Finding a place is easy. The hard part is trying to think of it as anything like home.
The name signed on his lease is something generic, sensible, and decidedly not that of a man supposedly tried and hanged for desertion in 1812. But the man who settles down, flask in hand, on the floor in the middle of his newly-rented apartment, bare save for dust and old mouse nests gathered in the corners, is the closest to the Sebastien le Livre of 18-forty-something there’s been for a long time, scraped raw and empty from the inside out.
Loss does that to a man, he supposes, and downs the rest of his whiskey.
This time around he deserves it, though, in a way he didn’t in that taupe 19th century hospital watching his youngest son, his baby boy, die cursing his name (not that he didn’t deserve that one too, not that he hasn’t probably deserved every fucked thing he’s ever borne witness to in the past 250 years—). He sees the image of Andy bleeding out onto the carpet every time he closes his eyes, like splotches of light seared into the insides of his eyelids after staring into the sun. The look Joe had given him as he stood alone on the banks of the River Thames still burns on his skin, long after the only family he had left had turned their backs on him and walked away (and he’d deserved it).
He thinks about the next hundred years sprawling out ahead of him, tries to fathom a century truly, utterly alone, and cannot.
He throws his flask against the floor—the sound of steel against hardwood reverberates in the too-empty apartment—and drags himself to his feet and out the door for the sole purpose of finding the nearest liquor store.
The first two weeks pass in an ochre haze. He’s never managed to actually drink himself to death, as far as he can remember, but he figures there’s a first for everything, and if he’s going to be alone for a century, he might as well start checking deaths previously thought impossible off the list, if for nothing else but to pass the time.
By the third week, he’s well on his way to making his (extremely morbid) dreams a reality, his body fighting a losing battle against the constant intake of alcohol as it tries to repair his abused liver. At this point, his daily routine has basically become what would show up on the first page of results if one were to search schedule for a depressed alcoholic. He wakes up well past noon most days, drinks incessantly and eats infrequently, only ever leaving the stark comfort (if it could even be called that) of his apartment to shamble down to the local grocery store to replenish his stock of microwave meals, then to the liquor store for the true essentials.
Most days, he shuffles around aimlessly for a while before he collapses into the secondhand armchair he’d bought his second night here, puts on old soap operas on his cheap TV, and processes absolutely none of it. He’d flipped channels to a football game, once, before the stifling silence—the suffocating absence of Joe making amused comments at the referee’s incompetence or the French team’s failures in the seat next to him as he drew—made him sick to his stomach and he almost choked on his own vomit as he stumbled to the sink. For better or for worse, he survives.
He hasn’t died of asphyxiation in a long time. Hasn’t been a fan since the first few dozen times brought his entire world crashing down around him in the snow.
(But football is definitely a no-go. He tastes bile in the back of his throat at the very thought of it.)
He’s lucky if he ends up passing out amongst the unmade sheets of his bed at the end of the day. More often than not he falls asleep in the armchair with a bottle in hand while the late night reruns drone on, and on, and on, and the countless mortal lives of Paris buzz past outside.
Sebastien has surrendered himself to this ritual for the foreseeable future (and oh, how very long that future seems to stretch out ahead of him) when the routine is interrupted, however briefly, by a knocking at his door one afternoon.
The sound of knuckles against wood startles him out of the numb haze he’d fallen into as he’d stared mindlessly at a spot on the wall behind the television. He manages an ungainly scramble out of the sagging armchair over to the entrance, pushes his hair back off his forehead as if that would do anything to save his miserable appearance, and opens the door.
He’s greeted by an unfamiliar young man on his doorstep with a sincere grin and a bright, “Hello!”
“Uh,” Sebastien says succinctly.
The kid appears to be in his mid-20s, the bright-eyed energy of youth not quite having left him yet but a certain world-weariness creeping into the set of his shoulders. That ache seems to be getting to everyone earlier and earlier, nowadays. Regardless, he’s still undeniably a kid, in Sebastien’s eyes. He’s—Jésus, Marie, Joseph, qu’est-ce que je vais faire—the kid looks about the same age as Sebastien’s second son had been when pneumonia filled his lungs with sick fluid and sent him to a grave that was early, always too early. Almost looks like him too, though that may well be wishful thinking at this point, in the slope of his nose, maybe, the sort of mousy brown of his hair. The realization sparks through Sebastien like he’s touched a live wire, staggers him in a way he hopes the kid brushes off as drunken clumsiness.
“Sorry, uh,” the kid says, then, polite smile slipping a little. Sebastien realizes he’s been staring. “Is this a bad time? I just, um, wanted to drop by and say hello. Being neighbors and all.”
Sebastien shakes himself and attempts something that could almost pass as a smile. He doesn’t need a mirror to know it’s far from reaching his eyes. “No, you’re fine, it’s fine.” His voice is hoarse from disuse; it strikes him that he’s not sure when the last time he had a conversation with another person was.
(Saying goodbye to Andy in London, his mind supplies distantly. He pushes that reality back down.)
“Sebastien,” he introduces himself, giving his hand a cursory wipe on his pants before holding it out to shake. The kid takes it with just the slightest hesitation, his smile returning in full force.
“Alexandre,” the kid responds as he gives his hand a firm shake. Jerking his head towards the apartment a number above Sebastien’s, he adds, “My roommate and I are right next door. Sorry we didn’t come by sooner, we’ve been out of town—”
“It’s alright, really,” Sebastien says, more gruffly than he meant to. God, he’s trying so hard not to offend the kid, but he’s never been good at that, even when he had other people around to talk to on a daily basis. It’s just—his brain keeps superimposing his son’s face over this kid’s, and if he starts looking upset Sebastien truly won’t be able to handle it. “I was, uh. Busy getting settled in the first couple weeks, so it was probably for the better anyways.” He shifts over a step to try to block the kid’s view into the messy, not-at-all-settled-in apartment.
Alexandre quirks an eyebrow but doesn’t comment on what he can surely see of Booker’s bare floor and walls. “Of course, yeah, we would have hated to get in the way. Are you new to Paris, or…?”
Sebastien doesn’t quite know how to respond to that. As if, he wants to scoff. I’ve known Paris since before you were even a twinkle in God’s eye. And yet. This Paris that he’s returned to is, well. It’s hardly the Paris of his childhood, anymore. It hasn’t been for a long, long time.
“I grew up here,” he ends up saying, and it comes out sounding like a confession. “But I’ve been away for a while.”
“Nice to be back, I imagine?”
Sebastien tries another half-smile in reply. It’s marginally better than the first. “It is nice, yes.”
Alexandre hums in agreement. “Well, in any case” —he’s rocking on his heels slightly, god, he’s so young— “it’s wonderful to meet you, Sebastien. Would love for you to come by for coffee or something one of these days.” He says it more like a question, a little sheepish. “You can meet my roommate, then, too—he’s busy with class most days, but we can figure out a time, maybe?”
Something about the kid, how earnest he is in befriending the stranger he lives next to who surely reeks of liquor and long-unwashed clothes, how the self-conscious furrow of his brows as he sways reminds Sebastien of—of—
“Yeah, of course,” he stutters out, voice thick so suddenly it surprises him. “I—that’d be great.” Anything to get the kid to leave, now, before Sebastien really embarrasses himself. His throat feels like it’s closing in on itself.
“Great!” Alexandre echoes, brightening. “I’ll talk to my roommate about it, and I’ll let you know?” Sebastien nods stiffly. “Awesome. I’ll see you, then, Sebastien. Have a good one. Nice meeting you, again!”
Sebastien just barely nods a you too before he shuts the door, slams his forehead into it and shakes apart.
(It’s been a while since he’s cried, really actually cried, and he sure as hell makes up for that long interlude. He cries for every ounce of what little he’s worth, great heaving sobs that wrack his whole body until his tears run dry and his voice gives out, and then he stays there a little longer afterwards, just trembling against the doorframe with two centuries worth of grief, the loss of two families weighing down against his crooked, brittle spine.)
(He stays there for what could be a few minutes or several hours. Then he picks himself up, lurches into the kitchen, opens a new bottle of whiskey, and drinks until it runs grotesquely down his chin and the floor falls out beneath his feet.)
He runs into Alexandre again a few days later as he trudges back from the grocery store with a bag full of microwave meals and shitty liquor. The kid’s accompanied by another man of about the same age, a bulging tote bag slung over one broad shoulder as he unlocks their door.
“Sebastien!” Alexandre says brightly when he spots him coming down the hall. He elbows his companion, who whips around with the air of a startled deer. “How are you! This is my roommate, Khalil.” Khalil smiles and waves, the contents of his tote clattering together noisily with the movement.
He looks like he could very well be one of Joe’s distant relatives, with his dark curls and warm brown eyes; Sebastien curses the universe another hundred times over for being so excessively cruel, to continue to mock him with reminders of his estranged family like this. Because he needed this, obviously, dual intimations of the families he’s failed and lost haunting the steps outside his empty home for the next however many years.
“Nice to meet you,” he mumbles, inclining his head in greeting. Khalil returns the gesture while nudging their door open with one oxford-clad foot.
“Oh, Sebastien! Are you busy tomorrow afternoon?” Alexandre smiles with that same subtle nervous crease of his brow that suctioned all the breath out of Sebastien’s lungs in the worst way.
Yes, very busy trying to drink too much for my immortal body to handle and die of liver failure facedown in my bathroom, Sebastien thinks, but what he says is, “No, I don’t have anything lined up,” and Alexandre’s face brightens.
“Would you like to come by for coffee, then? If it’s not a bother—”
“I’d love to,” Sebastien’s traitorous mouth answers again.
And that’s how he ends up standing in the entryway of an apartment that isn’t his, painfully sober for the occasion, feeling vaguely dumbstruck.
He doesn’t know how to conduct himself around people anymore, he realizes. Has forgotten how pleasantries are supposed to work, the finer points of faux-interested looks and polite smiles.
Sebastien casts a look around the apartment and realizes that this is a shared home, in more ways than one. Picture frames display photos of Alexandre and Khalil together, laughing with their faces pressed close; the entryway is scattered with shoes with no apparent regard for ownership. There’s a pair of coffee mugs on the kitchen counter that obviously came as a set, both painted with delicate ferns and quaint little mushrooms.
It’s—well. It’s all very cute, is what it is. And maybe it’s just because it’s been at least a lifetime and a half since Sebastien’s gotten close enough to anyone to see their domestic arrangements, but he’s surprised at the absence of creeping envy he’d expect himself to feel at it all.
(There’s always been a kind of apprehensive jealousy, laced inextricably with an acute sense of guilt, that he gets (that he got) around Joe and Nicky sometimes (more often than he’d like to admit, enough for him to hate himself for it). A stupid, petty, immature thing, yes, but to watch them curled into each other in quiet moments, whispering soft words in languages Sebastien wouldn’t understand even if he could hear them clearly, a familiar intimacy in every line of their bodies that spoke to an eternity together, while Sebastien… while he…)
(So at least he knows he’s not so far gone in his misery that he resents children for finding happiness in one another’s company. What an accomplishment to write home about.)
“Sorry for the mess,” Alexandre titters, gathering up a wad of what looks to be shirts and sweater vests off the couch and thrusting them into Khalil’s arms. “Someone can never seem to figure out where the laundry is supposed to go.”
“You’re giving our guest a horrible first impression of me,” Khalil grumbles from behind the pile of wool and cotton, but his tone is good-natured and joking.
“You’re giving him a horrible first impression of the both of us by leaving all your old man clothes lying around,” Alexandre shoots back with a grin.
It’s so easy, how the two of them speak to each other, affectionate and familiar in a way that makes Sebastien’s chest ache. He takes a careful seat on the couch while Khalil shuffles off down the hall with the mound of laundry and Alexandre starts opening and closing cabinets in the kitchen.
“Do you want coffee, Sebastien?” he asks, voice muffled as he rises on tiptoes to peer into the back of a cupboard. “Or something stronger, maybe?”
Sebastien hesitates for a moment, then says, “Coffee’s fine, thank you.” For what little it matters, he doesn’t want to give these kids any more reason to (correctly) assume he’s some sort of sad alcoholic than they already have. It’s a silly thing to be concerned about, though, considering that he will most likely outlive them and any opinion they have of him by centuries.
His liver basically screams no, please god no at him at the mere thought of alcohol, anyways. He might as well give it a break for one evening.
“So, what have you been up to today?” Alexandre asks over his shoulder as he puts the water on to boil.
“Not much.” Sebastien fidgets, tangles his fingers together and untangles them in a cycle. “Been, uh, cleaning. Watching TV.”
Alexandre smiles and nods as appropriate. “Do you work, or…”
“Private security,” Sebastien says automatically, deferring on instinct to the usual story for when he has to go undercover. It handwaves away the reason for sudden and lengthy disappearances, why he carries himself like someone who’s been at war his whole life. “Kind of takes me all over the place, but I’m, um, on leave right now. Taking some time off.”
Khalil comes back into the room, then, chuckling, “Ooh, a trained man, hear that, Alex? Don’t get on his bad side, ‘cause I know you’re already planning it.” He plops into the adjacent armchair, tucking his feet up under his legs, and fixes Sebastien with a warm but appraising look. “Got family in Paris? Alexandre mentioned you grew up here, but I imagine that was a while ago.”
“Wow, Khalil, are you implying he’s old?” Alexandre calls from the kitchen. “How incredibly rude of you.” Khalil splutters and flushes.
“That’s not—I just mean—childhood, you know” —he makes a gesture that does little to clarify his statement— “it’s a long time ago for all of us, I mean. Not just you, Sebastien, I’m sorry—”
Sebastien laughs despite himself. “No, you’re fine. And you wouldn’t be wrong, really. I’m very old.” A little joke, just between him and himself, he thinks.
“I am so sorry for my companion’s inconsiderate remarks,” Alexandre laments as he teeters over balancing three cups in his hands. He hands one to Sebastien and one to Khalil, then perches himself on the armrest of Khalil’s seat with the last. “I guarantee you are not as old as he’s trying to say you are. His insufferable youth clouds his judgement.”
“I’m a year younger than you.” Khalil rolls his eyes like they’ve been through this a hundred times before.
“I mean, compared to you two, I’m ancient,” Sebastien sighs, putting on an elderly affect. Mostly he’s just happy to take the opportunity to avoid Khalil’s original question. How is he supposed to respond—yeah, I used to have family here, but they all died two hundred years ago? “You’re, what, in college?”
Alexandre points to his roommate with a pinkie finger as he takes a sip of his coffee. “Khalil’s getting his master’s right now. I do freelance photography.”
“Master’s degree?” Sebastien echoes. He’s attended a few universities in between missions—sometimes for missions—and even gotten a faculty position at one once; for all it’s worth, there was still a deep appreciation for academia in him he couldn’t shake. “What for?”
“Education. I want to teach secondary school.” Khalil’s tone is nonchalant, but his passion is evident, eyes brimming with it.
“He already dresses for the job,” Alexandre snickers. “Glasses and sweaters and everything.”
Sebastien’s smile is only half-forced, this time, as he recalls his own stint as a sweater-wearing, bespectacled professor with a surprising amount of fondness—he hadn’t needed the glasses, really, but Joe had insisted it helped sell the part. Those were a nice handful of years, if only for how it gave him time and a reason to delve into readings he’d previously never had the chance to. He wasn’t the best teacher, by far—Andy had commented as much, when she’d visited one of his lectures—but it was something. It was nice.
“That’s really nice,” is what he says, ever so eloquently. Khalil just smiles at him.
“Anyways,” Alexandre says louder than strictly necessary, “have you seen any good movies, lately, Sebastien?”
Sebastien takes closer note of his neighbors, after that afternoon; what had melted abstractly into the general static of the outside world crystallizes into something distinct to the two men who had spent time to talk to him. The walls between their apartments are thin, and if he listens he can often hear the faint indistinct murmur of voices, rumblings of movement on the other side. Sometimes the sound of jazz filters through, muffled as it is, and he can almost imagine the vinyls spinning on the record player tucked away on the shelf in their living room. It’s… nice, this reminder of their lives just on the other side of the wall.
It is inexplicably reassuring, the thought that there are people in the world who care about him for little reason other than the fact that he exists in proximity to them.
He starts to feel bad about leaving the television on all night upon this realization, imagining them trying to relax while the actors in his soap operas wail and shout through all hours of the night. He resolves then to always try to stay conscious long enough to shut the TV off before falling asleep.
(If he drinks less in the evenings as a result, it’s not really an indication of anything.)
In lieu of drinking himself to a stupor every night, Sebastien takes to reading through the long list of classics he’s pored over countless times already, if only because he can think of nothing else to do. He locates a bookstore a fifteen walk away from his apartment, takes a stroll one cloudy afternoon and returns with the extra weight of twenty or so novels in his hands. It doesn’t hold a candle to his beloved collection of first editions (which has been sitting uncherished in the Prague safehouse for several years now—he should take a trip and pick them up, probably, seeing as he’s going to be here for a while), but it’s something.
He reads Shakespeare, and does not think of Joe and Nicky’s laughing firsthand accounts of the legendary playwright as Hamlet speaks to his father’s ghost. He reads The Iliad, and wonders vaguely if some long-forgotten version of Andy hefts her axe among Homer’s armies. He spends significantly longer on The Divine Comedy, and just sits with it for a while after he’s done, quietly, alone in his kitchen, then goes to pour himself a glass of scotch.
He reads Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince in one sitting and surprises himself with the tears that fall unheeded onto the pages as he reaches the end, staining the prince’s wheat-gold hair. He goes to bed early that night, and does not think about the little prince falling soundlessly to the sand, about whether he ever made it home to his rose or not.
At 1 PM CET one day, with 99 years of exile left, Sebastien’s landline rings.
He jolts awake from where he’d been dozing off over his copy of The Count of Monte Cristo and stumbles over to answer it. Clearing his throat, he says shortly, “Hello?”
“Hey,” a familiar voice says, “is this Booker?”
Booker’s heart stutter-steps to a halt for a moment. “Nile?”
“Yeah, that’s me. What’s, um, going on?” She sounds a little hesitant, but there is an undercurrent of stubborn confidence, like no matter how strange this all is, she’s seeing it through to the end. So the kid’s doing well. Good to know.
“Waiting out my hundred years of penance as usual. Why is this phone call currently happening?” And maybe—definitely—he’s being rude, considering that hearing from the team barely a year into his banishment is both a miracle and undeserved gift, but he’s so put-off by it all he can barely remember to speak in English for Nile’s benefit, let alone be polite about it.
“I, uh, got your number from Copley.”
Copley’s been keeping tabs on him, then, meaning Copley’s their new tech guy. A part of Booker is relieved the team has someone taking care of the job he’d abandoned in exile, but a greater part of him, childish and insecure, twists up painfully with the feeling of being replaced. Which is decidedly stupid—a mortal man the team probably blackmailed into doing digital surveillance for them is hardly going to become Booker’s permanent replacement.
But hey, the universe has taken so much away from him already—he’s taken so much away from himself already with the things he’s done—it might as well get rid of the one thing that made him feel useful while it’s at it. Given that he’s here, alone in France without even the slightest thought of a whisper of a mission, and the rest of the team is who-knows-where with Copley on call, it basically already has.
“You guys kept him around after he helped sell you out, then,” he mutters. Nile, to her credit, doesn’t bother arguing the finer points of that statement.
“We just got into Germany for a mission,” she says instead. “Joe and Nicky went out for food and Andy’s asleep. I’ve just been… feeling weird I guess. Lonely. Was wondering how you’ve been.”
“Getting by,” Booker replies, and for a split second almost feels like he’s telling the truth. “They’re not gonna be happy that you called me.”
Nile exhales what might be a laugh. “Can’t be mad at me for things they don’t know about.”
“You’d be surprised.” Booker takes a second to revel in this moment, indulge in the luxury he doesn’t deserve of someone from the crew speaking to him. “How have things been for you?”
“Crazy,” Nile responds immediately, then chuckles. “All the training is crazy. In a good way—Joe and Nicky have been teaching me swordfighting, lately, it’s amazing—but crazy. It’s a lot to take in, you know.”
“Believe me, I know.” The first couple decades with the team, after the last of his family had died and he’d had no more reason to stay in France, had been overwhelming. Booker has trouble recalling any of the exact events, but the feeling of being completely and utterly lost in a world that he wasn’t meant for is something he’s never forgotten. It’s felt a little more familiar, in recent times, too.
“I do wish you were around, though,” Nile admits. “Someone a little younger than these guys, I mean. Nicky and Joe keep making jokes that I think they expect me to get, but…”
“Yeah, they tend to do that,” Booker half-laughs. Then, before the specific pain of that sentiment can catch up, he continues, “I’m sorry, Nile. That I can’t be there.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“We both know you’re too smart to really think that.”
There’s a long quiet moment, then Nile sighs, breath crackling softly down the line. “Booker…”
“I’m not there because I fucked up so spectacularly I had to be sent to the one hundred year exile timeout corner,” Booker mutters. “Because I did something so selfish and stupid—”
“They didn’t want to have to do that, Book—”
“Well, it was the decision they made!” He feels bad about yelling as soon as it happens, but Nile seems unfazed.
“That doesn’t mean they can’t regret it,” she says, voice like molten steel. There is a conviction in the way she speaks that Booker has never had, and probably never will. “Some of those jokes they make, you know, I think they’re supposed to be for you. They’ll say something like it’s supposed to be funny and then—it’s like they realize you’re not here, and they just… I can see it in their faces. They miss you, Booker. They really do.”
Booker thinks about Joe shouting at him in that lab, calling him all those ugly names that he well and truly deserved, thinks about Nicky watching him with a coldness and a stillness that made Booker feel like he was on the wrong end of his sniper rifle, thinks about Andy, who he quite literally shot in the back, and scoffs. “I doubt it.”
“You gotta have a little more faith in the team, man. They’re—we’re your family.”
Booker grunts noncommittally, but he’s already eyeing his liquor cabinet. “Family doesn’t sell each other out to be tortured for eternity.”
“Booker,” Nile begins, but he’s already moving to hang up.
“Thank you for calling, Nile,” he says. “Good luck with the job.” The line clicks off, and he lets the phone clatter to the ground before rising to look for the strongest drink he has.
He ends up blacking out at the foot of his bed sometime past 1 AM, and dreams of capital punishment, of dying by firing squad, by lethal injection, by electric chair, and then he dreams of drowning, as he has been wont to do for 250 years. He comes gasping back to life every time. It is some small mercy that the gallows pass him by for once, and he is spared that particular nightmare tonight.
(He thinks about going to church.
He thinks about attending mass with his family, his wife sitting peacefully beside him; their oldest trades conspicuous flirting glances with the girl in the adjacent pew while his younger brother nods off and Jean-Pierre fidgets restlessly, kicking his feet against the bench until Sebastien leans over to shoot him a stern look and he settles down with a pout.
He thinks about sneaking into a service with Nicky on one of their days off, arriving a third of the way through and observing silently from the back for a while and slipping back out before it’s over. It was, as Nicky would say with that quiet smile, always less about what was said and more about the familiar comfort of simply being in a church, the strange tranquility of feeling small and insignificant amongst its high arches and tall, grand windows.
He does not go to church.)
Sebastien makes a phone call.
“Hello? Booker?” the smooth British voice on the other end says.
“Copley,” Booker grits out, “find me a job to do.”
It takes a fair amount of cajoling, but Copley eventually caves and finds him something small and simple, something one immortal man should be able to do on his own. A string of late night robberies on a highway in Pays de la Loire that the police haven’t been able to pin down yet, reportedly all being carried out by the same duo with no apparent value of human life, luring in well-meaning strangers with the appearance of a broken-down car before attacking and robbing them and leaving them on the side of the road to bleed out. He can work with that.
(He thinks privately that it’s strange the police haven’t been able to figure this out on their own. Then again, however, based on his lived and witnessed experiences over the past two centuries, cops have never been all that good at their purported duties, so maybe it really isn’t such a strange thing.)
He doesn’t bother telling Copley to keep it a secret. If the team asks, Copley’s going to tell them, regardless of what Booker negotiates. They have the greater authority, by virtue of not being backstabbing traitors.
Booker rents a shitty car and takes the three hour drive from Paris to the general area the robberies had been reported in; he fidgets with the radio for the first half an hour before settling on a late night talk show that he doesn’t actually listen to a word of. The steady static of the host’s voice almost—almost—manages to comfort him.
It’s nearly 2 AM when he finds what he thinks he’s looking for: a car stopped at the side of the empty highway with its headlights on and hood popped open, flanked by two concerned looking individuals. Booker double checks the knife concealed in his back pocket, then pulls up behind the car, turns the radio off and steps out.
“Having some trouble?” he asks as he approaches, trying to make himself look as pathetic and nonthreatening as possible. All things considered, it’s not difficult.
The person closer to him, a blonde woman with a sleek bob, straightens up as he comes closer, face lighting up with relief. “Yes, oh my goodness, thank you so much for stopping.” She indicates the car, entirely superfluously. “We broke down about an hour ago and haven’t been able to figure out why. I’m not getting any service for some reason, and my husband’s phone is dead, so we haven’t been able to call anyone.”
Booker glances over at the supposed husband, who is positioned by the front of the car, bald head gleaming in the headlights, and flashes the woman an approximation of a smile. “I’m no good with cars, but I can call someone, if you’d like.”
“Oh, that’d be wonderful,” the woman responds enthusiastically, clasping her hands together. The theatrics are grating.
“I left my phone in my car,” Booker says. “Let me go grab it.” He turns his back to them and starts walking back towards his vehicle.
He’d expected it at some point during the encounter, but the feeling of a blade between his shoulder blades is still an unpleasant surprise nonetheless; he goes to his knees with a cry of pain. The knife twists and yanks upwards. He indulges himself in a scream.
Throwing himself forward, he rolls over onto his back and struggles to his feet, glares daggers at his attacker. The man looks surprised at his audacity, to stand back up without any further complaint after that nasty of a stabbing, but only for a moment, before his face goes grim. He lowers himself into a fighting stance. Booker reaches for his own knife and does the same. Knees bent, feet shoulder-width apart, easy as breathing. He’s done this a thousand times.
The guy’s big, but Booker’s taken on bigger guys before, and won most of the time. Booker brandishes his knife and twists up his mouth in what he hopes is an intimidating scowl.
The woman emerges from the car with two pistols, one of which the man takes without looking away from where Booker is still standing frozen a few meters away.
Oh, they’ve got fucking guns, of course they do, he thinks, lamenting the pistol of his own he’d left stashed in the glove compartment, then takes a step forward, and dies.
He comes back quickly, but not quickly enough. By the time his eyes snap open again and he comes heaving back into consciousness, pushing himself up off the ground to look around, the robbers are gone. Mercifully, his car is still there, the driver’s side door ajar. He lets out a long groan and lets his forehead thunk back into the bloody dirt, and just lays there for a while.
Eventually, he forces himself to his feet to take inventory. There’s blood crusting in his hairline from the wound that had killed him, and a hole in his shirt right below his collarbone where the other bullet had entered. Why they had felt the need to both shoot him when the headshot would have sufficed is a mystery, but he can’t be bothered to dwell on it. The important thing is the fact that he is now standing on the side of a highway 200 kilometers away from home, he’s somewhat covered in blood, and his head aches with a vengeance.
God, he needs a drink.
So he does the only thing he can: he gets in his car and goes the fuck home.
He takes stock of what’s missing as he drives; his phone is gone—a burner he’d picked up two days ago, so no real loss there—as is his wallet and gun. The latter’s disappearance is a little worrisome, but there’s fuck-all he can do about it now. Other than that, the car is mostly untouched. He figures they must have panicked and rushed to flee the crime scene once the greater implications of having shot a man in the head set in. There is, after all, a notable difference between stabbing someone in the back and shooting them between the eyes. Getting out of there fast was maybe the first smart decision those two had ever made, but rather counterproductive to Booker’s purposes.
Honestly, he thinks bitterly to himself, he should have expected this sorry attempt at a job to end up like this. He’s horridly out of practice, and far too accustomed to having a team to back him up anyways. In a different situation, Andy would have called him on idiotically leaving his gun in the car on the stupid assumption that the violent criminals he was facing wouldn’t be armed. Nicky would have been with him, maybe, making the would-be robbers second-guess their intentions with that cool, level gaze of his, the one that felt like he was evaluating one’s very soul. Or maybe it would have been Joe, clapping his hand over Booker’s shoulder with a laugh after laying their assailants out in the mud together. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
But it doesn’t matter what could have been, because what it is is Booker driving home, left alone to lick his metaphorical wounds, dirty hands gripped tight around the steering wheel, while the sky goes from purple-black to gray to yellow and pink and the sun rises, just as it has every day since the beginning of time.
He gets in touch with Copley as soon as he gets home, out of pure obligation, even though what he’d much rather do is down an entire bottle of scotch and pass out either facedown in bed or in his bathtub.
“Booker.” Copley’s voice is rough with sleep; it occurs to Booker that it is, in fact, an hour at which most people are asleep. Not him, though, because he’s cursed with misery at every turn, or something. There’s some shuffling on the other end, then the faint clicking of a keyboard filters through as Copley asks, “So how’d it go?”
“Take a wild guess,” Booker growls.
“Seeing as I’m not getting any particularly pertinent police reports coming through, I’m assuming things didn’t go quite as according to plan,” Copley says evenly. Booker snorts.
“Unless getting shot in the head was part of a plan I wasn’t made aware of, no, they didn’t.”
There’s a beat. Copley starts, “Did they—”
“No, they didn’t see me get back up. They were gone by the time I came back,” Booker interrupts. “I was stupid and they got away.”
“Oh. Well, uh.” Copley seems to be at a genuine loss of words, which is not a surprise. He’s been working for a year now with the rest of the team, who operate together like a well-oiled machine. Failure, while inevitable, is infrequent when they’re really in one of their grooves, which he doesn’t doubt they are, with him gone and Nile there. “Do you need help, or—”
“No,” Booker cuts in firmly. The thought of this abject failure being held up to his old crew with a plea for help makes his stomach turn. All he wants to do now is go the hell to sleep. “I wouldn’t stress about the robberies, anyways,” he adds before he hangs up. “They’re so sloppy about the whole thing, they’re going to get caught any day now.”
(Sure enough, not even a week later, the news reports a midnight high speed car chase that ended in the deaths of two suspected robbers. Booker raises his flask in spiteful cheers at the TV screen, and drinks until he falls into a fitful, waterlogged sleep.)
Two days later, he emerges from the stairwell, rounds the corner, and sees Andy standing in front of his apartment door talking to his neighbor.
He drops his groceries on the floor.
Alexandre jumps at the sound. Andy doesn’t so much as blink. She turns towards him, that easy, subdued smirk on her face, and lifts a hand in greeting.
“Booker, there you are. I was talking to Alex here waiting for you to show up—did you know he just got a gig doing behind the scenes photography on a movie set here in Paris?” Her French is as passable as always; she could be a lot better at it easily, of course, but she’d always said she just never had enough of a reason to update it much past her outdated, cursory fluency of early 19th century dialect. There’s a slight bemused look on Alexandre’s face at the way she shapes the words, but he’s no doubt too polite to have mentioned it.
“What are you doing here?” Booker says, harsher than he means to.
“Visiting you, next question, please,” Andy replies, like it’s not a big deal at all. Booker wants to scream.
He invites her inside instead, leaving Alexandre to continue on his merry way, confused but smiling like he always is.
Andy makes herself comfortable, or as comfortable as one can be in Booker’s shithole apartment, as he closes and locks the door behind them. She lays claim to the armchair in front of the TV with little more than a sly glance at Booker, leaving him to drag a chair over from the dining table to sit in.
“Andy,” he begins, “what is going on.”
“Copley mentioned you’d been in touch about a job that went sideways.” Andy crosses her legs and leans back, cocking an eyebrow at him. The skin under her eyes is bruised with sleep deprivation. She’s never had dark circles before. “Figured I’d come pay you a visit before you started throwing yourself into more stupid shit trying to get yourself properly killed.”
“I wasn’t—” The protest dies on Booker’s tongue. Even if he hadn’t specifically gone out with the intention, to say he hadn’t taken into account would be a lie, one that Andy would see right through. Instead, he says, “I’m not supposed to see any of you for another ninety-nine years.”
“Well, tough luck, you get to see my ugly mug anyways.” Andy holds out a hand for Booker’s flask; he hands it to her wordlessly and watches as she takes a long drink before twisting it shut and letting it fall to the ground next to her. “The others don’t know I’m here, and they wouldn’t stop me anyways. They couldn’t.”
Booker knows that much to be true, no doubt about it. Andy’s always been prone to taking off on her own unannounced, only to return anywhere between a few hours or a few days later with little to no explanation. Booker had tried to stop her once, declaring the time-sensitivity of the job they were on, and was promptly dissuaded from ever trying that again with a black eye in the moment and a great deal of I told you so smugness later, when whatever Andy had slipped off to do took care of half the mission before the rest of them even finished recon.
There is a slight difference, now, of course, in Andy’s new mortality, but it has likely only made her harder to argue with. She’s nothing if not stubborn—she and Booker have something in common, in that.
“Listen, Book.” Andy heaves a great sigh, picks the flask up again to take another drink. “I’m not in charge of you, so I can’t tell you what to do, but if I may be so audacious as to suggest something.”
“Please do,” Booker prompts. Andy grins, sharp as a fox, at him.
“I can’t stop you from taking jobs, but I don’t know if that’s what you need right now.”
“Why not?” Booker asks, and cringes at how much he sounds like a petulant child.
“You need to get out of your head, Booker. Your work brain, if you will.” Andy waves the flask in the air as she adds, “And in a way other than this.”
Booker bristles without even knowing why. “Am I not supposed to try to help people, then?” He doesn’t let Andy respond before continuing, “That’s what we’re supposed to be doing, isn’t it? Using our abilities to do some good?”
“All you’re doing is getting yourself killed. Look me in the eye and tell me you want to take jobs because you want to help people and not because you think it’s all you’re good for.” She leans forward, elbows on her knees, daring him. “Come on, Book.”
The thing is, she’s right. He can’t meet her eyes. She sighs again as she settles back, a tired, tired sound.
“When was the last time you really believed in all this, and weren’t just doing it because you didn’t know what else to do?”
“Oh, fuck off,” Booker mutters, helpless with the weight of the truth Andy’s so unceremoniously dumped into his hands.
“Hard to find a reason to put any real effort into things when you don’t believe in anything, isn’t it?” This is cruel, Booker thinks, to be flayed open by his oldest friend without even a chance to ask her not to.
“I still believe in God,” he says. A half-lie, a three-quarters-lie, maybe. He still thinks there’s some god out there, has to be some higher power yanking his strings, but it’s not nearly so kind as he thought it was at some point.
Andy’s silence says more than enough. She shoots back anyways, “When was the last time you went to church?”
“Does believing in God help you feel better? Does it make you feel like you’re living for something, or just that you have something waiting for you when you finally kick it?”
Booker smiles wryly. He hopes, probably fruitlessly, that Andy doesn’t notice how his hands are shaking. “You been philosophizing a lot lately?”
Andy just shrugs, mirrors his dry smile. “Let’s say I’ve found some worth in it, after all. Only took me a couple millennia to come around.”
“Well, you’ll have to check back in with me in a few thousand years, see if I’ve warmed up to it by then.” It’s something that would have been so easy to say, before, a bitter little passing joke, but Booker regrets it while it’s still coming out of his mouth. A few thousand years isn’t an option for Andy anymore.
“If I say you owe it to me, to get your shit together and start living your life even just a little bit better, will you?” Booker blinks at her. It’s unlike Andy, to ask something like this of anyone; she usually expects her debts to be paid in the form of bullets in the skulls of people about to kill her. “We both have gotta start actually making something of our lives, and you have a lot longer to live yours. Do an old woman a favor and make it not so miserable, for what she can’t do with hers, yeah?”
When he just keeps gawking trying to formulate a response, she laughs and stands up, starts toward the door. She drains the flask and sets it on the kitchen counter as she passes it, glancing back at Booker as he shakes out of his shock. “Andy,” he says, without anything to follow it.
“Just think on it, Book,” she says with that cryptic air about her that she just loves to put on, “I’ll see you around,” and then she’s gone.
Sebastien starts trying to make an effort to go outside more. He takes strolls around the block, maybe still not quite as frequently as anyone who ever bothered to care about him would like, but he’s going out. It’s the thought that counts, he rationalizes to himself, watching pigeons scatter around his feet.
He spends more afternoons in his neighbors’ company; sometimes it is Alexandre and Khalil both, though sometimes it’s just Alexandre flitting around the living showing off his cameras and doodads and being comically affronted at Sebastien’s blatant ignorance of pop culture. Very rarely is it Khalil alone, because of his busy schedule, but on the few occasions it is, they talk about books for what easily becomes hours.
Sebastien mentions his reread of The Little Prince, and Khalil eagerly launches into an explanation of the essay he’d written on the themes of the book a few years ago. Sebastien has to look away at some point, for fear that the way he can picture Joe in his place, enthusing on the vulnerability of knowing and being known by others, will drive him to tears.
The local pub is hazy and loud, but Sebastien rationalizes that it’s better to drink among other people than alone, even if he doesn’t actually talk to anyone and actively avoids the probing, provocative eyes of pretty women at the other end of the bar. He doesn’t get so drunk, out in public, and the bartender slides him glasses of water as each night winds down with nothing but a knowing look and a nod. It’s a gesture he can’t even fathom his gratitude for.
And then, one night, coming home late from the pub, he gets kidnapped.
He honestly can’t even be bothered to try to figure out how they found him or why they’re after him. Mostly he just wishes he had his flask with him. Being chained down in an empty basement with nothing to pass the time but his own depressive thoughts isn’t his ideal way to spend a Thursday… afternoon? Evening? It’s hard to tell. He thinks it’s been at least a day.
The good news is that most of his captors don’t seem particularly interested in him, nor are they very disciplined. The rotation of guards’ expressions vary from stern to bored to just plain tired. One of the older men keeps almost nodding off during his shift.
The bad news is that they’ve been made aware of his healing factor, and some of them have been using him as a punching bag with which to vent their stupid macho frustrations accordingly.
“Fucking freak,” one of them mutters as he trades places with the previous guard. He kicks him hard in the ribs with a steel-toed boot, scowling when Sebastien barely so much as winces at the crack of bone. His ribs have been broken and subsequently healed more times than he can count in the past however many hours. “What are you, some kinda witch? Demon?”
Sebastien keeps his head bowed and his eyes on the floor in front of him. “What does it matter to you?”
“It doesn’t. I just think it’s fucking weird.”
“Full marks for observational skills, then,” Sebastien snarks, and is rewarded with a harsh blow to his head with the butt of a rifle. His vision goes black for a long few moments.
“Don’t fucking give me attitude,” the guard barks at him. “I’ll cave your head in if it’ll shut you up, don’t think I won’t.”
“Very gentle with your prisoner, I see. Are you like this with all your guests, or am I special?”
This earns him another concussion, and a split lip to boot. “We’re just waiting for you to get picked up. Someone very into science was very interested in getting their hands back on you. Didn’t get it at first, but I see why now. Wish they’d be quicker about it, though. You’re fucking obnoxious.”
Kozak, then, has to be. Jesus fucking christ, they should have killed her before leaving that godforsaken lab and spared a whole lot of people a whole lot of additional trouble now. Then again—
Some sad, shriveled up part of him wonders if this is the universe’s way of giving him a second chance at what he’d been looking for when he’d first stupidly, selfishly given his team up. If maybe this time, they’ll find the secret to his immortality and thus the secret to ending it. And if not that, maybe this is the universe handing him a different gift altogether: a way to serve penance.
He can’t pay his debts through anonymous heroic deeds, and apparently can’t avoid trouble long enough to clean up his own life like Andy wants him to, but if his body can give something to humanity…
It’ll be awful, he thinks, recalling the jars of tissue samples lined up neatly on the tables of Kozak’s lab, Joe and Nicky dazed and restrained and shivering in the chill. But hey. Catholic monks used to whip themselves for no reason Sebastien could find worthwhile. At least his own torture could be the end of disease, or whatever it was Copley said to him all those months ago when he convinced him to betray the only people he had in the world.
So be it. Maybe it’s easier for everyone this way.
And then the yelling starts.
There’s the sound of gunfire somewhere above them, accompanied by a great deal of shouting and a flurry of movement, the stomp of heavy boots against the floor. Sebastien barely has time to hope upon hope that it’s who he thinks it is before his guard whips around, levels his rifle at him, and shoots him dead.
He comes back to the sound of distant gunfire and the sight of Andy standing over him, expression unreadable. She has a cut high on her left cheekbone, and the dark circles under her eyes he’d noticed the last time he saw her have only deepened, but otherwise, she looks exactly the same as she always has. The body of the guard who’d shot him is laid out on the ground by the doorway.
Nile slides into view, then, gun still trained on the entry as she joins them in his lovely little blood-stained corner. “Joe and Nicky are cleaning up the last of them, but I think we just about took care of them all,” she reports, finally lowering her gun and handing Andy a ring of keys she must have taken off someone upstairs. “Hey, Booker. You look like shit.”
“Why—why are all of you here,” he chokes out as Andy gets to work freeing him. “It’s way too early, especially to see the whole team—”
“We’re rescuing you. You’re welcome, by the way.” Andy unlocks the last of the chains and steps back, rattling them obnoxiously as she does.
“I could have taken care of it myself,” Booker lies, as if he hadn’t just resolved himself to a likely lifetime of torture.
“Which is why you were lying here dead with a hole in your face, yeah,” Andy snorts. “Come on, Book. Let’s get out of here.”
Nile offers him her arm, when he stumbles standing up. He can’t bring himself to reject it. For all he knows this is wrong, that he shouldn’t be allowed the company—let alone the comfort—of these people, he misses it too much not to take what’s given to him.
They make their way up the stairs and into the foyer of the house he apparently was being held in, where Nicky and Joe are waiting, cleaning blood off their blades. An impressive number of bodies are scattered around the room.
“Nile and I are going to do one last sweep to see if there’s any information on Kozak anywhere,” Andy informs them before they disappear down the hall, leaving Booker alone with the two men he’s convinced hate him most in the entire world.
“Hey,” he says after a long silence, voice caught in his throat, eyes downcast. “If you want to kill me a few times before they get back, I’m fine with that. Or if you want to get going now that you’ve taken care of things here. You probably should, really.”
“We came here to rescue you, Booker. Killing you now seems counterproductive, don’t you think?” Nicky laughs gently. He’s cracking jokes, like these are normal circumstances. It makes Booker’s stomach churn.
“I don’t know why you showed up. I’m not—I’m not supposed to see you all for years.”
“Oh, Booker,” Nicky says softly. Sympathetic, yet somehow without pity. Booker has never figured out how he does it. “You still don’t understand, do you?” He reaches for Booker’s hand, and Booker, surprised by his sudden proximity, resists the simultaneous urges to both flinch away and press closer, stays stock-still instead. “You are family, Booker. You hurt us, yes, but you’re still one of us. We’re not going to abandon you.”
“You did, though.” The accusation bubbles out of some poisonous part of him before he can stop it. “You did leave me to fuck off on my own, you all agreed on it.”
Nicky pulls back a little, frowning. He almost looks hurt. “That’s not—there had to be a price, Booker—”
“No, I know, I just.” Booker takes a shuddering breath, picks at the ragged end of his sleeve. “Wanted to know that you know. You’re aware of how I got here.” He holds up a hand when Nicky opens his mouth. “Not saying it’s your fault. I’m just saying.”
It’s incredibly unfair of him to say and he knows it. He’s fully expecting Nicky to call him on it, really, but to his surprise, the other man doesn’t say another word. He just looks him up and down one last time, clasps his hand ever so briefly on Booker’s shoulder, then turns away and exits the building.
Booker knows without looking that Joe’s turned to him in Nicky’s wake, can feel the burn of his eyes on his skin. He cringes under his gaze, too ashamed to look him in the eye even now. The bloody floor, he decides, is just too interesting.
“Are you okay, Sebastien?”
He doesn’t know what exactly he was expecting—a blow, maybe, angry words, or even just a quiet, disappointed sigh—but whatever it was, this was not it. With a great deal of struggle, he lifts his eyes to Joe’s, and is dumbstruck by the earnest, uncomplicated concern in them.
“I—I’m fine,” he manages to choke out past the lump in his throat. Joe nods wordlessly. “Joe, I’m sorry, I—”
“I know.” Joe’s smile is barely perceptible, and vanishes as fast as it appears. Then he’s gone.
Nile and Andy return a few minutes later. Andy’s rifling through a manila folder as they come in, frowning at its contents. Nile catches Booker’s eye, flashes him a grin.
“We’ll drop you off back home,” she says, not as a question but as a statement of intent. Booker shakes his head anyways.
“Thank you, but no. Just let me borrow enough for a flight back to Paris and I’ll figure it out.”
“We’re taking you home, Booker.” Nile steps in front of him when he starts towards the door, squaring her shoulders to his. “You’ve been through hell the past two days, we’re not just gonna ditch you now. Besides, I don’t think you’re getting on a plane in those clothes anyways.” She indicates his bloody, tattered state. “Not any commercial flights, that’s for sure.”
“So lend me enough for a new outfit and a plane ticket, I don’t care,” Booker growls. “Just let me get back to my hundred years of exile, please.”
“Hate to pull this card on you, Book, but as the exiled party, you don’t get a say in what goes on right now. Come on.” Nile fixes him with one last do not argue with me look, then walks out of the room, leaving Booker and Andy alone.
Booker huffs an incredulous sort of laugh. “She’s certainly grown into herself,” he comments. “She’s good.”
“She’s a leader. She’ll do good heading the team when I’m gone.” Andy meets Booker’s gaze easily when he turns to her at that remark. “Don’t be a baby about it, Book, it’s going to happen. My time’s coming around and I want you all to be ready for it. No point pretending it’s not.”
“I know, boss, it’s just—”
She raises an eyebrow. “Or do you have a problem with me putting Nile next in line? Because Booker, my friend, I gotta tell you, I love you, but—”
“It’s not that,” Booker insists, “I’m still just…” He gestures at her, then at his own head. “I don’t understand how you’re just fine with it. Carrying on like it’s not a problem.”
“Because it’s not.” Andy lays a hand over Booker’s, pats it reassuringly. “When it’s my time, it’s my time. That’s just how it is. Now seriously, come on.” She hefts her axe and wipes the back of her hand over her cheek, which really only succeeds in smearing more blood across her face. “Let’s get out of here.”
No one says anything during the long car ride back to Paris. Joe drives with Andy in the passenger seat, while Nicky and Booker stare out opposite windows and Nile sits in the middle, iPod in hand and earphones in.
Booker’s kidnappers, as it turns out, hadn’t taken him all that far after all. They’re still in France, albeit a much less populated, much more empty part of it. If Booker ignores all the roads and power lines, he can almost imagine it as the countryside he’d visited as a boy. It almost feels nice, that nostalgia, until the weight of the lifetimes it’s been since then catches up and it just makes him miserable again.
Joe brings the car to a halt in front of Booker’s dilapidated apartment building, at which Booker hurries to exit.
“I’m—thanks—I’m going to get out of your hair now,” he mumbles, nearly slamming the door in Nile’s face in his rush to close it.
“You’ve certainly picked a place to live,” she comments, head tilted to take it all in from her vantage point in the back seat.
Booker fidgets. They’re not supposed to be here. If they stay—if he’s allowed to look at them, to share space with them—any longer, he won’t be able to handle it when they leave. “Thank you,” he says again, emphatically, “goodbye.”
He turns on his heel and marches himself into the building, one foot resolutely in front of the other, and wipes the look on Andy’s face as he retreats from his mind.
He washes. He burns his ruined clothes and pours the ashes out his window into the alley behind the apartment building. He gets drunk, throws up, and dumps the rest of the bottle down the sink. He gets drunk again.
He gets a letter that could only be from Andy that reads simply, you still owe me. what do you believe in? and struggles with the conflicting urges to rip it to pieces or preserve and frame it. He opts to leave it on his kitchen counter for the foreseeable future, as if he means to throw it out but keeps forgetting to. It sits there in the corner of his eye every time he goes for the whiskey. He drinks less.
Everything, of course, still hurts.
Alexandre catches him in the hall a few days after his return to Paris, as eager and bushy-tailed as usual, accosting him as he’s coming back from the bookstore with a few new novels.
“Sebastien, hi! Have you been busy?” Alexandre’s nearly bouncing on his feet. “Khalil tried to come by with some extra baking two days in a row last weekend and missed you both times.” He tilts his head in a way not unlike a curious dog, blue-green eyes filled with genuine concern.
“Right, yeah. Short-notice contract work out of town,” Sebastien says with as nonchalant a shrug as he can muster. Alexandre picks up on the implication of confidential information he puts into the gesture, and nods sagely.
“I get it. We’re glad you’re back, though! Khalil was not happy about me eating the extra bread he set aside for you—sorry about that, by the way.” Alexandre grins sheepishly. Sebastien is struck once again with the cruel vision of his son’s face in this kid’s. “It was going to go stale, and I didn’t want it to go to waste, so.”
Sebastien forces an awkward laugh that’s awful even by his standards. “Oh, it’s fine, really.” Alexandre’s brows knit together. Sebastien has never been good at selling the it’s fine even though it really isn’t thing.
“Sebastien, I—I’m sorry if this is an overstep, but—are you alright?”
If he looks at him, he’ll break, and if he breaks, it’s going to be awful and embarrassing and a mess. If he looks at him, he’ll see his son just as he was until he died, gentle and selfless and never bitter, never bitter like the rest of them were at the end, or maybe he had just lived with the sickness for too short a time to grow bitter when he would have, given the chance—
Sebastien looks at him, and knows from the startled expression on Alexandre’s face that he sees clear as day the tears that have risen unbidden in his eyes.
“Sebastien?” he says softly. “Do you—do you want to come in, maybe?”
No, I’m 230 years too old to sit on a college student’s couch and cry, he thinks. “Okay,” he says.
“Khalil’s in class, he’ll be back in an hour or so,” Alexandre tells him with a very deliberate lightheartedness as he sets a steaming cup on the coffee table in front of him. “Sorry, I know you didn’t say you wanted anything, but.”
“It’s alright. Thank you.” Sebastien sounds pathetic even to himself, and probably looks even worse, shoulders hunched as he stares through the floor, once again having resolved to avoid seeing the kid’s face.
The couch dips with Alexandre’s weight when he sits down next to him. There’s a few handspans of space between them, still, but it feels oppressively close anyways. Sebastien hasn’t sat down next to someone in… a long time, he realizes suddenly.
“Is there… anything going on?” Alexandre asks carefully. Sebastien just nods, unwilling to—unable to—say anything else yet. “Do you want to talk about it? Can you talk about it?”
Sebastien reaches for his coffee, takes a sip and ignores the way it burns his tongue, numbs the roof of his mouth. He inhales the steam, lets the rich scent linger in his nostrils, then sighs heavily. “I…” The words stick in his throat, while he doesn’t even know what words he’s trying to say. “You remind me of my son.”
Not what he was originally going for, not the issue he was going to filter through the mind of a relative infant, but it’s the one he’s dealing with now, apparently. It’s not as if any of his other infinite problems could be helped any better.
“Your son?” Alexandre echoes, sounding vaguely shocked. “I didn’t know you were…”
“It was a long time ago. Basically a different life altogether.” He stares into the deep brown contents of his cup as though if he willed it hard enough it would turn whiskey gold. His fingers itch for his flask.
Alexandre’s eyes flick down to his hands, obviously searching for a wedding band and looking faintly confused when he doesn’t see one. “Is he—are you—” He stutters through half-questions like he’s unsure what he’s allowed to ask. Poor kid probably hasn’t run into a lot of disheveled old men moping about lost children over the course of his short (oh so very short) life. “What happened?”
Sebastien hesitates. What is he supposed to say? What can he say? “He passed, a while ago. Got sick. My wife went, too, a couple years later.”
“Oh, Sebastien,” Alexandre breathes, “I’m so sorry.”
The world blurs. “You look like him, sometimes,” Sebastien chokes out. “Sound like him, too. It’s been so long, I just—”
Alexandre makes a noise like a wounded animal. He sets his coffee down, and says, “Can I…?”
Sebastien doesn’t know what he’s asking permission for, and is too occupied fighting back tears to even begin to attempt to discern what; he just nods blindly and hopes for the best. And then he is being hugged.
It occurs to Sebastien that he has not been hugged in a long time. There is a split second wherein he is afraid his body has forgotten how to, until the rest of him catches up to the part of his brain that sees every moment as an opportunity for disaster and he melts into the touch in a way that would be embarrassing if he still had any face to save. As it is, though, Alexandre’s embrace is wholly comforting, as the kid’s arms tighten around his shoulders. They stay like that for what feels like a lifetime and is probably really a few seconds. It is all he needed and never enough.
“Thank you,” Sebastien says hoarsely when they pull apart. Alexandre squeezes his hand in response.
“Of course. I’m here for you.” And isn’t it something, to just hear those words.
“Thank you,” he says again. He doesn’t know what else to say. He’s too tired, now, to argue against the things that sound too good for him. He’d just like to believe in them, for once. So he does.
“Do you still have any family around?” Alexandre asks haltingly, as if afraid of what the answer is going to be.
Sebastien goes with what he knows rather than what he feels, then, when he responds, “Yeah, I do.” He still feels obligated to add, “We’re kind of at odds right now, though. I haven’t talked to them much in a while.”
“They’ll come back around,” Alexandre says firmly. It’s this, this determination, this steadfast belief that borders on naivety, that Sebastien misses so much. Though maybe it’s a waste, to miss what’s right in front of you. He revels in it instead. “And even if they don’t, you have us. We’ll be here, swear on my life.”
“Yeah,” Sebastien murmurs, an acknowledgement and an agreement. Here is a short time and a temporary place, but it’s more than he would ever dare to ask for himself.
Alexandre smiles, and Sebastien sees someone who could be a friend in the furrow of his brow.
Alexandre and Khalil invite him to Christmas dinner.
Sebastien thinks of his sons running around the kitchen getting in the way of the cooking he is doing a very bad job of helping his wife with, thinks of Joe and Nicky arguing over spices while Andy gets a headstart on getting outrageously wine-drunk, all while lights twinkle on the snow outside. He thinks of drinking himself to sleep on Christmas Eve alone in a safehouse he’d bought in the 60’s, and waking up choking on nothing to the sound of children’s delighted laughter in the streets.
He accepts the invitation.
It’s nothing fancy, the three of them gathered around a dining table adorned with cheery little tea candles in an apartment made bright and warm with ribbons and tinsel, but it’s far from lonely.
He’s not lonely, tonight, he realizes between the laughter of people who do not know him but care about him anyways, then realizes the feeling isn’t unfamiliar, that maybe he’d been not alone for a long time before and never recognized it for what it was.
Jesus, he’s stupid like that.
Nile leaves him a voicemail wishing him merry Christmas. He can hear Joe and Nicky laughing in the background, Andy’s amused voice rising over them both. It is a gift that he does not deserve, but he will take whatever mercies are given to him, and it is enough.
He believes it is enough, and so it is.