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Her Shining Armor

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It was beautiful.

Yosuke looked up at the store window in awe.  The dress was the most beautiful thing Yosuke had ever seen.  Long and flowing, sparkling and shimmering, it was like the dresses in all of those magical girl anime Yosuke watched every week.  Only even better, because this one was real.

"Yosuke!"  Papa waved from a little way down the street.  "What's the holdup?"  He jogged back over to look in the window, and chuckled.

"Already picking out wedding gowns, are you?  But you've got to find the right girl, first!"  He ruffled Yosuke's hair.  "Come on, sport, we've got to get going."

Yosuke nodded, feeling the blush rising up.  Yosuke was old enough now to know dresses were for girls.  Papa was right.

But still, somehow…

 

"Heyyyy!  Earth to Jeanne!"  Kyoko waved her hand in front of Jeanne's face.

"Oh!"  Jeanne blinked, jerking herself back to reality.  The classroom was bustling, buzzing with conversation as everyone enjoyed the lunch break.  "I'm sorry, I was just... thinking."  Daydreaming.  Reminiscing.  Regretting.

"'Sokay."  She leaned back against the desk next to Jeanne's.  "So listen, like I was saying, Akane and Kumi and I and some of the other girls are gonna take the train down to Shibuya after school to do some clothes shopping.  There's a big sale event starting today, and we wanna beat the weekend rush.  You in?"

Jeanne hesitated.  She could just see it — walking down the street with her friends, trying on new clothes, evaluating everyone else's new looks for them...  Something she'd never done before.  It thrilled her and terrified her at the same time.  "I'd love to, but… is it really okay?  I've never really gone... you know, shopping for clothes with anyone before.  And I've never really gone farther than the riverside after school..."

"Hey, what's the fun of being in high school if you can't go out and enjoy life once in a while?  You'll be back by dinner, I swear.  Oh, and I'll buy you a crepe — there's this great place that just opened up in the 109 Building…"

Jeanne blinked.  "Oh, you don't have to…"

"C'mon, it's fine.  Honestly, I still feel kinda bad about that whole bathroom incident, before we knew… you know."

"I know."  Jeanne blushed, but smiled a little, too.  "But if you hadn't done it, I might never have found the courage to tell anyone.  So… I kind of feel grateful to you for it.  Even though it was so painful at the time."

"Well, then you can buy me one, and I can buy you one, and then we'll call it even!" Kyoko said, changing tracks without a pause.  "It's totally fair that way, right?"

Jeanne couldn't help but laugh.  "Right!"

"Yes!"  Kyoko turned and waved to where Akane was sitting in a knot of other girls.  "Hey, Jeanne's in!"

"Great!  Is that everybody?  We can leave after—"

"Yo, Akane!"  Kumi waved a magazine in the air as she walked in from the hall.  "The new 'Happy Teen' is out — you've got a spread in this one, right?"

"Oh, man!"  Akane palmed her forehead.  "Don't even look.  It turned out so awful I don't even want to think about it."  But she grabbed the magazine and flipped it open on the desk as the other girls crowded around.

"Whoa, you were right!"  Kumi gawked at the full-page picture.  "What happened?  You look terrible!"

"Ugh, don't get me started."  Akane rolled her eyes.  "The shoot was supposed to be about 'finding your style,' right?  Like, that's what the whole article it's running with is all about.  But the photographer that day, I think he was getting kickbacks from this one company.  Look, every model in the article's wearing at least one thing by them."  She pointed at individual items in each of the photos.  Different models, different poses, but something — a hat in one of them, a jacket in another, a sweater, a miniskirt — was always listed in the little blurbs beside the photos as being by a certain single designer.

"Usually, if I decide, say, a skirt's not my color, or a jacket doesn't fit right, the photographer's cool with it.  I mean, I know what looks good on me, right?  I've had a lot of practice.  A lot of the better ones actually get really into the back and forth of trying out new stuff and getting ideas for how to show it off.  This guy, though?  Pitched a total fit.  Everything had to be just the way he liked it — and he was especially stuck on stuffing me into that awful jacket.  Didn't know why until the magazine came out."

"Man, what a jerk!" Kumi said.

"Yeah, no way I'm working with him again."

Jeanne looked at the photo.  It definitely didn't look good.  The jacket didn't suit Akane.  It was too tight, cut all wrong, and it wasn't her color.  But…  There was something…

"I don't know," Jeanne said hesitantly.  "Maybe if it was just a little…  smaller?"

Akane laughed.  "If it had been any smaller, I would've cracked a rib every time I tried to breathe!"

"No, not like that.  I mean… shorter, maybe?  Or…"  Jeanne frowned as she stared at the photograph.  She could see what she meant in her mind.  With a few tweaks, and maybe a change of color…  But the words to describe it just weren't coming to her.

She sighed.  "Never mind."

The day was wonderful, in the end.  She came home with two bags of clothes, which Mama and Papa tried their best to understand, and spending the whole afternoon with the girls had been absolutely perfect.

But lying in bed that night, she still couldn't shake the image she'd had of the modified jacket.  It kept on niggling at her as she tried to get to sleep.

What did I mean, anyway?  And how could I have said it right?

 

"See?"  Yuto reached into the river and picked up what looked like a clump of mud, pebbles, and bark, holding it lightly between his fingers.  "It builds a little shell to protect itself, out of its own silk and bits of the local environment that it can gather."  He tilted it slightly, looking down a little channel in the center of the mud.  "It doesn't look like this one wants to come out.  But when it's more comfortable, it'll stick out the front half of its body— it looks a little like a caterpillar, but with longer legs — and go foraging for food and more debris it can use to expand its casing as it grows."

"Wow," Jeanne breathed, looking at the larva and its case from a comfortable distance.  It was fascinating, if a little icky.  As long as she didn't have to pick it up herself, it was a safe curiosity.

That was part of the fun of the Riverside Club.  They'd all been brought together by... well, call it fate, or give the credit to Picasso, or what you will.  That meant that they didn't all have a lot in common.  Even back before Jeanne had been able to be herself, she'd never hung out with people like Yuto or Manba or even Picasso much.  Oh, she hadn't hated them or anything, she'd been friendly enough with them, but they just didn't stay in each other's orbits much.

But now — now, on this particular day, Kana and Moe were discussing singing technique. Kotone was giving study tips to Sugiura, who'd been fretting about scholarships lately.  Manba and Picasso were discussing the latest volume of Arengurion.  And Jeanne was sitting on the bank, looking at water bugs with Yuto.  No matter what combinations they ended up in, there was always some sort of connection to be made, something new to talk about.

"It's a good index species for the quality of the water," Yuto continued, rolling the cocoon around in his fingers.  "When the water gets a little dirty, some of the species that usually outcompete the caddisfly can't live here any more, either because they can't process the dirty water, or, more usually, because the types of algae and microscopic organisms they use for food can't survive.  So they leave or die out, and the caddisfly can move in and thrive.  But if the water gets a bit dirtier than this, then the caddisfly wouldn't be able to survive either."

"That's amazing."  She watched as the larva poked its head out slightly, twisting to look from side to side.  "You're so good with insects.  It's not even trying to run away or anything."

"It just takes the right attitude.  If you're lunging for them, or grabbing too hard, they'll sense the threat and try to escape.  Gentle, calm movements are much more successful.  For some species, if you actually touch them, they'll freeze up, making it much easier to handle them."

Jeanne smiled.  "You sound really happy.  I'm glad you were able to talk your mother into letting you study insects again…"

Yuto took a last look at the caddisfly larva, then leaned over and gently placed it back in the shallow water at the edge of the river.

"Honestly, I'm still worried about the future.  It's not controlling me any more, like it was before… well, before Picasso helped me.  But there's still a lot of trouble in the world.  Economic crises that could lead to war, ideological differences inspiring terrorism, ecological disruptions from pollution, the threat of global warming…  There really are a lot of things to worry about."

He leaned back on his hands, staring up at the sky.  "It all seemed so huge when I was feeling depressed.  I felt like there was nothing I could do to change any of it.  But now…  I can't fix everything myself.  I know that.  But there's jobs an entomologist can do to help the environment.  I could analyze the pollution in an area by studying the local species, like that caddisfly.  I could work to keep invasive species out of a region — or reintroduce species that have died out, as part of an attempt to revitalize a local ecology.  I could study how species are being affected by global warming, and what we can do about it.

"I can do my own small part to try and keep the planet's ecology from collapsing.  And I can hope that other people around the world, in their own ways, are trying to solve our problems.  Economically, politically, technologically, culturally…  Other people can do the things I can't.  And while each of us is doing something small on our own…  Maybe together we can add up to something important."

Jeanne smiled at that.  But there was a sort of wistfulness growing behind the smile.  She sighed and looked out across the river, to the buildings on the other side.  "I sort of envy you.  I mean, not just you, but the others, too…"

"What do you mean?"

"Well…  You want to be an entomologist.  Picasso's working hard to be a painter.  Moe and Kana both want to make music.  Akane's already putting long hours into modeling.  Everybody's got something they care so much about, something they're willing to put in so much effort to achieve."

Yuto nodded.  "My dad always said that spending your life in pursuit of your passions is important to a man.  I think it's probably pretty important for a woman, too, when you get right down to it."

"I just… I don't have any big dreams like that.  None I can think of, anyway."

"Well, you're living one now, aren't you?"

Jeanne leaned back a little and closed her eyes, feeling the sun on her face, the wind in her long hair, the pleats on her skirt ruffling in the breeze.  "I guess I am."

"You remember how we were in the same class first year, right?  You, me, Sugiura, a few of the others..."

"Of course," Jeanne said.  "I don't think we ever talked much, but..."

Yuto nodded, pushing up the bridge of his glasses.  "And then I dropped out for nearly a year.  Because of my anxiety about the world, and the underlying depression I'd felt about not being able to study entomology.

"When I came back, a lot had changed.  Including your situation.  Sugiura took me aside to explain it, the first day I was back in class.  And there was something that struck me as interesting.  When he said, 'it turns out Hishida's a girl inside,' my first thought was, 'oh, that's right.'"

He turned to look at Jeanne.  "Isn't that funny?  It struck me a moment afterwards.  It wasn't 'oh, really?' or 'how odd' or 'I guess that makes sense.'  'Oh, that's right.'  Like I'd known all along somehow, and only needed to be reminded.  Maybe it was your body language or something, but somehow… it's like something in my subconscious was seeing you almost as a girl all along.  And I'll bet I wasn't alone."

Jeanne nodded.  "Was I really that obvious?"

"Maybe.  It looks a lot clearer in hindsight, of course.  I certainly wouldn't have said anything if you hadn't come out — just thought you were kind of a feminine guy.  But now it's pretty clear — being a girl was something so important for you it overshadowed everything else, and even when you were trying to deny it, it just kept on leaking out however it could.

"In a weird way, I can sort of relate.  When I was depressed, it was hard to think of anything I really wanted.  It was this big cloud looming over everything, and nothing else seemed to matter.  But that was because the thing I really wanted was to study entomology, and I couldn't have it.  And yet that kept on leaking out, too — I was always more engaged when I spotted a rare bug or a species I'd never seen before, and it could get me in a better mood for hours if Mom didn't tell me to leave it alone.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that you had this big dream hanging over you all your life, one you didn't really think you'd ever be allowed to make happen.  It's no surprise that anything else you might want got sort of drowned out by it.  But now that it actually has happened, maybe you'll be able to notice the smaller things you'd want, now that there's nothing obscuring them."

"Maybe you're right," Jeanne said.  The past few months had been a whirlwind — building new friendships, having fun new experiences, making new memories.  The shopping trips, the maid cafe, and of course learning what Picasso could really do...  She'd just been overwhelmed by all the new things, not least of which was being able to openly be a girl.  But things were calming down a little — it wasn't quite as novel any more, though no less of a relief.  Even her parents were slowly coming around.

"Just keep your eyes open.  You never know when something small, something almost unnoticeable, could inspire you."

She giggled.  "Like an insect?"

He smiled.  "You never know."

 

"What are you drawing?"  Jeanne leaned in a little to see Picasso's work.  She'd spotted his reference book from across the classroom — specifically, the cover, which showed an elegantly dressed woman and man posing.  It had piqued her interest.

"Drapery studies."  It was always fascinating to watch Picasso drawing — and to get him talking about drawing.  He went from his normally moody, grumpy self to someone almost shining — relaxed, smiling, letting the art flow through him.  It often took Jeanne's breath away.

"Drawing fabric can be tricky," he went on.  "The way it hangs, the way it folds, the way it overlaps with itself.  The weight, as it pulls itself down around the person wearing it.  How it creases and bunches as someone's limbs move underneath it.  If an artist is ever going to do anything with people beyond nude studies, it's vital to learn just how to draw fabric right."

She looked at the paper he'd been working with.  There were some abstract sketches that were probably close-ups of fabric bunched together or lying in folds, but what caught her eye the most was in the lower right — a woman's figure, wearing a robe or toga of some sort.  She had one arm outstretched and the other on her waist, and the fabric did indeed seem to hang differently depending on what part of her it was coming from.  Just from how Picasso had drawn it, she could see its weight, its texture, even its thickness.

An image popped into her head — the photo of Akane from the magazine the other day.  She remembered how the fabric had pulled tight on her in all the wrong ways, and how it had stretched and compressed unflatteringly.  And then the other image she'd had, the idea that had popped into her head of how to modify the jacket to look better.

Drapery studies.  She touched the reference book he'd been using in fascination.  "Is… is it hard to learn?"

"Well, not as hard as hands, I think, but it takes practice.  Especially if you're trying to draw something from your imagination instead of using a reference.  It's funny — you see clothes every day, but most people just don't internalize how they move.  Once you're used to it, though, you can draw them really quickly — I like doing them because I can get a lot of practice in a short time."

He looked up at her.  She was fixated on the drawings, almost entranced.  

"Picasso…"  The name came out almost under her breath, as if she were afraid to speak too loudly lest the idea forming in her head shatter.

"Huh?"

"Could you… teach me how to draw?"

"What?"  He sat up slightly, staring at her in confusion.

"Please!"  She leaned in abruptly, looking him in the eye.  "I know it's an inconvenience, and I'm sorry, but I really would like to learn this!  If there's anything you could help with, I'd be..."

She hesitated, looking at his face.  His face, so close she could feel his nervous breath, see herself reflected in his glasses...

She blushed and leaned back, hands flying up to cover the lower half of my face.  "Oh my gosh, Picasso, I'm so sorry..."

"N-n-n-no problem!" he said frantically, waving his hands, his face red as a beet.  "It's okay!  I wasn't thinking anything weird!"

"Um… what?"

"A-a-anyway, I don't have time to teach anyone to draw!  I'm very busy and it takes a lot of hard work and anyway you shouldn't be trying to be a boy again anyway!"

Picasso's words hit Jeanne like a hammer between the eyes.  "I — what?"

"I, I mean, you have your own role models, don't you?  Like — like Jeanne d'Arc!  But Da Vinci was a man, Toulouse-Lautrec was a man, Michelangelo, Degas…  All of the great masters were men!"

"I don't…  I'm not trying…"

"I know people still think of you like you're a boy sometimes, just because you've kinda got the wrong body, but that's stupid!  You shouldn't try to do boy stuff just because they're being mean to you!  You should find girl stuff that's fun, like... like cooking, or..."

He ground to a halt.  Because he'd finally noticed the tears welling up in Jeanne's eyes.

"Uh… uh, I didn't mean…"

"No, it's… it's okay."  She turned back to her desk and rummaged through her bag.

"Jeanne…"

"I think I'm going to go eat my lunch on my own today."  She took her bento and hurried out of the room, not looking back to see how he was reacting.

From back in the classroom, she could sort of hear Akane, Sugiura, and Picasso talking.  Well, talking kind of loudly.  A shout of "You said what?" in Akane's voice echoed out into the halls.  But it was nothing she wanted to think about right now.

 

The school library was quiet.  School was out on Saturdays, but the building was still open for clubs and study, and quite a lot of students still showed up.  But most of them were in their club rooms or out on the sports fields, and it was rare to find more than one or two at a time doing independent reading or working on writing assignments in the library.

Jeanne walked in hesitantly, almost afraid to be seen.  It wasn't like she was doing anything wrong, per se, but after the way Picasso had reacted…

"Oh, hey Jeanne!"  Kotone looked up from shelving some books.  "I didn't expect to see you here today."

"Hello, Kotone.  I'm, um, not really here for anything to do with school.  I just…  Well, there's a topic I wanted to see if we had any books on, but I don't really know where to start looking…"

"The card catalog's your best bet, I think," she said, tucking away another book.  "I'm only helping out here part-time for the student council, but I can probably help.  What are you looking for?"

"It's… well, it's about…"  She couldn't say it.  It just sounded too stupid when it wasn't just in her head.

"No, it's nothing.  Sorry, I…"

She was interrupted by a loud thud.  Jeanne turned in surprise to see Picasso, panting as he leaned on a stack of books he'd just dropped on the table, almost coming up to his chin.  

"Picasso?"  Jeanne and Kotone said it in unison, startled by his appearance.

"I went down to the public library and checked out everything I could find that I thought you could use," he said.  "And then I was coming to see if they had any more books at the school library, but then I saw you coming in to the building, but I was too out of breath to call out to you or anything…"

"You walked all the way from the public library?" Kotone said.  "That's nearly four kilometers!"

Picasso tried to smile, though the sweat and exhaustion and the fact that his face was pretty much slumped against the top of the stack just made it look creepy.  "Heh, heh… It's okay.  The buses just don't run by the school on weekends, so I figured I could just walk it.  It wasn't that hard…"

"You could've at least brought a bag!"  Kotone went behind the checkout desk.  "Sit down, already — I'll get you some water."

Picasso collapsed gratefully into a chair, still gasping for breath.  Jeanne couldn't bring herself to meet his eyes.  She knew he'd meant well; of course she did.  He was Picasso, and for all his tactlessness and grumpy isolation he had the biggest heart of anyone she knew.  It was just…

She looked at the stack of books instead.  What had been so important that he had carried them all the way across town?  She ran her fingers across the spines, reading the titles.  Color Theory in Fashion.  Figure Templates for Fashion Designers.  Clothing Illustration Techniques for Beginners.

"These are… these are all about fashion design?"

"Huh?  Yeah, of course.  Oh, except—"  He pulled one book out of the stack — Renaissance Women: The Forgotten History of Women in the Fine Arts.  "This one's for me.  Akane kind of insisted.  I guess I've still got a lot to learn."

Jeanne was still staring at the other books in the stack.  "But I didn't say anything about…"

Picasso grimaced in panic.  "Oh, shoot…  Did I get it wrong again?  I just thought that since you've been all about fashion lately, and then you were asking me to draw, once I actually thought about it I figured that must have meant…"

"'All about fashion?'"

"Right, with the fashion magazines and talking to Akane all the time…  Was I wrong?  Because I can take them back…"

"No, no, you were right!  It's just…"

It was just that she hadn't even noticed herself, not until she'd seen Picasso drawing clothes and the dam had burst.  In retrospect, it had obviously been on her mind a lot, but…

"…You noticed," she whispered, feeling a little heat in her face.

Kotone looked at Jeanne's face, then Picasso's, then back to Jeanne.  She quickly set a cup of water down by Picasso, then rushed back to the book cart she'd been working from.  "Listen, I've got some shelving I need to do, so… I'll just leave you two to… you know."  Kotone made a swift retreat to the deeper shelves of the library, with only a quick glance backwards at the pair of them.

Picasso just rubbed the back of his neck, averting his gaze from Jeanne a little.  "Listen, I'm sorry, I, well…  I was just a little… I mean, I'm not used to people actually wanting to learn how to draw, that's all!  Or being interested in my drawing at all."  He fidgeted nervously as he tugged one of his sketchbooks out of the stack.

"And... I don't really think girls can't make art.  And I don't think anyone really still thinks you're a boy or anything.  I'm really sorry about that.  I was just kind of panicking because of this."  He opened up the sketchbook to a full-page drawing — a very intricate work in delicately-shaded pencil.

"I don't see dark auras around people any more, or get compelled to draw what I can see in them.  But sometimes if I'm focusing on someone who I already dove into, I can still see something.  It happened a lot when I was still diving into people — like when I saw Sugiura and his dad breaking past their wall, or Honda's mom as Kanon once she accepted he liked bugs.  Or you as Jeanne d'Arc waving a victory flag.  It doesn't happen as much now, but I was looking at you the other day, and I saw this."

He passed her the sketchbook.  "But I still don't always know what it means.  So when you were asking me about teaching you, I got kind of paranoid that it was a sign something was wrong, and I didn't want to do anything until I could figure out what it meant."

Jeanne stared at the picture.  It was beautiful, of course, but it was one of Picasso's drawings, so that went without saying.  It showed Jeanne — not Jeanne as she was but the idealized Jeanne d'Arc, the one who'd always been her inspiration in her head — dressed in a simple shift, kneeling with her hands clasped in prayer.  Before her, up on something that might have been a simple altar, was a suit of armor, but it was nothing like the simple utilitarian plate she'd worn in the first picture Picasso had given her.  It was ornate, adorned with decorations she'd never learned the words for — raised tracings and patterns, elaborate shoulderplates, an impressive crest on the helmet.  Its lines were smooth under the ornamentation, feminine without needing to show skin or emphasize the bust.  And there was a tabard draped over the front, embroidered with the emblem of the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of France.    

It was possibly the most beautiful armor she had ever seen.

"When I dove into your picture, the armor kind of symbolized you protecting yourself from people who thought you were a boy.  And when you took it off, that was when you were able to free yourself up and tell Sugiura your whole story.  So at first I thought maybe it meant there was someone bullying you about that again, and you were thinking of getting all defensive or going back into hiding.  And that you wanted to learn to draw so you could pretend to be a boy again.  But then Akane told me that was stupid.

"And then Manba said there was something he'd read about where before someone could actually be knighted, they had to spend a night in prayer over their armor, or something like that.  So maybe it's actually something like, you're on the verge of becoming a knight?  And since it's about you, and the armor's so fancy, maybe a knight of fashion?  Only you've got to pray about it a lot first?  Or something like that."

Jeanne held the paper up to the light.  She held it delicately, almost feeling as though something that beautiful would crumble if she breathed on it wrong.  "I think you're right.  Mostly.  I've been thinking about clothes and design a lot recently for some reason.  I feel like this is something I want to at least try… but I really don't know how.  Akane knows fashion, but she's never designed anything before.  So I thought, you're the only person I know who's done anything with visual arts…"

"Yeah, and, I mean, I don't actually know anything about fashion, but I paged through a couple of the books while I was picking them up, and I realized that maybe actually knowing what people like to wear would maybe help inspire me when I'm painting a scene I'm not just relying on existing reference poses or whatever…"

"So... you're okay with taking the time to help teach me?  I know fashion design isn't really your thing…"

"It's actually kind of interesting, now that I take a look at it," Picasso said, slipping into his element as he opened one of the books.  "Knowing how drapery works helps, of course, but since the whole point of it is to show the concept of the clothes, not the actual reality of them, you can get away with a more minimalist, stylized look.  And your figure drawing doesn't have to be perfect, you just have to get the proportions about right.  Look, here, this picture — the clothes are done in detail, but they don't show a lot of their real weight, and the person wearing them is just a silhouette…"

Jeanne sat down, sliding her chair in next to him.  "Oh, I see.  And it looks like they were using… colored pencils?"  She leaned in over the book next to him.

"Yeah, which is probably important, because I'm sure if you're making clothes you want to get the colors right, and mixing paints properly is probably a skill that takes too much time to learn, so if you can just get pencils close to the color of the types of cloth you like to use…"

The conversation quickly grew more and more animated, with the two of them leaning in over the same books, pointing out details, sketching examples in one of Picasso's sketchbooks, and occasionally arguing about some point they only mostly agreed on, with much waving of hands and the occasional moment of inspiration leading them to realize they'd both been right all along.

Hours passed like minutes.  Over behind the checkout desk, Kotone was frantically alternating between writing something down in a notebook and just staring at them in eager fascination.

It was probably for the best that they were both too busy to notice.

 

"From now on, we'll call you Jeanne."

"Picasso..."

Hishida looked back at them all in shock and uncertainty.  She'd confessed to her memory of Chiaki, confessed to Sugiura after he'd stopped her from jumping into the river.  But seeing all of them, shadowed by the sunset, and knowing they'd listened to everything she'd confessed…

But they weren't shocked, or disgusted.  Some of them were crying, even.  Kyoko, who'd led all of them to the bathroom, who'd been the harshest on her of all, was sobbing uncontrollably.  None of the boys were looking anything worse than a little uncomfortable.  None of the girls were anything less than compassionate.

"Picasso! You can't just pick a new name for someone!"  Sawaragi Akane, one of the prettiest and, these days, most popular girls in the class, scolded him, oblivious to the irony.  "That's totally rude.  Hishida should get to pick her own name."

"I...  No, I mean, Jeanne is fine, but..."  She couldn't help but just stare at everyone.  "You... you're really all... okay with this?"

Sensei cleared his throat, looking a little uncomfortable.  "Yos— um, Jea—  Hishida, I think under the circumstances we... well, it's clear that this is very important to you.  I..."  He fidgeted with the collar of his jacket.  "I took a few psychology courses back in college, though I never expected... That is to say, I know a little about gender identity disorder, and it's clear that the way your parents tried to deal with it was..."  He cleared his throat.  "In any case.  I'll talk to the other teaching staff about this, if you like.  We might be able to put in a word with your parents...   We could also check the school policies — I don't know if they'd really allow it, but if you had the option to wear the girls' uniform..."

"That's a great idea!" Ogura Kotone, the student council president, said with enthusiasm.  "I could go on line tonight for research, and make some handouts on gender identity disorder.  I won't let them make excuses!  Jeanne's obviously a girl, so there's no reason she shouldn't be allowed to dress like it!"

 Kyoko, the girl who'd followed her to the bathroom and outed her, sniffled loudly and rubbed her eyes with the back of her sleeve.  "I'll help!  I'm so sorry, Jeanne, you've got to let me make it up to you..."

 And then the crowd dissolved into a babble of voices, people talking with each other to explain what they might still not be clear on, to make plans for the future, to talk to Sensei about the best course of action, to comfort the ones who were still crying...

"...no, see, it's like, you know that thing where people have different color eyes?  Heterochromia or whatever..."

"...come in half an hour early, so I can stop by the staff room with the handouts.  If you want to come..."

"...so, it's like the brain's one color and the body's another?  Yeah, okay, that's weird, but I think I kinda..."

"Kyoko, it's okay!  Don't cry, she's... she's gonna be okay...  she...  she said...  uwahhhhh!"

Only one student was still focused on her alone.  Picasso looked at her with a surprisingly calm, knowing expression.  "See?  The people you were fighting as your enemies... might not really be your enemies."

Jeanne had the strangest feeling of deja vu.  Had he said that before?  She couldn't remember it... but it seemed so familiar.

She smiled, even as she felt her tears starting to overflow.  "Yeah...  You're right."

And then, for no reason she could explain, except that it just felt right:

"Thank you."

 

"Hello!  Earth to Jeanne!"

Jeanne blinked, then focused again.  "Oh, I'm sorry, Akane.  I was just... reminiscing.  I was years away..."

"Don't get too daydreamy," Akane said.  "The show's not quite over yet."

"You're absolutely right," Jeanne said, briskly wiping her eyes and looking away from the mirror.  "Here, let me see your dress."

Akane spun around playfully, letting the hem of the dress flare out.  "Well?  How do I look?"

Jeanne looked at her with a critical eye.  "The shoulder needs to be higher.  It's sliding down a little too far.  Just give me a moment…"  She pulled a pin from a nearby pincushion and went to work adjusting the fabric.

"This is the last outfit, right?  I've got to tell you, I never knew runway modeling was so exhausting."

"I'm so sorry about this!" Jeanne said, stepping back and clasping her hands together.  "I wouldn't have called you in if one of the models hadn't gotten sick at the last minute…"

"Hey, I never said I didn't like it!"  Akane flashed her a smile.  "Besides, I've got to get my fun in while I can.  This isn't like high school — who knows how many years of modeling I've got left in me?"

"Oh, stop that," Jeanne said with a fond smile.  "You look as good as you ever did — better, even."

Akane winked at her.  "Yeah, yeah, but we all know who's really going to be stealing the show tonight, right?"  She laughed, and Jeanne couldn't help but giggle herself as Akane headed out on stage.

She watched Akane's first few steps, gauging the crowd's reaction, then turned to the mirror.

Her own dress was perfect.

Long and flowing, sparkling and shimmering.  Subtle patterns around the hem evoking the image of fleurs-de-lis without being obtrusive.  She'd spent weeks getting it just right, making sure it both fit and flattered, and that it looked just like she'd always dreamed it would.  

Just getting invited to this show had been an incredible honor, and an amazing step to further her career.  But in her heart, she knew that this gown was more important to her than anything else that would happen tonight.

"And now, our final presentation of the evening.  Tokyo Fashion 109 is proud to present an exclusive new gown designed, crafted, and modeled by tonight's star designer, Ms. Jeanne Hishida." 

Her cue.  She couldn't stop the feeling of butterflies, deep in her stomach.  This wasn't her first time in front of large crowds, and far from the first time she would be showing off her designs to people, but to actually be wearing one at the time — and one so important, too…

But this was far too big a night to be ruined by mere nerves.  Taking a deep breath, she picked up the prop bouquet she'd left by the runway entrance, and stepped out.

It probably wasn't a huge crowd, by fashion industry standards.  She still wasn't quite there yet.  But it was big enough to thrill her — and buoy her up with a little pride.  Still, as she smiled and looked down past the footlights, it wasn't the reporters or the fashion industry big names she was looking for.

"The wedding gown, 'Liberte,' was created for the occasion of Ms. Hishida's upcoming wedding.  It debuts here tonight in an exclusive engagement, and is crafted in the style of..."

And there he was, of course, in the front row.  He wasn't even looking at her, or any of the models who were lined up by the curtain, applauding her — he had his sketchpad and 2B out, and was frantically trying to capture something on paper.  Something he'd seen, or maybe just something he'd been inspired by.

She just had to smile.  Some people changed so much in their lifetimes.  But some people never would.  And that was just fine with her.