"That was better, but let's try it again." Juri called out from the opposite end of the room, raising her rapier.
Shiori hid her growing frustration behind a smile as she raised her own delicate sword. She knew that receiving private lessons from the captain of the Ohtori Fencing Club was something to be grateful for, but that didn't quite account for the tumultuous history between them. Being bested by Juri, even in this friendly setting, even when Shiori specifically sought out her friend's help in improving her skill, and even when Juri hadn't given so much as the barest indication that she was enjoying her superiority over Shiori when it came to fencing, was rubbing her raw.
Shiori hadn't felt this way at first. Shiori's desire to repair her friendship with Juri had caused her to shyly volunteer for the Ohtori fencing club. Juri had been rather surprised at Shiori's interest at first, but had graciously given her a spot on the team. Fencing came surprisingly natural to Shiori, who had never tried anything approaching a sport before. Several private lessons between them had caused Shiori's skill to rapidly grow.
Unfortunately, that kind of fast progress couldn't be sustained. Juri had told Shiori that she had gotten an excellent grasp of the basic and intermediate levels of fencing, but that any further improvement would be incremental, and the result of long hours of practice. The knowledge that real patience would be required from this point on was unwelcome news to Shiori. Worse was the recognition that the gulf in skill between them was something that Shiori would not be able to close any time soon.
Shiori let out a breath and lunged forward with her rapier. Juri parried the attack effortlessly. A riposte from Juri soon followed, one that came from a different angle than Shiori expected. Shiori parried it, barely, but had the immediate inkling that she had screwed up. In focusing too hard on turning Juri's blade aside with the proper form, she had neglected her footwork, which Juri easily took advantage of by stepping inside of Shiori's guard. Shiori tried to backpedal while keeping Juri's blunt sword-tip away from her, but quickly lost her balance and ended up falling gracelessly on her butt.
Juri extended a hand to help her up. Shiori stared at it, and for a split-second, felt a keen desire to slap Juri's hand away and push herself up instead. That petty impulse passed, however, and she accepted Juri's proffered hand with as much dignity as she could.
"Your parries are getting a lot better. Soon, you won't have to think about them at all." Juri said with an air of gentle encouragement.
Shiori smiled, though inwardly she felt her temperature rising. Although Juri had made her criticism sound like a compliment, Shiori knew what she meant: Shiori needed to keep all aspects of the duel in mind and not focus on anything too deeply. Easy for her to say! Juri had the benefit of years of practice. How was Shiori supposed to compete with that?
Shiori took a deep breath and tried to dispel her increasingly bitter thoughts. She wasn't competing with Juri here or anywhere. Shiori had told herself that time and time again. So why was she still so pissed regardless? Shiori felt like an angry noise was about to force its way out of her. It would only serve to make her seem petty, but Shiori didn't think she could stop herself. Or could she?
It was a few seconds before Shiori remembered. Shiori had been so focused on what the new and improved version of herself should do that she had forgotten her old way of handling these kinds of emotions. Shiori didn't get mad. She got even. And Shiori knew a way to siphon some of the frustration inside herself, as cruel as it might be.
"That stance you used. Can you show me how to do it?" Shiori asked in an innocent tone, a plan already having formed in her mind.
"You mean the advancing stance I used? Like this?" Juri asked in response, reorienting her body to show it to Shiori.
"Yeah, that. But I'm not sure, am I doing it right?" Shiori asked vaguely, making an intentionally poor effort to mirror Juri.
"Not quite. You need to be angled forward a little more." Juri said slowly in critique.
"More? It feels like I'd lose my balance then. Could you come here and show me?" Shiori asked brightly.
After some slight hesitation, Juri nodded. Shiori kept a satisfied smile from appearing on her face as Juri came closer to her. She watched as Juri sidled up next to her, reached out, and with an extremely light touch, adjusted Shiori's stance by touching her lower back and forward-facing leg. With any luck, Juri was feeling a little bit of the frustration that had been building in Shiori, albeit of a different kind. Except...it wasn't quite working as Shiori thought it would.
Oh, it had already been a success in the way she hoped. The blush that had appeared on Juri's face was giving lie to the cool demeanor her friend always tried to display. The problem was that a similar thing was happening to Shiori herself. Her skin tingled where Juri's fingertips rested, and the feeling was making her heart beat faster. Shiori was suddenly aware of just how close Juri was to her. She turned her head slightly and glanced at her friend. Juri's face was only inches away, and the height difference between them meant that Shiori was eye-level with Juri's lips. They looked appealingly soft, and Shiori found herself wondering what it would be like to kiss them. More to distract herself from these unexpected thoughts than anything, Shiori glanced up to see that Juri was looking at her with an expression that was difficult to read. The seconds ticked by slowly, and all the while Juri's hands remained, quite unnecessarily by now, on Shiori.
This wasn't going to last forever. At some point, Juri would pull herself back into her usual restrained shell and Shiori would be left wondering what could have been. But she had no intention of letting that happen. If the choice was between taking a chance now and thinking of herself as a coward later, Shiori knew what she was going to do.
Shiori leaned forward and went up to her tip-toes to kiss Juri softly. Juri's lips were just as soft and smooth as they looked, and after a moment, Juri began kissing her back. Shiori could feel Juri's hands get a firmer grip on her, giving Shiori the tantalizing impression that she was about to be pulled into Juri's arms. But to her deep disappointment, Juri broke off the kiss and stepped away from her.
"We...we shouldn't do this." Juri said as she caught her breath, turning her head away slightly to look at some invisible thing over Shiori's shoulder.
Shiori blinked a few times, trying to understand what had happened. Had she really put herself on the line like that, just for Juri to reject her? How did every single one of her plans end with herself figuratively falling on her face? And how had Juri managed to turn this around on her? Shiori suddenly felt like screaming, or yelling out any number of cruel things. But...what was the point? Whatever satisfaction Shiori would feel at seeing the hurt in Juri's eyes would always be paid for later with feelings of guilt and self-hatred. By now, Shiori had learned where that road led. So instead of indulging in her old destructive patterns, Shiori simply turned around and walked away without a word.
"Shiori, wait!" Juri called out from behind her in an agonized tone.
Waiting was entirely out of the question. Just being able to keep herself from running and betraying how badly she needed to not be in the same room with Juri right now felt like an accomplishment. It was only when Shiori had escaped the suddenly claustrophobic practicing room that she was able to let out a single hitched sob. She caught herself quickly after that, however. Making a scene out here in view of other students wouldn't be much better than doing it in front of Juri, considering how quickly gossip got around at Ohtori. Shiori could hold it in until she had gotten to her room.
Shiori fiddled with the stereo in her room until she had successfully started her playlist over from the beginning. Having done that, she flopped back down onto her bed. Shiori might have oversold her supposed bravery. Someone with actual bravery would probably not have hidden in her room for the last day and a half. Shiori wasn't particularly broken up anymore, but she had grown to appreciate the complete lack of any possibility of bumping into Juri by accident in here and was loathe to leave the sanctity of her dorm room. That had meant missing her classes, but that wasn't a big deal. For a private academy, Ohtori didn't exactly emphasize schoolwork. Which was odd but much appreciated under the circumstances. Somewhat more important was missing her fencing practice session with Juri.
Shiori glanced at the clock next to her bed. It would have just ended by now. Did Juri wait for her to show up the whole time? Maybe she left after it was clear that Shiori wasn't showing up. Or maybe Juri hadn't shown up either. Maybe Juri was just as happy to avoid Shiori as vice versa. That thought gave Shiori a rather melancholy feeling. She had been so hopeful about repairing their friendship and Shiori had ended up wrecking it with one stupid decision. No wonder Shiori felt like staying in her room for a while. She couldn't do too much damage in here.
A sudden knocking at her door interrupted Shiori's navel-gazing. She sat up in bed in a flash. It could, in theory, be one of her other friends, or some school councilor inquiring about her absence today. But Shiori had a pretty good idea of who it was. She got up from her bed and tip-toed over to the door. It didn't have a peephole, sadly. She would have to open the door to see who it was. As Shiori dithered in front of the door, she heard someone speak from outside of it.
"Shiori?" Juri called through the door.
Well, the mystery was solved. Shiori sighed and wished she hadn't turned her stereo on. The music playing from it made it impossible to pretend that she wasn't there. So that left Shiori with two possibilities; opening the door or cruelly ignoring Juri's presence. As tempting as it was to turn up the volume on her stereo and stay shut up in her sanctuary, Juri didn't deserve that kind of treatment. It was with a regretful air that Shiori opened the door a crack and peered outside. Yep, there was Juri, standing there with her usual inscrutable look, which Shiori knew Juri used to hide unhappy feelings. Which unhappy feelings in particular were never immediately clear. And what's more, Juri was wearing her fencing gear. So she had shown up to their regular meeting after all.
"So. Can we talk?" Juri asked Shiori evenly.
"I guess. What's up?" Shiori responded cautiously, keeping the door open a crack.
"Can I come in? I don't really want to talk in the hall." Juri said uncomfortably.
"I suppose. Come in then." Shiori said, after a moment.
Shiori opened the door to let Juri inside. She turned around to shut off her stereo, expecting Juri to follow her, but no sound of footsteps was forthcoming. Shiori turned around and saw Juri hadn't moved. And that a blush similar to the one that had been on her face in the fencing practice room had appeared. It took a second for Shiori to realize why. It likely had something to do with the fact that she was only wearing an oversized shirt over her underwear. Shiori felt a blush appear on her cheeks as well, though she tried her best to play it off. It wasn't like anything was showing. The shirt she was wearing was big enough to cover herself, but that was only because...
"Is that my shirt?" Juri asked, rather weakly.
"Yeah. You left it with your extra bag the first time you came by before practice." Shiori answered quickly, wishing she had remembered that detail before opening the door.
Silence followed Shiori's statement. It dragged on a bit too long for her to handle, until she felt no choice but to speak up again.
"I mean, you can have it back. I just like to sleep in it sometimes. It's comfortable." Shiori explained gingerly.
"No, that's okay. You can keep it." Juri said, with a hint of a smile on her face.
"Thanks." Shiori said, smiling back.
Shiori sat down on her bed and watched as Juri pulled out the swivel chair at her desk. Shiori crossed her legs and waited for Juri to say something. But nothing was immediately forthcoming. Juri seemed to be caught in a minor loop where her gaze would be drawn down to Shiori's bare legs before quickly flicking up to her face. The second time it happened, Shiori decided to be the one to speak first.
"You said you wanted to talk?" Shiori prompted.
"Right. You didn't come to practice." Juri said, making a visible effort to focus.
"I just...thought it might be awkward." Shiori answered uncomfortably, looking away from Juri.
"Probably. But were you just going to avoid me forever?" Juri asked intently.
"I hadn't planned it out very far." Shiori responded honestly, shrugging.
"You shouldn't let our issues stop you from practicing. You have a lot of talent." Juri said seriously.
Shiori stayed silent. Fencing was fun and all, but she had only tried it out to get closer to Juri. There wasn't much point in putting in the effort without that. Unfortunately, Juri seemed to think that it was fencing itself that was important. A tiny, annoying inner voice that would sometimes poke Shiori to do the right thing piped up inside her, telling her that a miscommunication like this needed to be fixed. That would involve some likely embarrassment though, and Shiori had been burned before...
"Look. The reason I said that we shouldn't...it just seemed too fast. I need some time to think about it." Juri explained softly, correctly interpreting Shiori's silence.
Shiori leaned back a little, considering. Although it seemed strange, considering Juri was taller than her, quite a bit stronger, and fully dressed, whereas Shiori was barely wearing anything; Shiori felt like she was the one with the power here. The blush on Juri's face hadn't gone away, and Shiori thought that even a little flirting on her part would likely make up Juri's mind for her. But would it be right to do that? And was Shiori comfortable with giving up her power here and allowing Juri to make her own decision, one that might not be to Shiori's liking?
"Alright. I understand." Shiori said with a sigh, wishing that the righteous little inner voice inside her would pipe down.
"Okay. We'll make up the difference tomorrow with an extra hour of practice." Juri stated, standing up from the chair.
"What?" Shiori asked incredulously.
"I expect everyone on the team to put in at least an hour a day." Juri said severely, adopting her "captain" voice.
Shiori fell back on her bed with a laugh, thinking that wanting to do the right thing was more of a curse than a blessing. Is this what girls like Utena felt like all the time? Nah. They probably didn't even need to think about it. Doing the right thing had to be as natural as breathing for them. Too bad it wasn't that easy for Shiori.
"I also expect them to wear pants to practice." Juri said in a surprisingly irreverent tone.
Shiori's eyebrows rose. Was that a joke? From Juri? Shiori would have hardly expected any kind of joke from the new, tightly-wound, not-so-improved version of her friend that she had reunited with at Ohtori. Maybe Juri was changing herself as well.
"Oh, but I thought that might be my secret weapon. It would make for a good distraction, don't you think?" Shiori returned, smiling saucily as Juri.
"Absolutely. Too bad it's not in the rulebook, though." Juri said with a faux air of regret.
Juri turned to walk out of the room. Shiori stayed on her bed and twisted herself around so that she was able to watch her friend leave. As Juri stepped outside, she turned to look back. Shiori watched Juri raise her hand to offer a friendly, awkward, and completely endearing wave that Shiori hastened to return. The smile on Shiori's face remained there even after Juri shut the door.
Well, perhaps Shiori wasn't the walking disaster that she had assumed herself to be. And maybe doing the right thing wasn't always an unappreciated sacrifice.