Five Senses of Jealousy
Series, spoilers. Juri/Shiori, requested by Unagieater.
Shiori learns at five to hate roses. They are her first real love. Growing from seed to bud to blossom, the plants produce magic out of fragile stems, unfurling green thorns to serve as tiny guardians. They transform themselves in less than a season; they are tokens of expensive affection. There are numerous latent threats to a rose, all manner of parasites and rot, so each flower must be carefully groomed and watched.
Each rose is considered precious.
The petals of a rose are so soft, so silky that Shiori keeps wanting to touch them. Then one day, touching isn't enough. The roses are so delicate that she can barely feel them in her hands, so she closes her fingers tighter, tight tight tight, until the juices compress and the petals turn ragged in her fingers and she still can't find something real to hold onto. She wants to touch them forever.
When she opens her hands, the remains of the flowers stick to her palms. They're ugly when she tries to scrape them off, translucent with their own juices. They wrinkle like rotting skin.
Her stomach roils.
In order to keep from hurting the roses, Shiori looks for places to hide them. She finds long-neck vases in her mother's antique cabinet and wipes out the insides with towels, clearing dust off the sea-green glaze. The porcelain weight is heavy in her hands, like a baby's skull. It's a start.
At first Shiori tries keeping the vases on higher shelves where she won't be tempted by the contents. She tiptoes past every day, watching each batch of flowers nod heavier and heavier on their stems, old grandmothers growing too weary for their own bodies. Then -- despite her best efforts not to touch them -- the roses die and rot anyway, colors souring, water stinking of decay. She makes a sound that might have been crying when she first discovers the results, all awful-faced and sticky.
Her mother laughs at her chagrin, and advises her to hang the stems up in clumps to dry.
Shiori does not listen.
"You can't water dead roses, darling," her mother sighs, and pulls out a stepstool to deal with the festering shelf of rot. She pulls back the curtains, opens windows to disperse the smell while she sorts through the vases and methodically dumps out their contents. "If they're gone, they're gone. Watering them will only make them decay faster."
"Why?" Shiori hiccups. Her nose is running; her eyes feel hot and red. "Why can't you make them better if you try?"
Her mother only shakes her head, and finds a fresh handkerchief.
This is Shiori's introduction to death, and one she never forgets. Snow melts. Leaves fall. Flowers wilt. Nothing is permanent; nothing is forever.
After a few years, Shiori starts closing her hand around flowers whenever they begin to droop, killing them early and discarding the scraps so they have no chance of betraying her.
Shiori learns about blood from her mother -- not from an accident or a kitchen spill, but when she watches the harvest of the rosehip bulbs. Each hip contains dozens of white, tightly packed seeds inside a small, safe shell. The hips turn from green to red, to brown, to orange, or even stay green as they incubate into the summer, fat with promise.
"What color is this?" Shiori asks, reaching out to touch one bulb that has not fully turned.
"Blood," her mother answers, distracted, and then corrects herself. "Orange. What time is your friend coming over?"
Shiori checks the clock, but mostly for show; she's been keeping track of each minute as if it's being etched into her skin. "Two o'clock."
"I'll be sure to have some tea ready by then."
Resisting the urge to roll her eyes -- Juri shouldn't have to drink tea, Juri's better than tea -- Shiori waits by the door until the hour scrolls around, and then pretends she was halfway across the house when the bell rang.
Shiori likes to brush out Juri's hair after the other girl takes a shower, while they're both sitting on Shiori's bed talking about school. Juri's hair is already thick and lush; two teachers have been muttering repeated implications that they should order the girl to have it cut. Shiori has already decided that she will kill them if they do.
Shiori's own hair is only down to the middle of her back, and it hates being curled. She's tried gel and heat and spools, but nothing reproduces Juri's luxurious waves. In frustration, Shiori's taken up braiding her hair each night in small fistfuls, plaiting them while they're still wet from the shower. It works, for a few hours. Then they remember their own nature and straighten out again.
Juri listens to her wistful complains before giving a nod, and dismissing the issue. "It's fine the way it is, Shiori."
It's not, Shiori wants to retort. Juri's hair feels like cold silk; when damp, it is the color of rust and rosehips. Rich enough that Shiori stares at her fingers, wondering if the color will stain her every time she touches Juri's scalp.
Shiori's hair is black when wet, and not even a poetic color -- it is pregnant with no hidden shades, no violet mystery. She is not as beautiful as Juri, and this is a fact of birth. Of blood. The lesson comes twice from her mother.
Afterwards, they sit on the front porch and watch the dusk roll in. Summer humidity turns the evening into murk. The shadows have playful edges. Shiori's mother has set them out with glasses of rosehip tea, steeped and then chilled, with ice and sugar to take the tart edge off.
As the traffic of the evening growls its way along the streets, a flock of birds is startled; they sweep by overhead, losing feathers and tufts of down with the urgency of their flight.
"Like angels shedding their wings," is Juri's observation. Her eyes remained fixed on the birds as they dodge around a power line; she ignores what's being discarded on the wind.
Shiori lowers her glass, feeling droplets of condensation roll over her skin.
"How unfair for the wings," her mouth whispers, and the rest of her agrees.
Shiori decides in the 4th grade that she wants to learn how to play the violin. The musician on television had been elegant, standing like a willow planted up on the stage while being bathed in endless cascades of applause. Watching him, Shiori felt privileged to witness something beautiful shining on display, something pure.
Her mother indulges her eventually, bringing her to a store whose walls are covered in strangely carved wood. The air is thick with polish. Metal struts and braces wink sleepily underneath storefront lights. Shiori loses herself as she wanders between shelves, listening to the distant hum of voices negotiating lesson prices. She inhales rosin off her hands, drinking in the sensation of instruments surrounding her from head to toe.
She decides -- after much careful deliberate -- to share her new ambition with her best friend. Juri listens with appropriate thoughtfulness, nodding and offering stock words of encouragement. After a while, Shiori starts breaking off in her sentences halfway, waiting for Juri to take initiative, wondering if her friend is only going along with it to indulge her. As if Juri is feigning reassurance, like Shiori is some kind of hobby to keep placated, something to pass the time with between classes.
As if -- secretly -- Juri knows better, but doesn't want to speak out of pity.
It's harder to get along with Juri than Shiori would like. In school, they have different study habits. Shiori likes to line up things as rewards -- movies to see, books to read, people to be with – and breaks off her work frequently to dive into them early, unable to endure temptation. She gobbles them up. It's frustrating that there is always more to want, and Shiori is bad about sticking to study limitations. She can't resist.
Juri also likes rewards, but she measures them stiffly. She does her homework and then accepts free time afterwards, as if she's already come to terms with desire, and keeps her poise and lust at arm's length from each other. Juri's always in control. She wins the praise of all the teachers, even the music instructor, who gives Juri extra access to the practice room in case the girl wants to tune in private.
Shiori's fingers cramp from trying to fit around the neck of the violin and still hit all the strings necessary. Her hands stink of rosin and brass. She struggles with positions. She practices until she can identify her violin case from Juri's with her eyes closed -- all from the smell of padding and polish and wood -- but no matter what she tries, Shiori can't make the notes work right.
Adoration follows talent. As long as you're special -- Shiori knows -- you'll have no end of supporters, friends, followers to butter you up when you're down and grant you reassurance at the drop of a hat. But adoration is fickle; it flies away, attracted to whatever flower blooms next. It only lasts if there's something new to keep it. Something special.
And for every admiring word Shiori earns, Juri wins five.
Which means that Shiroi will only be deluding herself if she starts to believe what people tell her, so she can't trust any of them. There's never as much praise for her as there is for Juri, which means only that Shiori's admirers don't know there's something better sitting two rows down, one row over.
Shiori is a fad. She is immature and silly and not nearly as interesting as her lush-haired friend. She can't fence as well, can't play instruments, can't ace tests. She can't do what Juri can. Eventually, every single one of those social butterflies will flit over to Jury's side and leave Shiori behind.
Shiori knows they will. It's only a matter of time.
Shiori hates them. Them -- everyone knows who, the perfect students with participation in different five clubs all at once while making high scores in them all. The ones who make it seem effortless. The people who breeze through life and never look behind them. It doesn't matter which school Shiori's at, because they're all around her: the top grade, the elite, the special. They all sound the same when they talk, generous and smart and witty -- they all sound the same, and they all sound like Juri.
Lunchtimes are sour at her new school. Her boyfriend doesn't talk to her when they eat in the cafeteria, chewing his rice mechanically, popping the tab on his can of green tea. They sit together at the same table as much from formality as anything else; he ends their meals with lifeless goodbyes, turning away before the sentences finish.
It is her first year away from Juri, and she's already ruining it.
Classes seem plain after the excess of Ohtori. The clubs are boring and squalid, with few sports other than tennis. The student council wears the standard uniform, with only an armband to distinguish their rank. The girls never laugh in unison; the boys never play cross-teams. There is no fencing.
Shiori responds to her new environment by growing her hair out long, remembering Juri's wet curls. She cuts it short when the effort makes her look twice as gawkish as before. She advances through the grades and tries her best to shake off each previous year, tries so hard that it starts to feel as if she's running in a circle, crashing against her own memories hard enough to break herself against them.
She remembers sitting outside the classrooms during lunch and watching Juri laugh. She remembers wanting to take Juri away, just to have something all her own.
She remembers wanting to show that she was just as good.
Halfway through Modern History, there comes a hesitant rap at the door. It slides back to reveal the face of one of the office monitors, flushed with the exertion of running up and down the stairs, pink paper notice clutched in his hand. Shiori's teacher glares at the breach in protocol, and then looks directly at her.
"There is a call for Miss Takatsuki. You have permission to receive it."
Shiori follows the office monitor obediently. When she asks, unable to keep her own morbid curiosity reined in, the answer is not what she expects.
"Your old school called." The boy is hurried. The left side of his hair sticks up like a bird's tuft. "I think it's a teacher asking about something you've forgotten."
The phone receiver is very cold when she picks it up.
"You dreamed of Juri Arisugawa last night," comes the voice on the other end, very sleek, very delicate on the vowels. It sounds like it could swallow a kitten whole. Serpentine.
Shiori does not deny this, so she only repeats. "Hello?"
There is a rustle, like paper being turned over, or starch linen sheets. "You dreamed she had left Ohtori to come here instead. Everyone in your grade forgot who you were and you walked the halls alone, all by yourself while the gossip centered around Arisugawa. To them, you didn't even exist."
Her throat hurts.
"Who is this?"
"When you finally found her by the soccer court, she sneered and asked why you didn't even know the way around your own school." The voice pauses in its relentless charge, awarding some small mercy to the terrified denials inside Shiori's chest. Then it resumes, twice as discerning as before. "You know this will never be resolved any other way, Miss Takatsuki."
"I don't care." The phone is slippery in her palm. "I have what Juri had. That makes me as good as her. She has to understand that now."
"Do you really never want to see her again?" Razor-sharp against her denials, the voice slides around her claims with buttery ease. "Do you want to break free from your shell? To finally fly out of the cage she's put around you, merely by her existence? You can't accomplish that by running away. You have to make her see how good you really are. Only then can you move on with your life."
Shiori is silent. The ache has moved up from her throat to the back of her mouth. If she spoke, she would bark something ugly, so instead she keeps her lips pressed tightly shut.
The caller does not seem to need her answer out loud. "Your application to return to Ohtori Academy will be in the mail tomorrow, Miss Takatsuki. Good luck."
What Shiori hates most about the world is that there's nothing honest. There's nothing true. All your heroes have flaws, things that turn them awful and real, and that's criminally unfair. What's the use in idols if none of them are perfect? Where else are you supposed to find hope?
If heroes are human, then that meant that they're the same as you. And if they're the same as you, then there's no excuse why you're not as good as them.
Coming back to Ohtori, Shiori feels the same sense of shattered balance that she remembers from her childhood classes. Juri's presence is like a pressure falling into place like a bar across the door: time slurs, gravity warps, and Shiori's head hums as if she's taken too many painkillers against a migraine and now feels painfully small.
She's come back to confront Juri. She's come back for an answer.
Hate is familiar and Shiori likes the fact that she can cause that feeling in Juri, because it's the only form of power that she knows. It's the only way she can affect Juri, turn the tables, do anything other than helplessly chase after her friend, begging for attention.
But the truth is ugly. Shiori opens a locket and sees her own face in profile and the only thing she can think is how repulsed she is by Juri's weakness. Obsessing over something as pitiful as Shiori. It hadn't been some skilled fencer who had been close to Juri's heart, or even someone new that she'd found in the meantime -- no, Juri's been devoted to Shiori all this time, even after what they've all been through. After what Shiori did.
The chill of relief is so strange that it's crippling. Shiori's finally beaten her friend at something. Juri's lost her platinum invincibility. Shiori has control.
But love isn't good enough. It's not sufficient, because now it means that Juri's chasing Shiori like a dreamer after illusionary rainbows, degrading herself in pursuit of something lesser, and still not seeing Shiori as an equal. Instead of friendship, Shiori is something vulnerable to protect -- or to take care of, just like a pet.
Relief is cold, but frustration is familiar. All Shiori wants is to be seen as an equal, for Juri to realize that she's just as good, or maybe just as okay, or just plain on the same level, whatever it is. Because otherwise there's no one for Shiori to talk to or to be weak around or to confess that she's terrified of the math test next Thursday. Everyone else plays games and she has to be perfect for them, aloof and faux-elegant. There's no one that she can be herself around.
No one, except the girl she grew up with all through childhood, who was there when Shiori skinned her knee jumping off the swingset and cried for hours with because she was afraid of needing surgery to patch up the cut.
Only Juri's above those pretenses. And yet Juri refuses to acknowledge Shiori's value, refuses to treat her as anything more than something to distantly pity and crave -- and Shiori's left alone by herself, very, very alone.
Accept me, she wants to scream, but that wouldn't be proper of her to do so, wouldn't be something a girl like Juri would do, so instead Shiori clenches her fists under her desk during class, and rages.
Ohtori is lavish, but familiar. She gets nauseous at lunch as she watches Juri at the table with the other Student Council Members, until at last -- desperate with bile -- Shiori starts going to the Mikage Seminar.
Shiori wakes up in her dormitory bed one morning, and she wakes up exhausted. Bruises lurk inside her bones. There's the feeling that she should remember something very important, but it's a dream already fading, leaving only an aftertaste behind like a particularly bitter cup of tea -- as if she was a little girl chewing on rosehips again, feeling the seeds slip around her teeth and wedge into her gums.
There's a note on the bedside table, something from one of the on-campus doctors about how she fainted from low blood pressure.
Shiori swallows. Her spit is rancid and sour, as if she's kept a lozenge under her tongue all night until it dissolved away. When she rolls over onto her side, she discovers crumbled rose petals hiding underneath the sheets.
Her fingers feel naked, and she doesn't know why.
She staggers a little that day during classes, wondering why Juri keeps flushing whenever the girl looks in her direction. It's not like Juri has anything to be upset about. They've barely spoken two words since Shiori's return.
Shiori doesn't understand why a person would stop at one thing when they could have two.
Ruka makes it better for a time. Ruka is handsome and skilled and interested in Shiori, which is such a welcome comfort that she finds herself prone to a gratitude that borders on desperate.
They spend all their time together. Shiori is never alone.
Ruka is not eternal; Ruka goes away.
Everything changes in Ohtori the same way that it never does: one day Shiori is gossiping about the boys on the swimming team, and the next, she realizes there's something different about the school, something that she should have noticed before.
It comes near the end of the school year, as the student body is still passing back and forth distracted rumors to help them get through term tests. They share their thoughts about the stricter rules on parking lot violations, about that girl who got injured or expelled or both -- no one's sure. Like everything else in the school, the transition is so sudden that there is no transition at all. There's no difference between one day to the next.
No difference -- except that Shiori sees the way that Juri's shoulders hunch when someone knocks a cup over near the Student Council table, and the cafeteria is paused by the sound of glass breaking.
The tension eases away as swiftly as it came. Juri toys with her fork and performs a classic laugh: chin up, shoulders back, eyes half-closed like an aristocrat indulging in a moment of wit. The performance is stereotypically perfect; Shiori watches the fencer move through the rest of her conversation with the Student Council with traditional maneuvers, applying practiced interest and an occasional jibe.
But afterwards, as the class bells begin to ring, Juri doesn't leave the table immediately. Instead, she leans her chair back a fraction, exchanges a soft comment with Miki that leaves the boy blushing. She lets Saionji taunt her with a wave of his finger, and even grins back, bantering with the other Council Members until Shiori can't believe what she's seeing.
Juri the Invincible, Juri the Aloof is finally allowing herself to have friends -- and Shiroi is still on the outside.
She catches up with Juri on the sidewalk outside the library building. Half her mouth is already bitter and pouting, expecting to be turned away; the rest wants to give it another try, just another. It seems like Shiori has no end of masochism where Juri is involved. The fencer wants nothing to do with her, but the weakness inside of Shiori refuses to die: it wants to keep trying, to keep being slapped down into the pitiful truth that's haunted her all throughout her second-rate existence.
She knows it's stupid, but she can't stop wanting.
Juri's long legs are hard to keep pace with, particularly when she notices Shiori tagging along; gritting her teeth and ignoring the way that there's a pebble poking at her toes through the sock, Shiori breaks into a jog and whirls around, blocking the path. "Do you think that I'd do all right if I joined the fencing club, Juri?" she blurts out, aggressive against Juri's instant half-step back, trying to pin the other girl in place before Juri can escape. "I -- I mean," she stammers, "I could take another club for my academic record, and I know you don't have any reason to say yes. But I thought. I thought, maybe, if you..."
And then Juri looks at her.
Confusion rides in those brilliant eyes, but it's unfocused, not directed at Shiori -- as if Juri doesn't know what's going on either, has never really known, and is only starting to make sense of things now that there are no bridges left to burn. Shiori might have caught Juri in the middle of sleepwalking through another world, one invisible to mortal senses. The world that Juri's always been a part of, reserved for the special people.
But this time, it's different.
Juri shifts her schoolbag in her hand, fingers tight around the grip. Her gaze moves away from Shiori after a moment, but it's not a gesture of dismissal; Juri is looking towards the fencing hall, and there's a pursing of her lips that Shiori recognizes as thoughtful.
It's a start.
That night, as her arms ache from holding a practice stick steady, having run through stance after stance, Shiori dreams of damp curls in her hands, damp curls and watered dead roses: the legacy of Ohtori.