It was her third lunch date with Anthy Himemiya. As she sat stirring her cup of tea while the other girl sat smiling pleasantly in the seat across from her, Utena found herself wondering at what point in the dating process did it become appropriate to tell the other person about the increasingly disturbing nightmares they’d been having.
Utena Tenjou had recently landed a job as the girls’ basketball coach at the local elementary school. The first weeks at her job were fairly uneventful (the kids adored her), until the day the school hired a gardener. Well, either ‘hired’, or, and this case seemed every bit as likely from what Utena had gathered so far, Anthy had just taken note of some poorly attended flowers while on a walk past the school grounds and saw fit to take action. No matter the case, the moment that Utena had set eyes on the girl with hair like the cascading branches of a wisteria, she found herself half expecting to taken straight back to the hospital, after having been clocked in the face with a ball by one of the kids.
“Are you all right?” the girl who had been tending the roses had asked, offering Utena a hanky to dab her bloodied nose. “The flowers may have been speaking to you, but you should really listen to the children as well. She told you to catch!” She laughed like pennies tinkling into a wishing well.
That was that, and now the two were on their third outing together in as many weeks.
Utena found herself very glad for the new-found company. Shortly after she had awoken in the hospital so many months ago, she had found herself quite lonely. She had no memories of any friends she may have known before the accident. Her parents told her that she had fallen in the river and nearly drowned, and she had cried upon seeing their faces. Though she could not remember many of the details about her life, the dreams she had had were more real than anything- her parents lying in coffins…. thorns, and blades, and pain, desperation… falling.
“Utena...san,” Now and then Anthy would pause before adding the honorific, as if she couldn’t decide the proper one to use. “I’m having a party next weekend and I’d like for you to come.”
“I’d love to!”
“Tsuwabuki! I told you not to come around while I’m working anymore!” Nanami punctuated this with an especially vigorous jab of her pitchfork at the pile of straw.
“It’s okay! I have enough allowance saved up, so it’s really no problem for me to come here at least once a week. I’m almost old enough to get a job now, and then I’ll be able to come and see you every day!”
As Nanami opened her mouth to respond, a squeak issued instead as one of the cows began sampling the khaki sleeve of her zoo-worker uniform. The petting zoo cows had taken to her right away, almost as if she were one of their own.
Tsuwabuki continued, “Oh, by the way, on my way in, this lady with long purple hair gave this to me, and asked if I could give it to you.” He fished in his pocket, pulling out a pale pink envelope, which he handed to Nanami.
She opened it and began to read.
“It says that I’m invited to a ‘welcome home’ party for an ‘Utena Tenjou’, and that I can bring a plus-one…” Although Nanami couldn’t recall anyone by that name, somehow it rang vaguely familiar, at the same time stirring up a small twinge of guilt. She slipped the card into her own pocket.
“Tsuwabuki,” Nanami began, eyes darting past the boy, fixing on the cows. Just a few years ago, she could have looked over his head; now his earnest gaze was nearly level with her’s.
“I actually have something to give you too,” he handed the boy a small plastic card. “It’s a season pass to the zoo. If you insist on coming here so often, I thought this might help.”
“That was Mariko-chan,” Miki informed, after hanging up the phone. “She can’t make it for her lesson today.”
“That’s a shame. We’ll have to change our plans now,” Kozue lamented. To both Miki’s and her own surprise, she had been growing quite fond of giving piano lessons to the children in town.
“I’m sure that guy you broke up with yesterday is thinking that very same thing. Imagine, Kozue Kaoru making music her only man!” Miki smiled playfully.
Kozue slid onto the bench beside her brother, bumping him over.
“Let’s play ‘The Sunlight Garden’. We’ve both been so busy with teaching, we haven’t had time to play together in ages,” she suggested.
“Sure!” Miki’s thumb flexed out of habit. The stopwatch had been broken months ago- Kozue had sat on it, though Miki hadn’t been able to find it in himself to be cross with her.
“Hmm? What’s this?” Kozue picked up a rose colored envelope that had been set in front of the sheet music.
“Oh, that… a very interesting woman came to the door this morning and gave it to me. She said that she might be interested in a lesson some time.”
Shiori tossed a few more items into the box.
“What is all that stuff?” Juri asked.
Shiori scooted out of the closet, dusting herself off. “I found some of Ruka’s old stuff from back when we were dating.”
Though Juri wrinkled her nose, she held her tongue. It was never a very good idea to speak poorly of the dead. Besides, Shiori was by now more than aware of the type of person he had been.
“Do you think you could use any of this crap?” Shiori nodded down at the box.
It was filled mostly with fencing equipment.
“I’d rather quit fencing, to be perfectly honest. Let’s just toss it.”
Juri hefted the box, taking it out to the curb.
However, as she turned to go back inside, she paused for a moment, before slipping a tattered photo out of her pocket. It featured a different pose than the one that had been in her locket, but still, it wasn't a terrible shot.
Juri tossed into the box without a second glance.
“Hey, would you grab the mail while you’re out there?” Shiori called from the door. “I thought I saw the mailman put a funny looking envelope in there…”
Utena glanced around Anthy’s kitchen, wondering for the fifth time that hour why a ‘welcome back’ party held in her honor would involve so many people she’d never met before.
Anthy certainly was friends with a colorful lot, she thought. The man and woman seated together at the piano only served to create an even more surreal atmosphere with their bell-clear sound.
Utena did recoginse the blonde woman, currently chatting with a smaller girl sporting short purple hair. She was the Olympic fencer that Utena had watched on the limited channels offered from her hospital bed. She had been very impressive to watch, to the point where Utena began to fancy taking up the sport herself, though she doubted she’d be any good.
“Utena-san, would you care for a cupcake?” Anthy offered. She had bringing the bakery box around to everyone.
Utena chose one that had red frosting piped on in an ornate rose design.
“M-mm! These are amazing! Where did you get them?”
“There’s a new little bakery in town. ‘Shinohara’s’, I think it was? I heard the woman runs it used to be a horrible chef when she was younger, but she worked very hard in order to make people happy.”
Another blonde woman approached the two. She clutched a gift bag in her arms.
“Excuse me, but are you Tenjou-san?”
“I sure am,” Utena smiled. “And who are you?”
“Kiryuu. Nanami Kiryuu,” the girl’s eyebrows creased, as if she were trying hard to remember the punchline after begining a long story. “Um, this may sound a little odd, since we haven’t met and all, but I saw this dress in the window of a shop on the way here and for some reason I had thought that the invitation stated that a gift was required. So…just take it, alright?” Nanami continued to looked somewhat dazed as she handed the package over to Utena, before trotting off to join a small bundle of men. One with red hair and another with green were engaged in a heated conversation while the shortest of the group brought Nanami a drink.
“That’s funny, no one else brought a present,” Utena mused, looking around once again.
“Oh, she must have made some sort of mistake,” Anthy said, smile playful. “Shall we open it?”
Utena reached into the bag and unfolded a lavish ball gown.
“Oh wow. It’s gorgeous, but I don’t really wear dresses... How about you have it, Himemiya? I think it’d be really pretty on you!”
“Why, I don’t mind if I do, Utena-san.” Anthy set down the cupcake box, before taking the dress and situating it back into the gift bag, smile still planted on her face. “Well, it looks as if everyone’s here now. Why don’t we get started?”
Started? Utena thought. The party seemed to be in full swing to her.
As soon as Anthy spoke, the twins ceased their piano playing and the lights turned down, despite the fact that no one in the room seemed to be near any of the light switches.
A moment later, a single beam of light emanated from somewhere near the ceiling and suddenly, the room was filled with a breath-taking projection of what appeared to be the inside of castle. It even included windows, the view out of which portrayed a schoolyard, but situated upside-down. Utena wondered if that part of the image had glitched.
Rather than admire the clever party trick, however, the rest of the party goers all looked toward the guest of honor.
A chorus of voices rang out, “Welcome back, Utena!”