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Wild Tigers I Have Known

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           For fuck's sake.

            Really, Grantaire swore that the last time he had checked the clock it was only midnight, but somehow (somehow, he had the gall to say and absolve himself of culpability, hands clean as though this were not his near-nightly follysome reality) three more hours had been lost in a haze of oils and turpentine and cheap late night liquor store wine straight from the bottle.

            With a Roman philosophy lecture in five hours and his first painting of the semester swimming before his eyes, Grantaire could not justify laying brush to canvas a single time more, but neither could he justify leaving his mess to harden and decay until the morning, and thusly resolved he took up his brushes and pots and set off for the single bathroom of his shared apartment.

            Baudelaire cried out weakly from the closed toilet seat when Grantaire shouldered his way in through the peeling door, wrinkling his nose at a scent his muddled brain didn't attempt to process.

            "Good evening to you too," Grantaire murmured to the dark bengal now weaving itself around his feet. He set his paint-stained clutter amongst the greater clutter of the counter space and caught an unfocused glimpse of himself in the mirror. His reflection seemed unexpectedly softer, somehow, ever so faintly smudged. A soft hum and slosh of water came from beside him. Grantaire might have nearly pissed himself in surprise if lack of sleep had not dulled his senses so.

            Lounging in the bath tub with a blunt and a pen like the fucking death of Marat, all sticky with heat but hair still dry and wild about his head as a Romantic composer, Jehan smiled gently up at him with low lidded eyes. Grantaire recognized new fragments of poetry in sharpie on the lower tiles of the wall, smeared and wet and obscenely magenta, scripted right on top of an old scratched and peeling grey stanza that he’d been fond of about salt water on black eyelashes and deep space demons. Dark eyeshadow and flaking mascara ghosted down Jehan’s lower lids, strewn across freckled cheekbones, and burgundy rose lipstick had worn away from the corners of their mouth and blurred at the edges of plump lips.

            "Oi, you know that isn't good for the cat." Grantaire shooed Baudelaire (a vocally unhappy puss was he) with his bare feet out of the smoky bathroom before abandoning his brushes and kneeling beside the tub, resting his arms upon the damp porcelain.

            "Home already?", Grantaire chuckled, "That can't have been a terribly good party, then."

            "It's three AM, mon petit-aire."

            "I rest my case, mon petit peu-vaire. Ou 'ma'?"

            Jehan considered this, eyes searching for an answer somewhere outside the fogged-over window, past the succulents on the dusty sill. They took a thoughtful drag. "Mm, ouais. Ce-soir, c'est 'ma'." Their voice burst on the feminine syllable like a balloon.

            "D'accord, ma cherie."

            "Oh R," the wild-haired poet sang, a soft but sudden cry, reaching out to place their wet palm warmly against Grantaire's stubble, "You are the love of my young, tragic life."

            Grantaire bit back a smile. "Will you still mean that in the morning?", he asked, fluttering his eyelashes and pouting.

            "Absolutely not. Should that make it mean any less right now?"

            This time Grantaire grinned openly, full of fondness. "Absolutely not." He leaned forward and kissed those full, burgundy lips, open-mouthed and smiling. When they pulled away, lovely Jehan looked at him as though the cheshire moon itself had rolled through the window onto the dirty bathroom rug and kissed them instead.

            Jehan closed their eyes and hummed contentedly, sinking into the water until it rippled against their chin. They reached out from the tub, curls of steam rising lazily from their skin, and fished around in a glass on the floor for an ice cube, sharpie discarded from their hand with a clatter on the tile. Grantaire watched as one sliver of ice slipped away from their slender fingers once, twice, and thrice again, and finally he batted Jehan's hand away, drawing one out for them and pressing it to Jehan's parted lips. It weeped down their chin, taking tints of red away with it, before Jehan took it for themself and sucked tenderly. "I've met a boy tonight," they sighed.

            "Mark the calendar," said Grantaire, feigning awe, "put down the date and time! The chaste and virginal Prouvaire, so slow to love and slower to intimacy, fancies a gentleman! Pray tell, Prouvaire of mine, what makes this fellow so special as to catch your pure attentions?"

            Jehan reached out his hand, swatting at Grantaire and missing by so wide a margin that the man did not bother to flinch. "Torment me not, cruel-aire. I have not met a boy after all."

            "No!" Grantaire cried out. "I have offended the maiden! My sweet beloved, my fairest of ladies, I beg! I must know. Was he tall? Handsome? Mysterious?"

            Jehan turned and their drugged blue eyes met Grantaire's with an arresting seriousness. "No, Grantaire. I meant it. I have not met a boy at all. I have met a young seraph. I have met an angel of the lord, Grantaire."

            "Did he tell you to don your armor and lead France against the English?"

            Jehan ignored the jest. "Bernini could not have sculpted flesh so soft and glowing, so enraptured even in stillness. Caravaggio could paint no kouros so dark-eyed and tender of face. When his attentions found me, my veins were violins, my blood their chorus, and the drums in my heart drowned out all sound, 'taire, but I am despised by the gods, and the stars conspire against me, oh 'taire! For our destinies collided and his eyes found mine at the very moment that I stumbled out of the single toilet with the frat jerk I'd just sucked off!" Jehan punctuated their lamentations with a loud wail that turned into bubbling moaning as they sunk their whole blushing face beneath the water. As the mourning gurgle continued, half-drowned, Grantaire laughed aloud.

            "I take it you didn't sidle over and flirt then, like the horny minx you are?"

            Jehan rose with an indignant splash. "I am not THAT embarrassingly slutty."

            "What was the frat jerk's name?"

            "Fuck you."

            "What did he look like?"

            "His hair was brown. I think. Maybe dirty blonde. Go to hell!" With a flourish of their arm they dumped water all over poor Grantaire, who was still struggling to contain his laughter.  

            "How can one remember the faint details of mere mortals when one has looked into the eyes of God, R!" Jehan spat.

            "So, you didn't talk to him, your pretty boy. You have no idea who this guy is. You'll probably never see him again. Is that what I'm hearing?"

            Jehan wailed again and buried their face in their hands, both the ice cube (now merely a wet, waning smile) and the blunt dropping out from between their fingers and plopping into the water. "Oh, shit. Fuck."

            "Well, you'll move on. You're good at that. You'll fall in love again next week."

            "I will never love again, Gran-terrible."

            "That's definitely what you said about the boy you had over last Tuesday to work on your Romantic Lit project. The hot one with the glasses and the dark skin and the fucking spectacular eyes, what did you say he was? Pakistani? What happened to him?"

            "I laid my delicate, inquiring hand on his slender Iranian thigh, and he told me he had a boyfriend, and then spent the rest of the afternoon with his eyes on his notes and his ass at least five feet from me at all times. But hey, I remember his name, asshole. Combeferre. There. Not a slut."

            "In all my life, my beloved, sweet, beautiful Lady Prouvaire, I have never meant to pass judgment upon the generous and consensual distribution of the gifts of your body, nor the openness of your heart. Every frat jerk you suck off should consider himself blessed beyond measure. I surely do."

            Again, Jehan sighed, looking deeply at Grantaire. "Your eyes are like the sea, Grant-mer, full of storms and siren song. Make me feel better?" Without waiting, they lifted their body out of the water and tumbled out of the tub, pressing Grantaire down onto the rug, warm water pouring off their flesh and drenching the larger man's clothes. Grantaire nodded dreamily and wrapped his hands around to caress their slick back and feel the raised beauty marks that dotted their spine beneath the pads of his fingers as Jehan pressed damp kisses to his neck.

 

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

 

            The day that he had met Jehan for the first time had been a muggy July afternoon, three years ago. On that day Grantaire had been exactly two months from turning eighteen and thusly being kicked out of his foster home with the Thénardiers, but it was alright, he thought to himself as Montparnasse rudely kicked open the back gate and came strolling up the cracked sidewalk. Unlike this delinquent piece of shit, who had made his exit from this same house nearly a year ago and gone on to nowhere to do nothing except get high by day and violent by night and involve himself with shady persons, Grantaire had secured himself a scholarship.

            When his high school drawing teacher had encouraged him to apply, Grantaire had put it off for months, certain that there was no way in hell that he would be considered. His art was... okay. And that was by a high estimation. His teacher loved to fawn over him but the Thénardiers told him constantly that it was useless bullshit that would land him in the gutter, and if he really wanted to be creative, he could be creative in helping the Thénardiers avoid the gutters for themselves and their children, like Montparnasse. Now, 'Parnasse was useful. 'Parnasse had a future. He could teach you a thing or two about creativity, Grantaire.

            But at the last minute Grantaire had thrown together a portfolio of sketches, class assignments, and the minimal personal work he'd managed to hide from his foster guardians lest they put it in the trash, and submitted it.

            Full fucking ride. The day it came in the mail, Grantaire had read it seven times in disbelief, sure he was misunderstanding, and then immediately stuffed the envelope under his mattress. There was no way he could allow his foster family, or ANYONE, to know. He didn't know how they could possibly take that away from him but if there was a way, they would.

 

            So on that July day, Grantaire was sitting without a care in the world on the dilapidated back porch of the Thénardier's home. Éponine and Azelma lounged beside him on the sagging steps, and Gavrielle was an absolutely filthy 6-year-old in power ranger pajama bottoms with a naked, dirt-smeared chest watching from the hole in the screen door behind them. The older girls had been only 14 and 12 then, and Éponine's hair had still been long and black and greasy, tangled in wild thorn thickets around her brown shoulders. She wore a shiny gold bikini top and high-waisted black cutoffs, and leaning back on her elbows with a cotton candy flavored sucker hanging from her lips she was a disconcerting picture of nymphethood. On the lowest step Azelma was stretched out in her sequined dance shorts and her father's tattered wife beater, stained by beer and grease and sweat and torn in at least four places, one of which was placed just so that when she reached her arm back to scratch between her shoulder blades it shifted and made Grantaire look away in discomfort.

            The three of them had fled to the porch when dearest maman et papa Thénardier had started off on one of their violent disputes again. These always ended in the pair running off to the bedroom, but not before thoroughly disturbing their children - blood and borrowed - against the nearest kitchen surface. It was always best just to get out of the house. They sat in quiet, allowing the drone of the cicadas and the distant melody of an ice cream truck to drown out the shouting, hoping perhaps for a train to pass by on the tracks beyond the fence. And this was when Montparnasse stopped by.

 

            He came strolling up the walk which divided two halves of the yard, more dirt than dusty weeds, where a tricycle rusted, a tetherball pole boasted a fraying cord but had not seen a ball in two years, and three discarded towels on the ground had been nearly swallowed up by the earth, their original colors reduced to mud, mush, and grit. His arm was wrapped around the waist of perhaps the most unfortunate-looking child Grantaire had laid eyes on in a long time, and that was saying something considering the company the Thernardier kids kept. Neither their gender nor their age were readily apparent - they were small, a full head shorter than 'Parnasse, wearing a t-shirt boasting participation in some local library reading program tucked into highlighter yellow nylon shorts pulled up as far as they would go, revealing the entirety of gangly, knob-kneed legs that seemed to go on forever until they ended in black knee socks and expensive-looking green and yellow adidas. The bizarre outfit was topped off with a pale grey denim jacket several sizes too large and a few wayside flowers tucked into their pocket. The kid's strawberry blonde hair, which might have been a homely pageboy cut several months ago but now hung limply almost to their shoulders, could not have been combed in days - one matted side looked like a goat had been chewing on it for hours. They wore huge glasses that would have been better placed in 1976, and not in the cool, vintage way that aged well - they were the sort that didn't make it into period films, the kind that your grandfather with liver spots and special compression socks wore. In one hand they held an ice cream popsicle shaped like superman, which dripped messily over their fingers. A fleck of red was congealing on their chin. Their ears, nose, and ridiculously freckle-splotched cheeks were peeling with sunburn and their teeth were crooked, but on the other side of their ugly frames, their heavy-lidded eyes were a hypnotizing blue.

            "Grantaire, 'Ponine, ‘Zelma", Montparnasse addressed them each in turn (using the nicknames coined some years ago by an innocent infant mouth that couldn’t handle their full names, one foster sibling or another) and then turned to the kid, gesturing to them with a wild flourish, "I present to you, the man, the legend, Jean Prouvaire."

            The cicadas droned on. The ground trembled softly as a train loudly barreled by in the background. Jean swayed from foot to foot awkwardly. "I'm his boyfriend," the garçon finally mumbled when the train had passed.

            All three heads snapped to Montparnasse. Montparnasse looked back sheepishly.

            "I have to pee," Jean announced.

            The three heads stared at one another.

            "Jesus fucking christ," Azelma muttered. "C'mere." She beckoned for Jean to follow her and lead him inside.

 

            "Holy fucking mother of god, 'Parnasse," Éponine shuddered when they had gone.

            "Your boyfriend?!", said Grantaire.

            "Yeah, well. His words, not mine."

            "What the fuck are you doing with that?"

            "He's fucking filthy rich, alright? And," Montparnasse leaned in and lowered his voice, "a freak in the sack."

            "Oh my god!", Éponine cried.

            "You're fucking that gross baby?", Grantaire said with disgust.

            "He's fifteen years old, the age of reason is upon him. Of all of us here, I'm not the one you can accuse of having a thing for babies," Montparnasse said, looking pointedly at Grantaire.

            Grantaire blushed. In his mind's eye, he caught a glimpse of curls like afternoon sunlight and a gaze like God, judging him from a girl-child's face. "I didn't have a thing for Angèle. Don't be a creep. And anyway, it's still illegal."

            "Because I, dear Grantaire, am a bastion of good citizenship. Anyway, I didn’t come here to chat with you two, my sweet baby almost-siblings.” And with that, Montparnasse brushed past them. The screen door slammed behind him.

            Éponine and Grantaire turned to one another once again. They said nothing. Éponine turned away first with a flick of her hair, in a sort of, “Well that’s that” gesture.

 

            When Jean and Azelma returned they planted themselves on the steps and Jean produced a worn paperback from inside his jacket, opening it to a dog-eared page.

            “What’s that?” Grantaire inquired, trying to be polite.

            “Lord of the Flies,” Jean responded, and then proceeded to spend the next 25 minutes detailing for him the entire plot of the book in detail from start to finish. After about a minute and a half Grantaire gave up on finding a space to insert that actually, he has read the book, and he resigned himself to sitting with increasing boredom and discomfort while instead of listening he watched Superman melt disturbingly all the way down Jean’s forearm and puddle onto the stoop.

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

            The Jehan moving above him now; the lithe, freckled body heaving and moaning and snapping their hips, collapsing onto their elbows on either side of Grantaire’s head to groan directly into his ear, the filthy reverberations nearly making him come right then and there; this Jehan had come a long way from the weird, gawky kid Grantaire had met three years ago. Their teeth were still crooked, but it was charming now. Their hair was still wild, but artfully so. Their fashion had only grown more eclectic, but it was composed. But then again, Grantaire mused, his heels finding purchase against the tub to shove his hips into the air and drive further into Jehan, who threw their whole body back to arch and cry out desperately, “Fuck, ‘taire, God! Fuck, your cock,” though Jehan had grown moderately less socially awkward and infinitely more promiscuous and liberal with substances of varying legality, perhaps in essence they had not changed at all. Perhaps Grantaire had simply come to deeply adore their oddness.