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"I want to leave tonight," Utena said, clomping into their room with none of the proper notices. Not one hello, I'm about to lay your months of planning to waste, I'm craving escape, at least it's one less quilt to whisk clean. Anthy had been pouring tea, forewarned of Utena's arrival first by birdcall and second by the pot chilling in her hand, adjusting to Utena's temperature preference, but not of the words that would follow her mussed hair and flung jacket through the door. She put the pot down, halfway through a cup.

"Leave, Utena-sama?"

"Yeah." She toppled onto her bed and stripped off her shirt. "You've been here for, how many terms has it been? I can't believe I never asked you. Well, longer than I have. Haven't you ever left the campus?"

"Where would you go?"

Utena rummaged under the mattress and produced clothes that, to Anthy, looked very like the ones Utena had just taken off. Her thumbs were tucked into her shorts. Anthy rested her head in her arms, more for the sake of image preservation than because she really couldn't watch a girl undress. Utena expected at least mild resistance from everyone and breezed through that resistance when she got it. Indulging her with the pretense of modesty reduced the risk of Utena asking why Anthy didn't resist where it mattered—why she only erected walls, and never pushed back.

"I heard there's a path through the forest that goes outside Ohtori," Utena said. "Look, it'll be cool, we'll finally see what's at the foot of the mountain. Come with me?"

"It'll be cold and dark by dinnertime."

"We can go now, then. I'm ready. C'mon, you coop yourself in here or the greenhouse six or seven days a week. Do you have to see anyone else in the afternoon?"

Anthy glanced up. Utena stood, hip cocked, in a neon pink tank and a skirt so economically cut she could sit in it without stains from grass. On another, the whole package would fall under sultry in Anthy's compendium of bodily expressions, but where a well-proportioned girl of Utena's age often had a magnetic quality to her, Utena was the opposite: admire her all you liked, but act on lust and you fell to despair. Only someone who already looked up at everyone could come close. Those people were not rare at Ohtori, Anthy supposed, but still her fatalism had to be a major advantage—

If she believed in revolution. If she thought about it with more than the occasional eye-roll sheathed behind glass, felt the stirrings of it waken in her blood like poison. If she believed in revolution, and believed that winning the Revolutionary New Girl was the way to it.

Instead Anthy stared at Utena's smooth young knees until the second before Utena would have had to laugh and say no, she didn't need socks, why wear socks at night when wind refreshes your ankles and kills foot stink? Chu-chu agrees with me. Yeah, he's no longer into sniffing my toes.

"I'll go if you'd like me to, Utena-sama," Anthy said, basking in Utena's frustrated gaze.

 


 

The path looped back and forth and, at intervals, widened into elliptical clearings. If Anthy closed her eyes, she could imagine herself as some morsel passing through the intestines. Utena's words came more gaily as they walked, or as Anthy walked and Utena skipped backwards, skirt bouncing; but the dappled streams of sunlight picking out then Anthy's elbow and then her chin absorbed her vitality, as though they had scooped out her vitamins and minerals. She became grateful for the trees. No longer were they unknowable and untouchable and frightening. The lignum vitae shot up around her like the spikes of her crown, and she could understand them as extensions of herself; she remembered the Swords ringed about her like wheel spokes, like they'd been specially designed to pierce her with purpose. How much easier it was to hold them when she diluted herself over the area they covered. Rolled with them.

She'd poured her blood into the metal. It was enough to let tendrils of her consciousness flow into the wood. They became hers, then, and she owned them as surely as they owned her. The shadow girls mocked her—Pop quiz, listeners! Where can a sword make you grow bigger instead of cutting you to itty-bitty pieces? Ding ding. What a magical place, right!—but why listen to their prattle? People, however disembodied, were tiring. She liked the feeling of stretching herself into Ohtori's every nook and leaf, of thinning herself out until she felt no more substantial than than silk and air.

"Chu," Chu-chu scolded her.

"Huh? Is he scared of the dark too?"

"You don't need to worry," Anthy said, to the company at large. To Chu-chu she added, "I'll be sure to feed you first." He harrumphed on her shoulder and began the ear-twitching ritual that usually heralded him dozing off, but Utena didn't budge until Anthy clasped her wrist and gestured forward with it. "He always comes with me. It will be even darker ahead, won't it, Chu-chu?"

"Chuuu."

"You told me you never came here before. Have you mixed up the paths again? There's another nice one behind the track, it's dirt and trees and stuff too, I wonder why they set up two when they look exactly alike? Maybe we're on the other one... do you think we can count this as an adventure, Himemiya? Losing ourselves together. Oh man, it should be a tradition!"

Utena was smiling. She had acquired from somewhere a knotted branch and was spinning it like a baton. Utena, most sweetly oblivious of the Duelists, never questioned where her things came from—her sticks, her dresses, her genuine devotion. Anthy sometimes wanted to sit her down and say, Utena, you're my very best friend, even though you're so useful. Since Dios no one has been both. I'm glad to have you here in the heart of my domain. You're so strong, I know you could bear the swords—but another surety would interrupt the fantasy: Anthy would rather embrace them for eternity than allow Utena to take them away with her own flesh and blood. She'd have, instead, the bitter satisfaction of worthy sacrifice.

"I'd bring the tent and tinderbox, and oh, we'd need biscuits. We'd have to promise not to peek at the compass until we ate them all."

"Utena-sama, we might already be lost together," Anthy said, smiling back.

"Nonsense," Utena said, "it's this way," and, whistling, promptly headed in the wrong direction.

 


 

At several junctures Anthy had to convince Utena that yes, she remembered now, the shortcut through the trees was necessary. Utena wanted the scenic route. Water brimming with bracken, an overcast sky, and vines filmed over with oil, the kind that would probably itch by nightfall, dented her desire not a bit. "Talking of biscuits has me hungry, aren't you?" Anthy said, and at last they could cut straight for the border.

About two hours after they'd entered the forest they emerged into a meadow. This far from Ohtori's center Anthy had not bothered to nourish the plants; as meadows went this one was dismal, the wildflower stalks bent and withered like used ribbons, but Utena said, "We're here already? Great!" and flopped into the grass with every appearance of delight. Chu-chu rolled from her shoulder and scampered off.

"Not yet," Anthy said, extending a hand, and as they set out again she fixed her eyes on Utena's back, watching for signs that Utena recognized their destination.

None at all. Even as they approached the edge of Anthy's jurisdiction Utena chattered away about Touga and Saionji and guidance counselors. How annoying, what right have those hypocrites to pester me like that, they're so distracting. Anthy felt her heart pick up speed, the old fears wrenching open her diaphragm until she couldn't listen to Utena if she were to breathe.

And they were— "There," Anthy gasped out, pointing to where a bald strip of dirt and pebbles marked the end of the meadow. Past it the land bent down and down, angled as steeply as a writing pencil in the hand. "That's it."

Utena leapt over to it, spun back to facing Anthy, flexed her toes in the last straggles of vegetation. Anthy was certain Utena couldn't see the escarpment right behind her. She would, if she were to try to seat herself now, tumble backwards and for a very long time, far beyond Anthy's reach. It was not a pleasant prospect.

The flat ground hummed under her, all of it securely in her possession up to that invisible line. She shuffled forward. Utena obliged by stepping back, her feet sliding over a centimeter of rock to the beginning of the downslope, until one heel rocked into the incline and cost her her balance. Then Utena's hands flailed and sallied into hers, and Anthy rubbed over the knolls of the knuckles, felt the strength of Utena's fingers, Anthy's shoulders and arms and hands the only things holding Utena up—Utena was grinning, saying thanks, you saved me. She let out a puzzled sound when Anthy, the tip of Anthy's nose right at the end of the world, pressed her lips to Utena's mouth, but she laughed there on that foreign ground, wrapped her arms around Anthy, and returned the kiss with enthusiasm and too much tongue.

Ah, Anthy thought, while Utena squeezed her tight. Utena truly deserved pity. So much power, yet she couldn't see boundaries when she crossed them—couldn't see who was holding her back.