“We always end up hurting each other, don’t we?”
“I should have went easier on you,” Juri said, and tied the bandage off tight around her wrist. The stained glass painted fragments of stories onto the white cloth: fine art in clashing colours, orange roses and purple vines, twisted and twined. Shiori tilted her head sideways when she looked down, as though she was making a study of it. She always endeavored to see something where there was nothing, nothing but what the light cast, fractured and distorted; Juri was something — solid, whole, and ignored.
Her hair had grown — just enough to touch her shoulder when she craned her neck like this. Juri doubted it was a change she noticed in herself. She doubted it was a change she should notice, but she saw something where something was, and struggled to ignore it when she wanted to.
“I wasn’t talking about practice, Juri," Shiori replied, breathless the way laughter made one breathless, but there was not a trace of it to be found in her voice or her face. Her expression was as hollow as these halls, between high ceilings and raised eyebrows; mirth echoed off it phantomwise — like doors that opened to thin air, like floorboards that creaked under aweightlessness, like smiles with no happiness behind them. Like dead things she let die.
Sometimes Juri heard footsteps land in familiar patterns during practice, always one step ahead of her; unmistakable technique, unmistakably gone. And sometimes she heard a ghost in Shiori’s lungs, laughing like the old friend that time and distance had killed. She tried to call the hauntings lessons, these days. She took them in stride. She swallowed the lump in her throat.
“Maybe I wasn’t, either,” she admitted, shifting her shoulders. Her right side ached, stiff from the day’s training. If she was not here licking Shiori’s wounds for her, she would be stretching, recovering, resting. If Shiori had not been there today, she would not have over-exerted herself at all. She was alight with something when they matched off: passion, yes, but more than that — fear, panic. She had a way of inspiring a dangerously defensive streak in Juri. It was her eyes, how they turned when they met hers, the way the warmth drained out of them. She saw this, saw how she saw her, and her strikes became frantic, reactionary, thoughtless. Now she had a sprained shoulder and Shiori had a swelling wrist, and if she was not here with her… if they were not here together, they would both be better off.
She should have turned her away from the fencing club. She should have paired her with someone else in practice. She should have sent her to the school nurse for her injury. She should have left her to her own devices. She should have — spite told her, but fondness argued she would have regretted this more.
“You’re right. You should have,” Shiori spoke, firmer now. She turned her hand over so that their palms pressed together. Long nails skimmed across the underside of her wrist, and Juri shuddered but kept her gaze low. “You should have went easier on me.”
The quiet then felt like being encased in ice, still and cold and timeless between them while the minute hand crawled along the clock face to leave them behind. Apologies climbed up her throat and she choked them back down one by one. She was sorry, of course she was, but she would sew her mouth shut before she was the first one to say it.
“But I can’t hold it against you, you know,” Shiori broke the silence, surprising her. Her eyes were closed when she tried to meet them. “Because I wasn’t playing fair.”
Her hand moved to touch her cheek. When she wrapped a curl around her finger she smiled with her teeth, and they shone technicolor by the tinted light.
“You need to be gentle with yourself,” Juri reminded her, raising her own hand to support her injured wrist. She thought of the purpling skin beneath the cotton. She wondered when they had stopped being gentle, with themselves, with each other. She wondered whether there had been intent behind it, and decided there must have been: delivering a blow hard enough to bruise with a foil, with a glance, with a kiss, with an absence. Harmless things had to be wielded with a degree of force to be made lethal, and they were forceful now, she and her, pushing and pulling, spinning like hot and cold air in a storm. Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle. As though they could remember how to be.
She tilted her head back and frowned, knitting her brow.
“We could stop.”
Shiori’s smile dropped in an instant.
“We could stop?”
“We could stop,” she repeated, “— We could play a different game.”
Shiori tore her hand away as if spurned and pulled her knees up to her chest, feet barely perched on the edge of her chair.
“Now I know you’re not talking about fencing.” She laughed bitterly.
Juri rocked back in her chair. She longed to be able to say the words plainly. I’m sorry. Can we try again? Friends, lovers, strangers, anything but competitors. We could stop. We could stop. She waited for her voice to spill out. Shiori turned her head, watching her for a moment, waiting for the same thing.
“Oh, Juri,” she whispered. Her grin returned threadbare, and her hair dipped low over her brow. “But what would we do with our time? If we weren’t hurting each other.”
It was half a joke, but there was strain in her voice that made Juri’s throat run dry.
“I wish we — but I don’t know what we would do. No, that’s… I don’t know what I would do,” she came to mumbling, wrapping her arms around her legs. “Is it bad? I would rather get hurt trying to beat you than give up. I — I don’t know why, Juri. I want to be close to you, but —”
“Why do you have to beat me?” Juri snapped, brusque, clenching her fist at her side. “Why does one of us have to win? It’s time we —”
“Stopped?” Shiori finished. “That’s easy for you to say. A tie or two wouldn’t look too bad after a winning streak, right? You could still salvage your perfect record.”
She stood stiffly, flattened the pleats of her skirt, and looked down at Juri with a sad smile.
“But a draw feels like losing when all you’ve ever wanted to do is win… just once.”
Juri couldn’t seem to move from her seat, even as she turned to leave.
“Thanks for the help, Juri. I'll see you around.”
For the first few months the locker had overflown with flowers: lilies, carnations, chrysanthemums, roses. White, and white, and white, and blue. It was a drive to the cemetery, and none had known him well enough to seek out his grave, but they had admired him well enough to make his little corner of the academy the brightest there was —
For the first few months.
In these halls where forever was chased like a prize, gone always meant forgotten. What interest did they have in mourning those who let themselves be dragged under, by mortality, by impermanence, by reality? What interest did they have in being reminded that eternity had an end marked in stone? When absence became concrete, they made themselves blind, deaf, and numb.
Now the girls in the fencing club were gleeful and lighthearted again, and the flowers which had blossomed in spring came to rotting, with no one to sweep up their fallen petals. No one spoke his name, and she did not think it, but every time she passed by she found herself pausing for a short while. No rose in hand, no letter, or prayer, or curse; sometimes she offered questions, but usually she offered silence, and ambivalence, not knowing or caring to know if either would reach him. Not knowing or caring to know what she would want him to hear if anything ever could.
She leaned her head back to rest against the metal and listened to footsteps shrink into stillness beside her.
“Did you really love him?” she asked, plucking a petal from a blackened rose. It fell to pieces between her fingers.
“As much as I could have,” Shiori said. Juri slid her eyes to the side to catch her expression through the slits in the locker door, and saw only the side of her head, her hand brushing hair back behind her ear. She turned her gaze down, and watched a crumpled leaf drop to the floor. “Did you really hate him?”
Juri thought for a moment. She thought of his lips on her lips and her disgust, and she dug her nails into her palm hard enough to leave marks; she thought of his hand on her shoulder and the weight of her tears, and the relief she found when that weight had left, and she sighed.
“As much as I could have,” she answered, her frown deep-set. From the other side of the locker, a bare stem fell from Shiori’s hand, all thorns now.
“Juri, I…” Shiori began, and there was that silence again, filled with the lack of an apology they both anticipated.
“I’m hungry,” she said, brighter. She pushed off the wall, letting loose a fistful of flower petals. They scattered around them, dull and withered, and Juri saw something complicated fade from her expression.
Then she turned to her and smiled.
“Want to get lunch with me?”
“I could eat,” Juri replied, ignoring that the greater pang was in her chest, not her stomach.
They walked, and as they walked her hand found its way, as it often did, to the base of her neck, tracing the outline of a chain beneath her collar. It was idle, thoughtless; her fingers twitched when Shiori looked to her.
“Did you find a nice picture of her?” she asked, scarcely louder than the sound of their heels against the floor. Her voice was droll. “For your new locket. I overheard you two talking, back then.”
“Stop jumping to conclusions,” Juri breathed through her teeth, but she dropped her hand to her side like a child scolded for a bad habit.
“Don’t get me wrong — I’m glad. I’m glad you found someone new.”
She looked to Juri, perhaps for acknowledgement, perhaps for praise — perhaps to say see, see how considerate I can be, see how I bend where you won’t; it’s your fault if we don’t get along. Perhaps that was only her imagination. Shiori smiled sadly.
“And I’m sorry that she’s gone.”
Juri stared at her stone-faced. That girl was a ghost; she was already a distant memory. Her story lived in her the way a fairy tale would — cherished eternally but buried beneath her pragmatism. Her heart would always know her, but she would never own it. After a moment of silence, Shiori shook her head.
“No… No, that’s a lie. I’m not. I’m not sorry. I… When I heard you two talking, I felt — I thought I’m losing again. And I know, she deserved to win. She deserved you, Juri — strong, and beautiful, and noble, just like you. She deserved you —” She cast her eyes aside as she spoke, and her lip quivered. “But when she disappeared I wasn’t sorry, I was relieved. I hated myself for that.”
She slowed to a stop, her narrow shoulders hunched and her thin arms wrapped around herself. She looked delicate. She looked earnest. She looked like someone Juri knew and not just someone she longed to know. She thought it was a good thing that they were indoors; she looked like she could blow over in the faintest breeze.
She looked like she wanted to be sorry. Juri wondered how often she had that look about herself; always wanting, but never the kind of person who could be.
“You know what the worst part is? The most unforgivable thing of all?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Juri said quietly, but she continued, as though not hearing her at all.
“I still feel like I’m losing.” Her arms shook. “I thought I knew how to win, but maybe I never have.”
A group of girls approached and Juri stepped aside to let them pass by. She set her back against the wall and frowned to herself, considering Shiori’s words.
“It’s empty,” she said, when the space had cleared and they were alone again. “There’s no picture in my locket. It’s been empty for almost a year now.”
It was better that way; no photograph to lock her soul in place this time, just a blank slot to fill with the stories she needed. If she never opened it, it held all of them at once; if she did, it held none.
Shiori turned her head abruptly.
“Then why do you…?”
“Old habits.” Juri lifted her shoulders into a shrug.
“What’s the point?” she demanded, taking a step toward her and narrowing her eyes.
“The point is I forfeited.” She folded her arms over her chest. “I know a losing game when I see one, and I…”
She remembered tearing her own rose from her chest, the thorns pricking her skin as she crushed its petals beneath her fingers; she would sooner destroy herself than let her opponent’s sword touch her.
“I chose to end it on my own terms. I suggest you do the same,” she spoke mechanically. She was too aware of Shiori’s closeness; she stood in front of her, not touching, but close enough for Juri to imagine that she were. Close enough to wish that she were, and close enough to wish that she didn’t. “I don’t have any intention of playing another round.”
“Then why wear the locket?” she asked again. She could see her face was tinged red now — the corners of her eyes and her cheeks — flushed for any number of reasons. Juri did not dare to guess which.
“I told you —” she started, but her voice caught in her throat when she felt a touch on her shoulder.
“I like the way it feels,” she said, lower. “Against my skin. It’s familiar.”
Shiori’s hand followed her words to where the pendant rested, and she laid her palm flat.
“It’s cold,” she whispered. Her breath was warm. Juri turned her chin up.
“And you still…”
“It’s familiar,” she repeated, pressing back against the wall.
“Do you love me, Juri?”
She did not have to pause, this time.
“More than you know.”
Shiori’s finger tapped at her collarbone, a beat off the drum of her heart, and her heart raced to catch up.
“And do you hate me?”
She released her breath slowly, careful not to disrupt the air between them.
“Less than you think,” she said. “Do you —?”
“So much I can’t stand it,” Shiori spoke immediately.
“Love or hate?” When she tilted her head down, she found hers craning up. “Shiori?”
Her hand snaked around to the back of her neck, and she shifted, pushed her weight against Juri, onto the tips of her toes that she might lose balance. Juri’s arm wrapped around her waist to support her, almost unthinking — almost, but not, because her thoughts were more than she could keep up with, flashing and fading and whirring through her head until it was a blur, until everything became synonymous with nothing, and her mind was as empty as it was full. Her free arm held desperate to the wall behind her; Shiori spoke but the sound was a hum in her ear, and she smiled, smiled against her lips.
They were kissing. It seemed to last a lifetime. It seemed to last a millisecond. By the time she pulled back it was too short and unfathomably long, and Shiori’s face was flushed but still she could not read every emotion written onto it.
“Did you feel like you won?” she asked once she found her breath, or as much of it as she could find. It sounded weak, weak as Shiori made her knees and her will and her soul. “When you saw your picture before.”
“I kept telling myself I did,” Shiori said, pulling back slowly, running her fingers through her hair as she lowered them. “But recently I keep thinking that I might have lost — opportunities, time…”
She turned her head and led her hand down Juri’s arm until it reached her hand, still set against the wall.
“Don’t forfeit yet, Juri.”
Half a plea, half a demand. Juri stiffened.
“I know it’s selfish of me to ask,” she admitted freely, resting her forehead against her shoulder. “But you could go easier on me, and I could play fair.”
Her grip trembled, then tightened, then was gone altogether, and she stepped back.
“Don’t forfeit,” she repeated, and it was a plea.
She skipped practice that day but arrived dressed for it when the hall had emptied. She held her foil with not nearly as much intent as she had held her hand, but she brandished it with a sharp smile and a forthright challenge. Juri made an attempt at dry amusement.
“Are you sure your wrist is well enough?” It was a pointless question. She was already pulling her mask back over her head, because, in fencing as in life, turning her away was never an option.
“The nurse said it was only bruising,” Shiori said, mirroring her actions. “And I want to try again.”
“You won’t be able to beat me.”
It was a statement. Objective. Certain. Anyone else might have flinched, but Shiori did not.
“That’s fine,” she assured. She took her stance, and Juri followed. “I just want a fair match.”
When the duel was over, Shiori settled into a chair, exhausted but uninjured.
“Are you upset you lost?” Juri spoke into the silence, and it could have been a jab but there was nothing wounding in the softness of her voice.
“No.” Shiori removed her mask with dainty hands and tipped her head back. She watched the sky through the windows and Juri watched her, watched her eyes drift closed, watched her neck as it stretched, watched her chest rise and fall. “I don’t mind if you always win at this. We each have our own miracles.”
“How many times do I have to say it? There’s no such thing as miracles.” She scoffed, freeing herself from her mask and shaking her hair loose. “I didn’t get to be a skilled fencer because I wished for it.”
“You’re saying I should give up?” She smiled bitterly. Juri frowned and shook her head.
“Not at all,” she said, freeing herself from her mask and taking in a breath of air unstifled before continuing. “You don’t get to be a skilled fencer because you wish for it. You get to be a skilled fencer because you fight, and train, and… lose, sometimes,” — she shook her curls loose— “Even when every bone in your body tells you to save face and back down instead.”
She moved to sit beside her, and Shiori became more alert, lowering gaze from the ceiling.
“I don’t know when I lost sight of that,” she muttered, lifting her hand to her chest. “You were right, Shiori. I don’t want to forfeit yet. I want a fair match.”
She reached around to the back of her neck and unclasped the chain. Shiori quirked an eyebrow.
“It’s a good thing, see, that there are no miracles — in my game or yours.” There was a faint smile at her lips when she covered Shiori’s hand with hers and dropped the locket into her palm.
“It means that everything we have, we earn.”