Her thoughts were interrupted by a pathetic chirping as she approached the building. She stopped, searching the shadows until she found a pair of bright little eyes, and smiled.

"Hello, little guy." She scooped ChuChu up and tucked him under her arm. "What are you doing out here all alone?"

"Chuuu." The creature seemed to be trying very earnestly to communicate something, but Utena had no idea what. Probably just his terror of the dark. His warmth was comforting, though, something quite apart from Juri's warmth, safe and undemanding. She talked to him softly as she made her way
back to Akio's quarters, the little thing snuggling into her protective grip.

"Let's not wake your mistress, okay, ChuChu? I can apologise to her in the morning. Oh, ChuChu, it's been such a day... Maybe when I wake up it will all be a dream, and I won't mess it all up again."

Even as she said it, it occurred to her, with the simplicity of absolute certainty, that Anthy would be awake when she went back to the room. Anthy would know exactly what had happened... all Utena's guilt, her dreadful romantic fumblings laid out for her. Well, she could deal with that. Now,
with the new knowledge burning in her heart... her feet sped up, until she was flying across the school grounds again, ignoring ChuChu's complaints.

All she wanted was to reach Anthy, without encountering anyone else. It felt like every heartbeat counted.

She flung open the doors to their rooms, closed it behind her, and turned, confessions of all kinds on her lips.

"Welcome back, Miss Utena. Oh, you found ChuChu!"

The words spilt unsaid in Utena's breath. Somewhere in the back of her mind she had pictured Anthy curled in a pathetic little ball, sobbing, to be gathered up and apologised to and kissed into forgiveness, kissing everything better like a prince - no, like a mother. Passionate grief and betrayal, passionate reconciliation. At worst, she had imagined Anthy sleeping like an angel, traces of tears on her cheeks.

Somehow she hadn't expected a mild smile and a polite, seemingly cheerful greeting, as if nothing awkward had occurred between them.

"Himemiya, I..." Somewhere in the welter of love and guilt, Utena felt distinctly annoyed at the wreck of her dramatic reconciliation. Annoyed, and almost completely at a loss.

Anthy's hair was still down in heavy jacaranda-purple waves, but she'd replaced her spectacles, apparently in order to watch her little portable television set. Utena glanced over to see what had caught Anthy's fancy enough for her to stay up watching it in the small hours of the morning, after such a distressing scene; but then, perhaps, to the Rose Bride it
had not been distressing. It was a game show, currently involving naked middle aged men being tortured with scorpions and honey. Utena felt the familiar confusion that someone could be so very, very dear and precious, and still so alien.

"I put the rose in water, Miss Utena. I thought it was ruined, but - see." Anthy pointed to something, but Utena didn't follow the gesture.

"The rose isn't important, Himemiya."

Anthy continued to look gravely at her from behind the circles of glass, while shrieks and wails rose from the television. "But it's still alive and beautiful. I thought that it was spoiled, but you see - it was too pure. It survived handling."

Utena still didn't look at the flower. She knew Anthy was offering comfort in her odd way, but...

...it was all stupid, she decided. Unimportant. She'd made mistakes, and she was confused, but roses were just pretty flowers with a nice smell, not meaningful in any way, and she...

"No! No, no, no!" ChuChu leapt from her hands, startled by the shout. She let him go.

"Is something wrong, Miss Utena?" That open, questioning gaze hurt, but she wouldn't lose her courage. She dropped to her knees, and took Anthy's hands. Anthy's hands lay limply in hers, so she tightened her own grasp to compensate.

"Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Tenjou Utena. I go to Ohtori Academy, where I'm on the athletics team and the basketball team, I'm usually good at schoolwork but I haven't been doing so well lately, my parents are dead but I have an aunt, I like horses, and I..." Oh, damn, there had to be more interesting things about her than that. "My best friends are Shinohara Wakaba and Himemiya Anthy." She let one of her death-grips loose, and raised a hand to touch Anthy's cheek, letting her palm curve against her chin, her fingers circle against the cheekbone. "Tell me who you are."

She was almost there. The hand in hers was flexing, the fingers curling around her own, Anthy's other hand coming to wrap around both. She wished she could read the eyes behind the glasses. She wished she could force Anthy to understand. She felt if now, now, she managed to reach the real girl, none of this Champion and Bride nonsense, it would be possible.

"I am the Rose Bride." Anthy seemed uncertain, despite the remote smile still lingering on her lips.

"No. You are Himemiya Anthy. You like animals better than people, you feel sorry for deflated balloons. You can't concentrate when you study, but you can watch the shopping channel for hours at a time, and you're good at housework. You're just a schoolgirl. You have no parents, but a...
an older brother... and not enough friends, but you do have me. Always, always you have me." Now or never. "And - I love you. I love you so much." It came out with the rush of something she had always known and had been waiting to say.

"Miss Utena..." Anthy's eyes were sad, so sad they broke Utena's heart.

"Tell me, Himemiya, you and I - what kind of friends are we?"

There was no answer. Utena squeezed her eyes shut like a child, and leaned forward. Anthy's lips were bitter and salty, as if she had been sucking grapefruit laced with salt, or as if she had been crying after all. It was a simple kiss, just the pressure of her mouth against another's and lingering just a second too long to pass as friendship, and it felt as
natural as running, as lying on the grass under hot sun, as plunging into cool water... It was almost a surprise when their lips parted and Utena realised her heart was hammering and she couldn't quite breathe.

When her eyes opened, Anthy was looking at her, very still and quiet. "Do you wish me to kiss you back?"

"Only if you really want to." She tried to smile, as if it wasn't important, as if her heart wasn't hammering so hard that it felt like a knife being stabbed against her backbone. "You, just a girl... kissing another girl."

The tears rose and spilt from Anthy's eyes so quickly that there seemed no buildup, just sudden droplets caught by the rim of her glasses and making the sides of her nose damp. She flung her arms around Utena's neck like a child, but the mouth that caught at Utena's was not a child's mouth, not in the way it clung to her lips and let the tongue dart against hers,
kissing, kissing...

Anthy drew away abruptly and let her face fall against Utena's neck. Utena felt the wetness of tears mingled with the kisses, and she crushed her tight, caressing silky hair and the bones of Anthy's back tangible through the night gown and everything she could touch, could love.

"Himemiya... my sweet Himemiya... I'm so sorry. I'll never let you go again."

Anthy made a noise deep in her throat. "You don't understand what you're promising."

"I do! And I'll never abandon you - never. You don't need to be afraid. I want you to forget all that, everything else, just be... my Himemiya. We'll never be apart again." Someone had said that to her, once... Well, she'd make it come true.

Anthy pushed up on her hands. Her mouth was twisted in something like pain. "Then make me forget... love me." Her head fell, her lips seeking out Utena's earlobe, spreading wetness and fire all at once, as if oil didn't burn for one brief second but on and on, passing into Utena's veins as it flamed. "Love me... please..."

"Do you care for me at all, Himemiya?" The words came edged with more fear and desperation than she intended. Of course Anthy cared; she was so sweet and gentle and giving. And so incalculable...

"Yes - I love you, I love you, I love you so much." No false calmness now, only something close to tragedy and defiance all at once.

"No need to say it as if you're announcing a death." Utena's attempt to giggle fell flat, and she felt desperate still. Anthy's words sent her breathless, but they were somehow not in the least reassuring. She didn't understand why Anthy seemed so unhappy, when they should both be so gloriously content, having found each other. "Just kiss me instead..."

Anthy responded with something close to ferocity. They fell magainst the bed and tangled together there as gracelesssly and passionately and perfectly as their lips and tongues tangled, hands in hair and pushing through robes and night dresses and pyjamas, the awkwardness of knees banging against thighs and slippered feet against shins mingling with the perfect way their breasts pressed together, softness against softness.

Anthy felt so fragile, despite the hardness of her elbow where it caught Utena's side, so delicate and feminine and perfect... Utena kissed her as if she was drowning and Anthy was her only source of oxygen, and Anthy kissed back as if she was stealing her soul... had stolen it already, Utena dazedly thought. Other kisses faded into their proper perspective,
and there was only here, only now - her Himemiya, and the sharpness of spectacle rims pressing under her own eye when she changed angles in an attempt to kiss even deeper. Everything else, everyone else faded away. It didn't matter that this wasn't her first time, if Anthy had given herself to other Champions. She and Anthy together were all that mattered.

"Miss Utena... please." Urgent hands caressing her through her pyjamas, and she was suddenly nervous even as her nipples responded to the touch. "I need you to be with me tonight."

And how could she refuse, when Anthy so rarely asked for anything?

Later, much later, she drifted off into sleep, hand in hand with her beloved. Anthy lay on her side and watched her, holding her hand very tightly as Utena's face relaxed into slumber.

"I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry. Please forgive me," Anthy whispered. Not that it mattered if she spoke aloud. Utena wouldn't have known if the apology was aimed at herself or at someone else, or what it was for, in any case. Anthy wasn't quite sure herself. She only knew that remorse was twisting at her heart.

There was only one thing she had the power to do to make up for her moment of weakness, and she did it. She didn't even weep. Pain had merged into pain for too many years for tears to be of much help.

She kissed Utena's cheek, very tenderly, wondering at herself for the gesture.

Anthy went to sleep, ChuChu cuddled against her knee. He was a little comfort. Not much, but a little.

Utena woke later in the night, confused in the darkness, her hand empty.

She lay listening to Anthy's quiet breathing, letting it calm her. She ached inside and... oh, Akio. Shame flooded her. But she'd come back up to her room, and she and Anthy had... talked... and Juri, why did she think she'd spoken to Juri? Juri was the last person she'd confide in about her love life, such as it was. There was a sudden flood of memory, of soft skin and softer kisses, but that was only a dream. She'd never really do anything like that. Not after Akio.

She shouldn't be confused into thinking emulating a prince meant loving princesses. She was just an ordinary girl, and she'd done something she probably shouldn't have, with a very attractive and nice boy. That was all. And she loved Anthy, but her love was pure. Only her dreams tricked her into thinking it could ever be... something else.

Love was a further, unnecessary complication in a life filled with school and Duels. She'd be a little wary with Akio from now on, and stick with Anthy and Wakaba.

Friendship was so much sweeter and simpler. It could be trusted.

Utena reached for Anthy's hand again, and drifted off to sleep, the scent of roses in the air.