[personal profile] silveraspen suggested Utena fic to the prompt the first time that Mikage met Anthy (in the Black Rose cycle). So with a hefty dose of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets to set the mood, I came up with this particular encounter. Set between episodes 13 and 14, and with implied spoilers for the entire Black Rose arc....

neither budding nor fading

Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.
-- T. S. Eliot, 'Little Gidding', Four Quartets


Even in the middle of the school day, when the grounds of Ohtori Academy are filled with the bustle and noise of laughing, chattering students going about their daily business, Nemuro Memorial Hall is a relative oasis of peace and quiet. This is perhaps to be expected of a building that is devoted to selective research and in-depth discussion, carried out in small focused meetings or in private conferences, all in the interests of encouraging the Academy's finest students to develop their true potential.

It may also have something to do with the fact that very few people enter the building unless they have specific business with the head of the Black Rose Seminar, who is not one to invite any sort of casual personal acquaintance unless he believes it will be useful to his work.

For these reasons, and for others that need not be explored at present, Mikage Souji often finds himself walking through entirely empty corridors during the school day. In late afternoon in particular, the silence is almost absolute, with only the echo of his own footsteps following him like a constant but unseen companion. In truth, he prefers it this way, as it gives him the opportunity to turn his mind from the research proposals and grant applications that clutter his desk to contemplate the real purpose of his seminar.

He has read the reports of the Student Council's duels, and has studied their findings and drawn conclusions from his own analysis. Even if the material had not been as detailed as he might have liked -- as he himself would have prepared it, frankly -- it has been enough to allow him to evaluate the entire Ohtori student body for their fitness as potential candidates for the experiments he intends to conduct. A control subject will be needed for the preliminary testing -- he is not so unscientific as to begin his work without establishing baseline data, of course -- but it will be time and effort well spent in preparing the path for those whose hearts will best nuture Mamiya's --

'Oh!'

It is a sign of how deep in thought Mikage had been, rounding the corner near the hall's main entrance, that the first thing that catches his attention is not the person he had nearly run into, nor the cry of alarm that they had made in avoiding the near-collision. Rather, it is the splash of water that hits the polished floor at his feet, spraying droplets onto his shoes and spreading in a puddle across the tile.

He steps back involuntarily, startled into disorientation at being flung out of his own head so abruptly, and looks up to see a white vase overflowing with a colourful assortment of roses -- and a shocked face, green eyes wide and framed by round glasses, peeping out from behind the vase and the roses.

'Oh, dear, how clumsy of me!' The roses tremble as their owner lowers the vase, and Mikage finally has a clear view of his unexpected visitor. 'I'm terribly sorry -- do let me clean it up.'

Thoughts flicker across his mind like microfilm sliding smoothly through a reader. Himemiya Anthy. The acting chairman's younger sister. The Rose Bride.

Here, in his entrance hall, alone.

Even as he processes this information, the Rose Bride is already setting the rose-filled vase on the floor, and has gone down on her knees next to the spilled water. She has a handkerchief in hand, of a size totally inadequate for the purpose, and her efforts to mop up the water are enthusiastic but somewhat less than effective.

The Rose Bride is here. At his feet. Quite literally within his grasp. She is protected by the Victor of the Duels, by the End of the World, by the power of the Sword of Dios that sleeps within her, and yet all that could be as nothing if he were to --

'I didn't splash your shoes, did I?' That voice, slicing through his head once more. She looks up at him, her eyes bright and concerned and impossibly innocent, and Mikage has to unclench his hands before he can regain enough of his own voice to respond.

'A little, but it is of no importance.' He can see that her handkerchief is completely soaked through and is only spreading the water around, and even though she is the Rose Bride the part of him that abhors inefficiency simply cannot stand by and permit it to continue. 'Allow me,' he says, and takes out his own handkerchief as he joins her on the floor.

The Rose Bride smiles at him. Intent as he is on mopping up the spilled water, he senses her smile more than he sees it. 'Thank you so much,' she says, as her slim fingers fold her sodden handkerchief into a neat square. 'I was so certain that I'd filled the vase only halfway, but I must have added more water than I thought. At least the roses are all right.'

'What are you doing here?' He manages to make it come out as a question, rather than an accusation. 'I was unaware that anyone else was in the building.'

'I met your secretary the other day, and I offered to bring her some roses from the greenhouse to brighten up her desk.' The Rose Bride sits back on her heels, looking around the foyer. 'I suppose she's gone home for the day.'

'She may have.' He neither knows nor cares. A final swipe, and the puddle is gone, for all that the floor is still damp. It is Mikage's turn to sit back, though he is not so careful about folding his handkerchief. 'Regardless, she is not here now.'

'I see,' the Rose Bride says, thoughtfully. 'Could I please leave them here for her, then? I hope you don't mind having them around.' She smiles again, with her eyes closed this time. 'They're some of the nicest ones I could find, just at the peak of their blooming.'

Mikage's gaze drifts over to the vase. The scent of the roses is much stronger now, or perhaps he merely notices it more, a thick perfume that sits so heavily on the air that he can taste it on the back of his tongue. Most of the blossoms are of a delicately pale pink that seems almost white in the hall's dim light, but a handful of them are of other hues. He can see a red one and a yellow one tucked close together, and just above them is an orange one, and a green....

His breath catches in his throat. Red and yellow. Orange. Green, yes, and blue as well. Five roses that are not pink, that have been deliberately selected and added to the vase, that stand out among all of their fellows.

Five roses. Five failed duellists.

She knows. And he knows, and she knows that he knows.

It is a warning, and a challenge, and an invitation.

In spite of himself, then, he smiles at her, a dark mirror of her blandly placid expression. He does not need words to respond in kind, not to one such as the Rose Bride: I hear, and I accept, and I welcome it.

'Please set them on the ledge in front of the main desk there,' is what he says aloud, as he gets to his feet. The damp handkerchief in his hand might as well not even exist for all that he thinks about it. 'I will ensure that my secretary sees them, and knows who has brought them here. I trust that you will see yourself out?'

'Of course.' The Rose Bride hears the dismissal for what it is, and wastes no time in standing and dusting off her skirt and doing as she is told. The tall white vase is placed in its designated location, and her hands move with quick assurance as she takes a moment to rearrange a few of the roses to her liking -- moving a leaf or two into a more becoming position, nestling a particularly fulsome bloom at an angle that lets it rest securely among others that will support its weight. Apparently satisfied with her handiwork, she turns and bows to him, her own handkerchief neatly hidden in her clasped hands. 'Thank you for helping me, Mikage-sempai -- and once again, I'm very sorry about the mess.'

He inclines his head in acknowledgement, and watches her leave, and hears the click of the latch as she shuts the door behind her. Some of the essence of roses seems to fade from the air with her departure. Their fragrance is no longer so cloying, so close to overpowering, as it had been only a moment before.

Alone once more, his eyes narrow as he turns the encounter over in his mind. Had he actually told her his name? Had she even asked?

Did it really matter, in the end?

The floor will dry in time. He has other work to do. And as he withdraws into the long, empty corridors that lead deeper into the hall, to the place where his true purpose waits for him, the Rose Bride's intrusion into his domain fades in importance from his mind. The current Victor has lost a duel before; there is no reason why she should not do so again. All that is required is the right set of circumstances, and the right person to set those circumstances in motion.

Warning, and challenge, and invitation...and pleasure.

***

The white vase is still on the ledge in the entrance hall the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that one as well.

For all of Mikage's powers of observation, he does not seem to have noticed that the roses in the vase are now all uniformly pale pink, with a sweet mild scent that matches their soft, gentle shade.

If the applicants for the Black Rose Seminar notice the roses as they are filling out the paperwork in anticipation of their scheduled appointments...well, they will soon have the scent of other roses on the backs of their tongues, and in their minds, and in their hearts.

In a free-standing glass-walled aquarium in the basement of Nemuro Memorial Hall, a black rose has unfurled its slick, oily petals, which glisten beneath the illumination of a single bright light.

And in her greenhouse, the Rose Bride smiles, and cuts another blossom.


Notes

The flowers in question can be seen in this series of stills, on the left-hand side of the ledge near the sconce. From what I can tell from my own copy of the DVDs and the filmbook, the roses are a very pale pink that's almost white.


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