Chapters: [1] [2] [3 — January 9, 2004]     [Illustrations]

Chapter 1 — Orientation

Her aunt had warned her that the bookstore would be busiest the day before term start, especially with the arrival of all the unwary freshmen. So Utena Tenjou made sure to go shopping for her first college textbooks with four days to spare. It would be too much to hope for that she'd actually look at them before classes started, but she still felt satisfied in starting college in a reasonably organized manner.

The bookstore was still quite busy, filled undoubtedly with upperclassmen and graduate students who already well knew the academic routine. Utena picked up a shopping basket at the entrance. She was carrying a full course load, and expected that especially the literature survey class would require multiple texts.

Utena carefully made her way around the bookstore. Knowing that she'd be returning often, she took the time to wander about the entire store, learning the layout. As she encountered a departmental section in which she had coursework, she checked the posted listing for the texts for each class.

Her basket rapidly filled up, particularly with the addition of the huge hardbound chemistry text. She saw that she'd have to make a separate trip to the copy shop to get the remainder of the required class materials. She resolved to sit down with the books and her class schedule to make sure her backpack would hold what was needed for each class, knowing that she'd likely have to make periodic trips back to her dormitory. She wondered how she was going to get even this load back to her room.

Upon reaching the literature section, Utena grimaced at having her expectations fulfilled. Her class required four separate books, and her shopping basket was already full. So as she located each literature text, she carefully stacked it onto the full basket and kept a steadying hand on it while looking for the next book. With the way the aisles were filled with distracted students, everyone was constantly jostling everyone else.

Sure enough, just as Utena retrieved her final book, she was bumped from behind. Only sports-trained reflexes let her secure her basket before items tumbled out. "Sorry," she said.

"Pardon me," responded a baritone voice. Utena froze. She would have thought that after five years, voices wouldn't be so easy to recognize. Worse, it was one of the voices she'd hoped to never need to hear again. Hoping that it was a case only of similar timbre, Utena turned to face the person she'd collided with.

Utena was tall for a woman, but she still had to look up to meet the violet eyes that regarded her with polite concern. Dismay filled her as shadowed memory suddenly loomed alive and present before her. Long wavy hair still cascaded about his shoulders. There was no school uniform of course; instead the broad-shouldered physique was now clad in casual jacket and jeans.

Utena's breath caught in her throat, and she reflexively interposed her laden basket between them. She finally managed to choke out, "Saionji."

Kyouichi Saionji blinked. "Yes, have we met?"

She reflected that her appearance had probably changed much more than his. While he'd grown from teen to full adulthood, she'd only been thirteen when they had last seen each other. And even then, they'd only been acquainted for a few months.

He was studying her closely. Finally concentration broke into astonishment, his words only a whisper, "Tenjou. Utena Tenjou." Abruptly, he took a step towards her.

Utena found herself backed into the bookshelf. "We have nothing to say to each other," she said tightly.

"But ..."

"Nothing. To. Say."

Saionji sighed and held up one hand in surrender. "Right. Nothing to say." He stepped back against the shelves, giving Utena the full width of the aisle.

With a last wary glance at Saionji, Utena made her way to the front of the store as fast as the crowd would let her. She didn't let herself look back as she waited in the checkout line, but stared resolutely out the front windows at the passing street traffic. Not until she'd paid and packed her new books into two sturdy sacks did she take one final scan across the store. She saw no sign of Saionji. Feeling suddenly paranoid and silly, Utena hefted her bags and began the trek back to her dorm.

Winter had given way to a crisp, windy spring. Utena's heavy sweater kept her comfortable enough but halfway home she found herself wishing she'd brought her gloves. Under the chill wind, and being unable to stick her hands into pockets, Utena's fingers were stiff and red by the time she reached the dorm. She also resolved to wear a hat when she went out again, as the way she had braided her hair to the side kept only one ear warm.

Utena's room was on the third floor of the old-fashioned brown brick building. Normally she was happy to get the exercise of the stairs but today she punched the button for the elevator. With a sigh of relief, she rubbed some circulation back into her fingers as the elevator carried her and her packages.

As Utena unlocked the door to her room, she noted that the next door down was open. The light spilling from the room out into the hall shifted as the room's occupant moved about. Utena quickly deposited her purchases inside by her desk, then returned to the open room next door.

"Yuki?" called Utena as she rapped on the doorframe.

"Hey girl, what can I do for you?" Yuki Hanazawa was stretched out on her bed, one delicate finger marking her place in the magazine she'd been reading. She was an incoming freshman just like Utena. They'd met the day Utena moved in and had been making the rounds of most of the freshman events together. But Yuki had had another appointment earlier that day so Utena had gone alone to buy her books.

"First, you were right about the sheer volume of stuff they expect us to read," said Utena. "It was a pain and a half to carry it all back."

"Told you. I saw what my older brother brought back after he graduated, and he'd sold off some of it first."

Utena studied the slight-framed young woman, her short cut hair moussed up into spikes, giving her a sprightly appearance. Yuki was a gymnast, giving her good strength, but Utena's arms were still aching from her trip. "Tell you what," she offered, "if you're still free after dinner, we'll go together to get your books. The bookstore is keeping extended hours this week until classes start."

Yuki smiled. "That would be great. Yeah, let's do that."

Utena shuffled one toe against the carpeting. "So then could you help me find something on the campus net?"

"Ah ha! There was a price," lamented Yuki, rolling her eyes.

"Yuki!"

"Joking!" Yuki bounced off the bed to her desk, where a tap of the keyboard brought her computer to life. "What do you need?"

Utena came to crouch next to Yuki, so she could also read the screen. "During orientation, do you remember if they said there was a roster of students? I think so, but darned if I can remember where it was."

"Yeah," mused Yuki as she tapped her way through links. "The sections of this intranet are definitely not all created equal. The administrative pages are the worst. But ... here we are." Yuki's fingers remained poised on the keyboard as Utena studied the roster screen. "So who are we looking for?"

"Kyouichi Saionji." As soon as she spoke, Utena regretted it. Once she knew how to find the roster, she should have just done the search back in her own room. But the roster had already responded to Yuki's query and was displaying the entry for Saionji.

"So, is he cute?" asked Yuki.

"Excuse me?"

Yuki waggled an admonishing finger at Utena. "This says the guy's a senior and he lives off-campus. You said this is your first time in this town. Therefore you know him from somewhere else."

"Um, yeah. During junior high I spent almost a year at a different school. Saionji was one of the people I met there."

"So is he cute?"

Utena pondered. "Never really thought about it. I guess he is. Handsome, even."

"Oh, don't worry, I was just curious. If he's an old friend of yours, I'm not gonna do anything."

"What?" cried Utena, astonished at the idea. "He's no friend of mine."

"No?"

"No. When I knew him at Ohtori, he was one of the biggest jerks I'd ever met. Angry, mean."

"Oh." Yuki's expression shifted from teasing to serious concern. "Is he going to be trouble?"

Utena turned about to lean against the desk and gazed out the window, thinking. "I don't think so," she said at last. "It's a big campus. There's no reason I'd have to deal with him. And the problems between us are five years past. I'm probably blowing things all out of proportion. It was just the shock of running into him like that, out of the blue. I haven't talked to anyone from Ohtori since I left, after all."

"You only spent a year there?"

"Not even that. There was ... trouble, and I was injured. It seemed better that I go back home where my aunt could care for me." There was so much more than that, but there was no reason to bother Yuki with the whole sordid, unbelievable tale.

"Did this guy remember you now?"

"Yeah, but it took him a bit. Come to think of it, that's a good sign." Utena pushed herself up from the desk. "Thanks for the help. I should get out of your hair. Do you still want to get your books later?"

"I better. We can grab dinner then wander over to the bookstore."

Utena returned to her room, feeling much calmer about the encounter after talking it over with Yuki. Still, before she began sorting out her textbooks, Utena called up the campus roster on her own system. She searched for every name she recalled from Ohtori Academy. No other familiar names appeared to haunt her.

 

With only a few days remaining before the start of classes, Utena and Yuki continued their explorations of their new home. Both young women had grown up elsewhere, and were anxious to get their bearings.

Having begun with a thorough tracing of the college campus itself, next they expanded out into the surrounding neighborhoods which they could reach on foot. They took note of appealing stores, where various services were located, and which restaurants they could afford. There were actually quite a few shops that fell within their budgets, as most of the local merchants were well aware of the financial situations of their student clientele.

On the last day before classes, Yuki produced a street map of the town, and suggested they explore further using the trains. So they'd take a train out as far as it would go across town, see what was at the other end, then catch the next returning train and observe what they'd missed on the way out.

As the day drew to a close, and they were on yet another return trip, they decided that would be their final trip of the day. As a result, they disembarked from the train further out than they normally would, so they could do some final exploration. When Utena spotted the grocery store that was farther from their dorm than what they'd already found, she insisted they examine it.

"Why?" cried Yuki. "They have food. Same as Shinoda's."

"But, but it might be different food," protested Utena. "I want to look."

"Different food," muttered Yuki, but she followed Utena into the store. Utena wandered up and down each aisle, pointing out items that Shinoda's didn't carry. Yuki trailed behind, only half-heartedly attending to Utena's monologue.

As Utena perused the fresh produce, she sighed. "I just don't know why I'm bothering."

"What?"

"I'm already missing Aunt Yurika's kitchen."

"Do a lot of cooking at home?" asked Yuki.

"Yeah. But all I've got here is a hot plate in my room. And I rented a mini-fridge."

"Well, I got a fridge too," confirmed Yuki. "Cold drinks are a necessity. But what about the kitchen in the dorm?"

"It's not the same, it's public. Normally, I really like doing things with other people. But not ... cooking. I think living with Aunt Yurika has spoiled me." Utena carefully looked over the apples, decided they were worth the price and selected a few. She cast an apologetic look to Yuki. "Want to share these later?"

"Well ..."

"You're being awfully nice about hitting the shops I want to see."

"Okay, you've convinced me. But hey, how did you cook at that other school, or did you just give it up while you were there?"

"What? At Ohtori?"

"Yeah. You made it sound like a boarding school."

"It was." The two young women made their way to the checkout and Utena paid for her apples. "But I wasn't too interested in cooking while I was there. I only got into it after I left Ohtori."

Utena drifted off into memory as they left the store, unexpectedly caught up in the confused jumble of remembered joy and pain which Yuki's questions invoked. They were halfway down the block before Utena continued. "Of course, I didn't really have much opportunity to cook. Anthy insisted on doing it all. Only time I got to use the kitchen was on Saturday nights when Anthy would go visit Akio. Then I had the kitchen all to myself."

"I suppose everybody else in the dorm was out on Saturdays."

"Oh, no. We were the only two residents." Utena had to stop walking and look back at Yuki, who'd halted in her tracks at that statement.

"What?" cried Yuki. "Two people for an entire dorm? That's crazy!"

Utena smiled and cocked her head. "Yeah, I guess it was. Should've been a big clue, eh? But nobody asked those questions. Not there." They continued walking.

"What about this Anthy? Your roommate, right?" guessed Yuki. Utena nodded confirmation. "Or her boyfriend?"

"No."

"They couldn't see the weirdness?"

"No, Akio wasn't Anthy's boyfriend. He was her older brother."

"But, the way you said 'visit' ..." stammered Yuki.

"Yes?" Utena gave her a bitter smile.

"You're scaring me. I don't really want to know, do I?"

"Not in the least," confirmed Utena, staring resolutely ahead. Yuki had to run a little to catch up with Utena's suddenly lengthened strides.

"I wasn't trying to upset you," said Yuki, once they were walking side by side again.

"I know."

"I'm sorry."

"It's okay, really." Utena's smile returned. "How could you know? How could I? I thought I was following a wonderful dream when I transferred there. It just ... didn't turn out very well."

They walked in silence for a bit when suddenly Utena stopped and turned fully around, examining their surroundings. "Are we going in the right direction? I didn't even look when we left the grocery store."

"Worry not," responded Yuki, opening up the street map. She pointed out their course since they'd left the train. "Now we've come a couple of blocks from the store and are here. We'll go this way, across the campus to the dorm." She giggled at Utena's obvious relief. "I knew where we were. You were so distracted talking about that school, but I'd have said something if you'd started wandering off in the wrong direction."

"Yes, I feel silly," agreed Utena. She read the name of the street Yuki was pointing to on the map and compared it to the street sign at the corner. Then she stiffened as the street name registered. Utena whipped around, scanning the nearby building numbers.

"Now what?" asked an exasperated Yuki.

"The address. He lives somewhere around here." Utena was still carefully searching the street and buildings. She pointed at a four-story building across the street, a block down in their intended direction. "That's probably his apartment building."

"He? He who?" cried Yuki.

"Saionji." Utena's face was grim.

Yuki just shook her head in puzzlement. "Wait, not that guy you had me look up a few days ago?"

"The same." Utena started for the corner and turned there.

"Hey, where are you going?" Yuki again had to run to catch up.

"Call me paranoid but—"

"You're paranoid."

"Thanks," said Utena dryly. "We're going to detour around the block."

"So we don't have to walk in front of his building?"

"Yup."

"That's idiotic," complained Yuki.

"Probably," agreed Utena, but made no move to alter her course. But she turned to look Yuki in the eye. "Before you even ask, no, I'm not afraid of this guy. But haven't you ever had such a lousy relationship with someone that you'd go out of your way just to avoid the grief of dealing with them?"

Yuki was silent, thinking. "Yeah, I guess so. There was this girl in sixth grade. For reasons I'll never know, she took a real hate to me and loved to show me up every chance she could. I didn't come out too badly from those little 'matches', but it was such a pain. It was a lot easier to avoid her if I could."

"Yeah, kind of like that," agreed Utena. At the end of the block their path jogged back to the original street they'd been following. Utena took a look back over her shoulder at the suspect building, which glance was not lost on Yuki.

The shorter woman smirked. "Know what I find really interesting about all this?"

"What?"

"You remembered this guy's address, after professing to dislike him so much."

"It's not like that," spluttered Utena. "I was just trying to figure out which areas to avoid."

"Then why did we just stumble into the neighborhood? If you'd planned to stay away, we wouldn't have bothered with this train route. There were other routes we skipped today that we could have tried instead."

"I don't think I want to talk about this any more," Utena said with a scowl.

"Okay," Yuki agreed brightly. True to her word, Yuki began chattering about her classes due to start the next day. Utena relaxed at that, and took comfort from the fact that the apartment building she now wished to avoid lay almost directly on the opposite side of the college campus from her own dorm.

 

June 2002

Chapters: [1] [2] [3]     [Illustrations]

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