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La belle et la bête

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There was something so delicious, Momoko thought, about waking up on a Saturday morning. Without any alarms going off, without anywhere to be, one could let oneself approach wakefulness slowly, floating to the surface of the lake of dreams bit by bit, like Sleeping Beauty awakening from her hundred-year slumber. One could almost imagine the vines withering away outside the windows as the gentle golden rays of the sun reached tentatively through the lacy curtains and–

A sudden noise from outside smashed into Momoko's reverie. Momoko's still-drowsy mind couldn't make sense of it at first, but after a few moments it resolved itself into the sound of someone shouting "Hey, Momoko! Hey! Momoko!" That someone being Ichigo, of course. Who else would be bothering Momoko at the barbaric hour of – she glanced at the clock – ten AM on a Saturday? And in such a crass way as yelling, too. What happened to waking the sleeping princess with a kiss?

Sleeping Beauty, hah. This was more like Beauty and the Beast.

Shoving aside the curtains, Momoko opened the window and stuck her head out (which she hated to do before she'd had a chance to brush her hair, but it was only Ichigo, after all). "Yes, all right, I'm coming!" she called. "I just need to get dressed."

Ichigo snorted. "'Just?' By the time you get all that frilly shit on the whole weekend will be over."

"You say such cruel things," said Momoko affectionately. "What are you doing here?"

"What am I doing here? You invited me, remember?"

"Oh," said Momoko, feeling a bit silly. Clearly she was not yet fully awake. "I suppose I did."

("Let's go into the city on Saturday," she'd said. That she was going was nothing special, since she went clothes-shopping in Tokyo as often as she could afford to, but Ichigo tended to spend these trips mostly complaining, so she usually wasn't invited.

"What for?" Ichigo had replied.

"Call it a celebration."

"Of what?"

"You know, the approaching end of the tyranny of high school?" And then, of course, there was the fact that it was almost Valentine's Day, but mentioning that would be tantamount to admitting that that sort of nonsense was somehow important to her, which was not at all something Momoko wanted to do.

"Graduation's not for another month," Ichigo had said.

Momoko had just shrugged. "Close enough."

After considering for a moment, Ichigo had said, "Promise we won't just go shopping at your frilly-ass stores the whole time?"

"I promise."

"Okay, then."

So here they were.)

"Try not to take all year, okay?" Ichigo called up, arms folded.

"You can't rush a lady when she's making her morning toilet."

"Oh, ew, I did not need to know that."

Momoko sighed. "It means getting dressed and doing one's hair and makeup and things."

"Well, it sounds gross."

"Shut up," Momoko said, and shut the window for emphasis. But she did try to hurry.

In the end it only took her about an hour, by which time Ichigo had grown bored of waiting outside. When Momoko finally came downstairs, Ichigo was sitting in the kitchen drinking a Coke, chattering amiably away to Momoko's grandmother, who was chopping vegetables.

"The old lady is pretty cool, you know," Ichigo said offhand as they headed outside.

"She has her moments," Momoko agreed, though she privately wondered whether her grandmother had actually said a single word the entire time.

Ichigo hopped onto her scooter. "Come on," she said, "let's go."

Momoko climbed on behind her and wrapped her arms around Ichigo's waist, and the scooter puttered off to the train station.

---

"What do you think of this one?" Momoko twirled around to show off the dress from all angles, enjoying the swish of the skirt and petticoats as she turned.

Ichigo shrugged. "It's fine, I guess."

"Ichigo, I do believe you're getting bored of this."

"Well, you said we weren't just going to go shopping."

"And you said it was fine if we did the shopping first."

"Yeah, but it's been, like, hours." Ichigo huffed out an exasperated breath and crossed her arms.

"Two hours. That's not that long."

"Maybe not for you, since you're the one trying shit on. I'm just sitting here watching."

"Maybe you should try some shit - I mean, some things - on, then." Ugh, she was starting to pick up Ichigo's diction again. It was terribly contagious.

"Well, maybe, but..." Ichigo trailed off, looking at the surrounding racks of dresses and skirts and blouses almost apprehensively.

"Come on," Momoko said, placing a reassuring hand on Ichigo's shoulder. "You've done it before, it's not going to ruin your image any further than it already has."

"Yeah, but... I just don't know anything about all this crap, you know? I mean, I don't know what goes together or whatever. You can pick out a dress and shoes and one of those hat things-"

"Bonnets. They're called bonnets."

"Right, bonnets, whatever -- but the point is that it looks right, when you do it. You don't even seem to think about it that much, you just grab some things off the rack and then somehow all the parts go with each other and they suit you. Me, I just look like I lost a bet or something. I look like I belong on some dumb comedy show."

"I'll help you, then." And without waiting for a response, Momoko took Ichigo by the hand and led her off into the racks.

---

When they finally emerged from the warm embrace of the store to the chilly streets of Shinjuku in February, Momoko was carrying one shopping bag; Ichigo had two.
"I can't believe how much this crap costs," Ichigo complained. "I can't believe I let you talk me into buying it. Where the hell am I even gonna wear it?"

Momoko put on her most charming and innocent smile. "You can wear it when you go out with me, of course."

Ichigo snorted. "Right, and we can be the Terrible Lolita Twins."

"Think of it more as if you're the Beast being transformed into a beautiful princess."

"It's more like I'm Beauty being transformed into an ugly beast."

Momoko smacked Ichigo lightly on the arm. "If you expect to ever again get true love's kiss, my dear Beast, I suggest you refrain from insulting my fashion sense. Anyway, you were the one who decided to buy it."

"What, and I can't have buyer's resource?"

"Remorse," said Momoko, absently.

"Yeah, whatever." Ichigo idly flipped her cell phone open and shut a couple of times, then noticed abruptly what its clock said. "Shit, it's late. Way past lunchtime. And I'm starving."

"Well, it's not quite a proper meal, but there's a crepe stand across the street."

"Works for me," Ichigo said, already making a beeline for it before she even finished the sentence.

It would have been more properly romantic, Momoko thought, to share one crepe, but Ichigo was too hungry for that and demanded her own. She polished it off quickly, licked some stray bits of whipped cream off her fingers, and then leaned over to steal a bite of Momoko's crepe.

"That's mine, you thieving rascal," Momoko said, yanking the crepe out of Ichigo's reach. "I'm hungry too, you know."

Ichigo assumed a terribly sad and wounded expression. "Just one bite?"

"No."

"Please? With a cherry on top and all that shit?"

Momoko didn't even deign to dignify that with an answer, so Ichigo just reached over and snatched the crepe and Momoko tried to pull it away from her, and before Momoko quite knew what had happened, a generous quantity of chocolate syrup had spilled down the front of her nice red dress.

"Oh, now look what you've done!" Momoko snapped.

Ichigo looked down. "I'm sorry. I was just having a bit of fun, you know? I didn't mean… look, I'll help you clean it up."

They ducked into a nearby public restroom, and the two of them both dabbed resolutely at the chocolate-stained lace with damp paper towels. After twenty minutes (and a lot of funny looks from other public restroom users), however, they had to admit defeat.

"I'm sorry," Ichigo said again. "I'll pay for a new one or whatever if you want. I mean, I know your clothes are crazy important to you…"

Momoko took a deep breath. "It's all right," she said. "It'll probably come out in the wash."

---

"Okay, now we're going to karaoke," Ichigo announced.

"I can't abide karaoke. That is, I've never done it, but the very idea…" Momoko shuddered delicately.

"C'mon, you had your shopping, now it's my turn."

"I didn't know you fancied yourself a singer."

"You don't have to be a teen idol or whatever to go to karaoke and sing some sweet tunes with your friends. You seriously never did that?"

"No," said Momoko, and did not add because I never had any friends before you came along, not really.

"You gotta try it at least once in your life. It's one of those necessary life experience things."

"Fine," said Momoko.

Not long after, she found herself on a bench in a karaoke box listening to Ichigo belt out the greatest hits of some rocker from the '70s or '80s who was much beloved of the Yankis for living fast and dying young and riding lots of motorcycles in between, not to mention writing quite a number of songs about being a fast-living young man who rode motorcycles a lot. It wasn't, Momoko had to admit, half bad. Ichigo's singing was loud and not always on-key, but there was a nice quality to her voice somehow, and she did seem so enthusiastic about the whole thing.

When Ichigo finished her fifth or sixth straight song, she flopped down on the bench and tossed the mike onto the table. "Whew," she said, "I'm fucking exhausted. I think I'll take a little break from singing and order a soda or something." She looked hard at Momoko and waggled her eyebrows in what was probably supposed to be a very meaningful way.

"Okay, then by all means do," Momoko said, deliberately ignoring the message.

"Maybe you should give it a shot while I'm getting my strength back."

Momoko gave the song catalogue a desultory glance. "I don't suppose they have any Vivaldi."

Ichigo's brow furrowed. "Is that some new girl group or something?"

"Never mind," said Momoko. "It was just a joke. My point is, the music I listen to mostly doesn't, er, have words."

"There's gotta be something in there you know, though, right?" Ichigo said. "Even if it's just fucking 'My Way' or something. Everyone knows that one, right?"

"It's in English," Momoko said, grimacing. "Which is… not my favorite subject."

"Oh, who cares? You just make up some shit that sounds right, it's no big deal. Anyway, no one's gonna hear it but me."

"Fine," Momoko sighed.

She was, she decided several songs later, never going to be a pop star. Or even a connoisseur of pop songs. But all things considered, this wasn't so bad.

---

They wasted half the remaining evening in a pachinko parlor (Momoko, as usual, had great success; Ichigo just about broke even) and after that they ended up, somehow, sitting in a Mister Donut. Momoko sipped hot tea with truly gratuitous amounts of sugar while Ichigo crammed entire donuts into her mouth at a time, mostly to show that she could.

Momoko rolled her eyes. "You're being disgusting."

"That's not disgusting," said Ichigo. "I can be way more disgusting than that." And then she stuck straws up her nose and shoved a donut in her mouth at the same time.

"People are staring," Momoko said.

Ichigo swallowed. "How do you know they're not staring at you and your ridiculous hat, huh?"

"Well, I… that is, you're…" Momoko began, and trailed off, lost for a good comeback. Ichigo started laughing, which propelled the straws from her nose, which was also disgusting but at the same time sort of funny, and so Momoko laughed too, grudgingly.

Once she regained her composure, Momoko sighed in exaggerated exasperation. "Honestly, Ichigo, I don't know what I shall do with you."

Ichigo leaned forward, close enough that Momoko could feel the warmth of the other girl's breath on her face. It smelled like chocolate glaze. "I could suggest some things."

"I am a pure and innocent maiden," Momoko said, folding her hands primly in her lap. "If I were to behave wantonly in public, I would sully my image, which is as fresh and clean as the snow which blankets the fields-"

"There's hardly any snow left by now, you know," Ichigo said, "and it's all slush. Slush and mud."

"You are unbearably literal-minded sometimes."

Ichigo evidently couldn't think of a good response to that, so she leaned forward a few more inches and kissed Momoko instead.

When they were quite finished with that (it took kind of a while), Ichigo sat back in her chair and was unusually quiet for a few moments. Momoko was just about to open her mouth to ask if something was wrong when Ichigo finally said, "You know, sometimes I wish you and me could stay like this forever. Just… keep going the way we are. But we don't have that much longer, do we?"

Momoko gave what was meant to be a light laugh, but she could tell it didn't sound natural. "It's the end of high school, Ichigo, not the end of the world."

"Well, yeah, but… you're probably going to go off to some fucking fancy-pants design college, right? And then what?"

"I haven't decided anything yet." Momoko took a sip of her tea and grimaced at the bitterness. She tore open three more packets of sugar and dumped them in. "By the way, did you get your scores back yet? From the entrance exams?"

Ichigo shrugged. "College is for suckers, anyway. Listen, I've been putting in extra hours at the garage and saving up and there's this guy selling this really fucking sweet bike – a real bike, not a scooter. It's secondhand, but it's in great shape, and-"

"I thought you still didn't have your license."

Ichigo scowled. "I'm working on it, okay? I'm almost done with the lessons. I've just been super busy at the garage lately. I think they might hire me full-time this spring, you know."

Momoko stared into the milky depths of her tea. "Is that really what you want, though? To be tied down to Shimotsuma?" She imbued that last word with the kind of disgust usually reserved for phrases like "a dead rat".

"Hey, I never said that," Ichigo said. "Once I've saved up enough for the bike, we can go anywhere we want. We can go to Tokyo every single weekend. We can go to fucking Paris, if you want."

"You can't get to Europe from here by motorbike."

Ichigo raised her eyebrows. "Have you ever tried?"

At that, Momoko had to smile a little. "You have a point."

---

They took the last train home, and despite all the tea, Momoko found herself dozing off on Ichigo's shoulder as the train rolled past the limits of the city and into the drab, familiar expanse of rice paddies. It seemed like only a heartbeat later that she felt a hand on her shoulder, shaking her awake.

"C'mon, get up. We're gonna miss-" Ichigo began, only to be interrupted by a huge yawn- "… miss our stop."

Momoko grinned. "Take care you don't fall asleep yourself before we get there."

"No way, I'm wide awake!" Ichigo protested, but she kept on yawning all the way off the train.

"I'm driving home," Momoko said as they reached the scooter. "I don't want you falling asleep at the wheel, or rather the handlebars."

Perhaps it was a sign of just how tired Ichigo was that instead of putting up a fight, she simply tossed Momoko the keys.

They rode in silence most of the way home, but it was a companionable silence. Momoko felt Ichigo's arms around her waist, Ichigo's head on her shoulder, Ichigo's weight and warmth against her back, and tried not to think about what it might be like to be without her. How odd to think that they hadn't known each other for terribly long, really – it felt as though they had always been like this. And for just a moment it felt like they always would be, and Momoko almost thought that she could keep driving forever, that she could pass the turn-off for the main road of her tiny town and keep going and going and maybe eventually they would get to Paris, after all.

But the moment passed, as moments tend to do, and instead she made the turn and pulled up outside her house and gave Ichigo a quick kiss goodnight. Momoko walked up to her front door, then paused and turned around to watch as Ichigo slid forward into the driver's seat and sped away, her hair streaming behind her and her coat flapping like wings, neither beauty nor beast but, perhaps, a bit of both.