Utena won’t get out of bed, so Wakaba takes the covers off until she does. Utena won’t change out of her pajamas, so Wakaba pours a glass of water on her and runs a hot bath. Utena won’t eat, so Wakaba buys her cans of juice and iced coffee and sits next to her, glowering, until she drinks them. Utena won’t go to class, so Wakaba takes extra notes and gets her homework, and brings it over later for them to work on together. Utena won’t do anything when the student council president grabs Himemiya by the hair and drags her across the courtyard, so Wakaba --
“Hey, you think this is maybe a little reckless?” says Utena, as Wakaba’s buttoning up the soldier costume she borrowed from the theater girls and preparing to head to a magical secret battleground she’s still not completely sure exists.
“Shut up,” says Wakaba, Utena’s ring gleaming on her finger.
He knocks her on her ass, of course. No winged prince descends to bless Wakaba’s sword, which is an aluminum prop and already a little dented. The president’s victory strike slices her coat open -- the girls won’t be happy when she brings it back. Vacant-eyed Himemiya titters behind her hand as the bells ring. Wakaba’s rose withers before it hits the ground.
Mercifully, predictably, Utena is furious.
“He can’t treat you like that!” She’s doing angry lunges across the kitchen while Wakaba reclines on the couch. Wakaba has three ice packs strapped to various bruises and a heating pad under her back. Utena was supposed to make her a cup of tea.
“I’ll show him,” Utena decides. And, really, Wakaba is glad, but she still wants that cup of tea.
Juri wins the Rose Bride on a bright, cool morning. Sunlight burnishes her ringlets to gold, the twin of her shining sword. The victorious sky finds a reflection in her eyes, which are clear, pale, and looking everywhere but at Anthy.
“You never deserved this power,” she tells Touga, who cowers, betrayed. He thought he had her. He thought she was his to command, to manipulate and direct, even subtly. Now his rose lies in shreds on the dueling ground.
Akio has little to offer this cold girl, who believes in neither miracles nor permanence, who seldom spends time gazing at the stars. Juri has never idolized a prince. But Anthy, the princess who isn’t a princess, cracks her within the week.
“Do you dislike me? What have I done to displease you?” she says, after Juri refuses her offer of breakfast, and Juri says, “I’m late to class.”
“You don’t like me,” she says, and Juri says, “I have fencing practice this afternoon.”
“Why don’t you like me?” she says, and Juri says, “I’m going to bed.”
Anthy follows her. They don’t talk a lot after that. It’s almost funny, how easy it is. Juri may be cold, but she melts as surely as ice does.
Afterwards, Juri asks, “Would you get me a glass of water?”
“Of course, Miss Juri.”
Moonlight tints Juri’s nightgown an ethereal, translucent silver. Her back is straight as a blade as she sits on the edge of the bed, and her elegant nails are dark as blood against the glass. One could almost miss how her lips tremble. One could almost miss the sheen of sweat on her forehead, trickling down her neck, to the locket at her breast. As she swallows, Anthy watches her throat work; thinks about slitting it.
“I dreamed we would live together here, as prince and princess.” The Chairman extends his hand. There’s an uncomfortable heaviness in his gaze, an insistence in his words, that belies his gallant manner and casual tone.
“No thanks,” says Nanami, already bored. The dress isn’t as pretty as the ones she has at home, and the castle has a weird atmosphere she really doesn’t like.
She expected Himemiya to try something, that witch, but the sword still hurts where it runs her through. It’s that pain -- that, and the sudden flashing memory of her brother’s betrayal, the despair she’d felt listening to his messages in the dark -- that propels her forward. Ohtori shouts some warning but she doesn’t care, she’s done listening. She’s done with these arcane struggles and labyrinthine manipulations, nighttime horrors and daytime lies. She’s done being a pawn in a game she’s never understood or wanted to play.
Nanami pries the rose gate open with bloody fingers and steps into a different world.
It’s raining. Utena didn’t notice while she was dueling -- but now, as the adrenaline fades, she’s uncomfortably aware of her wet uniform and starting to get cold. The student council president has slunk off to sulk already. She’ll treasure the look on his face for the rest of her life.
“Tenth time’s the charm! Shall we go, Himemiya?”
Himemiya has produced an umbrella somehow. It’s green and glossy, like her eyes. Chu-Chu has a large leaf with a tall stem. Utena doesn’t have anything.
“I really didn’t think I’d beat him,” she confides as they’re walking back. Himemiya is letting her share the green umbrella. “I believed I could, but...somewhere in my heart, I didn’t really know I could do it.”
“It’s good to be back, Miss Utena,” says Himemiya.
“All’s well that ends well, I guess.” Utena shrugs. “Say, Himemiya.”
“Yes?” Himemiya seems distracted, but no more than usual. The sheen over her eyes could just be the rain.
“Do you ever feel like we’re living the same day over and over? I mean -- ” Utena realizes she’s rambling, but can’t seem to stop. “The days pass, the weather is different, but nothing really seems to change. I’m sorry, Himemiya, I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“Mm,” says Himemiya.
On the way back they find a colony of funny-looking mushrooms. Chu-Chu goes to eat them, but Himemiya grabs him, scolding. “Poison!” Utena holds the umbrella over all of them for the rest of the walk home.
(the ridiculous one)
A fortnight after Utena loses her second duel against Touga Kiryuu, a small pink envelope is slipped into her locker. Inside, on delicate pink paper a shade paler than the envelope, is a strange and subtly floral-scented message.
“Invitation to join the Losers’ Club,” Utena reads, frowning. “Huh! The nerve of some people. Hey, Wakaba, wait up!”
Though she tosses the letter out, another shows up in her locker the next day. And the next, and the next, until nearly a week goes by. The letters get smellier and smellier, too -- so when Utena, grunting in exasperation, rips open the last envelope and finally reads the rest of the invitation, the corridor is lush with the fragrance of dark red roses.
“I mean, why not?” she says to Wakaba later. Wakaba, engrossed in a math problem, does not reply.
“It’s not like I’ve got anything left to lose,” Utena continues.
Wakaba lifts her head from her homework to snort. “There’s always something left to lose.”
“Well,” says Utena, because she’s not sure how to respond to that, and things between her and Wakaba are still a little uncomfortable. If they weren’t, Wakaba might follow up by saying something weird and tackling her, knocking their books off the table and disrupting the rest of the library patrons. But she doesn’t, and they turn back to their tasks in silence.
At last the weekend comes, and with it the date and time on the mysterious invitation. The address leads Utena to a mansion just a few miles from school, a big old place bounded by a wall with climbing roses. The outer gate appears locked, but swings open when she pushes on it -- the rose seal on her left hand glows. Figures.
The student council president answers the door.
“Ah, Miss Tenjou, you came!” Lights dance, tremulous, in his eyes. A breeze tousles his flowing hair and blows open the front of his shirt. Utena looks around in confusion; she had just been considering how unusually still the night air was.
“Please, come in,” he begs, gesturing behind him. Utena shrugs off his proffered arm and steps into the vast, sparkling foyer.
“Can I get you something to drink? A change of clothes, perhaps?” He eyes her boys’ uniform with barely concealed disappointment, then meets her eyes and smiles charmingly. “Or perhaps you’d prefer to simply observe for now. Well! Allow me to play the good host and show you.”
He extends his arm to Utena once more -- she shakes her head, and he sighs in mock (?) anguish, turning his head away as if deeply hurt. But she follows him further into the house.
The mansion is just a mansion, no ruins or projected mirages. There are fancy decorations: banners, flower arrangements, garlands of colored lights. A golden chandelier looms over a side table bursting with refreshments. Scattered attendees confer in corners or nurse plates of hors d’oeuvres. It seems like a pretty normal party at Ohtori. At least, until they get to the ballroom.
“Allow me to show you,” Kiryuu continues, “how it’s done in the Losers’ Club!”
“Uh,” says Utena.
There are couches in the ballroom. There are a lot of couches, and possibly several beds as well. Most are currently occupied by people, many of whom Utena knows, all of whom are in varying states of undress. They are also all...doing things. Things that Utena probably should not be seeing. Things that no one should be seeing, except in private, and --
“Lord Touga!” someone screams. He bestows a gallant wave in their direction, and a circle of girls swoon.
Thankfully, Nanami is nowhere in sight. That would be a bridge too far.
“Well?” Kiryuu turns to her, beaming.
“I’m going to get some food,” Utena chokes, and flees.
She’s milling around the refreshment table, considering just slipping out the door (is there a back exit? Could she climb out a window?), when she comes face to face with the last person she expected to find here.
“How nice to see you, Ms. Tenjou.”
Himemiya is...ah. Himemiya is here. Utena keeps her eyes pointedly on her face. To look elsewhere would be dangerous. She isn’t sure how dangerous, exactly, nor how she became aware of this danger, but it seems suddenly very, very important not to let her gaze wander below Himemiya’s chin.
“I, ah,” Utena stammers. Questions flash across her mind. Are you all right? Do you even want to be here? What did he do to you? I’m going to win you back, I swear. “How are you? Are -- are you okay with this?”
“I assure you, I’m doing quite well,” says Himemiya. Her smile is benign, faintly mocking. She reaches past Utena to fill a glass of punch. Utena jerks to the side, nearly upsetting a tower of little pastries.
“All right, well. That’s good.” Utena scratches the back of her neck in embarrassment, looking away. Her eyes land on the chandelier above them, and she realizes that Chu-Chu is perched atop it, inching up the golden chain with sweaty paws. He’s wearing a striped bathing suit and eyeing the punch bowl.
Himemiya’s voice calls Utena back. “You will be joining us this evening?” She drains the glass in dainty sips. A strand of hair, escaped from its customary braided style and somewhat frizzed with exertion, brushes her cheek.
Somewhere in the distance, Saionji lets out a choked scream that is immediately cut off.
“Oh, what the hell,” says Utena, and lets her lead the way.