“And since she finds you marvelously naïve,
While her little heels keep tapping along
She turns, with a quick bright look
And on your lips, despairing, dies your song.”
(Arthur Rimbaud, Romance)
Nine-year-old little Marie Mamette practiced the clarinet during lunch hour and read aloud from Le Deuxième Sexe in the music room because it had the best acoustics, her erudite soprano rising and falling in the dense somnolence of the afternoon. The swing set on the playground was the site of her first business: kisses for sweets and ribbons, stubs of colorful pencils the sticky-fingered boys were eager to press into her hands. In the hall, where the pinch-faced girls gathered and stewed, magnanimous Marie smiled and offered them her spoils, five francs apiece.
“Putain,” one girl hissed, spitting at her feet.
Marie studied the trail of saliva on her shoe, decided that it would wash off. She tossed her head, her short bobbed hair. “Tant pis.” She’d get better prices with the first years anyway.
At home, however, there was no Simone de Beauvoir, no patent leather smile and entrepreneur spirit. Home was a little one-bedroom apartment over the Jewish bakery on the seedier side of Le Marais, the window looking out to the Conservatoire where Marie would one day study—she would be a concert clarinetist, naturally. Home was an antique fragrance that brought a sense of old romance, her mother’s chosen perfume. Maman with her sweet boozy smile, her exhausted beauty, her endearing habit of trailing her fingers over objects as she moved through a room, like a ghost establishing her presence in the physical world.
Every evening she underwent the same transformation, from abused lover again to coddling mother: a beautiful woman, half-dressed and drowning in her rose-colored robe, the halo of her hair a tangled cloud, red like a broken heart. Hegelian existentialism didn’t exist within these peeling walls; neither did the men, only the phonograph that coaxed beer bottle tunes out of scratchy records, stories of rags to riches where pretty, lazy-headed girls could have all they could eat of milk and honey. That was the tableau they had chosen for themselves, and all day Marie carried that image around like a glass of water, stepping carefully so as not to spill it.
There she was, just a Parisian girl on the streets of St. Petersburg, fashionably late for a meeting. She hadn’t changed much, only in places where it mattered. Hair still in worn in a schoolgirl bob, teased with an expensive strawberry sheen. The shoes were Manolo, the dress Dior. Redheads looked best in grey, and she liked the way the tight-fitting tailored outfit sheathed her body in subtle extravagance. She looked like a well-kept governess, almost sedate, save for the bold glossy belt that cinched her agile waist in a girdle of fire engine red.
Her associate, standing assiduously at the top step of the cathedral, was a natural nemesis with her nondescript department-store-bought suit, her sensible shoes. Offended by Chrome’s sartorial choices, M.M. didn’t hesitate to greet her with a scowl.
“How do you do, M.M.-san? It’s been so long.”
“Really? Feels like it hasn’t been long enough on this end.”
The problem was that this was Russia, and all M.M. could think was that the last time she had been in this country, there had been Moscow and Mukuro and the gentle fall of snow against a black sky, and that after he had left her in their hotel room, she had sat up all night clawing patterns in the fogged up window with her numbed fingertips, so angry she could have imploded, a slow boil bubbling over, threatening to erupt.
Now, instead of facing her, he had sent his whore in his place. A final slap in her face.
Mukuro had once told M.M. that he was a perfectionist, and really, that went without saying. M.M. had the impression Chrome had always been a pet project to him, one he took obvious pride in, a collector with a rare, undiscovered pearl. What those mysterious qualities were, she had no idea; presumably they were invisible to everyone except Mukuro himself. She remembered Chrome from their teenage years, dull-eyed, wan-faced, tugging anxiously at her pleated skirt. The way her left sock always slipped down her ankle when she walked. Even if she had been a diamond in the rough then, he should have had enough time since to put on all the finishing touches. Then again, M.M. reasoned, Mukuro had had a lot on his plate at the time. Perhaps that watery prison had addled his pointy little head, and he hadn’t realized what a sketchy investment he’d made until it had been too late to do anything about it.
“Well, let’s go then. I’d hate to lose our reservation, after going through all the trouble to get it.”
There was something deeply attractive about the notion: Mukuro, beleaguered.
The exchange went disastrously. M.M. was unrepentant, networked shamelessly all through dinner. The restaurant was very Russian: overblown, baroque, Dionysian over Apollonian. It would be awhile before the ornate gaudiness ceased to offend her sense of aesthetics—but then, she was French. Every now and then, she glanced over at her tablemate, only to catch the same vague expression on Chrome’s studiously distracted face. She was politely tuning out M.M.’s conversations the way you tuned out a radio: by thinking of other things. While the coarse tilts and dips of a blocky foreign tongue floated around her, she pined for something else.
It was that expression that made up M.M.’s mind for her, settled the matter. She asked for the check, and offered Chrome a ride back to her hotel.
They’d barely taken two steps onto the sidewalk when they found themselves being shot at, because St. Petersburg wasn’t yet won territory and stuff happened. M.M. had just finished rearranging the molecular structure of her assailant’s brain and was bemoaning the loss of her new handbag when she remembered to check on Chrome. Who had three hulking bodies ringed in a neat circle at her feet. She cast M.M. a tiresomely helpless look before taking a craned, comically large step over one of them, like a tottering child hopscotching over a big puddle.
In the back of their getaway cab, Chrome met M.M.’s amused gaze and cracked the first skittish smile she’d seen all evening. There was a faint dab of sweat on her nose; one side of her shirt had come untucked. M.M. surveyed its rucked geography for a few seconds before leaning forward and slipping her fingers into the space between skin and exposed waistband. Only a moment, and then she was pushing Chrome away, back to her side of the taxi.
M.M. was a gambler, a risk-taker, once by necessity, now out of long habit. She didn’t have to see the surprised look on Chrome’s face unabstracting itself, growing lean, hungry, to know that this was heading nowhere platonic.
“Do you like girls?”
“I… I don’t…”
“If you’re not sure, then you definitely don’t like girls enough to be doing this.”
Chrome seemed for a moment like she might vibrate out of her skin, but then stilled, made a decision, and pressed her mouth awkwardly against M.M.’s, the same shy hunger from before.
“I like you.”
Whatever that meant, M.M. didn’t care to learn, because it was already enough to afford the cab driver a scandalous show on the way back to her hotel. It was enough to get Chrome in her bed, sticky and hot, eyelashes fluttering, have her writhing against her fingers as M.M. drove the heel of her palm between her parted thighs. Afterward, M.M. pressed her cheek into the crisp hotel sheet, flattened her hand over Chrome’s narrow girlish ribcage, sweat-dampened, rising and falling with each hitching breath. See that, Mukuro? How easily your little angel falls.
“How badly do you think you’ll be punished for this?” she asked, tracing figures-of-eight along the crease where Chrome’s leg met her hip.
M.M. smiled in a very slight way. “You went against his instructions, didn’t you? Unless this is also part of your duties now. Or—” her mouth sharpened “—is your credit so good that it doesn’t matter either way?”
Chrome was silent. Then, abruptly, climbed out of bed, completely naked. She gathered up her clothes from the floor, holding them in a bundle against her bare chest.
“I am my own agent, M.M.-san,” she said, voice quiet. “It was my choice to come here and be undressed by you. Please respect that.”
M.M. propped herself up on the bed hastily. Wary, because she wasn’t keen on dropping to the floor like another sack of flesh for Chrome to pick her way over. “What are you—” but Chrome had already carried her tangled heap of clothes and her unashamed nudity and her rejection out of the room. It took M.M. a moment to internalize the fact that she had been walked out on.
Two months later, Chrome found her in Sicily. Since their last meeting had been incisively unproductive, a second had had to be scheduled. They met on historied cobblestones, and Chrome was all de rigueur clothes and Japanese politeness again. Neither spoke of St. Petersburg, and when the transaction was over it seemed like that would be the end of that. Until: Chrome lifted her eyes from the last-signed document and mentioned, casually, that if M.M. wanted—if she would come—she would treat her to dinner.
They ended up in a café overlooking the sea, in sight of Mt. Etna, smoldering against the horizon while a metallic sunset rusted away in the sky. The late strong light reflected in the upended glasses on the table. Chrome ordered wine, sipped it slowly, a cool steadiness in her single bruise-colored eye. Halfway through the entrées, she leaned over the cooling plate of ravioli and kissed M.M. “This is for me,” she whispered against M.M.’s surprised lips. Simple, but not sweet. M.M. wiped olive oil off her fingers with a napkin, her mouth suddenly dry.
Later that night, when M.M. reached for her waistband again, Chrome caught her hand.
“No.” She tightened her fingers around M.M.’s wrist. “It’s my turn.”
“What did you say?”
“I paid for dinner and the taxi,” Chrome said solemnly, like an imprecation, as she kissed M.M.’s collarbone. “So this time, I get to undress you.”
M.M. had always had this theory about Chrome, and it involved some Pygmalionesque process wherein Mukuro had cracked her ribs open and scooped the solidness all out of her before sewing her up again, and if you peeled open her flesh today you’d find pockets of air in place of bones. Modern vessels, after all, must be streamlined and light, built for ease of mobility. Half-transparent without actually being so.
In theory, Chrome was semi-illusionary and M.M. was a material girl, and never the twain shall meet.
In practice, M.M. had her legs wrapped around Chrome’s narrow shoulders and she was biting her lip, bruising it, as her hands skated over her own breasts, fingers pressing over the swollen nipples and igniting nerves she hadn’t been aware existed in her body. In practice, Chrome’s forehead was beaded with sweat, her hair matted to her temples, freed from its jammed knot, and the sweet strong stroke of her tongue was driving M.M.’s hips into a rhythm of its own, rocking up and off the bed, and she – oh – oh – oh – was coming so rushingly fast the waves of pleasure ripped through her like a scorching hurricane. Chrome gripped her thighs, held her through the toe-curling, back-arching orgasm, mouth pressed to the seizing muscles in her lower belly.
She woke on that first morning with Chrome’s stupid hair in her face and no headache, and that was a surprise because the night before had felt so much like being drunk she almost expected a hangover. Feeling slightly dispossessed, M.M. lit a cigarette, sat smoking in bed until Chrome stirred, blinking owlishly in the bizarre morning light. Their eyes met, and M.M. kept up a carefully blank expression to mask the fact that she had no idea what to say.
“So,” she said finally, the words coming out slow and smoky. “You’re still here.”
“Did you think I’d leave?” Chrome said, surprised, and gave her a sleepy, sheepish smile before raising herself up for a morning kiss. Outside, the Sicilian sun tore open the weak sky.
They stayed in their room the entire day and most of the following one, wearing not much of anything and relying on room service for sustenance, savoring the decadence of this stolen holiday.
After her first escape from the Vendicare Prison, M.M. had dropped her highly debatable virginity and fucked Mukuro in the boiler room of the ship they had commandeered, and every time after that it had been the same, rough-edged and grimy and a little attritive, right up until the bitter end. But with Chrome it was always a sweetly sleepy sweeping like the Seine, billowy sheets and sleep-heavy kisses. With Chrome, her lips became all eyes, her eyes all hands, she couldn’t get enough of the buttery glow that came in the awed silence after they collapsed against each other in a tangle of sweaty hair and exhausted limbs.
The thing was that M.M. had had some idea of how this was supposed to go, had expected the specter of him to drape over them like chilled silk. In the dark, she counted Chrome’s vertebrae, the outlines of her sharp ribs, pressing fingertips into sleeping eyelids and depressing the gelatinous softness as though trying to puncture her way into the sockets. This was the body that had housed Mukuro, his invasive, inviolable beauty. How did you live—how did you become a woman with a man in your head? Where were the fault lines? All those years, she probably couldn’t even touch herself without him knowing, M.M. found herself thinking, and that thought aroused her more than it should.
But Chrome kissed M.M. in her own earnest way, like she was the one, like it was love. The most honest lies were always the ones you didn’t say. There was nothing of Mukuro’s whimsical cruelty in her mannerisms, no matter how hard M.M. looked. But plenty of something else. That was how they got you. You saw yourself in them, just a glance, some dismal percentage, and you couldn’t dismiss them anymore. They had become real to you. No longer The Other.
“Illusion masters sure are creative in bed,” M.M. said breathlessly, head thumping into the pillow. “This might be why I can’t seem to stop fucking them.”
Chrome raised herself up on her elbows, brushing hair out of her face. Her jaw tightened a little.
“Jealous?” M.M. asked, eyebrow quirked. “Of me or of him?”
A strange expression stole over Chrome’s face, powdery in quality, one that could have signaled sadness or languor. She pressed her hand to M.M.’s cheek and tipped her face gently. “Why is it so difficult to make you understand?” she murmured, like she was the one with all the answers.
On her last day in Italy, M.M found her battered copy of The Second Sex buried at the bottom of her suitcase. She brought it out on the balcony to read after dinner, and subsequently discovered that Chrome had never properly learned French. The mangled wreck she made of base infinitives could make a school teacher cry.
“That’s just embarrassing,” M.M. said, appalled. “How does your boss stand for this?”
She flipped to a page at random and read, “The advantage of the master, he says, comes from his affirmation of Spirit as against Life through the fact that he risks his own life,” switching seamlessly from French to German to Russian to Greek. Languages Chrome didn’t know. Insults she would never comprehend. “Certain passages in the argument employed by Hegel in defining the relation of master to slave apply much better to the relation of man to woman.”
Their suite was on the second floor, looking down at the courtyard with the war monument, the Mediterranean a long, unbroken line in the distance. Nearly midnight and still over forty degree out, peach-warm, summer-sweet. M.M. lay on her back, feet propped up on a chair and book splayed over her stomach, listening to the soft music someone was playing down in the garden. There was a bottle of oloroso between them on the floor, half-emptied.
“I am not usually called upon to interact with our foreign contacts,” Chrome explained. She drew her legs up on her chair, making herself smaller. “In truth, I’m not very good at negotiation.”
M.M. lolled her head toward her. “And what will happen when you’re married?” An image flitted through her head, Chrome sipping champagne at Mukuro’s side, arm tucked into his in some pretense at comfort. A black and white film: glamorous, dispassionate, disheartening. “Will he make excuses for you then? Hello, this is my little lady. She doesn’t talk much, but isn’t she nice to look at? What a lovely arm-ornament, don’t you agree?”
“M.M.-san,” Chrome chided softly. “Be nice.”
“Why should I?” M.M. asked, singsong. Mukuro isn’t. “Nice girls finish last, bitches get shit done. And besides, you don’t like nice people.”
“Maybe I should start,” Chrome said, looking away.
A moment. M.M. pulled herself up carefully, and took a swig from the bottle. She placed the book on the table, and nestled in for a kiss, deepening it to taste the after-dinner pomegranate under Chrome’s tongue. Slow. Lingering. When she pulled away Chrome’s eye was too bright.
Really, it wasn’t any of her concerns to begin with. Mukuro could transform Chrome into a nouvelle vague femme fatale who talked like Marlene Dietrich and danced like Zizi Jeanmaire if he so desired. The fact that he had allowed his pet, even after all these years, to remain the wide-eyed ingénue, suggested that what he wanted was a pure, untouched Miranda.
But honestly. Mukuro, sentimental?
She bent her head, and let her mouth travel to the valley between Chrome’s small, pale breasts, then moved down the length of her body, caressing her abdomen through the thin nightshirt. Gently parted her knees to kneel between her legs, and slid Chrome’s underwear down her trembling thighs. A jolting thrill flared inside her chest when her fingers parted the pink, glistening folds and Chrome’s hips gave an involuntary twitch. She twisted her fingers into M.M.’s hair and rolled her head back along the backrest of her chair, squirming and sighing.
M.M. smirked, moved her fingers in slow, leisurely circles over Chrome’s clit, finally placing her mouth there and pressing in with her tongue, searching, increasing pressure. She slipped two fingers under her skirt to touch herself, grinding into her hand as the space between her legs grew heavy and damp. Soft moans filled the warm, thick air, and when Chrome dug her nails into M.M.’s scalp and came, it was so slow and silent it might have not happened at all.
M.M. rose to her feet, wiping her mouth as she consulted the clock on the mantelpiece. Already three minutes into tomorrow. She had an appointment with buyers in Geneva at 8 am, a plane to catch in a few hours.
“When you go back home, start taking lessons. For God’s sake, pay attention to your verbs. I’ll quiz you the next time we see each other.”
M.M. picked up her book and padded back into the suite. “Not that I don’t like holing up with you like this, but you do want to start being proper about it, don’t you?”
Back in Japan, she was seen shopping all over Tokyo, burning a wide swath of devastation through the city’s boutiques, credit cards flashing like swords. She swanned right into a Vongola family conference and looped her arms around Chrome’s neck before the girl could rise from her seat, drinking in the scandalized stares the men around the table gave them in unison.
“Sawada-san,” M.M. said, flashing the young boss a syrupy smile. “May I have a word with your Mist Guardian?”
There was no reason she couldn’t have called, or written, or left a text message—no reason other than the fact that she couldn’t let down her sense of showmanship. To her credit, Chrome only blinked once, and accepted the card with the hotel’s address without the slightest fuss, not even when M.M. dipped her head and nipped lightly at her earlobe, right in front of her entire Family.
She was just getting off the phone when Chrome walked in. “Were you speaking Russian?” Chrome asked as M.M. put down the receiver. “Who was that?”
“Nobody,” M.M. said, and tipped in for a kiss, pressing her teeth into Chrome’s lower lip.
Chrome cast her gaze around the room, took in the mountains of shopping bags, disapproved. “You’ve been at it again. I always wonder how you have the closet room to store it all.”
“Actually, some of these are for you,” M.M. said, waving her hand. “I thought I’d try my hand at charity and spruce up your wardrobe a little. Disfigured girls can’t afford to dress down.”
Chrome shook her head, wearily fond at this point. She made her way across the room, ignoring the medley of designer labels, and picked up instead the small Kinokuniya bag, fished out a Japanese copy of The Second Sex. Her face lit up. “Is this for me too?”
“Shortcut,” M.M. said. “If I have to wait for you to make progress, it’ll be years before we even make it past the introduction.” She spent seven whole minutes contemplating the quiet poetry of Chrome’s slender fingers as she leafed through the crisp pages before she realized what she was doing. “And where’s my ‘thank you’? Didn’t your maman teach you any better?”
Chrome’s shoulders gave an odd little jerk, like she’d been tasered. Brittle expression. Sensitive subject, M.M. decided, and covered quickly, “Neither did mine. Dieu merci.”
“Your maman,” Chrome said slowly, turning the word over in her mouth. “Where is she now?”
“Dead,” M.M. quipped. “Murdered one of her asshole boyfriends while she was drunk and got slapped with a life sentence. She caught pneumonia in jail.”
“I’m sorry,” Chrome said quietly. This earnestness could undo M.M. so she just shrugged, lightly as she could, and didn’t tell Chrome that, the day her mother had been indicted, she had been miles away. Zurich, and she had locked herself in the hotel bathroom, huddled against the icy tiles, fist at her mouth, sobbing silently. Tub full of water, still surface broken every few seconds by a slow drip. Light dimmed. A tableau of misery, the Lost Child, spinning the empty toilet paper roll like a prayer wheel, chanting the only word that meant anything to a ten-year-old.
Resilience could be a scary thing. Strength was a hard lesson, unwanted and undeserved. You always found a way to survive. You kept living.
She suspected Chrome already knew all that.
“What kind of name is Chrome, anyway?”
“What kind of name is M.M.?”
“It’s Marie. Marie Mamette. M.M.”
“Mademoiselle Mamette,” Chrome said. Uncertain at first, then gathering confidence, shedding the clumsy lisp. “Ma mignonne. My Marie.”
M.M. smiled. You couldn’t not reward that, could you?
“Your accent’s improved. Now, your turn.”
“I don’t like to use my real name,” Chrome said, apologetic. “It belongs to a part of my life that I don’t like to think about.”
There was a pause. M.M. filled in the blank. A life before Mukuro. Well, there must have been one, even if it hadn’t been much of one.
“So you have a past,” she ended up saying. Caustic, because the look on Chrome’s face—that look—annoyed the shit out of her. “Big fucking deal. Having a past is what makes a woman.”
Chrome came to her then, feet arched to clear the distance. “Is that de Beauvoir too?” she asked, bending to kiss M.M., shoulder, neck, cheek, fingers playing with the knotted loop of her halter dress. Her clever mouth found the generous swell of one breast, breaths warming and dewing the skin, earning herself a string of encouraging noises.
“No,” M.M. managed to say between scant breaths. “That’s an M.M. original. You can use it, but I’ll have to charge.”
She was already half-asleep when Chrome leaned over and, with her palm still on the curve of M.M.’s hip, whispered her secret name into her ear, so softly it might have been a dream.
The boys, unsurprisingly, didn’t get it.
“Is this about him?” Ken asked, in a bar in Luxembourg. “Is it some kind of, I don’t know, female revenge?”
M.M. thought she’d never heard anything so ridiculous in her life, and said so, eliciting from him a mulish look.
“You. With her. I just. Fuck.”
M.M. nodded sympathetically. “Sentences are tricky. Take your time, I’ll wait.”
Ken flipped her the finger. “I’m just wondering since when did your standards drop so low,” he said, companionably biting. “Used to be that you couldn’t speak two sentences without referencing how ugly she was. Whatsamatter, Em? Couldn’t get any from anyone else?”
M.M. smirked around the rim of her glass. “That’s catty, Ken. Is that a new animal you’re adding to your repertoire? Not very beastlike, is it?” she said, and laughed when he growled and snapped noisily at her, canines flashing.
Chikusa came to see her in New York and they went drinking at three in the morning, crawling into M.M.’s favorite faux-speakeasy to shake off the club kids and star-fuckers. “She won’t leave him, you know,” Chikusa said, stirring his cocktail slowly, creating small waves of electric blue.
M.M. wasn’t aware that she had signed up to star in some lesbian drama sob-fest, so she just gave Chikusa a droll look and a smile. “Guess I’ll just have to settle for being the other woman,” she said, sighing dramatically. “Très clichéd. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, huh?”
It didn’t rile him, predictably. “It’s none of my business, and I certainly didn’t fly all the way over here to discuss that.”
Something about his voice set her on edge. “What, then?”
“You were in Switzerland a few months ago. Third time this year.”
“And I couldn’t help but notice that all your debts have suddenly and mysteriously vanished, substantial as they were. What else? Trips in and out of Russia. Phone calls to untraceable numbers. All the paper trails that lead, interestingly, nowhere.”
M.M. threaded her mouth into a thin line. Something dark and tepid rose in her chest. She drained her glass, setting it down so sharply the delicate stem snapped in half. The bartender immediately swept away the two pieces of glass without expression. She was a regular.
“Are you having me tracked?” she asked tersely.
Chikusa returned her narrow glare. “You know better than to ask that question.”
“What exactly are you trying to say, Chikusa? Spit it out. You’ve never been the word-mincing type, don’t start now.”
“I’m saying you should watch your steps.” Chikusa frowned. “You might want to start thinking about who you’d like to have on your side. Consider severing some of your connections, or at least cover your tracks a little better.” Not that it would make the slightest bit of difference.
“You’re selling what isn’t yours to sell. Defiance has its limits, M.M. You’ve always taken the length of your leash for granted.”
M.M. lifted her chin, preparing to be stubborn. “And what if I don’t?”
Chikusa didn’t speak for a moment. He removed his glasses, made a show of cleaning the lenses.
“Then I suggest that you stay out of Japan for awhile.”
His voice, feather-light, was not unkind, and he made a slight movement as though he might try to catch her hand over the bar top, which was when M.M. realized she was trembling. They weren’t friends, but they had known each other and worked together long enough to be, and in that way maybe they were anyway. Either way, it wouldn’t change a thing.
Springtime in Paris held the same dizzying high of the jet-setting life. The taxi dropped her off at the end of Notre Dame’s gravel path, and there was Chrome standing at the top step of the cathedral, pressing her palm flat against gothic stone as though trying to absorb history through her skin. Or maybe feeling the vibration of the dead souls trapped inside over the centuries.
“Dreaming of a white wedding, are we?” M.M. said, climbing the steps. She was inordinately pleased to see that Chrome was wearing one of the dresses she had bought for her, and that she had been right: the girl looked so fucking good in Chanel.
March held all the anniversaries—first dinner, first kiss, first fuck. This naturally included a cab ride; they made the round, circling Champs-Élysées to see L’Arc de Triomphe, marking the Conservatoire where little Marie had never gotten a chance to audition. Another pocket of stolen time, but surely they deserved it. Their rain-check.
Le Marais had, over the last decade and a half, gentrified so devastatingly that it was almost unrecognizable: seediness now turned trendy, snagging at tourists’ heels. Nevertheless, she pulled Chrome through the crowded streets; past cabarets, used books stores, and the Jewish bakery; up the narrow, dusty stairs of the old tenement block; down the rabbit hole into the cranny of her hidden world.
M.M. owned three villas, in Barcelona, Lombardy, and Monte Carlo, each of them big, beautiful, and bare, but it was this one-bedroom hole in the wall that she retreated to in the low-happening days. Crufty and lived-in, filled with years’ worth of knickknacks, whosits and whatsits galore. Nothing got thrown away. There were piles of books and boxes of old comics, penny records in stacks and a phonograph that had seen much better days. Daisies and carnations planted in milk bottles along the sunny windowsill. Street-fair art on the walls, shoes on the racks, dirty jokes in the conversations—and clothes, clothes, clothes.
The main room faced westward, and as the day drained, the rich sunlight streaked through the rust-flecked windows, filtered by the gauzy red curtains, creating a chintzy, coral effect. Submarinean. Stepping into the bedroom, she caught Chrome in the act of admiring the torn-out pages of a book that M.M. had framed and hung over her bed one spontaneous afternoon.
“Et j'irai loin, bien loin, comme un bohemian,” Chrome read, admirably fluent. “Par la nature, heureux comme avec une femme.”
“Rimbaud,” M.M. said, coming up behind her. “That’s poetry. A love poem.”
On the verge of evening, the sky whispered and hummed with waning effort, dimmed mellow like a bagatelle. Night solidifying. They sat on the plush sofa, bare shoulders digging into each other, tipping white zinfandel into mismatched coffee mugs, until their cheeks were as pink as the rosé wine itself. Sleeping together and sleeping together. Who needed Japan and Italy, when you had Paris, gay Paris, the roars of cars and the summer-rain lulling of café bars.
“I have a new theory,” M.M. began tipsily, sliding one foot over Chrome’s thigh, “about your name.” Chrome gave her an amused look, but then M.M. went on, “Is it because you can suck chrome off a car bumper?” and she choked on a mouthful of wine, sputtering.
“You would know,” Chrome muttered. Sultry-sulky, M.M. thought. Giddy-giddy-drunk, kiss, kiss, kiss the hunger out of me. It seemed improbable that she didn’t know Chrome’s birthday or her favorite ice cream flavor, but could describe to anyone the way the veins skipped under her skin, the breaths she took between sentences, the lenient curve of her spine in sleep. It seemed odd, that she should remember so much about Chrome, but not Chrome herself in the end.
In the drowsy hours of the next day, M.M. puttered through her apartment performing the ordinary miracles of morning, brewing coffee and throwing out the detritus of last night’s dinner. She idly contemplated going down to the bakery and getting a batch of mandelbread and fresh rugelach—it was early enough to beat the lines—and when her eyes caught the small envelope lying on the faded wicker mat, it took a moment for her to see it for what it was.
It must have been slipped under the door some time during the night, or this morning, even. Cream laid paper and the horridly familiar monogram, and… and… and…
Le contexte est plus fort que le concept.
When Chrome emerged from the shower, running a towel through her hair, she found M.M. sitting at the dining table, clutching a cup of coffee. The letter lay before her, and she looked up just in time to see the towel falling to the floor as Chrome’s face grew slack and pale, a house caving in. Even from that distance, she recognized the monogram—but of course she did.
“What does it say?”
M.M. closed her eyes, counted backward from ten. So what if she might be a little in love with Chrome Dokuro? So what? Who cared? Why did it matter?
“M.M.-san? What does it say?”
It pierced the mind, that anxious hitch in her voice, both scared and hopeful, eager and hesitant, and that look on her face—that look that M.M. had always hated. She remembered now.
That was why it mattered.
“This will be your future,” M.M. said tightly. “You may know him better than anyone, but it doesn’t mean you know him. You don’t know what to fear. You give and give and give, and this is what it’ll get you. Take a good long look.”
Chrome sucked in a long breath. She padded silently to the window, wrapping her arms around her ribs, rocking herself back and forth. “I met you once,” she said. Quietly, distantly.
“A different ‘you’,” Chrome clarified. “She’s a ‘you’ that doesn’t exist here. A ‘you’ from a different time.”
M.M. frowned. “You realize saying that doesn’t make you sound any less insane.”
“She told me the same thing you just said. I didn’t want to believe her.”
“Do you want to believe me?”
Chrome lowered her head. “I don’t know.”
“Right,” M.M. said, bitterness thinning her voice. “Je ne sais pas, je ne sais pas.” That was all they were made of: maybes and I-don’t-know’s. What was wrong with her? Why had she ever deluded herself into thinking it could be any different?
And suddenly, she felt sick, sick of it all, sick of this doomed gamble, the trap she had thrown herself into headfirst. Sick of her foolish, unrequited, unrequitable love.
“Get out,” she said, and began shredding the letter into pieces, making joyous confetti of her death sentence. “Get out of my house.”
Chrome didn’t argue. She went back into the bedroom, dressed herself, and came out pulling the little carryon she hadn’t even had the chance to unpack. Her hair was still wet, unbrushed, clinging pathetically to her neck. At the door, she paused, looking back at M.M.
She looked sorry, indeed, but not the right kind of sorry. Not the kind of sorry you felt for lost chances, what could have been, nothing proximate like that, but the kind of sorry you gave a stranger on the street, muttered words following a near-collision. Désolé, mademoiselle. A sorry that had none of her in it—that had nothing to do with Chrome herself. M.M. got up and hurled the cup after her, but it hit the door instead and snapped neatly in two, lukewarm coffee splashing the welcome mat. Enraged, she threw herself into the bathroom and slammed the door behind her. She turned on the faucet, slapped her face with icy water.
Eyes blurring, she looked into the mirror, and saw a ghost: a beautiful woman, half-dressed and drowning in her rose-colored robe, the halo of her hair a tangled cloud, red like a broken heart.
Marie Mamette, ten-and-a-half, stood over the body of her victim with the satisfaction of a professional reviewing a job well-done. Things had changed. She had a clarinet, three knives, ten watches, and felt more like a hit man than an elementary school student. Fitted cap, covered shoes—work clothes. In her pocket: a train ticket, money from prospective employers eager to pay for her talents, a future waiting to happen. She had spent her last night sleeping at home, and now she was ready to leave, ready for a chunk of the world bigger than a one-bedroom apartment.
But before that, there was this. This was the gift that she would be leaving her dear sweet mother, killing the man who had gifted her with chokers of bruises. The first and only hit she’d ever do for free. This accomplished, she would be free to fly the nest.
Footsteps coming up the stairs. Her head snapped around at the door. High heels, uneven steps. Strands of lyrics from a Rolling Stones song. It couldn’t be…
She wasn’t supposed to be here. She was supposed to be at home, waiting for Marie to return from school. She was supposed to be making banana crepes and singing along to the radio, or passed out in a drunken haze, eyes closed and dreaming, or… or… or.... She shouldn’t be here. She couldn’t be here.
There was a rushing in Marie’s ears that drowned out the distant sound of traffic. There was no time to think, only to act. She had to move, had to move now. She slithered out the window and landed on the fire escape just as the key turned in the lock and the door creaked open. Flying down the stairs, two at a time, while her mother’s dreamy greeting fractured into a scream. Hot tears streaked her face. Maman. Maman.
What had she done?
When the end came, she couldn’t even say she was surprised. There was always someone with deeper pockets, someone willing to pay a higher price. The pay-outs were big, and even though she knew that in the end, the house always won, she had never quite been able to help herself.
There was no point in running, but it wasn’t like she hadn’t made a good go of it anyway, so when the end came, it was Zurich, again Zurich, another hotel room where she waited for the inevitable. Which? Which of them would it be? Ken would be quick about it, and Chikusa—Chikusa would be professional.
It would not be Mukuro, but some part of her wondered: What if? Didn’t she deserve that much? It made her sick to her stomach, that after all this time, some part of her still waited for him.
Instead, it was Chrome who showed up at her door.
“Are you here for him, or for me?” M.M. asked coldly, leaning against the bed post. “Is this part of your education?” A lesson in ending, most painful to learn, hardest to forget.
Chrome stood in the middle of the floor, twisting her white hands. She hadn’t even summoned the trident, and M.M. couldn’t help feeling a little insulted. Not that Chrome had ever needed a weapon. Just herself. It made her want to scream. He’s a terrifying man, you just don’t know.
“Make it quick,” she said instead, lifting one shoulder. “I really can’t stand girl-on-girl crimes.”
Chrome looked about ready to cry. Tears formed at the edge of her visible eye. That wouldn’t do. She couldn’t stand for that. She reached for the glass on the bedside table and took a long draught, felt the alcohol taking up glowing residence inside her. Her death-row drink of choice was amaretto on ice. Chrome still hadn’t spoke. She hated this feeling, this feeling of being empty-handed, generically helpless. The clarinet case lay at the foot of the bed, out of sight, out of reach, and she didn’t want it anyway. Not for this.
She grabbed the pistol. A Kimber was a girl’s best friend. Her hands shook, pulsing air. That was how scared she was: squeezing the air. I don’t want to die. Who wanted to die, really? Death was terrifying. You had it all, but you couldn’t take anything with you. Even people who actively sought death were afraid of it.
I don’t want to die.
This was a fair trade. Contractual fulfillment. She had understood the terms all along, right?
She pulled back the safety. Aimed. Chrome’s eye widened impossibly.
There was a shot, a cry.
The gun slipped from her fingers, and Chrome had M.M. in her arms, crying in earnest now. Blood bubbled over her lips. Pain, and Chrome’s mouth, fluttering. “Marie… Marie…”
On paper she was Simone, a certain, impersonal Simone Arthur, but all the caretakers at the Center called her La Rossignol. Catatonic cases rarely interested Jean-Claude—what was there to?—but this one was different. Most of the time she was as dead to the world as any other of her ilk, but put a clarinet in her hands and mercy, the sounds the girl could make.
On slow days, Jean-Claude liked to pull his patients’ files out for some light reading. Who had Simone Arthur been before she ended up here? A concert musician, some big shot from Paris. Suffered a horrible nervous breakdown and emerged on the other side mute, incapable of communicating with the world except through her music. A tragic tale, but not an unusual one here at the Center, this calm oasis in the jazzy heart of Juan-les-Pins. Their clientele included actors, musicians, socialites—burnouts of the fast-track life. Glamour always ate its darlings in the end.
The Japanese woman hadn’t moved from her spot by the window. From here, they had a view of the splendid lawn, the lake, and the boathouse, where La Rossignol was perched on the edge of the roof, a bird through and through. Summer had dusted her bare shoulders with brown freckles. Her bright red hair glimmered in the bold sunlight.
The woman turned to him, motions quick, economical. Another person would probably find it difficult not to stare at her eye patch, but Jean-Claude was a thorough professional, and anyway, he figured she was used to it. He couldn’t help but notice also that she was really quite attractive. Fair-skinned, the kind of clear, dewy complexion you saw in infomercials for skincare products. Small bones and that thin waist, snugly held in her dark grey pantsuit. It didn’t hurt to be charming. He had recently broken up with his girlfriend, was itching for a date, and who knew? The south of France had a way of kindling romance.
“Has anything changed?” the woman said, an exotic lilt in her stunted, halting French. “In her condition, I mean. Have the doctors found anything new?”
Jean-Claude shook his head with perfected sympathy. “Medically, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with Mlle. Arthur. All the brain scans show nothing. Her catatonia was not caused by physical trauma. We can only hope that, over time, whatever damage her mind has suffered will heal itself, and she will… come back, so to speak.”
The woman’s face gained a faraway look, almost as abstract as her friend’s. “No one knows what happened. One day, she just started to pull away.”
If he wanted to make a move, now would be the time. “I’m certain it will happen, eventually. I’ve seen much worse cases than Mlle. Arthur’s, and they have come back. You can tell that she is definitely in there, somewhere.”
The woman gave him a vague smile. “Sometimes I almost feel as though she is under some sort of sustained illusion,” he went on, and the smile faltered.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said after a moment, switching to English. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
That threw him off track. He was less confident in English, and by the time he managed to rephrase himself, he had lost his groove. “But maybe that is not so bad,” he ended up saying. “It is like she’s living in a dream, yes?”
“I hope it is a good one,” said the woman.
“If you don’t mind me asking, Mlle. Arthur is your friend, yes?”
“Yes. We were—we are very close.”
“Then… why do you not see her? She has no other family. Perhaps seeing a familiar face will trigger something within, maybe quicken the process of recovery.”
The woman shook her head, elegantly, but firmly. A certain dimness touched the corner of her good eye, wrinkling it. “I cannot,” she said, simply.
And that—that, too, was understandable. Loss conquered people. The more you cared about someone, the harder it was to see them like this. He knew that from secondhand experience.
“Forgive me. I was out of line.”
“I took no offense.” She fumbled in her handbag, produced a book—a dog-eared copy of Rimbaud’s A Season In Hell. “If you wouldn’t mind, I wonder if you could arrange for someone to read this to her from time to time. It might just be wishful thinking on my part, but I really do think that it will help her.”
“I won’t be able to come again for at least a little while.” The records showed that her last visit had been four months ago; Jean-Claude wondered what life she led out there in the real world, how long it would keep her away this time. “Please continue collecting the fees from the same bank account. Are there any issues with the wired transfers that I should know about?”
“Not at all, mademoiselle.”
The woman was not looking at him. Her gaze again remote, returned to the boathouse. He looked as well, and saw that La Rossignol was looking up at the window; their lines of vision perfectly aligned. He knew, however, that they were standing in the shadow, and couldn’t be seen from down below. As expected, her vacant eyes turned away after a moment, and she tilted her head toward the shy blue sky, watching the few sparse clouds drifting across its surface as though any moment, any moment now she would take flight, let them carry her away.
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