The first one was a quiet boy, tall but somehow unassuming. You would bump into him and he would say "sorry". The ways in which he was noble were small and consistent and not many people noticed. Words of encouragement that weren't fished for, a subtle correcting touch that doesn't leave a trace behind, and always a shy little smile for those who needed comfort and allowed him to provide it.

Akio and Anthy had made it their business to notice such things. He wasn't hard to recruit; the kind ones are almost easier than the ambitious ones.

A physical capability is, of course, required. The duels are never won on goodwill alone. He had an awkward grace about him and captained the less-than-glorious handball team with dignity.

In the end, his sword broke. It was Akio's first disappointment. He chalked it up to a fragility of spirit and swept the castle clean of blood and ghosts with an optimistic nod of the head.

"The next one," he told Anthy, "must be bolder. I know you have a fondness for underdogs, but do try to rein it in."

The next one was bolder. He'd challenged the initial victor within the day and kissed Anthy the very first night. He put his arm around her waist in public. He slapped her occasionally, but nobility isn't always restricted by gentleness.

In the end, instead of bowing his head in shame and defeat, he roared his outrage and charged straight at Anthy with her own soul's sword. Well, Dios's soul's sword, rather, but at that point there was little distinction.

Akio had impaled him right up to the hilt and plucked the gleaming curved sword from his hand with ease. This one lasted even less than the first before shattering into a hundred silvery sparkles.

Frown lines never stuck to Akio's brow. Whether due to a favorable genetic compound or immortality, his face remained smooth throughout the centuries. Still, it could crumple into an ugly mask when he really scowled, and it was with decidedly less cheerful conviction that he reset the games for the second time.

"Clever," he had instructed Anthy. "I want this one to be cunning and sharp."

The third victor was something of a school idol. Muscle-bound and handsome as well as an Honors student, nudging him into the student council was not a task so much as an inevitability.

He was suspicious from the start. Kept his distance from the duels, reserved his judgment until the very last one where he stepped in and challenged the engaged with composure and certainty. He wasn't interested in petty mind games; he wanted bigger things.

Emotionally manipulating him took a much subtler, circuitous form. Akio enjoyed it immensely.

That sword bent at first, but with a sufficient number of inhumanly strong thumps it cracked, and eventually snapped with a terrible grinding noise, slicing at Akio's cheek in the process.

It became rather repetitive after that. Anthy found a sort of perverse satisfaction in seeing each and every game culminate in a few hard metallic bangs and the flash of shattered crystallized souls. She hid her amusement behind her politely generic smile and her bitterness behind the amusement, three pretenses deep and perfectly safe. Akio kept failing and Anthy kept smiling, enjoying the knowledge that he was beginning to resent her propriety.

The nights were as monotonous as the days. Good intentions and trivial insecurities and conflicting motivations blended in with the simple needs and instinctive wish for connection and recognition and acceptance.

And sex. Because sex was like a second half, a flipside, something that was always separate and intrinsic to everything, hidden and ever-present in the fragile psyches of teenaged kids. Every once in a while, of course, there were those that weren't interested, not in her or not in girls or not in anybody at all. Even then sex was prominent in its absence.

As time passed it seemed Akio's own games were getting the better of him. Anthy wasn't sure whether he truly was forgetting what he was trying to achieve, or if it was her own growing detachment she was projecting on him. In any case, things gradually became more immediate, and they were losing sight of the goal in favor of focusing on the process. Gambits got needlessly complex and counterproductive just for the hell of it, extra pawns and variables added in for amusement's sake.

Cynicism has a funny way about it. Anthy was all but desensitized to the concept of death, and on the subject of love, she forbade herself from holding an opinion. The truth of things was that they were bad and good at the same time, and which end of the scale you hold is your own choice. However, once you see both ends, you realize they are the same and the quality and quantity of good and evil lose their meaning entirely.

But, the more games she went through, the more heartstrings she played like a harp, the more meaningless the purpose of it all became – the more she found herself forming tiny connections. Tiny, unimportant connections that snapped easily with the end of a life like a thin fibrous thread, but still resonated somewhere with small sounds of relief or spite or regret.

It was the same for Akio, even if he disguised it with his usual overdramatic, frank deception. It only served to strengthen her suspicions that maybe this was his choice, to play for the sake of playing, together with her, for ever and ever until the end of times. Maybe it was the Dios in him, the little boy who just wanted to feel needed and never tried to understand why.

Not that it mattered. Her private theories, about life and morality and her brother, were nothing more than an idle exercise to keep her mind active, and because still, after everything, she couldn't keep her thoughts under absolute control. It was of no further significance than another secret edge to her smile, saying yes, I understand. I understand perfectly. Her brother always hated her little rebellions, but they were both playing a game of layers and to call her out on it was to tip his hand.

Living from second to second, dead victors strung together on a never-ending daisy chain, made the passage of time – already a vague enough concept in a place like Ohtori Academy – seem like little more than an amusing and completely irrelevant piece of metaphysical trivia. Which it probably was. But it takes a special kind of disassociation to experience it that way.

It was a fourteen-year-old pink-headed girl that had the nerve to yank Anthy out of her existential stupor.

There was nothing remarkable about her, at first. A purposeful, straightforward type who needed to fight in others' name to maintain a positive self-image. She was a jock and fairly popular in her grade. Anthy was rather fond of her. She was very easy to manipulate and, well, a little bit fun and overall not too bad to be around.

After a while, though, Anthy began to remember. Outside, it was a long time ago. Inside, however, it was only a few years. But it didn't happen in Ohtori and so Anthy had a lot of trouble grasping it.

A small child, holding Dios's hand and looking at her. Tear tracks. Screaming and begging, which leave her confused; she'd given up such ridiculous activities centuries ago. But oh, yes, it's a little girl in a black mourning dress holding onto her brother and looking at her and grieving for a stranger. And then a promise, made in tears and sealed with a kiss and a ring: she will become another prince, and she will come for Anthy.

This in itself was odd. While Anthy had had many princes that she didn't need, she had never received a pledge quite so intimate. It wasn't made in the arena, and it wasn't made in her room. It wasn't even made in front of Akio. She's not sure, but she thinks it was the only pledge ever made in the presence of those other parts of Dios and her.

Maybe it was that which made the difference. Or maybe it was the fact that this particular prince was a blubbering little girl who knew nothing of the power to revolutionize the world and understood even less, but still wanted to give it a shot for someone else's sake, which was so nostalgically Dios Anthy would have cried if she were able to take it at all seriously.

Personally, Anthy thinks it was just probability. After so many dice rolls, an unlikely outcome was almost guaranteed.

In any case, it was more or less around the time she realized she was falling in love that Anthy knew the games were coming to an end, one way or the other. There was a sort of disappointment accompanying that knowledge, but on whose behalf she was feeling it, Anthy wasn't sure. Maybe on Dios's, who'd never gotten a proper resolution, or on Akio's, whose forever was going to be cut short before he came to understand anything at all, or on Utena's, for whom the end will most certainly be unpleasant.

Or maybe, probably, she was feeling sorry for herself, the way she had for a very long time and then hadn't for longer. If she learned anything from knowing Utena it was that her psyche is still as fickle as ever, even after so many centuries of compulsive introspection.

By the point the show was approaching its final act and the resentment between them was reaching new heights, Anthy was so furious and guilty and scared and in love she forgot almost every conclusion she'd ever reached about anything, and Utena seemed to be going through a similar process. For Akio, though, everything was going according to the usual, repetitive, futile plan, and in the face of his blind conviction, Anthy was losing even more of her certainty.

It was ironic how, during that spectacularly disastrous finale, when everything he'd worked for and everything he professed to desire was being crumpled, derailed and flushed down the drain, Akio seemed to be more in control than she'd ever seen him since they started. It was almost as if he recognized the significance of this game that would be their last. Maybe he wanted it to be.

Not that he recognized the significance of Utena – if she even had any, of which Anthy wasn't completely certain. Maybe it didn't matter if she did or not; she was significant to Anthy, and that proved to be more than enough significance to go around.

Akio treated Utena like an old, beloved but slightly exasperating pet, or maybe like a forgone conclusion. He wasn't very interested in her as a pawn, definitely not as a knight, and if she had any queen potential, he missed it entirely. Anthy couldn't blame him. Utena didn't make for a very challenging chess opponent. When it came down to it, of course, it didn't matter at all, since chess wasn't anything like the game they were playing.

.

People always like to know others' agendas. It's that instinctive mistrust of anyone who seems to act unselfishly.

Agendas wear and erode over time. In Anthy's opinion, that is the reason most gods disappear eventually. They lose interest; not only in us, but in themselves. And Akio, he'd lived a long time. He was Anthy's big brother; he lived even longer than her. Anthy was beyond the point of feeling disconcerted by such trivialities as betrayals and unpleasant surprises, but Akio still seemed to take them seriously – or, as seriously as he ever seemed to take anything.

Anthy knew Utena's motivation; or at least most of it. She was mortal, and young, and it was simple. And Utena herself was happy and open, and didn't look too hard for hidden intentions. That's exactly the reason why betraying her trust, so casually given, was so unbelievably easy.

They had a conversation, some hours after Anthy's ill-advised suicide attempt. Of course, Akio had been listening, and Anthy spoke for him almost as much as for Utena.

She didn't give her a warning, but rather, a promise. She said, "The world loves inertia. But things are about to change, I think."

"What makes you say that?" Utena asked, dispassionate, probably not expecting a satisfying answer. When had Anthy ever given her reason to expect something ridiculous like that?

"Nothing, really. I was just speculating." She'd hate to disappoint.

"I don't know, Himemiya." She sounded tired. "I think things would change more if they just stayed the same for once."

Had she taught Utena that, this particular brand of meaningless meaningful conversation? She's probably just taking too much credit.

It's hard to say what you mean when she is no longer expecting you to. "I don't really care about the after," she tried again. "But I hope it might not be so bad." For you.

Utena gave her a glance. Anthy imagined she could see the internal debate there: accuse or comfort or deny or ignore. She settled on comfort, like she could be counted on to do. "I really don't know what you're talking about, Himemiya, but I don't believe in afters. There's only the now, and it's something we make happen, right? It'll be okay."

There's no optimism like stubborn pragmatism, and Utena was always such a wonderful pragmatist. Anthy couldn't help but bow her head and smile a private small smile, of the unpracticed kind she doesn't care to indulge in often. It felt tinged with embarrassed fondness. This really will not do.

She might have intended it as a goodbye, or a confession or an apology, but when Utena glanced at her again and caught her strange smile, Anthy could only think it was like the first part of a joke waiting for a punchline.

She wished she could make it never come.

Or maybe she didn't, really.

.

In the end, killing her was easier than kissing her, and even that was easier than taking her hand. But then, after falling and landing back in herself, after walking remade hallways empty of roses and Utena, after tidying up her room to the point of inanity, after saying the most openly gloating goodbye she could manage to Akio – somehow, walking out the gates of Ohtori and into the world wasn't all that hard at all.

That's when Anthy became completely certain: she had no idea what Akio wanted anymore, and she honestly, truly, absolutely did not give a shit.

.

Despite what she'd imagined, time outside wasn't any more familiar to Anthy than it was inside. Maybe it was the fact that she'd lived for so long already, or that immortality had the convenient advantage of continuously keeping her alive with minimal maintenance. She thinks it took somewhere between a couple of days and a couple of centuries to find her, but don't quote her on that.

She found her working in a garden adjacent to a teahouse, and nearly burst out laughing at the blatant symbolism. She'd always hated symbolism; perhaps that was the reason she was always choking in it. She didn't laugh, though, and she didn't cry. She didn't even smile. She spoke her name out loud, and Utena (turning around, and then freezing, and then not) did all of that for her.

Hugging her was a really good thing. One of the best. With Utena's arms around her back and Utena's face against her neck and Utena's tears on her skin. And she hugged her back, and she squeezed and she loved it, because Utena's sobs were blubbery and Anthy's posture was stooped, and they didn't care because it wasn't supposed to be pretty, it was supposed to be mutual. And that's something Anthy was finally willing to admit that she liked.

It was when they sat down on the wet soil that Anthy realized she was still wearing the Ohtori uniform, and so did Utena. There was an uncertain silence for a while, but their fingers were still interwoven, and when Anthy said she was sorry, Utena just smiled.

"It's not like you have to apologize for killing me," she said. "I didn't even die."

"I won't apologize for that, then," Anthy said and Utena laughed.

"It's okay. I forgive you. I've forgiven you in advance."

It wasn't the point, of course, but maybe it didn't matter. When they got up, the back of Anthy's pristine white and green skirt was covered in mud and she was starting to lose feeling in her fingertips.

"I promised I'd find you," she said.

Utena was still smiling. "I didn't know you were looking."