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Even Though I Watched You Come And Go

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Notes: Post-2x12 - To The Lost. A latecomer written for the Boardwalk Empire Comment Ficathon.

o o o

you know in all of the time that we've shared
I've never been so scared
doll me up in my bad luck
I'll meet you there

The boys don't understand. Boys usually don't.

"What the hell you want in Philly? All they got is sandwiches and bells," Charlie hides unsure behind angry. Hides confused and worried, too. You always see through it, but you're polite enough to pretend you don't (until it suits you).

"It's the company in Philadelphia that interests me, not the tourist attractions," you raise an eyebrow, allow the hint of cool amusement. "But maybe we'll eat a sandwich and look at some bells."

Meyer's never as obvious, clever watching eyes and a wall of careful good manners. "Perhaps this company would have ideas about Hog Island and its taste for Chinese lanterns?"

Fishing expedition wrapped in a suggestion. This one is so young, but he learns well. Maybe too well. You think of Atlantic City and horse stables, card games and conversations started on the very edge of your knowledge. You smile over the pang it gives you. "Perhaps," you tip your hat as you leave. "Good day, gentlemen. Try to keep out of trouble."

Legs drives you. It's not that you can trust him any more than you can Meyer or Charlie -- you can't. The difference is you never lost sight of that with Legs.

The pups are hungry. You've always known. It's half of their appeal. It's just maybe you didn't expect them to try and get a bite out of you quite yet.

More's the reason for this visit. You need to get your head straight.

"You can let me out here, Jack," you tell him two blocks away.

The look he gives you is straight out of the Chaplin pictures you never bother to see, a perfectly executed double-take. Carolyn would be jealous. "What, here? Right on the street?"

You're already opening the door. He hurries to brake, and you step out while the car is still rolling. "Pick me up here as well when I'm finished. An hour should suffice."

Legs is smart enough not to argue. You watch the car disappear around a corner, then button your coat for the walk. September has arrived cold this year.

You still know the way, even after all this time. There isn't much you forget, and in any case, Manny Horvitz is the kind of man who leaves an impression. To say the least. The shop's just as you remember, too, down to the pale green beadboard walls and little chiming bell on the door. The men working inside are new, though; more than you've ever seen in this place. Hard looking men.

Rough times breed rougher company.

They all stop what they're doing to watch you. A younger man comes around the counter, hands open and polite with heavy, bruised knuckles. "Can I help you?" he asks. His accent tells you somewhere near the Black Sea, and not more than a few years back. "We have some nice roast today, very fresh. A supper worthy for Shabbos."

You wear your gambler's look, mild that gives nothing away. "I have an appointment with Mr. Horvitz. I'm an old friend from New York."

"I know who you are," a man in the back with a scarred face and one eye, cigarette in mouth and cleaver in hand. His stare is flat, burns right through you. He takes a drag, and nods to the closed door in the corner. "Come with me."

So you do. Talk resumes when you leave, a waft of Yiddish that follows you out before the man shuts the door again behind you.

He leads you into the basement, the winter and silence of the meat lockers. It's both eerie and soothing to you, this stillness. Nothing is still in your world.

But this is not your world.

He's waiting for you, a wolf in its den; smoking at a little table just outside the harsh overhanging light. There's a bottle and a drink in front of him, and a second glass sitting, empty like the chair behind it.

How you've missed this old wolf's face. "Munya," you don't restrain the affection in your voice. "It's been too long."

He stubs out his cigarette, and grins, fierce and bone ivory, warm. "Boychik," he stands, and you allow yourself to be pulled into a friendly embrace. He smells the same, smoke and Pears' soap and leather, and when he claps you on the back, it reverberates through your chest like a shot. "So you finally got around to visiting the alter kocker."

His hair is more silver than black now, but he has the same thick muscles and immense strength you remember, and his eyes are sharp as ever. You smile. "You don't look so old to me, my friend."

"Flatterer. Come, sit," he waves you to the empty chair. The wood is hard, cold even though your layers of fine wool. "Have a drink."

You don't normally indulge, but this is the man who gave you your first taste. If you can't share a nip with him, then who? "Only one," your hat goes on the table, and you pour yourself two fingers, shoot him a pointed look. "I learned my lesson with you a long time ago."

Munya laughs. "How was I to know you can't hold your liquor? And I should be the one complaining, it was my new suit you got sick all over," he raises his glass to you. "L'chayim."

You touch rims, and the clink sounds like the bell on his door. "To life."

It burns all the way down, sweet cloves and tart orange blooming on your tongue. You breathe perfume, fire. Your mouth is a little numb, and everything below it.

Maybe one more wouldn't hurt. You sip it this time. "And how is it? Life?"

Raw flicker in his face. "It goes on," he fills his glass to brimming, and drinks it all down in one swallow, then reaches for the bottle again.

Looks like you aren't alone with the ghosts of summer. "Sure beats the alternative, I'd say," you cock an eyebrow. "I'm told you had a near-miss."

Munya's grin is vicious this time, sharp and thin as a wire. "More near than miss," he loosens his tie and unbuttons his collar, tugs it aside to show a scar so fresh it's practically still a wound, livid red and ugly.

You pause. "The year's been unkind to you."

"You're telling me. This business with Atlantic City, the Darmody boy...ah, well, I'm sure you heard all about it," he looks away, mouth twisting. "My wife doesn't speak to me now. She asks me for a get, can you believe that?"

No, actually, you can't -- that she would ask, nor that she lived to do it. "I'm sorry to hear that, Munya," and you are. You remember meeting his wife so many years ago, a young dark-eyed woman with slender hands, a wide smile.

You remember how he adored her.

"You know the worst part? I can't even fucking be angry with her," he shakes his head in disgust. "I bring violence to our home, our family...she has to take our daughter and hide because of what I do. Such grief! Who could blame her for turning her back on me?"

You've never heard him defeated before, in all the years since you were a green and hungry teenager trailing in his wake. Manny Horvitz, who didn't bow to anyone or anything. It makes you...uneasy.

"So you're going to grant it to her? The get?" you tread cautiously. It never pays to jab at a wounded animal.

Munya's shrug is a little stiff now, a little pained. But what wound has done it -- the hole carved in his shoulder or the one in his house -- is a question without any solid answer. "What's my choice? It's that or kill her, and I refuse to," and there's something you can't name in his eyes, a darkness. Black and deep, haunted. "I've brought enough suffering to women for one life, I think."

Your ears thrum with the weight of what's unsaid. A chill creeps up your neck that has nothing to do with sitting in a meat locker.

There is a tale here, and blood. You're certain you want no part of either.

At last Munya chuckles, rueful, and pushes his empty glass away. Seems you've both learned a thing or two about limits. "Enough kvetching. You wanted complaints, you'd go to your mother-in-law, right?" his glance falls to your ungloved hands, neat fingernails darkened in the cold. He catches one, chafes it between great huge palms, thick fingers. "Oy, you're like ice! I forget your thin blood, boychik. You should have said something. We'll take this upstairs, thaw you out."

Butcher's calluses scrape rough, but his hands are warm and careful, fond. You'd almost forgotten how tender Munya could be with you.

(if you were one to forget; if such a thing could be forgotten)

It's more of a comfort than you can admit, this small touch. You pat his wrist, smile hiding in the crook of your mouth, and that's as close to acknowledgment as you'll come. "I like a little cold. It's good for the thinking," you allow yourself one small indulgence, a fingertip edged beneath his watchband, barest graze against the soft skin over his pulse-point. Then you withdraw, smooth and cool again as glass. "Clears the mind."

Munya leans back to regard you, amused, arms folded over his broad chest. "Then let's cut the bullshit and discuss what you came to, before you freeze your way to genius."

You swirl the mokrukha in your glass, try to turn this knot of bruised and tangled feeling inside your stomach into words. "It's Mr. Darmody who brings me here today, actually," your voice is modulated, carefully even. "I have a delicate situation to handle."

Munya raises his eyebrows. "And it's me you come to for advice? That's interesting."

Isn't it, though. "I find experience is often a solid bet," you flick a glance up at him. "Recent is even better."

He's curious. You can read it in his eyes, that spark. "All right. What's this situation of yours?"

"My proteges," you call them, instead of what they are (your boys, yours). "They've been making new friends lately. Friends like young Darmody. I suspect they may have been making plans like his as well."

"Shameful little pricks," Munya is gruff, sympathetic. "I tell you, a hunt iz a mol getrei'er fun a kind."

A dog is sometimes more faithful than a child.

It stings you more than you expected. More than it should. But that's why you're here -- what you came to fix.

"The natives have settled again...for now," you set your glass next to his, shape in the dim light like a Moebius strip. "But it occurs to me a day is coming when it's more than just talk of revolution, and I'll have certain decisions to make. I thought some measure of preparation was in order."

Munya watches you closely. "What question are you asking me?"

"Nucky Thompson," your mildest, blandest tone. Shark's eyes. "How did he kill James Darmody?"

Surprise ripples across Munya's expression, gives way to something hard, glinting carnivorous. He takes a cigarette out of the case in his breast pocket. "How? A pair of bullets through his face, chavver," his smile is jagged, savage. Ruthless. "The first was a little sloppy, sure, but the second did the trick. You want I should point out where to aim for?"

"That wasn't what I asked," calm like you're ordering lunch, and you lean unflinching into his stare. You never flinch. "I want to know how a man kills his son."

Understanding shades him, softens his sharper edges. "The same way you kill any other man's son -- you come to a line, and then cross it," he strikes a match against the tabletop to light his cigarette, and its pinpoint guttering flame throws his face into stark relief. Heavy brow, thoughtful narrowed eyes. "The better question, I think, is where such a line begins and where it ends."

"And where would that be?" you ask. Even if you knew, you'd ask. Much is revealed, hearing how a man will choose to tell you something.

Hiss as Munya drops the blackened match into his glass. "You gamblers, you learn this early. What happens when you play a game long enough?" deep drag, and the smoke wreathes him like laurel, apparitions. His look at you is measuring. "The house wins."

Vague unease. You think maybe you're getting an idea where this is leading. "Usually," you say. Nearly always.

He gestures to you with the cigarette. "You and I, Arnold, we're gambling men. We make our plays, take our chances. Sometimes we win, sometimes not so much. We've both been lucky enough up to now. But eventually -- and ah, here's the catch -- eventually luck runs out. And there's always another fella waiting to take your place at the table."

Cold settling in the pit of your stomach, sinking and still. You listen to the slow beat of your heart, thunderous, and say nothing.

"You're young enough yet, maybe this is the first time you really feel it. That breath on the back of your neck. The young men behind you, sharpening their teeth," Munya holds your eye, that mix of cruelty and compassion you've found yourself pinned beneath more than once. "It's the way of things, this life we've chosen. All are watched, all are hunted. The tiger rules over the jungle for now, sure, but tell me," his eyes glint in the shadows. "How many old tigers do you know?"

None. There are no old men in your world, only retired men and dead ones. You can't smooth the furrow from your brow, the curl in your fingers. You can't, and that's how much this has you shaken. "Let me see if I follow you," sharp voice, frustration (fear) leaking. "Betrayal and death are an inevitability of our business, and so I should do...nothing? That's what you're saying?"

"No, boychik," he releases you at last from that deep, merciless look, taps ash from the cigarette neat into his glass. Still the tidy monster you remember. "I'm saying trouble already comes for free to men like us, so think carefully about what trouble you go looking to buy. Take it from somebody who knows," he exhales, silver in the dim frozen light, and his gaze falls distant. "Everything costs. Everybody pays."

Wives. Children. Blood. These are the coin the men around you have spent, the sacrifices asked and made. What will you be willing to part with?

You stare at your hands, steepled in your lap. White knuckles. You don't have an answer to that, not yet. "So these young men," your sons, because that is what they are; the only sons you will ever have. "How would you deal with them?"

Munya smirks, wry and crooked and dearer to you than you'll ever say. "Well, we both know what I'd do," he chuckles. "But I'm just a tiger in a butcher's apron. You, you're the famous brain. So why don't you tell me," sly now, because he knows he has you, and this is the reason you will never work together. Munya Horvitz has always seen right through you. "You climb every mountain you find, or only the ones you can't walk around?"

A shlekhter sholem iz beser vi a guter krig.

You sit in silence, let it all sink in. Fitting pieces together. "Thank you for your time, Munya. You've given me plenty to think about on the ride home."

"Nothing you don't already know," he takes your discarded drink, fits his mouth over the print you left, and finishes it. "You always were a smart fella. Maybe even as smart as you think."

His breath is sweet orange, bite of liquor. You press your lips together to keep from licking them. "Very nearly."

You take your hat, cold against your skin, but that's good. You like the sharpness. Munya walks you upstairs, and the two of you make smalltalk about old times, the pool rooms you used to work, the plays he used to drag you to.

He opens the door for you, like you're still that boy who followed him, who watched and learned. You emerge, and anemic as it is, the autumn sunlight still glares harsh in your eyes. Makes you long for cool cellar twilight again, like the closets and basements you'd hidden in as a child. Since you can remember, darkness has been your most comfortable companion.

Some things don't change. But you look at Munya's silvered hair, the men that fill his shop, and think it's very little that doesn't. "It's been good to see you, old friend," you smile, extend your hand to shake. "You should come out to New York sometime. We'll take in the Follies, and I'll introduce you to Fanny Brice."

"Well, well, a show and a nice Jewish girl. Who can turn down an offer like that?" Munya laughs, and tugs you to him, handshake into hug. And you let him. You've always let him. His hand is hot on the back of your neck -- it feels exposed somehow when he finally pulls away. "Now go home, and keep your Young Turks fed. Maybe they won't be so quick to pick at your bones."

He respects you too much to call you 'boychik' in front of his men, but you hear it echo. More than two decades since you met, you know what you'll be to him forever.

The bell chimes when you leave. You pull your collar higher against a wind like icepicks, the burning shape of a palm, and don't know if you'll ever see Munya alive again.

You walk away without looking back.

To his credit, you wait on the corner for only a few minutes before Legs turns up. Either he keeps his watch wound or he's been circling the block all this time, and it doesn't matter which to you. All you care to do is climb inside. "All right, Jack," you say. "Let's go."

You don't see the boys until the next day. It's good to let them sweat a little longer, you feel, if they're so inclined to. If not, well, the wait wouldn't kill them.

They arrive while you're still eating breakfast, scanning the papers. "Afternoon, gentlemen," you sip your milk, and nudge the plate of cookies towards them. "Care for some gingerbread? It's excellent for the digestion."

Both are dutiful and take one, though you know Charlie detests gingerbread and Meyer doesn't care to accept food from another man's plate. They nibble like polite schoolboys while you all go through the niceties, and you find it interesting -- and amusing -- that they still try to please you so. There's a dark, sharp part of you that enjoys making them squirm.

There's another part that warms with pride, something like affection, and cannot picture destroying these golden vicious boys. This has never been a problem for you before.

Is this what it means, to have a child?

"So, how was Philly?" Charlie can't hold back any longer, and you smile, because he will never be subtle, not really, but he's not so blunt an instrument as he once was. Progress.

"Well, I skipped the sandwich, but the bells were nice enough," you set aside the Times, nonchalant, as if you don't see the little glance that arcs between them.

Their silent conference elects Meyer as spokesman. "And Hog Island?" he asks. "Shall we be putting some of our eggs in their basket?"

Your pencil hesitates over the World. "Actually, I thought I'd leave that up to you two," you make a note on an article about Jimmy Hines, carefully ignoring the boys, their twin expressions of shock. "This being your enterprise and all."

"Pardon?" Meyer says. He's never sounded so much like a nineteen-year-old before.

And you remember everything, perfecting the angles and building your reputation and always hungry, hopping a train to Philadelphia more often than you could really justify. But you can't recall anymore how it feels to be so young. "You've proven yourselves capable enough so far, I figured you'd earned a little more responsibility," you say, and finally raise a look at them over your paper. "You don't need me to hold your hands forever."

Meyer is the first to regain himself, as you knew he would be. He nods to you, controlled again but sincere, and it's only because you know him so well that you sense the excitement leaking around his mask. "Thank you, AR. It's an honor you would trust us with such an opportunity."

"You won't regret this," Charlie is trying to be dignified, but there's a wolf grin that keeps bursting through.

"Make sure that I don't," you tell them, and don't have to finish the threat. Remember who you still answer to. God help you if you don't.

All of you know eventually they'll need you to step in again, that this is too big for them alone -- and if some of you don't know quite yet, well, that lesson will come soon enough. But you're willing to see how this will play out, how much they can really handle. What point is a mentor if his students can never stand on their own?

Let Nucky Thompson kill his son. You'll build an empire for yours instead, and see which takes you further.

Because no matter what, in the end you've all got the same thing coming.

How many old tigers do you know?

o o o

Alter kocker - old shit, old man
Get - a divorce under Jewish Law
Mokrukha - horilka (Ukrainian liquor) infused with orange and clove, usually homemade
Chavver - friend
A shlekhter sholem iz beser vi a guter krig - a bad peace is better than a good war

Lyric snippet from "Doll" by Foo Fighters.