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Pick the thread

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Juri leaned against the balcony of the upper level of the quadrangle. Her folded arms rested on the edge of the guard rail, and the edge of the roof cast a shadow over her face. Below, in the courtyard, the sun's light fell over a large, old birdcage shaped greenhouse that was full of roses. At the door to the greenhouse, a student in a boy's uniform, with long hair, was fiddling with the lock.

Did Utena even know how to pick a lock? She'd shown up at Juri's door that morning with a determined look on her face, asking for hair pins. Juri had frozen. She’d thought she was alone on campus. She’d thought Utena had left school, long ago. Why was she there? And she wanted hair pins?

"Why?" Juri had asked. Utena didn’t seem the type to use them. Utena seemed happy to just put herself out there, unchanged for the public eye. She dressed the way that she wanted to, and she loved the people that she wanted to, and she didn’t really worry much beyond that. Juri found it obnoxious, the way that anybody would with something that they should be doing themselves. She hated fiddly things. She curled her hair every morning.

"Anthy didn't leave any behind." Utena had been as blunt and impatient as ever.

Juri had sighed and stepped aside, waving towards her dresser. "They're in the drawer on the left."

It was possibly the first time that Utena had been in her room. She looked around, and whistled at the view from the window. “You can see a lot from here.”

She’d come to like Utena enough, at the end. Before Anthy left. But since then, all of the little annoying parts of her… the way that she did and said things that shouldn’t be acceptable, couldn’t be allowed, and somehow she didn’t bear any cost for them.

Well, except for Anthy leaving.

“Hey, is that a bowling ball?” Utena turned, smiling.

“They’re in the drawer on the left,” Juri said. She crossed her arms, and turned away.

“Right, thanks.” Utena pulled the drawer open and searched around for a bit amongst Juri’s brushes and hair clips. “So, why are you here this summer?”

Because the family home was too big to live in by herself. Because it was too close to the river that boy had drowned in. Perhaps because with nobody else around, she could find a new way to move through the school buildings. She couldn’t keep going the way she did before.

At the greenhouse, Juri didn't know if Utena knew she was watching. She hadn’t meant to follow. The summer break just meant that there were fewer club activities, nothing to really study or do. Juri’s parents were in America, visiting her sister at her university. There were no duels, and no word from Anthy in her absence. Just quiet heat on concrete during the day, and the echo of cicadas in the early evening.

Juri leaned against the guardrail, fingers twitching as her stomach curled in sympathetic frustration as Utena swore and threw a mangled hairpin away, only to strip the plastic ends off the next one and try again. It felt like hours had passed, but the sun wasn’t even fully overhead yet.

Juri had never had the patience for small, fiddly tasks. Whether it was threading a needle on a sewing machine, picking small stones out of the tread of her sneakers, or painting the nails on her right hand by herself, she couldn't stand it. It was a feeling that connected through her chest, right into her belly-button. It felt like nerves strung too-tight, like there were a collection of strings running just under her skin, anchored in her navel, and when she required patience and precision with tiny fiddly things, all the strings pulled tight.

She hated cleaning her belly-button, too. Perhaps that was where it had all started in life. When her parents tied part of her in a knot, and the rest had shrivelled up. Juri hated thinking about it, but the itching awful pricking in her belly always happened at times like these, and it could not be avoided.

"Cover your stomach," Juri remembered her mother saying, "Or the lightning will get you in your sleep."

Or, maybe it had been different. Childhood was a strange place, and a lot of Juri's memories were fragmented, faded. Maybe her mother had said "If you don't wear a shirt to bed, you'll get a cold," or "Don't go outside in a thunderstorm."

Juri wanted to turn away. She couldn’t bear to watch it. But, also, she was cocooned in the warm summer breeze. It felt like there was no barrier between her flesh and the air; no skin, no edges between self and other. She was a witness to whatever was going through Utena’s head, and she had to accept that.

Anthy Himemiya had been the kind of person who would thread a needle the right way, every time, just like magic. Pulling at your gut with a smile that mocked you. Juri had hated her or at least had held deep disdain for Anthy. Hadn’t she? It hadn’t been long since Anthy had left the school, but she was a hard person to remember properly. Anthy hadn’t really showed anybody her true self. Except, perhaps, for Utena.

Utena’s fingers were scratched and beginning to bleed a little. The sun chased the cool shadows away, and Utena was left kneeling on hot stones.

“I could kick it in for you,” Juri called out.

Utena turned to look up at her, raising a hand to shield her face against the sun. “But that defeats the purpose, senpai.”

Juri straightened, arms falling at her sides. The tight crawling under her skin began to change. It was loosening, somehow. “You knew I was here?”

Utena shrugged. “The greenhouse is made of glass, you know.” She laughed. “And it doesn’t work that way.”

Juri frowned. Utena wasn’t making any sense. “Glass?”

“No, I’m pretty sure you can kick glass in. But with Anthy, you can’t rush in. You’ve got to figure it out.”

Juri’s heart froze within her. Empathy? Pity? Her hand went to her collarbone on reflex, even though she didn’t wear that locket anymore. “Utena, you do know… she’s not here… don’t you?”

Utena just looked back up at her. The breeze brushed Utena’s hair across her forehead, where the strands got stuck against her sweaty skin.

“Hey. I need a break. Do you want to go somewhere?”

Juri didn’t really feel like company, but that included her own. At least with Utena there would be some distractions.

The only defense against dry, hot summer air was cool, dripping ice. The school cafe was closed. Utena collected the hairpins, bent and unbent, and they took the long, unforgiving walk through the school grounds and down into the town. The view of the sea slowly disappeared, then the view across the suburbs, until the roofs and gutters were at eye-level, and all they could see were the houses surrounding them. If ascending to the duelling arena had been reaching up to a higher level of being, then visiting the town had to be the opposite. Accepting reality. The dirt you would be buried in, and before that, the life you would lead as you aged.

Utena went to take a shortcut through a side-street, and Juri reached out to catch her arm and stop her. “No. I don’t like storm-water drains.” Her sister, falling. That boy. More often now, when she remembered it, Juri saw herself falling into the rising and murky waters. It didn’t make any sense. Nevertheless, she wasn’t walking next to a drain.

Utena gave her a funny look but smiled easily and took the lead down the longer path on solid ground.

“It’s strange, isn’t it?” Utena sounded very serious.

“What is?”

“All this time, and we’ve never gone bowling together.”

Juri blinked in confusion. Her steps faltered, but she recovered from the surprise and kept walking. “I’m in a club. It’s a bit awkward to bring a stranger along to a meeting.”

“Still. You can bowl with other people sometimes.”

Juri nodded. “My ball’s back in my room...” and there was an unspoken agreement that a walk back up the hill in that heat was not possible. Hopefully that was enough to discourage Utena. Maybe she’d forget and it would never come up again.

Utena stretched her hands up, lacing them behind her head. “It’s hot. This place we’re going has cold drinks, right?”

“It’s summer. Everywhere has cold drinks.” Juri walked a bit further ahead of Utena. “It has shaved ice. It’s a little childish, but it’s hot enough.”

Utena’s steps faltered. “Shaved ice, huh. It is summer. It’s been a while since I had that in summer...”

Juri watched Utena carefully. It had been very hot, and she’d worked hard in the hot sun at that lock. “Are you okay?”

Utena blinked. Laughed. “Oh, no. I’m fine! Just caught up in a memory.”

Just in case it was heat exhaustion, Juri slowed down and kept pace with Utena. It wasn’t far at that point, just around the corner.

The cafe had awnings that cast cool shade across the pavement. Juri and Utena went inside, however. A fan was mounted on the wall near the ceiling, blowing warm air back and forth. Utena pushed her hair back off her face, closing her eyes.

“Two shaved ices, please.” Juri said. “I’ll have lemon. Utena?”

“Huh?” Utena blinked. She replied slowly, like she wasn’t sure. It wasn’t like her. “Strawberry, I guess.”

The table had scars and notches from all the customers and their plates, polished down and the edges softened with age.

“Anthy used to make shaved ice. I never bought it.” Utena raised her spoon to her lips. “It wasn’t like I took it for granted. I didn’t want to get sick of it. I wanted to eat it happily every time she made it for me.”

Juri nodded, but she couldn’t really understand. “I don’t usually like sweet things,” she said. “But it’s hot today.” The ice cracked and whispered when she pushed her spoon into it. “Do you think there’s a key to the lock on the greenhouse?”

“Who knows? I’m not trying to get in the normal way. I have to break in.”

Juri opened her mouth to ask why she couldn’t just kick it in, then. But Utena kept talking, and Juri couldn’t get a word out.

“I have to do it. And I don’t want to damage the greenhouse in order to do it.”

“Do you think this will bring Anthy back?”

Utena rubbed at her arms. “I’ve got a chill! No. Maybe. I don’t want her to come back. I won’t meet her while I’m still at school. I don’t want her to come back to this place. Those words like knives, that people threw at us… she chose to walk away and be free of them, happy. I chose to stand still. I’m not giving up my place. If somebody else has a problem, they can walk away from me.”

Juri looked down at her bowl, as the ice melted into lemon-syrup slurry at the bottom. “I’m the same as you, as Anthy, and nothing happened to me. Nobody knows.”

Utena laughed. “Is that what’s worrying you? I thought this was all about Shiori.”

Juri ate instead of answering. The ice sent goosebumps down her arms and she felt that familiar prickle in her belly as she fished around in the watery syrup to capture the last of the ice flakes.

“If Shiori ever wants to talk to me, she knows where I am. It’s not really worth thinking about.”

Utena’s eyes seemed to look deep into Juri, seeing her and all of her truths.

“Anthy always folded the sheets. I asked her not to. Watching her do the corners so tightly, it was really annoying.”

“I can imagine,” Juri said. “I hate fussy things like that.”

They walked back up the hill towards the academy campus in the greying twilight, streetlights winked on, chasing them towards the darkness between the school buildings. When they reached the gates, Utena paused. “Well, my dorm is the other way to yours. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow?”

Utena grinned. “You didn’t think you’d get out of it, did you? Bowling.”

“Bowling. I suppose.” Juri could think of worse things to do with her time.

“You bet! I’m ready to take you on for real for once, nobody else but you and me!” Utena raised a fist, exuding boyish enthusiasm.

“I’m a pro. I’ll make you regret challenging me.”

Utena laughed, grinned. “It’s a promise, right?” She backed away a step, turned on her heel, and raised a hand in farewell.

Juri waved back even though Utena couldn’t see her then turned towards her own dormitory. Heat still radiated from the concrete pavement, and the bushes rustled with life. The air carried the fresh scent of the ocean up the hill and through her hair.

She indulged in a proper bath that night, even though the heat simply made her sweat more. With her hair piled above her head in a bun and steamy fog hiding any reflections in the mirror, she was in another, secret, world. When she was younger she used to hold her breath, sink down under the water, and wonder if life was more peaceful in death. If drowning would have been better. What if Juri had fallen, instead? What if the boy hadn’t been brave enough to save a kid he didn’t even know? Would Shiori have become so twisted without Juri there to get in the way of her happiness? Would Juri’s sister have stayed in Japan, would their parents be happier?

Always, the pain and thirst for oxygen drove Juri up out of the water, reborn.

When she submerged herself a second time, she wondered what she would think about. Whose face she would imagine. Perhaps Utena, or Anthy herself. Instead, all Juri felt was the safety of warm water washing over her closed eyes. The only part of any person that came to mind was the slip of her own bare skin against the smooth curve of the bathtub.

She emerged dripping, and wrapped herself in a dressing gown. She didn’t dry off properly before she went to bed, instead letting the cooler night air brush over her. It was a welcome chill compared to the heat of the day. She fell asleep on fresh sharp sheets - fitted, but ironed - wondering what Utena did for bedsheets if Anthy wasn’t around to annoy her with perfect corners.

In her dreams, someone was knocking on the door. They were so insistent that they began rattling the handle, kicking at the bottom of the door. Juri peeled back the bedsheets only to find another layer. She kept peeling and pushing them back only to find more. It hadn’t seemed that thick to begin with.

“Why…” she asked herself, but in a dream-like sense, she understood. Even a sword could be stopped by thin fabric, if there were enough layers. But you can’t fold a normal piece of paper more than 7 times. Even court ladies stopped at 12 layers. There had to be an end to them at some point, which meant that there was a way out. Juri braced her hands on the mattress beneath her, and tugged hard until her legs slid out from under the covers. She walked across the floor on bare feet, towards the door. When she got there, she reached out to the doorknob, and froze. Under her skin she could feel a thin, fine chain. Her locket, hanging off the doorknob.

Whoever it was behind the door had fallen silent, waiting. Juri held her breath and tried to turn the handle. It wouldn’t budge. She knelt down, skin of her knees on the wooden floor, and lifted the dangling locket in the palm of her hand. Would she wake up, if the door opened? Was the person behind the door a friend, or somebody who intended her harm? She slipped a fingernail into the locket’s latch, and it sprung open. It wasn’t empty anymore, but in the darkness Juri couldn’t make out whose face it was.

She woke up sweating, sheets tangled around her legs. The room was still dark, it couldn’t have been more than a couple of hours since she’d fallen asleep. Her hair had dried badly, shaped flat and wide to fit her pillow. She kicked the sheets off and glanced at the door. There wasn’t anything on the doorknob, and there weren’t any sounds behind it. Her feet slapped against the floor when she walked across the room to her dresser. She untangled her hair and brushed it as best she could, so it fell straight down her back. She pinned the messy curls at the front to keep them out of the way. She dressed in jeans and a loose, comfortable blouse.

The school seemed more inhabited, at night. Even though it was empty, some lights were always scheduled to turn on at night. Others had motion sensors, and flickered on as Juri walked towards them. They pointed out from the eaves of the building, towards the centre of things, where the greenhouse stood. Shadows were cast from the walkways, out into the quadrangle. The greenhouse shimmered and the glass reflected Juri’s face, the school behind her, back out towards her. She could not see anything that was inside.

She pressed her hand flat against the glass, skin brushing against the cast iron keyhole and the frame between the panes of glass. Like water in the sun; when she reached out she only saw herself reaching back. Juri bit her lip, and reached up to pull a hairpin out. The lock was old, the kind that had an old thick iron key. In theory it should be easy to pick it. She slipped the pin between her teeth, and pulled to strip the protective plastic ends off. She spat them into the bushes. There was nobody around to be decent for, so what did a little bit of spittle matter? She slipped the hairpin into the darkness of the keyhole, and began feeling around for something.

She wasn’t sure what. Maybe something hard that meant she’d found a pin, or something that moved when she turned something. Her chin began to itch, and her skin tickled and crawled, starting where her fingers pinched tightly on the hairpin. It tightened, pulling through her arm and her chest, catching her breath and pulsing in her heart on its way down to her belly-button. She wanted to punch something. She wanted to kick the door in, or walk away. But she clenched her teeth, and pushed onwards.

The hairpins bent, and her fingers turned white and then bright red around where she was pinching them. She dropped them more than once, scraped her knuckles on the ground trying to pick them up again. She closed her eyes against the blinding reflection of her own face in the glass, and tried to go by feel. To ignore the cringing sensation in her own stomach and only feel the shape of the metal hidden inside the lock.

“It looks like a coffin, doesn’t it?”

Utena’s voice startled Juri, and she dropped the pins again. When Juri reached down for them, Utena took hold of her hand.

“You’re bleeding,” Utena said. Not out of worry or awe, just stating the truth.

Juri opened her eyes to see. She’d bruised her fingertips, and the skin on her knuckles was missing in patches.

“I’m bad at this,” Juri admitted.

Utena smiled. “It’s hard. You need…” she picked up the hairpins, and bent two into L-shapes. One was a lot shorter than the other. “One of them holds the gates out of the way, and the other turns to move the bolt.”

“Since when do you know how to do this?” Juri took the hairpins, and slipped them into the lock together.

“Nanami showed me, once. It’s a long story.”

If anyone knew how, well, it would be Nanami.There was nothing that girl wouldn’t stoop to, when it came to stalking her own brother.

“How did she describe it to you?” Juri thought she could feel the right things giving way, but she wasn’t sure.

“This one,” Utena pointed, “creates tension. It’s what keeps things moving, no matter what. It’s the only thing that can open the lock. The other one finds the things that are blocking the bolt, stopping the tension from moving it. You push them gently out of the way, one by one, and it just works.”

“Tension, huh.” Juri looked her reflection straight in the eyes and saw Utena sitting beside her, watching over her shoulder. The air felt thick with humidity, like rain was coming. Her skin felt sticky. Juri swallowed against that uncomfortable itch, and turned the picks together. She felt something give a little, then stop. Left to right. Tension. She pulled the other pick towards the edge of the lock, easing it up. She felt something else give, in a different way.

“It feels… there’s three of them, I think. Three things like levers.”

“Good,” Utena said. “Keep going.”

Juri did. She lifted and lowered the levers, her arm beginning to shake from exhaustion. Her heart was pounding. All of a sudden, the pick she was applying tension with felt free and light, and everything slipped.

“I had it. Nearly. I’m trying again.”

Utena wiped her hand across Juri’s brow; Juri hadn’t even known she was sweating so much. Her body felt far away, even though her focus had narrowed to the tips of her fingers, and the sense of tension and give in the thin flat wires she was pushing around in the lock.

“That keyhole, it’s the same shape as the forest,” Utena said.

“It’s the same shape as a coffin,” Juri retorted. She narrowed her eyes, and pushed slowly and steadily with tension as she found the right places for all of the levers. Smoothly, gracefully the tension pick turned and the bolt slid into place. There was a quiet click as everything settled inside the lock. Juri moved to sit back on her haunches, but she’d been crouched there for too long. Her ankles gave way, and she tumbled sideways into Utena.

“Got you,” Utena’s hands caught her by the shoulders, and all Juri could do was laugh nervously to relieve the tension. Her legs were splayed over the steps leading up to the greenhouse, and nobody looking at them would have understood why.

The breeze picked up, and clouds covered the stars above. The door creaked open, and light flashed across the panes of glass as it moved. Juri could see the darkness of leaves and tightly closed rosebuds. A damp and sweet smell, decay and fertility, wafted out from amongst the roses towards them.

“Are you going to go inside? I don’t really want to go with you.” Juri moved into a more comfortable position, away from Utena. She began to massage feeling back into her legs.

Utena blinked. “Opening it was the point, really,” She shrugged, and smiled apologetically at Juri.

Juri shoved Utena’s shoulder, and Utena caught herself on the ground, on her elbows. “Hey!”

Juri felt like she’d achieved something, which was weird. More than winning a bowling tournament, or a fencing championship, or even a duel. Once, it felt like a very long time ago, though it had only been a couple of months, duelling had felt like life and death; the only real thing in a world full of farce. But since then, Juri had been letting a lot of things go. She felt lighter, she supposed. A pin turned in a lock, and the world was no different, but her understanding of things had pivoted. Utena was smiling, looking up at Juri, and the greenhouse. When Juri turned her head, it did not look like a cage. It was just glass and steel. The courtyard was stone, mortar, walled-in with concrete. Symbols didn’t have power, unless you gave it to them.

“You’re the one who started this,” Juri chided Utena, but she was smirking as she said it.

“And you’re the one who did it,” Utena replied.

If Utena wasn’t a mirror of all the things Juri could not be, all the ways that Juri could not succeed in being herself… if Utena was just a person, sitting next to her when the rest of the world had walked away, what did that mean? If Juri reached out, would she find a different kind of friendship? Something that did not rely on politics or power, or pain?

They had been still for so long, that the sensor lights turned off. Slowly, out of range of the sensor, Juri’s hand reached out towards Utena’s where it lay on the ground.

Back in her room on her dresser, her locket lay open and waiting. Inside, instead of a picture there was a clipping of a word, ouverte.