded.  "Without the power of Dios, the rules of the duel no longer apply.  I suggest that we make haste."  With a gesture, he conjured up a door of light.  "This way, please."

     "What will happen to the arena, to the castle?"  Miki asked.

     "What happens to all things that are no longer needed?"  Merlin asked him.

     Everyone pondered that for a moment.  Then they all hurried through the portal.  Saber Lily and Anthy helped Utena up, despite her protests that she was fine.

     Only Merlin and Vivian were left.  They took one last look at the castle in the sky and the arena.  Joining hands, they concentrated.

     The castle did not shudder.  It did not shatter.  It did not break apart into chunks of debris.  It merely glowed, then vanished into sparkles of light.

     Merlin took a deep breath.  "Dios's power is now safe in four individuals.  I can think of no better guardians for that task--and you can let go of my hand now, Vivian," he pointed out.

     She smiled, her blue-green eyes shining with mischief.  "Why?  This is the first time I've seen you in quite a while.  I'm not about to let go of you that easily."

     "Would you let me go if I promised to take you to Hawaii?  I understand that there are still some very clean lagoons there."

     "When you put words to action, I shall consider it.  You are, after all, my dearest and most evasive love."

     They stepped through the portal and it closed.  Moments later, the dueling arena quietly began to fall apart.  It was as if time itself had decided to reclaim what had been erected.

     Everyone was still in a state of shock as they felt the burst of wind through the Rose Gate.  There was some dust, but not as bad as it could have been.

     "So, where do we go from here?"  Utena asked.  From the looks of the Student Council members, they had had the same question on their minds.

     "Anywhere you wish," Merlin answered with a grand sweep of his arm.  "I do suggest, however, that you at least finish high school before you have any grand plans set.  Before you ask, there was no lasting harm to anyone from Rider's spell--they'll be all right."

     "Will you be watching?"  That was Lily, who had changed back to her school uniform.

     "I may pop in from time to time, but your lives are your own.  As for Vivian and myself, when the next break comes, we will certainly discuss things."  He made something appear in his hand, and before Vivian could protest, he slipped a rose signet ring on her left ring finger.

     She arched an eyebrow.  "Are you serious?"

     "Quite," he replied.  "I do, after all, have a few centuries left in these old bones."

     "I was expecting a diamond ring, Merlin," she joked.

     He harrumphed in mock-distaste.  "Diamonds are merely coal given a little incentive.  This is far more appropriate."

     Vivian continued to arch her eyebrow.  She didn't seem entirely satisfied with his answer.

     "All right," Merlin relented, "Think of it as a down payment.  I'll conjure up a good-sized diamond for you later."  Something occurred to the old mage.  "Utena Tenjou, were you planning on retaining Avalon?"

     Utena stretched experimentally and didn't feel any pain.  "I think I'm fully healed.  Lily, you can have it back.  It's really not my thing."

     Lily placed her hands on Utena's shoulders and concentrated.  A warm glow emerged from Utena, coalescing into the legendary scabbard of Excalibur.  Then it returned to its hiding place.

     Lily's stomach grumbled, and she blushed.

     "So, who's up for lunch?"  she asked.

Chapter Text

     Touga sighed as he watched the picnic being set up.  It was the last day before summer break, and spirits were high.  Finals had been fairly kind to everyone, and the break would be quite welcome, considering the maelstrom of events they'd all lived through.

     Wakaba and Anthy were bringing the food while Utena and Lily were setting up the tablecloths and utensils.  For some odd reason, Anthy never seemed to master any cooking that was beyond festival food.  That obviously didn't matter today.

     "Magnificent, isn't she?"  Saionji asked from behind him.  Their relationship had obviously changed; knowing that your friend had limits would do that.

     "Indeed," Touga agreed, then sighed again.  "However, the time for that has passed.  She belongs to someone else."

     "Are you talking about Tenjou or Anthy?"  Saionji asked.

     Touga smiled, and it was something reflective and introspective.  It was the smile of someone who had been through much and learned a bit.  "Does it matter?"

     "I suppose not," was all that Saionji got out before Wakaba dragged him to the picnic.

*****

     Miki Kaoru leaned against the hallway, waiting patiently for his sister.  They would be going home to their parents' house for the break, but there was something he needed to get off his chest.

     Kozue Kaoru glanced oddly at her twin brother.  He didn't seem nervous or angry or even disappointed.  He seemed oddly determined, and that silenced any barb that might have come to mind.

     "Kozue, I don't know if you are aware of this, but it hurts me when you don't respect yourself."

     "Huh?"  That was the last thing that she expected from his mouth.  "What have you been doing to yourself?"

     He straightened up and looked her in the eye.  "A friend of mind told me that family is important; that I should mend fences while I have the chance.  I'm taking his advice.  I wanted to say that I'm your brother, I'll always love you, and I think that you're only hurting yourself when you invite the guys in.  It's your life and your choice, but please think about the people who care about you before you do anything like that, okay?"  He turned on his heel and started to walk away.

     "You still care?"  Her voice wasn't bold or impudent; it was almost tremulous.

     He turned around.  "Of course I care.  I'm your brother."

     Kozue looked thoughtful.  "I haven't heard that in a long time."

     "I'm sorry I didn't say it enough."  He gestured to the campus entrance.  "Would you like to come to the picnic?  The entire Student Council and their friends are going to be there."

     Kozue seemed to think it over, then shrugged.  "Sure, why not?  Free food is good."

     It was a start, Miki decided.  You couldn't expect a rift like theirs to be healed instantly.

*****

     The fencing foil danced as if it was alive.  Darting to and fro, it seemed to evade any attempts at being blocked or parried.  Victory came swiftly, and the two fencers saluted.

     Shiori doffed her mask, her short brown hair a sweaty mess.  She looked a bit chagrined at how quickly she’d lost.

     “Guess I have a lot to learn, huh?” she asked.

     Juri doffed her mask as well.  She had barely worked up a sweat, but she managed to smile.

     “It’ll take time.  You just joined, after all,” she pointed out.

     Shiori looked like she was about to say something, but hesitated.  The past month had given her plenty of time to think about her actions.

     Juri shook her head gently.  She didn’t want Shiori to force her words out.  She would be patient.

     Two pairs of hands clapped their approval.  One of them belonged to Sorata, the other to a tall young man with medium-length blue hair.

     “Nice,” Sorata commented.  “You might want to get changed, though.  They’re about ready to start the picnic.”

     “Thanks, Sora,” Juri said.  She turned her attention to the blue-haired visitor.  "It's been a while, Ruka."

     Ruka Tsuchiya, former captain of the fencing team, didn't quite smile.  He seemed to have this cold air about him.

     Sorata tried not to roll up his eyes.  He knew that the guy was putting up a front, but it was just bad form to say so.

     "I'm taking back the Fencing Team," Ruka said brusquely.

     "No, you're not," Juri said breezily.  "Don't ask me how I know, but you haven't fully recovered from your little hospital stay."

     Ruka blinked.  "Something's different about you."

     Sorata tried not to grin.  Juri subtly suggested that perhaps he should be elsewhere.  He didn't quite smirk as he left.  Shiori followed him, mainly because she had developed more of a survival instinct in the last month.

     "A lot has changed, Ruka," Juri said conversationally.

     "Where's the Rose Bride?"  he demanded.

     Juri arched an eyebrow.  "If you mean Anthy Himemiya, she is no longer the Rose Bride.  In fact, there are no more duels because the power is gone.  I was there."

     "What?"  He gaped at Juri as if he'd never seen her before.  She had never been this confident, this at ease with herself.

     "There are no more duels," she repeated.  "And one more thing:  If you continue with that high-handed attitude and try to take my team away from me, I will send you back to the hospital.  Am I making myself clear?"

     Ruka nodded energetically.  Juri had changed, and it both relieved and frightened him on some level.

     "Good," she said with a smile.  "Now, after I change, would you care to accompany me to a nice picnic?"

     Speechless, he nodded once more.  He found himself smiling, however.

*****

     The picnic was in full swing as they celebrated the upcoming summer break.  Amazingly, there was enough food for Chu Chu and Lily.  The group had been through much, and it was good to blow off some steam.

     Sorata had brought along his “kind-of” girlfriend, a sternly beautiful girl with long black hair.  Arashi was pleasant, polite, and seemed to put up with his antics with a patient amusement.  Shiori had been sandwiched between her and Juri, and she looked quite intimidated.  This was deliberate, as Juri didn’t want Shiori to start flirting with either Ruka or Sorata.

     Miki and his sister Kozue were sitting together.  That in itself was quite a feat.  It took a while for Kozue to warm up to the prestigious crowd, but when she did, she was a danger to anybody who was eating.  People who listened to her risked laughing while they were chewing, and there were some incidents of choking.

     Saionji had accepted a plate of food from Anthy with a faint look of wistful fondness.  This changed rather quickly when Wakaba linked her arm with his.  Embarrassed at the lapse, he turned his full attention to the brunette.

     Touga was silent for the most part.  He participated minimally in the conversations, but made no effort to go deep.  He didn’t ignore Kozue as much as dance around the conversation.  Miki actually appreciated that gesture.

     Anthy thought about what her brother had passed on to Utena.  She had a feeling that Dios had given Utena some of her power, and she herself had some as well.  She wasn’t quite sure whether or not Lily had received any, as she hadn’t been Saber Lily since then.  She wondered to herself if there was another recipient.  Dios believed in second chances, after all.  She was proof of that.

     She contented herself with just looking at Utena as she talked with the rest of the group.  Neither of them were entirely certain where to go from here.  She wished that someone had written a book along the lines of "So You've Just Confessed Your Love, Now What?"

     Their future may have been uncertain, but she knew that they would face it together.  They had friends, they had hope, and they had each other.  For now, it was enough.

     A girl with long white hair and red eyes approached the group.  Slightly younger than Lily, she was wearing a purple blouse and white skirt.  The boy she was dragging along had short, somewhat spiky orange hair and brown eyes.  He was wearing casual clothes, a sweatshirt and jeans, both in blue.

     "Come on!" she insisted.  "Lily will be happy to meet you!"

     "I don't know..." the boy hesitated.

     "Oh, come on, big brother!"

     "I've only been your brother for a couple of weeks," he pointed out.

     Lily saw them first, shortly before the white-haired girl tackled her with a hug that would have done Wakaba proud.  Both of them were laughing.

     "Ilya!"  Lily exclaimed.  "What brings you here?"

     She curtsied formally to the group.  "Your Mom and Dad brought me and my new brother here.  They let us go in first."

     "That sounds like them.  Everyone, this is an old friend of my family, Ilyasviel von Einzbern."

     "But my friends call me `Ilya' for short," she said.  "And this handsome guy is my new big brother.  We just adopted him a few weeks ago."

     The boy laughed nervously and put a hand behind his head.  "My name is--well, I guess it's Shirou Emiya now.  Nice to meet you all."

     Lily blinked.  Suddenly, all the conversations faded away as she remembered.  He seemed to have a similar moment.

     "Do I know you?"  Shirou asked her.  "You seem familiar."

     "No, you don't know me," Lily replied.  "Would you like to?"

     He seemed to consider that for a moment, then smiled shyly.  "Yeah.  Yeah, I would."

     Anthy did her best not to nudge Utena with her shoulder.  Utena just smiled as she could see where this could go.

     An older couple, just into their late thirties, ambled toward the picnic.  The man was tall and lean, with dark brown hair and green eyes.  The woman was shorter and modestly proportioned, with blonde hair and green eyes.  They both beamed at Lily.

     <How’s my little miracle doing?>  he asked gently in English.  There was obvious pride in his voice.

     Lily blushed.  <Dad...come on.  Could you please speak Japanese in front of my friends?>

     Lily's father chuckled indulgently.  "I'll try.  It might be awkward, though."

     Utena blinked.  "These are your parents?"

     "What gave it away, the eyes?"  Lily joked.  "This is my Dad, Lance, and my Mom, Gwen.  Don't laugh at the names; they've heard it all before.  I'm surprised that Uncle Kerry didn't make it with you."

     Lance MacArthur shrugged philosophically.  "Well, Kiritsugu is a rather busy man.  He and Iris had to take care of a few things, so we've got Shirou and Ilya for the week."

     "So, you won't be lonely for your summer break when we get home,” Gwen said.  She cocked her head slightly and frowned.  "Are you all right, dear?  There's something different about you.  You seem more grown-up."

     Lily tried not to laugh.  "It's been a very interesting year so far, Mom.  Did I ever tell you and Dad that I love you both?"

     Lance MacArthur chuckled.  "Every night, and I never get tired of it."

     Gwen then seemed embarrassed as she held up a picnic basket of her own.  "I brought this for you, but I'm not sure if you still have room for it."

     "I think I can squeeze in some room," Lily smiled.

     Nearby, Merlin and Vivian watched the picnic with no small amount of amusement.  They were holding hands, and Vivian was wearing a diamond engagement ring.

     "You are so sentimental, Merlin," she joked.  "Not only did you bring happiness to your King, but to his disgraced knight and his lady as well."

     "The universe is cruel enough without people adding to it," he remarked.  "To have Lancelot and Guinevere lose their only child would have broken their hearts.  Would that I could claim credit, but..."  He shrugged.  "This world can be kind as well as cruel.  Fortunately, Lillian will not be encumbered with agelessness as Arturia was."

     "Indeed,” she agreed.  “So," she said, snuggling closer to him, "now that everyone's settled for now, are you going to try for a new Camelot?"

     He snorted.  "Camelot is dead.  Let them make this world in their own way.  Let the legends inspire, but not shackle them.  I think they'll be fine.  Arturia should be quite happy where she's going."

     "So, when's our flight to Hawaii?"

     Merlin smirked beneath his trimmed beard.  "Flight, dear Lady?  Did you honestly think that I would bother with check-ins and screenings?"  He murmured a few words, and with a wave of his staff, a portal of light opened.

     Vivian took a deep breath of the ocean air as soon as they'd crossed over.  She grinned ecstatically.

     "Aloha, Waikiki!"  She exclaimed, and she started stripping out of her office dress.

     "Did you bring a swimsuit, Vivian?"  Merlin asked.

     "Swimsuit, dear Merlin?"  She batted her eyes coquettishly as she stepped into the clean waters.  Her clothes did not follow.

     "Oh my," Merlin remarked, but he was smiling.

Chapter Text

     Arturia Pendragon knew that she was home.  It wasn't the pastoral fields of Avalon, nor was it the earthier ground of Camelot.  No, this was the second home she made for herself.

     The sun was setting on Fuyuki City.  Its golden glow seemed to shatter into a thousand pieces on the rippling ocean.  The bridge was outlined in the fiery spectacle, but she knew that someone would be waiting.

     Along the way, she had been given images of the fates of the other Servants.  She suspected that it was Merlin’s work, a final reassurance that all was well.  What she saw made her smile.

     The one who had been Archer, the soured hero who was once EMIYA, was given a second chance.  He was chatting with his adopted family.  She had never seen Kiritsugu Emiya at peace when he was her Master.  This version had apparently become something of an adventurer, not a killer.

     Cu Chulainn was serving a woman with short, auburn hair breakfast in bed.  He leaned forward and gave her a quick peck before urging her to eat.  Saber noticed their matching wedding rings, as well as earrings.  A closer inspection revealed that she quite pregnant.

     Hercules had brought Medusa and Medea with him to Mount Olympus.  He had been bursting with power—not only his own, but the support of the world itself.  The old man on the throne—presumably Zeus—looked intimidated.  Hercules was obviously making some demands for the three of them.

     The “negotiations” had apparently gone in the demigod’s favor.  The scene changed to one of familial bliss as he greeted his family.  His features had changed to something considerably less brutish as he gently hugged his long-lost wife and children.

     The scene changed to show Medusa working quietly at a desk.  She was in her civilian clothes, but her eyes were a more normal brown color.  A nearby folder read “Disposition of the Matou Estate.”  She was working on some legal matters.  Judging by her obvious ease, she seemed content—something that would not have been possible if Matou patriarch still lived.

     Medusa’s smile was shared by Medea.  The former sorceress was preparing breakfast, looking entirely domestic in her dress and apron.  She blushed as a gaunt, severe-looking man gave her a gentle hug from behind.

     The final scene was that of a Japanese inn.  The man who had once called himself Kojirou Sasaki sat on the veranda.  He was sipping a cup of tea, apparently content to watch the world go by.

     Saber no longer felt any animosity towards those she had once fought.  That was something best left behind, discarded like old habits.  It was time to look forward once again. 

     She quickly checked herself in a nearby window.  She was wearing a modest white blouse with a thin blue bow, as well as a matching blue skirt that went past her knees.  She also had dark leggings and slightly clunky-looking boots that went to her ankles.  It was the "civilian" clothing that she had worn before, but her hair hadn't been tied up. 

     Some instinct told her that the immortality granted by Avalon was gone.  She would age, live out her days, and eventually die in the fullness of time.  She could only think of one person to spend those days with.

     She tried to be inconspicuous as she wove her way past the crowd.  The bridge wasn't far away, but she started to get impatient.  Her stride quickened as she saw a familiar figure in a tan school uniform.  He was leaning on the rail, just admiring the sunset.

     She ran towards him and called his name.  He blinked, uncertain of whether or not he had really heard her voice.  When he turned, his eyes were wide with disbelief.

     "Saber?!"  he exclaimed, just before she collided with him in a hug that would have made Wakaba proud.  He dropped his bag on the bridge and held her close.

     "Shirou..."

     There were so many things that he wanted to ask her.  He wanted to say something, but it just didn't seem like the right time.  He had just been thinking about how he would never forget being in love with her, and here she was.

     A cavernous rumble interrupted the moment, and Arturia blushed.  She loosened up her hold and took a step back, looking down at the ground in embarrassment.

     "You're hungry?"  Shirou asked, picking up his bag.

     She nodded.  She then shyly reached out for his hand.

     He took it with a smile.  He could feel that there was a lightness in her heart that she didn't have at their last meeting.

     "I'm home," she said quietly.

     "Welcome back," he replied.  Then he sniffed the air.  "Hey, why do you smell like roses?"

     Arturia did something that he'd never seen:  She laughed.  It was more of a stifled chuckle, but it was more than he was used to seeing from the stern, austere girl.

     "It's a very long story," she said with a smile.

     "I've got time," he replied.

THE END