Sebastian, Olivia, a corset.
“So,” Olivia says to Sebastian that night in bed, turning over to face him, “you’ve got a sister.”
Sebastian is still reeling—not just from the presence of Olivia’s body, delicious and naked and curled up against his; that’s how they met, or very nearly, he thinks, and, stroking his hand down her shoulder to the bare graceful expanse of her spine, he cannot imagine tiring of it, wife, he thinks, drunk off the endless soft skin under his hands and only getting drunker minute by minute, day by day, they’ll have days, he realizes, no, years, and has to catch his breath. Still reeling from the evening, body trapped in its current coital overwhelm and mind frozen in giddy stasis since the afternoon. Everything went bloody labyrinthine before anyone had warned him or slipped him thread or given him a schematic, and truth be told he’d very much like a schematic right now—he still hasn’t sorted out the bit that got Viola into trousers. He’s barely had half a chance to talk to Vi at all; they parted for dinner, her hand slipping out of his. She had looked back over her shoulder just once, albeit long enough to make her trip over her own feet, before she’d gone off with that count of hers. Duke. Baron. Whatever he is, Sebastian thinks, feeling a bit of pique; he doesn’t know what she sees in the man, who in all of five minutes had managed to come off as something of an unappealing blowhard, on which note Olivia (his wife, who had had the good sense to reject dukely advances) has curled up against him and is kissing her way down his chest.
“I said about your sister,” she says with her mouth hovering inches over his skin, her breath making warm patterns. “I’m very curious.”
“Yes,” he says, words, say them, out loud, right. “A sister. I’ve got one. Aghk,” he says or more fairly chokes, swallowing a word that mates with a gasp as her tongue touches his nipple. She plants a slow kiss there, her lips parting for one last flick of the tongue against the tip, and props her chin upon her hand, tracing the path her lips painted with her forefinger.
“Fascinating.” She hums, a small, curious sound; restrained, he thinks, and can imagine ravels of thoughts behind it, but he cannot read the thoughts themselves and her expression is as blandly, sweetly wondering as her voice. Noblesse oblige, he thinks; his sister was always rubbish at decorum and he never had to be any better, and there is something riveting about the perfection with which Olivia can keep herself in check—he met her at her most limitless, and now she wears pieces of decorum around him like veils, only partly transparent and inevitably to be removed. “So all this time, I was in love—” her free hand inches down the plane of his stomach, down to his prick, fingers curling around the base— “with a woman,” she says, and he nods, lips parting before words reach them.
“She’s a woman,” he says, “my sister, yes,” and the tip of her thumb is sliding against his bollocks, pressing in in an idle, easy circuit, and he, gulping, gives up on stringing any two meaningful words together for the rest of the night. Not bloody responsible, he thinks, sliding down against her hand.
“She gave you a very good beginning, you know,” Olivia says, “recommended you highly—”
“She—” He swallows. “Talked about me?”
“No, she wore your face,” and her fingers tighten and he jerks against her. “Not your body, though. Oh, no.” There is a coy, amused cast to her voice, to her smile; he watches her through half-lids, hissing in short breaths through his teeth. She works him not rhythmically but languidly, a playfulness in her strokes to match that impossible smile—“she was always a bit nervous,” Olivia says, and he sinks his teeth into his lip, not wanting to hear the she yet unable to tell Olivia to cease, to quit talking when she’s got that voice, honeyslow and spiked with sublimated laughter. Never mind will not, he cannot picture his sister, not in breeches, he didn’t memorize her in breeches and he only has his own reflection to go on when it comes to filling in the blanks. He’d thought that it was his shadow, at first; when he saw her, got up like a him, he hadn’t thought my twin but myself. “A little itchy in her skin,” and he shivers, full-body, in his own. He could watch her forever, her tilted chin and expressive mouth and the full curve of her breasts, rising and falling and nearly resting against him, his chest which hitches at the twitch of her hand—“but not you,” she says over the pleasure rack of his body, “never you,” and her lips part in a smile like slipping slow into warm water, full lips peeling back over the bright bite of her teeth, “you wouldn’t know how to be uncomfortable, not like that, would you?”
He wouldn’t call this relaxed, he wants to say; as it is, he doesn’t, can’t stay at rest, not when such a divine object is stirring him to motion. He clasps her by the wrist, narrow inside the circle of his fingers, his other hand sliding up against the back of her neck; pulling her in close, fingertips scraping against damp tangles of hair at the nape, he kisses her full on the mouth. Her lips part, joyous and greedy, over his, and her hand lets him loose. Inhaling hard, he pulls her in even closer. She smiles against his mouth and draws her face back, pressing a last, specific kiss against his upper lip, and climbs atop him, pinning him between her legs. With him trapped between her thighs, she sits up, leaning back against him; he watches her with a mouth that refuses to close and an eye full of Olivia, a sight spanning nothing but Olivia. The world could fall away, he thinks. The world could have already fallen away. Buggered if he would know. This is how he could die and not mind a bit, he thinks, and raises his arms above his head like a surrender.
“But here’s the matter, the fascinating thing,” she says. “I’ve never seen her as a girl.”
“You will,” he promises, and she sighs.
“I’m curious now.” He raises his eyebrows; her answering expression is a devil of coquettishness, another veil which she wears prettily, and he resists laughing at it. “So would you oblige—” she begins, and now he does laugh before she can finish the sentence, grazing the inside of her wrist with his thumb and doubting that there is anything he would not.
“Whatever you’d have me do.”
“It’s not a question of doing,” she says, leaning in and cupping his face in her hand, palm to cheek, “it’s who I’d have you be.”
Oh, he thinks, breathing into her hand. He looks at her and she smiles, lovely, waiting, and he wonders with sudden sharpened curiosity if she looked at his sister like that. He will not think of Viola, not yet, not in trousers and not in Olivia’s eyes. Suddenly he wonders if they kissed, and he cannot help believing in the kiss, picturing it, but the image in his head fills in the blank kissing-Olivia face with his mirror and not his twin, and he does not feel guilt, his sister is not here and he is the one pinned by Olivia’s skin. “Direct me, then,” he says, his voice catching in his throat, and she kisses him again, wrapping him in the sinuous warmth of body to body—and then she gets up, sloughing off the coverlet.
He is laid bare in the bed, cooling in the space she leaves behind. In lieu of protesting, he props himself on his elbow and watches her bend down, his eyes tracing the violin curve of her waist and hips, to pluck from the puddle of skirts and sleeves she’d shed onto the floor (she hadn’t undressed for bed that night: she had taken his wrist in her hand after the feast and plucked him to her side from dinner onward; she had peeled away the layers impatiently and he had been only too glad to help her, unlacing and unknotting until she was finally unwrapped; he doesn’t understand how women do it). She is ankle-deep in discarded clothing, and she grins just once over her shoulder before standing back up, her unlaced corset in her hands.
“Come here,” she says, and he slides to the end of the bed.
“I’m in your hands.”
She touches his shoulders, grin wicked. “Your arms, my love.”
Surrender, again. He does as she bids. “So,” he says, swallowing again as her fingers trail lightly along his forearms, “you’re womaning me.”
“How else might I know what to expect?” she replies, voice all innocence. “I want to recognize her.”
The whalebone slips tight along his arms, compressing them in place; she tugs it down over the joints of his shoulders, down the blades and over the breadth of his chest. When he is freed, he can’t help wrapping his arms around her bare waist first thing—the corset falling loose down to his hips—pulling her in and kissing her neck, lightly nipping the skin beneath her jaw. Her laugh catches sighingly in her throat; “wait,” she murmurs low and breath-caught near his ear, her palm slipping briefly between his legs, “just a bit.” He groans and releases her, and she hops up on the bed behind him. She kneels; he can feel her knees pressing into his sides, he feels her fingers skim down his spine to the lacings, feels her tug it up, feels her small deft hands positioning it into alignment against his ribs.
She pulls the strings.
“Christ!” he chokes, and she laughs, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and pressing a kiss into the curve of his neck.
“That’s nothing. Hold still.”
Her knees dig into his lower back, and she pulls again.
“Still not much. Once more now—” her fingers fiddle with the boning prodding into the skin of his back; his flesh compresses and his breath is as short as when she has him most at her mercy. Yet she is hardly touching him—hard though he is and growing harder—only her fingertips, wound about with corset strings, tracing the delineations of his back—“with feeling.”
“Pull, then,” he says through gritted teeth, and she heaves with everything in her, rocking the bed and his body and his bones, which bend at her bequest: “Bugger!”
She laughs at this, falling into her laughter and into him, chin crooking into his shoulder. “There, then.” He feels her fingers, with just a few last quick tugs, knotting the strings, and her arm curls around his waist, stroking the shape of his stomach with a hand he can’t feel through the layer of linen and bone. He traces her arm with his own, flattening her hand with his.
“How do you stand it?”
“Great fortitude.” She bites into his shoulder and his hitching breath gives out, caught and trapped in his lungs and in the crush of skin to skin. “I can only envy your sister. Months without it. Months unbound.”
“Like me,” he says effortfully and feels her shake her head.
“But you didn’t know what you were missing. How lucky you are.”
She trails her hands over his chest as if she could seek and find new forms under her hands, as if she could sculpt him there. Sliding around to his side and standing before him, she looks at him; walking in close, between his legs, presses her hand to his freshly shaped waist. He is asphyxiating, his ribcage feels like it might shatter into bone-scrap any minute and leave his heart open to the elements, but when her eyes widen just a little, like that, when her mouth parts in its lovely edifice of surprise, just like that, he’s fairly sure he’s doing it all for the greater good. He doesn’t look a bit like his sister, he knows, now less so than ever; he looks ridiculous and he’d feel ridiculous if there was any space in his feelings left unoccupied. As it is, he flops back and grins at her; the impact knocks even more breath out of his lungs and he chokes before he can say anything, and she is laughing but she is still between his thighs and it doesn’t take too much legwork to knock her off-balance, upend her into flopping down onto the bed next to him.
“Like what you see?” he asks, voice straining breathless into high, fluttery registers—he sounds like a bloody courtesan, which he supposes is rather to the point—and she laughs.
Her body is parenthetical next to his, and he leans in to kiss her again, drinking the breath from her lungs and curling on top of her; she gasps, satisfyingly unbreathed half from kissing and half from laughter. “No,” she says, back arching and smile aglow; he presses his lips to the space beneath her clavicle, the rise of her breasts, feeling the rise and fall of breath beneath. “I’m not finished, you know.”
She scrambles out from under him, trailing a giggle in the air between them, and he catches her, hands above her waist, fingers slotting into the spaces between her ribs. Her flesh indents subtly beneath his fingers; he could count the bones if he could stop paying attention to the way she feels. “What now?” he asks, and she tosses her head, twists at the waist.
“Avaunt, strumpet, I’ve plans for you.”
“Strumpet?” He keeps his hands on her, watches her face carefully; there are things he doesn’t know, he knows, still, for all the time she’s spent perfectly bare in his company. “Is that what you called my sister?”
Her eyes gleam. “I never had cause.”
Hips twitching out of his hands, which linger longingly in the air for a moment after she’s gone, she saunters to her nightstand and picks up a pot of rouge. “You, though,” she continues, “I feel like you suit this calling much more.”
Uncapping the pot, she stands before him and reaches out to trace the side of his face, thumb skimming the contour of his lower lip. “Call it the sailor in you.”
“You know,” he can’t help grinning (she’ll like this, he thinks, hips sliding in just a bit closer to her once more), “Vi used to say I was too delicate for the life of a sailor.” Perhaps he shouldn’t be using his sister’s name as a byword here, but—oh, their bodies are different shapes and they wear them in different ways and Olivia’s wide searching eyes get even wider and she tucks her smile up into her cheek, delicious as a piece of fruit, and it is worth it.
“And so I should think you are,” Olivia says. She dips a fingertip into the rouge and is reaching toward his mouth when she stops, holding her blushing finger midair. Considering for a moment, she withdraws it and touches her own mouth, painting her finger along the curve of her smile. She’s dipped it thick; it comes away and leaves her mouth the color of ominous sunsets. They tell stories about skies that color aboard, lovestruck sea-hating skies that breed myths as much as they do shipwrecks, the only color he sees when she leans in.
“I survived,” he says, not managing to sound particularly wounded, and she lays a finger against his lips, a stroke of a hush that she only draws away to replace with her carefully pursed mouth. Her lips limn against his and linger there. When he opens his mouth beneath hers, she leans away, looping her arms around the back of his neck to look at him.
“You’re so pretty,” she says, her mouth smudged and bright. Her thumb traces the top of the corset, along the line it digs into the top of his chest. He doesn’t want to say he’s got used to it; he’s still out of breath and his bones still protest every time he tries for more, but it’s a queerly good pain: the crack of rib and rush of blood beneath the skin, tight and poised and waiting, waiting. “No décolleté to speak of,” she says with a faint smirk, “but you’ll do.”
“A picture. A lovely picture with a girlish waist.”
“God only knows.” She presses her lips to his forehead; he can feel the mark of rouge against his skin. “Hermaphroditus. Beautiful Hermaphroditus,” she says, sliding in against him, “do you know the myth?”
“We learned our Classics young in my family.” When he kisses her neck, the paint leaves remembrances flushed against her neck, the pale tops of her breasts “I think they kept that one from us—”
“He was a god,” she whispers voluptuously and slips to her knees.
One hand clings to the curved indentation of his waist. Her mouth wraps warm around his cock and o, he mouths wordlessly, swallowing into his open throat. When he bites into his mouth, he tastes rouge like a kiss left behind. His fingers tangle in her hair harder with every pull of her lips, and when she lifts her head he gasps for air like a drowning man; he has never been submerged fully, but, lungs starved and aflame in his chest, he thinks it must feel something like this.
“You’re lovely,” she says, and no amusement ghosts her voice, not then. The line of her throat arches back into the air, curving hard into his hand, and she pulls herself up by it, up against him, straddling him and falling into the slope of his body, the open gasp of his mouth, her body wearing the smudged red memory of his kisses as he prints more on her skin and pulls her legs around him.
“Do I look like you wanted me to?” He slides a hand between her legs, fingers slipping into the slickness of her. She shudders, lashes flickering. “Like her?” he asks, and she touches his wrist, wrapping her hand around his; lids opening in earnest, her eyes lock onto his.
“You’ve never looked less alike,” she says, and, wrapping her hand tight around the base, she pulls him inside her.
Toppling into the soft twist of limbs atop the tousled sheets, he doesn’t know what she’s proven, but he knows that he is hers, that they are each other's, that they have written it on each other. She looks him bright in the eye with a last silent laugh on her lips, fingers twisting tighter and tighter into the corset strings with every gasp, and this is what they are to be: they are married. He suspects she’s wived him—and, breathing into the constriction of his ribs and the softness of her hands, plummeting into her skin underneath his, he doesn’t know how to mind.