At the eleventh hour, Lena found herself on her balcony with Annette, pouring glasses of tawny port while Annette cooked the end of a cigar like a chef. There was a block of chocolate on the table between them. Wrapped in silver foil it was past its use by date—pre-war chocolate quite literally worth its weight in gold. Between the two of them, they had already put away a bottle of champagne, half a bottle of pinot noir, as well as the various dishes that make a six course meal.
Beyond the balcony, in glowing city light pollution was San Magnolia. Orange sodium lamps lit the occasional car travelling upon oily tarmac. The city was restful, but it was so dirty that Lena could almost see the gore stretching from her hands as ropes, holding the city above the yapping maw of the Legion. The road seemed to be made of congealed black blood instead of tar and stones. Lena sipped her port. Sweet, and biting. She held her glass to the light coming from inside, and watched it filter through, a little more orange than red.
The glasses were old, and lacked the tumblehome of new glasses, and as such were filled to the brim. Only the truly wealthy could afford to use such old, unfashionable stemware in a formal setting. Not that the dinner had needed the formality—it had only been Lena and Annette. But the ritual pacing of the dinner had been relaxing.
Annette, finally satisfied with the burn she had achieved on her cigar, tipped the lighter closed, before taking a puff and offering it to Lena who shook her head, placed her glass on the table and headed inside, while Annette exhaled, the smoke floating away reluctantly on the almost non-existent wind.
Lena returned with an ashtray. “My father never smoked. The last time this was used was when my Grandfather quit.” The grained wood with gold inlay looked like an eye in the dark. An eye that stared, judging them.
“We all know smoking is going to kill neither of us,” Annette said, a wry smile gracing her lips, then passed the cigar to Lena. She rolled her lips inwards before she put it in her mouth and took a puff. The silky smoke coated her mouth, and she held it in, before blowing it out. A puff of air picked up the smoke and carried it away. Tobacco was poison, it would kill them eventually. Annette continued, “Why do you still think of them?”
“I don't know, I just do. It's like falling in love, you know that it's happened, but you never know how to make it stop.”
Annette asked, “So you were in love with him?”
Lena handed Annette back the cigar, and took a sip of the port, washing the smoke down her throat. “For a measure of love, yes.” Annette opened her mouth, and the smoke fell out. But the wind changed, and it was blown in her face. Lena laughed at Annette trying to dodge the smoke. “But I think it’s unfair to call it love. Love is not meant to leave you so despondent… and what kind of love is there in despondency?”
“The kind of tragic love which they make shitty romance novels to sell to girls with not enough to do.”
Lena snorted. “I really do try not to think of them. But it's like trying to forget about the air we breathe. Because I killed them. I killed them.” Lena knocked back the rest of her port.
“Did you really kill them? If you hadn't been there, they would have died all the same.” Annette passed the cigar back to Lena.
“That doesn't help me one bit, and you know it,” Lena replied, “We aren't mere cogs in a machine. We are the machine, and no amount of sophistry changes that.”
Henrietta unwrapped the chocolate, and broke it with a quiet crack that echoed in the night. “Then maybe this will be useful: the past is dead. The future is untouchable. We only have today. We are creatures of now, not yesterday.”
Lena exhaled, and somehow the smoke formed a heart shape, before it was blown into her face by the wind. “Some things can never be creatures of now. Some things, we never get back. Ever. When you cast that which you cherish to the roadside for the garbage men to pick up, you cannot help but wish you never acted.”
“I do some.. unsavoury things. You give a child sweets one day, and the next you are cutting them open, while they look up at you asking: ‘Why?’ The devil has a nice spot in hell reserved for me; I'm not sure I would contest his judgement.” Annette waved her hand and motioned jumping over the balcony. She continued, “You send people to their deaths. I am their death. But I can't say that I don't enjoy it.” Annette took a puff, and then giggled.
The cigar smoke was hot in Lena's mouth, the cigar short and stubby. Annette smiled and reached for it, and Lena passed it to her. “You're pretending to be evil again.” Lena sighed.
“Evil isn't a personality, it's actions. And my actions have been nothing but evil,” Annette said.
The world was gently rolling. Lena had drunk enough that gravity seemed to come from many directions—mostly from the floor, but occasionally from the walls. She arched her back, to look up at the sky, but she saw no stars, rather, just the glow of city lights reflected from clouds.
Unsteadily, she poured herself another glass. Annette ashed her cigar before taking another puff. Lena lost herself to thought. She wasn't trying to think with her head, but feel. She was trying to know what her heart was doing, trying to feel what the future held, trying to know those things that just are, and aren’t the result of any thought process. Because all those things were the job of the heart, but Lena’s heart was frozen, and neglecting it’s duty.
Annette flicked the cigar butt over the railing and into the street below.
Lena shook her head and said, “You don't need to go so far in proving that you are a bad person. We know enough about your experiments to be assured of that. But I cannot help but wish it wasn't so.”
“Is there anyone who doesn't wish that? I wish that too, every damn night. But I always wake up,” Annette replied.
“That could be cured.”
“But the devil can't.” Annette said, then laughed.
“I always thought you were an atheist?” Lena raised an eyebrow, a gesture that resulted in Annette giving her another eye roll.
“Not when my immortal soul is on the line.”
Annette stood, then pulled Lena up too. She swayed on her feet, while Annette started pulling her gently inside.
Once, she had called Shin at this time of night. He had been real, but beyond her touch. When she had called his voice had been so strong that she could feel it in an almost physical sensation on her skin. She had been in bed, and she had been alone. Now that he was gone, she would always be alone. Her blood seemed cold, even though she was with someone who she called friend.
Annette was not Shin. But when Annette leant over and gave her a kiss that promised to chase away the ice in her heart, Lena could not refuse. Her mouth tasted of tobacco and port, with a slight touch of chocolate. She tried to brush Annette 's hair out of her eyes, but only succeeded in poking her cheek.
Annette smiled, then she stumbled. While they made their way inside, Lena found her legs. They didn't do as she asked, but they still held her up—for a measure. She stumbled into the table, knocking a glass off, which fell to the floor with a sparkling sound that seemed to come from a great distance. But it was only a metre and a bit away from her, and when she stepped she heard the crunch of glass under her heel. Slowly and clumsily, they moved towards the bedroom.
They had done things before... but that had stopped some time before Shin, when the war made everything mad. They had both been children, children in love. This wouldn’t be their first time, but it would be their first time in a long time.
Annette undressed, fumbling with her clothes: what is quick work sober is terribly fiendish when tipsy. Lena pulled a bottle of scotch from her bedside cabinet, unstoppered it, and drank a little for courage. Annette looked at the poison bottle, rolled her eyes, and started reaching for the fastenings on Lena's coat.
Lena knew what Annette wanted: she wasn't ready to give it. She was never ready to give it, but it would be taken from her anyways—but she couldn't bring herself to care.
The sun peeked through the curtains and found Lena as naked as the day she was born, lying across her bed diagonally, draped over the sleeping body of Annette.
Her mouth tasted like tobacco and ash, whiskey and port, and Annette, the woman who made sure the devil would have to earn his Christmas bonus. Outside, she heard the humming of motors and the squawk of birds, but within, all she felt was the pounding of a mind trying to unpoison itself. There had been many poisons. Tobacco, port, whiskey, chocolate, even Annette, her friend.
Many poisons make a medicine. But no medicine cures the old disease of wanting a man back from his dead. And nothing could cure the Republic of her rotten, beautiful, heart that slept in softly beneath her.