The evening was disturbingly quiet, and Francis was soaked to the bone.
Yet, oddly enough, for the first couple of minutes he spent walking home from the railway station he enjoyed watching his own breath lingering and blurring against Paris' palette of black and white and dimming yellow, and been content with the swift change in atmosphere, from dry heat to cold. When the trains were as confining as they were, leaving him with only tainted air to breathe and dull-eyed strangers pressed swelteringly to every centimetre of his skin, he welcomed any alternative, after all, regardless of whether it came to be that he required the heavier of his coats earlier than the norm.
It seemed to be only once he was fully, utterly saturated, and any sense of resilience had been driven from his mind by the frigidity that things had become borderline unbearable. The cold and leaden fog were boundless, thriving, residing both in the gale and within the deep ruts of the road, numbing mouths and limbs. The same cold pressed against the hands of those who reached perpetually outwards from the corners of the industrial streets; he longed to give them that dreaded coat in pity, yet sated himself with simpler acts, laying coins gently to the concrete besides them. He empathised to some degree, after all, as they were surely not the only Parisians with monetary troubles limiting their capabilities, leaving them with only the most flawed cuts of meat on which to survive and be quieted. Reminding himself of his familiarity to their plight gave rise to a peculiar comfort, satisfying his efforts, lessening his feelings of detachment from their human activities.
Gingerly treading his way, pausing frequently to softly, but futilely breathe against his hands (the cold had always plagued him, regardless of how inhuman he occasionally did seem; sometimes he believed it was his only vice), his only motivations were those to both slake his thirst and also leave the snow in as little time as humanly possible, with complete disregard for anything in between. Steeped in a feverish state of trembling dissatisfaction, there was indeed little to appreciate. To distract himself from the yearning in the realisation, if only for moments at a time, he was forced to urge his own mind into a lull of peace, but the soothe of a warmer season was long dead - the earlier months of autumn had quickly and callously decayed into a slush of aged snow and the gravelly, glistening filth that laced the gutters.
The snow was early for the year; he wouldn’t generally mind it to the same degree as he did, but the fact that he was cold and desperate for something powerfully caffeinated - and preferably warmed - contradicted that normality enough that his mood had become nothing much short of agitated. He already knew his hands would be bleeding, staining his skin, what with the wind and his distinctive lack of gloves, and he dreaded having to later wash it away. Moreover, there was a deep silence enveloping the roads in such a manner as gave rise to the concern of becoming utterly lost, even within the walls of a place he had memorised, venerated, and despised for centuries. There was something distinct about that kind of blackening, vicious cold, he soon realised - it was the permeating kind, the unpleasant kind, that which reverberates and leeches, cloudless. It seemed warm enough beneath wool and cotton, but for the most part it did little other than strangle his organs and discolour his blood. It epitomised discomfort, driving feeling from beneath his skin.
Taking to merely pressing circles into his flesh, reddening it and forcing blood from burning cuts, he sighed (partially for no greater purpose than a sense of satisfied self-pity), but found no reward for it but an interspersed breath. Little was going to change, particularly in regards to the fact he hadn't been able to feel the nerves in his fingers for what could well be hours. It was a small wonder that he could properly move at all, and in more ways than one.
An hour was gone by the time his momentary, perhaps imaginatively enhanced agony had ended, and he wound up swallowed in blackness, wondering whether he was merely being unjustified and foolish to be struggling with a barely visible water pump metres from his front door, pink water dripping from his fingers and searing them, like the cracking of frozen glass. Warm water, he concluded, did not have precisely the decided effect, nor did it lessen much at all; it was simply diluted agony. One could assume he would have learnt such a thing in the 11th Century or so, but cold never did exactly increase the depth of his common sense or thought.
Regrettable, of course, but not entirely fruitless, he reasoned. Grimacing, he wrung his hands quickly, white with dry lines, no more sated than he had been a minute before. Francis took a single stride toward his door, fumbling with the key, beginning to quiver again in the sharpness of late autumn. Predictably, the key fell to the snow, and he took no hesitation in cursing audibly as he stooped, feeling frantically through the mass of white and grey for the shine of metal, no longer in the correct place to fret for the state of his clothing while he was metres from warmth and had far better things with which to be occupied.
Abruptly, there was the sound of a scramble - a rustle of taffeta and crimped lace. Francis allowed himself to grow immediately, terrifyingly still in alarm, casting aside the pain that rotted in his skin, those concerns which endeavoured to inundate him. He breathed deeply, only to find that the exhale lodged in his throat; there was an emaciated hand of some apparently human creature, colour indistinguishable, digging through the snow like a stray dog before it promptly emerged triumphant, brandishing the key - and certainly, he was well aware that the finder was not himself.
Their skin was incredibly cold, he thought, as he sensed the singular, fleeting touch of a finger against his wrist - similar to the snow, perhaps, although he was not particularly inclined to make poetic comparisons when he was already rather disturbed. What was supremely more significant was, rather, the unsettling, vivid bruising that bloomed along their forearm, melted to the bones.
"Thank you for that," he said, more from habit than anything else more substantial, reaching into the night to take what was his, despite full awareness of the presence of a stranger. He forced himself to his feet after a momentary struggle with the mist in his vision, coupled with the instability of the snow and his own limbs, then finally took to glancing over the swift apparition that was an unknown and unwelcome sight.
Francis at first noticed the intensity of their eyes, soon followed by their striking, frightening appearance. A wild thought, consisting of the apprehension of being followed - as well as being mugged - briefly crossed his mind, but he hastily dismissed it, quite unaware of how he had eyed the person over for a good few more seconds than would be acceptable for two strangers in one another's uncertain, bewildered company. The person was, evidently, a far cry from the looks of women he was used to seeing here and there (although a little more rarely, nowadays), with their soft faces and full, healthy waists. Yet, the wretched appearance of the wraith beside the door eliminated any sort of major fear, for which he was grateful; truly, it was infinitely difficult to feel affronted in the ways of a person worried for their purse when standing, quivering, beside the equally miserable appearance of a girl who might've been sixteen or twenty or forty and he would have struggled to find any largely defining indication.
Her face revealed a certain permanent weariness usually visible in faces of soldiers and common workers, with the tense, accustomed expectance peculiar to those who had devoted much of their lives to long periods of waiting and had never truly been altogether satisfied by their efforts, nor by the pitiful reward for toil that resulted in nothing financially pleasing. He could see nothing further than her oddly bright eyes - nor did he desire to do so.
Francis knew, of course, that speech was entirely unnecessary, and he ought to have abandoned the whole prospect and forget he'd noticed something so purely insignificant about an unknown pariah (a sympathetic moment that was easily recognisable as degrading, and an impediment to his thinking) - but because his mind was used to dismissals and his usual common sense was basically thrown out of the window, he spoke to her with the insatiable curiosity of a child.
"Good evening, Madame."
Although she looked ready to leave again, after assisting him with the matter of the key, Francis' words gathered an immediate reception; she turned as though she had changed her mind about something or other, then strode forward with a curiously strict gait and lifted her jaw, her entire demeanour and speech practically overwhelmed by the clear presence of falsely constructed confidence, and an unwillingness to realise it.
Her breath did not even succeed in hitching, but was thinly bold and contained. “Can I help you?"
"May I ask whether you're here for a reason? I must admit I do not often have guests such as yourself on my doorstep," he inquired to her, easing his speech into a soft, creamy lull, such as he often found himself doing in the company of young women; for a moment he lowered himself somewhat against the doorframe to equate the confidence of her pointed stare, but then soon took raising his own stance minutely, vaguely intimidated. There was something undefinable, but no less distressing about the rapid movement of her eyes.
Then, he realised it - she looked like a frightened animal, the screech of approaching metal in their ears.
"It's cold," she muttered, after a number of seconds; it was quite as though she had not heard him at all. When he repeated the question, she looked to him in scrutiny, as though expecting some dangerously ulterior motive to emerge from within the inquiry, undermining any mildly pleasant thing he happened to offer in passing.
He spoke gently. "Yes, it is. Perhaps you might be inside, although? Whether or not it happens to be that you have come here on a whim, coming down with pneumonia is not a suitable reward. Do you wish me to walk you home?"
He was met with unpleasant silence. Discomposed, he gave his full attention to the thinning smoke from some chimney kilometres away, hesitating and hoping she would take the initiative of filling the silence. No such kindness arrived, and thus he was left with something much else to do than study her lips and eyes, both of them red-rimmed. Hardly had he known her more than five minutes, but already he had moved slightly beyond horror and bemusement into a state of concern. Most prostitutes were bolder than her, and he'd already have the folds of their clothing wrapped about his fingers in any other wild evening.
A timid excuse to flee her uncomfortable stare seemed prepared to trail from his conscience to his mouth, if but half a moment before she chose her own odd timing to speak again, half to herself.
"It's been busy. So busy."
A permeating glance greeted him.
"Time. I don't have much of it, these days, given that I'm often in demand. Do you need me or not?"
He shook his head briskly, uttering a short burst of a laugh. "I don't think I could do that to you. I'm exhausted, nonetheless. Why don't you head on home?"
Her drawn acceptance and tone was astounding, her behaviour notably assiduous, despite her less than groundbreaking confidence. He fought to conceal the impact of her words upon his already exhausted mindset, and rather fought to continue the ineffectual, unappreciated conversation they were gradually and painfully leading. He decided to test her a little. "I'm afraid that you have not yet informed me of what you are after."
She appeared not to be altogether aware of the shift in his tone. "I was looking for food. And company," she retaliated, in what he deemed as unusual honesty. “But I suppose you’d be able to keep me warm?”
He barely registered the words, as within half a moment she stood before him, her unfamiliar, rough fingertips tracing the line of his jaw. Her blackened teeth were right before his eyes, and he clumsily hastened to secure her wrists and force her away without the smallest sense of discretion, as repulsion and shock suffocating him.
He staggered, skin meeting the brick windowsill behind him, and he grasped, clawed at it for stability, only gradually bringing back a trembling hand to clear the hair from his eyes and meet her strange stare, properly and severely.
Any remnants of disgust were impossible to conceal, if only because it was so uncommon and affronting to be approached so suddenly, and what deepened the severity of the aftermath was the completely obvious knowledge that he was ancient, and he was worldly, and had had years upon years to develop the array of demeanours he suitably adopted, yet fell so inconspicuously into the horrified nature of someone gripped by human impulse.
Surveying her quickly, he once again fought for his unassuming stance, wondering all the while how it could possibly be that he happened to feel disconcerted by the actions of a prostitute - it did not seem remotely natural, or suiting, especially not when there were usually so few words exchanged to begin with. Furthermore, touch and abrupt mannerisms were both things of which he had no shortage of familiarity.
"I'm sorry," was all he could breathlessly, stupidly manage, inadvertently catching any more significant words behind his teeth and feeling all of a sudden terribly, terribly guilty, even while he was reluctant to apologise for how he had reacted. Indeed, sometimes his humanity did shame him, but still her behaviour was unjustified in his eyes, and he could not find it in himself to pity her as deeply.
She looked upon him with an indecipherable, intent stare, before it changed to an expression heavily laden with what could only be described as embarrassment, touched by hurt.
An instinctive remorse, or in the least a willingness to prove to her he really did have some element of gentleness within his bones forced Francis' hand forward as though to atone, but he withdrew it quickly and would not meet her eyes. He scarcely could imagine the shame of it, despite her own hasty and inconsiderate movements toward him. Anxiety displaced his annoyance. He needn't have shoved her, he knew. But what the hell was she trying to achieve?
"I should not have done that," he murmured, struggling to ensure the words were audible and that believable confidence lingered within them. Opting to be as minimal in his offensive capabilities as possible, he decided to address her differently, more lightly. "You surprised me, mademoiselle. But what, may I ask, were you doing?"
Francis quickly grasped the realisation that her willingness to reply any more confidently had altogether dwindled by the nature of his response. He supposed, too, that judging by her appearance and clear profession, refusal was something she was deeply accustomed to in daily happenings. But certainly, there seemed to be some fundamental sense of hypocrisy in her expression and the way she was presently looking both deterred and offended, and continued to be distracted. Indeed, it was only as she was later leaving that he would take note of how violently she was quavering, and dared to consider that perhaps she was colder than he was, and had travelled further to his front door than he may have done from the train in order to accomplish whatever it was she wanted from someone such as he.
"I'd appreciate an apology," she rasped finally, and curtly. "I think I deserve that much."
Francis faced an immediate dispute with his mind at her words. It was not unpredictable to hear such a response, but his personal agitation began to at last noticeably emerge. An uncertain laugh left his lips, but his worriment was undeniably heightened. "I apologise, mademoiselle! I hope you will forgive me."
She revealed blood-mottled, spindly hands, stretching the fingers and bones as though to strengthen her argument somehow, looking to him expectantly. He supposed that asking her what was wrong would be an easier road to violence, and presently he did not altogether have faith in her sobriety nor her goodness of will. She didn't appear to have the proper, suitably seductive and enticing manner that the majority of prostitutes innately possessed, but rather seemed either intoxicated or merely unpractised enough that her technique was in significant lack of expertise. How had it come to be, that she thought such a strategy was potentially profitable? He'd never before been approached so suddenly, but her hungry desperation could surely be considered somewhat condoned if she was as troubled as the rest of France - maybe, she had not always been a prostitute.
He did, however, see no sign of blood or wounds on her hands that looked new, and found himself heaving a sigh.
"I do not wish to argue with you, as I hope you understand. I am willing to forget this ever happened at all, from both of us, if you would be kind enough--"
"Look, just forget it happened. Forget I said anything. I have to be somewhere," she said suddenly, sharply, like an outburst had escaped her without her consent. She made an odd, quaking gesture with her left hand, coming to rest her fingertips at her mouth before dropping them again, then reaching for them with her other hand jerkingly, as one reaches for a blessedly close, calming drug. Her bones seemed to shift beneath her skin, shadowed and thin. Strangely, Francis was only partially aware that her right thumb lacked the upper half, sliced jaggedly through the nail. "Christ, I must be drunk."
She looked rather distant and aimless for a moment, then looked at Francis again, as though she were all of a sudden realising that he was there. Making some kind of weak and half-hearted apology - which he did not remotely predict hearing - she stepped backwards, downcast and soft-eyed.
To the man before her, it seemed like she had gone from one persona to another within half a second, lost her way somewhere in the middle and was left trying to decide which to adopt - with no apparent success. Certainly, he was nothing but taken aback, and had to ask himself why he was talking to her to begin with, when he could make so little sense of anything as a due result of her bizarre nature and his own weathered perception. The slight sense of guilt he felt could surely not be justified. He knew he was agitated and perhaps being somewhat irrational and coarse - yet, she was as faulted as he was, wasn't she?
But within a moment of Francis' distracted thought, the prostitute was gone.
Looking about himself quickly, peering through the cold sleet, he at last found her silhouette against the thin lamplight a good twenty metres away, but made no bid to follow her, both too frozen and too wearied to think. Rather, he watched her leave, unable to bring himself to follow, not in his right mind. His thinking was numbed in the disconcerting memory of the encounter. He still didn't quite know, himself, why he'd concerned himself with catching her eye and trying to encourage words from her husk of a throat; it had simply fell into place spontaneously, and he felt nothing close enough to regret for him to be sorry for it. The fear of a stranger had faded from his mind after hundreds of years spent serving beneath them.
Still, even within the constricted walls of the city, it had been several months since he’d had any sort of similar run in with a prostitute, which was peculiar - but maybe, things were improving despite his knowledge, and she was the victim of something a little more permanent than the fallout, but equally taxing. Yet maybe she, personally, was an odd thing to consider, when his lifetime had been one frequently tainted and directed by acts of cruelty and apathy. Maybe it was hypocritical, when he'd spent many a night before in the company of similar people to her, and perhaps he was simply crafting personal lies, trying to believe he had the right to be repulsed so suddenly in defiance of his own past whims. Men and women, all hungry and eager, had he known before, and while it was simple enough to try and act in a kindly manner, the deed was still done.
Perturbing and undesired as it was, she did not leave his thoughts once that evening, from the moment he at last fumbled successfully with the door to when he found himself lying awake in bed half an hour later, looking up at the ceiling in a state of self-counselling and assurance, sheets and quilt in disarray. He wondered how many people had happened to buy her body in those early hours of the morning, and how many more tears had been slashed through her clothing and her dry skin in the needing struggle for payment. Were there many, or none at all? Was he overreacting? Truly, he could not properly rationalise in his own mind that it was right, in any sense of the word - not with her, with that disjointed glance and dejected persona.
What repeatedly crept its way back through to the very centrepiece of his mind, however, was why it was, indeed, that her lewd actions and person bore any noticeable significance beyond existence alone. Noticing her properly had been the last thing on his aching mind until she'd come upon him in the manner she had, pulling his key from the snow. He felt no attraction to her; he knew that much, when she was, undeniably, a pitiable and detestable creature whom life had neglected horrendously. It certainly wasn't her youth, or the scrape of her voice, without clear distinction, accent, and use.
Heaven knew, maybe he'd changed, just enough that he could feel as he did about the insignificant, passing encounter with the wretched girl. It wasn't unfathomable. He'd made it a sort of endeavour of his, in intermittent but recent years, to take in prostitutes as the need arose, then treat them and pay them well, only to never lay eyes on them again. Receiving better pay than the vast majority made that a simple enough task, and a charitable one. It was a worthwhile and reasonably beneficial practice. But, in the new prostitute's case, he'd never had the momentary chance, although it did not even seem fitting or respecting to imagine such a thing, not when he'd not even been able to touch or look upon her without revulsion or argument.
No less, the practice, beneath any guise or weak, internal justification, was still certainly not condoned and was no better than he could convince himself it was.
Life, he decided, was ever feeble and, perhaps, adaptable.
He found himself in the same place the next night; dedicated to idle, inconvenient bouts of strayed thinking, and placed adjacent to the front door, rubbing steadily away at his coiled hands. Everything was obscured in a grey, snowy chaos, filled with the creaks and moans of bending steel and the crackle of distant voices, somewhere far from where Francis stood, clinking glasses merrily. Francis had adopted, in the least, a second coat and thick gloves, for the sake of (not necessarily realistic) disquiet, afraid that he'd otherwise lose his fingers by the morning, but he wondered if it had even had much of an effect, especially since he (maybe subconsciously) was still paying constant attention to the state of them.
Looking wistfully to the raucous alehouse to his left, he felt a soft but persistent craving for mulled wine. All he could do currently to sate himself, however, was swiftly light a cigarette, lifting it to his mouth; he sighed irritably at the visible cracking of his skin, illuminated by the cigarette's end, and how it inflamed regardless of whether or not he moved his hands.
“Have you changed your mind?”
The speaker's low tone registered itself in his mind moments before his limbs could react, and so he stumbled as he turned, somewhat embarrassed even within the presence of a girl he expected had probably entirely isolated herself from such sorts of self-conscious feelings and limitations (there surely had to be little consideration for reluctance within her line of work). Nearly choking on ash, he looked to her, red-faced and very much the opposite of his usually suave person.
Alas, suddenly, there it was; a faint, whimsical little laugh from her lips, gone as quickly as it had come.
"I didn't mean to startle you. I'm sorry." Pausing, her gaze drifted downward to his hands and the light ash now melting into the snow at his feet. "I don't recommend smoking."
Quickly, she again adopted her traditional countenance, and set her features and emotions into a sort of bewildering mask, steadying the muscles in her face (or so it appeared) until there was nothing to prove she had showed an essence of natural humour. Although, to be perfectly honest with himself, her lapse into normality did not surprise him nearly as much as the fact she had appeared not all, especially after her hasty dismissal and subsequent disappearance the previous evening. True, he had predicted her return (and would not have otherwise waited for a lengthy half hour outside his door), but was no less rather startled. There was no concealing how it was that his voice, actions and appearance all spoke loudly of wealth and a weakness to romantic and sexual encounters.
For a moment, he truly pitied her - everything about her was the perfect image of lowliness, thrown about by the government and society's state so greatly that she was reluctantly made to return to whoever it was that happened to have the fullest wallet and the gentlest tongue.
To an extent, she was quite simple to read, if only in that he did not find it hard to guess that she would try to make amends or otherwise speak with him again. The largest marvel was how it was that she seemed to have no regard for the events of yesterday, and also that neither of them were having particular trouble with beginning a conversation, much unlike how it had been in the awkward stillness of the previous meeting, when Francis had so oddly found himself incapable of reasoning.
"I don't believe you have a right to instruct me, mademoiselle. We do, after all, happen to live in a wonderful time, and life's pleasures are most certainly worth the indulgence," he replied coolly, although he gently loosened his hold of the paper drug and began instead to smile. "Although, you are - of course - correct. It is simply odd to consider that once these things, so simple in their addictive state, were recommended as medicine."
"I've tried it before. It was regrettable, but occasionally I fall into it again. They're expensive." Her statement was asserted by the suspicious glance she gave toward the cigarette still smoking in his fingers, red and grey. What a queer girl, Francis thought. "There is nothing especially medicinal about them, I've found. And I've no idea from where you're pulling the idea that the times are wonderful."
Francis briskly shook the powdered snow from his coat as he straightened, unwilling to meet her eyes as he readied himself to speak to her, attempting to remove the remnants of superiority and reluctance from his recollections of the previous evening. Speaking was something of an offhanded, disembodied effort, and even his especially easy, intimate manner with strangers was slightly shaken. He ignored her last sentence. "I was curious, however, as to whether you would take a walk with me. It would not be too far; just to the market. Would you like to? I do not mind if you refuse." He briskly added the final sentence, accompanying it with an exaggeratedly melancholy glance, and he lifted his cigarette with a small grin.
The startled shift in her expression was predictable, yet intriguing; personally, Francis found himself somewhat amused by the reeling look of disbelief, and how entirely taken aback she seemed by such an unassuming suggestion. Perhaps it was that she had fully, forlornly expected to be chided, or spat upon in some manner or another, but her surprise was unheeded, even if it would be their first significantly friendly interaction.
"Uh, sure. Yes, alright. Do you want to go now?"
"That would be good, yes. Just come with me."
It was undoubtedly a sort of exertion, as they began their route, for Francis to nullify the continual reconsiderations that began barraging his mind. It was true that he was being enormously naïve, yes; it was true that he didn't know the first thing about her (he could not even recall asking her for her name), nor that he was entirely certain it was even safe to be striding his way through an onslaught of bitter cold by the side of an abrupt and not necessarily trustworthy stranger. But - the paranoid part of his mind urged - she didn't seem to be carrying any weapons, and didn't look strong enough to do any damage (he swore he could see blood on her hands, but she was far too sickly-looking for a person even slightly capable of murder!). He was vaguely regretful of his own fears, however, knowing full well that they were a betraying signal of irrationality.
If those simple facts and observations were anything to go by, he considered himself relatively protected, and decided against weighty hesitations. Recklessness could sometimes do a handful of agreeable good, after all, and what else was there to effectively hold him back? Certainly not time, nor the usual expected reluctance to do little to benefit himself because he was required elsewhere. For once, he was without containment and an inclination to decline.
"The snow is quite lovely, isn't it?" she said after five minutes or so, but in such an offhanded, quiet tone that he both neglected to hear it properly and also somehow convinced himself it was not directed to him, although he was the only other person along the path; stirred, he looked over toward her and quietly laughed. It was both an effort to conceal his surprise, and partly to respond to a simple question.
"It is, indeed. I do not think there are many other places quite like this - actually, I doubt that there are any at all. France is always beautiful." He was surprised at his own answer, for a time. His pride was certain enough, but his own innate hatred of deep cold did not infiltrate the words, despite how he had been bothered by it constantly as of late. Suddenly, without the burden of thoughts to elsewhere, he allowed his own gloved hand to brush against the stretched skin of the prostitute's wrist, then to clasp her fingers very briefly in what he prayed was perceived as an amiable gesture. She did not resist, but rather raised her head to look at him in clarity as he withdrew.
"Have you ever been elsewhere? Or are you talking from the experience of a patriot?" she questioned, with something that was either cynicism or disbelief within the enunciation of the final word. Of course, they still knew extremely little of one another beyond initial hostilities, so her edge of confidence maintained its surprise to Francis.
"I have certainly been elsewhere, but that does not deter me from nationalism. I actually do know of an Englishman who seems to insist on my travelling tendency." Thinking in passing of Arthur was enough that he was forced to conceal a private laugh, a rich memory of a conversation and a red-faced splutter of an accusation enticing a sense of sentimentality. Well, if anything, Francis was an undeniably extensive and excitable traveller, but questions of patriotism coupled with memories of past revolts were evoked uncomfortably.
He often had to resort to choosing his pride carefully, delicately, and remain in popular favour.
"You're a patriot, then, but only periodically available? I don't know why I find that so difficult to believe," the prostitute responded, in a manner that almost taunted, although any malice was entirely drowned out by the oddly natural laugh that accompanied the statement. Just who was she, although, to question him as though she knew him? He pondered what sort of girl she was, what she believed in and considered her allegiances. He wondered what sorts of questions persisted in her mind at night and in the dark of suffering. Or he did, that is, until she broke into a sudden sneezing fit and he had to bless her, smiling.
Even so, he had to soon think over what which sort of tone he would reply. "Well, you will also quickly discover that the English have a way of thinking that disregards a person and focuses instead upon their exploits," he answered, in the same silken lull, choosing his words carefully in the most simultaneously satisfying and alluding manner he knew. He did not pause to consider his own glaring confidence. "Or perhaps that is merely the one I know. But again, the English possess faults that you will also find lacking in the French people."
"You should be a bit more careful about the way you insult the English. I once knew a kind one."
"You're lying," said Francis, in mock-incredulity, taking another draught from the cigarette and letting the smoke settle against his throat. He almost chuckled, particularly when noticing that she had taken on an expression that could only be deciphered as disillusion and slight hurt. Thankfully, however, it was not even close to the severity of how she had looked when he had shoved her back the night before, when her eyes had been deadened. Rather, it was similar to the expression of a person who has had their handiwork teasingly insulted without a quick apology.
"No, actually. I have to insist that I have no particular desire to stress the topic of what it is I do, although..." She stopped, ceased her brisk pace along the road, and looked toward Francis briefly, then turned her eyes away once more and narrowed them as though in thought. Somewhat taken aback, cautious of offence or hesitance, Francis gestured vaguely for her to go on, and was relieved when she did; he had found himself quite pleased that she had been speaking so naturally and prayed she did not take his interest for basic desire. Like anyone, moreover, her character was certainly not limited purely to her profession and he did not wish her to believe so.
Her voice trailed onward more slowly, as did her stride. "...there was once one who came to me - he was kind, and afterward he cooked for me. I suppose he made me a little less afraid, at the time."
Francis opted to continue on as naturally as he could, disallowing himself from dwelling on what she did, as well as how she had spoken. It directly achieved nothing. "Did you get food poisoning? I would not be awfully surprised." He lifted his eyebrows, casting a sideward glance of mingling pity and light mockery. This time when he laughed, it felt rather natural. He still felt a sense of timidity, although, afraid she would retaliate from offence; she seemed passionate, or at least assertive enough, but he couldn't yet tell to what degree that led and what she considered to be of actual importance.
"Actually, you'll find it was delicious. He baked me a cake afterwards, with the hotel appliances and all. It had cream. That was my payment." She answered quite simply, and even grinned, with an element of unhindered eagerness. He was almost alarmed, but felt a sweep of relief through his mind. Learning her boundaries, or anyone's, was not a process he was terribly used to encountering when in the company of prostitutes. Never was it generally necessary or required. It was a lengthy process, of coming to understand whether or not she enjoyed the company of others for prolonged periods, or instead preferred solitude - and a hundred other idiosyncrasies.
"How unusual. But nonetheless, that is good of him; or was, I suppose." He stopped, thinking only momentarily before his next inquiry escaped him with a puff of cold and a sense of slight urgency. "What did he look like?" It was not entirely applicable or sensible, but he could not prevent himself from asking.
She didn't falter. "Blond hair, I think. Green eyes and a London accent. His French was appalling."
What a small world, he thought, and turned away as a wide smile came upon his face, a little ashamed of his personal elation. The chance of them being the same was minute, of course, and enormously unlikely, but what harm did it hold? The description seemed highly accurate. "I think I may know of him, after all. Arthur, was it?"
She looked like the epitome of bewilderment, and a hand came to her lips, eyes widening somewhat, before miraculously she heaved a sort of gasping laughter. "Uh, yes. I believe it was. But... Surely they wouldn't be the same person."
Thinking only of mirth and a foreseeable future of argumentative taunts, he considered whether it could be that these were the places where a drunk Arthur was to haphazardly wander in the evenings, breathing alcohol and perhaps craving for something a little more solid beneath his fingertips, more opaque than burnt glass, regardless of whether he wound up being aware of it in the morning. Arthur's last time in France... Francis could scarcely recall when it was. Probably the previous Christmas, or after they had that political quarrel.
Indeed, so was he engulfed in the strange, discomforting and slightly disturbing thought of it that he did not notice the comment made by the girl at his side. He was my first. If Francis had, it would've been much more likely that he would've given a little more thought to it, and maybe questioned how long she had been at her work and what it was that drove her into it. It was far too simple to assume that she had been the victim of financial difficulties, like everyone else.
"He never spoke of you," he said only a few moments after, somewhat desirous and yet impertinent, not taking her nor himself completely seriously.
"Why would he? It was over in two hours. It's not like we formed a bond."
Francis had nothing much more that he could think of with which to reply. It was an ordinary, matter-of-fact sort of response, without whimsical hopes. It seemed fitting in conjunction with his far more romantic words.
They barely spoke again after those first minutes; when an apology was attempted by her again, oddly in conjunction with yesterday (once more), he actively dismissed it, knowing full well that it might have been sincere but finding that it still did nothing to humour him, nor did he wish it to. They both seemed utterly, or at least mostly incapable of replicating the simplistic ease of conversation they had initially carried, and for a time little was said at all. However, the silence was almost companionable by the time the first half an hour had ended, or companionable to the point where he'd occasionally throw her a compliment, or a quip he'd heard from a friend a few days before, and when she laughed it only partly seemed obligatory. She entertained him, in all her restrained talk and random outbursts of laughter; her willingness to accompany him wherever he so dictated, and yet that prevalent resilience that betrayed an assurance of common humanity. He fought not to question his morals or inner reasoning for the entirety of the walk, even so, still knowing that if he did, it would become unanswerable why it was that he was choosing to neglect her words from the evening before and take her company as though they were merely acquaintances, having met in some far more pleasantly memorable setting. He didn't have a clue of how he would answer himself, and he didn't think much of allowing himself to consider it, not when the whole thing in itself was a brief act of abandon.
At some point, he was certain he forgot why it was they were even together at all, and why he'd asked her to accompany him to a place neither of them really knew. But she seemed content enough to answer him what he asked, and receive the flowers he absent-mindedly picked and presented to her as they walked, from a long integrated habit and an interest in seeing her fumble over her words as she went.
"So what do you do?" she questioned at some point, eyes narrowing at the road; the path was drawing to an end, the wild whoops of children and barking dogs and the cries of late-night pedlars growing louder and clearer. Francis must have appeared confused, for she hastily reworded the question, with more emphasis and much less of an intent focus upon her feet as opposed to his eyes.
"Oh, I see. I suppose you could say I work for the government," he replied loosely. "It's not overly exciting; I prefer the company of beautiful girls." Seeing her perplexed, disturbed expression (she did not treat his empty, gracious compliments nearly so well as the norm), he heaved a dismissive laugh and tried again, attempting to seem a little less flippant. "Well, if you really want to know, it is mostly just about treading carefully and saying the right things. I truthfully have far more preferable things to tend to than feeding endless, dull conversations."
The way in which she answered suggested that she had wholly disregarded anything he had said, and was much more involved and intrigued by her own musings. "Do you know, Monsieur, that this is not actually the first time that I have seen you properly? I know my way around the streets; I see a lot of men. You... Before I met you last night, I saw only little quirks. You would say the absolute bawdiest things to the whores, and to your companions. I'm sure that I may have easily felt abhorrence. Is that all that they really meant to you?"
It required no indications or spoken words to deduce her personal, slightly spiteful disgust, and for it to be evident that she meant for the conversation to steer toward an interrogation. Rather, it was like a betrayal, and he was left wide-eyed and stunned, wondering when it had come upon her to drop her approachable manner and speak of him as a complete outcast.
Before he could awkwardly laugh, although, there arrived natural annoyance and an indignant revulsion. For a minute he could not properly think, nor compose himself, instead utterly startled and struck deep by the divulgence of such reserved observances. She had no right at all to say such things, so interwoven with unobscured, hypocritical superiority, but even as he thought of bitterly chiding her for saying it he realised that it was completely true. Her wording was inconvenient to his mind, but it was truth. He had to desperately attempt to restrain the gnawing and unfamiliar guilt, unsuccessful in concluding why the most direct and unimportant of words had brought with them such a bewildering humiliation.
"Well, I'm sure that whatever lies in the past of either of us can be allowed to be forgotten," he muttered with slight hesitation, struggling to smile as he tried to repress his wonder at how she could still say something so contrary. "Don't you agree?"
Something very peculiar and very affronting died in her eyes. "Well, yes, I suppose. But most people are not willing to forget. I simply want to make you quite aware of your own faults before you may come to judge mine. I want us to be equal."
Shaken by this, turning to meet the eyes of his companion, he actually did labour for the first time to think of her purely as a degraded and low creature, a prostitute; all of a sudden, it felt dangerously wrong, and deeply offending. Surely, after all, there was more to her than that, regardless of how she presented herself and walked and the beliefs that appeared to steer her disposition.
Then, abruptly, Francis was stirred from his smoke-induced languidness as she spoke again, but not merely from speaking alone but rather from the nature of the speech; it was rushed and fearful and carried with it a disarming feeling of finality, and it was not the first time that Francis gathered the impression that what she said was something she had been mulling over for probably a good hour. He struggled to hear all that she said, let alone comprehend. Had he somehow caused the conversation's swift reversal?
"I know that we haven't spoken much about last night, but you know... I actually do regret it. I resent what I did. I regret it because it was uncalled for and sudden and I'm quite aware that I was a fair bit drunk, and I want you to realise that, too, before we go on." She sighed shortly and looked about to relent, for a moment, perhaps merely from the embarrassment of the words she spoke and what their meaning insinuated about her, but then spoke again, tone sharper and coarser, and he could finally believe that she was the sort of girl who used to smoke heavily and believe it was doing her good. "But when it gets late, I get desperate, as well. All of us do. It's hard to make a living when everyone's at home. When it comes to be that my choices are limited it's hard to really give it that much thought. I just do what I have to and don't think about it; if I think too hard then I'll be one of the hesitant, thoughtful ones that no one'll buy because they can't dig their damn hands right into her. Is that so difficult to understand?"
The conviction and the bitterness of the words was a bloody, disarming laceration. Speech did not seem at all alleviating in the silence that followed, which in turn came thicker than he predicted; replying was unthinkable. He was once again stunned (an unusual experience), eyes widened and glistening and staring, and he simply could not possibly understand what had brought on such a raw, honest outbreak of internal thought and intimacy about the undoubtedly personal side of her life. More than that, it had to be realised that she actually had been withholding the part-apology, part-monologue for considerably some time, and furthermore there was actually some lingering guilt within her mind that caused it and enticed her to talk. Thus, she was like anyone else, in that she was a vessel for inward contradictions and reconsideration.
But why the confession, and why the honesty? Was an answer still expected, or was her desperate demand rhetorical? In what place and time, he wondered, had she found herself entirely able to be so remorseful and truthful? His own thoughts stumbled. She was far from flawless, and she was far from justified. But she was honest.
He could speak only a gentle sentence, and even after it took him several silent minutes to think of it. "You mustn't continue fretting; place it in your past." Then, Francis focused his attention again to the normality of his laboured, thin breathing as he fought for oxygen amidst the searing cold, glancing away from her conflicted eyes. The night seemed a little darker, and the condensation before him perhaps more solid.
His hands were still stiff and ungainly by the time they reached the edge of the marketplace, so much so that he decided against trying to take any more blossoms from the path as they walked on. Nursing his fingers, he glanced over to his companion with a raised jaw, curious at how she seemed so keen on forgetting the conversation had at all occurred.
"Aren't you going to get something? We must've come for a reason," she murmured to him, folding her arms against her chest - strangely protectively, he thought. Francis hesitated for replying, taking a minute to look critically over the state of the open, white market, hoping to convince her (for a moment) of his simple intentions, before finally looking back to her, intrigued at how she stood there with such patience - idly winding the frayed edge of her shawl around her hand.
"We're not actually there yet. It's just over the road."
Perplexed, she still for some reason allowed him to grasp for her fingers - clearly not affronted by physical touch - and he guided her toward a noiseless, lush grove, in the opposite direction to the market's light and clamour of voices. The sound had faded to the occasional ring of laughter by the time he stopped to regard the low branches of a tree above them, a figure of living prominence against the fogged, ghost-like outlines of arching leaves.
"A late season's blessing," was all he said, starting to grin, and she took the plucked November apple he offered, with the sort of uncertainty he could only describe as incapability to perceive and understand. "You see, I do, perhaps, know something more than sex; I know when the apples are ripe, as well. Both skills are as much an endowment as the other, wouldn't you say?"
He went to laugh, but then he saw her expression - the culmination of her eyes, her brows, all into her somewhat irritated realisation in knowing that he had dragged her out into the open country for an apple. His smile could only broaden as her teeth went to pierce the cold, bubbling flesh, and faintly they exchanged a passing smile. Was it obedience, or amusement, or gratitude? He didn't know.