The morning after his harrowing encounter with the Jusenkyo Support Center, Tooru took advantage of the clear, sunny day and went for an early morning run along the narrow residential streets of East Ikebukuro, lined with small two or three story apartment blocks which were beginning to come to life as the early morning light began to shine and warm up the air. Tooru jogged a rough loop around the neighborhood until he reached a public park south of his apartment.

He enjoyed the temperate weather and the early morning air as it whipped past him, leaving Tooru alone with only the quiet of the morning and his thoughts to occupy him.

He had been mulling over his encounters over the last week or so, thinking back to Ranma's admonition.

"It's best ta dive in head first and worry about the consequences as they come."

Tooru shook his head as he internally countered, "What a bunch of irresponsible nonsense. How can you not worry about the consequences? Hell, worrying is what I do best." As he approached the park, he took a big breath and, stretching his long arms over his head, said aloud, "Been too long. I needed that."

He found a water fountain and, carefully and slowly, with the precision of a bomb squad member and the gentle confidence of a snake handler, he gently pushed on the lever and, with a sigh of relief, drank the cool, moderately flowing liquid.

"Hah! I got this! No one's gonna get the best of-" Tooru thought to himself before being interrupted by an errant soccer ball which hit the back of his head, knocking his head into the flow of water.

"Sorry! Are you okay... miss?" A boy around middle school age ran over and stopped when he came across Tooru.

Tooru sighed and muttered, "I've been better." Tooru, with a strong kickflip, launched the ball in the air. Instead of catching it, however, the ball bounced off into the ground just left of Tooru. Flustered, she bent over at the waist, picked up the ball, and tossed it back to the boy.

The boy stared blankly at Tooru almost dropping the ball thrown at him. His face turned a deep shade of red as he spoke, "Uh, thank you, miss... I, uh.." he trailed off and began smiling stupidly.

Tooru was confused until she looked down. She realized the white t-shirt she had put on prior to her run was, after both sweat and an impromptu shower by the drinking fountain, made certain anatomical features, namely her modest chest, rather apparent. Tooru quickly covered her chest, growing red, and shouted angrily, raising a fist.

"Get out of here you little perv!"

The boy took off like a shot, his laughter echoing down the street as Tooru wondered how the hell she was going to make it home, dignity intact.

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

Issue Three: Occupational Therapy and Other Forms of Humiliation

Menkui Ramen was a relic. Its interior design, with ancient lacquered tables, large boilers, and hand-carved wooden signs on the wall advertising the menu, not to mention the low prices, seemed to invoke an otherworldly nostalgia for pre-bubble Japan, particularly in trendy Chiyoda Ward.

Tooru had a sour expression as he took a long slurp from his ramen. Mari turned to him.

"Oh come on, Tooru-kun. I mean I bet you would have done the same thing at his age."

"I'd like to think not, but... still, it's the principle of the thing, little perv." Tooru fumed as he idly played with a piece of boiled egg floating in his soup.

Tooru looked around at the busy, but not overwhelming, crowd inside the restaurant. In one corner, a group of salarymen were quickly slurping down soup while talking shop. Near the front entrance, a gaggle of young OLs practicing office politics. An older man, sitting in the corner of the counter by the vats of hot water and broth, read the paper and occasionally chatted with the proprietor. Waitresses came by to fill drinks and make polite conversation. He looked back at his own meal and the small table he was sharing with his co-worker, who was quickly slurping up noodles with no small amount of satisfaction, gulping them down and uttering a contented sigh. Tooru was amused with the childishness of the whole act, marveling at the seeming contradiction in the focus, clarity, and depth of knowledge she displayed in the office and the easy-going, immature self she had elsewhere.

Mari picked up a gyoza and placed it in her mouth. Still chewing she quickly asked, "So what was he like? Mr. Saotome, I mean?"

Tooru blinked, momentarily thrown by the question as he was eating himself. He wiped his face with a napkin, before tilting his head in thought "Well aside from the fact he has the same affliction..." Tooru hesitated, "Have you ever met someone who seemed like he could be an insufferable asshole, but instead was one of the nicest people you've ever met?"

Mari shook her head, "Unfortunately, I only seem to meet people who are just the former." Mari ate a piece of fish sausage before continuing, "Still, sounds like a keeper to me. Is he single?" Mari asked in a playful voice, raising her eyebrows suggestively.

Tooru responded dryly, "Only in your doujinshi fantasies, Mari. Even if I was that way, he's married with kids."

Mari rolled her eyes as she picked up her chopsticks, "Trust me, Tooru-kun. That doesn't mean anything. You never know, especially if he's like you," she said, pointing the back of her chopsticks at Tooru.

Tooru set his spoon down, irritated, "What do you mean 'like me'? What are you even implying?" Mari began giggling, causing Tooru to groan. He took a breath, then brushed Mari off with a wave of his hand, "You always know how to get a rise out of me. Anyways, even if, he was all lovey dovey with his wife. pretty amazing since they're barely in their thirties and already married for about a decade."

"Aww... how romantic," Mari said, pleasantly surprised.

Tooru shrugged, taking a sip of broth, "I suppose it is... Saotome, though, he's a bundle of contradictions. On the one hand, He's this loud, obnoxious man's man. My dad would love to have a beer with him. On the other hand, he's cuter than most of my old girlfriends. It starts frying your brain if you think about it too long. His wife is a little like that, but backwards, I guess? I think she was the only guy there who about as tall as I am... Ow, my brain. Anyway, he offered to help me out Saturday. Something about 'field training' or something."

Mari laughed a bit then, after popping a gyoza into her mouth, replied, "Wow! I can't wait to meet him!"

Tooru put a hand to his head, feeling pressure around his temples and the beginnings of a headache approaching. "Meet? What are you talking about?"

"Sure you did... that's who you were talking about this morning in the breakroom. You said you were meeting up with someone on Saturday."

"I said no such thing. I... You read my text messages again didn't you?"

Mari twirled a strand of blue hair, "Technically, no."

"But you distracted me long enough to let Yuriko do it, right?" Tooru opened his mouth suddenly, "Ah! That's why you were going on and on about the copy for the winter coats piece for 15 minutes, even though we've already okayed it."

Mari, caught in a lie, twiddled her fingers, "W-well, we wouldn't know anything about you otherwise and you're too much fun to leave alone."

Tooru responded evenly, "It's invasion of privacy, Mari."

Mari countered, saying, "It's not like I do it all the time. Nobody texts you anyway, except that bratty little sister of yours."

"That's not the point!" Tooru replied.

Mari rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, pouting, "Well, okay, I'm sorry. I did want to hang out with you, anyways. Can I tag along with you, Tooru-kun? Please!"

Tooru held his forehead, but nodded, "Okay, okay... jeez, don't act like such a kid. Though I wonder if you only want to go just because 'Tooru-chan' is making an appearance."

Mari looked at Tooru while he returned to drinking spoonfuls of dark, soy-flavored broth.

"Sorry, Tooru" Mari said softly.

"Huh?" Tooru looked up.

Mari clarified, "For looking at your phone. I should know better than to snoop around like a stalker. But you're always so quiet about everything. You're my best friend, you know."

Tooru raised an eyebrow, "Really? Not your fellow fujoshi? What about that online messageboard I see you writing on your phone during lunch breaks or on the train?"

Mari snickered, "Nah, those hikikkomori don't hold a candle to you, even if you sometimes have all the personality and sociability of wet sand."

Tooru nodded, "I'll take that as a compliment. Well, I must say you're not so annoying, even when you're drunkenly singing anime music from the 90s while I sit there figuring out how twisted your childhood must have been."

"Oh, You know you love it when I sing the Fushigi Yuugi opening," Mari countered, giggling as Tooru rolled his eyes dramatically.

"Hey!" Mari said, her disposition suddenly changing, "How do you know about BL Chat? You've been looking at my phone, too!"

Tooru shook his head, "Not on purpose. I can't help that you don't even come up to my collarbone when we're standing. It's easy to see what your looking at when you're on your phone."

Mari nodded in understanding, but blushed as Tooru added, "I'd also consider changing your wallpaper to something other than a some mostly naked anime character."

"It's not some anime character! It's France!" she replied.

"What?"

"Oh, nevermind, Tooru-kun," Mari said huffing as she returned to her soup.


Friday Night, Tooru cursed softly in an annoyed, high-pitched voice.

"Damn it! That's the fifth one today," she muttered as she picked up a pencil, its point broken off.

Tooru sat at a drawing table set up in the space formally labeled on the floor plan of her apartment as a 'Dining Area'. The space was taken up by said table, a small desk with a computer, a metal shelf stocked with with pencils, paper, paints, and brushes, and an easel, folded up and leaning against the shelf, along with a drop cloth.

On a large sheet of thick white paper, Tooru was sketching a phoenix. The questionably mythical creature's wingspan took up most of the paper. Tooru's had a look of fine concentration, cursing as the pencil she was holding once again slipped.

"Stupid hands. I'm all thumbs," she lamented, resharpening the wiped the thin sheen of sweat from her forehead she went back to the meticulously drawn sketch, making thin lines as she began adding details to the phoenix's feathers. Tooru thought upon the creature and the stories she had heard about them on the trip to China. When she was in China, Tooru had the idea of drawing something reminiscent of one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China, such as Journey to the West or Dream of the Red Chamber. Instead, when she made it home, what came to her was half-remembered from the day after her fateful tumble into Jusenkyo.

She recalled the small village in Qinghai province Plum took Tooru to the day after she was cursed. There were, thankfully, more than a few villagers who spoke passable Japanese, in particular an almost grotesquely shriveled old woman who had, until some years back, lived in Tokyo. The village was a bit old-fashioned in some ways, running on mostly diesel generators and well water. However the houses were fairly sturdy, and there was satellite television and internet. If it wasn't for the massive hangover and the fact Plum had all but forced Tooru to come as female, the pastoral homeyness would have made up for the grueling hike the day before.

Tooru distinctly remembered the old woman telling her to count his stars that Plum was a more thorough and communicative guide than her father as she allowed Tooru to lie down on a small bed. The old woman had mentioned, with long slow chuckles, the last Nyaniichuan victim to pass by had caused more than a few headaches involving their byzantine death and marriage laws and her grandchildren in particular. Tooru nodded, not quite understanding the details amidst the confusion of being in a new place, the splitting headache, and the unfamiliar body.

The old woman entertained herself telling Tooru many fantasic-sounding stories while smoking her pipe. Tooru was unsure why so many of the stories in question took place in Tokyo when they were in Western China. She told the hungover Tooru tales of spells, pressure point techniques, and other curses, but it was all muddled until she described the Phoenix Tribe and how the boy turned girl had fought the Phoenix Lord for his life and his fiancée's. The details the old woman gave Tooru of that battle where what inspired her to want to sketch the current drawing. She remembered the story the old woman had told her in the small house she lived in while Tooru was recovering for her alcohol-infused haze.

"The Phoenix Lord Saffron's wings, crimson and orange, like the flame he emerged from spread his wings wide as he bared down on the young man, his staff of flames, the Kinjakan ushering forth fire. The young man braced himself, using the Phoenix lord's other staff, the Gekkaja, it's crescent moon blade defending him by freezing the air around him, holding back the flame... It was almost not enough, but his first betrothed, in an act of love, the herself at the Phoenix Lord, her magically altered body creating a tunnel of cold. The young man, having learned from the wisest and most beautiful of the Amazon elders, meaning myself of course, used the difference to unleash a version of the Dragon Ascension Wave, the Dragon Ice Piercing Thrust rending the wings from the Phoenix Lord's body and destroying the incarnation of Saffron. The young man's victory was timely, as he was able to secure the waters of revival and save his one true love in the nick of time."

"That's some legend, ma'am," Tooru muttered weakly, her eyes closed.

"Legend? Heh heh heh," she cackled, "That happened in the mid 90s. Hashimoto was in office."

"Really? Who was that young man, then?"

"I suspect you'll run into him sooner or later, Tokyoite."

Tooru looked up at the finished wings of the phoenix, wiping her brow once more. She thought about the story and the old woman's words before suddenly dropping his pencil.

"Oh shit, she was talking about Saotome," she said to no one in particular, her senses returning, she cursed herself and picked up the pencil.

As if on cue, Tooru's phone vibrated twice. Picking it up, she saw a text from the Phoenix Slayer in question:

See ya tomorrow Fuki! ^_^

Harajuku Station. 11AM

Wear workout clothes.

Tooru forwarded the message to Mari and replied:

What I have doesn't exactly fit, as I learned this morning.

A minute later, she received a response.

Do the best ya can. We'll shop for the rest. ^_-

Tooru smirked, "Mari should enjoy that part," she muttered to herself as she typed:

Will do, Phoenix Slayer.

A few moments later Ranma replied.

Where d'ja hear 'bout that?

Tooru chuckled to herself and typed:

A little old lady told me.

Tooru sauntered down the short hallway towards his bedroom when whe stooped at the kitchenette. She pondered making tea before she felt her phone buzz in her pocket.

You spendin' time gettin' to know yourself (lol)?

Tooru frowned at the message. She vaguely recalled the recommendation by the martial artist to spend some time just sitting around getting used to the cursed form in a safe space, which is was the principal reason she had spent the better part of the evening sketching in the unfamiliar body, despite the more slender fingers making holding on to her drafting pencils and crow quill pen very difficult, wincing each time she dropped them. . The pamphlets that Ranma's wife gave him detailed things to note such as changes in height, visual acuity, sense of smell, shedding/molting of feathers or scales, and the importance of noting places and things inaccessible without the use of opposable digits.

I'm walking around my apartment in house slippers currently two sizes too big for me if that helps.

Tooru walked towards her room noting the length of her stride, and how her pelvis affected the sway if her body.

Tooru muttered to herself, "This is sort of like this morning, though I was too aggravated at the time to pay it any mind. Wonder if that's why I almost tripped on that bit of sidewalk."

As she entered her bedroom, she closed the door behind her and sat the phone down on a small desk.

"Maybe I'll write a list of differences. That should satisfy Saotome," Tooru thought. She sat at the desk and took some quick notes. Finally she set down the pencil and stretched her arms.

Tooru shook his head as he set the phone on his desk and stretched her arms, "Ugh that's enough, I'm taking a shower and passing out."

Standing, Tooru undressed, throwing her clothes clothes in a small hamper. She then grabbed a white cloth robe and towel from a hook behind the bedroom door. Hoisting the items on her shoulder she looked at the full length mirror which was hung behind the more closed door.

Objectively, Tooru mused, the girl he was looking at wasn't necessarily his type. She was tall, her face delicate, but definitely androgynous. The short hair was a factor, but the build, which was thin and on the boyish side gave her a quality that was reminiscent of Tilda Swinton or Jenny Shimizu.

Compared to that, the women he went for were rather different. He had usually tried (and failed) to date very conventionally feminine girls who were short, petite, and curvy. Tooru recalled his first girlfriend in high school, Yuka, who was practically a Yamato Nadeshiko in training. Then there was Manami in art school, who had a very riot grrrl style, which was tough, but yet evoked an almost blinding cuteness along with the ripped jeans, leather jackets, and eyebrow piercings.

His most recent girlfriend, Sachiko, was an OL from the Hobbies and Interests Division who was sizing Tooru up as marriage material and, evidently, found him lacking. Tooru was relieved, in a way. While he was happy he was finally in a relationship, he had a sneaking suspicion if he ran into her in five years, she'd be a full-fledged Education Mama and a total bore.

Tooru studied her reflection again, paying particular attention to her face. She thought to herself, "Actually, if I dyed my hair red and had a couple of piercings on my face, I'd look a lot like..."

"Hey bro! You home?" a voice called out from the outside the apartment. Almost immediately afterwards, there was a jostling nose emanating from outside Tooru's bedroom as the front door creaked open.

"Amane! Shit!" Tooru yelled to herself as she ran across her apartment and and jumped into the bathroom. Not wasting a second. she turned on the hot water head turning back to himself in seconds. He turned off the tap and hastily put on his robe.

"Oh, Amane! Uh, hey, you didn't call or anything," Tooru sputtered as he walked out of the bathroom, his hair wet on one side and dry on the other, fumbling tying the knot on the belt of his robe. Amane closed the door, looking at Tooru strangely.

Tooru realized his assessment of his female form was more spot on then he had first guessed. Amane was a hair taller than Tooru's female form's 175 cm in height and proportioned similarly, though Amane was more pear-shaped and less androgynous in appearance than Tooru. She was dressed in ripped black denim jeans and a maroon hoodie, along with calf-length boots with an intimidating number of buckles and spikes.

The other main differences in features were the crop of short, asymmetrically cut, dyed-red hair and the various piercings she had: several on her ears, a barbell piercing on one eyebrow, and a Monroe piercing on her upper lip. The final key difference was that, compared to Tooru at the moment, she was stinking drunk.

Amane said, loudly slurring her words, "Hey bro! Howzit... Why're you takin' a shower s' late?"

Tooru blinked, unsure what to make of her, "Actually I was getting ready to go to bed before you came in. I got distracted... with work! Y-yeah. Was drawing and lost track of time," he explained, laughing nervously afterwards.

Amane looked up at Tooru with one squinting as she took a whiskey-soaked measure of her brother, "Hmmm... Figures it'd be something' dorky. Almost thought you finally got a girlfriend," Tooru was momentarily bug-eyed, but relaxed when Amane added, emphatically poking Tooru's ribs, "but then I remembered it's you we're talking about."

"Gee. Thanks, dearest sister," Tooru replied flatly, closing the door behind her.

Amane dropped her purse and slowly took off a pair of high leather boots. "Anyway, sorry 'bout bargin' in. Kinda late and I missed the last train."

"Couldn't shack up with your latest boyfriend, huh?" Tooru teased as he walked to his kitchen to make tea.

Amane walked into the living room of the apartment and slumped onto a small leather couch, lied down, and muttered "In between boytoys if you gotta be nosy. Too busy workin' on stuff for the lab for much ofa love life."

Tooru nodded as he poured the water into a teapot, "I see. What about the other Devas? Thought you'd be out with them."

Amane yelled, her voice only partially muffled by the cushions, "The Ichigo Devas are done, bro! Band's his'try!" she said, slurring the words at the end.

Tooru walked towards Amane, holding the teapot and two mugs. He set the items down on a coffee table at sat at a small chair next to the couch Amane was laying down on. He poured the tea into a mug and said, "So that's what this is about... You and Chie have been uneasy since she moved up here to join you." Amane shakily sat up and Tooru handed her a mug of tea.

"Well... she, Ugh! She thinks I'm not serious about the band 'cause I gotta day job. She's been on my case, actin' all 'holier than thou'! I got pissed and then she- I can't fuckin believe it! UGH!"

"Easy there! I have neighbors, you know," Tooru gently chided her

Amane took a sip of tea and set the mug down on the coffee table. Tooru added, "I'm sorry to hear it, sis. You two were really good friends." Amane froze upon hearing the word 'friends'.

She sat quietly for a moment before continuing, "Anyways, we had it out at the club and I just stumbled out. Took a cab to your place. From Shibuya's it's cheaper than all the way back to Chiba... Damn those bastards movin' our lab to the Noda Campus. I miss livin' in Iidabashi. Can barely get a decent drink over in fuckin' Unga."

Tooru reacher over the table and patted her shoulder, "You shouldn't be drinking that much anyways. It's bad for you."

Amane rolled her eyes. "Can it, grandma. I'm 24, jeez."

Tooru stood and walked towards his bedroom, "You're still my kid sister. Anyway, don't throw up on my couch. I'll get you some extra sheets from my linen closet."

"...Thanks, bro," Amane said as she once again lied down on the couch and closed her eyes. When Tooru returned with a blanket and quilt, he found her breathing softly and evenly. He tucked her in and, with a sigh of self-satisfaction, took and shower and went to bed.

The next Morning, Tooru quietly walked into his living room. He took two slices of bread and a jar of jam from the fridge and placed them on a plate by the sink. He wrote on a small notepad:

Going out to run errands.

Eat something before you go home.

Call me next time you decide to barge in, please

-Tooru

Tooru turned and glanced at his couch, he saw Amane, laying on her back asleep with her mouth open, snoring softly. The covers he had given her were now mostly on the hardwood floor, only covering her ankles. He snickered at the sight as he gathered his belongings in a messenger bag and left the apartment.


Just outside of Harajuku Station, Tooru shuffled uncomfortably towards an area next to station less choked with pedestrians. Aside from the fact she found the rather unique architecture of the station more unsettling than cute, with its architectural inspiration in English countryside cottages rather than urban Japan skyscrapers. The sheer number of people exiting the station as well made Tooru wish she could have just stayed in her apartment.

Her ill-fitting wardrobe didn't help matters., She wore the smallest pair of jeans she owned, a somewhat distressed pair from college which had been left in the dryer too long. They had been difficult to maneuver over her hips and flopped pathetically around her waist. The sweater she wore wasn't much better, feeling more itchy than she recalled and she resorted to wearing several shirts in order to make certain... elements of her anatomy less visible in the relatively cool weather of the morning.

Musing at the oddity upon oddity that was her life, she felt a hand on her back. Looking back was the blue-haired friend, looking as energetic as a squirrel on some form of illegal amphetamine. She was dressed in a tastefully cut, but otherwise conservative ochre jersey dress and a cream colored cardigan sweater. On her head was a white beret that seem to defy gravity as it leaned to one side of her head.

Mari smiled as she said, "Hi Tooru-kun! How are you doing this morning?"

Tooru shrugged, "I've been better. I'm kind of cold though."

"So I see," Mari replied coyly, looking up at her chest. Tooru looked down and sighed in exasperation.

"Dammit. I wore like three shirts under this sweater. Why is it so cold? It's 15 degrees out, not 5!"

"Yep. You're gonna get that, though," another familiar voice replied matter of factly, tapping Tooru's other shoulder. Tooru looked to his left and saw the red-haired martial arts sensei and, for today at least, female-body occupational therapist. She was clad in black sweatpants and a large, fluffy-looking grey sweater. She wore a simple black headband and had her hair tied up in a ponytail rather than the pigtail worn at the meeting the other day.

Tooru smiled as she looked upon her companions for the day. Ranma and Mari were almost exactly the same height and, differences in age aside, their figures were similarly shaped and their faces were close enough in appearance that the two of them looked like they could have been long lost sisters, the tomboyish red-haired eldest daughter and the blue haired girly-girl youngest.

Mari bowed quickly, "Ah, nice too meet you Mr. Saotome. Or are you his wife?" Mari asked, smiling as she coyly 'corrected' herself.

Ranma replied, "Nah, wife's over in Ginza with her well to do sister," Ranma looked over at Tooru, "Friend a yours?"

Tooru shrugged and smiled wryly, "Of a sorts. More of a pest, if you ask me."

"Tooru!" Mari chided, hitting the tall woman lightly with her handbag, "Don't be a meanie. We're best friends!"

Tooru amended, "This is Mari Ishida. We're co-workers. She means well, but since I came back from China, she's been acting more immature than usual. Ever since she's known about the curse, she's been bursting at the seams to 'take me shopping'."

Ranma nodded in understanding, "Ah-ha! That's why her aura feels like that. She looks like a kid in a candy store, if ya ask me."

Tooru chuckled, "That's perhaps that best way to put it, Ranma."

"Hey!" Mari protested, "I'm just excited to meet new people too!"

"Well anyway, the name of the game today is to get a rundown of how you move, how you feel, and just some basic running around in your cursed form. Just think of it as an average Saturday out on the town with your best girl friends."

"My typical Saturday involves the gym, cleaning he grout in my bathroom, and, if I'm feeling daring, I'll get takeout from the Korean Tofu restaurant down the street."

Ranma patted Tooru's shoulder in pity, "Then think of this as an intervention and we're savin' you from yourself."

The three set out away from Harajuku proper and into Yoyogi Park, to the West, past the grounds of the Meiji Shrine.

As they walked towards their destination Ranma asked, "So ya got some flight time with that body last night?"

Tooru nodded "Yeah, until my sister barged into my apartment, drunker than forty salarymen at a business conference."

"You didn't tell Amane? I mean, I know she's kind of a..." Mari asked Tooru trailing off.

Tooru shook her head, "I don't want to know her reaction sober, let alone after her tenth whiskey and soda."

"Uh," Ranma interjected, "You know, you're gonna have to tell her if she's family, right? Take it from me, it's kinda a bad habit to start."

"Maybe when I'm not so clumsy in this form. I had to have dropped my sketching pencils at least a dozen times last night," Tooru sighed as they arrived at a clear patch of grass and stopped.

Ranma surveyed the area while saying, "Huh, never had a problem with manual dexterity," adding, "We'll work some training in." She turned to face Tooru. "All right, let's spend some 'face time'. I kinda wanna see how well you fight." Ranma took Tooru's duffel bag from her hand and gave it and her own to Mari. Mari moved to a slightly raised part of the field and sat down.

"Fight!?" Tooru yelled in disbelief.

"Yeah!" Ranma replied, flexing a bicep, "No better test of your body then a good sparring match!"

"But.. but.. Can't we play basketball or soccer or something? Something less violent?" Tooru asked, growing concerned.

"Gotta soccer ball lying around?" Ranma asked, looking up at Tooru, an impish grin on her face as she started cracking her knuckles, "'sides , you're like a ni-dan in kempo, right?"

"In high school!" Tooru countered, "I never particularly cared for it, though."

"I know you can take care a yourself. I'll go real easy on ya," Ranma said, emphasizing the words with a shark-like grin.

Tooru sputtered a dry protest, but sighed after a moment and took a stance, her legs feeling heavy and unsure with both the years of rust and the new proportions.

"Go-go Tooru-chan!" Mari cheered on from the sidelines, pumping her fists in the air, a wide smile at the scene in front of her..

"Mari! Don't call me-WOAH!" Tooru turned to admonish Mari, barely dodging Ranma's fist as it came into her peripheral vision.

"Pay attention, Tooru!" Ranma yelled, "Can't be lettin' you girlfriend distract ya!"

"What are you talking about! I-" Tooru slipped

"Can't get so flustered just cause I'm teasin' ya, neither!" Ranma cracked, sticking out her tongue afterward.

Tooru spent the next twenty minutes mostly in a state of panic as she avoided the flurry of punches and kicks thrown by the relatively diminutive martial artist. She saw the child-like glee in Ranma's eyes and knew that the martial artist was merely toying with her, like she probably did with her children.

Once she had that epiphany, Tooru slowly regained her composure. She began fighting back, though once or twice she tripped on her own feet. She was also flustered by the many times a punch or kick would miss by mere centimeters, causing her to almost fall from throwing all of her weight forward.

After almost of hour of this back and forth, Ranma called time and Tooru collapsed on the grass below her, breathing heavily. Mari ran up and touched her shoulder.

"Are you okay, Tooru-kun?" Mari asked.

"Y-yeah... fine... Damn, but I'm awful," Tooru responded, slowly regaining her wind.

"You two were incredible! I didn't know you could do that Tooru!" Mari beamed before sheepishly adding, "I always thought you were kinda wimpy." Tooru let out a groan before suddenly breathing in.

"Hey, don't beat yourself up, kid," Ranma reassured her, "You ain't too bad for a white-collar schlub. Coulda probably given my brother-in-law a run for his money back in high school."

Mari looked at Ranma her eyes wide as saucers, "you were amazing! That was so cool! Are you really just a martial arts teacher? I bet you're really a superhero or something!"

Ranma let out a loud chuckle as she grabbed the back of her head, "Nah. Fought enough big, mean, and ugly folks for this lifetime," Ranma said, wiping the sweat off her bangs, " 'sides, Akane'd kill me if I tried," she admitted to Mari.

Tooru shakily stood, examining her arms as though for the first time which, in some ways, it was since the week between Jusenkyo and Tokyo was filled with confusion, panic, and an alcohol-induced haze.

"This is so weird, I feel really clumsy," Tooru admitted, throwing down her hands in defeat.

Ranma stretched her body, standing on her tiptoes while extending her arms upward, hands clasped. After uttering a relaxed sigh, she said, "No wonder, you've relied on your reach and height to get you through fights, huh?"

"Well formal tournament sparring matches, but yes. I guess I didn't realize how much I took advantage of it," Tooru said, working the kinks out of her arm.

Ranma patted Tooru's shoulder, "Don't worry, you're still super tall for a woman, even if your reach is kinda short for your height," Ranma added, "The girls gettin' in the way?"

Tooru looked down at Ranma and blinked, "Excuse me?"

Ranma sighed, "Your boobs, Fuki," she said pointing to the anatomical features in question on Tooru's person. "I find cross-body movement, like this," Ranma said as she demonstrated, throwing a few quick crosses followed by an uppercut, "is a bit tougher, but then again, the Jusenkyo Gods saw fit to give me goddamn F cups."

"I had figured an H by the looks of it," Tooru thought before she felt a buzzing in her head imagining cloth measuring tape and the other fashion-related indignities she had been made aware of in her profession. She glanced back at Mari, who smiled and waved at her before taking out her phone and absorbing herself in it. Tooru gulped and asked Ranma, "Can, can we talk about something else?"

Ranma shook her head, "This is what we're here for, Fuki. Can't be squeamish about it. Not like you ain't sporting them right now too, though it looks like you're more realistically proportioned. Any pain?"

"Um, a little, mostly when I land or I make a big movement with my arms. Oh and when I was jogging the other day I kind of got splashed and running back they started to hurt after a kilometer or so."

Ranma nodded and spoke with some professional distance, "Yep. Figured as much. We got two options for ya. One is better than the other, but you may balk at it. All I'm gonna say is don't be hard-headed about it."

"Hard-headed about what?"

Ranma tugged her pigtail for a moment, before she said, in a gentle voice, "A sports bra. You're gonna need a few, especially if you work out a lot."

Tooru put up her hands in protest, "N-now wait just a minute here, Saotome! What's the second option?"

"A chest binder," Ranma said matter of factly.

"A what?" Tooru asked.

Ranma continued, "It's this thing female crossdressers and transgender guys use. I friend of mine switched to them after usin' a sarashi for ages a couple of years back. After she did, I read up on 'em. I was still avoidin' the whole 'bra' thing then. Akane'd been getting on my case to wear one when I was a woman since high school, but I mean, come on, right?" Ranma explained, playfully rolling her eyes to evoke past sentiments, "So, as a compromise, I got one of them instead."

Ranma gestured up and down her torso with her hands, "It's like a tight spandex shirt. It works, but it's real tight, like hard to breath tight, when you're a guy, hot as hell in the summer and, when you change, you have to deal with the feeling of your boobs squished against your armpits."

Tooru winced at the description then sighed as she realized she had instinctively winced at a sort of pain she was wholly unfamiliar with a mere two weeks before.

"In comparison a sports bra is less of a hassle, not ta mention less noticeable. I mean, you didn't notice I was wearing one the other night, did ya?" Ranma asked.

Tooru narrowed her eyes in thought, "Hmm... now that you mention it... no. I mean I thought I saw something, but I thought it was merely a tank top."

Ranma nodded, "Yep. I don't use 'em all the time, but it's good ta have if you think it'll be a problem. Even so, I'm betting, day to day, under a suit and jacket, nobody'd notice."

"Can't I just carry hot water around?"

"You could. I tried it in college for a while. It can work, but I always find I'm out of hot water just as I have to run away from a large mob or fight a four meter tall demon made of nattou."

"That seems rather, unlikely... Though I think I understand what you mean by preparing for any contingencies" Tooru said, looking back at Mari who was admiring the crowds while texting on her phone, "I'll think about it, but... I don't want people to talk. To think I'm..."

"A pervert?" Ranma added.

"That isn't it. Not really..." Tooru stopped and sighed. "Well sort of. I seem to already give off the wrong impression to strangers. Let's say that while I'm dreading it, if I get hit on by strange men, it wouldn't be the first time."

"Hah! Yeah... I can see that," Ranma nodded as she chuckled softly.

"What are you implying?"

Ranma replied flippantly, "Just sayin', your guy form looks like a type and that type don't make much time with the ladies in my experience."

"Well it's not for lack of trying in my case. I'm just rather dull, it seems," Tooru sulked, falling into a crouch.

Ranma frowned and said, apologetically, "Just teasin', Tooru. Sorry if I hit a sore spot."

Tooru sighed, idly pulling up a strand of grass, "You know the first time a girl has ever flirted with me, unprompted, was the other night on the train back home?"

Ranma blinked as she recalled the details, "Ya mean like..."

"Indeed, 'like'," Tooru replied flatly.

Ranma guffawed in laughter as Mari looked, confused by the spectacle.

Ranma stopped and suddenly announced, "I'm pretty famished. Any good places ta eat around here?"

Mari's eyes widened and she stood suddenly, saying, "I know the perfect place for us ladies!" And started walking south towards exit of the park.

Tooru rolled her eyes and looked at Ranma, who looked back with a similar expression of incredulity. They mutually shrugged and followed.


Walking out of Yoyogi Park into the edges of Sibuya proper, Mari took the lead, guiding the still limping Tooru, and cheerful Ranma, who was watching the passersby, into the small streets and pedestrian walkways past the large shopping complexes. Mari eventually led Tooru and Ranma, by the hand to a small shop just off of the busy Udagawa-cho district. She stopped seemingly at random in front of a quiet storefront. She pointed at the white wooden door.

"This is one of my favorite places, you guys! The decor is so cute and everything is so tasty!" Mari exclaimed in her most energetic voice, looking for all the world as if there was French accordion music in the air that only she could hear.

Tooru looked at the pastel baby blue exterior and the white wooden moulding, obviously a facade, at the door and windows. At the top of the door, the word 'Creperie Bretagne' was written in an old fashioned script.

"Oh, this place. Of course," Tooru nodded slowly upon recognition.

Ranma took in the design of the storefront, a temporal mishmash of 19th Century Beaux Arts complete with wrought iron cresting and a fake mansard roof and more contemporary Parisian design. "Weird lookin' place. Well, as long as the food's tasty, I don't care what it looks like."

Mari looked horrified, "Weird? It's cute! And beautiful! It's like being in Paris!" she insisted.

"Except not," Tooru said, pointing to an vintage clothing store across the street, "It's obvious we're in Harajuku."

"Yeah, it's a little creepy, actually. I never got why women like that frenchy stuff so much," Ranma said looking at the doorway somewhat skeptically.

Tooru shook her head, "Neither have I. I mean, there is something to be said about the clean deco lines and the sort of pre-industrial pastoral elements of it, but it really isn't to my taste. At least the food isn't too expensive."

Mari turned around dramatically at her red and silver-haired companions, rolled her eyes, and declaimed, "Ugh! Men!" and stuck out her tongue before entering the cafe.

Tooru and Ranma looked at each other, both finding themselves grinning stupidly as they walked in.

After ordering, the sat at a counter along the window facing the pedestrian thoroughfare. Tooru lightly sipped her cafe au lait, while Ranma tore through a crepe filled with strawberries and Nutella, sipping a drip coffee she ordered along with a glass of ice water..

Mari looked a touch starry eyed, taking in the decor until she stood from her chair. "Oh, I'll be back. Have to use the bathroom," she said taking her purse and walking off.

Tooru cut a piece of savory crepe, grabbing a stray mushroom as she ate slowly, staring at the crowd. The streets seemed crowded with young couples on a casual date or groups of women as they went window shopping down the boutique filled streets and the large mall that made up the majority of shopping in Harajuku.

"Grub ain't too bad," Ranma said as she reached for the second crepe she bought, filled with ham, gruyere, and onions, "That chocolatey stuff's pretty good. The boys'd love it. They got my sweet tooth."

Tooru nodded, "I've been here once with some of my co-workers. It's a nice place, I suppose, but I have to say I never feel like I've had a proper meal after eating a crepe."

Ranma nodded. "Yeah, I know what ya mean. Just ain't a meal without rice."

Tooru pointed at Ranma and nodded excitedly, "Exactly! This is nice, but it feels less than substantial than a meal of just rice and pickles."

Ranma suddenly laughed with a deep, warm resonance, "We're both actin' like a couple of old men. That reminds me, with Jusenkyo, you're gonna develop a real love of hot baths too."

"I already liked a good bath, especially after my back started acting... Oh shit!" Tooru whispered as she turned her head away from the window.

"What the hell? You okay?"

Tooru whispered, unmoving, "Across the street. Red-haired girl in the hoodie with the piercings."

"Yeah?" Ranma replied idly as she scanned the crowd outside finding the woman in question in front of a small boutique.

"It's my sister."

"Oh, that all? She's lookin' at a shirt or somethin' " Ranma replied, shrugging as she went back to her crepe.

" 'That all?' " Tooru repeated in aggravation.

Ranma swallowed a large piece of crepe and drank her coffee before saying, "Well, she's pretty cute. Kinda reminds me of myself when I was just outta college. No piercings, mind ya, and I was trudging along a three-year-old while 'kane had little Ryuuji in tow. Your sister's a real spitfire, huh?"

Tooru groaned, "She's not supposed to be here, Ranma! I thought she'd go back to Chiba after she woke up! I can't let her see me like this!"

Ranma looked at the panicked silver-haired woman with a half-lidded expression. She patted Tooru's shoulder and said, "So? Tooru, you'll be okay. Even forgettin' you're in cursed form, we're in Shibuya on a Saturday in a place she'd probably rather lose a limb than go into. You ain't gonna run into her if ya don't want to and as long as nobody spills hot liquid on ya, you'll be-" Ranma was interrupted by a voice from a customer

"Ow! My heel!" A woman said as she stumbled, her left shoe sending a small paper cup of hot tea into a high arc. Coming down, the cup turned and the hot water spilled out over the tall silver haired woman, who changed into an even taller black-haired man.

"Ow, Hot! Oh god, my groi-!" Tooru yelled doubly at the scalding liquid and the sudden tightness at the inseam of his jeans. A second later. similarly jarring cold wetness engulfed him and she changed back. "Thanks, Ranma," Tooru said, catching her breath and adjusting herself in her seat.

Ranma nodded, "I knew I forgot to tell ya somethin'. You should always order a glass of water on days like this. Jusenkyo victims are extra susceptible ta Murphy's Law."

Tooru went back to her half-eaten crepe, only to find it floating in tepid water on her plate. She stared at the ruined meal in total silence, unnoticed by her red-haired companion. A moment later, Tooru heard the sliding of a chair as Mari sat back down. The bubbly girl, turned to smile at her companions, only to see Ranma, oblivious to everything else as she was in the midst of devouring her third crepe while Tooru looked at her food, water dripping from her hair onto the plate and sighing plaintively.

"Did I miss anything?"


Walking down near Inokashira Dori, Ranma, in her most professorial voice, was giving Tooru some sartorial advice.

"All right, I think three or four pairs of sports bras should do. I'd think about some other stuff to wear..."

Mari piped up, "Oh, why don't we see what H&M has! There's this black jersey dress you'd look beautiful in Tooru."

"What!? I don't think so, Mari!" Tooru yelled.

"I think that's a little advanced for the young lady, Ishida," Ranma jokingly chided Mari, She turned back to Tooru, "I was thinking more along the lines of a few pair of jeans that fit your girl form better. Or maybe something that's a better compromise between the two, anyway."

"Awww," Mari pouted.

"Don't worry. You'll get your chance sooner than you think," Ranma whispered conspiratorially to Mari, "My wife and her sister had me in garters and heels about a month and a half after I got cursed, though I was runnin' away and screamin' my head off the whole time."

"Oh, I hope so," she whispered back, "I have an idea for an ensemble that would be great on her! She'd look great in some Gautier. If I had the money, I'd throw her in a McQueen."

"I dunno what you're talkin' about, but Tooru's got a look for fancy European clothes cause he's so tall, even in that form, lucky bastard. I'm lucky I like Chinese styles. 'bout the only thing I look good in."

Mari, slightly surprised, turned to Ranma, "Really? Me too!"

"Oh Yeah?" Ranma asked, interested, "When I need ta dress up in my girl form, I can rock a cheongsam second only to my friend Shanpu. 'Course I usually just eat the food. Impossible to find a good dim sum place in Nerima." Ranma remarked idly.

"Does your wife get jealous?" Mari asked, "I know I'd be if my husband looked better than me."

"Don't sell yourself short, you look like you take care a yourself," Ranma complimented, "Heh, Akane used to beat the crap outta me cause I always teased her about bein' better built than her in high school. Well, I teased her about lots of stuff, but I was just a kid and I didn't know any normal ways a gettin' a girl's attention. I liked that she was kinda a tomboy, but still cute in her own way." Ranma smiled warmly before adding, "And anyway, she got her revenge when she got cursed and looked better in a tux than I did at my wedding!" Ranma remarked, laughing at the memory.

"Oooh, that's an idea! There's this Michael Kors wedding dress from last season that would definitely look stun-"

"If you two ladies could stop talking like I was some paper doll. I'll be fine on some jeans and t-shirts thank you very much." Tooru interrupted the two, "As to your suggestion earlier Ranma, I'll pass for now, but I'll take it into consideration." Tooru walked off grousing.

"Oh, I'm sorry Tooru-kun, I-" Mari said before realizing Tooru was ignoring her as he walked ahead of them..

Ranma pulled Mari close and said, "Let him be. He needs time ta take it in. Makin' peace with any Jusenkyo curse happens piecemeal."

Mari nodded, looking ahead to her awkward looking friend, looking hangdog as she sauntered down the crowded shopping district.

Ranma continued, noting where Mari's eyes led, "Yeah, The gender curses are the trickiest, in my opinion. Mostly 'cause you stay very close to the same. It ain't like turning into a horse or a dragon or somethin'. You're still you in almost every way that's important. You can talk, you got thumbs, people don't look at you funny just by the way ya look."

She continued, "But the flipside is that ya can't compartmentalize. My friends don't gotta think too much about the deep social intricacies of bein' a piglet or a duck or whatever, but humans are social. People expect if they see a girl that they're a girl and vice versa. So a curse like what I got and what Tooru's got is tough cause ya gotta find yourself again and figure out where you stand in the world around ya and that's real tough."

Mari nodded, looking at Tooru, who seemed to be looking down at her hands in contemplation.

"Well anyhoo, Mari." Ranma said, the levity returning to her voice, "Wanna go cruise the rest of this part of town and see whatever crap on clearance we can find?"

"Sounds like a plan, Ranma-chan!"

Ranma raised an eyebrow, "You do like the cutesy nicknames, huh?"


Walking around the second floor of the Uniqlo store, near Yoyogi Park, but in Shibuya proper, Tooru wandered the rows of clothes. Ranma had distracted Mari with more fanciful clothes at the nearby Miu Miu store, leaving the neophyte female with some time to reflect on some of what Ranma had talked about with regard to clothing. She was still unsure and a bit unsettled looking through the throngs of women's clothing. It wasn't a dirty feeling that echoed through her, but just a confusion and dissonance that was still present.

Looking though a display of tops and jeans, Tooru dryly remarked to herself, "Well, at least dark colors are in this season. Looks more gender neutral than that canary monstrosity Mari insisted on."

Spying a charcoal sweater-vest that looked rather similar to one she already bought a few months back, she reached over to touch the fabric, but was interrupted by another hand.

"Oh I'm sorry I-" Tooru's mouth hung half-open as she looked up and saw a very familiar woman in front of him, her short red hair and piercings immediately noticeable.

"Ah... sorry!" the red-haired woman said, pulling her hand back, " I wasn't paying attention, though I don't know how. Not many of us tall girls here, you know?"

"I... I guess I don't think about it much," Tooru replied nervously.

"Yeah, makes finding a boyfriend hard, that's for sure," she quipped.

Tooru gulped softly, "Ah, heh heh heh.. well... somewhat."

"I'm Amane."

"Oh, I'm To... Tomoko! Yes!" Tooru replied, kicking herself for lacking any sort of foresight on the matter.

"To-chan!" Tooru heard Mari's voice call out.

"Oh, that's my friend! I have to go!"

Leading Mari back towards the escalators, Tooru whispered frantically, "I'll yell at you to stop with the cutesy nicknames later, but for once, it worked out for the best. We gotta go. Now."

"Why? who were you..." Mari trailed off as she looked back, "your sister!"

Tooru whispered pointedly, "Yes. She got drunk and crashed at my place last night, but I thought she was going straight home. I didn't think she'd be wandering Shibuya of all places! I have to get out of here! Where's Saotome?" Tooru looked around but saw no sign of the red-haired woman in question. The two of them grabbed the down escalator and exited the boutique walking back towards the large mall where they had begun the shopping expedition.

Mari shook her head, "I lost him somewhere in Parco. He bought some kind of gardening power tool thing and then we went there after we went to look at the dresses in Miu Miu. There were these beautiful Roland Mouret Brocade dresses. Kind of like the Marc Jacobs pieces we did the photo set for next month."

"I see. You must have enjoyed yourself," Tooru sniggered.

"They were really cute. On sale for only ¥197,000!" Mari crowed in a joking tone of voice, which prompted Tooru, who intellectually understood the price points of high fashion but couldn't really understand the fantastical markups certain brands garnered, merely nodded.

"A wallet saver," Tooru snarked.

Mari added, "Mr. Saotome really enjoyed herself! She looked stunning in this dark green empire-waist gown. She hammed it up for the sales associate. If she wanted to, he probably could've haggled the dress down to only 120,000. I bet she's had to fight the men off with a stick, poor guy."

Tooru was stopped in her tracks. She looked down at Mari, "There are so many things wrong with that, I'm not sure where to begin."


"So let me get this straight," Tooru began as they walked rapidly out of Joyful Eli, a bridal shop just north of Shibuya Station, "You bought an electric hedge trimmer?"

"Yeah. Well, the rose bushes at my Ma's are gettin' overgrown and Pop's too lazy ta prune 'em himself. So I got this edge trimmer dealie they had on sale."

"Okay. That makes sense, I think. But what's with the silk gown?"

"Ah. Sorry, Tooru. Had a little bit of an ulterior motive today. I gotta weddin' ta go to in a few weeks and I kinda lost a bet with Akane. I really honestly thought the bride'd be wearing the tux, but I guess they compromised and they're both wearin' dresses."

Tooru raised an eyebrow, to which Ranma replied "Eh, I thought Ucchan stopped carin' about that sorta thing. So anyway, I gotta be maid of honor while 'kane gets ta be the best man. So I picked up the dress at the bridal shop since I was in the area."

"Are these people cursed?" Mari asked, putting a finger to her mouth in confusion.

"Nah," Ranma shook her head, "let's just say most of my friends had rough childhoods."

"That I understand," Tooru added sympathetically, "What I don't understand is what possessed you to turn on the power tool indoors."

"I got bored waiting for the alterations and wanted ta make sure it worked. I mean I only severed a mannequin and it wasn't even dressed so no harm, no foul, right?" Ranma replied, putting on a cutesy smile which only prompted riotous laughter from Mari and peevishness from Tooru who rubbed her aching forehead.

Nearing the crowded entrance of Shibuya Station, Ranma looked up at Tooru.

"You sure you don't wanna change back before you go? It'd probably help your chances of your sister not catchin' ya in the act of changin', ya know."

Tooru shook his head, "No, I'm sure she'll head back to Chiba from here. She's usually content to pass out on my couch, eat my bread and coffee, and never say thanks."

"That's family for ya," Ranma smiled wistfully.

"Besides. I don't exactly have an outfit to change into and she saw me wearing this. If I ran into her here in guy form, it'd be a little bit suspicious. Better to just get back to my apartment and my cat and she won't ever be the wiser."

"All right. Take care. I had a lot of fun, Fuki. I'll text you with details on the next meeting!"

"See you Monday, Tooru-kun!"

"See you Monday, Mari. It was nice hanging out Ranma. Say hi to your wife for me."

"Will do, Tooru."

Tooru walked into the platform overhearing her friends speak.

"Wanna see me get us some free food?" Ranma suggested.

"Sure! Let's go to that Cha Siu Bao stand!" Mari said

"Sounds good ta me, Mari! Put on your cutest, dopiest, turnin' men-to-putty expression you have and follow my lead!" Tooru turned back briefly to see them walk, hand in hand in an almost frighteningly cute manner back into the throng of the Shibuya crowd. She suppressed a shudder as she walked through the ticket gate and down the stairs.


The Yamanote Line going North out of Shinjuku was rather sparse for a late afternoon Saturday and Tooru was reduced to standing in the middle of the train car. She looked at the crowd of people, mostly in pairs or small groups talking, or people shut off from the experience on their phones or listening to music. Tooru herself tuned out the crowd, the noise of the train engine, and the movement. She almost closed her eyes completely when she heard a voice that sent a chill up her spine.

"Fancy seeing you here again... 'Tooru' was it?"

Tooru opened her eyes and blinked, wondering if she fell asleep. The woman smiled at her the same, almost feral as she moved close to Tooru.

"Oh! It's uh, you. Emi, right? I'm sorry I didn't text you yet. Life's been... strange," Tooru replied cursing inwardly at being unable to think of a better adjective.

Emi smiled, looking at the frazzled Tooru up and down, "I know how that goes. What are you up to today?"

"Oh, I, uh, met up with the some friends in Harajuku. We walked around a bit, but I got kind of tired. I was going to turn in early."

"Shinjuku Station. Shinjuku," The train's speakers announced.

"Aww... well, if you have time, give me a ring. I'd love to have a coffee."

Tooru blushed, "Well, I'll see. I think I'd like that, after all."

The train stopped and Emi walked out. Tooru had a comically goofy smile on her face as she heard another voice call out.

"Tomoko-san?" a familiar voice call out. Tooru felt like her heart would stop beating.

Tooru turned around just in time to come face to face with Amane, who said, "Oh, is that you Tomoko-san? You heading home?"

"Yeah, uh... I live in Todenzoshigaya. Do you, uh, live nearby?" Tooru nervously asked.

Amane shook her head, "Nah. I'm crashin' at my big brother's place in Ikebukuro. He's a dork, but he minds his own business, so I can avoid going having to go back home and seeing... my roommate."

Tooru's expression turned serious and asked, "Did you have a fight with her?"

Amane grimaced, "Sort of, she... I didn't know, I mean how could I've known? Nah, I guess there were hints, but..." Amane's voice became very quiet, "She likes me."

Tooru blinked, "I don't quite understand. So is this just a tiff between best friends?"

Amane shook her head, "No... she 'like likes' me. Even though I'm straight. She's dated men too, but she... I guess she was good at hiding it."

There was a tense silence for a few minutes, Amane looking down and sighing, Tooru looking anywhere but at her sister, her face ashen at the revelation, Suddenly Amane chuckled in a wry manner and spoke, putting a hand to her forehead in embarrassment.

"Jeez, why am I opening up like this, to a random stranger? I dunno, maybe it's because you seem so familiar somehow. I feel like we're on the same level. Besides how tall we are, I mean," Amane said, smiling a bit at the end. Tooru hid her shock upon seeing Amane's expression, one in which he hadn't seen in his younger sister since middle school.

Tooru sighed, "Well, I'm sure you have friends and family who are looking out for you. I'm not going to tell you it's an easy situation, but trust those around you to hear you out and help you."

"Ikebukuro Station. Ikebukuro."

"Oh shit," Tooru thought, "I gotta get home and change!" She said aloud to Amane, affecting a nervous smile, "Ah, I have to get going! Running late! Take care!"

"Thanks for not getting too weirded out. I hope I see you around," Amane said, with a small hopeful smile.

"Uh, maybe," Tooru replied while thinking, "Not if I can help it!"

As the doors opened, Tooru bolted from the station, cutting through the small alleys and pedestrian paths she had learned from her morning jogs, cursing the jostling motion.

"Goddamn it, Ranma," she muttered to herself, scanning the streets for her sister, "Why do you have to be right about this? God damn it they hurt..."

Tooru reached her apartment building, panting momentarily until she saw of red hair rounding the corner of the block. Tooru shot up the steps faster than she could last recall. Her hands were shaking as she struggled to dig the key out of her jean pocket and she let out a harried, "shit!" as she was forced to grab her wrist with her other hand to steady herself as the inserted the key into her door, turning the lock and opening the door.

Tooru quickly entered the apartment and slammed the door shut, locking it before running to her bedroom. Chibi welcomed its owner home by playfully rubbing around Tooru's long legs as she was maneuvering out of her jeans, tangling itself and Tooru in the process..

"Chibi, no, get out of here. Stubborn kitty!"

Tooru let out a sudden shriek as she tripped over herself. She was rewarded for her clumsiness by Chibi, who jumped onto Tooru's stomach and began purring.

"Jeez..."

Tooru shook her head, quickly stood and grabbed her robe racing to the shower. After a moment, she stepped into the warm water and changed back, eliciting a huge sigh of relief. After showering in earnest, he sat in the furo, his sore muscles enjoying the water, though worried that Amane had not arrived home yet.

"Maybe that wasn't her I saw?" Tooru thought.

Tooru shrugged as he soaked for a few more minutes before getting out and changing into a pair of grey sweatpants and a black tank top.

He sauntered out of his bedroom, drying his hair when he heard the front door open.

"Bro. I'm home!" Amane called out as she entered the apartment.

Tooru put on his glasses and hung the towel on the hook on his bathroom door as he greeted his sister.

"Oh, hey. I thought you went back home already. Do you need to stay the night again?," Tooru asked, affecting his most casual tone of voice.

Amane looked at her brother oddly, "Um... Yeah, Needed some time to drink... err think. then drink," Amane replied, her voice and movement already a bit shaky as she took off her shoes.

Tooru sighed, shook his head, "You know you should take it easy. Exams are coming up."

Amane punched Tooru lightly on the shoulder, "Ah, lighten up, bro. Why do you always have to be such a boring, pompous ass?"

Tooru shrugged, not really in the mood to argue, "Well, it isn't like you can disappoint our parents or anything."

"Hah, like that means anything. Mom doesn't care what we do as long as we don't ask for money and Dad just coddles me cause I'm his 'baby girl'," Amane said, emphasizing the words in a mocking tone of voice, "it's patronizing."

Amane plopped down on the leather couch in the living room.

"Have a seat bro. Let me tell ya bout my day. What were you up to, anyway? You were gone by the time I got up."

Tooru sat down, looking less than relaxed, "Oh, you know. I did some shopping, worked out, bought cat litter. The usual Saturday."

"Figures," Amane replied flatly as she reached into a pocket of her hoodie, pulling out a can of beer and tossing it to Tooru, saying, "Here."

Tooru sighed contentedly as he easily grabbed the can. It was a tiring day and there was nothing quite like a cold beer after a shower. Tooru popped the top quickly and the can and its contents suddenly exploding on him.

Amane gasped, "Oh, sorry bro! That's the one I dropped on the way back from the convenience store 'fore I came..." she trailed off as she stared at the silver-haired woman in front of her.

"Dammit!" Tooru yelled, dismayed as she took off her dripping glasses and wiped them with the hem of her shirt, muttering, "At least leather is easy to clean." She caught Amane's glare and said, "Look, I was trying to figure out a more delicate way of explaining this."

Tooru put her glasses back on and looked back at her sister who was still staring wide-eyed, her jaw agape. Tooru merely shrugged.

"Well, I did say somebody was looking out for you."

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 僕はどこにも行かないよ

君の涙飲みほしたら わかってくれるかい?

新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 信じてくれるかい?

僕は君とわかち合いたいんだ

If you say things like "I don't care if you leave me,"

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 such 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:

And, on the eve of my 31st birthday, here is the delayed third chapter to Understudy. I'm pushing this a bit earlier than I should and I think the fukufics folks (particularly Bree R. and K. Hammell) for taking a quick look. That said, I may come in and do some minor edits to the chapter. I apologize for the break, but the holiday season and a fried desktop PC, plus my work on Balance, 夢ばかりじゃない少女, and Wandering Martial Artist has kept me busy. In addition, my new project in collaboration with Unsurpassed Travesty, Prodigal Daughter (a fun post-manga Ukyou and Konatsu story) have taken up my writing time. I'm not sure when Chapter four will come out because of work commitments, but it will probably be sometime after Prodigal Daughter 2 comes out. Balance 6 is also in the works, though it's more planned/outlined than written at this point. I've spending a lot of time ironing out Wandering Martial Artist. I'm trying to make myself happy with a somewhat shorter story than my normal milieu, but plot/scope creep always threatens to break it.

Reviews and critiques for this or any other of my stories is always appreciated.

Happy 2013

~裏には裏がある

Characters:

Amane Fuki (普喜遍): Amane is a Graduate Student as Tokyo University of Science (formerly in the Iidabashi campus in Tokyo, now in the Noda Campus in Chiba Prefecture). She is the wunderkind to Tooru's failed eldest son/black sheep. She ribs on him pretty often. That said, they get along pretty well, having survived their parents, though sort of awkward around each other since he's so reserved and she has always been a bit of an iconoclast. Is a serial monogamist, but shamelessly drops men left and right. Has a key to Tooru's apartment, which she uses to pass out when the trains stop since she lives out in Chiba. Is less than friendly with Mari, who she sees as a boring otaku (and maybe not good enough for Tooru, who she thinks is gonna settle for the first decent person to come his way).

Cultural and Lexical Notes:

Fujoshi (Literally: Rotten Girl) is a (usually pejorative) term used to describe a particular form of female otaku, particularly those who are into Boy's Love (BL) or yaoi doujinshi, though it can be used to describe female otaku in general.

Hikikomori (literally "pulling inward, being confined") is a term used to refer to the phenomenon of (typically) adolescents or young adults who withdraw from social life, usually though isolation and confinement from aspedts of life aside from media and the internet. The term refers to both the phenomenon as well as to people who make up these individuals.

The Four Great Classical Novels make up the main canon of classical Chinese Literature. They are: Journey to the West, The Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Dream of the Red Chamber.

The "Bubble" is the nickname for the Economic Bubble based on asset prices which lasted from (roughly) 1986 to 1991

Ryuutarou Hashimoto was an LDP Politician who served as the 53rd Prime Minister of Japan from January 11th, 1996 to July 30th, 1998

A Yamato Nadeshiko is the personification of the ideal traditional Japanese woman, soft spoken, beautiful, nd domestically adroit.

Education Mama: The kyōiku mama (教育ママ) or "Education Mama" is a stereotyped figure in modern Japanese society portrayed as a mother who relentlessly drives her child to study, to the detriment of the child's social and physical development, and emotional well being.

Miu Miu, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Jean Paul Gautier, and Alexander McQueen are high end and haute couture fashion designers and/or labels.