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sharp edge of a century

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Booker didn't intend to go back to Paris.

 

He'd planned to disappear, go off the grid for a lifetime or two. Work his way stolidly through a dozen burnable identities, stay away from large cities and fall into places where an exhausted Frenchman wouldn't be overly noticeable, and isn't the long legacy of colonialism a bitch, that he should have so many places to choose from?

 

But somehow Paris keeps drawing him back, over and over, no matter how old he gets, how exhausted with life. There's a house there that belongs to him, eleven apartments in a crumbling six floor walkup in the Fifth Arrondissement. It's been adopted by artists and university students for years, who steadfastly refused to move out even when Booker (or a shell company of a shell company of a management company) built them a beautiful new apartment building next to a metro stop and offered to pay their relocation costs. 

 

Apparently the building has un esprit. They formed a tenants union. Booker had to pay to renovate a second entirely different building, and pay tuition for an incoming class at Beaux-Arts for a year, to get them to clear out.

 

Honestly, he admires their revolutionary spirit. But a man needs a place to keep his books.

 

He's been living in the ground floor apartment, the largest and the emptiest, for the sole reason that he hasn't gotten around to moving all his things to an upper floor. It seems a waste, somehow, when he knows he's going to have to move on, sooner rather than later. It's just—

 

He's very tired.

 

But there's something wrong. He recognizes it first at the back of his mind, reaching for the doorknob. He stills when he realizes the shadow on the front door isn't quite right. The door's been opened. There's someone in the house.

 

Booker is too tired and too sober to deal with this, and for a moment he contemplates just leaving again, but if it's Merrick's men, better he knows now rather than later, and if it's a routine robbery he's got some first editions that he’d rather keep in his possession. He tucks the whiskey under his arm and pulls his gun.

 

From the shadow in the corner of the living room, Joe says, "Who the hell were you expecting?"

 

Booker drops the whiskey, but somehow manages to kick the bottle back in the air, and catches it one-handed, all without lowering the gun.

 

There's a long pause from the corner. "All right, that was honestly impressive."

 

Booker puts down his gun first, then the whiskey. Steps forward, to where he can just see Joe's face in the shadow, but not too close. "Did you tell Nicky you were coming here?" he asks, and the look Joe gives him tells him exactly how foolish that question is, but he answers anyway.  

 

"I've told Nicky that I've been going to take a shit and how long I plan to be for the last six months, do you really think he doesn't know where I am?" And of course, point to Joe.

 

"How is Nile?" he asks, which is a simple way of saying is she all right? Is she getting enough sleep? Is she laughing enough? When Andy says "pack for Johannesburg," are you telling her that means three changes of clothes, two kilograms of C4 and the passport for whatever identity that she personally will mind the least when it's eaten by crocodiles?

 

He can't bring himself to ask about Andy.

 

"She's good," says Joe, and Booker abruptly wishes it was Nicky here instead, who could be trusted, unasked, to clarify that with she's still adjusting and she wakes up at night but we drink tea together and talk about music and art and God, or maybe even, honestly she's better at this than any of us and soon we'll be following her into Hell.

 

Joe would have told him more, before.

 

Neither of them say anything for a long moment, then, and Booker hates this silence, this gulf that stretches between them, just another thing he's lost because he's a fool. Then Joe stands up, a slow controlled roll of his shoulders that tells Booker he had a plan, but the mission parameters have changed, and now he's deciding what to do next.

 

His jaw is set, tight, and he's looking past Booker, not at him, but: “I have been informed,” Joe says slowly, in a dead Italian dialect, loudly going unspoken, “That I have not made an attempt to understand your perspective.”

 

Booker feels his whole body seize up. "Do you want to just hit me instead?"

 

Joe makes that face he makes when he's grateful, but annoyed about it. "Yes, all right."

 

They go down to basement. It's damp and the plaster is crumbling, lit by old incandescent bulbs, and it's home to a hundred mildewed boxes left by a lifetime of tenants. Booker hasn't bothered throwing anything out, but he and Joe shove the stacks further back, disturbing mouse bones and dust and long-legged spiders. Joe makes a face: you take me to the nicest places. Booker snorts.

 

He straightens up, and then Joe's right hook catches him in the jaw, so quick that only two centuries of experience in taking punches keeps him on his feet.

 

He spits blood. Joe is staring at him, eyes hard and glittering. "The first one's free, asshole," he says, and then they're off.

 

He and Joe have fought before, sparring or scuffling or even spitting mad, although not often the latter, because Andy tended to intervene and when Andy broke up a fight, it tended to stay broken. They've never fought like this before, Joe silent and furious, and Booker hitting back just because nothing else moves his blood anymore. Joe gets him with a half step and a cross to the jaw that makes his ears ring, but he gets a counter in and gets a bit of space for a hook kick that catches Joe in the side of the knee, but he's already rolling, and he comes up with an old broom handle.

 

Joe was learning tahtib around the time Booker's ancestors were brought along as fodder by William the Conqueror, so Booker resigns himself to this hurting very badly, and it does.

 

He evades as much as he can, blocks and absorbs anything he can't. He steps in on one overreach and breaks one of Joe's ribs, splits his knuckles twice on Joe's teeth. But mostly it's a beating, not a fight.

 

Joe seems to realize it, too. His face is contorting with something like pain. "Do you understand?" he says, breathing hard. "If it was me, if it was only me. Do you understand?"

 

Booker's dizzy with a concussion and it takes him a moment to catch up. Joe drops the stick with a clatter and puts his head in his hands.

 

Booker falls badly and curses, and Joe spits a mouthful of foamy blood, a fragment of tooth. "If it were only me—" he says, again. "You understand?" 

 

And Booker does.

 

Later, when they're collapsed on his couch upstairs, bones and skin re-knitting bit by bit, wincing, and passing the whiskey bottle back and forth, Booker stares at the ceiling and manages, "I've never been able to handle the hard parts. Not the way you can. Not like Nicky can."

 

Next to him, Joe snorts. "Nicky is a nine hundred year old Catholic, don't get into a competition with him about who's better equipped to endure a lifetime of psychological torture," and it's so unexpected, and so Joe that Booker barks a laugh, entirely unbidden. Joe tips his head back, the goose feet around his eyes deepening.

 

The apartment is mostly a wreck anyways. They should have just fought up here. There are books and papers on every surface, laptop cables for computers twenty years out of date. One of the departed art students left a piano. It's old, a Pleyel from the twenties that looks like it spent a month on a sidewalk before finding its way to his building. It was too heavy for even the most determined undergraduate to move alone, and Booker had neglected to cover piano moving in his management company's agreement, because he's old, not omniscient. It's late, and they've made their way through most of the bottle, when Joe nods towards it and says, "Play for me?"

 

It's been a very long time since Booker played for any of them, or for himself, and the piano is very badly out of tune. But muscle memory remains, even if he's unpracticed, and he’s worked his way carefully through half of Chopin's Nocturne No. 20 before he realizes Joe is sketching, fast flicks of charcoal against paper in his moleskin journal. He sees Booker pause and raises an eyebrow, don't stop on my account, so Booker keeps going.

 

The sun is coming up, traffic noises picking up outside. He's exhausted, and he's out of whiskey and he’s out of Chopin. He thought Joe had dozed off a while ago, but when he finally stands and risks a glance, Joe is watching him, head tipped back and eyes narrow. After a long moment, he rolls to his feet. Crosses the floor in a few quick strides, and hugs Booker, a long press of body contact that shocks him so badly for a moment, he can only freeze.

 

Joe steps back. Sighs, long and hard. "I'm still furious with you," he says. And of course, why should that have changed, but then he says, "I'm going to work on it, though. I will try."

 

He shoves a hand back through his black hair, wild from the night and the fight and the drinking. "I'm going to try," he says again. Cups his hand against the back of Booker's neck, kisses him against the corner of his mouth, and then he picks up his jacket and he's gone.

 

It hits him harder than Joe's right hook.

 

Booker barely has the energy to lock up behind him before he falls into bed. For once, he doesn't dream.

 

Later, he finds the sketch Joe left. His own hands, photorealistic and curved over the piano keys. His face, in profile, old and haunted. Joe always makes everything look beautiful, though. 

 

There's a phone number, written on the other side.

 

Booker stares at it for a while. There’s a precarious stack of books on the end table, the last volume of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu threatening to tumble to the floor.  He laughs, abrupt and loud in the silent apartment, and carefully tucks the sketch under its worn cover. The whiskey bottle's empty, but the boulangerie down the street opened hours ago.

 

He can try too.