On the corner of Rue Jean Beausire and Rue de la Bastille sat a nondescript café.
Or, at least, that was what it looked like to Antony.
Café de Flore was almost identical to every other café in Paris, but something felt off. Maybe it was the way the morning sun casted the shadows, or what the letter had promised, but Antony felt the sudden urge to jump into the Seine.
Through the window, he caught sight of the girl who'd suspected him of stealing the painting. She was the first one there and, for some reason, he wasn't surprised. Something that felt a lot like exasperation curled inside him.
No one had ever really believed in Antony. Not in his ideas of being a writer, not in him as a person. He was fine with it for the most part. It meant no one stayed too long to be disappointed.
But now everyone, it seemed, was disappointed in him for all the wrong reasons.
How typical, he thought as he pushed open the door, that they decided to finally acknowledge something I didn't do.
The bell that chimed in the café did not help the throbbing in his head. It might have been the loudest sound Antony had ever heard.
The girl looked up from her tea and watched him with curious eyes as he made his way to the small table.
"What happened to your eye?" she asked by way of greeting.
He blinked and sighed inwardly. Or one eye did, the other was swelled shut. He always hated when the bruises were impossible to cover.
"I tripped," he said, the lie rolling easily off his tongue.
Antony often felt that lies were easier to tell than truth, and he'd been telling them for oh-so long. It was why he was such a good writer.
She raised her eyebrows in question. She was wearing a long beige skirt and a sensible white blouse. Antony could tell she was trying not to smile.
"Into a fountain," he clarified and sat down in the seat opposite of her.
She spit out her tea.
"I'm so sorry," she said, clearly shocked with herself, "it really isn't funny."
It must've been the nerves—or perhaps the fuzziness in his brain had finally become too much—but Antony began to laugh.
The girl blinked at him and he only laughed harder. In fact, it might have been the hardest he'd laughed in a long time. Perhaps in his whole life.
He thought he must have finally gone crazy—laughing with no idea why.
But then the girl began to smile.
And then she began to laugh too.
Antony didn't feel as crazy anymore.
In that moment it seemed—at least to Antony— that laughing was never meant to be understood. Only done.
"Hush," the girl said, a smile on her lips and tears in her eyes, "we are causing a scene."
Antony was an expert at making a scene. He'd done it so often at so many parties and galas that he'd practically mastered it as though it were an art. But as he looked around the cramped café at the glares and annoyed muttering, he realized he'd done it all wrong. Until today.
"Oh, of course," he said, trying—and failing—to quell his laughter and smile, "God forbid we disrupt their dreariness."
"It's like they could each be a little storm cloud with all their grumbling." She whispered, her eyes twinkling, "My name is Yu, by the way."
She held out her hand.
"Antony," he said, gripping Yu's hand in his.
And that was that.
The bell to the café door rang out once again.
It was the loudest sound Yu had ever heard.
Suddenly, all the smiles and laughter drained from her as if the bell was a reminder of the reason they were at the Café de Flore in the first place.
It was not to smile and talk of tripping into fountains with the boy across from her.
And it was certainly not to laugh with him either.
Yu gave a small smile to Juma who nodded kindly in return as he seated himself at their table. His long thin legs stuck out from underneath, one knee bouncing and the other completely still. He politely ordered a tea from a frowning waitress.
"How have you been, Juma?" Yu asked, knowing full well that no one at the table had been good.
The corners of his eyes crinkled.
"I'm not sure," he said with a tight smile, and then he glanced past Antony. Then backtracked, eyeing the bruise.
"And how have you been?"
"I'm sitting in a cramped café with a black eye whilst awaiting my doom," Antony said, a lazy expression on his face, "I've been better."
"How did it happen?" Juma asked.
Antony glanced at Yu, Yu glanced at Juma.
"I tripped," he said, his face utterly serious, "into a fountain."
Juma spit out his tea.
Mother would be appalled at this behavior, she thought as laughter again bubbled out of her. But if ever there was a time for spitting tea, surrounded by stormy people as they awaited what felt like the end of something seemed as good a time as any.
Though, behind the anxiety and hysteria—both of which Yu was certain were the cause of her laughter—she saw something that looked a lot like pain and dread in Antony. And it wasn't the kind caused by a black eye. Yu vaguely wondered if he was really telling the truth.
But then she reminded herself that the reason she was here was not to wonder about a boy and his truthfulness. No, she was here for something far more important.
The bell rang once more and Margaret entered the café wearing trousers and a bright red blouse. The pants alone earned her some glares, but Margaret glared right back. She wasn't one to avoid conflict. In fact, Yu secretly believed that conflict was where Margaret excelled.
The laughter had died down at their table by the time Margaret gracefully slid into the remaining chair beside Juma and placed an order for coffee. Sometimes, Yu was shocked to see how small Margaret really was. Next to Juma, she looked positively childlike. Yu decided that flailing hand gestures and strong personalities helped add at least five inches to a person.
"Good morning," Margaret said. She spoke the words as if she were demanding the morning to be good. It was just her way.
Everyone murmured small greetings as Margaret's coffee arrived.
"So," she said after pouring an obscene amount of sugar into her cup, "what are we—"
She paused, as she caught sight of Antony's eye.
"Jesus!" she said rather loudly. The couple seated beside them glared and moved tables.
"What happened to you?"
After Antony explained his eye for the third time to Margaret who—thankfully—hadn't spit out her coffee, everyone fell into an uncomfortable silence. Juma didn't think it was awkwardness. No, he was surprised to find himself partial to the people surrounding the table. It was uncomfortable because the only other topic of conversation was a certain letter and a certain stolen painting.
And no one, it seemed, wanted to talk about that.
Juma couldn't blame them. The thought of it was heavy enough to slump his shoulders.
*French*, his mother would say, stop slumping your shoulders! Do not let anyone see the weight the world has placed there. You are strong. Show them that you are able to carry it.
Juma sat up.
"So your father owns the museum?" Juma asked Antony.
Antony leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. He looked exhausted.
"Yeah, owns and runs it for about five years now," he said, "he was able to pour out enough money to snatch it up after the woman who'd previously owned it died."
"How did she die?" Yu asked.
Antony shrugged, "Fire, maybe? I can't really remember. All I know is that my father competed against hundreds of businessmen in Paris to get that museum the day after she died."
"I didn't even know a woman owned that place," Yu said, eyes widening.
"You wouldn't," Antony said, there was bitterness in his voice, "to put it simply, my father runs the museum well. She ran it better. He doesn't want the word to spread that he was outdone by a dead person. Especially since that person was a woman."
"No offense, but God, what an ass," Margaret said with a sneer. Everyone except Yu seemed to be alarmed at her words.
"None taken," Antony said with a small smile, "I hate him more than any of his competitors, you can be sure of that."
Mr. Croft sounded like a man who was easy for anyone to hate—especially by his competitors—, but there was such a weight and truth to Antony's words that Juma was surprised the hate Antony felt toward his father hadn't brought him to the floor.
"Maybe this Mr. Fig is one of your father's business competitors." Yu said, thoughtfully, "It would be the most logical guess."
Juma decided that Yu was just that: logical.
"Or it could be literally anyone he's ever met." Margaret snorted, "I'm already determined to make his life hell and I haven't even met him."
Juma decided that Margaret was just that: determined.
They each ordered another cup of what they had. And then another. No sign came that Mr. Fig had sent them a letter.
No sign came that the night before had happened at all.
"You'd think that he'd have the decency to be on time," Margaret mumbled into her third cup of coffee. The caffeine was making her impatient. Or maybe that was just her.
Two hours had passed and there was still no sign of, well, Margaret wasn't exactly sure what they were waiting for.
"Let's give him twenty more minutes," Yu said, a slight frown on her face.
"You said that twenty minutes ago," Margaret said, rubbing her eyes with her palms.
"And twenty minutes before that," Juma added, his knee bouncing up and down with the kind of nervous energy that made the room entirely too small.
"Well, this is the last time," Yu said, "what if this is some sort of prank made up to scare us?"
"A prank that involved stealing a priceless piece of art?" Antony said, his chair precariously perched against the wall on the two back legs. " In order to scare a couple of kids? Unless we've all pissed off the same madman, then I'd say it's unlikely."
His last word hung in the air like mist.
To Margaret, it was unlikely that she'd ever move to Paris, and yet here she was.
To Margaret, it was unlikely that she'd ever go to the Spring Gala, and yet she had.
To Margaret, it was unlikely that the three people around her—a gentle one, a precise one, and a reckless one—would ever sit at the same table.
The twenty minutes came just as they went: slowly and uneventful.
They filed out the café doors, careful to avoid the glare of the waitress.
People swarmed around them as they stood still, each one still waiting for something to happen.
Margaret hadn't expected an uncomfortable exchange of goodbyes just yet. To her surprise, Margaret found that she didn't want to say goodbye to Antony or Juma. Which was silly, she'd only just barely met them, but she felt that, maybe, just maybe, you can know someone quite fully and entirely before you even say hello.
Margaret was about to open her mouth and tell them goodbye when she heard a thud beside Yu.
Someone had dropped a briefcase.
Margaret jerked her head up, searching the crowd for the case's owner, but quickly found it to be impossible. So many people were passing them and nearly every one of them was wearing a dark coat to keep out the early spring chill. They all looked utterly the same.
Margaret turned back to Yu, who had picked it up.
A note was attached.
"'Safe Travels,'" Yu read, "'M. Fig.'"