The cursed color Enjolras admired mere hours ago now drove icy despair through his heart. Red stained everything- his hands, his arms, the front of his shirt. Streaks of it stood out starkly in his hair and across his forehead.
He pressed the back of his hand (one spot devoid of blood) against his mouth. Tremors riddled his body. His lungs had contracted and made his breaths come in gasps. His eyes could only stare at a memory too clear and fresh- why, God, why must it be a memory and not some horrible nightmare? Nightmares he could chase away, suppress, heal with a few pages of a book; not so with memories.
He still heard it, over and over.
Vive la France! Vive l'avenir!
The gunshots still reverberated in his mind. His eardrums still pulsed with the screams of his friends, with his own frantic cries. His stomach still reeled from the smell of iron in the air. His throat still burned from the smoke, from shouting heedlessly at the guards.
Wait! We have a prisoner too! Let us do an exchange! WAIT!
Enjolras had tried. They had ignored him, or perhaps they had not heard him. Had he spoken loud enough? Did he say the right words? Had he spoken too frantically, too much like a frightened child, too much like a desperate friend- no, brother?
But they must have heard him. Surely they must have, for when it was all said and done, they had allowed him to retrieve the body. They had ignored him the first time, too bent on their path to diverge from it. Only when their task was complete did they turn their attention to him.
He would never know for certain, just as he would never know why. Why Jehan? Why that pure, innocent soul? Enjolras knew Jehan had the courage to face death; his heart contained enough bravery for all of them to share and more. Still, Enjolras remained shaken by the cold glare the guard had given him when he had reached Jehan's body and asked him.
He pressed the back of his hand more firmly to his mouth, both to chase away the sobs collecting in his chest and the bile rising in his throat. The metallic stench of blood flooded his nose with every breath. His fingers twitched at the memory of carrying Jehan's lithe form back to their friends, back inside the Musain, his hands slick with blood and Heaven knows what else coming from the gaping hole in Jehan's head.
The moment Jehan was laid to rest on the floor beside Mabeuf, Enjolras had retreated to the back room as quickly and quietly as he could. He hoped to be unnoticed, leaving everyone to mourn over Jehan's body. His friends needed a pillar to lean on and Enjolras could not be that solid and steady marble. He had collapsed in a cloud of dust and he would not allow his friends to see him broken once the fog cleared.
Another memory, still near but more distant than the one burned into his mind, came forward in similar clarity. He recalled the fervent words Jehan had spoken to him the night before, a peaceful smile on his face.
I am not afraid to die. I will be with all of you. What is there to fear when you're surrounded by the ones you love?
The grasp of despair tightened his hold on his heart. Several tears rolled down his cheeks. He squeezed his eyes shut to prevent more from escaping.
Jehan had been alone. He had died far from his friends, on the other side of the barricade, surrounded by strangers.
Enjolras remembered that soft, content smile that lit up Jehan's freckled face when he uttered those words. He thought of the bloodied, beaten, lifeless state of his friends' face now.
He bent over and vomited.
When his stomach finally calmed enough for Enjolras to regain control of it, he slumped back against the wall and tried to breathe. He longed for the fire to return to his veins. He yearned for hope to come fill his heart again and break the chains of darkness. He tried to recall the visions of the future he so often beheld in his mind's eye.
All he could see now was Jehan. Dead. Cold.
He clenched his hands into fists and allowed himself to cry.
Combeferre found him in such a state only minutes after Enjolras had disappeared. Grief and concern cast dark shadows on his face.
Enjolras lifted his gaze, unashamed of his vulnerability in the presence of his friend, as Combeferre approached him. His lungs spasmed with shorter breaths now from his sobs.
Fresh tears flooded Combeferre's already wet and reddened eyes. He knelt in front of Enjolras and held out his hands for him to hold.
Enjolras immediately seized his hands. "I tried! I c-couldn't save him! They wouldn't...I couldn't make them listen! They wouldn't l-listen to me!"
Combeferre gently shushed him. "You did your best, as you always do."
Unconvinced, Enjolras shook his head. "I could have done more. I could have...I could have gone to him. Climbed...climbed the barricade."
"Julien," Combeferre said with a frown, "They would have shot you too. Then we would have two to mourn instead of one."
"The exchange would have worked. If only I'd been louder, stronger."
"If only they had bothered to open their ears to you." Combeferre squeezed his hands. "They chose not to hear you, and that is not your fault."
Enjolras tried to console himself with Combeferre's words. Deep in his heart, he knew Combeferre was right, yet a quick series of memories brought a new barricade of sobs in Enjolras' throat. He thought of the long hours he had spent in silence and in conversation with Jehan. They had shared their pieces of writing and spoken much of love, sacrifice, war, history, their friends. He remembered the sight of Jehan's encouraging smile every time he looked at him during a speech. He thought of the quiet, peace, laughter, joy, even the sorrow and pain they had shared. Most of all, he recalled the moment Jehan had grasped his hand and met his gaze with such intensity and yet such tenderness.
Enjolras, you're my brother now.
A wretched, choking sound slipped through Enjolras' lips. "Why him?"
Combeferre pressed his lips in a thin line. "My mother used to tell me that God only gives us hardships He knows we have the strength to endure."
A touch of anger crept into Enjolras' voice. "How is that supposed to make me feel better?"
A loud snore from across the room interrupted them. The two cast their gazes to Grantaire, slumped with his head on a table, his hand loosely gripping a bottle. He had apparently not moved since Enjolras had spoken to him last.
Enjolras watched him, not with anger but with sorrow. "He does not know. He and Jehan are close as brothers. He will have to be told."
Combeferre nodded grimly. "I can tell him."
"Let him rest for now." A pensive shadow crossed his face. "If this day kills us all, then he will need all the strength and clarity of mind he can summon."
"If he will have any to summon at all, poor man."
Enjolras lowered his gaze, sniffled, and drew in a deep breath. Combeferre called his name softly and, when the two faced each other once more, he leaned forward and pressed their foreheads together.
They remained there for several minutes before Combeferre spoke. "We should return to our friends."
Enjolras' reply came swiftly. "They cannot see me like this."
"They cannot see you broken, defenseless...human? They must always see you as an otherworldly being? What is it Grantaire says...an angel? Apollo?" Combeferre smiled sadly. "No, my darling friend, they are allowed to see your tears this once, I think."
Enjolras had to agree. "I suppose it's what Jehan would have wanted from me. He always encouraged me to show my 'soft side', as he called it. He certainly had a poet's flair..."
They emerged from the back room together. All their friends, gathered around Jehan's body, looked up when they arrived. Courfeyrac approached them with tear tracks on his pale cheeks. He hugged Enjolras fiercely and whispered something the marble leader didn't hear.
Joly stepped forward after Courfeyrac. His grief stricken face bore the same mark of tears as the others'. "We did the best we could to...to..." Joly gestured vaguely and bit his quivering lip.
Enjolras reached over and squeezed his shoulder comfortingly. He then turned his attention to Jehan.
They had cleaned the blood and bone fragments off his face and neck. His eyes were still open, but somehow, they bore a light of hope and laughter even in death. Feuilly had placed his own hat on Jehan's head, effectively covering the horrid bullet wound. Someone had fixed the long braid his hair was pulled into and placed several small white flowers in the red strands.
The hope Enjolras had longed for returned to his heart, even in the lingering grip of despair. He released Courfeyrac, stepped closer, bent, and placed a kiss on Jehan's forehead. Tears threatened to spill over but he forced them back.
He stood and turned to his friends. He clenched his bloodied hands into fists. The fire of determination flooded his veins once more. "He's still here with us, in our hearts, in our love for our country and each other. We fight now in his name. We fight for Jehan, for Monsieur Mabeuf, and for the freedom of France." He fixed them all with a steady gaze. "Vive l'avenir."