blood roses

Juri knew within three paces that the person behind the fencing mask and jacket was Kozue and not Miki. The body shape was close enough -- she must have bound her breasts -- but the stance was wrong, and the posture was far too aggressive. Miki was always eager to please: Kozue was eager to attack.

She wondered, a little wearily, how she had annoyed the girl this time.

They raised their blades in salute. Kozue lunged. Juri parried.

It was obvious within a few seconds that Kozue wanted to lock swords with her. Juri obliged, curious as to why the younger girl was playing this little masquerade.

She didn't expect the knee. It wasn't a fencing move. It wasn't part of the rules. She managed to turn her body enough that she caught most of it on her thigh, but even so it made her stagger back, and Kozue came after her, point thrusting for her neck.

Beat. Disarm.

Juri tilted her fencing mask back. "What was that for?" she asked.

"What does it matter?" Kozue answered bitterly. She wrenched her own helmet off and threw it down; tousled blue hair, flushed cheeks, the marks of sweat on her forehead and nose and below her lower lip. "I just wanted to see."

"To see what?"

"If it'd be any different fighting with you."

Juri sighed. She raised the foil in salute, then turned away. The whisper of movement behind her and the rattle of the other foil being snatched up off the ground warned her just in time to be able to spin back and parry. But she was off-centre and unbalanced; Kozue's blade snaked past her face, close enough that she could feel the wind from it.

"Your helmet!" Juri snapped, every instinct telling her that she should not fight like this. This wasn't a Rose Bride duel; this wasn't some sort of half-sorcerous evocation; this was real life and real steel and Kozue was going to get hurt if she tried this.

Kozue licked her lips. "Make me," she said, and thrust again.

"Are you --" Parry, response, careful because Juri didn't want to hurt the girl -- "trying to imitate Miki or something?" Step step step lunge.

Kozue giggled. Her eyes were lambent with insanity. She smiled as beautifully as she might have done at Touga, and whipped her blade round again and again, lunging at Juri with a total unconcern for her own defence.

Juri found herself fighting defensively. Even though the practice foils were blunted, they were still solid steel rods; a blow to the face would be dangerous. This was the whole point of wearing fencing masks! Did the girl have no sense? She'd known that Kozue was obsessive, and that she was violent, but she'd never thought that she was outright suicidal.

Playing her superior height and reach against the younger girl, she began to drive her backwards towards the wall. With a final effort, she caught the hilt of her foil behind Kozue's and snapped it back, tearing the foil from the girl's hand and sending it rattling to the floor.

With her free hand Juri grabbed Kozue's shoulder and shoved her back hard against the wall. "What are you playing at?" she demanded furiously. "You could have been hurt! You could have --"

Kozue turned her head, wriggling against the wall, and buried her teeth in Juri's hand.

Juri snatched her hand back with a barely suppressed curse. Trickles of blood ran down to her knuckles. Kozue had sharp little teeth in that bloodstained mouth of hers.

Kozue licked her lips again. "You don't taste as good as Miki," she said spitefully.

Juri slapped her across the face with the back of her hand. It left a smear of blood on Kozue's cheek. "Hold your tongue or I'll hold it for you," she suggested. "Miki deserves better than to be spoken of like that."

"I'll speak of him how I like." Kozue rubbed at her cheek. "He's my brother."

"He's my student," Juri said coldly. "Stop trying to provoke me."

"Oh, am I," Kozue whispered. She squirmed against the wall, thrusting her chest at Juri. "Should I try to cut you again? Is that what you want --"

Something went sour in Juri's stomach. "Think what you like," she said, and turned away. "I'm not going to play your game any longer. And don't come at me with steel again."

"But aren't I what you want?" Kozue's voice cajoled from behind her. "I'm all sugar and spice and I'll bite your hand if you feed me. Come kiss me, Juri-sempai."

"Shut up," Juri said. Her hand burned where Kozue had bitten her. Could this sort of personal madness be as contagious as rabies? Only an idiot would want to get herself hurt. "Shut up and get out of here. Go to your brother, go to your rooms, go wherever you want but leave me be. I have no time for you."

"I'm not her, am I?" Kozue asked sweetly. "Whoever she is. But I could be --"

Juri ignored her. She ignored her as she put the foils back in the rack. She ignored her until Kozue fell silent and trailed out of the room.

"No," she finally said to the empty room. "No, you're not her and I'm not Miki or anyone else."

Three shadows in the background played out an old routine.

Before even realising it, she had touched the golden locket at her throat.

Yes. That was what Kozue had smelled of. She had smelled of roses.

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