He agrees to try it. It’s not as if he can say that Nile doesn’t have a point, after all; more than that, it’s not as if he’s in a position to bargain. But society - even their own, limited society - has moved past exile as a punishment; Nile is tremendously modern and believes in concepts of restorative justice and self-improvement and relative freedom in return for a lower re-offending rate (Booker sort-of wants to point out, here, that his vision of Andy bleeding out on the floor is probably going to sort the re-offending potential right out, but the image alone definitely makes him want to throw up, drink until he throws up again, and then walk into traffic and off piers and down dangerous streets jangling money until he, too, ceases to heal) and so they’re no longer just exiling him, but also giving him community service.
He wants to raise an eyebrow at this when Nile announces it. He wants to hurl himself at their feet and grovel. He wants to rip his own heart out of his chest and hold it out to them, wet and raw in his bloody hands, and say I’m sorry, but this is all I have. This is all that I’m working with - this lump of twisted muscle, too small and too often stopped, and it leads me awry because it doesn’t work: it neither loves, nor inspires love. It isn’t good enough, but it’s all that I have - you can have it, if you want. You already do.
“We’re not mediaeval any more,” Nile says sternly, and Booker watches the expressions pass like ripples over Nicky and Joe’s faces. He can read them as easily as he can a book, with two hundred years between them hanging heavy and fragile: fondness, amusement, very slight indignation, horrible and sucking betrayal and sadness. He wishes, sometimes, that he didn’t know them so well.
Andy is still and quiet, deferring to Nile - and isn’t that a new look - but here she speaks up. “You wanted to end this, Booker,” she says, firm and calm and level. “You do not love this world because you do not live in it. You must.”
Now, he does raise the eyebrow. It’s irresistible. “Love it, or live in it?”
“Both, if you can bear it.” Andy holds his gaze, and he knows she means it: means bear it , because he has lived as a man in a world of the dying and has born it very poorly indeed. It is a weight on him, to know that every hand he ever shakes and every smile he ever returns will die, and he will not.
“One of us will check in with you every month,” Nile says, consulting a napkin in her hand. It’s covered in unruly scrawl and barely resembles a bullet-point plan; some of the annotations have ripped through the tissue paper entirely. One corner is rippled and fragile with spilled beer. What a way for his future to look. “Probably by phone, since you can go where you like.” So, Nile will be checking in, then. Booker is not fooled by one of us. She seems to have done the best job of forgiving him, which is - sweet. Possibly ill-advised. But sweet.
“And I just - pay rent and go to the flicks once a month?” he says, without considering it first. It’s not the tone that he had wanted - not even the one that he had meant. He is taking this seriously - but, in two hundred years, he has never argued on anything resembling this scale with these people and he is horribly out-of-practise. He can drop to his knees, recite three Hail Marys and beg for penance, or slide absently into casual-debating snark. A sensible, secular middle ground keeps sliding from his grip.
As expected, Joe is riled; like a cat, he broadens and begins to stalk forward with his face twisted into a furious snarl. But Nile puts out an arm to block him and, as not expected, he subsides. Booker rather wonders if Joe hasn’t forgotten how to argue with him, too.
“I didn’t mean that,” Booker says, spreading his hands carefully and hunching his shoulders slightly. He is vaguely aware that his posture is diametrically opposing Joe’s, as if they were two great beasts debating physical dominance, but - well, perhaps they are, a little, and Booker is ready to bare his neck and stomach and horrible soft weak parts if they’ll only have him back.
“You’ll have to engage with your community,” Nile says as if the interruption had never occurred. She sounds so like a piece of well-meaning city planning propaganda that Booker almost wants to laugh - but while he is willing to expose his weaknesses to obtain forgiveness, he would also rather that Nicky and Joe did not then use this to punch him to death and leave him to sink slowly into the cloying Thames mud. “We want you to talk to people and help them in little ways and - and-” Nile stops and swallows hard, looking at the toe of her trainer as it digs into the muck as if she had no control over it. She blinks and Booker makes an abortive move to hold her hand; he remembers, vaguely, picking a little pale hand up off a mass of rustling light blue fabric and pressing it, gently, between thumb and fingers when his little sister had cried over the horrible injustices of - something. Being a teenage girl was difficult, apparently. But all this is nothing to being - to being Nile, now, and yet he feels the same powerless, confused desire to comfort as he had when Clara had been upset.
But then Nile takes a deep breath and looks him dead and determined in the eye. “You have to want to live again. And then you can come back.”
And Booker meets her iron gaze, and wants to want what she wants, if it will comfort her; and so he nods.
He goes to Paris. He has been meaning to patrol his old haunts for a while, now, and never got around to actually doing it. Besides, no-one makes petit-fours quite like his favourite bakery on the corner of Rue Vauthier and Rue Bartholdi.
Actually, it turns out that no-one makes petit-fours quite like those ones at all, because he arrives on that corner to discover the large glass front boarded up and plastered over with old posters advertising festivals and plays and soft drinks from long ago; a quick Google tells him that it has been occupied at various points for brief stints by all sorts of shop since his bakery closed in - 1964? Really?
Booker pockets the phone and glares up at the facade. He really hasn’t been back in a while.
There is a number on the door announcing that the building and the small grubby flat above the shop are for sale, so Booker calls and buys them both. He would like to say that this was difficult to do, or at least to decide upon, but the truth is that a little money squirrelled wisely away in 1814 stretches rather well in the intervening years. This always bothers him slightly, as if becoming rich was a deeply bourgeois insult to the struggling assistant bank clerk with too many mouths to feed who had died in some sorry field near Leipzig, and so he usually isn’t inclined to spend - which, of course, only means he has more money to feel vaguely guilty about. It isn’t long, therefore, before he’s standing in his very own dusty kitchenette and staring out of a window pane made grey with years of neglect upon a city moving constantly with life he cannot touch.
Booker wishes, sometimes, that he weren’t so very good at spotting a metaphor.
There is an old iron fire escape clinging to the back of the house and spilling out into a small courtyard which more accurately resembles an alley, choked with ladders and bins and evidence of the local alley cats. He can’t help but wonder, as he gingerly steps out onto the rusting metal and hears it creak, why he couldn’t have picked a nicer place. Given all of Paris, romance capital of the world and famed for its beauty, why has he chosen this grotty little corner in an old, forgotten neighbourhood which stinks of cat piss and lost hope? He could have taken up at the Savoy, told Nile stories about being nice to the waiters and delighting in eating lobster on a balcony. Instead, he’s hauling himself off a rotting fire escape and scrambling up the old tiled roof to sit on the mansard and glower at the grey clouds overhead. Again, Booker, with the metaphors.
As he goes, he manages to kick some of the fire escape loose from the crumbling plaster and a shower of dust rains down on the alley below. Booker ignores it, fishing a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his jeans and hunting out a lighter. He hasn’t smoked since the war, when the only thing to do with your hands while waiting for an illegal train to illegally transport illegal people somewhere slightly less horrendous was light up; he figures he might as well have something to do now, too, as he waits for the years to be over.
“Hey!” a voice calls from the alley below, and he leans absently down. An old woman with tight white curls and a fiercely mid-eighties-business-woman style is glaring furiously up at him, pointing at the plaster on the floor. “Don’t you go making a mess in the communal area! And you shouldn’t be up there, it isn’t safe - do you want to get yourself killed?”
Booker takes a long drag of his cigarette, feeling the smoke fill his lungs. Addiction tends to cut out with every death - the physical need, at least - and so he hasn’t craved this. He has missed it, sometimes - sitting outside with a piece of peace and breathing with impunity. “Madam,” he says with gravelly exhaustion, “do fuck off.”
He realises as she draws herself up to her full, inconsiderable height, that his tongue has reverted to the french it knows best and in consequence this statement has probably not had quite the desired effect, delivered as it was in two-hundred-year-old slang. This does not seem to bother this indomitable old woman, however, who says “I know what you said, young man; I’ve read de Musset.” Booker snorts and takes another drag; he went to de Musset premieres. “And there’s no need for any of that! All I ask is a little consideration for the people who share this space.”
“Consider this,” Booker ripostes. “I do not want to clean it up. The whole alley is filthy and it stinks. A little plaster is nothing.”
The woman looks - cross, first and foremost. But also, maybe - never mind. It isn’t Booker’s business. He’ll be here for a few years and then he’ll go; a dot in her life, as so many have been in his. She stomps out into the street, raincoat pulled preemptively tight around her. Booker smokes the whole packet until the rain begins to fall and forces him to slink guiltily back inside.
Nile calls on the last day of the month. Booker has been twirling the phone between his fingertips all day, had gone to sleep staring at it on his nightstand, and he clings to it like a drowning man when she says “hey, Booker.”
“Hello, Nile.” His throat clicks. He hasn’t said anything to anyone in days. “How are you?” The words are coming out slightly too fast, slightly too needy; he hopes, but doesn’t believe, that she’ll chalk it up to a poor line.
“Andy’s fine,” she says with a snort, and Booker feels the blood rising up the back of his neck. That is, to his slight shame, what he had meant - he’s not accustomed to asking after anyone, really, but especially Andy. They’ve all always been together, and when they weren’t the simple fact of their voice on the telephone meant that they were whole and well. If Andy ever gets a cold, they’ll all be quite insufferably coddling.
Booker isn’t quite ready to confront the possibility of Andy catching a cold and his not being there to be insufferable about it.
“That’s - that’s good,” he says, ducking his head and scrubbing at the back of his neck with a hand. “But - you’re adjusting? They’re not too hard on you, are they?”
“Oh, dreadful,” she says cheerfully, and Booker feels his face form a fragile smile. He remembers the early days of being picked up and dropped on his head repeatedly by Andy, until he figured out how to kick the legs from under her and spent half a second too long being pleased about it - he’d come back with Nicky looking unimpressed and slightly amused above him as Joe protested weakly about not knowing that if you hit the smug newbie that hard with a nearby weight you could stave their head in. But he remembers better the pleasant ache of the work, the delight of learning and improving with the very very best, the glow of Andy’s infrequent praise. It had been everything, to be given purpose once more. “But you’d have been just as bad as them, you git,” she tells him pleasantly and he chokes out a laugh.
“Bet you’re glad I’m gone, then,” he says, and wishes he hadn’t. It hasn’t shaken the lump in his throat and any answer is a poor one. “Sorry, forget I-”
“No-one’s glad you’re gone, Booker,” Nile says softly and Booker’s eyes burn as he squeezes them shut and grimaces. Joe is, his brain treacherously provides, but he lets that die behind his teeth.
Nile clears her throat. “Anyway,” she says with faux, neon brightness. “What have you been up to?”
He drinks. He smokes. He barely leaves his flat but to clamber onto the roof or buy more cigarettes and gin. Paris continues to pass him by outside his grimy window, pushing past the door of his old bakery. When he isn’t hungover, he’s drunk. He’s getting by, though, as a fully-functional alcoholic. He doesn’t think Nile has noticed in their monthly calls; he pays his bills on time; the cashier still serves him.
On the third Sunday of September he wakes up clear-headed for the first time in months to the peal of church bells and knows that, at some point between passing out on the kitchen table and now, he has died. Through neglect and abuse and without even noticing he has killed himself, and his body has ever so thoughtfully put him back together better than he was before: without the shot liver and the choked lungs and the protruding ribcage.
Booker washes and dresses, disgusted and ashamed. It is as if he can suddenly see himself, smell himself, after months of absent-minded neglect; as if, in dying, he had looked upon himself from without and been quite thoroughly disappointed. He shaves himself back into something approaching respectability and heads out into the drizzle with his collar turned up against the pervading damp.
He hasn’t been outside in too long; the world is painfully vivid and the air too sharp and clean on his new, raw lungs. He drops the last of his cigarettes in the first bin he sees and solemnly pours the last of his gin down the drain, observed only by a curious pigeon. It doesn’t seem auspicious or momentous enough: being cooed at by a feathered bundle of feral disease as he squats over a storm drain and rids himself of supermarché gin and cheap smokes in the drizzle is hardly a cinematic beginning to a new chapter in his life. But then, this chapter is probably titled Booker learns to give a shit about himself and not die without noticing which is in itself rather unglamourous, so perhaps there is balance in the universe after all.
“Don’t do immortality, kid,” he tells the pigeon. The bird cocks its head curiously and shuffles its malformed feet. “Not even for good croissants, because even bakeries will leave you first, apparently.” Booker drops the empty bottle in the bin, stuffs his hands in his pockets, and stares down at the pigeon’s balding, mangy feathers, black-ish purple like a new bruise, and the empty void of its gaze. “I cannot believe,” he says slowly, “that the best thing about this morning is that I am not an immortal pigeon.”
He walks through puddles without thinking, allowing the water to soak up into his shoes. The misty rain is slowly pervading every other inch of him; he’s half afraid that he’ll go mouldy and get trenchfoot. Again. But even that memory - rotting flesh, trying to heal but too slowly to not get bad again, lungs burning as they attempt to expel mustard gas and open a window of recovery - hurts him less than all those connected to it: playing cards with Joe in dingy lamplight, betting with shards of precious chocolate; singing increasingly rowdy songs with Andy to make the new boys smile; coiled up with Nicky in a foxhole, forehead to forehead and fingers sharing the same rosary as shells screech overhead; and then dropping into the right trench at last to lean into Andy and watch Joe and Nicky wrap themselves up in one another and cling with relief.
He stops at the crossing and blinks hard. A car swishes past and hurls up water; he dances back and spots the same damned pigeon, still staring at him but now sitting on a parking meter.
It cooes helpfully.
“Oh God,” Booker says with real and dawning horror. “You’re not really an immortal pigeon, are you?”
The bird just stares back with vacant, beady eyes.
Booker leaves the bird with a nervous backward glance on the doorstep of the church and ducks inside. It takes his eyes a moment to adjust to the sudden darkness, and then he sidles into the darkest corner of the back pew. The service has been going for about half an hour, now; he knows this not because of the time but because of the stage of the mass. The one thing you can say about Catholicism is that it has remained exactly the same for a very comforting length of time.
It is strange to be back in a worshipping church again. He hasn’t been for such a tremendously long time; the secrets he keeps can’t be offered up even here, and can be so hard to worship God when the obvious conclusion of believing in a higher power is that you are being punished for something which you can no longer even remember. But he knows churches well enough to be somehow comforted by the pale lead-lined faces in the glass, the smokey cloying sweetness of incense on the air, the feeling of a hymn book between his sweaty, shaking palms. He knows these services and places, these hymns, he could probably recite this sermon by heart - he could be anywhere, or perhaps anywhen. He is in France again, and with his eyes closed he could be in his home parish once more. Old Father Pierre would be leading the hymn, his rheumy eyes half-closed in delight; his sister’s family in the pew in front and to the left; their neighbours at the very front with their pious faces turned up to the light of God. And his wife would be there, with their little boys on her other side fidgeting and itching to be away and running about in the sunshine, but she would be so still and serene between them that Booker would think her a statue unless he reached out to take her hand and watch a blush like dawn rise on her cheekbones. He would not even need to look; he knew where her hand would be as surely as if it had been his own, and her face was so familiar that-
His hand closes on nothing. Her face vanishes from his memory like smoke on the breeze. There is no-one beside him. He is alone.
Booker leaves before the end of the service.
“I begin to think that you are a curse,” he tells the pigeon when it lands beside him on the roof. “My very own albatross, but mouldier.” He no longer sits up here to smoke, but to think, and to eat pastries from an entirely substandard bakery he has found around the corner. Actually, that would explain the pigeon’s presence rather better than the curse.
He tosses his curse some crumbs. It can’t hurt to appease it anyway.
“Parisian bakeries have gone downhill,” he mourns, staring out over the city with his arms propped up on his knees. The roofs form a grey ocean, washing over the land and choking out the earth; does he hate Paris, now? Or does he merely take his purgatory with him wherever he goes? Booker sighs. “I’m getting old,” he tells the pigeon. “This is what old men do, eh? Sit about and complain about the good old days and wait for it all to be over.”
God help him, Booker looks to the pigeon first with no small amount of existential concern. Then he looks down into the alley, and is greeted with the unexpectedly comforting sight of a small child of indeterminable age, size and gender, wrapped up in a parka which more accurately resembles a duvet and wearing a bobble hat even in late September. They are accompanied by a pale bull terrier of absolutely determinable size, fear factor and probable ferocity; the damn thing overshadows the child and has a really remarkable set of teeth, which it obligingly displays for Booker’s viewing pleasure. He notes, too, the lack of lead or collar. He instinctively draws his feet slightly further away from the edge of the roof.
“Child,” he says with as great an air of world-weariness as he can muster, “the years have been long and largely unkind. This too shall you know, in the fullness of time; if only the times which have come and gone-”
“How old are you?” the child interjects, and Booker frowns down at them. That had been Rimbaud , heathen child; he misses his stints at universities over the years, reading poetry over coffee and allowing the words to sound and resound within him, to be his own and not his own. Shared experiences, spread out across centuries to find appropriate quotation in centuries far from their home and there to be scorned by a small child with a large dog. “Who says this too shall you know ? Not even my grandpapa says that and he’s ancient.”
Booker wishes that he hadn’t quit smoking again. Taking a drag has a far greater devil-may-care appearance than taking a solemn bite of an éclair when gazing into the distance, even though the long-term health effects are probably reasonably similar; Booker does his best with the tools he is given. “I’m older than your grandpapa.”
The child squints disbelievingly, which is perhaps not unreasonable. When Booker fails to elaborate in the face of this ruthless questioning, they rub a grimy hand across their face and sniff. “How come you’re so old, then?”
“I’ve been cursed,” Booker says easily. He doesn’t really care if this child believes him or not; to them, he will be but a weirdo on a roof, eating éclairs and whining poetic about withering age and an infinite variety of bakeries gone stale. The child tilts their head curiously and Booker gestures with his éclair to the bird beside him patiently awaiting more crumbs. “By this pigeon.”
“Wish I knew. You heard of albatrosses? The Ancient Mariner?” The child shakes their head and Booker sighs. “Modern education systems at your fingertips, and yet. There is a boat being followed by an albatross, and this is a sign of good luck, right? But then one of the sailors shoots the bird and terrible misfortune follows. They’re all cursed because of one man, who thought it would bring them better winds and an escape from the ice. The other sailors blame him and punish him; he has to wear the albatross around his neck as penance and bring all the misfortune upon himself. And even though he’s the cursed one, he can’t die, because he hasn’t done his penance.”
Booker closes his mouth and begins beating ruthlessly to death the metaphor-spotting part of him which his tutors had so praised and which is now beginning to say, snidely, remind you of anyone you know?
The child frowns. “You’re cursed because you shot that pigeon?” they say, pointing at the bird which has settled down to murp occasionally and watch both humans attentively, but blankly.
Booker looks at it too. It blinks. “Metaphorically,” he says, looking back at the child.
“My grandmother says you drink too much,” the child informs him, having digested this particular piece of incomprehensible wisdom. “And you’re old-fashioned and rude and inconsiderate.”
He raises an eyebrow. They’ve shouted at each other at least twice a month since he moved in, he and the old woman, and whilst he has a grudging respect for her he doubts that this is reciprocated. “She’s your grandmother?” The child nods. “Pair of nosy buggers, you two are.”
The child laughs and Booker feels a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Says you need to fix your ladder, too. Or it’ll fall off and you’ll die horribly in a fire.”
The child appears entirely earnest and yet wholly unconcerned about this; it suits the truth of the situation better than they know. “I’ll be fine,” Booker says, abandoning the last inch of pastry to the pigeon. It chirrups oddly and begins smacking its beak into it with apparent if haphazard delight.
Someone calls from a window at the far end of the alley and the dog’s ears prick up. The child glances over at the house, and then leans in conspiratorially. “I don’t really think you’re cursed,” they tell him. “I think you’re just not looking after yourself enough.” And then they turn and run to the house which calls them, the dog loping obediently at their side with its teeth fit to eat them whole.
“How old are you?” Booker yells after them, but by the time he’s got over the open-mouthed astonishment of being told, by an infant, that he needs to eat healthily and drink responsibly the child is vanishing behind a door. The pigeon cooes gently and flies off in a whirr of mangy wings, leaving him alone on the rooftop.
Booker clambers back down onto the fire escape and hears the metal shriek under his feet. He won’t bother to mend it, of course - but he can’t quite shake the child’s words. Verses swim up to him unbidden, surfacing with the smell of dusty libraries and the whispers of heated literary debate: these kings of the sky, clumsy and ashamed / pathetically let their great white wings / like oars, drag beside them...exiled on the ground amidst jeers.
Andy is the one to call at the end of September. It means more than he can convey.
“Hey, Booker,” she says easily, as if it hasn’t been months, as if nothing had changed at all.
“Andy,” he breathes, sitting down in his chair hard like his strings have been cut. “You’re - I mean - how are you?”
Andy snorts. “I broke my fucking arm, Booker. It’s awful. I had to get Copley to carry the groceries, it was unbearable.”
Booker huffs out a breathless laugh and folds up in his chair, head on his knees and arms curled protectively over his head and the phone cradled to his ear. He can’t believe it; can’t fathom out a world in which she still wants to speak to him and laugh with him and let him wheeze in delighted shock down the line in return. In consequence, he’s half-afraid of some grand celestial hand descending from above and ripping the phone from his hand. He’d deserve it, but he’d bite and scratch and claw at it all the same. “Sounds awful,” he chokes out, swallowing hard to make his voice work again. “Joe’s come over all chivalrous, I presume?” Don’t think about Joe, don’t think about Joe, don’t think about the fucking betrayal in his eyes-
“Oh, god,” Andy drawls in mocking delight. “I shall have to kill him, Book.” She won’t. Not while not-coming-back is still new and present in their minds. Booker thinks that, even if he is ever allowed within six feet of them, he wouldn’t dare touch any of them at all, just in case. He’ll not hurt them again, if he can help it. “How are you?”
There’s an odd softness to her tone that he’s not heard - maybe ever, actually. Andy’s never been gentle and kind to him in the years they’ve known one another, but that worked for them. And didn’t: Booker is realising, on his own, that perhaps if they hadn’t both raised defenses and shut down all soft edges for two hundred years, he at least might not be here, alone, trying to find reasons not to wish he were dead. He doesn’t blame her for that, nor for keeping a slightly better handle on her own shit and leaving him alone in his betrayal, but. He’s trying, now, and maybe so is she. So he’s honest.
“I’ve stopped drinking,” he says, and the line is quiet for a moment.
“Completely?” she replies, sounding closed-off and wary as she edges out into this conversational abyss.
He hums. “Stone cold. You should-” He stops and rubs his forehead. It’s not her fault. But she should know. “You probably should have called earlier.”
“-can count our sober conversations on one hand, Andy, and she’s been calling every month for half a year.” He hears her breath in, then out: little, clipped breaths that denote - something. Anger, maybe; disappointment, probably. Guilt - he hopes not. He scrubs his hand over his eyes and sighs. “Sorry.”
“Shut up,” Andy snaps immediately and Booker raises his eyebrows briefly in amusement and indignation. Fondness, too; she’s never put up with any of their shit. “Well. You want Copley to set you up with a very anonymous AA, or something?”
He shakes his head. “No. I’m done, it’s - it’s over.”
“Proper little poster boy, are you?” she says, her familiar snide edge creeping back in, and he smiles. God, it’s good to hear her again.
“Oh, sure. I died of alcohol poisoning so you don’t have to,” he jokes back, uncoiling to sit upright in his seat and stare out of the mouldering window. He should clean that; it might be nice to actually see the city again. Sunlight might improve the kitchen, too. Very little, after all, could make the place worse.
Andy hasn’t said anything for too long. “You died?” she says eventually, and he winces. He’d be willing to bet, actually, that he could be the first of them to do so since their split; what happened to Andy has made them all careful, except him. It’s made him suicidally neglectful.
Booker wonders, absently, how little Andy and Joe and Nicky and Nile must think of his morals for this to be a surprise.
“I got better,” he says shortly and hangs up. Immediately, he wishes she’d call back. He wishes he still drank. He wishes he weren’t here, but doesn’t even bother to wish himself back with his post-mortem family - just wishes he weren’t here, or there, or anywhere.
Booker crawls into bed at three in the afternoon and does not put his head above the duvet again. He doesn’t clean the window.
He keeps going to church. He’s hoping for spiritual healing through osmosis, maybe; if he doesn’t participate, but is simply present for adoration unto unknowable powers of ambiguous purpose, perhaps his brain will get the idea and stop hating him so much. It’s become easier, since going cold turkey and talking to Andy, to admit that he does hate himself. Nile had been right: he doesn’t want to live, even if he isn’t actively trying to die.
He hasn’t managed to do anything about any of those things, yet, but. Admitting it is step one, or some other self-help bullshit.
He also hasn’t made it to the end of a service, either, preferring to sneak in and out after it has begun and before it has ended. Like a truant child who will be punished for being there if caught. Booker isn’t quite ready to examine that facet of his relationship to God and prefers to think of it as escaping the notice of the priest for the sake of preserving his anonymity and thus his safety. The man probably has noticed anyway; he undoubtedly has some vision of Booker as a wandering tramp, entering only to briefly experience the light and warmth and wonder of God before leaving burdened with feelings of unworthiness. Well, Booker has a house, actually, you perceptive old bastard, so. Stick that in your thurible and swing it.
He’s not even going to touch on confession.
But unfortunately what he has done is pick the same church to haunt as his neighbours; the tiny child and their grandmother are in the front row every week and the terrier threatens to menace his ankles every time he darts in late. Booker doesn’t think they’ve seen him - it would probably have come up in one of the bi-monthly arguments with the old woman if he’d been disrupting their worship with his lateness. He’d rather they didn’t know, and yet also refuses to go to another church: he likes this one, with its dark wood and dark corners and pale glass faces gazing penitently out of the haze. But he doesn’t want them to know that he likes it, because while it wasn’t oddly embarrassing to admit to drinking too much, it is uncomfortable to concede needing this crutch - this weekly structure of beloved familiarity and the promise of forgiveness. Like the éclair versus cigarette argument, church just doesn’t have the same amount of cool.
Unfortunately for the preservation of his reputation, he hasn’t been sleeping so well of late; he misses the pleasant, numbing haze of drunkenness to quiet his spiralling guilt of an evening and consequently spends hours in the dark glaring at the ceiling and chewing gum as if this is likely to have an even remotely similar effect. Consequently, he falls asleep halfway through the service - the first he knows of it is a small, remarkably sharp finger poked into the space between his eyebrows which makes him startle awake with just enough alarmed flailing to smack his head against the column he’d propped himself up against but not quite enough to fall off the pew entirely.
“The gargoyle is awake!” the child proclaims with apparent delight, hands thrown up in the air like a tiny cultist greeting the tentacled monster summoned from the deeps.
Booker blinks. “Whuh?” he manages blearily. Personally, he’s quite impressed with the presence of mind that his statement displays, given that there is a small worshipper kneeling up on the pew in front and talking about moving statues.
“Émile!” the grandmother snaps. Booker spots her near the altar, talking to the priest. He suspects, with a kind of guilty self-centredness, that they’re talking about him. “I told you to leave that man alone.”
“And perhaps do not call him the gargoyle, hmm?” the priest suggests politely, smiling with benign amusement at the scene.
Booker turns back to the child. “Oh, I’m the gargoyle?” he says, pointing at his chest, and Émile nods enthusiastically. “You’re a gremlin,” Booker tells them in return and the child grins in triumph.
“Émile,” the grandmother says again, and the child slides off the pew and slinks reluctantly up the aisle.
Booker takes this as his cue, using the cover of their conversation to stretch his creaking back and beat a retreat towards the door. But, sleepy and out-of-practise as he is, he is easily waylaid by a young lady with a bright scarf to hold back her afro; he hadn’t even noticed there were other people milling about the church with drinks and cakes until he’d been stopped by one, and now he finds himself dazzled by the brightness of her smile and the brilliant colours in her scarf (he hasn’t seen colours so saturated in forever, it feels like - but Joe once had a jacket that red, he thinks, and then tries not to think) and trapped before her.
“Hey! I don’t think I’ve seen you here before,” she says cheerfully, and she looks so like Nile at her most optimistic and young for a moment that Booker almost sways on his feet. “I’m Caroline. Want some brioche?”
Booker holds up his hands, smiles self-deprecatingly. “No - thank you. I really should be-”
“Monsieur!” And the part of Booker that’s always been a soldier and slightly feudal and rather resemblant of a cringing dog hears authority and turns to obey it. It’s the priest, smiling as he flags Booker down easier than a taxi, bearing down upon them with a pristine power walk. His hand settles on Booker’s shoulder and something loose in him - settles, slightly. No-one has actually touched Booker in months, barring unintentional knocks and Émile poking him in the forehead briefly, and to do so with a view to comfort and steady - well, comforts and steadies him. It also slightly shakes him to his core, but that’s on Booker, so.
“Monsieur, you must try Caroline’s baking, she is a master at work,” the priest tells him firmly. Helpless in the face of a direct order, French patisserie, and Caroline blushing and demurring this praise, Booker takes a brioche and immediately jams it in his mouth to avoid answering any more questions. A side effect of this is that it is very easy for the priest to make excuses and steer him away to an empty pew and sit him down for a chat.
It is, however, excellent brioche, so he’s not prepared to say that it wasn’t entirely worth it. Like, really, incandescently good brioche. If Caroline isn’t a professional baker then this world has even less justice than Booker suspects.
“I have seen you here before, monsieur,” the priest tells him knowingly, and Booker braces himself for the weary-tramp, light-of-God, burden-of-sin story to play out. He’ll nod in all the right places and make his escape. He might see if he can sneak another brioche, though - they really are very good. “But we have never been introduced.” The priest holds out his hand and smiles disarmingly. “Father Jean.”
Booker takes the hand. Swallows. “Sebastien,” he admits. “Sebastien le Livre.”
“Sebastien le Livre,” the priest says, as if committing the name to memory, but he cocks his head curiously at the broad smile that has made a home on Booker’s face without his noticing. “I’m saying it wrong?”
“No,” Booker says, shaking his head. He nearly laughs - there’s such a peculiar joy in it. “No, perfectly - you’re saying it perfectly. I have been abroad for...a very long time. The English-speakers, you know.” Father Jean holds up a hand and smiles in agreement. Booker leans back against the pew and offers up a crooked, bitter smile. “I had forgotten what it sounded like. My own name.”
Father Jean sighs, but doesn’t try to make eye contact; Booker appreciates that space. Instead, they stare down the length of the church to the altar, and the crucifix, and the pale lead-lined faces beyond. “My son,” Jean says eventually, sounding much older than he is, “you have been away from home for far too long, it seems to me.” The man can only be as old as Booker seems to be, but for a moment he is weighed down with the troubles of the world - or possibly just the troubles of Booker, which may qualify for a similar weight class.
Booker - Sebastien grins wryly. Whether Jean means France, or the place which Sebastien actually considers home, with his family, or the place where he grew up, whatever: he hasn’t been home for a very long time. “Yeah,” he says. “You’re not wrong.”
Jean offers him a sympathetic smile, which is - remarkably effective, actually. He feels genuinely comforted. “I won’t ask you to tell me about it. I won’t even ask you to come to confession. But you should stay a while and meet the congregation. Tell some other people your name, eh?”
Sebastien huffs a laugh. “Yeah. Alright.” Jean squeezes his shoulder in bolstering gratitude and begins to stand but Sebastien stops him with a word. “Father? I think - I think I want to confess. But not now.” His throat closes against the words: it’s been about one hundred and fifty years since my last confession. I shot my best friend in the back and trapped my only companions to be tortured and held against their will. He might get there - he’d like to - but not nearly yet.
“Of course,” Jean smiles, sunlight filtering through the stained glass and hazy incense to glint on his slightly crooked teeth. He exudes comfort, like a beloved parent or stuffed toy, and Sebastien allows it to sort and straighten his tangled edges. “God is very patient. There’s time for Him yet.”
Time. If there’s one thing that Sebastien does have, it’s time; but the thought is marginally less horrifying now.
He introduces himself briefly to some of the congregation but spends most of his time being dragged about by Émile and forced to recite as much about the stained-glass saints in the windows as he can remember from sunday school and a theology course in 1886. If he’s honest, he doesn’t mind: the idea of meeting quite so many people and making polite small talk after months of only occasional conversation is a little intimidating. But they smile at him as he passes and they pronounce his name like it’s no trouble at all, because it isn’t, and Sebastien is happy to keep to the periphery and gently, simply, be.
He manages to tell Caroline how good her baking is, though; to drop like a lead weight into a conversation and say, abruptly: “Your brioche was the best thing I’ve eaten in decades.”
“Oh,” she says, and “thank you!” The others laugh - decades, when he can only be forty-five or so! - but she seems so surprised at it, although he can’t be the first person to compliment her. Her skin pinkens slightly and she ducks her head; Sebastien realises she’s blushing over it and hopes she’s just shy. Caroline is very pretty - he isn’t blind - but she reminds him of Nile and Nile reminds him of his little sister Clara and all of that reads emphatically as young, oh, so young.
Besides, he’s a fucking mess; all the “project” partners in the world could not compare.
Afterwards he walks home with Émile and their grandmother Madame Courtenay, the dog wedged firmly and constantly between Émile’s tiny form and Sebastien. Mme Courtenay tuts and huffs the whole way about the city’s bins and sanitation and how, generally, the government isn’t doing enough to keep the city in good, clean repair. Sebastien is inclined to agree, especially as her criticism isn’t presently levelled at him, for a change; he remembers Paris as - well, worse, actually, back in the days before the sewer systems were laid out under the catacombs when the Seine was a disgusting mass of typhoid and shit and people were still hauling it back to their houses in buckets, how did anyone survive as long as they did? But with a mind inclined to nostalgia, Paris had been better then. People had cared about their city. It had been home, and not just work.
Or maybe it is only that Booker had had people to go back to, in those days.
Émile tells them about their schoolwork: they’re bored of mathematics, because it’s all so incredibly easy, but sick of literature because it’s just booooring. Sebastien suspects it’s actually just difficult and that Émile simply doesn’t want to admit that, but that’s the gremlin’s business. Their grandmother objects to all this, too, and Sebastien surfs on a wave of conversation flowing over and around him, to which he is rarely required to contribute. It’s comforting. It’s like being a part of something again.
Back in their little courtyard, Sebastien waves to the Courtenays and hauls himself up onto his fire escape. The metal shrieks and some of the black paint flakes away in his palms. “That thing will kill you,” Mme Courtenay prophesies with a wagging finger as she unlocks her door.
“It’ll be fine,” Sebastien replies easily, and ducks in through his kitchen window.
The following week, the Courtenays knock on his door bright and early to walk him to church. They trap him there, bribed with Caroline’s cooking and a small gremlin wrapped around his leg if he looks liable to bolt, until the end of the social and then walk him home again. They seem to have taken him under their wing, somewhat; Sebastien can’t decide if this is endearing, or a damning indictment of his capability to function as a human being.
They do this every single week.
The dog still doesn’t like him, but his curséd pigeon doesn’t like the dog and so Sebastien sees less of it - which in the albatross metaphor is, he thinks, a good thing. In real life, it means he’s less likely to get worms, or parrot fever, or something, but he still feeds the damn thing when they cross paths on the roof. Won’t hurt.
He talks to Nile and sometimes Andy drops on the line to say hello. It’s not quite so desperate, speaking to her now, but it’s still a kindness he doesn’t deserve to hear her whole and well on the other end. Nile conveys a question from Nicky about how the French are cooking mussels, these days, and Sebastien is tempted to say look it up - how should I know? - but maybe Nicky is just asking for something to have asked after, and so he says he’ll find out. He begs a recipe off Mme Courtenay, copies it out on the back of a postcard of the Eiffel Tower and posts it to Copley’s headquarters. Nile says thanks on Nicky’s behalf the next time she calls.
December is cold, but not as cold as he remembers it; climate change, presumably, or perhaps desensitisation with immortality. Maybe both. Émile goes about these days with barely their eyes peeking out of their many many layers and scarves, their arms sticking out slightly with the indomitable pressure of the puffer jacket. But they’re always chirpy enough to offer Sebastien a wave in passing, through his grubby windows or up to his shivery perch on the roof. He has no idea why the child likes him so much. He would be lying if he said he didn’t care.
He doesn’t do much, though. He reads, haunts churches, wanders the parks late at night and sees more than he’d like to; but he doesn’t do anything. How do you make friends when you’re old, and also don’t really want to make friends?
The Courtenays invite him over for a church dinner before they visit family in the countryside, but he doesn’t go. He’s gone off Christmas, this year.
Sebastien goes to Midnight Mass anyway, because church events have become habit to him now, and for a moment it is beautiful: it is like being young again, and with his family, and yet also with Nicky, that year they sat in the back of a Bavarian cathedral to hear the angels sing and left Andy and Joe to have a snowball fight outside in the small hours until they were done. Nicky’s relationship with religion is - complex, to say the least; Sebastien doesn’t think he actually believes in God any more. But he said once that something in his soul was attuned to latin and psalms and incense, and that it required him to occasionally forgive his many sufferings and hurts in order to experience beauty, which was in itself a lesson of which he must always be reminded.
“Nicolo, darling, you have a beautiful mind,” Joe murmured, leaning in to press a kiss to Nicky’s smile, made saintly with all the self-satisfied, sublime smugness.
“For pretentious bullshit,” Booker had added as he shrugged on his coat to head out into the snow. “Just come and listen to some hymns with me.”
“The beautiful and the bullshit are often one and the same, Booker,” Nicky said, tugging on his boots. “Like the Church, and Christmas, and your readings of Dante.”
“For the last time,” Booker sighed over Joe and Andy’s snickering, “the death of the author means I don’t fucking care if you did know him, my readings-”
And then it abruptly isn’t so beautiful anymore, dulled by hurt and pain as the memories are whipped away as if by an icy wind, but the difference now is that he wants the beauty back. He wants to relive them, and not shut them away; he wants, to his surprise, to talk about it.
Jean finds him when the service is over and the congregation have shuffled out into the cold to hurry home and get some sleep. Sebastien may be a regular now, but he’s not moved from his hiding place at the back; Father Jean finds him easily and settles in beside him with a sigh. “It’s hard work up there,” he says, and means you tell me when you’re ready, for I am listening.
Sebastien swallows with difficulty and hears his throat click. “Will you take confession now?” he asks, voice quiet in the enormous space so recently filled with beauty and song.
“Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It has been-” The familiar words, unrolling like a well-worn carpet from his tongue, wrinkle and halt. “I don’t know how long since my last confession,” he whispers to Jean, as if he were an actor on a stage forgetting a line and begging for help from a prompter in the wings.
“He will know,” the priest whispers comfortingly in reply.
Sebastien settles back into the little booth, walled in by dark wood and a heavy green velvet curtain. It is perfectly dark: scarcely any light creeps in around the curtain, and what does break through is merely pale, thin moonlight distilled through the church windows. There is something oddly reassuring about it, as though the velvet which deadens sound from escaping to the outside world also protects him from any consequences of saying his sins out loud.
“It has been a very long time since my last confession,” he settles on. “I have done - many terrible things, Father, in my time. I have been a soldier, and I have killed again and again and again, and I did it because I thought it was right.” It covers it and doesn’t; he was/is a soldier, he did/does think it was right, but whatever the priest is thinking of - Iraq, probably, or possibly Mali - is not at all what Sebastien means. But whilst it may have been a sin, he would do it again, he thinks: they’ve largely been on the right side of history, and he does not regret it.
“Wars are unfortunate,” Father Jean intones gently. “You have done wrong for good reasons, and now you must do some right. You must help with the church socials: bring food, feed your neighbours, help life to go on with joy so that it may for you also.”
Sebastien tilts his head, huffs. “Father, I cannot cook,” he says.
“If only you knew someone who could cook to teach you,” Father Jean replies dryly, and Sebastien grins into the darkness.
“Father, I will do this thing.”
“Then be absolved of it, my child.”
Sebastien closes his eyes and breathes deliberately and slowly. “Father, I have hurt my friends,” he admits. It is a weight - he has taken it from his shoulders to hold it in his hands, and whilst it is a relief to shift it the burden has become heavier as he says it. “My only friends. I betrayed them and they were injured. I personally injured one of them. They deserve better than me, and I can never be sorry enough for how I have hurt them. I fear they will never take me back. I lied to them and I trapped them and I caused others to hurt them and - and they were the only people who loved me in the world.” He’s crying. He swipes at his eyes with the back of his hand angrily. Who is he to feel sorry for himself, after what he has done. “I regret it with all that I am,” he chokes out.
There is a long pause, filled only with Sebastien’s gasping breathing as he fights it back under his control. “My child,” Jean begins in a voice that is tired and sad, “I cannot make them forgive you. I cannot forgive you in a way that will be as meaningful, but I do forgive you. You have a caring heart, Sebastien, and it is this which hurts you, for I sense that you have seen pains of which I cannot even dream and that you have felt every one. I know that you would not do this thing to your friends without cause, and that this cause would be one in which you believe. I think that you want to do right, Sebastien, and I know that we all make mistakes. It is for you and your friends to attempt reconciliation, but contrition will bring you peace in the end. For you are worthy of forgiveness, Sebastien, and you are and were and will be loved.”
Sebastien stands in the cold outside the church for a while, looking up at the sky. Light pollution has hidden the stars away from him, but the cold clarity of the air is a pleasant contrast to the stuffy post-tears congestion in his head and heart and goes a good way to giving him the anchoring peace he requires. He has always felt a little better after church, especially these night services. He and Nicky would walk home in silence, just peacefully existing together with clear heads before the usual chaos of their home resumed, and Sebastien treasures these remembrances. He wonders if Nicky has been to church this year without him, if Nile will be full of festive cheer albeit in a modern, American, probably-Protestant kind of way. It would have been nice to see that, he thinks.
His phone buzzes repeatedly in his pocket. Nile’s number is lighting up the screen - it can’t be a monthly call this early, but perhaps she’s wishing him the best of the season and has forgotten that time zones exist in some sunny midday clime. He picks up and tucks the phone against his ear, hunching away from the cold into the lee of the wall. “Morning.”
“Morning,” comes the hesitant, edging reply. “I wasn’t sure if you would be awake.”
“Nicky,” Sebastien breathes. His legs fold under him, leaving him slumped on the cold stone and propped up against the church. It’s an effort to do anything in the face of his shocked, disbelieving delight except glue the phone to his ear and drink in every sound Nicky makes.
“Hi,” Nicky replies. He sounds less guarded now and Sebastien has to close his eyes against a wave of wanting, so very badly, to be back with them. “How - how are you?”
“-good,” Booker fights out, scrubbing a hand over his eyes. “Yeah, uh, fine. How are you?”
“Good,” Nicky echoes. “Have you got any - plans? For Christmas?”
When the Courtenays had asked him this, it had prefaced an invite to their home. Booker smacks his hopes and dreams relentlessly until they shut up. “I - I’ve just come out of church,” he says, bringing his knees up to huddle against the cold. “Midnight Mass.”
“Right.” Nicky sounds so cautious and Booker can’t figure it out; he needn’t have called, if he didn’t want to, and though Joe might be annoyed none of the others would stop him speaking to Booker if he wanted to.
“Did you - um. Go? To Mass this year?” Booker says, words white and uncertain on the frosty air.
Nicky hums an affirmative. “For a while. Did it...help you?”
Ah, so Andy did tell them he’d died. Look at her go, expressing things to her friends which have upset her. “Yeah, actually. It’s the same as it was, you know? And confession is - useful, I think. But you could maybe just get a therapist.” There’s a puff of breath which crackles on the line. Booker likes the image it conjures of Nicky, fingers over his mouth, trying not to smile. “The priest is nice. I think you’d like him.”
“Oh, modern, is he?” Nicky says dryly. He has very specific grievances with the Church and is finding their rectification very, very slow in coming. Booker gets that. “I didn’t stay for the whole Mass,” Nicky admits after a pause. “It - it wasn’t the same as it was. I have forgotten how to go to church on my own.”
Booker frowns up at the skyline. “Because you used to live in a monastery?”
“Because I used to go with you.”
Booker slams his eyes shut against the wave of feeling that hits the centre of his chest like a hammer. “Oh,” he manages. It somehow hasn’t occurred to him that they might miss him on anything like the scale on which he misses them.
“I am sorry,” Nicky says tightly. “I did not mean to-” There’s a wobble in his voice and Booker hates it, hates himself for putting it there.
“Don’t be sorry,” he says quickly. “I’m sorry.”
“I miss you,” Nicky breathes in an unsteady voice, and Booker has to clamp his hand over his eyes and just inhale and exhale shakily for a moment. “I miss you all the time, Booker.”
“I miss you too,” he chokes out. “All of you. I was thinking of you when you called, and Nile - is she very festive?”
“Horribly,” Nicky says, voice hitching on a laugh or a sob or both, and Booker huffs in tragic amusement back, breathes carefully through the prickling threat of tears.
“Yeah, I guessed so. And I was thinking about Andy and Joe’s snowball fight in Bavaria-”
“-the year I annotated your Dante and gave it back to you as a gift,” Nicky adds, amused in that way people are sometimes when they’ve very deliberately decided to be. “Do you still have that?”
Booker joins him in his decision. “I think I burned it,” he says musingly and Nicky laughs.
Somewhere in the city a bell chimes, loud enough to carry down the line to wherever Nicky is now - Europe probably, Portugal at a guess from what Nile said a while ago. “You should go to bed,” Nicky says gently.
Booker shuffles to his feet, grunting at the cold which is settling into his bones. “Bloody freezing,” he mumbles and Nicky tuts.
“If you’re outside freezing your balls off I shall be unimpressed,” he warns.
“Go to bed, you old woman,” Booker returns mock-crossly. He’s grinning, though, and it almost certainly bleeds through. He looks at the neon-burnt sky and sighs into the chilled wind; it whistles through him, but doesn’t rip him apart. “Joyeux Noël, mon cher ami,” Booker says gently.
“Buon Natale, mio caro amico,” Nicky replies, and the line goes dead.
January finds him unexpectedly lighter, even in the miserable grey of the city in winter without Christmas lights to cheer it. The new year comes with a new cleaning job across town for Mme Courtenay and Sebastien ends up, somehow, faced with childcare for two afternoons a week, plus a promised cooking lesson on Saturday afternoons from Caroline and then church on Sunday.
He’s never had such a busy social schedule.
With the flat child-proofed in a panic at nine in the morning, Sebastien has little to do but pace and idly fret about his suitability as a provider of care. He had children, certainly, but his were robust, energetic boys and largely the domain of his wife; he never spent any time helping them with maths homework on the kitchen table or cooking dinner for them. He wishes he had, now. It wouldn’t have helped him in the end, but it might have been nice.
Also, he’s over two hundred years old, and Émile is maybe nine. They don’t have a lot in common.
But eventually, inevitably, and yet still sooner than expected, there’s a rattle on his fire escape and a handful of gravel chucked at his kitchen window and when Sebastien sticks his head out into the cold a small, brightly-coloured bundle of clothes waves indistinctly at him. The dog bares its teeth.
“Hello, gargoyle!” the bundle says cheerfully.
Sebastien clambers out and down, closing the window behind him. “Gremlin. How was school?”
Émile emits the kind of careless noise of derision only the French can truly master and Sebastien smiles. “Dull. Can’t we climb in through your window?”
“Nope.” Steering clear of the dog, Sebastien leads them around the building to the entry through the old shop. “It’s too dangerous for you. Your grandmother would skin me.”
Émile makes a face, but does not dispute this point. “This place is cool, though,” they say, picking their way curiously through the building site that used to be the finest bakery in the city, but which has now been ripped apart and revamped enough to be little more than a shell filled with rubble and a mostly-gutted kitchen. “Are you going to open a shop?”
“Probably not,” Sebastien says, and then wonders why he did. There’s no probably about it, surely. “It used to be a bakery. I used to like coming here when I was - younger.”
“As young as me?” Émile asks curiously, they and the dog both sticking their heads in some ancient dusty crate. Their voice is sort of oddly deadened by the box and seems to take a while to reach Sebastien.
“I was never as young as you,” he says dryly and Émile laughs, emerging from the box to head for the stairs and the flat. “I’ve always been old.”
In the flat Émile sheds layers, strewing them absently on the floor, and Sebastien picks them all up and hangs them on the back of a chair on autopilot. The child retains several large jumpers, though, and a beanie, even though Sebastien has turned the heating up specially; he even knows it’s working because he can hear the water creaking and gurgling through the aged pipes. He provides juice in a chipped mug and shop-bought madeleines and then they set down to ploughing through the boggy morass of Émile’s homework.
In literature, Sebastien is invaluable. There’s not a classic on the reading list which he hasn’t read, and very few of which he does not own an enthusiastically annotated copy, and he’s always rather liked trawling through the lines of poetry and prose to find meanings and resonances and beauty. Émile is less convinced, but by the end some of the enthusiasm Sebastien brings is wearing off on them and the child is, if not delighted, then at least cheerful when they finish. He makes a pretty good English tutor, too, although having learned it from listening to other people talk for two hundred years and not from an actual teacher makes him dodgy on grammar rules and names and justifications. It just is is not the answer Émile is looking for, when it comes to why very good is acceptable and very great is not. But they have short conversations and Sebastien checks their spellings and it’s nice to be useful.
Especially as his ability to teach 21st century maths is appalling.
Émile finds it quite funny that Sebastien can’t remember how to do a lot of the work and that, when he can, it’s in some strange old-fashioned way that Émile never learned and is therefore wrong. In Sebastien’s defence, not once in his very long life has he ever actually needed to know the area of a circle and there is literally nothing wrong with long division, Émile; just because your teacher taught you some weird modern way doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
“But you are wrong,” Émile giggles, holding up the calculator with which they have checked the answer.
Sebastien squints at the screen, and then at his workings out, and then back at the child with a hand pressed over their mouth to hold in escaping laughter. “Shut up,” he says in English. “Let’s go back to poetry.”
Sebastien orders them some pizza while Émile finishes their homework unaided, wiggling in their chair in time to the music which they have coaxed from Sebastien’s phone. He neither knows how, or what the songs are, but Émile is quiet and happy and the dog has coiled up under their chair and gone to sleep. It’s - nice.
The pigeon lands on the window sill and puffs its mangy feathers at him twice. Sebastien cracks open the window and pushes a spare madeleine in its direction.
“You shouldn’t feed birds processed grains,” Émile chimes in authoritatively and Sebastien looks around curiously. The child is busy working - on colouring-in, seemingly, but who is Sebastien to judge the educational merits thereof - but looks up to give their pronouncements more weight. “They have to eat seeds. Otherwise their tummies swell up and they explode and it makes them shit everywhere.”
“Really?” Sebastien frowns in concern at the curse-bird going to town on the shop-stale madeleine. This is not good for his albatross, literally or metaphorically. “Shit. And don’t say shit,” he adds, pointing at the child in admonishment.
“You said shit,” Émile points out, putting down their pencil and kicking their legs idly.
“This is my house and I’m a grown-up, so I’m allowed to say shit; you’re a guest and a child, so you’re not allowed to say shit.”
“But you keep saying shit. Why can’t I say shit?” Émile is grinning now, and Sebastien has to really try to keep a straight face.
“Because you have to save your shits for when you really need them, which will definitely be when you’re a grown-up, believe me. Otherwise, if you go around saying shit all the time when you don’t really need to say shit, what are you going to say when you do need to say shit?”
Émile nods profoundly. “That would be shit.”
“Would both of you please stop saying shit?” Mme Courtenay snaps from her place in the doorway, looking furious and absolutely horrified. Sebastien had forgotten that he’d given her a spare key.
“Hello grandmere!” Émile says happily, sliding off their chair to hug her waist. “How was work?”
“Fine, darling,” she cooes at the child, stroking their hair. Oh, to be a child and so easily forgiven. She glares daggers at Sebastien, which seems about par for the course. “How was school? And staying here?”
“Great!” Émile says happily, beaming back at Sebastien. “The gargoyle is really good at English and poetry and stuff and he sucks at maths,” they tell her with apparent pride.
“Really,” Mme Courtenay says with considerably less delight, looking about her at the small grubby kitchenette.
“The gremlin pretty much has maths under control,” Sebastien says, crossing his arms nervously across his chest. He’s really done the bare minimum of functional adult activity this afternoon and he’d hate for even that to be found wanting. Besides, it’s actually been fun. He thinks. Sebastien may not have had fun in almost a year, so he’s out of practise.
Émile grins up at her. “We didn’t know exactly when you’d be here so the gargoyle just ordered some pizza, can we stay?”
“There’s-” Sebastien checks the website on his phone as Mme Courtenay twists her lips in thought, “-half an hour left, but I can just bring them over if you want to head home.” Please don’t head home.
“No,” she says eventually and Émile cheers, scrambling back into their seat to tidy away their homework. Sebastien breathes out slowly, subtly. “We’ll stay. If only because this man has a pretty girl coming over at the weekend to teach him to cook, Émile, and this place is a state! She will turn around and leave you,” Mme Courtenay warns, wagging her finger.
The traitorous gremlin hums in sorrowful agreement, smirking at Sebastien. “It isn’t like that, me and Caroline,” he tries, but this has no effect.
“Nothing for it. We will clean this whole place in half an hour,” she says defiantly, handing off indecipherable bottles and sprays and scrubs to Émile from her bucket of work supplies. Sebastien finds himself holding a scourer, a bottle of oven cleaner and something an alarming shade of orange called Mr Shine . “Roll your sleeves up, then,” Mme Courtenay says firmly. “And we’ll have something cheerful on the radio, Émile.”
“For the last time,” the child moans as they pluck Sebastien’s phone from his listless fingers, “no-one listens to the radio anymore, grandmere. Even the gargoyle has Spotify, and he’s ancient.”
And then - they all simply set to. And the incredible thing is, they actually do get his kitchen clean in half an hour. Sebastien has never been so well-acquainted with the inside of an oven, but he has to admit there’s something quite pleasing about how clean and shiny and not-encrusted-with-blackened-burned-on-food he can get it in the end. His aged linoleum is now far whiter and brighter than he had ever expected it to be and Émile has done a wonderful job of scrubbing the sink.
Sebastien has cleaned his window. He can see Paris through it now as it lights up its fairy lamps for the evening and descends gracefully into the night. He is, in his way, a part of it. He can see the people he shares his city with.
He can also see a pigeon looking weirdly smug as it holds his gaze. Sebastien wishes he weren’t as worried about what he’s been feeding the damn thing as he is.
“Thank you, Émile, Madame Courtenay,” he tells them, with a genuine and awkward little half-bow of gratitude.
Émile beams and bows back with a birdlike little bob; their grandmother just smiles and nods and says “Marie will do just fine, I think.”
“Marie,” Sebastien confirms, the name in his mouth like a gift.
And then they eat pizza and talk about Émile’s day at school and Sebastien and Marie play countless vicious rounds of baccarat as Émile tries to card count and eventually falls asleep across the newly cleaned table. Sebastien carries the tiny child back to Marie’s flat, barely heavier than the weight of their clothes, and deposits them gently in bed. He says goodnight to Marie and puts the empty pizza boxes in the recycling and is surprised to find his phone ringing when he returns to his clean and pleasant home; he had almost forgotten that it was the last day of the month.
Caroline does not run screaming from his flat in disgust at the state of it, although she is rather more fussy about walking through the rubble of the shop to get in than Sebastien had expected and so perhaps he does have Marie to thank for that. Or maybe she just finds the idea of his living over an abandoned shop which could be used for bakery pursuits without putting it to such culinary purposes more offensive than he does.
She certainly finds his paltry skills pretty offensive.
But they get there, sort of, and Father Jean is careful to eat at least one thing from every plate which Sebastien brings to the post-service meeting. Sebastien thinks that this alone should qualify him for sainthood, but by the end of February he’s actually making more things that he enjoys than that he has burnt or underbaked or in some other mysterious way rendered unpleasant, and that’s - progress. Palpable progress and growth. He should have gone back to university decades ago: Sebastien doesn’t think he’s actually learned how to do something since 1952, and the feeling is remarkably satisfying.
He thinks he’s doing okay.
Nile seems to think so too: in between laughing at his more egregious cooking disasters, lovingly and mildly exaggerated for her delectation and delight, he tells her about his neighbours and the congregation at church and even the pigeon, which she makes him name Francois because it was “the frenchiest name I could think of.” He laughs, properly and not just a snort or huff of air, and there’s a long pause on the other end.
“I’ve never heard you laugh before,” Nile says, voice all happy-sad, and Booker blinks at the ceiling for a moment.
“Yeah, guess you wouldn’t have,” he says, tired and a little sorrowful.
“It’s nice,” she says with a tone of immeasurable, youthful hope. But Booker doesn’t want to immediately shut down in the face of it - something uncurls inside his chest, instead, like a leaf unfurling to absorb the sunlight.
He closes his eyes and nods slightly. “It’s nice to laugh, yeah.”
“Tell her the one about the queen, the hedgehog, and the tin of black beans,” Andy’s voice calls distantly and Booker snorts.
“What? What one?” Nile wants to know and Booker shakes his head, grinning.
“No, no; it only works in French,” he demurs.
“And even then, it isn’t funny,” Nicky adds and Booker and Nile laugh. “But he can never get to the end of it without wheezing, and that is funny.”
Booker hears a door open and Copley speaking, too low for the phone to pick up on, and so he drifts in his memories: swapping languages to tell jokes around a campfire just outside the town over hands of cards and hard-fought backgammon battles with Joe; Andy trying to teach them a board game with no dice and no board and only her vague recollections of what the board had looked like to go on; he and Nicky speaking half-arsed Fritaliano when too lazy or tired to pick one language, the other, or neither, and using the common latinate roots to make semi-incomprehensible puns. He smiles. He misses them; it will be nice to do that again.
“Booker, I’ve got to go,” Nile is telling him and he zones back in to make acknowledging, understanding noises down the line. “But - I’ll call you soon. And we’ll...talk?”
“Sure,” he says easily. “I’ll speak to you soon.”
That phrase preys on his mind long after she’s hung up. It sounds important and he desperately wants it to mean we’ll talk about you coming home, but he’s not getting his hopes up. He still hasn’t once spoken of or to Joe. It wouldn’t wholly surprise him if he never does, although it would hurt like a cannonball in the chest. And when Émile tells him he has to come and watch them read a poem in his school showcase at the end of April he says yes, of course, and doesn’t think about the possibility that the call might come and he might leave before then.
He’s glad of that, at least, in the middle of the night after three weeks of no call. Not much else, but he is glad of that.
Émile has a school project, and for reasons Sebastien does not wholly understand this involves going to the zoo and, specifically, doing so with him and Caroline rather than with Marie. It’s possible that she’s working, but no-one will explain it to him and he gives up on finding out quite quickly.
He’s not been to a zoo in a very, very long time and so there is something rather glorious about ambling slowly around, peering past the glass and mesh at lazy creatures sprawled out in the sun. It’s not totally warm enough, but he buys them all ice creams anyway and delights quietly in the way that Émile and Caroline debate the best flavours over and around him and argue over the exhibits they want to see. His suggestions of vanilla and wolves are shot right down, but it’s nice anyway.
Émile picks giant tortoises in the end and spends a long time copying out the shell pattern into their notebook. The tortoise choice makes sense, now; if there’s anything tortoises will do, it’s stay very still so that small children can draw them. Caroline reads them interesting facts from the board: for instance, the oldest tortoise lived to be two hundred and fifty five and was the pet of Clive of India; they can survive six months without food and water; and they can float.
“That’s not that impressive,” Sebastien says absently as he watches the tortoise slowly chew.
Caroline lowers her phone to give him an unimpressed look. “You can do maybe one of those things.”
He remembers himself and grins at her as he settles on the bench to wait for Émile to finish working. “You don’t know that.”
“You’re right,” she agrees easily, sitting beside him. “I don’t know that you can float.”
He huffs a laugh and leans back, arms over the back of the bench. “You can’t prove that I won’t make it past two hundred and fifty five,” he says. He’s not far off, actually; give him a few years.
“Yeah!” Émile adds in support as they shade their sketch. “The gargoyle is ancient.”
Caroline holds up a hand in indulgence of their nonsense. “All right. But you’ll never have been Clive of India’s pet.”
Sebastien laughs and Caroline shoots him a pleased look. “No, that is true.”
Émile wanders over to the board to copy out facts and figures and the adults watch them from their bench. It’s a very familial scene, if somewhat unusual in reality, and Sebastien is rather endeared to it. He can feel it in his chest.
“Imagine living that long,” Caroline sighs.
Sebastien makes a face. “Sounds dreadful.”
She twists to look at him. “No! Think of all the things you could do and see! No-one ever has enough time to do everything they want,” she explains, hands moving expansively as she traces out her long future. “I could actually save enough money to run a bakery in that time.”
“But you’d spend most of it still working your office job,” Sebastien points out. “And think of all the people you’d - outlive.”
Caroline makes a face and swats his arm. “No, in this scenario we’re a society of giant tortoise-people, right? So everyone lives for ages.”
“Well, then it’s just the same as normal life but much longer,” Sebastien retorts. “You’d still have as much or as little time as you do now, really, and you’d still spend it working in a job you hate dreaming of when you’ll have more time.”
Caroline sighs, collapsing in resignation into the bench. She puffs a loose coil of hair out of her face. “So you’re saying the problem is capitalism,” she says in the end, half a smile coiling at the corner of her mouth.
Sebastien spreads his hands - you said it - and she laughs. “It’s not that great, being old,” he says with resignation.
She nudges their shoulders together. “You’re not that old.”
“Émile thinks I’m ancient.”
“Émile is nine.”
“Still.” The child is standing on their tiptoes to trace a picture on the sign, tongue sticking out as they concentrate. “But even if we were tortoise-people, we’d still outlive some things we found precious. What if that tortoise really loved Clive of India?”
Caroline leans into him a bit, watching Émile. Sebastien focusses on the tortoise, steadily munching leaves, and wants to know what it thinks of its very long life filled with transient people behind an invisible glass wall. Is it easier to be wholly separate? Or are tortoises simply not inclined towards philosophic melancholy?
“We outlive things we love now,” Caroline points out gently. “Pets and parents and friends, sometimes; even kids, sadly. Someone is going to outlive that tortoise, even. Something is always going to die before we do, and that’s sad, but it’s also just - the way things are. It’s part of life, I guess.”
They watch Émile trot to the other end of the large window and crouch down to stare the tortoise in the eye. The sun is ducking slowly behind a cloud, grey encroaching over the sky, and at some point they’ll probably have to stampede with all the other visitors to the elephant house or a café somewhere to keep out of the rain. But for now, Sebastien would like to lean into Caroline and watch Émile watch the tortoise watch the world.
“How do you love things, then?” he finds himself asking. Caroline tilts her head to look at him, but he keeps his eyes on his testudinal contemporary. “How does anyone love anything, when they know that it will end?”
Caroline sighs and entwines her arm with his. Her hand slides into his and squeezes gently. “How does anyone do anything? How do people touch things when they know it will break? How do - how do people go on days out in the sun when they know it will rain?” She gestures about them at the oncoming rainclouds. “Because they don’t know when it will happen, but it isn’t happening now. And because, Sebastien,” she tells him sadly, “that is the only way to do it at all.”
One Friday he’s heading back home from the shops with two heavy bags of ingredients Caroline has deemed essential for tomorrow’s culinary endeavours and because of this aims for the shop entrance rather than the ladder around the back. Or he was: a bull terrier - Émile’s bull terrier, Sebastien recognises the teeth - comes barrelling around the alley corner, whines at him, and then sinks its teeth into his coat and tugs him toward the direction it had run from. Deciding not to push his luck with the murderous fangs, what with a sleeve not being so very far from an arm and all, Sebastien trots nervously and obediently along to the alley entrance.
And then he swears loudly, drops his shopping, and runs.
It all happens oddly slowly, and in pieces: the ladder creaks and, with a pock noise and a puff of aged plaster, breaks away from the wall at the top. The midsection bends ponderously with a groan. There is a series of strange popping noises as more of the bolts holding the ladder to the side of the house make their bid for freedom. Émile’s tiny frame careens unstoppably towards the floor with them. A bottle of orange juice rolls away from the bag, bouncing unevenly on the cobbles.
And then it all happens at once: Sebastien is holding Émile in his arms, cradled against his chest, and there are bits of metal and plaster showering down and beating against his back, and Émile is screaming, and the dog is whining and tugging at Sebastien’s trouser leg to get him away from the debris.
The bottle rolls to a stop at his foot. All is terribly, terribly quiet.
Sebastien walks them back to his abandoned bags and sets the child gently on their feet. The dog circles them with nervous care, fussing with a pink tongue at their dusty face, as Sebastien returns to silently collect his lost juice from the disaster zone of plaster chunks and rotted iron. He places it gently in a bag. Straightens. Tries very, very hard not to shout.
“Émile-” he begins.
“I’m sorry about your ladder,” they say very quickly, fidgeting with their scarf nervously. The dog places its massive head on their shoulder in comfort.
“What?” Sebastien says, wrong-footed. “No, fuck the bloody ladder-” and Émile’s eyes widen in surprise and Sebastien has to take a moment to regroup and place his filter back over his mouth. “I don’t - care about the ladder, that’s - well, not fine, but.” He shakes his head and crouches down. “Émile, what the hell were you doing? That thing isn’t - wasn’t - safe; you can’t just go around climbing on rusty ladders. You knew it was breaking, your grandmother kept saying it - why were you climbing it? Do you want to get yourself killed?” His voice keeps rising of its own accord despite his best attempts to keep from yelling, as if his terrible terror that Émile would be hurt were a balloon or bubble which insists upon ascending. “And why aren’t you at school?”
Émile’s little face is red and screwed up, and Sebastien realises they’re crying. “You’re not my dad!” they yell. “You can’t tell me what to do and when to go to school and not to climb ladders! And anyway, you climbed the ladder, you said it was fine - do you want to get yourself killed?”
Sebastien bites his lip and looks away. That - hurt. “Come on, Émile,” he says quietly, getting to his feet and collecting up his shopping bags and Émile’s bookbag.
“Are you going to take me back to school?” the child inquires nervously, wrapping their arms around the dog.
Sebastien shakes his head. “No. You can sit with me this afternoon, if you like.”
“Okay,” the little voice says, and a hand attaches itself to Sebastien’s coat cuff. He juggles the bags awkwardly - at one point has to hold his keys in his teeth - but gets the hand free to wrap it around Émile’s for the short walk up to the flat. He used to hold his sons’ hands, he remembers; the feeling in his own is familiar.
He sets Émile up with a glass of juice and an apple while he puts the shopping away and then sits opposite him at the little table with his own mug of tea. “I’m not going to make you go back,” he prefaces carefully, hands spread to signify peace, “but why aren’t you in school today?”
Émile shrugs and rolls his apple between their hands on the table before taking a bite and finally meeting Sebastien’s eye. “Don’t wanna,” they say simply.
“But we have to do things we don’t like sometimes because it’s important,” Sebastien says gently. “We have to do that sort of thing all the time. And school is important for when you grow up.”
Émile shrugs again. “Not gonna grow up.”
Sebastien eyes the child carefully. “We’ve all got to grow up sometime, gremlin. It’s part of getting old.”
“Not gonna get old either.”
“Not getting old is not all it’s cracked up to be, kid, believe me.”
Émile ponders the contents of their glass deeply, and then takes off their bobble hat. The punch of shock is so palpable that Sebastien doesn’t breathe for a moment. He hadn’t really thought about it - that he’d never seen them without a hat. “I have leukaemia,” the bald child says simply, running a hand over their pale scalp. “I was living with my uncle and aunt in the country over the summer because grandmere thought the air would be better - that’s why you didn’t see me until September, because I’m only here for school and the special doctors.” Émile’s eyes look so large and blue in their head as they solemnly inform Sebastien that they are, at nine years old, dying; that they are so thin and light and cold all the time because of the chemotherapy, because there aren’t enough donors of the right type to provide bone marrow, because life is not fair and is instead largely horribly short.
Sebastien blinks against the void of hurt in his chest. “So, you don’t want to go to school.”
Émile shakes their head. “Nah.”
Sebastien nods. “Fair enough.” The dog lays its long, sorrowful head in the child’s lap and Émile plays absently with its ears. They sit, for a while, in silence. It isn’t fair enough. It isn’t fair at all.
“What were you doing, trying to get on the roof, though?” Sebastien asks finally. “You knew it wasn’t safe.”
“You climb up all the time and you’re way heavier than me,” Émile says, not incorrectly. “I wanted to sit up there, like you do. See if your albatross would turn up. Just - watch it fly for a bit.”
Sebastien leans back in his chair, eyes closed on a sad smile. “Sounds nice.”
“Why d’you climb up if it’s so dangerous?” Émile returns and Sebastien sighs.
“I’m not well either,” he admits to the blank inside of his own eyelids. “Haven’t been for - a long time.”
“Hundreds of years,” the child offers with a weak smile, trying to find their usual joke over his incredible age and having it slip slightly out of reach.
Sebastien huffs a laugh. “Yeah, hundreds of years,” he says, quite honestly, and opens his eyes. Émile looks nervous and worried and Sebastien offers them a smile. “Up here, gremlin,” he says, tapping his temple. “I don’t look after myself like I should. Kind of like your not going to school thing. I lost my friends and I don’t know why I should-” he gestures around him at the still somewhat shambolic evidence of his life, “-keep going to school. Mend my ladders. Clean the flat.”
“Is there medicine for that?” Émile asks with genuine upset. It hurts to see them so worried; Sebastien is abruptly reminded for the second time in an hour that his actions, be they failing to mend the fire escape and using it anyway or simply being alive, have a serious and palpable impact on the lives of those around him.
Sebastien makes a decision.
“Well, you’re helping,” he says, offering the child an encouraging smile and watching it light up their face. “You and your grandmere and everyone else at church. So if you take your medicine and keep going to school, I’ll take better care of myself. I’ll even make the fire escape safe, and you can come up and watch for albatrosses with me.” He sticks out his hand over the table, warmed with afternoon spring sunlight, and finds himself eager to keep his promises. He wants to keep on living. “Deal, gremlin?”
Émile takes his hand and shakes it firmly. “Deal, gargoyle.”
Marie tells him later that Émile simply needs too much fresh bone marrow for the one donor they’ve found to be able to give. The doctors can slow the ravages, but the disease cannot be persuaded to entirely cease.
She cries and Sebastien holds her hand and murmurs soothingly in her little living room as Émile sleeps next door. There is nothing she can do.
“I had a son,” he tells her. “Three - all gone now. But my last died of cancer. He was not so young, but-”
“They are always too young,” she finishes, and Sebastien nods. The remembrance was painful, but it did not hurt to say it. It was - a relief, almost. To say it to someone who still remembers loss enough to sympathise with a grief that will not go away. And to share it in a way that shares someone else’s grief - to have pain and make it helpful in understanding and lessening that of others - that didn’t hurt so badly either.
“To outlive a child is a terrible thing,” she says, and Sebastien holds her hand, and nods.
Sebastien visits some doctors. Starts salubrious, works his way down until he finds what he needs. Gives quite a lot of thanks for the results of his work.
The wonders of modern life is such that, with enough money, all sorts of things can be done cleanly and anonymously and without the risk of septicaemia, which is wonderful. Booker has had septicaemia; he did not enjoy it.
It still basically kills him, of course, having most if not all of his bone marrow ripped out via tubes in his hips. But he’s also hopped up on anaesthesia and the doctor doing this very, very illegal surgery is keen to have it over and done with as soon as possible to decrease the likelihood of discovery, so he floats on a river of pain-free mindlessness, flatlines briefly, and then gets over it. He hands over a cheque, stumbles out whilst the doctor is still boggling at the number of zeros at the end of it, and wanders hazily home.
The disadvantage of his constitution is that the anaesthesia comes and goes far quicker than his bone marrow can regroup: by the time he gets home, he is holding himself up on every wall he comes across and every inch of him hurts.
Émile is waiting outside the shop for him after school with their arms folded, tapping their foot disapprovingly as he comes staggering around the corner. “You said you would take care of yourself!” they yell.
“I am!” Sebastien says, not quite accurately but not not accurately, either. “I’ve just been...to yoga,” he lies, letting them both into the shop and perhaps leaning on the door a little more than he usually might as he unlocks it. “Very stiff muscles.”
“Oh yeah?” the child retorts as they both climb the stairs - Sebastien quite slowly and stiffly. “Show us a pose.”
Sebastien opens the door, ushers Émile into the kitchen and collapses slowly to the floor, lying flat on his back. “This,” he intones solemnly, “is the corpse pose. It’s good for the back, and the...chi.”
Émile laughs despite themself and flops down beside him. The dog wanders over and between them, stopping occasionally to lick some exposed face. Sebastien is just glad that it no longer seems to want him dead. “Chi isn’t real.”
“On the contrary,” Sebastien says, making an effort and raising a finger to the sky. He can feel himself getting better the longer he ceases to try to make his body move, and hold himself up, as well as regenerate his skeleton. “It’s a big Catholic secret. All the priests are secret yoga fans, and that’s why they’re so holy.”
There is a pause as Émile thinks about this. “That’s bullshit,” they pronounce in the end, and Sebastien laughs hard enough to make his ribs hurt for an hour.
Émile has to go to hospital for two weeks to make sure that the anonymous donation works out. Marie is just grateful that there happened to be enough donors, suddenly; Sebastien is grateful that he happened to be compatible against some pretty great odds. He’s also grateful that his immortality meant he could do it. He’s never been grateful about that before.
While they’re away, Sebastien looks after the dog. It’s an uneasy truce: whilst the rescue of its beloved master has endeared Sebastien to the terrier, the sudden removal of said master and placement with said Sebastien has undone a lot of this good work. But the curséd albatross-pigeon Francois is back every day now and looking much less mangy, despite the intimidation attempts of the dog, for Sebastien has purchased twenty kilograms of high quality pigeon feed online at great expense and in doing has rather accidentally turned his roof into a dovecot. Francois remains top of the pecking order, as well he should, and now looks less like an extra from a pigeon-based zombie flick and much more like a normal, actually living pigeon.
This pleases Sebastien, literally and metaphorically. The Ancient Mariner never tried undead albatross rehab; he just whinged, the unimaginative bastard.
He has someone fix his plaster and bolt a proper fire escape onto the wall, and then he borrows a pressure washer from the garage over the road and blasts the alley clean. Cleanish. It’s probably always going to stink of cat piss, but at least Marie can’t complain about his leaving plaster everywhere. She’ll tell him off for saying piss instead.
Sebastien also persuades Caroline to take a day off from her horrible office job and spend it in dust masks clearing out the shop and finally taking down the plywood from the windows. They sit in the middle of the empty room and pencil out a plan of a bakery on the floor; he makes it Caroline’s plan entirely and allows her to tell him, with giggly seriousness, that she hasn’t taught him nearly well enough for him to start a bakery.
They eat takeaway on the floor and talk about her horrible new boyfriend and how horrible he is because he won’t do the dishes when he stays over. In every other respect Caroline seems to find him perfect, but deflects from this annoying fact by picking apart his remaining flaw. Sebastien likes him already. He’ll do nicely, with his smart little banking job, as a financial advisor to Caroline’s bakery.
And then, because this has only taken two days of the fourteen that Émile is to spend in hospital, Sebastien builds Caroline’s bakery. He’s an experienced bodger, having been rather poor and then in the army and then too mobile to find trustworthy joiners, and so it isn’t a very great leap to simply start from scratch. He fits a glass display case and a cashier and shelves behind them, in the exact places Caroline had pencilled out on the floor. He cleans the kitchen. He carts tables and chairs and more chairs inside and sets them out neatly.
And Sebastien looks at it, and is pleased. He is pleased because Caroline will be pleased, and because Émile and Marie will be pleased, and because a bakery of delicious goods will please the neighbourhood better than a boarded-up facade. He is pleased because he has realised that he loves these people and this place and this city, and he has improved it, and he is pleased to live in it.
It’s new. It’s good.
Sebastien sits in his old bakery, in Caroline’s new bakery, and smiles as the sun goes down.
Émile flings himself at Sebastien and is swept up in a hug. “I’m back!”
“You are,” Sebastien agrees, leaning down to kiss Marie’s cheeks. “How are you feeling?”
“Great!” the child says happily, and over their shoulder Sebastien sees Marie nod, tears in her eyes but a smile dancing alongside them. He feels a grin on his face and presses it gently into Émile’s temple.
“I am delighted to hear it,” Caroline says, squeezing Marie’s hand and reaching up to stroke over Émile’s hat. “Especially as Sebastien has a surprise for us and he is being very sneaky, but it had to wait until you got back.”
“Ooh,” Émile says, turning curiously to Sebastien who rolls his eyes. “Did you fix the ladder?”
“I promised you I would do that. That’s not a surprise,” he says dryly.
“I would be surprised,” Marie says, not entirely joking.
“Oh, well then: Marie’s surprise is that I’ve fixed the ladder and washed out the courtyard,” Sebastien says, leading the way around to the shop and ignoring Marie’s noises of genuine unexpected pleasure. “For you two, though: uh, voila.”
“Woah,” Émile says gently. The bakery looks, if he does say so himself, pretty damn good in the spring sunlight. The dark wood gleams and the glass glitters; the houseplants he has installed by the windows per Caroline’s instructions cast wavy, patterned shadows on the floor. The golden typeface on the windows in the old art nouveau style that he remembers from the original declare, in sunbright gold, this to be a patisserie: specifically, Patisserie Émile, established 2021, run by baker par excellence Caroline Berger.
Sebastien is quite pleased with it, all in all.
“It’s for me?” Caroline says, voice shaking. She reaches out to the window, but doesn’t quite touch.
“It’s for you,” he says softly. “It’s a gift. But if Émile wants a job you have to promise to hire them,” he adds, shifting the child on his hip. Émile laughs and wraps their little arms around Sebastien’s neck.
Caroline’s hand flutters up to her mouth and she shakes her head. “I - I can’t take this-”
“Well, the gargoyle can’t have it,” Émile points out, not very diplomatically. Sebastien offers them half a glare as reward for being right. “He can’t bake that well. But you can! And it has your name on it, so.”
Caroline looks to him and Sebastien shrugs. “It does have your name on it.” And then he huffs as all the breath is knocked out of him by her hug colliding en route with Émile’s knee in his stomach.
“Thank you,” she whispers. “Thank you so much.”
“Thank you for teaching me to cook,” he replies, and it’s not quite what he means; he means, for waylaying me with brioche back in autumn, and for seeing me every week, and for reminding me of Nile and Clara until it didn’t hurt anymore and was simply pleasant to think of you all. It’s hard to say that sort of thing. So say it with bakeries.
When he and Émile finally get bored of listening to Marie and Caroline discuss recipes and pricings and seating arrangements, Sebastien carries the child on his back up the ladder and onto the roof as the sun sets. He shakes a handful of pigeon feed out into Émile’s palm and smiles as Francois settles on their arm and chirps with great self-satisfaction. “Your albatross is very friendly now.”
“I think we’ve made our peace,” Sebastien says absently, staring out over the city. In the sunset the grey turns all to amber and gold and the metropolis is beautiful, the roofs like sunlit waves on a distant shore.
“What happens to the Mariner?” Émile asks. “At the end of the poem.”
Sebastien squints at the horizon. “You never really know. He tells his story, recommends that people go to church and love all things great and small, and then vanishes.”
“So he doesn’t make peace?”
He shakes his head. “Not really. He has sinned, and made confession - he confesses over and over again, actually - and he feels contrition, but he isn’t forgiven. The cycle doesn’t-” Sebastien winds his hand in a circle, “-resolve properly.”
“Will you disappear?” Émile isn’t looking at him and is focussed apparently intently on the bird pecking seeds from their palm. “If you don’t make peace with your friends.”
Sebastien puts an arm around the child and tugs them closer. Francois makes indignant pigeon noises, but remains as long as the food does. “All people go somewhere, in the end,” he says. “They move, or die, or go travelling and come back. You might leave me first, gremlin.”
Émile shakes their head, faintly horrified. “No! I’m going to stay in Paris forever and ever and work at Caroline’s bakery.”
Sebastien shrugs and smiles. “It’s a decent plan. And I’m not going to stay in Paris forever and ever-”
“Caroline wouldn’t employ you.”
“-because Caroline would never employ me, yes.” Émile grins up at Sebastien before resting their head against his shoulder. “But I won’t just disappear, I promise. I’ll write to you, if you like.” He thinks he could bear that. Contact, but not visual; the secret preserved against hatred and pain, but still a connection. Not nothing. And when, in many years time, Émile dies, he will mourn. But he thinks he’ll be okay. He’s learned how to grieve.
“Okay.” Francois finishes the seeds and flutters away over the rooftops, the whir of his wings loud over the city quiet of distant traffic and humans and machines. It’s peaceful.
Maybe Booker has recovered, as Nile had wanted him to. He wants to live, he doesn’t see his existence as a curse, he would never do anything like what he had done and not for the reasons he had done it. He likes living in the world. There are nice people in it. And he has helped them, with his money and his marrow and his companionship on those horrible nights when he and Marie had cried together for their lost children.
“But don’t go too soon,” Émile says quickly, looking up at him with wide and imploring eyes.
Sebastien smiles. None of that means that they’ll have him back yet, anyway. “I’ve got plenty of time, gremlin.”
Until he abruptly doesn’t, because Quynh is standing in his kitchen? Holy fuck???
The call goes - interestingly. Booker tells Quynh carefully that he’s just going to contact the others, alright? So just - hang on, and she does. She watches his every move like a tiger, tracking his hand as it moves to his pocket and back again, and it makes him incredibly fucking nervous, actually, so that’s. Neat.
The phone picks up very quickly but all of his delight at this is quickly shut down. “I don’t know who said you could fucking call us, Booker, but they were very fucking wrong,” Joe growls at him.
Booker is almost too shellshocked by his voice to say anything, but as Joe moves the phone away from his ear to hang up he jolts into life. “Nonono Joe don’t hang up, please, Quynh’s here, Quynh’s here in my flat and-”
“What?” Joe says, and then the room at the other end of the line dissolves into absolute carnage.
Booker holds the phone at chin level as tinny yelling emits from the device. He chews his lip as Quynh stares at him. “It’s not usually-” he begins, gesturing uselessly at the phone, and then gives up. She’s known them longer, anyway. But he has the strange need, anyway, to defend them to her. He holds the phone out. “Do you want to-?”
She tilts her head, thinking, and then shakes it. Continues leaning idly on his kitchen counter, as if this were a wholly normal thing to be doing.
The noise quietens and Booker sets the device back to his ear. “Booker?” Andy says and he hums. “Put Quynh on.”
“Um. She didn’t - do you want to speak to Andy? Andromache,” he tries again, but Quynh remains still and out of reach. “She says no,” Booker says nervously.
Andy emits unimpressed silence.
“She does really want to talk to you,” Booker tells Quynh.
Quynh clears her throat and says, loudly and distinctly for the benefit of the telephone, “She had better come here, then.”
“We can be there tomorrow morning,” Andy says immediately and the line goes dead.
It then promptly begins ringing again and Booker accepts in bemusement. “Booker, can we have your address please - none of the others think that it’s super weird to use Copley to stalk you,” Nile says with deliberate emphasis.
Booker laughs, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Ah, lovely Nile, too good to stalk,” he says gently and delights in her giggle. “Patisserie Émile. Ask at the counter for me.”
“Sebastien!” Caroline calls up the stairs at half eight the following morning. She sounds a little nervous, and Sebastien thinks that that’s probably fair. “The people looking for Booker are here.”
He offers Quynh a bolstering smile, which she digests with apparent ambivalence, and pushes the coffee pot towards her. “Thank you, Caroline,” he calls back, trotting downstairs into the bakery and - there they are.
They all look well. He’d half expected Andy to have aged hugely, but she seems fine, as is to be rationally expected; Nile looks pleasingly easier in her skin than when he’d left; Joe and Nicky look exactly as they ever have. Booker smiles.
“Sebastian, is it?” Nicky says. The corner of his mouth flickers, hiding his smile.
“Sebastien,” Booker corrects gently, not bothering to hide his own smile so well. “This is why I go by Booker around you lot. You never learn.”
And then Nile is bounding forwards and he has to hug her back just to stay upright in the full force of her. Her hands fist in his shirt and her face is pressed into his neck and she is just wonderful to have happy in his arms again. “Hey,” she says, muffled by his shoulder.
“Hey,” he says. Over her shoulder, Caroline is smiling at them but turns back to studiously wiping down the counter when he spots her. Well, fine. Let them see him happy.
He lets Nile go and offers the others an awkward grin. “Come on up, then.”
Quynh is exactly where he left her, but now sipping contemplatively at a cup of coffee. Andy stops dead just inside the door at the sight. Joe slides his hand into Nicky’s, as if unsure whether he’ll run forwards or collapse and bracing against either possibility. Nile just flicks her eyes between them all uncertainly.
“I’ll get out of your way,” Booker says with forced cheer, and flees.
“The others are still talking, but Caroline told me where you’d be.”
Booker sits up out of his half-folded position sitting on the bench with his head down and elbows propped up on his knees. He’s both surprised and not surprised that Joe has found out her name, even though he does overpronounce the -ine; for some reason, and Booker suspects celestial punishment, he has found himself trapped for eternity with people who just can’t get the hang of French names. But Joe has ever been the friendliest of them, except perhaps Nile, now, and it is no surprise at all to think of Joe caring to ask after Caroline a little before asking after Booker. It is, after all, why Booker often thinks he loves Joe the best, and has tried the hardest not to think of him: Nicky may have similar conflicts over Catholicism and modernity, and Andy may be his first point of commiseration over loss and age and Nicky and Joe being disgustingly coupley again, but Joe - Joe is just his mate. It’s with Joe that he watches very shitty action films, and with Joe that he goes out to sports bars during the World Cup, and with Joe that he can just sit and be, however briefly, a normal bloke with a normal friend.
“Yeah,” he manages when his throat can be persuaded to work around the lump. “Yeah, she made me tell her where I was going in case you asked. I think you, um,” he makes a circle gesture with his hand to encompass all of them, “scare her.”
“I think she could take me,” Joe says thoughtfully as he settles down beside Booker, who huffs in amusement and eyes him sideways. It doesn’t exactly look like Joe has been slacking in training in the months that Booker has been away; he doesn’t quite buy it. Joe leans back and raises an eyebrow at Booker, reading his doubt, and nods. “Seriously. She’d scratch my eyes out if she thought I’d hurt you.”
Booker grins at his feet, shrugs. That he can imagine. “Well, she has spent a long time teaching me to make croissants. Hours of good work invested, there.”
“Why were you making croissants?” Joe inquires after a pause. “Aside from because you’re the Frenchest man alive, I mean.”
Booker stares out in faux-contemplation across the park. “I believe it was to stop me going to hell,” he says very seriously.
Joe barks out a loud laugh and it is as if something in Booker’s chest clicks, shifts, and settles into place. The cool, closed-off tone has bled from his voice and now Booker is treated to that loud, booming laugh and - it’s like a puzzle piece found behind the sofa being returned home. God above, has he missed Joe.
Joe scrubs his hands down his face, grinning and shaking his head. “See, this is why I didn’t want to talk to you sooner,” he says, and Booker freezes into a pained smile. “You deadpan fuckin’ asshole, making me laugh, making me love you.” Joe spreads his hands, sounding annoyed and amused in fairly equal measure. “I literally cannot stay mad at you.”
Booker swallows hard, arranging his face into something carefully neutral. “Have you been - I mean, could you have forgiven me by now, even if we hadn’t spoken?”
Joe turns to him with sad, dark eyes. “Oh, little brother,” he says with such terrible softness that Booker has to swallow again and squint away into the sunlit park. His eyes are stinging but he will not blink; just watches families and children perambulate about along the lime-lined promenades through thick, blurry vision. And then strong arms wrap around his hunched shoulders and head, hauling him into a half-hug which could also probably be termed a headlock, and Joe is gripping his arms hard enough to bruise the feeling into his bones. Booker flails an arm up and fists one hand in Joe’s sleeve. He can’t quite breathe, choking on fabric and muscle and unshed tears, but he only pushes closer into Joe’s warmth.
“I wish you didn’t hurt so much,” Joe says, voice angry and wobbling as if furious at being upset. “I wish you didn’t get so hurt, and I wish you weren’t in pain, and I wish it didn’t hurt so much to love you, sometimes. But I’d do it all over again, Booker, I’d love you and let you hurt me and I’d do it again and again until I loved you enough.”
Booker shakes his head awkwardly in the cage of arms and cloth. “It wasn’t your fault,” he chokes out.
“Whose fault was it, then?” Joe says, shaking him angrily.
He receives a smack in the arm for it and then the headlock resumes. “Depression, Booker. That’s no more your fault than ‘flu.”
Booker taps Joe’s arm twice and he is reluctantly released. It’s weirdly bright now after the pleasant isolation of Joe’s arms, but he can at least breathe. And also look at Joe, who is glaring at his own shoes as if they’ve personally offended him. So he slides his own foot over and presses them together, edge to edge. “Yeah, okay,” he admits. “I wasn’t well. I did some - pretty self-destructive shit, though, and I knew I wasn’t okay, but I didn’t - stop, or tell anyone. I didn’t try to get better. That’s on me.”
“But we didn’t stop you either,” Joe says, and Booker closes his eyes at the realisation that this, as much as anything, is the most exquisite point of Joe’s agony. Maybe this wasn’t just punishment for Booker, but also self-inflicted penance for Joe - to be cut off from a friend and to refuse to see them and to wallow in guilt alone. “We didn’t help you. We saw you get worse and worse and we did nothing to help you except send you away to drink yourself to death over and over again.”
“I only did that once,” Booker interjects, and Joe’s head snaps up to shoot him a vicious glare. He sighs. “Look, Joe, I don’t blame you for any of that. Really. And - I don’t know that you could have helped.” Joe looks wounded and Booker backtracks. “You could, but - not as much? This - being here - this has helped. Just - being normal for a bit. Remembering to exist outside of just us, and making a difference that you can see, and, you know, not being extremely violent all the time.” Joe huffs a laugh, folding his fingers until his knuckles go white, and Booker takes the plunge. “It has been nice,” he says carefully as he slides his own hand between Joe’s and holds on, “to make a positive change as a human person and not just as a very dangerous weapon.”
“You always have,” Joe says quickly, wrapping his fingers around Booker’s hand and holding on. “To us, but also - Copley has all these files on us showing the difference we’ve made, and it was - it was a lot. You should see it.”
Booker nods. He’d like that. He doesn’t think about whether that means he’s being invited back.
They sit like that for a while, just watching the world go by and holding on to one another, but Booker doesn’t feel isolated, or like he’s stuck on the other side of a glass window like a tortoise at a zoo; it’s just pleasant to sit quietly, with a friend, and allow time to pass without counting the minutes as they go. People-watching is an underrated pastime, he has found.
“So you’re saying,” Booker says eventually, ignoring Joe as he turns to look at him, “that, in order to gain purpose in life and achieve a sense of direction and discover the meaning of our existence, I had to live alone in Paris for a year and drag myself to church functions and at points actually die, and you lot got a powerpoint presentation?”
Joe nods solemnly. “It was a really good powerpoint.”
“But you couldn’t have emailed me a copy before I left,” Booker retorts dryly and Joe snorts. “A USB stick in the mail, Joe, it’s not much to ask,” he says, slowly losing his straight face as Joe squeezes his hand tighter and laughs.
“Next time,” Joe promises, leaning into Booker’s side and pressing their shoulders together.
Booker drops his head into Joe’s temple with a smile, and together they wait for the others to find them. He doesn’t worry about there being a next time.
He sits in the front row of Émile’s school showcase with Marie and provides lots of encouraging smiles as the child stumbles through their poetry reading. The performance was not, perhaps, quite as good as some of the rehearsals, but in Sebastien’s eyes nothing will quite surpass Émile’s declamation from atop the kitchen table, projecting out of the window to their grandmother in the alley and Sebastien on the roof to make sure that everyone in the auditorium would hear clearly. But Émile beams down at them as they applaud loudly, and as far as Sebastien is concerned no child there could possibly hold a candle to the gremlin.
Émile bounds out of the backstage area with proportionate levels of enthusiasm at the end, ready to be praised and kissed by their grandmother. Sebastien runs his hand over the child’s inch-long pale hair which sticks out straight like a hedgehog and grins as their dog delightedly slobbers over them in greeting. “Well done, gremlin,” he says gently, and Émile shines with delight.
“Have your friends gone home now?” they ask on the walk home, holding handfuls of Sebastien’s hair. In truth, Émile is getting a little heavy to be carried on his shoulders, but tonight they deserve a triumphal procession and they shall have them as long as it takes for Sebastien to concede that, yes, Émile does resemble the weight of a usual nine-year-old and might have to put up with piggybacks instead.
“They have indeed,” he says.
“Were you not allowed?” Émile says, sounding rather worried. Also indignant, and Sebastien is reminded of what Joe had said about Caroline. What he did to deserve such enthusiastic defence, he isn’t sure, but he must admit to some delight in it.
“Émile,” Marie chides.
“No, it’s fine. I was allowed,” he tells the child, who leans down curiously. “But I thought I would stay here a while longer.”
“Why?” Nile says, looking upset.
Booker shrugs. “You’ve got Quynh now.”
“She’s not replacing you,” Joe points out sharply.
“She needs time to settle in again. You need to be a team again, which means fewer...rogue elements while you figure it out. Quynh doesn’t have anywhere else to go, really, but I - I can wait. And we’ll regroup when we’re ready.” He is surprised to find how much he means it. He’s not ready to go back, not really; he certainly isn’t ready to try to figure Quynh out. It’ll work better this way.
“But we can come and visit you,” Nicky says uncertainly.
“Oh, God, yes, please keep calling and please come to see me sometimes,” he blurts out and all of them relax slightly into smiles for the first time since Booker said thanks, but no. “I’ve missed you all so much and I would love to see you. But I think this is the best way of dealing with it.”
Joe narrows his eyes, fighting a grin. “You’re trying to escape hearing Andy and Quynh’s incredible make-up sex, aren’t you?”
“Oh, obviously. You’re all mad for not trying.”
Nicky laughs. “Maybe we should take that holiday in Malta, darling,” he says, batting his eyelashes at Joe. It is one hundred percent effective.
“What the hell am I supposed to do?” Nile objects futilely in the direction of the two lovers making eyes at one another.
Booker laughs. “Firstly, welcome to my life; secondly, you come and third-wheel with me.”
They all grin at him, and finally Nile nods. “Okay,” she says. And with that, they leave him.
“Because - I like it here,” Sebastien says. “And I had to see the gremlin perform, obviously. Caroline is going to teach me to make mille feuille next week. I still have milk in the fridge. I couldn’t just go.”
“How long are you staying, then?” Marie asks in a deliberately offhand way.
He shrugs. “Couple of years, maybe.” Privately, he reckons on until Émile departs for university. That seems like a good point to make the change.
“Will you stay forever?” Émile asks, clinging to his head.
Sebastien smiles and squeezes their ankle. “No, gremlin,” he says gently. “Nothing stays the same forever. It wouldn’t be any good if it did, either. Loss makes life meaningful; you have to keep on loving and losing, otherwise you don’t appreciate what you have. But I’ll stay for a good long while, I promise.”
High above, a well-fed pigeon circles further and further into the grey clouds and then, with a beat of its wings, soars solemnly and silently away.