la joie de la vie
by Steve and Dave
il était une fois. . .
The first time he sleeps with her is not the first time she sleeps with him.
It's one of those weird things that only happens with time-travel where you end up with performance anxiety about the comparison with yourself (but at least he knows that she went through the same thing).
Someone once called him Merlin and claimed that he lived his life backwards, and while this is not true, he knows that it is possible to love backwards, to leave someone before one has met them, to kiss someone for the first time and be met with lips that already know one's own. It is possible, even, to raise a child before having contributed to its conception. None of these things are wise, and all of them risk paradox.
And still too he does not truly live his days in reverse but instead goes ahead at full pace. In whatever reality he visits, there is no pole with which to punt, only a current to follow and the occasional riverbed respite. There are dips and turns and winds in his path, but to himself it is always forward -- forward toward some inviting bend here, forward to a yawning opening twenty metres behind. No matter the direction his prow is turned, it is forward to him.
He isn't certain how he's found himself playing chess alone with the king's mistress, but she's certainly winning the game. She's charming in a way that lost popularity and regained it in only short periods. Her face is small and oval, the epitome of beauty in this time. Her hair is styled high upon her head, giving her features an even more round appearance. A slight dip in her hairline manifesting in the middle of forehead makes an almost heart.
He becomes aware as a pawn advances that the way she is looking at him is not only not entirely innocent, it is also not entirely speculative. She knows, and while it is a mistake to know one's own destiny, he is fairly certain that his future and her past are connected.
When the inviting smirk to her smile becomes more noticeable, he suspects that his future involves beating a certain crowned head to the chambers of the very-previously-married-Madame de Pompadour. Perhaps it is this introspective speculation which causes him to interview the minute details of her figure more closely; it is entirely the fault of his devoted inspection that puts a bit of swagger in his voice when he speaks next.
"Knight takes queen," he says, and she smiles and says that yes, he does. The details she weaves into her next comment are worryingly personal in a way that robs her joke of its levity. In less than six words, she seals his fate and cements the fact that they will have been intimate at some point he has yet to encounter.
Her foot finds his calf and starts to work its way upwards. Knees knocking the table, he stands and spills half the board across the carpeted floor.
"Madame de Pompadour, are you trying to seduce me?"
He'd hinted, she says through a thoroughly un-demure smile, that he might need to be talked into it.
"I've always liked articulate people. Do you have any sort of a plan?"
She shakes her head; she knows that it happens. Does she really need a plan to get him into her bed if she knows that she'll succeed before she even tries?
"Maybe you don't. Maybe it's not this time. Your charms might fail this time and --" but she is slipping her hand under the waistband of his trousers and then down and --
She thinks it's this time; she moves her hand slowly and -- she says that it is spring. It is spring, and they have been talking about baroque sculpture. He told her those details in the drowsiness after what she terms an intimate act.
"And now I'll have to remember to tell you so that you can tell me to tell you," he says, moving her hand because it's distracting, and he should probably be concentrating on finding out what he's supposed to remember. "I hate predestination paradoxes."
She says that the entire world might be destroyed if he doesn't make love to her. She smiles at the melodrama even as her eyes make it very, very clear what she wants.
"I've heard a lot of chat-up lines, but I think that one's probably in the top ten. Might even be top five."
Does he think that she is lying?
"I'm not that tempted to try and find out," he says.
She takes her long, thin fingers and threads them through his; her pale nails tap the back of his hand. In a motion both languid and decisive, she brings their intertwined hands up and kisses each of his wrists. The difference in temperature, she explains, between now and his feverish soon-to-be. To him, she is already hot, searing a brand onto his flesh.
He has always hated the way humans restrict themselves with their own clothing. When he complains that she is wearing too many clothes she laughs, and he has to bite back an anachronistic volley about repression and servitude and the importance of not crushing ones own kidneys. He gets an idea how many times they must have done this from her confidence with metal zips and Converse trainers. They trail brocade and silk and linen and a suit bought in a Liverpool Oxfam in 1998.
He didn't come here to have sex, and he's not sure what she's done to convince him so easily. Blondes perhaps, he thinks to himself, air leaving his lungs as she pushes him onto her bed. Blondes are blamed as her mouth finds his again and regenerated nerve endings shudder when they meet the sensation of someone else's skin for the first time.
"I haven't ... done this before. Not in this body. Not for a few bodies." It's not the sort of thing he usually worries about, and it's such a stupid thing but he feels the need to apologise in advance and claim special dispensation for the virgin-on-a-technicality aspect. It's not fair, really, because she knows exactly what he likes, and he has to work from the basics. There're some things that human women generally seem to like, but it's not like they're all the same. He's always liked learning new things, but she's done this before, and she's expecting him to live up to something that he hasn't even done yet. Does she like it slow, hard, tender, wild? Does she have any strange kinks that she wants him to go along with? Any favourite positions or specific techniques that she likes?
He's always been attracted to minds, and hers is clear and sharp. She moves her legs to capture him between them and rests her hands over his hearts when he takes the hint. Her breath hot on his ear, she whispers for him to go slowly and that she has always wanted to see what he looked like the first time he entered her. And it's strange, yes, but she's done this before and moves her body to fit perfectly against his, and her gasps and sighs don't hide her curiosity and the intensity of her gaze. She tells him what she likes; how she likes being underneath him when he takes her; how she likes watching him. Her hands know this new body better than he does, and like a memory of time overlapping, his body knows better than he how to react.
She tells him where to touch her, shifts to help him find a better angle, is patient and calming, and he wonders if she is repaying a favour he has yet to show her. His hearts are vanity and pride and she wounds them both with kind encouragement. But he likes blondes, and women who can make him feel a bit inferior. She wants it slow, she says, slow and deep.
He likes her breasts. "Men would pay to sculpt these," he tells her, knowing full well they will. He shouldn't be scared of failing her, because apparently he'll have more chances to get it right in future-which-is-the-past. He wonders what she's teaching him that he'll soon teach her. He is living her love backwards; their first time would (will) be like this, feathers and air.
Deep and slow, deep and slow, until her chest rises further to draw each breath and she tells him to move a little faster, harder, there, like that. The sounds she makes are the reward for learning what she wants; an extra edge to her breathing is the positive reinforcement for showing initiative and guessing correctly about what she might enjoy that she hasn't yet mentioned. Gold star for effort, apparently, when she presses her teeth against his skin. With a smirk he applies what she has taught him and coordinates a set of movements that let him discover that she swears like a trooper. He holds himself steady and watches her, etching a memory of what she looks like when she comes.
With a satisfied sigh she stretches her muscles, shifting her hips as encouragement when she realises that he's still inside her and hard.
"I wasn't going to --" he starts, but she is quick and canny and has done this before. With lips and hips and whispers she shatters him, beats him at his own game and giggles her triumph when he falls to the side under his own sudden weight.
It takes him a moment to rein in power over his muscles and find his body again. The shadows on the wall were short and young when they began their chess match. From his vantage in the by-times-sunken and by-times-mountainous bedclothes, they have lengthened to an afternoon's age in the time that has passed (the Earth has literally moved for both of them). He stills, and she stirs, rising from the spoils of their labour with an ease and grace that he suspects has been perfected with many uses.
Her voice trails lightly into the sunset as she scolds him for disrupting the board. Half-covered in the darkness a boudoir casts over her full form, she kneels down and scoops up the pieces carelessly. With more precision, she lays the board on the table and begins arrange the men. He had guessed that she would place them in their beginning spots, but no –
"You remember where they were?" he says as the last piece – his errant knight – is placed perfectly on its square.
Of course, she says, quirking at him a brow. He feels foolish for his assumption; many humans can tell you the set-up of an interrupted game – though he can't be certain of how many could do it after a vigorous round of sex (himself included, he admits wryly). To his surprise, while he has been indulging in his interlude, she has dressed and redone the tangles and curls on her head.
He springs from bed and reaches for his clothing; her cool, bold look at his naked body gives him the temerity to abandon them and turn to study the board more closely. She is a better player than he had thought even in the beginning – but then, he had been distracted.
"You could have taken the queen," he says with some astonishment. "Two moves ago – or three."
Throwing his jacket in his direction, she informs him that she aims for kings.
He tries to play at being surprised with himself when he goes back to her, but how can he when he already knows what he's done? Before long he is reckoning his visits with her on both hands, and even sooner he's lost count. Even trying the relationship in sequence is doomed to failure, and it is not fair to her that he even makes the attempt. He can come and go as he pleases and she knows it all too well. His guilt at the fact that he is hurting her is not enough to overcome the aching loneliness that keeps him coming back to her. Atonement and interest bring him to her at a time when valleys caress her face and dark rivers line her thin, delicate hands.
She is early into her fourth decade, but her skin is still taut across her cheekbones, and her breasts were moulds not-so-long-ago for Champagne glasses. She has been out of the king's bed for more than twice as many years as she was in it, but her influence in the court has ranged from choosing her successors to persuading diplomatic policy.
He isn't certain, but he thinks that she is nearly forty-two (or just past it).
"You look beautiful," he tells her; he has said it before on many occasions, but today he lives the opinion. There is something in her face at this age that makes him tethered to her as he's thought impossible. He's returned to her on many occasions, but he has a feeling that after this time he will be returning for her.
Like a memory older than she cannot be crossing her face, her features brighten and darken and mask. He has come, she says, and he watches the moonlight glint silver over faded strands of hair hidden in her lustrous mane. A light wave of her hand to a small recess in the room where no light penetrates the late dusk proceeds her next words. Would he like to play?
Always it is this way: they play a game of chess. Many times before, occasionally after (once, she's told him, during, but he's not done that yet). The formality of the game does its best to take a bit of classlessness out of the very common act of sex. And so they go through the foreplay of setting the board together, bickering over black and white and whether black could go its first move out of turn or if that would negate the whole game.
She thinks that there is a woman, she says, sliding a bishop across the chessboard and taking a sip of wine. A woman that he can't have, or one he does have but doesn't want.
"Why would I want anyone else when I have you?" He wonders if she'll win this time. There are so many things that he never does with Rose, and sometimes it scares him how much he wants them.
She was already one man's mistress. Is she his as well – and must it be for the entirety of their affair? Must she always know that he will go back to whatever young and beautiful girl is waiting for him? Whatever flowers lacking wilt he has, she wants to know of them.
"You're not my... It's not like that."
And yet, she tells him, he only ever visits her when he wants to make love. And he does not want them, she says with quiet disdain. Why must he create things that he has no intention of keeping?
"I thought we were playing chess," he says lightly, moving a knight in for defense.
But she knows what he'll want later; she examines the board thoughtfully. Does she look like her?
"She looks nothing like you."
A better answer, she tells him, than saying that she looks nothing like the other, but still an answer that displeases her. He can tell by the set of her shoulders that she is not ready to forgive him, and he wonders how many years this line of questioning has been building in her breast.
As suddenly as their first time – his first time – she backs him against the wall and kisses him. There is nothing sweet or tender in her movements now; she is like an animal in her actions, tearing his shirt from him without bothering to unbutton. When his hands snake up to the ties of her bodice, she grabs them in her own and holds (tightly enough, he's certain, to leave bruises).
How can he claim to love, she asks him, when his heart is split in two? It is broken as surely as hers had been shredded by him, was torn into pieces, she swore at him, from the earliest days.. And yet she continued -- continues -- to take him back each time he lingers in her doorframe. He has weakened her.
"I never --"
Don't lie to her, she warns him, and she uses her teeth on his lips, a light nip between ferocious kisses.
His back is flat against the wall, her fist kneading his chest. Today she is wearing only a light gown, and he ravels her from within it like a challenge, like multitasking will win him something. A kiss on his lips turns to nibbling on his neck as they work together to disrobe one another, her fingers working on the button of his trousers and his caught in the lace of her bodice.
She takes a moment to cup him roughly before yanking his clothing past his hips to rest somewhere just above his knees. She is impatient with his fumbling (and he has undressed enough women in his days to be befuddled at his inability to now separate a skirt from a top); seams scream a sound like crackling static electricity moments before the bottom half of her attire crumbles and deflates to her ankles.
She kicks it aside viciously as he helps her shimmy out of her underclothes; her top is only half undone, but oh –
-- oh, that does not matter, because her arms have found a space between his neck and the wall, and he reaches down with one hand a grabs hold of a bureau to steady himself with the other. She is not nearly damp enough; the heat that she possesses scorches everything, and he worms a finger inside of her for half a second before taking it out and bringing his hand to her mouth.
His thighs brush against hers, and he is so aching and ready that is almost hurts. She licks, lips closing sloppily around three fingers, tongue whirling sticky designs, and, her teeth dragging against his skin as he takes his finger out of her mouth, he moves his hand down
again, inserting and rubbing until he is certain that she is wet enough.
Hand on her hip, hand on whatever object will support him, he angles her ready, but before he can enter her, she grabs his wrist and pulls it up swiftly, spitting into his palm. He smears that around himself, and the action causes him to gasp a little, and he looks at her for permission.
She doesn't pause to give it; before he is aware of anything, her hands are on him, and then he is in her. She flinches a little in a way that makes him fear he's hurt her; she bites his shoulder in response to his hesitation, her legs wrapping around him like a vice.
In a move that he doesn't quite know how he accomplishes, he twines his free arm around her lower back and swings them both around, reversing their positions. He knocks the breath out of her but does not slow as he thrusts up -- up -- up. She is arched over him, folded neatly in several places until she is in danger of creasing.
Behind the veil and cloud of their activity, her eyes are storming with thunderous emotion. What he sees in her eyes is anger. She twists her hips in a way that almost makes him wince, and he must have done something to deserve this. His hearts are guilt and regret and she knows them far too well. Candlelight flickers on her features and her hair, transforming her for a moment into a woman who was older and looked younger and who is gone from him forever. Everything is taken from him; it is always his own fault.
And they don't find a rhythm so much as they fight over dominance -- his for a minute, hers for the next, varyingly faster and slower as their exertion takes a toll on them. Her fingers press into his skin as though trying to burrow in, she pulls his bottom lip between her teeth and leaves the taste of blood in his mouth. When finally it happens, and he loses all restraint, he has not been a moment before she reaches down and finds that spot and is gone (but never undisciplined, he realises)
C'est sa finition, she says as they disentangle, sticky and dank with sweat. He stumbles backward; she falls a little against the wall, never losing an inch of height (though she's a small enough women that the added height of her perch on his hips should have made the world of difference).
She tells him never to come back to her, and even as she rejects him he knows that he'll return to do whatever made her so angry. Everything ends and nothing does.
He's never too sure at what direction of time he's looking (sometimes things are a little off centre). He can begin jokes that she will not understand for another two years. Sometimes he thinks that she is outside time herself, a woman with so much confidence and none of enforced passivity that tends to render her contemporaries dull no matter how bright or sharp they could have been.
He has only the vaguest idea of how many times she's done this with him, and it feels impolite to ask. So he does not ask, and instead allows himself to touch, touch, and touch. He skim his fingers across her body, raising goose bumps and widening her pupils until her eyes seem as dark as his own.
She produces a torrent of annoyed abuse when he moves his legs apart to keep hers together, and his tongue swirling round her nipple elicits a moan that grows from deep in her throat. The creams and roses in her cheeks battle each other for territory, and how strange, he thinks, that humans speak of foreplay and sex as though they were such distinct categories.
It is like winding a mechanism and then releasing it. He moves from her, and she is immediately on him, pushing him onto his back and into her, and he can't help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. Each time she finds a rhythm, he shifts them, and they move across the bed like this, still joined, until eventually she slaps his chest and tells him to stop being such an idiot.
Afterwards, he lies flush against her warm flesh as she sets up a chessboard on the bed. She makes a strong start, and not just because he finds himself far more interested in her neck and in teasing her earlobe with his teeth. She tells him to stop cheating, answers his protests by wriggling against him and saying that she did not mean cheating at chess.
Once during, she has already told him.
They move pieces and each other and by the time he can see her strategy he is already inside her, trailing his lips across her bare skin. Her fingers take over from his, moving pieces to his whispered instructions as his hands find better things to do. It becomes part of the game to break each other's concentration -- her moans are louder when he is trying to think, his thrusts are a little harder as she plans her moves.
And when she is poised to decimate his pieces, his counter-attack begins, dragging the battle from the board and onto all the places where their bodies meet. A captured knight drops from her fingers, and she leans back against him. It is not a surrender, what she begs for is not mercy but more. Harder, deeper, faster, more, again. Her hand clutches at an already sex-stained sheet, tugging it in her fingers and scattering the pieces from the board. One of his hands captures a wrist and the other pulls on her hip, holding her as she rides it out, feeling the flutter of her muscles and pounding of her pulse. He concedes defeat and joins her victory, bites her into her shoulder as he comes inside her for what feels like first and last and every time.
In the time that he steals for them to calm, she asks him why they do this.
"Because we can." Because he can cheat time and visit her when she is dying and when she is dizzy with youth. Because there is no such thing as 'now' beyond the prism of his own experience. Because she is intelligent and witty and cultured and literate, and he is lonely.
Because sometimes he is a selfish bastard who should not be allowed to play with other people's lives.
Simply because they can (and oh how many people suffer to give this woman such a life), they spend the afternoon in bed. She finds all the places where his new skin is too sensitive, and later he licks champagne from her breasts and from the insides of her thighs. They talk about Voltaire and Rousseau and Locke, bicker about architecture and pretend that one day he will take her to the opera. A discussion about theology becomes an argument about self-determination in the colonies, turns into him insisting that Bach will never write anything half as good as a song about never being able to live like the common people (and she doesn't understand, and she just smiles and holds his hand).
"The world ends," he whispers, nostalgic, "if I don't make love to you."
The serious arrangement of her features irritates him, reminds him too much of how he led her to a king's bed (but that, he knows, is only a tease to the great acts she will perform). He is always leading people on and by that very act leading them away, giving them to other people and to themselves. There is a selfish urge to keep one of them, to let one of them remain unchanged by a forced stasis of personality, and the darkest thought it about how easy it would be to do that. There is a lesson about power and responsibility that he will pass on to her as he repeats it to himself as reminder.
They have sex, because he is not human, and she is not passive. Lazy sex in the middle of a conversation, creative sex that leaves the two of them breathless, and once when they give up half-way because neither of them can stop giggling.
After all this time, humans are still aliens, and they are still exotic to his senses. Her skin becomes slick too quickly and tastes of salt and trace ammonia. He is used to the extravagant heat that escapes from them, but still can't quite believe how hot her mouth feels on sensitive skin. Fingers dancing through the roads her ribs make, he toys with the rhythm of her strange heart, amused and a little scared at how easily he can change its pace with his mouth on her throat and a hand between her legs.
She wants to know about his first time with her, and he tells her of spring and sculptures and soft, sentimental lovemaking. She is curious and presses for more details, becomes cross when he laughs and tells her that knowing too much about one's own future is not nearly as fun as living it.
"I'll need a bit of convincing. It's not often a gorgeous woman throws herself in my arms." It is not often that he seeks one out, it is not often that he is willing to commit to anything that might tempt him to stay still.
She tells him that she'll have the advantage when the time comes and moves her hands to prove that she knows how to get him into bed with her. All it shows is that she underestimates herself, but he kisses her anyway, lifts her body onto his and laces his fingers with hers as she starts to move.
Later, they play chess by candlelight (Thomas Edison is not yet born, and Ben Franklin is several years away from having a misadventure with a kite and a thunderstorm). Perhaps it is not mere formality -- there are any number of men and women (and a few people who are neither or both) who would offer sex to a body that looks human.
"Checkmate," he announces, and she starts moving the pieces back onto the board, retracing her steps and demanding that he explain where she went wrong.
He tells her, "you should aim for kings," in a fit of mockery, and he's shocked to find she takes him seriously, tiny features schooled into thought.
Some days he comes to her frustrated and learns patience in her slow pulse; today is not one of those days. He flies through the doorway to her room and finds her arranging a chessboard, sits moodily down without speaking and stares unspeaking at the pieces. He does not meet her eye as he makes the first move.
She tries to chat a bit with him, but he is upset at too many things -- at those with whom he is traveling, at himself, at a war about which she knows knowing. Some days he wants to unwind through a game and then race their hearts in demanding sex. Some days, but not today, because he stands midway through losing and reaches for her perfunctorily.
There are no words between them, no time as he crushes his lips to hers and relieves some of the pressure cursing and crushing his spirit. There is no time, and he has all the time in the world, because Rose and Mickey are shopping, and he'll return before they've even turned the corner.
He pulls back, gasping a little, and she reaches for him, fingers brushing his sideburns. The desire lacing through them both makes her hands tremble as she cups his face. She has such soft lips, yes, such perfect responsive skin. They lean in again, and he manages to rip the sleeve off her shoulder while trying to slip it off. Her fingers fumble over buttons and he detests once more the layered prison of fabric in which she is bound.
And some days he sprints kisses down her skin because the warmth she radiates fascinates him in this one-hearted woman; today he rips at the buttons and lace on the nape of her neck with his teeth, uses his tongue to wriggle a thread loose, watches as a clasp bounces on hardwood floor.
She's finally out of her outer clothes (and where did her skirt land? he wonders, and he's thankful that she is wearing no bustle). He himself is fully dressed, and he pauses a moment to throw his jacket away and begin undressing. She's flushed from her brows to her toes, and he takes this respite to let his gaze linger over her half-clad body: the blue-and-cream corset, the clean, white bottoms.
Lunging at her when in only his Calvin Klein shorts (circa 1994, because those were the best years for the designer), he somehow manages to toss them both to the bed. For a while it is lips, lips, lips as he imprints the memory of her laughter against his teeth and tongue, but the distraction of her corset again draws his attention. Spontaneously, he twists her around and takes a tie in his teeth, using his hands to clutch at her itching wrists, to stop them from exploring his task.
Yanking the bow undone takes only a moment -- no time to lose. He places his tongue behind the loose knot left in its wake and worms it forward, freeing her restraints little by little. Up and down her back, there are bare patches of skin showing through by the edge of her laces, and teeth delicately pick and pull before his tongue licks a wet, warm spot in the open spaces.
As she is liberated from the stifling garment, her breathing becomes more and more laboured, as if his work has only increased her difficulty. When he's finally got the whole of the lace out, he slips his hands under her hips and creeps fingers under the edge of her bottoms. With no preliminaries, he scrunches handfuls and pulls them down and off.
She half-turns on her side, stomach on the bed and facing him, a coy modesty that does not deceive him. She looks as if she's about to speak, so he leans and finishes disassembling her corset, bearing her breasts to him. They have always been alluring to him in their perfection, and he half-straddles her to take a breast in his hand, a leg thrown carelessly over her hip. Her heavy weight thrills him, and he feels himself brushing against her lower back as he bows his head forward in a prayer. In his mouth, her nipple is as hard and sharp as he, and she tastes of so many things at once that the memories cannot compete but instead drown one another.
She has writhed and turned until she is on her back, and he is focused on licking her everywhere within view. He abandons a breast to explore the tors and dales of her rib cage (she grips his forearms and moans, and, gods above, he should try this again); he moves back to her collarbone and tickles the pulse in her neck, slinking from spot to spot.
Her eyes widen as if surprised when he tugs on her hips and slides into her. Her back arches beautifully and her fingers tangle in his hair, her body pressing against his with a passion that she's never tried to hide. He wasn't her first or even her second, even when she was only nineteen.
She's so alive and so vital that he thrusts slightly harder than he intended to, and when she meets him perfectly he does it again. And again, and again, and they move fast and frenetic. There are many words for sex, and each of them describes a slightly different act. This one is stripped of euphemism, and the sounds he pulls from her are nothing like language.
Slowly, she says, but he pays no attention to her words (increases his speed, even, in defiance). She moves slightly awkwardly under him, not quite keeping the frantic pace. This is the first time in more years than she could ever live that he's let himself lose control like this; he knows that she cannot contain him but that she tries. It's another reason to love her. He tells himself that next time - and he knows that there will be a next time and eventually a first time - he'll be slower. She enjoys this, but it feels as if he's demanding something from her even as she tries to match the rhythm.
Her nails dig into his skin, and she is already gasping for breath, her body shaking and her legs tight around him as if she were holding on for dear life. He moans her name, the only word either of them has managed to form since they started moving like this. It is hard and fast, and the bed thumps against the wall as take each other. It won't last long, but it's good, and the woman beneath him is wanton and wonderful. She screams a blasphemy, and every part of her tightens around him, and he wishes he could say something more poetic than "Oh, fuck" as he loses himself inside her.
When time has moved and she is curled next to him, she tells him that they should have done this before.
His breath catches, and his fingers stop tracing patterns on her skin, even though she can't possibly mean what his guilt automatically assumes. She says that she was beginning to think he wasn't interested, and the slightly worried look in her eyes makes his hearts skip a few beats. In the dawning realization, he knows that he should have thought -- he should have asked her each time in case it was the first.
Shit. "Did I -- was it too much?"
She liked it, she says, and he can't help noticing that she doesn't deny his question. Eyes flashing their own storm, she asks him if they could do it again.
"If you want," he says and he knows that she will. They will do this so many times until he falls into her bed for the first time and fails to realise that she is showing him what she wanted all these years before. They are caught in an endless loop of misunderstanding, and he wonders if she'll understand that when the time comes. If she'll know that whatever she does, he will always fail to recognise the other first time they had sex, and he will always be the one to teach her the harsh movements she will use later and earlier when she shows him that sometimes she likes it a bit rough.
Time makes most things better, but some things are captured in its web and made worse because they never really end. Their relationship is one that spans years; it can be reduced to weeks; it is no time at all; it is the looped eternity of a single moment.
He recalls: she is only nineteen. There is a bruise forming on one of her wrists.
He does not initially come to her for a good-bye, but circumstances have their way of convincing him of the necessity.
For his last time, he pours an apology into it all; she was young and will be old, but his selfishness places his regret into the body he knows best. She is a woman here and now, and he steals this from her to give it back again someday (has given it back, he reasons; has already made his apology to her). How many times had he visited her in the same year? How many long years passed between some visits?
And so he does not try to find her with the smooth wrinkles mapping her small face but instead reaches for the tight, perfect breasts and creaseless skin. This is how he wants to remember her -- but he didn't come to remember, and so there is no real apology in his actions, only the gentleness he wishes to lavish. Even if he hasn't earned this, she deserves it.
She is sitting, her back to him, when he arrives, and as he crosses the room, he hears her lilting voice murmuring something to a companion. He watches her for a minute, drinking in the sight of her strong, straight back and soft, subtle curves. He listens to the rise and fall of her voice for several minutes before he realises that she is crooning an old lullaby.
Il était une fois une fleur, she almost whispers to the ghost at her knees. And the flower opened slowly, fully, until a butterfly came and flitted through its petals. Le papillon s'envole et il disparait, and the flower withers and disappears.
At the last line, another voice mingles with her own in a chirping mimicry. It startles him into a sound that is not translatable into any language, and she turns and stands in one fluid motion, reveling a child previously hidden by the flounce of her skirt.
It is pretty and sweet in the way of its mother, and shows something of her father in a way that makes him release a breath he had not realised he had been holding. He blurts out with that breath, "You can tell who her dad is," (thank God).
Her back stiffens almost imperceptibly, and she sends the child off with a chattering of French before turning to him, eyes full and narrow all at once. There was a boy, she tells him, but he was not strong. He is gone now and buried before his sister came, and his heart had beat strangely in his chest in the year he'd had. Too much, she says; it was swollen and sang with a quiet thump-thump thump, like an ill-fitted chess match. Too much, and now all that she has left is little Fanfan
Their hearts were wrought in two: his the day he was born; hers the day he was buried.
"I'm sorry," he says, and it is for more than that.
He reaches for her, and she allows herself to be pulled into his arms. He presses his lips to the top of her bowed head and tries to measure the time between her one heart's beating and his two. There is no reconciliation; he agrees to that fact and trails his hands down her bare arms.
What she breathes into his neck is more choked than gasping, and he tilts her head upwards toward his closed lips. When he opens his eyes, she has not closed hers, and she stares unblinkingly at him as she snags a finger in a buttonhole and slips it open.
"Take me, Time Lord," she says without irony, says it as one who understands the differences between them and knows something of the nature of causality.
And so he does; it is care and time and tenderness, all the things he wants to give her and cannot. It is the way she favours: him moving slowly above her, unflinching as she watches. Her hands finds his hearts and he moves them away gently, does not want to let her dwell on things that she has lost and things that she cannot have.
He begins, fingers locked with and curling over hers. Like they've finally learned to listen, they match the uneasy rhythm of their combined heartbeats. That shared pulse acts as rhythm to the melody of their sighs, her own beat a subtle counterpoint to the double-thump that drives them. They are a concerto, no longer combatants and now harmony instead. Yes, she tells him, and also, perfect, yes, there. And she remembers all the small spots that makes him rethink any god complex he might have ever taken up, and he cries her name into her hair.
Her purr of climax becomes a lullaby to him, and he pulls out of her and comes, messily, over his own thigh. She lies on her back panting, legs still slightly open, as he balls up a corner of the sheet and uses it to wipe himself clean. It's stained, but she'll have no trouble with an excuse when her laundry is done -- probably, in fact, needs none.
She moves to her side and watches him as he dresses. Rarely has she lain naked long after sex; she is generally a whirlwind of activity and cleanliness as she rearranges whatever disarray he's concocted. He's already lacing up his trainers before she even begins to move.
It's five minutes before he finds his voice; he sits and waits them tacitly, watching as she deftly gathers together the mess of her room. Discovered, it's sudden and makes them both jump --
"Which part of the world ends if I don't make love to you?"
She doesn't answer; she doesn't know.
"C'est ma finition," he says. What he doesn't add that this is the end for him, but certainly not for her -- not until she says those words with her lips and heart and leaves her brain out of it, not until she understands that what is his end isn't hers, and each the other way round.
They do not play chess this time, because he has begun to think too much about sex and love and family and the games he plays with people. A battle on a board, the click of pieces on checkered squares and the far too many memories he can connect with them.
They play cards instead, and in a fit of anachronistic cartomancy he wins by playing the Fool.
. . .ils vécurent heureux et eurent beaucoup d'enfants
He can't keep away from her, but he will not cause any more damage than is necessary.
He travels to her thirteenth year and engages her guardian in a lively debate over native slaves in Quebec, Handel's Orlando, and the exile and recall of Parisian parliamentary members, a topic still fiery even two years later. From his welcome and a vague recollection of his fourth self, he gathers that he has met le Normant de Tournehem formerly (though of course that small memory fragment doesn't really count).
In the corner, she embroiders a pillowcase, ears open and eyes down, and he asks her what her favourite colour is during a lull in the conversation. Rose, she says, and he promises to name a shade after her (it makes her laugh). He tells her it was lovely meeting her, and she reminds him, winking, that they've meet twice previously.
"Of course," he says in a conspiratorial whisper, shrugging for the benefit of her warden while figuring the math of how old and when and why exactly he trusts her with everything (but he has, and he will, and he does, and that's the problem, isn't it?), "but that's your past and my future."
Le Normant has a hearty chuckle, but only he and she understand the joke.