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Study in Nuance

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Going out with Haruka was always pure joy for Usagi. 

Sometimes the whole pack would go - following apocalyptic rock-paper-scissor battles over the precious limited seats of Haruka’s car, relegating the losers to the bus - and they would spend the day freely flowing from one diversion to the next until the sun hung orange and languid in sleepy purple skies. Together they become a spring of laughter, the raucous bane of mall cops, the self-proclaimed coolest group of young adults in the district.

And sometimes, it’s just the two of them. 

Haruka rolls up to her house in the morning to pick her up. She’s the courteous sort who comes to the front door, although Usagi wishes she wasn’t. With her short hair, shearling denim jacket, and men’s shoes, Usagi’s mother is certain that Haruka is a beautiful boy come to distract from and consequently sabotage her daughter’s last year of high school. 

Frantically explaining that Haruka is a girl only gets Usagi so far. Now Ikuko is concerned about her daughter’s romantic dispositions. 

Haruka remains unruffled and pleasant. Her charm resonates louder than Usagi’s verbal flailing. She says no more than what is necessary and promises to have Usagi back safe and sound at an inoffensive hour. Soon, they’ve absconded to the road, heading for the local mall.

Haruka lets Usagi control the radio. She lets her tune to any station she wants and lets her play it as loud as she wants. She even lets her dig through a zipped nylon bag full of cassettes and a folder of sleeved CDs. Usagi reads aloud the labels of the mixes to amuse them. For Road Trips. The Beach. Working Late. From Michiru with Lo

No, not that one. Haruka snatches it away despite Usagi’s squeal of protest, saying through a faint blush, “That one’s private.”

Undeterred, Usagi opens the glovebox. It contains the registry papers for her car, a pair of gloves, loose change, and a magenta scarf that Usagi promptly fishes out and dons in combination with the gloves. Haruka smirks at her, shaking her head. 

Usagi catches a unique scent on the scarf about her neck. It’s crisp and clean and settles in her nose like rainwater, but its sophistication is grander and more mysterious, bottled up and reeled out from leagues below.

At the mall they sit at the edge of a bubbling fountain and eat vanilla ice cream while watching the crowds pass by. They try on sunglasses at a kiosk and buy their favorites; pretty pink rims for Usagi, classic sleek black for Haruka. They wear them inside the photo booth they cram into, posing like indifferent models in fashion magazines for the first camera flash and laughing through the next. 

They look at shoes. They look at clothes. Usagi becomes enamored with numerous outfits and begins collecting them en masse from shelves and racks. Anyone else might have disillusioned her or curbed her enthusiasm, but Haruka tells her to keep her arms full and try on everything that catches her eye. 

Haruka sits on a bench outside the dressing rooms and waits for Usagi to periodically emerge and strike a pose in each fresh ensemble. They frequently win her praise. When Usagi has finally exhausted her pile of clothing, Haruka asks what her favorite is. Usagi holds out a dress, raving about its cuteness, its elegance. The mauve velvet and faux pearls stitched in curling designs across the back and shoulders make her feel like beloved royalty. 

Haruka buys it for her. 

With one wrist through the looped handles of a lavender shopping bag and the other clinging to Haruka’s arm, Usagi cruises with her down long, bustling avenues between storefronts. Her head is foggy with delight. They aren’t rushed, they aren’t beholden to any agenda save for their own leisure and wanderlust, which the mall has peeled open to accomodate. The glowing stylized font hoisted above establishments seems brighter and more saturated than ever. 

At some point, a few girls start following them. No, they’re following Haruka, who quite predictably can’t help but wink and wave when she notices, but in acknowledging them Usagi has also turned around out of curiosity. When she recognizes the faces of her classmates, her eyes widen and she must spend the next five minutes clumsily explaining why she was holding the arm of this individual and not the other handsome boy they’d seen picking her up on a recent holiday. 

Their last stop is an arcade. Usagi knows better than to join Haruka at any of the racing cabinets and thinks she’s being clever by guiding them toward a row of fighting games, but finds she cannot hold her ground well there either. 

During a third round, Haruka surprises Usagi by asking, “How is your boyfriend?”

The distraction leaves Usagi wide open for attack. She panics, swiping her hand over the colorful buttons and wiggling the joystick without strategy. Her health bar depletes when Haruka’s character lands a decisive blow. 

“He’s still busy with his studies,” she dejectedly answers as the text Player 1 Wins is superimposed over her unconscious fighter. “But it won’t be forever.”

“Does he call you?”

“Yes.”

“That’s good. I’m glad to hear that.”

A new round starts. This time, Usagi is determined to keep focus. 

Over the rapid button clicking and rough sound effects, Haruka continues, “I’m glad to hear he keeps you in mind. You see, I don’t have this kind of fun with many girls. You’re special to me.”

Usagi blinks. “Special?”

“Mm-hmm. That’s why I want to hear that you’re happy.”

By some ambivalent turn of fate, Haruka loses the round. Usagi cheers and bounces on the toes of her tennis shoes, provoking Haruka into folding her sleeves back to mid-forearm and initiating a rematch. 

“I saw a flier for a club nearby,” says Haruka. She flicks her head to toss back a few strands of hair that have fallen in front of her eyes. “Want to go for a bit? Dancing?”

“Dancing? I think I’m getting too tired for that… Wait. You like dancing?” 

Haruka shrugs. “Only when I’m in a good mood.”

A thought occurs to Usagi. “Do you have this kind of fun with Michiru?”

“Like what?”

“Like what we did today.”

Haruka gives a small, amused breath. “You’re different people. So it’s different.”

When Usagi loses, disappointment grazes her but doesn’t stay overlong. She turns to lean back against the cabinet and wraps her fingers around the edge of the control panel, growing thoughtful. “Do you ever come here with her?”

“Sometimes.”

“Do you play these games?”

“Sometimes.” Haruka slips her hands into her pockets. “Why do you ask?”

While pondering her reasons, Usagi diverts her attention to the black carpeting, where her shoes interrupt the pattern of green, orange, and pink celestial objects floating between squiggles of similar whimsical cheer. “You two always seem so serious and far away.”

“That’s just how we are.”

“Not today,” Usagi points out. 

“Well, maybe everyone’s not always the same every day. Or to each other.”

“Really?”

Haruka cants her head. “I think so. Sometimes I want eggs for breakfast. Sometimes I want fish or soup.”

Skepticism befalls Usagi’s expression. “Is it that simple?”

“I think it can be.” Haruka moves to lean against the cabinet beside her and folds her arms.

They listen to the blips and music of other arcade machines currently in use, until another question strikes Usagi.

“Does Michiru ever dance? Like… informally? At a club?”

Haruka quietly laughs in good humor. “Michiru? No way. Not unless she has a partner. I don’t think she likes having all those people around her. A partner helps her focus on just one thing.”

Usagi’s eyes widen with surprise. “So she’s like that, huh…? Wow. She doesn’t show it at all.”

“She’s careful not to,” says Haruka. She firmly aims an index finger at her companion. “And for my sake, don’t tell her I told you that.”

Usagi brings her thumb and index finger across her mouth, miming a zipper. 

They leave the mall at dusk. Haruka takes the long way home and gives them both a thrill when they reach a long stretch of unpopulated road. A practiced hand and foot manipulate the gear shift and the car roars, lurches, and accelerates to well past the speed limit. Terror and paradoxical excitement erupt from Usagi in a shriek. She grips at the seat for dear life, certain they’re about to die.

They don’t. Soon, they’re coasting within legal velocities again, and while Usagi is perceivably rattled, Haruka’s eyes are still shining. She looks stunningly, alarmingly, alive. 

A stop is made at a convenience store. While Haruka is buying them a few boxed meals, Usagi stays in the car. She rifles through their purchases, excited to see the shimmering fabric of her new dress peeking out of its bag.

Usagi looks up to peer into the store. Haruka is still browsing the shelves. Having given little mind to her actions, she also investigates the few small bags Haruka bought for herself. One contains a cerulean box with silver lettering. She turns it over in her hand, identifying a bottle of perfume. When she comes to the side bearing the price tag, Usagi does a double-take and realizes, yes, she did correctly count the zeroes. She slides it back into the bag before Haruka returns. 

They eat while parked, illuminated dimly by the overhead light, that afforded by a nearby street lamp, and what seeps from the store’s windows. 

“What are you doing after high school, kitten?” 

Usagi groans. “Don’t ask me things like that. I’m trying to eat.”

“It’ll work out for you. But don’t get too busy. If we’re both busy all the time I may not get to see you anymore.”

“I guess that’s one thing I’m sure of. I’ll always make time for you and everyone else.”

Her assurance brings a smile to Haruka’s lips. “You should come stay with us soon. We can watch some movies and eat cake.”

Though Usagi’s eyes light up brighter than the street lamps outside the car, she finds it necessary to ask, “Would Michiru be okay with having me around like that?”

“Of course. Actually, I think it’d make her happy.”

“That’s a relief. Sometimes I, uh… worry.”

“Worry about what?”

Usagi is suddenly finding it harder to swallow her food. “Uhh…” She looks out at the small parking lot without conscious subject, and sends her reply on a whisper, “I wonder what she thinks about you saying things to me in the past.”

“Oh, that?” Haruka waves a dismissive hand. “It’s not an issue.”

“Are you sure?”

“Mm.”

She peers at Haruka with ample suspicion. “I don’t like Mamo waving at cute girls."

“That’s between you two.”

“And it’s not the same with you?”

“Well, it is, but, it’s still a little different.”

“Because you’re both girls?”

“N-No,” Haruka quickly responds. “That doesn’t matter. We’re different people.”

Usagi huffs. “It still seems rude to me.” 

“It’s not like that. It doesn’t mean anything. I’m serious.”

“So you’re serious, huh? Like…?” She lifts her hands and slowly clasps them together. The implication is infused with just as much teasing humor as antagonism.

“Like what?”

Usagi casts a prying leer. Haruka smiles without further comment, starts the car, and drives her home.

She has a peculiar, guilty thought. Relief is felt toward the pair having their own assortment of complications, because otherwise Usagi might’ve thought they were perfect and inevitably compared them to herself and Mamoru, who deal with occasional issues of their own. 

By the time they stop in front of Usagi’s house, Usagi has become reluctant to leave. She leans in her seat to hug Haruka, who reciprocates the embrace and blows a jovial kiss when Usagi turns to wave from the front door. 

After climbing up to her bedroom, Usagi tapes the photo booth strip to her mirror’s frame and hangs her new dress safely in her closet. 

At the bottom of the lavender shopping bag she finds a cassette, reflexively thinking it was Haruka’s and she would need to return it to her whenever they next meet. But when Usagi turns it over to the labelled side, she reads Princess in black ink on the center line and realizes it was meant for her.  

* * *

She stays with them for a few days in the early spring. When Usagi arrives, she finds the commodious apartment as pristine and tastefully decorated as she last remembers it. Framed prints and paintings, the occasional tall vase, and low modern furniture, all attest to the level of maturity Usagi has always envied and aspired to.

Haruka helps bring her sticker-covered suitcase in and announces their arrival. Usagi hears a sink running and shortly after, Michiru greets her while carrying a hand towel. She apologizes for losing track of time - she had been engrossed with her painting, which she proceeds to show Usagi. A garden landscape with an arching trellis sits on an easel in the spare room made into a studio. Even with certain regions incomplete or lacking the vibrancy of others, Usagi adores the sublime sense of tranquility it conveys. It’s like another world, another era entirely. 

A promise Haruka made to her months ago is kept. They have cake after dinner and make the minor mistake of letting Usagi cut as much for herself as she wants. Choosing a movie to watch is as equally rife with misjudgment. While they browse a few shelves holding cassettes, Michiru asks Usagi what her favorite genre is. She likes comedy and romance, and the answer is simple enough, until Haruka agrees by saying it makes sense, because sweet innocent girls like her can’t handle horror. 

Usagi rises to the challenge. By the middle of the movie, she has shrieked at least four times and clung to Haruka so tightly she might’ve been a cat extending its claws. Haruka fares somewhat better, but her stalwart bearing shatters when she jumps and exclaims at a few scares, prompting a cool remark from Michiru, who has remained a stone wall throughout, “Sweet innocent girls, you said?”

When the movie ends, the majority of their party do not prefer to immediately retire to bed, for unconfessed reasons. Instead, Michiru paints Usagi’s nails a rosy shade of pink while asking her about the other girls. Usagi spills their secrets with little restraint, if only for the thrill of the story. Michiru smiles and listens attentively, never interrupting for any reason. Not even for clarification when the tales wind tangentially. When she finishes, Michiru beckons Haruka over, requesting her help with something.

She consents to modeling a few new polish colors. They take one hand each, and by the time they're done with her, Haruka’s fingernails compose an abominably clashing rainbow. Usagi can’t help but laugh. 

Michiru next approaches Haruka with a small palette of eyeshadows, causing the latter to raise her hands in defense and say, “Just don’t make me ugly.”

“Oh, don’t be delusional,” replies Michiru. “I couldn’t make you ugly if I tried.”

Usagi watches from where she lies on her stomach with her hands tucked beneath her chin. Michiru is careful and deliberate, her hand steady and her intentions honest. Her lips part and her head tilts in concentration; a lock of hair tumbling forward over her shoulder when she moves. 

As the minutes pass Haruka looks more and more like Uranus, and Usagi is impressed by how the clothes and affects of any gender suit her as well as they do. She doubts she will ever meet someone else who can look just as pretty as they did handsome moments before.

* * *

The next morning, Usagi wakes late. She sits up from her bedroll to see the other bed empty and made, and realizes she’s alone in the bedroom. While rubbing her eyes, Usagi makes her way to the bathroom to splash water on her face, and when she returns to search her luggage for a change of clothes, she cannot help but gravitate toward the small chest of cosmetic items sitting on a dresser - the one Michiru had drawn from the previous night. 

Usagi opens it. There’s a mirror on the inside of the lid. It has compartments and additional drawers, each kept tidy and full of diverse products. A few bottles of perfume border the nail polish. One of them is crystal blue with silver lettering, and when Usagi uncaps it and holds it near her nose, she recalls the scarf in Haruka’s car. 

She sighs while staring at herself in the lid’s mirror, finding her pajama top bland and uninspired. That judgement isn’t fair, she knows. Usagi can look glamorous, too, when she invests the time. The true issue bothering her is the apparent ease with which Michiru settles into the world of sophisticated, fashionable women's wear, which must be inherent. Usagi has no such natural tendencies, only an eye that can recognize and appreciate when she sees it. 

Maybe, Usagi thinks, it’s a matter of active participation. A matter of studiousness and practice instead of inborn talent. 

Usagi grows quiet. When she stays still, she can hear faint speaking on regular intervals from elsewhere in the apartment. She can’t help herself; the bed is bordered by two matching nightstands on each side, both warranting a quick investigation. The drawers of the one on the right are nearly empty. Books, a set of keys on a ring, and a watch are all Usagi finds.

The one on the left, however, contains much more. A red hardcover novel encloses several photos between its pages. Usagi recognizes Michiru as a little girl, posed properly in front of a neutral background, undoubtedly taken by a professional. Her smile holds the same serenity - and the same glimmer of near-imperceptible defiance - as it does now. To Usagi’s delight, she finds a photo strip from the mall. Michiru and Haruka are in their high school uniforms, and their smiles remain bright but uncertain until the final frame, where Michiru has draped her arms about Haruka’s shoulders to bring them happily closer. A date penned on the back reveals to Usagi that they were taken before she even met the two.

Michiru owns a short stack of magazines. Winter fashion from the previous year, spring for the current, and a swimsuit edition for the coming summer. By chance Usagi decides to leaf through a few pages and is surprised to find notes jotted in the margins and spreads, commenting on the shapes of figures, shading and values, and circles drawn around individual hues. It amazes Usagi to see just how much depth and detail a photo of a clothing model could contain, and Michiru’s notes are so matter-of-fact, so economic, that her observations seem like the most obvious things in the world. 

The last magazine, to Usagi’s scandaled interest, is racier than she anticipated. There is no nudity to be found, but the women are dressed to deliberately provoke and tantalize, whether in pearls and velvet gowns, severe business attire, or lounging scantily clad on the beach. It is a high-class, niche publication with well-composed photography in the opinion of Michiru, who has also left notes here. But the presence of her interpretation is much lesser compared to the other magazines. Her notes are skeletal. Afterthoughts. Either the pages have yet to be well-examined, or that particular kind of examination is not her foremost intent. 

A thin sketchbook at the bottom of the drawer concurs with the material concealing it. Women fill the pages. They smolder and engage the viewer with cold stares that deter and invite simultaneously. Usagi sees bare shoulders peeking out of fur coats and shapely legs ending in high heels. One woman has her short dark hair slicked back, brooding handsomely with great care given to the shape of her lips and eyes. There are mere days between some entries, and months between others.

Usagi finds it unusual. The pieces Michiru has historically showcased have very rarely depicted people. In fact, Usagi can’t recall ever seeing her approach to illustrating people, or what kind of people she would draw inspiration from.

These sketches are, by every indication, private. 

Her guilt spikes. She rearranges the drawer the way she found it and sits grimly on the floor.

A knock on the door makes her leap to her feet. Haruka admits herself and leans against the doorframe, dressed and groomed, but her fingernails are still horribly garish.

“Hey, Usagi,” she says. “Sleep all right?”

“Yes.”

“Good. I have to take off for half the day to meet with a sponsor. It’s fairly last-minute.”

“Oh.”

“Michiru will be here. Sometimes she’s fun.” 

A muffled objection arises from the opposite end of the hallway.

Haruka’s smile fades when she notices Usagi’s solemnity. “Is, uh… something wrong?”

“N-No.” She feebly waves her hands in front of herself. “I just woke up, is all.”

“Ah. Well then, I’ll see you later.”

“Bye.”

The door shuts. 

* * *

Michiru is very hospitable to her. After Usagi dresses and finds her in the kitchen, they have breakfast. Usagi talks about Mamoru and Michiru listens with reservation and asks questions to encourage her, but she lends no hint as to how she processes the stories or what judgements she secretly makes, if any. Her contemplative nature makes Usagi clam up. When her last anecdote tapers off, neither speaks again for five straight minutes. 

The next piece of conversation is a surprising proposition. Michiru asks to draw her portrait and promises to give her whatever is produced by the end of the session.

“Wait,” says Usagi, pointing to herself. “You want to draw me?” 

She nods. “It could be fun. What do you think?”

Usagi is confused. She remembers the sketchbook brimming with images of chic women and cannot for the life of her detect the manneristic parallels between them and herself. The implicit compliment floors her, absolutely. If she hadn’t seen the sketchbook that morning her response would have been one of burning enthusiasm. Now it’s only lukewarm.

Michiru places a chair before the studio’s window open to a breeze, pulls back the curtains, and sets up a large sketching pad on her easel while Usagi takes a seat. She gives her some tailored modeling advice: relax and don’t be afraid of moving so long as the adjustments aren’t significant. Once Michiru finishes angling Usagi’s face to flatter her with natural light, she asks if she’s comfortable. With her confirmation, Michiru sits down at her easel, ties her hair back, and begins outlining.

After a few minutes, Michiru says, “You’re very pretty, Usagi.”

Usagi blushes, not knowing how to respond. 

“Your face is full of personality,” she continues without glancing away from her paper. “Joy and dignity.”

“Really? I don’t think anyone’s said something like that before.”

“Then perhaps they aren’t looking hard enough.”

Usagi tries not to smile through the neutral expression she maintains for the drawing. She decides she’s having a good time. Michiru has made her feel genuinely pretty so effortlessly, through interest and, if Usagi is being honest, compliments dealt from a position of authority on the subject. Michiru's occupation is noticing and forming beauty, after all. There are very few people around who could contend her ruling. 

“Michiru,” starts Usagi, “can I ask you a question?”

“Certainly.”

“When you were little, did your parents ever tell you fairytales? You know, princes and princesses, magic and monster-slaying?”

“Sometimes. I was never very interested in them.”

“Why not?”

Michiru pauses to recall. “I didn’t like feeling deceived. Imagine my surprise, years later, to find myself swept up in one.”

“You never wanted to be a princess?”

“Hm. I can’t say that I did. I always felt closer to the witches.”

Usagi listens to the graphite scratching against weighty paper as Michiru forms another thought.

“Alone in the wilderness," says Michiru. She sounds distant, almost doleful. "Practicing mysterious crafts and divining the future.”

“But the witches were so mean…”

“I am too, sometimes.”

The sunlight seeping through the window has begun to feel warm on Usagi's face, but the breeze keeps her cool. “So, you never imagined a prince for yourself?”

“Is there something specific you’re trying to ask me, Usagi?”

She shuts her mouth and goes beet red. 

“It’s okay." Michiru smiles. "You can ask me.”

“I don’t know how to say it.”

“You have to." When Michiru meets her gaze, her smile bleeds into her eyes, filling them with mischief. "Otherwise you’ll never know.”

“Um…" Usagi fidgets her fingers together in her lap, but stops when she realizes what she's doing. It's not becoming of a model. She forces the rest of her question out with haste reminiscent of ripping off a bandage quickly to be done with it. "Do you like men?”

"I have several male acquaintances," Michiru says, unerringly pleasant. The question hasn't fazed her in the slightest. "I enjoy their companionship. But if you’re asking if I’ve ever felt romantically toward them, my answer is no. If you’re asking if I have the capacity to feel romantically toward them… then I don’t have a good answer for you. I can only say maybe. You see, it’s rare for me to feel anything for anyone in the first place.”

“What about women?”

Michiru doesn't provide a direct answer. Rather, she poses another question in response, “Do you remember Elsa?”

“Of course," says Usagi.

“She was the first person I ever talked to about it." An eraser strokes lightly against her work, refining pale gray lines. "I told her that I liked - I feared, too much - the way women looked. The way they spoke and moved. I was frustrated about having these kinds of feelings but not being able, or willing, to give them away to anyone. Not even to someone I was interested in. She encouraged me to try.”

“That’s sweet,” Usagi begins, but laments, “and sad.”   

“She introduced me to Haruka." She pauses to reflect. "When I met her, I didn't feel like something was wrong with me anymore.”

They're quiet for a while. Michiru makes significant progress and Usagi is left to her thoughts. One escapes on her voice.

“Do you ever wish Haruka dressed girly more often?”

Michiru gently laughs. “Why would I wish that?”

“Uh, well, you know…”

“Because her clothes make her look masculine? Like a man?”

“Yes.”

She shakes her head. “No, I wouldn’t change anything. I ask her to model feminine things sometimes, but I would never ask if I knew she didn't want to." 

Usagi hums in contemplation, still trying to wrap her head around things. “Would you have still wanted to be with Haruka if she were a man?”

“Would you still want to be with Mamoru if he were a woman?”

Her instinct is to say yes, of course, Mamoru is Mamoru and as long as he was the same person at heart she would love him, man or woman or otherwise. But there's a less apparent element embedded in the question that makes Usagi hesitate. Would he be the same?

“It’s a hard question, isn’t it?" Michiru knowingly interrupts her thoughts. "There isn't always an easy answer, but it’s interesting to think about. In the end, your heart tends to do whatever it wants, doesn't it?”

She gives a wary nod.

“That’s why I don’t often worry about things like that. Haruka is complicated. Or..." Michiru begins to blend her pencilling. "Maybe she's uncomplicated. Once, I asked if it bothered her when people called her sir. She shrugged and said it didn’t matter. Then, I asked her if she preferred me calling her handsome or pretty. She said she liked both. I asked her if she liked being called a woman. She said she liked it just fine, and again, it didn’t matter much.”

“Well, it’s nice to hear that she doesn’t mind what people think.”

“I think she does, deep down. We’re lonely people. Ever since I was young I felt full of passion but struggled to give it, and Haruka craves the love and attention of others but struggles to accept it. I think it’s because she doubts they love her for her authentic self.”

Michiru finishes the portrait. She grips the edges of her sketching pad with both hands and pulls it off the easel to afford it a final close inspection. "I think that's why we're so fond of you," she absently states. "You love easily, and you're easy to love."

She turns it around to show Usagi, who looks at the rendition of herself in awe. The illustration is soft and exquisite, unafraid of washes of light and defining shadow; flaws given due glory, and qualities of beauty amplified to better reflect what lies deeper.