The first time Juri picks up a sword, it feels as if it was made to fit in her grip. The weight of the foil feels right. The sound it makes as she slashes the air is impossibly satisfying, like something out of a movie.
“Ha, you’re a natural!” he says, and his gaze is fond as Juri’s eyes light up at the praise. It does feel natural – the spring of the piste beneath her feet, the bright clang of the foils, the thrill of the bout.
And Shiori watches with a smile, cheering for the two of them.
He walks Juri through the basics, reminding her to stay light and quick on her feet. She has to be able to adapt, to seize every opportunity that presents itself. Never hesitate.
She replicates each attack he shows her with such ease that it surprises even her.
She thinks she must have been made for this.
It becomes their little ritual — Juri’s, Shiori’s, and his . To meet at the piste after the rest of the fencing club has left for the day and have a few bouts. When the three of them are together, anywhere they go feels like the backyards they played in as children. Their turf.
He and Juri have been close since the start of middle school, but fencing feels like the beginning of something new. Even as Juri quickly starts catching up to him, he only marvels at it, his face alight with glee every time she lands a touch on him. He’s proud, she thinks, and it fills her with something hard to describe. All of it does — the friendly competition, the satisfaction of mastering a new skill, the aching muscles and stinging lungs after a long bout. It’s a kind of friendship that she’s never really experienced before, this sense of camaraderie.
“You should join the club,” he tells her, time and time again.
“I’ll think about it,” she always replies, not really sure how to explain that she already likes things the way that they are.
There’s a part of her that feels uneasy at the thought of change, though she doesn’t know why. As if her life was some idyllic snow globe scene encased in a soap bubble.
“Shiori, why don’t you try?” he asks more than once, holding out a foil to her. “It must get boring to just watch all the time.”
And Shiori always smiles and laughs that light, girlish laugh. “Oh no, you just wanna see me trip and fall on my face.”
Why do you think that you would? Juri always wonders, but only to herself.
“Besides,” Shiori once adds, reaching over and hanging onto Juri’s arm, “what do I need to learn to fight for when I’ve got two handsome knights in shining armor?”
Even through the sleeve of Juri’s lamé, her skin feels hot where Shiori’s hand rests.
She feels that heat on the back of her neck, too, as Shiori watches her land another touch.
When she’s on the piste, Juri is untouchable.
She feels strong. She feels dashing. She feels heroic.
She feels like maybe, just maybe, she can do the impossible.
After a few months of pleading and prodding from him, Juri finally joins the fencing club. As the only girl on the team, she raises plenty of eyebrows, but any sneers are quickly wiped off the faces of the boys as she defeats them, one by one. Gradually, she gains their respect.
Even club practice can’t wear out Juri enough to make her give up on their little ritual. Shiori still comes by after every practice to watch him and Juri, and in their hearts they still all play at being knights and princesses like they did as little children, and nothing changes, and Juri thinks maybe it never will.
It isn’t long before she learns better.
“Your form is a little lopsided,” he tells her, scratching at the back of his head thoughtfully. Shiori has run to get lunch from the convenience store right outside campus, and so without her outside eye, the two of them have been hard pressed to figure out what’s going wrong with Juri’s riposte.
“I think your footwork is a little off balance,” he finally decides, standing beside her and demonstrating the proper stance. When she tries to mimic it, he lets out a cry.
“Ah! It’s your left foot. You’re just a little off-center…”
He reaches out to gently adjust her shoulders, and nudges her left foot with his own into the proper place.
“Oh! That already feels more balanced,” Juri nods approvingly.
“I thought so! And if you just extend your arm a little…”
“Y-Yeah, just like that… You got it.”
He swallows audibly, and Juri suddenly realizes that his hand is trembling slightly beneath her wrist.
Something shifts, then. Like the slightest movement of tectonic plates, or a grain of sand in a sensitive instrument. A subtle catastrophe.
All at once, she is aware of their proximity — his breath by her ear, his hand hovering at her back.
Her heart grows heavy as she realizes that she feels nothing.
“I got the— Oh…”
Shiori stands in the door, eyeing the two of them curiously. In her hand, the three lunches are stacked precariously, on the verge of toppling.
“Sorry, am I interrupting…?”
Juri lowers her arm, taking a step away from him. “Not at all. We were just wrapping up for the day.”
He doesn’t respond right away, fiddling with the fasteners of his lamé with his back to the other two. When he finally removes his helmet, Juri thinks she can see the tips of his ears reddening.
She wonders if she should say something, but she can’t find the words. So they sit and eat silently, still unable to meet each other’s eyes.
And Shiori’s gaze flits from one to the other, expression unreadable.
As they always have, the girls walk home with each other, arm in arm. Before there were three, there were two. And though Juri does love him in her way, though she wouldn’t change what the three of them have for the world, there’s a sad truth that sits like a brick in the pit of her stomach. A different kind of love that fills her to bursting on these quiet walks home.
The autumn evening is cool and golden, and Shiori chatters happily about the latest classroom drama, and something in Juri’s heart stirs.
It scares her.
Juri blinks, willing her face to stay neutral. “Hm?”
“Jeez, you weren’t even listening to me,” Shiori laughs, smacking Juri’s arm playfully. “I was saying you should hurry up and register for the spring tournament.”
“Oh… you think so?”
“Of course I do! You’re amazing! You should have seen yourself up there,” Shiori gushes, hanging onto Juri’s arm as they walk. “You looked so… so gallant. Like a knight in a fairytale.”
Juri hopes that the warm evening light is enough to hide the blush dusting her cheeks. “You’re exaggerating,” she mumbles.
“But I’m not! You’re seriously amazing, you know. You could beat everyone on the high school team already. The boys would be all over you if they weren’t so jealous.”
Shiori’s hand trails down Juri’s arm, light as feathers. It comes to rest near Juri’s wrist.
“Say, come to think of it, do you have anybody you like?”
Shiori smiles up at Juri innocently, her fingers playing at where Juri’s pulse might be. Juri wills her heart to stop beating so sickeningly fast.
Shiori’s grip tightens. “Aw, cmon Juri-san, there must be somebody! You’re surrounded by cute boys all the time at the fencing club!”
“I dunno, I don’t really talk to them.”
“Boo, you’re no fun. You seriously don’t have your eye on anyone? Nobody in the club, or in class?”
She peers up at Juri, out of the corner of her eye. Something sharp and jagged glints in it.
“Or maybe a friend?”
Shiori’s shoulder leans against Juri’s, and Juri can feel the warmth of her through her sleeve. She’s close enough that Juri can just barely catch the rosy scent of her perfume. The loose waves of her hair fall about her face as she looks up at Juri, her smile bright and childish.
Juri’s arm twitches in Shiori’s grip, and she feels a strange urge to run, far away.
It must have shown on her face, because Shiori’s expression flickers with hurt. She moves away slightly, still holding onto Juri’s arm.
“Sorry,” she says quietly, “you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
I do want to, Juri thinks, her throat unbearably tight. That’s what frightens me.
For a while, they walk in silence, neither of them knowing quite what to say. Shiori’s hand moves down a little, her fingers playing almost nervously at Juri’s. Seeking reassurance.
Slowly, hesitantly, Juri turns her hand around to offer Shiori her palm. Wordlessly, Shiori takes her hand. Her palm is soft and warm in Juri’s.
It makes Juri feel just the smallest bit bolder.
“...I do like someone,” she says, her voice almost too soft to be heard over the gentle breeze.
Something flickers in Shiori’s eyes. “Oh?”
“I… can’t tell the person. I don’t think I have any chance.”
“Oh, come on, who wouldn’t want to be with you?”
Juri swallows. She doesn’t have an answer. Can’t answer without giving herself away.
“I just think it’s better to stay friends,” she says quietly. “I like things the way they are.”
“But…” Shiori chews her lip, looking a little lost for words. “Don’t you wanna know how he feels?”
I know already, Juri thinks, and she feels that sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. I know all too well.
It must have shown in her face, because Shiori eyes her closely, searching for an answer in the creases of her frown. Then, suddenly, she crosses in front of Juri and grabs both of her hands in hers, pulling them close to her chest.
“Believe in miracles,” Shiori says warmly, gripping both of Juri’s hands tightly, “and they will know your feelings.”
The light of the setting sun casts a warm glow around Shiori’s hair, glints in her wide, sincere eyes. Juri’s heart feels like it could burst as she looks at her.
It really would take a miracle.
School pictures are funny things. All around Juri, the other students worry at their hair and their collars and their makeup. They hum and mutter nervously like a beehive, trying to make sure that this moment is captured perfectly, encapsulating this entire school year and the person that it has shaped them each into.
Juri sits perfectly still.
Four rows behind Juri, he stands next to Shiori. Something makes her uneasy at the thought of the distance between them. She would have liked for them all to be together in the picture. Maybe they can take another one later, just the three of them.
“On the count of three!” the photographer warns them, getting into position behind the camera.
Juri wonders what they might be talking about. If the photo will capture them smiling all the more warmly for each other’s company.
She wonders if maybe they wish that she was there with them as much as she does.
She steals a glance at them as quickly as she can.
Shiori is whispering something into his ear.
In the photo, if Juri’s eyes are closed, it’s only because she blinked.
Suddenly, he’s too busy to stay after fencing practice. He avoids Juri’s eye at the club, and keeps to himself in class. She has no idea what to make of the tightness at the corners of his mouth or the restlessness of his fingers picking at his pockets, but it makes her feel cold and sick.
Even more strangely, Shiori tells Juri to go home without her after practice.
“Sorry, I’m a little busy today,” she says, giggling at some joke only she gets. “But I’ll see you later!”
And yet it isn’t much later at all before Juri sees her, taking the same route home that they always walked together.
Shiori hangs off his arm now, fingers entwined with his, her smile luminous in the evening glow.
The earth shifts and rends itself apart beneath Juri’s feet, and she falls, falls, falls…
Juri does register for the spring tournament. So does he. And Shiori comes to watch.
But for some reason, when Juri steps onto the piste to take him on in the final match, it doesn’t feel like it did before. She almost feels like a villain.
Neither of them say anything, aside from a curt nod and regulation salute. Before he puts on his mask, she thinks he looks… awkward. As if there’s something he wants to say, but doesn’t have the words.
She understands. She can imagine exactly what he would say, if given the chance.
Strangely, she thinks she doesn’t really want to hear it.
But then the match begins, and she doesn’t have time to think about anything but the foil in her hands and that of her opponent.
She lunges, and he parries. She can never overtake his lead, only ever scoring a touch soon after him. Each phrase seems to go on longer and longer, a series of deflected attacks and counters. Her feet begin to feel heavy. Her lungs sting with each breath.
She’s losing ground.
The final bout ends, scores tied 14 to 14, and so they are allowed one more minute.
The referee takes a coin from his pocket, and Juri’s body tenses. Everything hinges upon this random coin flip.
When the referee announces the result, something in Juri turns cold and bitter. He receives priority. Even if he doesn’t land a touch, the point will go to him. A part of her expected nothing less.
The referee raises a hand. “ En-garde. ”
Juri steps into her form, taking a deep breath. One touch. She only needs one more touch, and the bout is hers. She can still walk away the winner.
Shiori watches with a smile.
“ Allez! ”
Juri lunges viciously, slashing her foil at him. He jumps back, clearly startled by her sudden vitriol, but narrowly dodges the attack. She keeps on advancing, closer and closer, pushing him back toward the edge of the piste. She only has one goal: take the point before her time runs out.
Something within her reaches a boiling point and she lunges again, crying out a sound that even she doesn’t recognize as her own voice. But in her frenzy, she missteps. She leaves an opening.
He doesn’t miss a beat. It’s all she can do to parry his attack, and from that moment on, the tables turn. He pushes her back, keeping her on the defensive. She can barely keep up with his blade, unable to find an opening.
Ten seconds left on the clock. He pushes her to the very edge of the piste.
Suddenly, he hesitates. Perhaps he is wary of Juri’s riposte. Maybe he thinks that he can run out the clock for just a few seconds more. Either way, it’s a mistake.
Juri’s blade comes down upon him like divine judgment. The referee raises a hand to award her the point, and the crowd erupts with cheers for her last second comeback.
It’s almost like a miracle.
Juri stands atop the first place platform, her gold medal dazzling in the light. Beside her – beneath her – he stands, waving good-naturedly to the crowd.
Shiori waves back, beaming happily at him , a rose in hand .
Juri learns that day that there are no such things as miracles.
Shiori transfers to another school, and he decides to drop fencing and focus on his studies, and so Juri starts high school alone.
He tried to speak to her after graduation, just once. As Juri left the middle school building for the very last time, someone fell into step with her. He didn’t say anything, just gave her a nervous, questioning look. Juri only nodded in return.
And so they took the walk from the middle school to the dorms one last time, slowly and silently, shoulder-to-shoulder. The spring evening was clear and warm, and the school looked smaller, somehow, than it ever had before. As they walked, their silence seemed to express more than words ever could. They felt something lift off of them at the same time that they felt something even heavier settle in its place. But while they couldn’t put a name to that weight, they at least knew that it wasn’t hatred, and that was comforting.
When they arrived at the dorms, Juri turned to say her goodbye, but the words never came to her. She could only stare blankly at him for what felt like an eternity. What she hoped would be an eternity, so that she would never have to face whatever came after this.
But he forced a smile, patting her arm awkwardly. “I’ll see you around,” he said, and they both knew that it wasn’t true.
“I hope so,” Juri said, and that was true. But hopes never got her anywhere. “It’s nice, walking home with you.”
His smile went sad at the corners. “It’s not what you really want, though, is it?”
And who was he to decide that, Juri wonders now, as she lingers at the piste. It’s her turn for cleaning duty, and her mind goes around in circles as she mops the floor. All the other fencers have gone home, and she is alone, haunting the place like a ghost.
Maybe he only wanted her to know that he accepted her. That he truly saw her. But, Juri thinks as she scrubs at the floors, it’s hardly acceptance if you never speak again. It’s forgiveness.
Juri wrings the brown, dirty water from the mop and wonders what exactly she did that needed to be forgiven.
When Ruka asks Juri to be his vice captain, for the first time in a long time, she feels truly seen. Feels like herself again, strong and dashing and something far removed from the things that she used to feel like she ought to be. Here, on the piste, her talents speak for themselves, and Ruka recognizes them. In her own way, she loves him for that.
It’s different from the way the other girls love him. The girls who cheer for him from the sidelines, who ask him to practice with them just to be close to him, to feel his hand on their back or hear his voice close to their ear. Ruka recognizes that, too, Juri thinks. He never balks at their attention. He enjoys it, even. He plays his role happily.
It’s the one thing about him that rubs Juri the wrong way, for reasons she can’t articulate.
When she suggests one day that he not play around so much with his teammates feelings, he simply shrugs. “They know it doesn’t mean anything. I’m just giving them what they want.”
When that answer doesn’t satisfy her, he laughs. “What, are you jealous?” He says it lightly, jokingly, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. He looks at her for a real answer.
And though Juri rolls her eyes at him, something in the pit of her stomach goes cold and heavy. She is jealous. Just not of the other girls.
Still, if she’s grateful for anything about this weighty truth, it’s that it allows her to be closer to Ruka than anyone else on the team. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call them friends. Perhaps even close friends. He trusts her with things that he wouldn’t trust anyone else with. And though he doesn’t know it, the fact that Juri trusts him with anything at all is huge.
So if Juri ever notices the way that his eyes drift her way whenever he’s with another girl, she pretends not to. It’s kinder for them both.
The two of them often stay behind after practice, taking care of cleanup or getting in some extra practice time together, or even just talking. Today, Ruka needs help mopping the floors, and so Juri stays.
“Thanks,” he tells her, as he sinks into a chair looking pale and tired.
“It’s not a problem,” she says, and she means it. She picks up where he left off, grabbing the mop and working on the next bit of the floor— at least, that’s what she means to do. She’s a little too careless as she crosses the wet floor and suddenly her feet slip out from under her and she goes tumbling.
Despite his exhaustion, Ruka leaps from the chair to catch her.
“Careful!” he says, helping her back to her feet on a drier part of the floor. “Are you okay?”
“Y-Yeah,” Juri says, still a little shaken from the fall, “I’m just…”
And even as that sickening, dizzy feeling finally goes away, another alarming feeling comes over her. Ruka is close, so very close, looking at her like no one has ever looked at her before.
“Are you okay?” Ruka asks again, softly. His hand lingers at her elbow.
And for a moment, Juri thinks that maybe, just maybe, this could be it. Her lightning bolt moment. Her miracle. It couldn’t be more perfect if she’d set the stage herself: the soft evening light, his face hovering just in front of hers, his hand moving slowly, slowly closer to hers—
And then she remembers Ruka’s own words.
I’m just giving them what they want.
A wave of disgust washes over her, so intense that it makes her shudder and stumble backwards. There’s no disguising it. No denying it. He repulses her.
Ruka’s face goes taut and white. Rather than embarrassment, Juri can feel something far colder rolling off of him in waves. His eyes, so kind just moments ago, are hard as flint.
For a moment, neither of them say a word. Juri’s breath freezes in her chest and she feels a wild urge to run, but she can’t find it in her to move.
And then Ruka turns away, grabbing the mop with one brisk movement.
“Sorry,” he says curtly. “Let’s call it a day.”
And before Juri can so much as breathe, he’s gone. She is alone.
For a while, she simply stands there, fists closed so tight that the knuckles turn white. Her whole frame is trembling — with what? Not excitement. Not wanting.
Something hot and suffocating fills Juri to bursting, makes her see red. She could never put it into words if she wanted to, and so she tries to rip it out of her heart with a loud, hoarse roar. She grabs the water bucket and hurls it into the air, sending the scummy water flying everywhere and splattering the whole piste. She’ll have to clean it all up again, but she doesn’t care.
The bucket flies toward the massive glass windows on the second level, and for a moment she thinks they might shatter.
The bucket just falls short.
Ruka is sick, or so says the gossip mill. He withdraws from classes indefinitely, leaving behind no way for Juri to contact him. A part of her is relieved, and she thinks she ought to be ashamed, but can’t find it within herself to feel much of anything at all. She’s used to friends disappearing, after all.
When she becomes acting captain of the fencing club, Juri half expects most of the girls to quit. After all, there’s no handsome captain to entertain them anymore. But to her surprise, they stay.
All this time, Juri thought that the sudden influx of female members was because of Ruka. But when she suggests that the team take a vote on Ruka’s replacement, the girls tell her fervently that it has to be her, the girl that inspired them to try something new. They respect her. Admire her, even.
For a while, Juri thinks maybe that could be enough.
When her first letter arrives from End of the World, talking of miracles, the empty promises make her angry. And even more than that, she feels angry that she wishes it were true.
When Shiori’s letter arrives, Juri reads it over and over again. At some point, the words begin to blur together and become meaningless. And so she reads it again until the words mean something, and each one feels like a blow to her face. Something builds up inside her, hot and painful, and she can’t get rid of it until she sits down to respond. She considers what to say, over and over again, praying her own words don’t lose their meaning.
Thank you for the letter. You seem to be doing well. As I read the words in it, one by one, I realize my feelings haven’t lessened as time has passed.
No matter what happened, the three of us were truly happy back then. However, when I see your faces now, shining with happiness, it makes me feel nostalgic.
It makes me feel envious.
Juri nearly defeats Utena. She’s the first duelist to come so close, the best of them all and she’s always known it. If she just didn’t hesitate, she would have won.
She stares at the rose on the ground, its petals still pinned together by the point of Utena’s sword. Why did she hesitate? She could be rid of Utena and her miracles and her ignorance if she just—
“May they know your true feelings, one day.”
Anthy’s soft voice startles Juri out of her stupor. She holds out a fresh, untouched rose and a smile that says she knows.
The shame that swallows Juri is bottomless.
You’re right, I hate you. It frightens me just how much I hate you. I hate him too. But not because you stole anything from me. Because you both had something that I never did in the first place and never will.
I don’t think I used to be such a hateful person. And I don’t think you’re what changed me. Maybe my heart was always this ugly, and you just knew it before I did.
She appears at the piste like a ghost, smiling just like she did when they were younger. Watching Juri and politely applauding. When their eyes meet, Juri nearly stumbles and loses the bout.
Going to meet Shiori later feels like walking into a duel against an opponent she didn’t have time to prepare against.
I’ve dreamed about seeing you again for so long. Sometimes, I wanted you to feel how deeply you hurt me. Other times, I imagined us being able to pick up where we left off, as if nothing ever happened.
Sometimes, I wished for things I knew would never happen.
“Then, whose picture do you have in that pendant?”
The fact that she even has to ask feels like a blade twisting deep into Juri’s ribs.
But now that you’re here, all I can do is hurt. I feel farther from you than ever. Farther from my old self. Only one thing has remained the same after all this time.
Shiori doesn’t even need to pull the sword from Juri’s heart. Juri’s heart rends itself open, and the sword emerges, jagged and vicious and with a grip perfectly molded to Shiori’s hands.
A tear slips from Juri’s empty eyes as she collapses to the floor. Shiori drops the locket carelessly beside her, casting off them both.
I loved you. I still love you.
Ruka looks at Juri as he kisses Shiori, his eyes glinting with something hard and cold.
Something like triumph.
Juri sees it in Shiori’s eyes, too, as she drags out the words she’s clearly always wanted to say.
“You really are the worst.”
Did you always hate me? Was there not a single moment you can look back on and think that we were happy? Did you never once feel loved by me?
“Did you come to laugh at me? You must really be happy now…!”
Shiori spits out the words from behind a bolted door, and even just the shadowy sliver of her that Juri can see is enough to make her feel sick with guilt. With her drained complexion and sunken eyes, she looks like she could be a corpse.
All Juri wants to do is heal her, somehow. To make her understand that she knows this pain. Knows Shiori, and cares for her even with all she knows.
She reaches out. “I’d never—”
“More and more, you disgust me.”
When the door slams shut, Juri feels the cold sting of the sword in her chest.
Or is it that you did feel it, and it disgusted you?
“What gives you the right to hurt her?!”
“You don’t need to know.”
Juri launches herself at Ruka with a scream that nearly rips her throat to shreds. No swords this time. She wants to tear him apart with her own two hands, try to make him understand the pain that she and Shiori have shouldered their whole lives, the pain that he seems to take so much joy in inflicting upon them.
He easily catches her wrists. His grip is dispassionate.
Juri duels against Ruka with all her might. It’s almost like something out of a fairy tale— the underdog knight battling the evil king. She remembers playing knights and princesses with Shiori as a child, how the brave hero always triumphed.
She may not believe in fairy tales anymore, but she believes the rage that bubbles up inside of her, this certainty that she’s right . She can’t lose to someone like Ruka. She can’t . It would be too wrong. Too cruel. She would rather die.
“Isn’t it unfair, Juri?!”
And Ruka is right. As she falls to the ground and the foil clatters out of her hand, all Juri can think is that it’s unfair.
“Don’t hesitate, Juri!”
And who is Ruka to say such a thing to her? What’s wrong with hesitating? Why should Juri want to tear Utena down? How can Ruka do it so easily?
She and Utena keep on trading blows, just as they’ve done so many times before, like automatons dancing for a crowd. And when Utena comes down upon Juri like divine judgment, Juri thinks it might not be so bad to lose to someone like her. If Utena really does have the power of miracles, the power to revolutionize the world, then maybe for once, Juri can believe in something.
Utena’s sword misses. Juri’s pendant shatters on the ground.
Juri walks back from the hospital alone in the dusky autumn light. Ruka is dead.
She feels no satisfaction at the thought. This isn’t a fairy tale, and there is no justice in his end. It’s just a simple fact. He’s dead, and Juri is still here, and she lost. What is she supposed to do now?
Someone falls into step behind her. They walk home together, just as they’ve done so many times before.
I want to understand.
Miki stares at Juri dumbly, clutching his fencing helmet close to his chest. Juri doesn’t pay him any mind as she sweeps the floor of the club room, eyes on her work.
“Senpai, I don’t… I don’t understand.”
“What is there to misunderstand?” Juri keeps her eyes trained on the floor. “I said I’m quitting the club. I want you to be captain in the interim. It’s as simple as that.”
“But… But why? ” Miki stammers, trailing behind Juri as she works. She still won’t look at him, but she can’t ignore him, either. “Regionals are coming up, and the team needs you—”
“They don’t need me. They just need a captain.”
Miki stops, turning his helmet over and over in his hands. He stares at the floor now, too, his eyes deeply sad. “...That’s not true,” he says quietly. “You must know it’s not…”
Juri doesn’t answer. She sweeps and she sweeps, making her way slowly around the piste. She’s lost track now of where she started, can’t even tell if she’s made any real progress.
Miki looks up at the clock on the wall and frowns, trying to work out something that only he could make sense of. When he glances back at Juri, he is hesitant, spinning the helmet faster and faster in his hands.
“Senpai, if this… If this is about Ruka, I understand how you feel, but—”
“You don’t understand!” Her voice echoes in the empty room, harsh and unsteady. “You just— You— None of you could ever understand! You’ll never feel like this, you’ll never know what it’s like to feel like this!”
Miki stares, stunned, as Juri slams the broom into the floor. Her face is white with anger, her eyes glinting feverishly. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be— to be less than the least?! To have people rip you to shreds just because they can? Because they think it’ll fix you? To not even know who you are anymore because you— you can’t even—”
“I don’t care!” Juri doesn’t even bother to wipe her tears. He can have them, and carry them around so that she doesn’t have to anymore. “I don’t care what I look like to you anymore! Or anyone! I don’t want your respect if I have to tear someone down for it! Once these stupid fucking duels are over, you get to just go back to your life and be a prodigy, but what about Utena? Or Nanami? Or me? What’s left for us?! Are we just supposed to spend the rest of our lives waiting for the world to end and put us out of our misery? Is that all Himemiya can do?!”
“O-Of course not!” Miki stammers, pale and trembling. “We can change things, we can help her—”
“You don’t want to help her, you want to own her! That’s the only reason you ever even tried to stop the duels! You don’t respect her at all! Would you even respect me if I wasn’t a duelist? If I wasn’t captain of the fencing team? Or would you just wonder why I was so cold and angry like everyone else?”
Miki looks pained, his mouth opening as if to speak, but nothing comes out. He stares down at the floor and blinks back the beginnings of tears, but Juri can’t stop. It all pours out of her like a flood, this poisonous, brackish water that she’s been drowning in her whole life.
“Well, I’ve got a right to be angry! I’ve got a right to be hateful! The world hated me before I even knew what hate was, and now I’m supposed to be anything else but angry?!” Her words come out between clenched teeth, her voice choked with sobs, and she clutches her chest where her pendant used to rest. “I wouldn’t even be captain if Ruka was here! I’ll never even get the chance to earn my place! I’ll always be at the mercy of him and people like him, just because I’m a girl! A stupid, angry, hateful, ugly girl who can’t even— can’t even—”
Juri’s voice dies in her throat. A sudden cold washes over her and she trembles, her eyes wide and cloudy. Miki reaches out to take her elbow, alarmed, but Juri steps back, swallowing hard. She remembers the way she tried to rip the ring off Utena’s finger, the poison that dripped from her voice back then. She remembers the sheer panic of loneliness in Shiori’s eyes when Juri refused her apology. She remembers Anthy, collapsed on the ground and the sound of Juri’s blow echoing through the halls, loud as thunder. The sound echoes here, too, and everywhere she goes. It’s no wonder she’s so alone.
A girl who can’t even love.
Juri feels ill. She stumbles to her knees, her breaths coming harsh and uneven as she clutches at her head. “I’ve done nothing but tear people down. Shiori was right, I’m disgusting. I’m the worst. What have I done? I’m… I feel so sick…”
All the things she’s done, all the harm she caused, it all feels so unbelievably empty. Nothing but a shadow play meant for someone else’s amusement. For men like Ruka and End of the World to laugh and marvel at what a simple thing it is to break and warp her and turn her against the people who should understand her, who she should understand most of all. She wishes that the ground beneath her would split open and swallow her whole just so that no one could see her anymore, and she could finally be truly alone.
Juri feels a hand on her shoulder, shaking but gentle. When she doesn’t pull away, she feels Miki kneel down beside her on the piste. After a moment, his hand moves to her back and his head presses into her arm. She can hear him sniffling quietly.
“I’m sorry,” Miki whispers. “I’m so sorry. But you’re not disgusting, you— You’re the best person I know… You’re better than all of us…”
Juri laughs harshly, the sound coming out choked and wet. She certainly doesn’t feel any better than the rest of them. But Miki just shakes his head, holding her more closely.
“I-I won’t stop you from quitting if it really hurts that much to be here,” Miki says, trying and failing to keep his voice steady, “but… but I still want… I don’t want us to…”
There’s a long pause as Miki swallows hard, taking deep breaths, trying to hold himself together, but he can’t. When he speaks, his voice is choked with tears.
“You’re my friend, and I don’t want you to be alone.”
And it’s such a simple thing that it cracks her open even wider to realize that she’s been longing to hear it her whole life. Juri falls apart at the seams, clinging to Miki as she sobs like a child. Miki cries, too, holding her close to his heart.
I don’t want to be alone, either, she thinks, but she can’t get the words out. I don’t want any of us to be alone.
I just want us to make it out of here okay.
The final letter from End of the World comes soon after Touga’s loss. He wastes no time in casting all of them aside — casting Touga aside — and Juri doesn’t have it in her to be surprised. She turns the envelope over in her hand, over and over again, feeling the weight of the parchment. The garish red seal is untouched. Juri doesn’t have to open it to know what it says.
She failed End of the World, but she can’t say she regrets it much.
When her phone rings that night, she answers without even giving her caller a chance to announce himself. “What time?” she asks.
There is a pause, and then Touga answers softly, “As soon as you can.”
“I’ll be there.”
She leaves the letter on her desk before she leaves. She won’t be needing it. This isn’t a meeting called by End of the World, she knows it somehow. This is their own little ritual.
In the council room, there is a small camping grill waiting for them— for once, not courtesy of End of the World, but of Saionji. He awkwardly offers them a selection of chopped vegetables and skewers emblazoned with, of all things, the rose crest. It would all be terribly funny on any other day, but it’s hard to laugh at much tonight as they assemble their kebabs in silence, glancing occasionally toward the top of the tower and thinking of Utena and Anthy.
Juri isn’t sure whether she could truly call these people her friends, but drawing close to the fire and to them comforts her. They speak very little the whole night, absorbed in their own thoughts, but they are at least not alone. The sun sets and their rose crest rings glint in the flickering light, and for once, Juri is glad to be wearing hers.
The crest doesn’t belong to him anymore. It belongs to them. To Utena.
As if reading Juri’s mind, Miki draws closer to her, staring at his ring. His eyes are already tired and dark from the long night, and he’s starting to look peaky, but exhaustion seems far from his mind.
“Do you think she’ll win?” he whispers, and Juri thinks he must be looking for comfort. She wishes that she had any to give.
“...I think it means something that she’s trying,” she says quietly, and the rest of them must have heard, because Nanami scoffs.
“She’s an idiot,” she mumbles, but her nails turn the skin of her arms white where she clutches them.
Saionji glances at Touga for just the briefest moment, but Touga seems miles away, staring into the fire with glassy eyes.
We know better than to believe in miracles, Juri thinks. The thought makes her sad.
The hours pass in pensive silence, broken occasionally by attempts at conversation that fizzle into nothing like the coals in the grill. None of them are really sure what they’re waiting for, how they’ll know when it’s all over. Though none of them agreed to staying the night, there’s no question in their minds. They wouldn’t be able to sleep, anyway.
When the sun rises and nothing has changed, Juri wonders if any of them can truly say that they’re disappointed.
For a few hours more, they sit there. It starts to feel less like waiting and more like mourning. The day goes on, but none of them are ready to face it. Not without Utena.
It’s too cruel, Juri thinks, but that means nothing, she’s learned.
Juri has no idea what time it is when Saionji finally mutters, “Breakfast…”
The others look at him quizzically, and he goes a little red in the face, though Juri can’t tell if it’s from embarrassment or guilt. “I didn’t bring anything for breakfast.”
A long silence follows as everyone realizes what he’s saying.
“...I am getting a little hungry,” Miki says quietly, and that clearly is guilt written across his face. “Maybe we should…”
When they stand up, stretching their legs and glancing at the elevator, Nanami’s eyes go wide.
“What are you saying?” Her voice is shaking. “What are you doing? ”
“Nanami,” Miki starts, and he looks pained, “I don’t think we should—”
“Don’t you know what you’re doing?” Nanami shoots to her feet, trembling from head to toe. “You can’t… you can’t really think that she…”
No one answers her. Juri stands and walks to the railing, feeling sick.
“Hey, say something!” Nanami’s voice is choked with tears. “Don’t just ignore me! You’re all so— you’re so— ”
“Nanami…” Saionji’s fists are clenched at his side, but it doesn’t hide the fact that they’re trembling. “We can’t just wait here forever…”
Nanami bursts into tears, throwing herself at Saionji and hitting his chest with her little fists. Her hands are far too small to hurt the things she really wants to. “I can and I will!” she sobs, even as Saionji puts a ginger hand on her back, hugging her awkwardly. “I’ll wait here until I die! Don’t you ever tell me what to do, Kyouichi! And stop hugging me, it’s making it harder to hit you!!”
But it isn’t long until the exhaustion overtakes her anger and all that’s left is her quiet, strangled sobbing into Saionji’s chest. Miki stares at the ground, hugging himself tightly and biting his trembling lip, but it doesn’t stop the tears. Even Saionji looks as though Nanami is the only thing keeping him on his feet.
It takes a while, but eventually the two of them manage to get Nanami into the elevator. Juri watches them as they go, and Miki looks back at her with a question in his puffy eyes, but she only shakes her head. Juri loves Nanami, but she has no comfort to offer her. She doesn’t even think she could keep food down if she tried. The thought of Utena smiling and laughing with them just hours ago makes her feel weak at the knees.
The elevator is louder than it’s ever been before as the three of them leave the tower for what Juri knows — or maybe just hopes — is the last time.
Still, even once they’re gone, Juri is not alone. Touga hasn’t moved an inch this whole time. The look in his eyes as he stares into the ashes of last night’s fire is impossible to put a name to.
Juri approaches him cautiously, but he doesn’t seem to notice her until she sets an awkward hand on his arm. He inhales sharply, and his eyes seem to snap back to reality.
“Mm. Sorry. Breakfast, right?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“...Neither am I.”
And neither of them really know what to say to each other, and both would probably prefer to be alone, but still, they stay for a while. Maybe they’re still hoping, despite everything. Still, Juri thinks that it’s not quite hope that she’s clinging to. She doubts that Touga is, either.
He stares up at the observatory, his gaze cloudy and dark.
“...Are you okay?” Juri asks quietly.
And Touga smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. The question almost seems to make him laugh. “Well, the world didn’t end.”
Yours did, Juri thinks, and she isn’t sure how to feel. The thought of him knowing all along boils her blood, but the memory of Touga riding shotgun in that damned car is enough to make her ill. She can’t imagine what kind of things he saw in that observatory. She doesn’t want to know.
“That’s too bad,” Juri whispers. She imagines the whole tower crumbling, the observatory and the council room, crashing down around their ears and destroying Ohtori along with it. “I would have liked to see it.”
Juri doesn’t quit fencing. She lets Miki believe that he talked her out of it, and maybe it’s partly true, but for the most part she just… doesn’t know what else to do with herself anymore.
And, she admits, it’s nice to feel needed somewhere.
The days and weeks go by with no news of Utena or even of the chairman. Life goes on as usual, and Juri throws herself into her sport. Regionals are a massive success, and taking home a victory for the whole club feels good. Getting to fight for something small, something just for her, feels good.
Ruka’s death hits everyone hard, but it brings them all closer, as well. Everyone leans on one another, pouring everything into their work, treasuring one another more than ever. Her teammates are even more patient than usual with new recruits, which is fortunate for the very newest one.
Shiori meets her at the piste two weeks after the final duel with a red face and all the paperwork in her hands.
“I would like to join the fencing club, if you’ll have me.”
Juri eyes her cautiously, ribs stinging just at the sight of Shiori. “...You don’t need my permission.”
And Shiori is far too red in the face, her scowl too deep, for her to be looking for reassurance. She’s bracing herself for embarrassment.
“...Okay. Have Miki help you with getting a lamé and foil.”
Shiori blinks. “R-Really?”
“Yes. Please hurry, I have to finish cleanup.”
Shiori’s cheeks flush even deeper at Juri’s prickly tone, but she takes the blow like a champ and hurries over to where Miki is pretending not to eavesdrop.
As she sweeps the floors, a weight starts lifting off of Juri’s shoulder, just slightly.
Juri worries at first that being around the other club members will be a constant reminder of Shiori’s humiliation, but to Juri’s surprise and pride, they all embrace Shiori immediately. Though they don’t know the whole story and hopefully never will, Shiori’s teammates know enough to know that Ruka’s death would have hit her hardest of all. They are kind and patient as they teach her the basics, and welcome her into their circle, inviting her to all sorts of group outings. Even so, Shiori seems reluctant to accept the attention.
“They just feel sorry for me,” she mutters, polishing her foil by the lockers.
“They like you,” Juri says patiently, sitting beside Shiori and scrubbing away at a saber. “The more you ignore them, the harder they’re going to try to be your friends, you know.”
“I didn’t come here to be—” She stops, swallowing the words down like a bitter pill. Juri’s heart softens, just a little. She knows why Shiori came.
“If you’d just accept one invitation, they’d back off a little,” Juri sighs, relenting. She finishes polishing the saber and fits it neatly into her locker. “Miki thinks you hate him.”
Shiori lets out a huff, smacking her polish rag into the bench in frustration. “If he wants me to like him, he should be less nosy. You’re all he ever wants to talk about. ‘Ooh, you knew Juri-senpai in grade school? Has she always been so epically amazing and perfect?’”
Juri goes red, choking back a laugh. “Well, if you would ever talk about yourself, he might be able to talk about something else you have in common.”
“Who said we had anything in common?” Shiori mutters, turning red as she shoves the lid back on her polish.
That might have stung Juri before, but she has to chew back a smile at it now. It’s… nice, getting to talk to Shiori. The real Shiori, who gets mad and complains too much. Who finally says what’s on her mind, even when it’s unladylike. It feels good to know that Juri isn’t the only one who’s angry, and that maybe, just maybe, that anger isn’t with each other anymore.
Just as Juri starts undoing her lamé, Shiori suddenly speaks, the words falling out clumsily.
“Hey, uh…” She swallows and grimaces with embarrassment. “Juri-san, d-do you think you could help me practice my riposte? Just for a little while before we go?”
Juri blinks, already halfway out of her lamé. “Oh… well, sure, but I wish you’d asked sooner.”
“I didn’t feel like it until now,” Shiori mumbles, and Juri knows she’s lying through her teeth. It took her this long just to work up the courage.
“...All right. Just tell me what you need.”
As the two of them practice, it doesn’t take Juri long to figure out what’s going wrong. Shiori is too afraid of Juri’s blade to take advantage of the opening. Time and time again, Shiori hesitates.
“Maybe we need to go back to some drills,” Juri suggests, but Shiori immediately becomes prickly.
“I can do it, Juri-san. I’ve been doing drills for months. I need real-time practice.”
“It never hurts to go back to fundamentals.”
Shiori’s hand clenches the grip of her foil so tightly that Juri can hear it creaking. “I can do it.”
Reluctantly, Juri lets her keep trying. Again and again and again, Shiori hesitates. Or she gets sloppy and falls victim to Juri’s counter riposte. Or she trips over her own feet, steaming with anger at herself or Juri or both, Juri isn’t sure. She can’t reach Juri, and when Juri tries to go easier on her, it only makes Shiori even angrier.
“You’re only getting yourself worked up, Shiori.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Juri sighs at that, and Shiori’s jaw clenches. For a moment, strangely, Juri thinks that it’s hurt she sees in Shiori’s face instead of anger. It isn’t long before Shiori amends that, shooting Juri a glare.
“I won’t get any better if you don’t take me seriously,” she snaps, getting back into position for another parry.
“I do take you seriously,” Juri mutters. And maybe it’s the irritation at that barb, but her counter riposte lands even more wickedly fast. Shiori jumps back, startled, but her ankle turns strangely and next thing the both of them know, she’s on the floor.
Juri takes off her helmet, concerned that she could be injured. “Shiori—”
Juri freezes as she watches Shiori rip off her own helmet and slam it into the piste, staring stubbornly at the floor as her shoulders heave with deep, angry breaths.
Juri pulls back, letting out a small breath. This is going nowhere.
“We can take a break—”
“ No. ”
And something in Shiori’s voice gives Juri pause. She kneels down in front of Shiori and sucks in a quiet breath. Shiori’s jaw is clenched, her eyes swimming with angry tears.
“I can do this,” she spits out between her teeth. Her whole frame is trembling with anger… and yet, Juri realizes, it’s not directed at her. Shiori won’t meet Juri’s eye, but she doesn’t try to hide her face.
“...Just let me try again.” Shiori’s voice is softer this time, but the words come out like teeth being pulled. “I can get it right.”
Juri opens her mouth to protest, frowning, but something stops her. A memory that she’s buried for a long time. She remembers him, his face flushed with joy and eyes shining the first time Juri landed a touch.
I’m so proud of you, were his words. Words that Shiori never got to hear because she never had the courage to pick up a foil and try.
And in spite of that, in spite of Juri, here she is, trying. No matter how angry it makes her, no matter how painful it is, no matter how dense Juri can be, she keeps trying. She’s strong.
Juri’s heart leaps into her throat, the way that it used to when they were kids and yet completely different.
“...You’re right.” Juri holds out a hand, and Shiori’s eyes widen. “You can do it. Let’s take a break and try it again.”
Shiori hesitates, just like she did before. She looks from Juri’s hand to her face, and Juri’s heart cracks as she sees just the briefest flash of fear in her eyes. But then, her jaw sets and she reaches out to take Juri’s hand, her grip firm.
And Juri feels proud.
It takes a long time, but Shiori’s riposte starts to become a little faster. Not enough to beat Juri at first, but enough to be impressive for someone as new to the sport as Shiori. It starts to become routine for them to stay behind after practice and work on it. A part of Juri doesn’t dare to get her hopes up for this time to be different, for Shiori to be different, but another part of her says fuck that.
The first time Shiori lands a touch on Juri, she practically screams.
“Oh my god, I did it!” She tears off her helmet, and her hair is plastered to her sweaty forehead, face beet red with exertion, but for once, she doesn’t seem to care. And Juri’s heart soars as she sees the smile on her face, wide and genuine.
“You did,” Juri says, taking off her own helmet. She can feel her own face heating up with something other than the exercise, but she decides not to care for once, either. She lets herself smile, even though it wobbles at the corners. “I knew you could.”
I always knew.
Juri isn’t sure how she knows, but she knows. Anthy has started coming to classes again, and she looks different now. Something in the strong set of her shoulders, or maybe it’s her voice that rings a little clearer. Something has changed, and it’s not going to stop there.
When Juri sees her walking past the dorms with her new look and a suitcase in hand, strangely, she doesn’t feel any kind of surprise. And Anthy seems equally unsurprised to find Juri waiting for her, sword in hand.
For a moment, they only look at each other, not sure what to say. Then Anthy squares her jaw and walks right past her.
“You’re going away.”
Anthy glances back at her, not at all startled. “I am.”
“Will you look for her?”
“You can’t stop me.”
The words dig into Juri’s skin like fingernails. She swallows her shame and shakes her head. “That wasn’t my intention,” she says softly.
Anthy’s eyes drift to the sword in Juri’s hand, her eyebrows raised. Juri’s fingers twitch around the hilt, and she can’t blame Anthy for her mistake. A sudden embarrassment overwhelms Juri, threatening to make her lose her nerve, but she swallows it down like bitter medicine.
“This is for… Well, I thought…” She clears her throat, gritting her teeth against the heat stinging her cheeks. A deep breath, a little shake of her head, and she holds out the sword. “Here.”
For a moment, both of them are silent— Anthy blinking in confusion, Juri awkwardly holding out the sword, jaw set stubbornly against her embarrassment.
Anthy’s eyes widen as it dawns on her. And then, shockingly, breathtakingly, they soften. Her eyes are so beautiful, Juri thinks, her throat suddenly closing. She’s never bothered before to look past what she saw reflected in the glass.
“I won’t need that,” Anthy says gently, “where I’m going.”
“You don’t know that.”
“No,” she admits. “I don’t. But I’d like to believe it.”
Juri nods slowly, bringing the sword back down and clutching it close to her chest. She wishes so dearly that she could give it up, too. But she still feels the sting of the sword lying hidden deep in her ribs, the comforting weight of the one in her hand. And still, she can’t imagine the phantom pains that must wrack Anthy’s very being. The sting of all the blades driven into her back, the blade Juri drove into her and twisted with every glare, every disdainful word.
Juri feels so disgusted that it almost drives her to her knees. Not even the sword would be enough to make amends for what she’s done.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispers, and it’s so pathetic, but it’s all she can offer Anthy.
Anthy nods slowly, her eyes soft and downcast. “I know,” she says simply. She glances up at the spot where Juri’s locket used to be, and her gaze goes hard and cloudy. “...I am, too.”
Neither of them are sure what to say after that, and the air hangs heavy with all the things that they could never put into words if they had a hundred years to try. All the same, Juri can’t help wondering why Anthy lingers here, instead of turning on her heel and leaving her and Ohtori behind for good. It seems like she wants to say something, but doesn’t know herself what.
After a moment, Anthy’s gaze falls to Juri’s hand, the rose crest glinting in her eye. “Will you keep that, too?”
Juri looks at the ring and lets out a long breath. “I think so,” she admits, remembering Touga’s words.
She has entered the Dueling arena representing us. Until everything is over, we must remain duelists.
Juri isn’t sure what she’s waiting for, or when, if ever, it will all be over. She only knows she wants to remember it all.
Anthy nods, looking thoughtful. For a strange moment, Juri almost expects Anthy to tell her to take off the ring. But then a slow smile spreads across Anthy’s face, and Juri can see so much in it— kindness and dry humor, rue and contentment.
“Good,” Anthy says quietly, as if deciding something. “Maybe… it’ll lead us back to each other, someday.”
Juri’s throat suddenly closes, and all she can do is nod. Someday, when they’re all different people. Maybe by then, Juri will have given up her sword.
Hoping has never gotten her anywhere, but she thinks that just this once, she can allow herself.
“Well,” Anthy says softly, picking up her bag. When she turns her back, she takes a deep breath, letting her shoulders rise and fall like a tide. With the sun framing her long, loose tresses and the determined set of her shoulders, Juri thinks that she can imagine the whole world sprawled out in front of her. If only she could see it, herself…
She says it so suddenly that Juri almost doesn’t realize that she’s alone until Anthy’s footsteps have grown quiet. She watches Anthy’s back, straight and tall and big enough to blot out the sun, until it disappears behind the dorm building.
Anthy is gone. Though the thought makes Juri’s heart feel strangely heavy, she can also feel a strange unfurling, deep in her chest. Anthy is gone, already somewhere so far beyond Ohtori that no one — not Juri, not the council, not even the End of the World — can reach her.
And Juri’s sword feels just the smallest bit lighter in her hand.
For the first time in a very long time, Juri prays for a miracle.
The elevator ride to the student council room feels terribly long when taken alone. Juri isn’t sure what prompts her to go back there, one last time before her graduation. It isn’t sentimentality, exactly, but she does know that she never wants to forget this place.
Juri has never known what to expect to find on the balcony, though at some point she stopped being surprised at all the strange things waiting for her and the rest of the council here. Still, she can’t help sucking in a breath when she’s greeted by the overgrowth, vines creeping along weathered stone that looks far, far older than seems possible. Something tells her that this is the first time she’s ever seen this place for what it truly is.
The view from the balcony, on the other hand, is the same as ever. The outside world stretches out before her, vast and unfamiliar and so, so very far away. A part of Juri feels like she’ll never be able to reach it, even after she leaves this place. But when she lays a hand on the balcony railing and feels the way it gives at her touch, the way the stone crumbles beneath her hand, that part of Juri becomes much quieter.
Still, there’s something she has to do before she can leave. She reaches into her pocket and pulls out an envelope, its red seal still pristine and untouched after a year.
When she opens the envelope and unfolds the letter, her fingers leave creases in the paper. It gives way, just like the stone. Just like everything in this place.
Thank you for your consideration, but we will not be accepting any more applicants for The One Who Will Revolutionize the World. The position has been filled. The ring is complimentary, so feel free to keep it as a souvenir.
End of the World
As Juri reads it, over and over again, she begins to feel lighter. Something that had come to roost in her chest without her ever noticing it suddenly flies the coop. She laughs harder than she’s laughed in a long time.
There will be no more letters for her, no more duels. She’s free to fight her own battles.
Juri failed, and it’s wonderful.
She leans up against the railing and lets go of the letter, watching it catch the wind and fly off until it becomes nothing but a speck in the distance. And when she walks out of the gates later, looking back, she thinks she can see the tower falling.
But perhaps that’s only her imagination. It would take a miracle, after all.