Actions

Work Header

Too Much & Not Enough

Work Text:

The world is different now. It's got dirt in it.

It isn't behind glass. It isn't seen between the padded shoulders of security guards. It isn't filed smooth or scrubbed clean by people who disappear at the sound of your footsteps, always just out of shot.

There isn't a barrier between Sylvia and the world, any more.

There's dirt under her broken nails. She's scratches on her back and grit in her shoes.

Things hurt, in this world, but they hurt on the outside, they irritate and chafe, they burn when she runs and there's no oxygen left inside her lungs, when her legs are screaming for respite, when her heart beats triple time, trying to feed all of her demanding cells at once.

In times past, things hurt on the inside. Dull, thudding desperation. A violent wish that her dresses would melt, that her diamonds would explode, that her surroundings, so very tasteful, would crumble into dust. In New Greenwich, she was wilted and stunted and tired of the endless, endless nothingness that whirled and circled around her in organised formation, a waltz so well-choreographed that nothing, it had seemed, could disrupt it, a miserable dance that never trained her, that left her soft and pale and nervous, insipid and empty, no stimulus or emotion, no room for anything but festering boredom and resentment.

But Will charmed his way into the dance, and in just one night, he changed everything. Broke the glass between Sylvia and the world. And she ran through the mess, hand in hand with him, taking those changes and then making a few of her own. Sharing out the time. Tipping balances.

It's not, as they claim sometimes on the news reports, anarchy out here, because people are better than that, not at all like the rumours, they're as good and kind as anyone else, more so than those back in New Greenwich who wouldn't know kindness if it smacked them about the face. The people out here, to start with, they saw one thing when she rocked up in her couture dresses, and they made so many presumptions, they'd look at Will and say, look, the thief and the princess, and they'd think...one thing. And then her face became known, and, more importantly, her name became associated with it, and now when people see them, the least they do is smile, and often they do a lot more than that. They've hardly wanted for food, drink, or shelter since the news alerts made their way through the zones, and everyone that can is more than happy to spare them a minute or two, if needs' be.

They've had a few close shaves, a couple of dramatic sprints that feel so very much like slow motion, racing just heartbeats from infinite silence, but Sylvia knows, absolutely knows with every fibre of herself, that Will would never allow her time to stop. Nor she his. There's always a way. The time police come after them one day and another, but Sylvia's a feeling they're enjoying the chase. Leon wasn't the only timekeeper with a past, by the looks of things, and chasing people trying to even out the system is, perhaps, a welcome difference from chasing those who are trying to cheat it.

Inside herself now, Sylvia is brighter, smarter, sharper, better than she's ever been. She's growing every day, out here in the sun and the air and the world as it is, not stifling in a world that's been filtered and curated to avoid interesting her, manipulated utterly by her father and his cronies.

Out here in the world, she has a purpose. A face. Of her own: not only a reflection of her parents' faces, not simply an extension of their name. When no-one ages, you'd think the looks of their child would be of little interest, for there is no need to 'stay young and beautiful' through your child when you can do it yourself. And yet, Sylvia's mother, Michele, so often she would talk at embarrassing, crushing length about her pride in her daughter's face, as if she'd sculpted it her very self, in some kind of fine porcelain. "Her father's eyes," Michele would add, and Sylvia would smile whenever she said that, a reflex without a single tap of the heart behind it. Sylvia had been taught to smile, because everyone would always smile when people made comments, trite and dull as they were, because the most bland comments were all the humour going in this world.

And she looks back, now, roaring down a broad, empty highway in a belching, furious car that Sylvia helped Will 'borrow' from a mid-zone socialite, that they'll sell on on another day, if they need to. Or give it to someone who could use it even more than them. Maybe that'll even happen on this day, because any day can turn on a knife edge, literally, if it wants to. She looks back because she's time to, a pause between one drama and the next, a pause to catch her breath, to check herself, to check her self for it's something shifting, changing, becoming, there aren't the words to describe where she is and yet she has to try. Silently, to herself, she counts the best of the short time she's had out here with Will. The good days. She's laughed more in this double handful of days than she has in her entire life put together.

As she looks back to New Greenwich, trying to imagine the microscopically clean ballrooms, everyone dressed differently at each extensive meal (of which they'd never eat more than a bite or two, never needed more than that because there'd be another meal, another occasion to pose at, within the next half an hour), she wonders if there's any way she would ever go back. To things as they were? Not a chance. She knows that as immediately as her own name.

Does this make any difference, there? What they're doing out here, does it show on the very inside? Does it affect her father at all? Her mother? Have they simply upped their security, the prices on the door, do they continue as they always did, in ever decreasing circles of the rich and the bitter?

When Sylvia thinks of her mother, that's when tears start to well in her eyes. Without warning, without rationalising themselves first: they just appear, heavy and warm and blurring.

She blinks them back, wipes her face with her hands. She can feel her face smearing with grit, could really use a shower, but here, it doesn't matter. Doesn't matter at all.

If she'd just had a moment to talk to her mother alone...

...if she could only explain to her...

...it isn't that she wants her mother's approval, far from that, she hasn't had that ever, isn't even sure her mother has approval to give, for her eyes never seem to stray from her own world, glamour and reputation and the elite, but she feels...she feels...

...she feels guilty, for simply leaving like that. Okay, not exactly leaving - she didn't have a great deal of choice about that - but for choosing not to come back to her mother, who...never did anything wrong, exactly...Sylvia feels sorry for her. After all, her mother never had a chance, did she?

"I want to go back," she says to Will, breaking her contemplative silence.

"Sure," Will says, without taking his eyes off the road. "Had enough of me already?"

"Yes. I have grown tired of your strong arms and quick wit, and I miss my closet. My affair with charity is over and I require more princessness."

"Okay."

"No really," Sylvia says, when Will keeps the deadpan going so long she panics he thinks she means it, "I just want to...I want to see my mother. Think that's possible?"

Will gives her a quick look of searching. "I'm sure there's a way."

"You don't...mind?"

"If I could see my mother one more time..."

"Of course. I'm...sorry...to..."

"Don't apologise," he offers, with the most wry of smiles. "I'm sure we can come up with some kind of plan. But you'll need to call her, we can't...I'd rather we didn't try to break back into your family home, you know? It's best if we can meet outside somewhere."

They park at a diner, such as it is. The main thing Sylvia's discovered is that it's much harder to think on an empty stomach than she could possibly have imagined. The diner is tired, graffiti on every wall, so much that it's more a feature than a shame. Food in here is basic and it's cheap, yet the owner won't accept a second from either of them.

"Whatever you two need, you just order it and I'll have it coming right up," she says. "I seen the difference you're making. All kinds coming in here for a square meal. It's a joy. You're making a difference, I tell you that for nothing."

They share pancakes and syrup, good syrup, too, and get through two milkshakes apiece as they talk.

In the end, they settle on a hotel, a zone out from New Greenwich, but a fine one all the same.

"So, if we can get to a payphone, I'll make the call," Sylvia says, and her body is tense and tight with the nerves. There's no guarantee about who'll answer, if her mother will speak to her at all. This might be the last time she ever gets to make contact with home at all.

She's in luck. Having given up fifteen minutes just to be connected for ten, Sylvia is relieved when her mother answers the phone immediately.

"Can you talk?" she asks, before any greeting.

"Sylvia? Oh, darling..." and platitudes follow.

Sylvia has no choice but to cut through them, much as she wants to stay silent and hold onto the care in her mother's voice.

"I need to see you. I need to...I need to talk to you."

"And I you, my love. I can send a car, where are you?"

"Not like that. I'm not coming back home."

"I..." a pause, the air wavering with the sound of Michele composing herself. "I didn't expect you would."

Sylvia puts her own pause on that line: it isn't the response she'd expected. She can't...they can discuss it later. Instead, she outlines the plan, the hotel. The time. "Can you be there?" she asks, shifting so she's sat on the ground by the roadside, bare legs scratching on the grit, her dress patched yellow with sand, stiletto heels digging ditches in the dust.

Her mother leaves so long a silence after the question, Sylvia thinks she's gone: hung up in indecision or anger, or else has had the phone taken from her hand.

When she finally replies, her voice is careful. Calm. Not the upper-cut tones Sylvia is used to from her. Not a hint of hysteria. "No. I won't meet you. It would be too...I won't do it. But we can talk. I...care, Sylvia. I wish that you were not so bent on the ruin of your father."

"Please don't be so...dramatic!" Sylvia insists. "It isn't about him. You're as bad as he is, thinking it's always about you. If you would only come outside for one minute, you'd see that! You're so...you're so blinkered!"

"Am I, Sylvia? Am I really?" Michele is so quiet, so calm. Too calm? Sylvia doesn't stop to think.

"Yes! You always have been. You're so...you're so stuck up, you only ever say what people want you to say, you only -" But she stops, because the thinking has caught up with her. Without any words passing between them, she hears that understanding, a silence that has a whisper of a breath, a patch of hesitation that indicates that there are things her mother wants to say, but will not, cannot.

And she understands that she is not her mother.

Many things have made themselves clear since she left, some she had suspected, some she had long known, and hundreds of which she had never been able even to dream.

"I understand love," her mother says, "and I know how strong it can be. I know that there are few limits to what one will give up for love."

"This is not about love..." Sylvia starts, but can she finish? They are in different worlds, now. Love. What does her mother truly know of that? "I wish you'd meet me..."

"I will not go back, Sylvia. Not for you, not for your father, not for anyone. I have my reasons."

"It isn't what you think! The people, they're good, they are, and we know all the back places, I promise, I could keep you safe out here..."

"It isn't that, my darling."

"Then what..." Sylvia's frustration breaks her into a cold sweat.

"I made a promise."

"To Father? He keeps you under lock and key! You don't owe him a-"

"Not to your father. To myself." And more of that silence. Michele is waiting.

Sylvia shakes her head, even though there's no-one to see. "I don't..." But she does. "Say it," she implores. "Tell me."

"You know. You feel about chance as I do about certainty."

"Tell me the truth." Sylvia isn't even sure she wants to hear it, if it'll make this too hard, if it'll...if her mother says what she's expecting, will it...

"I was not born to this."

There. Sylvia holds a hot, dusty breath, letting her body suck in all it can, stopping herself from jumping. It's a thing she's learnt. There's a time to jump, and a time to hold your breath and stand still.

"Back then," Michele continues, "before...all this, before I met your father, I lived...we lived...outside New Greenwich. I had enough to survive. My parents worked all they could, and I was always fed. Times were not quite as hard as they are now. It was rare that people timed out in front of you, but it happened. Times were not so different, either. My parents always found a way. My brother and sister always found ways. And so I found my own way-"

"I don't want to know about how your marriage is a sham. I can't believe you married him for...for the time. I didn't...I thought you loved him. But you're...everything you know, and you don't care? You're selfish! And lazy." It's not what Sylvia means to say, it isn't, but it's what comes out.

"No, listen to me, please, Sylvia, I never wanted to tell you my story, because it is over. I have made my choices, and every day I live and work with them and their consequences. And you must make yours, but...oh, it hurts me when you say that I am only my marriage, because I have worked so hard...I cannot tell you everything."

"But tell me what your choice was. Tell me what it is you love so much about your cocoon. Tell me what it is you love about my father's cruelty. Is it the way he hoards time for himself, the way he earns so many minutes that infinity itself hasn't space for them, and yet he still locks them away? Is that it? That security? You love that so much that it's what you wanted for me?"

"I love your father. I know it looks like other things, but what I gave up for him...to be with him, it isn't...it meant I could...so many people depend on the little I do..."

"I don't understand." She doesn't. What is her mother saying? Which people?

"I know. You couldn't. And it is my fault, I know, for giving you the life you've had. You can't understand...not now, at least. But perhaps, if you live long enough out there, perhaps in fifty years, maybe in a hundred, maybe we will speak again, and maybe one day I will have the space, the ability to tell you everything about me, but I can't, not yet. Not whilst you're...living your life. You must do what's right for you. And I must do the same."

"The world doesn't need to be like this. Not one person should have to suffer, or to die for you, for you or for me or for Father - or for Will - to live. There is enough, but you choose to..."

"Please. We do not need to have this conversation, not now, not to be mother and daughter."

"Meet me then."

"I can't."

"Won't." Sylvia's voice cracks.

"If you prefer." Her mother's remains strong.

"It's the truth." She chews her lip. She will not cry. She doesn't know what's being said, here, nor what's not.

"If you prefer. Please, my beautiful Sylvia, if you can't trust me - and I know you've no reason to, then at least...call again one day. Please."

"I can't believe you ran away from the real people...I can't believe you've pretended, for all these years, to be one of them..."

"We are all real people. You will learn that, in time."

"That's not what Father thinks. You know that. You know he won't change. You can't expect me to agree."

"If I agreed with your father, I could tell him where you are right now. But I wouldn't even need to do that. If I wanted, I could have that boy you're out there with timed out in a second. I could have you back here before nightfall, and I would, if I was the kind of mother you seem to believe I am."

"What, when Father hasn't managed it? How could you do anything when he-"

"I have my own resources."

Sylvia stops, again. This is far too much for the quick telephone call she'd wanted this to be. Needed this to be. Will is restless, looking up and down the road as if he feels something coming, as if it's been too quiet for too long.

"We do what we can," Michele says, and she has an emphasis in this sentence that suggests secrets, strength, bravery.

"I don't know this tone in you," Sylvia says, because she isn't even trying to filter her thoughts from her mouth, now. "I don't know who you are."

"No," Michele replies. "No, you don't. But it doesn't matter. You ought to work on who you are. With Will, without him. After what you've done, everything is always going to be different, forever, even if you come back here - and you can always come back here -" Sylvia goes to interrupt, but Michele continues, "- I know, I know you won't, that you think this is forever...but I could never go back. I need you to understand that part of the reason I brought you up here was to give you the kind of choice I didn't have."

Sylvia wants to ask why, wants to know a lot more, what exactly it is she's being half-told, but not now, not now. She wishes that her mother would say "Look, let me come out. I know a place." or "I have a friend in an old zone. Go to her, and tell her that you're my daughter, and she'll -" she imagines it so hard that she can almost hear her mother's voice saying those very words, feel the warmth and reassurance in her heart that she lacked so often throughout her childhood...but it doesn't happen.

"Sylvia?" her mother says. "Are you still there?"

"Yes..." Sylvia says, so quietly.

"How are you? I know this must be hard for you. It's a lot to take in, and it never stops. You're always going to be...chased... I know you can deal with this, for as long as you want, and ever if you must, for you've proven you are brave enough, and foolish enough, but...is there anything...specific I can do..."

Then there is something, Sylvia realises. Something specific. One thing she wants to know. "How did it feel?" she blurts out, pulling the jacket that cost her three days closer around her shoulders. The wind is picking up. How will this life be when winter comes? But that isn't related to her question. She'll deal with winter, she and Will will see it through together, along with anything else that comes their way.

"How did what feel?" her mother replies, confusion coming through.

"When you knew your face would never change again. What was it like when your clock started? You never told me."

Michele pauses. "I hardly remember. When my clock started, I was running. I fell, but I had to pick myself up and keep running. You'll know that feeling now. I suppose, once I stopped running, it occurred to me that I looked the way I would ever be, but I knew that I would keep changing on the inside. That my life would keep changing. I didn't...ever worry about the way I looked, not then. It wasn't the same. I never told you because I loved that it was special, for you. I wanted you to feel...to feel like you'd graduated. Like the other girls around you, to celebrate your clock, rather than to feel fear for it, like everyone else out in the world does."

"I wasn't scared of it. I didn't know if I could celebrate it, either, though. I wanted...what I had really wanted, was to look older," Sylvia says, and she wonders if that's true, now. "I wanted to have changed more on the outside by the time I got stuck. I didn't want to stop changing anywhere. Not at all. I didn't feel like my face fitted the me inside then, never mind the me I might be a decade from that day. But now I think that I was just scared that nothing would ever, ever change again. If I couldn't even age..."

"You can't ever stop ageing. The wrinkles, we've stopped those. The decay, too. And the disease. These things are gone. But the mind...it goes on, if you give it enough time, it will go on forever. I don't believe in this, though. To my mind, there's only so much living a person can do."

"That's not true!" How could that possibly be true? How could her mother, of all people, think that, when she's supposedly so in love with her father, a man obsessed with tomorrow after tomorrow after tomorrow.

Her mother takes an illustrative inhalation. "Then I'll say that in my experience, there's only so much living that most people can do. And I hope that your experience is different from mine."

In all her life, Sylvia has not known her mother to be so open, and so...flexible. She's always been cold. Withdrawn. Seemed so completely devoted to Phillipe. She cannot imagine her mother running. Certainly can't imagine her breaking a sweat. Or a nail. Or falling. Her mother is precision and grace. She hasn't...she doesn't look like...the people she sees here...why would you turn yourself into that, into someone so false, when you could be...

...she looks down at herself, at her body, still learning how to adapt to irregular meals, to being pushed to its limits, to be shared with someone as strong and passionate and alive as Will: she's bruises all over her, every one a badge of how different she is now from the girl she was the shortest of times ago. They won't stay, of course, because even bruises are temporary in this world, but they show that she exists at all. That she's alive. She can't imagine ever stopping living, not when it's so wonderful as this.

The line crackles, and Sylvia knows that she's already on borrowed time. Have to keep moving. Can't afford to stand still, not even for a telephone call.

"I have to go," she chokes out. And she does. It's been too long. She has heard more than enough for today.

"I understand," Michele says, still sounding so strong.

And Sylvia believes, there, that her mother really does understand. There is something behind the single-sided, silent wife, someone that sounds as alive and open as anyone she's met. She desperately wants to find out more about that woman. But...not now. It's not time. She has more to find out about herself, now. She has to live the next day of her life. And perhaps the one after that, too. And maybe another month on top of that. But she will call back.

In the car, Will asks, "Will she meet you?"

Sylvia shakes her head, smoothing her dress out over her thighs, exhaling the complexity of the conversation she's just had. "No. But it's...it's okay."

Will nods, and starts the car. He doesn't ask, but Sylvia will tell him. Later, when there's time, they'll talk about it. They have no secrets from each other. None at all.

Together, they chase the setting sun to its horizon, reaching for the remains of the day, clouds of dust and dirt settling slowly in their wake.