Juri pulls her mask off, wanting to feel fresh air on her overheated face. There is little relief; she can feel her heavy hair like a heated blanket down her back, trapping in body heat. Despite herself, she glances across to where her best friend is pulling off her own mask. Only a faint rose blush on her cheeks shows her exertion in this summer hell, and a few strands of hair around her face damp with perspiration. Delicate, feminine. A modest purple rosebud. Juri feels herself a great, overblown tea rose by comparison.
“Well done, everyone,” she says, and her voice is all the more brusque for envying Shiori’s femininity. “Hit the showers.” She stays behind, tidying, getting things in order, to give the other girls in the fencing club privacy to shower and bitch about how harsh their Vice Captain is, and how much they prefer in when kind, adorable Ruka takes them. It’s good leadership to give them this time, she tells herself. She never goes to the showers until she is fairly sure they are done. Besides… how would they feel if they knew about her? Not that she looks, not that she wants to look, she would rigidly stare at the floor for fear of contaminating a girl with an accidental glance at naked flesh. Better for everyone if showering remains a private ritual for her. She couldn’t join in their giggling, easy naked companionship, anyway. She doesn’t know how.
She glances up again, compulsively, unavoidably. The hair at the nape of Shiori’s neck is wet with perspiration, lovely little tendrils.
Eventually, Juri gathers her own things and makes her way to the showers. She sets the water tepid, and lets it beat over her, washing the sweat from her body and her hair.
“Oh--it’s you. You’re still here.” A soft, shy voice.
Shiori. Oh, God, what terrible thing did she do to deserve this, Shiori with only a towel around her, looking straight at her naked body. Juri turns away instinctively, arms crossing over her breasts.
“I’m sorry. I’ll finish now.” “Oh, don’t be silly. All the other girls shower together. I always wondered--why--you didn’t.” It is probably guilt making Juri imagine the slight questioning lilt to the sentence.
“I don’t like forcing myself in.” There is a rustle behind her. She stares at the tiles, white and dripping, while the water pounds on her shoulders.
“I suppose you’re right. You’d know best. But they might think you think you’re better than them.” The taps next to Juri squeak on, and more water flows. “Of course, you are.”
“I don’t think--” Juri turns, in protest, and her words die away, because she is looking at Shiori, who is looking back up at her with eyes like pansies in a pointed face, lips slightly parted, cheeks pink. Juri is fixated on her face and not looking down, never down, at delicate white skin and rosy nipples, rivulets running over her small breasts and how, when Juri isn’t looking, does she even know what Shiori’s body looks like? Her throat is dry and her heart is pounding in it and it hurts.
“You’re always perfect,” Shiori says, her sweet voice oddly tight. “Even now, with nothing to hide.”
Shiori’s lips are parted under hers, Shiori’s arms around her neck, her own arms tight around Shiori’s back, crushing her close, her breasts covering Shiori’s, and she doesn’t know how it happened, she knows she has to stop, this is wrong, this is awful, all the secret corruption in herself flowing over Shiori’s purity, she needs to stop, but she has pressed Shiori back against the tiles and Shiori’s mouth is eager, her tongue against hers, a miracle in her kisses.
Juri pulls back and tries to say everything she has to say, that she loves Shiori, that Shiori is everything good and sweet and gentle and precious, but what comes out is “Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure?” over and over. Shiori just sighs, a soft expedition of breath, and pulls her head in for more kisses.
Juri drinks the water from Shiori’s white throat, lets a hand slide lower. “Are you sure?” she asks again.
Shiori doesn’t answer, but she flings back her head against the tiles with a crack that must hurt when Juri tugs a nipple into her eager mouth, and her cry doesn’t sound like pain. The water in Juri’s eyes in blinding and stinging, and she she dares, oh, God, she dares, to kneel in front of Shiori and press her tongue into her depth to taste her, all she can taste is shower water. She uses her fingers instead, gently at first then harder and harder, rubbing her thumb fast over Shiori’s little nub the way she likes it when she touches herself, as Shiori gasps and moans at the finger hooking inside her, thrashing against the tiles and the wall, pushing her hips against Juri’s touch, until she makes a long shuddering noise and relaxes. The pulse in her clitoris flutters like the wings of a moth under Juri’s thumb.
Juri kneels under the water and looks up into startled pansy eyes. Shiori’s chest is heaving, her twists away and backs away from her, snatching up a towel and pressing it to her breasts.winding the other around her.
“Shiori, wait.” Juri’s voice is hoarse with need and fear.
“Keep away. Don’t talk to me.” Shiori dresses herself clumsily, too fast, hot tears spilling down her cheeks, missing a button so her blouse bulges and gapes, her scarf astray. Looking like an assaulted maiden
Juri sees all this while staring dully at the floor, as if her peripheral vision has gained magical scope. She pulls herself slowly to her feet and leans against the tiles, exhausted, all the words in her head and her heart and forbidden to say them. Her own core is pulsing and throbbing, like an accusation.
When Shiori has left, scrambling for her things, Juri turns the water on and lets it pulse over her, too hot, scalding her skin, until she feels dizzy and sick with heat and dehydration. Dry as the dust of her collapsed miracle.
Shiori has taken the only dry towel with her in her confusion. She picks up a discarded towel and mops herself with it anyway, trying not to remember that Shiori, crying, had dried herself with it. Her skin is still clammy when she pulls on her own clothes, and her uniform skirt clings to her legs.
She needs to talk to Shiori. To apologise, to fix this, somehow. As she walks through the school grounds back to the dormitory they share, she tries to imagine what she will find. Will Shiori, sensitive as she is, pretend to be asleep? Should she “wake” her then, or leave her until morning? Or will Shiori be there at all?
She passes a girl on her way. A girl with leaf green eyes behind thick glasses. She’s in Juri and Shiori’s year—no, that isn’t right. She’s a first year. Why should Juri imagine that she remembered sharing a class with her last year? A stupid, uninteresting girl, useless at scholastics and sports alike. Not like Shiori, always in the middle and always trying so hard, so diligently, that it makes Juri’s heart ache with her courage.
The girl steps in front of her, a dark rosebud in her hand. “Arisagawa-san? This is for you.”
Juri recovers her self-possession enough to take it. She mustn’t appear strange, and after all, tokens from other girls aren’t unknown to her. “You were waiting for me? You shouldn’t be out alone this late.” She tries to keep her voice kind and concerned.
The girl smiles, her mouth a serene curve. “It’s a gift from my brother. He thought it would appeal to you. Be careful, though. The petals are easily damaged, and you can’t fix them once they’re bruised.”
Juri looks blankly at her, and strides off to her dormitory. She can feel the girl’s eyes all the way to her dormitory.
Juri pauses in the doorway, bewildered. Shiori is holding a tea scoop, her blouse neatly buttoned, her tie perfectly, her short hair glossy and brushed.
“Yes,” she manages. “Thank you.”
“Sit down. I’ll bring it to you.”
Juri stares at her hands so that she isn’t staring at Shiori. The other girl moves quickly, neatly, setting down the cup in front of her. Juri sips from lack of anything else to do. All the unspoken words are still on her lips.
She looks up, quickly. Shiori is holding her tea in front of her face, hiding her mouth, and her eyes are downcast.
“Thank you for being my friend. I’m sorry I’m always such a trouble to you.”
“You’re not a trouble,” Juri says swiftly. “Shiori—“
“It must be boring for you, all these silly girls with crushes on you.” Shiori’s lashes lift at last. “But I’m different, aren’t I? I’m your friend. You actually like me.”
“Of course I do!” For a moment is seems almost possible to say ‘love’ instead of like, looking into those shy, longing eyes. Then Shiori lowers her cup and her lashes. It hurts like her gaze was something tangible that had been wrenched away from Juri, leaving her bleeding internally.
“Who gave you the rose?”
Juri looks dully at the flower in her hand, the crushed petals. She had managed to forget it, even though, now she looks, a thorn is pressing into the skin of her palm, indenting it. She had thought the petals red, but they are purple. Their scent is sweet and barely present.
“Just some girl.”
Shiori’s chair legs shriek against the floor. “You must excuse me. I’m so terribly tired.” A watery smile. “I think I did too much at practice. We all try so hard to impress you.”
Juri finishes her tea and washes up the cups, putting everything in order before changing—in the bathroom, rushing over the job, not wanting to see her own naked body—and climbing into her bunk. She can hear Shiori’s breathing, deep and even and sleepy, as she lies there. She sounds asleep. Maybe she’s not. Maybe she’s pretending. But she sounds it.
“I’m sorry for forcing my feelings on you,” she whispers into the night. No answer. Shiori must be sleeping.
Juri’s still uncomfortably wet and slippery, aching with deep emptiness inside, a deep regular throbbing inside her like a heartbeat, the place above that tight and aching. No pleasure in it, just need. Bitterly longing to be touched—touched like Shiori, who had bucked and thrust against the touch.
Juri slides a finger down, furtively touches the hot nub where the ache is worst, and the bunk below creaks as Shiori turns over. Shame washes over her. If Shiori is awake, hears her rubbing herself frantically in the same room…
She must have picked up the rose again. She crushes it between her fingers, then panics and tries to smooth the petals out, but they fall onto her pillow. When she wakes in the morning, some of the dying petals are stuck on her face. She brushes them off.
Shiori has prepared breakfast, and talks about class as they eat. Juri is miserably silent.
* * *
She doesn’t try to talk to Shiori about it again. Better pretend it never happened. Better not force Shiori to hate her, when Shiori is at her sweetest. Better to show she is sorry by being kind, considerate, looking out for her.
The other girls learn to be nice to Shiori, or Juri will blaze at them. Like a tiger they say, and laugh, and tell Shiori she is lucky to have a prince to protect her. They seem friendly enough with her, but none of them choose to spend time with Shiori.
“Are you lonely when I go away for the weekend?” she asks Shiori, holding another invitation.
“No. Of course not. I’m fine.” Her slender shoulders are stiff.
Juri says, impulsively, “I wish you had more friends.”
There’s a long moment of quiet, then Shiori’s eyes tremble with tears.
“I didn’t mean it that way!” Juri gathers her up into her arms, forgetting restraint, just wanting to put the light back in her eyes. “It’s just I can’t imagine anyone not loving you.” Shiori is thin and fragile in her arms, and warm.
“Maybe they’re jealous because you love me better.” Tear-wet lips find Juri’s. Juri kisses and kisses her as if she’s drowning and Shiori is her only source of air. Shiori’s lips are parted and her tongue, soft and rasping all at once, is against Juri’s, Shiori’s arms are tangled in Juri’s long curls, and they kiss until Juri is dizzy.
Then Shiori pushes her away. “Why do you—no, no. We are best friends!” She knocks over the chair as she runs to lock herself in the bathroom.
Juri can hear her racking sobs, and has nothing to say to make this better, no words that will come when her soul is being torn apart by Shiori’s sobs. She goes to the library instead.
When she comes back, Shiori is bent over her own books. Juri’s voice is rough when she says, “I won’t leave the school this weekend if you don’t want me to.” She doesn’t expect Shiori to agree, even though she has had wild fantasies of Shiori begging her to stay, demanding love.
Shiori lifts her head. “You’re so good to me, Juri. I will try to deserve your friendship.”
Juri cancels all her engagements.
* * *
They will be bent over their study, and Shiori will sigh, and Juri will remember the way she sighed when she was naked, between kisses. Remember lapping between her legs, water running into her eyes.
Juri’s thighs clench and she feels shameful dampness between them she flees to the bathroom, longing to touch herself, furious with herself for wanting to think of Shiori as she comes. Like rape, in a way. She forces the desire back, deep into herself, despite her treacherous, perverse body.
When she comes out, Shiori looks sad and frightened and most of all, compliant and eager to please, and Juri feels gorgeous.
She spends more time with Ruka instead, on the pretence of fencing club matters, because it’s better to miss Shiori when they are apart than to wish Shiori gone when they are together.
The girl is often there, the one with the green eyes behind her glasses. Himemiya; Juri has remembered her name. She smells of roses, and doesn’t say much. She makes tea, and is polite and helpful and doesn’t show any resentment when Ruka orders her around.
“You must excuse me.” She sets a new teapot down. “I must tend to my roses.”
“Your roses…” The purple one is rotting at the bottom of Juri’s underwear drawer. “Not your brother’s?”
“My brother likes roses,” she says equably. “They have been suffering from bugs. They are so cute and little, I can’t bear to hurt them, so I brush them gently off with my hands and carry them away. But they still eat away at my roses, and destroy them.” It’s an incredibly long speech, such longer than Juri is used to her giving.
“Sentimental child,” says Ruka. “You should bring some ladybirds to eat them. They are more beautiful than any nasty little parasites.” He leans back in his chair, smiles at Juri. “I like ladybirds. Beautiful and deadly.”
“They are pretty, but hungry,” Himemiya says in her soft tones. “It is in their nature. I pity them.” She smiles. “I will see you later.”
When the girl has gone, Juri leans back in her chair.
“One of your harem?”
“She’s my fiancé.”
Juri curls her lips, trying to guess the joke. “That’s a cruel thing to say. She might take it seriously.”
“You’re the one being cruel.” Ruka rakes his hand through his hair and grins at her. “I assure you I’m serious. I fought very hard for her hand in marriage.” He raises a hand. “See, I wear her ring.” It looks nothing like an engagement ring; it’s a toy for stamping a rose in sealing wax.
“You actually love her?”
His long eyes mock her. “What would be the use of loving a means to an end?”
“You’re horrible.” She gets up to go, but Ruka’s hand is on her arm.
“Don’t you want to know what she means to me?”
“I have no interest in your selfish aims. What about her feelings?” The words come out of Juri with quiet force, somewhere between whispering and spitting. “What if she loves you, and thinks of you, and wants you and is bleeding and infected inside?”
“My, my.” Those damn eyes are laughing. “I assure you, Anthy’s feelings are not worth considering, even if she’s capable of them.”
Juri strikes him across the face. He keeps laughing.
“Himemiya Anthy is very beautiful. She is my means to a miracle.”
“Shut up!” She leaves, striding in long strides towards the rose garden. She needs to tell this child about Ruka, that he is using her, that he will destroy her purity and innocence. That he will ruin her just like Juri’s lust and depravity has turned Shiori into this cracked shell of a girl, and no one will be able to put the cracks back together.
“Juri, wait.” There is still laughter in his voice, and she can hear his steps behind her.
“Leave me alone!”
He grasps her arm, and pulls her back, inches from him. “Juri, I want only what is best for you.” His chest is almost touching her breasts, his face so close she can hear his breath.
“Oh, my.” Soft, neutral tones. Ruka drops Juri’s arm, and they turn, to see Himemiya standing there, a covered bucket in her hand, and Shiori beside her, arms full of orange roses.
“Juri has come to see you, Anthy,” Ruka says, lightly.
“I was showing Takatsuki-san my roses. Are you already friends?”
Shiori’s eyes are brimming with a happiness Juri can’t comprehend, can’t make sense of. “She is my best friend. The one I was telling you about.”
“You are indeed lucky to have such a good friend.”
“I know.” A small, shy smile. “Everyone tells me so.”
“Are they your precious bugs, Anthy? You had better come with me and we will find them a home.” Ruka extends his arm, and she takes it obediently. The words Juri was going to say are dead on her lips, because Shiori is holding out her own arm, a soft flush on her cheeks, and Juri could stop the blood funding through her own body more readily than to refuse that hand.
“You seem very close with Ruka today.”
Juri’s cheeks flush. “He’s a playboy. I hate men like that.”
“Yet you are such good friends.” Shiori pulls a rose from her bunch, a deep velvety full-blown thing of gold and sunset. “You don’t say harsh things about me behind my back?”
“You’re not a boy.” Juri brushes the rose away.
Shiori bites her lip, her small neat teeth making little pale dents in her pink lip. “I know.” She turns half away. “Ruka is very popular. Good-looking and clever and athletic. Like you. You both—you both shine. All these girls, all those ordinary, plain, talentless girls, love you both, and neither of you see their feelings. You don’t even read the notes they leave in your lockers.”
“I don’t want to encourage their silliness. They don’t matter. None of their feelings matter.” Her words fall heavily, with a wet thud.
“Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you wait behind, to see if just one is waiting to shower with you.” Tears spill down Shiori’s face.
“Shiori, no. Only you.” She reaches out blindly, takes the rose. “You are my one sin.”
Shiori’s mouth works, as if she is trying to find out what to say, trying different words and sentences, and her eyes are tear-filled and film of fear and—disgust.
Shiori turns back to her. “Of course you do. I think you should go to your modelling. I have faith in you, Juri. You are the kind of girl who makes miracles true.” She holds out the rose, and her cheeks and eyes re dry, and she’s smiling. How can she be smiling? “If you love someone with a pure heart, and believe in miracles, they will understand your feelings.”
“What if your feelings are wrong and corrupt?” Juri’s whisper still seems loud.
Shiori drops her head, hair swinging forehead to hide her expression. “Then it’s not a pure love, no matter how much you want it.”
“I don’t ever want to hurt you, Shiori.”
“I know.” She can hardly hear Shiori’s voice. “You can’t help it. Please—please understand me. And please go.”
Juri turns and leaves the rose garden, the golden rose loose in her fingers. She swears to herself that she won’t bruise this one.
She can’t shake the impression that as she left, Shiori was laughing. Or crying again. She couldn’t tell which.
When she is close to their dormitory, she looks down, and the stalk and sepal of the rose are crawling with little green bugs.
* * *
It’s Himemiya who answers. “You wanted to see my brother?” A slight smile. “The chairman is with his fiancee. May I help?”
“I want to know her my room mate is!”
“Takatsuki-san?” The smile is still there. “She’s transferred to another school.”
“She wouldn’t leave without telling me!”
“Ohtori had nothing more to offer her. I can give you the address of her new school, if you like. And Tsuchiya-san’s.”
“He’s gone too?”
“Of course. They are lovers, you know.” Himemiya’s serene expression never falters. “I was there when she confessed her feelings.”
“He said you were his fiancee!”
“I was. I am engaged to Saiyonji-san now.” She stands there, smiling. “Please let me make you some tea.”
Juri stumbles into the room somehow, falling onto a chair. The room is full of light—too much light— reflecting off her thighs, which seem to gleam white. She pulls her skirts down. She feels sick, her hands are trembling. Shiori… and Ruka.
“How can you be? Have you so little feeling, to go from one lover to the next?”
“Takatsuki-san wished to forget all her sins and mistakes and to start again, with an innocent heart. Wasn’t it your wish, too, that she be free of corruption, and have a normal love?” Himemiya steps closer. “Or… wasn’t that your wish at all?” Juri looks up to see that Himemiya has lifted her skirt, just a little, her thighs soft and shapely, her panties white against them. “If you wish me to be your bride instead, you need only act.”
“What are you doing? Stop that!” Juri says sharply.
The girl doesn’t seem discomfited. “Whatever you wish, whatever miracle you seek, it can be yours.” She adds, irrelevantly, “Now Tschuiya is gone, there’s a vacancy on the school council. My brother thinks you would be a good fit as secretary.”
“You’re lying to me.”
“I assure you, you would be a very good fit.”
The girl holds out her hand. Lying in her palm is the same white ring that Ruka had worn. “Do you want the power to change the world, Arisugawa-san?”
Juri closes her eyes. Sees Shiori gasping against the shower wall, sees her crying, sees the fear and disgust in her eyes. “I don’t want to change it. I want to smash it.”
She opens her eyes again, and Himemiya Anthy is smiling at her. “I look forward to being your bride.”