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Mightier

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It’s been two years, or something like it. Hol Horse isn’t one to keep track of time, or to keep track of much of anything at all. There’s not much that he knows about whatever happened in Cairo--Dio never returned, and some folks never came around again (he heard a few of them ended up in the hospital or worse); a room full of treasures and stolen fortunes were left abandoned in the mansion, along with some of Dio’s leftovers that Vanilla Ice or Baby D’arby (what Hol used to call Terence, because he was the youngest brother but mostly because it got a good reaction out of him) had never cleaned up. Hol remembers Dio’s two “butlers” with a twisted combination of fondness and repulsion. Nilla was psychotic--everyone knew that much. No one could understand why he was Dio’s favorite. Terence, though, had been an alright guy.

Whoever was left around in Egypt wandered back, eventually, and split the blood-stained gold between themselves. For awhile, Hol and Mariah and Midler stuck together, bought a house in the Middle East.

That was before Hol realized that he’d rather die than stay in the same place for more than a couple of months.

He went back to Tennessee, where he was born. That was just as, if not more depressing than, Cairo or his house with the girls or just about anything else that he could imagine. He had been there and done that, during his younger days. If I see one more damned bleach blonde in cowboy boots and cutoff shorts, I’m gonna shove Emperor down my throat, he thought.

Europe seemed like a good change of pace. Maybe France. Anything but Cairo or Palestine or Tennessee.

It’s his second night in Paris (and his second night at the same bar because it’s in a basement--dark and a bit smoky, which is the kind Hol likes--and not bustling with tourists that he can be lumped in with). He’s avoided the hotel he’s staying in, because it’s a bit too nice for his tastes. Hol believes firmly that if he’s not sleeping on the ground, or at least on a mattress that may house a family of insects, that he’s not really traveling. He has the money to spend now, and it’s what he’s always wanted, isn’t it?

Too comfortable, he thinks. Damned anticlimactic. No wonder old retired men go to golf courses to shrivel. Golf is just as boring as being rich. 

After awhile, the whiskey gets old, and Hol gives one of the menu cocktails a shot. His French is horrible, but he manages to point and blunder his way towards something that the bartender tells him is called a “Heat of the Moment” in English. There’s bourbon, some mint, a jalapeno or something. Hol figures that the title is supposed to sound sexy. Whatever it is, it’s expensive, and Hol is stuck with so much money that he spends it because he can.

“Long time no see, man.”

Hearing even a single sentence in English is enough to make Hol feel like he’s had a refreshing wave wash over him. “Damn,” he says. “Nice to hear--”

Hol can’t mistake what he thinks he sees in his peripheral vision. He’s traveled the world, but he’s never seen a hairstyle quite like this one, with the freckles and a pair of gaudy earrings to match. Before he can so much as think about finishing his sentence, he’s already halfway perched off his chair, and Emperor is formed partially against his palm. Then, he sees his greeter’s smile--it’s sad, but genuine--and Emperor dissolves as quickly as Hol’s instincts summoned it.

“Nice to hear some English.” Hol finishes his sentence, forces a smile, and remembers the name that he hadn’t been able to forget ever since he had put some lead in that fortune teller back in India. “Polnareff.”

“Surprised you remember.” Polnareff takes the seat at the bar next to Hol.

“Jean-Pierre?”

“Now I know I never told you that.”

Hol grimaces, shrugs, and shoves a cocktail menu towards Polnareff. He did some research when he was stagnant in Nashville, tried to figure out where those “damned Joestars” ended up or if they had been the ones to off Dio. Hol knew the answer to the second question--no one else could have done. Hol had damn well tried.  “Buy ya a drink?”

Polnareff waves the menu away and answers simply. “If you’re set on it.” Hol nods, then watches Polnareff order something easy--a cheap bottle, by the looks of it.

“I ain’t tight on money, y’know.”

“Maybe I just wanted a shitty beer. You can’t tell me that any normal man on this earth hasn’t ever had a craving for nothing but carbonated pisswater.”

“Only when I’m depressed off my ass.”

Pol shrugs--a confession.

Hol muddles a piece of mint leaf between his teeth and sizes up Polnareff from the corner of his eye while he sips on his drink that doesn’t really live up to its sensual title. He remembers the research, the nights he spent looking for information about the people he threatened and pursued only because Dio had smooth-talked him into it. The guilt tore him up, day after day. Maybe it wasn’t the stagnancy of Tennessee that had bothered him, but the lack of distractions.

The simple, to-the-point obituaries were burned in his head.

“What are the odds, huh?” Hol offers lamely. He’s not sure what he means by it, or what he expects as a response. He tries again. “Y-y’all are the reason Dio never came back.” Hol doesn’t exactly want to bring up the past like this, but what else is he supposed to do?

“What, do you miss him?” Polnareff sneers.

“‘Course not. Y’all did me a favor. I’m sorry, y’know. I-I’m not usually the kinda guy to--to do what I did.” He’s usually not this kind of nervous--he’s twiddling his thumbs around his glass and spinning the tiny straws and playing with his lighter and he probably looks like a girl who’s trying to figure out how to flirt. It’s a relief when Polnareff finally speaks.

“He got to me, too, you know. For a little while. I-it was the voice, I think.”

Hol doesn’t want to remember Dio’s voice, for fear he’ll fall back under the spell of a creature who may never be gone for good. He attempts to lighten the mood, which is something he knows he’s good at. “I ain’t sorry for nabbin’ your car, though. Old man left the keys in the ignition--can’t get much dumber than that.”

Maybe it’s the mention of Joseph, or just the fact that everything is kind of out in the open, but Hol can actually see Polnareff’s body loosen and relax. He’s not gripping his beer with white knuckles, or angling his shoulders like he’s about to draw a rapier. Hopefully, Polnareff is beginning to feel the same way as Hol--just grateful to have someone around who understands.

“Put it behind you,” Polnareff says, crumbling the weight of guilt and self-loathing that’s been crushing Hol Horse for two years with just a single wave of his hand. “I forgive you. Just drink your--”

“‘Heat of the Moment.’”

“Yikes. Well, drink that and, you know, get on with your life. I know how it is. You can’t forget, I know, but just--just don’t dwell on it.”

Hol watches Polnareff’s eyes water and fill with a longing that Hol thinks might be a lost love, but he’ll never know for sure.

The night proceeds with a surprising amount of normalcy. Hol and Polnareff interact much like any other men at a bar, sharing a pack of cigarettes and throwing shots on Hol’s lengthening tab. They don’t dance, but they watch some other guys give it a shot. Polnareff informs Hol Horse of France’s newest music craze--some duo named “Daft Punk” that Hol says sounds like a “cell phone acapella, but not in a bad way.” They check out the girls together, only to determine that the only cute one is the bartender--and they agree with equal enthusiasm that it’s just plain rude to hit on a lady who’s trying to do her job.

When the bar announces last call, and Hol waves down said cute bartender so that she knows to bring over two more of that one thing Polnareff recommended that Hol really likes, now, after having a few more of them than originally planned.

There’s a final toast.

“To the memories,” Polnareff says.

“To having someone to share them with,” Hol answers, and they toss back the drinks the same way that they’ve tried to toss away the sadness that’s followed them from the Egyptian deserts. “You know, I haven’t talked about it, about anything, since I left the girls in Palestine. It’s nice to just--”

“I get it.” Even though Polnareff’s nod is somber, there’s something in his expression that holds more hope than Hol has seen since his last too-innocent girlfriend. It’s good to see it from a person whom Hol isn’t trying to bed just so he can leave the next day. “How long are you here?”

Hol shrugs. “Don’t wanna put a number on the days. ‘S bad luck. I’ll stay until I’m sick of it, then I was thinking of Italy. Ain’t never been. You?”

Polnareff actually laughs, even though there’s a bitterness in the sound that leaves Hol with some curiosities. “Nah. But I’m headed there for work in a few weeks. Don’t follow me, ‘kay?” Hol’s been around enough people to be able to tell that Polnareff is mostly joking. He might have asked about Polnareff’s “work,” but the conversation moves too fast. “Where are you staying now, huh? Paris’s finest hotel?”

The more Polnareff talks and the more he drinks, the thicker his accent clouds his English. A thought drifts like an indiscriminate smoke through Hol’s brain, something about how that kind of accent would have been adorable in bed. Hol is quick to annotate his own thought--from a girl, of course. “Some hotel down the road,” he answers, throwing his thumb over his shoulder without knowing if he’s actually pointing towards the hotel at all. “I’m probably gonna check out in the morning and find a place under a bridge. I don’t do the clean beds and room service thing.”

“Too comfortable?”

“Exactly. Paris ain’t got enough shithole hotels.”

“You just haven’t looked in the right places.” Polnareff laughs and tips back the last of his drink. “Look. If you can’t find a good bridge to sleep under or whatever, meet me here tomorrow and I’ll show you my place. Someone’s gotta help you get a girl around here, anyway, and I know your French isn’t good enough to do it on your own. Oh, hey--”

Damn, Polnareff talks fast. Hol has always been one to embrace the slow and steady, in life and conversation and otherwise; Polnareff speeds through thoughts and topics of conversation so quickly that his brain is probably already figuring out the next three questions he’ll ask or things he’ll say.

Hol finds it hard to keep up, but he also finds himself enjoying the challenge.

“You travel. The toilets everywhere suck. How do you put up with those?”

Hol sips at his drink and lifts an eyebrow. “What do you mean? You, I mean, you piss in ‘em.”

“But what if you have to--”

“You’re drunk, Polnareff.”

“What if I am?”

“I’m just sayin’.” Hol laughs when he shakes his head. “You’re some kinda guy.” He means it as a compliment, but he knows that it doesn’t come out like one. Hol’s no good at buttering up men, even if he genuinely wants to. He chuckles inwardly and supposes he’s too straight for that kind of nonsense.

Suddenly, Polnareff stands and claps a hand on Hol’s shoulder. “I mean it. Tomorrow.” 

“You leavin’ me already?”

Polnareff points at the clock on the wall--it’s two in the morning. “See ya.” Already, Polnareff has turned his back and is taking his farewell salute with him. Hol looks down to the bar, wet with condensation from their drinks and coated with ashes from their cigarettes, and his tab is waiting for him to pay. He tosses over some money in a haze, stumbles off his stool without a word, and tries to solidify in his addled brain just what the hell happened. 

Somewhere down the road, presumably towards the hotel that Hol wants nothing to do with, he checks his half-broken pocketwatch that he hasn’t bothered to replace because of sentimental value (it’s ironic, because he knows it’s special but can’t remember why). Somehow, it’s been an hour since the bar closed. Somehow, Hol has been strutting through Paris, lost in his thoughts, and hasn’t found it at all odd.

He stretches his mind back to recall the sign on the bar’s entrance. It opens at 8 in the evening, he remembers. It’s 3 now.

Hol doesn’t know much--no French, not how long he’ll stay in France or even in Europe at all, not whether Midler and Mariah are still waiting for him to come home--but the certainty surrounding a single fact keeps him steady. In seventeen hours, he’ll be right back here, waiting for another chance to share his space with someone else who understands loss and the guilt that comes with waking up every day and still having breath in his lungs.

Hol does exactly what he promised himself he would—a few hours of sleep deep from drink but addled with the sentiment of unwanted dreams lead him straight to check-out time. He rolls out of bed, gathers his few belongings into a single, well-worn bag that he grabs by both handles and slings over his shoulder, smashes tangled hair beneath his hat, and plods down the stairs. Even thirteen stories up, he doesn’t much care for the idea of sharing a crowded elevator with tourists and their small children.

Eight p.m. 

The time is seared into his brain. Hell, he might as well say seven, because he knows if he’s honest with himself that he’ll be hanging around beforehand with little else to do but wait for an unnecessarily expensive drink and fixate on the things he’ll say to Polnareff.

Will tonight be as easy as the last? Or will Polnareff have regained his senses enough to realize that Hol doesn’t deserve his friendship or anyone else’s? It’s not typical for Hol to be down on himself, especially before lunch, but there’s something about Polnareff that makes Hol, well, nervous.

It’s stupid, but Hol almost feels like he wants to impress the man. For what purpose, he’s not sure, but he wants Polnareff to like him. He doesn’t want to fuck up the only second chance he’ll ever get with the only person who might come close to understanding what Dio put them all through. Mariah and Midler get it, too, of course, but for some reason they never seem to put as much weight on the matter as it deserves.

Unlike the girls, Polnareff has loved and lost. In some ways, Hol has, too.

With time to kill, he remembers some parts of Polnareff’s fast conversation. For such a silly guy, Hol learned that his new friend has quite the fondness for the fine arts; it seemed like every few minutes, Polnareff would mention an attraction or a particularly interesting exhibit or display, then ask without even taking a moment to breathe, “You’ve been there, right? You can’t stay in Paris and not check it out.” If it was up to Polnareff, Hol’s Paris itinerary would be at least a month long.

Maybe it will be.

As he usually does, Hol only decides for certain what he’s doing at the exact moment he’s standing at a crossroads in the metro station. The Louvre is out, because the idea of crowded areas seems obscene right now, but there’s that history of cinema place Polnareff mentioned. La Cinematheque Francaise? Perhaps Hol’s French is a little better than he thought, if he can remember it so precisely, or perhaps Polnareff’s voice is just that memorable.

Hol is glad to be away from central Paris. He is less glad that the museum’s placards are only in French. With time to kill, he struggles to parse apart some of the words when he normally couldn’t bring himself care. He doesn’t even realize that he’s making mental notes of little facts or displays that seem particularly interesting so that he can comment on them later, muttering the words of obscure films beneath his breath to practice his pronunciation.

A slow, deliberate rhythm dictates each syllable that he mutters under his breath, punctuated by the heavy stomps of Hol’s boots that are only a little bit coated with dried mud from somewhere.

He hasn’t put this much effort into something since that one girl in Nepal.

On the way out, he absentmindedly buys Polnareff a tacky trinket from the gift shop as a thanks for the recommendation.

By the time he traverses the metro during rush hour (poorly planned but well-deserved, because Hol should have known better) and makes his way back to the familiar alleyway housing his new regular hangout, there’s still an hour to spare. An hour and—Hol checks his busted pocketwatch—eight minutes.

The next eleven pass without significant event. Hol peers up and down the streets for a few blocks, then heads back when he realizes there’s nothing of note. Usually, he would appreciate a quieter place of town, somewhere like this that’s more residential; now is one of the rare moments when Hol would kill to be able to loiter in some shitty tourist shop. He checks his watch again when he finds himself back in front of the bar—he is disappointed to find that only six minutes have passed. He’s going crazy, and for what?

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” he murmurs low in his gravelly voice, rough from years of chainsmoking and too much straight liquor on the road. The weight of his bag hits the filthy ground with a thump, and he leans against a building made of stone while he tugs a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He’ll easily be through the rest of the pack before the bar even opens—his long drags devour the cigarette to ashes, and he grabs another to light.

“Should I be insulted on behalf of Paris that you found yourself so bored you had to come hang out here an hour early? Or are you just that much of an alcoholic?”

The voice, light with teasing and spiced with a smile, lifts Hol from his low with a single question.

He’s quick to answer now that the nicotine has calmed his nerves. “Should I be honored that you missed me so much you had to show up before the bar even opens?”

Polnareff steps closer and takes the opportunity to tug a cigarette from Hol’s stash when he brings it out of his pocket for another. “Of course you smoke shitty cigs.”

Hol sniffs out a laugh. “Oh, right.” One pale eyebrow lifts on Polnareff’s face while Hol leans down to grab his gift—a little keychain of an old-fashioned film roll engraved with the museum’s name—and toss it in Polnareff’s direction. “Thanks to you, I’m now a connoisseur of French cinema. Thanks for the recommendation. Couldn’t read shit in the exhibits, but there was some artsy short movie with a naked lady in it.”

The same hearty laugh that served as such a comfort to Hol last night bellows from Polnareff’s belly. “It’s called tasteful nudity. Clearly, you wouldn’t understand.”

“Hey,” Hol defends. “I might surprise you.”

A little voice in the back of his head slips a notion into the deepest crevices of his brain. I think, Hol ol’ fellow, you’re about to surprise yourself.