Late in the year, when the mornings were typically bitterly cold, and the evenings little better, the outdated, unnecessary and by all accounts profoundly irritating cobblestones comprising the surface of the largest and most well-used thoroughfare in the city were particularly unforgiving. Prone to slipperiness in a vast range of unfavourable conditions, even the smallest and most dubious burst of additional rainfall subsequently ensured that anyone hoping to pass in either direction was ultimately obliged to endure an increasingly treacherous surface that typically gleamed viciously, a state of affairs that was neither welcomed nor celebrated by anyone and everyone living in the vicinity.
Ultimately the cause of both minor mishaps and many major incidents, and a frequent contender for the most unhelpful of the city's transport routes, the cobblestones chose their victims on the basis of neither age nor gender, proving to be a considerable plague on anyone foolish enough to trespass over them. They regularly reduced unwary and unprepared visitors and tourists to the height of vulnerability, unable to either moderate an increasingly dangerous speed or implement a helpful change of course on a maliciously slick surface, and presumably took great pleasure in destroying any attempt at dignified progress. If the cobblestones were aesthetically pleasing, they were only such from afar, where one could admire them and watch the goings-on with impunity, profoundly unaffected by the inevitable chaos, and obnoxiously smug in the relative good fortune that had afforded them a lucky escape.
Unfortunately, Locke Lamora had not been presented with the golden opportunity to do exactly that, a fact that was proving to be although a significant disappointment, nevertheless not particularly surprising, given all that had occurred in the last week. Still, it had to be said that he did 'obnoxiously smug' very well indeed, and was decidedly unhappy to have been deprived of the chance to revisit the memories of his successes. Rather, quite irrespective of his wishes, he had been forced into an entirely different and singularly unpleasant set of circumstances that were no easier to endure for all that they were undoubtedly familiar.
Locke made rather intimate acquaintance with the cobblestones at speed and painfully hard, and was barely able to turn his face aside at the very last moment, escaping a wider spread of injury by a hairsbreadth. As he settled, slumping down painfully against a surface ill disposed to be kind, he breathed out a soft, fundamentally heartfelt curse, and briefly considered his bad fortune in general, and the unhappy circumstances that had led to this specific moment in particular. It was, to all intents and purposes, a reasonable showing of melancholy, but it lingered only briefly.
He could vaguely recall a table, old and decrepit and utterly devoid of any worth (including sentimental value, if the delighted expression of the woman that had sold it to them was to be believed), and how he and Sabetha had spent no fewer than twenty-four hours extolling its imaginary virtues across the board, finally convincing an overly ambitious trader to claim it (and his alleged future success) for a truly obscene amount of cold, hard cash. The memory elicited a vicious grin, profoundly self-satisfied, and not at all dimmed by the unhappy circumstances in which his actions had ultimately plunged him.
Locke took a moment to catch his breath, panting, and then a moment more as his first tentative, testing inhale pulled harshly at undoubtedly bruised ribs. Then he rolled sideways, sacrificing both grace and dignity for speed, and fetched up rather suddenly against a completely unexpected set of strong legs. He twitched away as the startling collision pulled a soft gasp from his aching chest, but before he could make much in the way of progress in the opposite direction, a strong hand fisted inexorably in the fabric of his coat, and he was yanked unceremoniously to his feet, cursing at length as the dastardly cobblestones receded, and he found himself obliged to once more support the entirety of his own negligible weight.
Locke straightened up to his full and tragically unimpressive height, ever a bone of contention, and pivoted smoothly to face his attacker, only to discover that he was barely in time to be nudged rather ignominiously out of the way by an arm that seemed to be entirely comprised of thick, corded muscle and intent on insinuating itself between Locke and the aforementioned recently-discovered enemy. The subsequent fight, seemingly started by the slightest twitch from both parties, was laughably brief, as the newcomer to the scene and owner of the muscle and legs that had so thoroughly hindered Locke's progress along the ground, revealed himself to be in possession of superior skill, strength and knowledge, and as such more than a match for his hapless and unprepared opponent. He was defeated in no more than three economical moves, culminating in him kissing the cobblestones in almost exactly the same place as Locke had first fetched up. Expecting a pushover, he was treated to the exact opposite, and did not match up.
Locke's attacker gurgled pitifully, trying and failing to lever himself upright. Over his head, Locke's rescuer stuck out one large, thick arm, and bowed over it, the smoothness with which he moved turning what would ordinarily have been patently ridiculous into something exceedingly graceful. He moved with the same confidence with which he had fought, and Locke had to admire – and appreciate – the ease with which he conducted himself, right up until he lifted his head, providing the world, its mother, and Locke, a clear, uninterrupted view of what were, to Locke, surreally familiar features, subsequently obliging him to re-shuffle his previously dependable convictions. That was a surprise none of his calculations had posited as a possibility.
"Jean Tannen," the man in question declared both cheerfully and redundantly to anyone and everything in the vicinity, as if they had yet to be acquainted, and as if he had not, with his timely arrival, very neatly tumbled Locke's carefully-defined world on its head, "at your service."
Jean Tannen, the unassuming, amiable patron of Locke and Sabetha's tiny antiques shop. Jean Tannen, who inexplicably spent the opening hour of every weekday cloistered immovably in one small alcove to read his way through a hideously impressive pile of old, dusty non-fiction tomes and the occasional fictional gem. Jean Tannen, who had ridiculously delicate glasses, a raging caffeine addiction, and the ability to withstand Locke's longest rants without flinching even once or looking remotely bored. Locke blinked, momentarily and quite conclusively lost for words.
Jean had first wandered into the shop just two weeks ago, yet it already felt as if Locke had known him all his life. Never quite admitting whether he had been curious or lost, he had subsequently lingered long enough to be tempted into purchasing a typically delightful mahogany chest, and once the cash had been handed over, their largest 'sold' sign planted implacably in front of it, he had deviated from the usual pattern of behaviour by returning the following day, irrespective of the chest's location. He visited ostensibly to browse and read Locke's changeable selection of literature, but in reality he was always ready to engage Locke in both lengthy and diverting conversation, and seemed not only to enjoy an incredibly diverse range of topics, but also to know rather a lot about them.
He had first heard Locke's full name a couple of days later, and had teased him relentlessly. He frequently produced increasingly outlandish alternatives, which he invariably claimed to be distinctly more plausible than his actual name. He did, however, concede that it most likely served Locke well in his chosen career, to which Sabetha had cackled particularly nastily.
A pretty little idea presented itself, inspired in no small part by Jean's apparently natural ability to play the role of the Knight in not-so-shining armour. Taking his cue, Locke grinned, segued smoothly into charming perfection, and pretended, without a twitch of recognition, that this was their first ever meeting. Doffing an imaginary (and no doubt glorious) hat, he dropped into a mirror image of Jean's bow, added an obligatory flick of his coat-tails (Sabetha had overridden his protests with the claim that the coat in question was not only the height of fashion for people in their chosen occupation, but also that it was obligatory to maintain the aesthetic of the shop, Lamora, and Locke had, rather wisely, acquiesced), and made a graceful gliding gesture with one exquisitely positioned slender wrist.
"Locke Lamora, much obliged." He sharpened his accent, consonants clicking neatly into place, and added a glaze of untouchable grandeur, squaring his shoulders to straighten his back and improve his posture. The change was immediate and considerable, and culminated in the slight lifting of Locke's chin.
Jean's lips twitched involuntarily, threatening the deliberately uniform blankness of his expression with an incoming smile. He fought admirably, struggling valiantly to hold to the game, and Locke merely watched placidly, hands folded neatly together, as if he was not remotely interested in the proceedings. The moment stretched, yawned wide, and finally Jean sorted indelicately and slumped somewhat, patently amused grin slipping free to light up his eyes.
The expression was not unfamiliar; having been produced on many an occasion in the typically quiet confines of the shop, but Locke decided that he preferred it under these circumstances, absent of Sabetha's knowing expression. However, he merely smiled benignly, decided that he was not even remotely charmed by a smile Jean had a tendency to produce on a daily basis, and gave not an inch, utterly committed to his chosen perspective. He was, after all, a consummate professional, regardless of Sabetha's occasionally caustic opinion, and Jean was, essentially, a customer, even if he was considerably nicer than they had become accustomed to expect.
Locke's smile, mild as milk, was a work of art. Gentle and welcoming, it was the very epitome of unflappable innocence, suggesting only at the most profoundly positive and charitable thoughts and attitudes, alongside the undeniable influence of good breeding. It practically broadcasted significant trustworthiness, heavily implying all manner of lovely (not to mention entirely false) things about the individual employing it so judiciously, and it was Locke's go-to expression for making those difficult sales, the majority of which required an extraordinarily delicate touch and what amounted to a Master's degree in persuasion.
"I thought we had something special," Jean added mock-mournfully, his familiarly amiable tone thoroughly laced with amusement. Locke quirked an eyebrow – just listening, not interested – and his expression softened not a jot, maintaining considerable and appropriate distance between himself and a lesser individual. "Then you lead with 'Locke Lamora, much obliged,'" Jean concluded, already grinning. Locke braced himself for what would undoubtedly follow, and buried his amusement.
"Does anyone actually believe that shit? It's like you're not even trying to be convincing. My six-year-old cousin could do better." There it was, the challenge, and Locke rose to it admirably, letting the slightest smile slip through to gently curve his lips upwards. "Please, do not hold me to account for my parent's decisions." And, also: "You do not actually have a six-year-old cousin." He knew rather more of Jean Tannen than he probably should, given how little he had offered of himself in return, but on this occasion he used it to his advantage, merciless in pursuit of his goal.
"But if I did," Jean persisted, grinning ever wider, "she would do better."
Then, suddenly, before Locke had the opportunity to respond, he laughed, loudly, thick shoulders shaking. It was a peculiarly endearing sound, light-hearted, vibrant, and utterly at odds with the generally terrible day (week, month, year) that Locke was clearly having. It also, incidentally, presented an intriguing and somewhat incongruous contrast to the pained noises Jean's ex-opponent made as he finally eased himself upright to limp away dejectedly.
"In that case, I'm Jean Bolkonsky. Middle name: Tolstoy."
Jean voiced both names easily, and it was Locke's turn to laugh, remembering when they had received an entire crate of Tolstoy books concealed beneath an extremely dubious pile of musty fabric. Jean's excited shout had filled and brightened the shop for one perfect, crystal-clear moment of pure delight, and Locke could recall little else from that day, utterly transfixed on that one golden moment. Jean had been on cloud nine with the discovery, and they'd had an offensively entertaining argument over Tolstoy's alleged talent, to which Locke, despite having never even looked at a page of Tolstoy (unless it was to verify its veracity) felt obliged to argue against. Jean ultimately concluded that the considerable delights of such fine literature would likely forever escape Locke, condemning him to an inevitably sad, dreary life of little to no consequence.
Locke remembered thinking that it would be neither of those things, should Jean Tannen be a part of it.
"Liar," he accused, airily, throwing both hands up in a distinctly unnecessary – but distinctly satisfying – gesture that rather flawlessly implied utterly bewildered resignation, as if produced in the unfortunate absence of any better or vastly more appropriate response. His carefully maintained regal bearing indicated that this had been the only route available, and, as such, that he had been perfectly justified in taking it.
"Liar," Jean shot back, apparently no longer interested in responding with anything but relish and open, vibrant amusement.
Locke flipped him the bird, a suddenly uncontrollable grin pulling wide and delighted over his previously blank expression, and the lingering warmth in Jean’s gaze made his heart pound.