They were more than halfway to the temple when the creeping feeling of wrongness that had been haunting Helena with every step flapped into something hot and frantic in her chest, a bird beating its wings against her ribcage.
Something isn’t right, she wanted to say. A part of her, more childlike, thought, My eyes itch.
They approached the edge of the woods: the bright sun was filtering gently through the leafy boundary between the trees and the hot expanse of the road. Beyond it, Helena saw Athens--dusty, familiar, solid in the shimmering heat.
She turned her head to look back into the forest, with its elongated shadows and its sheltering cool. She thought she saw a shadow dart between two spindly pines, and the motion drew her eye and tugged at something in her belly, unsettling her and intriguing her all at once.
I can’t, she thought, and as soon as the thought formed in her head she heard Hermia draw a sharp breath and say, “I won’t.”
They didn’t say a word to one another. They simply shared a long and panicked glance, and Hermia stepped abortively toward the city, once, before she whirled on her heel and started running back in the direction from which they had come. Helena followed.
They ran until Helena’s heartbeat was thudding in her ears and her temples, her breath coming in ragged gasps and her side pulsing with a sharp pain. She had not dared to look back, but as she genuinely began to feel as if she might lose consciousness, she risked one glance over her shoulder and saw only the dark, misty forest. A gloominess that belied the hour--plan midday, if Helena’s sense of time and the light they’d seen at the edge of the woods were anything to go by--had settled on the leaves and branches, and the only real sound was the sharp rasp of their fast inhalations.
Helena rested her hands on her knees and bent double; she lasted a few more breaths before she gave up the ghost and collapsed on the ground, spreading her fingers against the soft moss of the forest and letting herself take large, unladylike gulps of air.
“You’ll make it worse,” said Hermia. “If you don’t stand up and take a full breath.”
She was resting one hip against a broad fir and running a hand through her hair to settle it neatly behind her ear. Helena could see the way she was drawing in air through her slightly parted mouth, clearly trying to keep silent as Helena struggled.
“Why must you always do better,” she said, stamping one heel against the ground as she continued to sprawl gracelessly on the forest floor. “Why must you always insist on showing me up, on looking better and knowing better? I know you’re just as done in as I am.”
She meant to sound arch and aloof, but to her horror, she felt the warmth of exhausted tears pooling at the corners of her eyes.
It hadn’t always been like this. Hermia--oh, Hermia had always been a particular kind of insufferable, even when they had both been little girls playing skipping games in the sandy stretch between their fathers’ estates. She had crowed every time she had managed to jump further than Helena, but would pretend she hadn’t been gloating as soon as Helena said something; as Helena’s legs had gotten longer and her stride had gotten wider, Hermia had begun to pretend that she was too old for games, that leaping and rolling in the dirt was unbecoming. She had always had to win, but Helena had spent her whole childhood loving her for it: attempting to emulate Hermia’s crooked moue of determination, wanting nothing more than to play with her from sunrise to twilight. Hermia--sweet Hermia, whose quietly competitive demeanor wasn’t even visible to most people--had been vexing from birth, but she had been Helena’s.
She had preceded Helena into the world by a few weeks, and Helena could not remember ever feeling anything other than a fierce devotion to her. She had loved her keenly in girlhood, had kept loving her as their bodies had lost the softness of childhood and their mothers had begun to insist that they braid their hair.
She had still looked to Hermia, even then, but the last few years--with marriage and expectations looming, an existence a world away from skipping games--had turned Hermia from adamant and devious to distant, and in recent months the fierce little child of Helena’s memories had disappeared, leaving a reserved and angry stranger behind.
The memory of it was somehow distant, after everything, but when Hermia had first confessed her plan to flee into the forest and away from her father’s orders, the first thing Helena had felt had been a warm flush of recognition, a sense of pleased certainty that the tiny hellion from the hot afternoons of their childhood was somehow there still. She wished that she had let it be. She wished that before that moment, in the absence of the simplicity of their youth and their easy companionship, she had not allowed herself to become so set on Demetrius. She wished things had been different, long before Hermia had run and Helena had betrayed her and Lysander to Demetrius, and her fatigued certainty that all of this could have been avoided only made the tears come faster.
“I--” Hermia seemed shocked by her weeping, and she pushed away from her tree, folding her legs gracefully to sit next to Helena on the soft ground. “I’m so sorry.”
She said it uncertainly, as if she weren’t sure it was the right thing to say.
“Never mind,” said Helena, drawing the back of her hand across her face and willing herself to stop crying. “I’m just tired. It’ll pass.”
They had neither of them washed for days, and Helena’s tears drew the forest earth that she hadn’t even noticed on her hand into wet, dark streaks. As she put her arm back down Hermia crept her little hand forward, wrapping her fingers around Helena’s and squeezing tight.
“What in the world will we do?” asked Helena, looking up at the canopy and the sky beyond, avoiding Hermia’s gaze for fear that it would reflect her own fear and uncertainty back at her. “Where will we go?”
Hermia sighed, and from the corner of her eye Helena saw her shoulders rise and fall in a jagged shrug, reminiscent of the little girl who had never liked to lose.
“Well,” said Hermia, finally. “Not back.”
Her chin set and her mouth pursed, and Helena felt an overwhelming rush of fondness, an intimately familiar feeling. She thought of them at five, leaping from spot to spot in front of the kitchens, measuring their progress with pride; at eight, propelling themselves off a large boulder at the westernmost edge of Helena’s mother’s garden. She remembered eleven, leaping off the courtyard walls without looking, falling through the air and hoping the landing would be soft. When she had felt herself faltering before jumping, she had fixed her eyes on Hermia’s, holding her dark gaze and feeling the certainty build inside herself, little by little until it had been enough to let her bend her knees and vault off the wall’s edge.
“No,” she agreed. She thought of Demetrius and Lysander, of the Duke and the castle walls--walls made not to leap from, but to shelter behind. She looked into the treacherous darkness of the forest, and squeezed tight on Hermia’s hand. “Not back.”