Miki sorts the mail. Kozue usually gets to it first, neatly picking out the notes from her peers like a bird pecking out grain. He takes the rest: things meant for him, like invitations to play or compete, and things meant for both of them, like letters from their parents, that she has no interest in sharing in.
Today she must be sleeping in, because the mail is untouched. She was out late last night. Miki doesn't know who with. It's not his business to know. But he fingers an envelope, heavy cream, with something inside it, held closed by a cheerful sticker that shows a rose, and thinks that this has to be from yet another person than last night's companion. So many beaus on a string. He wonders what she does with them, and what the point is, what makes it fun.
But the note is not marked with any name at all, so he opens it. Inside, there's a ring and a slip of paper that reads only, in one typed line, For the purity that you value so highly.
It's weird. He puzzles over it. From a boyfriend, is it a backhanded compliment, or an obscure joke? He leaves it on the table for Kozue to find, making no attempt to hide the broken seal.
Purity. He is, and isn't, surprised that anyone would see Kozue that way. She's hard-edged since their parents left; she flirts for her own amusement and mocks the boyfriends who take her seriously, and keeps them at arm's length. He passes her in between classes. She's often with friends, and he's heard her laughing, but he's rarely seen her smile without that laugh.
But: he can imagine what she's protecting, the nature of that part of her that she won't let anyone touch. He knows that she remembers who she used to be when they were children in a garden together. Maybe she could be that person again, if only the world would let her.
He used to be the brother she ran to when she cried. In a different world, if she still needed protecting, he'd protect her.
But maybe she doesn't shut people out so much as he thinks - maybe it's just him.
As he's leaving the house, it occurs to him that she might be just as confused by the message as he is. Maybe she'll even think that he left it for her. A backhanded compliment. An obscure, maybe cruel, joke.
Today is the first meeting he attends as a member of the Student Council.
"Thank you for joining us, Miki," Juri-sempai says with dignity. He knows her from the fencing club. She asks him to take minutes; it diverts most of his questions, but not all. Miki is sharp. He can observe and record, and still engage.
"One final thing," says Touga-sempai, the president. He leans down to Miki as though his words are meant just for him, although it's in fun; he's not speaking quietly, and Saionji and Arisugawa and lnoue are right there. "Did you receive the rose seal?"
Oh, he realises. The strange note really was for him. It wasn't about Kozue at all.
When he returns to their house, the table is empty. Miki has to ask Kozue for the ring. "Look at you, coming to me for your love-letters," she teases him, but she slides the ring on his finger.
He wants to ask her about her letters in return, but he can't think of anything to say that doesn't sound like a riposte.
The duels, when they explain them to him, have a layer of artifice that makes him wary. "Why?" he asks Touga. Touga shrugs.
"We each have our reasons. Perhaps you'll discover your own, Miki-kun."
Fine. The other members of the student council can play at adult games. He is a child and will play as a child. He doesn't need to look beneath the surface to go through the motions.
The next note, hand-written this time, instructs him to duel. It says, Fight, if not for yourself, for her. This is less puzzling than the first: Touga has already explained about the Rose Bride. And there's a picture: a girl in a garden, holding a watering can.
Miki wins the battle against Inoue-sempai, striking the lilac rose from Inoue's chest to the ground. He fences at the national level. All it takes is concentration. Inoue's emotions, not his skill, are at the fore. When Miki slashes the rose, Inoue crumples, sitting down heavily, with his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. He doesn't even look up at the Rose Bride as she crosses to Miki's side.
"What now?" Miki asks him.
"You're asking me?" Inoue asks incredulously. "I haven't anything left to say."
The Rose Bride follows him down the stairs. Miki feels awkward after Inoue's outburst, and doesn't say anything. She probably feels the same.
He doesn't expect to see her again until the next duel. He's partly right, and partly wrong. It's Inoue he never sees again.
Touga made the duels sound like a secret, but he didn't actually forbid Miki from telling anyone about them. He imagines telling Kozue about the fight, sharing with her the strangeness of adults and their rituals. But she's out again. He looks across at her bed, neat and plain, as he turns down the covers of his own.
She doesn't often sleep in that bed, but they've never discussed moving it. It's a big house. Sometimes they wander through it, letting their belongings trail from room to room. Sometimes they huddle in Miki's room and pretend there's no other space. The room that is Kozue's favourite now used to be where their parents slept. Two years ago, she sold all the furniture that used to be in it and put a bed of her own in there instead. He should have fought with her about it, but at the time her feelings were a fiercer version of his own. By the time he remembered to be angry and responsible on his parents' behalf, the feelings felt out of joint, as if showing them would be like tapping a cat on the nose for something it did as a kitten.
She was wrong at the time, but she was also right. Not even their letters hint that they will return; this is no longer their parents' home.
The twin beds in their original room - still their room, even though it's where Miki stays, and where Kozue comes and goes - aren't just there for nostalgia. Sometimes Miki comes back from classes, to pick up his fencing uniform, and finds Kozue asleep there in the afternoon. Sometimes he'll be brushing his teeth and she'll saunter in, already dressed for bed, and place a glass of water on the table. He knows not to ask if she's all right, or if this means anything's changed. If he challenges her, she'll go. He has to be careful not to wake her in the morning.
He's not quite asleep tonight when he feels her touch on his forehead. She's come in without turning on the light. She's probably just checking which bed is his, in the dark, though really she should know. He doesn't react, though he resents being pulled up towards wakefulness. He waits for her to move off.
Instead, she strokes his cheek, gently, twice, a third time.
(If he challenges her, she'll go.)
"Kozue," he says, still not quite awake, and she kisses him, not on his forehead or cheek, but lips to lips.
"This is the only the time we'll have together, isn't it?" she asks.
He's frozen. He can't speak, but whatever movement he makes, she might take the wrong way.
(Which way is the wrong way?)
Then she's gone. After the fact, his breath comes quickly. He turns the moment over and over in his mind until its hard edges are blunted and indistinct, like a tumble-polished gem. It's the shine that stings.
In the morning, Kozue's asleep in the bed beside him, lipstick smeared at the corner of her mouth. He turns away from her before he puts a hand up to his own face to feel if he, too, is wearing a mark.
He doesn't bother to be quiet for her.
"What were you doing last night?" he asks her fiercely as she blinks. "What were you thinking? About us?"
She stares at him, as though she's surprised by what she sees, as though there's something new about him. Yes, he thinks, you put it there. After a long moment, she drawls, "I wasn't thinking of you at all."
He turns away again, angrily; he doesn't hear her move. She's still watching him as he goes.
After Home Economics, Juri-sempai appears to challenge him to a duel. She and the Rose Bride show him how to draw a sword from Himemiya-san, where to place his hand on her body. He shuts his eyes.
"This is strictly business," Juri tells him.
"I don't mind," Miki assures her. It's been a while since they tested their strengths against each other. They draw out the bout for the exercise of it. She tells him he fights with a shrinking strength, unwilling to press his advantages.
He's relieved when she cuts the rose from his chest, relieved to surrender the sword.
At home, he rubs the ring on his finger. For purity.
It hurts, if Kozue's heart is closed to him and only him, but if this is what she's like now, he wants even less to be invited in.
He watches her from the window as she comes up the street, laughing, and locks his heart in a cage to keep it safe.