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Better when you duel

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There are things that the school wants Kozue to forget. Not that the teachers try to cover up, or that the school board forbids her to talk about. Nothing so obvious as that. She's pretty sure it's the school itself, the building or its shadowy chairman, that tries to make her forget.

There are things she knows happened here. There were epic duels and broken dreams and a great, immense power that was won and lost. She remembers because she was there, in a bridal dress under the castle in the sky, when Miki drew a sword from her chest and lunged away, trying to pin his hopes down at the tip of a foil and failing one more time.

These things haven't been wiped from her memory. They're still there. They come back to her every now and again, clear as day, when the right thing jogs her memory. She was sitting in the music room, listening to Miki play a new piece, when the memory of an old one resurfaces in her mind, and everything that lived within the tune.

"Do you still duel?"

"No." He didn't look up. "Duelling was messed up. I quit."

"Did you? Or did you give up?"

He slammed a hand down on the keys and a dissonant chord filled the room, harsh and wrong.

"We duelled for the Rose Bride. Do you remember that?"

"The girl you liked. Himemiya Anthy."

Miki didn't acknowledge it. "Well, there's no Rose Bride any more. Nothing to duel for. So that's the end of that."

Kozue turned it over in her mind, trying to rapidly fit this information during this rare moment when someone would talk about the duels and she could be sure the memory was real.

"It wasn't just the Rose Bride, though, was it? There was Akio."

"The chairman. The End of the World."

"We went on that car ride with him." She smiled. "It was a date."

Miki didn't answer. He stroked the keys, played a few notes, and then trailed off into silence.

"Akio was the one running things, wasn't he? Would he really just stop the duels like that?"

"I don't know what he'd do," Miki said, his back a sharp line of tension. "All I know is that the chairman is one more adult who wanted to manipulate us for his own ends. You can't trust any of them, but Akio least of all."

Kozue remembered the night of that car ride, now, although the memory frequently slipped from her grasp. She remembered Akio's confidence and power, and the way he played at being such a gentleman when he asked her to accompany him for the night. She didn't trust him, but she didn't feel used. It had felt like both of them were using Miki, together.

For his own good, of course. She wanted her brother to find love. He was his best when he had something to fight for.

 

 

It was a week later when it came to her again. She was passing the hall when they practiced fencing and keno - unsurprisingly, something that often brought back the sense memory of a hilt in her hand and a rose on her chest. It was when she saw Nanami sitting in the corner, just watching the fencers fight, that she decided to slip inside.

"I'd rather see you out there," she murmured in Nanami's ear. It was deeply satisfying to see the girl jump, and blush, and stare at her with shock and a little fear.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Nanami replied, hotly.

"Yes you do. We both do."

At first, Nanami looked like she was telling the truth; that she truly didn't remember. Like Kozue, the school had tried to make her forget, and even watching the fencers practice didn't bring it back for her. It was easier to remember, probably, when you were trying to. Easy to avoid, if what you wanted to forget. Kozue wasn't interested in easy, so she pressed, and she was rewarded when she saw the recognition suddenly dawn on Nanami's face.

"They never meant for me to duel. I don't know why I did. I didn't want the Rose Bride, and I'm glad she's gone."

They had never crossed swords, but Kozue knew Nanami had been a part of that whole mess. She used to wear a signet ring too, silver and clear where Kozue's had been black, before it crumbled to ash. Nanami must have known what it was to want something so badly that she'd take up a sword.

"But if she's gone, then you can never win."

Nanami hugged her knees to her chest, unhappily. "Maybe that's better. I don't care. The Rose Bride was a witch. She... she had powers, some kind of power, and she was terrible with it. I'm glad she's gone. It's better without her or the duels or any of that."

A witch. The word resonated somewhere in Kozue's chest. She'd heard of the Rose Bride as a prize, a sweet girl that her brother loved, and someone who bestowed power. Never as someone powerful in her own right.

Kozue had tried to be a sister, and tried to be a duelist, and neither of them had worked the right way. She wondered how it would feel, to be a witch.

"Could someone else become the Rose Bride, I wonder?" she asked, out loud.

Nanami gaped at her in horror, and actually recoiled. "You can't be thinking..."

"Akio is involved in this somehow, isn't he?"

"He'll never choose anyone else," Nanami said, with a shiver. "Never."

She sounded certain and afraid all at once.

"So all I have to do is have him choose me?" Kozue smiled. Akio had picked her once before. So many boys had chosen her. Perhaps this wouldn't be so hard.

"No, you don't understand." Nanami wouldn't look her in the eye. "There's nobody he'd ever choose over the witch. Nobody. There's nobody he could love and hate as much as her."

"Is that so?" Kozue shuffled her way into Nanami's lap, looping over her, and tilted Nanami's chin up. "How do you know that? What did Himemiya have to please a man like Akio, that I don't have?"

Nanami was shuddering, her cheeks darkened, when she wrenched her eyes away and looked down at the floor by her side. "She was his sister," she said, and her voice was filled with almost as much shame as disgust.

Kozue smiled. "Oh, is that all?"

 

 

It wasn't easy to get to Akio. Kozue remembered the way, but the air itself seemed to want to turn her away from the chairman's tower, to drive the thought out of her mind. But she held on to the memories - a sword in her hand, a ring on her finger, and racing through the streets at night - and once she made it to the tower's front door, the rest was easy.

"I've come to be your new Rose Bride."

"The duels are over," said the chairman, without turning around.

"And did you get everything you wanted?" 

"What I wanted is gone forever," he said, dully. He sat on his sofa, head bowed, not even looking at the stars above him.

"Nothing is gone forever, except innocence." Kozue sat down on the sofa beside him, and touched his arm and his leg, trying to get his attention, but he shied away. "You can lose your innocence. When the world around you is dirty, you have to get dirty too. I know you know that. But that doesn't mean you give up. That's how you win."

He still wasn't looking at her. This wasn't working. Kozue dropped to the floor in front of him, instead, kneeling in front of him, and propped her elbows up on his knees.

"You can lose your innocence but still find new dreams." She swallowed, like she was nervous, but she was smiling. "I can be your new Rose Bride, big brother."

He finally looked at her, his eyes boring into her, and her whole body felt electrified with what it held. The thrill of Akio's power, staggering power, and the even greater thrill that she was the one who had awakened it.