Somewhere in the Silver Star Tower, a bell began to chime the hour. Once, twice, three times it rang out while Lillet Blan lay tense, as if every muscle in her body had been drawn tight. Only when the twelfth chime had passed did she at last relax, letting herself ease back into the soft embrace of the tester bed.
"Are you all right, Lillet?" a gentle voice asked from about an inch away from her left ear.
"Mm-hm; I could feel it. You grew all stiff when the bell started to ring, and relaxed when it stopped."
Lillet probably shouldn't have been surprised that Amoretta Virgine could tell. The other girl was pressed fully up against her while Lillet lay on her back, Amoretta's left arm thrown across Lillet's chest below her breasts and her left leg curled over and around Lillet's, their ankles hooked together. Like that, she could hardly miss any of Lillet's movements.
Amoretta was quite an assertive snuggler. While they slept, she had a habit of nuzzling, cuddling, and burrowing as if she was literally trying to merge their bodies into one. Twice, she'd even managed to knock Lillet right onto the floor, demonstrating why a bed made for one was not the best for a couple to share.
Lillet couldn't blame the beautiful ash-blonde. From Amoretta's perspective, it was only five days ago that she had found the love that she so desperately needed. The incongruity of her existence as a homunculus—an artificial life created by Alchemy—meant that she needed to be loved to fill the gap left by the fact that she was not a natural part of Creation. And she hadn't had that from her creator, Dr. Chartreuse, who could only seem to see her as an experiment, a magical masterpiece.
From Lillet's perspective, it was more like thirteen days. Caught in looping time by the Philosopher's Stone, she'd repeated a five-day cycle over and over. Amoretta, like everyone else, had only the memory of the final loop, the one that had ended only forty-eight hours past with Lillet shattering the Stone and ending the prison of time. Lillet, though, could remember the last five, including the point two loops past when she'd watched Amoretta sacrifice her life to destroy the arch-devil Grimlet and her heart had melted for this fragile existence who so needed her.
More than that, Lillet knew that the truth was that it wasn't five days or thirteen days. There had been many more than five loops of time. Rather, those were just the ones she could remember. But there had truly been thousands of loops, perhaps tens of thousands; she just could not recall them because every time she reached the strange room where the Philosopher's Stone lay, a room that seemed to exist outside the normal flow of time, her memory would "reset" when time folded back on itself to where it had been at the moment the looping time began.
She'd probably first fallen in love with Amoretta centuries ago.
Lillet didn't really believe in love at first sight. She loved fairy-tales and stories of adventure, but as her mother had said, the speed at which people found true love in them had more to do with the length of the story than the way love worked. Oh, of course there was instant infatuation, which might well blend into and become love over time, but how could you truly love a person without knowing their hopes and dreams, their ideals and fears, their courage, their virtues, their flaws, the big things that defined them and the small things that gave shape to that definition? In short, without knowing the person instead of the body and manner?
But Lillet loved Amoretta. Loved her in a way that the homunculus could sense and feel as it filled her existence and bridged that terrible chasm surrounding her soul. There was tangible, objective proof that Lillet's feelings were love, not infatuation or desire or affection or one of love's other pale shadows.
There was really only one explanation that made sense. During the looping time, Lillet had been constantly studying and practicing magic, building her knowledge, her capacity to wield power, even if she didn't remember that training. So when she encountered a new grimoire or Rune, she could master it at once, because what she was really doing was accessing the knowledge that was in her mind but that she didn't know she knew. It was as if her memory was a long corridor with doors that she could open to remember things...but all the doors were unlabeled until she encountered their contents.
Behind one of those doors, then, were her feelings for Amoretta. Hundreds of years' worth of getting to know the homunculus. She would never know how she'd built those feelings, never know the first time she saw Amoretta's face light up with a radiant smile Lillet had given her, any more than she'd remember the first time after hours of relentless study and practice that she'd managed to kindle a Fairy Ring. But the feelings themselves were still there, like muscle-memory for the heart instead of the body.
Belatedly realizing that Amoretta was still waiting expectantly for her answer, she set these reflections aside.
"Do you remember how I told you about the Philosopher's Stone and looping time?"
Such a straightforward answer. It was so like her.
"It was at the moment that the bells rung on the fifth day that time would turn back. Now that it's all over at last, lying here like this with you and hearing those bells..." Lillet brought her hand up and clasped it around Amoretta's where it lay across her, lacing their fingers together. "I was just afraid for a moment that I'd suddenly find myself back seven days ago, hearing the bells chime and Margarita knocking at the door, and lose everything that I'd found all over again."
And having put it into words, she was now morally certain that all over again was the plain truth, that there had been loops where she done everything right, saved everyone, defeated Grimlet and the Archmage, and found love, only to have it be wiped away because she hadn't found the Philosopher's Stone or she'd left the Lemegeton behind or just simply didn't have the magical prowess to destroy the Stone.
"I think...it's going to take me a while to really come to accept that. Particularly if I have the ghosts of centuries of loops lingering in my soul if not my mind. But I guess you can understand that too, huh, Amoretta?"
"To have finally found something that you've looked for, strived to gain for so long, and be afraid that the uncertain future might take it away? Of course."
Her arm tightened around Lillet, and she pressed herself even closer, if it were possible.
"But mostly, I'm just so happy to have found you that I want to make lots of new memories with you so that the old ones don't matter."
Her arm slid up so she could cup Lillet's face in her hand and turn her head so that their eyes met.
The magician might be missing most of her past with Amoretta, but she still had the present. And better than either of those, the promise of the future.
And then it was Lillet's turn to smile.