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born to endure this kind of weather

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We were in Sweden, in Vincent's hotel suite, drinking vodka as the sun finally deigned to set over Gamla Stan, when it happened.

Vincent's fingers were cold and damp from the outside of his glass; my hair was warm and damp from the remnants of the summer heat, my skin flushed with alcohol. He had to tilt my head down a bit, and as I stared down at him quizzically, perhaps swaying to convey a drunkenness I didn't particularly feel, he leaned up and kissed me.

I'd planned for this possibility but had never truly expected it, so I stood there, shocked, his fingers cool against my neck and my cheek. And then I lurched forward, lips parting, my free hand wrinkling his shirt as I drew him to me.

This was not according to plan, any more than our teeth colliding was, or the moan I let out when he tilted my head up and sucked at my neck was. I could pretend to be scandalized, tantalized, later; in the moment, I was pleasantly drunk, perhaps more so than he, and it was perhaps the nicest surprise I had had from Vincent Rankis in many centuries.

His eyes were shining when he pulled back, and his fingers toyed with the top button of my shirt. "May I?"

I nodded dumbly, not trusting my voice. I put my hands on his waist. It seemed the safest place, and besides, they were trembling.

"You don't know how long I've wanted to do this," Vincent said softly, beginning to undress me, and I had to suppress a half-hysterical laugh. Indeed I did not know, but as to the how long of it: he could have wanted to do so back when we met at Cambridge, or when we spent a decade huddled together in Pietrok-112. I couldn't be sure that he had: he had shown little interest in the young ladies at Cambridge, but even less in the other young men. Pietrok-112, though... we were two of a kind, alone in a very cold and desolate place, bound together by what he thought was our common dedication to his mad and glorious goal.

I'd half-expected, during my fourteenth life, to be invited to some sort of orgy by Simon Ransome--although more as a test than anything else, especially once he'd gotten married. That he might make me enter the same pile of sweaty, tangled limbs as Jenny, to gauge my reaction.

Certainly he watched my face closely now as he touched me lightly, slid his hands over whatever skin he revealed, bent to kiss it. He asked, "May I?" with every button. With every step. The contrast to how casually he'd condemned me to torture, how easily he'd placed the crown on my head, once with force and once with a lie, nearly drove the breath out of me. I suppose he was afraid I might spook, like a horse, and he was not yet done with me in this life.

And still this gentleness from the man who would bring about the second cataclysm robbed me of my breath in other ways, in the completely natural way that such soft and reverent sensuality will do to a man who has not been touched in a long time.

And who has not touched another in as long. I thought my hands finally steady enough to trace the shell of his ear as he kissed my neck and slipped the suspenders from my shoulder, and with them my shirt.

His hair was beginning to thin again, I noticed absent-mindedly, and thought, how strange. I had seen it when he was a very young man, when he was bearded, mustachioed, when he'd lost half of it and the other half was going gray, and now, in this life, as the floppy curls of a child. I had not expected to feel this wave of tenderness; indeed, after all he had done to me, I should not have. And yet.

Vincent glanced up as my fingernails grazed his scalp, and I placed my hand at the back of his neck, and drew him into another kiss. I did not have to feign shock at my own daring, and he did not ask my permission to unbuckle my belt, so I did not ask his before I returned the favor.

We took our time undressing. Vincent led me to his bed, and we arranged ourselves on the rust-colored duvet. The lights were not on in the hotel room and my back was to the windows: my face would not have been entirely in the shadows but, I realized with a shock, I would be able to see far more of him than he of me.

"Your hair is glowing," he told me, stroking it. "Like fire. May I?"

He reached out and took hold of me while my mind was on the smog-choked sickly orange skies of the future, the landfills burning down below, and so I was quite credibly startled, having no time to ask, "May you what?" like the shy, inexperienced man Vincent took me for.

He was obviously not inexperienced in this. He must have done more of it than me in his past lives, for his grip was sure, and his rhythm slow and intended to drive me to distraction.

And although I was limned by the light, he watched me intently as his hand worked. Only what his hand did was new when it came to him watching me, for he had long stared at me, before he knew I as an ouroboran, before he knew I could be a danger. He'd paid particularly close attention the last two times around, but unlike in my last life, he was not watching to see whether I remembered him, but what I felt.

I felt good. After you've been alive for several centuries, there is much to be said for novelty. We had never touched like this before, and he was slowly discovering what I liked. I was slowly discovering what I liked. How our bodies fit together--not that we did fit, so much. There were a few, almost chaste, inches between us where it counted: our spines seemed to curve like swans' necks so our faces lay close to one another, and our legs tangled together, but our torsos remained apart. I shivered to think that we could explore further later, but this gentle, quiet pleasure seemed enough for now--seemed, indeed, almost more than I could bear, and indeed, I did not last long.

"May I?" I asked him, shyly, slyly, and caught his quick smile at it. I was not as good at this as he was, and did not have to feign my fumbling, especially with the vodka still in my veins. He seemed so terribly unguarded and helpless, and I wished I had been able to sway him with reason in my twelfth life; I wished he possessed the capacity to see what his god computer was doing to the world, and understand it was not, could not, be worth it.

How many cycles, I thought, staring at his eyelashes, which looked as light and fragile as a fly's wing. How many cycles until we could end it.

Vincent smiled at me. "What are you thinking about?" he asked. His hand was resting possessively over my heart.

That I very much needed to wipe him from existence. "It's funny," I said, "but it's almost as though I remember you...."

I could feel him tense against my skin.

"... when I was in school, a boy came up to me, and asked if I was Harry August, and handed me someone else's French notes," I finished with a yawn. "Was that you? He had your eyes." I touched him between them playfully. "Your nose."

I'd decided to remain an affectionate drunk; the crisis, the self-recriminations, could wait until morning.

Vincent sighed, quite obviously relieved. "I would have been a schoolboy too, and younger than you. I don't think I'd remember it," he lied. "And I want to think I remember the first time I saw you, the first time we met."

I remembered how he had held out the crown to me in my last life, and how he had forced it upon me before, as I screamed in my hospital bed. I had been intent on stopping him for centuries, but only once had I wanted to kill him more.

"That is why I ask," I said. "I would like to think I remember it too." And took no pleasure in seeing him flinch.