He trips on his way out of the bar. His momentum drives him forward with staggering, uneven steps. He grasps onto a lamppost before he can tumble onto his knees. His momentary sense of victory is interrupted when he doubles over and heaves his guts out over a sewer grate.
He feels a hand press down between his shoulder blades. It’s warm and comforting. After a moment it starts to pat him, a little too hard to actually be helpful and Sebastien knows who it is before he looks up. “You drew the short straw this time, hm?” he says between spits. Trying and failing to rid his mouth of the acidic bile.
Joe shrugs. “It’s a nice night,” he says, like that answer makes any sense at all. He is wearing one of Sebastien's old leather jackets. It suits him.
One of them always comes for him, on this day, every year for the last... He's lost count. When Andy wasn't matching him shot for shot, she would haul him home with his arm over her shoulders. Nicky always tried to get him to talk about it, to try and help guide him through his fog of despair. But Joe is content to let him go through what he must, like a ritual, and waits. It is enough that Joe is there.
Sebastian tries to stand, but he feels dizzy. “I need to sit down.”
“Not here,” Joe says. What he means is not next to your vomit, you idiot. Joe takes his hand, and Sebastian lets himself be led across the road, curling his fingers tightly in Joe’s grip. He knows it comes so easy for Joe. This warm affection he has for all of them. Joe is not afraid to be who he is.
He nudges Sebastien onto a bench by a bus stop. He sits down beside him, arms draped over the back of the seat. Sebastien leans forward, elbows on his knees, holding his head in his hands.
“I miss seeing the stars”, Joe says and tilts his head towards the sky. With the industrial revolution, there came more artificial lights, more pollution in the big cities. “The price of progress, I suppose.”
Yes, the forward march of time. How inevitable. And no matter how much Sebastien had begged and prayed, fought and screamed to be returned to his family, every day he awakes to a new morning.
A new life, they had told him. But every time he jolts into consciousness it’s with the same mind, the same heart. It is the same life, with the same memories. Sebastien is the same man as he has always been. A forger, a soldier, a deserter, a husband, a father, a coward...
He feels the tears prickle in his eyes. He cannot stop them, not this time. He begins to cry. He doesn’t do this often, especially in front of the others. But it happens like this sometimes, when he has spent so long trying to hold it in. It overwhelms him. It feels like one of his nightmares where he’s drowning from the inside.
Joe shifts closer, his thigh pressing against his. He cradles an arm around him, pulling him towards his chest. Sebastien can feel the steady beat of Joe’s heart, can smell the scent of Joe's soap on his skin. Joe is gentle now, in the way he was not earlier. His hand runs up and down Sebastien’s back. Oh, how he has missed being held like this.
“You can cry,” Joe whispers to him. “I am here. We are here together.”
He lifts his face towards Joe. He wipes the tears from Sebastien's face and smiles. “You are such an ugly crier.”
Sebastien is suddenly struck by Joe's tenderness, the very Joe-ness in how he injects levity and light into every tedious, difficult, painful circumstance. This is what it feels like to have Joe's complete attention. He pushes forward, his body reacting before his brain can reconsider.
He kisses Joe.
Joe stills, but doesn’t turn him away.
It is a terrible kiss. There’s too much teeth and spit, the scent of vomit still lingers on his breath, and Joe is unmoving against him. But Sebastien is undeterred. He is greedy. It has been too long since he has felt another touch like this.
He doesn’t know how long Joe lets it continue. Time runs so differently now, where years can feel like days and seconds feel like forever. Joe’s hands wrap around his wrists, coaxing him to let go of the lapels of his jacket Sebastien hadn’t realised he was clutching onto. Joe leans back just enough for Sebastien to understand. “OK,” Joe says softly, as if not to startle him. “OK, that’s enough.”
Now apart, the full force of his actions hits Sebastien like a freight train. He is ashamed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he repeats over and over until the words feel meaningless. “I don’t know why...” He trails off. He knows why. They both do.
He expects Joe to be upset with him. Had expected Joe to push him away. But when their eyes meet, there is a softness there that hurts Booker more than any fist. And he cannot bear it.
An empire rises, an empire falls.
He hears Joe stand, expects him to walk away and leave him.
He is surprised when Joe holds out his hand. “Let’s go home.”
Sebastien blinks up at him. He feels a myriad of emotions - looking at Joe, haloed by the moonlight - so tightly balled up together inside his chest, he can’t identify any of them.
He takes Joe’s hand.
Nicky knows. It’s as simple as that. Sebastien blinks awake under the warm afternoon light, and Nicky knows. He rolls to his side and wonders if he stays quiet enough, maybe they will forget about him. Joe’s anger he could face, could possibly withstand, but Nicky’s...hurt? Sebastien would rather be hanged all over again. He sighs and pushes back the covers. The least he could do now was face him.
He is in the kitchen. He can hear the soft pads of his feet against the tiles and the sizzle of something on the stove.
“Bonjour,” Nicky says without turning around. “Sit.”
Sebastien sits. And waits.
Nicky takes his time. Methodical in his movements. When he turns around, he places a plateful of eggs and bacon in front of him. “I know we do not get these...hangovers”, a modern word on an ancient tongue, “anymore. But I think a full belly will help you feel better.”
Sebastien looks at the plate and then back to Nicky. For one single absurd moment, he thinks Nicky means to poison him.
“Thank you,” he says. If it were to be true, Nicky would be justified in doing so. He picks up the fork.
When he looks up again, Nicky is leaning against the refrigerator with his arms crossed, observing him with unreadable eyes.
He puts the fork down. “Nicky...” He doesn’t know what to say, but he feels an urgent need to speak, to fill the silence that stretches between them. But all the words in all the languages he knows feel inadequate and hollow. What could he possibly say? I’m sorry I kissed your beloved when he tried to comfort me in my pain and grief. He scrubs a hand over his face and tries again. “I...” The words lodge in his throat. I’m sorry that I am jealous of your love, your happiness, the way Joe looks at you when he thinks you cannot see...
He tries to meet Nicky’s gaze, he does, but he is afraid. Afraid of what Nicky will find. Afraid he will misunderstand, or worse, understand completely. Instead his eyes slide across Nicky’s face to a spot past his shoulder.
Nicky steps forward, and crouches beside him. He holds Sebastien’s face between his hands and forces Sebastien to look at him.
Nicky’s eyes are piercing. Sebastien feels stripped bare, more exposed than he has been his whole long life. He cannot turn away. Nicky searches.
An empire rises, an empire falls.
“Oh, Sebastien,” he says, finally. “You are still so young.” He doesn’t understand what Nicky means, if this somehow absolves him of his betrayal. That Sebastien is still too foolish to recognise who he is, where he is, how he is.
Nicky presses their foreheads together. Sebastien closes his eyes. They both exhale one shared breath. He feels more peace in this moment than he has in 100 years.
It is much more than he deserves.
When Nicky stands, he says, “At least Joe is a good kisser, no?” And it is so unexpected, it startles a laugh from deep inside him.
Nicky’s face seems softer now, his shoulders more relaxed.
“I wouldn’t know,” he treads carefully, but also so eager to take what Nicky has offered. “He did not kiss me back.”
Nicky hums non-committally. But he catches the slight curve of a smile, before he turns to open the refrigerator door. “Then you will just have to take my word for it.” Sebastien nods, even though Nicky can’t see him. Feels the relief wash over him. “Now eat your breakfast,” Nicky chides.
There’s a lot he still needs to figure out. Why he cannot stop picking at his wounds, why he refuses to let go even as the memories slice him to the bone. Perhaps he is afraid of what will be left of himself once he peels back the loneliness, the anger, and despair. Maybe this is all he has. No, he is not strong enough now. But, he supposes, he has time.
For now, he picks up his fork and he eats his breakfast.