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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.”

Chapter Text

Just Your Smile

Maki had been roaming the Northwestern Campus until late, scouting Nico’s list, but had still woken up before her alarm, strangely nervous. And now, here she was, knocking on Nico’s door, three camera bags slung around her, completely uncertain what to expect when that door opened. She closed her eyes, picturing Nico standing in her office, “Nico needs you to be less gay.” Still a demand Maki didn’t know how to process. Nico was attractive, Nico wanted to be seen as attractive, what the hell difference did Maki’s level of gay (high, very high, International Space station high) make to Nico. Maki found herself grumbling and about to kick the ground in front of Nico’s door with her toe. Which would be bad if Nico opened the door at that exact moment and Maki fell into her…

“Nishikino.” Nico’s voice was dry, Maki glanced down, into now familiar depths of ruby, framed by dark, elongated eyelashes. Maki pulled back, frowning, Nico’s lips stop sign red bright, none of the dark pink that laid so well against her skin. Maki found herself evaluating Nico’s clothing choices, demure black skirt, boringly business class pinstripe, white shirt, black ribbon at the neck, peeking out over a striped red sweater. Eyes and lips hit the red theme hard, a bold red that Maki found off putting and over trying.

“You looked better yesterday morning. With no makeup.” Maki announced as Nico stepped aside to allow her entry. Maki got inside Nico’s apartment before what she said registered with the actress.

“What did you say?” Nico’s voice nearly qualified as a shriek.

Maki put her bags down on Nico’s table, unzipping her coat, “You look better without makeup. More natural.”

There was a cough. Someone else in the apartment. Maki looked up, surprised, halfway out of her coat. A small woman stood in Nico’s kitchen.

Nico brushed past Maki, hands open as she approached the kitchen, voice drawling an apology, “I’m so sorry, Mallory. Nozomi left the country and stuck me with some artsy photographer with no social skills.” Nico turned, keeping between Maki and this Mallory person, eyes narrowed, voice a sharp reprimand, “Maki, this is Mallory, my FAVORITE makeup artist and stylist. Mallory, this is Maki, a jerk.”

Mallory giggled as Nico bounced up and down with ire and indignation. Then, with a huff and a shake of her head at Maki, Nico turned, air kissed Mallory and whispered, “Thanks. Nico loves you. “ Another air kiss. “I can handle it from here. I really appreciate your EXPERTISE.” Maki knew the emphasis was aimed at her.

“Call me if you need anything.” Mallory smiled at Maki, but her voice had no cheer, “I know a few people who can point a camera.”

Nico slapped the counter, chuckling as Maki got redder and redder behind her back. Anger or embarrassment, either would have been trigger enough, but this was both, too potent a cocktail for Maki to handle in a comfortable place. Here, where she’d always felt at least half a step behind, it was impossible to stop the way her heartbeat rocketed and her chest clamped down on her breathing. She tried inhaling, stretching...maybe pulling out a camera. Maki knelt and opened her primary bag as Nico and Mallory whispered their goodbyes at the door.

Nico was back in the kitchen by the time Maki looked up again, not having acknowledged the presence of the photographer in any way, tying on a cute full apron, pink with scattered cartoon hearts, around her waist. As Maki rose to her feet, favorite camera for interior shots in hand, Nico raised a hand to summon her closer.

“First” Nico’s hands were on her hips, her head tilted forward, her eyes narrowed and so intensely focused on Maki that the redhead felt as if she were an animal trapped in a lab cage, about to be tested, “Nico pulls off ‘girl next door” like you wouldn’t believe and made a pie to prove it.” Maki just stared, and Nico sighed, speaking slowly and deliberately, “Nico is going to open the oven door, pull out the pie, and you, substitute photographer on probation, are going to take pictures.”

Maki nodded, raising her camera, testing the settings, “Got it.”

“Not gay pictures.” Nico added, no wink.

Maki shrugged and licked her lips. Nico sighed again, but smiled at the camera and very deliberately opened the door, slid the pie out, winked at the camera, gracefully and carefully placed the pie in front of Maki’s nose on the counter as Maki clicked the shutter madly, trying to get shots that didn’t capture the steam rising off the crust. The smell of cinnamon and apple and tartly sweet filled Maki’s mouth and her stomach rumbled.

“Nico was going to let you taste the proof, but then you were rude to Nico’s very expensive, award winning makeup artist.” Nico's arms were crossed.

Maki didn’t mean to pout, but the pie smelled so good and her breakfast had been huge mug of coffee and something that was mostly a texture, flat, tasteless, and crispy. The pie smelled like stacked layers of softly crunchy, melting joy.

Maki had been staring at the pie long enough that Nico tapped her on the hand, “Oh my god, you’re gay for pie too.”

Maki shook her head, swallowing saliva and embarrassment, “Just hungry.”

Nico held up a single finger, “One piece, IF you tell Nico how great she looks.”

Maki twirled a twist of hair, glancing away from Nico’s mischief, “I’ll wait for lunch.”

Nico threw up both hands, “How hard is it to not...”

A knock on the door. Nico frowned, moving to glance through the peephole. ‘Mama?” Nico said in confusion and opened the door.

Taking advantage of Nico’s distraction, Maki put the camera down, found a fork and stuck it into the pie, eager for a taste. One of her dumber moves as the hot, clinging, filling nearly burnt a hole in her tongue, no taste registering at all, just moist, heavy, hurtful heat. Maki ran to the sink, dropping the pie filling out of her mouth and grabbing anything to put cold water and her tongue in.

“Who’s the girl, Nico? You didn’t tell me you were dating.”

Maki turned her head, blinking, cold water swirling in her mouth...Nico froze for a moment, then picked up the fork Maki had dropped, stabbed the pie with it, snarled at Maki and turned back to her mother, “This is the photographer Nozomi’s wife found me.” Nico glared over her shoulder, “She’s not housebroken.”

Maki spit out the water with a “Hey” but when Nico’s shooting embers of burning lava glare turned in her direction again, she found herself silenced.

“I’m Nico’s mother,” Mrs Yazawa extended her hand. The resemblance between mother and daughter was uncanny, although friendly to Maki apparently didn't pass down the family tree as Nico continued to scowl.

Maki shook it, wanting another cold water rinse to cool the throbbing of her tongue, but unwilling to have Nico accuse her of rudeness again. “Maki Nishikino.”

Nico’s mother tilted her head, “You had an exhibit at University of Illinois’s Gallery 400 last year, didn’t you?”

Nico leaned her elbow on the counter, watching her mother.

Maki nodded, “Yeah, the University wanted to showcase my Urban Fairytales series and highlight the architectural elements.”

“I saw those. It was interesting. I couldn’t decide if you were paying more attention to the buildings or the models.” Her mother looked at Nico, then back at Maki. “And you’re a friend of Nozomi’s?”

“No.” Nico rolled her eyes at Maki’s too definite disclaimer, “Her wife, Eli, is my manager.”

“Well, however you ended up in my daughter’s kitchen, it’s nice to meet you, Maki Nishikino. You obviously have talent. Please take care of Nico.”

Maki managed a mumble of agreement and salute with her camera, flustered by the sincerity of the request.

Nico pulled at her mother’s arm, whining, “Mama. Stop talking to Maki and tell me why you’re here.”

“Cotorou’s school has a half day and Cocoa has a basketball game. So I told him to come him here.”

“You could have texted me.” Nico chided.

“I haven’t seen you in two weeks, Nico. I wanted to know what you were up to,” Nico’s mother flashed another look in Maki’s direction, and the redhead nearly choked on the water she was swirling in her still burning mouth.

“Nico is doing the photoshoot she set up with Nozomi, but with Maki…” Nico worried the hem of her apron, biting her lip and meeting Maki’s glance, “You are okay with children right?”

Maki mumbled a question through another mouthful of water, “Huh?”

“My brother Cotorou is 12 and he’ll be spending the day with us. You don’t have a problem with that do you?”

Two sets of ruby lasers shrewdly watched every twitch of her face. Maki spit the water into the sink, smiled as kindly as she could and cheated, “I spend a lot of time with Eli’s little sister.” She really hoped Nico hadn’t met Alisa and wouldn’t know that the younger Ayase was 25 and went clubbing with Maki. “I’m gre...goo...okay with children.”

Nico snorted, not pressing the point, “It’ll be fine, Mama. We’re only going to Evanston. We can drop him off before we head to Chicago for the night shoots. Cocoa should be home by then.”

“All right, I’ll leave you to it, Nico.” Nico’s mom pulled her into a hug, “Nice to meet you, Maki. I look forward to seeing how my daughter ranks against Northwestern’s architecture.”

Maki blushed and Nico shouted, pushing her mother toward the door, “Go to work, Mama. Stop harassing Nico.”

 

Maki forced herself to take the shots, hating how artificial Nico looked. Sure, grown up, but for someone who had lectured Maki about not turning her into an ADULT film star, Nico needed a few lessons in how to do subtle maturity. This wasn’t even sexy, Maki could have maybe made it tacky provocative, but what Nico wanted was charming and attractive and what Nico was getting was glossy.

Maki stopped, deliberately placing her camera down. They were shooting Nico looking at magazines to fill the time until her brother arrived from school. Maki couldn’t take it anymore. Nico’s lips and mascara were as shiny as the paper the magazine was printed on and Maki could no longer bear trying to find the best angle for expressions that looked printed on a face which if stripped bare of decoration would have been breathtaking. Nico quirked an eyebrow at Maki’s cessation of activity.

“Please just wash your face and do simple, normal makeup.” Maki didn’t realize how tired exasperation was going to make her sound. They’d only been working for two hours, it was going to be a long day. ”The red is too bold for every day. Try pink. Blush. Rose. Something sheer.”

Nico placed the magazine down, crossed her right leg over her left and tapped her fingers on the arm of the sofa, “Nico is a star.”

Maki dropped into a crouch, her head colliding with the sofa arm opposite Nico, arms hanging over, trying wheedling in her smoothest voice, “I could make you look so pretty.”

Suddenly hands were on her arms and Maki glanced up, startled to see a Nico who had crawled down the couch to loom over her, “Nico ALREADY looks pretty.”

“Made up pretty.” Maki frowned, “You must know you have a dream profile, why not use subtle shading and colors to bring that out, instead of slathering on layers of…” Maki shuddered, “plastICKY.”

Nico shoved back, to her knees, still looming fiercely over the taller photographer, who was glad for the bulwark of the couch arm, “You’ve got nerve, Nishikino.”

Maki closed her eyes, shaking her head, “I don’t shoot pictures I don’t want.”

“You just don’t want to shoot pictures of Nico. She doesn’t rate your nearly nude wall collection.”

“I wouldn’t MIND shooting pictures of Nico if she were nearly nude.” And when had Maki gotten to shouting and how red could Nico get and did the way Nico was coiling like a spring mean Maki was going to die soon or hear her favorite camera being crushed to pieces? And what had she just said?

“What do you mean, I told you…” Nico sputtered, swaying, unsure where to direct her anger and confusion.

Maki stood, camera in hand, her voice again trying for smooth and persuasive. “All I mean is I don’t enjoy shooting pictures of your makeup.”

There was a silence, Nico’s eyes, puzzled and searching, held Maki’s.

“Pppppfffffffhhhhhhh” Nico dropped back into a sitting position.

 

Nico had disappeared into her bedroom. Maki was on the couch, wondering exactly what oddness was going to happen next, what the little brother was like, did she have anything to talk about with a 12 year old, would Nico notice if she ate a piece of pie now that it was presumably cool enough not to burn a hole in her tongue...pie. Maki put down the camera, rose QUIETLY off the sofa and snuck into the kitchen, removing the fork Nico had stabbed the pie with and prying out a large chunk. This time the pie melted on her tongue instead of assaulting it, tender flaky crust dissolving and leaving a lightly sharp, cinnamony sweetness to kiss the inside of her mouth. Eyes wide, Maki swallowed and grabbed another bite. It was worth it if Nico went ballistic, this was 3 Michelin stars of heavenly.

Nico came out of her bedroom in a short, pink sweater dress, ruby eyes now the highlight of her face, lips a dark pink. Nico glanced suspiciously at the pie and Maki hastily swallowed, trying not to cough or choke.

“I didn’t change for you,” Nico announced, “It’ll be easier to keep up with Cotorou in this.” Nico’s expression dared Maki to comment.

Maki nodded, “Makes sense. That’s a lovely dress.”

Nico’s expressions changed at hyperspeed and Maki watched fascinated as Nico seemed to nearly say things out loud, but kept hesitating. Then suddenly, she glanced down, took a deep breath, and blurted. “There’s a half and hour before Cotorou gets here. What would you do if Nico let you...”

Maki found herself nodding, pouring a glass of water to have a second to think as Nico tensed for battle, but Maki could sense the nervousness behind the facade this time. She leaned on the counter, eyes locked on Nico’s. “I can do anything I want with the photos?”

Nico crossed her arms, lips pursed in a not encouraging fashion, considering. “Only my face and if you use any of the photos, Nico can’t be recognizable.” She held out her hand, “You can’t use my name.”

Maki tilted her head, shoving the fork back in the pie. Nico clucked her tongue the the action, but then Maki took her hand to shake it and they both paused at the surge of warmth as their palms were pulled together, soft skin tingling at the mutual contact, “All right.”

Nico leaned against the counter, “Show Nico what you can do.”

Maki had spent 15 minutes setting up her portable blue screen and lights, setting Nico down opposite the largest window in the apartment. Now, was the difficult part, as she had to convince Nico this wasn’t just some creeper strategy. Maki started to fumble with her camera and Nico’s attention was drawn to her hands.

“You’re running out of time, Nishikino.” Nico pointed a thumb at her phone, running down a clock.

Maki steeled herself, willing her voice not to tremble from nervousness, “Please just sit still for five minutes wh...while I really look at you.” Nico frowned as Maki knelt in front of Nico, staring, moving carefully around Nico, rising to a half crouch so she was directly in front of Nico’s face, Nico’s breath a minty distraction, Maki almost certain she was holding her own as if the subject in front of her were so fragile that she could be scattered on the slightest wind.

“Ma..” Nico started, but Maki shook her head and the actress quietened in the face of the redhead’s intensity. The violet eyes looked through and around Nico, ticking off every detail, then Maki swept to the side, grabbed her camera and became a flurry of motion, surrounding Nico, not settling for zoom, bringing her lens so close to Nico’s skin, Nico could feel the metal.

“Close your eyes,” Maki whispered, so softly, and Nico obeyed, unleashing another flurry of motion, Maki thought Nico was leaning in the direction she imagined the photographer to be, her face twitching slightly as she registered sounds and proximity. Maki grinned, desperate to capture each new quirk of those petal lips, challenging herself to find new angles out of impossibly small changes, barely stopping herself from resting her head in Nico’s lap so she could shoot from there, settling for a steeper angle as she laid full out on the floor, gradually rising, making sure the Fuji was captured the pale skin tone, the way the pinks warmed and highlighted the natural topography of Nico’s lips.

Maki thought it was almost like a caress, each sweep of the camera, each slice of Nico saved to be savored later, each angle...which would be the best?

“Open your eyes, Nico.” Another whisper and Nico did and there she was, startled at Maki, right in front of her nose, Maki, who was staring as if at a wonder, “Smile.” And Nico did, a slight, dear smile, tinged with bemused, casual affection.

One last shutter click and the timer rang. Maki dropped her camera arm to the side, bowing deeply, “Thank you.”

Nico stepped forward, and Maki stared down, into curious eyes, wondering why this felt different now, without the camera as a chaperone.

“Hey Sis!” the door banged opened, Maki’s heart jumped, and a mini clone of Nico stepped into the apartment.

Little brothers.

Chapter Text

Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me

The phone shattered when she threw it. That had been a mistake Maki realized. But it had been a long, tiring day following Nico and her weirdly silent brother around and Maki had no filters left. Now, worst case scenario, she was going to have to buy a phone to yell at Nico to delete her recent TWIG. Where was Eli when you needed a favor, like borrowing her phone, oh right on her honeymoon, which is why Maki had been introduced to that tiny demon of outsized annoyance, Nico Yazawa. Umi, Umi would be home, Maki could borrow her phone. Or drag her out to help her buy one. Oh wait, everything was probably closed.

Instead of the doing the sensible thing and waiting or emailing, there was Maki, on Nico Yazawa’s doorstep, only hesitating for half a second before knocking emphatically. After a brief wait, Nico opened the door, at least Maki thought it was Nico, the height was right, but slathered across the face was a green mask, with cucumbers stuck to it. Maki felt a weird mix of queasy and street taco craving rise in her gut. Nico sounded chirpy, “Hi Maki. Is something wrong with the pictures? You could have called Nico...Or did you want more pie? Nico knows she’s irresistible, but it’s late…”

Maki growled, attempting to add a few more intimidating inches to her height through channelling irk, “Take the picture down.”

“What picture?” Nico pulled the door open, confused but still friendly, which was a state on the other side of the world from Maki’s focused and really really pissed.

“The one of me you posted on TWIG.” Maki nearly screamed.

“But you were cute. I said so.” Nico tried to pull Maki inside, but the redhead stood solid, “Come inside to talk.”

“No.”

“Nico has neighbors.” Nico’s voice dropped to a whisper.

“Don’t care.” Maki couldn’t imagine that the neighbors didn’t already have deep dislike of the tiny celebrity. There were probably parties. And slamming. Maki wanted to slam something very very badly, her fingers were itching to take hold of a doorknob. Surely other people interacting with Nico had the same reaction.

Nico’s voice drilled through the bitter fantasies. “Do you always have to be a jerk?”

“Me...I’m not even...you don’t know...I am NOT your personal photographer.” Maki’s arms crossed.

“It was a cute joke. It was a good photo.” Nico reached for Maki’s arms to pull her in, but Maki dodged.

“I can’t credit the photos I took of you, but you can sneak one you took of me?” Maki almost kicked sideways into the door, but restrained herself, “You’re not the only one with a reputation.” Maki raised her arms, then tore both hands through her hair, “And not as a celebrity tagalong.”

Nico leaned against the doorframe, “What’s the big problem? Nico was doing you a favor.”

Maki’s jaw was so tightly clenched she was starting to feel the small points of pain at the joint hinge. “No. I was doing Eli a favor. You were making yourself look good at my expense.”

Nico shook her head, “I just thought you looked cute. Nico had a fun day; I share fun days with my fans.”

“Delete it, Nico. Now.” Maki imagined dragons must breathe like this, huge, deep inhales, rapid exhales that drained the lungs and turned air into vicious fire, “I have a very expensive lawyer. If it’s not gone when I get home, she’ll be calling you.”

Nico might have been batting her eyelashes, Maki couldn’t tell with the goopy mask, but her voice had certainly dropped into a more sensual range, “C’mon Maki, don’t be mad at Nico. We had such a fun day. Cotorou loved building a brownie fort and having you show him how to choose interesting angles. He wants a camera for Christmas now.”

“I’m sure Santa will bring Cotorou what he wants. He’s a very good boy. Unlike you.” Maki was proud of that rebuttal.

“Well at least you’re being quieter now. And Nico has never been a good BOY.” Nico’s chuckle was wry, as she continued to lean relaxed and friendly, Maki’s waves of indignation just washing right over her, “Please come inside, Maki. We can talk about this. Nico will make it up to you.”

Maki still was not feeling enough of a height advantage, the green was actually bringing out the ruby depths of Nico’s eyes and Maki found herself careening into getting off track and speeding straight off a cliff into Nico’s world and apartment. Maki would remember how to fly, damn it, soar clear of this late night peril she’d walked herself into. Should have waited until the morning when she had her new phone. If she had to spend anymore time with Nico, she was buying a spare. Not that she was going to spend anymore time with Nico. Maki rubbed her temples, blinking, trying not to stare.

“C’mon Maki. Nico won’t bite.” Nico practically purred.

A traitor leg took half a step, then Maki stopped herself, gawking at Nico, before recovering to half hop back, out of the doorframe she’d nearly crossed. “Delete the picture, lose my number, goodbye.” Maki spun and stormed down the hall, ignoring Nico’s startled cry.

“Maki. Wait!” Surely Nico only sounded that persuasive because of professional actor training. Not because anything resonated inside Maki.

No stopping to think. Or reply. Nope. Forward motion only. Maki congratulated herself.

 

The photo had come down. Maki hadn’t really slept, pacing the length of her studio, working her heavy bag until her arms were too heavy to lift, which didn’t take long after the day she’d had chasing Nico all over Northwestern’s highlights and a few artsy Lake Michigan spots. Nico certainly planned thoroughly, there had been no wasted time, not even with the addition of her little brother. But there had also been no suggestions taken. Nico had a plan, Maki was there to go from Point A to Point B. It was boring, Nico was obstinate, and Maki knew if she tried to sort through the photos now, she’d probably just dump them all. And then she’d have to see Nico in court. At some point, as the sun was coming up, Maki passed out on her sofa, until a loud knock woke her.

Rolling off the sofa on to the floor, she only almost crawled to the door, managing to stand after three slouches forward. She opened the door and a delivery driver was there, with a gorgeous silver and black vase, filled with more than a dozen elegant lavender roses.

“Ms. Nishikino? Sign here.” A electric pad was presented, Maki scrawled her initials and accepted the heavy weight, her nose suddenly filled with rose twined citrus, they must have been just cut for the fragrance to be this vivid. There was a card.

“You were cute. But Nico apologizes and replaced the photo. Stop by sometime this week to show Nico the pictures and Nico will bake brownies. You can build a fort ; ) ” Signed with a practiced flourish.

Maki was not planning to “stop by and show Nico the pictures.” She would pick a solid selection, send Nico the link to that album, and be done with this particular celebrity nightmare. Maki put the flowers down, shutting off the part of her brain that was planning shooting angles. Who sends extravagant numbers of roses to a near stranger? And with what intent? Didn’t really matter, because now, Maki was going to do something for herself. And forget about Nico Yazawa. Maki was overdue for a wander around the Botanical Gardens in Northbrook, capturing Autumn’s mood. Maybe it was brighter than hers.

And what did Nico mean, “replaced the photo?” Maki reached for her phone, usually lost in the sofa cushions, but then remembered last night’s shattering of the vile messenger. Open her laptop. TWIG notification from @Nico4Real. Nico had reposted Maki’s own photo of sunlight scattered into colors by stained glass, the light thrown across the floor of Alice Millar with the caption, “Honored to have photos taken in such a beautiful location by the talented @NishikinoShot.”

 

There’s Danger In Your Eyes, Cherie

Umi was the more accepting and patient of Maki’s two best friends, but even that would start to fray if the orderly procession of her day was thrown off track for any reason. Now she was glaring as Maki debated which phone to purchase.

“Why did you drag me out to keep you company buying a phone instead of having our previously agreed upon breakfast get together?” A whine infiltrated the smooth calm of Umi’s voice.

“I bought you a pastry at the coffee place.” Maki snapped.

“Neither nutritious nor satisfying.” Umi sighed, visualizing the lovely breakfast she could have prepared with Kotori. “I was going to make French Toast and Kotori brought home fresh apples and cider yesterday. Why do you need a new phone?”

“So I can tell Yazawa to stop sending me things and @ing me on TWIG.” Maki snarled. Rose gold was almost pink and pink was so pretty, dark pink against pale... Maki derailed her own train of thought, practically threw that phone down and stormed to the nearest customer service agent, “Give me the latest iThing in NOT PINK.”

The agent jumped back, smile fake and plastered on, hands out, placating. Umi stepped to Maki’s side, her voice soothing, “My friend is a little excited because she had an accident and needs to replace her phone.” Umi leaned forward as Maki turned away, pacing, “the sooner you hand me the box, the sooner we get her out of here. Her name’s Maki Nishikino. She already has an account. That’s the number.” Umi handed him Maki’s business card, urgency in her voice, “Just bill her.”

“I’ll get right on it.” He hesitated, “How much storage?”

Maki was back, “I’ll sign whatever. As much storage as you’ve got.”

“And one of those unbreakable cases please.” Umi somehow sounded both perfectly reasonably and really incredibly snarky, the latter on a spectrum only Maki could hear.

 

Maki should have skipped buying the phone. Texting Yazawa had only gotten her a string of cutesy emoticons in response and now Eli’s too relaxed, smug voice was telling Maki things she didn’t want to hear.

“Nozomi’s getting jobs down here so we’re going to stay for awhile longer, after the official honeymoon is over. She’s amazing, Maki. You should see her…”

“Stop. Now.” Maki covered her eyes.

“Portfolio.” Eli laughed, “You have a one track mind, my friend. And yet you never…”

“Discuss my personal life with you. That is correct.” Maki was lying on her studio couch, idly kicking her legs.

Eli sounded so cheerful that nothing could dent her mood. “So we’ll be down here and you’ll have to do me another favor and help out…”

Maki tried. “No.”

“Nico.” Eli’s mood continued unscathed.

Maki ended the call. Eli called right back. Maki did not answer. Then the texts started.

E: It's something like a simple photoshoot on the set of her latest movie. Please, Maki. Nozomi REALLY wants to stay but she REALLY doesn’t want Nico to be mad at her and Nico likes you.

M: I don’t like working with Nico. She controls EVERY detail. She wouldn’t listen to anything while she was dragging me around Chicago.

E: Consider it an early Christmas present for me.

M: I won’t work with a diva. I’m allergic. Hives break out. Possibly dangerous ones.

E: You’ve already survived her once. Nico seems sweet.

M: HAVE YOU MET HER?

E: Video chatting.

M: You’re on a sex high.

E: And you’re on a sex low.

M: Goodbye, Eli. I thought you were MY manager.

E: I just got you a job. Photographing Nico ; )

M: Just stay there. With the poisonous fauna.

E: Oh, and Levine wants to hang another show. In mid November. Call her.

M: Cancel Nico.

E: Do it yourself if you hate working with her that much.

M: Go away, Eli.

E: I am : D Nozomi sends her love.

Maki decided to test the ‘unbreakable’ case Umi had made her buy. It bounced.

 

It’s Not For Me To Say

Maki had sent an email to Nico (cc’ing Eli) explaining that whatever Nico needed, the most she could do is recommend another photographer. A polite dismissal. Maki had stripped all the profane language and hints of insults from the text, leaving a bland brush off that could in no way encourage or enrage the tiny tornado. So then came the text.

N: (T⌓T) Nico has no time to find another photographer. More importantly, Nico needs someone who can do classy. Very classy.

M: I thought I was too gay for you.

N: Nico wants sophisticated and sexy this time. You can gay up.

Maki grunted at her phone, wishing “NO” had more letters so she could vent some of her annoyance.

M: NO

N: Nico is sure you can remember how to be gay. You’ll wink, I’ll wiggle…

M: Stop. We are not having this conversation. Find another photographer.

N: THIS IS AN EMERGENCY.

M: Not for me.

A pause. Had she given up? Maki was afraid to feel relieved, but too soon there was a new text so fear instinct validated.

N: But it’s one of those glam, elegant pinup shooty things. You’d love it. Vintage Hollywood. Ever had a chance to photograph REAL HOLLYWOOD, movie Hollywood, hideous Houdini Mansion Hollywood?

M: Hideous?

N: (*>艸<) Autocorrect. Gorgeous Houdini Mansion.

Maki put her phone down before she got curious. Another text.

N: Nico can be your Garbo ಠ‿↼

WTF, Maki spluttered and sat up from her reclining position. Not talking to Nico and thereby eliminating any learned or natural persuasiveness the actress’s voice held seemed like a solid strategy, but was completely ineffective when Maki could hear Nico’s voice in her head reading the texts with a wink. But Garbo? Sure, both their names ended in ‘O’ but what else did Nico and the famous Swedish shut in have in common?

M: How does that analogy work? Garbo was a recluse, you’re the center of the frikkin’ social media universe.

N: Oh, you noticed ღවꇳවღ

Grrrrrrrrrr….Maki would have twisted her phone in half if it had been pieced together of anything lesser than metal. Nico continued blithely on.

N: Garbo had MGM’s photographer, Ruth Harriet Louise. She redid Garbo’s image like Nico needs you to do with hers.

“Nico needs...” Maki snorted. How had Maki become a sudden necessity for this spoiled brat of a former child star?

N: Maki?

M: Not interested.

N: Think of the lighting, the setting, the expensive gowns, the atmosphere...Nico will pay for a vintage camera and film. There will be atmosphere that will fuel your dreams for years ꒰◍ᐡᐤᐡ◍꒱

Maki did not need Nico making any kind of an appearance in any more of her dreams. Her phone rang. Maki, penduluming back and forth between grumbling and distressingly inappropriate mental pictures, answered automatically.

“Nico has a private dinner with LA’s most exclusive chef set up for after.” Nico’s voice sounded breathier than the last time it had teased its way into Maki’s ear, “Or Nico could make you a private dessert.”

Maki was better at typing no than saying it, some hidden part of her tackled the simple syllable before it got out of her throat, sneaking in an unapproved substitute. “You’re flying me out first class.”

Nico giggled, “Already got the ticket. Nico is relying on you. Meet me at O’Hare at 7 a.m. tomorrow.”

“WHAT!??!?!!?!”

Nico ended the call. Surely the phone would shatter again if Maki jumped up and down on it for five minutes or so. Then, when she fled the country, no one could reach her.

Chapter Text

A FINE ROMANCE

Maki was not a morning person. Not going to bed was the only way she was ever up early enough to see the sun rise. And that usually only happened if she was near a beach. Or caught by an idea. And yes, Maki, was caught at the moment, but it was more like tripped up by circumstances beyond her control and snared by a semi-scenic view while bothered by bitey gnats, rather than calmly enjoying the horizon. Sunglasses, coat, 2 cameras, a laptop, and a change of clothes shoved into one bag, plus the sweat pants, t-shirt, and a hoodie comfortable enough to sleep on the plane in she was wearing. Nico was bright eyed, impossibly bright eyed behind large sunglasses, and practically merry, dressed in a svelte black knit dress with a gray shawl thrown over her hair and shoulders. She waved at Maki, pulling her bag behind her as she approached with a chirped, “Good morning.”

Maki glared over her sliding sunglasses, “Not until I sleep it’s not.”

“You look terrible.” Nico frowned, pushing Maki’s sunglasses back up the redhead’s nose. Maki was too tired to startle at the encroachment.

“Flattery, how kind.” Sarcasm before noon was a given, Yazawa might as well get used to it. “It’s your fault.

A smirk, of course it was a smirk, “Oh, did thinking about Nico keep you up all night?”

“Researching your photo shoot did.” Maki followed Nico to the gate.

Nico waved her free hand airily, speeding along, “Nico has it all under control.”

“No, I took a look at the venue on line last night. And Houdini. I have some really good ideas.” Maki raced a bit to catch up to Nico, cursing herself for sounding eager.

Nico stopped, turning to face the photographer, “Nico knows what works.”

Maki was beginning to believe half of her conversations with Nico were hallucinations. Unacceptable. Maki was not going to get dragged around LA like Nico had dragged her around Evanston and Chicago. Maki pulled her phone out her pocket, showing Nico the message stream, “You sent me this: ‘She redid Garbo’s image like Nico needs you to do with hers.’”

“That was last night. Now Nico has a plan.” Nico frowned at Maki’s vibrating with censure.

“A plan you didn’t ask me about? That’s like having a Ferrari and only taking it out to go to the grocery store.” Maki was shouting, people were staring, “Did you even research what I can do?”

“Ferrari?” Nico snorted, dodging Maki’s question. “Curvy and fast and driveable?”

“Expensive, a fucking work of art, and extremely temperamental.” Maki caught herself before a glass window met her phone, shoving it deep in her coat pocket.

“Do you do your own PR?”

“Yes.” Maki began speed walking toward the gate again. “Why did you even call me?”

“We worked together well. You were nice to my little brother. You’re cute.” Nico smiled as she matched Maki’s pace.

“We did not work together well. It was only going to be one time so I just bit my lip to get it over with.” Maki glared down at the speedy speck keeping up with her too easily.

Nico’s look was a carefully nuanced take on ‘who’s fault was that?” and Maki felt like spitting. Then her brain threw up on the word “cute.”

“I am not cute.”

Nico giggled, “I beg to differ. You’re adorable.”

“I am not.” Maki huffed, changing the shoulder she had her bag slung over
.
“You just said you were ‘a fucking work of art’ so obviously you’re not into being modest. Nico knows cute.”

Maki stopped. “Cute is for little kids and puppies.” She stared at Nico, “Is all this an attempt to...are you trying to…” Maki felt a shiver, “date me? Is that why you...the flowers...” Maki had been trying not to let a suspicion form in her mind but the ROSES had kept staring at her from her studio work table.

Nico doubled over, with laughter or potential cramp, Maki wasn’t sure. Then she heard the sniggering. “See. Adorable. No, Nico is not trying to date or drive you, Ms. NishiCARno. Nico really really needs a photographer and Nozomi is being a really really terrible friend, leaving me like this, right when people are interested in Nico’s next step.” Nico blinked, her eyes soft, deep and hopeful, “But Nico needs people to pay attention so if I have to be out of my comfort zone, being associated with someone stylish, hot, intriguing, high class, and talented doesn’t hurt my image.”

It was all plotted out, emotionless, practical, rapacious, their interactions designed to boost Nico’s profile and image. Maki respected the thought process while swallowing the hurt at being revealed to be as much of a tool to Yazawa as her camera.

Nico’s next statement was softer, “Nico has no time for personal, right now.” She rested her hand quickly on Maki’s, “But I don’t mind the eye candy.”

Oh gods, somehow that made it worse. Not only was Maki a tool, she was practically a pinup. How very impersonal. Maki pulled her hand back, inhaling, forcing her voice not to quaver. No one was walking over her, certainly not this tiny template of terror, “I ordered props. For part of this, we will be doing things my way.” She stood as tall as she could, eyes narrowed, jaw set. “Or I don’t get on the plane.”

Nico shrugged casually, as if Maki were being silly about which ice cream flavor to choose, and vroomed down the corridor leading to their plane, Maki struggling to keep up as adrenaline drained from her system.

 

Fancy hotel, penthouse suite. 2 rooms and shared spaces. The entire floor. Private elevator. When Maki travelled, it was usually to a family holding, the beach house, the mountain cabin, the friend’s barely off Broadway loft. This much space was...disconcerting. Strange. It made her want to be close to someone, but the only person to be close to was Nico and that wasn’t happening. Maki missed Eli and Umi, even Alisa. They were always good for pointing out a new side of things, of finding amusing quirks to tease at, there was a comfortable level of banter, honed over college studies and joint travels. With Nico, it was like Maki had been swept up in a hurricane of extroverted celebrity status with a steady rain of charming and washed ashore someplace she’d never even seen on a map. Disorienting. Plus, the eye candy thing...how did you even respond to someone who dismisses you so thoroughly, then compliments you in the same sentence.

Nico and Maki barely spoken on the flight (Nico had taken the time to inform Maki about the decibel levels of her snoring when they landed) or the limo ride here. No comfort level, no banter or patter or...Maki sighed, threw herself on divan number 3 and started carefully examining the nearly 10 pounds of wood and brass and leather bellows of the camera in front of her. She had a page up on her laptop that demonstrated all the ways the lens could be angled and modified. It was fascinating. And a little scary. But Nico had said the camera was hers so Maki was more confident than she might have been in how much fun she could have. The hardest part would be not seeing the pictures until she got to a darkroom. And figuring out how to use a darkroom again. Maki had taken many photos on film and gone through the basics at school, but she’d focused so much on digital and animated manipulations that physical ones would have to be forcibly remembered. An interesting challenge. Nico seemed to present them.

Maki lifted up the film holders, choosing one to slide in. Now what would make an interesting test picture? Nico came out of the bathroom, in the very definition of a little black dress, shiny metallic heels adding to her height, hair swept up in a bun, eyelashes lengthened, eyes, well, the eyes, they were judging, Maki could tell.

“Nerd.” Nico pursed her lips, “Go get changed.”

“Huh?” Maki glanced up from where she was cautiously trying to slide the frame into the camera without scratching any of the carefully ground glass necessary for operating the contraption.

Nico rested a hand on her hip, “We are attending a party. You have people to meet. Nico is helping you extend your social circle.”

Maki shook her head, pointing to the camera, “This is the only company I need.”

Nico pouted, “There’s food. Don’t you want dinner? It’s in the ballroom downstairs so you can always wander back here.”

“What’s the party for?”

Nico shrugged, “Thursday? I don’t know. Someone’s premiering something, some company brought several cases of champagnes, lots of actresses are wandering around looking for someone to compliment their choice of designer charity. And shoes. Always pay attention to the shoes. Dates have been ruined over the clash between Louboutin fans and my Brian Atwoods.”

Maki slowly finished sliding in the negative, “You sound jaded. And are shoes really that important?”

Nico’s laugh was harsh and throaty as she sat primly on the edge of the couch, not quite near Maki, “You should see Nico in her Georgia Vic boots. They lace up to here.” Nico traced a line midway up her thigh with a finger. “Your inner Mapplethorpe would drool.” Nico stared thoughtfully at her current shoes, sleek, stiletto and silver gold leather, “Nico has been doing this for a long time. I thought it might be fun to bring new eyes.” Nico leaned in toward Maki, lengthy eyelashes fluttering as Maki’s fought her tendency to focus on the color variations of Nico’s lips. Tonight the pink had a touch of gray. Nico continued, almost wistful. “Such pretty eyes too. Would you prefer lovely lavender or amazing amethyst when I TWIG about you?” She pulled out her phone and prepared to take a photo of Maki.

Flushing, Maki knocked away the phone as the camera clicked, her hand briefly brushing Nico’s. “Vexed violet if you post that shot. Please stop with the compliments. They don’t work on me.” Maki hefted the Century Universal between them, “You wouldn’t get any closeups from here with this thing.”

Another pout, “That’s a not subtle way to get Nico to back off. Isn’t it? Pretty camera though, they took good care of it.” Nico stroked the cherry and mahogany as Maki put the camera back on the table. “Come to the Gala with me. Nico needs a wingwoman.”

“I didn’t bring anything formal.” Maki slouched, still in her sweats. “All working clothes. And I thought you weren’t interested in dating.”

“There’s dating and there’s…” Nico winked, stretching a hand out, neatly trimmed nails painted silver catching the light, “flirting with possibilities.”

Maki refused to acknowledge Nico, back to fidgeting with the camera as Nico watched her, amused at Maki’s discomfort at the subtext.

“Hmmmm….” Nico started entering numbers into her phone, “I’m sure the concierge can scrounge up a tuxedo jacket.” Nico glanced at Maki speculatively, “And I’m betting you packed at least one impressive street art inspired t-shirt. Just tell me you have something that isn’t sweats.”

“Black jeans.” Maki admitted.

Nico flashed the okay sign as she spoke into her phone, “Hi, this is Nico Yazawa in the penthouse suite. Do you think you could scrounge me up a tuxedo jacket in a medium-ish size, decent shoulders, tapered at the waist, and some kind of street style fashion forward hat….Yes, it’s for the Gala...Half an hour would be perfect. Thank you!”

Maki couldn’t remember agreeing to go with Nico. That seemed to be happening near daily since Eli’s marriage. But then Nico was shoving her playfully off the couch with a laugh and Maki went to change into the only respectable piece of clothing she’d packed.

MY FUNNY VALENTINE

The band was good. That seemed to be a feature of parties where Maki and Nico’s paths crossed. Jazz again, with a singer. Nico rolled her eyes and pulled Maki to the bar, grabbing them both champagne flutes.

“Here’s to taking Hollywood by storm, Imogen.” Nico’s eyes fizzed with daring as champagne bubbles tickled Maki’s nose.

“Imogen?” Maki wiggled her nose to hold back a sneeze, then tilted her glass to tap Nico’s.

“Imogen Cunningham, nudes and flowers.” Nico puffed her chest out like a feathered show off about to strut and crow. “Nico now knows more about photographers than you do.Want to know why Berenice Abbott used black and white in her photos of New York City? Nico can tell you.”

Maki giggled, a little stunned by Nico’s sudden desire to be an encyclopedia of photographers. “Do you want a camera for Christmas too? I’ll let Santa know.”

Nico pouted, “Nico is fine. What does Maki want to talk about?”

Maki glanced around the ballroom, the quartet at the front breaking into a lively rendition of “My Funny Valentine.” She poked Nico with her empty flute, suddenly giddy and wondering if she shouldn’t have just gotten some rest or food first, “Name the composer.” Maki swept her arm out to point to the band, Nico ducking under.

“Hey watch it.” Nico confiscated the glass, “Let’s get you some food.”

“Composer.” Maki was going to continue stubborn, no matter how much her stomach rumbled at the thought of tasting anything solid enough to chew.

“Rodgers and Hart. Nico was in a production of Babes in Arms in a community theatre in high school. Want me to sing ‘The Lady is A Tramp”’ for you? You seem too hungry to wait for dinner this late.” Nico’s smile bumped up several notches and she reached out to pull someone into a hug, “Ags! I haven’t seen you in forever.“

‘NICO!” A tiny blonde screamed and leapt into Nico’s embrace. “You’re back!!???!?!”

“With two degrees.” Nico announced proudly as most of the room focused temporarily on this reunion.

“I’m so impressed. Everyone was saying you’d get bored and Northwestern would be too hard.”

Maki noticed Nico’s jaw tighten, but her smile only got brighter, “Studying lines is good practice for college.”

Ags giggled, “It would be. Maybe I’ll find someplace with cute fraternity guys.”

“Go for it.” Nico raised her hands to her temples, “Nico Ni recommends it.”

Ags lost it, giggles pouring out of her, “Oh, Nico, it’s been years. You’re still so...Nico.”

Again, a tightening of Nico’s jaw. Ags’s brown eyes finally noticed Maki, “Who’s your date?”

“This is my friend, Maki Nishikino. She’s a photographer. Had a show at the Annenberg two years ago.”

“Ooh, good looking and distinguished. You could always pick ‘em.” Ags extended a hand, “I’m Agnes Villeneuve, Nico and I did a few shows together.”

Maki shook Agnes’s hand, unimpressed with how lightly it rested in hers. Wouldn’t trust that grip with any of her cameras. She wondered what other facts Nico had filed away about her career, right alongside Harriet Ruth Louise’s, Martha Cooper’s, and Berenice Abbott’s. Maki started twirling her hair as Nico filled Agnes in on the plans for her LA visit. When Agnes started to dish gossip from her latest job, Maki excused herself to grab some food.

Ah, everything was better and more bearable with half a tray worth of savory smoked salmon vol-au-vents, Maki realized, surveying the party again, calmer, not sure where Nico had gotten to. Then she was stumbled into with a giggle. She glanced down to find her arms full of a woman filling out a slip of a scarlet dress.

“Are you all right?” Maki asked politely as she assisted the woman to her feet as rapidly as possible.

“Are you Maki Nishikino? My friends and I were wondering. I’m Amy, hi!” Blue eyes in too pale skin blinked at Maki.

Maki smoothed her hair back over her ear, “I am. Did you…”

“OH MY GOD! So what were Anju and Erena like? Did you have a threesome?” A grab of her arm and Maki found herself stumbling backwards, “I’d pose naked for you. Do you like bubble baths?”

Maki thought as often as she heard some variation on that, she’d be used to it. But no, her whole body went to ‘avoid apocalypse’ mode while her face turned as red as biologically possible and her brain refused to provide anything that could qualify as conversation, or even syllables. It was a little like scat singing with only the empty, creaky passage of air through her vocal chords. “Drink” came out eventually as Maki picked an adjacent clump of partygoers to dive into, nodding at one, inadvertently elbowing another, escaping as quickly as possible. She picked up another flute of champagne at the bar, wondering if she should just retreat upstairs and get a bottle of Laphroig from room service.

“What the hell did that woman say to you? Offer to pose nude?” Nico’s voice barked, loud enough that everyone nearby turned to stare. Maki felt the flute slide out of her fingers. It tilted when it hit the bar, spilling. “Really? Wow. You have it worse than Nico.”

Maki gulped, not making eye contact with ANYONE and mouthing “Water” at the bartender. He popped the lid on a small bottle of Limonata San Pellegrino and handed it over. Maki took a swallow, hissing a little at the citrus bite.

“Hand me a champagne, please.” A smooth voice slid into Maki’s hearing. She turned. A tall, elegant woman in a black and gold suit, with matching stacked bracelets, smiled at her, “Maki Nishikino, right? I’m honored to meet you.” Maki picked up a flute and handed it to the new person, feeling Nico lean into the bar on the other side of her. After a sip, the conversation continued, “I’m Jada Jefferson. I saw your work at the Annenberg, but what I really loved was how you worked mythology into your Tsubasa Kira shoot. She said it impacted the songs she wrote for her next album.” A slow smile, a toasty welcome to match the warm brown of Jada’s skin tone, “Impressive to have that much of an effect.” Jada tilted her glass toward Maki, who could feel Nico vibrating next to her.

Then Nico’s hand reached across Maki to grab her own glass of champagne. “We were having a conversation.”

The smile got broader, “Nico, right? My little cousin loved your show. My aunty used to buy her your albums for her birthday and Christmas. Fun stuff for kids. She cried when you retired.”

Nico spluttered. Maki was a little fascinated and found herself half turning to watch. Jada continued, cutting off any response from Nico. “What brings you to LA, Maki?”

“Nico.” Nico and Maki both spoke at the same moment, with completely different intonations. Nico huffed as Maki continued, “She dragged me out here because one of my best friends eloped with her pet photographer. They’re on their honeymoon in Australia right now.”

“Ah, that explains it. You seem more panther than tabby.” Jada sipped her champagne.

Maki was only watching Nico out of her peripheral vision but she swore the tiny tantrum went white with rage, “Nope. Just a favor for a friend. Temping.” Maki laughed, “Haven’t done that since college. It’s nice to be flown first class though.” Maki admitted.

“Well, if you want a tour of LA’s...” Jada paused, “Of anything LA, really, nightspots, museums, statuary, here’s my card. My schedule’s fairly flexible. I have my own law firm.” Jada’s fingers lingered on Maki’s hand, gold and onyx bangles jingling on her wrist.

“Thanks!” Maki pocketed the card with a nod.

“You won’t have time.” Nico muttered, nudging Maki with a sharp elbow, as Jada moved to a group of people she was obviously friendly with.

Maki raised an eyebrow, “I don’t have a personal assistant for many reasons, one is that so no one tells me my schedule.” Maki’s grin was provocative, “Plus, after I’m done with you…” Maki shrugged.

“Classy, Nishikino. Nico has friends to find.” Nico whirled away, her mood stormy. Amused, Maki wondered if she should try a test photo with the Century, but she didn’t want to waste the negatives. Did Nico have anything to wear for the Houdini part of the photoshoot? Maybe the concierge could help out again, if Maki asked for something channelling the Debbie Ocean at the end of Oceans 8 vibe. She should go upstairs, look over her Houdini research and plan her shots. She would save a dozen negatives for that and keep the Fuji handy. How far into Houdini mode would Nico be willing to go? Obviously, actually escaping required practice Nico didn’t have, but Maki had ideas to make it look like Nico had without endangering her. Getting Nico in the water tank would probably take some persuading. Maki finished her water and headed to the elevator. Time to write it all down and sketch out the best angles. The Century Universal and the limited film at hand made her choices more weighted.

 

THE MORE I SEE YOU

Maki stumbled out of her bedroom. Too early again, two days in a row. Nico was already awake, with variety breakfast options spread out on the table.

“Sit and eat. The limo’s due in a half an hour.” Nico tilted her head at Maki as she picked at a fruit salad, “Your hair’s standing up. Have a nightmare?”

“Right now.” Maki grumbled, grabbing a scone.

“Rude.” Nico stuck out her tongue and pushed a mug in Maki’s direction, “I made coffee.”

Maki grunted, chewing through the scone, “Donuts are nice.”

“Not healthy.”

“Morale is important.” Maki inhaled coffee, leaning over the mug, waking up brain cell by brain cell.

Nico leaned back, laced her fingers together and stretched. A few more of Maki’s brain cells woke up. Nico bopped to her feet. “Nico is going to change. We’ll pack up what you don’t eat. Don’t need you getting silly from hunger again, like last night.”

“There won’t be champagne.” Maki pointed out.

Nico stopped by the couch, picking up a garment bag, “The concierge had this delivered. What is it?”

“For the Houdini part. I told her Sandra Bullock with the martini at the end of Oceans 8.” Nico didn’t say anything and Maki wondered if she’d gone too far, picking out a look, “That’s okay, isn’t it?”

Nico nodded, unzipping the bag halfway, but black and white formal isn’t terribly gripping without a frame to drape over, “It’s fine.” Nico licked her lips, thoughtful, “Nico is just surprised by your attention to detail.”

Maki shrugged and grabbed a strawberry, “I don’t want to waste your time. I planned out a few shots. We can discuss them on the ride over. It shouldn’t be anything too difficult.” Maki was beginning to doubt the wisdom of the water tank, by late afternoon, it might be chilly. “If anything makes you uncomfortable, we’ll skip it.”

Nico seemed surprised by the concern in Maki’s voice and took a minute to zip the bag back up. Her reply was hesitant, almost deferential. “Nico wants to know how you see this. I can manage whatever you have in mind.”

Maki nodded, digging out more berries, both straw and blue, and skipping on to the next topic in her head, would the chains drape well? And would the linen fabric of Nico’s shirt get caught or dragged?

 

I DON'T KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT YOU

The morning had gone fairly well. The Century Universal had proven surprisingly cooperative to work with, as had Nico. Maki was impressed by Nico’s professionalism. There was no flirting, no patter, just some questions about poses and locations, a few smiles for the assistants helping with lighting and props, the initial conversation about the charms of the grounds. Nico hadn’t even blinked when she’d seen the water tank...or the chains. There might have been a sharp glint in the ruby deeps, sparked off the Mapplethorpe jibe Nico swallowed as she twirled handcuffs around her finger, but no actual cutting remark.

“Nothing locks. I made sure. We can test it on me first.” Maki hurried to reassure Nico that she had taken proper safety precautions.

“That’s quite an offer, Maaaki,” Nico dragged out her name with a wink; Maki rolled her eyes and went back to looking for the tripod in the collection of gear they’d had the assistants carry onto the grounds. “I have to get changed and do makeup.” Ignored, Nico put the handcuffs back in their place, “Will you be ready in 20 minutes?”

Maki found the tripod, set it up, and crouched to push at the legs to see how securely it was going to sit.

“Maki?” Nico prodded Maki on the shoulder and the redhead glanced up, not paying full attention, “20 minutes?”

“Sure.” Back to the tripod. Now to check the connections between camera and base. Then Maki could work on sliding in the frames without jostling the camera. What had Nico said?

When Nico returned, in a long black and white gown, hair loosely gathered at the back of her neck to fall gracefully down her back, agile lips a dark pink, sparkling eyes framed by dark lashes, expressive eyebrows raised for comment, cheekbones carved with exquisite and subtle strokes, Maki just stopped, struck by a Nico stripped down to her roots, caught by the stark beauty of Nico’s profile, the pull of the star’s focused glance, the drive and dash that came through with each flicker of a change of expression. Holy fuck, Maki thought, this was what drew moviegoers into the dream realms captured on the screen, this distilled power, this fascination. Maki found herself getting excited, eager to see what a vintage classic could capture of a modern one.

It was relaxing Maki realized, as the shoot progressed, to just be this focused on her camera and her work and trust Nico to be where, what and who she needed. Nico didn’t need coaxing or compliments, if Maki happened to blurt out a genuine appreciation for Nico’s eyes at that angle or the way the star’s smile teased between fire and flirt, Nico barely acknowledged the photographer had spoken. No attention drawn, Maki happily working in a cocoon of obliviousness. Then one of the assistants spoke quickly to Nico, pointing to something on her phone while Maki was making a position change for the camera. They were shooting by the Waterfall and the Grand Stairway, Nico bravely scrambling over rocks for the angles Maki wanted, careful only for her gown.

Nico frowned. “Security says someone is here for you.”

Maki was confused, Eli didn’t even know where they planned to shoot. “Nope. Can’t be. Nobody knows I’m here.”

Nico crossed her arms as Tsubasa Kira appeared at the top of the stairway, in a chic, green crushed velvet suit, waving, her voice echoing, “Maki! You should have told me you were in LA. We could have had dinner last night.”

“Oh, hi, Tsubasa!” Maki stepped out from behind the Century, grimacing apologetically at Nico.

Tsubasa took her time descending the staircase, heading immediately to Maki and sliding her arm through the photographer’s, “Introduce me.” Tsubasa raised an eyebrow at Nico, “Although I know who you are, Nico. Your TWIG feed told me where to find my favorite photographer.”

Tsubasa gleamed at Maki, who shook off her arm, hands going to her pockets. “Tsubasa Kira, Nico Yazawa.”

“I’m a performer as well.” Tsubasa extended a hand to Nico, who watched the action warily before a quick, hard shake.

“I know. Mermaid, right.” Nico gritted, “You’ll enjoy the grotto. It’s damp. There’s a koi pond up there you can dip your fins in.”

“I’m so glad that picture is pulled so often when someone is doing an article about the genius of Maki Nishikino. I’m glad to have been a humble help.” Tsubasa bowed, smiling in Maki’s direction.

Nico snorted and Maki stared at her. Nico winked, causing a blush and a turnaway, then flipped her attention back to Tsubasa, “Yeah, Kendrick’s def rapping about you.”

Tsubasa decided to stop clashing with Nico and check out what Maki was doing. With quick steps she moved to the Century, hands out, curious. Nico leaned against a railing.

“Don’t touch it.” Maki snapped at Tsubasa, who made a big show of leaping back.

“Is it that unsteady?” The singer wondered, unbuttoning her jacket.

Maki bobbed her head back and forth for a few seconds, “You just have to approach it with respect.” She checked the tripod again, and glanced at Nico. “I have to adjust the bellows. Nico, didn’t you need a gown change?”

Nico had her arms crossed and shook her head, “I’m only adding a shawl. Ben can help me.”

“Ok.” Maki started stretching the bellows out, changing the angle of the lens while one of the more eager assistants carefully sorted through the clothes on the hanging rack.

“You really do look 16.” Tsubasa, having taking steps to the left, was now back in Nico range and taking the time for a thorough once over, “No wonder no one takes you seriously.”

Nico bit her lip, Maki thought she saw a fist clench on the side of Nico turned away from the conversation. But Nico’s voice was confident and calm, her shrug exquisite, bare shoulders rolling confidently through disdain and dismissal, “Their mistake.”

Tsubasa glanced back to Maki, “Do you mind if I hang around and watch?”

Maki shook her head, frowning, “We need to catch all the natural light we can. And there’s a few stunts I want Nico to do after this batch of poses, so no, I really don’t have the time for company.”

“We really don’t.” Nico repeated, her tone mild, her pose tolerant.

Tsubasa moved in closer to Maki, reaching to caress the photographer’s forearm, “Maybe we can meet for dinner somewhere with a view of the ocean. I’ve missed your perspective on art and music. I’m finishing a new album.”

Maki stood, hands on her hips, glancing quickly at a very still Nico, still biting her lip, eyes staring off to the side, disinterest too obviously a performance choice to be a clue to Nico’s real thoughts. Maki smiled down at Tsubasa, “Thanks for the visit, Tsubasa. Call me if you’re in Chicago and we can catch dinner and a view of Lake Michigan. My treat.”

Tsubasa tried for delighted at the prospect, but her mood had wilted, “It was good to see you, Maki.” She stood on tiptoe to kiss Maki on the cheek. “I’ll send you concert tickets when I tour the Midwest this February.”

“Thanks.” Maki waved, then went immediately back to her camera, ignoring Nico, who chuckled, waved grandly at Tsubasa, and let Ben hand her the shawl.

“Where do you want me, O Unwerth-y one?”

 

I'M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT

Maki was surprised. Somehow a Nico who looked so girly and frilly and perfect in pink was also pulling off a disconcertingly dashing level of ‘wow’ with an undone tie, open at the collar linen shirt, black pants, sable hair falling soft and silky below her shoulders, eyes sharp and shrewd. Then came the shots of Nico bold in a hidden, shadowed archway, chains wrapped around Nico’s arms, neck, and torso. They’d started with locks, arrayed as Houdini usually had them, but leaving them off made for a better visual. Nico easily handled the added weight of the chains as she moved, as if she worked with them every day. Then came the water tank, set up in the late afternoon sun in front of the lower entrance to the Clock Tower, lion guardians vigilant.

It had been a long day and the stretches of silence lengthened. There’d been a quick break for lunch, but Nico had been telling entertaining on set stories to the assistants, keeping them amused while Maki ate enough to fuel her for the rest of the day. She’d been happy with the lighting and the poses from the Garbo part of the shoot, Nico alternating between staring aslant the camera with an almost ethereal intensity to challenging the lens with a winsome, smirky smile. Somehow a fishing rod had been briefly involved, which led to snarl when Maki mistook Nico’s intent, thinking she was going to cast in the direction of the camera. No koi were tempted by the shiny lure.

And then they came to the moment. Nico and Maki, standing practically hip to hip, staring at the tank. Nico subdued.

“He really did it, huh?” Nico stared, watching the water move as a breeze blew over the open tank.

“In two minutes. Hanging upside down from stocks. There were tricks, of course.” Maki stared down at Nico, who was still watching the water.

“So I go in, float for a minute to give you time to take that picture and change out the negative, and then drop the chains and push myself out of the water while you take that picture with every camera you have.”

“Exactly.” Maki thought she might have sounded nervous, while Nico just seemed as calm as if she were asking about their dinner plans.

Nico smiled, “You asked for it.” Big inhale, “Take a great picture or Nico will never forgive you.”

Maki nodded, her hand resting briefly on Nico’s shoulder. Nico climbed the step ladder, letting two of the assistants help her reposition the chains and place her in the handcuffs, which were designed, as the shackles for her feet were, to break apart when Nico tugged. Nico sat on the edge of the square, six foot high tank, her feet in the water. Maki was starting to feel a bit dizzy and then she remembered breathing. Nico would have to hold her breath, Maki would have to manage her cameras as best and rapidly as she ever had.

Nico’s eyes, wide and worried, caught her, through the camera, as Maki, dark cloth over her head, focused the cocked lens, and prepared to slide in the film holder and press the cable release. Maki stepped back, letting the fabric fall.

“You okay, Nico? We don’t have to do this.” Maki knelt to check the timer on her digital set up; it would take a flurry of photos once she hit go. No time like now. Maki took a deep breath. Go.

“Nico never disappoints a lady.” Nico winked and blew a kiss that the camera managed to catch.

“Noted.” Maki walked over to the tank, eyes serious, “I’ll give you a signal and once you drop in, I’ll take the pic, then I’ll need about 20 seconds to switch out the film frame. I’ll have to recock the lens. The digital camera will be taking pics the whole time. If you’re having trouble, knock on the tank and we’ll pull you out.”

“Got it.” Nico gave two thumbs up, carefully tilting the handcuffs. Maki thought she caught a shiver. Nico had had her lower legs in the water for a few minutes. Maki racewalked back to the camera, doublechecked the lens, positioned the film frame, and draped the fabric over her head again. As she grabbed the cable release, she shouted, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”

Nico dropped into the tank, bending her knees as she hit the bottom, hair and tie buoyant in the water. She stared straight at the camera, determination flaring in her eyes as she yanked apart her bonds, and started to slip out of the chains. Maki took the shot, slide the shutter back in, ripped out the holder and replaced it, raising her hand as a signal. Nico dropped to the bottom again, water and motion distorting her slightly, bent her knees and sprang to the top, arms catching the front of the tank, wiry muscles taut, linen shirt half open and see through and sliding off her shoulders and torso, eyes flaming and defiant, her gaze blasting through the camera to Maki, daring Maki to make a choice as bold as this, shirt plastered against every shivery, exquisite detail of...Maki pulled the shutter open, clicked the release and tried to keep breathing, stunned by the raw energy of this wild, unfiltered moment.

A shaking Nico, shrunken, changed into her own clothes but still drenched, wrapped loosely in a blanket watched from a camping chair as Maki treated the film she was locking away in a light proof case as gently as if it were a kitten. Maki noticed the scrutiny and smiled gently at Nico. “Are you cold?”

“Duh.” Nico sniggered, trying not to cough.

“We’d better warm you up.” Maki reached into her duffle and grabbed her hoodie, wrapping it around Nico as she pulled the smaller woman to her feet. Maki was proud of herself. Her voice didn’t quaver, her hand didn’t shake, and she met Nico’s glance as if there weren’t seismic shocks shuddering through her at what the water had revealed about both of them. Maki did let concern warm her tone and her hands lingered on Nico’s shoulders, settling the hoodie. “They’re nearly finished loading. The tank’ll get picked up tomorrow. Let’s go you find something warm to drink.”

 

Maki couldn’t sleep. After they got back to the hotel, Nico, with a half hearted jokes about ‘Maki getting Nico so wet,’ had collapsed in her own bed.. Maki had stayed on the couch, transferring digital files from her cameras to her laptop. She wasn’t going to sleep. Not tonight, not tomorrow, not ‘til exhaustion overtook the images racing through her mind, reacting with her body. Nico’s appeal, Nico’s strength, Nico’s drive...she’d seen them in their most primitive form today, as much of a shock as when Nico had come out of the water, and Maki realized the tiny...temptation had chosen to leave off the tank top, nipples dark and pressing through the transparent linen, breasts small but...Maki groaned. She had it all on film and filed away digitally, not to mention the indelible images now etched in her mind, right next to the audio of Nico saying “no, Nico is not trying to date or drive you.” Maki wondered how fine the details would be when she saw the exposed film, how much cropping would she need to do, did Nico realize that would happen? Maki closed her eyes, massaging her scalp, knees drawn up to her chest. What could she possibly say to Nico in the morning? How could she possibly sleep when Venus rising from the sea had been replaced with Nico rising from the tank. And did that final shot look as good as Maki hoped it did? She was terrible, truly terrible at suspense. It was another reason she preferred digital photography. Instant gratification. You always knew right away if things turned out the way you planned.

Eli. Maki picked up her phone, and hit “Call.” Eli answered.

“FInd me a darkroom.” Maki demanded, “I’m in LA.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Call someone. Get me a darkroom. I have to know.”

“Maki, what’s goi…” Eli paused, probably reminding herself of Maki’s inarticulateness in the face of inspiration, “You’ll tell me later.”

“Just get me…”

“A darkroom.” Eli sighed. “I’ll call you as soon as I know. Remember to eat.”

Eli knew better than to urge sleep. Now to leave Nico a note. Then head to the darkroom and end the suspense. And avoid an awkward flight home where Maki was too self conscious to look Nico in the eye.

Chapter Text

THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU (REDUX)

Maki had slept sometime. Since LA. Before LA and after, that was how she broke everything down now. Before Nico had escaped the chains and wrapped herself around Maki’s every nerve and thought process. Enflamed, that’s what Maki was...obsession, passion, desire...she had no real words for this, no way to cope, no way to hold her head above this tsunami of memory and hope that clung to her, making every fantasy, every wish transparent. Not even the first time the potential pleasures of a woman’s body had overtaken rational thought, in Tokyo, at the start, when she swore never again to make that leap, have that feeling that made her shudder, the horror of only existing, detached, on the physical plane, of a one sided lust.

Eli kept nagging about the gallery opening so Maki was working. Framed photos due in two days, 10 days since her return from LA, no time passing since Nico burst from the water, pure drive, the moment, the breath, the shaky way Nico’s chest...that kept replaying in Maki’s mind. In an effort to not picture herself licking every drop of water SLOWLY from Nico’s torso, which honestly would last three seconds before Maki exploded and who knew what would happen, or what Nico would do or...IN AN EFFORT TO DETOUR THAT TRAIN OF THOUGHT, derail it into a deep deep canyon, Maki had pulled up every other picture she’d taken of Nico, the eyes, the closeups, the candids snuck between poses, managed to track down the most exquisite red jewel, the Moussaieff Red Diamond, fortunately on display at the Smithsonian, have Eli talk her way into photographing the exhibit, an overnight trip to DC, a studio full of every red flower she could find on the Northshore, since the perfect pink was still eluding her, and seemed only to make an appearance in the presence of Nico’s lips.

The raw materials. Add Jazz, Nico hated jazz, she could play jazz and maybe it would keep the Nico fantasies at bay. “The Very Thought Of You” over and over again, every cover she could find. Umi had fled the repetitiveness one day after stopping in to check on her. Slices and slivers of diamond, and petals of roses and peonies and dahlias and daylilies and hyacinths and then those eyes, sparkling, sliding in between diamond facets and floral faces, Maki was creating a whirlwind, swirling to a too rapid, too panicked, too heartbeat like beat of “The Very Thought Of You” cover that she pounded out on her piano instead of breaths.

One near hologram quality animation. Eight frames. Nico the essence, the essential, but only if you could tell ruby diamond and ruby iris apart, and even Maki couldn’t. She was proud of her art, Nico had said not recognizable so Maki had grafted her non reproducible charms into a priceless treasure, made only richer by the deeper, human feeling behind it. Maki could sense that when she looked into Nico’s eyes, in frame 1, from the Houdini shoot, and frame 8, when Nico had opened her eyes in her apartment, makeup and pretense stripped, trusting Maki, Nico’s expression open and inviting, a warmth of bemused softness . And that was where Maki was lost....between the opening and closing frames of the rose diamond nico...could she call it rose diamond smile… would anyone know...would Nico care...could she ask her...no, more volume, some random song without words, only depths and feelings, shaking to the ceiling as Maki curled into a cave of ruby walls, mirror images misleading her, calling her deeper, in to drown.

AT LONG LAST LOVE

Eli was back. With Her. The cause of all this. Nozomi. At the opening. Maki had delivered, at dawn, leaving Levine barely enough time to hang things properly. And she had been less than thrilled when Maki informed her that the no version of the completed Diamond Rose was for sale. The lenticular prints Maki had made of the eight key frames were a huge hit, which made Levine a little happier, and now Maki was in a dark corner, watching as the projected animation rotated through its special light show, pleased at how Nico’s eyes melded into the facets of the Moussaif, adding a depth that made the gem almost seem animate.

Eli had tried introducing Nozomi, but Maki had nearly snarled, and even though Nozomi was more than willing to keep up the chatter, Eli had reluctantly pulled her away, to introduce her to Levine. It was an Eli, Maki’s manager, night and keeping the photographer in a calm place was paramount.

And that lasted until the moment Nico Yazawa walked through the door, followed by half a dozen chattering hangers on. Maki startled, as she felt the focus shift from her art; Levine froze; Nozomi trilled a high pitched “Nico-chi.” The miniature marauder in question waved at Nozomi, but Maki knew it was half hearted as Nico’s eyes were searching the room, stopping briefly here and there, to register a photo existed, but in targeting mode until she found Maki’s once sanctuary, now corner. Which Nico did, striding right up, blocking egress, hand out, Nozomi watching curiously, Eli open mouthed, Maki had a hand reaching up for her hair and a bottled water in the other so there was no defense when Nico stood on tiptoe to brush a kiss on Maki’s reddening cheek, and squeeze her shoulder. Finally Maki managed to shuffle around Nico, to escape the trapped feeling.

“The party can start now.” Did Nico always say that? Nico slid an arm through Maki’s and dragged her into the center of the room, where the animation rotated between bright and shadow, “Tell Nico how you did this. It’s amazing. And why isn’t it for sale?”

Maki coughed as she caught Levine Brook’s nod of agreement. She was going to be ganged up on. She threw a desperate look in Eli’s direction but her manager was completely distracted by whatever Nozomi was whispering in her ear.

“Ummmm...well, first there was...first I created…” Maki glanced down at Nico, uncertain if her audience actually wanted an answer, but the miniscule miscreant was actually paying attention, “I created medlies of several objects using photos I’d taken.” Of you, Maki swallowed instead of saying as Nico listened with genuine interest, “and then several days later, this happened…”

“Maki’s never really been good at describing her process, Miss Yazawa,” Levine slid herself smoothly into the conversation.

“No,” Nico smiled gaily at the new entry, “Put a camera in her hand and suddenly you feel like a peeping pervert outside a bedroom window.”

Maki had been wondering exactly how Nico was keeping her bangs to the side but then Nico’s statement registered, “Hey. It’s not like that.”

“Like what?” And now Eli was there.

“I am not in a sexual relationship with my camera.” And the room had, of course, gone quiet, the breath before Maki’s declaration and Eli’s wife, of course, let the echoes die down before she continued the torture.

“So would you AND the camera be in a sexual relationship with your subjects?” Nozomi giggled, “A sort of ménage a montage?”

Eli, traitor to the core, joined the giggle crowd.

Levine, reading the room and ignoring Maki’s aggrieved huffing, decided risky was worth it as neither the celebrity guest or the money people had committed to a mood yet, “Annie Liebovitz did say “A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.”

Nico was the next to contribute, “Nico’s been reading up on Mapplethorpe,” she tossed off casually as she grinned at Maki, her voice altering as she quoted, ““When I have sex with someone I forget who I am. For a minute I even forget I’m human. It’s the same thing when I’m behind a camera. I forget I exist.” Nico winked at Maki, a smug, confident, audacious, invading-all-Maki’s-sanctuaries wink, as her voice made their exchange a private, sensual whisper. “Nico’s there but not. And the rest is left to the audience.”

Beauty and the Devil are the same, Maki thought. Mapplethorpe said that too. With possibly the same burning in his eyes and chest as she had right now, staring through Nico, wondering if Nico had meant in bed or on screen, Maki could see the smirk and horns and the smoldering and the hood tossed over to make sure there was enough shadowing to upset and unsettle the viewer. And the eyes would burn, fire, fire, flames ablaze in darkness, Nico’s glance lasering down through the skin to the soul, like the lancing touch of angel wings as their feathers ignited in the heavenly fall.

“Maki?” Levine touched her arm lightly, “Nico asked you a question.”

Maki blinked, her ‘what’ all abrupt, half accusation.

Nico was ice calm but that was no balm when she struck, “Could you do an animation of something like the pictures you took of me in LA?”

Oh gods. Cold and hot both burning, flood surge of memories and wants bursting through. Cursing her lack of ability to come up with any dry analogies, Maki spun around and headed for the door, Eli stepping in behind her with apologies, to give Maki a necessary moment to clear her head.

SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE

No, Maki had not spent the entire night sorting through the Houdini Estate pictures, plotting angles for the animated and lenticular display Nico had requested. Nope. That would be creepy. Not more than ten minutes. The rest of the night had been taken up by screaming into one of the pillows on her studio couch, reshuffling the pictures on her wall, and 3 hours boxing her arms off in Wii Sports, followed by too many runs in SSX Blur to count. Then exhaustion had hit and she was too tired to dream or think or plan or…

Knocking. Door. Did she have a doorbell? Umi. Maki sat up in a panic, looking for her phone. Too early for Umi. The London flight left in the afternoon. It was barely dawn. Well, Maki had been up til dawn so it wasn’t really much after. She still needed sleep.

Maki opened the door. Nico Yazawa stood there, behind crystal encrusted sunglasses, pink coat blowing open in the brisk wind, dark floral wrap dress underneath. She had a basket in her hand and pushed it into Maki’s abdomen as she strode into the studio, “Nozomi said that Eli said you slept here most nights. I guess she was right.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I brought you breakfast.” Nico smiled brightly, “A breakfast pie. Stick the fork right in. Nico knows that’s your style.”

“Ok.” Maki found herself clutching the basket, which smelled like bacon and fennel sausages closer when she expected to shove it right back at the invading force.

“And…” Nico spun around, whipping an oversized, glossy object at Maki, “Nico brought you an advance copy of Interview.” A dramatic pause, “Signed. Hot off the presses this morning.” Nico unfurled the magazine, the shot of her wet and bursting out of the water tank was splashed across the cover with the caption, ‘Yazawa Escapes Chains of Nico’s Past.’ “Nico signed it for you.”

“I have the negative.” Maki sat on her couch, pulling the pie out of the basket, pausing to inhale delicious, tempting smells.

“Want Nico to sign that?” Had Maki ever heard Nico’s voice without a lilting tease? She couldn’t remember.

“Please leave.” Maki shuffled through the basket but no silverware. She crawled to the end of the couch, precariously leaning over to her desk, pulling a fork out of the pen cup at the end.

“Have you washed that recently?”

Maki shrugged, breakfast pie on its way to her salivating mouth.

“Cotorou says hi.” Nico took her sunglasses off with a flair.

Maki waved the fork.

“He wants to come on another photoshoot.”

Maki nodded, in what she hoped was a non committal fashion.

“Nico needs you in Tokyo before New Year’s.” Nico was now looming both too close and too tall, how high were those boot heels Maki wondered.

Maki stopped chewing, staring up at Yazawa.

“Vogue is flying me out, I’m debuting a hot new designer team, it’s amazing...:” Nico somehow gleamed with enthusiasm, almost taking on a glow. Maki figured her own eyes weren’t used to daylight yet.

Maki swallowed, taking a moment to fortify her constitution as Nico slid into the couch next to her, some citrusy perfume wafting, stole Maki’s fork and ate a piece of pie, “Why do you need me? Nozomi’s back.”

Nico hesitated, then went for accusatory, “Your friend is DRAGGING her to Russia for the holidays, and Nico can’t cope. Everybody else sees child star Nico...you see…” Nico pointed to the magazine, then offered Maki a forkful of pie. The photographer bit, distracted by thinking about how often she saw Nico like that, in LA, in black and white, in color, in motion, in control, in her mind. Nico leaned in, “I know your first show was in Tokyo, after you spent a summer there, and you haven’t been back. I thought you might enjoy a chance to revisit your original inspiration.” Nico’s eyelashes were fluttering at an impossibly slow rate, black shadows over the eyes that offered Maki too many things to read.

There were a few reasons Maki had never returned to Tokyo, all of them more whims than foundational beliefs. Another forkful, Nico just watching Maki for another moment and then bouncing up, wandering through the room, “Have you framed a picture of Nico for the wall yet?”

“No.” Maki sounded sullen, but only because she was tired of having that argument with herself.

“Isn’t Nico nude enough?”

Damn it, the midget monster enjoyed this, there was far to much mirth and mischief underlying her tone. Which, Maki conceded to HERSELF, was much better than if Nico had gone for any kind of sensual vocal coloration.

“I’ve been busy.” Maki punted and grabbed the fork from where Nico had stabbed it into the pie. Amazing flavor mix. Maki could eat this every morning.

Nico leaned over the back of the couch, her chin threatening to land on Maki’s shoulder, one arm keeping Maki from sliding away, “Nico is busy too. And I need help. And you love taking Nico’s picture.”

Maki spluttered as that whispered exaggeration slid into her ear, “I don’t...you can’t...it’s not…”

“It’s not what?”

Maki sighed, regaining equilibrium. It was easier when she wasn’t looking at Nico. “Once again, I’m not your personal photographer, Ms. Yazawa. I can recommend several.”

“First class to Tokyo, Nico will pose however YOU want her, such a high class hotel it would make the one in LA drool, and Nico left you an open ended return ticket if you’d like to visit old…” Nico leaned into Maki’s view and winked, “friends.”

“Nico…”

“Please.” Nico pointed to the pie, “Nico doesn’t bake for everyone, just geniuses who do her super special favors.”

It was the “geniuses” that got the nod out of her, Maki thought, or the honest admiration glowing in Nico’s eyes, but there she was, consenting to Nico invading her space, her time, her calendar. Maki’s world wasn’t pre LA or post LA, it was pre and post Nico.

 

CANDY

Maki hadn’t been back in Tokyo for several years. She’d spent a summer staying with cousins after her junior year of college, mostly following them around to parties and trying to flirt with women she’d never see again, which was, as always, Option A. Memories came back, quick kisses, her first, here, somewhere no one really knew her. And her first chances taken with photography, somehow both mixed together in her memory, candy colored video game trinkets, vibrant plastic trifles, girls, legs, neon against night, shadows of thousands of odd moments caught in the corners of creative minds, briefly, sharply lit future crashing against traditional Japanese formality. Her first nude model, fabric draping off curves Maki had only recently realized felt so different when they were other. Gay might not seem other, but it was, the most intense form. Curves, yes, but there were the details, the differences, the dents, the dips, the draws, the way her fingers, her eyes, her camera were drawn in, almost swallowed, tiny in the overwhelming awe each fraction of a minute of a degree of change inspired. Lost, she got lost, it was amazing, it was terrifying, it was crushing when she realized her emotions had leapt to attachment with so little encouragement. The model had been kind, but the disappointment in herself had tainted the rest of Maki’s visit and she’d thrown herself into her photography, trying to both distance and replicate the experience, with unyielding imperfect plastic facsimiles and flowing fabric. She’d had her first magazine credit, her first gallery show, a sold out success that she’d been too embarrassed to tell her uncle was happening. So many firsts and then she’d left Tokyo behind, bringing only the fire to kneel, to be humbled breathless by, to capture perfect moments, the beats that stopped her cold, the colors that caught her in their swirl like a mythical maelstrom.

Too much pink tonight. Why had Nico dragged her to Tokyo? The shoot in Akihabara had been too close to memories for Maki to be comfortable. But Nico had done her usual bright bulldozing through anyone in her way and she’d looked so damn good in the yukata and kanzashi and...Maki stared at the shot glass in front of her and nodded at the bartender, double it. Japanese whiskey. When in Nippon...someone slid in next to her. She glanced slightly. Not Nico. Her laugh was across the room. The hairstylist. And their translator on the other side, both smiling, both leaning into Maki. She smiled at the one, Yuu, and winked at the other, Neve.

“Hello, ladies.”

Giggles.

“So we heard you had your first…” another giggle. Maki sunk the whiskey in the pool of other whiskey that was working its way through her veins and blurring her vision, her judgement, her grasp “show here.”

Maki grinned, and tapped so the bartender poured her another. It was Nico’s tab, Nico could pay for this mood she’d flown Maki halfway across the world into, “Yep. Just down the block. Famous gallery. EVERYTHING sold.” Maki toasted herself, wondering if she sounded as loud as she thought. She dropped her head, pulling the two women in to whisper, “First everything here…”

The wide eyes told her her audience understood the implications, although Maki wouldn’t bother to explain that she might have been exaggerating her story a bit. She felt a touch on her hair, a breath near her ear, a hand sliding under hers and her hand shot forward, shaking, grabbing the shot glass as she stood, “Look me up later, ladies.” Wink. Stumble. Was it really a stumble, yes, Maki realized as she found herself mysteriously across the room, her arms finally catching her fall by jamming into table. Jarring. Maki shook her head, blowing her bangs out of her eyes, and there they were, the eyes that haunted her, the shimmering ruby depths that taunted her by being more unreadable than Lake Michigan under a new moon.

“Nico!” Maki slid into the booth. Nico seemed more amused than usual, but her smile was...Maki frowned, it was a complicated concept, not warm, not cold, something sandwich, wry…Maki pounded the table, proud of herself.

“Why do you always slide away from them?” Nico raised a bulbous glass full of some viscous red liquid in the direction of the bar.

Maki took her time, propping her elbows on the table, dropping her chin down, furrowing her brow, stretching out her mouth as Nico watched every single motion with the protective amusement of an adult in charge of a toddler learning to crawl. Maki purred “They’re not aesthetically pleasing” and Nico only twitched a little as Maki’s finger touched between Nico’s eyebrows, tracing down over her nose, barely tapping her top lip, “Not like you.” Maki grinned at Nico, looming, “Just joking; ‘m not that shallow.” She shook her head, leaning back, staring at the ceiling, “They want...cool.” Another sigh as today, Tokyo, Nico, blossoms, wishes, wants, wounds churned behind her closed eyelids, “I’m not that…” She stuck out her tongue, “And It’s all pink now. I just can’t see any…” Maki blew out a big breath, feeling relieved, maybe a little queasy, what were they talking about, was Nico still there? She let her head fall to the side, something warm, Nico’s perfume, Nico’s carefully trimmed nails tapping a rhythm Maki knew well but which….”HEY!” Maki sat up, her hands reaching out as if for a keyboard, trying to place the tune, Nico had jumped back, her drink spilling a little, Maki watched fascinated as the red liquid dripped down Nico’s wrist and she had the sudden thirsty urge to lean forward and lick it, to see if tasted salty at all, like skin did, like…

“Maki?” Nico’s other hand was under her chin, but Maki shook it off, the almost familiar rhythm still working its way into clarity. Then Maki stopped, eyes narrowed at a confused Nico. “But you hate jazz. There’s no words. You said so.”

Nico looked flummoxed for the first time Maki had ever seen her, “When did I say that?”

“At the party. The first time I saw you. All pink. Eli dragged me there. So she could meet Nozomi.”

Nico’s chin jutted forward, her eyes blinking, a slight flush on her cheeks, “You were there?”

“Obviously,” Maki snorted, “everybody was staring, and so rude but I couldn’t get you out of my m...” Nico was fumbling nervously with the tablecloth. Maki grabbed a napkin to hand to Nico but her hand knocked straight into Nico’s glass, more red spilling across the table, Maki reaching out, fascinated, “sticky.”

“You have had too much to drink.” Nico decided, her voice very close, very soft, Maki turned her head and Nico was right there...right there, she reached out a hand but ended up knocking Nico’s glass the other way so it rolled into her lap, “Time to get you to your room, Nishikino.” Nico’s tone was almost cold, Maki noticed. Maybe her pretty pink dress was ruined? Had Maki done that? That was sad...why did it feel like tears? There was a rough upward tug on her arm and Maki was suddenly on her feet, her arm over Nico’s shoulders.

“Hey!” Maki swayed, but Nico was surprisingly solid.

“Hey, yourself. Nico will do you a favor and tuck you in. But we have an early morning. You need to sleep.” Nico’s voice sounded far away as Maki’s head bobbed through yawns.

“Sleep.” Maki thought that sounded...less shaky.

“Sleep.” Nico’s tone warmed slightly and Maki hummed to herself, that song was almost there...what was it? She’d have to ask Nico in the morning.

I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU

Maki had been queasy on the flight to Hirosaki. She’d pulled her hoodie down over her head, pulled the blanket up to her nose and glared at the universe through the narrow gap between them. How many drinks had she had last night? She remembered sitting next to Nico, but after that, just some movement, sluggish movement and the relief when she’d achieved a stable horizontal position, no longer having to willpower through her every movement. And then there had been waking to realize she’d thrown up over the side of the bed. A quick clean up, then a shower, then the quietest, calmest breakfast she could think of...Now, the plane, and Maki just wanted to sleep and not feel every vibration as the plane found things to jar against in mid air. She felt a hand on her shoulder and grumbled only to hear Nico laughing, “Better get some juice to replace those fluids, Maki. Nico doesn’t want to have to drag your nearly unconscious body through the snow.”

Nico was wearing comfy clothes for the plane ride, leggings and an oversized sweater. Maki’s jeans were twisting. Next flight, she was just going to find slouchy, comfy pajama pants and wear them out. She missed first class and leg room. The thought of champagne brought a wince as orange juice dangled in front of her. She reached out.

“That’s a good girl,” Nico teased, her voice shrill and silly, “Listen to Nico.”

The blanket fell as Maki shifted to glare at Nico, who winked, deflating Maki’s sudden urge to strike her with a clever verbal retort. “My hangover hates you.”

 “I’ll let my people know.” Nico continued down the aisle, chirping nonsensical travel truisms at random people, Maki could hear the “Nico Nico Ni” that punctuated her conversations with the ones who claimed to be fans.

 

Oh my gods, Maki thought, entranced, headache forgotten, cold too far away to touch her, watching Nico sweep up a ice white hill toward an ebony roofed castle, framed by frozen cherry blossom branches, her open black coat floating behind her, the black and white of her dress a shattered geometry that amazed, entangled from every angle. Maki had planned to shoot on black and white film but with the Fuji, the ruby red of Nico’s eyes thrilled like stars after a stormy night. Was she knee deep in snow? Maki didn’t care, and fell to her side, to shoot up the hill as Nico approached her, castle looming in the background. Nico sped by, turning sharply in a surprising pause to look right at Maki, winking and blowing a kiss as she shook the snow off a cherry branch. Maki barely felt the cold wet burying her as her shutter clicked madly and Nico threw back her head with a laugh that must have echoed to the sea.

“We’ll come back in the Spring.” Maki swore she heard whispered as her fingers went numb.

IT’S NOT FOR ME TO SAY

It had been a fairly painless interview. A photography podcast had tracked Maki down and was interested in her influences. Her latest book/album had been out long enough to hit a sales lull and Maki was almost recharged enough to impersonate an ambivert so she said yes. Also, there was her continual inability to say no to requests from the the smart, the sharp and the shapely, no matter how much Umi and Eli teased her about it. Maki always countered with “there are worse habits.”

“So Maki, you’ve been travelling a lot the past six months, with photoshoots for Nico Yazawa. Is it exciting?”

Maki chuckled, “I’m a bit of a homebody.”

“You don’t seem like the Netflix on the couch type, Maki. Your photos are so lively. And you incorporate different environments so well.”

“I have these short bursts of creativity, Aylen, everything gets blurry and time….well, it kind of skips, I guess. Or elongates.” Maki shuffled through prints, pushing one in the direction of her interviewer, “Like these shots of granite chess pieces. When I put the cameras down, nearly four hours had passed, I was freezing, and if Eli hadn’t decided to check on me, I probably would have just curled up on a dune.”

Aylen picked up the picture, her finger reaching out as if it had texture, “That’s her manager, Eli Ayase. And I’m looking at a picture from Maki’s Storm Chess series, an oversized, rosy hued queen tilted into an ebbing tide, a grayer knight half buried in sand behind her.” She smiled at Maki, “It’s so cool to see what your favorites are.”

“Well, there are some I always come back to,” Maki waved her hand, drawing her interviewer’s eye to the pictures framed around the office part of her loft.

“No pictures of Nico Yazawa have made the wall yet, I see.” Aylen commented casually.

Maki coughed uncomfortably, “That’s a bit new.”

“But it does make me wonder: how working with someone as well known as Nico Yazawa affects your process. Your previous celebrity models were one time shoots.”

So many Nico mentions, questions. Maki frowned, uncomfortable talking about Nico when the actress couldn’t join in the conversation. Sure, Nico seemed to live for media hits, but Maki was starting to feel exposed, as if she were about to spit a secret out that should have been completely buried in the sand by a wave surge.

“Uhhh...I’m not sure what I should say…” Maki fidgeted, the stool legs grinding across the floor as she shoved herself back from the counter, “I respect Nico, she’s got this laserscope targeting for her personal, artistic vision…” Maki, sighed, tilting the stool back, meeting a pair of friendly, patient hazel eyes, “It has cut into my time. The travel’s exciting and I’ve learned a lot about the entertainment business, but…” Maki stopped, reluctant.

“But?” Aylen’s question was a gentle echo, a well nuanced prod.

Maki shrugged, there was no denying the truth, “I haven’t had nearly enough time for my own projects. I’m still sorting through the Hirosaki pics. The magazine chose the ones they wanted, but Nico asked me to pick an alternate set she could post on her site.”

Aware that she’d just gotten an unexpected moment of honesty, Aylen changed topics before Maki could absorb what she’d just admitted. “Your own website is amazing, the way you’ve fluidly animated the photos to the music.”

Maki let the stool fall back solidly on the floor, leaning forward eagerly, “I know. The program I found is so much fun to play with. And my friend, Umi Sonoda, the poet, is writing haiku for me. We’re both waiting for the cherry blossoms. I’ve been so caught by pink, there’s so much romance encoded in it, such softness.”
Aylen laughed, “So is your next project a pink one?”

“If I could find the right flower....” Maki grumbled.

“What do you mean…”

Maki shook her head, “Nothing coherent. Sorry, I’m not the best interview.”

“You’re doing fine, Maki. And we appreciate your time.” Aylen glanced at her phone, “But we do need to wrap it up. So just a few final questions.”

“Sure.” Maki had been trying not to fidget, not to create extra noise and the stillness was making her sound as restless as she felt.

“I know you’re a Mapplethorpe fan. Do you have a favorite quote? Or photo?”

“Too many photos. I rotate them seasonally at home.” Maki linked her fingers, stretching out, “ A lot of Mapplethorpe resonates. I like that he didn’t really worship photography, it was a tool. He wanted the picture in his hand, the moment captured. "With photography, you zero in; you put a lot of energy into short moments, and then you go on to the next thing." Maki paused, “He really got the intensity of the experience and the relief of moving on.”

“So many metaphors there.” Aylen laughed.

“Ah, I’m actually very literal. I see it, I hear it, I read it, no subtext.” Maki hung her head, bangs falling forward, suddenly tired.

“So then,” Aylen leaned forward, “I guess the only question is what is your ‘next thing’?’”

And Maki knew she should have had an answer.

Chapter Text

I’M BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT

Maki’s phone went off. Nico. She’d changed all tones involving Nico to Hank Mobley’s “I Should Care” so there was a warning. Not glancing away from her computer, where she was considering which piano bar to take over for her Lunar New Year shoot. Betrayed by a hasty pulse, she reluctantly read her screen.

N: Hey, Nico’s Secret Weapon, how are you? Cotorou loved the camera “Santa” sent to my apartment.

M: 1. I’m not Nico’s anything and 2. Never put Santa in quotes.

N: (´・` )♡ Nico’s working two top secret projects so I won’t be around, but maybe when I’m in town next month we can have dinner so Nico can thank you.

M: Thank me now. I hate suspense.

N: Nico will make it worth the wait (。•̀ᴗ-)✧

Maki had no idea how to respond to that.

M: ┐( -“-)┌

N: Charmer. What are you doing?

M: Planning a Lunar New Year shoot.

N: Nico looks great in red. But you know that. You surrounded me with diamonds. Most people go for the obvious. I’m impressed.

Oh, so Nico had figured that out. Of course, she had. Maki always landed squarely in awkward and obvious when in the Presence™.

M; Don’t be. It just made sense.

N: Anyway, Nico has to run. Text Nico sometime.

M: ┐( -“-)┌

N: ღゝ◡╹)ノ♡

 

 

SINCE I FELL FOR YOU

Maki was nodding off when her phone exploded with notifications. Curious, she checked. Something about Nico Yazawa and Sexiest Celebrity...why would her name be mentioned? Clicking through the first link, it was an article announcing Nico’s selection as Sexiest Celebrity Comeback, partly thanks to Maki and the Houdini photoshoot. A picture from a photoshoot accompanied the press release, Maki flicked her fingers to zoom out the picture. Must have been one of Nico’s “top secret projects.”

PINK. All Maki saw was pink. THE PINK. She rolled off her couch, grabbing her laptop, searching there. Nico. Cherry Blossoms. Surrounded. At the end of January. Maki had just trooped through a foot and a half of snow to get home from her studio. It was too early for blossoms this year...and yet there it was, Nico, in a gray ball gown with a rising cascade of pink flurrying its way up over Nico’s shoulder, the dress a gray that almost blended with the cloudy dark WINTER sky behind Nico, melding Nico into the gray of the curved castle wall. And cherry blossoms a deeper pinker than Maki had ever seen them were a cloud lifting Nico up. Venus rising from Spring, with the mysterious ruby eyes of a goddess, but it WASN’T SPRING YET. The Lunar New Year had just happened. Maki had just trooped through snow. She glanced at the page, breathing more fiercely with each new bit of information, Okinawa, this year, designer dress, photographed by someone not Maki, trapped in the dark delicacy of bells of the Kanhizakura was the color that had been haunting Maki, the color teased across Nico’s lips in these...Maki grabbed for her phone, texting Umi.

M: If Kotori doesn’t get Elle magazine, go buy me a copy.

U: Why?

M: So I can shred it.

U: Is everything all right, Maki?

M: (ノ`´)ノ ~┻━┻ ~

U: Calm down, Maki.

M: (ง’̀-‘́)ง

U: There is no excuse for that tone, Maki (ー ー;)

M: ….

M: Please, Umi. I need you, my friend, to do me this small favor.

U: Of course, Maki (^-^)v

Maki smiled. Kotori had convinced Umi that emoticons were an acceptable form of communication, especially if your wife thought they were cute. Since then, like with most of the things Kotori initially had to nudge Umi into, Umi had embraced the style with verve and humor, viewing it new, alternate punctuation standard. Then Maki saw the picture again. And could taste bitter as her stomach roiled.

 

SINCE I FELL FOR YOU

Snow. Trees covered in snow. That was a natural look for this time of year. Not trees covered in the perfect pink, sweeping up against Nico “Perfect Pink Lips” Yazawa. And all the wrong angles and a terrible dress that made Nico look, okay, it made Nico look like a goddess curved and carved out of the Nakijin Castle courtyard walls. Maki shook her head, inhaling. Cold air, arched bridge, pine trees covered in snow as they should be. The pond around the zigzag bridge had a bold sweep of snow over it, as the wind cut new sworls and Maki barely noticed the cold cutting through her ragg wool glittens. Maki stomped her boots. She’d done a snowboarding shoot last winter and upgraded her winter gear so she should be set for a long day at the Botanic Gardens.

Maki was lying full length in the snow under a pine tree, capturing light on snow on green on blue. And her phone was vibrating. She ignored it, but it kept vibrating. Pause for voicemail to be ignored and then more vibrating. She sat up, ripped her phone out of her sleeve pocket and yelled, “What?”

“Are you actually in the snow?” Eli.

“I was until you called.”

“Posting shots every 15 minutes on your TWIG is how you cry for help, you know. Umi said you were upset yesterday. Why didn’t you call me?” Eli sounded wounded, Maki didn’t care. It was all Eli’s fault. Without Nozomi Maki would have never met Nico, never had every waking thought invaded by pink and sable and ruby and songs that suddenly made too much sense arranging themselves into a soundtrack that never stopped looping in her head. And then the stupid “I have two initials and my credentials are massive” photographer, whose name Maki refused to remember, stole her...

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Maki shut off her phone. And laid back down in the snow, staring up through the tree branches, remembering a laughing, flirting Nico shaking snow down in her face, a whispered promise. Maybe just freezing here would slow her thoughts down to a pace she could handle. Maybe. If there were no pink.

SINCE I FELL FOR YOU

Nico was there. At her home. Where Maki was going to collapse after seven hours roaming the Japanese Garden. Maki wanted a shower and something warm not a invading bite sized beauty who looked really pissed.

Nico touched her cheek, without saying anything and that’s when Maki realized how cold she was, her skin actually felt hard against Nico’s softness. Not to mention the way the warmth melted her, from the tender contact of Nico’s palm on her cheek, life running down her neck, up into her hair as Nico brushed that out of her eyes. At some point, Maki had lost her cap.

“You only look half frostbitten.” Nico announced, her voice brusque. Maki fumbled for her keys, only to watch Nico grab them and open the door.

“Why are you here?” Maybe Maki had fallen asleep in the snow and Nico was a hallucination before the freezing process completely shut down her brain. Then months later, with the arrival of non magazine Spring, Maki could thaw and turn into a comic book villain, Sakura Snow.

Maki stumbled into her apartment, shedding layers, too tired and cold to be self conscious. Nico went right to the kitchen anyway, where she would discover Maki’s stash of frozen pizzas, ice cream, and a half eaten rotisserie chicken. Plus milk and orange juice.

Nico opened the refrigerator, closed the refrigerator, turned to glare at Maki, “Don’t you eat?”

“Cereal at night, usually. I have probably eight different kinds, if you don’t count oatmeal. Suits every mood.”

“You’re a kid. No wonder you and Cotorou connected.” Nico moved too quickly, suddenly under Maki’s nose, her hand out, “Give Nico your phone and the name of your favorite delivery place.”

“No.”

Nico glared. Maki handed over the phone. “Carmen’s. Deep Dish. Pesto. It’s infused with garlic.”

“Take a shower.” Nico flicked through Maki’s recent calls, “Do you only talk to restaurants?”

Maki remembered Nico had never answered her question, “Why are you here? And how did you get my address?”

“Your manager expressed some concerns about your current mental state to her wife, my close personal friend, who then called me. They thought you might be upset by the…”

“I’m not upset by anything.” Maki spoke slowly and too loudly, her arms wrapped around her torso.

“You just felt like spending six hours in the snow, posting to TWIG every fifteen minutes.” Nico’s tone was the one universally used for calling out obvious bunk.

“Yep,” Maki nodded, regretting the delay that was keeping her from screaming out her general frustration while warm water pounded into her exertion tightened muscles. She decided sprawling on the couch under her Guardians Journey blanket was a good alternate choice and stepped around Nico. “Thanks for coming by, but I can order my own pizza. And I’m sure you have other, important things to do.” WIth other people, Maki finished the thought silently

Nico tilted her head, eyes narrowed, debating, Then she struck. “I saw the TWIG shots, Nico thinks you’re off your game.”

Maki exploded off the couch, “Oh really, why don’t you take A.F. P. Perky out there with you and see what kind of lousy you get…”

Nico nodded, suspicion confirmed. “You said you didn’t have enough time for your own projects. On that podcast. Nico was doing you a favor.”

Maki was caught in an angry loom, frozen, no words, as Nico stood undisturbed by any of this.

“I’m very grateful Maki. You didn’t have to but you helped Nico create an exciting new image…” Adrenaline and anger were fleeing and Maki was falling back, Nico proceeding chirpily, “People are throwing so many new projects at Nico. And taking me seriously.” Maki dropped to the coffee table, the wool wrapped around her warm and scratchy, and Nico was close, and the dark pink of those lips was all Maki could focus on. “Because you saw me differently.”

Maki curled up, still lacking words.

“So are you just jealous that Nico took another photographer on a trip? He wasn’t Nico’s type at all.”

Maki shook her head, reaching a finger out to Nico’s lips, such softness, “The Pink. You found it. Without me. So it’s gone.” Maki snapped her fingers, then pulled her hands back, shoving them under her thighs, bangs hanging down.

“But I’m still here.” Nico sat next to Maki, leaving a space, but turned so she and Maki had a pocket of warmth between them.

Muttering, “I...together...I thought we would go...cherry blossoms...maybe…” Maki sighed, running a hand through her hair, “Maybe it would have been there, the pink. And I could get it out of my head.”

“Do you really want to?” Nico’s question was soft, one of her hands reaching out to touch Maki’s.

Maki recoiled, standing to pace, “You don’t know. Things get in there,” she practically stabbed her temple with her index finger, “And I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, I don’t..” Maki squeezed her eyes, hoping not to feel tears, “And then,” Maki leaned into the couch, staring at Nico, desperate to see her words had been understood, “There’s a moment, and it’s all RIGHT. And then my head’s free. And I…” Maki remembered Aylen’s final question, “and I get to do the ‘next thing’.”

Nico’s hands were now clasped in her lap, “And Nico wouldn’t be the ‘next thing’?”

Maki’s expression must have been wild, because Nico was exuding a field of soothing calm, which deflated Maki totally. The whole scene felt hyper real, not a hallucination, but a picture where the colors were oversaturated but the background had been faded so the subjects just floated there, no connection, no tether to any real moment. “I don’t know.” Exhaustion had become the emotional house that Maki lived in.

“Oh.” Nico’s initial syllable sounded flat, but then she bounced right into cheery, “ You must be freezing. Hop in the shower, Nico will order your pizza and leave you to recover.” A smile, but a reserved one, “Nico has an important meeting early.”

“Okay.” Maki turned to her bedroom.

“Hey Maki?” Nico was leaning back over the couch, her view of Maki an upside down one.

“What?” Maki had her hand on the bedroom door.

“Tell Nico when you figure out your ‘next thing,’ okay?”

“Sure.”

“Thanks.” A warm smile. “For everything. And Nico is sorry about the pink.”

Maki nodded and shuffled into her bedroom. Maybe she should just sleep. That sounded quiet. She collapsed on her bed, rolling her comforter around her. Just a minute, then the shower. Really...

Maki unrolled from the comforter, stiff. Warmer. She stretched. Her upper back was going to hurt for a couple of days after yesterday, maybe she should schedule a massage...yesterday, snow, pine, cold, home, Nico…

Her laptop was on the coffee table, her camera next to it...the camera weighted down a note, written in curly cursive with glitter pink ink. Of course Nico carried a glitter pink pen, she probably had glitter pink blood, Maki thought as she yawned and dropped into the couch, grabbing the note.

“Hey, Nico got bored waiting for your pizza so I looked at your photos. Amazing. But don’t be Snowflake Bentley.”

Snowflake Bentley? Maki opened her laptop to search. THE Snowflake photographer. And in the mid 19th century, with such a primitive kit. Maki snorted when she got to “Died of pneumonia on his farm...after walking six miles home in a blizzard.” So that was what Nico meant. And did the devil diva have information on every photographer of note since the invention of the daguerreotype?

Back to the note:

Rest of the pizza’s in your fridge. SInce Nico paid, there’s a slice missing.

Text Nico when you thaw out. And make me a print with the zigzag bridge.” And the autograph with the usual flourish. Maki leaned back. Not a hallucination. Another night when she barely remembered what she said to Nico though, exhaustion wiping memory nearly as clean as whisky had. Pink. Things about pink. Probably embarrassing things about pink. Time to start picturing a world in black and white. Maybe that would be a solution. Maybe more sleep could sort it out.

THE SHADOW OF YOUR SMILE

Maki rewoke to 10 a.m., couch imprint on her face, and the realization that black and white was not enough of a buffer. There had been dreams, Maki continuing to see Nico too easily, everywhere, in too many poses, even in something so opposite to Nico as a still Zen rock garden in the snow. Was Nico burned into her world as the focal point now? That was no way to have a career, a life, or any peace at all.

Glancing down at the table, her lockscreen announced texts from Nico, from Eli, from Umi, from Tsubasa, from Jada Jefferson…

N: Did you thaw out? And stay inside, Nico doesn’t have time to bring over something warm until later (*`▽´)_旦~~

E: MAKI! CALL ME. NOW.

U: Good morning, Maki. Kotori and I are concerned that work is taking over your life. We would like to invite you for dinner, followed by a movie, on the evening of your choice this week. Please decide on a specific date at your earliest convenience.

T: I’ll be in Chicago next week. Call my manager to set up your backstage pass. Looking forward to that dinner you promised. Was that view of Lake Michigan the one from your loft (´ε` )♡

J: Hi Maki! Business is bringing me to the Midwest next week. Maybe you could find time to show me around Chicago’s landmarks? I’d love to continue our conversation.

E: I MEAN IT!

Maki tossed the phone. When did so many people start waking up and thinking, “Let’s see what Maki’s doing?” She shivered, and unlike yesterday, it wasn’t from the cold, although the feeling was a bit like noticing a tiny snowball rolling into a huge avalanche that was going to iceroll her off a precipice.

Maki sighed, sprawling down the couch, to stare at the ceiling, closing her eyes, forcing a black and white filter on the images rushing to fill her mental screen. Which got her to Nico, so many vivid memories, pink, pursed, pulsating lips with blooms and petals blowing across them, eyes gleaming in shadow, Nico, bold and brave, bursting out of the tank, dripping with...then Nico, small and cold, settled into Maki’s hoodie, shuddering with exertion. Indelible. Etched. Images to build a work of art around, but maybe also moments to launch something private from. Maki reached out a hand for the stereo remote and Ella started to sing “The Shadow Of Your Smile.” Smile. Nico’s smile. Didn’t she want to get closer?

 

Step One to clearing your head: Don’t take Nico’s advice. Maki laughed at herself as she left her apartment, then stopped for lunch at a small Chinese restaurant that made a simple egg flower soup, with broth as light as a dream. She followed that with a random lunch platter choice and trooping to the nearest El Station to land downtown, in Grant Park, snow on the ground, but not cold, wandering through the silent metal crowd of Agora, 106 nine foot tall body sculptures, no head, no arms, “instincts and emotions overpower the intellect without us being aware of it.” as their sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz said ..nothing to think with, nothing to reach with, frozen even in summer, locked in one mood, one place. everything working on them...no camera in hand today, Maki stood and stared, taking time, more than the ten minutes she’d allotted herself to really look at Nico the first time she photographed her. What had she seen then? What had instinct and emotion known that Maki was ignoring? She had arms, why wasn’t she reaching? Like the Olmec Head not too far from here, seven feet of stone, was Maki all head, a mere copy of the original Maki, with lips too stiff to respond to the instincts surging through her synapses every time she saw Nico.

When had she not started a thought that made its way back to Nico?

 

Maki had practically sprinted back to her studio, once she knew what to do next. Practical matters while her hands were practically shaking were a minor problem, but there was a certain structure in routine and she’d printed and framed 1000’s of photos at this point.

She grabbed her phone, surprised at having a caller, but after ignoring a few more of Eli’s text, Maki should have expected an actual call, followed by a visit if that too was ignored.

“Answer my texts, Maki.” Eli nearly shouted, Maki could hear some form of soothing coo in the background. Must be Nozomi.

“I was busy.”

“You should never be too busy to type, “I’m ok, don’t get gray hairs on my account, Eli.””

“I would have gone with “text you later.” Maki countered, “I’m sorry I didn’t.”

“You shut off your phone at the Garden too.” Eli sounded sad. “I’m your friend, Maki. You could always talk to me before. Are you really that upset about Nozomi?”

 

Oh gods, Eli thought her marriage to Nozomi was creating a rift in their friendship.

“No, Eli, really I’m not. You seem happy. I’m glad.” Maki hesitated, “It’s just when you married Nozomi, I met Nico, and things have been crazy since…”

“They have, but the good crazy for me.” Eli sounded more relaxed, Maki heard settling into furniture noises and low mutters of conversation near the phone, “Not so much for you?”

“Just confusing.”

“Nico’s good people you know. She worries about you.”

“I know, Eli. She feeds me pie. Last night it was pizza, but still pie.”

Eli laughed, “Oh, did she stop by? Nozomi talked to her…I hope that was all right.”

“I don’t know much about wives, Eli, but I do know you can’t tell them what not to talk to their friends about.”

Eli groaned, “If only that weren’t true. Nozomi already has far too many embarrassing stories about me.”

“You could be less of a dork, Eli.” Maki stated with all seriousness.

“But then you’d be a solo act.”

“Nah, Umi will never not be a dork.”

“True.” There was a giggle and a movement noise, as Eli’s hand managed to not cover her phone mic, “Nozomi, wait just a minute…” then full voice, a little breathless, “I have to go, Maki. Don’t stress too much.”

“Talk to you later.”

“You better.” Maki could hear the grin.

 

TEACH ME TONIGHT

Maki had sent a text.

M: Are you home? I’m on my way.

N: Maki can’t wait to see Nico ⋋░ ✿ ⁰ o ⁰ ✿ ░⋌

M: Yes

N: I was getting ready for bed; I’ll wait ( -_-)>c[_]

M: Good.

Maki’s heart raced as her hands fumbled both phone and package. The ”just disappear into the night, flee to New Orleans, become an anonymous but renowned pair of hands at a hidden piano bar” urge came over her, but Nico was waiting. And Maki was going to make her own approach this time, not just dodge the attention.

Nico opened the door, dressed in cute, frilly patterned pajamas with a fluffy robe open over them. Maki handed over the framed print, “Yours.”

“You’re fast,” Nico’s eyes were wide, “Do all your fans get this kind of service?”

Maki could feel the blush, but she didn’t look away, although she did shove her hands in her coat pockets so she wouldn’t start twirling her hair, “No.”

Nico raised an eyebrow, “You’re monosyllabic tonight. Somebody steal your dictionary?”

Maki shrugged, then leaned closer, there was a slash of green under Nico’s ear and she reached out a hand and swiped at it, offering her fingers to Nico, “Huh?”

Nico pulled Maki into her apartment, locking the door, “Nico had to take off her beauty mask for company.”

Company. Beauty mask. Green. Maki was crunching through those thoughts as Nico pointed to her couch and went into her kitchen to pour a mug of something and hand it to Maki, “You like coffee, right? Nico is halfway through hers so join me.”

Maki did, sitting very tall at the end of Nico’s sofa while Nico curled up in the middle, watching some kind of video show on TV. Nico watched her, noticing the confusion, “Nico keeps up with the K-Pop trends. Very important for fashion.”

Maki sipped and nodded, a little lost in all the dance and flash and English mixed with foreign words.

“Show’s almost over.”

What to say to start? Then the video caught her eye, a woman in a gray suit with black lines embroidered, group of girls in a dark room with film negatives and fire, arcane rituals, interrupted by costume changes and aggressive dancing, strange scenes in snow, a smoke hand reaching for the woman in the suit. Maki found herself scooting closer to Nico.

Surprising Maki, Nico started to sing, “Close your eyes
Hold my hand
Forget all the times you were lonely
I'll be by your side in this dark world Baby
Now be with me”

Maki started, “WHAT!” And the girl in snow on the screen reached out to a closing portal.

“Still monosyllabic.” Nico patted Maki’s hand, causing a flare of feeling, “Those are the lyrics at the end. Some of the Korean M-Vs are more like horror movies. Song is called “You and I” by Dreamcatcher and it’s about making a dream connection.”

“The suit caught my attention.” Maki admitted, looking away from the screen before the next video proved to be worse.

“Of course it did,” Nico grinned rakishly, spinning on the couch, “You still haven’t gotten over Nico in formal wear, very, very wet formal wear.”

It was fascinating and frustrating. How did Nico manage to sound so matter of fact and so intoxicatingly provocative simultaneously? Was it how her lips, so lively, so pink, so plush, wrapped around the words before releasing them, was it in the depths of the ruby gems that watched Maki’s expression so seriously while cracks of contagious mirth sparkled through the irises. Lost in Nico’s eyes, depths of serious purpose drew Maki in while the effervescence of Nico’s joyful embrace of the moment made everything seem like floating.

“How do I know it wasn’t just the photography?” Maki blurted, feeling like every question she’d ever had must be racing across her eyes like chyrons on CNN.

“What wasn’t?”

“The…” Maki paused, reluctant to define her apprehension, “attraction...I...once...couldn’t stop thinking about...her skin...nude...touch…wanting” Maki glanced down, at the hands that had proven so ineffective at pleading or persuading, once upon a time. “She didn’t.”

Nico snorted. “Good.” Her hand slid over Maki’s, her voice soft, this moment an intimate secret they were sharing, “It’s not just the photography. Or you.” Nico’s hand slid under Maki’s sleeve, her fingers barely caressing skin, just enough contact to raise the hairs on Maki’s forearm and get the anxious photographer’s full attention. Nico’s other hand slid up Maki’s shirt, deftly unbuttoning, an aptitude Maki hoped resulted from changing costumes, not changing lovers. Nico’s hand was soft against her skin, fingers barely pressing as they slid under cloth, down toward lace, “You think I didn’t wonder about you? Imagine what it was like under here, how smooth your skin was, how you’d react when…” Nico’s voice was even smoother than her touch as it slid under lace, fingers suddenly focusing, circling one area, closing in, Nico pinched, Maki yelped, crashing forward into pink lips so much closer than she’d ever even imagine, so much sharper, the sensation of Nico pressing forward, pressure pulling Maki forward, sideways, back, down, fingers tight on Maki’s nipple, Maki’s lips too eager, a reflex, a response to Nico twisting the urgency level higher.

Maki broke away, panting, Nico’s hands too fast, too familiar with her, too frenzied. “You do this all the time?”

“Good question,” Nico finished removing Maki’s shirt, taking a moment to slide her lips up Maki’s neck to her ear before she began undoing Maki’s pants, “No.”

“Oh.” Maki expected to sound relieved, but with Nico’s mouth slipping along her throat, breathless was all she heard, and the murmurs of encouragement Nico was purring into her skin.

“Couple casual encounters here and there, last one two years ago. Then I met you.” Nico stopped, raising one of Maki’s hands to her mouth and licking across Maki’s fingers, “Can I talk about you now...beautiful, stubborn, silly...Maki” Nico’s free hand was rough against Maki’s hip as she pulled the taller redhead close, her mouth guiding Maki’s mouth away from the conversation and back to the crash, the quick bite, the collision of image and breath and want and the so so many nights Maki had shoved away thoughts of Nico, demanding they disperse into darkness. But no, they had lurked and gathered and coiled, waiting for this, Nico’s quick sharp bites against Maki’s yielding neck, Nico’s agile fingers finding every spot of skin where even the lightest touch, a trace, a flick would raise a whimper, make Maki quaver and moan.

Those nights, those images, had just gathered instead, coiled inside, waiting, Maki could feel the pressure, the whip of, the thrash of her head arcing back as Nico’s fingers slid across her hip, lightly skipping over Maki’s stomach, slowly slowly teasing hairs as the pressure increased, Nico nearly THERE but as Maki gasped, Nico pulled back, eyes a stir of emotions Maki knew no lens could capture.

“Maki” the perfect lips kissed her name, then wrote it in cursive on her neck, Nico’s fingers pushing again, teasing, tensing, tauntingly fast as if Maki could listen think respond and nearly crawl up the wall at the same time.

“Maki,” another breath, Maki thrashed, eyes closed, body caught between collapse and collision, “I want you. So pretty. Please…”

Maki’s “please” echoed Nico’s; the desperate, moaning, Maki seizing on the word to interrupt the sub vocal stream of “oh’, ‘no’ and other misleading rhymes, “Nico.”

A rapid series of caresses, an almost, “You glow Maki...I want…you....”

“YES!” A scream timed to the touch, the thrust, the uncoiling, the whiplash and force of contact, of NOW, of Nico, all senses, smell, touch, taste, hearing...everything but vision, Maki realized her eyes were closed.

Maki giggled. Nico hesitated, “Are you all right, Maki? Did I…”

Maki opened her eyes, certain they’d never been so bright with wonder or joy. Nico had frozen, worried, Maki smiled, “I don’t want a picture.”

Nico shook her head, eyes lightened by relief, voice buoyed by humor, “Good, cause my hands are too busy to autograph it.” And then she pushed them both back into the couch, her weight pressing Maki down, knee between Maki’s thighs, hand tickling up to follow, Nico’s lips crushing conversations and creating so many cravings Maki couldn’t process them, Lips, hands on neck nipples and fingers, Maki’s moans driving Nico to a near frenzy, Maki could feel the waves, the energy, Nico’s need as the ruby eyes, desperate for connection, locked on hers, as Nico’s crash into Maki broke through, the redhead screaming, body quaking as Nico’s last burst of energy launched both to trembling shaking tearing fabric screaming firework heights.

 

MORE I SEE YOU

Nico was sprawled across her bed, sheet barely draped, sable hair scattered, Okinawa cherry lips in blissfully sweet smile, long, dark eyelashes fluttering slightly with each breath. Maki was on her side, head on a pillow, staring, appreciating the sharp, vivid, bold, strokes of deep colors against the faintest palest gold.

Maki reached out a hand, wanting to brush the softness of Nico’s lips, but diverting to her hair in an effort not to disturb sleep.

“Gay.” Nico opened one eye, turning her head in Maki’s direction.

“Very.” Maki scooted closer, her fingers now tenderly exploring the curve of Nico’s jaw, “You really do have a dream profile.”

“Your dreams.”

“Since before I knew your name.” Maki found her focus once again on Nico’s lips, but now she wasn’t trying to match them with anything. Or compare them to anything. Or push them away. All the tiny details, all the subtle hues, all that was nothing against the…

Nico winked, her lips twisting in a shrewd, sexy smile that bared everything Maki was thinking, “Kiss me.”

Perfect.