DISCLAIMER: Hourou Musuko belongs to Shimura Takako, though I heartily wish it were mine.

NOTES: As the above might've tipped you off, this a story based on Hourou Musuko by Shimura Takako, or Wandering Son. Put simply, I love this series. To anyone who hasn't read it, I strongly encourage you to seek it out. Like Aoi Hana (another of the artist's works) it's slow and winding and complex, but very worth the time. No particular point in time intended here, just that it takes place after chapter 75 – Summer Vacation. It was written while reading chapters 83 and 84, if that matters.

Hope you enjoy this. Please do leave feedback, let me know what you think.

Chiba Saori is a puzzle that Takatsuki can't quite figure out.

She's stronger than Takatsuki – that much is obvious, however much it stings to admit it. Takatsuki is like a piece of glass blown too fine. The slightest tap and she shatters, and after all the pieces have been glued back together again, you can still see tiny fault lines where she might shatter again.

Chiba is rougher than Takatsuki too, for all her demure appearance. Doesn't hold back from saying the most mind-numbingly awful things.

"You'd just look like a boyish girl."

"I suppose there are indecisive men like that."

Damn it, damn it!

Even the memory of those words sends Takatsuki's blood pressure skyrocketing.

Is that better or worse than being ignored, when she deigns to say something like that?

Overall, it would be easier to just dismiss her as an awful person and forget about her.

But there's a catch.

The downside to Chiba Saori's appalling honesty is that when she says something nice, you know she means it just as wholeheartedly.

"I like how you were before. You were cool."

Even if it's only one thing.

Cool. The sum of Takatsuki's desires distilled into one short word. What a pity Chiba had to use the past tense.

Takatsuki can't think about the between-your-legs part yet. That's kind of scary, but there are other things she knows with unwavering certainty. Instinctive things. She can't deal with the hideously intrusive forms that swelled from her chest. She doesn't want to mess about with cramps and leaking and horrid little packets with pink writing. She used to quite like her body – smooth and muscular – and now it's betraying her at every turn.

It's my body. Why can't it just do what I want it to?

She knows it doesn't work that way, but how, how, how she wishes it did.

Chiba says that all she seems to do is hate being a girl now. What Chiba doesn't understand is that never before was Takatsuki so uncomfortably aware of being a girl. Things jiggling and growing and changing. She can't get away from it.

When she used to envisage her adult self, it was always just a bigger, more mature version of her child self. A bit more confident. A bit more handsome. Broader shoulders, firmer arms, longer legs.

She certainly never considered the nightmare currently unfolding. Those things, for example. They got a little bigger, then a little bigger again. Each time she thinks they've stopped, she finds some sign that they've grown yet again! Girls like Sasa-chan are so lucky. Why can't she be like that too?

All she can do is wear that miraculous garment and pile on the layers. She examines herself from every angle until she's sure there's nothing but a smooth line. Who cares if she sweats to death? Better that than let everyone see.

Sometimes she imagines running like the wind, and all the excess flesh and softness melting off her like butter, leaving only her true body behind.

Cool. Unflustered. Cutting a smart figure with short hair and a crisp shirt. Smooth lines and long strides. What's wrong with that? Why can't she have it? Why is everyone so invested in forcing her into frills and bows and skirts? Why must everyone make such a big deal out of what she wears?

And then they have the audacity to turn around and ask her the same question!

When Shi-chan looks at her, she can just about feel his derision burn a hole in her skin.

You want to be a man, little girl? What a joke!

She's sure that's what he's thinking, even if he is kind to her. It's a kindness born of pity, surely. Nitori is exempt because he's like Yuki, and Shi-chan seems to care about Yuki a great deal. Takatsuki, however, is just a kid with nothing to fill her jeans and too much to fill her shirt.

There's something excruciating about him knowing – about anyone knowing – that she wants to be a boy. It's too intimate, too close to her core to be voiced. As though she's making some big statement that she wants to be just like Shi-chan or Mr Kaneda or her father or her brother – when that's not it at all! Takatsuki simply wants to be herself. To grow into a body she feels comfortable in. It might not be her father, but it sure as hell isn't her mother either. It isn't someone with a lacy bra and a high-pitched giggle. That thought makes her want to gag.

She likes talking to Nitori about it, though. He understands better than anyone, even if they are coming at the same issue from completely different sides. And it felt OK talking to Chiba. Takatsuki isn't sure why. Perhaps because Chiba isn't like anyone else either – and unlike Takatsuki, she seems perfectly at ease with that.

The biggest problem with Chiba Saori has nothing to do with her, really. Takatsuki knows it's not fair to blame someone for their feelings – or lack of them. After all, she's had enough of that herself from Nitori and Yuki.

When Takatsuki goes to bed at night, in the space between closing her eyes and sleep, she can't help imagining the feel of Chiba's hand in her own. It's winter – because that girl suits winter, somehow – and the air is crisp and pristine around them. Chiba is wearing something cute and girlish, as always, and Takatsuki is wearing the clothes she wants to wear. A long white scarf winds its way about both necks, looping them together even if their hands weren't so tightly clasped. Which they are.

They look like boyfriend and girlfriend.

Somehow, even in her own imagining, Takatsuki is happy. She can see herself – and she knows it's not quite how she looks now, it's how she wants to look – positively glowing. As if all's right with the world.

And then later, in some deserted corner of a park, Chiba leans up and kisses her. It's gentle and unbelievably soft. Takatsuki's stomach falls out and is forgotten. It's fine, though, because no-one is really around, and anyway, they're boyfriend and girlfriend. Why shouldn't they kiss?

If anyone did comment, Takatsuki knows that while her own face flushed red and her tongue struggled for words, Chiba Saori would have already said something cutting and sent the person on their way.

Is it weak to want that?

But then Takatsuki knows that if anyone laid a hand on Chiba or did anything to hurt her, she could be strong too. Maybe her temper is a little too quick to catch, but she dealt with those boys in primary school, and she can deal with anyone else as well.

Perhaps we're strong in different ways.

Takatsuki wants to be strong for Chiba, but she also likes the thought that if the impossible did happen and Chiba did take her hand, not everything would be left to her alone. She wouldn't have to be the superhero boyfriend that Nitori wants. She could just be herself, and that would do.

This from the girl who couldn't even speak up for herself!

She huffs, because she's being unfair, of course. Nitori is stronger than she can imagine – wearing the clothes he wants to wear not to some distant fast food joint, but to school, and with no pretence. His strength is quiet, deep, lurking beneath the surface, and Takatsuki knows she's just the opposite. She can't offer him what he needs.

Sometimes it feels as though Nitori wants Takatsuki to sweep him off his feet, and ride away with him on a white horse to a world with happy endings. He looks at her with such desperate, hopeful eyes that she can't stand it. She can't stand the thought of such hope being placed in someone like her. Takatsuki doesn't really expect a happy ending any more. All she asks is to find some kind of peace. If she can do that, it will be enough. She tells herself that even as she pictures Chiba's head nestled against her shoulder in the chill, glittering park.

Then Takatsuki rolls over and drives the image out of her mind. Chiba Saori doesn't want a boyish girl. She wants a girlish boy, and the divide between the two is so immense that Takatsuki can't even think about it any more.

There are days when she feels good about the breeze in her hair, the smoothness of her torso, her casual, masculine gait. Then she catches sight of herself in a shop window, and the warm wisp of confidence evaporates away. She sees a tall, gawky girl with short hair sweating under too many clothes, and pretending to be something she's not.

How ironic that she's trying to stop being something she's not.

She can't stand the concerned looks on other people's faces – her mother, her father, Mr Kaneda, Mr Saisho. She can almost hear the gears ticking over in their brains.

"She's wearing a boy's uniform. Why is she doing that? Does she hate being a girl? Is she maladjusted? She just hates skirts! Is she like that?"

If Takatsuki is a boy in a girl's body and Chiba is a girl in a girl's body, does that make her like that?

God, she can't even bring herself to say the word. Why do there have to be so many damn words anyway?

Homo, fag, trannie, dyke.

Why can't it just be Yuki-and-Shi-chan or Takatsuki-and-Chiba, and leave it at that? Why the obsession to define, categorise, name what occurs between them?

Takatsuki hates names. She even hates her own name – Yoshino. It's cute and girly and everything she doesn't want to be.

"The current Takatsuki is very cute."

Give me a break!

But if she endured the hair around her face and neck for Chiba's sake – her approval, if she's honest – boys like Yama are something else entirely.

Snip, snip.

She doesn't want to be the cute, boyish, popular girl. She doesn't want to be her mother or her father. She doesn't want to be called 'trannie' or 'dyke'. She just wants to be herself, herself as she wants to be, and spared the opinions of everyone else.

How that might be achieved is beyond her.

Chiba Saori seems fearless in the face of a world, a future, that makes Takatsuki's knees tremble. Is it so wrong that she should want a little bit of that fearlessness to call her own? Is it so wrong to dream of walking hand in hand with a girl as striking and bold as that?

Takatsuki doesn't know what comes next. She doesn't even know where to begin finding out. All she knows is that she needs to keep her voice steady and her cheeks unflushed in Chiba's presence until she can figure it out.


NOTE: This isn't meant to be an exhaustive account of Takatsuki's character or anything like that – obviously I couldn't write that if I tried. It's just a little exploration of her thoughts. I'll admit that Takatsuki reminds me so much of myself at the same age that, to quote Shi-chan, I could just cry. Reading this series has evoked so many vivid adolescent memories, both good and bad. ;)

That aside, I rather hope Takatsuki and Chiba get it together at some point, though I suspect when the series finally ends, it will be with Takatsuki and Nitori. I also suspect that they'll both be better equipped to handle that by then. We shall see.

Thanks again for reading. Please click on that review link, and drop me a line.