Noir was created by Ryoe Tsukimura and was brought to North America by ADV. They retain all rights to Noir and characters therein. The name and characters of Noir are used here without permission. This story may not be printed or distributed for profit. I will give this a PG rating for some mature content.
Kirika awoke from a sound sleep and did not move a muscle. She never moved when she first woke up, that had been second nature to her since before she could remember. She always took a moment to sense her surroundings, to remember where she was. Right now, she was in the front seat of a car, driving at highway speed. It was dark. Bandaged wounds all over her body throbbed and ached. Especially the one in her abdomen.
It all came back quickly. She was in the Range Rover that Mireille had driven from Paris to the Manor. They had left the Pyrenees Mountains behind and were headed back to Paris. Altena and Chloe were both dead. And Mireille had saved her. Mireille had snatched Kirika back from the brink. Mireille...
Kirika opened her eyes and saw the dark highway lit by the headlights. She turned to look at the Rover's driver. The young blonde Corsican woman's attention was fixed on the road. Sensing Kirika's movement, she glanced over at her companion for just an instant. "Did you manage to get some sleep?", she asked, her blue eyes fixed on the road once again.
"A little," Kirika replied. She had only been dozing on and off, it was unlikely she had got much more than an hour of proper sleep. "It looks like it's getting light."
"Yes, it will be dawn soon. We're about an hour from Paris. I guess that morphine must have worn off by now. Can you hold out until we get to Doctor Marquis?"
"Sure." She had certainly endured far worse than this for far longer. "Have you been driving all night?"
"Pretty much. I just stopped for gas and a rest."
"It couldn't have been for long," Kirika said, noting that Mireille was driving within the posted speed limit and doing the mental arithmetic of time and distance. "How do you feel?" She noticed that Mireille had only one hand on the wheel. The other arm, the one that had been shot, was resting at her side.
"Like hell, if you must know," Mireille quipped.
"You should have woke me and switched places."
"Don't be silly, you're worse off than me." Mireille smiled a little. "Besides, you don't even have a driver's license, what would happen if we got pulled over?" She glanced at Kirika again, worry showing on her face. "You should take your temperature."
There didn't seem to be much point since they were only an hour from the hospital, but Kirika complied. The digital thermometer showed only a slightly elevated temperature. And other than the throbbing wounds and the bone-deep weariness she felt okay. It appeared she had no serious infection, always a danger with a stomach wound. Mireille and Kirika had tended to each other carefully before starting their journey, cleaning and dressing their wounds and getting the preventative shots. They were both well trained and well practiced in field medicine, as were any professional assassins worth their mettle. And with what Mireille had brought along they could have practically operated a field hospital out of the back of this Rover. The only really serious injury between the two of them was Kirika's gunshot wound to the abdomen. But it was not immediately life-threatening, and they were able to stop the bleeding. Kirika had insisted they did not need to stop at a hospital along the way, they could wait until they came to Paris and paid a visit to Doctor Marquis. Kirika had been treated by him more than once already. He ran a small private clinic on the outskirts of the city. He was a friend of Mireille's who would treat gunshot wounds without asking embarrassing questions.
Kirika had insisted, wanting to get back to Paris as quickly as possible. She needed to convince herself that there was still a normal world out there, a world beyond the nightmare that was the Manor.
"That village looked a lot better in the dark," Mireille commented.
Kirika understood that Mireille was leaving her the option of not talking about it. She had been grateful that they had driven through it at night. Even what little they had seen by headlights had told the tale. Mireille must have seen much more clearly by daylight, on her way up to the Manor. "I saw it burn down," Kirika said softly. "They were Soldats. A whole village of Soldats. Even the children knew who I was and knelt before me. But they were loyal to Artena. When the Soldats from Paris came to claim me, the villagers killed them. They fought off an entire company of heavily armed soldiers while I escaped. Women, children, old men, everyone, they just marched into battle like they didn't care-"
"Kirika," Mireille said softly, laying a hand on Kirika's bare leg. "Stop it."
"Sorry." Kirika sniffed and wiped a tear away. A moment later she was back in control. She laid her hand gently on top of Mireille's. "You shouldn't move this arm if you don't have to."
Mireille patted Kirika's bare leg and let her arm rest again. "It was a small village," Kirika continued in a more controlled voice. "But there were hundreds of them. They must all be dead now."
"My God," Mireille breathed. "Even with the instructions from Graipaul the village was hard to find. I looked for it on maps before I headed out, but there was nothing. Soldats could just wipe it off the Earth without anyone knowing. Damn them," she hissed.
"Who is Graipaul?" Kirika asked.
"Remi Graipaul. You saw him at the Manor. The silver-haired one with the cane who spoke to us."
"He's the one who told me how to get to the Manor."
Kirika frowned. Up to now she hadn't had the time or leisure to give any thought to how Mireille had come to be at the Manor. It was something like a miracle to her. But she knew that miracles do not happen, everything has its price. "What did he want you to do?"
Mireille surprised Kirika with a cheery laugh. "You might say that I was his wild card."
They did not speak for the remainder of the trip. The lights of Paris made their presence known on the horizon, just on time to be drowned out by the rising sun.
Doctor Marquis and the duty nurse were waiting for them when they got to the clinic. The doctor examined them, gave them stitches where required, and had the nurse help them get cleaned up. The sun was well up by the time they drove back to Mireille's apartment, They changed clothes and collapsed on the bed. Kirika was asleep in seconds. They both slept the whole morning through. Kirika woke first. She usually did wake up before Mireille did. But this time it was understandable, Mireille had not slept in over twenty-four hours.
And yesterday had been the busiest day of their lives.
Being careful not to disturb her partner, Kirika rolled onto her back She turned her head to look at the sleeping woman beside her. It was summer and this old building did not have air conditioning, so they just shared a white cotton bed sheet. Mireille was uncharacteristically on her back, but very characteristically in the extra-large white shirt that went down to her thighs. It was her usual sleep wear, just as the undershirt and shorts were Kirika's. Mireille looked exhausted, even in sleep. Kirika smiled, remembering what Mireille had said the first time they had woken up after sharing this bed. "Well, thank God that neither of us snores."
Kirika didn't have the heart to tell her that was not quite true.
She just laid there and stared at the ceiling for a while. The noonday sun reflected off the bronze radiators under the windows to paint little abstract patterns there. It was a spare, functional room, with nothing more than a chest-high partition separating the bed from the remainder of the room that constituted the main living area. In the few months Kirika had lived here, she had quickly come to view it as home. The apartment she had in Japan had certainly been no home, it had simply been a place to sleep and to brood over the mystery of her existence. The Manor may have been home to her at some point, but now she could never think of it as anything other than a torture chamber. And certainly not-
Kirika gasped, gripping the side of the mattress hard. She trembled as a tidal wave of vague, disjointed memories surged through her mind. /This is your home now, girl. If you do as you're told, we'll take good care of you. If you don't, then the Eternal Darkness will take you./
She started, looking over to see Mireille propping herself up on one elbow. "Kirika, what's wrong?"
There was no point trying to pretend that nothing was wrong. "I was remembering things."
Kirika shook her head. She released her grip on the mattress. "No. Waking memories. Nothing that really made any sense. I just suddenly felt frightened. I don't know why. I'm sorry, did I wake you?"
"Probably," Mireille said in a way that suggested it did not matter. "How long have you been up?"
"Not long. I was just lying here thinking."
"I guess of our Pilgrimage to the Past."
"Our pilgrimage is done now," Mireille said gently but with finality. "We found out what we wanted to. Now let it go."
Kirika turned her head away. "We've already found out far too much," she whimpered..
She felt Mireille's hand on her shoulder. "Kirika, please don't turn away from me. You can feel sad about what happened. But don't look away in shame, I won't have that."
With great effort, Kirika turned to look in Mireille's eyes again. Her warm smile was like a benediction. A benediction she did not deserve. "How can I not feel ashamed of what I did?", she asked in a tremulous voice. "I made you an orphan like me. What greater sin could there be?"
"That's what they want you to think," Mireille said. A hint of anger simmered behind her eyes. "Everything they did to the sweet little girl you were was to convince you that you and everybody around you are all beyond redemption. They wanted to turn you into the darkness. Into Noir. Well, they failed. You proved that yesterday. You came back from the darkness."
Slowly, Kirika managed to smile. She put her hand on Mireille's. "You brought me back from the darkness. How can I ever thank you?"
Mireille smiled impishly. "Well, I suppose you could make me some tea."
They made the bed and checked each other's bandages for any sign of fresh bleeding. Then they both got busy preparing a very late breakfast. For Kirika it was nothing but clear broth, on doctor's orders. Mireille didn't have much appetite either. Soon they were done, and Kirika made the tea. They sat close together at the little round table by the windows. Kirika could see that Mireille had just cleaned up the place enough to make it livable again. The broken glass had all been swept off the floor and furniture, but none of the remaining shards in the window frames had been removed. There were still bullet-holes everywhere. The computer was wrecked, and the pool-table certainly could not be used for pool. Not that they ever had played pool, mind you. And there were only the two good chairs left. The Knights of Paris had certainly tried their level best to send Noir to oblivion. It had been their most difficult fight, the one that had helped to finally send Kirika over the edge.
She finally noticed the little table over to the right of the windows. The potted plant that had stood there since Kirika had moved in with Mireille was gone. "Where's the orchid?"
"Casualty of war," Mireille said absently. She noticed how Kirika was looking at her. "Yes, I found your note under it," she added testily.
"Oh." Kirika continued to watch her. Was that really all Mireille was going to say?
At length, Mireille sighed and looked her in the eye. Her expression was strained, she seemed to be uncomfortable. "Kirika, I'm sorry."
Kirika's heart fluttered. /I appreciate what you were trying to say, but.../ No, please don't say it!
"I broke our promise."
"What?" This was not what Kirika had expected to hear. When they had first begun their pilgrimage to the past, Mireille had promised that when they solved the mystery of their past, she would kill Kirika. She had been happy to accept the promise. Perhaps at some level she had been aching to atone for the murders she did not even remember. Kirika pleading with Mireille to keep their promise and kill her was the last thing she remembered before waking up in the nameless village of Soldats.
"I should have told you why I couldn't do it," Mireille said, her voice thick and strained. "But I just ran away. Both from you, and from myself. Leaving you crying in that graveyard was the cruelest, most cowardly thing I've ever done. I can't tell you how sorry I am. But you see, it was only later that I realized why I couldn't keep that promise, why I could never kill you."
Mireille smiled and nodded. "Kirika, yes of course I love you too."
Kirika just stared at her, too stunned to speak. Involuntarily, she brought a clenched hand to her breast. She smiled, and her lip quivered. She could barely get the words out. "I wanted to tell you for so long, Mireille. But it would have been unfair. I knew one day you would have to keep our promise. I had to keep that last bit of distance between us."
"I know." Mireille held out her hand. "Let's close that distance between us. Once and for all."
Kirika took her hand.. Once again, Kirika could not find the words. But this time it did not matter. Mireille had simply said what she had already proven yesterday. Kirika had wanted to throw herself into the Eternal Darkness and rid the world of the monster that Soldats had turned her into. But Mireille had refused to let her go, had begged her to come back. "Thank you, Mireille."
"I have no right to make another promise to you," Mireille said. "I hate that. Because I'd like so much to promise you that I'll never send you away again."
Kirika closed her eyes and shook her head, dismissing Mireille's implied apology. "You don't need to. I already know it."
Mireille smiled. "I don't imagine our time in this world will be long. But whatever time we have left, at least we won't be alone."
"No." Mireille's hand in hers was so comforting, but even that could not stave off the overwhelming anxiety that came over Kirika upon hearing Mireille's words. Their shared fate as Noir hung over them, even in this little moment of peace. It was like a deaths-head hanging outside the window, silently grinning at them. Mireille was right, their remaining time in this world might be measured in days or minutes. "Mireille... What are we going to do now?", she asked softly.
Mireille paused to pick up her cup and sip at her tea, as if that helped her to collect her thoughts. When she spoke, it was not with the detached professionalism with which she had usually passed information on to her partner. It was with a sincere, slightly anxious tone closer to how Kirika spoke just now. It was just what one would expect from two people who were planning their lives together. "Graipaul told me he wants us both to join Soldats. Not just as assassins, but as leaders. To be part of the inner circle."
That surprised Kirika. "Do you believe him?"
"If you mean do I trust him, of course not. But I believe in his self-interest. Bringing us into the fold would be a real feather in his cap. You and I would certainly not have any real power." A wry smile graced her lips. "Soldats is like any other syndicate, it's an Old Boys' Club through and through. But the name of Noir must have great power in Soldats. Our very presence would lend credibility to those who held our leash."
Again, the wry smile. "I mean credibility the way a Mafia Don understands it, as a threat that can be followed up on."
"So we would be Soldats' enforcers."
"More like their bulldogs. Probably most of the time we would have to do nothing more than be visible, whenever Soldats needed to remind anybody how disloyalty would be rewarded."
Kirika thought about that for a while. What Mireille said made sense. She could picture exactly how Soldats would use the name and faces of Noir to strike fear and awe into minions and enemies alike. At length she shook her head and looked into Mireille's blue eyes again. "I couldn't do it, Mireille. I just couldn't work for the people who made me kill your family."
Mireille smiled sadly and squeezed her hand. "No, of course not. Neither could I." Her smile remained, but her expression and her voice darkened. "Not unless we were planning to betray them."
Kirika frowned. "Do you have something in mind?", she asked with more than a little trepidation.
"Nothing specific. We still know so little about them. But if we did join them, we would learn more."
"Keep your friends close..."
"And your enemies closer," Mireille finished for her. "We could bide our time, wait until we knew enough to really hurt them."
"They would be expecting that."
"Of course they would. They would be watching us like hawks. But that cuts both ways. They already know everything about us, more than we know ourselves. We have nothing to lose by being among them, and everything to gain."
"They would test us," Kirika pointed out. "They would do everything they can to test our loyalty."
Mireille looked unimpressed. "What could they ask us to do that we have not done already?"
Kirika shivered, thinking of the ancient torture chamber in the catacombs of the Manor. "There are things worse than killing," she said in a soft, tremulous voice.
Mireille nodded. "I know. But being part of Soldats' inner circle would put us where we could hurt them the most, maybe even deal them a deathblow. Is there anything we could not do for that?"
After a moment, Kirika slowly nodded. "There is one thing." Mireille seemed to guess what she was talking about, but Kirika was sure she was mistaken. "No, I don't mean to kill you. If they want to strike fear of the Eternal Darkness into their enemies, the fear of Noir, they would need both of us alive. But people like Soldats always think in the long term. You and I won't live forever. When we are gone, they will want the legend of Noir to live on. So one of the first things they would make us do would be to start grooming our successors."
Mireille's eyes widened in growing shock and understanding. To do what Artena had done, to put a gun into the hands of a child...
"God!" Mireille released Kirika's hand and looked out the window, as if the blue afternoon sky could dispel the darkness in her heart. "You're right," she whispered. "I could never do that."
She did not need to complete the thought for Kirika. Joining Soldats, even with the intent of betraying them, would be their downfall. And Kirika felt in her heart that what she had suggested was the least of it. Soldats had been festering in the darkness for a thousand years. Without a doubt they could conceive horrors that mere assassins, even the dreaded Noir, could never dream of. "One way or another, they would either break us to the yoke, or destroy us."
Mireille nodded, still staring out the window. "They'll never let us alone. If we can't join them, we'll have to fight them."
Kirika watched her lovely Corsican partner, worried about what she was hearing. Mireille was a romantic at heart, she truly believed that with enough drive and perseverance nothing was impossible. That belief could be fatal. "As soon as they believed we could never be theirs to command, they would spare no effort to kill us. The rules of the Trials would be over."
"The rules of the Trials were over when they attacked us here!" Mireille shouted. "We are already at war with them."
"Mireille..." Kirika knew there was no point arguing with her when she was this upset. At length, Kirika rose from her seat. "I'll go make some more tea."
They sat in silence for a while. The sounds of the bustling city outside the shattered windows were softened into a gentle white noise by the distance. Occasionally there would be a closer noise, a car driving down their street or the laughter of people walking below their window. Normal people leading normal lives. Kirika looked at the bullet-riddled walls that contained her. She felt trapped by them. What an utterly proper cage for a beast such as her. It was a fitting cage to protect all those normal people from her.
A fly that had come in through the window began to bother Mireille. She waved it away with a strangled sound of irritation. "Need to get some flypaper," she muttered.
"We'll have to repair the windows eventually," Kirika replied.
"There's not much point. We'll be abandoning this place soon anyway."
"What?" Kirika said anxiously.
Mireille looked intently at Kirika. "I figure that Graipaul will wait for a few days or a couple of weeks. But eventually he'll pay us a visit. Or maybe he'll be presumptuous and just send a flunky to tell us where we'll be reporting for work," she said bitterly. "We have to be long gone before then."
Well at least that made sense. "You think the next chance he gave us would be the last one."
"Yes, it would. He must be under pressure to deliver us, so he won't wait for long and he won't take no for an answer. He would settle for the next best thing, which would be to bring our heads back to Soldats. There are probably elements who would just as soon come kill us now. But I'm willing to bet Graipaul can hold off the dogs for a while. We have at least a couple of days to recover and plan what we're going to do."
"They will be watching us."
"Yes, of course they will. When we do make our break, we will have to do it discreetly. Just head out as if we're going shopping, and not come back. We'll go to my safe house."
"The safe house?" That was Mireille's name for the little apartment she kept at the other end of the city. Kirika had only been there once, when they dropped in to clean up and rest after a run-in with Soldats agents in that area. Besides the two of them, nobody knew about it but the landlord, and he knew Mireille only by a false name.
"We'll be leaving everything behind, so it will be fine until we can find something better."
"Mireille, are you intending for us to stay in Paris?"
Mireille looked surprised by the question. "Yes, of course. This is where most of my contacts are, and this is where the heart of Soldats lies. This is where we need to be."
"To fight them of course, you silly girl!"
"Is that what you want to do?"
"Well what did you think we would be doing?"
Kirika looked away, unable to face Mireille's angry stare anymore. "I thought that's what we were going to talk about," she said, unable to keep the resentment out of her tiny voice.
Mireille made a little regretful grunt in her throat. She took Kirika's hand. "I'm sorry. You're right, this is what we should have been talking about. I'm so used to being on my own."
Kirika looked at her, still feeling hurt. "We've been together nearly half a year." The edge was taken off her voice, but not the sadness.
Mireille nodded. "Yes, we have. And I know, I've treated you as more of a hanger-on than a partner. I... I guess closing that last distance between us isn't as easy as I thought it would be. But I want to, I really want to."
Kirika smiled shyly. "So do I."
Mireille's expression sobered. "But Kirika, we have to face reality," she said gently. "If we don't join Soldats, then they'll come after us. We'll either fight them or die."
"They can't come after us if we're not here."
"Soldats are everywhere, Kirika. Soldats are the world."
Kirika shook her head vigorously. "They're not the world and they're not everywhere. They may not even be the biggest, oldest or wealthiest syndicate in the world. They're just the best at staying invisible, staying in the darkness."
Mireille frowned. "Kirika, do you know something I don't?"
Kirika hesitated. She knew what she wanted to say, but she had to make sure she was separating fact from wishful thinking. Otherwise, Mireille would never listen to her. "I know what you're asking, but no. I still don't have any clear memory of my time with Soldats. But I just have to think of what we've seen. Soldats were trying to make inroads into the Taiwan syndicate, but so far they have failed. They are not omnipotent."
Mireille looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. "So, what do you think we should do?"
"I know what I would /like/ to do," Kirika said, her soft voice fortified by an edge of urgency. "I'd like for us to go as far from here as possible, to some place without a name. Some place where Soldats would never even think of looking for us."
Mireille smiled for just an instant. "It's a tempting idea. But are you really okay with that, just leaving? After finding out what they did to both of us, are you willing to just let it go?"
Kirika thought about that for a moment before replying. "My whole life has been scripted by Soldats. If we stayed here to fight them, that would just be part of the script. Of course I hate them, how could I not? But I want to do something that's not part of their script. I..." Her voice broke, and she squeezed Mireille's hand, trying to draw strength from it. "I want to take my life back from them."
Mireille regarded her with a pained, sympathetic expression. "Kirika, I'm not sure it's that simple."
"Why not?" Kirika asked desperately. "Are you saying there's no place in the whole world where we could live in peace?"
"Oh, I have no doubt we could escape and disappear," Mireille said sadly. "But then what? If we start up business again, any contract we took could be a trap set by Soldats. It would be just as if we were fighting them right here."
"Start up business?" Kirika asked. "Is that what you want to do?"
"It's not a matter of what I want. It's what we need to do to survive. This isn't a business you can just retire from. Every time we kill we make enemies. Who knows how many you've made that you can't even remember now. We have more to worry about than Soldats."
"We could take precautions. Even if we are found out, we're not helpless."
"We would be if we lost our edge."
Kirika stared at her in disbelief. "Are you saying we need to kill people just to keep our edge?", she asked incredulously. "Just for-- for practice?"
Mireille looked like she was annoyed at this argument, but she was trying very hard not to sound angry. "Call it what you will. For better or worse, you and I are predators. That is what Soldats has made us into. If we stop being predators, we will be eaten up."
Kirika shook her head slowly. She hated herself for what she needed to say next. "That's what they want us to think, that there's no exit. If we believe that, then they've won."
Now Mireille really did look angry. "You remember enough about the underworld to know that nobody can ever really leave. And that we live and die by the support of the people around us. Here I have people who I have known for years. We live by being each other's eyes and ears. That's how it works."
"I know all that. But how many of those people can you really trust, Mireille? Your Uncle Claude must have introduced you to most of those contacts. But he was working for Soldats the whole time. Even if none of your friends are Soldats, they are certainly known to Soldats." She withered under Mireille's frosty stare. "I'm sorry Mireille, but you must have thought of this yourself by now," she concluded in a tiny voice.
"Of course," Mireille said bitterly. "I am a child of Soldats after all. My life has been scripted by them no less than yours." She sat perfectly still, contemplating the shattered windows. Kirika watched her nervously. The Corsican woman had already had plenty of time to consider the consequences of what Artena had told them at the Manor. Mireille was one of the three children blessed by the High Priests of Soldats, groomed to become Noir. Everything in her life had been carefully planned to place her on the path they wanted, to turn her into an assassin, one of the Black Hands of Soldats. Nothing would have been left to chance.
Kirika could practically feel the grim realization sinking into her partner's mind as she watched Mireille's angry, despairing expression. Her life here in Paris had been no less bogus than Kirika's life under her false identity in Japan. They had given her this life, and they could just as easily take it away.
At length, Mireille looked at her and nodded. "Okay," she said in quiet finality.
Kirika felt like she wanted to cry in Mireille's place. "I'm so sorry," she breathed.
Mireille smiled. "I wish I could forget my past like you have. That would make it easier to just pick up and leave."
Kirika was unsure how to respond. "Well, I probably don't have much worth remembering," she said. "Most people don't remember anything from before they are four years old. I must have been training under Soldats even by that age." Kirika averted her eyes nervously. /Because I could not have been more than six when I efficiently assassinated your family/.
Mireille did not appear to be disturbed by the subtext of Kirika's statement. "You must have had a much harder time than me," Mireille said with a gentle smile. "Uncle Claude was a strict teacher. But he did everything he could to make sure I was as happy as I could be. He almost made the training fun." Her expression darkened. "He made killing people seem like the most natural thing in the world," she said more softly. "When I turned eighteen he told me he was going away, that I had to make my own path now. But he made sure there was only one path for me, didn't he?"
"Mireille..." Kirika hated when she had no idea what to say. She thought back to the day when Mireille had returned from her trip to Corsica. Mireille had told Kirika what Chloe had said to her there: you are a child of Soldats. A child of the people who murdered your family. Standing with her there on the roof watching the sunset, Mireille had broken down and cried. Kirika had ached to know what she could do to comfort her partner, to help her endure the pain. But she still did not know.
"I agree we have to leave Paris for good," Mireille said. She was using a much more businesslike tone, as if they were just discussing another contract. Kirika was glad that Mireille had accepted what to her was obvious. But somehow they were talking on a less intimate level now, and Kirika regretted that.
"It might be best for us to leave Europe altogether," Kirika responded.
"Yes, I think you're right. Soldats calls themselves 'the world', but Europe is their true home. This is where they are strongest. The further from here we are, the better."
Kirika was happy that Mireille agreed at least with that much. "Do you have any place in mind?" Kirika asked encouragingly.
"It has to be somewhere that both of us can easily blend in without attracting attention. The anonymity of a city in an immigrant country would be best for us. Probably somewhere in the New World. What language are you more comfortable with, English or Spanish?"
"Same here. I guess that leaves us a lot of options."
Kirika smiled. "You're a creature of the city, aren't you?"
"More or less." Mireille's expression sobered. "I hope you didn't have a vision of us on a little island or in a lonely log cabin somewhere."
Kirika averted her eyes shyly. "I guess I was thinking something like that."
"Didn't I say, this is not a business you can just retire from?" Mireille asked quietly but firmly.
Kirika was at a loss for words. Once again, the bullet-riddled walls loomed over her like the bars of a cage, closing in on her. She involuntarily hugged her arms around herself. /No exit. No exit./
"Kirika?" Mireille called gently.
"You're right. I know you're right. But I wanted so much to believe that we could leave this world of shadows behind." She looked desperately into Mireille's piercing blue eyes. "Are we so steeped in sin, that we can never play in the sun?"
Mireille smiled warmly and reached over to take her hand. "Of course we can play in the sun. This has nothing to do with punishment or atonement for sin. It just has to do with earning our daily bread."
She knew what Mireille really meant. Kirika had said it before herself. Their daily bread was purchased with the blood of the people they killed. "Is that really the only way for us?"
Mireille sighed. "Kirika, if we try to set up some life outside the underworld it will be a lie. It would be just like the fake life you had in Japan. Even without knowing the why of it, you knew that it was wrong. That is why you sought me out. Do you think you could just go back there now? Do you think you could go back and pretend none of this had happened?"
Kirika thought long and hard. Mireille just sat patiently, holding her hand. She was right, of course. In Japan, Kirika had successfully played the role of innocent high school student. She even had friends there. There were three other girls she had been hanging around with. They had done all the normal things together, going out shopping, eating ice cream at cafes, singing in karaoke rooms. It had even been fun, sometimes. But in her heart, Kirika had felt alone. As long as they did not know what she really was, she would be alone no matter how many friends she gathered around her.
Her friends had been sad when she told them she was moving to live with her parents again. They were probably still sending letters to the fake address of her nonexistent parents, wondering why she never wrote back. Kirika tried to imagine going back to them now.
"You're right," she said reluctantly. "It would be a lie. I guess that was why I had imagined it would be just the two of us, far away from everything. There would be nobody to lie to."
"We would be lying no matter where we went," Mireille said. "The underworld is all about lying. Do you think you could live with just that, just the lie and nothing else?"
Kirika looked into her eyes. "Have you ever tried?"
Mireille really seemed taken aback by that question. "No..."
It appeared as if Kirika had opened up a new possibility in Mireille's mind. This emboldened her to drive her point home. "Don't you think we could try? Of all the sins we could commit, is living a lie so terrible?"
Mireille's expression was inscrutable. She closed her eyes for a moment. Then she looked at Kirika again. It looked as if she had made some decision. "Okay, why don't we try."
Kirika's heart leapt. "You mean it?"
Mireille smiled just a little. "We can take a sabbatical. I think we've earned it. And we've certainly got enough money to live off for a while. It will give us plenty of time to think. Maybe in time we can come up with a better answer. But Kirika, you know we can't let ourselves go soft."
"I know. We can still keep our usual training regimen."
"I don't mean just that. We shouldn't wait for too long before finding work again. It doesn't even have to be taking on contracts. But whether or not we are assassins, we can't escape the fact that we are creatures of the underworld. That is where we will be earning our daily bread."
"I know." Kirika understood at least that much. Any legitimate work that made use of their specialized skills would perforce subject them to very close scrutiny. They would have a hard time explaining how somebody of Kirika's age had her skills.
Mireille's all-business expression softened. "We'll just keep our eyes open for anybody who is looking for hired guns without asking questions. We're bound to find something." She smiled. "Hopefully a nice cushy job where we just have to look mean and never fire a shot in anger."
"Okay." Kirika could not keep from smiling. She wanted to tell Mireille how grateful she was. But she wondered if Mireille could even understand what hope she had given Kirika. For the first time she felt in her heart that one day they could really emerge from the shadows into the light.
Mireille's smile became mischievous. "Do you think you'll feel up to hobbling over to our usual place for some target practice tomorrow?"
"I lost my Beretta at the Manor."
"So you did. I guess you can use my other Walther."
"I'll have to get accustomed to it."
"You should. I know you're more comfortable with those old Berettas. But some day having sixteen rounds instead of seven will come in handy." She got up and walked over to the pool table. She was still favoring her bandaged leg. "My spare has a grip customized for me, just like this one. But it should be okay for you." She picked her Walther off the pool table and pulled it from its holster as she walked back. She flipped it around to catch it by the barrel and held it out to Kirika. "Here, see how you like the feel of it," she said with a warm smile.
Kirika's mind bifurcated. She was in their apartment in Paris and in Mireille's house in Corsica. She saw Mireille's warm, loving smile and Artena's warm, loving smile. Mireille said "See how you like the feel of it" and Artena said "Your three targets are through those doors. You know what to do, don't you?"
Kirika screamed and slapped the gun out of Mireille/Artena's hand. She staggered back, knocking her chair over and almost tripping over it. She backed into the partition wall that hid the bed, standing there panting and trembling.
Mireille regarded her with shock and bewilderment. Her eyes narrowed and Kirika could sense her hackles going up. The question was written on her face: who is this I'm facing and can I trust her?
Kirika couldn't stand it. She buried her face in her hands and whimpered. In real time it must have been more than ten years ago, but in her time it might as well have been yesterday. She could see Odette regarding her with that kind, gentle smile that was so much like Mireille's, just before Kirika put a bullet in her head.
"Kirika." The voice was closer. She felt hands gently take hold of her shoulders. "Didn't I tell you I won't have this?", she said sternly.
Mireille was right. Kirika had no right to hide her face. She opened her eyes and faced Mireille. The Corsican woman's face filled her vision. She did not look angry as her voice had suggested, just confused and regretful. "Kirika I'm sorry, what did I do?"
Kirika shook her head. "It's not your fault, you couldn't have known. That was exactly how Artena handed the gun to me when-" she choked on the words, they just would not come out. Her eyes blurred with tears and she closed them, sending trickles down her cheeks.
"Oh God." Mireille pulled her closer until Kirika's bowed head rested gently against her shoulder. "How can I make you believe that you are forgiven?"
"I don't know," Kirika whimpered. She clenched her fists at her sides, steeling herself to not cry. "I don't know."
"It'll be okay," Mireille whispered. "It will hurt less every day. Believe me, I know. You just have to give it time."
Kirika nodded and gave a little sound of acknowledgment. They stood like that for a while. When Kirika felt a little more under control, she lifted her head. Mireille stepped back and looked at her intently. "I'll go put the gun away."
Kirika shook her head. "It's not the gun. It was just how you handed it to me. I'll be fine now."
Mireille regarded her with what Kirika could not help thinking was more than just worry. She could tell, the Corsican woman's hackles were still up. "Maybe we should just take it easy for a few days. We're both in rough shape."
Mireille walked over to retrieve her gun from off the floor. She returned it to its holster and took it to the closet. Kirika walked over to the short stairway that led up to their bed and sank down onto the stairs. She was still shaking, and felt utterly drained.
A moment later Mireille walked back down the stairs and sat down beside her. Kirika wondered what she would say, but the blonde just sat quietly, not even watching her. Kirika could imagine why. She was probably confused about what had just happened. And she was afraid of saying the wrong thing, saying something that would open the gate and let out the monster that they both knew lurked inside Kirika.
Kirika knew she would have to be the one to break the silence. "This is why I wanted to get away," she said, still leaning on her knees and staring at the floor. "That other person inside me, she hasn't gone away. I can still feel her there, waiting. I'm so afraid. I don't know what might set her loose."
Kirika looked over to Mireille, who returned her gaze. "What let her loose was me pushing you away. I'll never do that again. I'll never abandon you."
Kirika smiled sadly. "I don't think you believe it's that simple. Otherwise you wouldn't be looking at me that way." It had not been said in an accusatory way. Thankfully Mireille seemed to know that, she just regarded Kirika with a slightly more worried and apologetic expression. "But hearing you say that does make me feel better. Thank you."
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried about you, Kirika. I've had more than ten years to recover from what happened in Corsica. For you it's still fresh. You can't expect to just get over it all at once. But you have to /want/ to leave it behind."
"I do want to. But Corsica may only be the beginning of it." Kirika was terrified to talk about what lurked inside her, but she knew she had to. "Soldats had me for another ten years after that day. What else did they make me do? Maybe there are worse memories waiting to bubble up. I think it's already started to happen. If it gets worse, it might push me over the edge again."
"It could be that those memories lie only with your other self. You might never get them back. I think that would be for the best."
Kirika shook her head. "I don't know. I've unlocked the gate to the past, but I'm more confused than ever."
"You know..." Mireille started hesitantly. "Uncle Claude took me to get psychiatric help after we left Corsica. The doctor was very kind, he really helped me a lot. Maybe that's something you should consider."
"My case would be very hard to explain without revealing that I've been a killer for hire."
"Are you kidding? If your doctor actually believes you then he'll be too scared to try and turn you in."
Kirika smiled despite herself. Her concern about confiding in a doctor had been serious, but Mireille's response seemed to be more or less flippant. Humor was not Kirika's forte. She had never said anything deliberately funny in what she remembered of her life. But people sometimes found unintended humor or irony in what she said, more often than not to her puzzlement. Her friends in Japan certainly had, and Mireille sometimes did. That was fine, she would hate to think that she could never make Mireille laugh.
She was surprised when Mireille put an arm around her shoulder. "You shouldn't be scared of that other person," Mireille said. "I saw her, talked to her, and fought with her. She doesn't have anything that you don't have. Even if she does remember everything Soldats did to you, so what? It does not make her stronger or better. I think she is just the part of you that knows how to kill, stripped of everything else. She's just you without love or hope. As long as you don't give in to despair, you can never become her again. That's what I think."
Kirika smiled at her. "Does this mean I don't need to go see a doctor?"
"Well, think about it anyway."
"Okay." Sitting here with Mireille like this, Kirika could almost believe that the darkness would have no control over her if she did not let it. That vision of Artena had frightened her terribly. But the darkness had not really threatened to encroach upon her. It had just been her own overwhelming shame and horror. That was bad enough. But Mireille had said it would become a little bit better each day.
"I think we'll both feel better when we're far away from here," Mireille said.
"Yes, I think we will."
"When we've settled in at our new place, we should make a point of taking up a new hobby. That will help us stop brooding about the past. What do you think you would like to do?"
Strangely enough, Kirika could not remember anyone asking her that question before. In Japan she had more or less tagged along with her friends, agreeing with whatever they wanted to do. In Paris with Mireille it had been pretty much the same. To actually think of something to do for its own sake was a novelty to her. She had started to develop an interest in painting, but even that would probably have never happened if Mireille had not been the first to suggest it. "Something outside. Something out in the country."
"That's sounding good. Do you have anything in mind?"
"Well, you don't think small do you?" Mireille said cheerfully. "Never mind starting with hiking, you want to go straight for the big time."
"Is that not a good idea?"
"No, I think it's great. We'd probably get bored with something that isn't a little bit dangerous. Uncle Claude took me caving in the Pyrenees a couple of times. That's sort of similar, and it was pretty fun."
"I don't know if I would like caves."
"For my uncle and me, doing things in the shadows was just second nature. But now, I think I would prefer climbing up in the open, under the sun. Yes, that's definitely a great idea."
Kirika smiled shyly. "It's your turn. What would you like to do after we've moved?"
Mireille's eyes crinkled in delight. "I am a creature of the city after all, so for me it's got to be shopping."
"Clothes, of course. We'll be traveling light, so we'll both have a whole new wardrobe to build."
"Is that really a hobby?"
Mireille pouted. "Well, I know you don't treat it as one. When I told you to go get yourself a warm jacket you were back in less than half an hour!"
"I found one my size in the first shop I looked."
"Oh, Kirika, Kirika, Kirika. I can see you have much to learn. But don't worry, when we're done we'll have you looking like a super model."
"You're teasing me."
Mireille cocked her head in theatrical puzzlement. "Why?"
Kirika looked away. She could feel herself blushing. "You're the one who is beautiful enough to be a model," she said awkwardly.
Mireille squeezed her tighter. "So are you. But you're only as beautiful as you present yourself to be. You were a real knockout in that dress we got you for the job in Ulgia. Wasn't it fun dressing up like that?"
It was an interesting choice of words. In Ulgia, Kirika had dressed up as a hostess for an elegant garden party. All the better to get close enough to her target to put a fork through his brain stem. At the time her only concern had been to blend into the background. But she had certainly noticed how differently men - and more than a few women - had looked at her when she was dressed up. "I didn't really think much about it at the time. It was just a disguise."
Mireille sighed. "Oh dear. This is why I insisted on at least doing your hair for you. Left on your own you probably would have walked into a barber shop full of old men. I don't even want to think about what they would have done to my cute Kirika."
"Now you are teasing me."
"Well, wouldn't you have?"
"No. I would have gone to a hairdresser. A a professional would do the job properly."
Mireille looked cross. "Meaning what?"
Kirika smiled and gave her a sidelong glance. "I liked having my hair cut by you. It felt nice putting myself in your hands. I'm sorry, did that sound strange?"
"No. I liked it too. But you're right, from now on you go to a professional. We'll give you a whole new look."
A strange memory - a nice, benign memory - snuck into Kirika's mind. "In Japan, one time I almost got talked into dying my hair."
"Who suggested that?" Mireille said sharply. "One of those girls you were hanging out with? If anyone did that to you I swear I'd kill them for free."
"I like blonde hair."
"But it's not for you," Mireille said flatly. She flipped her long hair away from her face with a flourish. "Take it from a natural blonde, there are some things you shouldn't try and fake." She ran her hand through Kirika's hair. "I love your hair just the way it is."
"Th- Thank you," Kirika said with a thick voice. She wiped a tear away.
Mireille leaned forward to get a better look at her. "Kirika? Did I embarrass you?"
"No, no, it wasn't that," Kirika said, no longer holding back the broad smile that was begging to be shown. She put her hands over her heart. "I just suddenly felt very, very happy. We've never talked like this before. I... I didn't know it could feel so nice."
Mireille smiled and gently stroked her back. "I seem to be doing nothing but making you cry today."
Kirika shook her head. "No, you've made me happy. Not just today, but right from the day I met you. It just hurt that I wasn't able to tell you."
"I wasn't able to tell you how I felt either," Mireille said. The affection showing in her voice and her eyes held Kirika entranced. "I didn't realize it myself until you were gone. You snuck into my heart through the back door. Just like a little thief."
"Mireille..." Kirika reached out a hand towards Mireille's face, then hesitated. Mireille just looked into her eyes with a fond, slightly puzzled look. She must be wondering what I'm up to, Kirika thought. She let her hand drop back to her side. "I've grown so used to keeping that last bit of distance between us. No matter how I feel, it's hard to break the habit."
"I know," Mireille said. "For us, nothing is harder than trusting somebody."
"No, I don't think it's really that. I'm just not sure what I'm supposed to be." Mireille just looked all the more puzzled. Kirika felt there must be some better way to ask this, but somebody like her would not know any better way. "What I mean is, I don't know how you see me. Am I your friend? Your lover? Your little sister? I just don't know."
Mireille shifted around to face her more squarely. "Are you afraid I'll be offended if you do the wrong thing?"
Kirika just nodded. Her anxiety threatened to overwhelm her.
"The answer is that there is no wrong answer. Let me show you." She took Kirika's face gently in both her hands, leaned forward and kissed her. Kirika closed her eyes. The sensation of Mireille's warm lips against hers made her shiver and sent her heart racing. A moment later it was over. Kirika opened her eyes and looked into the blue eyes just inches from hers. Mireille's hands shifted back to cradle her head more firmly. "You can be whatever you want with me. I'll never turn you away. I just want you to tell me what's in your heart. Can I be anything I want with you?"
"Yes," Kirika whispered.
Mireille smiled. "You and I are soul-mates. We need each other like we need air to breathe. That's what I realized yesterday, when I thought I would lose you. We need to be everything to each other. Who knows what we will need tomorrow or the day after. But right now, I need a friend most of all, and I think that's what you need most of all. Does that sound okay?"
It sounded better than okay, it sounded wonderful. Kirika wanted to say so. But right now all she could manage was a quiet "Yes."
Mireille wiped the tears off Kirika's cheeks. "Look at you, your eyes are all red. You'll really have to stop this."
"I'll try." It was like she was trying to do half a lifetime of crying in one day. But being held by Mireille like this was strangely calming. The tension drained from Kirika's body.
Mireille released her and leaned back. She had her impish smile back. "I can't believe I did that. The last time I kissed a girl it was because she wanted to kill me."
Mireille must have been talking about Intocabile. "The kiss of death. What a meaningless kiss."
"Not really." Mireille took both of Kirika's hands in hers. "A kiss can say lots of different things. Intocabile's kiss told me 'I promise to kill you.'"
Kirika smiled. "And yours told me, 'I want to be your lover.'"
Mireille nodded. "Is that really okay?", she asked softly.
Kirika felt that she should show her instead of tell her. She leaned forward and they kissed again. She held it a little longer, but broke off before her heart started racing again. She felt like she was glowing.
Mireille's face was also slightly flushed. "It said, 'I want you too'."
Mireille squeezed her hands. "I have to admit you're not quite the lover I had always imagined for myself."
"Why is that?"
"Well, you're a girl for one thing."
Kirika frowned. It was such an obvious and basic point, how was it that she had not even thought about it? "Um... Will that be a problem?"
Mireille's eyes opened wider and her mouth formed an adorable little "Oh" of astonishment. She seemed on the verge of saying something, but then her lips pursed as if she were holding back some sort of outburst.
A moment later Mireille threw her head back and laughed. Her eyes scrunched up and her whole body shook as she took great lungfulls of air and laughed. Just when Kirika thought the laughing fit was about to end, Mireille surprised Kirika by grabbing her and pulling her into a tight embrace. Kirika yelped and her head was jammed awkwardly between Mireille's chin and shoulder. "Oh Kirika, you're precious," Mireille said in a light, breathy voice.
"Did I say something strange again?"
"No, you asked a perfectly reasonable thing. That's what was so funny."
"Oh." Kirika really did not understand. But she got the impression that she wasn't going to get an explanation. So she just shifted into a more comfortable position and wrapped her arms around Mireille's slim waist. She was all but sitting on the Corsican woman's lap now.
She felt Mireille kiss the top of her head. "No, it won't be a problem. But Kirika, I really think we need to sleep on this. We've already covered a lot of ground today, don't you think?"
"Okay." Kirika just sat there held against Kirika's chest, listening to her breathing slowly fall back to normal. She truly felt that Mireille was her soul-mate, a heart she understood as completely as she possibly could. Yet how was it that somebody she understood so thoroughly could still surprise her so much? She imagined that Mireille must be wondering much the same thing about her.
Mireille relaxed her hold on Kirika, which she took as a signal to disentangle herself. She looked into Mireille's eyes, trying to fathom what was behind them. Right now she just looked very contented. "What a look you're giving me. Did I spook you that badly?" Mireille asked.
"No. I just don't seem to know what to expect from you."
"You look like you were expecting me to throw you onto the pool table and have my way with you."
"Why the pool table?"
"Oh Lord, I give up. It will be another hundred years before I can get a rise out of you."
Kirika smiled apologetically. "Maybe it will." Mireille was right, Kirika could not imagine herself laughing like that. It really might take that long.
Mireille stood up. "My ass is getting sore, sitting on these stairs."
"Would you like some more tea?"
"Sure. Between your crying and my laughing, I think we both need it."
Kirika made the tea and brought it to the table. They sat quietly there for a while, warmed by the afternoon sun. Kirika felt contented, yet utterly spent. Mireille was right, they had covered a lot of ground today. It was more than she had ever dreamed of. She contemplated the prospect of running from here and living with the woman she loved so much. It was difficult to fathom. Just the idea of having a future to look forward to was a marvel in itself. Trying to picture it in her mind was still all but impossible.
Mireille closed her eyes and seemed to doze off. Kirika smiled as she watched the Corsican's lovely face. Kirika seemed to notice for the first time that Mireille was really not that much older than her. When awake she always had an air of calm assurance or grim purpose that made her seem older. But there were ways in which Kirika felt older than her. Mireille had all the recklessness, optimism and capriciousness of youth in abundance. Kirika must have had all youthful exuberance beaten out of her years ago. Mireille was like a link to a phase of Kirika's life that she had skipped over entirely. Maybe it was her illusion, but Kirika felt that in Mireille's company she had been able to come alive, little by little. Maybe with Mireille's help, she could get back just a little of the life that had been stolen from her.
But there were more immediate concerns to take care of before she could start thinking that far ahead. Soon Mireille woke from her nap, and they talked a bit more about their immediate plans for a clean getaway. They agreed that moving to the safe house would be a good first step. They would do that in two days, or at most three. It would be at least another week before Kirika was in good shape for a long trip, so that would give them a few days in relative safety to arrange the trip. They would take a train out of the country to one of the major airports elsewhere in Europe, perhaps in Germany or Switzerland. That would be a safer point from which to exit Europe than the Paris airport would be. They would settle somewhere in the Americas. But Mireille felt they should fly to a temporary home in the New World before deciding exactly where they would settle. She had long ago identified Paraguay as a good place to disappear if she ever needed to. It sounded to Kirika like as good a staging-point for their journey as any, so she agreed.
One of the first things they would do after moving to the safe house would be to get another laptop computer. The loss of their old one had not really hurt them. All their data was actually in encrypted files they duplicated on servers in two different countries. All they needed to access them was their account passwords and their decryption key. The passwords they both memorized. The key could be recreated by a commonly used program that generated keys using a phrase as a seed. Mireille had told Kirika the phrase a long time ago, it was a passage from an obscure French novel.
"We've probably got all sorts of contracts sitting in our inbasket," Mireille observed.
"What will we do with them?" Kirika asked.
"That's an interesting question." Mireille seemed to note how Kirika was now watching her nervously. "Maybe it's my turn to ask an important question. We've talked about what you and I are going to be to each other. But what are we going to be to the world?"
Kirika had an idea what she meant. It was not what she would choose to talk about right now. But she knew it was important. And they had to make some decisions fairly soon. "There's just one thing I know for certain. I don't want to be Noir."
"Neither do I. At least, not the Noir that Artena or Soldats wanted."
Kirika was troubled by Mireille's reply. "What other kind of Noir can there be? Even to people who know nothing of Soldats, that name is given only to assassins."
"That's true. But there are assassins, and then there are assassins. What we have been doing is very different from what Artena or Soldats had planned for us. I can only guess at what Artena was really thinking, the woman was obviously certifiable. But she seemed to have some idea of a grand crusade where we would travel the world slaying people in high places at her whim. Soldats would have us putting down anybody who has the audacity to challenge them. Crusaders for some twisted idea of justice, or enforcers for a glorified mob. We have been doing neither. We have just been running a business, taking cases based strictly on the risk and return."
"I'm not sure that's true." Mireille just raised a slim eyebrow, looking to her to explain. "When I studied the materials for the contracts we took on together, I also reviewed your past contracts. Both the ones you undertook and the ones you rejected." Mireille did not react to her confession. "I'm sorry, I know I wasn't supposed to."
Mireille shrugged. "I gave you access to the files, and I never told you not to read them." She smiled. "Actually I thought you were looking at the new ones to see if you wanted to question the choices I was making."
"I was looking at the new ones too. The one thing I noticed is that there have been a lot of contracts out on people who had refused to cooperate with one syndicate or another. People who refused to be corrupted. They were lucrative contracts with minimal risk. Yet you never took any of them."
Mireille regarded Kirika with an unreadable expression. She leaned forward onto the table, closed her eyes and bowed her head. It looked like she was resting, but Kirika could sense that she was considering her answer carefully. "I know what you're thinking. It must look as if I would only agree to kill people who had it coming. But it has nothing to do with that. It's very hard to explain."
After a further pause, she looked up at Kirika once again. "A few years ago Uncle Claude took me on a job in Central America. I wouldn't do the actual hits back then, I was just along for support and backup. And to get my 'sea-legs' as he put it. It was a Catholic Bishop who was making trouble for a local drug lord. He was encouraging and organizing people to resist paying protection money, to refuse to help harvest the dope and whatnot. He was reckless with his safety, making little attempt to protect himself. Probably the only reason the client came to us was that his local enforcers were afraid of what would happen to them if it became known that they had gunned down a man who was loved and revered by thousands. It should have been a simple job.
"We set up in a neighboring town, observed the target for a while, and decided on a night raid on his house. There were locals watching out for him, but they had no idea how to secure a building. We entered his bedroom, expecting him to be asleep. He was at a roll top desk, reading a huge bible by lantern light. He looked up as my uncle entered and I took station at the door. What I saw in his face I'll take to my grave. There was no fear, just sadness and pity. Pity for us. I had such a feeling of foreboding, I almost cried out for my uncle to stop. But Uncle Claude killed him with two shots from his silenced gun.
"Then it all went to hell. Somebody walked out of a room I /know/ we checked on the way in, and screamed to high heaven before we could silence her. That seemed to wake up everybody within a mile of the house. And somehow most of them were running up all the escape routes we had planned out. They all seemed to know what we had done, and came after us. Most of them just had clubs or knives. I lost count of the number of people we killed fighting our way out. We were out of ammunition altogether by the time we made it to the edge of town. Uncle Claude and I spent the whole night plunging through the jungle. We had night-vision equipment and they didn't, but they kept finding us anyway. If more of them had been carrying guns, we wouldn't have made it."
Mireille's gaze fell again. "It was only when it got light and we made it to our jeep that I saw Uncle Claude had been shot. He hadn't said a thing to me, I had not even noticed. I had to drive back to our hideout and patch him up as best I could. He nearly died."
Mireille looked into Kirika's eyes again. "Mine was a syndicate family, we were all about corrupting people. The uncorruptable are anathema to us. When I was little I would hear the grownups talking about people who would not cooperate with the Corsican mob even though it meant certain death. They spoke of these people with contempt. They were naive, stubborn idealists who did not understand how the world really works. It was inevitable that this world would hand them an early death. But even then, I could sense the undercurrents of awe when my family spoke of these people. We simply could not understand them. We hated them, and it seemed we even feared them. On that night in the Bishop's room, I think I began to understand why."
Once again, Mireille appeared to be lost in thought for a while. "Everything I understand about the world would lead me to believe that innocence is impotent. And most of the time it is. It just gets snuffed out, either by death or by corruption. But when it does survive, it can grow into a power we cannot even imagine. The few times my Uncle Claude would speak of this, he would simply say that the hand of God protected certain people in this world. I don't think I can believe that. Artena was right about one thing, in the face of all the world's sin, heaven holds its silence. I just feel in my bones that the uncorruptable have a strength we cannot fight. They terrify me." She looked intently at Kirika. "They are more dangerous to people like you and me than anything else in the world."
"The Bishop is dead," Kirika pointed out. "You are not."
"Our client was killed a year after we concluded our contract with him. A rival drug lord took over his territory. But it seems he was never able to make any headway in bringing his new territory under his thumb. The Bishop is on his way to being beatified, and his successor has gone further than he ever did, even so far as compelling the government to take action against the drug lords. In any other contract I've taken, as far as I am aware my client achieved whatever it was they wanted to by seeing my target killed, even if all they wanted was revenge. But this client would have been better off if he had never hired us. And we nearly suffered his fate."
"And you think it was because your target truly was a saint," Kirika said, making it more of a statement than a question.
"I'm probably just giving in to superstition," Mireille said by way of an indirect answer. "Or maybe it's just me rationalizing and trying to ease my guilty conscience. It's easier to believe that I only kill people who deserve it. But if I steer away from killing the innocent it is out of fear, not out of any sense of justice. I am a killer for hire, pure and simple."
"You are not speaking in the past tense," Kirika said gently.
Mireille's expression became sad. "Please believe me, I'm not trying to make this decision for us. I just don't want you to be under any illusions about what we have been doing."
Kirika was grateful for Mireille's honesty. "We need to decide what we are going to do with the name of Noir, don't we?", she asked with some trepidation.
"Yes, we do. Right now that name and everything it implies belongs to us. We have to decide whether we are going to try and get rid of it, or try and make it our own. Neither choice will be easy. This name comes with a thousand years of baggage. It has been with us our whole lives. And it's not something that can be easily tossed aside or easily changed to our will."
Kirika clutched at her heart involuntarily. "I want nothing more than to leave that name behind us. But somehow I think trying to do that would just make things worse."
"How do you mean?", Mireille asked.
"Noir will always be a part of us, whether we want it or not."
"I think we have to accept that Noir will be a shadow hanging over us for the rest of our lives," Mireille said. "The things we have done cannot just be swept under the rug. No matter where we went or what sort of life we made for ourselves, we would always be looking over our shoulders. We would always be wondering whom we could trust, and when one of our many enemies might find us."
"Yes, there's that too."
Mireille cocked her head in apparent puzzlement. "Are you thinking of something else?"
Kirika hesitated before answering. "It's difficult to explain. We've been talking about Noir as if it's just the name people use for us, or as if it is just the sins we have committed. But it's everything that you and I..." Her chest tightened up in remembered pain. "And Chloe ever were. We are Noir and it is us. We can't leave it behind any more than I can..." She wrapped her arms around herself, as if to help contain the monster that lurked within her.
Something like grim comprehension came to Mireille's face. "I think I see what you are saying. But Kirika, I know you don't want to just go on as we have been doing."
"No, I don't," Kirika said firmly. "I'm not sure how to say this. Killing comes so easily for us, we hardly even think about it. If we just went somewhere and tried to pretend it was otherwise, nothing would really change. Somehow it would eat us up. I don't know." She averted her eyes. "I just feel that if we want to become something different, if we want Noir to be something different, we can't just hide it away. It won't work."
Mireille was silent for a while. She seemed to be carefully considering what Kirika had said. "Many times in my life I have tried to imagine myself taking all sorts of different paths," she said quietly. "But somehow it always seemed unreal. I think it's because whenever I am playing a role other than killer, it is always a front. We travel under false identities which we have constructed. Sometimes we would travel for weeks under those assumed names. We would almost become comfortable with the charades we were playing." Her expression became more sad. "But underneath we were always the same, weren't we?"
Kirika nodded. "Changing our names won't change what's in here," she said, holding her hand over her heart. "We are not the monsters Soldats tried to make us into. But we are killers down to our bones. To us it comes as naturally as breathing."
Kirika could sense the anguish that was overcoming her partner. She was afraid that she had said the wrong thing. "That doesn't mean we still have to be hired assassins," she added quickly. But the hope in her voice sounded contrived. "You said there are other options."
Mireille nodded. "Yes, there are. But even if we are not assassins, we will still be hired guns for the underworld. We will have to be prepared to kill at any time. Can you live with that?"
Mireille was right, of course. It was just like she had said: in the underworld, credibility is a threat that can be followed up on. There was no room for bluffing. "I think we will have to," she said reluctantly. She smiled shyly. "And I think I can, as long as you are with me."
Mireille returned her smile, but there was an undercurrent of worry there, as if she wondered whether Kirika really could live with it. Or whether it might push her over the edge again. "If we have to make Noir our own, then what should we be trying to change it into?"
"I'm not sure. I think you were changing it before we even met. You won't target the uncorruptable. Whatever the reason, I think that was a start."
"I told you that's not what it looks like," Mireille said, her voice becoming more stern. "I wasn't passing judgment on anybody. That's what Artena wanted us to do. She wanted us to strike the fear of God into her enemies."
"I know," Kirika said hesitantly, realizing she had made herself misunderstood. "We are trapped in the world's webs of sin. We may need to kill to stay alive. But we can still decide what rules we live by, can't we?"
"You know the harsh rules that the underworld works by," Mireille said, the anger now mostly gone from her voice.
"Yes, I know. But people can live within those rules and still hold on to their humanity. Just like your friends here in Paris."
To Kirika's relief, that seemed to strike a chord with Mireille. "There are many people in the Paris underworld whom I admire very much. Some of them have even been killers, just like me. But the best of them only cross the line when their lives are at stake. We could do worse than make them our role models." A wistful smile graced her lips. "This is so strange. I was the one trying to tell you that we need to play the cards we're dealt. But it turned out you needed to tell me the same thing. The truth is, I was nurturing a private fantasy of just taking you away somewhere and never looking back. But you're right, we need to change ourselves first."
Kirika was happy to hear Mireille's answer. She still felt in her heart that Mireille had been starting to change Noir into something else all by herself, even if she were not consciously doing it. But she did not press the issue. "I've had that same wish," she said softly. "But just wishing won't make me something other than what I am."
"We'll find our place in the sun one day," Mireille said. "We just have to keep seeking the light."
Kirika smiled in unabashed joy. "I've already found the light. It is my love for you and yours for me. That will sustain me in the darkest shadows."
"And me," Mireille said with a smile that Kirika thought she would melt under. "We will have a long time to talk about it. But I want to know, what is it that you want people to say of us when they speak of Noir?"
Kirika thought about that for a while before answering. "That only the innocent and the uncorruptable are safe from us. That we keep our word without fail. That we are loyal to none but each other. And that we will be death to any who threaten us or threaten whomever we have agreed to serve."
Mireille watched her with a neutral but attentive expression. "That sounds like a fine enough answer. Do you think that someday we will find a better one?"
Kirika wanted to take a leap of faith and say yes. But she could not lie to Mireille. "I don't know. Maybe if we can live in peace for a little while, that will help us find a better answer. I don't know what it might be, not yet."
Mireille nodded. "Okay. Then for now that's our answer. Noir is out of circulation until further notice, but we will be back." Her whole face slipped into a smile that was both playful and deadly. "Let Graipaul and Soldats wonder what has become of their delinquent Black Hands of Death."
Kirika did not take the same satisfaction that Mireille seemed to take in imagining Soldats stewing in the fear of their own creations coming back to haunt them. They could fester in the shadows for another thousand years, for all she cared. But as long as the name of Noir belonged to the two of them, at least it would not belong to Soldats. If they wanted it back, they would have to tempt the Eternal Darkness and come take it themselves.
Mireille pushed her chair away from the table. "Well, I'm really tired of all this deep talk." She rose to her feet. "You know, I haven't even read a newspaper in days. I'll walk down to the newsstand."
"I can come with you."
"You should probably stay off your feet as much as you can. Will you be okay on your own for a few minutes?"
Mireille went to the bedroom and soon came back dressed in a long skirt and jacket that hid her bandages. "Anything else you think we need?"
"Could you get me a cream soda?" Kirika asked.
Mireille looked at Kirika with her adorable expression of open-mouth surprise. It quickly changed to a fond smile. "You know, I think that's the first time you've ever asked for a treat all by yourself."
Kirika felt embarrassed. "Really?"
"Really. It's too bad you can't eat ice-cream yet, or I'd go get us a couple of cones on the way back."
"Get one for yourself if you like."
"I can go without. Hunger loves company, after all. I'll be back soon."
After Mireille had left, Kirika walked to the window and leaned out to watch her exit the building and walk towards the store. The Corsican girl seemed to be expecting that. When she was only a short distance away she turned around to look up at their apartment window. She stopped just long enough to blow Kirika a kiss. Kirika smiled and waved. She watched until Mireille disappeared around the corner. Out of habit she found herself scanning the street for anything suspicious. She knew the knot of worry in her stomach was just her usual feeling of protectiveness. It was reasonable to conclude that if Soldats were planning to kill them right away then they would have done it by now. Still, she was relieved to see that Mireille had taken the purse she kept her gun in.
Kirika sat at the table for a little while, just gazing out the window. She would have liked to go out in the sun, just to convince herself that this really was not a cage she was in. But Mireille was right, it was best for her to move around as little as possible. The gunshot wound in her abdomen still ached. Strangely it would have been in the same place she had been shot when they were in Iraq, except then she had been shot from behind. But this time she had taken a bullet for Mireille. Perversely, she looked down and smiled as she lightly put a hand over the bandage. This one was a wound of love. Mireille would probably look at her with that familiar expression of surprise and puzzlement if she actually said such a thing. Kirika seemed to have a habit of saying strange things, but she was slowly learning. Living with somebody who had a much more well-developed sense of irony than she did was an education in itself.
Kirika stood and stretched, wincing as her various bruised muscles protested. Yesterday had been rough on both of them. She had almost stopped noticing, what with all the "deep talk" that Mireille had found so tiring. And it was tiring. Deciding the fate of Noir today seemed to have taken as much out of her as fighting for her life had taken out of her yesterday.
Kirika walked over to the bathroom and washed her face. Between her crying and the sweating from her panic-attack, she needed to freshen up. After drying herself she turned to take another look in the mirror.
The pitiless killer glared back at her contemptuously. "Just give it up," she whispered.
Kirika screamed and backed into the wall. She brought her hands up to her face and shook her head. "That's not me!", she cried. The thing with her face just stared back at her with those inhumanly cold eyes, unmoved. Kirika closed her eyes tight. "That's not me!", she shrieked, even as she knew it was a lie. By a supreme act of will she resisted the unbearable urge to run. This was one enemy she could not run from. What she saw in the mirror was nothing but a reflection of the monster inside her. There was nothing to do but to stand and fight it.
Kirika brought her hands back down to her sides, clenched into fists. She opened her eyes again. This time her own reflection looked back into her eyes with defiance, daring that soulless thing to appear again. It did not. But Kirika could not shake the feeling that it was laughing at her. /Laugh all you want. I'm not afraid of you. Mireille is right, you're just me without love or hope. I would be pathetic if I let myself become you./ She received no answer in return.
For a couple of minutes she stood there and watched her reflection. For all that they had learned on their pilgrimage to the past, Kirika saw the same questions written on that confused and frightened face. Who am I? What am I? Where did I come from and where am I going? Her pilgrimage might be over, but her search for the truth was just beginning.
But she did not - would not - regret having taken the Pilgrimage, however painful the truth had turned out to be. She now knew enough about her past to know that she rejected the path that her former masters had laid out for her. With Mireille at her side she would find a better path, even if it took a lifetime.
Feeling a little calmer now, she went back to sit at the table. /Should I tell her?/ She really did not want to hide anything from Mireille, it did not seem right. But she knew in her heart the real reason she wanted to pour her heart out to Mireille. It would be so comforting to cry on her shoulder, to have her love tell her that it was going to be okay. Trying her best to think about this properly, Kirika could see how that would be worse than keeping it to herself. The thing inside her was her own personal burden to bear. Mireille's love could help her bear it, but it would be wrong to ask her to share the burden.
She already knows what lurks within me, Kirika said to herself. I must show her that I can deal with it on my own. She has done so much for me, I can at least bear this much for her. If that is just part of the penance I must do for my sins, then so be it.
When she heard Mireille unlocking the door, Kirika found herself making her way to entryway. "Welcome back, Mireille."
Mireille looked surprised to see her there. "What are you doing standing here?"
"I missed you."
Mireille smiled and lightly tousled the top of her hair. "You're a funny girl."
Mireille had brought drinks for the both of them. After she changed back into her oversized shirt, they sat down on the couch in the bedroom, with the papers piled between them. Mireille had got all the major Paris dailies, plus the London Times and some of the English and French weeklies. They read in silence for a while. Mireille was more of a news-hound than Kirika was. Kirika's reading was usually restricted to what she could put to immediate use. That was how she had learned cooking and the proper ways for preparing good tea and coffee. When Kirika came to live with her, it soon became evident that Mireille had a much more well-rounded education than Kirika did. Mireille had occasionally taken her to art museums and to see music concerts. To the degree that Kirika was competent to judge, Mireille appeared to be well-versed in art, music, literature, history, philosophy and politics. For all that, she kept surprisingly few books in the apartment. When Mireille was done with a book she would usually just take it to one of the used-book stores she frequented. And she seemed to have no interest in popular culture, they did not even have a television or a radio in the apartment. Of course, from what little Kirika herself knew of popular culture it appeared to be mostly fictional and highly suspect depiction of lifestyles that were supposed to be exciting and dangerous, spies and detectives and so on. It was hardly something that would catch the interest of a pair of professional assassins.
They were both very fast readers, so they breezed through all the papers in a couple of hours. Up until now Kirika had simply considered keeping up with current events to be part of her job. Their contracts could involve travel to any part of the world. It was essential to have current knowledge of the political situation in every country and region. This was both to assess the possible risks of each contract, and to have a better idea of the environment they would be working in if they decided to accept a contract. Despite Kirika's efforts to close the gap, Mireille's grasp of current politics was clearly much more comprehensive. It was the main reason she was the one to decide which contracts they would accept. Kirika's involvement had always come only when they came to planning the actual operations. And Mireille also knew where to go when there were gaps in her knowledge. She had spent two weeks searching in the internet sites of both conservative think tanks and radical activists, poring through back-issues of journals at the libraries and ordering copies of primary sources from both government and private sources before deciding to accept the contract in Ulgia. Of course she also received much valuable information from her personal contacts in the underworld, both local and remote. But she always did anything she could to double-check any information she received from those sources. As she was fond of pointing out, the underworld was all about lies. The process of using this information to assess the risk of a contract was an art in itself. Mireille would explain at least part of her reasoning to Kirika each time, to make sure they both understood what they were getting into. For the most part Kirika understood Mireille's reasoning. Some of the contracts were no-brainers. The fairly regular requests to assassinate the Prime Minister of Israel were not even kept on file, they went straight to the bit-bucket with no reply. There were some people you just did not mess with if you hoped to see another sunrise. It was the borderline cases that required careful judgment to weigh the risk against the reward, and this was where Mireille excelled.
Yet for all that, much of what Mireille read seemed to be just for her own personal interest. It was not something Kirika had really been able to comprehend. She had always felt somehow detached from the human drama that was going on around her both near and far. Somebody with no past and no future to speak of had no place in that drama, of what interest could it be to her? In a way she still felt detached from the world she read about in these papers. It was a world she could walk in and engage in only when she was in disguise acting under false pretenses. But in fact she was engaged with this world in a way that most people were not. Through her work with Mireille, she had learned much of what was really going on behind the headlines in various parts of the world. The underworld was not so much a separate world as it was the part of this world most people never got to see. It was like the inscrutable Dark Matter that astronomers seemed to think constituted the bulk of the universe, something that was invisible and that only gave subtle hints of its existence. Kirika and Mireille were no less part of this world she was reading about than anybody else was. The only difference was that they were able to navigate the murky depths that most people never saw.
"Penny for your thoughts."
Kirika looked over at Mireille, who was leaning on her hand and watching Kirika with her impish smile. "Pardon?"
"You've been reading that page for the past fifteen minutes at least."
"Sorry, did you want this section?"
Mireille shook her head. "No, I was just wondering what had got you thinking so intently."
Kirika forced an embarrassed smile. "Nothing in particular. Well, everything, I guess." She folded up the paper and put it down. "So much has happened to us in the past couple of days. I feel like I can barely keep up." She gestured to the papers piled between them. "Yet here we are living in the same world we were before. It's as if nothing has really changed."
"Well, in a few days we'll be on the other side of the world. Then it may be easier to believe that things have changed for us."
"Yes. I'll be sad to leave here, it's the only place I've ever called home."
"We'll make a new place to call home."
"Yes." Kirika understood now. The only thing that made this place home was that Mireille lived here with her. Wherever they lived their lives together, that would be home.
"Shall we have something to eat?"
Kirika was surprised to discover that it was late enough to start thinking of dinner. She had not even noticed the sun dipping towards the horizon. The sunlight angled in through the windows at a much shallower angle now. It was easy to lose track of time when you slept half the day away, and then spent the other half making irrevocable life-changing decisions. They moved to the kitchen to prepare dinner. For Kirika it was just the same broth and Jell-O again. When they were done, Kirika offered to make tea again. But Mireille said she had something else in mind. She went to the bedroom and came back with a small, dark bottle. She put it on the little table. "I'll go get the glasses." She walked over to the kitchen. Kirika leaned closer to get a better look. It was Corsican brandy, vintage 1924.
"It's one of the few keepsakes we managed to grab when we left Corsica," Mireille said as she returned with the glasses. She placed them on the table and sat down. "I have no idea what I was saving it for. But I'd say this has been a remarkable enough day to celebrate. Besides, it would be impractical to take it with us, so we might as well finish it off."
"All of it?" Kirika asked incredulously.
"Well, not tonight. We have at least tomorrow as well."
"Do you think I can? I mean..."
"Oh, I'm sure Doctor Marquis would approve. This is a peerless elixir, better than any medicine known to modern science." She filled up each of the enormous brandy snifters almost halfway, which probably constituted at least a third the contents of the little bottle. Mireille took her glass, and Kirika hesitantly took hers. "Confusion to our enemies," Mireille said, raising her glass.
"Confusion to our enemies." It would take forever to sip at this much liquor, so Kirika let a generous amount past her lips as she inhaled the rich aroma of the dark brandy. It burned pleasantly as it slipped down her throat. "It's delicious."
Mireille grinned. "Makes a nice change from tea, don't you think?"
They drank in silence for a while. Kirika found her thoughts drifting back to the night when it was three of them sitting at this table.
"You look sad," Mireille observed.
"I was thinking of the night we sat here with Chloe."
"It wasn't your fault," Mireille said with the stern gentleness that Kirika was becoming used to hearing.
She nodded. "I know. But I wish that we could have found some way to save her."
"I doubt that was ever possible."
Kirika frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Of the three of us, she was the one who was brought up on the whole idea of the Grand Retour. It was like she was born into a cult. She would never have accepted all three of us leaving the Manor alive. Her whole life was probably spent preparing for the day when the True Noir would be chosen. She would have killed one of us, or died trying, no matter what. That was Artena's way of making sure that her trial by combat would take place, damn her."
Kirika knew that was true. But it was just so sad. "I hope Soldats didn't just leave her there."
"Old criminal societies tend to be thorough about tying up loose ends. And they are usually bound up in ceremony and their own twisted sense of honor. I'm sure she was given burial, even if it was in a nameless grave."
"I would like to have visited her resting place. To tell how sorry I am."
"I think you told her already," Mireille said softly.
Kirika smiled sadly. "Yes, I suppose I did." Chloe's last act in life had been to try and kill Mireille, something Kirika could not let her do. She had stabbed Chloe through the heart an instant before the one who called herself True Noir would have done the same to Mireille. Kirika's eyes had met Chloe's in that moment. Those eyes had said "How could you do this to me, how could you choose her?" /I'm sorry Chloe, it was because I love her./ She hoped that Chloe had understood at least that much.
Mireille raised her glass again. "Departed friends. May they find peace."
"Departed friends." Kirika drank to Chloe, who had been a friend to her for just a little while. Kirika's alter ego had been in control for most of the time they had been together, so she only had dim memories. She remembered a happy kindred spirit, a sister in all but blood who had looked upon her with love and devotion. It was not her fault that Artena's savage game had inevitably turned that love into violent jealousy.
Kirika would like to have taken their drinks to the roof and watch the sunset from there. But Mireille would have rightly pointed out she should be moving about as little as possible. The brandy was quickly going to her head. Mireille was not much of a drinker, and Kirika even less so. Normally they might share a bottle of wine when dining out, and only Mireille ever had the occasional drink from her modest bar here at home. This was more than she was used to, and it was making her sleepy.
"It looks like this is going to be our nightcap," Mireille observed. Kirika had hardly been aware of the passage of time. She may have even dozed off for a moment. It was past sunset now. They had no lights on in the apartment, so it was quite dark now.
"Yes, I think it is." It was pretty early to be going to bed, but she was bone tired and it looked like Mireille was too. "Thank you for sharing it with me. It must mean a lot to you."
"Sharing it with you is what gives it meaning."
Kirika smiled. "Mireille, could you share something else with me?"
"Your past. All of it. I want to know everything you've seen, everything you've done, everything you've learned. Everything."
Mireille cocked her head, looking rather puzzled. "What's brought this on all of a sudden?"
"I have no past worth remembering. I know I'm asking a lot, but would you share yours with me?"
Mireille regarded her with what looked like growing comprehension. Slowly, her lips curled into a broad smile. She took Kirika's hand. "Yes, of course I will. But you know, what you're asking will take a lifetime."
"I know. That's the idea."
Mireille laughed. "You really are a funny girl." She stretched and yawned. "Well, I'm ready for bed, so the only thing I'll share with you today is this. Never, ever mix Scotch whiskey with prune juice."
"Ask me some other time. If I tell you before going to bed it will just give you nightmares."
They took a few minutes to finish off their drinks. Then Kirika followed Mireille to the bedroom. Mireille got under the covers but Kirika just sat on the edge of the bed. "What's the matter?" Mireille asked.
Kirika was not sure what the matter was. It was like she had unfinished business. Somehow she felt the answer lay in Mireille's face. The last glimmer of twilight was just fading from the moonless sky, so her pale face was lit only by the reflected light of the street lamps outside. Suddenly she knew what it was, the one simple thing she still needed to say. Kirika leaned over her, taking Mireille's hand in her own, their fingers intertwining. She looked into liquid blue eyes wide with expectation. "I love you, Mireille." She bent down and kissed Mireille deeply. Mireille made a muffled sound of protest and took hold of Kirika's shoulder, gently but urgently pushing at her. Kirika broke away from their kiss and raised her head, suddenly full of anxiety. The hand that Kirika held in her own was trembling. "I'm sorry," Kirika said breathlessly. "We said we'd sleep on this, didn't we?"
"Yes that too," Mireille said with a strained voice. "But more to the point my arm really doesn't want to bend that way just now."
"Oh!" Kirika quickly released her hand. She hadn't even been thinking, that was Mireille's injured arm. Kirika had practically been pinning her to the bed. "Oh, I'm sorry, that was so stupid."
She tried to slide away from Mireille, but the blonde had her good arm around Kirika's shoulders. "Oh, come here," Mireille said softly. She coaxed Kirika down close beside her. "If you want to get cuddly that's fine. But neither of us is going to be in any shape to do acrobatics for a while, so please behave yourself."
"I'm really sorry," Kirika said miserably. "Does it hurt?"
"No more than it did already. And leaving that aside, what did Doctor Marquis say about not exerting yourself? That means no monkey-business, okay?"
"Okay." Kirika felt like such an idiot. She had just wanted so much to return the affection Mireille had shown her today. Tentatively, Kirika slipped her arm over Mireille's abdomen.
Mireille rested her hand over Kirika's. "That's more like it," she said in a sleepy voice. "You're not crying, are you?"
"No. You're not mad at me, are you?"
Kirika wanted to make amends somehow. "Let me make breakfast for you tomorrow. What would you like?"
"Let's see. I'll probably be hungrier tomorrow. How about you just keep feeding me pancakes and syrup until I say uncle."
"Wherever we decide to live, we'll probably be eating out less, so a bigger kitchen would be a good idea. I hear houses in America tend to have kitchens you could play tennis in."
"A house would be nice," Kirika said. "A beach house."
"Getting a little ahead of ourselves, aren't we?"
"It's just what I've been imagining, that's all."
"And what else have you been imagining?"
"I'd like to have cats. Lots of cats."
"I guess we'll have to. Otherwise you'll probably have the place crawling with whatever flea-infested strays you find. But for us a watchdog may be more appropriate."
"I like dogs too. We could have both."
Mireille chuckled lightly, something Kirika felt through her chest more than she heard. "Are we going to be running a petting zoo?"
"Do you want to?"
"Oh, I'm giving up for today. Good night, Kirika."
"Good night." Kirika closed her eyes. She imagined the beach that she and Mireille would walk along every day. It had been her own private fantasy for some time now. Now it could finally become more than just a dream. And maybe in living that dream they would be able to find a better answer to what Noir would be.
"Just give it up," the voice inside her head whispered. "I will always be with you."
Kirika's body did not even tense up. Wrapped in Mireille's embrace, the fear washed through her and became nothing. She smiled. Yes, you will always be inside me, she answered. But as log as /she/ is with me, you will never win.
When the bad dreams came, Kirika just laughed at them.