"I do."

I almost cried, hearing those words. It was the perfect wedding, really. Replete with yards of white lace and pink silk and red roses. The vaulting cathedral bedecked with stained glass, filled by the grand, joyous rhapsody of the pipe organ. Like a storybook come to life, it was. Like a dream.

A Western-style wedding, yes. Naturally. As little girls, we'd always thought they were more romantic than the traditional Japanese kind. I'd been no different.

No, that's not true. That little girl was another person. But I still feel that way. I'm sure anyone who'd been there would have thought the same. It was... beautiful. There's no other word that could do it justice.

So I almost cried, almost. And instead, I half-turned to glance at him. Daichi. He hasn't changed a bit. He looked quite dashing in formal wear, although he didn't seem entirely comfortable. He'd been constantly tugging at his bow tie earlier -- thankfully, he'd refrained during the ceremony -- and his expression was almost one of boredom. But that's just the way he is; he always has been a little reluctant to face his feelings. That doesn't matter, because his eyes give him away. I didn't notice that for the longest time, but I think it's always been true, if only I'd known to look for it. I think Daichi was on the verge of tears himself.

If it had been Daichi, saying those words, to me...

I turned back, but not, I'm ashamed to say, without reluctance. Not that I'd needed to worry about being spotted by the happy couple. Tetsu-kun and Manami were still kissing.

That was a surprise. No, not the kiss; that Manami would ever be so serious about one man. It wasn't that she didn't like Tetsu-kun; quite the contrary, obviously. She just liked Daichi, too. And Hiroshi-kun. And Morita-sempai. And... I've forgotten his name; the sempai on the soccer team. And Sei-sama. And dozens more. She was rather infamous for it.

Anyway, I guess she and Tetsu-kun finally had bounced off of each other often enough that they decided to try holding onto each other instead. And they're a cute couple. I'm sure they'll be happy.

They always have been, at least as far as I know; I'll admit I hadn't paid that much attention to them at first. But I'm pretty sure that they always have been. Especially Manami. And I've seen how their emotions feed off each other, when they're together.

Just like I've often thought that Daichi and I...

Afterward, Manami lobbed the bouquet practically right toward I-chan and me. I stretched like everyone else, but I wasn't the one who caught it. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, I guess.

Well, maybe next time.

I'm pretty sure I-chan only made a token effort. She hasn't so much as dated anyone in... nearly a year, now. Manami used to tease her about it, but she didn't mind. She just smiled. And said she hadn't met anyone worth the effort, yet. I can respect that, but she was so... blunt.

Of all of us, she's the one who's changed most, I think. Even more than I have. She was the most practical, down-to-earth one, but now she's become more cynical, even acerbic. That sense of humor is as strong as ever, though, and much more strange at times.

There are times when I'm not entirely sure how I ended up becoming friends with any of them, but I-chan is the one I question most. Not that she's not also a good friend; she is, in her way. I saw that when she, Manami, and Hime-chan banded together to prove the strength of "women's friendships."

They proved the strength of theirs, anyway. I was impressed, and I wasn't nearly as credulous or naive as Hime-chan was. It must have been that day that set the stage for my later friendship with the girls.

Daichi surreptitiously grasped my arm, and I blushed, realizing that I'd just daydreamed through most of the reception. I rose along with him. And we danced.

The clothes, the music, the dance; it reminded me of long ago. But that had been a dream to me; this was real. Daichi was real. His arms around me, real; his steps smoothly, gracefully, guiding my own so that they seemed as natural as walking. Real. I melted into his embrace and prayed that it would never end.

But end it did; the spirit was willing, but the hours of dancing had taken their toll. I practically collapsed into a chair. Manami took a moment to corner me, a grin of innocent malice playing across her lips. "What, tired already?" she teased. "And you were always so energetic, too. I practically expected you to dive for the bouquet."

"I'm just as energetic as I ever was," I protested, returning the smile. "The problem is, my body is twice as big now, so it's only half as concentrated."

Manami giggled, rolling her eyes. "Perfectly logical, as ever."

"Oh, and you're one to talk about logic."

She arched an eyebrow. "Daichi, which of us is more logical?"

"There's no way I'm going to even try to answer that." Daichi made a valiant effort to hide behind the floral centerpiece; Manami and I both laughed.

"Well," Tetsu-kun chimed in, walking up behind Manami and enfolding her in his arms, "Manami had the sense to marry me, so she's the winner."

Manami smiled smugly.

"At least," he added with a grin, "until you two finally-- oof."

Manami gently elbowed her husband. "Hey, you're supposed to be on my side."

"Sorry, dear," he replied contritely.

She beamed, a sweet smile. "I forgive you."

"Gah," Daichi interjected. "If marriage makes everyone this sickeningly cute..." But he trailed off as he glanced at me.

I tried not to blush. Failed miserably, judging by Manami's sudden giggling fit, but tried nonetheless. Marriage... Could it be? I'd dreamed of the day when Daichi would ask me...

Would he? No, surely not, but if there was even a possibility... It seemed like I'd been waiting my entire life, and yet... there had been days when I'd thought there was no longer any chance for us. Or even that there never had been. Okay, maybe I didn't ever admit it, but I wasn't delusional...

He glanced away, suddenly uncomfortable. Relief and disappointment waged a struggle within me, but Tetsu-kun made some innocuous comment, and I was able to let it distract me before I had to decide which had won.

I didn't forget Daichi's reaction, though; I knew full well what it meant. Once Manami and Tetsu-kun had drifted away to speak with other guests, I tried to think of a subtle way to bring the matter up.

I settled for reaching out and touching his shoulder. Subtlety, it's true, was never one of my virtues. But it worked; he turned to look at me again.

"You're thinking about her, aren't you?" It wasn't really a question; like I said, his eyes give him away. But I asked anyway, and he nodded. My poor Daichi. Still in mourning.

Not that I blamed him. It's that compassion that had attracted me in the first place, and besides... I felt the same way. No matter that I'd wished Daichi would pick me. As desperately as I'd wanted that to happen, I never wanted it this way.

I'm sure he knew that. I'm sure.

"Let's go see her," I suggested. It had been a few weeks, after all. Slowly, he nodded. I forced a small smile.

We did wait until the day after the reception, naturally. Neither of us wanted to be so rude as to leave, and it was already late. Besides, Daichi was the best man, and there was still a speech to be made.

He didn't go nearly as hard on Tetsu-kun as I'd thought. They must really be close friends. Tetsu-kun sure looked nervous, though. I guess he wasn't expecting Daichi to go easy on him, either. Naturally, Manami loved the whole thing.

It was a wonderful day. If only it hadn't led directly into this.

Now, we stand before a wooden door in a sterile hallway; even the lighting seems pale and antiseptic. It's a stark contrast to the frivolous decoration of yesterday. He is beside me, and takes my hand; seeking or offering comfort, I cannot tell which. Perhaps both.

I dread these visits. Not because of her, although I still feel a little shame each time I enter her room. Because of myself. Every time we step through that door, I hope to see her sitting up in bed, smiling that carefree grin.

Almost ten years, and still... every time.

I step through the doorway, feeling the familiar pangs of disappointment and sorrow when she doesn't greet me. He steps forward first, purposeful, and I see that his fist is clenched as he struggles to keep himself from betraying emotion. I quietly circle to the other side of the bed, looking down at it rather than up at him.

She hasn't changed at all since the last time; there's no sign she's so much as moved. Her body is still, a fly trapped within a web of medical equipment and monitors, slowly wasting away -- she looks pale and thin, though no worse than she had. At the same time, somehow, she looks almost angelic; wrapped in sheets white as clouds, white as wedding dresses, she seems utterly at peace. I find myself profoundly thankful for that as I whisper, "Hime-chan..."

"Nonohara," Daichi murmurs, stroking her gaunt cheek delicately. "Nonohara..." It's almost a sob, and I turn away just a little, offering him what solitude I can without leaving her side.

"I'm sorry," I say softly, as Daichi quietly cries. I take her hand, careful not to disturb the IV lodged in her arm. "I'm so sorry..."

"Don't." Daichi's voice is ragged, but I force myself not to look; he doesn't want me to see him like this. Perhaps if I were Hime-chan, he wouldn't mind so much, but I realize that I can't offer him as much comfort as she might have. Even now. He may have come to love me, but it looks like I'll always be in Hime-chan's shadow. "It's not your fault."

"I know," I answer. "But that doesn't help. And I... I miss her, Daichi."

He simply nods; there's little more to say about that.

So I give him something to say. "Daichi... I'm getting tired of living this way." He looks like he's about to protest, but I forge ahead. "I think we should take the risk." We should have a long time ago, I think, and it's my fault that we didn't.

Now he does protest, vehemently. "We don't know what'll happen! She-- It might not work! And then... and then, what if you've given your life for nothing?" There is anger in his voice, but also fear. He doesn't want to lose me, and that knowledge makes me feel warm inside. I even manage a small, forlorn smile.

"Daichi," I tell him, smiling, "I'm dying." He stares at me, horrorstruck, and I continue; it's taken me weeks to find the courage to do this, and I'm not going to back down now. I guess a little of Hime-chan's determination has rubbed off on me. "Daichi, it's been ten years. I-- I didn't want to try before, I'm ashamed to admit it, but I was so scared... still am so scared..."

"Then don't," he pleads quietly. "Don't do this." I ignore him -- one of the hardest things I've ever done.

"No... I know... I've been so selfish, for ten years. Because I was scared, and I wanted so much to live. But... Daichi, I'm going to die. You know I'm not as strong as I was. But I've been thinking. Maybe, if I can give her a chance, even a chance... it won't have been for nothing. Hime-chan... she's... it's because of her that I was able to have these ten years, with everyone... with you. I-- I just..." If only I had her courage, this would be so much easier.

He fixes me with a solemn, unwavering gaze, and my words trail off into thin air as my mind blanks. "You don't have to do this," he repeats again, like a mantra. In his eyes, I can read the question: Are you sure? And I want to scream no, I'm not; I want to let myself fall into those eyes forever, until I drown. I want to live, but I've been getting weaker almost since the day that Hime-chan fell comatose.

I nod. "I... owe it to her," I say. I owe her my life.

"Now?" he questions, still reluctant, but a little bit hopeful. "What if Erika--?"

"Today," I affirm. "We both know that Erika can't help, as much as she wants to." She'd given Hime-chan half her life once already, and had offered to do so again. But that, her grandfather had revealed, was simply not possible; they were already sharing, and it couldn't be done a second time. There were no third chances. And though Erika had continued to search for a solution, it seemed that the realm of magic had held none. None that wouldn't endanger my life, at least, and neither Erika nor Daichi would allow that.

Quietly, I continue; each word is a struggle, but I feel much better for finally saying them. "And maybe-- I hope you'll have Hime-chan back." Taking a deep breath, I try to hold back tears. "You'll remember me, won't you?" It isn't really a question, but I ask anyway, in a sudden fit of vulnerability.

"I love you," he says. Answer enough.

I stare into her face one last time, willing her eyes to open, her lips to form a smile or a greeting. Again it fails to happen. Yet still I manage a smile as the memories of her play out vividly in my mind's theater. I had wanted to live so much, even resented her for a time... but here I am, ready to risk what remains of my life for her. Hime-chan certainly has an effect on people.

"Daichi... my love... whatever happens..."

"Yes?" He still sounds worried. He'd never have asked me to do this, I know, and in that moment, I love him wholly, completely. The way I once thought I had.

"Try not to have any regrets," I conclude. An expression of confusion passes fleetingly across his face, followed by a comprehension, of sorts. I sigh quietly; I can't help it. "I don't." It's a small lie, but an important one. "Except one. That I wasn't even half the woman she was. No, don't talk," I add quickly. "It'll only make this harder. Let's do it."

He nods, slowly, tears rolling openly over his cheeks now. "I'll try," he promises. He leans forward; his lips brush lightly against mine. Then he whispers once again, "I love you... Himeko."

I hesitate momentarily; I've been avoiding an answer for nearly ten years, after all. But I'm resolved; I don't run away this time.

"Hai," I whisper back, embracing the magic as it crashes over me.