Tom resisted the urge to gulp; he couldn’t even allow himself that. If – if – no. Ne, ne, ne. He stared at Binder’s face, his eyes tracing every shadow, every fear-darkened groove. Now he saw it, the delicate bounce of a muscle in his jaw, the way it ground to one side when he sucked at that tooth, the way he always sucked at that tooth – the way those blue eyes glinted, staring at Ava, whose face Tom couldn’t see.
The pinched crow’s feet at the edges of his eyes. He knew it, Tom thought. He knew how mung that’d been. Didn’t he? He had to. Was it a bluff?
And the way Ava’d posed it back at him, without a hint of sarcasm. Tom couldn’t imagine how she did it. Maybe it was the stress, maybe it was the cold sweat that was beading on his back – it was comfortable, holding himself this straight, more comfortable than his old slump, but his lower back ached; it always ached – maybe it was all that, but he wanted to laugh. He wanted to burst out into hysterics of the kind he’d never vented. He wanted to wheeze with everything that’d built up over the past few months. All that morbid humor he hid behind, so carefully-constructed. He wanted to wreck it like jackstraws and laugh ’til he wept.
’Cause it was true. He’d come back. He didn’t know how, but he thought he’d manage. Go to the Hall of Records, or whatever she’d said. What had she said? He wasn’t sure, but he thought somebody would know. He knew somebody would know. If Binder bought this baffling bluff, Tom would go straight Uptown, quick as he could, and he’d find somebody who knew their shit, even if it blew his cover, even if he looked moony. Even if he took so long that he got back too late.
That was why it was so funny. Binder didn’t know that. It was even funnier, in that shot-nerves, terrifying sort of way, seeing him work through it on his own, prodded along by Ava’s sincerity. It was when she’d said, naturally he will return for me, that Binder’s lips had pulled down, twisted, half-grim, half-helpless. He didn’t seem to know what to do or say. All the while, the gun hovered at the edges of his sight, a hazy threat in the shadows near the hem of Binder’s jacket.
When she said here, Tom saw him grind his teeth. “Flood this. Not worth it.” Binder’s throat bobbed; his mouth worked, but nothing else came out.
And Tom forced another thin, politician’s smile onto Anatole’s face, just like he’d practiced. Forced himself to think what the incumbent’d do. He let a pause stretch out and settle down, and then intoned, “Only a few hours, wherever you choose to wait. Or, perhaps –”
Now, he did move closer. He took a gamble. He could feel the edges of his field, a hazy, blurry sensation against – what he thought were – his ley lines; he didn’t think he was moving into Binder’s range, but he couldn’t be sure. He stepped up almost to the desk.
“– perhaps we could arrange something more formally,” he continued, reaching out a hand, touching the edge of the desk with the tips of his fingers. “I have said that I can offer you my protection.” He said it like he was irritated; he said it like it’d been his idea all along, and Ava’d just complicated it. He said it like she wasn’t even there. “If you choose to…”
Binder moved. It was sudden, and Tom barely had time to respond; he took a step back, half-stumbling, as the kov moved round the other side of the desk. First, the gun was pointed at Tom, then at Ava, then at Tom again. He moved round the desk, then to the other wall, then, creeping, toward the door to the hall.
Tom blinked, not daring to look at Ava for cues. He went through his options in his head, but there weren’t many.
“Don’t move,” hissed Binder, fumbling with the doorknob, his eyes still on Tom and Ava. “Don’t.” The hinges creaked; the bottom of the door scratched at the rotted wooden boards as it came open just a pina mant.
For a few heartbeats, he hung there, the revolver hovering in the air. Then he slipped out, shutting the door with a click. Tom didn’t hear his footsteps in the hall outside; he didn’t hear much of anything except the rush of his own pulse in his ears, and his breath scraping at his lungs in somebody else’s voice. They were left alone in the little room.
It was another scattering of heartbeats before Tom could bring himself to move. He wheezed, sagging. The first thing he did was sniff, then sneeze; then he moved back to the desk, grabbing the edge for support.
“Fuck. Clock-fuckin’ – Hulali’s tits. Fuck.” He squeezed his eyes shut for a space, counting the breaths in his head. “Remind me to – never play Rooks against you. You all right?” Biting his lip hard, he opened them. It was hard, bringing himself to look at Ava now, but he managed.