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Evermore Lighter and Lighter

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It’s about five years after graduating from Ohtori that you have your first dream about school. You wake up with a piercing sensation in your chest, like some sharp knob of your spine is trying to claw its way out. It is a precise and whetted pain. It shocks you out of sleep and immediately makes some terrible, obvious kind of sense. You are a precise and whetted person, after all.

You slide out of bed, head to the kitchen, fill a glass with water, sit. Before you drink, you make yourself stop and assess the pain. Localized and sharp. Just a bit below the point where your collar bones meet. It radiates a little, but not much. Somehow it feels like it’s straining outward, like your heart is flinging itself up against the barricade of your sternum. Is this what a heart attack feels like?

It’s a stabbing pain. That’s an appropriate word for the context, a normal word, but there’s something tight between your eyes that won’t let you think it.

You take a drink and try to focus on the cool trickling of water down your throat, through the channels of your chest. You finish the glass and sit frozen for a moment. The pain is still there, just less insistent. You could call a doctor. You could have another drink. You could try to force yourself back to sleep.

“Juri, are you alright?”

You look up and there’s Miki in the doorway to the kitchen. In your looking up you realize that you have been hunched over. You realize your head bowed and fists clenched on the table in front of you. You realize the white noise starbursting of your knuckles. You try to answer and you realize how hard it is to breathe.

“I don’t mean to intrude, I saw the light on and I thought --” He sits down across from you. “Seriously, are you okay?”

You nod -- you can’t speak -- and you know how pitiful the gesture must be, weak and unconvincing. You hope he’ll fall for it anyway and go. He reaches out a hand instead, lays it gently on top of yours. There’s no questioning in it, just an offer. He’s been getting more perceptive these days.

Or was he perceptive in school, too? Your memory of anything from those years is, if you’re being honest, a wreck. You know that means something must have happened -- something important, even something bad. You know it took a lot for you to make it out.

The details are more difficult. It requires some effort to keep your memory focused on even the most mundane of specifics -- classes, clubs, your role on the Student Council, the stuff of transcripts. You remember the people who sat in those meetings with you, stayed friends with a few of them. You remember fencing, even a few individual bouts where you really shone. You remember the fencing hall, tall windows and vaulted ceilings that bounced your every breath back at you, when it was quiet enough. You have one clear, crystalline recollection of yourself in that hall, pinned against the wall by a boy you suspect to be dead now.

Even that memory feels like an echo or reprise, some clever variation on a theme you can’t quite place. You have known for years that something else happened in that room -- it didn’t take too much probing to guess who it happened with -- but whenever you try to dredge anything else from the haze, you come up at a loss. Chasing that particular memory only leaves you with dizzying visions of swords, real ones, sliding over and across each other, falling coldly into place, a mass of interlocking steel, a cage, wound tight for good measure with endless loops of tangled golden chain. You used to feel such a keen compulsion to tug at those chains. These days you try not to waste your time.

“I had a dream,” you say.

Miki squeezes your hand, a little too readily. You would swat him away or scold him for his presumptuousness, if you could just stop yourself from shaking.

“My chest hurt,” you continue. “I woke up and I thought maybe I was having a heart attack. I came in here for some water.”

“Do you think it’s a heart attack?” He sounds a bit concerned, if not entirely convinced. A little laugh chokes its way out of you.

“I’ve just been sitting here. If it is, I’m probably in trouble.”

You sit in silence for a while. Your eyes trace the grain of the table in front of you, intently, methodically. You try to get that shaking under control, to unclench your muscles one by one, force them calm and still. Miki does not take back his hand.

“It was about Shiori.”

He quirks an eyebrow.

“We were back at Ohtori. She had found out about me, how I felt for her, somehow. She came to tell me that she knew. She got very close and she” -- she touched me, you cannot bring yourself to say, even now -- “pulled a sword out of me. A sword. Then I woke up. I thought there’d be a wound there, at first.”

Your hand flies to your chest, where the phantom pain had its wellspring. Muscle memory calls to procedural memory. Hang a locket from a chain around your throat and it might fall against that very spot. Your chest doesn’t hurt quite so much anymore but your stomach contorts and your cheeks are burning.

You turn to stare at the wall, so the brunt of Miki’s gaze only falls on half of your face. He asks, with a clipped sensitivity that you can’t help but read as condescension, if you want him to check for an injury.

“You don’t need to check,” you scoff. “I know it’s not real.”

He shifts uncomfortably, scuffing the feet of his chair along the floor with a little squeak. His stare bores into the side of your face and you realize, at length, it’s because he has something to say. You snap your head forward again -- only a slight motion, but it feels like you’re rounding on him. You’re suddenly very tired of this, exhausted by his hesitation and your own sudden lack of restraint.

“I think we should both go back to bed,” you say, and you start to get up. He squeezes your hand again and looks up to meet your gaze, his softness all girded with earnest resolve.

“It’s not not real.”

“Which part isn’t not real, Miki? The part where Shiori finds out the terrible secret I’ve been keeping from her since we were children or the part where she tears a live sword out of my body?”

“I mean… probably both?” He still has his eyes trained firmly on you and there’s something nearly somber in his voice. You sit.

“I’ve had the same dream,” he says, then adds, hastily, “not with Shiori. With my sister. But the sword is the same.”

You allow yourself, momentarily, to be floored. It’s late. You’re half-asleep. This whole exchange is ridiculous. You can reevaluate with a more scientific mind in the morning.

He goes on. “Nanami has it too, except for her it’s a little boy from the elementary school and two blades come out of her.”

“You talk to Nanami about this?”

“Oh god,” he fusses, but not unkindly, “sometimes I feel like it’s all she wants to talk about. Have you actually sat down and had a conversation with her recently? She’s really been dissecting her past -- our pasts, I guess. It was hard to remember at first, but talking to her about school, we’ve pieced a lot together between the two of us. Do you remember the duels?”

“The duels?” You remember bouts -- a pair of teenagers in club uniforms waving foils at each other could hardly count as a duel, but for some reason the word catches in your throat as you say it. That same tightness starts to coil behind your eyes, like a fist clenching. The cool clattering of blades. The inexorable winding of the chain.

“That’s fine, we don’t have to talk about that. The dream is what you remember now.”

“I don’t understand,” you are forced to admit, though some silent part of you does understand, has understood for years and years.

“That’s okay, Juri. I’m sorry. I don’t want to overwhelm you. We can go to sleep, if you --”

“It was in the fencing hall.”

The fencing hall was where the dream happened. It was where the memories happened, too, real or not. Or not not.

“She came to see me in the fencing hall, to tell me that she knew about the locket. She got so close. I didn’t know what was going on and I was completely paralyzed -- I think I told her to back off because I didn’t know what I would do if I figured out how to move. I knew it would be something. She was so close and I was wondering, for a moment, if that meant this could somehow be a good thing, even if it seemed impossible. She was cupping my face, you know” -- you are aware of your cheeks flushing -- “like she might have kissed me. She touched me and she said that I was pretty. No -- that’s not it. She said that I was pretty when she hurt me. She said that I was weak. And then it did hurt, almost immediately” -- you are aware of tears teasing at your eyelashes -- “that’s when the sword came, and it hurt so much more than I ever could have thought she’d be able to hurt me.”

“I know,” Miki says, “I know.”

“But you don’t know! You can’t!” You’re nearly shouting. “I was such an idiot, I don’t know how I could have thought -- I wanted her. There was this great big spike of metal inside of me and she barely had to pull it out. She just ran her hand down my chest and it presented itself to her. And I had been so afraid to touch her!

That was the nasty twist of it all. You had made yourself cold and distant, willed your life’s longest friendship to stone, convinced that, if you didn’t, you might lose control and hurt Shiori somehow. Even just a little slip had seemed so dangerous, even just a little touch. Would a touch have hurt her so badly? Would a kiss? If you had let her see what and who and how much you wanted, would her body have broken itself open for you? Would she be hurting like this now?

The scene is nearly complete in your mind now, each ugly little detail filling itself in.

“I don’t think she ever unbuttoned my shirt. The sword came right through my clothes. But I was lying on the floor there, before she left, and I remember being sure I had felt her skin on my skin.”

The tears start in earnest now, channels of rain down a rock face. Miki lets go of your hand and you think for a terrible moment that he’ll just walk out, leave you alone to your exacting misery, but he circles the table and wraps himself around your shoulders. He doesn’t say anything, no platitudes about how he gets it, no “it’ll be alright, Juri” -- he probably does and it probably will be. But he is perceptive and, after all these years, he knows you too well.

“Why now?” you ask. “It’s been so long. I was so stupid then, but I’m -- why her now? Shouldn’t I be over this? It feels --” pathetic, you cannot bring yourself to say, because it’s her word, after all.

“It has been a long time,” he says, “but you haven’t let yourself think about it all that much, have you?”

He adds, before you can feel too intimately targeted: “I know I didn’t let myself think about all of that for a long time. Even now, it’s hard. I’ve only mentioned it to Kozue a few times. We had a couple of big conversations a while ago, though.”

“Was that good?”

“I think so! Or, it was something. It was closure. It helped to get it all out in the open and now we can move forward.”

“Maybe I should call Shiori up, talk to her about it. I think I have her phone number somewhere around.”

“You probably shouldn’t talk to her about it. Or about anything.” He barely flinches to say so. You laugh a little through the tears at that and you swear there are shades of irony in his unshakable politeness when he adds: “Respectfully.”

Miki’s arms are still wrapped around your shoulders -- a hug, most people would call it, a hug from a friend -- and because it’s late, because everything feels hazy and only half-real, you allow yourself the indulgence of pressing your cheek to his shirt sleeve while you cry like you have not cried in years.

Slowly, the chain begins to unwind.