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In Cloud Country

Chapter Text

Three weeks after they met, right before the rain season started, they made plans to go to America. Anthy made plans, more like. She had offered to make the arrangements and would let Utena know when things were all set. Two days later, a letter from the travel agency arrived. They were to go to Vermont four days from now.

"It’s because I told them I had some cows near there, and do not like flat places,” Anthy said over the phone. “It’s important to tell them these things, or they will hear ‘I want to go to a farm’ and send you to the Midwest.”

"What's so bad about the, uh, there?"

"There is nothing to see, so there are many railway accidents, and the people are too tall," Anthy said, and Utena could hear the smile in her voice. One of the ones that, were she there to see it, would remind her of how many concussions she had gotten as a kid. Four of them total, nearly all of them in her third year of middle school. From this she had gotten a wariness of narrow closets and an indifference to strengthening her powers of recall. Forgot a classmate? Missed a lunch date? Couldn't decide which couch to buy? Oh, she'd say. It's the brain trauma.

It was not their first trip together. Before this had been a congratulatory coffee one city over, after Utena saved that one girl, and a week later Anthy had asked her to spend a weekend with her in Hokkaido so they could sit together in the hot springs and watch baboons admire their butts in the steaming water. Just last weekend they went to the countryside, where they witnessed a rockslide crush three rabbits.

"You can't go," Wakaba said over their weekly lunch. "She's trying to steal you from me. We've known each other all our lives-"

"Since middle school, you mean."

"-and you never travel. Except for that time when you went to Europe."

"For medical reasons!"

"And they didn't do a good job with it, either," Wakaba said, sighing. Her phone beeped. Wakaba took a look at it, then rolled her eyes. Utena was, fleetingly, offended. She knew Wakaba's derision was directed at her small army of suitors, but she felt included in this group of sad sacks, though she wasn't sure why.

"I don't know if my passport is still good," Utena said. She hadn't thought about that at all when they were at the travel agency.

"It's not fair. My engagement party is in two weeks. You were supposed to help me pick the courses."

"We'll be back in a week. How much time do you need to pick out pizzas, anyway?”

"But the bachelorette party!"

"The wedding's not 'til next spring."

Wakaba reached across the table and clasped Utena's hands against her chest. "But soon we won't be able to spend any more time together. I'll be a woman committed to another forever. Oh, Utena!"

"That's also not 'til the wedding!"

Wakaba let go, but remained bent over their plates and food. The straw of her iced tea swirled around the rim, first madly, then slowing until it stopped, the bent head facing Utena like an angry giraffe. "Don't you realize what's going to happen if you go to America with her?"

"She'll make me milk a cow?" Anthy, it turned out, owned some three hundred cows in various places. Thinking of all that lactose made Utena's stomach hurt.

Wakaba sat back down and sighed over the rim of her cup. She raised the cup in the air. A waiter came and refilled both of their glasses. The ice bobbed in the cup, buoyed up with cold tea. "Ah," she said. "We're both getting old and married. Is it true? Are we truly drifting apart forever?"

"You're the one who's engaged. I haven’t seen anyone in ages," Utena pointed out, but Wakaba made an elephant out of the finger sandwiches and ate it up—ears first, then the face, then the nose.

***

Since Utena had missed their last lunch, Wakaba had blocked off the rest of the afternoon. She put Utena on a bus, blindfolded her, and let the bus head out.

"It's an aquarium," Utena said eventually, after Wakaba took off the blindfold.

"Right."

"Anthy has a monkey. He's pretty cute! I wonder if she took him from the zoo."

Wakaba stuck her arm in the air and shouted to the woman at the counter, "Two tickets! Adults, please."

The aquarium from the outside was two stories, and on the inside, more than twice that: the basement went down another three stories, a distance that felt inadequate yet suicidal at the same time. Upstairs, the fish swerved around glass corners and floated in balding green clumps of kelp. There were signs everywhere, the white background flashing cyan and green from the water: Please think of the animals. Please do not tap the glass. Please do not use flash. We imported these seagulls from Australia. Addendum: we don't know why.

"What's in America, anyway?" Wakaba said, peering at some giant shrimp with a pair of binoculars. "It has to be more than cows."

"I don't know. She said she wanted to take me somewhere for fun." She didn't like to dig too deeply at Anthy's motives. They probably weren't bad ones, or at least, Utena didn't think they could be bad ones. Her aunt had called her a lousy judge of character when she got back from Europe. It wasn't like there was a surefire way of telling if your estimation of someone's trustworthiness was accurate or not, though. For example: a dashing young man who helped grandmothers cross the street by day, and murdered grandfathers all night. But if you just saw him during the day, you'd think, What a nice young man.

"She's already had you for fun! Every weekend of the last month." Now Wakaba's binoculars were trained on the coral reef section.

"We're still getting to know each other! Ah, but she'll never replace you as my best friend." She put a hand on Wakaba's shoulder, but Wakaba didn't respond to her immediately. Her head turned, level as one of those security cameras, to the exhibits: clown fish, sea cucumber, sea slug. She put her binoculars back into her bag, hooked Utena by the elbow, and said, "Let's go to the jellyfish section."

The jellyfish section was down in the basement, all the way at the bottom floor. They bobbed in their tanks, bag-like and seductive, glowing pink and yellow against the water. The afternoon sunlight came down from the windows on the main floor, but down here it had darkened to a pale, dreamy night.

Wakaba rested her elbows on the railing, stretching her fingers so they almost touched the glass. "I really did love you back then."

"Thanks. You're my best friend, too."

"You're doing it wrong! Look at me." Utena did. "Close your eyes, onion prince."

"Onion?" Utena said, squinting at Wakaba's determined face before squeezing her eyes shut. A second later, Wakaba kissed her on the mouth. She held onto the railing to steady herself, then leaned into the kiss--she had been expecting it, she realized, even though she was surprised. When Wakaba pulled back, Utena said, with a crooked smile, "That's really not fair."

"You're leaving me," she said. "And you don't even know it."

"I'm not going very far," she said, before remembering in a few days she'd be off to America. “It's not like that, anyway. She's on vacation and she's bored, that's all. She appreciates the company." She leaned against the railing, away from the aquarium glass. But the basement was constructed in a wide ring, so when she turned away from one wall she found herself facing another section of jellyfish. Their thin legs fluttered in the wake of their own currents, their bodies sagged and puffed, their lipless mouths at the center of their bodies blew watery kisses at the concrete floor. “Wakaba, why do you think she's doing this?”

Wakaba looked up at the ceiling, as though considering the arrangement of heaven, and her place within it. She sighed, and rested her head against Utena’s shoulder. "She wants to be with you so much that she's taking you to America. Even you're not dense enough to think it's just friendly companionship."

They watched the jellyfish float in their massive tanks for a while.

"She kissed me on the day we met," she said. "I forgot about that. How did that happen?"

Wakaba slammed her forehead against the glass.

"Don't disturb the animals, please!" a staff member said.

***

The day they met: bright, sunny, the height of pollen season. It was one of those spring days where winter stuck to the winds, drying out the back of your throat and washing everything out in an indifferent white haze. She had just finished a delivery job, ten cakes to a small café, and for that she had been awarded a receipt and free iced coffee. She was standing outside the café, sucking the coffee through a straw, when a woman in a yellow dress and a white cardigan rounded the corner—she had caught Utena’s eye straight away. Utena could tell right off that she was a real nice lady.

That would have been the end of it, if the girl hadn't stepped onto the street. What for? Well, who knew. Utena saw the car, saw the girl, and moved so fast that her cup of coffee was flung into the air; she dove into the streets; she caught the girl; she did a roll and ended up at the feet of the woman in the dress.

The woman was covering her mouth with her hands. Then she helped Utena up and kissed her right there.

"Thanks," Utena said when it was over. "Are you the mother?"

"Anthy."

"Who?"

"That's my name," she said, breathless. "Anthy Himemiya. Do you often meet people like this, diving into the street?"

"If I did that all the time, I'd break my neck.”

Anthy took her by the arm and launched, immediately, into where she had just come from, how glad she was to see Utena, and a deep inquiry into what Utena was doing, where she had been recently, if she was happy, if she was alive. An awful much for a first time meeting. But it was barely noticeable at the time. Utena had been a real brute and spent the whole conversation exclaiming things like, "Johannesburg, really!" before Anthy could even finish her sentences. It was only later that Utena realized how animated Anthy had been in those first few minutes and hours of their acquaintanceship. Animated in a way she never was again. She couldn’t help but feel as though she had done something wrong.

On their next meeting, Anthy was calmer, probably, from spending some more time in Japan surrounded by her native people. Beginnings had a strange energy, Anthy had mused. An energy to meeting someone for the first time after being away from home for so long.

Uh-huh, Utena said. This was their Hokkaido trip. She had her eyes closed and was on the verge of falling asleep. They were sitting in a hot spring and holding hands beneath the water. The creaky notes of bad karaoke from one of the main rooms were audible from here, a song from one of those direct-to-video Disney sequels. The notes were sweetly familiar, but when she tried to remember the words, she couldn't think of them at all.

***

Before they left for America, Utena saw her doctors. As usual, they met her in their office and stayed behind the paper screen door, leaving their shadows behind.

"Hmm!" said one shadow.

"Hmm," said another, and put on a tricone hat. "Well, what do you say? Go or don't go?"

"Vermont," said the first doctor. "The Yankee dreams of the green mountain and makes way to the promised land of Canada."

The second picked up a rifle and slung it over his shoulder, then pointed it straight ahead. "A dragon!"

"Grr," said the dragon, snapping its cardboard jaws. "Grr!"

"Blood and bones!" said the hatted doctor, and clutched her shoulder. "I've lost my arm! But I remember something. The promised land--it's not Canada, it's Israel. What am I doing over here? I need a boat!"

"Should have paid more attention to Sunday school," Utena said, and took her blood pressure herself.

***

She left for America with a list of "do nots." Do not go to the beach. Do not wear oxygen masks. Do not stand under stalactites.

"Great," Utena said, skimming over the list as she left the office: Do not hug bears, do not fall in love with bears, do not seduce bears. No! No, Juliet! "Thanks. No one's ever going to hug a bear."

The next morning she was at Narita International Airport, and a smear of hours and clouds and roads later, she was in Vermont. Vermont, with its mountains and tilting white houses. The bed and breakfast they were staying at was two miles from the small town halfway up a mountain, a tiny quaint place that Utena barely saw before making her way to the bed, announcing, “What an adventure!” and passing out.

She woke to the phone ringing. "Hello?" she said groggily.

"Are you having pleasant dreams? I went out to pick blackberries, but I'm back empty-handed. I left my basket unattended and the ants carried them all away."

"Chuchu ate them, didn't he."

"Yes, and now he is sick," Anthy said happily, and laughed. "Come downstairs. I want to see you again.”

Utena rolled over in the bed, then vaulted out of it with a yelp. Had there always been this single bed in the room? She could have sworn she had fallen asleep in one of two twin beds, but here she was in this queen bed with Anthy's nightgown in an impolite pile on top of the sheets. Utena took a step back to better get an eye on the room, and tripped backwards into her suitcase, a bra tangled around her foot.

In the kitchen was an American sandwich cut in two with impressive layers of meat and cheese. Chuchu was moaning in the sink. The bed and bath owner was off somewhere—gardening? Farming? Whatever it was people did out here. Anthy was at the table eating cheese off a platter.

"Anthy!" Utena said, and waved her arm inarticulately at the stairs.

Anthy turned her head to the side. "A family of twelve became lost on their way to a wedding and found their way here and had to take our room. The only room left was the honeymoon suite. You were half-asleep at the time." She ate a grape and added generously, "But you were very helpful with the suitcase."

“Anthy, you make it sound like they were overrun by mice!"

"We have such bad luck with mice infestations," Anthy said with a sigh. On the table, Chuchu sat up to make an indignant squeak, then sank back down to moan.

***

After lunch, they went down to the farm where Anthy had some of her cows. For this, Anthy wore a broad hat and a dress with a daring back.

"I don't burn," Anthy said, lowering her eyes.

"You must get—whoops!—ah!" What Anthy said in response she'd never know: she had been in the middle of putting on sunscreen and squeezed the bottle too hard, sending it rocketing out the open window.

The farm was a small, hilly forever away, too far to reach by foot. Utena offered to drive. She had an actual driver's license back in Japan, after all! One she never used, because cars were expensive and she didn't know how to fill the gas, but she could do it in theory, and now she used this theoretical knowledge to commandeer a golf cart up and down the wild green mountain.

This proved to be more difficult than she could have reasonably expected: the golf cart had lumpy wheels and the ground was rocky and there were no road signs. She lost the road, and then the footpath, and after what felt like hours under the sun, she found a distant fence far from the farm's entrance.

"It's the journey that matters," Anthy said sympathetically, while Utena guzzled down water. "And we have made it to the destination, so we deserve congratulations, I should think. I see Nanami."

"Who?"

She pointed to a black and white cow standing in the middle of the field. "And there is Nanami and Nanami and Nanami, and Nanami... and that one over there..."

It was a bull. From here it looked to be the size of her thumb. He had plain brown fur and horns growing like transposed tusks out of his heavy brow.

"Gregory?" Utena guessed.

"Nanami." She scanned the area and said, "Hmm. We'll have to leave our trusty steed here.”

By the farm was a handsome couple leading a calf into a truck. The couple were talking animatedly in English while Utena and Anthy did their best to not look like trespassers. They were doing pretty well at it, too, until the woman said, "Himemiya? Really?”

“Pardon?” Utena said, stepping in front of Anthy by instinct.

“Oh,” said the woman, and twirled a strand of pudding blonde hair around her finger—bleached, Utena saw now, and curled to perfection. “You, too?” She had a parasol hooked around her arm, and now flipped it up and around, and sprang it open. “I certainly never expected to see you two again. And out here! And together!” She put a hand to her mouth and laughed, a real rich girl from a fancy family kind of laugh.

Utena had been ready to pop parasol lady, but on hearing that, she sighed. She put her hand on her hip. “You’re strange, aren’t you.”

I’m strange? Ohohoho!” She walked over to Utena and Anthy, her eyes narrowed and shoes pointing at them as though with an accusation. “I thought you were dead. So you two ran away to America? … Well, Kyouichi won that bet.”

“We’re here on vacation,” Utena said. “I live in Japan. Anthy… lives in hotels. In Japan.”

“Nanami Kiryuu,” Anthy said, her smile vacant. “How do you do, Nanami-san. It’s been a while.”

Nanami looked left, then right. She pointed straight behind her. “This,” she said, “is my fiancé, Chauncey Mather. He cares about me very much.” She turned to him, and said in English, “I need to talk with my friends, honey. Can you make sure that thing makes it home?” And with that, she marched ahead of all of them. Utena followed, feeling confused, and Anthy was not long behind her.

Nanami stopped in the shade of a tall crabapple tree and regarded her and Anthy with a glare that on anyone else might have seemed mean instead of being an unfortunate default state. Utena scratched the back of her head and said, “We wouldn’t happen to know each other, would we?”

“After that night I spent in your bed staring at your face, I know too much about you,” Nanami said, shutting her parasol. “… Not like that! And I’m engaged now, anyway.”

“We weren’t thinking anything,” Anthy said. “Isn’t that right, Utena-sama?”

“Don’t –sama me.”

“You have some nerve pretending to forget about me after everything you put me through and after everything I saw you and the chairman doing,” Nanami said. “Well, I haven’t. I remember everything. If you two are alive, that means you won your duel with the World’s End. But where’s the revolution? Your twenty-twenty vision? No more miraculous eaves to hide your hair in?”

“World’s what? Evolution?”

“Don’t be dense with me!”

Anthy stepped forward now. She removed her straw hat and held it against her stomach. The sun dappled her hair and skin so for a moment she looked like some exceptional fawn with her large, sorrowful eyes and her graceful legs. “Utena… had an accident,” she said. “Ten years ago. She remembers nothing from that time of her life.”

“Yeah,” Utena said. She had an itch in her head. Even mentioning that she couldn’t remember that year of her life was enough to make her stomach attach itself somewhere high in her chest, making her nauseous. “Well, it seems like you two are good friends from back then! What was it that you were doing, theater?”

“You’re crazy,” Nanami said.

“I’ll go stretch my legs,” she said. “Let you two old theater troopers relive the good old days, yeah?”

***

Once Utena was gone, Anthy fit the hat back onto her head. Chuchu clung to the brim with his tiny fingers.

“Of course you’re not telling her anything,” Nanami said. “It’d be too much to expect for you to tell the truth.”

Utena was sitting on the fence, her mouth close to the ear of one of the cows. Was she asking it questions? No doubt she could bend that cow’s ear to her later and get an answer. Ah, she wouldn’t do that. Anthy had changed. Not harassing farm animals for the secrets Japanese girls deposited into their heads was one way she was no longer like her former self, or so she liked to say.

“We only recently met again,” Anthy said. “I spent such a long time searching. Things are good now. She will remember, eventually.”

“And I’m the queen of France.”

“Marie Antoinette? It’s you again? It’s been too long. I heard headlessness is fashionable again.”

“Oh, shut up,” Nanami said. “What are you doing here? If you’re here for me, then no way. My fiancé might not be very rich yet, but he was a wrestler in university. And he’s an American, so he must have a gun somewhere.”

A gust knocked Chuchu from her hat. He caught himself on the hem of Anthy’s dress, his tiny claws scratching up the side of her knee. She scooped him up and set him on her shoulder and said, “I left my brother long ago. The school you went to no longer exists, though I’m sure you knew that already. I came here to see my animals and thought it’d be nice to have a friend with me.”

“Well,” Nanami said, puffing then deflating, so she was saying, Weeeeeelllllllll, like a sigh. “Good for you. You’ve moved from being a… a whatever to being…” She glanced behind her, still expecting one of her posse to jump in with a statement. But she was still getting used to the vacuum of adulthood, the aloneness where there once had been companionship. As a child she had been adored, sometimes by force, and as an adult people found her sometimes endearing but more often grating. She had not changed much over the years except for becoming more canny and more keen and more independent, all by being lonely. She sighed genuinely this time and looked over to Utena Tenjou, now stretching her hip flexors using a fence post and the inert side of a cow. “So, you’re just… traveling? Together? That’s it?”

“It’s a comfortable arrangement.”

“Good for you. I don’t believe you, but if that’s what you think, then good for you! It sounds like an arrangement only an idiot like her could appreciate, so at least you know your audience.”

“I offer my gratitude to you. I have sought your approval for many centuries. Now I can be reincarnated in peace.”

“Oh, brother,” Nanami muttered.

***

“You two are invited,” Nanami said stiffly when she returned. “To the wedding party. You can’t come to the wedding wedding, that’s already been arranged for in Tokyo, but we are having a ceremony in New York City. It’s very exclusive. Miki and Juri won’t be there, but my brother has been invited, and he’ll be happy to see you two alive and together.”

“Um," Utena said. She was trying to think of an appropriate response, but all she could think of was, 'My best friend's already made me the maid-of-honor for hers,' but that was no excuse. She reached for a while for the right words, and came up with, “We’re not dating. I know it kind of seems like it, but we’re still just friends.”

“Oh, yes,” Nanami said, and rolled her eyes up to study the cavernous heights of her eye sockets. “I’m sure.”

"I think it sounds fun," Anthy said. "We'll be happy to go."

“Good! I’m off, then.” She said it in a direct kind of way that implied they ought to kiss her on the cheek before she disappeared for whatever land beyond. She took two steps, then turned back around. “… That cow we bought for the special steak… It was wearing this bell… Its name wouldn’t happen to be…”

“Hmm?” Anthy said, smiling.

“Goodbye,” Nanami said with a curt jerk of her head. She summoned her fiancé by holding her hand up in the air. They got in the truck, and were gone, going down the road, down the hill, down to the green.

Utena watched her go. She felt stunned and almost dazed, and had to check her pulse to make sure that had all actually happened instead of being a weird hallucination from her occasional episodes of low blood pressure. “I thought you didn’t like people.”

“It would have been rude to decline," she said, a touch coolly, as though quoting a once-hated teacher. Utena squeezed her shoulder. She took Utena’s hand in hers, lacing their fingers together. “I owe it to her to make her happy. This one time, at least.”

“She’s a bully,” Utena said firmly. “You don’t owe her anything. Besides, I can think of better things we can do while we’re here than go to some fancy party all the way in New York.”

Anthy regarded her with a considering eye. Utena felt a chill go over her. Not the icy clench of fear, but the coldness of exposure.

“There was a girl I lived with who was always telling me to make friends, despite only having one herself. I used to wonder why she did that. But now that she's gone, I realize how lonely she must have been, and how much lonelier I must have made her."

Anthy pressed her hand onto Utena's arm. Her skin was hot from the sun, her gaze intensely green in the shadow of her hat.

"You shouldn't say that about yourself," Utena said. "You're great company. That girl sounds like a real boor."

Anthy’s smile curved with a slow knowingness. She brushed a strand of hair out of Utena's mouth. Utena stared off at a mountain, suddenly shy. "Have I embarrassed you? I've forgotten how sweet you can be."

"Not really," she said, leaning onto Anthy. Her heart was pounding hard, and the heat was making her dizzy.

***

The day after, they took an old, empty train up the slope of a mountain to admire the effort of old American technology, the sixth longest train track of its sort in the New England area and the one hundred eighty-seventh longest in North America and Europe, and the four hundredth worldwide. And the day after that, they walked along a barren path in a forest of maples and spruces, the trunks of the maples studded with taps, and the air fresh with the smell of leaves and hidden sugar. A falcon stole Chuchu away, and Utena had to run after it throwing rocks until it released him.

"Some guys need to learn to mind their own business," Utena said, while Chuchu shook his fist at the sky.

"You were very brave," said Anthy.

She was never sure whether Anthy approved of her moments of dumb, concussed heroism. There was always a been there, seen that quality to those compliments, a dry irony cupped away inside her hands when she applauded. "It was a bird," Utena said, and handed Chuchu back.

Afterwards, Anthy had Utena drive the golf cart to a place past the cow farm. West, she said, go west. Against the sun, until they hit a patch of wide-open nothingness, a wide, sloping space pinched in the middle into a mountain.

“There,” Anthy said. “The house.”

“House?” Utena said. Internally she was sweating. How much gas did these things have? And she was right, too: at the very bottom of the mountain the little thing gave up.

“An adventure,” Anthy said. “I wonder if we can hitchhike back.”

“No one’s ever going to come out here!” Utena exclaimed, and Anthy laughed.

“You’re right! We’ll be lost.” That only served to make her pace more brisk, higher and higher up the footpath.

It was not much of a house. For one thing, there were only two rooms and no electricity. Half-melted candles stood everywhere, presumably for light and some meager measure of heat. A rusting faucet stuck out of the wall. In the second room was a large bed in the middle, and an old dresser smushed into the corner.

“Hello?” Utena said. “Excuse me? Hello!”

“Oh, we’re breaking in,” Anthy said, taking her shoes off. “Please pardon us. We won’t burn anything.”

“Anthy!” Anthy put a hand on one of the knobs on the drawers, and gave it a tug. “Anthy,” she said, advancing and trying to sound stern. Anthy stopped her with her fingertips. She spread her fingers along Utena’s shoulder, ran them across the length of her collarbone, then hooked to the open collar of her tank top. It barely took a tug of Anthy's fingers to send Utena face-first into the sheets.

“Ah,” she said. “How will I explain this to the owners? We were lost, and my friend threw herself onto the bed—”

Enough of that! Utena hooked her heel around Anthy's back, and pulled her in. She had some more things to say, but found herself silenced by the heat of Anthy's legs and back, a new reality that defined itself as the smell of Anthy's newly laundered dress, her falling hair that banded around them like the wrought bars of a bird cage. She stared up at Anthy's chin and neck and hair, unable to escape.

Anthy, too, was still. Her mouth shifted from shape to subtle shape. The light passing through her hair threw itself on her neck and face in agony.

"Do you ever wonder," Anthy said, "what you've forgotten?"

The whole world seemed to hang on her answer, but her throat was closing up. Her hands twisted the bed sheets above her head. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t think. Everything was escaping from her. She found herself trembling and unable to stop until she said, "I feel like I've known you my whole life. Like I've always known you, ever since I was little."

She wanted, more than anything, to be kissed. She stretched up and met nothing—Anthy had pulled away, smiling tightly.

"We should go," she said. "Before it becomes too dark."

***

There was a truck, Anthy said, that ran from one town to another every six hours for deliveries and errands. They waited down on the side of the road for it.

Utena kicked at pebbles on the road into the tall grass, unable to keep still. She put a hand on her hip and made a show of scanning the landscape. The mountains, in truth, weren't so great. She had seen better ones in Japan, more majestic and pointier, too. These green crests popping up one after another looked like the stage prop version of ocean waves. You half-expected to see a paper boat bobbing through the pale sky.

“I wonder who owns that cabin,” Utena said.

“Oh. I’m sure it’s a rental property,” Anthy said. She stretched her arm out and a blackbird landed on her finger. It cocked its head at Utena. It was not a raven or a crow, though it resembled one: black feet and eyes and feathers, with a beak that seemed a size too large for it. Its feathers shone silver in the light and its claws curled with a haughty imperiousness. And its size! It was... variable. Constantly changing. She couldn't stop looking at it, this familiar thing.

“It was nice. We could try staying there next time to be closer to the cows.”

"Caw, caw," Anthy said, stroking the bird's chest.

"Motherfucker," it crowed, and turned its head nearly a hundred eighty. Utena looked away.

“You know—I do think about it sometimes,” she said. “About all the… and stuff like that. But it was just middle school, so…”

Anthy shook her hand, and the bird took flight—but it circled their heads, casting a crown of shadows on them. “Surely you must have guessed by now.”

“Guessed what?” Utena said. Her breath was coming short and her back and shoulders were tensing up. “Guessed that you’ve been trying to—lure me into bed with you? Even I know no one takes some stranger they've only known for a month all the way to America unless they want something. And it’s not going to be friendship, that’s for sure.”

“Utena,” Anthy said—ah, what was that in her voice? Utena would know what it was for sure if she were calmer. But she could still see the bird’s feathers flashing overhead, could still see the point of its knife-like beak shining in the sun. A haze set deep in her eyes, a grinding noise filled her ears, the sound of metal gnashing on metal—knife after knife cutting into her, piercing her down to the marrow. Her stomach turned to pure acid.

“If you had told me you knew me from back then when we met,” she said, “I never would’ve come here with you.”

Chapter Text

“I told you so,” Wakaba said. “I told you she was weird, but did you listen to me?”

"Very sorry," Utena said in mid-lunge. She was outside in the early morning, gearing up for a run. She had spent the night on the floor and was awakened before dawn by Chuchu admonishing her for being cruel—a hard thing to hear, from a monkey. "I'll be sure to listen to you more, O Wise One."

There was a silence over the phone. Utena hoped it wouldn't take too long. She was paying through the nose for this call.

"Did you at least get laid?”

“No! Wakaba!”

“I had to ask.”

“It was probably for the best,” Utena said with a sigh, pointing her toes and wiggling them inside her shoe. “I hate it when people try to talk to me about the… whatever. And I don’t have many vacation days left at work.”

“I know you don’t listen to me much, but even to me that’s a dumb reason to break up with someone. So what if she knew you back in middle school? That just means you two can get to know each other all over again!”

“I already have you for that. It was one year of middle school. So who really cares, anyway?” She stretched the back of her calves and got to her hamstrings before she cleared her throat. “Are you still there?”

"I care," Wakaba said. Utena stopped. She straightened back up. Wakaba went on: "You forgot all about that time you fought the vice-president of the student council for me. And you forgot about that big fight we had over that girl, and then you went to Europe without telling me! I was so relieved when you showed up at my high school. I thought it'd mean we could start all over again, without any of the hard parts. But it hasn't been the same, has it?"

“I didn't know you felt that way,” Utena said instead of the catastrophically stupid, ‘I don’t remember.’

"You're so dumb.”

"Yes, yes. Dunce King of the Onion Kingdom. I'm sorry, Wakaba."

“What for?” Wakaba said, a creaky smile in her voice. “We were barely talking that year, anyway. I don’t know what you were doing back then, not really. You were hanging out with some girl. … I wonder if Himemiya was that girl. Does she wear glasses? Or have her hair in a bun? Does she get slapped a lot?"

"Sounds like a librarian,” Utena said. “Do you think…” She pressed the phone closer to her ear. She couldn’t figure out how to speak or what to ask. The morning stretched on and on to match her silence.

Finally, Wakaba said, "You're my best friend. I love you, so I'll say what I wanted you to say to me when we were young. You're special to her. So whatever it is you’re thinking of doing, go do it! Even if you regret it—well, I can always break off my engagement."

"I want to," Utena said quietly. "But I liked how things were between us before I knew. I wish she had been a stranger. What if we hated each other back then? Just thinking about it makes me sick."

"Go," Wakaba said. "Go, you."

***

She would talk to Anthy, she decided, talk to her like a reasonable person and adult... well, that was the plan. Very ambitious for her. She'd burst in and offer to make breakfast! She'd—the door was in front of her now, so she decided to go with fling the door open and think later.

"Morning!" she said, aiming for jolly and ending up at tacky. There was no time to cringe at herself: Chuchu flung himself at her face, his tiny toes scratching at her cheek and his small fist providing a regular thump and beat on her head. "Okay—okay, enough. Stop that. Where's Anthy, Chuchu?"

“Hello, baby."

“Gak!” Utena spun around. Anthy was in the doorway holding a pitcher of water with whole lemons bobbing in the ice. Next to Anthy was a man in white, boyish shorts and a white polo. His long hair was a striking red and hung around his face like a pair of hapless wings.

“Good, I’ve caught you before you started exercising,” Anthy said. “Here. I’ve made some lemonade for you.”

“Anthy, you have to… Never mind. Who is that!”

"This here is Touga Kiryuu," Anthy said, and poured Utena some water. "Nanami-san’s older brother.”

“Now that she’s to be married, she’s started talking to me again,” Touga said. “I’m very humbled. We were estranged for several years.”

"What does that even… Listen, Anthy, I want to talk."

"No time to talk," said Touga. He twirled his car keys around his finger. What was it about him that made her want to punch him so much? It had to be because he reminded her of some of her old boyfriends: sleazy and tastelessly long-haired. “Chop, chop, ladies. My darling sister won't be happy if we're late."

Anthy's smile was vacuous and immense. Utena reached for her sleeveless arm, and barely managed a brush of the fingertips. That seemed enough.

"We'll be down in a few minutes," Anthy said to Touga. He shrugged and smiled at them with practiced warmth. Then he went down the stairs and back to the car.

"What—I didn’t think you were actually going to that thing!" Utena said, stammering partway through the sentence from residual shock. “And how did you even know him? He’s so creepy! And his sister is a jerk. I was hoping..." She sat on the bed, trying to get her brain to fire up again, but the spark wouldn't catch. “About yesterday... I was a real idiot to you, and...”

“We can talk about it," Anthy said. "It won't take very long."

She moved over on the bed, expecting Anthy might come sit next to her, but Anthy instead stood by the dresser holding the pitcher between her two curving palms. The sun was right at her neck, illuminating her mouth and chest but leaving everything else darkened.

"I've done you wrong by concealing my motives, so now I will be as honest with you as I know how. Through a variety of circumstances, we became roommates at the start of your third year in middle school. Before I knew it, I thought of you as my good friend, and you thought the same of me. My brother took an interest to you and I helped him hurt you. At the end of the year he beat you terribly. I helped him with that as well. I wish he made me do it, but I did it myself. You see, I couldn’t imagine life without him.

“I was very sad when you went to Europe. You were the first friend I had, and you had tried so hard. I sat there for several days before realizing that you had shown me there was a world beyond the one I was in. So I left that world to find you in this one.” The shadow over Anthy’s eyes grew deeper, but the pitcher of water brightened in the advancing daylight, the ice clear and lemons searing. Anthy, at last, looked up at Utena. Her eyes were wet along the bottom. And she had such a smile.

“Are you—” She covered the old scar on her stomach with her hand and tried to get her eyes to focus. Her voice caught. She couldn't see anything. She felt pale—not that her face had gone white, but that she might fade away at any second to some other country. She forced her arm to drop to her side. “I’m—thanks. For being honest with me. Now we can start over again without your brother messing things up.”

Even as she said that, she could see Wakaba sitting in Tokyo, her skin growing brown from the evening sun and phone at her ear. We could start all over again, without any of the hard parts. Any of the hard parts—a terrible pain split through her, carving a smooth vacuum through her. Bitterness lined that wound, then flooded it. She had to remember to breathe.

Touga stuck his head into the room. "Yoo hoo," he said. "You ladies ready?"

"I am," Anthy said. "Are you coming, Utena?"

"Just a sec," she said. Anthy smiled and left.

It was just her and Touga now, Touga with his long hair and his ridiculous legs—what had his parents been? Secretary birds? Pond skimmers? He flicked some hair out of his eyes and said, leaning in the doorway as he spoke, "I forgot about you for so long. But then I saw a princely light shining from afar. Your light."

"Oh, shut up," she groaned, and put her face in her hands.

***

Now it was to New York and Nanami's party. Anthy sat in the back with Chuchu, leaving Utena up with Touga. Touga was quiet enough for most of the ride, though he managed to pepper in all kinds of things she didn't care about as he drove: "I was the president of the student council when you were in school," he said. "Went to Tokyo University, then Princeton for my MBA. Haven't picked up a sword in years. That must be the power of your revolution. The fire still burns in me, baby."

"I liked Nanami better," she said.

"The cows are nice," Anthy said.

"The human one, I meant.”

When they pulled over at the gas station to refuel, Anthy went with Chuchu to seek berries from a spiny bush in the back. The gas station was so old that the labels on the pumps had faded away to a smooth white sheen with a flake of yellow or green still holding on.

Utena slouched against the car trunk. She had a headache and her back hurt, and Anthy's knee kept bumping against a spot right below her ribs, right around where she had a sliced up kidney. Even worse, she could feel the itching of former intimacy between her and Touga, like a stubborn sneeze stuck up her nose somewhere. He stood in front of her, tall and broad-shouldered, pumping gas into his car. His wingspan was incredible. She'd bet he had been a varsity athlete back in school.

"Okay," she said. "Fine. Just say it."

"I didn't expect to find you traveling with her," he said. "Of all people."

Somehow, this made it easier for her to relax. She slumped over so her elbows were braced against the car and her legs extended far out in front of her. "I can't believe I'm doing it, either."

"You don't have to keep playing at being a prince," he said. "Especially not out here."

"I'm really the one in debt to her."

He released the pump, and advanced over to her, leaning in close. "I mean all this. Keeping up this charade of companionship. Going along with her. Let's face it, Tenjou. It's only the princess who stays in one place. If you were a prince, you would have left instead of staying with her, waiting for your liberation."

"That's what you think you're doing?" she said. "You're a playboy with a car. You're not liberating anything. You're just an annoyance."

She pushed him away. Chuchu went splat against the windshield, apparently flung from far away. Anthy was jogging back from the edge of the parking lot, but she wasn’t much of an athlete. They still had some time. Touga finished filling his tank. He screwed the cap back onto the car and flipped the tiny door shut.

"Did she really have a brother?" she said. "I don't remember him at all."

"The chairman of the school," he said with a sigh. He folded his hands over his chest, palms flat against his shirt. The center of his palms were probably right over his nipples. "A wonderful and terrible man. He offered to give me his car before I left. But I had outgrown him, although I didn't realize it then. I graduated and went to look for you. ... Of course, I forgot everything the moment I crossed the threshold. I like to think your shadow guided me even then. Whatever happened to him, Anthy?"

"He died," she said with a smile. "Shall we go?"

***

They were given the key to a room and told to come down at six. Touga gave Utena an appraising look and said, "I'll find you a dress to wear," then breezed out.

It was still the afternoon, but the curtains were heavy and blocked out the light, casting everything in a uniform gray lightened only by a pale outline of the window. Anthy sat on the bed with a sigh. "It was so hot in there," she said. "Ah. Air conditioning is truly the finest invention."

“Those Kiryuus are an odd pair!” Utena said, hauling their suitcases over to the far end of the room. “They really resemble each other, don’t they?”

“You could say so. They are both very rich and rude.”

“I thought Mr. President was nice enough.”

“It’s good he’s gone into business. He can be as cruel and princely as he likes there.”

“I wouldn’t say he’s princely. He seems a little…” She sucked on the inside of her cheek for a bit, trying to figure a way to say it. “He seems like one of those guys who always wants more. More and more. One of those guys who’ll take over your whole life if you’re not careful.”

“That’s a good observation,” Anthy said, sounding relieved. Utena turned back to look at Anthy, sitting there on the bed in the dark. She had braided her hair in the morning and was combing it out now with her fingers. It came loose in tight waves, one section at a time. “Would you help me with these?”

“I’m no good with that kind of thing.”

“You prefer to watch. I understand. I’m nearly done anyway.” She shook her head and it all came loose. She stretched her arms out and flexed her wrist and yawned. “Well, that was quite the journey, wasn’t it. Not as bad as our trip to the country—”

“Because we didn’t get lost this time. Mr. President was driving us. And it’s New York City!” They had been stopped on a bridge for a long time, where they could overlook a cluster of brown housing developments on one side and layers of highway lanes on the other, twisting over one another like a bag of snakes. She sat down on the bed opposite to Anthy. “Anthy… You and the Kiryuus must have been close.”

“I wasn’t close to anyone while I was at school.”

“Oh! Right. Okay. Were we friends, at least?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

Ah. That had been a cruel thing to say. She turned her head. Not all the way around. Just enough so she was staring at the black glass on the TV, watching Anthy’s profile. “Anthy… isn’t it weird to you, hauling me around everywhere?”

“Oh, yes! At first I assumed you had never quite gotten over the brain trauma you mentioned,” she said. Ack! Harsh as always. “But it seems natural, doesn’t it? I had been looking for you for a long time in all kinds of places, and I came to love traveling for its own sake. I thought I’d ask you to come, since it’d be a shame to leave you behind. And you said yes.”

“So you really do like traveling!” Utena said, turning around entirely now.

Anthy was already facing her, legs folded beneath her and leaning forward, one hand on the center of the bed supporting her as she spoke. “I had been trapped in one place for so long. It frightened me at first. There were all kinds of things that weren’t as I expected, and it was the first time I had ever been out on my own—truly on my own.”

But what about, Utena nearly asked. She held back just in time. She had a feeling… no, she knew that Anthy and her brother didn’t get along. Had not gotten along. Akio was dead, or so Anthy had announced earlier with a smile. Akio, the school chairman. So that was his name. The knowledge plopped into her head dully like a smooth rock tossed into the unbroken surface of a lake. It slipped down from her head and into her throat, past her stomach.

She swallowed and said, “I never did much traveling, except for that one time to Europe. Not that I remember it, so that doesn’t count. I went to Korea once after I dropped out of college, but there was so much fuss about showing up at the airport on time and sitting on the plane and arranging for rooms… It’s funny, but I like it more when I’m with you.”

“It's selfish of me to say so, but I...”

“Sorry?” Utena asked, leaning in, and was pulled into the kiss by Anthy's arms, lifted into her mouth by heat. "Ah!" she managed, dizzy. She took a breath and threw herself back in, desperate. This was what she wanted, she reminded herself. Hadn’t she been thinking about this for a while, catching glimpses of Anthy in the rearview mirror of Touga’s car, on the flight to America thinking of their first meeting to pass the blurring hours? But it didn’t sit right in her, wouldn’t sit right. That had been an Anthy she hadn’t known in middle school, a someone who hadn’t left her in the woods to die.

Anthy's hand slipped from her elbow, up her shoulder, around the back to her shoulder blades and then following the curve of her ribs to her breast—god! She leapt out of the embrace, rising so clumsily she hit her knees against the nightstand. The pain and shock sent bright colors through the corner of her vision, bright even through the gray gloom. She knelt down on the floor, rubbing at her sore legs with her hand.

"Utena!" Anthy said, her voice straining in her throat. "Why? What's wrong?"

"I can't, Anthy, I can't," she said. "What did you do? What did you do to me!"

At this, Anthy began to weep, a total stranger to Utena's eye. "Why?" she said, not an echo but a new cry. "Why is it like this? Why won't you remember?"

She pressed her face into the pristine hotel sheets and wept. Her hair covered her back and face, a black rock sinking into the center of the bed. Utena hovered over Anthy for a moment, before helping her sit up.

"I'm sorry," she said.

Anthy was leaning against Utena’s arm. Her whole back heaved, then shuddered, then stopped. "It’s not your fault. But I can't take you with me for much longer. There is no peace. I won't hold onto a corpse again, I won't."

"I'm not dead. Don't you know that?"

They sat for several minutes together. Then the grayness of the room expanded and transform itself to a voracious gloom. There was nothing to do then but to leave it—flee it before it killed her.

***

Touga found her at the hotel bar hours later. He was carrying several boxes, each one individually wrapped.

"There you are," he said, setting the boxes on the table. "I bought some things for you.”

"If they're dresses, then you better return them."

"You haven't changed a bit." The waiter brought over two low cups of whiskey. Touga’s usual order, she bet.

She held up the cup against a light, then took a drink. Regret set in immediately. She set it down and pushed it to the middle of the table. "How much do you remember, Mr. President?"

"Please," he said. "Call me Touga. And everything, or nearly. What about you?"

"Nothing, pretty much!" She laughed, and took the whiskey back into her hand and let it sit there, the glass cool against her skin. Her leg bounced under the table. “You said you forgot, and then remembered. How did you do that?”

"I looked to the horizon one day and a shaft of light pierced me, a light that was both princely and ecstatic—"

"Too much! Too much!"

"—for my sister, it was when she was studying abroad in France. Something about the arrangement of escargot in that one restaurant. There was a power to that school... The closer you were to it, the harder it is to hold onto yourself.” He drank deeply, for once seeming wise. “You'll find it eventually."

"I'm already too late," she said. She stood up and almost went back to her room. Then a light came on in her head. "Hey, I need to make a call to Japan. Give me your phone."

He handed it over with a dazzling smile. What a creep.

***

She went to a small alcove hidden away in the business section of the hotel and dialed her doctor's number.

"Our offices are currently closed," a chirpy voice said on the other end of the line.

“I know you’re there,” Utena said. “I can hear Dr. A-ko playing the accordion behind you.”

"If you're Utena Tenjou, press one now." A long pause. "Beep!" said the doctor. "Yes, this is Dr. B-ko. How may I help you?"

"I need your help," she said. “About my head. Isn’t there a pill out there to cure this?”

"Ooohhh," said Dr. B-ko. “Haven’t you heard?”

"Oooohhh!" said Dr. A-ko. “Haven’t you—”

"Hahaha!" said Dr. C-ko, whose shadow suddenly appeared on the wall. "If it isn't my favorite amnesiac!"

"C-ko, you weirdo! Get out of there! No one wants to hear your monologues! Sketch six hundred twenty three, starting! So, you want to be someone else, huh? Huh?"

"Professor, professor, I have a question!"

"Yes! You there!"

"Recently I took a long swim in the ocean—"

"This is too confusing when you're doing it as a radio play," Utena said, and hung up.

C-ko on the wall twirled her moustache. "I am the time-traveling yankee," she said, "recently back from the promised land! Vermont, right? They never tell me when they throw in the improv."

"There's something I need to know," Utena said.

"Ahh!" the yankee shrieked, pointing at the shadow of a bookshelf. "What's that! Ahh! And that? Agh! And that buggy! How does it move without a horse! And everyone I know is dead!"

"Am I dead?" she said. "I don't feel it, but then people start talking like I was, and I've been seeing some seriously strange things."

"Aaaaagh! The movie I wanted to see is no longer in theaters!"

"I should give up and move on. That's what you're supposed to do, right? Although that's for the opposite of this situation, when you remember something too much."

"And my husband and mistress had ten children with one another! And, and… what is that over there?"

"The only thing is, I'm scared of it hurting. I've spent so long trying to not remember, and when I try to do it, it just..." She laughed hollowly. "The more I talk with these people, the more I talk to Anthy, I—"

There was a piercing, stabbing pain in her stomach. By instinct, she moved her hand to cover the spot and rub the soreness away, but her fingers ran into something cold and sharp. A long, straight sword.

"Akio!" she shouted, incomprehensibly. Her right hand groped for a sword from the air. "How?”

She turned to look behind her, expecting—she didn't know what she expected. But there was no person behind her, no hallway, no hotel. Even the strange doctor had fled, her spindly legs pumping high and fast. Utena swallowed, and then saw it: the gnashing, thundering mass of swords screaming out her name.

She ran without looking behind her, but she could still hear the swords, their flapping, metal wings, their furious call. You need to go faster, she thought, running one step, then two, then stumbling, and the swords dove into her, slammed into her, threw her straight to the floor. A cloud of blood sprayed out all around her. Then there was stark reality of pain, then the certainty of death. Then.

***

The last thing they did together before going to America was their trip to the countryside. They left the station at six in the morning, took the wrong transfer twice, and arrived just past ten-thirty at the last stop of a regional train line.

“Quiet,” Utena said when they disembarked. Thin, gray clouds covered the sky. A low wind flattened the grass but left the trees undisturbed. It had been raining on-and-off all day, like a faulty sprinkler.

“Look at the forest,” Anthy said, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. “I’ve never seen it like this.”

There was nothing so spectacular or strange about the trees. Utena made an honest effort then said, “You’ve been here before?”

“Once. A long time ago. I lived here for some time, and then left.”

They had breakfast at a café in town. The whole town was European in style: tall, pointed houses and buildings crowded onto narrow streets, cobblestone roads waiting with the rude intent to trip. The people were polite enough, but were content to ignore them. And at the top of the town was a pile of collapsed rocks that no one talked about or acknowledged existed.

They went all over the place. First for a long walk through the nature trail, then back to town to refuel and restock. Then up to the hill with the rocks. For this, Anthy brought along a dozen red roses.

“Look at that!” Utena exclaimed. On the far side of the hill was a graveyard with a hundred headstones, impossible to see unless you were at the top of the hill. They were arranged in a neat square of ten-by-ten. Each black headstone had a fancy seal on it, and seemed to absorb the sun.

“Yes. There was a fire here and a hundred boys were killed.”

“Must’ve been a big fire to take out this whole place.”

“Most of the school was spared from that fire. The rest of it collapsed later. The chairman fell ill a few years ago and after he died there was no money left to run it. Or so I heard.” Anthy held the roses up in the wind, then tossed them down the hill.

“Hey! What a waste of nice flowers!”

“My hand slipped,” Anthy said demurely. “I get so nervous when I look at ruins. I don’t know what happened.”

“That was definitely a throw,” she said, shaking her head. She squatted next to a few rocks that had something carved onto them. She brushed them off to get a better look. Some kind of… flower thing. A rose, she guessed, although it took her a while to figure it out. It was familiar, but in the overly familiar way of a guy hitting on you in a bar—ah, how had she forgotten? She frowned and tapped her chin. “Was this school famous or something?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“I feel like I’ve seen this symbol before,” Utena said. “If they were national champions at basketball or track, I might’ve seen them in a meet. Although I don’t think we were ever in the same bracket.”

“Ah, you did track and basketball in high school, didn’t you.”

“When I returned from Europe.” The sun was briefly visible through the clouds, then went dark once more. A wind blew and a hundred birds fled the trees, their black shadows circling the hilltop.

“The school had fallen by then,” Anthy said. “So it would have been impossible for you to face them in a meet.”

She must have said something. But the hundred birds opened their mouths and screamed and drowned her out. Screaming and screaming as though they’d never be let free. They screamed so hard that their beaks folded over their heads and grew into swords.

“Anthy!” Utena said. “Anthy, where are you?” The first sword flew straight at her, and she understood that she couldn’t move without it hitting Anthy, so she stood where she was without flinching. Then the second one hit her, then the third. She was still standing somehow. She turned around, bent over, struggling, but she was alone on the hill—alone, with nothing but the swords.

***

Awake! Awake again. Pinned to the floor by long blades, limbs twitching in agony as the swords jostled one another for new flesh. She was in the basement of a collapsed church, surrounded by dirty rocks in a field of black. She gasped, strained, then collapsed back onto the floor.

So this was what she had been running from. How could she forget? Some part of her had been in here for a long time, squirreled away in this dark corner of the world.

At least Himemiya was out of this. Himemiya was free now and happy on top of that. She was relieved and happy—but the bitterness struck her, the sheer unfairness of it, stabbing into her worse than any knife. Why hadn't Anthy come back for her? Searched the world for a million days and nights and found her wandering the streets of Japan—but she was still here, too. So what good had it done her?

It wasn’t fair of her to start crying, not when Anthy had been here before for who knew how long, but she couldn't stop. Her vision blurred, the swords bit down, and the worst of it was how she could feel the blades’ vicious churn, splitting her open at a constant pace.

This is worth it, she tried to tell herself. You did this to yourself! And it worked, didn't it—you thought you were too weak to pull her out of the coffin, you thought this was your punishment for letting go, but it's better than that. This is sacrifice. Which hurts just as much, but at least has meaning and is worth something. Anthy’s happiness should be worth this. She tried to repeat this to herself, but it was killing her. Killing her, and still she wouldn’t die.

A pair of feet appeared before her, bare and brown.

"At last," Anthy said. "I have truly found you."

She couldn't answer. She felt stuck in a permanent exhale.

"I looked for you here, but from the opposite direction, the way my brother always took. I assumed these pesky things were gone for good. ... Though they must seem more than pesky to you. I understand." Somehow, Anthy weaved her hand through the swords to rest her palm on Utena’s back. There was a considered silence. The swords drove themselves deeper. "Shoo. There is no purpose in staying here. I left here long ago and my brother died, nothing more than an old bag of venom and fear. All you have here is a single lonely girl."

"It's not working," she said, and began to weep without caring for how much worse it hurt her. "Why isn’t it working?”

“I don’t know.” Anthy's other hand cupped her cheek, her thumb running along the bottom of her eyes. “It’s an unreasonable creature.”

“Don't leave me. I'm scared of being alone."

"Of course. But I'll need to sleep eventually."

"I didn't mean you had to stay awake the whole time!" she said, laughing—a sword cut into her chest, but she was able to smother her groan into her shoulder. “How did you find me?”

"I saw a shadow of a girl running through the halls at top speed, shouting all kinds of things. I couldn’t imagine what could make her run so fast, so I went looking for it myself. And here I am. Utena—have you been here the whole time?”

She nodded, as small a movement she could make.

“Oh!” Anthy said. “Oh. Utena. If only…” She moved her hand from Utena’s back to her wrist. “My brother is dead. When I left, he turned back into the corpse he always had been. All the things he made are gone, and though the harm he's done can still be felt, it grows lighter every day. What these swords want to kill no longer exists. So please, don't stay here for my sake. Come with me. Or I won't be able to control myself and Nanami-san's party will be overrun by mice."

Utena shuddered and shook. She craned her neck so she could see Anthy better—Anthy, who was so close to her. "Well," she said. "That'd be a real shame."

"Wouldn't it?" Anthy said. Her cheeks shone with old tears, but she was smiling. "I heard they'll have good steak."

***

When she came to, she was on the first floor of a stairwell. I must have fallen, was her first thought, followed by: How?! Last she knew, she hadn’t been anywhere near a staircase. She sat up, then had to bat away the sudden flurry of arms trying to push her down. She had attracted quite the crowd.

“I’m all right, I’m all right,” she said. “Ow! You’re going to put my eye out! And you’re all Americans! I don’t understand a word you’re saying!”

Through the yammer, she caught a few words: fall, hurt, pain. She shook her head. The amazing thing was that she really meant it for the first time in… Ten years, if she was counting right. Ten years since she had been thrown into that place. Her head was clear, every memory freely available to her, more or less. Her body was sore from the fall from wherever, but she’d get over it. She was still young, after all.

“Thanks for worrying about me,” she said gracelessly. “But I really have to go. My—friend is looking for me. Bye!”

“Wait!” someone shouted, but she was off: out the nearest door, which took her back to the hotel lobby. An ambulance was parked out in front, red lights flashing. Oh, geeze. She jabbed her finger into the up elevator button faster. It arrived in miraculous time, and as it opened, Utena flung herself inside, jammed the close door button, and hit the first button she saw.

“Sorry,” she said to the lone traveler in the elevator.

“It’s all right. I was expecting you.”

“Ha. I had a feeling you’d be in here.”

Anthy reached over and hit the stop button on the elevator. Utena took Anthy by the hand and stared at her, really stared, doing her best to take all of Anthy in with her eyes. That dress! Her hair. How much happier she seemed, without a false note. A bunch of crazy things came into her head and tried to bully their way off her tongue. The only thing she managed to say was, “I’m so glad we’re alive. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you hadn’t found me.”

“You would have been there for a very long time growing bitter and angry. And then, I imagine, you would die.”

“Urk! Too real.”

“But,” Anthy said, “those kinds of hypotheticals no longer concern us.” She put her arms around Utena and, with a real smartass smile, squeezed Utena’s bicep. “Oh my! You’re just as strong as you were on the day we met.”

“I don’t know about that. Doing backflips off desks is just going to get my head cracked open.” Still, she couldn’t help turning red as Anthy’s hand flattened on her shoulder, stroked her collarbone through the jersey of her tank top. “I,” she said, eyes watering almost by instinct. “Wow—I can’t believe it. Thank you. Thank you so much.” She had to take a moment to bury her face into Anthy’s neck, blotting out the pooling tears in the gingham straps of her dress.

“You don’t know how afraid I was that I’d never have a chance to repay you for what you did for me.”

“I didn’t—I… I guess we’re both in the black, aren’t we?” She stood up straight again and set a nervous hand onto Anthy's waist. “Could I—could I kiss you? If you don’t mind.”

As it turned out, Anthy didn’t mind it at all.

They made it back to their room, holding onto each other tightly. Utena left Anthy to figure out what they had done with the do not disturb sign, while she yanked the blinds open. It was late afternoon and the sun came slinking in like a yellow cat returning home for dinner.

“Ah, exhibitionism,” Anthy said. “I didn’t think you were the type.”

“We’re on the fifteenth floor! And… oh, you’re joking.”

Anthy was quiet a moment. “I’ve wanted to see what you look like out in the sun for a long time,” she said. A little shock went up Utena’s leg. She rose up on her toes, then settled back down.

“We’re not going to make it to Nanami’s party, are we,” she said, one hand bunched up at the hem of her shirt.

“It’s all right,” Anthy said. “I’ve sent an emissary in our place.” She turned around and said, “Help me out of this.”

Utena’s mouth went dry. She pulled off her tank top and went to her.

***

The next morning it was back to Vermont. Nanami came out to meet them in the car, wearing large sunglasses and a scarf around her neck despite the heat.

"I came to say thank you," she said. "For your gift."

"'Thank you?'" Utena said, resting her arm against the car window. "Wow. You've turned into a proper young lady after all."

"Oh, shut up," Nanami said. "Just tell Himemiya that I like the collar she gave me. And I appreciate that she didn't ruin my party."

"The col... Oi, Anthy."

"I love free food," Anthy said from the backseat, and fed Chuchu a piece of white cake.

Nanami produced a thick leather collar from her purse. The tags read: My favorite Nanami, my dearest pet.

"Aaagh!"

"I'm taking the tags off later, of course," Nanami said archly. "My fiancé will be wearing it. He happens to find this very fashionable."

"I'm going to die," she said, covering her eyes with her hands. "I didn't need to know that at all."

"Shall we go?" Touga said, nonplussed. He rolled up the window, and off they went.

A quieter drive this time. Anthy read a book in the back that, she revealed to Utena at a gas station on the Vermont border, had nothing written in it. When they were back in Vermont, Utena spent a moment to say goodbye to Touga. "You didn't have to drive us all the way back," she said.

"Anything for my—"

"Don't call me baby."

"—favorite young ladies. Juri and Kyouichi are still in Japan. Miki is studying in France. I know they'll be happy to see you. We could have a reunion," he said and laughed, apparently sincere. "Just like the good old days."

"We'll see," Utena said, looking back at Anthy. Anthy, for her part, was chatting up the bed-and-breakfast owner. "I never thought I'd say this, but it was good seeing you again."

Touga took her hand in his and kissed the back of it. "Call me when you get back to Japan," he said. "I'll worry about you."

"The phone bill will be too high," she said. “Just give me your e-mail like a normal person.”

***

They spent a while being occupied in their room before Utena realized their flight back was for that evening. It’d be a long drive to the airport. In the midst of the packing, Utena stopped in front of the windows, in front of those short, scrubby little mountains and sighed, suddenly nostalgic, though she had never been here before and had not even left.

"Anthy," she said. "Isn't this all beautiful?"

"Oh," she said. She was tossing their clothes into the suitcases, brisk and unsentimental. "It's better in autumn. And truthfully the mountains here aren't very impressive." But she stopped packing to look up at Utena, and smiled. "Yes, it is. I'll miss it when we're back in Japan. Will you be free there?"

"Huh? Yeah. I need to help Wakaba with her engagement party thing, but that's it." And work. She was in a real pickle over there.

Anthy went to Utena by the window and looked out at the mountains—searching wistfully, one could imagine, for her cows. "Where would you like to go next? There's so much of the world I haven't seen. I would like it if you would come with me so we can get to know each other again and reap the pleasures of each other's company without compromise or fear."

"Anywhere is fine," she said, and took Anthy by the hand. "As long as you're there, I'm sure we'll find a way to be happy."

Anthy pressed her face into Utena's shoulder, then reached up for a kiss. "All right, then," she said. "I've decided. We must go somewhere we can drink tea and eat cookies."

“That’s anywhere!” Utena said, laughing after a long moment of being absorbed in the pleasures of Anthy’s mouth.

“Ah,” Anthy said, agreeing. “Yes. But I was promised this date many years ago, and I don’t intend to miss it.”