This month's story is something that should have been done years ago. Tsutako and Shouko are undoubtedly the *most* love-love couple in the entire Maria-sama ga Miteru canon, but because most of the western fandom has only seen the anime, you don't really know this. "Picture Book" is a story that had its roots in the 30th Maria-sama ga Miteru Novel, Kira Kira Mawaru. It is a "White Lily" story, so suitable for all but the most delicate readers.
The characters are the property of Konno Oyuki and Shuiesha, and I hope that in a future world I can both claim her endorsement and ask that you contribute to her living by reading this and other derivative works based on her work.
If you enjoy this or any of my stories on Worldshaking Fanfic, I hope you'll email me, because it really does mean a lot to me when you do.
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Tsutako sighed and brushed the hair back from her eyes. Just one more pile to go....
She glanced at the photos spread out on the table, made dusty by the wan stream of light through the high windows, and grimaced. Okay, one more large pile of photos to go, and she was done.
She stretched her back and arms, grabbed a handful of the sheets, carefully protected by acid-free backing, and leaned down to flip through the filing cabinet.
"Watanabe, M. NY20XX." She glanced at the sheaf of pages in her hands and confirmed that it was indeed the printouts of the Watanabe family's New Year's party.
"Yamazaki, J. WE20XX." She said out loud; quickly finding the folder for the Yamazaki wedding.
Shouko's filing system was unique, but sound. So far they hadn't run into any problems with it. However, Tsutako thought, they really needed to work on keeping up on the filing. It seemed like it shouldn't be this time-consuming, but it was. She stretched her back with a loud groan once more, then leaned back over the photos for a final push.
Today was cleaning day. There were no appointments to make, no sittings to deal with. While Shouko was out shopping, Tsutako had promised she'd start on cleaning the studio. And by that, she meant, she'd get the filing done. Now, at the end of what turned out to be almost 6 months' worth of files, she was dusty, hot, her back hurt from bending over. And she was almost done. Just this one last pile.
Pushing the hair back from her face, Tsutako took a look around the space she shared with the younger woman. It was a corner space in an old building. This half of the "L" contained the office, and their living space, while the other half contained her darkroom and processing equipment. It was tight, but it worked for them. She was always surprised how much time it took to clean the place up, since it was, honestly, rather small. Probably why the two of them always put it off so often.
She was nearing the end of the last pile, when a notation on one of the files caught her eye. In the back of the bottom drawer, there was a folder marked WHTUR2ME. Tsutako stared at it, perplexed. The filing system Shouko had devised was simple: Name, Event, Date. This, however, made no sense. WHTUR2ME? There was no name in that that she could see and certainly no date. Puzzled, she reached for it, plucking it from the furthest recesses of the cabinet drawer, then flipped it open.
There were only a few photos in the folder, mostly three-quarter shots, sometimes profiles. All of her. In fact, all of her holding her camera, clearly intent on taking a picture.
Although the pictures were in black and white, she could practically feel the blood in her cheeks and the suspension of breath, as her finger was poised over the shutter. Tsutako blew out a loud breath followed by a cough of embarrassment. When the heck had Shouko taken these? More importantly, how had she taken them? Tsutako knew that when she was in the middle of a shoot, she was totally focused, but really, how hadn't she noticed the other woman taking her picture? She'd always been sensitive to the distinctive sound of a camera.
The irony was not lost on the photographer, who had taken so many pictures covertly, even illegally, spying on her subjects from half-hidden places. Her entire early career had been as the camera club ace, Queen of the school paparazzi - and she had been damn good at it. Certainly, in their first years together, Shouko had accompanied Tsutako on many of these "undercover" shoots.
Even now, when she mostly made her living on portraits and events, she and Shouko would go out together and just capture the feel of a place, or the emotions of complete strangers. It was her form of free expression, her one true passion. And, Tsutako had to admit that, as she paged through the pictures once more, Shouko had clearly picked up a few things over the years.
Tsutako regarded the pictures critically. As covert photos, they lacked the energy that really sold a photo to the audience. But as a too-intimate-for-comfort portrait of her own obsession, they were good. Squirmingly good. Tsutako could feel the blood in her head humming and knew that she was blushing.
Tsutako flipped through the photos more slowly, pretending that it wasn't her own face there, but someone else's. This was an excellent shot of her suspended breath before she made what she knew would be a remarkable shot. And this one, despite the lack of color, subtlely focused on her ear and the darkening in her cheeks that gave away her discomfiture in front of a scene that was both posed yet intimate. She preferred her subjects to be unaware of her presence, but here in the studio that was not possible. There were many times when her ability to fade into the background moved her subjects out of formal poses, into deeply personal expressions of their relationships. More than once she'd photographed lovers looking at each other with the kind of emotion that should only be seen in bed. Of course it made her blush. But she wouldn't hide from it.
Shouko had clearly learned a lot in their years together.
Tsutako closed the folder.
What You Are To Me.
The meaning became apparent just as the sound of the outer door startled Tsutako out of her reverie. She hastily placed the folder back in the drawer. As Shouko entered, she kicked the drawer closed and stood upright.
Tsutako moved forward to take a bag from Shouko's overburdened arms.
Shouko smiled brightly, "I'm home."
"Welcome home," Tsutako said, trying not to give away anything. Her red face could just have been from leaning over. That would suffice. She moved into the back corner of the "L," behind the bookshelves that delineated their living space from the office.
"I thought we'd have some cheese, fruit and bread tonight. In the park." Shouko glanced back at the other woman, "like a picnic."
Tsutako grunted her assent, her mind not on the conversation at all. Pictures of her. Taken without her knowledge. An idea started to form in her mind. One that made her feel rather uncomfortable, if she was honest, but one that became an increasing pressure upon her as she considered it. It was a good idea, but an evil one. Could she carry it through? More importantly, could she stand to be a part of it?
"You're all right with that?" Shouko looked surprised and pleased. "I was just thinking that it was spring and the fresh air felt good. The studio's a bit dusty and...."
Tsutako made up her mind. If she was going to do this, then she had to go all the way through with it. "Shouko," Tsutako interrupted the other woman. "Do you trust me?" Her temples pounded slightly as she spoke.
Shouko stopped, half bent in front of the refrigerator, and turned slowly to face the older woman. "Why do you ask?" then she shook her head, her semi-long hair that was bound neatly into a short braid waggling behind her. "No, forget that. Of course I do. I trust you." Without another word, she straightened, closed the refrigerator door and waited.
Tsutako moved forward to take Shouko's hands quickly in thanks, then moved away from her without a word.
Tsutako knew she couldn't say more. It wouldn't work if she told her. WHTUR2ME, the letters pulsed before her eyes. That was it. The final hurdle she had never taken as a photographer. The final two hurdles, as she hated being in front of the camera herself. WHTUR2ME. This would be the greatest thing they'd ever done, or a complete failure for both of them. But it would be done. She had to do it.
Shouko watched the older woman move into the "lab", her thoughts obviously miles away. She shook herself at the sudden feeling of electricity that passed through the room. She had no idea what had just happened, but she was very aware that something *had* happened. She could feel the hair on her arms standing up.
"I guess we'll just eat in tonight, then..." she said half to herself and half to Tsutako. The older woman grunted her agreement, but never looked up from the computer.
What on earth had happened while she was gone? Shouko thought, while she finished putting the groceries away. Without being obvious about it, Shouko glanced around their apartment. Nothing looked particularly weird. Tsutako had filed, as she had promised to do. The apartment still looked dusty, but one good day with a duster and a nice breeze would solve that. There were no weird packages, no telegrams....nothing looked any different. Tsutako bent over the computer intently and Shouko idly wondered if she had perhaps received an email that triggered that question. But for the life of her, she couldn't imagine what it might have said.
Days passed, while Shouko tried to decipher Tsutako's actions of that day. Nothing seemed any different between them. After that extremely cryptic conversation, everything appeared completely normal between them. Nothing in their schedules changed, nothing in their daily lives. Tsutako never gave her an odd look or said anything unusual. What was she trusting the other woman about, exactly?
Every morning, they went downstairs to the storefront that functioned as their studio. She took care of the scheduling, assisted during the shoots both here and on location. Afternoons were spent in the lab processing, evenings in the office. Night time was quiet, as they read or browsed on the computer before sleep, their radio spilling utterly banal music into their rooms. As far as their daily routine was concerned, there was nothing different at all.
Shouko found herself watching Tsutako in the lab, or as she sat at the computer. Waiting for the shoe to drop, she thought. Waiting for whatever it had been that day to bear fruit, or wither their life together. But nothing seemed to have changed. It nagged at Shouko, but she couldn't bring herself to say anything. Tsutako had asked her to trust her, and she did. But, curiosity was killing her.
When it came, she prayed, she hoped it wasn't something bad.
When it did come, it wasn't anything she could have expected.
It was a Sunday in autumn. The light was fading earlier now. The dusty streams of light from those high windows on the office side were long gone. The sky was a crisp dark blue and the air held an underlying chill. It felt good. Shouko turned on one of the lights on the office side, something soft and warm, almost like candlelight. It was a lamp they had picked up at a craft market - made of glass and iron, it cast deep shadows on the wall. The lab side of the room was dark. Shouko could hear Tsutako downstairs closing the store. Shouko poured two glasses of wine and waited for her.
Tsutako's steps were audible on the stairs. There was a noise downstairs, a voice, then Tsutako's steps moved back down. Shouko could hear voices, but not make out anything they said. Tsutako thanked the other person, then her footsteps where once again on the stairs. The door to their rooms opened.
"I'm back," Tsutako called.
"Welcome back. I've poured some wine. Are you hungry?"
"No, thank you."
Shouko looked up at the other woman, surprised by the burr of excitement in her tone and was struck by the high color in her face. A lover? was the first thing Shouko thought, and then was amazed at the sinking feeling that overcame her. Of course she admired Tsutako - had from the first day they had met all those years ago, when she had been a middle school student pretending to be in high school to join the Valentine's Day treasure hunt. She had been so close to the other woman for so long, they had shared so much of themselves with each other, it hadn't actually occurred to her that she would be jealous of this kind of thing. How mortifying. And how enraging. Had Tsutako been hiding such a large part of her life from Shouko? It seemed inconceivable that Shouko would not have known. Caught between disgust at herself and jealousy, she noticed that Tsutako had an entirely new expression on her face. Was that...embarrassment?
Tsutako came over to the table with a package. Slowly she untied the string that held the paper down.
"Do you remember the day I asked you if you trusted me?"
"Yes, of course." Shouko's answer was slightly too fast, slightly too high-pitched.
Tsutako looked at her sharply. "Ah..." she said. "I see." She looked at her hands, obviously struggling for words. "I'm sorry. I couldn't just explain things simply then."
The older woman walked around the table and seated herself next to Shouko. "I didn't tell you about this, because I didn't know how. I'm sorry." She bowed where she sat, then looked straight into Shouko's eyes.
Shouko swallowed hard, wondering what was going on here, what was this all about. "I didn't lie. I do trust you."
Tsutako nodded without smiling. She pulled the package closer and peeled the paper back from it. It was a photo album...no, Shouko thought, it was a manuscript of a photo collection. A picture book.
Tsutako kept one hand over the cover. "I have been...." She took a deep breath and opened the cover of the manuscript, then slowly paged through the book. Shouko caught her breath and stared.
The pictures showed two women, in a small, "L"-shaped space, one half full of equipment, the other a small office/apartment. The two women moved through their day, unconcerned at the camera that took their photo.
Breakfast. Tsutako laughing at something, Shouko trying to read.
Evening. Tsutako and Shouko both hunched over tasks, unaware of the camera's eye.
Afternoon. Shouko cleaning, Tsuako working on processing.
Evening, Tsutako filing, Shouko laughing at the dust on her face.
Night. The office and lab dark, with moonlight filtered in through those high, dusty windows.
Two women, dancing back and forth around the same space.
The space with one, or the other, both or none.
The camera watched whether they were there or not.
"What..." Shouko's voice dropped to a whisper. "...is this?"
Slowly, solemnly, Tsutako closed the cover and pulled her hand away from it, leaving it uncovered and easily read.
Shouko felt the tears drip onto her hand before she even knew she was crying. She reached out, unbelieving, for the manuscript. "What You Are To Me" was written in block white capitals across the cover.
Before Shouko could even ask, Tsutako began to explain. "I found the folder when I was doing the filing. You're good, Shouko. And....and I wanted to do something...I needed to do something with....for...both of us. Something that answered you back."
"I didn't mean it like that!" Shouko said, her hands flying to cover her mouth. "It wasn't a challenge, it was just...."
"And so is this. It's what we are to each other. Don't you see?" Tsutako half stood, then sat down again. "It's what I do, Shouko. I take pictures when people don't know I'm there. And so do you. I've taken pictures of you so many times, and you've done the same to me. This is us, don't you see? This is who we are. This was the final step and we're the only ones that could do it. If we wanted to be honest with ourselves...and each other."
Shouko didn't answer, but she turned the pages of the book, amazed at the photos, amazed at how quiet and gentle their lives together were. These two women, they....
'"I set the cameras up to take completely random pictures and upload them to the computer. Of course I didn't use anything too personal, but. But." Tsutako smiled, her cheeks coloring slightly. "There's a picture missing. I'd like to take it now, if you don't mind." She pulled a small black remote from her pocket.
Shouko shook her head, although she trembled. "I don't mind."
Tsutako leaned in and quickly captured the younger woman's lips. Shouko thought she heard the sound of the shutter.
"That was the last picture I needed, Shouko." Tsutako took the other woman's hands in hers. "Because that's what you are to me."
"That's what you are to me." Shouko responded.
Tsutako stood, letting the other woman's hand go. "Come help me disable the cameras."
Shouko smiled crookedly. "Why? I trust you." And was rewarded with an expression on Tsutako's face that was so unique that she really wished she could take a picture of it.
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