Akio was pleased with how this crop of duelists was coming along, especially Utena. Some cycles the competition was much closer, and there hadn't been a winning streak like this in quite some time. That he hadn't picked Utena out for the Council didn't bother him, he said one night, twirling a strand of Anthy's hair around his finger; surprises were novel, after all this time. And she was such a charming girl, didn't Anthy think?
Anthy could have told him he had picked Utena, or at least, that his kinder self had, if Akio had ever bothered to ask her, or if she could convince herself the sound of tears wept for her sake was more than a dream.
Anthy dreamed she was a chick curled tight in its shell. She dreamed she plucked a single pink rose from the center of a ball of thorns. She dreamed she was the world. She dreamed she walked a neverending flight of stairs, and that she dreaded what lay at the top.
They were only dreams.
Utena napped on the grass under the tree, and Anthy sat next to her. The sun shone warmly, and there was a slight breeze that smelled of late spring. Anthy looked down at Utena's face, soft and relaxed, and allowed herself a moment of content, then tucked it away deep inside of her with all the other moments of happiness she didn't deserve.
A shadow fell across Utena's sleeping form. Akio stood there, smiling down at her.
“I just wanted to say hello to my favorite girls,” he said, looking at Anthy. “But perhaps I should come back later.”
She smiled. He didn't move.
“Don't you think she looks like an enchanted princess, awaiting the kiss of her prince?” Akio asked, looking at Utena again.
“Careful,” replied Anthy lightly. “Princesses are often guarded by dragons, aren't they?”
He looked at her, sharply. She kept smiling.
Anthy woke to the sound of Utena whispering her name.
“Himemiya!” Utena sounded worried.
Anthy opened her eyes to see Utena leaning over her. Utena breathed a sigh and sat back on her heels.
“Is everything all right?” Anthy asked.
“I should be asking you that,” replied Utena. Now Anthy was awake, she wasn't whispering any more. It was ridiculous, considering she'd been trying to wake Anthy up. It was also very Utena. “You were crying.”
Anthy couldn't remember the last time she'd cried, but when she touched her face her fingers came away damp. She brought the tip of her finger to her mouth and tasted it: salt and sadness.
“I'm fine,” she said. “I don't know what I was dreaming of.”
Utena looked at her, clearly still worried. She reached out a hand, then pulled it back and scratched the back of her head instead.
Whatever she was going to say, Anthy did not want to hear it.
“I'm sorry for waking you,” she said. Utena flinched. “We should probably sleep.”
Utena nodded and lay back down. They looked into each others' eyes, the way they always did before sleeping these nights.
Utena didn't reach out to hold her hand, and Anthy tried not to notice the loss.
“What is it you say, Juri?” Anthy asked. She poked Chu-Chu in the stomach. “'Believe in dreams, and the world will know your feelings'?”
“Believe in miracles,” she corrected.
“Ah, of course,” said Anthy. “Would it be such a bad thing for the world to know your feelings?” She smiled at Juri.
“I could ask the same of you.”
Juri was an expert fencer. Anthy smiled, and it tasted like blood.
“I'm not sure what you mean,” she replied.
“Himemiya, is it strange for you being...betrothed to me?”
Anthy set a bowl of shaved ice in front of Utena, who frowned but picked up her spoon anyway.
“I don't think you're that strange, Utena,” she replied cheerfully.
“Himemiya,” huffed Utena. “I mean because I--” There were a thousand ways to end that sentence. “Because we're--” There were at least a thousand more ways to end that one. She sighed. “I mean, it's not like we're actually going to get married, right?”
She was right, but not for any of the reasons she might have thought. No matter how valiantly and how well a duelist fought, they could never win. The Rose Bride belonged to the End of the World.
“Isn't it very princely?” Himemiya asked. “To win a lady's hand in battle?” There was no venom in her voice. That was how fairy tales went.
“I suppose,” Utena said slowly. She poked at her shaved ice. “But that's not what I-” She ate another bite. “Do you think it's foolish,” she asked around the spoon in her mouth, “that I want to be a prince?”
Yes, Anthy bit back. You're a foolish girl, wanting to be a prince. You won't stop trying to impose your view of what is right, and you understand nothing. You're foolish for wanting what can never be.
But those were things she couldn't, and wouldn't, say.
“I think dreams are important,” smiled Anthy. “More shaved ice?”
During one of the many cycles of school terms and duelists and student councils, someone had told Anthy a fairy tale of a bird who had bled out its life to make a perfect red rose. For love, the story went.
“Himemiya! You're hurt!”
Anthy looked down, and was surprised to see she was bleeding. She must have cut her finger on one of the rosebushes.
“Oh dear,” she said, mildly. Such little hurts barely registered.
“Here.” Utena took her hand, gently, and dabbed at the cut with a handkerchief. She wrapped Anthy's finger, and the look of concern on her face, over such a little thing, made Anthy wonder if this was why Wakaba and the other girls at Ohtori were so smitten with their would-be prince Utena.
For a moment, Utena cradled Anthy's bandaged hand in her own. Then she dropped her head and kissed Anthy's finger.
“There!” she said, laughing self-consciously. “All better, right?”
The greenhouse was a world Anthy had made for herself, within the world of Ohtori she had made with Akio. Utena was standing very close. Anthy couldn't remember if the bird had been caged or free, only that it had bled and bled and bled for one perfect rose. For love. There had been no bandages or kisses in that tale.
“Thank you,” she replied, and turned back to her roses.
The duelists were tools, honed by Anthy and Akio for Akio's purpose. They'd broken so many, over the years, but with each cycle they improved their craft.
“Utena is almost ripe,” mused Akio. He bit into a peach. “It shouldn't be long now.”
“No,” Anthy agreed. She sipped her tea.
“This time,” said Akio. “The doors will open. I can feel it.”
“Yes.” Anthy could feel it too. Everything was moving as it should be. The only thing left was for them to play their parts.
She wasn't entirely sure what would happen when the doors opened, only that everything would change, and that they would no longer need Utena.
Anthy thought she would miss her.