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Sky's the Limit

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Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

--Walt Whitman

 

There is no man alone, because every man is a Microcosm, and carries the whole world about him.

--Sir Thomas Brown

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April 10, 2012 (Tuesday)

Overcast/Rain

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The clock read 5:46 AM, burning red. Naoto sighed, turned onto her back, and closed her eyes lightly. They were still fatigued from hours of reading off a screen. Rain fell outside, pounding up a white mist that carried the rust from the window screen. She loved this smell, found it soothing, but her mind was already wired, hot. She realized her brow was already furrowed, and she sighed, massaged the muscles there.  Usually sleep would wipe her frantic mind clean and undo the snarls and coils of obsessive thought, at least giving her a fresh start. This morning the loops were still intact, seamlessly still running, dream-integrated, and tightening over her temples in iron bands. Her scalp was tight and her brain felt clogged.

She sighed and sat up, stretched. No way I'm going back to sleep now. No point, anyway. My alarm goes off in an hour and fourteen minutes.

She padded into the kitchen, put the kettle on, and opened her laptop. She sighed and rubbed between her eyes when she realized how many tabs she still had open in her browser. Her eyes were already fatiguing again, still spastic, not fully rested from the previous night's reading binge. She knew she would have to get up early for school, but still did not finally get to bed until well past 3AM. It was amazing, what a wealth of information there already was on critical gender theory, how many people had realized things she had realized early on as a child, how many people had meditated on things she thought she was the only one who felt, and put them to words--things she had never thought she could articulate. Many articles were already translated into Japanese, but she had also picked through the convoluted computer translations of transcripts that were not. Some English articles she could laboriously pick through, but they were written with a syntactical complexity and vocabulary well beyond her current reach.

Feminism and all its associated gender-related studies had not been something she had taken seriously in the past. After all, feminism was about women's issues, and she had wanted to forget her physical sex, not critically examine its place in a complex societal matrix. All she knew was that society valued the opinions of men more and took men more seriously, so that was what she wanted to become. "Internalized misogyny", was what it was called. Hatred of all that was feminine in herself. And, much to her current embarrassment, she had internalized the idea that gender issues were lesser issues, wining and posturing, irrelevant to somebody with such lofty ambitions as herself. She thought herself above all that. But she had sworn never again to turn away from facing her true self, in all its most unflattering aspects.

The kettle whistled. She sifted through the several boxes of tea Yakushiji had sent back with her from the Manor, scanning for the highest caffeine. The tins had been wiped clean, but when she pried one open dust lingered at the ridges where the lid lip rested, manor dust. The microscopic mold blooms, from that manor, enclosed in tin. She imagined she could breathe it in, catch a faint trace of incense Grandpa was so fond of.

"You're still wearing men's clothes."

Naoto shifted and clenched her fist against the urge to rub her arm, a self-soothing maneuver Grandpa would surely catch. On the low table between them rested her birth certificate, the one that read "Shirogane Naoko". One kanji difference. Glaringly feminine, as her taken name was glaringly masculine. It was the name her parents had given her upon seeing between her legs, assuming so much of her identity from the flesh there. She had been able to finesse changing her school records, but her government records, her government ID, still read Naoko.

Grandpa smiled disarmingly, though there was something distant, sad, at the back-bend of his brows.

"You needn't be so defensive. I'll call you 'Naoto-kun' as long as you wish. But I thought you had come to accept that you are a woman."

Naoto arched her eyebrows. How closely had Yakushiji been following her, anyway?

"I have."

"Then why do you still dress as a man, and keep a masculine name?"

"It is how I feel most comfortable."

Grandpa nodded and closed his eyes for a moment. Naoto held her shoulders level, back straight, and slid her right foot out slightly, now standing braced shoulder-width. Grandpa finally opened his eyes and took a sip of his tea.

"You know, Naoto, there are people in this world who feel they were born into the wrong bodies. Women who feel that they should be men, and men who feel they are women."

"That isn't it."

She was shocked by the firmness of her voice, a raw edge. Grandpa arched his eyebrows.

"Oh?"

"That isn't..." She stared at the tabletop. "It's not that simple. For me."

"Well, none of this is simple, child." It was the affectionate 'child', the one of relation, not the condescending 'child' the police force called her. "Making your own path against the ones society has carved out for us is never simple, or easy. Especially once you leave the comfort of adolescence, where it is more accepted. But it is a good time to experiment, to feel out who you are."

Naoto clenched her sleeve. The fabric twisted hard at the webs between her fingers."This isn't some sort of phase. This is who I really am."

"I never doubted that you lost sight of who you really are, in the ways that matter." Her grandfather's voice stayed calm, loving. "You will always be my brilliant, brave granddaughter. Just like your mother, who found a path at peace with her femininity, and her brilliance. She lived in a time far less forgiving for women, far less allowing. And she did not let that stop her being who she was."

"You think I do dishonor to women by dressing and acting as a man. You think I think femininity and strength, and brilliance, cannot reconcile. Are mutually exclusive."

"I think you do, yes. How many times did you say you wish you had been born a man, like the detectives in your novels? Child, you never had any strong female role models. You never knew your mother in your maturing years. I think you are still stuck in the mold of 'detective' the books gave you. The one that says a detective is a cool man."

"I'm not talking about being a detective right now, Grandpa!" She realized she was raising her voice. "I'm talking about me, who I am beyond all that. I don't feel fully female or male. I like wearing men's clothes, and using men's speech, just because. And 'Naoto' is the name my friends know. Me, that's the label they've attached to me, all of me."

Grandpa's smile almost seemed sad. Naoto clenched her sleeve harder, until it hurt, shaking. She had always been hyper-sensitive to any signs of condescendence, and she almost felt it, there, at the corners of his mouth.

"Oh Naoto. Be honest with yourself. Do you really think those books didn't influence you, in that way? In forming who you are, and what you are comfortable being seen as?"

She had to move several looseleaf papers and a cracked-open MP3 player, logic card dangling by cords, to set her mug down. She inhaled deeply of the tea and sighed. Molds. Molds, it was all molds, that everybody conformed to. Dress as a form of communication, speech patterns given associations and significance by society.  Shorthand for the human brain, a form of pattern recognition. Molds and types. A strange doublethink, people self-consciously orchestrating a persona, thinking it represented an authentic self.

 If we aren't blank slates, entirely programmed by our society, how can we ever get to a 'true self' beyond all that, some truth beyond all our memes? Could our brains even comprehend it without symbols, arbitrarily given as shorthand for ideas?

"Naoto-kun, good morning!"

She choked on her tea. The TV, an old cathode-ray that had come furnished with the apartment, rocked dangerously on the bar stool. She jumped over several piles of books and grabbed it as it began to slide backwards, catching it end-up. Kuma's huge face was bonking into the screen, which was barely large enough to frame his eyes.

"Oooof, this is a beary small screen!"

"Kuma, stop! You're going to break it!"

"Neee..." Kuma looked up at her pleadingly as she wrestled the TV onto the kitchen counter. "Everybody else is asleep. I thought today was the first day of school. The sun's already up."

"It's six in the morning. School doesn't start for another two hours."

"Oooh. Hey!" Kuma turned his head and shoved one of his eyes up onto the screen. "Naoto-kun, you have boobies now! Where'd those come from?"

What-- She looked down. Her pajama top was twisted and the top button open, so her cleavage was showing. Oh for... She crossed her arms over her chest. "They're always there. I usually bind them under my clothes. Where did you learn a word like 'boobies', anyway?"

"From Yosuke-kun." Naoto sighed and pinched between her eyes. Of course. "Why do you always hide them?"

"Because I feel like it. Do you need something?"

"Uwaa." Kuma backed away from the screen. "Naoto-kun, you look mad. I just wanted to say good morning."

Naoto sighed and looked up. Kuma looked like he was about to cry, insofar as that bear suit could look sad, or cry. She sighed and shook her head.

"I'm not. Sorry, Kuma. Do you want some tea?"

"Sure!"

Kuma unzipped himself from the inside, and his dome-head popped back to reveal his human form, blonde and exuberant and distressingly open. He stretched and took a few steps back, rolling his shoulders.

"Okay! I think I can make this!"

"Wait--" Naoto held out her hands. "No, no no no no--"

Kuma took a running leap toward the screen and dove onto the kitchen floor. He curled at the last minute and flipped onto his back, legs smashed against the cupboards, as the TV rattled off the counter and crashed back-first on the opposite side. There was a crunch, a tinkling as a tube broke. He sat up and shook his head furiously.

"Ooof!" He pulled his legs down under himself, stood, and dusted his pants triumphantly. "Ta-da!"

"Kuma!"

Kuma lowered his hands slightly, still grinning. "What?"

He followed Naoto's gaze around the counter, saw the smashed TV, paused for a moment, and moaned. Naoto winced and grasped her hair, looked at the clock in the corner of her computer screen. 6:14 AM. It is way too early for this.

"I'm sorry, Naoto-kun!" He started scooping the loose shards of plastic and glass into the TV case. "I'll help you clean it up."

"Whoa. Hey!" Naoto knelt down and grabbed Kuma's hands. "You're going to cut yourself. Calm down. I'll get a dustpan and a brush." She stood, pulled him up by the shoulders, and steered him into a chair. "Just... sit right there for a bit."

"I'm really sorry, Naoto-kun."

Naoto sighed and fished a dustpan and whisk out of the hall closet, knelt to start cleaning. "Don't worry about it. I'm not even sure if this old thing is even worth fixing."

"You could fix it?"

"I could. It's a pretty simple repair. But the replacement parts would cost more than the TV is worth." She emptied the fragments into the trash can and stared at the mess for a moment. It was one of those old TVs with lateral vents along the cathode bay, faux wood base. "I should just get a new one, anyway."

"Like a big one, like the ones they have at Junes?"

"There's no way that would fit in here."

"Ooo-oh-oh-oh. Yeah. I see." Kuma leaned forward, hands between his knees grasping the seat of the chair, and looked around, wide-eyed. "It is really small in here, isn't it?"

"It's an apartment. It's a small place for just one person to live."

"Oooh. Because Naoto-kun doesn't have a family, right? You said your parents died doing detective stuff."

Naoto closed the closet and picked up the tea she had left by the computer. It had gone lukewarm. She took a huge gulp and stared at Kuma, bemused. The tactlessness of the innocent, huh?

"I used to live in Inaba with my Grandfather, but he moved back to Shirogane Manor with Yakushiji-san. I live here alone now." She walked into the kitchen. "I'm going to make some more tea. Do you want some?"

"Yes, please. Oooh!" Kuma scooted his chair in front of the computer. "You have another TV?"

"Don't touch that!" Naoto didn't even look up from the tea can; she felt Kuma freeze. "It's not a TV, really. It's a computer. You can do a lot of things with it. You know what the internet is, don't you?"

Kuma didn't respond. Naoto set the kettle back on the stove and turned. He was staring, transfixed, at the screen, absolutely still. Naoto blinked and approached him slowly.

"Kuma?"

She stopped behind him and leaned down. His eyes reflected the screen, pupils blown wells; his mouth hung slightly open.

"Kuma." Her voice was firmer, louder this time. No response. Kuma jumped and gasped when she touched his shoulder.

"Uwa--oh--" Kuma blinked several times and rubbed his eyes. "Naoto-kun, the place behind the computer screen is weird, beary weird."

"Weird?"

"Uh-huh." Kuma scooted his chair back. His eyes were wide and still unfocused. "It's not like the TV world, not at all. Especially not now. It's more like the TV world before we fixed it, but... weirder. There's more dimensions, and dimensions in dimensions, and dimensions in dimensions in dimensions, and all these strange emotions and conflicts."

Naoto stared at the screen. It was still pulled to the page she had been reading earlier, a basic history of concepts of transgenderism and androgyny throughout the world.

"Does it feel sinister?"

"Mmm, yes, and no, it feels like a lot of things. Good and bad." He pressed his fingertips to the screen. "I don't think I can go in there."

"Well." Naoto smiled to herself and took another sip of tea. "That doesn't surprise me. People empty out their emotions onto the internet, all the time, all over the world. It's a way to communicate ideas. And all the world's knowledge is on there, too. It represents a radical democratization of information spread and access."

"De-mo-cra-ti-za-tion-kuma?"

"Yes, it means anybody can access things, or publish things, regardless of who they are. They just need a computer. It's not like TV, where you have to have many more resources, and sponsors, and adhere to broadcasting standards. So you get a lot of deeply revolutionary, unconventional content, but also a lot of crazy, evil stuff. But most of it is just people chattering and bickering, though. Quite a bit like real life."

"Oooooh, I see."

The pot whistled. Naoto looked at the computer clock, hissed, and dropped the tea leaf strainer into a clean mug. She set the mug and the pot by Kuma.

"Pour the water over the strainer. Let that steep for five minutes. I am going to get dressed."

"Hey, Naoto-kun?" Kuma swiveled in his chair after her. "Where can Kuma find one of these computers for himself?"

Naoto leaned back out her bedroom door and stared at Kuma, hard. Kuma was wearing the same innocent, open smile.

"Is there, like, a place where I can go use one for a while, kuma?"

"...try the library." Naoto slowly backed into her room, keeping one eye on Kuma until she finally slid past the door. "Just don't touch mine. I'm getting dressed now."

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The Roman numeral II pin given to all the second year boys was poorly constructed. It had one post, off-center at the lateral cross, so the pin rotated easily. Kanji had brought a spool of gold thread and a needle so he could secure it to his collar before class started. He had to do the same thing to the numeral I he wore as a first year, and his Yasogami High symbol on the opposite collar had already been secured with three small stitches at the points of the Y.

He had just finished catching the second post when the classroom door slid open. He glared, instinctively, but relaxed as soon as he realized it was Naoto. Naoto closed the door behind her and walked toward his area of the classroom, eyes half-lidded,  smiling and nodding to a few girls who said good morning.  She was, as always, full of easy confidence, one hand in her pocket, straight-shouldered and gallant. He quickly looked down at his work as she drew closer, feigned that he had just noticed her, and looked up.

"Naoto-kun." He realized he was grinning, but it was too genuine to stop. "Good morning."

She huffed quietly and leaned against the opposite desk. "I'm surprised to see you here so early."

"I, uh... couldn't sleep." His face felt hot. He looked back down at his sewing. "So, we're in the same class this year, huh?"

"I'm looking forward to it."

The flush got worst. Something uncoiled in his stomach, and he coughed, returning to his work. Naoto was silent for a few minutes. He felt her staring at his sewing, watching his huge, deft hands working at the thread around the metal. He risked a quick glance out of the corners of his eyes, and she seemed enthralled, lost in thought.

"The, uh, pins, they move around a lot, like the ones we had last year." She didn't respond, so he scratched the back of his head. "I mean, I'm securing it so it doesn't spin around all the time. You know. There's only one post, so..."

"Ah, yes. That drives me crazy, too." She fingered the numeral II on her collar and smirked. "This took considerable effort to obtain."

"Really? I just picked mine up at the office about a week ago."

"I attempted to do so as well, but the faculty was... less than accommodating." She huffed silently, laughing. "They all exchanged looks when I came in; it was clear they had planned to talk to me. It was quite a study in body language, really. They wanted me to switch to a female uniform. They thought I was trying too hard to be different, and that it was a distraction to the other students, now that my...secret... is out. Ishikawa lectured me on how in the 'Real World', my 'belligerent nonconformity' would not be tolerated, so I should get used to it now. That sort of thing." She looked off to the side, distant. "It's always the same arguments. They mask discomfort with concern."

"Stupid bastards." Naoto arched her eyebrows; Kanji glanced about, realizing how loud his voice had been, as the other students were staring. He leaned in and spoke quietly. "What does it matter to them what you wear? You're wearin' a uniform, ain't ya? And you're the top student in our year. Didn't you score off the charts in the national exams last year?"

"Top one percent." She said it so casually, disdainfully, like it was a waste of time. Kanji flushed. While he hadn't done horribly--much better than he had expected, shockingly--those tests and been fucking hard. She really is in a whole other class from me. "Saotome said I should be acting as a role model, as the top student, and not be engaging in open rebellion. He said it was unbecoming. Immature. How convenient." She closed her eyes. "They put it back on the person to try to make her feel guilty, like she's inconveniencing people. Rocking the boat. Destroying the harmony. How prototypically Japanese of them." She opened her eyes. "Have you read a lot of foreign literature, Kanji?"

"Uh." He scratched the back of his head. "I read Harry Potter. Like, translated."

"That's more than most people read. I've only read translations too, I admit. I should start reading children's books in English. But there are so many books I could recommend to you. I should make you a list." She shrugged and smiled a little. "I want to someday read all the Sherlock Holmes novels in their native tongue, but it will take a long time to build up to that."

"I've always wondered a lot about all that. You know, how much things are different, other places, what we take for granted here, stuff like that."

"Mmm." Naoto nodded. "I would love to hear your thoughts on things, being as deeply enmeshed in counterculture as you were. Countercultures, in rebelling against a dominant culture, inherently reflect that dominant culture, even if in the negative. You'd be surprised how different things can be, elsewhere. It challenges our very most basic assumptions about society, sociology, and psychology. What it means to be human. What is universal, and what isn't."

"Huh."

Kanji realized he was staring, mouth hanging open like an idiot. He swallowed and turned back to his coat, snapped the thread.

"Anyway, uh, I finished this one up." He draped it over the back of his chair. "I could, uh, you know, take care of yours. If you want."

Naoto shrugged. "I wouldn't want to trouble you."

"It's not--! It isn't, I mean, I, uh, have and thread, and... uh..." He shrugged, stared down at his knees. "You know." Another shrug. He looked up, trying desperately to look nonchalant. "No big deal."

The bell rang. Naoto shifted her weight off her hands, stood, and said they could do it at lunch, if it wouldn't be too much trouble. Kanji nodded, and it was all he could do not to grin like an idiot until Naoto's back was turned, by which point he didn't care enough to stop, not even when that cougar teacher with the tits what's-her-name came into the classroom, smiling, and everybody froze up a little bit.

Lunch was far easier than he'd expected. He'd worked out whatever sudden attack of nervousness had gripped him in the morning, and he and Naoto sat up on the roof with Yosuke, Yukiko, and Chie while he stitched Naoto's jacket. Of course, Yosuke thought this was a great idea, and dumped his own jacket onto Kanji's lap, right when Kanji was handing Naoto's back and receiving a genuine, rare smile in gratitude, the kind that went all the way to her eyes. He wanted to kick stupid Yosuke in the balls for that, yell "I didn't offer shit to you!", but he just glared and snatched up the jacket, and began to secure his pins with a fraction of the care given to Naoto's.

They were wondering how Yu was doing back at his old school. Chie and Yukiko were speculating whether or not anybody would believe he had dated--was still dating? They weren't clear on that--Rise, who had since returned to Tokyo, when Naoto excused herself. As soon as the rooftop door had closed behind her, Yosuke sat down beside Kanji and stared at him, hard. Kanji glanced up from his sewing.

"What?"

"When are you going to ask her out?"

"Yosuke-kun..." Yukiko said warningly. Chie started giggling, and Yukiko slapped her lightly on the leg, which just made her laugh harder.

Kanji flushed, slightly, and glared determinedly at his sewing. " 'the hell are you talking about?"

"Dude, this is getting really ridiculous. Just... ask her, already."

"What does that even mean, 'ask her out'? We hang out all the time."

"You know what I mean."

Kanji grunted and snipped the final thread off, stood, and dropped the jacket onto Yosuke's head. Yosuke sputtered and pulled it off.

"Dude, I spent all morning doing my hair!"

"Oh, come on," said Yukiko. "Leave Kanji-kun alone. Didn't he agree to go with her to Junes after school to look at televisions?"

"Yeah, that was real smooth," said Chie. She lowered her voice: "'Well, maybe you'll need help, you know, deciding, or carrying stuff, or..."

She cracked up again and folded over her legs, while Yukiko told her to hush. Kanji snorted and walked back to the door. The laughter followed him as the bell rang.

"Oh, come on, Kanji-kun, we're sorry!"

The door closed off her voice. He sighed, felt his cheeks, and stepped into the restroom to wash his face. He didn't have any right to be this mad, or flustered; he knew that. He was patting dry his face and glaring at his own reflection, willing himself to buck up, when Konishi Naoki walked past and did a double-take, stopped.

"You all right?"

"Fine!" Kanji snapped, and Naoki jerked back, eyes wide. Kanji closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and sniffed. "I'm fine. Just um..." He brushed past on his way out. "...got a cold, or something..."

The rest of the school day was uneventful. He stared vaguely at the far corner above the door, wishing he had been assigned a window seat, but glad that Naoto was seated further toward the front so he wouldn't always feel her eyes on his back. He completely tuned out Kashiwagi-sensei's speech about how they were now second-years, one year closer to graduation and the Real World, blah blah--like he needed any reminder that he had no idea what he was going to do with his life--and tried very hard to regulate his staring. He'd love to stare at Naoto all day, cool as she was lounging back in her chair, hands in pockets, staring out the window, but he didn't want to draw attention, so he tried to work out some vague calculus in which he did not stare enough to be obvious, but was not obviously avoiding looking at her, either. It took a ridiculous amount of mental power, so much of which was going into forcing himself to look bored that he did not notice that Kashiwagi was hovering over him until he noticed the class's eyes were trained above his head.

He twisted around and looked up, and his eyebrows momentarily shot up when he realized she was leaning at just the right height for him to be staring directly at her breasts, which were pressed between her arms. He drew back a little, shocked, and quickly faced forward again.

"It looks like I'm boring you, Tatsumi-kun. Is there something more interesting you're thinking about?"

He exhaled through his nose, mouth firm. Bitch knew he was supposed to face her when he answered a question. She pressed her fingertips under his chin and forced him to turn back around. He leaned back so he was staring--deliberately--at her face. Don't look down. Don't look down. Don't look down--

"Hmmm?"

"No, ma'am," he grumbled. His mouth was dry. This has to be fucking illegal, somehow. She kept pressure under his chin. He rolled his eyes toward the window and glared. "How you even allowed to wear shirts like that when you're teach--"

He stopped, eyes snapping open. That just came out of his mouth, out-loud, didn't it?

He was so shocked his head flopped down hard when Kashiwagi moved her hand, and he blinked, facing forward again, as the class started cracking up. He looked at Naoto, who was one of the few students with her back still turned, feigning indifference, but she was laughing quietly into her fist. He groaned and buried his head into his folded arms.

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Naoto was waiting for him by the school gate, leaning cross-armed against the brick pillar. As he crossed the blank courtyard to the hill crest he saw that her eyes were closed, face slack. She blinked rapidly when he stepped closer, shook her head as though clearing it, and yawned.

"How was it?"

"Terrible. That bitch is insane. You, uh..." He scratched behind his head. "... waited here for me, or, uh...?"

She gathered her bag and opened her navy umbrella. Rain pattered on it, a familiar, comforting rhythm. Primordial comfort, felt at the base of the neck, the pit of the stomach. "I needed to go to the library, anyway. Did you still want to go to Junes, or is it too late, or...?"

"No!" Her eyebrows arched, and he cleared his throat. "I mean, of course it's not too late. But you seem really tired. We don't have to go if you don't want to."

Naoto waved her hand dismissively and yawned again. "It's fine. I was just up late reading. Did you forget your umbrella?"

"Didn't think I'd need it."

"Here, we can share."

He reached out a little, until he realized she was holding it out as though offering him shelter, not offering it to him. He bent double and slid under it, looking around, wondering how stupid this looked, until Naoto laughed.

"Maybe it makes more sense for you to hold it."

"Yeah..."

He took the umbrella handle, still warm from her hand--stop being such a freak, god damn--and they walked down the hill to the main road. She walked close, so her leg, or hand, occasionally brushed him, but it felt surprisingly easy, natural. Too easy. The road emerged from the woods and split into wooden-frame houses and empty, paved roads and drained rice paddies, where they took the south fork toward Junes. The sky was woolen, and water sluiced worn furrows at the side of the road down the hill, re-directed into the fields smelling of clean earth and vegetation rot.

They talked about his bullshit detention, most of which he had spent listening to Kashiwagi lecture him about respecting women and teachers and authority while not-so-subtlety flirting with him, and had ended with her asking him if he was going to be as much trouble as he had been last year. When she had released him, reluctantly, after the mandated hour, and he was scrabbling to gather up his things, she had said that she had a soft spot for bad boys, but she wasn't going to put up with any of his misbehavior. Naoto laughed hardest at this, especially because he had done a decent imitation, jutting his hip out and pouting.

"That hypocrite," she finally gasped. "I can't believe she'd actually say that. It's something out of a bad movie, or a romance novel. But I guess it isn't surprising. Society encourages women to tear each other down, and see each other as competition."

"Hypocrite? s'that really the right word? I mean, she's, creepy, I guess, and plays games, but..."

"She lectures you about respecting women when she herself is downright hateful to the girls in her class. She even called Rise inexperienced jailbait, once."

"I think Yu-sempai told me about that."

"I don't think she's forgiven me for winning the beauty pageant."

"You... you didn't even show up in a swimsuit. How did you win that, anyway?"

"I don't know." She shrugged. "I think it was all a joke, the whole thing."

"What, you mean, you getting entered?"

"It has to be. I mean, look at me, compared to the other girls. I'm a cross-dresser. There's no way I would have won. The vast majority of people are put off by that."

Kanji realized his mouth was dry. He licked his lips, tried to draw saliva across his tongue. "...that's crazy," he finally managed. "A lot of people fell completely in love with you."

"When they thought I was a boy, perhaps. The whole 'Detective Prince' thing."

"Boy, girl, it doesn't matter!" he blurted. He flushed and looked up and away, firmly. "I mean, people always... you, uh... you were always intriguing, Naoto. Being a woman, that just added to that. It was so cool."

Naoto was silent. Kanji finally regained the courage to glance down at her. She was staring ahead at the ground, face unreadable. He blinked. I really fucked up somehow, didn't I?

They walked silently for several minutes. The gray-industrial back and shuttered loading docks of Junes rose over the next hill, beyond an abandoned field. Kanji felt a horrible dread uncurling in the pit of his stomach, and he felt like throwing the umbrella away, running, away from himself and everything. He should say something. He had to clarify that. He didn't even know what part of it pissed her off, but it clearly was wrong. But words weren't coming. Fucking Naoto, always knowing the right thing to say. How did she do that so easily?

"Does Kashiwagi know?"

"Wha--" Kanji pulled himself out of his self-loathing reverie. Naoto's face had smoothed out, carefully neutral. "Know what?"

"Well, that her efforts are... wasted, on you?"

"Wasted on... what?" He stopped, genuinely confused. "What are you talking about?"

"Well, you're... you're gay, aren't you?"

Kanji froze for several moments. He realized his mouth was hanging open, and that Naoto was looking up at him, perplexed. He closed his mouth, opened it. A strange sound came out.

"Aaaaah..." He looked around, licked his lips. What--have we really not talked about this? Does she really think I'm... Is this why she's comfortable around me? Unbelievable, how such an observant person could completely miss blatant social cues. So, all those times she leaned on me in the TV, and supported me, she thought it was totally cool because I'm--

"Kanji-kun?"

So when she offered me that back massage she thought I was--does she not even remember all that 'Make me a man!' stuff--

"Kanji!" Her voice was firm.

"I'm not gay!"

For the second time in a few minutes, Naoto's eyes widened and she looked taken aback, and he realized how vehemently he was yelling. He peripherally saw a couple of students, several yards behind them, who had stopped to stare. He rounded on them and clenched his fist.

"What are you punks lookin' at?"

"Kanji."

"I mean--I'm--" He turned his back to the students, shoved his hands in his pockets, and stared off-road. Naoto turned with him, waiting. "...I told you," he finally said. "Boys or girls, that sort of thing doesn't matter, to me."

"Oh." Her eyes grew huge. "Oh!"

She started laughing, hard. Kanji felt his face flush, hot, and he stiffened, squared his shoulders.

"What?"

"I'm sorry--I just--" She covered her mouth, still laughing. "I didn't realize that was really what you meant, when you said that. You're bisexual."

Kanji winced a little. That word. Labels. More labels. Maybe it was technically correct, but it seemed so... confining. Clinical.

"What'd you think it meant?"

"I don't know, that you don't hate women, that you don't mind hanging out with them... that how you dress doesn't matter." She shrugged. "But that's a poor assumption, isn't it? This all makes a lot more sense now."

He stared down at his shoes for a long time. The other students finally passed behind them, un-subtly trying not to look like they were staring, which he felt in his shoulders.  He scratched through a film of water on the asphalt with his toe. Finally, Naoto nodded toward Junes.

"Come on."

The field behind Junes was too muddy to cross, so they continued until the road cut off at a main street, where gasoline ghosted over the earth and rain. The balcony patios were empty, which, given how much water the benches collected despite the umbrellas, was not surprising. It was a familiar setting. Damp seats, chill air, the smell of wet metal and the isolation of rain.  

It had been a few weeks since they had been back to the TV section, the last day Yu had been here. The big-screen they used to enter was still there, marked down a little. Kanji stared as his reflection for a moment. Rokuten Maoh stirred in his chest, reached up through his skin, and clasped his shoulder comfortingly. He felt like a shock, a sparkling in his nerves. Since the battle with Izanami, he felt a great sense of smallness, a void so great it manifested almost as grief. He hufffed and stepped over to where Naoto was looking at more modest models.

"You know, I probably really don't need a TV, anyway. I watch most of my shows online." She flipped over a price tag and glanced over the model specs. "But most of the shows I watch are foreign, anyway. They either don't air here, or they're dubbed."

"Yeah, I guess things are kinda moving that direction, huh. I mean, unless you want a really big screen, but even those generally hook up to the internet, now. Like for those streaming services."

She shrugged and let the tag drop, stepped back. She stared at the TV for a moment, hands in her pockets.

"I wonder what's going to happen to the TV world when we stop watching networked television."

The void yawned, knotted sick in his stomach. He shrugged and scuffed his toe on the linoleum floor. The Junes jingle played incessantly, annoying.

 "That sounds like a question for that damn bear."

"You know, he had some interesting comments about the internet, this morning."

"...the internet?"

"Yes, he... after he broke through my TV, quite literally, he stared at my computer for a while. It was like he was hypnotized. I had to shake him to snap him out of it."

"Huh."

"He said it was... not like the TV world, well, not the one that is currently there. I assume that's what he meant. So it's a totally different dimension. He said he was unable to go in there, but he could see that it was multi-dimensional, uh, kind of strange and emotional. Kind of like the TV world before we defeated Izanami."

"You mean, like, foggy and stuff?"

"Hm." She looked up for a moment. "He didn't say foggy. Maybe 'foggy' in the sense that the fog represented a human desire to self-annihilate in the face of overwhelming existential anguish." She looked at Kanji. "He did say it was 'overflowing with emotions'. That makes perfect sense. People pour themselves onto the internet in so many different ways. It's not just a mirror. Anybody can access it, and change it. Add things to it."

"So, what, it's in trouble?"

"Well..." She shrugged and smiled sardonically. "Not any moreso than would be inherent in its nature. It's definitely something to keep an eye on."

Kanji thought about this for a while, even after Naoto decided that she was not going to purchase a TV--at least, not today. The rain had stopped, but rain-laden air swept into the foyer when the outer doors opened. The sky was darkening. Kanji cursed and checked his phone.

"Did you forget something?"

"Yeah, there's a store I need to get to before it closes. I should still be able to make it. I need to buy yarn for that class I talked about."

"I believe they sell yarn here."

"It's crap." She looked at him quizzically, so he continued: "Well, they only carry big chain yarn, here, and most of it is really bad quality. Like, acrylic, really scratchy stuff. Local yarn store's the only place to get good stuff, small batch, high quality. It's um, on the way to my house." He looked away a little. "If you want to come. I mean, yarn's kind of boring..."

That had been one big lie, about the class, at least. Kanji already had plenty of excess crap yarn to give his students. His real aim had been to get Naoto out to the store to see which yarns she liked. She had never been to a yarn store before. It was a cramped, re-appropriated house, colorful and warm, dark wood shelves of yarn to the ceiling bundled up by weight and fiber. Her eyes lit up when she rounded a corner and found several heathered dark blues, and she exclaimed over how soft some of the hanks were. He was rather pleased with himself. They were of the few yarns he would have guessed, had he been unable to get her opinion; they seemed very Naoto. And, thank god, they were all at least worsted weight. Her birthday was in a couple of weeks, and he would have had to knit insanely fast to make anything in time in fingering or, god forbid, lace weight. He bought a small hank of worsted white--he used white in a lot of projects anyway--for appearances.

When they stepped out of the store, rain was falling again. They stood under the porch awning and watched for a moment. Kanji swallowed. Here was an awkward moment, when they should go their separate ways, but he desperately wanted her to stay. Naoto shook out her umbrella and opened it.

"I'll walk you home."

"It's--don't--uh..." She looked at him quizzically. He swallowed. "Isn't it out of your way?"

"I don't mind."

They walked back to the Shopping District, rounding the corner north by Tatsumi Textiles. Rain slid down the asphalt in sheets, oil-refracted rainbows. When they stepped under the narrow awning, Kanji handed Naoto her umbrella and straightened his shoulders. He was suddenly struck by the very uncomfortable idea that Ma might be in the shop, where she could see him through the large windows. He excused himself, leaned in through the sliding doors, and sighed. The shop was dark. He closed the door behind him and cleared his throat.

"I, uh, know it's kind of late, but you're welcome to come up if you want to..."

"...to?"

"Uh." He looked away and scratched the back of his neck. "I dunno. Hang out, I guess."

Naoto didn't respond. He finally worked up the courage to look at her. She was looking away as well, chewing her lip. Her hat was pressing her hair over her eyes, so he couldn't tell much else. His stomach dropped.

"You mean, to your room?"

"Uh." He looked around, listened to see if he could tell how far back in the house his Ma was. "Sure, yeah. To hang out. You know."

She was silent for a moment longer, then looked up.

"I don't want to intrude."

"Seriously, it's not any trouble."

He and Naoto slid through the dark shop across the broad entryway, stopping at the shin-height threshold to remove their shoes. Kanji looked around, listened with bated breath for Ma, and heard her far back in her room. Naoto leaned in with him.

"Why are you being so secretive?" she whispered. He grabbed her by her narrow shoulders, to a small protest, and marched her past the drying racks and stepwise shelving toward the stairs. Somewhere in the back of his mind he registered how much shorter she was without her shoes, barely level with his chest, how tiny she was in his hands.

"Kanji-kun?" Ma called. "Is that you?"

Kanji cursed under his breath and pushed Naoto harder toward the stairs. "Go, go--"

"What the hell are you doing?" she hissed.

"Kanji-kun?"

Ma stepped into the storefront and flipped on the light, just in time to see Naoto digging her heels into the carpet, as a reflex of protest, and Kanji pushing on her shoulders. He immediately dropped his hands and stood up straight. Naoto adjusted her cap and glared at him, arching one eyebrow. Ma saw Naoto and looked surprised, blinked, and gave Kanji a quizzical look. Kanji stared at the carpet and scratched the back of his head. Ma was already in her dressing gown, and she hated to be seen disheveled by visitors. She was very old school, that way. She was also very old school in her insistence in being a host to everybody who came to the house, which usually entailed serving tea and biscuits and sitting around the kotatsu and having awkward small talk.

She was--probably; he had never tested this--also very old school insofar as having girls in his bedroom would be concerned. And then he remembered that he did not know if Ma knew Naoto's true gender.

"Hi, Ma."

"Oh, Naoto-kun, it's good to see you again."

She touched the brim of her hat and nodded, her usual greeting. "Tatsumi-san. I am sorry for the intrusion."

Her voice had dropped as low as she could make it. Kanji silently thanked every god, Persona, and anything in between that might be listening that she was so damn perceptive.

"Oh, dear, it's no intrusion at all."

"Yeah, so uh." Kanji steered Naoto toward the stairs again. "We've got to start studying."

"You already have homework on your first day of school?"

Kanji grunted an affirmative. Naoto looked carefully from Kanji to his mother, and back, and walked up the stairs. Kanji bolted up after. He closed his door behind him and sighed.

"I'm sorry about that."

Naoto made a non-committal "hun" noise. She was standing awkwardly in the doorway, looking around. Kanji swallowed and slid past her. He had absolutely not been expecting any guests this evening. Well, at least he could say his room was relatively clean, especially for a guy. He was pretty good about that. But now he was viewing it through an outsider's eyes, and realizing again how utterly strange it was. It was long, narrow, and the roof sloped down to the near wall, housing a skylight that currently cast slanted, gray evening light. Rain pattered loudly on the thin tiles, splattered across the skylight. It smelled of rain and damp wood, the slight mold-smell that settled at the back of his nose he could never rid the room of. His exercise equipment was cast off to the far corner, free weights stacked under a simple bench, next to his shelving units filled with various fabrics and yarns and textile equipment. Various plush animals, some of which he had sewn himself, were perched on top of shelves, on his old POS TV, on his bed. His dress form was in the corner, currently half-pinned with a muslin draft. Probably most incriminating, his one bookshelf was filled with shoujo manga, all the way down to one bottom shelf with a few scattered 'real' books, if they could be called that--light novels, kids' fantasy books, a few books that might conceivably be called literature. He watched her anxiously as her eyes moved over everything, taking it in, categorizing. He could see her brain working, drawing conclusions. He finally set his bag down.

"It's, um, kind of a mess, but..."

She shook her head distractedly, still picking over the far wall. "It's fine." She turned her head toward the bookshelf and stepped toward it, looking more closely. Her brows furrowed a little. It wasn't the look of recognition.

"I don't recognize many of these titles."

"...really?" He looked over. Certainly, he had some more obscure series, but most of them were very recognizable titles. "You didn't read any of this when you were a kid?"

"Not the shoujo manga, no. It was... for girls. I was trying to distance myself from that." She laughed silently. "I had a lot of internalized misogyny to deal with."

"Internal... what?"

"Misogyny*. Literally, hating women."

"Oh." Kanji paused for a long time. "Do you... did you, I mean, like, hate women?"

"Not as you are thinking, no. I guess I hated any feminine aspects of myself, because I had internalized society's messages to the effect that anything feminine is lesser, weaker. That's how it is, you know. Women are considered cool for liking masculine things, or 'transcending' their femininity, like it's a bad thing, but guys who like feminine things are considered... frivolous. Like it's a joke." She laughed. "But I'm sure you're well aware of that."

"Yeah!" He leaned forward eagerly. "I know exactly what you're talkin' about. 'cept I never had the words to explain it. Feminine or masculine, woman or man, none of that shit matters. Stuff is just... stuff. Like knitting, and stuff. Who decided that shit's feminine, anyway, way back when? What's 'feminine' mean, anyway?" He thought for a moment. "And who decided feminine stuff's bad, anyway, way back when?"

Naoto laughed. Kanji turned red and withdrew a little, feeling quite stupid, though his stomach curled at seeing her smile so broadly.

"That's a wonderful question."

She turned and kept walking slowly around the room, hands folded behind her back. Kanji shifted and clenched his hands in his pockets. She stopped in front of the workout bench and stared at the poster just above. It was old, sloughed-through white where it was creased and dog-eared, but huge, and an amazing find. He'd helped the old record store pack up a few years ago when they went out of business, back when Giga Macho had moved in, in exchange for getting to look through the dusty stacks of old poster rolls in the back room. The image was slightly grainy, faded, clearly blown up for poster size. Mishina Eikichi--Michel, as he called himself--was singing, balanced with one foot on a floor speaker, fierce and bright-eyed, clearly loving being on stage. Feral roar, curling up his lips around fangs. It was classic subversive punk; he was still wearing his school uniform, an unearthly shade of aqua, but mixed with a black armband with the band logo, bright blue hair, blue lipstick, classic heavy eyeliner. The tunic he wore beneath his jacket looked like a skirt over his pants, red tribal hem over black. Michel had inspired Kanji to pierce his own ears.  

"It's a band," he finally said, after no comment was forthcoming. "Gas Chamber. Uh, old indie punk band. You've probably never heard of it."

Naoto didn't respond. Kanji scratched the back of his ankle with his toe and continued:

"Old record shop where I got it, they used to carry indie bands like this, small print runs. Stuff that's usually only known in the area where the bands live, you know? I mean, now, all that stuff's on the internet, but they were doing it back way before. Back when it was way harder as an indie artist to make it."

"Mm." Naoto stared for a while with her hands on her hips. Kanji tilted his head and watched.

"Is something wrong?" he finally asked.

"I get the feeling that I've heard of this before."

"Well, it's a band. I mean..."

Naoto shook her head and cupped her jaw, rubbing her cheek with her forefinger. "No, no. There's something more significant than that."

She stared for a moment longer. Finally, she turned around and sat on the end of the workout bench, took off her cap and ran her fingers through her hair.

"Never mind. It will come back to me, eventually."

They talked for a while, after that, Naoto sitting on the bench, Kanji sprawled on the couch. Naoto thought that thing he was talking about--how small bands can now get off the ground with internet, get people to pay for downloads, and make it pretty good without having to go through record companies--was an example of what she was calling 'democratization' of art and information, all possible because of the internet. It was amazing, the way she could make stuff that sounded boring and hard really interesting, and really easy to understand. He found himself listening with his mouth hanging open a little bit, nodding, leaning forward with his forearms on his knees. Part of his brain told him he wasn't playing it cool enough, was being too obviously eager and engaged, but he didn't care. Naoto never made him feel judged, or like he had to put up a front. Ma had brought in tea, and Naoto had left hers untouched, so engaged was she in talking, eyes bright. Her face lit up in a way he seldom got to see, unmitigated passion. Her boyish, raspy voice sounded strained, as though she was not used to talking this much at one stretch.

"You have a shockingly good grasp of economics, you realize," she said. "You seem to think you're not very bright, because you do poorly in school, but you have a... functioning, I guess you'd call it, functioning grasp of things a lot of students utterly lack. Regurgitating information isn't an indicator of actual intelligence."

"Yeah, but..." Kanji blinked. "You... you do good on all those tests. You're the top student in our year."

Naoto shrugged. "They're simple. I mean--" Her eyes widened. "I didn't mean to imply that people who don't do well are stupid."

Kanji huffed and kicked at the rug. "Doesn't matter if they're simple or not. You still gotta do well on them to get into university, or anything. 'sa fucking miracle I made it into high school."

"Well, what do you want to do after you graduate?"

Kanji shrugged and stared at the far wall, huffed. This was absolutely not the direction he wanted things to go.

"Don't know," he finally said. "Thought about art school. Learning more about sewing, making stuff, things like that. Don't know how I can make a living doing that. Mechanic, maybe. I could get into that. Something where I get to work with my hands, or make stuff." He finally looked over at Naoto. "What about you? You still want to do that whole detective gig?"

Naoto thought for a moment. "Yes, but sometimes I wonder if I limited myself too young. There are lots of ways I can make a living by solving puzzles." She turned her cap over in her hands, huffed. "Being a detective's always been my dream, but it's not... well, achieving your dreams doesn't always make you happy. There's got to be more."

"...NANA," said Kanji. He sat up and half-pointed at Naoto, who looked puzzled. "I've got some stuff I need to lend you."

He scrambled over to his bookshelf and fingered out several volumes. The first few volumes of NANA. Sailor Moon--maybe that was best to give her before giving her deconstructions of the magical girl genre, like Magica Madoka, but Naoto was smart; she'd likely get the irony. Oh! Utena, absolutely Utena, all six volumes. He pawed those out and stacked them on top of NANA, looked over the large stack, and sat back, thinking.

Naoto walked over and leaned over his shoulder. He froze; current ran up his back, tingling, where he felt her heat; his stomach fluttered. She smelled--clean, that was the best way to describe it, like men's deodorant and rain and dust, but undertones of female, something distinctive, something Naoto. Or maybe he thought that now because he knew her gender. Her breath barely ghosted over the nape of his neck. He swallowed and scooted out of the way.

"Here!" It came out strange, strangled. He cleared his throat and slid the stack toward her, staring at the floor. Why am I blushing what the fuck I've been blushing all day--"These, uh, are some of my favorites. I think you'd like them."

Naoto knelt down and took the first book off the top of the stack, turned it over. She looked curious, a little confused. Blinked.

"They're really good," Kanji blurted. "Really. I know they look kinda silly, but they're really good."

Naoto studied the next book without comment. A pulse in Kanji's stomach was hammering. He took a deep breath and crossed his arms, trying his best to look utterly indifferent. Fucking amazing, how you can be so hypersensitive to any sign of criticism from somebody who makes you feel so accepted. What the fuck is up with that?

"You're sure it's okay to borrow these?" she finally said. Kanji exhaled.

"Yes, yes! Absolutely!"

It was getting late, and Naoto said she had to get going. They went downstairs and Kanji riffled through the kitchen drawers for a spare plastic bag she could use for the books. He tied the straps off neatly and held the bundle as she slipped on her shoes, regaining two inches of height in the process. Outside, the rain had stopped for the late evening fog, though the eves were still dripping. She tucked her umbrella under the arm holding her school bag and took the bundle with her free hand. Her fingers brushed the back of Kanji's hand, and while he felt his heart jump, she paused for a moment, almost flushing, and blinked, looking away for a moment, looked back with a genuine, slightly sardonic grin.

"Thank you for the books. And for everything. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Yeah." Kanji didn't care that his face had cracked into a huge, stupid grin. "I'll see you tomorrow."

He waved and watched as she quickly disappeared into the fog, walking downhill toward the lower shopping district. He stared in the direction she had gone for a while after, though the fog quickly refilled her path, and he fancied he could see the slightest weight of substance, the slightest mask of disturbance, where she had cut through. He felt her distance in his chest. Finally, he sighed, stretched his shoulders, and walked back inside.

Ma was waiting for him at the kitchen counter. She nodded toward the table in the living room.

"I was just making tea. Why don't you join me?"

Kanji huffed through his nose, took a deep breath, and clasped his hands behind his back. He had promised himself he would not snap at his Ma anymore--that childish, selfish bullshit was behind him now--but defensiveness was making his shoulders tense; his biceps twitched, and he clenched his hands harder. He watched as Ma added tea leaves to her old clay teapot, focused on the chip in the ceramic at the tip of a wisteria blossom. That chip had been there as long as he could remember, idiosyncratic. Rain pattered distant on the roof; the smell seeped up through the wooden floor. The kettle whistled, and Kanji imagined he could smell the rust-dirt of hot metal as she poured boiling water over the leaves.

"Sit down, Kanji."

Kanji knelt on one of the cushions and stared at his fists on his knees. His back crawled as his mom brushed past him. She set down the teapot and two cups, and carefully arranged her kimono around her as she sat down across the table and sighed.

"Well, isn't this lovely?" She smiled and poured tea in Kanji's cup first, then her own. "There is nothing better than tea on a rainy day."

"I'm sorry I brought somebody home late without telling you," he blurted. He looked up when she did not respond; she was calmly blowing on her tea as though she had not heard him. He cleared his throat. "If that's what this is about."

Ma set the teacup down and folded her hands in her lap. "Well, you're awfully defensive about such a small thing. It's almost like you feel guilty."

"I-ah..." Kanji scratched the back of his head. "...I know you hate surprise visitors, when you're already dressed down."

"I wouldn't say hate." She took a long drink of her tea, paused for a moment with the cup under her nose, inhaled, and set it down carefully. "I know you're of an age where any kind of relationships, even friendships, between men and women, are fraught with difficulties. There are too many hormones involved, and you're not always thinking clearly."

Kanji stared down at his clenched fists for a while, swallowed.

"Aren't you going to drink your tea, dear?"

"Why're you bringing this up all of a sudden?"

"Kanji." Ma tilted her head down slightly and arched her eyebrows. "I know Naoto-kun isn't actually a boy."

Kanji sighed and scratched the back of his head. Ma calmly finished her tea, waiting for him to respond. The silence stretched.

"How did you know?"

"Oh, honey. News gets around in a small town. And I've always suspected she was a girl."

Kanji gulped down his tea in one swig and set the cup down heavily. He started to unfold his legs to stand. "Well, I'll help you clean up here--"

"Sit down."

Kanji collapsed back onto his ankles. Ma poured him and herself more tea, moving slowly and deliberately.

"I know there's a lot that goes on in your life I don't know about," she continued. "And that's fine. We all have our secrets. But you can't have girls in your room with the door closed, or when I'm not awake."

Blood rushed to his cheeks. He inhaled through his teeth and clenched his sleeve. Ma waited patiently, serenely.

"It's not like that," he finally said. His voice was slow, shaking. "We're not... dating, or anything like that. We're just friends."

"Mm-hm."

"We're not going to... do anything."

"Well, then there shouldn't be any problem."

"Well, what if I liked guys?" He realized he was half-shouting. "What would you do, ban guys from staying over?"

Okay, that was stupid; he was just digging himself in deeper. He clenched his fists and stared at the tabletop, shaking.

"Should I?"

"No!" He stood, stomped, and flung his hand out. That ain't what I meant--"

Ma regarded him, unamused, but not at all scared. He sucked air through clenched teeth and flung his fist down, shifting from foot to foot, restless with anger. His muscles were taut, crackling; he desperately wanted to discharge the energy by punching at something, breaking something. He clenched his hands behind his back and kept kicking at the floor.

"So, we have an understanding?" Ma finally said.

Kanji growled, bit back a full roar, and stomped, hard. Ma took a deep drink of her tea and sighed.

"You really are getting too old to throw tantrums."

"Wha--" Kanji's voice split. "I'm not throwing a tantrum!"

"Yes, you are."

Kanji sputtered. Ma finished her tea, stood, and gathered the teaware onto the tray.

"I'm just mad! What, I'm not allowed to get mad anymore?"

Ma arched her eyebrows at him on her way to the kitchen. Kanji growled, low in his throat, and grasped his right wrist harder. He stomped out of the room toward the stairs.

"Kanji-kun?" Ma called after him. "Do we have an understanding?"

"Get bent!"

He slammed the door to his room, and it reverberated down the woodframe house. He took several deep breaths, shaking, slid down the door, and buried his head in his hands. The rage seeped out of him almost immediately, replaced by a cold, nauseating shame that crawled down his spine to the pit of his stomach. It tasted metal on the back of his tongue, brought a surge of bile.

So much for getting more mature, anyway.

-------------------------------------------------

It was fully dark when Naoto returned to her apartment, but navigable in the light from the streetlamps. She dropped her cap, school bag, and jacket into one of the kitchen chairs, hefting the weight of the manga package. She did not realize how furrowed her brows had been until she sank down onto her bed, package beside her, and rubbed between her eyes.

She unknotted the shopping bag loops, and the first few volumes in the stack slid off, a crackle of plastic. She picked one up--Shoujo Kakumei Utena, volume 1--and stared at the cover, flipped the pages with her thumb. Smell of paper, hint of Kanji's house. She took a deep breath, set it down, and went out into the living room.

Glowing blue butterflies hovered over her laptop.

She stared for a moment. Her eyes were blurry, probably from standing up too quickly. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, waited for the blankness to roll from her brain. Rubbed her eyes. Her vision was now clear, but the butterflies were still there, hovering, fluttering gently in blue light, shedding blue dust. One flapped its wings furiously and spiraled up and down in the column, then hovered again.

Her fingers twitched, hovering toward her pocket, though she wasn't carrying her gun. She cautiously padded toward the computer, tense, and leaned over on the counter. The screen was blank, reflecting the blue glow, the on-light blinking in standby mode. The hair on the back of her neck, on her forearms, rose, follicles going tight, and something light crackled across her tongue. She took a deep breath and wiggled the mouse.

The screen flickered on. She had not been expecting the Windows log-on, but she was still slightly shocked not to have it light up in full. The black slightly back-lit, tinge of grey, and a simple log-on in blue glowing font showed up. It was the same blue as the butterflies.

 

Collective Unconscious Server

Log on

Name: |

I, ______________, give my word that I will take full responsibility for my actions and decisions.

 

The cursor was blinking in the 'name' slot. Naoto typed her name, the hiragana compressing to kanji as she completed the compounds. As she typed, the characters appeared in the blank space in the contract. She stared at the screen for a long time, at the cursor blinking after her completed name, at the small box at the bottom labeled "continue". Her heart pounded, sour.

Finally, she clicked on the box.

-----------------

*The word Naoto uses here is actually the English loanword, 'misogyny'. The Japanese word for the term would have been clear to Kanji, as it literally means "hating women", but the implications are different. Naoto has been reading online literature that differentiates.