"There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming."

-Søren Kierkegaard

September in Tokyo doesn't herald the start of Autumn so much as drag the remnants of summer behind it. Typhoon season was still going strong and, on one Monday morning, a storm blew through Tokyo. It was light enough that the throngs of millions who commuted to central Tokyo each day braved the way to work, despite the seemingly inexhaustible rain and wind.

Outside of the offices of Bungeisha Publishing, which took up most of a tall skyscraper in the midst of the bustle that is Chiyoda Ward's Business District, a tall woman in her late twenties huddled under a small awning just in front of the large revolving door that regulated the flow of salaried employees entering the building.

She stood about 175 cm in low heeled Oxford shoes. Her frame was lithe and boyish. The black slacks she wore were bunched up at the ankles and the waist hung off of her hips. She seemed to swim in the crimson button shirt and charcoal blazer she wore, which also served to downplay most of the curvature her body had. The American-striped dark tie hung loose on her neck, even with the knot adjusted up to the collar. The woman's delicate face, with its pale skin, high cheekbones, deep-set hazel eyes, and short, spiky silver hair would have evoked an almost otherworldly grace but for her mouth, which was turned down in a scowl along with slumped shoulders as she looked down at the possessions in her hands: a black leather briefcase which had seen better days and a black nylon umbrella which had given up the ghost altogether, its ribs blown back and apart by the winds which accompanied the rain.

"Piece of shit umbrella," she muttered in a low contralto as she took a breath and, steadying herself, entered the building.

This must be a test
Maybe they are on to me
It's not the way I look
My clip on tie and button shirt
are all by the book
I dot my i's and cross my t's
and if I cross the line
I'm just rehearsing my part

If I'm Ophelia
then I will put the
shake in Shakespeare
I get to go mad
reviving Ophelia
then I will put the
ham in Hamlet (...I don't want to be the understudy)
I want to go mad!

It's more than a supporting role
in a play that's being put on
by an all boy's Catholic School
It's cool because I get to go mad

- Bitesize

Understudy

Premiere Issue: A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to Work

On the first floor of the building, just off the elevator pool and security desk, there was a small employee commissary. It was little more than a takeout restaurant, the room holding a small counter at one end where people bought faux-french pastries in the morning and boxed lunches in the afternoon. Two small tables and chairs were placed, seemingly for appearance's sake, at the other. The still-dripping silver-haired woman bought a small coffee and a small green tea and went up the elevators.

"Thank goodness for small favors," she whispered to herself as she held the ID card, her thumb covering the photo embossed on it, against the elevator sensor, which beeped, allowing her to access her 14th floor office.

As she emerged from the elevator, she walked down a hallway and entered a large, glass encased office. Even with the lack of people, due to both the early hour and the rain, the office was already bustling with activity. The woman noted two designers going over details of a layout on a large computer monitor as well as two younger, college aged women running around with coffee or with bundles of copies. She also noted the confused stares when they caught sight of her. The woman sighed and continued to a small corner office where she walked behind a desk, draped her sodden blazer on the back of a faux-Aeron style office chair, sat down with a thud, and logged into the computer terminal while taking a sip of her coffee.

She had just sorted through her email and turned off the vacation notification when she heard a knock on the opened door. Turning her head, she saw a petite, mousy woman who practically skipped into the room. She stood about 155 centimeters in height, give or take what was added to it by the pair of kitten heels she had on. She wore a layered outfit of black patterned tights, a grey wool skirt, and a purple top which was balanced with a black cardigan sweater. The young woman emanated boundless energy with her bright smile and dyed even brighter blue hair and was a questionably welcome counterpoint to the rain and the early morning.

"Ah, Tooru-kun! Are you back today? How was your-" her exuberant welcome had sputtered to a stop as the two women's eyes met. The blue haired woman's expression was one of confusion and unfamiliarity. The silver haired woman's was that of resignation.

"Um... can I help you?" The blue-haired woman asked politely, but stiffly.

The silver-haired woman in the damp suit sighed as she unbuttoned the cuffs of her shirt and rolled up the sleeves before turning back to her email, "As you can see Mari-chan, China went... great," The woman replied, punctuating the last work with as much vitriol as was possible.

"Who- who are you?"

The woman didn't look at Mari, remaining rather focused on the open window on her computer, "Who do you think I am, Mari-chan? Can you give me a moment? I got to make sure the Chief Editor knows I'm back today. Then I can tell you all about China."

Mari scratched her head as she looked at the strange woman in front of her type hurriedly, a grimace detracting from her otherwise delicate features.

"Tooru-kun? Is..." Mari said haltingly, as if testing the words, "is that... really you, Tooru-kun?"

The woman looked up from the monitor and gave Mari a wry smile, "That depends. Did you watch my cat like I asked you to while I was away? I swear Chibi's litter box was a mess when I got home last night."

Mari's jaw dropped, "Oh my goodness, what happened to you!?"

"Feh," Tooru grunted, before she began grumbling to herself in a a less than dulcet tone.

"All right," she groused, "I was trying not to make a big deal out of it, but I also decided when I got out of bed this morning that there's no point in being coy about this. Can you do me a favor, Mari-chan?"

Mari nodded hesitantly as Tooru continued, "Okay, can you gather everyone who's already in the office and lead them to the break room? Actually, now that I think about it, I probably should inform Human Resources about this, but..." she paused considering the thought seriously before waving a hand in dismissal, "ah, to hell with it."

Mari nodded, "Oh, okay. I think it's just Erica, Yumiko, and the interns who're in this early."

"That'll do for now. If the Chief Editor needs a more formal demo, who am I to deny her?" Tooru said in a tired voice, "I'll see you there in a minute."

Tooru picked up the paper cup of tea and walked out towards the hallway where the elevators were located. She walked into the men's room located next to the elevators and, after a beat, walked back out holding a small stack of paper towels.

Back inside the office she walked into the tile-floored break room. Five minutes later, the half dozen or so employees in attendance had arrived. They looked at Tooru strangely, before looking over towards Mari and giving her looks of confusion and/or incredulity.

"Who are you? What are you doing here? And why are you dressed like a second rate drag king?" one of the designers, a tall, olive-skinned American woman with straightened shoulder-length auburn hair, wearing dark slacks, a white shirt, and a black blazer asked, "The only reason I'm not calling security right now is because Mari said it was important."

Tooru merely shook her head and, holding a hand up, said, "I can explain, Erica, much as it pains me to." The auburn haired woman, looked back at Mari, puzzled at the remark.

Tooru regained her bearings and bowed to the assembled team of women, "Hi everyone. Before I start I just wanted to say it's good to be back. I actually missed this place, if you could believe it. I also have a spread of photos I took in Shanghai, Xian, and Hong Kong that we could conceivably run in Snap! if we're low on features for next month."

"Is that really you, Fuki-kun?" the other designer, a petite woman in ballet flats, a black dress, and white blazer with black trim and long, wavy brown hair, asked. Her eyes narrowed in concentration as she analyzed Tooru's face, leaning around the silver haired woman to look at her from multiple angles.

Tooru sighed, then nodded. "Yuriko, I was hoping starting off with shop talk would soften the shock. Yes, it's me. It's a long story. I had hoped to not bother the office with it, but this morning's typhoon and my umbrella had... different ideas. It's a long story and I barely believe what happened to me. However, I take it some measure of proof is needed, particularly for our American co-worker," she said, catching a glimpse of the glowering Erica.

Tooru took the lid off of the paper cup of green tea and put a finger in to test the temperature. After nodding in satisfaction, she overturned the cup on her head and, in an instant, felt the change. Tooru noticed the looks of confusion and horror on their faces as he dabbed the excess liquid from his head and adjusted his shirt.

Before anyone said a word, Tooru raised a hand and said, "I know, I know. This is the weirdest thing I've ever seen, too. To make a long story short, I've had what may be one of the worst vacations on record. Regardless, I'm happy to be back and, honestly, I'd rather not dwell in it. I'd also ask that this not leave the office. I'm looking at you in particular, Yuriko," he stared at the short woman who looked away from him, before looking at Erica who, holding Yuriko closer to her, nodded.

"Well then, with those histrionics out of the way, I look forward to continuing to work here at Bungeisha's fashion division."

Tooru bowed and slowly walked back to his office, amidst the small sea of stares, noting one intern steadying the other, who looked pale and faint . He sat down at his desk and began reading through his email, but after a moment, he put the keyboard aside and slumped his torso on the desk, resting his head of his folded arms.

"This sucks..." he moaned to himself. He heard a knock once more.

"Um... Tooru-kun?"

Tooru, responded, not moving except to speak, "Give me a moment, Mari-chan. While I'm certain I broke the record for most interesting Monday morning meeting by a country mile, I'm still deciding if I should have just bullshitted everyone and saved myself the grief," he said in a defeated voice.

Mari walked over and, to Tooru's shock, placed a hand on his shoulder.

"What happened to you?"

Tooru sat up and spun his chair around to face Mari. He briefly looked outside his office and saw one of the interns sitting at a cubicle just outside his office, aimlessly poking at her phone. He also spied a tiny pair of feet in ballet flats by the door. Tooru let out a quiet snort and turned to Mari.

"Take a seat. Well... it's like this..."


Tooru Fuki was, not to put too fine a point on it, lost. He cursed his luck out in the open mountainous scrubland. He was a tall, lanky figure, never quite filling into his 183cm tall, long-limbed frame. He wore long khaki trousers, hiking boots, a light-weight blue jacket, and a sturdy camping backpack made of canvas. He let out a sigh and began to mutter to no one in particular.

"Stupid value saver tours. I can't believe this... show up in Xining cause that web site said Western China was 'The hidden jewel of Asia'. What a load of crap. Go into the tour guide office. Bus tour? Walking tour? Nope. I they just give me a 40 year old map of Central Asia, a walking stick, and a .22 pistol 'for bandits and wolves'. I don't even know how to use the damn thing! Plus these names don't even make sense. 'Chinese Village of Woman Heroes'? 'Valley of Cursed Springs'? What the hell kind of tourist attractions are these!? There goes my vacation... I spent five years racking up that kind of leave!" he whined, holding his hands against his head, knocking his glasses askew and mussing his short black hair.

Exhausted, Tooru spied, then sat on a moss covered boulder just off the road, or rather what narrow stretch of beaten path not much wider than a donkey passed for a road. He reached into his aluminum and canvas backpack and grabbed a canteen of water and, before opening, hesitated and, reached into a different pocket and took out a flask and opened it instead. He took a large swig of American whisky, crisp and clean as it went down and, with a sigh of exhaustion and relief, began to take stock of how he had ended up here.

Tooru, admittedly had a pretty good, if time-intensive, job. He worked as editor and staff writer to several fashion and beauty magazines for a publishing company. He hadn't exactly been taken with the topics in question. He had majored in art and graphic design in college and when he started at the publisher nearly a decade ago he was aiming to work for one of the well-known art journals or architecture magazines the company published.

However, as an intern, he had been given a chance to advance both in terms of responsibility and, more importantly,income and job security. The caveat was that the magazines that needed him were Cham-Cham, a fashion magazine aimed at high schoolers and college-aged women, Snap! A street-fashion and celebrity magazine aimed at junior high and high school students, and Nunnu, a fashion and lifestyle magazine aimed for women in their 20s and early thirties, particularly the the OL-set.

At the time, it wasn't an easy change, writing about Marc Jacobs or Junya Watanabe instead of Christo and Jean-Claude or Takashi Murakami, but he had handled it with a certain amount of grace and a lot of background research during his spare time. He had slowly worked up the ladder as a photo-editor and staff writer at Cham-Cham and, later, when the three magazines began to be published by the same staff due to decreases in circulation, he avoided the rash of layoffs and rose into the editing ranks to his present position. The work needed to get there though, had put a strain on his social life and even if, in the back of his mind, there had been the initial prospect of being surrounded by pretty women, the reality was he was too busy and, more importantly, too intimidated, to ask any of the single ones out.

There was also another complication as far as his love life went. He had tried rationalizing it in so many ways. He was tweedy or nerdy or too artsy or too much of a workaholic. But the bottom line was this: it seemed as if most people who met him thought he was gay. Not that there was anything wrong with that and in both college and his line of work he had met and befriended plenty of gay men and women, but he wasn't one of them. Not that'd you know from the times he'd been hit on by men at work-related events, on the train, even at regular bars when he was trying to talk to women! He didn't know what it was about him that sent the wrong signals. Even before he landed into his line of work, which didn't help his image much, people simply assumed the wrong things about him and it took more far more convincing than should be necessary to disabuse them of that first impression.

Mentally, Tooru began to go down a well-traveled checklist. Granted, he conceded, he dressed well, kept fit, if not exactly muscular, moisturized, and used product in his hair. But, he rationalized, he had bad acne as a teenager and he didn't want to turn into a dark, leathery skinned middle-aged man like his father had. He also had suffered from dandruff so he was sensitive about making sure his hair was healthy. He wore nice clothes that fit his tall, lean frame, but they were just stuff he found off the rack at H&M or Uniqlo. His glasses were designer, but they weren't particularly expensive, just suitable for his face. He spent money on his haircuts, but the short, slightly spiked black hair framed his oval face and glasses well. He didn't think they were remarkable other than he made sure they suited him well. Yet, he had, against his will or his intentions, fallen into the stereotype of a herbivore man.

The other mystery was that his mannerisms weren't effeminate, at least he thought. He was hardly macho, but Tooru figured that he exuded a stoicism and rationality that made up for it. He didn't lisp or gesticulate when he spoke and his paranoia over it tended to make him seem more clumsy or robotic than anything else. He never used any particularly feminine forms of speech, but was polite to a fault. Most of his friends were women, but that was because he didn't really have friends outside of work and, given the topics of the magazines he edited, the only other guy who worked there was a staff writer who'd always complain that he'd rather be writing about cars and motorcycles, neither of which never particularly piqued Tooru's interest.

He had an eye for color and contour and composition, but he was an artist and designer, after all. Even if his day job was editing, he spent many nights and weekends on patterns, designs for t-shirts and prints, and oil paintings at home. He recalled with the clarity of a gunshot the moment, back in his life drawing class in college, when people noticed his discomfort (which was due to nervousness over hiding his arousal) caused by the female models, people assumed he was either disgusted by the sight of a naked woman or, worse, was somehow jealous of them! No amount of explanation otherwise had really fixed that misunderstanding and, for the rest of his time in college, he never really talked to women on a romantic level outside of the occasional mixers he was dragged to. Three years ago, his only girlfriend, Shoko Takeda, had left him after three months because she needed, "someone more aggressive and passionate."

After that, outside of a few one night stands, Tooru never had much of a love life. He threw himself into his work, his art, and his cat, but felt empty inside. Part of the reason he finally cashed in his vacation time to go to China was to clear his head and figure out who he was and what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He liked his job, but the routine and the loneliness outside of work had begun taking its toll and, after the Fall lineup issues had gone to the printers just before O-bon, he fled to China to do some thinking. Of course, he thought the contemplation would have been on an air-conditioned tour bus or, at the least, with a guide who knew where the hell he was going.

Which led to the present situation. He was lost in Western China, with a map that still listed the USSR as a country and was dotted with landmarks that sounded straight out of a fairy tale. His grasp of the language was a phrasebook and a worn Lonely Planet guide he bought used. After taking another healthy swig from his flask, he stood up and began walking down the path before him, which slowly sloped upwards as he made his way towards the northeast.

Tooru looked at the map once more, talking to himself, "Okay, I guess that over there is..." he looked at a particularly high and intimidating mountain, " 'Phoenix Mountain'?"

Tooru began walking as his attention remained focused on the map. Out of the corner of his eye, it appeared to Tooru that he was in some sort of clearing with a bamboo forest around him,

"Okay so if that's Phoenix Mountain that means the 'Village of Women Heroes'..." he laughed to himself, "What like Greek Amazons or something? Well, maybe it'd worth my while to stop there if that was the case. Anyways, it's about 40 kilometers to the east, which means I'm somewhere in..." He took a step forward.

"Customer sir, wait!" a man's voice called out, panicked.

"What?" Tooru turned around quickly to see the origin of the voice, but the ground under his left foot gave away and he fell, falling into a pool of water. Tooru was weighed down by his pack but was able to orient himself and he breached the surface. A middle-aged man, in an old PLA uniform and a young woman in a pink and purple silk top and white capri pants were at the edge of the pond he had fallen into. The girl held Tooru's walking stick outwards towards him and Tooru used it to climb out of the pool. He was disoriented and sat to the ground in a heap.

The motion of sitting down felt strange. He felt a slight pain from the sudden jerkiness of the motion. it was strange because it came from his chest. Second, he noted his clothes felt looser, his pants in particular, feeling like they were hanging from his hips rather than his waist.

"Nǐ hái hǎo ma? Are you okay, Customer, sir?" The young woman asked in Chinese, then in simple Japanese.

"Uh, y- yeah. I'm a little shaken up but..." Tooru blinked. His voice sounded all wrong. "Did I swallow some water the wrong way?" he thought. He cleared his throat, but even that noise felt all wrong.

"What's going on? Who are you? What's-" Tooru finally took in the alto voice that emanated from his throat and stopped speaking. He didn't like this, whatever it was.

The young woman pulled out a mirror, but held the reflective surface towards her chest. She spoke quietly, but reassuringly.

"Okay, customer. I need you to relax. My name is Plum. You're in Zhòuquánxiāng or, in Japanese, Jusenkyo, the Valley of Cursed Springs. Each of these springs holds magic that curses anyone to fall there to take on the form of whatever or whoever drowned in them. As my Dad here would say," she waved her head towards the man next to her, "it 'very tragic story'."

"You gotta be kidd-" Tooru's incredulity had made him open his fool mouth and, as Plum turned the mirror to face him, he just as quickly shut up, whatever words he planned to say disappeared like sand against the tide of the visual and tactile information he was taking in.

Plum spoke again, with a maternal gentility and evenness borne from practice,"It's reversible. Hot water will make you normal, though cold water will change you again. You've specifically fallen into Nyaniichuan: The Spring of Drowned Girl."

Tooru was transfixed by the reflection in the mirror and stared blankly for nearly a full minute before blinking. A young woman in her late 20s or so stared back. Her eyes were a light hazel rather than his dark brown eyes and her hair was a shocking silver compared to his flat black hair. Tooru put a hand to his now diamond-shaped face, hoping it was all somehow a trick until he noted the long, tapering fingers brush his now full, pouty lips.

"This... this can't be! It's not fair! I mean... goddammit!" Tooru yelled, falling over, holding herself up by the hands, and taking deep, long breaths.

Plum continued, "I understand this is very upsetting to you, but I need you to put it into perspective. Some of the other springs here are much much worse than Nyaniichuan. You could have ended up as a horse, or piglet, or a demon. There will be some social issues to overcome, but my father and I have faith you will find your way."

Tooru looked up incredulously, "How do you know!? Are you cursed too?"

Plum shook her head and replied solemnly, "No, but we know just about everyone who has. Many curse victims have gone on to lead meaningful lives. I know some of those people quite well. Those who have your particular affliction, have especially succeeded, despite the apparent drawbacks."

Tooru looked up weakly, "But I, I have a job! And a life back in Tokyo. My parents, I... I can't- I... This was supposed to be my vacation!"

The middle-aged man finally spoke, flustered, "Aiya! What is it with Japanese and Jusenkyo!? Here." The man knelt down and helped Tooru stand, supporting her as she steadied herself. He reached into his pocket and handed her a white slip of paper.

"A business card?" Tooru asked and she took it from him.

"Give him a call. I have feeling you going to need advice," the man said in a didactic tone of voice.

Tooru slowly read aloud the text on the card, "Jusenkyo Support Center... Ranma Saotome... Tokyo?"

Plum nodded, "Yes, customer sir. My father and I decided to start it 10 years ago. Mr. Saotome is our Liaison for the Tokyo Office. They're meant to be a resource for cursed people who need guidance on how to go about their lives back in their home countries. We've established Jusenkyo Support Centers in 14 countries, but, for some reason, the Japanese ones have the largest membership."

Tooru dumbly nodded as he took in bits and pieces of the young woman's explanation. She blindly followed the man and Plum back to a small cottage away from the springs. The man gave him a large cup filled with warm water. He poured it over his head as Plum instructed and felt himself return to normal.

Tooru let out a breath, "Thank goodness. I think I was gonna lose it if I couldn't change back. I mean, what will people say?"

His momentary calm was quickly replaced with the sudden resurgance of panic, "Jeez, what will they say anyways!? What am I going to do?"

He fell back down onto a wooden chair by a small dining table. the numbness brought on by shock was beginning to wear off and he was unsure how to proceed. He looked at his hands, thinking of the contrast of what he saw and what had been there not five minutes before. He noted his vision blurring again and, after a beat, realized his glasses were stained with tears. He slowly removed them from his face and began rubbing the lenses with a wrung-out portion of shirt.

He shook his head, thinking to himself, "I'm not going to feel sorry for myself. I did this to myself and I need to deal with it. I've got to stay calm. Think."

Tooru was silent for a while before he softly spoke, "Y-you say there are others? Who change into weirder things?"

"Oh yeah!" the middle-aged man said in a conversational tone as he eased into a second chair opposite Tooru, "There a man who live in nearby village. He turn into huge monster. Bull with crane wings and tentacles. He even like it, too."

"What!?" Tooru replied, jaw once more agape. The older man smiled warmly, amused at the antics of the alternately collected and agitated young man before him.

"He usually harmless. Usually."

"Huh," Tooru replied, regaining some semblance of countenance as he put his glasses back on, "I guess... compared to that, what I got is easy peasy, huh?"

The older man shook his head, "Well I no think it so easy, but I have to ask you," he eyed Tooru warily, "You sure you not fall on Nyaniichuan on purpose? I have Google Alerts you know. Special dispensation from government to keep track of Jusenkyo talk online. I get many foreign guests coming to find Nyaniichuan and Nanniichuan to get changed on purpose! Big pain!"

Tooru looked shocked, "On purpose?"

The guide elaborated, "You know, born boy, want be girl. Born girl, want be boy. Jusenkyo cheaper and easier than doctors."

Tooru's eyes widened in horror as the memory of college came back like a sledgehammer, "No! It wasn't on purpose! I'm a normal man! I'm not a freak!"

The man shook his head, laughing deeply, which further perturbed Tooru, "Oh, you no more freak than they! They only fixing what wrong outside. Inside okay. You make mistake, have new outside, now need fix self inside!"

"Fix inside? I don't understand," his voice grew petulant, "There's nothing that needs fixing, inside or otherwise! I just have to avoid being touched by cold water and I can still be normal right?" Tooru asked.

Plum replied, as she sat down on a small stool, "It's not exactly practical, now is it? And besides, no one's proven it's the curse that does it, but you'd be surprised how easily water finds a Jusenkyo victim. Denial won't get you far, sir. When you return to Japan, I would contact Mr. Saotome. He'll explain better."

Tooru nodded as he sat in the cottage with the two guides. He felt his heart get pulled in different directions. One of the things he assumed to be constant and taken for granted was taken away from him. "But it was only some of the time," he reasoned, "though it can happen almost anytime. A spilled drink, a burst pipe, hell going to the beach is going to be a godforsaken nightmare!"

He grabbed his head as he thought about his family, "Oh god, mom and dad are not going to be happy about this. Dad'll probably blame me for it too. Well it is my fault, I suppose but... and I know Amane's gonna find this real goddamn hilarious."

Tooru spoke quietly, more to himself than the people around him, "Okay. I'm scared, angry, all messed up inside, but I'm an adult. I can get through this," He looked up at the young woman and her father and asked, "I have two questions."

Plum and her father nodded as he continued.

"One," he raised a finger, "there's no cure, is there?"

The two guides shook their heads.

"I thought so," he nodded before raising a second finger.

"Two, do you have anything to drink? I have a little whiskey left, but I need to get good and drunk before I go home."

Plum blinked at this, but her father quietly stood and walked over to a small shelf and brought out a large white bottle and three glasses.

"Baijiu. I make it to sell to Nujiezu and other villages. Strongest drink west of Chengdu," he quietly said, a wry smile appearing on his face.

The Guide poured small draughts of the clear liquid into each glass, though one glass easily had double the amount of the other two.

Tooru was both terrified and relieved when he saw that it was the overburdened glass being pushed towards him. He looked at the sloshing liquid, which smelled redolent of gasoline and change, and took a breath. He raised the glass at Plum and the Guide.

"To the worst day of my life!" he said with gusto and knocked back the glass.

While the trip back to Beijing was relatively smooth, leaving China was something of a nightmare as Plum's words proved annoyingly accurate. An errant water bottle by an clumsy American tourist in line behind him created something of a commotion as Chinese Airport Security led the suddenly female Tooru to a small, windowless room. Tooru's hungover self-pity had immediately sobered into panic until a man in a business suit entered. He held in his hands two styrofoam cups of differing sizes and set them down on the small table before Tooru.

"Nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma? Hangug-eo? Japanese?"

"Yes, Japanese" Tooru replied. She picked up the larger styrofoam container which seemed to contain only hot water, "Is it okay if I use it?"

The man nodded and Tooru reverted to his original form.

The man's calculated coolness broke momentarily, "Gods, I've never seen in it person before. Does it hurt?"

"Only my dignity," Tooru cooly replied as he began to fondly remember the turpentine like flavor of the Guide's home-distilled baijiu.

The man continued, "Well, be that as it may, there are some things you'll have take care of."

The man briefly left the room and came back with a small stack of papers. placing them on the desk, he handed Tooru a pen and said, "You'll need to fill out these forms before you can leave. The Chinese government likes to keep track of individuals who make contact with that place. Personally, you seem harmless enough, but regulations and all that. I'm sure your home country will also have some procedures."

The man walked back to the entrance, turned and face Tooru and said, "Well then, best of luck," before closing the door behind him.

Tooru was dumbfounded and sat for a few minutes wondering what had happened.

He balled his hands into fists and took a deep breath, but paused, only to let out a defeated sigh as he turned to the small table and, grabbing a pen, prepared to deal with the capstone and the final straw on what was, objectively, the worst vacation of his life: paperwork.


Tooru shrugged, his palms upturned as he concluded, "So yeah, got home from Narita at about 1AM last night and scrambled to get here by 8:30 which, given the rain, was nothing short of a miracle. Except for the fact that now rain of all things is my sworn enemy."

Mari looked Tooru, unsure how to react. She hesitantly spoke, "That's... that's unbelievable. It's staggering. It, it's just toomuch and yet..."

Tooru put his head back on his desk and groaned "I know. Just telling it makes me want to curl up in a corner and drink myself to oblivion. Again. But…" he sat up again, fixing his glasses, "I'm trying to be measured in my reaction. There's no point in whining about it, since I'm going to be like this the... rest of my life," Tooru replied, forcing the last phrase out with a breath.

Mari walked around the desk and gave Tooru a light hug, "It doesn't mean you can't feel a little bad about it. I don't really understand what you're going through, but.." she paused, putting a finger to her lips in thought. With a sure nod, she said, "If you need help or want to talk about it some more, I'm always around! We're all here for you chief. Even Chief Editor Nagano will support you!"

Tooru looked up to see the ever-present smile which seemed to define the woman as much as the hair. He shook his head and stifled a laugh. "How can anyone be this unfailingly positive?" he thought to himself.

"You're without the doubt, the most upbeat person I know," he said with a tired smile on his face, "Don't ever change."

Mari giggled, "You know, I think... maybe you should contact that Saotome person. It'd do you good to meet people who are going through the same thing."

"Yeah... I'm thinking about it," Tooru said, picking up the business card from his desk and showing it to her.

"I also think..." Mari said hesitantly, "That what the guides told you was right. It could be worse. And I mean, in some ways, maybe it's for the best."

"Really, Mari?" Tooru asked dubiously, "How could this be anything but a disaster?"

Mari replied with a wink, "Well, I mean, for one, the boys won't be able to keep their hands off of you!"

Tooru slapped his forehead in irritation, "Mari-chan, don't even kid around about that! Remember that time when I ran into you outside of work? When I was coming back from the gym to see you in line in front of Animate buying an otome game and you introduced me to your fujoshi friends as 'the guy I told you about who looks like Luva from Angelique'? And then they suggested 'shipping me with Oscar'? You know damn well I'm not like that!"

Mari gave Tooru a look of mock repentance, "Aw, Tooru-kun. I was only teasing. You have to admit, though. From now on, any girl you meet is gonna be jealous of you."

Tooru raised an eyebrow, "How so?"

Mari's eyes widened, "Have you looked at yourself in a mirror? You're beautiful! I mean, you're pretty handsome normally, in kind of a dull, off the rack, kind of way, but when you came in this morning, I thought I was going to have to steer you to that talent agency office on the 7th floor."

Tooru quickly swiveled his chair away from Mari and began aimlessly clicking his mouse while speaking, "Just perfect. I'm almost thirty and, apparently, I'm better looking as a girl. There goes my non-existent love life."

Tooru dropped his head on his desk again, mumbling through the particleboard and veneer desktop. " Look Mari, I need about a half hour to sulk alone before I can get to work. I have to check on the columnists and freelancers' progress. Maybe we can talk later?"

"Okay, let's get together at Vinvin tonight. See you later, Tooru-ku... Tooru." Mari said, bounding out of the office.

"Oh, Mari?"

"Yes?" Mari asked as she ducked her head back into the office.

Tooru looked at her earnestly, "Thanks. For being insufferably positive, I suppose. I owe you a drink." He saw Mari skip away and looked out his door for a few seconds before calmly stating.

"And the rest of you, I expect a report on where we're at for November in my inbox by 6 o'clock."

He heard the shuffling of feet as he rested his head on his desk.


With the rain still going strong by the time mid-afternoon hit, Tooru spent lunch at the Lobby commissary, bemoaning the sub-convenience store level lunch boxes sold, but wary leaving the building unnecessarily. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed the number on the business card given to him by the Jusenkyo Guide. After a few rings the other line picked up.

"Afternoon, Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts," a young woman's voice answered.

"Um… I'm looking for a Mr. Ranma Saotome."

"Yep, speaking. What can I do for you?"

Tooru furrowed his brow briefly, "Huh? Oh, right. My name is Tooru Fuki. I'm calling because I..."

"Interested in studying martial arts?" the voice asked expectantly.

"Not really. I, uh… let's just say I got back from China last night."

"Oh... OH! I see. Animal, human, or supernatural?"

Tooru furrowed his brow, "Excuse me?"

"Animal, human, or supernatural?" The voice repeated with a hint of exasperation.

"Um... human? I guess?" Tooru nervously replied.

"Got it. You in cursed form now?"

"Of course not!" Tooru yelled, attracting the attention of few people in line before Tooru, blushing, quieted down, "I'm at work. I already had an embarrassing encounter this morning because of the typhoon. I don't exactly plan to parade around as a... a..." Tooru forced himself to say the word, but couldn't, "a Nyaniichuan victim."

"Oh, that all? Same thing happened ta me when I was sixteen. Don't worry, it ain't so bad. I got over it eventually," the voice on the other line giggled, which only made Tooru erupt in pent up anger.

"Isn't so bad? It's been nothing but one complication after another! I got delayed at the airport for six hours while China made sure I wasn;t a 'security risk'!"

"Ah, yeah... That's an issue these days..." Ranma said, trailing off.

"What am I going to tell my parents? Everyone at work is already teasing me mercilessly over it. Hell, I'm never going to find a girlfriend. My life is ruined!" Tooru flailed his arm in frustration, confusing several people around him to move to different tables in the commissary..

"Woah, woah, calm down buddy. Trust me, I've been there. The center can help you out with that. Hell, I can also help you on some of the smaller stuff. Let me get your contact info and I'll send you the details. We meet every other Thursday here in my dojo in Nerima ward, not too far from the station. This is an on week, so you're in luck."

Tooru's brow furrowed, "Meet? What do you mean?"

"Didn't Plum tell ya? You're supposed ta get a membership discount if you mention Plum and her Pops."

"Huh?"

"Just messing with ya, man," Ranma said, chuckiling.

"Hey," Tooru countered, "Plum's old man let me drink about three bottles of that rocket fuel he makes out back, so for all I know, Jusenkyo could be one big pyramid scheme. I barely remembered where I got your business card from the next day."

Tooru heard a loud whistle from the other end before the woman replied, "Oh man, you must have been seriously losin' it if the Guide gave you his private stock. Kicks like an angry mule, but nothin's better for forgettin' your troubles."

"Yeah, until the paperwork," Tooru grumbled.

"Hah! Yeah, that's new, too. Well, short of it is, we run a not-for-profit support group for other Jusenkyo victims like us. We use it as a way to voice concerns, meet other people who are going through similar things, and offer resources for people who need it. Ya know, counseling, workplace interventions, occupational therapy, though that's usually for people who turn into things without thumbs. Most of the time, it's a good excuse to meet people and shoot the shit over food and drinks."

Tooru considered it as he poked at a pickled plum in his lunchbox, "Nerima, huh? I can handle that, assuming my boss lets me leave a little early."

"Excellent. I'll see you on Thursday, Fuki," the woman on the other line cheerfully replied.

"Thank you, um, Mr. Saotome."


That evening, Tooru braved through the ongoing storm until finally reaching the local watering hole, VinVin. VinVin was one of Chiyoda Ward's more recent and, thus, more trendy bars. It combined the aesthetics of an upscale Italian wine bar with a traditional izakaya. Many of the typical izakaya offerings like yakitori, beer, and whisky were present along with traditional Venetian Cicchetti like castraure, fopeti, and a wide variety of wines.

Tooru was wiping the rain from her hair and shoulders as she scanned the bar for her co-workers.

"Over here, Tooru-chan!" Mari's voice could be heard in the din of the bar. She sat in a corner table along with Yuriko and Erica. Tooru slapped her forehead and, head hung low, sat at the table.

Tooru sighed and said, "Mari-chan don't... don't call me that. This is weird enough as it is."

Erica and Yuriko began tittering in laughter as they whispered to one another. Tooru sighed as he stared at the petite, curvy brunette with long curly brown hair smile up at the taller, lithe American woman with shoulder length auburn hair. Their relationship was something of an open secret and Tooru wondered how anyone could be so close when they worked in the same office on almost the exact same job.

"So... business as usual for you two then? How's next month's Nunnu coming?" Tooru asked.

"Going well, chief!" Yuriko said.

"The wireframe layout for the feature is all set. Just waiting for the text content to come in," Erica said.

"Any of those photos I took going to be useful?"

"Hmm... there were a few, but I'm still touching them up," Yuriko said.

"Touching them up? They're street fashion photos," Tooru replied, somewhat confused.

"Well, let's just say you're not much of a photographer, Chief," Erica replied.

Tooru sighed and ordered a Carlsberg lager.

"Are you going to change back, Tooru-kun?" Mari asked.

"I want to, but... It's been raining all day. What's the point?" Tooru slumped in her chair.

"Oh, and here I was coming to tell Ishida off for such a preposterous story, but I had to hand it to her. You are rather striking like that, Fuki-kun," an elegant, almost regal voice emanated from above Tooru.

Tooru looked up and saw a tall woman in her mid-to-late thirties with black hair done up in a French braid. Her skirtsuit was not only fitted snugly to her feminine frame, but also screamed high fashion and an equally high expense. She befitted a womanly elegance that bespoke a maturity beyond the other women at the table, but it could hardly be called matronly, particularly given the bold colors, yet light application, of makeup she used to highlight her cheekbones and expressive, if small, eyes. Her expression betrayed only bemusement as she looked down at Tooru.

Tooru's eyes widened and she stood up straight, panic underlying her voice, "Ch-ch-ch-chief Editor Nagano! G-g-g-good evening!"

Chief Editor Nagano lightly touched Tooru's chin and raised it up, tiling it slightly left, then right.

"Hmmm. I have half a mind to put you in Nunnu's Spring fashion collection."

Tooru screamed in horror, "Oh no, please chief! Don't even kid around like that!"

Nagano laughed as she sat down. She waved down a waiter and said, "The J. Rohmer merlot, please."

Tooru sighed as she nursed her beer and groaned, "My life is over isn't it? I only have my job, and now even that'smessed up. At least my cat doesn't make fun of me..."

"Oh, don't be so dramatic! Honestly, men are overrated anyways," Erica exclaimed, putting an arm across Yuriko's shoulders and drawing her close.

"This was a lucky break as far as I'm concerned, " Yuriko said, dryly.

"Easy for you to say. I'm never going to find a girlfriend when I look like this half the time."

"Right, cause you were doing so well before," the auburn haired woman replied as Yuriko laughed.

Tooru had no response and merely chugged her beer, grumbling the whole time.

"Tooru-kun," Mari asked, "Did you get in contact with that person you mentioned earlier? Mr. Saotome?"

"Huh? Yeah. Apparently they run some kind of support group. I'll be going there Thursday evening, " she turned to her boss, "That is, if it's okay for me to duck out a bit early to get to Nerima Ward on time. I'll make sure the columns for Cham-Cham are all in place by then."

Chief Editor Nagano nodded as the waiter returned with a lightly chilled glass of red wine, "That's sounds acceptable, Fuki-kun. Now, if you'll indulge my curiosity," she swirled the liquid in the bowl of the glass and took a sip before continuing, "I have a few questions about your... condition."

Tooru slumped her head down, "of course Chief," and grabbed the waiter before he stepped away.

"Double whiskey on the rocks. And keep 'em coming. It's going to be a long night."

このまま消えても構わないなんて
そんな言葉はもっとズルくなってから言えよ
君が泣いてるのに 僕は何もできなかった
心の中じゃこんなに君を守りたいのに

聞こえるかい? 心臓の音 それが命だよ
君の居場所をずっと探しつづけてる 君だけの音

忘れないでくれ愛してること 僕は嘘などついてないよ
君の涙飲みほしたら 信じてくれるかい?
美しく光れあなたの全て こんなヤミの世の中だって
君のこと愛したいんだよ わかってくれるかい?
僕は君と夢を見たいんだ

If you say things like "If you leave me, I won't mind,"
you should use crueler words.
Even though you're crying, I couldn't do anything
Even though I want to protect your heart.

You hear it? The sound of your heart is life, you know.
I'm still searching for your whereabouts, where there's only your sound

Loving you without forgetting, I'm not telling lies or anything
If I swallow up your tears, will you believe me?
Because it's a dark world, your everything is shiny and new
I want to love you. You understand?
I want to dream with you.

Sambomaster - "新しく光れ" ("Shiny and New")


Author Notes:

Before anything else, I want to thank the pre-readers on Fukufics who read a very rough version of this and, especially with Bree R's input, it's a much more polished, and expansive story for it.

This is my attempt at a shoujo/josei comedy series set in, but not at all centered on, the Ranma universe. Expect some martial arts hijinks and cameos here and there, but the focus of the story is Tooru and around his attempts to live and find love in modern Tokyo. My influences (aside from Ranma) are series like Kuragehime, Paradise Kiss, Working!, Ugly Betty, and Love My Life.

I'm also experimenting in scheduled releases. I will attempt a monthly release for this series and, have two more chapters written and a list of content sketched out. There's a lot to mine here, both with the Ranma cast and with Tooru and company. For those wondering, his life does intersect pretty heavily with Ranma's, though our friendly neighborhood martial artist is definitely a supporting character.

Otherwise, things will come as they come, though I'm starting to slowly resolve my plot issues with Yume Bakari Jyanai Shoujo. I also plan to re-write the small first chapter of Hourou Budouka and bring it up to my more recent work.

Character Profiles:

Tooru Fuki (普喜通): 28 years old. Originally from Hiroshima. Editor and writer for several fashion magazines for Bungeisha Publishing. Lives alone with his cat, Chibi. Paints and creates designs he sells as prints or t-shirts in his spare time. Has a younger sister, Amane(遍 or あまね) who is currently in college. Jusenkyo curse victim (Nyaniichuan).

Mari Ishida (石田マリ): 25 years old. Assistant Editor for Bungeisha Publishing. Grew up in Kita Ward in Tokyo. Is cheerful to a fault and the closest thing Tooru has to a best friend. Likes sweets, cats, and cute clothes. Is a closet fujoshi who, to her embarrassment these days, initially became friends with Tooru because he reminded her of a mix between Asato Tsuzuki and Muraki Kazutaka from YaminoMatsuei .

Bungeisha'sFashionDivision:

Chief Editor: Mayumi Nagano (長野真由美)

Editor: Tooru Fuki (普喜通)

Assistant Editor: Mari Ishida (石田マリ)

Layout and Photo Editor: Yuriko Shinonome (東雲百合子)

Graphic and Text Designer: Erica Alejandra Williams (エリカ・アレハンドゥラ・ウィッリアームズ)

Talent Coordinator and Advertising Contact: Chizuru Kushieda (櫛枝千鶴)

Interns : A-ko and B-ko (A子とB子)

A few cultural and lexical notes:

Tooru's name is something of a joke. Fuki Tooru(普喜 通) is made up of the two characters that mean "normal": 普通 and a character that means happy: 喜. Tooru is neither of the two, unfortunately.

Cham-Cham, Snap!, and Nunnu are takeoffs of CanCam, Zipper, and Nonno

Tooru lives in East Ikebukuro, which some otaku will know as the unofficial epicenter of fujoshi (the term usually levied on female otaku which literally means "rotten girl" or 腐女子) subculture. Again, this is something of a joke played at Tooru's expense as well as an excuse to fit in some backstory for his (at times questionable) friendship with Mari.

List of countries and cities which haveJusenkyo support centers:

China (Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Xining)

Singapore

S. Korea (Seoul)

Japan (Tokyo, Osaka)

United States (Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco)

Canada (Toronto, Vancouver)

United Kingdon (London)

Australia (Melbourne)

India (Mumbai, Kolkata)

Indonesia (Jakarta)

Vietnam (Hanoi)

Russia (Moscow)

Brazil (Sao Paulo)

Mexico (Mexico D.F.)

Turkey (Istanbul)

~裏には裏がある