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the lady of shallots

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The ring had fit on her finger ever since she was a child, and somehow she had held onto it over all these years. And then somewhere up on Mount Kilimanjaro she lost it.

“I never cared for jewelry,” Anthy said.

“But I really liked it,” Utena said.

“When you get older, your fingers will swell on airplanes. So the ring would just be a bother then, don’t you think?”

“Now boarding group three,” said the flight attendant. They were sitting in first class. Anthy really knew how to spend her frequent flyer miles. She was sipping champagne and stroking Utena’s forearm with a finger.

“I’m not that old yet.”

“Mmm,” Anthy agreed.

“I just have fond memories… well, no. It has sentimental… hmm.”

“Hmm.”

Utena leaned forward to avoid getting hit on the back of the head by someone’s bag.

“I mean,” Utena said shyly, “we wouldn’t have met if I didn’t have the ring.”

“We could take someone else’s.”

“It could mean a lot to them, though.”

“If it’s something that you’d like to have, we can take a look at the next city.” She ran her finger down the itinerary. “Firenze.”

“Huh. Italy?”

“I’m looking forward to their crostini,” Anthy said, and scratched the top of Chu-chu’s head.

“An Italian ring… Seems ostentatious.” Now she was starting to feel strange about this whole thing. Anthy was right: it wasn’t as though they had good memories of it. It had been Dios’, or the academy’s, or… Where had those first set of rings come from, anyway? They had probably used a jeweler, Utena decided. Ah, she might have been a real idiot to make a big deal out of it. She had probably been rubbing Akio in Anthy’s face this whole time. “What’s a crostini?”

“It’s bread with this and that put on top.”

“I think that sounds nice,” she said. She took Anthy’s hand in hers and leaned forward so Anthy could kiss the side of her neck and sigh into her skin.

 

***

 

In Florence there was a lot of dry heat and an untempered sun and buildings that arched out of stone pathways and, constantly, marble faces gazing at them, on street corners, in the middle of the street, from high-perched alcoves. Anthy liked having her picture taken with these statues. When she was making her scrapbooks, she’d cut out the statue’s eyes to make the picture fit on the page.

“I’m planning on sending this one to Nanami-san,” Anthy said.

“It’s nice how you two share a hobby,” Utena said. She wrote a message to Nanami on the back: How are you doing? Italy’s great! Ciao.

After Italy, they went back to Japan. Anthy had an apartment in Yokohama, and during the end of summer, they liked to stay close to home. The apartment was filled with plants that Anthy cared for half-heartedly, but they seemed to do all right, although she had caught Anthy dropping a wilted specimen off the balcony.

“You could kill someone with that,” Utena said, watching the pot plummet twenty stories down.

“I never imagined,” Anthy said. She peered over the railing and clapped her hands together. “No one was hurt!”

Unlike their other trips, which were filled with buildings and monuments and cliff sides to admire and photograph, their time in Japan was mostly spent huddled in air conditioned rooms, in bed or in the back of a small restaurant, eating the food Utena was most familiar with. Without a destination, Anthy seemed content to do nothing, and for a while Utena was fine with that, too. After the first week, she put up a few flyers around the block: Tenjou, willing to do more or less anything, within reason! This got her a few jobs, but not many. Even so, it was nice to stretch her legs for a while.

She was out running an errand in another part of town when she saw someone, a woman with a tight bun at the top of her head and an incredibly large, round forehead. She was carrying a large box and grumbling to herself.

“Hee—ey!” Utena blurted out. She waved frantically at the woman, trying to remember her name. It was recognition that had made her call out to her, but the name, what was her name? “Hey! It’s Tenjou!”

“Utena?” the woman said. “No way, no way!” She nearly dropped the box. Utena hopped off her bike to help her. The woman stared at her, then clasped Utena’s hand.

“Careful!” Utena warned as the box slid perilously out of both of their grasps.

“I was just thinking about you,” said the woman. “You never called! Or wrote. Everyone from Ohtori only writes.”

“The box—!” Utena let go of the woman’s hand and grabbed onto the box just in time. They moved the box closer to the storefront to avoid breaking up the flow of people around them and to get out of the sun. The woman stared at Utena, then took a hold of her hand again. Her forehead was tall and round, her eyes beseeching and brown. An ex-girlfriend? Utena thought wildly. This was bad.

“You don’t even remember me, do you,” she said with a smile.

“No,” Utena said and blushed with shame. “I’m always letting you down.”

“It’s okay. The important thing is that you called out to me. Otherwise we never would’ve met again. I’m Wakaba.”

“Ah, yeah,” she mumbled. All kinds of memories were coming back to her. Wakaba Shinohara. How could she have forgotten?

“I’m getting married soon,” Wakaba said, her voice dropping to a whisper. “I’m going to be Miyamoto-san, can you believe it?”

“That doesn’t fit you at all.”

“I always thought I’d be Wakaba Tenjou. Don’t make that face! You’re married already, anyway.”

“Something like that.” Her eyes dropped to the missing ring. Wakaba’s eyes went to her hand, too. Utena put her hand on Wakaba’s shoulder and said loudly, “Anyway, what’s in the box? It’s heavy!”

“An ottoman. We’re moving in together. You should come over. I have cake.”

“There’s an errand I have to finish running…” But there was something about the way Wakaba’s face flickered like a bulb on bad power that made Utena stop. She was reminded of—remembered after a long time, more like—a fight they had, the one when she had taken Wakaba’s sword and cut the rose from her breast. She didn’t think that had actually happened, but from what she could tell, most of her life hadn’t actually happened, either. “You know what,” she said. “Let’s go see your new place.”

 

***

 

“We’re not done yet,” Wakaba said before Utena had even maneuvered the ottoman through the door. Utena had insisted on carrying the box the rest of the way. Her neck hurt from constantly craning down to check the ground, the tendons in her forearms felt like they might snap, there was sweat going down from her neck, along her spine, into her waistband—now she set the box down and stretched her back, blinking at the dim shape of furniture and piled up boxes.

Wakaba hit the light switch and stretched out both arms out and one leg. “Tada!” she said.

“Brava!” Utena said and applauded.

“It’s a mess!” Wakaba said, her face scrunching as she laughed.

She ushered Utena into the kitchen, where she busied herself with taking the cake in the fridge and slicing it, and then making hot tea for them both to enjoy.

“Do you remember when we were in school together? You never came to my room back then. This is the first time you’ve ever come to visit me.”

“I don’t think there was much room visiting going on in those days,” Utena said.

“I visited you all the time! Even after you started living with that girl and became hard to find.”

“You mean Anthy?”

“That was her name,” Wakaba said. She put a cup of tea in front of Utena, then in front of her place at the table. Then she put out the slices of cake and sat down. Utena handed her a napkin. “You’re still together? After all this time. I can’t believe it.” She brought the teacup and saucer to her mouth in the same motion, and they clattered together in her hands. “Do you live in the area? Are you here often?”

“We like Japan in the summer,” Utena said, conscious of the way Wakaba was watching her. She looked out the window, at the other apartment buildings visible as sharp corners or long shadows. “This is a nice place. What’s your fiancé like?”

“He works hard. He’s not very handsome, but he’s kind. When we first met, he spilled pasta into my lap.”

“Now that’s just clumsy.”

“He always comes home on time. He always asks me how I’m doing. He thinks I’m shining. What do you think, Utena?”

“You’re really pretty!” Utena said. And it was true: Wakaba’s broad forehead had always been something she admired, like the dome of a fancy mosque. Her hair looked thicker. She liked Wakaba’s sleeveless top and the shape of her bare shoulders, the swell of her forearm and the crook of her fingers around her fork.

Wakaba smiled bitterly. “That’s not what I asked,” she said.

 

***

 

It was almost sunset by the time she returned home. Anthy had come back before her. She had kicked her kitten heels off in front of the door, and Utena almost tripped over them on her way in. She found Anthy on the balcony with a potted plant in her lap. She went to unfold another patio chair, but Anthy patted her knee and beckoned Utena to sit on her lap. Awfully crowded there with Chu-chu, the plant, and her, but it was comfortable enough after a while.

“Do you think I should’ve said something else?” Utena said.

“I personally prefer more extraterrestrial modes of communication,” Anthy said.

“What do aliens… Anthy, I’m serious.”

“I am, too.” She held up Chu-chu, who crossed his arms and shouted at Utena.

“That’s playing dirty,” she said, and fed Chu-chu a cookie. “I don’t know if you remember Wakaba—”

“I do not,” she said with the most serene grace.

“Okay, okay,” Utena said. She sighed and tried to stretch without knocking an elbow into Anthy’s face or accidentally kicking Chuchu off the railing. She put an arm around Anthy’s neck for balance, holding onto the rail with the other. “How are you doing?”

“Are you feeling all right?”

“I’m not always that inconsiderate!”

“I like you very much as you are,” Anthy said. She put the plant onto the ground. “I’ve never been dissatisfied.”

“Thanks,” Utena said. She let herself relax into Anthy’s lap and look over the city. She hoped she hadn’t delayed dinner for Wakaba or anything. She let her hand tangle in Anthy’s hair and put her face in her neck. It smelled like that fancy salon conditioner Anthy liked and not a bit floral. “Listen, Anthy. If your friend had a problem, you would want to help them, right? Not with magic or swords or anything, but an ordinary kind of help.”

“Oh my. What does Utena’s ‘ordinary kind of help’ look like?”

“Radio waves?” She wiggled around in Anthy’s lap until she could rest her elbow against the chair arm and put her face against her fist. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

“I would find the person hurting them and destroy them. That will solve things for a while, or so they say.”

“That’s your kind of problem solving, all right. Anyway, I can’t go kill her fiancé. He’s not the… or maybe he is?”

“It really is,” said Anthy demurely, “the most efficient method.”

 

***

 

Wakaba had her cell number. Utena never had a cell phone before, or never had been conscious of owning one. She woke up to some ten text messages, and another one on its way.

“Ah, it’s for the delivery notices at the 7-11,” Anthy said when Utena held up the phone. “We only use it in Japan.”

“When did we get this?”

“We may never have gotten it.”

“That makes sense,” Utena said.

Wakaba wanted to meet for early afternoon coffee, and she wanted to know whether Utena had any recommendations. No, Utena wasn’t in Yokohama often enough to know what would be good. Wakaba replied back saying that this was the perfect opportunity to try! And besides: she wanted to see where Utena lived and what kind of life she had. She had heard good things about a place not far from a train station, so that was where she was going to be, and if Utena wanted to meet her there, well, that would be just fine! The last text sounded testy to Utena, and when she showed it to Anthy, Anthy said, “Women like their suitors to be more decisive.”

She helped Anthy rearrange all the paintings in the living room, then went to meet Wakaba at the train station. She was starving, she realized. Anthy had offered to pack her something, but there was only so much yakisoba she could eat in a day before she got sick of it, so she said she’d get something at the coffee shop, except the coffee shop only served these tiny, thumb-sized pastries at outrageous prices. Utena estimated she’d need at least ten.

“We could go somewhere else,” Wakaba said, and latched herself onto Utena’s elbow. “What kind of food do you like?”

“Crostinis?”

They wound up at a McDonald. She had been to plenty of them with Anthy, the ones in America and the ones in Mumbai and Beijing, too, so she didn’t mind it, but Wakaba looked more dejected than she expected.

“Let’s go to the beach!” Wakaba said when they finished eating.

“It’ll be too crowded,” Utena said.

“That’s the whole point. You go there to enjoy being with others. Whatever happened to the brave, athletic go-getter I fell in love with?”

“It’ll take us an hour to get to Marine Park. Do you still want to go?”

“That far?” Wakaba said. Her hair seemed to droop. “What other things do you and Himemiya do for fun when you’re here? At home?”

“I don’t think either of us see Japan as a home.” Utena stretched her legs beneath the table and gave it some thought. “Anthy likes to make photo albums and I like doing bike trips. If you like, we can rent a bike somewhere and ride down to the beach. That’ll take about as much time as the subway and there’ll be fewer transfers, too.”

“No,” Wakaba said. “It’s okay. I want to see your home. The place you’re staying.”

“Anthy should be there! She’ll be surprised to see you again.”

“That’d be wonderful,” she said hoarsely.

But when they came back to the apartment, Anthy was gone. All the lights were off and curtains drawn shut. When she opened them, light flooded the apartment, so sharply that she almost cried out. There was a note inside the fridge instead of somewhere more visible; Utena had a hunch it’d be someplace like that, and made a real fool of herself looking under the sink and in the fork drawer. Dear Utena, I have forgotten to buy a special ingredient for tomorrow’s breakfast and have gone to Mt. Fuji. I will be back by dinner. Please keep Chu-chu away from the cheese.

She was aware of Wakaba standing between the kitchen and the living room with her hand over her chest. And she was aware of how crazed she looked standing in the kitchen with all the drawers and cabinets flung open. The paintings she had helped Anthy with were crooked—she hadn’t noticed until just now. And as for the cheese…

“Got you!” she shouted, grabbing Chu-chu by the ear before he could make it to the plate. Wakaba shrieked. “Ah, this is Chu-chu, Anthy’s pet. I’ll put him in the bedroom—hush,” she said when Chu-chu chattered at her sadly. “It won’t be for long, I’ll let you out as soon as Wakaba’s gone home. Say hi to Wakaba.” Chu-chu sneezed twice. She took him to the bedroom and set him on the bed. The bathroom was the better choice. Anthy was keeping something in the closet again and there’d be a mess to clean up later if he opened it. But Wakaba was right behind her and she wanted to make this a smooth experience for her. So she closed the door on the bedroom and turned to Wakaba and said, “That’s the whole place, pretty much!”

“There are no pictures of you.”

“Anthy doesn’t show well in photographs. And I always come out looking really pompous.”

“Let’s take a selfie together!” Wakaba said, throwing her arm around Utena’s shoulder and aiming her camera up. “Say chicken nuggets!”

“Chees—kenugit?”

The flash went off twice. Utena had to blink to get the dark spots out.

“I’ll send you a picture now,” Wakaba said and tapped her phone a few times.

Utena’s phone went off. She took it out. The picture she received was horrible and dark; Wakaba looked as though she was being swallowed by a black flame. She looked up at Wakaba to see whether it was some kind of joke. It didn’t look like it. She bet this was some kind of fancy Anthy trick.

“I’ve been thinking, Wakaba, but you don’t seem too jazzed about…”

“Seeing you again?”

“—getting married. So I was wondering whether you’d like to talk, or have a conversation, or something like that.”

“It’s strange, isn’t it?” Wakaba said. “Ten years passed and I thought of you so often. And you’ve never thought of me even once. That woman takes everything from me. Saionji-sama. You.”

“Wakaba, you’re not making any sense.”

“If you had never met Himemiya, if you had never disappeared, if I had killed her—!” She turned so sharply that her hair whipped across Utena’s cheek and something dark and round on a chain flew out from Wakaba’s shirt and settled on the outside. Utena grabbed her shoulder and forced her to turn back around.

It was a ring. Hers, she thought at first. Except black. Except not.

She reached for it and Wakaba let out a muffled shriek and collapsed her shoulders against one another. Utena pulled away.

“Where did you get that?” Utena said.

“I found it. I found it in an old box when I was packing and I remembered everything. How close I came to fixing everything in my life until you stopped me. How close…” Her hand swung through the air, as though trying to snatch something. Her fingers flexed. Her neck craned. Then she lunged at Utena, hand open—her fingertips hit Utena’s breast, then crumpled. “Ow!”

“Ow?!” Utena yelped. Wakaba seemed just as shocked as she did.

At first she was only confused and hurt. Then she found herself growing angry—angry that she should have to think about this again after so long, angry that she had invited Wakaba here without guessing, without even suspecting… Her head felt as though it was splitting open, like lips in a cold winter. Her hand came around the chain on Wakaba’s neck and she yanked, meaning to tear it off. The links dug into her fingers, into the expanse of Wakaba’s neck, but stayed strong. She pulled again, this time harder. It’d break if she wrapped it around her fist, if she pulled as though she meant make it come clean through the other side. And as those thoughts came in, she let go.

Wakaba’s knees gave out and Utena caught her before she could fall. She steered Wakaba backwards onto a couch. Wakaba rubbed the back of her neck. She was breathing so heavily that her nostrils flared out and her lips pinched together rhythmically. Her eyes were wild, black, and fearsome.

“I’m sorry, Wakaba,” she said.

“It should’ve worked,” she mumbled. “I did it before. Why? What changed?”

“What do you mean, it worked before?”

“I went into an old building and took the elevator. Then I went to my room and saw him leaving, just as I knew he would. I drew a sword from his chest and went to fight you—or… did I dream it?” She put her hand to her forehead. Her brow furrowed. She took the ring into her hand and wrapped the chain around her fingers, so her own knuckles pressed against her windpipe and were wrapped in bright steel. “No! It was real! I know it was. Do you remember… the only time when I ever thought you wanted me, the only time when you looked at me the way I wanted you to, was when Saionji-sama was in my room. We were in school after classes had ended. You looked at me and said I was shining. Do you remember that?” When Utena took too long to respond, she said, “That’s not fair. It’s not fair at all.”

Utena sat next to Wakaba on the couch. “Give me the ring,” she said. “It’s not good for you to have it. It hurts me to see you like this.”

“No. I won’t let myself forget. If I forget it, I’ll forget everything that made me special. It wasn’t for long, but someone who was chosen chose me. Even if we’re both ordinary now, even if you’ll never choose me, not even once, this was the one time I almost got what I wanted.” She wrapped the chain around her fingers again. “I’d rather die.”

 

***

 

She walked Wakaba to the train station. Just before the double doors at the entrance, Wakaba began to cry.

“I don’t understand how this happened,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“If you ever want to let it go, let me know,” Utena said. “You’re my old friend and I’ll miss you. But you can’t be here like this.”

Wakaba produced a handkerchief from her bag and pressed it against her eyes. “I understand. I won’t return. Goodbye.”

Going home was a strange, miserable experience. Anthy had said she’d be back by dinner, but evening passed into night without her returning.

The longer she thought about how everything had gone with Wakaba, the worse she felt. Was it because she had turned Wakaba out? No, she realized. It was because Wakaba had chosen to take her ring over Utena. It was true, Utena had forgotten about her for years and years, and during those years that black ring had festered and grown sore. She could understand why Wakaba hadn't chosen her. She had not forgotten how pain could come to feel like a comfort; or at least, she thought she had not forgotten.

That reminded her. Chu-chu.

She opened the bedroom door and was assailed by Chu-chu, who regaled her of his tales of woe and climbed up to her shoulder to shout closer to her ear.

“Sorry, Chu-chu,” she said. “Things got out of hand. Forgive me?”

He licked his lips. She gave him a slice of cheese and thought glumly of the terrible farts in their future. She took a long bath and went to bed without drying her hair.

When she woke up, Anthy was patting her hair with paper napkins.

“Anthy, there are bird seeds in these napkins,” Utena said, sitting up and spilling poppy seeds all over the pillow case.

“That’s right,” Anthy said, sounding pleased. She smoothed Utena’s hair back and said, in a mild voice, “My friend, an albatross, met up with a hooded crane, who happens to summer in the same lake as a snow crane who is familiar with a northern wheatear, and fell asleep on his way to Mt. Fuji. He circled the mountain several times, insensate, and only woke up after the sun had set.”

“Sounds like an avian pony express.”

“Don’t you think?” Anthy bit her lip. She reached into her pocket and held her hand open. The moonlight caught some new scratches on the silver ring and a deep scar across the rose, but it looked good for something that had been dropped on a mountain and delivered back to Japan by beak and talon. “I asked for your ring back. And the world opened up and returned it.”

“Anthy.”

“I’ve missed the way your hand looks without it.”

“You don’t miss that.” Utena took the ring and let it sit in her palm. She thought about sliding it onto her finger, feeling whether it was still familiar or whether it’d be like putting on an old costume. She closed her fingers around it and kissed Anthy’s hair. “I must’ve looked pathetic after losing it, huh.”

“Not at all. You should have done moping as a sport in high school instead of basketball. I truly admire your talents.”

“Urk. Thanks.” She put the ring on the nightstand and moved over in bed to make room for Anthy. Anthy, who had come into the bedroom still wearing her hiking boots and her broad-brimmed straw hat, whose dress smelled like fresh mountain air and tall grass, who was now in bed getting clods of dirt on the sheets, without anything resembling care.

“I’m glad I returned the ring to you. It’s yours to do as you like. But climbing during tourist season was a mistake. You’ll forgive me if I fall asleep in my clothes? Good night.” Her eyes shut and she fell asleep straight away.

For a few days, Utena kept the ring in her pocket when she went on her errands and ran around the city with Anthy. She didn’t want to put it on again, but she liked having it with her. She tried leaving it at home, but that just made her pat her pockets all the time as though she was trying to summon it, so she started carrying it around again. It was just an old habit, that was all.

 

***

 

Her errand running business had regulars, but sometimes she got new customers. The week before she and Anthy were due to start traveling again, she got a call on her cell phone.

“Huh?” Utena said groggily. It was before sunrise. Beside her, Anthy threw her arm across the opposite side of the bed and said something about sea cucumbers.

The caller was a man. He was very sorry, but he needed someone to help him fetch something from down the drain.

“I don’t know what it is, exactly, but I’d like some help with it anyway,” he said. “Before my fiancée wakes up, if you could.”

“Is it an animal or a person or a fish, do you think?”

“I… an earring, perhaps?”

She got his address and took off.

It was dawn when she got to the apartment. The way up looked familiar, and as she went up the elevator, she became almost certain she had been here before. Given that was her natural state with almost everything, she didn’t think much of it when she knocked on Miyamoto’s door. The man who answered was possibly tall. His hair was curly. His features were exceedingly average and somehow obscured.

“You’re the woman from the ‘do almost anything within reason’ ad?” he said, hiding behind the door.

“That’s me. Utena Tenjou, at your service.” She looked at him, then at the apartment visible through the half-open door, then at him again. He, too, kept blinking at her. “You wouldn’t be Wakaba’s Miyamoto, would you?”

“So then, you’re Tenjou-san? From school?” He opened the door a little more. “I always imagined you more… she never mentioned you were a woman.”

“I’m basically married, you know,” she said. “Ten years! I mean two. Twenty?” She sneezed. Ah, she bet Anthy would be cooking takoyaki for the next week.

The apartment had been put together since she last saw it. There was actual furniture now, and the whole place had been vacuumed recently. She was taken to the master bedroom, then to the bathroom, then to the shower. Before Miyamoto shut the door behind them, she could see Wakaba’s head propped up high on pillows from inside the shower.

She had brought a fishing pole and a small anchor, and lowered it down the open drain.

“She dropped it while showering. I promised I’d try to get it, but the building’s manager is asleep and I hate putting my hand down the drain. She said it was some memento from her old middle school. The one that burned down—did you hear about it?”

“All kinds of schools are burning down these days,” Utena said thoughtfully.

The anchor snagged on something. She reeled the line back in, and there it was: black, dirty, but Wakaba’s. She was almost disappointed by how resilient it was, how easily she had fetched it. She handed it to Miyamoto.

He held it up to the light and said, “Isn’t this just iron? And enamel? It looks small.”

“If she’s had it since middle school, I wouldn’t be too surprised,” she said.

He kept looking at the ring. Then he put it on the sink and said, “I should get your payment. Please hold on.”

He spent a while looking for his wallet. Utena was left in the bathroom, with her clear view of Wakaba sleeping. She stretched her back, rolled her shoulders, watched Miyamoto scurry from one end of his apartment to the next, but her eyes kept going to the ring. If she flushed it, she bet not even her special anchor could get it back. It’d probably turn up somewhere, pushing its way out of a sewer drain. That was magic for you.

“Utena?” Wakaba was sitting up in bed. She shivered as she came over, squinting against the bright bathroom lights. Her eyes went to the ring, free of its chain, on the sink, then to Utena again. Utena had never seen her with her hair down before, and the sight of her now was relaxing, like a sip of plum wine in a foreign country. “What are you doing here?”

“Your fiancé called me. He really wanted it to get it back for you.”

“And you came?” Wakaba looked briefly delighted. Then her lips pressed firmly together. “Are you here to take it?”

“No,” she said.

“If you want it, you can have it. And you can disappear, I don’t care. I’ll never think of you again.”

“That’s not what I’m here for. I don’t know how I can convince you, but it’s true.” She could feel her anger creeping back, and breathed out. She took her ring from her pocket and set it next to Wakaba’s on the sink. “I lost this a while ago. Anthy found it. And she gave it back to me, even though she must hate it. It was given to me by someone who turned out to be a real creep in the end. But I had this for the longest time.”

“I remember that. You used to say it was given to you by your prince.” Her eyes were fixed on the old silver ring. “The entire student council wore these, too. I used to think, if only I had one… and one day I did. Not the real thing, but close enough for me, then.”

“Funny how that turns out,” Utena said, and tried to laugh. Wakaba’s fingers were on the sink. Her nails were white from pressure. “Wakaba, don’t tell me you want it.”

“Why not? If it’s not something you wear anymore, if it’s not something you want… I can say my prince gave it to me. I’ll exchange rings with you. That makes it all right, doesn’t it?”

She was freely offering Utena the black ring, so why couldn’t Utena bring herself to say yes? It was Dios’ ring, and Akio’s as well; but it was hers, too. She had grown into it, or a part of her had come to reside in that old thing. That wasn’t fair at all.

“It’s a crappy gift,” Utena said. “You might get the avian flu. You know that, right?”

“But it’d be the real thing.” Wakaba picked up both rings. She gave the black one to Utena and put the silver one on her pinky finger. She smiled at it, then at Utena. She eased the ring off her finger, or tried. It was stuck. The tip of her finger turned purple from the pressure.

Utena turned on the faucet. “The trick I always used was to run it under hot water.”

“That’s for jars, isn’t it?” Wakaba said, her voice soft and almost in awe as Utena took her hand and brought it under the tap. She winced when the water went hot, but didn’t pull away. Her other hand curled around Utena’s upper arm, just above her elbow.

Jar or ring, something about the heat must’ve worked because it came off her finger, nothing more than a harmless iron loop.

 

***

 

It was noon before Anthy got out of bed.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t drop it on your way back,” Anthy said, holding the black ring up in the air and shutting one eye, then opening it again. “Otherwise who knows what it might have done. Someone could have turned into Godzilla, or a serial killer.”

“Godzilla’s a stretch,” Utena said. “How do we get rid of it?”

“We designed the black models to be combustible. As a feature. Putting it out with the flammables will do.”

So into the trash it went.

“Anthy,” Utena said, flipping through their booklet of takeout menus, “why did you give me the ring back? You could’ve pretended that it was gone for good.”

“The longer you live, the more memories you accumulate. And memories change with time—isn’t that the case with you?”

“That sounds about right.”

“We don’t have many possessions worth missing, and it’s a shame to deprive someone for selfish reasons. I returned your ring for the same reason you returned your friend’s.”

She watched Utena expectantly. Something warm coursed through Utena—not discomfort or sheepishness for not knowing what she should say next, but the simple pleasure of unguarded conversation. She tapped the takeout menus against her chin as she thought. “Principles?”

“Love,” she said, and smiled as though she was happy Utena had guessed wrong.