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No Glass Slipper

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            This is how it begins:  a photograph, a pair of scissors, and a shiny new locket laid out across her desk.  Juri picks up the scissors.  She picks up the photograph.  Lake-blue eyes stare up at her.  The other girl in the picture is turned away from the camera, and already Juri has forgotten what color her eyes were.  Violet is her first thought, but that's wrong, that's someone else, and it's irrelevant anyway.  She brings the blades up against the space between the two of them and recalls the bitter satisfaction of excising Shiori's portrait from its too-painful context, of shearing her away from him.

            She recalls everything that happened after.

            Juri sets down the photograph.  Utena does not belong on a chain.

            The scissors go back in the pencil box.  The locket goes into the wastebasket.  The photograph stays on the desk for days and then for weeks, and every time Juri looks at it she has a harder time remembering why it's there.  Then Shiori says she's coming over, and it disappears into the dresser drawer underneath a stack of shirts.

            It surfaces now and again, when she's running behind on laundry or when she moves her things out of or into the dorms before and after summer breaks.  When the time comes to move out for good, Juri isn't sure whether she should take it with her.  The blue-eyed girl has become almost strange to her.  She remembers that they played badminton once and confided in each other about the girls they each loved.  That must have meant the world to her then, when she was young and plagued by self-doubt, but maybe it isn't enough to justify keeping the picture of someone whose name she can no longer recall.

            In the end, she keeps it anyhow, tucks it safely away in her new dresser in her new apartment.  Now and then she takes it out, and when she looks into those eyes she thinks of water — fountains and rain and the river that once swallowed up a brave, foolish, nameless boy.

            Many years later, when she ducks into the restroom at a gala, there is a girl sobbing over the sink and a woman in a tuxedo with a hand on her shoulder trying to comfort her.  Juri starts to turn around and leave to find another bathroom, but then the woman speaks, and her voice is oddly familiar.

            "Hey," she says, "don't worry about it.  It's the pendant that's the expensive part, and that's fine, right?"

            "I think so," the girl sniffles.

            "Can I see it?"  She reaches out her hand, and the girl presses something shining into it.  "Oh, geeze, no wonder!  Even I know that gold chains break really easily.  They're a bit like glass slippers:  they sound romantic in stories, but there's no way they would actually hold up for long in the real world!  It's not your fault at all if they had you wear this."

            Juri cannot see her face; the younger girl blocks her view.  She decides to just glance quickly into the mirror as she passes behind them on her way to the stalls, but when she does, what she sees reflected there stops her cold.  It's the blue-eyed girl from her photograph.  It's Utena.

            Of course, since she can see them, they can see her.  When they notice her staring, they look startled for a moment.  Then Utena turns and says, "If you don't mind, do you think you could give us some space for just a minute?  Sorry about this."

            It takes every bit of composure Juri has to walk calmly out of the room without staggering or breaking into a run.

            Terrifying, nonsensical memories trickle steadily into her consciousness. The party seems somehow louder when she emerges back into it, and she is aware of every person there like she is aware of her opponent in a fencing match. She cannot shake the feeling that any of them might at any moment look straight into her contorting mind and judge her insane, or stick a sword through her heart, or even pull one out.  As quickly as she can, she gets her hand around the stem of a wineglass and her back against a corner.

            Just as she's finishing her drink and beginning to feel a bit less on edge, Utena finds her.  "Hey," she says, "you look like you could use some fresh air.  Want to go for a walk in the garden?"

            "Do you always gravitate to girls who need rescuing?" Juri asks.

            Utena smiles sheepishly and scratches the back of her head.  "It's not like that!  It's just... well, there's not a lot to do at a place like this anyway besides dancing or talking to people.  And  the only person I would want to dance with isn't here.  So... the garden?"

            Juri hesitates.  So far, Utena hasn't shown any sign of remembering who she is.  "Will there be roses there?" she asks, hoping to cue her in or at least get a reaction that will indicate how much she knows.

            "Yeah, probably.  Is that a problem?"  Try as she might, Juri cannot tell whether she sounds concerned or just confused.

            "Not particularly.  Let's go."

            There are roses.  There is also a marble fountain.  When the two of them take a seat on its edge, Juri notices the chemical tang of chlorine cutting through the sweet, nostalgic scent of the flowers.  It's a potent comfort; the water at Ohtori never smelled of chlorine.

            "I guess you probably don't recognize me at all, huh?" Utena says.  Juri looks at her, startled, but before she can respond Utena continues quickly, "I mean, that's fine, I don't expect you to!  Most people here probably wouldn't, since I'm not really a model.  I'm an athlete.  I just do sportswear sometimes."

            "What sport?  Softball?  Basketball?"  She thinks of the badminton game.  "Tennis?"

            "Actually, yeah, it's basketball.  I'm impressed!  No one ever seems to guess that."

            "I can't see why not.  With legs like that, you must be an Olympic athlete."

            "Probably because no one ever remembers that women's basketball exists.  And oh man, I wish!  China got the spot for this year, and four years ago it was Korea."

            "Wait.  You're actually on the national team?"  She really shouldn't be surprised.  This is Utena; it wouldn't be entirely surprising if she were somehow on the men's national team.

            "Yeah.  It's been kind of disappointing so far, but the way I see it, I still have two chances left."  She looks directly into Juri's eyes.  "I've been working hard my whole life, so it's not like it would take a miracle."

            Juri's mind stumbles momentarily over the near-non sequitur.  When she does manage to process it, she has to restrain herself from smacking her own forehead.   So this whole time, Utena has been clumsily attempting to feel her out too.  "Utena, this is ridiculous," she informs her.

            A warm, almost childishly wide grin breaks across Utena's face.  "But not as ridiculous as, say, a castle floating upside down in the air, right?"

            "Really, you can stop now."

            "I know, I know!  That last one was a joke."

            Juri returns her smile with a somewhat more guarded one.  "I figured.  To be honest, I've always enjoyed your sense of humor.  It's charming how cynical it can be when nothing else about you ever is."

            For a while, neither of them says any more.  The silence is a comfortable one at first, but grows less so as the memories stirred up earlier begin once again to churn through Juri's mind.

            "Do you think any of it ever really happened?" she asks finally.

            "Hm?  What do you mean?"

            "The way I remember it, it's like recalling a dream.  The feelings are clear enough, but the actual events don't fit together quite right.  And there was no gap in my memory before.  I knew that was the year Shiori came back, Ruka passed away, and you and I became friends, and there was no magic involved in any of it.  I can even remember doing the kinds of things that a normal student council treasurer would do.  So which is real:  the duels, or the school fundraisers?"

            "It's hard to say."  Utena's smile dissolves into a pensive frown.  "I wonder, do you still fence?"

            "I do."

            "I don't.  A few years back, I tried playing around with a sword just to see how much I could still do.  It was like I'd never touched one before.  Magic or not, there's no way I ever really pulled half the stunts I remember pulling in the arena."  She stands and starts stretching her calves absent-mindedly.  Juri really hopes she owns those dress pants, but knowing Utena, it's not likely.  "You know, though, I don't think it matters whether or not it was just a dream.  The dreamers were all real, and in the end, that's what's most important:  the people."

            "Just not caring about a major ontological problem doesn't actually solve it."

            "I'm not going to pretend I know what 'ontological' means, but I bet it's the kind of thing where if you don't care, it's not really a problem."

            "The athlete philosopher."

            "Yeah, yeah."  She stops stretching and straightens up.  "Hey, you know what's funny?  I was thinking about you just the other day.  Well, actually I was thinking about Wakaba."

            "How flattering."

            "No, listen!  I was thinking about Wakaba, and how she was the only one at that whole school who ever really helped me, and then I realized:  that's not true at all, it was her and you.  And you know, her I thanked properly, but I never thanked you because I was too distracted by apologizing for breaking your sword.  So... uh..."

            All through her speech Utena has been drifting back toward the fountain, and now she stands directly over Juri.  She leans down slowly, reaching out a hand to brush aside one stray orange ringlet.  Juri's skin prickles, and her brain shorts out so badly it reverts to high school-level functioning.  Is Utena going to kiss her?  There is no way she is going to kiss her.  Oh God, she is going to kiss her.

            Utena kisses her — on the forehead.

            "Thank you, Juri," she says, and there's such tenderness in her voice that Juri would blush at it if she were not blushing at full capacity already.

            "Uh," says Juri, "you're welcome."

            "Ah."  Juri thinks her flustered state must be catching, because Utena blushes back, and the suddenness with which she sits back down on the fountain ledge makes the action seem intended to disguise weakened knees.  "Ah... Well... I think... I think it's a shame that Himemiya didn't want to come so you could have seen her again too!" she blurts out.  "She hates big parties with lots of people, though."

            "Shiori just hates the whole modeling industry," Juri replies quickly.

            Utena sighs with all-too-obvious relief, then fixes her with a grin.  "Hey, way to go, senpai!"  To Juri's shock and mild horror, she actually slaps her on the back.  "That's awesome!  To be honest, I didn't think Shiori was like that."

            "You didn't think you were like that either," Juri retorts.

            "Yeah, I guess my judgment on that matter is pretty worthless, huh?"  She laughs carelessly and swings her feet, heels knocking against the marble.  "Hey, Juri?  When we go back in, want to dance with me, just once?  It's kind of sad that I never get to dance at parties."

            "All right.  One dance.  And now that you mention it, we probably should head back sooner rather than later."  She gets to her feet and, feeling suddenly daring, offers her arm.  Utena laughs again and links elbows with her, and they walk.

            On the dance floor, Utena takes the lead without asking.  It's a bit presumptuous, since Juri is almost certain that she has more experience, but she doesn't object.  They get a few odd looks, but none outright disapproving.  It's easy enough to ignore them if she just keeps her eyes fixed on Utena's.

            Our timing was all wrong, Juri thinks.  We ought to have been each other's wild oats.  She has never been entirely at ease with the fact that she ended up settling down with her first love — it's too much like a fairy tale, and Juri knows better than to trust in fairy tales.  Still, she wouldn't trade Shiori for the world.

            "We should have lunch sometime," says Utena.  "Or play another game of badminton or something.  Give me your phone number when the song ends, okay?"

            "I don't know.  Maybe I should just give you one of my shoes and see if you can find me again."

            "I'm serious!  Shiori and Himemiya too.  We've been through too much together not to be friends."

            "Utena, you do realize that Himemiya hated me, don't you?"

            "Himemiya used to hate everyone," she says dismissively.  "Actually, she thought you were pretty tolerable for a duelist, and she's grateful to you for forcing me to think about... well, you know."

            "I'll consider it," Juri says, but she suspects she has already lost this one.  Utena's strange power of friendship is the only force in the universe that confuses and frightens her more than the Rose Bride's apparent magic.

            In the end, they stay on the floor for another few songs.  They dance until midnight, and when the party ends, Juri leaves Utena with a number and nothing else — no glass slipper, no piece of her heart.

            Before she goes to bed that night, she digs out her high school photo album and files away Utena's picture where it belongs.