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Lush Life

Maki had dodged her roving fan club, more accurately, her roving grope club. She’d stuck with sparkling water, not in the mood for any kind of altered mentality. Eli had dragged her here, when she wanted to be locked up in her loft, finding the perfect angles she’d shot last week when she’d found that model with the amazing citrine eyes…

At least the jazz was top notch. A quintet with a trumpet player who could melt ore and the lovely restfulness of no singer. It was a joy to hear the instruments play off each other. A flash of dark pink, but still somehow glowy pink, like color saturated cherry blossoms against a storm cloud, caught her eye. This was a formal affair, and yet, there was someone in a bright, frothy concoction, frowning, eyes downcast, flipping her informally short skirt out of time with the music, the blossoms scattering across it seeming to flow. Around her, black and gray parted with a hiss. With a shake of her sable hair, she tossed her head back and Maki’s eyes followed the graceful line of a translucent, near porcelain throat, lips a pink several shades darker than the dress, a sharp, pert nose and what couldn’t be rubies so must be eyes, flashing with a deep fire, as if a volcano rumbled.

“Hey,” Eli’s voice came out of nowhere, “I thought you’d still be lapping up praise and social media hits from the crowd I left you with.”

Maki shrugged, “Too handsy.”

“Did one of them lean in?” Eli barely touched Maki’s shoulder with hers, amused as her friend jumped to the side with a blush.

“Maybe.” Maki shoved her hands in her jeans, black, to mix up the tuxedo jacket, and wing collared shirt, “I didn’t notice.”

“You, the hot, rich, very-openly-into-gay-girls, redhead who got famous for her actresses lost in flowers nudes, must realize by now that every horny lesbian in the city will throw themselves at you at every opportunity, Ms. Nishikino.”

“It was a gig. Two years ago. And I preferred the flowers.” Maki shrugged, only half paying attention to her friend and manager, still following the flipping, floral skirt as it began to climb the stairs, the tiny woman’s toned legs taking the steps gracefully. Maki could barely make out the voice as the pink lips chattered animatedly to whoever was next to her. Maki found herself leaning forward a little, ignoring Eli’s turn in the same direction.

A shrill complaint echoed in a sudden lull, “What kind of music is this? There’s not even any words.”

Maki’s eyes widened as the entire room turned their attention in the same direction as her, which caused the tiny woman to stop, read the room entirely wrong, wave and say, “Yes, Nico Ni is here. The party can start now!” Then there was a little dance and her hands went to her forehead as if she were going to step in for Spiderman and her voice ranged out, filling the ballroom with nonsense syllables, “Nico Nico Ni!” Her smile was dazzling bright and somehow managed not to tarnish as the crowd began to break into rude laughter, with Maki overhearing people ask “who the little kid?” And “what a tacky color” and “why is she here, so gauche” all of which Maki thought unfair, although the pose had made her seem much more juvenile than Maki’s initial impression. Maki glanced at Eli for her reaction but Eli had swept forward to the taller woman next to the flower petal sonic grenade as the band rapidly started its next tune, crashing into a drums heavy version of “All The Things You Are,” the cymbals presumably an extra bulwark against any further interruptions.

“Hey, Nozomi. Thanks for accepting my invitation.” Eli had stepped forward, hand out, Maki forgotten. Maki’s appraisal of the taller woman with purple tinted hair convinced her that Eli wouldn’t mind if she ducked downstairs. The brash...girl was looking down grumpily, once again flipping her skirt to a rhythm only she knew. Time to switch her drink to something with a bite, Maki thought as she made her way through the crowd, down the opposite stairs.

 

The Mere Idea of You

Maki couldn’t find a flower pink enough. She’d had a series of images overtake her brain, rising blossoms, drifting petals, but this was the wrong season for spring colors. Scattered, edgy, sharp, scratchy half torn leaves that scrabbled over the ground in a scattering wind, that Maki could find in abundance. But it wasn’t what woke her up in the dark, the visions of frothy, floating swirls of color, twirling in the middle of a darkened room, pushing a dark, gray fog back with every frilly flap. She shuffled out of the bedroom, toward her kitchen.

And Eli was there, on her sectional, looking smug. “You are doing me a favor, pal.”

Maki pulled her bathrobe around her, “No I’m not. And give me back my key.”

“You owe me photos.” Eli looked smugger.

“What?”

“You said you’d take photos at my wedding. And you missed it.”

Maki had never seen Eli smile so brightly and stared at her friend, “Your...wedding?”

“Yep.” Eli bounced up, her movements broad and ecstatic. Maki feared an overflow of affection would lead to hugging and kept the couch between them, which only made Eli laugh, then lean over to tap Maki on the shoulder several times, “Nozomi and I are about to leave on our honeymoon and she won’t be able to go if I don’t find a substitute photographer so here’s the address.” Eli shoved a card in Maki’s bathrobe pocket, “Have fun. Be a little brighter, Nico will like that.”

“Nico?” Maki had a sudden vision of dark, dancing pink daring a sea of bland, blabbering black.

“Nico.” Eli flashed Maki the “peace out” gesture. Maki rolled her eyes at the dorkiness. “You’ll have fun.”

“Married?” Maki’s thoughts were circling back around, finally latching on the big change, as Maki caught the bright platinum band on Eli’s left ring finger.

“Exactly.” Eli got the hug in. There was groaning.

 

Too Close For Comfort

The door opened. There she was, tiny, glowing, pink again, somehow frothy even in a short, battered, terrycloth bathrobe, eyes glaring like the rubies peering from under the brow of some recently unearthed statue of a demon demigod. The voice was deeper than Maki remembered, “Who are you?”

Maki stared…and the jewels scanned her over the tip of Nico’s nose, taking in the torn jeans, the spray painted graffiti Police The Police t-shirt, the silk vest…

“I said: Who are you? Are you selling something?” Nico’s voice had just an edge of threat. Her arms were crossed, foot tapping to a tune Maki didn’t recognize, was Nico getting closer? Maki could see that the dark haired skeptic wasn’t wearing makeup, that her lips were not quite plump, but full. Maki jerked herself back, quickly shoving her camera bag between them, “Nishikino. Maki Nishikino. Eli called in a favor. Said you needed photos.”

Lips sheared into a frown like a diver off a cliff. “Eli?”

“My friend, Eli Ayase. She…” Maki coughed, “m...mar….went off on her honeymoon.”

A breathless minute. Narrowed eyes. So much tension. And then Nico spun with a shouted “NOZOMI!” and hustled back into her apartment. Maki hesitated in the doorway while Nico grabbed her phone off a table and threw herself into the sofa, Maki getting a brief flash of pink lace. Nico glanced back, noticed Maki still there, and waved her in as she listened.

“Oh hell no.” Nico threw her phone, Maki had moved behind the end of the couch, curious, afraid to look away from Nico in case the next thing thrown was tossed in her direction. “Did you know about this?”

“About what?”

Maki watched fascinated as Nico muttered and her hands reached out, possibly grappling with the throat of an imaginary Nozomi.

“I only almost met her once.” Maki nervously broke the lengthening silence.

“Who? Eli?” Nico leaned forward, suspicious again, reexamining Maki for any danger signs she’d missed at the door.

The scrutiny was too much, Maki took out a camera and began to fidget with the settings. “No, Nozomi.”

“Nico would have been better off “only almost meeting her.”” Nico clenched a fist and punched down into her couch cushion.

Nico’s phone buzzed, “Hello?...oh no, I am not congratulating you…” Nico hopped off the couch, more lace, Maki decided rummaging with her free hand in the bottom of her camera bag for a pen would be a great thing to focus on. “This is important, Nozomi. The next step for my career...no...no, really, NO...you just can’t stick me with some rando who maybe knows which way to point a camera.”

Startled, Maki glanced up from where she had been checking her lens for scratches, Nico shook her head and turned away, “Nozomi, you know I don’t like...I can’t...you were supposed to…”

Nico was silent, listening, her face racing from displeasure to unease to worry to anger to a vivid moment when she captured Maki’s worried glance with a challenge. Then, after a huge inhale, she snapped “Don’t even bother to talk to me when you get back.” Call ended, but Nico kept muttering, turning her phone over and over, “there’s sharks and snakes and huge spiders, surely something will save Nico the bother of killing that….”

“I do know where to point a camera.” Maki demonstrated, holding the viewfinder to her eye. She took a quick shot of a narrowed eyes that only seemed to know how to get to fiercer levels of burn.

“If you take a picture of Nico right now, no one will ever find the body.” Nico’s lips flattened into a feral snarl.

Maki dropped her camera down, shocked, “Sorry.”

Nico pulled her robe closer, arms wrapped around her torso, “Nico is too...no….Nico needs time to prepare….but….” Teeth bit into what Maki found herself assuming was a softly tender lower lip, astonishingly unscathed by the daggers of scorn slicing across it, Nico’s eyelashes fluttered as her eyelids closed over the sacrifice ready flames and she leaned her head back on the couch so Maki had even fewer clues about what might happen next. She was surprised when Nico sighed out a despairing “Who are you?”

“Maki Nishikino.” Maki knew her voice sounded too gung ho, like she was going to jump on the couch, a puppy begging for praise, and tried to downplay her impulsive eagerness, ”I’m a photographer. And a musician.” Maki didn’t know how to say any of the other stuff, the awards, the museum installations, the collaborations with the hottest DJs on the international scene, the London thing….so she just went for content, “I take flower photos.”

Nico raised her head, one eyebrow jacked to her forehead, “Flower…Nozomi sent me a flower photographer. I need fucking Annie Liebovitz and I get Georgia O’Keefe.”

Maki put her camera back in the bag, trying to force herself to pay attention to things other than Nico, “O’Keefe was a painter. And I prefer Mapplethorpe.”

“Mapplethorpe?”

“Robert Mapplethorpe. Photographer. 80’s. Died of AIDS. Very gay.” Maki scratched the back of her neck. “‘Just Kids’ won a Pulitzer.”

“He took kid photos?” Nico’s voice hit a screeching note, her hands dug into the couch and the only word Maki could think of for the paranoid hunch of her shoulders was hunted. Nico’s robe loosened. Her bra wasn’t as lacy as…

Maki ducked her chin, no longer looking directly at Nico, and attempted to clarify what she meant to say, “Patti Smith wrote ‘Just Kids’, about when she and Mapplethorpe met in New York City and how they both got started. Won a Pulitzer. Worth a read.”

Nico typed something into her phone, scrolled down, and once again, met Maki’s eyes, this time she was gaping, “Bondage gear? Who the hell are you?”

Maki was starting to feel the urge to take her own hands and grapple with something. She stood, resisted the urge to stomp in frustration but with tiny Nico staring skeptically up at her, felt like an angry Fe Fi Fo-ing giant alarming a delicate butterfly, “There are FLOWER photos too.” Once again, Maki’s voice sounded too...vehement. “Sharp. Black and white. Vivid. Strokes of color...” Nico snorted at strokes and Maki blushed, thrown off and frantically self correcting, “O’Keefe is fuzzy, edges blurred, heat lines, quicksand; Mapplethorpe is bold, sharp, icebox cold, magnetic.”

“And way into…” Nico’s assumptions prickled at her.

Maki closed her eyes, hand raised, “Just stop please.” Inhale, force voice to be calm, “I just don’t want you to think you’re getting O’Keefe when you’re getting…”

“Gang of no helmet, motorcyle crash, masochist, killer daisies…” Nico’s mouth was pulling back into her cheek, as if she’d just spit out bad sushi, scrolling through images again.

Maki gripped her forearm. If she gave into nerves now and starting twirling her hair, she’d have no bangs before she managed to escape this radioactive meltdown maze of a conversation.

The air was getting heavier with each second of pause. Maki had no idea how to break out of this freeze and Nico...why hadn’t she gotten a last name...Nico was leaning forward, elbows on her knees, expression something Maki couldn’t read. Maki shoved her hands in her pockets and started shifting weight from foot to foot.

“Give me your business card.” Nico exploded off the couch, under Maki’s nose, a light vanilla scent distracting her from jittering.

“Um, ok.” Maki knelt down, rifling through her camera bag, pulling out a dinged up square after too much digging. She needed to remember to carry her card case. Or a wallet. The money clip wasn’t effective for not money. It dented. She handed it to Nico, who took a moment to read it over. “I only text.”

A flip of ebon hair to match the disapproving head shake, “Nico will get herself together and invade your space.” There was a pause, then Nico’s voice at 90% command, 10% polite inquiry, “This afternoon.”

Maki nodded, zipping up her camera bag, as Nico looked down at her and Maki felt like she should have a bedazzled stiletto to offer, sliding Nico’s foot out of fuzzy rabbit slippers. Hmmmm….ruby crystals, maybe fire effects, matches on the sole for a flame at the toe???

“Nico has a style. Unique. Important. DISTINCTIVE.” Nico snapped her fingers under Maki’s nose, her displeasure a withering scorn. “Look me up.” Another command. Maki got to her feet, feeling as awkward as her first growth spurt, as if she would fumble her bag, break a lens and trip on her feet on the way out the door.

“Sure.”

 

I’ve Got You Under My Skin

“Nico doesn’t do nudes.” Nico stormed through Maki into the center of her loft studio, waiting for her lighting. Nico Yazawa...Maki had managed to track down the last name via Umi’s more catholic intake of popular culture. Well, technically, it was Umi’s wife’s encyclopedic knowledge of anyone who’d ever posted a #fashion pic on TWIG, but still...Umi had been the one Maki had the text conversation with. Further research had gotten Maki to Nico was a child star with a popular TV show who was trying to manage her transition back into the Hollywood scene after taking 5 years off to get both a Bachelors and Masters in Journalism. She’d been 23 when her show had sent her off to Europe and switched to a spinoff with the character of her younger cousin so Yazawa was now 28 and 2 years older than Maki, while still looking like she was barely out of high school. Nico hadn’t gone for a dramatic or rebellious shift in personality as she reentered the entertainment business. She was taking solid parts in A list movies as the funny best friend and waiting for her chance at a romantic lead, although her unapologetic high femme gay vibe seemed to confuse expectations. Kotori had been a fan for years, Umi said, as Nico never stopped doing fashion shoots, even while studying.

“Did you hear me, Martha Cooper-lite?” Nico’s hand was on Maki’s tricep, pulling the redhead’s attention down. There was a plea in the rubies, softer and more optimistic than the rasp of desperation in Nico’s voice.

Maki nodded, forcing her brain away from thoughts of cherry blossoms and what dark pink could be found to match if Nico took off...Maki knew her smile was forced, but Nico was scrutinizing her too closely and Maki wanted to keep the actress from guessing the images her opening demand had unscrolled across Maki’s inner screen. Which meant open mouth and talk. Maki tucked her hair behind her ear, stepping back to half bow and invite Nico deeper into her studio, “You can look around, see what I can do, how I can help you.”

Nico had stopped in front of exactly the wrong oversized print, singer Tsubasa Kira in a see through mesh of green lace, on a beach, ocean foam cresting around her, the greens in the water intensifying the impact of the greens in her eyes. Nico turned, her entire stance accusatory, “How gay are you?”

Maki stuttered, “We didn’t, I don’t...it’s not like that…”

Nico waited, eyebrow quirked, hands on hips, staring down Maki until the hair twirling started and Maki replied and looked away. “Very.”

“Nico needs you to be less gay.” It was so matter of fact, Nico's statement, that Maki had no idea how to process it. How could Nico demand that Maki alter her sexuality...how could Nico...well, if this conversation continued Maki might be cured of being gay for...Maki caught herself focusing on Nico's lips...nope, no cure...Maki registered the shrewd intelligence as Nico read every expression that flashed across Maki’s face. She'd have to be careful.

“I can’t.” So much for that. Maki nearly put both hands over her face, oh my gods, that was pathetic, practically bleating that. What did Nico want?

“Oh my god, you are so…” Nico closed her eyes, her whole body shivering as she held in what was probably a scream of frustration. “Listen closely, Nishikino. Nico doesn’t care who you picture yourself naked with…” Maki wanted to look away, but she was frozen, watching every word drop from Nico’s lips, which was something she’d always thought was stupid when she’d read it in fanfics, but there it was, Nico’s glistening lips embracing every syllable as Maki felt their breathy, tingling impact. No cure.

“Yo, too gay to function.” Nico flicked her fingers close enough to Maki’s nose to trigger a jumpback.

“Sorry.” Maki ruffled her hair, hard, scraping her scalp, desperate to clear her head.

“Nico needs you to be PROFESSIONAL. Nico needs someone who will make Nico look like an ADULT, not an ADULT film star.”

“Right.” Maki pulled out of her slouch, “Professional. Adult. Business-like.”

“Good.” Nico nodded, finally a hint of a chuckle, “Now you’re getting it.”

“Not gay.” Maki exhaled, wondering how the hell that would work if Nico stayed this close to her. Telephoto lens. Yep. Lots of zoom.

“Maybe a little gay.” Nico winked. “But classy.”

“I can do classy.” Once again, the earnest bubbled out and Maki could see that Nico was amused by how quickly Maki flushed and retreated.

Nico grimaced at the Tsubasa mermaid photo, unconvinced. “Nico will settle for vintage Hollywood glamorous.”

Maki tilted her head, PROFESSIONALLY considering the aesthetics of Nico’s profile, the sharpness, rifling through her memories of classic Hollywood shoots. Betty Grable, maybe, cute but could pull off sexy, serious. Not that Nico had that girl next door vibe.

“What are you thinking?” Nico’s urging was a gentle nudge.

Maki let herself ramble, it was essential to brainstorming. “Betty Grable…cute, but classic beauty...although you don’t give off the homespun, girl next door with a pie vibe.”

“Nico can do girl next door with a pie.” Nico puffed, arms crossed over her chest, facing Maki, her back to the mermaid picture, which was relief for the embarrassed photographer, who stepped a little further into the studio, in front of a picture of orchids scattered across the curves of a hot rod. “No pinup stuff.”

“No pinup stuff.” Maki repeated, determined to ease Nico’s concerns. “Agreed.”

“Fine. Are you free tomorrow? Nozomi was going to follow Nico around for the day and I have some stuff set up.” Nico pulled out her phone, scrolling, “I can send you the list. Will you have time to prepare?”

“I can do some scouting tonight. If it’s local, I’m probably familiar with it.”

Nico pursed her lips, reading, “Some of these are private Nico things.”

“Okay. Places you feel comfortable are great.”

“This is very important to me, Maki.” Nico’s phone whooshed as the text sent, “I need to be seen as a CHARMING, competent, still cute, but never cutesy, grown up.”

Maki went to her desk, opening her filing drawer, searching for something. A picture she’d taken of Umi, black and white, meditating in her family dojo, hair falling down, face etched out of timeless Beauty as she knelt. She handed it to Nico, who was silent for a moment.

Then Nico smiled almost kindly at Maki before she let her voice snap teasingly, “Gay.”