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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.

Chapter Text

            The second time that Grantaire encountered Prouvaire was not until a solid two years later, for after that summer Grantaire had disappeared into the heart of Paris and thoroughly escaped that ragged pest. He had even heard from Éponine that Montparnasse had “swept him off on some romantic trans-European soul-searching journey” - more like “fled criminal jurisdiction”. So, thinking Prouvaire gone for good, the second encounter came as a slamming shock.  
            The third meeting of Grantaire’s junior level Life Drawing course was four minutes overdue and the model had yet to arrive. The tools of the trade were all neatly laid out at Grantaire’s side, his pencils and stubs of charcoal, a sooty black rag, a lumpy eraser and a shish kebab skewer he used to find his angles. Antsy to start, Grantaire rocked from heel to sole as he sketched out some light circles, parallels, and S-curves, fanning out wider with each roll of his arm. This wouldn’t be the first time the model hadn’t shown. In that event, this particular professor was prone to busting out the fruit bowls, shoes, and wine bottles. At least he wasn’t the 101 prof, who had pulled the students up to the stand to model instead, one by one. Fully clothed, of course, but being naked wouldn’t have been any worse for Grantaire, with every eye on him carefully rendering out his crooked jaw and the curve of his gut. Fucking fantastic.
            Praise hallelujah, the door burst open and a musical voice cried out apologies. The cadence stirred something alarmed in the back of Grantaire’s mind, a sense memory of anxiety and blue eyes, but Grantaire was focused on smashing out a sphere in the corner of the page, and it was not until the timer chirped – “Ten twos,” the professor declared – that Grantaire leaned around his easel to examine the model.
            FUCK! Bent in simple contrapposto, slender hips akimbo and head turned lightly to the side with wrists clasped behind their freckled back, the model had not yet caught sight of Grantaire, but Grantaire was confronted with an eyeful of him. No wonder that voice had been so familiar; This! Was that! Damned! Kid! This was the kid that had lectured Grantaire on Lord of the Flies, the one who had listed every species of butterfly native to France in ballpoint pen down his leg (where it had remained for two and a half weeks), who smelled like he’d bathed in his grandmother’s perfume to drown out an underlying scent of cat piss, who smoked cigarettes from drains because he disliked to see them “lonely and discarded”, who would recite long poems in Hebrew and Greek as though anyone could fucking understand them and huff and sulk when people ceased to pay attention, the one who had made Grantaire an apology breakfast of fruit loops in strawberry Nesquik with M&Ms for being caught sucking off Montparnasse on Grantaire’s own bed the night prior. His bony, birdish body had found a soft, adult-like curve, his wild summer-wine hair had grown considerably and been bound up in an unkempt bun, and his back and shoulders were newly patterned with roses, poppies, forget-me-nots and queen anne’s lace, but his identity was unmistakable. Hadn’t he fucked off to Barcelona, Budapest and Berlin with ‘Parnasshole?! Any second he was going to change poses and turn around and recognize Grantaire, and he would never be rid of him them.
            The timer chirped again, signaling that Grantaire had missed the entire first pose in his shock. Just as predicted, Jean Prouvaire lowered to his knees and twisted gorgeously, settling into a dramatic pose and looking Grantaire full in the face with those familiar, hazy blue eyes. He gasped sharply, eyes wide, and then shut tight, like he hoped that when they opened again Grantaire would be someone else. But though he let out a shaky exhale, his ribs sinking slowly, he did not open his eyes again; not until the pose changed and he faced away once more.
            Finally Grantaire recovered. He was in the middle of class; Prouvaire was in the middle of a pose. Any confrontation, or dodging thereof, was going to have to  wait. Carefully he laid charcoal to newsprint and marked out the lithe flow of Prouvaire’s spine.
            When the ten twos were finished and Prouvaire stepped down from the stand and wrapped himself in a violet leopard print robe, Grantaire steeled himself for the inevitable – but it did not come. The model wandered the circle of easels barefoot, appraising the gestures with a hum and a cocked head, but when he came to Grantaire, he looked right past and slipped onward. When the break ended he mounted the stand again without even a glance in Grantaire’s direction.
            And so the class went – Prouvaire posed and broke, posed and broke, posed and broke until after the final set he went into the changing room and Grantaire threw his things together and lit out swiftly before he could emerge again, thinking himself quite lucky to have dodged that bullet for now. One summer of Prouvaire’s discomforting “charm” had been quite enough for him.

 

            That evening Grantaire changed from torn grey jeans into clean sweats and a snug black beater and showed up at Studio Auclaire early in hopes of catching Éponine on her way out of her Beginners Ballet 4-6 class.
            He watched through the glass window as she conducted finishing stretches with her awkward, foal-limbed little charges. The more studied and ambitious ones among them had a grace and flexibility that Grantaire still found unnerving on their roly poly little bodies, despite having once been one of them. As they finished and skittered out of the room into the waiting arms of parents, he waved at each of them. “Bonsoir monsieur Grantaire,” one called sweetly with a wave, a little five-year-old darling called Ada.
            “I’ll see you in hip-hop tonight, right Ada?” he called with a grin. She nodded sheepishly before running off into the locker room.

            “You’re here early.” Éponine leaned against the doorframe of her classroom.
            Grantaire’s jaw dropped in mock-offense. “You would pose it as an accusation! Surely punctuality is a virtue, dear ‘Ponine!”
            “What do you want.” It was a statement, not a question, and she beckoned him on with a lopsided smirk, turning inside with a toss of hips and a flick of hair.

            Studio Auclaire had truly been a saving grace for Éponine. Only a few months ago she’d arrived at two in the morning cast sallow in the lonely light of a Paris bus stop with a stained and travel-weary duffel bag on one shoulder and a red-eyed, makeup smeared and half-asleep Azelma on the other. Things were getting rough at home, Éponine had confided in Grantaire from Bahorel’s futon. The motel was going to go under any day now. Daddy was getting more restless, more desperate. The whole “Ép, help the family out and spend your allowance on some hooker heels” joke was starting to go from unfunny to frightening. Maman was getting more impatient, more aggressive. Gav had simply stopped coming home – there was nothing for her there but a heavy hand and an empty cupboard. But the final straw – the screaming match, the aborted police call, the hastily packed duffel, the savings spent on the night’s last bus to Paris – had come when a potential investor, left momentarily alone, had trapped 15-year-old Azelma in a corner and stuck a hand between her thighs. A smack, a punch, a scream, a kick in the nuts and the semblance of a childhood ended in the smoke of the last great Thénardier row – an innocence saved and an innocence lost all at once.
            (It was a hard story for Grantaire to stomach. He recalled a time when the motel had been flourishing – when he had moved in with the Thénardiers as a sullen, awkward, chubby 12-year-old foster kid, full of loathing for the world and loathing for the system, ‘Ponine and ‘Zelma still got weekend mani-pedis with their mother, still drove halfway across France for dance competitions, still brought home glittering trophies and spent hours with personal choreographers, still went to the movies with their friends, still laughed, still seemed in love with themselves and their success and their girlhood. To see Azelma now curled in the corner of the futon with her brown eyes fixed on her bruised knees made Grantaire feel a rage in his gut he had not known in years and a hopelessness settle deep in the cracks of his heart.)
            So like the godsend boys they were, Feuilly and Bahorel (the former an older ex-Thernardier charge as well and the latter a boxing buddy of an age with Grantaire to whom Feuilly had introduced him upon his arrival in Paris) had pitched in together with Éponine and Azelma and they’d found themselves a rundown brick three-bedroom to convert into the “Rowdy Kid Clubhouse”, as Bahorel and Azelma had nicknamed it. Between Feuilly’s automechanic gig, Éponine’s hastily found corner store job, Bahorel’s monthly allowance and Azelma’s MacDo hire (a hard fought battle for Azelma, who insisted that she could contribute to the household and still keep her grades up) they had managed to pull things together quite nicely.
            However, escape from Thénardier hell had been savage on ‘Ponine’s happiness, and a bleak life going back and forth from the corner store to the empty fridge was more than she could take. But Grantaire had found the perfect thing. Right on the route between campus and the ‘Rowdy Kid Clubhouse’ was the Studio Auclaire, run by the esteemed Maximilien Auclaire, whom Grantaire remembered as having been the choreographer to coach Éponine to her second place solo trophy at Junior Nationals. Éponine shrieked when Grantaire brought her this connection, and some phone calls, an interview, and a trial class later, Éponine was assistant-teaching three classes a week, and by the end of the summer she was teaching classes solo and had even managed to get Grantaire on with her to co-teach Beginner Hiphop 5-9 on Thursday nights. Grantaire hadn’t had a proper space to dance since Éponine’s old studio, and it was as positive for him as it was for her. Éponine was happy again with this opportunity to continue dancing the way she had when she was a child.

 

            “I know you didn’t show up an hour early to do your stretches in front of me. What’s up?”
            Grantaire casually extended his leg as high as it would go, nice and close against his ear, and considered his response. “Didn’t you tell me that Montparnasse and his kid Prouvaire left France?”
            “What even? Yeah, like a year ago. Last spring. May, I think. Said they were gonna see the Hagia Sophia or some horse shit. Why, have you started missing ‘Parnasse? Wanna call him up, got a super craving to be sexually harassed, belittled and then robbed?”
            “Oh, don’t you fucking know it. LOVE that smooth fucker. I was getting really tired of waking up and finding that my bank card was still in my wallet, damn it.”
            “I completely empathize. Coming home at night after a long shift to find my bed completely devoid of pale-ass naked freaks with greasy hair was just getting too sad.”
            “Okay but speaking of pale-ass naked freaks, guess who modelled for my class this morning.”
            “NO!”
            “No, the other one.”
            “What? Wait, Prouvaire? Are you joking?”
            “R not joking! In the fucking freckled flesh. He’s got some pretty tatts now too.”
            “You’re kidding, what are the odds! Did he talk to you? What happened?”
            “Nothing! Fucking nothing, thank the Madonna. He definitely recognized me, but he didn’t say a word. I was really dead certain that he was gonna open his mouth and start telling me about his travels and I’d be listening to the inane details of transcontinental bus rides smothered in poetic Keats-y bullshit until I fell over dead.”
            “Jesus! He didn’t say anything at all?”
            “Weird, right? So I guess that means you haven’t heard anything new from ‘Parnasse, yeah? Could he be back in town?”
            “Fuck if I know. I promise I haven’t heard a breath from him since he left. If he turns up I have a mean fucking right hook for him though. I hope he doesn’t show until I’m done saving up for this sweet set of vintage-y brass knuckles I saw at the pawn shop on Rue Marmot.”
            “Fuck, I’d pitch in for those if I knew ‘Parnass would get a mouthful of them.”
            “What are you going to do about Prouvaire?”
            “Nothing. I might not even see him again, models come and go. If he does work again though… I’ll keep you in the loop if anything story-worthy happens.”


            Sure enough, less than two weeks later Prouvaire modelled for Grantaire’s class again; but much like the first time, neither one acknowledged the other. It went much this way for some time. Every two weeks or so Prouvaire modelled, and as it became cleanly established that neither one planned to admit to knowing the other, they both grew less tense and icy with the whole situation. Grantaire would assist in verballing coaxing Prouvaire back into position for a long pose, and Prouvaire would take a moment to admire Grantaire’s representations of them as he did the others.
            The quiet did not break for a good three months - not until class had ended one day after a two-session portrait. Prouvaire was redressed (in a black tee that fit him like a dress, hanging off one red shoulder and falling down nearly to his knees, bearing the face of some green-haired anime girl and a slogan in Japanese and -  Grantaire didn’t know whether to be horrified or truly and deeply pleased that these existed - space-print leggings of teal and magenta nebulas intermingled with cats eating pizza, the eclectic look completed with his signature ugly glasses) and admiring Grantaire’s work. “Poppies,” he said, of the flowers Grantaire had drawn nestled in his pastel curls. “I love poppies.”
            “I remember,” Grantaire said as he looked between the work and the subject, and then immediately regretted the implication of their prior relationship they’d been avoiding.
            Prouvaire turned and looked into Grantaire’s eyes. They had not made eye contact since the first day. Grantaire swallowed nervously as Prouvaire seemed to search him.
            “Dyastillknoprnass?” The words fled Prouvaire in one squeak, more an inhalation than sentence.
            “I… Come again?”
            “D-do you still, like, uh, are you friends with M-montparnasse? D-d’you talk to him?”
            “Oh, fuck no. We were never friends. And we haven’t spoken since before he left France. I heard you guys went together?”
            Prouvaire exhaled hard, nearly falling over in doing so. With one hand he steadied himself on an easel while the other covered his face, which had gone from anxious cherry to inflamed fuschia.
            “Oh thank god, thank fucking god, thank every fucking god there is, aahh… Holy shit, okay, I thought he, he had come back maybe, and I thought maybe you’d t-tell him I was here, and…” Prouvaire choked on a breath and struggled to catch it again.
            “Woah, woah, it’s okay, breathe.” Grantaire couldn’t fathom what had happened to instill so much fear into this kid, but there were not a whole lot of things he would put past Montparnasse. “I promise, I haven’t heard a word from him since he left. And even if I did, I swear I wouldn’t say a thing to him about you.”
            Very suddenly Prouvaire launched himself into Grantaire’s chest and buried his face there against his collarbone, wrapping his arms tightly around his torso with what Grantaire could imagine was all his fragile strength. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he repeated again and again.
            Bewildered and unused to contact like this, Grantaire uncomfortably laid his hands across the smaller one’s shoulder blades, patting tentatively. Comfort was… not his thing, but this kid was obviously in need of some affection in this panicked moment.
            “Hey, of course, uh… I don’t know what the hell ‘Parnasse did, but he’s a literal demon, some fucked up six-headed Revelations shit and I’m sure you didn’t deserve it. As far as I know he’s still abroad somewhere. Hopefully he crawled up into the Alps and curled up to die.”
            Prouvaire shuddered and Grantaire couldn’t tell whether it was a laugh or a sob, but when he leaned back he was smiling, though his lashes were wet. “I’m so sorry for ignoring you all this time, I was just so, so afraid that you were going to tell Montparnasse that I was here…”
            “Yeah, no. ‘Ponine has a brand new pair of brass knuckles waiting for him if his skinny, expensively clad ass turns up in Paris.”
            “His ass won’t be boasting brand name boxer briefs anymore, now that he doesn’t have my trust fund to sap from. Not unless he found some other lonely rich kid to take advantage of.” Prouvaire looked unhappily at the ground, but smiled meekly again when he looked up, trying to cast away the intensity of the moment with a casual wave of his hand. “How is  Éponine? She was a lovely girl. I was so jealous of how ferocious she was. And her hair. Having a lion’s mane like that must help intimidate.” Prouvaire gestured with his hands, miming  Éponine’s old wild curls.
            Grantaire chuckled. “She’s as ferocious as she ever was, but her hair is shorter now. She’s rocks these neck tail things though?” He pantomimed tugging at the two braids. “They’re red, like, fire truck red. It suits her.” Prouvaire clapped his hands together in delight. Grantaire was surprised at how easily this conversation was flowing so far compared to the strange, stilted, alienating things that Prouvaire used to say. Their interactions then had been broken with non-sequiturs, arbitrary phrases in Greek and Latin and Italian, and monologues that Grantaire could only assume were Prouvaire’s favorite writers, but were not conducive to a proper back-and-forth conversation.  Though, he supposed, in their five minutes together he had still been attacked in a sudden crying fit that had disappeared with the wind - the kid was yet a mercurial and passionate thing.
            Prouvaire glanced around anxiously, knitting his fingers together. “I’m afraid I have a writing workshop to attend. I’m very glad we spoke though! Really, it’s a relief. I’m glad to see you again, Grantaire. Will you give  Éponine my best? And, um, pass on the… um, my hopes to lay low.”
            Grantaire nodded, rubbing the back of his neck. “Yeah, definitely. Don’t worry about it.”             “Thank you so much. And, by the way, I am going by Jehan now, and using they/them pronouns, if you would?”
            “Oh! Uh?” Grantaire stared blankly. It was an abrupt admission, and not of a nature Grantaire was terribly familiar with. He’d known, from a distance, a few kids in high school who had started dressing differently and requesting different pronouns, and was comfortable with the basic theory behind it all, but it had never come from anyone he’d known personally. Prouvaire - that is, Jehan, he thought - was looking at him with something of a watchful, guarded glint in his - their - eye. “I… sure? Yeah, yep. Okay.”
            “Bless you. Till next time!” Prouvaire leaned up quickly and laid an airy kiss on Grantaire’s stubbled, acne-scarred cheek before grabbing their bag and fluttering off out the door.  

Chapter Text

            “MOTHERFUCKERS!” Jehan burst through the door of the Rowdy Kid Clubhouse, where the whole crew - that is, Feuilly, Bahorel,  Éponine, Azelma, Gavrielle and Grantaire - were gathered around the kitchen table for Saturday night poker. In their hand Jehan clutched a brightly colored poster.
            “Maman, what does ‘motherfucker’ mean?” Little Gav looked up at Éponine with bright, innocent, ale-dark eyes.
            “It means whomever Jehan feels personally wronged by on this occasion, dear. Now quit showing off your fancy shuffling and deal, motherfucker.”
            “Oh thank fuck, it sounded much more incestuous than that.” Gav doled out the cards with lightning dexterity.

            “I have gone to this university for one entire year and some 8 weeks, and not one of you motherfuckers thought to inform me that we have a Quidditch team? I am offended! I have no friends at all!” Jehan stormed through the apartment, snatching Bahorel’s pair of cards out of his hands as he passed and tossing them into the air in a dramatic gesture (“You fuck, there was an ace in there!”) before storming through the nearest door ( Éponine’s bedroom) and slamming it behind him. A cry was muffled by the door that sounded something like, I am not coming out ever again! None of you can convince me you love me after this!
            The group looked around at each other, stifling giggles. Little Ann and Bowser cocked their heads in interest from where they lay curled together underneath the table - there was a time when Feuilly and Bahorel’s dogs would have been alarmed by the intrusion and the outburst, but they were long since adjusted to the dramatics of the Clubhouse. Bowser yawned, Little Ann scratched at her ear, and Grantaire bit his tongue in a grin and held up a flat-palmed “wait” gesture to the crew at the table.
            “And another thing!”  Éponine’s door swung open and Jehan marched back out, the poster fully unfurled now, revealing itself as the advertisement of an upcoming match. He shoved it directly into Grantaire’s face. “Look who is on the team!”
            Grantaire leaned back a bit so that his eyes could focus on the smarmy group beaming out from the poster. Oh, that font choice. And really, sideways text? They should have hired Grantaire. Jehan shook the poster impatiently. “Oh, um… Some douchebag with an undercut?”
            “The angel!”
            Grantaire racked his brain, trying to remember all of Jehan’s recent flings and crushes. His memory stumbled upon a smoky bathtub and a Jeanne d’Arc joke. “Oh! The guy who you wouldn’t talk to because he saw you come out of the bathroom with another dude.”
            “Ugh, don’t remind me. Yes, that one. But surely he’ll have forgotten by now, right? This is destiny! The stars have deemed me worthy of another chance! I can’t fail. Aaand, you all have perfect attire, right?”
            “Oh, are we all going to come and watch you try and put your quaffle through this guy’s goal hoop?”
            “It’s a quidditch match, how could you miss it?!”
            “Well come now,” Grantaire spread his arms wide to the group (“Wow, shit hand,” Gav declared as it nearly smacked her in the face), “Haven’t you all been waiting for an opportunity to wear the scarves Jehan knit us, all together as a group? Doesn’t the world need to know that we are all fucking nerds, or at the very least, loved by one?” He wrapped an arm around Jehan, pulling them in to nuzzle their side.
            “Precisely!” Jehan squealed, tangling one hand in Grantaire’s sooty curls.
            “Wow, R, you really sell it. When’s the match?”
            “It is Wednesday afternoon at seven. And none of you have excuses, I know your schedules.”
            “Then you know I - ”
            “Shut up Feuilly, I know for a fact that you already switched that shift because you’re going to watch Bahorel box at four. Three hours is plenty of time, isn’t it?”
            Feuilly blushed. Glances passed around the table. Jehan beamed at each of them with warning in their crooked teeth.
            “Sure,” Feuilly finally conceded. “Who doesn’t love watching nerds run around with brooms between their legs.” Bahorel snickered and nodded.
            “We’re in.”
            “I’ll walk Gav from school,”  Grantaire offered.
            “We’ll pick up ‘Zelma,” said Bahorel, and Feuillyl nodded his agreement.
            “Perfect!”
            “Good, now sit your ass down. Gav, you’d best re-deal.”
           

                        And so it was that in the lamplight glow of Wednesday dusk that Grantaire waited patiently beneath a stop sign across from Gav’s elementary school. Though he met Gav here often, he did not typically approach the school itself - parents, teachers and students alike were all wary of the dirty disheveled youth, bulky with his charcoal-and-paint-stained coats layered over flannel or sweaters, further layered over vulgar t-shirts. He was unshaven, wild-haired and tired-eyed, young enough to be a delinquent and old enough to be properly dangerous - though, Grantaire supposed, he might have almost been able to get away with it had he been white. But that’s life in France, he supposed. Better this than if his parents had stayed in Romania - he could be living in a fiberboard house with a dirt floor instead of attending university; he could be picking scrap metal out of landfills instead of taking his surrogate little sister to a quidditch match. (Though of course, if they had stayed in Romania, Grantaire might still know his parents today, might still know his own blood sister, and never have been ripped from them and placed under the dreadful eye of the Thénardiers.)
            For the match, Grantaire was duly prepared. Tonight his hobo-punk aesthetic had been flourished with a blue and bronze scarf draped over his tattered denim jacket. He had been flabbergasted to receive it from Jehan, and not only because he had been on new speaking terms with them for a total of two months when they showed up at the RKC on Christmas day with a basketful of knitwear, but because, Ravenclaw, really?
            Grantaire had been self-identifying as Slytherin since he’d picked up that first tattered  violet paperback, bent-eared and brown-paged, in the children’s section of a library in a town where his father had found a few months of work. The book would never make its way back to the library - he’d never make it back to that town.  He stole books, of course he was a Slytherin, among a thousand other reasons. But when Jehan heard this protestful anecdote, they were quick to point out: Grantaire, you stole books. For every example of sedition, self-interest, and self-protective cunning, backed up with straight Ds in arithmetic and snakey bullshit essays that contorted the prompts to suit Grantaire’s interests, Jehan retorted with anecdotes of text debates that lasted long into the night, socratic theory condensed into 140 characters for a tweet, brilliant art technique, genius conceptual work, and the sheer number of hobbies that Grantaire had mastered, and clever, articulate essays that contorted the prompts to suit Grantaire’s interests. He was vastly creative, intelligent, free-minded and deep-thinking. Undoubtedly a ravenclaw. Whatever you say friend, Grantaire had snorted.  I just can’t be arsed to do anything but lie around reading instead of doing homework and putting self-indulgent bullshit on a canvas instead of building a career. But of course, he had accepted the scarf nonetheless.

            Gav’s own green and silver scarf was cascading out of Grantaire’s coat pocket. School had gotten out a few hours ago, but the kid was more alleycat than human and she liked to adventure on her own most days - so they had agreed to meet here. When she arrived, grinning like a baboon, Grantaire wrapped the scarf goofily around her head and swept her up onto his shoulders, gripping her calves to keep her steady.
                        “How was school, kiddo?”
            “Nina Blanchard made fun of my shoes.” Gav wiggled her feet around in front of Grantaire’s face, dirty stained sneakers that were now more brown than lavender. The soles flapped up and down as Gav kicked. “But mine are falling apart because I’ve been up and down every damn alley in Paris, so she can keep her nice white oxfords. And she’s a racist anyway, so what do I give a shit.”
            Grantaire chuckled. “Those are certainly some, ah… well loved kicks. Between me and all five of your other parents we ought to be able to scrape together a few dimes and get you something new.”
            Gav groaned. “But I like these. What does it matter anyway, I’d go barefoot just as well.”
            Grantaire shook his head. Gav was a tameless one, she was, a real gamin, and though she’d stopped considering herself a Thénardier or a member of the household thereof (preferring to be a dirty child of the woods and unpaved roads of Montfermeil) long before the motel finally went under and it’s keepers moved to Paris, she had trailed along after them all the same. A gamin’s mother is his city, and Montfermeil’s breast was dry and her hands as hard and cold as Mm. Thénardier herself. But Paris was an ample and giving matron, and a skilled little pickpocket at her aprons may as well be a prince. Gav went to school as it pleased her dear maman and papa (that is, Éponine and Feuilly) but they could not make her learn or do her homework, or keep her mouth clean, her shoes on, or her pockets empty in shops; not any more than they could tell her to go back to the senior Thénardiers or even come home to the RKC every night; not any more than they could keep her from dressing herself in tatters, and boy’s tatters at that; not any more than they could keep her mind and tongue from churning out wit, slander and radical anger. The feral youth would be gone as soon as you thought you’d got her, vanish faster when you gripped harder. They all simply grew accustomed to Gav drifting in and out of their homes with little regard to the occupants and doing as the too-clever fifth grade tomcat would do. The pair of them set off for campus in the waning light.

 

            “Hey boy. Thanks for bringing Gav.”
            Grantaire nodded and settled down next to Éponine on the cold steel bleachers. They sat together at the very top, overlooking the campus’s expansive soccer field, which tonight had been borrowed by the quidditch club. The sky was all dark now, the field illuminated by massive lights, casting down a harsh and artificial radiance and attracting the winged insects of the night in flickering clouds. The turnout was small but enthusiastic; less than a hundred or so students were gathered on the bleachers or at the edges of the field. Grantaire had heard a player explain to one of them that there wasn’t exactly a whole league nearby to play with, so tonight would be a match between one half of the team and the other - partially for practice, partially for entertainment, and partially for advertising the team as they attempted to raise funds to compete in the EQC in the spring.
            As Gav ran off towards Azelma, Grantaire had spied Éponine way up in the heights and climbed to accompany her. She leaned casually back against the metal bars behind her, arms crossed in front of an oversized grey sweatshirt bearing the university’s logo (snagged from Bahorel, Grantaire assumed, as himself and the pre-law student were the only Uni-attendees among them) with tiny denim cutoffs barely visible beneath the sweatshirt’s hem and a Slytherin scarf draped around her neck to match Gav’s; her dark, frizzy hair was wrapped with a jade green scarf and piled into a chaotic bun.
            “You certainly dressed in the spirit. Where’s Jehan? Are they wearing some Luna Lovegood get up, a big lion head or something?”
            Éponine snorted. “I’m sure they would be if they weren’t trying to get dicked tonight.” She casually waved her arm towards the field, and Grantaire spotted them at the very bottom (of course they’d want to be right on the edge of the action) beside Feuilly, Bahorel, Azelma and Gav. It was clear that, just as  Éponine had suggested, the ensemble was coordinated for maximum seduction: tall bronze and blue striped socks to match their scarf, black leather high-waisted and sinfully small shorts, sheer silver and white floral button-up, and the old hand-me-down leather jacket Bahorel had given them for their recent birthday which they had decked out with pins and patches, including a ravenclaw badge. Their hair was in two ribbon-bound buns; a style Jehan had named for Grantaire multiple times, something Japanese he could never remember, but it was one of Jehan’s favorites for looking cute and fuckable.
            “Definitely a winner coord, they’ll get their boy tonight. Who wouldn’t tap that?”
            “If their angel doesn’t, I will.” Grantaire smiled fondly down at Jehan. Before them, the whole “friends with benefits” concept had been a little lost upon him. To his understanding, there were two types of sex available to Grantaire. There was the type that one soaked one’s insides in liquor to prepare for, so that the blotted blurs of drunkenness could transform an ugly, bent, and bloated shape into one too fuzzy to recognize and numb one’s touch to dry, stubbled skin, and from this one would take not a person’s body but merely a lovely pleasure, a sensation derived from but utterly detached from one’s anonymous companion until the black and sodden hands of unconsciousness pulled you into the abyss of drunken slumber so anesthetized from the living world that you could not feel that body leave your side, dress quietly, and disappear.
            There was only one other kind, and Grantaire had never attained it yet, but in the core of him he sensed that it existed. It was preceded also by a kind of drunkenness, just the same; a semi-permanent state of clouded judgment and selective understanding; that mystical and mind-altering drug of love. Grantaire imagined that in such an impaired state, there could be a lover someday whom he could sleep the night beside, wake together in morning light, and not read regret heavy on their face.
            What Jehan offered him was perfectly beyond this dichotomy.
            When Grantaire had first met Jehan, the adolescent seemed to him separated by a firm glass wall, or simply on an entirely different wavelength of existence. There were no conversations, but rather expressions that floated past one another completely without comprehension. And although they had three languages in common and between the pair of them four more besides, there were none for them to communicate effectively. They were too terribly far removed from one another’s understanding.
            But when they had met for the second time, it seemed that in any language - French or Greek, perfect Hebrew or rugged Kalderash, laughter or silence or long looks, and most of all in pure touch, they could make themselves understood to one another. And in their shared bed, which had come to them now so naturally and easily (or on the couch, or the afghan rug, or the window sill between Jehan’s succulents, or the bathroom floor, as you do) there was no pretense of romance or possession, just affection and intimacy, friendship and orgasm.
            Down on the field, the players were beginning to assemble. It appeared as though the game was about to begin, and Jehan was tugging at their friends to sit down. They looked around, scanning the bleachers behind them, and Feuilly pointed up to where Grantaire was perched with Éponine, but Jehan seemed to fixate on something else - they lept up and immediately began scampering up the benches with a clear goal in mind. Grantaire tried to follow Jehan’s path until they almost collided into a tall - oh baby Jesus, ridiculously tall - dark skinned fellow in a wool coat beside a very small blonde.
                        “Who are they talking to?” Éponine squinted, watching Jehan emote wildly with their hands, saying something out of earshot to the stranger.
            “I don’t, uh… Oh! I definitely know him, that’s, um… Did Jehan sleep with him? Maybe?”  ‘...slender, Iranian thighBut hey, I remember his name, asshole. Combeferre. There. Not a slut.’ “OH! No! He’s a classmate of Jehan’s. Combeferre.”
            Éponine jolted suddenly as she seemed to choke on an inhalation and went rigid. “What did you say?”, she asked, turning sharply to look at Grantaire. “Com - What? What’s his name?” Her hands gripped the metal bench tightly and she looked back at the man, staring with alarm clear on her face.
            Grantaire stared uneasily at her panic. “Combeferre? Do you know him?”
            At his name, Éponine sank with a slow, tense breath, and shifted to the edge of the bench as though she were ready to bolt. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t - Is he middle eastern? Is he a fucking D&D nerd? Does he wear t-shirts with fucking memes on them, is he a pretentious bougie dweeb who can’t shut up about - about square roots and latin roots and -” Flustered, she pressed her head with her hands. “Fuck, Grantaire, I have to get out of here, I have to go…” She was rising to her feet, eyes still fixed, slowly like she was stuck between fight and flight, trying not to spook a wild animal.
            “Shit, um, he’s middle eastern, yeah, Iranian Jehan said. I don’t know about the - the meme shirts…” Grantaire tried to stifle a laugh, this was such an inappropriate moment to laugh. There were a pretty limited number of things that genuinely upset Éponine. Who was this fuck? Éponine had never mentioned him, and they’d kept pretty regular text correspondence since he left Montfermeil. Whatever it was, Éponine’s well-being mattered more than this quidditch match. “Okay, hey, it’s alright. I’ll walk you home, let’s go. Wait - is he dangerous? Should we text Jehan?”
            “No, no, no, it’s not - No, just come on, please! Jehan’s fine! I can’t believe...” She slipped her hand into Grantaire’s larger, callused fingers and pulled him down the side of the stands.
            They stumbled down the stairs and as they passed the bench where Jehan and Combeferre were chatting, for just a moment, Grantaire slowed. He had seen in the corner of his eye a brush stroke of gold against the black patterns of his periphery, and in the sort of defining instant that Grantaire believed of in place of God, his eyes remembered that stroke of gold against the black shadows beneath a crumbling porch, and his bones remembered knowing the form of a child as delicate as a crippled bird, and his gut remembered humility under the gaze of belief. The strange sense memory came upon him and left so quickly and quietly he wasn’t sure he’d felt it at all, and when he whipped his head back to look, he saw only Combeferre and Jehan and an anonymous figure hidden behind them both. Éponine was dragging him down to the ground and away, and he could not stop to grasp at the feeling again, but the sensation of memory itself settled upon him, and he could not shake it.


           
            

Chapter Text

            Grantaire took Éponine back to his place.
            They left the lights off, except for one dim lamp beside the couch and the kitchen lights above the counter, which Grantaire illuminated before rooting through their fridge for beer to share. The living space was prettier dim, he and Jehan agreed, and so they often left it this way. In the glow of yellow lamps it looked nicely cozy and bohemian, with the walls draped in brocade upholstery fabric and renaissance fair tapestries and the carpet scattered with pillows and a great brown bear rug. “Like the inside of a gypsy caravan,” Jehan had said airily of it before Grantaire had stared them hard in the face, eyebrow quirked, and Jehan had cowered in remorse and apologies for their thoughtlessness. (Jehan’s fetishization of their fantasy version of Grantaire’s life was something they had had to work on together. They’d really gotten much better since then.)
            When Grantaire returned with two beers, Éponine was kneeling on the bearskin rug and poking at logs in the fireplace. She’d struck up a warm little glow already. It seemed like a good night for it. Grantaire handed her a bottle and sank into the pillow pile arranged against the back of the couch, leaning back and uncapping his own bottle. Baudelaire came wandering over to demand petting, and Grantaire could never refuse Jehan’s sweet, kittenish bengal when he wanted to socialize. Jehan’s pets - darling baby Baudelaire and their equally kittenish, chubby ball python Ophelia - were so much friendlier than Grantaire’s contentious companion, a “witty, cranky, and argumentative gossip who considers herself unduly old and wise” that came and went from open windows as she pleased. Her name was Dog and Grantaire had rescued her as a sooty kitten from an alley trash can during his first winter break at university after the dorms had closed. They’d spent those four weeks on the streets together, and Grantaire had of course snuck her into his dorm when they had opened again for the spring semester. Likely the cheeky puss was out hunting tonight. When Éponine was satisfied with the fire, she sat back beside Grantaire, and he deposited the rumbly purr-baby in her lap. Clearly she needed Baudelaire’s love more than he did tonight.

            “So. You want to talk about it?”
            “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know where to begin.”
            “Well… You seem to know Combeferre?”
            “I… yes. He’s from Montfermeil. Or near it, anyway. Somewhere considerably less shit.”
            “Are you afraid of him?”
            Éponine hesitated, staring blankly at her bottle and clutching Baudelaire, her lips a tight line. “I’m not afraid of him. He’s sweet, and gentle and good and I… fucked up. I fucked up so badly, R…” As her hands began to tremble and her eyes screwed shut, Grantaire gently took the drink away before it could slip from her shaking fingers and Éponine’s whole body shuddered as she gasped in a breath and willed herself not to cry. “Okay, okay, I’m fine. I’m good.”  She forced her breathing to steady, sitting up straight and pushing her hair away from her face, but her eyes remained gently closed. Baudelaire peered up at her, amber eyes wrought with kitty concern. “God, R, I don’t know why this has me so fucked up, I swear. He was just some guy a long time ago, it was stupid teenage shit R, I’m fine.” Grantaire remained silent for a time, and did not call attention to how much more it seemed like an attempt to convince herself than him.
            “Éponine… I’m not judging you.” Grantaire’s silver tongue could weave intricate, exquisite tapestries of bullshit, but sincerity came so much harder. “Your teenage shit is your real life, you don’t have to apologize for it. I know who you are, Éponine. The fact that you aren’t yet twenty and have real feelings like a human being is no shock to me.”
            Éponine looked at him, and Grantaire recalled the way that Jehan had looked at him in the classroom before finally breaking open to him: Searching for safety in his face, and Grantaire tried to put it there.
            “I cheated on him with Montparnasse. He was perfect and he loved me and I fucked ‘Parnasse anyway.” It shot from her mouth harsh like a knife, sharpened to wound, but not to wound Grantaire, he knew. It swooped to bury in her own breast.
            Grantaire nodded seriously. “Well,” he said, “that’s understandable. Montparnasse’s dick is the solution to every earthy problem, probably even the cure for cancer.” Hey, he had resisted laughing at the meme shirts. He couldn’t choose the wise path all the time.
            To his relief, Éponine laughed. A small and bitter laugh, to be sure, but a genuine one all the same. “I’d believe that was a quote from ‘Parnasse himself.”
            “Oh, definitely. To the mirror, I’d bet.”
            Éponine’s laugh was even brighter this time. “I guess you don’t hate me for being a cheating whore, then.”
            “Oh no, you read me wrong. I’m really bent up about it, I’m not sure I can look at you again. Not now that I know you’ve got the Montparnasty all over you.” He stuck out his tongue and curled his lip in feigned disgust.
            Though she still smiled, Éponine sighed. “He was with Jehan at the time too… We’re both cheating whores, and I pray to god our cuckolds don’t become bosom buddies and figure it out…”
            “You know Jehan, they flutter from flirt to fling and move on. We’ll never hear about that Combefellow again.”
            “I hope you’re right.” Éponine took a long gulp from her bottle.
            “And what’s more, you’re hardly the only one Montparnasse stuck it in while he was ‘with’ Jehan -  ”
            “The only one they know though, the only one who is their best friend - ”
            “ - and Jehan might understand. Jehan’s slept with people in relationships, though they aren’t proud of it. I think the composition on the bathroom wall by the showerhead implies that they’ve even been had by someone’s husband… They won’t hate you, Éponine. I promise.”
            “I’ll hold you to that, R. If it all goes to hell in a handbasket I’ll name you personally responsible for fixing it all.”
            Grantaire reached out and took her hand. “That’s fair,” he said with enough cold solemnity to have Éponine chuckling again.
            “I don’t want to go home, Grantaire.” The laugh still dying on her lips, she locked eyes with Grantaire sadly.
            “You’re already here. Make yourself comfy. Mi refrigerador es su refrigerador.”
            “I’ll hold you to that too. You’ll have an empty fridge in the morning R; completely devoid of all seven beers and that entire pack of processed cheese slices. Jehan’s jams as well.”
            “Not completely empty then, unless you’re going to drink the spicy mustard, mayonnaise, and all three bottles of tabasco sauce too.”
            “We’ll see how hungry I get. ...Is it selfish to ask to be alone when you’re in someone else’s house?”
            “Not at all.” Grantaire rose from the couch, placed a tender kiss on Éponine’s forehead, and started towards the hall. “I’ll be in the studio for a while, I think.” Éponine nodded, her lips around the bottle once more.
            After living in cramped, sterile dorm rooms during school and catching naps in sleezy bars and on park benches and on the couches of temporary friends during holidays, moving in to Jehan’s apartment was being raised straight from pauperdom to princehood. Jehan owned their own rooms in an elegant building - they had even converted a spare bedroom into a closet and dressing room, a whole room just for their expansive, expensive wardrobe, complete with three-panel floor length mirror and damn near professional lighting for selfies of the highest quality. Though they avoided being patronizing with their wealth, they were certainly generous: When Grantaire elected to turn the room Jehan had offered them into a studio, preferring to bed with Jehan, he had made a passing lament on the poor lighting from small, high-up windows. He’d come home a few days later to a construction crew walking in and out of the kitchen covered in plaster dust and brick rubble.  

            "What's the good of owning your own apartment if you can't knock out a wall to suit your needs?", Jehan had said casually from the couch.

            "Wh - but... How much - "

            "What's the good of Daddy's money if you can't knock out a wall to suit your needs?"

            And that had been that. Grantaire might still have protested if he hadn't understood and endorsed his roommate's life-long crusade of passive aggressive antagonism of their father, to be exacted upon his bank account.

            After the construction, the wall had been all lovely tinted glass, making the formerly tall but tiny room seem open and spacious, cool but bright, at any time of day. It was spectacularly lovely at night, looking out on the Parisian lights fading into the black velvet canopy of dark with faint stars crowding the ceiling.  The room was unusually arranged, having its floor on the first floor of the apartment and its high ceiling over the second, with one door leading to the kitchen and a staircase winding up the wall to a door on the upper floor as well. On many a night, Jehan would come upon him as the moon fell low in the sky to beg the man to bed: they would pass through the upper door unnoticed and watch for a moment from the top of the stairs as the artist, shivering from the caffeine and unbalanced from the alcohol, carried out his sacred privilege with a brush or pen, lost to Jehan and to the world, lost in a terrible reverie, lost to the only moments in his life when he could feel the universe against his skin, when he could feel his veins strung to the nighttime, when he could feel, and feel meaningful.

            Tonight in his studio Grantaire was of singular mind. Through his attendance to Éponine it had remained, impressed upon the back of his eyelids, the weight that had come over him and settled like ash - that stroke of gold in the dark, blinking slowly beneath those cinders like the eyes of a phantom bird, newborn, reborn. Sudden as a spark, that passing moment on the bleachers had kindled embers in him long cold, the dead remains of an inferno that had once ravaged his insides charred and hollow, and with shame and remorse he felt again for the first time in years the echo of that painful heat. He had painted this - her - ten thousand times it seemed, and with every brushstroke she had became more and more a ghost, features blurred, voice growing stale, movements stilled, leaving only that heat, no body and no face and no voice but the heat inside of her that she had ignited inside of him too. But there on the bleachers, out of nowhere like a bruising kiss from the cosmos the heat had come again, and with it - Grantaire paused, hands fumbling on tubes of paint. With it had come the vivid vision of her face. Her avenging angel’s face, the young martyress. Grantaire felt such longing and such fever as he had not known since the last time he’d watched her go, and he wondered what his eyes had seen on the bleachers that they were withholding from his fragile mind. Knotting his hair up, he selected his paints and smeared them out on a palette - vermillion, yellow, and lily white, and the smallest smudge of blue; blue for eyes so unlike Jehan’s rosy, hazy hues, which were soft and inviting and hypnotizing - no, blue for eyes that scarred, that burned.

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

            “Here we are, Dmitry. Will you need help with your bags?”
            “Fuck you.” The curse was limp, tired. The fury of it had vanished days ago and it was only a matter of principle now. It was the only response he would offer this woman, this perky social worker in her tailored blazer with the legal endorsement of his abduction in a manilla folder in the front side passenger seat; he had insisted on sitting in the back.
            She didn’t even bother to sigh anymore. The car rolled to a stop in front of a rustic old home with peeling red paint - a wilted, sunbleached sort of red, like dead dahlias, Grantaire thought -  and he peeled himself off of the seat and clambered out into the August swelter, pulling a backpack and a stained duffel along with him.
            Thénardier. This the name of the household. Proprietors of a motel and three other foster children, in addition to three blood daughters. Situated on the outskirts of a shit hamlet called Montfermeil. His entire knowledge of his new universe in three lines.  
            Une petite Thénardiess was already waiting for him, or perhaps merely lounging on the front steps without agenda, planted comfortably in the center of the sagging planks concentrated on a Nintendo DS and chewing gum. Her skin was nearly as brown as his and her hair was wild, and if he had to guess, he’d have thought her only a little younger than himself, ten or so.  For a skinny little scrape-kneed ten-year-old she was fucking built, the muscles of her thighs and abs (revealed by a neon sports bra/denim cutoffs combo) taught and defined. Grantaire recalled instantly the forms of the young classmates he had once danced with, when his family had lived in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for two and a half years - the longest Grantaire had ever lived in one area. Though he was reluctant to make any judgements about his “new home” that weren’t bitter and scathing, if the girl was a dancer, it did bode well for him. Perhaps the family would allow him to take it up again. He quickly cursed himself for imagining his future here as anything but brief and hellish.
            At the sound of the car door slamming the girl looked up, and he became instantly self-conscious of how he must look to her. A chubby, greasy-haired gitan, pockmarked face bloodless and grey from three sleepless nights, twelve years old and closely resembling, in his own opinion, a large, brown, upright big toe wearing a black hoodie. How very disappointing to her as new temporary brothers went. I am not your brother, he said to her silently. He embedded the words in his glare. Just your captive. For now.
            She glared right back for a moment, and then dropped her gaze again to the DS as though he wasn’t even worth a greeting. He wasn’t, he supposed.
            At that moment the door behind her swung open and something akin to an “amicable, matronly shriek” announced the arrival of La Grande Thérnardiess. His observations were whip fast: plump waistline, €3,800 bosom, spray tan on white skin, botoxed magenta lips, hot pink wedge heels inappropriate for her age and terribly, terribly blonde. She teetered quickly down the steps looking straight at the approaching social worker as she wrapped her arms around Grantaire. “We’re so excited to have you here, Dmitry!”, the harpy squealed.
            “You can call me Grantaire,” he muttered into her breasts.
            “Grand R? That’s a stupid nickname. Your name doesn’t even start with R.” LaThérnardiette spoke up from the stoop without even raising her eyes from her game.
            “It’s my last name, not a nickname, b -” It took everything in Grantaire to end the sentence there rather than finishing the insult. Calling his new guardian’s little daughter a bitch as his second ever sentence in her presence could not possibly go well for him. The girl’s eyes did raise knowingly to meet his for only an instant, and she blew a pale bubble with her gum and smirked.
            “Come in, come in, I’ll put on tea. Éponine dear, why don’t you show him around while the grown ups chat?” The woman ushered the three of them inside, Éponine snapping her DS shut and clambering to her feet gracefully even with her long and awkward limbs. She then remained standing with Grantaire in the cluttered pine foyer while Mlle. Thérnardier took his caseworker towards the parlor.
            Grantaire nudged off his shoes and added them to a pile of ten or more raggedy sneakers and such scattered around a filthy rug. His eye caught on a pair of hightops with spiked studs around the heel and some floral knock off doc martins.
            “So what’s your deal?” Éponine snapped her gum, looking ever so characteristic of the preteen princess in that moment - hips cocked, arms folded, eyebrow raised.
            “My what?”
            “You know,” she groaned as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “The twins’ mom is a prostitute, she couldn’t take care of them so she surrendered them. Montparnasse was adopted from Japan as a baby by some bougie white family but he’s all fucked up in the brain so they said fuck it and gave him up. What’s your deal?”
            Grantaire wasn’t sure whether to be irritated or impressed with the callousness of this fearless idiot. For a moment, he entertained the thought of telling her; but as his reality began to surface in his mouth he was overcome with tightness in his chest and a burning behind his eyes. “I’m a gypsy,” he said shortly instead, the slur acidic on his tongue, and left the foyer swinging the strap of his dufflebag over his shoulder.
            “Fine, be that way. I’ll figure it out. That’s the foyer, congratulations. There’s the parlor on the left, kitchen’s down that way.” She pointed down the hall towards orange and white tile and a rubbery, burning odor. “TV room is through there, there’s a bathroom off it. I’ll show you your bedroom.”
            The whole house was walled with wood panelling and ugly green 1970s-esque wallpaper and although there were many bookshelves, none of them contained books - rather he spotted DVDs, gossip magazines, and a lot (a lot) of knickknacks. The vibe of the place was that of the odd line between poverty and wealth which is not properly middle class but rather seemed to borrow traits from the boastful rich and the trashy poor, and though he had only just met the mother and the daughter moments ago, he imagined that the family in complete review would confirm his assessment. The stairwell was lined with photos of ancestors in black and white, and all of them seemed complimentary - here an Oxford graduating class, there a veteran of the second world war. He wondered if this was a hobby of the wealthy-pretending poor: purchasing themselves a family history at their local antique shop.
            The landing at the top of the stairs split off several ways. “You’re rooming with ‘Parnasse, down this way - Hold on just a moment.” Éponine had glanced towards a bathroom on the right with the door open and caught sight of some hubbub there. She went to investigate with Grantaire leaning over her shoulder clutching his bags to himself.
            On her knees on the bath mat a little girl of eight or nine leaned over the toilet with her impossibly thin arm nearly all the way down it, scrubbing furiously. She was frail as a bird, Grantaire observed, with limp wheat-colored hair tangled in a confused and knotty braid hanging all the way down to her tailbone. Her head was covered by a grey bandana. The soles of her feet were black as coal from heel to toe and thickly callused. When she stopped her task to look imploringly at Éponine, her big glassy eyes seemed empty, and Grantaire felt a chill run to the ends of his fingertips. Was this his fate? Was this what fosterhood in this family looked like? Like hell it would be his lot.
            “Cosette! What the fuck are you up to?” She stormed forth and yanked the girl’s small (baby Jesus, tiny) wrist up from the toilet - her fingers were clenched around a frayed toothbrush, the bristles stained blue from toilet cleaner. Cosette did not meet the girl’s eyes. Though Grantaire guessed that they were more or less of an age with one another, Éponine and the little bird regarded one another as though Éponine were the master and Cosette the… well.
            Cosette murmured something Grantaire could not hear, and Éponine rolled her eyes and snatched the toothbrush away. “It was a joke, Cosette, Jesus. Maman was just fucking with you, okay? God, you’re so stupid. Learn to take a joke. Get out, go play or something.” She prodded Cosette along with her foot as the girl scrambled out of the bathroom.
            “She’s ruined a perfectly good toothbrush, too. What the fuck. Well anyway, that was Cosette. She’s got a twin around here somewhere. We try to color code them but sometimes you just have to guess. Angèle doesn’t really talk at all, so that’s one way to tell. And if it’s crying, it’s Cosette.”
            Grantaire regarded her silently as she examined the toothbrush and casually flicked it into the trash bin.
            “Is this the new recruit?” A voice like a smug serpent had learned to vocalize with venom slithered alarmingly close to Grantaire’s ear, and he jumped to the side, crashing into the linen cabinet.
            “And there’s the other one. Grantaire - Montparnasse. ‘Parnasse, Grantaire.”
            Huffing, Grantaire pulled his rumpled hoodie back on straight and appraised the fellow. A little taller than himself, face round but body slender to the point of malnourishment with pale, sallow skin and narrow, dark, dark eyes, hair like an oil slick and the gentle, playful smile of a fucking serial killer. His own age, perhaps, thirteen years at most. He was a lovely figure, silver screen handsome but deeply unsettling, and reminded Grantaire of one of those creepy porcelain dolls in horror movies.
            The boy extended a small, soft hand to Grantaire, who shook it apprehensively. “There’s a bed all made for you in my room. I’ll show you.” The subtle smile seemed permanent upon his face and it drained all his words of warmth and good intentions. A hesitant, affirmative grunt was the best response Grantaire could manage.
            Éponine announced that she would leave them to it and strode off down the stairs, and with a dramatic sweep of his hand Montparnasse invited Grantaire to follow him down the hall.
            “What awful circumstance has robbed you of the idyllic, nuclearly inclined, white picket fence childhood you have surely enjoyed, my dear?” Montparnasse cast a glance over his shoulder, black eyes catching Grantaire’s murky ones sharply like a fishhook snagging. If Éponine’s demand was a blunt punch, phrased this way by this faunlet child it felt more like tentacles winding closer, gentle caresses poised to grip and devour, and certainly a harder snare to slip out of. But his answer would not waver.
            “It is the dream of our good nation of France that one day, the institutionalized and  machinized erasure of the ‘gypsy’ will leave all Roma children motherless, that they may nurse upon the teat of la mère patrie until their culture has dried up within them and left them nicely, thoroughly French. They will be raised by gadje and marry gadje and bear gadje babies.” It was more words than Grantaire had spoken in the last several days combined, but it felt good to properly articulate after that period of silent treatment. And moreover, it was suitably clever enough to woo this would-be-gentleman and still evasive enough to obscure the truth.
            Montparnasse turned with a hand on a door, presumably to their bedroom, with his eyebrow raised and his dimples deep. “Well-spoken, darling.” Beneath his expression of delight the words seemed poisonous, as Grantaire wondered that they always would. Perhaps he was worried that his crown as local Prince Pretentious was under threat of coup. Grantaire hoped that in defense he would start pulling out the thesaurus - that was a challenge he would love to rise to.
            Montparnasse pushed open the door to reveal the bedroom they would share. It was claustrophobic and the dark spring green paint was peeling. The hardwood floor was dented and scuffed and waterstained at the edges. There was only one window, set in a splintered frame above a radiator and without curtains. A painting hung on either side, just drab motel-kitsch flower vases, but the glass had been shattered in both, the spiderwebs of cracks emanating from the same spot in each as though intentionally broken. The twin beds - one beside the radiator and the other in a cranny beneath the slope that the stairs on the other side of the wall made - were well-dressed at least, with clean white linens, lush quilts and striped pillows. Beneath each he could see the knobs of drawers. A tall, full length mirror in a bronze frame surveyed the room from the corner on the other side of the radiator, and this too had been smashed near the top, but most of its face was still useful. Either Montparnasse had very few possessions or they were squirrelled away elsewhere, because the room was all but barren save for these furnishings.
            Grantaire was inclined to ask about the broken glass, but he bit his tongue on the thought, wondering if it was better to leave it unacknowledged. If it had been done knowingly by the room’s resident, perhaps it was wiser not to know. ‘All fucked up in the brain’, Éponine had said of him.
            “Your bed is there by the window,” Montparnasse indicated, and Grantaire set down his bags at the footboard.
            “What about you,” he inquired. He expected Montparnasse to assume he meant regarding the beds, though the answer to that was quite obvious. However, to his pleasure, Montparnasse was quicker than that.
            “Me? Oh, I myself had my picket fence. And a little red wagon, and a scrappy dog too. Obnoxious little thing, used to piss on my rug, tear up my underwear and keep me up all night with howling. And I, well, I had enough! I marched up to daddy dearest and sweet maman, and I said, either the dog goes, or I do! Now Fido still sits between them when they watch the ten o'clock news, and I am where I am, see.” Montparnasse leaned against the door, examining his nails (lacquered with a clear varnish, Grantaire could tell by the glossy way they shimmered) and smirking harder than ever. He looked suddenly up at Grantaire, the glint in his eye positively dangerous. “We have fun stories, at least. Fun enough to hide. Ask Cosette about her mother, she’ll tell it to you clear as this looking glass. ‘I don’t know’, she’d whimper pitifully, and she tells it true. But the rest of us do. We know. What came out of her mother’s cunt mattered about as much to her as what went in.”
            “Just Cosette? Would Angèle tell it differently?”
            “Angèle wouldn’t look you in the eye and she wouldn’t say a word. She’s a fucking nutter, that girl. She’s one already dead.”
            At that moment, the doorbell rang five times in a row. Montparnasse rolled his eyes. “That’s the dinner call.” He opened the door behind himself and slipped out, leaving Grantaire to follow.
            Dinner was a noisy, messy affair. Grantaire met the rest of the family - the infant Gavrielle, spitting up mashed peas all over herself from her plastic highchair; 6-year-old Azelma with skin fairer than her sisters, golden and freckled, but plush lips and deep brown doe eyes and a sweet little lisp; and finally, the master of the house, Mr. Thénardier himself, a tall, thin black man who spoke rapidly but as smoothly as Montparnasse, and emanated the same serpentine wiles without as much of the glossy charisma. Grantaire couldn’t help but notice the absence of the twins. Upon inquiry, he was told that Angèle rarely heeded the dinner bell, and that more often than not Cosette would take her plate and disappear to go find her.
            “They’re lost causes, that pair. Idiots. Most like, they’ll end up in a nuthouse or on the streets. Don’t trouble yourself over them, Grantaire. You seem like a smart fellow. The hard-working get their reward from God and the crafty take their reward from the hard-working,” Mr. Thénardier assured him with a gap-toothed smile.
            After dinner Montparnasse invited him out to the yard waving a crumpled pack of Gauloises Blondes. Grantaire accepted gladly and they went out to stand on the sidewalk by the fence at a distance from the porch. It wasn’t quite a habit yet, he thought as he gripped the cigarette between his lips for Montparnasse to light, but he had enjoyed doing this with his father once upon a time and it would be a comfort now. He expected Montparnasse to simply use the lighter but he was quickly learning that in any given situation the boy would choose the most unsettling play available; he came close with his own cigarette in his lips, allowing one tip to light the other while he stared unblinkingly at Grantaire with clever bedroom eyes.
            “Would you have preferred Gitanes?”, he quipped and pulled away.
            “Would you have preferred Sakuras?”, Grantaire sneered.
            “Ooh, burn. Listen, ‘Grand aire’. We are fellows of an age. This is the height of our sacred boyhood! We should be undertaking weekend odysseys through our rural landscapes to see Ray Bower’s metaphor-rich body, should we not? I mean to say, we should be friends, you and I. We are in a house full of women, save for the monsieur, and we must stick together, don’t you think?”
            “Lonely, are you?” Grantaire scoffed.
            “Of course I am. Aren’t you?”
            The honesty caught Grantaire off guard. He looked at Montparnasse, and there was nothing exposed in his expression. It was the same smug mask as before. Grantaire wondered what game the boy played - or whether it was even cleverer than that, that he could protect his vulnerability by slipping sincerity in among the jests.
            Grantaire was poised to say something harsh to shut down that idea quickly. He would not be here for long. His mother would recover, she would be well again any day now, their father would be released too, and they would go to court for their Dmitry and little Flourica. He would not be building friendships in this place. But before he could speak, out of the corner of his eye he saw movement and he turned to look.
            The latticing below the back porch was guarded by overgrown tangles of ivy but it was broken in one place, exposing the crawlspace underneath. In the darkness of this space, Grantaire could make out a moving shape, and he felt his heart jump into his throat.
            From between the broken and jagged lines of wood a child emerged, clawing away the ivy and picking her way forth into the blue twilight air. The porchlight behind her illuminated a radiant halo of yellow hair and the sharp edges of collarbones ending in bony shoulders. Grantaire would have thought her Cosette, her long hair and emaciated form and even her features quite the same, but he could sense a difference instantly in the storm upon her brow. Where Cosette had been stooped and sad-eyed, beaten like iron by the Thénardiers to be warped into something useful and easy to manipulate, Grantaire knew instantly that this one was different.
            Up to that point, she had been mentioned several times as mute, a lost cause, dead already. Grantaire had imagined her a shivering and broken corpse.
            But this girl before him had eyes like mercury and a halo of lightning and she looked like something feral, and Grantaire instantly recalled a time as a child when he had strayed from home into the woods and seen a wolf watching him between the trees. He remembered the terror and the awe of that ethereal moment as he looked upon this girl who was both lovely and terrible to behold. He knew plainly why the Thénardiers all looked upon her with such disdain - Cosette was a lark successfully caged, but this was a girl they surely had failed to capture.
            Sudden as a dream dissipates upon waking, the girl was gone.
            “Well,” said Montparnasse. “There goes Angèle.”

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

            Grantaire stepped back and stared in frustration at the painting.
            Every time he painted her, she looked less and less like her. Just the wear and tear of age on memories, he knew, but it pained him so much. Someday she would just be electric waves and blue eyes. Words in his head desperately trying to be adequate substitutes for images. Images failing to capture feelings and revelations and the sensation of certainty in goodness and hope like knowing God. It had been some six years since he had seen Angèle for the last time and every successive painting was less a real little girl and more an idol, more a dream. She would be seventeen now, and he imagined she was an absolute glory of a woman, the second coming of Jeanne D’Arc, Artemis running wild and shooting hearts, that somewhere she was setting the world on fire. (It was more realistic and more likely, his cynical self reproached, that she had grown to be terribly ordinary, just a plain schoolgirl reading light novels and boozing on the weekends. But no.  Angèle was the last bit of faith in the stars that Grantaire would allow himself.  Angèle was the last altar he would pray at.  Angèle was the last golden glimmer of light in the world.)
            And so, wholly disappointed in the night’s work, Grantaire shook out his hair from where he’d knotted it, running his oil-stained fingers through the greasy mess and going out to have one last beer and clean his brushes before going to sleep.
            In the living room Grantaire found Éponine lying spread-eagled on her back on the carpet. There were two empty beer bottles on the coffee table and another tipped over on the floor. A last half-empty bottle sat by her hand.

            Grantaire smiled sadly and went to crouch down near her head. She opened her eyes and met his with a sigh.

            "That bad, eh?", Grantaire grinned sympathetically.

            "I've been worse."

            "Sit up, kiddo. Tell me with your liquor-looser tongue what ails the lass."

            Éponine did as she was told, readjusting to lean against the coffee table. Grantaire lay flat on his belly, ankles crossed and chin in his hands like an eager child at storytime. Éponine smiled weakly but again she sighed.

            "What do you want me to say, R? I just don't know what to do."

            "You haven't been sitting here for the last... Jesus fucking Christ, two hours, where does the time go... anyway, you haven't spent it just sitting here on the floor meditating on the best course of action. You can tell me honestly, Éponine. What's eating at you?"

            The girl pulled her knees up close to her chest and took another swig from the bottle.

            "You're going to laugh at me."

            "I've never laughed in my life! When have you ever known so much as a chortle to pass these wine-soaked lips?"

            "Oh, shut up. Honestly."

            "Okay, Éponine. I swear. I'll be grave as a widow at mass. Please, love."

            And there were those eyes again, imploring and searching and open. She licked her lips and studied the carpet for a moment before she spoke again.

            "I am eighteen years old."

            "Meaningless. Sorry, continue."

            "I lost my virginity when I was fifteen. I lost it to Montparnasse. He fucked me and then the next day he went on a date with Jehan, spraypainting under the north bridge. Jehan painted their initials and they are still there. I didn't tell you because... Well, it was Montparnasse. How could I explain myself? How could I explain that choice?"

            "Éponine, you didn't have to. I would never judge you. You're my best friend."

            "So is Jehan!"

            "Yeah, well... Okay. I don't know what I would have done if I'd known at the time. But I wouldn't have judged you and I wouldn't have been angry."

            Éponine's shoulders slumped. "It's hard to believe you."

            "Your sex life doesn't change who you are as a person, Ép."

                        "How can you say that? It's just not true, it does, it matters, how can you say that it doesn't? Montparnasse was an asshole and a loser. But I just kept fucking him all the way until he left. In the three years between ‘making my sexual debut’ and now, I have had sex with more guys than I can remember, and every single one of them was a loser."

            "But Ép, nothing about that makes you a loser - "

            "You don't even believe that! You don't fucking believe that R, I know you don't! I know the way you talk about your one night stands; you love to tell those bawdy stories, you love to make them out to be these sexy conquests to Feuilly and Bahorel, don't you! But I know you know the truth, R. I know the way you really feel, and you don't think they were victories. Every single one of those fuckers, you leave their bedroom first, right? And you tell people it's because you're not the type that stays the night but that's a lie. You do it because you fuck mean losers, and you do it and then you leave, because if you fucked someone you actually liked, then you would be the loser they were fucking and leaving, right? Right?!"

            There was a fury in her eyes now and a tenseness in her body. He tried to tell himself that she wasn't trying to hurt him, that she was trying to hurt herself, but the consequence was the same either way. She barrelled on.

            "And I know that you know that you're the kind of person who has one night stands with losers who rake your thighs and call you slut and leave bruises, and they don't do it because you like it, they do it because they like it. And I know that you look at the bruises in the morning and you think, here goes R, punching bag cumslut for the scum of humanity. So don't fucking tell me that I'm not a loser, Grantaire, because you wouldn't say that to yourself, and we are exactly the same. But..."

            Grantaire watched the tension pool out of her body as she slumped back against the coffee table and carded her hands through her loose hair.

            "This is just our lot in life, Grantaire. We're clever but we aren't pretty. We are rude assholes. We hurt people and we work at a corner store and a ghetto piercing parlor. We fuck C-listers we meet in bars but we don't talk to them. It's gritty and fun, it's neon lights in liquor store windows at midnight, it's your whole back stuck to the plastic back seat of their shitty car, it's cool-kid ennui, it's love in the new millennium, and we're supposed to act like it's better than the pretentious deluded bourgeois hollywood concepts of romance that the beautiful people eat up all the way to their catty white-people divorces.

            "But don't you ever... don't you ever want to give in? Don't you ever just wish on a fucking star for something as deluded as that? Something that fucking innocent? Do you ever just want to hold someone's hand and get butterflies when you kiss? Do you ever just want to wear a sundress and walk through the park with him..."

            "Well I can't say I've ever had that specific fantasy..."

            "Fuck you, what happened to being a widow at mass? You know what I mean. All of those guys, R. They picked me up and threw me around and I ate it up. They joked that I was their side hoe, and I let them. They took me to keggers, they took me cowtipping, and I was down for that shit. They were all dirt. All except for one. One idiotic, naive rich kid. This homeschooled country-living bug-obsessed mathlete internet geek with a blog, this giraffe-ass weenie who was afraid of the woods at night but wasn't afraid of me. He bought me banana milkshakes, he bought me pearl earrings, he told me I looked 'radiant', he looked at me like I was the moon in the dark sky... Like I was good..." On the last word, Éponine's voice cracked pitifully and she buried her face in her hands, and the tears came like the clouds breaking open. Grantaire moved quickly to her side and took her in his arms.

            "You are good," he muttered into her hair. "You are so good. You are so incredibly strong and brave and brilliant. You're only eighteen and already a hero to your little sisters, and to us all. Nobody could do what you've done, Éponine. You are good, whether any fuckboy tells you you are or not. But they'd all be crazy not to love you if you let them."

            "But I'm so fucked up," she whispered angrily into his shirt.

            "You're not, Éponine. You're not ruined, not by any of those things. Those things are just shit that happened, and... I mean, yeah. You cheated on a sweet guy and... that wasn't great. And our love-lives to date have been killed in the cradle by our fucking shit self esteems. But you don't need to pin a scarlet letter to your breast as a punishment for that. You're eighteen for god's sake. Your life won't be this way forever. You're not always going to work at a corner store. You're not going to date shitty boys for the rest of your life. Please believe that, Éponine. You're going to have better because you deserve it."

            Éponine huffed softly. "If we all got what we deserved, you and I would be in jail and Montparnasse would be in hell. But... thanks anyway. Really." She pulled herself closer into his chest and he tightened his grip around her shoulders.

            "Of course, Ép. Do you want to call it a night?"

            "...Yeah. Can I sleep in your bed?"

            "Duh, of course."

            Ten minutes later they lay side by side in the darkness, tangled in Jehan’s sheets, hoping they’d struck up with their angel and wouldn’t be coming home. As the gentle sounds of traffic and blurry images of his own angel stole him into dreaming, Grantaire only barely registered the "thank you" mouthed gently into his bicep.

            "Always," he whispered back.

 

Chapter Text

 

[From: Cariño 18:42]
>> u have 8 minutes

[From: sheereen-am 18:42]
>> What the fuck!! My parents are still here!!

[From:  Cariño 18:43]
>> 7 MINUTES!! I HAVE WAITED 5 YEARS FOR THIS!! I HAVE NO CONTROL OVER MY LIMBS!! WHEN I PASS UR THRESHOLD MY CLOTHES ARE GOING TO FLY OFF WHETHER UR PARENTS ARE THERE OR NOT

[From: sheereen-am 18:43]
>>
Jeepers. Roger that.

[From:  Cariño 18:43]
>>  u better roger it abuelito

            Combeferre shoved his phone into his back pocket hurriedly and whipped around to face his parents. His mother was humming sweetly to herself as she pulled books out of a box and arranged them on his bookshelf. His father had gotten distracted from his job sorting kitchenware and was tinkering around on the piano. Boxes were still littered around the apartment, but the furniture was all in place and it would have to do.
            “Well!”, he began nervously, not sure how he was going to pull this off. “I think I can take it from here! It’s just unpacking from here on, you know, and I’d like to arrange things how I like them. Um. So, I suppose we shall have our teary goodbyes now, yes?”
            His father looked up from the piano, surprised, and then grinned slyly at his mother. “Why, Marjan, if I didn’t know better, I’d say our dear son is trying to kick us out!”, the scruffy blonde man purred.
            “Not possible,” his mother crooned. “Our baby boy would be heartbroken if we left so soon! Wouldn’t he?” She came and reached up to take his face in her little hands. “Look at him, he needs us!”
            Combeferre smiled fondly, raising a hand to place it over hers. He savored the musical lilt in her voice, the tenderness in her warm brown eyes. Although his parents were pleasantly liberal and free-spirited for a practicing Catholic and Muslim, he was not yet ready to introduce them to his dramatic internet paramour: the Spanish boy currently careening towards his apartment. Even so, although his heart was racing with excitement for the impending encounter, their first ever flesh-and-blood meeting - the first time he would get to kiss those full lips, run his hands through those lovely dark curls, palm that sweet, sweet ass - he still wished Courfeyrac had given him more time. His parents lived barely outside of Paris so it wasn’t the end of the world, but it certainly felt like the end of something, standing here amidst his luggage in his first university apartment.
            His father came to join them with one hand in his jeans pocket and the other gently wrapping around his wife’s shoulders. “Are you sure you don’t want us to stay for a few hours, kiddo? Go for dinner? Hell, we could get a hotel room, hang out for a few days… Your classes don’t start till Monday, right? We could tour Paris together, never leave your side! How ‘bout it, champ?”
            Combeferre groaned, grinning. “Father…”
            He laughed richly and pulled his son in for a hug. “We get it, champ. You’re all ready to take Paris by storm, right?” Pulling back, he examined his son. “I know we spent the whole car ride being boring, embarrassing parents. I told your mom the list of emergency numbers for the fridge was a bit much -”
            “Laurent! How will he know who to call if his apartment has rats! Who will he call if there is a storm and a tree falls into his bedroom! What will he do if the police racially profile him! Those numbers are important!”
            “- Of course, love - See, we just want you to do your best. We believe in you. You got this, son.”
            “I know. Thank you, father.” He hugged them both closely, patiently allowing his mother to shower his face with kisses.
            “We love you so much, darling. You will call us every single night, do you understand? If I don’t hear from you I will call the police!”
            “Yes, of course madar,” he assured her while his father snickered. “I love you too.”

 

            Courfeyrac spotted the apartment building from across the street, a neat and pretty thing, probably built a century ago and remodelled to accommodate modern residents but keep the antique charm. The lucky bastard. As an international student, Courfeyrac was required to live on campus for the first year in designated dorms. He didn’t imagine he would be spending all that much time in them though, not when his - He hesitated. Not when Combeferre lived in such a nice place.  They had agreed on that. They weren’t boyfriends, not unless they could determine that they worked as well in person as they did online. Not unless Courfeyrac was sure that he really wanted to make that commitment. Unlike his skype sweetheart, Courfeyrac didn’t… do relationships. Sex, yes! Romance, yes. Love and dating and flowers and candles, yes, yes, yes. Labels? Er. Monogamy, not so much. Commitment, exclusivity, jealousy, nasty breakups… It all seemed like a disaster to Courfeyrac. Why ruin a perfectly happy, loving arrangement with chains like that? So the two of them were holding off on defining themselves for now. But across the street from Combeferre’s apartment, Courfeyrac was 60 seconds away from the most incredible guy he had ever known, the French boy he’d met online and been and been pining for since he was thirteen years old. He was in a new city, in a new country, putting high school behind him and starting something thoroughly, wholly new. So although his gut told him that “boyfriends” was a bad idea, his heart was hopeful.
            As he jogged across the street he saw a couple emerge from the building. The fellow was absurdly tall and skinny with ruffled golden hair and artful stubble, wearing a rumpled cardigan and big “dad” glasses that gave his face more distinguished style than any 45-year-old man should have. The lady walking beside him hardly came up to his chest. Her face was flawless copper and her shimmery, dark red hijab made her positively glow in the warm evening light.
[From:  Cariño 18:49]
>>  ur parents are beautiful holy shit they look like movie stars

[From:  Cariño 18:49]
>>  im gonna tell them congrats on their son’s face and penis

[From:  sheereen-am18:49]
>>  COURFEYRAC NO

[From:  Cariño 18:49]
>> too late they said ‘thank u we worked really hard on both those things. u must be that sexy latin lover our son is always exposing himself to on skype’

[From:  Cariño 18:50]
>>  jk but im in ur building now ;)

            Combeferre’s heart had been beating like a drum since his parents had left, but now it was almost painful the way his stomach twisted and burned. He looked wildly around at the clutter, dashing to the bathroom to run fingers through his hair in lieu of a brush and clean his glasses with a bit of toilet paper. Shit! Did he have condoms? They were stuffed in the side pocket of a suitcase somewhere, along with the lube. He would have to dig them out, but that was going to be such a hassle with Courf’s lips glued to his…
            The doorbell rang, and it felt like Combeferre’s insides were vibrating. This was it. This was it. For a moment he just stared in panic at the door in the distance, but finally he found his motor skills and made his way back down the hall and across the living room. He let his hand sit for a minute grasping the doorknob, trying to still his shaking, before he pulled the door open.
            For a moment, they just stood staring. Combeferre felt like the breath had been knocked out of him. The camera had not conveyed this, the radiant glowing of this boy’s deep golden skin, the light that shone from his incredible smile, god, his dimples… Was it legal to be this handsome?
            For his part, though he was grinning like a fucking loon, Courfeyrac felt like crying as he stared up in wonder at Combeferre. Look at those pale eyes, that chiselled jaw, that smooth russet face, color just like his mother’s. And the boy was tall. Six foot four, he knew the measurements, but he’d never before been standing in front of him, looking up at him from the eye-level of his adam’s apple. Holy shit. Clenching his fists at his sides, he felt honest to god tears blurring his vision.
            “Courfeyrac?”, Combeferre all but whispered. “Can I kiss you?”
            Courfeyrac nodded with a whimper and Combeferre, heart fluttering madly, grabbed his face in his hands and brought their mouths together.
            Here he was. Under his hands, finally, this incredible boy was here, lips to his. It was heartbreakingly sweet and innocent for a likely total of three seconds before Courfeyrac grabbed Combeferre’s sweatervest in his hands, shoved him backwards over the threshold and turned the kiss bruising and fierce. Combeferre’s hands slid firmly down the boy’s sides, reaching around with a certain destination - he had been imagining this exact moment for the last year. Courfeyrac lifted up to his tippy toes with his hands gripping Combeferre’s shoulders for leverage to close the gap so that Combeferre could grasp fully at his ass. They both moaned brokenly into the kiss. “Feels even better than I imagined,” Combeferre murmured as he broke the kiss.
            “You just wait till I get these damn jeans off, tiger.”
            Combeferre felt an abrupt buzzing in his back pocket. He swore and pulled away to check his phone.
[From: Enjolras18:54]
>>  Just finished settling in! Omw over. ETA: 20 min

            Fuck, Courf, it’s Enjolras. He’s going to be here in 20 minutes.”
            “Good! Twenty minutes to roll around naked, sounds like a plan.”
            “Not good, Courf… That is not enough time to do this properly…”
            “Properly? What the hell does that mean, how do you come ‘properly’...”
            “But… Courf… I wanted…”
            “Look, babe,” Courf said softly, placing his hands on his chest. “If you want to stop and do this later, we will. You always have that right. But I, personally, have waited five years to touch you and I don’t need candles and roses and foreplay to want that. Tonight we can take it long and slow, I’ll take hours exploring every fucking inch of you by moonlight, I want that. But right now, god, you are right here in front of me for the first time and I just… Tell me, ‘Ferre, do you want to stop?” He looked imploringly up at Combeferre, concern in the tightness of his mouth, searching.
            Combeferre smiled gently and pulled him into his chest. “No. No, I don’t.”
            “Yesss,” Combeferre hissed with a grin and immediately started wrestling off his shirt.
            “I love that shirt on you, you know,” Combeferre noted fondly of the pale blue cotton baseball tee.
            “I know,” chuckled Courfeyrac. “You tell me that every time I wear it. But doesn’t it look way better on the floor?” He wiggled his eyebrows as he slid his belt out of his pants and let it drop to the floor as well.
            God, Courf’s body was a glory, Combeferre thought. Soft and toned, deliciously curvy in a way that Combeferre had always thought profoundly unfair. But it was so, so fair now that the juicy curves of his pecs and biceps and stomach and thighs and legendary ass were all within reach, all his to caress, and not just fuzzy, low-res images on his laptop screen.
            He realized he was staring hazily as Courfeyrac stepped out of his jeans. He was wearing the same tight grey and blue abercrombie boxer briefs that he had slid off of his hips the first time they had ever gotten off together on video chat, Combeferre observed, and wondered if Courf remembered.
            “Enjoying the show, mister?”
            Combeferre just smiled. “Yes.”
            “Come ooon!”, Courfeyrac whined. “Your turn.” He grabbed the hem of the sweatervest, tugging upwards, and Combeferre raised his arms to let him lift it off. Courf couldn’t quite get it over his hands so high up in the air, and Combeferre just laughed as Courf jumped up and down whimpering. “Get down here you telephone pole!” Combeferre kept chuckling as he lowered his arms and allowed the article to be cast aside. Courfeyrac dived in for his shirt buttons and Combeferre helped until that too could be removed.  “Oh fuck…” Courfeyrac stopped to admire the nebulas on Combeferre’s upper arm, tracing his fingers around the starry ouroboros. “It looks even more beautiful in person…”
            “So do you,” Combeferre mumbled, wrapping his arms around Courfeyrac to pull their bare torsos together and suck gently on his earlobe.
            “F-fuck…”
            “I always wanted to know how this felt.” Combeferre swirled his fingers through the bristles on the shaved side-section of Courfeyrac’s head, humming thoughtfully as Courf leaned into the touch like a puppy being scratched behind the ear. He grasped at Courf’s luscious dark curls, a sort of plum in the sunset light filtering through the windows. Curiously, he tugged back gently. Courf let out an obscene moan at that.
            “Fuck, ‘Ferre, bedroom, I’m begging you…”
            Combeferre chuckled darkly and conceded. He grabbed Courf’s hand and started to pull him down the hall, infinitely glad that his mother had already dressed the bed.
            “Wait!” Courfeyrac cried suddenly, breaking away from Combeferre and dashing back to the living room. Combeferre watched in bewilderment as he bent over to root through his jeans, but he definitely wasn’t protesting the view. Jesus Christ, he was just never going to get over that breathtaking rump, was he? Courfeyrac stood, waving something in his hand with a grin. Oh, good, thank God, he’d brought his own stuff. Of course he had, Combeferre should have expected as much. He dashed back eagerly and wrapped his fingers in Combeferre’s, beaming up at the man.
            “Perfect.” Combeferre resumed leading him into the bedroom. “Sorry, there’s still boxes everywhere. You interrupted my unpacking.”
            “If I had come a moment later than I did we would have had to sit through our entire dinner with Enjolras before getting to do this. We’d sit there eyefucking each other and practically weeping, probably with raging hard-ons.”
            “Mmm, like this one?” Combeferre reaching down, palming Courfeyrac’s growing erection through his underwear with one hand and groping at his backside with the other. Courfeyrac whimpered helplessly and pulled Combeferre backwards by his belt loops towards the bed, where he flopped down gracelessly and shimmied out of his briefs.
            “Off with those khakis,” he commanded.
            Combeferre took a moment to admire the brilliant Romeo laid out completely bare before him and be amazed, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, that this incredible boy would entrust his pleasure to a gawky nerd like himself. He removed his glasses and set them down on the nightstand. Next he did as commanded, unbuttoning his pants and letting them fall to his feet, stepping out of the legs one by one and pushing them aside with his heel.
            Courfeyrac let out a low wolf whistle, spreading his thighs in front of Combeferre unsubtly.
            “Well? Keep going,” he purred lecherously.  
            For the first time since opening the door, Combeferre blushed, remembering part of why he hadn’t wanted to try and fit this tryst into twenty minutes. Fifteen now, fuck. This wasn’t going to work the way Courfeyrac obviously wanted it to. He opened his mouth to say so, but decided it was better to show him. He peeled his black boxers down from his hips and discarded them as well.
            “Oh… my god.” The grin dropped from Courfeyrac’s face and Combeferre squirmed nervously. “Okay, fuck. I mean… I knew you were big. But... hostia.”
            “I know,  I… I’m sorry, I figured the camera probably didn’t convey… Listen, we don’t have to do this, I don’t want -”
            “Tonight is going to be so incredible.”
            “What?”
            “Okay, yeah, obviously and tragically your demigod cock is going to have to wait to get acquainted with my angelic ass. But please. Come here.” Courfeyrac reached up, smile returning, and grabbed Combeferre by the wrists. He scooted backwards and pulled Combeferre on top of him, the man gladly crawling over his body, spreading his knees on either side of Courfeyrac’s legs and leaning down to kiss him again. He felt dizzy with lust as Courfeyrac ran his hands all over his torso, through the light hair on his chest, down to brush across his hips.
            “Okay,” Combeferre said breathlessly into Courfeyrac’s neck. “As much as I want to do this all night long, we have 14 minutes. Tell me what you want. S'il te plaît.
            “Right, right. Okay, I… intercrural?”
            “Come again?” Combeferre thought he had been doing pretty well so far considering that, aside from their numerous videochat encounters, this was his first time having sex with a man. But perhaps he had not done quite enough research after all.
            “You know. The greek way. Thighs.”
            “I thought the greek way was anal.”
            “Clearly you are underlearned on your homosexual history, amigo. It’s because this is your first gay encounter, obviously. You haven’t been spirited away by the elder queers for education yet.”
            “Oh, is that going to happen now? Do we need to reschedule our meet-up with Enjolras?”
            “Nah, it’s like Narnia, you know? Time works differently at Homotopia Academy. Your training will take a few years but you’ll arrive back in here within seconds of leaving, not a moment older, still naked and covered in my spunk with Enjolras knocking at the door.”
            Combeferre broke into a fit of giggles, which he buried in Courfeyrac’s collarbone. “Okay,” he said, recovering. “Show me.”
            “Well, we could do it like this. More intimate, you know. But personally, I really like, um…” Courfeyrac pushed out from beneath Combeferre, rearranging himself onto his knees facing the headboard. Slowly, a blush coloring his own cheeks now, he lowered his chest until his shoulders and head rested on the pillows. “Like this.”
            All over again, Combeferre was wonderstruck. Jesus Christ, this boy. “You have butt dimples,” he praised. Courfeyrac wiggled his hips in the air approvingly.
            “So, you know… you just… Thighs. Dick. Oh but first -”
            “Right! Of course.” Combeferre scrambled to find the condom and lube that had been discarded somewhere on the bedspread. When he was ready, he wriggled forward, taking Courfeyrac’s hips gently in his hands and nudging his slicked cock between his legs. “Like this?” Courfeyrac closed his thighs and pressed backwards to slot their pelvises together, humming happily as he did so. Combeferre whimpered as Courf pressed his plush ass against his body.
            “Here, if you adjust your dick a little higher… Just like that… Yes, yes, right there, so that… perfect. Mmm.” With that, Courfeyrac began to sway his hips lightly back and forth, sighing with pleasure as the tip of Combeferre’s cock lightly brushed the underside of his own. “Fuck, that’s a terrible tease.”
            Combeferre reached immediately to take hold of the smaller man’s cock but Courfeyrac batted his hand away. “No not yet, just let it be. This is good for now. Makes a better climax for me later. Come on, babe, now go.”
            Combeferre nodded and replaced his grip on his hips, squeezing the flesh there tightly. This elicited a lovely little groan from the man beneath him and he began to thrust. The friction was incredible as he found a rhythm in the way he pulled at Courfeyrac’s waist and canted his hips in time.
            “Yeah, just… just - higher, oh nnn,” the man beneath him groaned, bucking with growing desperation and breathy whimpers. Courfeyrac had made a good choice with this position. Combeferre looked forward to making love to him face to face later tonight, to feeling these powerful legs wrapped around his waist and sucking bruises onto his throat as he thrust in slowly. But right now for this desperate quickie, fucking the boy bent over on his knees gripping hysterically at the pillows and arching his muscular back while Combeferre towered over him and shoved rhythmically into the space between his legs was hot as hell and the image of it alone was pushing Combeferre towards his climax terribly quickly.
            Keeping one hand firmly on Courfeyrac’s hip, he let the other wander. He kneaded purposefully at the boy’s ass, dragged his fingernails up and down the slope of his side, let them bite into his stomach. He made the most delicious keening sounds and god, Combeferre could not wait to get to do this more slowly. Curious to apply the things he was rapidly learning about his lover’s body, Combeferre reached up and grabbed a fistful of Courfeyrac’s curls, yanking backwards so that he had to strain his throat to follow. The strangled near-scream that resulted was almost enough to push him over the edge, and with his fingers still tangled in his hair Combeferre fucked harder, faster and faster, so fucking close…
            “God, yeah, ‘Ferre… ‘Ferre, touch me!” Clumsily with a shaking hand Combeferre reached around and took hold of Courfeyrac’s cock, his hips already beginning to stutter. He tried frantically to contain himself, to hold off for just another minute or two. Courfeyrac’s golden hand wrapped around Combeferre’s brown one quickly as he showed him just the way he liked it, dragging slowly at first and pressing with a twist near the base, speeding up the pace and jerking his hips into it hard enough to nearly push Combeferre off balance and wailing breathily. Courfeyrac pressed his thighs together with renewed tension and cried out, “‘Ferre, Combeferre, oh…”
            That was it. With a throaty shout, Combeferre’s orgasm erupted through his body, sending hot, electric shivers all the way down to his toes. Glad for Courfeyrac’s hand on his to steady its shaking, together they pulled Courfeyrac rapidly to his own orgasm. He came messily over their fingers, calling out Combeferre’s name again and again.
            For a moment they stayed that way, heaving breaths on their knees. Eventually Courfeyrac collapsed onto his side, inadvertently pulling Combeferre down with him. They crashed into a tangled, sweaty pile on top of the covers, laughing as they tried to disentangle their limbs.
            “Wow,” Courfeyrac breathed out. They settled both laying on their backs with their heads turned to face one another. One of Courfeyrac’s arms had draped elegantly over the headboard behind him. The rose sunset light flowed from behind him over his athletic, classical form, silhouetting every curve with a red and aureate radiance, and Combeferre could not find the words to express how fucking uniquely lucky he was.
            Instead, he reached out a hand, laid it across Courfeyrac’s cheek and pulled their faces together to kiss his lover sweetly and languorously.
            Courfeyrac smiled against his lips when they were finished. “I want to do that… all the time. Endlessly,” he murmured.
            “Okay. Yes.” Combeferre beamed.
            “How long until Enjolras arrives?”
            “Who cares...”
            “Combeferre!”, Courf exclaimed in mock offense. “First of all, rude! And second of all… ARE YOU FUCKING PUMPED?” He shot up into a sitting position suddenly, hands balled into fists and grinning from ear to ear. “This is it Combeferre! The big reveal! Is Enjolras secretly a famous actor? Is he a 45-year-old creep? Is he François Hollande? Is he a woman? Is he a centaur? Does he have hooks for hands? Is he five hundred baby chickens in a trench coat? We’re finally going to know!”
            “I hope it’s the chickens. Or maybe that he’s really Scarlett Johansson. If I found out that for the last five years my best friend was actually Scarlett Johansson catfishing me I could die happy, I think.”
            “Does it count as catfishing if they aren’t even trying to tell you they’re someone else? He’s never said that he is not Scarlett Johansson. Like come on, what do we know about him, like really know about his personal life. He claims he has a twin sister - Scarlett has a twin brother! He is adopted - do we really know that Scarlett Johansson wasn’t adopted?! His dad is dating some cop. Do you know who Scarlett Johansson’s father is dating? I think not!”
            “If Scarlett Johansson shows up at my door in a few minutes, we had better be going somewhere pretty nice to eat. But really Courfeyrac, he is probably terribly ordinary.”
            “If he was terribly ordinary, why has he hid so much from us? We’ve been over this before. We have been talking constantly since we were kids, we know his brain inside and out but we’ve never seen a photo of him, never videochatted, never heard his voice, never been told where he lives other than that it’s in France, we don’t even know whether Enjolras is his first or last name. Who does that?”
            “Someone with a bizarrely pervasive need for privacy, I agree. But really. I’m sure he’ll be an average fellow. If he weren’t, if he really had something to hide, would he be going to the same school as us? Would he be showing up at my door now?”
            As if on cue, a loud buzz resounded from the floor where Combeferre’s pants were still puddled.
            “SHIT! Courfeyrac, go get dressed.”
            “On it.”
            Combeferre scrambled off the bed, grabbing his glasses and his phone to check the message.
            [From: Enjolras19:13]
>>  On my way inside. Is Courf already there?

            [From: Enjolras19:13]
>>  If yes, tell him to refrain from tackling me. I cannot sustain that kind of weight.
            [From: Combeferre19:13]
>>  Yes. Roger that.

            In the living room Courfeyrac had his baseball tee back on and was trying to stuff his thick legs into his tight jeans. Sweat still clung to his curls. “Do you think now that we’re all together in person he’ll finally figure out that you and I are a thing?”
            Combeferre scooped his shirt up from the floor, doing the buttons hurriedly. “I dunno, Courf. You’ve been calling me your ‘baby’ for what, ten months now? We’ve been flirting pretty obviously in group chats. I told you about the time I literally told him I was getting naked for you on skype and he just responded ‘lol’. It’s always possible that he knows and just doesn’t care, you know?”
            Before Courfeyrac could respond, the doorbell rang. Both men froze, staring at the door and then at each other. Combeferre grabbed his sweatervest, shoved it over his head and opened the door with Courfeyrac peering around his arm.
            For an instant Combeferre stared confusedly out at the the wall of the stairwell. Question marks went off in his head. Then his gaze dropped, and there Enjolras was.
            Combeferre had been prepared for the worst. Barring Scarlett Johannson and 45-year-old creep, he had figured to expect someone who was perhaps heavily disfigured or who might be discriminated against for their appearance. Someone who had a reason not to want to share photos of himself with his closest friends.
            What he had not been prepared for was someone… like this. In a word, Enjolras was stunning, face-wise. In another, he was short. Like, twelve-year-old short. Combeferre couldn’t figure out which of these shocking facts to focus on first.
            Before he could fully process him, Courfeyrac burst through the doorway and picked Enjolras up. He was spinning in circles,squeezing him to his chest and flinging him around the cramped landing, and Combeferre realized he’d forgotten to pass on the “no tackling” message, which seemed even funnier now that he realized how 105 lbs of Enjolras could truly not have sustained 165 lbs of Courfeyrac. “You’re - You’re - You are Scarlett Johannson! But tiny! You’re like a kitten, like a beautiful kitten, like a kitten in an art museum! Are you famous? Are you a model?! Why are you so small?!” Courfeyrac’s speech was quick and chaotic and energetic but stuttering and stilted, like he was having a much harder time staying in French and not blurting out Spanish than usual. Finally he set him down and pushed him back, hands on his shoulders, to get a better look at him.
            The boy had a face like a cherub, flawlessly smooth and snow-white fair with a cherry glow in the cheeks, perfect cupid’s bow lips and a small, elegant greek nose. He was younger than Combeferre and Courfeyrac, having graduated a year early, but he hardly looked even seventeen - he looked positively like an adolescent, but maybe like a centuries-old adolescent vampire in a romantic novel, for the impossibly archetypal beauty and youth matched with the maturity and seriousness in his flushed expression. His eyes were the color of the sky on a hot day, as though all the blue had been drained from them. The grey beanie he had been wearing had been knocked to the ground and he pulled out his hair tie to readjust the glossy, pale honey-colored bun. Watching him run his fingers through the luxurious shoulder length waves seemed to be practically a sex act.
            “Scarlett Johannson. A kitten in an art museum. I’m going to have to write those down,” Enjolras smirked.  
            “Oh my god. Your voice is beautiful. Your voice is melting me, I’m dying, say more words, you sound like an angel. Do you sing?”
            “Wow, Courf, that’s more praise than I got,” Combeferre sassed.
            “I am not famous, unless having approximately 750 followers of my blog counts. I have never modelled. I am small due to genetics, one presumes, and likely to inadequate nourishment as a child. I do like to sing but I rarely do with intention, as I haven’t the skill to accompany myself with any instruments. Did I get all of your questions?”
            Courfeyrac gaped, and Combeferre could almost see the stars in his eyes.
            “Let me grab a coat and we’ll be on our way, shall we?” Combeferre gestured them inside.
            As Combeferre dug around in suitcases looking for his favorite tweed jacket, the one with the elbow patches, Enjolras looked around the apartment. It was a small but sunny space, sort of cottage-like. Homier than the austere, white-walled loft apartment he himself had just moved into today. He spotted a belt on the floor and stared at it contemplatively for a moment. Courfeyrac followed his gaze and gasped.
            “Uh, whoops.” He snatched it off the ground and slid it back through his belt loops.
            “What was your belt doing on Combeferre’s floor?”
            Combeferre’s head snapped up immediately.
            “Oh, we were fucking before you got here,” Courfeyrac said nonchalantly. Combeferre’s gut twisted and for half a second the room thrummed with tension.
            “Har har,” Enjolras snarked. Combeferre and Courfeyrac exchanged deadpan glances, and Combeferre could tell his lover was giddy with suppressed amusement. He sighed. They had never been intentionally hiding it from Enjolras, but they hadn’t had a big coming out conversation either, as their relationship had slipped from platonic to romantic and sexual over a period of strange, ambiguous months, and by the time they were definitely “involved”, it seemed too late to say anything. So they had just carried on, not hiding a thing, figuring that eventually Enjolras would catch on… But the boy proved spectacularly thick in that department, and it had become sort of a game; a game in which no one was winning. At this rate Courfeyrac would be waving a diamond in Enjolras’s face before the boy put two and two together. The thought filled Combeferre with flutters. Fuck off, he thought to himself. We aren’t even boyfriends.
            After finally locating his jacket, Combeferre asked his friends where they might go to find dinner.
            “I dunno,” Courf answered. “But we should definitely go for drinks after. I passed a neat-looking two story bar on the way over. The Muse? Museum?”
            “Oh, the Musain,” Enjolras said. “I saw the same one.”
            “Well then, tally-ho! Let’s off.”
            “Tally-ho indeed, abuelito.” Chuckling, Courfeyrac slipped an arm around Combeferre’s elbow and they went out the door with Enjolras in the lead.
            “Tonight,” Courfeyrac leaned up on his tippy toes to whisper in Combeferre’s ear, “you’re going to come so many times that you won’t even have the coherency to beg for mercy.”
            Fuck.
           


           
           
           

 

Chapter Text

 

            “Why, the cosmos do favor me tonight! Behold, comely and fair, monsieur Tall, Dark and Handsome. You did strike me as a Potterhead!”
            Combeferre had been watching the game begin (in the first five seconds Courf had managed to grab not one but two of the quaffles despite being one-handed and was sprinting with as much agility as one can muster with an unwieldy stick between one’s legs) when an unmistakable character came bounding up the bleachers and addressed him.
            “Uh! Prouvaire!”, he exclaimed witlessly, heart pounding. Prouvaire was a classmate from his Romantic Lit course, and not as much a stranger as any other classmate - they were hard to overlook, even if one disregarded their flamboyant and nonsensical wardrobe. They contributed their opinion in class regularly, but it tended to be more verbose and stylized in speech than typically necessary, as well as having a winding and lackadaisical way of coming to a point. Those opinions were always remarkably well-founded though, to an intimidating degree, and in fact Prouvaire was already familiar with almost all of the books on the reading list for the semester and frequently referenced authors and works that Combeferre had never heard of, making him question his claim to be well-read. He often heard groans and mutters whenever Prouvaire was called upon, but he couldn’t imagine why, unless the students were not interested in learning - Combeferre felt he learned more from Prouvaire than from the professor himself sometimes, despite the degree of interpretation their ramblings needed.
            And thus Combeferre had made a beeline for Prouvaire when a partner project was assigned. The haste proved unnecessary. Prouvaire simply sat looking at their lap while others scrambled to find a friend. Combeferre got the sense that they had not expected to be sought out by anyone voluntarily.  
            Although the student gave him a degree of jitters to interact with, especially at a one-on-one level, their mind was brilliant, their cadence lovely and even their fashions grew on him. Prouvaire always seemed very genuinely interested in what he had to say, even if he wasn’t so literarily learned as them yet. They gave his excited tangents a rapt attention that Combeferre wasn’t quite used to from anyone except Courfeyrac and Enjolras.
            It had made a tad more sense to him though when Combeferre felt Prouvaire’s light touch upon his thigh as they sat together on the latter’s couch. Aha, that is what the fellow wants, he thought to himself. And for a moment, Combeferre was torn. He felt a lightness in his chest, a curiosity, a magnetic pull… “I’m, er, I have a boyfriend,” he had blurted out, and felt instantly like a fool. Prouvaire had taken it well enough, apologizing quickly and moving back to the project at hand. But Combeferre had dwelled on it for a week or more. Courfeyrac was not his boyfriend. Courfeyrac was not his boyfriend because Courfeyrac did not like monogamy, and Combeferre had to expect that eventually he was going to act on that, and that he himself should not feel constrained by Courfeyrac either. But to imagine having come back to his apartment that evening, finding Courfeyrac watching netflix on the couch and having casually said, “So I fucked someone else this afternoon,” made his heart sink in a way he didn’t want to think about. To imagine Courfeyrac doing the very same, as he inevitably would… Well, he tried not to.
            “This must be the beau you spoke of,” Prouvaire purred, addressing Enjolras. “I can see why he has won your heart and all its loyalty. You are a dreamy one, my friend.”
            Combeferre stared, overwhelmed, mental exclamation points flashing. Enjolras stood and extended his hand to Jehan before Combeferre had collected himself. “Enjolras Fauchelevent. ‘Dreamy’ is a new one, but you have the wrong man.” Combeferre noted with amusement that though Prouvaire themself was a petite little fairy, Enjolras was smaller still, even if only by a little.
            Prouvaire shook Enjolras’s hand gladly with a flirtatious smile. “Not the beau then? But surely you are not unencumbered entirely! A face like yours must have whole harems to sing your hymns!”
            Enjolras laughed softly, cheeks flushed, his hand still caught lightly in Jehan’s. Combeferre wondered at what point it was appropriate to intervene between his friend and the charming little lech.
            “Are you auditioning?”
            “Are you casting?”
            “Not at the moment. I’m, ah, afraid the call is for gentlemen anyway.”
            “Alas! I shall try again the next time that I fit the bill.”
            Enjolras pulled his hand gently back, eyes wide with curiosity. Combeferre stood at last. “Prouvaire is in my Romantic Lit class. They’re…” He looked to the student for confirmation, and for permission. “...Genderfluid?”
            Prouvaire grinned fondly. “Excellent recall, dear.”
            “Oh! Really! I apologize, did I - was that -”, Enjolras stammered.
            “Oh no, you’re quite alright, dear. I am not a gentleman tonight. But who can say what the morrow brings?”
            “Actually, this is quite a coincidence! Combeferre and I, we’re forming a group on campus to address some of the issues that larger coalitions are ignoring, and our first mission is to establish designated gender neutral bathrooms in the commons. We’re sending round a petition, would you be interested in signing?”
            Combeferre rolled his eyes with a smile, pulling a hand from his pocket to press to his forehead in mild embarrassment. It didn’t seem quite properly tactful to attack someone with a petition the moment you met them, or particularly to respond to someone’s gender identity with a call to arms, but although Enjolras had many great strengths, tact had never been one of them.
            “What an idea! I’ve a lovely signature, I don’t need convincing to show it off. Just show me the dotted line.”
            Enjolras bent to dig around in his bag, because of course he had the petition on him, Combeferre wouldn’t expect anything less of his diligent chief. He produced the clipboard and a pen. Their signature was lovely indeed, a calligraphic bit of art, complete with flourishes that extended three lines and a little flower dotting the “i”.
            “What is this group of yours, which looks after the concerns of gender transcenders like myself?”
            “We are called Les Amis de L’ABC, and we are very newly formed, but we aspire to great change.”
            “And how many friends do the downtrodden have as of yet?”
            “Five,” Combeferre butt in before Enjolras could grandiloquize away the humble truth.
            “Ooh, how intimate. And how does the casting call for this merry troupe of student petitioners read?”
            “Passionate and willing.”
            “Aha! I am nothing if not passionate and willing.” The accompanying wink was so fleeting Combeferre barely registered the cheesy pass.
            “Are you interested, then? We meet on Saturday afternoons, on the second floor of a bar in the Place Saint-Michel, the Musain. Do you know it?”
            “As a matter of fact I do! I will bring an army of the passionate and the willing along with me.”
            “That would be excellent! Absolutely, tell anyone that you think might have an interest.”
            A cheer rose up from those around them.
            “Oh, I suppose someone scored.”
            “Was it Courf?” asked Enj, peering down at the field.
            Combeferre leaned in towards Jehan, crouching down to their eye level and looking out on the field for Courfeyrac.
            “There he is,” he said softly, pointing. “Courfeyrac. That’s my… er. Yeah.”
            “...Oh.” He missed the way the gentle syllable left Prouvaire like a breath, sounding like they’d been punched. “He’s an angel.” Enjolras glanced over.
            “Isn’t he?” Combeferre smiled. “I think he’s the one who just scored. He loves this game, he’s so incredibly excellent, such a stunning athlete. He was a soccer stud back in Barcelona, his team won a championship!” Combeferre beamed.
            “That’s… that’s very nice.” Jehan chewed his lip for a moment, and then they seemed to start, shivering energetically as though shaking something away. “So! Very important: what’s your Hogwarts house?”
            Combeferre stood up straight, chuckling. “Most agree upon Ravenclaw, though I’ve heard it argued that I’ve got a little Gryffindor in me.”
            “Ooh, very nice. I can see it, you’re quite an intellectual clearly, but you are a loyal and golden-hearted fellow, aren’t you?” Combeferre flustered under the praise, particularly the “intellectual” bit - it meant a lot coming from this friend, whose intelligence he so admired.
            “Myself, I’m a Ravenclaw through and through, as you can see quite obviously.” Jehan kicked their leg out in front of them, displaying the bright blue and gold knee sock. “And you, Fauchelevent?”
            “Enjolras will do. What was that?”
            “Your Hogwarts house, good Monsieur.”
            “Oh, um. I’d never given it much thought. Gryffindor, I suppose.”
            “Never given it much thought! Preposterous! Who in our generation has not given it due consideration? Who among us has not been properly analyzed? Never given it much thought, my passionate and willing arse. But in fairness, you do strike me as a Gryffindor.”
            Enjolras seemed pleased with this. “I hadn’t actually read the books until recently, you know. Apparently this is a federal crime. I had no idea. I now own a deluxe set, gifted by this fellow here. It was a decent way to spend a summer.”
            “Well thank god for Combeferre! A youth devoid of that magic is a youth wasted! How could this have happened?”
            “Well, to say that my youth was devoid of magic is accurate enough.” It was gently said, but Combeferre sensed the bitterness underneath. Enjolras rarely spoke of his personal history. From time to time though, in the most unexpected moments, he would share something so spontaneous and casual but it would hit Combeferre right in the gut. Passing mentions of malnourishment and sleeping under porches seemed so dissonant from the proud, glowing, glorious young lionheart that Enjolras had been as long as Combeferre had known him. They had been best friends for five years now, corresponding online since they were twelve and thirteen respectively, but what Courfeyrac had said of their friend the day they met in person for the first time back in September had been on the mark - though they had come to know his mind like the back of their own hands, his life was still shrouded in mystery.
           
           
           
           

 

 

Chapter Text

            “Three aces.”
            “Bullshit.”
            “Read ‘em and weep, ‘Taire.”
            “You piece of shit, I have two aces in my fucking hand! This deck is rigged!”
            “Isn’t counting cards like, illegal?”
            “Shut up ‘Ponine, it doesn’t take fucking math to see that there are five aces right fucking here. And anyway we’re playing Bullshit, not betting on Blackjack in a casinoor whatever.”
            “Grantaire, my dear, though we are never short for playing cards in this house, I think you will struggle to find a deck with the proper arrangement. Myself, I think this makes it even more fair, don’t you think? Unpredictable!”
            “You guys are fuck-asses.”
            From the kitchen below, the trio of degenerate preteens heard a sudden smash, followed by the deafening yaps of the human chihuahua that was Mme. Thénardier clashing against the growling of the Monsieur.
            The three of them went rigid, nerves electric and ready to bounce. As soon as they heard the tell-tale sharp stomps of high heels approaching the stairs, they leapt into action. Éponine pounced for the bathroom, locking the door shut behind  her. Montparnasse scrambled down the short hall and disappeared into the bedroom he shared with Grantaire, slamming the door on the nose of the latter.
            “You motherfucker!” Grantaire spun around desperately. The nursery and the Thénardier girls’ bedroom was down a different hall, too far to reach now. He could hear the great belle bête’s heavy feet upon the stairs. If he was caught in the crossfire of one of her rages, he could not predict the damage.
            There! A door at the end of the hall, which he had never yet thought to open. He had been assuming it was a linen closet of some kind. Grantaire made a mad dash for it and shoved himself into the dark, cramped space, yanking the door shut and leaving himself in pitch black.
            Mme. Thénardier’s stomping arrived upon the landing. He heard her pause, and her shrill voice screamed something unintelligible about the mess of cards they had left behind, followed by the slam of her bedroom door. The breath he did not know he had been holding fell.
            Grantaire turned, trying to ascertain what sort of closet this was. He groped out in the darkness, looking for the wall to his right, but his fingers stroked only empty air. Slowly he turned, both arms now outstretched, and found the wood paneling behind him. As his eyes adjusted, he could detect a light separate from that which crept under the door. Where was it coming from, he wondered, this faint and dusty glowing?
            Finally, his wide pupils made out slots of dim light to his left, stacking upward… stairs. This wasn’t a closet at all - it was a stairwell. Naturally, there was only one thing to do. Grantaire ascended.
            The stairs were rotting and creaked with every step. The way was so narrow, his shoulders could almost brush the walls on either side. The pale light grew until his head rose above the floorboards of what seemed to be an attic.
            Stacks upon stacks of boxes designed a shadowy cardboard labyrinth; a heap of dresses rejected by the 1980s lay gathering dust; an old armoire with a mirror reflected only cobwebs and dark shapes; a rocking chair in one corner looked as uninviting as its balding velveteen seat cushion could aspire to be.  Somewhere on the far end of the maze, light bloomed. Grantaire followed this light.
            He picked his way between the boxes, following a tiny but apparent pathway through the chaos. Dust motes floated through the air, shimmering and falling in lazy swirls. Slowly the mountains of rubbish parted for him to reveal a kind of clearing at end of the shadows, and he stood in the radiance of a round rose window which made a quiet cathedral of the hidden attic. The altar, Grantaire decided, was the beaten steel frame child’s bed set to one side of the window, blankets cast askew revealing a stained mattress, and here Grantaire lowered himself and sat in prayer of thanks that he had avoided that storm downstairs .
            Grantaire had been here for three weeks now. It was easy enough to avoid trouble, if you just avoided the Mamade and the Monsieur, but the former loved flattery; and the latter, wit. It was not the worst game to play. Their anger was fearsome but happened in spasms like lightning, harsh and then gone - they were not good people, nor kind people, nor even pleasant people, and there was always work to be done around the house and it was always allocated to himself or Montparnasse or, most of all, to little Cosette. (They could not allocate to Angèle. That would require catching her.) But apart from this, they mostly left Grantaire to his own devices. He had not managed to find a book in the house, but there was a library nearby, and with the Thénardier’s address he was allowed to have his own library card. This, he treasured. He had not had one in a year or more, and all his “borrowed” books were long gone. So when not cooking or scrubbing or repairing, Grantaire was out on the back porch reading. But there was something else that he wished he could do.
            Éponine and Azelma were indeed dancers, and the Madame a so-called ‘dance mom’ if Grantaire had ever seen one. They had practice after school nearly every day of the week, Mme. Thénardier in attendance to every one, and Grantaire had had the privilege of watching for a time or two but he yearned to be on the floor. He had not yet built up the courage to ask about it, but he was trying.
            Though he feared that she would tell him that he was merely a foster, a transient, that she would never pay for him to do such a luxurious activity, his greater and more secret fear was that she would laugh. Grantaire wanted to dance? That stocky brown lump with his soft stomach and thick, stubby legs? That greasy garçon gitan wanted to put on a pair of tights and prance around, smearing his hairy, callused feet all over the polished studio floor? Fuck, how she would laugh. Grantaire winced painfully just thinking of it. Before when he had danced, he had been able because he had been in school (for two of the total of four years that he had ever been enrolled) and he had been allowed to partake in after school activities like dance lessons. He had even paid the €15-per-week fee himself by mowing lawns and painting fences, working odd jobs like his father (though he wasn’t so skilled). But the Thénardier daughters danced at a nice private studio, and the motel paid their 3-digit bills. To be able to dance again was a nice thought, but only that.
            Truthfully, Grantaire wasn’t sure where he was meant to go from here. He hadn’t ever given the future much thought, because he knew he had no way to predict where he would live in a week, let alone make plans for his life. But his mother’s condition was growing worse and there had been no word about his father. The creeping fear had begun to settle in that he could be in this place for a long time. Montparnasse had been here for three years, even though he had been in four different foster homes in his first eighteen months in the system. The twins were eight, or maybe nine, and they had been here almost all their lives. It was entirely possible, Grantaire wondered with unease, that he could be here until he was 18. He would surely be enrolled in school come fall - the thought that he would go to school routinely, five and a half days a week, 9 months a year, in a constant pattern for the next 6 years, was ever so slightly horrifying.  The bohemian in him revolted, the self that would have been content to pack a bag and find his little sister and set out for the dusty roads that would take them all the way from Spain to China, living outside the broken and corrupt machine that was society. Everyone in the world, he thought, had a light to follow - for most in this capitalist hell, the light was money, security, routine. For many it was love, for some, knowledge, for others, change. But for Grantaire, his light could be the sun itself, leading him onwards always, over oceans and mountains and hills and vast plains, to Madrid and Morocco, to Trinidad, Guatemala, and Mexico, to Bangkok, to Calcutta, to Istanbul, to his parents’ old home in Cluj-Napoca.  He could leave this place right now and follow the sun all his life and, Grantaire imagined, never grow weary.
            The glowing patterns on the floorboards wavered, and Grantaire looked up. The great round window was creaking open and a shadow was passing behind the glass. Grantaire hardly dared to move as tiny feet, bony and caked with filth like they had never known shoes, alighted upon the floor soundlessly.  Grantaire drew in a breath.
            Since the first night when he had caught her sneaking through the backyard, Grantaire had only caught glimpses here and there of this mystifying fairy. From all that he could tell, she lived in the house, but one might never notice if you didn’t know that she was there. She never attended family meals, never hung around in the TV room with the other kids - even Cosette often sat beside the couch, trying not to be noticed, with her knees tucked up under her chin watching whatever trash program the Thénardiers had on, but never this sylph, never Angèle. Angèle did not seem to pass through any room or hall that she knew someone else already occupied. In this way, catching fleeting glances of her slipping between rooms, between the veils for all he knew, when he was alone and the air was still, it seemed almost like she was a spirit apart from this world. If it had not been for Montparnasse’s presence that first night, he might have wondered her a ghost for him alone to see. Grantaire was mesmerized.
            As she began to shut the window (he beheld her face, her cherub’s face, those savage cheekbones and torrid eyes, red mouth cracked and fair skin ashen) Angèle saw Grantaire seated on the bed and froze instantly. He felt the electric tension in her feet, poised suddenly to pounce. She braced her shoulders. Where Cosette would have shrunk and quivered like a cornered rabbit, this girl was a snake, a cobra whose fear took the form of winding high, spreading her hood and flashing fangs. This girl’s fear was venom. Grantaire felt a little bit enamored.
            “Shit,” he whispered. “Uh. This is your bed, isn’t it. Shit, I’m sorry, I was just hiding from Mme. Thénardier. You know how she gets -” He stood from the bed slowly, palms up in surrender, and fast as a strike the girl slid away, lifting from the floor with a nearly invisible spring, barely touching the wall as she snagged a rafter in her hands and pulled herself up and away, leaping from ceiling beam to ceiling beam and disappearing into the deep shadows of the attic crawlspace. “Holy shit,” Grantaire murmured.
            With a sigh, he flopped back down upon the bed. “I wasn’t going to hurt you, you know,” he called up into the dark void. Damn. He probably wouldn’t catch sight of her again for days. It was silly, he thought - she was smart to avoid this family, crazy smart to keep out of their claws considering what they had done to her sister, and Jesus Christ, she’d developed quite the ninja skills to help her do so too - but he couldn’t help but feel disappointed that this distrust extended to him as well. That she would always avoid him like this. Inexplicably he yearned to know her.
            “That was pretty majestic though, those killer acrobatics,” he said to the rafters. Maybe only the mice were listening. “I wish I’d seen the badass backflips you had to do to come in through a third floor window.” Heavy silence. Grantaire thought maybe he liked this though. Only empty space to speak to, and just the faint possibility that someone out there was listening. It wasn’t unlike prayer - the satisfaction of being heard without the judgment in being answered.
            “I bet you can climb up the drainpipes all the way to the roof, yeah? Walk around on the shingles at night, when the tar is cool enough that it won’t singe your feet.” He imagined her small as a bird and light as a feather, walking around with the twilight blue sky on her shoulders, alone in her world where no one else could follow. Above everyone where she belonged. “Do you scale the turrets, shimmy up the weathervane, to the very peak of this godforsaken house, and think about how little there is between you and all the stars? You’re so high, the air feels light, and you’re gazing down into the galaxy imagining letting go and drifting off into the cosmos, to be embedded in the tapestry of mythos and maybe your light will reach the eyes of men who would call you the arrowtip of a hunting god… That’s what I would do, anyway. If I was small enough to make it up there like you are. I’m afraid I’d take the drainpipes down to the earth with me and the only place I’d be embedded would be mud, to gaze upwards at the stars always. Like the toad with his eyes fixed on heaven, watching the bird in flight.” It was what he was doing now, he thought. On his back, gazing upwards, knowing that maybe, somewhere above him, she was there.
            “I can’t blame you for running away from me. I can only fathom what it must be like to grow up in a place like this. The adults want to crush you and the kids mock you. Everyone is bigger than you are, and stronger than you are, and more vicious and cunning and sadistic than you are. It must be hard for you to believe that there are good people in the world. And really, all things considered, I am not about to argue that I’m one of them. I am something, and I wouldn’t call it vicious or cunning or sadistic, but neither would I call it good. I’m not even sure I’d call you good. You’re better than good. You’re strong, stronger than all of them, and you’re wild, and you’re untouched, so much cleaner than I am... But for all that, I’d make a case that we’re alike, if only in that I hate these shitty fuckers just as much as you surely must.” He paused then, contemplating. The words were heavy on his tongue, so hard to let loose in this dangerous house. But this attic was different. It was empty and listening, and unlikely to ever repeat his words. “I have a little sister,” He admitted softly. “I haven’t told anyone here this, and I don’t even know why. I just don’t want her touched by this place, I suppose. Not even the idea of her. But she could be somewhere so much worse than this. I just don’t know. They took her away and I have no idea where she is, and she’s so small and so beautiful, and I don’t want her to end up… forgetting me.” He had to give himself a moment to breathe, to stay the panic and the pain in those words.
            “I hope that wherever she is, she can be like you,” he continued shakily, “I hope she can be as strong and fierce as I can tell that you are. I hope she doesn’t let the sickness of a place like this touch her.”
            “Qu’est-ce qu’elle s’appelle?”
            It came as barely a whisper, a sandy rasp, like something the attic itself had said, brushing pine beams against one another. Grantaire’s heart pounded like a drum, and he shot straight up, bracing himself on the steel frame of the mattress, staring up into the darkness of the ceiling. He could see nothing among the shadows.
            “F-Flourica. Her name is Flourica,” he answered the darkness. He listened, still as stone, ears straining, and for a long while he heard nothing.
            And then: “She won’t forget you.”
            “She’s… she’s only two. Two years old. Your long term memory doesn’t start recording until -”
            “I was two. I remember. Cosette doesn’t, but I do.”
            Grantaire could hardly speak. They had all said she was mute. Dead already. “What do you remember?”, he asked, voice trembling with reverence.
            “Mama.”
            The light of the still-open window shifted with the swaying of the trees, and shimmered across Grantaire’s feet. He had only meant to confide to the attic, to the old wood, to the darkness, the way one confesses to a priest because man is too small and stained to whisper his secrets to God himself. He had not expected God to hear and confess in return. Cold shivers and unspeakable warmth flooded his veins at once.
            Her feet were visible first, gripping beam and beam again like leaves tossed by wind, and when they settled  he followed them to bruised knees and emaciated thighs, all the way to her eyes, looking down on him with openness and wonder.
            “Do you really think I’m strong?”, she whispered down.
            “Unimaginably,” he replied, and then smiled gently. “And I bet you make all the alley cats jealous with your skills up there.”
            Her lips may have quirked in amusement, but it was hard to tell, hidden up there in shadows. Steadying herself on the beam, she raised her two hands to the sides of her head, fingers extended in an imitation of twitching ears. “Miaou”, she said drly.
            Grantaire laughed, half-disbelieving, his heart more gone than he could say. This time her smile was unmistakable.

 

Chapter Text

            The semester slipped between the students’ fingers like sand in an hourglass, and Autumn wearied Paris down to her bones. Grantaire’s hopeful prophecy that Combeferre would go the way of all of Jehan’s numbers and be reduced to an unidentified line in an untitled poem proved to be overly optimistic. Quite the opposite - Combeferre showed up at their apartment somewhat regularly now, sometimes missing Éponine only narrowly, and once or twice with Jehan’s famous angel in tow. Grantaire had to agree about the moniker. Courfeyrac’s form was downright hellenistic. The first time Grantaire had met him he had completely failed to introduce himself, thinking too hard about what he would have to do to get the man naked on a couch in his studio. The more he learned about the fellow, the more clearly the answer presented itself: absolutely nothing.
            Jehan had explained to Grantaire that the pair of them were founding members of a new student group on campus. The weekly meetings as of yet had been rife with lively political debate, and their aims were noble, if only a little lofty. The group had done very well to quickly agree that the state of things were shit. They had even gone a step further, in proposing what might be done about it. Jehan came home from the meetings passionate and enthused, hot blood pumping, ballpoint pen all over their arms, and always ready to drag Grantaire into bed and do something with their racing pulse. Grantaire thought the whole thing sounded rather naive and goofy, but to this side effect, he could hardly object.
            Jehan had even managed to convince Bahorel and Feuilly to attend alongside them. That, if anything, did lend some credibility to the group. The pair of them enjoyed many pastimes, often involving sweat and grease and ice cold liquor (and the occasional movie musical but that may just have been Bahorel), but never picket signs or pamphlets. Feuilly wasn’t even a student at all, he was immune to the motivation coupled with privilege and idealism that a campus green seems to breed; he was a working man, grown and independent. So if even they could be persuaded to entertain these idealists’ ideas then they couldn’t be too laughably pretentious. Grantaire continued to refuse Jehan’s invitations, however, if only out of support for Éponine.
            Today was not a meeting day, but a chunk of the group were congressed anyways. They sat together in Jehan’s apartment with the project of researching local volunteer opportunities. Laptops had been long abandoned in favor of more light-hearted topics and a studied admiration of Ophelia (whom was getting entirely too much attention than is good for a chubby noodle’s inflated ego). She was wound gently around Combeferre’s shoulders, and very real tears of happiness were building in the corners of his eyes.
            “I’d never been much of an animal person - I love studying them of course, zoology is fascinating, and the evolutionary mechanisms of animals give us so much inspiration for the advancement of science and technology  - but I’ve really started to keen on to them lately, between Baudelaire and this precious darling Ophelia here and then this dog that Courfeyrac’s roommate is over the moon for,” Combeferre was saying. “He volunteers at a shelter, see - oh maybe we should write that down, I’ll ask him about it -  but anyway I suppose they were going to put this three-legged corgi down! An awful shame, true enough. So the fellow snatched him up and deposited him in my apartment, as he lives in the international sudents’ dorm. He comes over twice a day to see him and take care of him, but still, I was a man whose most care-intensive pet was a praying mantis when I was thirteen, and now here I am, an honest to god dogsitter-”
            “Will there be a meeting this week?” Bossuet interrupted. Combeferre regained himself, cradling Ophelia’s folds in the crook of his elbow as she explored. He chewed on his lip, considering, and looking more troubled than Bossuet had expected of the simple question. “You know, just… is Enjolras feeling better or is he still recovering?”
            Beside him, Joly narrowed his eyes. His feelings about the situation had been made quite clear, and he reiterated them every time the topic came up. If Enjolras, Enjolras, was sick enough to cancel a meeting, he should be seeing a doctor. It would not do to coop the man up in his bedroom completely untreated, possibly dying for all anyone knew, as he was taking no visitors whatsoever. It was keeping Joly up at night.
            “I think so. He’s feeling much better already. I think he’ll want to get right back into the swing of things as quickly as possible.” Combeferre kept his grey eyes trained on Ophelia’s tiny black ones. Jehan, seated on a pillow on the floor, watched him carefully. All things considered, Jehan had never claimed to be terribly good at deciphering lies from truth, but both Combeferre and Courfeyrac had been rather sketchy about the illness that had caused the only cancelled meeting in all of three months. They sounded rather like the things Grantaire stammered into the phone to his boss when he was too depressed to leave bed. This worried Jehan far more than any physical illness could.
            Joly stood from the couch abruptly with a pout and started climbing over Bossuet. “Are you going to the kitchen?” he asked, one hand on Joly’s arm and the other gesturing. Joly nodded. “Grab me a drink too?” Joly nodded again, smiling, and skipped off.

            Out on the street, Grantaire was thumbing the key into the numbered keypad in the doorframe of the building. It was warm for November - that was to say, bitingly brisk rather than the typical nut-numbing chill - but it was starting to rain, and after a fucking irritating day of shoving needles through teenaged belly buttons, the wind and spitting of the sky only added to his sour mood. Jehan had warned him via text that there was company, so Grantaire had a clear destination in mind - grab a whole case of beer, lock himself in the studio and work out his anxious and dark energy with paint.
            Thus, when he stormed in through the apartment door, he barely spared a nod for the group assembled: Jehan on the floor, golden and brown leaves scattered in their mane; Combeferre caressing Ophelia on the couch; and a skinny dark-skinned man beside him that Grantaire hadn’t yet been introduced to. Now, however, was not the time. He grabbed what he wanted from the fridge and made straight for the studio door.
            Once inside, he closed the door with a solid click and sighed. It felt like the thunderous breaking of sodden clouds over a desert, that sudden relief. Alone in the privacy of his sacred space. He set the beers on a rolling cart and turned to survey the room.
            Immediately Grantaire’s eyes fell straight upon the back of a tall, slender figure with a painting in their hands. “UH,” Grantaire grunted, alarmed. “This is a private room!”
            They made no sign of having heard him, and Grantaire bristled at being ignored.
            “Yo… Hey… Can you fucking hear me?!” Nothing. He stormed forwards, grabbing them roughly by the shoulder and spinning them around. “Are you fucking deaf? This is my private studio!”
            Sheer terror was written on the face of the stranger as she jumped severely, her grey-blue eyes wide with shock. She dropped the canvas to raise her hands to chest level, palms out, looking like she could cry. Grantaire took note of the painting she had dropped - it was the unfinished portrait of Angèle that he had abandoned weeks ago, and seeing this embarrassing violation of privacy, fury bubbled in him anew.
            Then, the girl’s hands began fluttering rapidly, lips forming around words but emitting no sound. Grantaire suddenly understood, and felt his stomach drop. “Oh fuck. You are actually deaf. And I’m a fucking tool.”
            She wrenched herself from Grantaire’s grip and shot out of the room like an arrow. Mentally kicking himself, Grantaire picked up the painting and set it aside. Then he retreated back into the living room to apologize properly.
            There he found the stranger bundled in the arms of the man he had not yet met. Her heaving breaths and shaking shoulders made guilt curdle in Grantaire. “I’m so fucking sorry, I yelled at her, I had no idea… I’m so sorry, Jesus Christ…” He carded both hands through his hair as the group glared at him.
            “Them,” Jehan said sharply. “Or him. Joly’s not a her.”
            Grantaire swallowed the hard lump in his throat, eyes raking the figure, taking confused stock of her round (now tear-stained) face and the obvious swell of her - his - chest beneath his crisp button-up, and he buried his head in his hands. Jesus fucking Christ this was a disaster. “I’m such an asshole. I’m incredibly fucking sorry, please, tell h-him for me, I fucked up…”
            “Well he might have read that on your lips if your hands weren’t in front of your fucking face. Piss off, R, go paint.” Jehan’s cold anger stung more than anyone’s could, and Grantaire slumped, nodding. Joly was still shaking and curled into the other man’s chest. Combeferre’s eyes were wide, unjudging but concerned. Jehan turned away from  Grantaire and placed a hand on Joly’s knee.
            Grantaire’s phone went off.

[From: Éputain 19:31]
>> Incoming. Piss poor day. Let’s have a drink or 12

            Grantaire immediately hit reply, typing at high speed - “nO WATI COMVBEBRFERRE IS -” but there was no time to finish. The door swung open without so much as a knock, and Éponine came marching in, dance bag over her shoulder, straight through the foyer to the living room, into the waiting tornado. She stopped with a forceful jolt of a ten ton collision.
            Today had started bad. Somehow in the space of five minutes it managed to become high ranking on the list of trainwrecks of the year.
            After a long moment of silence, Combeferre’s soft, cracking whisper came like a ghost that had been punched from his chest and floated through his lips. “Éponine?”
            Ophelia rose from the back of his neck and descended over his face, taking his glasses with her. Grantaire, in his terrified stupor, bit back both a sob and a laugh. Combeferre scrambled to put his glasses back on and dislodge the snake from his line of vision, and all the while, Éponine imitated a statue.
            Grantaire burst into panicked action, shoving his phone into his pocket and strolling with purpose towards his friend. “We sorry assholes are going to fuck right off. Don’t wait up, check all the bar alleys for us in the morning.” He wrapped an arm around Éponine’s waist and tried to manhandle her back towards the door.
            “Wait,” Combeferre called limply. Grantaire tried his hardest to ignore it. “Éponine!” His tone was full of wonder, anxiety, disbelief. “Don’t… What… Can we… I…” Grantaire sighed, stopping in the doorway between the living room and the foyer and looking beside him at Éponine’s stricken face. She gave no sign of knowing what to do.
            “I’ve wondered for years if I’d ever see you again,” his voice came, uncertain and fragile. “Don’t run away from me again… Please... ”
            And with that, she was gone, without ever having spoken a word. The door closed after her with less weight than the moment deserved. Grantaire was left in the threshold of the foyer, staring after her, hardly daring to look behind him. Holy shit. Holy fucking shit. Well, at least, this had hopefully wiped his blunder with Joly - bigoted verbal abuse of a deaf guy and misgendering him all in one go, way to fucking smash it Grantaire - off the fucking map. Slowly he turned.
            The still-unnamed friend of Joly was staring at the door, his mouth wide open and comically twisted in shock and confusion. Jehan’s own lips were a round O, looking back and forth from Grantaire to Combeferre, and Combeferre himself was standing. He looked wide-eyed at the door, appearing smacked without warning, and his hands hovered in the air just before him as though he had been reaching for her. Joly just looked irritated, and was tapping his friend repeatedly on the shoulder, repeating a hand motion over and over until he finally addressed him and started signing. He must have been repeating what Combeferre had said, as after a moment, Joly’s eyebrows shot up and his jaw dropped.
            “This is like Days of Our Lives or something,” Jehan whispered in the quiet.
            “You don’t know the half of it,” Combeferre replied, a tenseness like anger settling into the lines of his mouth. His hands curled into loose fists.
            “Ooh, tell me, tell me!” They leaned forward eagerly. Combeferre sighed, and his gaze settled fixedly on Grantaire, as though he was somehow responsible for this.
            “I dated that girl in high school. I… really liked her. Then one day I caught her in bed, literally in the middle of sex, with this greaser-looking asshole she hung around with. It was awful. They didn’t even stop. She never talked to me again after that, never picked up the phone, never answered a text… I just never heard from her again, like she fell off the face of the earth. We never even properly broke up. It.. kind of traumatized me for a while. She was my first girlfriend, first everything, and I thought… I thought we were close. I can’t believe… How do you know her?!”
            The eager expression had slowly fallen from Jehan’s face. Their eyes trained on the ground in a look of concentration, like they were trying to process something.
            “Lasagna!”, Grantaire burst out.  “How would everyone feel about a lasagna?! I’ll cook a lasagna, we’ll all have dinner together, it’ll be fantastic, what do you say? Jehan?!” Grantaire galloped forward, desperately trying to shove Jehan’s train of thought off the tracks. He wrapped his hands around Jehan’s bicep, trying to tug them off the floor.
            “Wait, shut up R. When did this happen?” They looked hard at Combeferre.
            “About three years ago? Yeah. It ended in February, it’ll be three years in February.” Combeferre returned their look warily.
            No, no, no no no… Grantaire dropped to his knees with a thud, wrapping his arms around Jehan’s torso. He felt their ribcage began to heave and pressed close, trying to stave off the panic for them, the impending wreckage. Combeferre took a step backwards, looking frightened.
            “Get out.” It was a whisper, soft as Ophelia’s body sliding across the carpet. There was no response, only stillness. “GET OUT,” Jehan shrieked suddenly, and in a flurry Combeferre had snagged his coat from the arm of the couch and was hurrying towards the door. Joly’s friend practically picked him up bridal style in his efforts to make a hasty exit. Before leaving, Combeferre looked back, clearly about to stammer out some kind of apology or confusion. Grantaire shook his head rapidly and jerked his chin towards the door. Combeferre nodded, visibly upset, and left after the other two.
            Jehan’s breaths were coming in fast and shallow, and they tried to jerk violently away from Grantaire, scrambling to get their feet under them, but Grantaire gripped hard and pulled them into his chest, refusing to let go. “Shh, shh, it’s okay Jehan,” he murmured, burying his face in Jehan’s hair. “I’ve got you. This is going to be okay. I won’t let you… hurt anything.”
            “THAT MOTHERFUCKER!” Jehan’s scream split the air, and Grantaire squeezed tighter as though he was the only thing keeping their body from splitting too.
           

 

Chapter Text


            It always began with the fullness of the dark settling over him, just like the first time. The door would shut behind him and leave him in the safest shadows. Glowing afternoon sunlight was robbed from his wide, sea green eyes, and sparks would swell before them in the velvety blackness of his vision. Without bothering to wait, he would carry himself up the stairway and into the jungle of abandoned and forgotten junk. He would pick his way down the familiar path, and poised between a standing lamp and a stack of boxes labelled “VHS tapes” and “dance costumes - 2001”, he would whistle their tune in lieu of knocking and wait.
            Today, as ever, he listened for the whispery, gap-toothed final notes, and proceeded onwards into the golden clearing that Cosette and Angèle called their bedroom.
            On this particular day, he found Angèle pulling shredded pink fabric over the rafter beams. Grantaire ran a hand through his inky curls and smiled his crooked smile. “Is Rapunzel planning an escape from her tower?” Angèle flinched at his voice breaking the silence, though she knew he was there, and tied off the tangle of poly-cotton in her hands. Grantaire noted the way it was cut and torn at odd angles, bits hanging off in nonsensical directions. It was scrap fabric, some pattern having been taken from it already. It was stained in places and chewed in others.
            Angèle turned and looked at him. It had been a little more than a year, and still, when she looked at him he could feel those summer heat eyes like lasers on his dark skin, and he shivered.
            “Don’t know that one? That’s alright, I’ll tell you sometime. Then we can discuss why the witch deemed a baby to be currency equal in value to garden vegetables - that is to say, clearly just about worthless, considering that she just left the baby in a tower and didn’t even eat her like any witch worth her salt ought’ve. Really, it’s a major plot hole.”
            Angèle just stared. After a moment she tipped her head, raised an eyebrow and pinched the tip of her tongue between her teeth - it was a blatant copy of Grantaire’s own “incredulous” expression. When they first had met she hadn’t been doing much in the way of facial expressions at all, and he had chalked it up to a stoic personality. But over time as he watched Angèle slowly adopt his mannerisms - a facial quirk here, a hand gesture there - he realized it had merely been a product of isolation, and having never had enough communication with other people to learn that sort of social vocabulary. The realization had been tragic and a tad disturbing at first. The Thénardiers truly did not seem to understand how deep their ignorance of Angèle ran. It had somewhere crossed the border from leaving a willful child to her own devices into neglecting her to an almost feral state, and the lot of them were clueless. All Grantaire could do was keep showing up here in the attic, and help Cosette make sure her sister didn’t stray into a total wilderness of the mind. But her searing stare was still animal, and deep within him, Grantaire hoped it always would be.

            “So, what’ve you got going on there? It looks, aah… decorative!”
            Angèle looked back to her work, stroking one hanging piece gently. “Streamers,” she said, almost too quiet to hear.
            “Ooh,” Grantaire said, “I see.” He stepped forward to look more closely and nodded appraisingly. “Streamers, like party streamers? Very festive. Are we celebrating something?”
            Always, she paused before replying. “It’s Cosette’s birthday.”
            “Well!” Grantaire placed a hand on her shoulder jovially. She flinched, and might once have jerked away, but now just pressed into the touch after recovering from the anxious spasm. “That would make it your birthday too, wouldn’t it?”, he asked in a low and teasing voice. Angèle shrugged noncommittally. Grantaire decided not to press it.  He had gotten quite good at recognizing paths of conversation that impended sudden flight. Generally anything that got too close to focusing on her was a good bet.
            “Where did you get these, anyway?”
            “In the alley with all the loud dogs. It’s… Cosette likes pink.”
            Grantaire hummed and nodded. He considered suggesting that he buy them some real streamers, ones that hadn’t come from a trash can and didn’t look like they’d been pissed on, but this was all Angèle had to offer Cosette, and he wouldn’t dare take that from her.
            “Well, then I’d like to get Cosette something too,” he said thoughtfully. “I just got my paycheck from the dance studio. We could go to that toy store and you could help me pick something out. We could give it to her together!” As predicted, Madame Thénardier had not offered to pay for Grantaire to dance, but in a stroke of luck he had struck a deal with the owner’s son, a handsome young fellow who taught classes and had noticed the way Grantaire looked on with a pining expression while he waited for Éponine to finish. Now he was a maintenance assistant; he cleaned the studio and helped sew costumes and did minor tech for shows and generally did things nobody else wanted to do, and in exchange he got a small paycheck and the privilege of sitting in on classes and practicing when the studio was empty.
            Angèle’s eyes, still focused on the “streamers”, widened, and she tightened her fist around the rag.
            “We don’t have to. Don’t be scared, it’s alright.”
            Angèle’s gaze darted around uncomfortably. “I know something she wants there,” she said softly.
            “Perfect! You can show me!”
            She looked at him, head tipping again. “Grantaire…” He understood, but this was something he’d been working towards for a while. Angèle avoided being looked at. Ever. Even in her own private home - though calling it “her own” was a bit of a stretch - she ghosted from place to place, staying as hidden and silent as possible. Going to a public place like the toy store was a bit of an unrealistic first step, and maybe it was too much… But the opportunity had sat itself down in his lap, and he improvised a plan on the spot. He gripped the bottom of his dark gray hoodie and pulled it roughly over his head, and then tugged it down to dress the  girl.
            It was a bit comical, he thought - the way the hood drooped down over her eyes, the hem fell almost to her knees, the arms covered her hands entirely, and her thin little body was lost in a cavern of fabric. But more than comical, it was painfully cute.
            “This hoodie is special, Angèle. It’s armor. It’s an invisibility cloak. I use it to sneak around all the time. Nobody can see you inside there, nobody will look. You’re totally safe in there, I promise.”
            She looked at him with deploring eyes, bit her lip and considered. “...Okay,” she whispered at last. “For Cosette.”
            Grantaire grinned. Progress.


            They made it without incident or encounter through the sleepy, hazy town of Montfermeil to the square near the church where Leclair’s Toy Shop sat bright and inviting. Angèle knew all the backroads, and at her behest they took them. However, as they approached the boulevard, the girl grew shyer. It was not a busy afternoon for commerce and the people on the streets were few, but “few” was more than Angèle typically suffered. “You are a brave and fearsome thing, dear. And you’re safe inside your invisibility cloak. Come on. We’ll do it together.” He wrapped an arm around her frail shoulders and she clutched her ribs through the hoodie, and they went forward together.
            Crossing the street in front of all the pedestrians felt like it took years; he could feel in himself Angèle’s wild heartbeat, and the sickness and anxiety he could imagine choking her as he half-carried her across, but at last they made it to the storefront. Before they could enter the shop, Angèle stopped. He prodded with his arm around her, but she dug her heels into the ground. “There,” he heard her mutter.
            “Hm?” She gestured with a floppy sleeve, and he followed her gaze to the window.
            “The lady,” she said.
            Mounted in the window was a tall porcelain doll, with pretty glass eyes and perfectly flushed cheeks. Her brown hair was long and smooth and curled in tumbling corkscrews, and her dress was exorbitant and victorian-esque and very, very pink. Grantaire paled. There’s no doubt that she’d be fucking expensive. But he’d gotten Angèle all the way here to this scary public place and he wasn’t going to take back his promise now.
            “She took me here at night once,” Angèle whispered. “She says you’d have to be a queen to own that doll. Or a princess maybe. Is that true?” She looked up at Grantaire innocently.
            “Oh yes. Absolutely. It’s a good thing that you and Cosette are princesses, right? Let’s go in.” She entered the small shop with him warily, eyes darting around as though searching for threats. Fortunately it was empty, save for the clerk behind the counter. “Why don’t you look around? Look how cool it is in here. There’s board games, and barbies, and trains… Look, there’s transformers over there! Those are like, robots that turn into cars. But they’re aliens too. I don’t really get it. Go check ‘em out!” He gave her a soft little shove, and she disappeared into an aisle. He made his way over to the counter, where the teenaged clerk was snapping gum and reading Teen Vogue.
            “How much for the doll in the window?”, he asked. She regarded him first, her eyebrows pinched, scanning him up and down (oh, how Grantaire knew that look) before glancing over at the display.
            “70 euros.”
            “Fuck, shit, tits. Wow. Uh… Well, fuck. Okay.” That was almost his entire paycheck. But for Angèle and Cosette, he would live until the next one. “Yep. I’ll take her. And…” He glanced over the rest of the shop, searching out Angèle. He spotted her near the back, reaching up to lightly touch a stuffed bird on a shelf with a kind of awed reverence. “Angèle! You like that?” Her eyes snapped to him and her hand flew to her side, as though she was afraid she had been caught in the act. But slowly, he saw her nod and look back to the bird. “I’ll take that thing too,” he said to the cashier. “Bring it over here, Angèle!” She stood on her toes to gingerly bring it down from the shelf, like she was afraid it would break, or as though she was amazed that she was allowed to touch it.
            “Your total is 101,66€. Do you want me to box the doll?”
            Grantaire swore under his breath, but pulled his chipper grin back on for the clerk. “Yeah, please! Can you put like, a bow on it?”
            “Sure.”
            While she lay the doll down in a long, dark blue box, swaddled in tissue paper, Angèle tiptoed up to stand beside Grantaire and watch. Her eyes were wide as Grantaire had ever seen them, and she was clutching the bird to herself. “Wouldn’t you have preferred a tiger or a dog or something? What is that, a chicken?”
            Angèle looked down at it. He recognized the look on her face then: total and under disbelief. Wonderment like dreaming. The slightest shade of fear, as though if she accepted it as real, it might disappear from her hands. “It’s a rooster,” she said under her breath, too low for the clerk to hear. “I like roosters.”
            “Well, good.” He smiled. “Happy birthday.” She looked up at him.
            “I get to keep this?”
            “Yep. All yours. Bought and paid for. Wanna see the receipt?” He held it out.
            “This means it’s mine?”
            “Yep! It’s all there. All that jargon and numbers and ‘thank you for your patronage, take our online survey’ shit. Proof that you are the sole owner of this fine, feathery, gallinaceous friend.” Unexpectedly, she reached out and took the receipt in her small hand, holding it close to herself. He shrugged and let her have it.
            When it was all wrapped with a silk ribbon (pink, at Grantaire’s insistence) he took the box and they started home.
            In the window it had been hard to tell how big it really was - it took both Grantaire’s arms to carry, and when she was stood up on her tiny china feet she’d probably come all the way up to Cosette’s belly button. It was more than a little excessive, honestly, but Grantaire decided that he was making up for all the nice or even decent things Cosette had never had.
            Angèle walked beside him, cradling the rooster to her chest and burying her face in its feathers. She brought her head up to push the hood away from over her eyes and revealed that she was grinning sheepishly from ear to ear and her cheeks were flushed deep red. Grantaire felt his stomach flip at the sight.
            “You really like your rooster, eh?”, he asked.
            She nodded. “I like it. But… the doll… I can’t wait.”
            “Cosette will love it. It’ll be her best birthday ever, I’m glad you showed it to me.”
            “It’s my best birthday too,” she whispered into the rooster. Grantaire could have wept.
            “I’ve never had a present before,” Angèle said softly after a moment.
            “Yeah, well.” Grantaire sighed. “That isn’t your fault. Nobody gives a shit about kids that aren’t their own blood. In general, people do as little as they can get away with where it concerns those not on their own approved personhood list.”
            The last of Angèle’s smile faded, and she buried her face in the rooster again. “What about the people who aren’t on anybody’s list?”, she questioned through the fluff.   
            Grantaire shrugged. He didn’t want to bullshit her. She’d been through too much to be fed promises and placations now. But to say that they spend their lives under the pressure of an unbearably great weight of loneliness and then die in their misery, vagabonds and victims and forgotten orphans, was too much to foist onto a child. “Who knows? Nobody remembers.” It was true, if not as explicitly ugly as the whole truth. His hand left the box for a moment to brush her arm reassuringly. “You’re on my list, though. And Cosette’s.” Her expression didn’t change.
            “When you were little, did you think about being big? Do you think about being a grown-up?”, she asked.
            Grantaire pondered the odd non-sequitur. “I suppose I did, yeah. I thought about being like my dad. Sometimes I still think about travelling around the whole world when I’m grown.”
            Angèle knit her brows together thoughtfully. “Will I be a grown-up?”
            “I sure hope so. Almost everyone is, eventually. Why?”
            “I can’t picture it. I can’t.”
            “I think that being in survival mode all the time, like you are, does funny things to your brain. Between your depression and anxiety and ongoing trauma - not to get all medical on you, but let’s be real - your perception of time and reality is fucked. But, and maybe this is hard to grasp because you’re just a kid, the world outside of you is different than the way you see it in your head. You can’t see a future for yourself, and that’s absolutely fine, because time doesn’t need your permission to march on.”
            Angèle seemed to contemplate this. Though she was a child, a ten-year-old as of today and in many ways an underdeveloped one at that, so often she presented him with evidence of such a clarity and intelligence hiding in her mental jungle that he had faith that she understood.
            He gazed down at Angèle, and out at the dusty road before them, and contemplated his next words. “You know, Angèle, we are alike in a way,” he began. “We are bastard children, you and I, with impure bastard blood. Born liegeless whoresons to mothers who could find no love in themselves for unwanted babes like us, the sickly crop they had never meant to sew; mothers we would never know, who never wished to know us. Yours was called Fantine, you have said; well, mine was called Romania. And we both were handed roughly off to ample-bosomed foster mothers, flowing with milk and pride and love, but whose breasts turned stone for our unclean mouths. Yours, the madame Thenardier, and mine, France. Is it our place to blame them? They have natural children to feed, and we are trespassers; ‘not on their lists’, as I have said, for it is the right of man to own his body and all within it, and the right of man to share as he sees fit. It is the will of man to withhold. The longer we false children stood before our false mothers and demanded her milk, the more inevitable the heel of her boot became, grinding us into the dirt. And so, wisely, you and I have chosen to wear the skin of the beast, and wander the backroads by moonlight and live within and yet apart from the jurisdiction of our mothers and all men. And I say, to all of this: to my motherland, fuck you, and to my foster mother, fuck you, and to the absence of God, who has left us in such sadistic disarray, fuck you, and to myself, to my miserable existence, fuck you most of all. My limp-tongued curse is all I have against the world. This is the way that things are, and there is no one to blame, because there is no law or order in the universe, and not all men are destined for happiness. We cannot claim foul play when we do not receive it. There is no justice when there is no law.”
            Angèle had a look of great concentration. For all of that, he might have expected sadness or despair, but no; in her face he saw contemplation, and even a slightest shade of ire in the wrought line of her mouth. He stopped and reached out to place his hand on her head. She looked at his chest and then forced her eyes upwards to meet his for just a moment before looking down at the ground.
            “Then I met you.” Her eyes instantly flew up to his again. “I believed that greed and hatred was the base state of all men. But I believe in love as well, and I suppose the logical rationalization would be that hatred is printed on our slate and love is scrawled on top of it, that hate is something that we are born with and love is something that we learn.”
            Grantaire put the doll box aside and descended to his knees on the road, dropping his hands in his lap, and met Angèle’s uncertain eyes. “John the Evangelist said that we love because God first loved us. But if there is a God, he is loveless, and no one ever taught you,  Angèle, how to love. Love is not something you have ever been given or ever witnessed. Not in that household of the damned. And yet… you are full of it. Somehow it was born in you, and flourished in you, and spills out of you. Your love for Cosette, her love for you… What are you, the pair of you seraphs? Are you separate from all of us? A glitch in the cosmos, that love was scripted into you from birth? It is too much to believe that you are exemplary of all men. It is too much to imagine that love is printed on our slate, and that hatred is the afterthought scrawled across its face. If this is true, then I am forced to imagine that it could be erased, and overwhelmed with the terror of that knowledge - because how can one know this, know that all men are born with love and corrupted with hatred, and not feel in themselves a desperate obligation to uncorrupt the world? You interrupt my ignorant, vengeful bliss with a terrible hope.”
            He searched her eyes for understanding, but wondered if it even mattered whether she did. He’d written his existential crisis onto the face of a bruised little girl, and suddenly he felt small in the universe. Gods worth believing in were so scarce that he was on his knees before a ten-year-old and her stuffed chicken. He felt a bubbling of shame and remorse. But then, she spoke, voice trembling.
            “S-sometimes, I like to lie down on the floor in the sun from the window by our bed. It feels warmer than a blanket, and cozier, and softer. It’s like sleepiness without being tired, and like dreaming without being afraid.” He held his breath, amazed. Angèle never spoke like this, never in anything but short, stilted sentences. With a tingle of pride, he considered where she’d learned it from. “Sometimes I lie there for so long that I’m buried in all the sunshine, and it feels like touching fire, this burning feeling like the color red on my skin. And that’s… that’s how I feel about Cosette. She makes me feel like lying in the sun. And when I hear Madame yelling at her or she tells me all the things she had to do today, I still feel the sun, but I feel the hot red feeling too. Like they are part of the same feeling.”
            The two of them looked at one another, breathing steadily. Grantaire nodded slowly. She continued. “I want to do something. So badly, Grantaire. I feel the heat and I want to do something. I let them hurt her because I can’t do anything!” She bit her tongue, grimacing and beginning to shake. Grantaire reached out and took her hands in his.
            “You’re just a little child, Angèle, in a fucked up abusive household. Nobody can stand up to the Thénardiers -”
            “I want to uncorrupt the world!”, she shouted, her hands suddenly gripping Grantaire’s wrists, and Grantaire was shocked into silence. “You said that if I love Cosette even though nobody ever loved me, it means that everyone must be born with love! Even Madame and Monsieur, even ‘Ponine, even ‘Parnasse, that’s what you said, right?” Her cry was fevered and Grantaire didn’t know what to say. “And you are too. You hate everything because everything hates you. But you were born with love. That’s what you said.” Grantaire could feel shivers running through his body, and though moments before he had felt small in the universe, he could feel it folding and unfolding, and the vastness was not suffocating anymore: just impossibly open. He wondered if this was what people felt when they claimed to feel the Holy Spirit. “You said that knowing this makes you feel like you have to change it. That’s what you said. But you’re afraid of that. You said your ignorance was bliss and the hope was terrible. You were scared because I made you think that the world could change, but you don’t want to try and change it.” She looked at him intensely, searching for confirmation that she had understood. He opened his mouth and closed it, and nodded. “Well I am not afraid.” She spoke with such clear conviction, such fire, and as it left her mouth, uncertainty returned to her expression. He could tell that she was thinking of herself, too anxious to walk through the kitchen if someone was in there already. Quickly he cut her train of thought.
            “I believe in you,” he said firmly. “I do.” The hard, burning edge returned to her eyes, and she fell forwards into him, wrapping her bony arms around his neck. He returned the hug fiercely. “You might just be a little kid now, but you have me. I’m not sure what more I can do, but I promise you, I’ll do it.” She nodded into his shoulder and he clutched her tight.
            “I believe in you too,” she whispered back.

 

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

 

            The three of them sat cross-legged on the attic floor together, sharing a handful of cookies that Grantaire had snagged from the jar downstairs while Angèle had crept up with the presents. As the sun was getting low, leaving the attic all purple with twilight, they lit the half-melted candles scattered here and there to see by, and only then did Cosette appear, having finished all her chores for the day. When she arrived, Grantaire burst out eagerly into Happy Birthday, and Angèle joined in weakly with a smile on her face. Cosette hugged them both and showered their faces with kisses. As she sat down beside them Grantaire pulled the box out from behind him and set it before her.
            “Here, this is for you. From us both.”
            Cosette looked at him with confusion. She looked down on the box, and back at Grantaire, and down again. “Go on, open it.”
            He wasn’t sure what he had expected. Excitement, disbelief, the same wonder and reverence that Angèle had felt upon clutching her rooster perhaps. When Cosette unlidded the box, however, she had gasped - a small gasp, the breath leaving her lungs as though she had been struck, and nothing else.
            She looked at Grantaire, and he recognized pure fear, fear of punishment, fear of humiliation. “It’s yours,” he urged. “Really, it’s all yours. I bought it for you with my paycheck from the dance studio. Look, I bought Angèle this chicken too.” He playfully reached out to stroke it, and Angèle smiled.
            Cosette looked down again, her eyes flooding with tears. Her hands - they shook almost violently - hovered just above the doll. “You can touch it, dear. It’s yours.”
            “Is it true? Is it true, is the lady for me?”, she whispered, never taking her eyes from it. Grantaire nodded, afraid to speak for fear of his voice choking up. Angèle leaned forward towards Cosette and took the doll’s small, porcelain hand, her little fingers sculpted together and gently curved, and placed it in Cosette’s hand.  She retracted quickly as though burned, and looked down at the floor. And then, all at once, she seized the doll eagerly. “I will call her Catharine,” she declared. Grantaire grinned so widely he felt he might break. Angèle crawled forward on her knees and hugged her sister and the doll together in her arms, and tears rolled down Cosette’s smiling face.
            “What did you call your rooster, Angèle?”, Cosette asked, wiping her tears roughly away with the back of her hand, and Angèle shrugged.
            “I didn’t think to name it.”
            “You must call it something! How will we play with Catharine and her pet rooster if you haven’t called it anything?” Angèle shrugged again, smiling wider.
            “You name it. You are good at naming things.”’
            “Fine. His name is Jean-Luc.”
            Angèle brought the toy into her lap and examined it. “Yes. He looks like a Jean-Luc.” Cosette hummed, satisfied.
            “They live in a castle together. A lady like Catharine must live in a very big castle. It doesn’t make any sense for her to have a rooster pet, but that is what you got, so that will have to do. Maybe her prince was turned into a rooster by an evil witch.”
            “Or maybe she just likes roosters, like I do,” Angèle said. “That’s why I got one…” They giggled together.
            Grantaire loved these moments. Getting to watch the two of them interact as though he wasn’t even there. Though he wouldn’t say that they ever looked truly happy, when they were with each other, they looked as though they felt truly safe, and free to be themselves. It was a privilege to be near. It was a privilege that they would let their solid and severe guards down before him.
            “Hey!” Cosette exclaimed brightly. “There’s chocolate milk downstairs! Madame just bought it today! D’you want some to drink with our cookies? I’ll go get some!”
            Angèle deflated like an old balloon, shrinking in on herself and wringing her hands together. “Won’t the madame be mad?”
            “She’s at the studio with Azelma!” Without waiting a moment longer, Cosette jumped up and skipped away, hauling Catharine along with her.
            Angèle craned her neck looking on after her even when she was gone. She crumpled beside Grantaire. The girl looked as tense as ever as she drew her knees up to her chin and cradled the newly christened Jean-Luc to her chest. Grantaire watched her, heaving out a sigh. There was nothing to be said. All Angèle’s fears were terribly real.
            Looking for a distraction, Grantaire pawed around on the bed behind them. He found what he was looking for underneath his discarded hoodie. “It’s been three days. It’s time. C’mere.”
            Angèle looked between Grantaire’s solemn face and the plastic hairbrush he brandished. She huffed heavily, looking indignant.
            “Quit that, pissy baby. Get over here.” Grantaire grinned. Angèle’s hair had never looked better before he had arrived - her teeth either, or her charcoal-black feet, which were now a healthy brownish pink, thank you very much. He had only managed to get her to shower a handful of times (after day-long struggles, and only on the condition that Cosette sat outside the tub and he guarded the bathroom door) but he and Cosette were together waging war on the feral child’s abysmal self-neglect.
            Reluctantly Angèle crawled over and settled herself between Grantaire’s knees with enough space between them that he could comfortably maneuver the brush. Fortunately her pale hair was blessedly thin, but it hung all the way to her tailbone and got greasy so quickly. Grantaire had contemplated investing in some dry shampoo if she couldn’t be persuaded to take a bath more often than every 5 or 6 weeks. He started from the bottom, using the brush to detangle the thick mats and gripping a section in his fist so as not to pull on her scalp. It was rhythmic and relaxing.
            The warm silence was shattered by a shriek from below. Grantaire jerked wildly and Angèle threw herself forward, her hands flying up to cover her head. “I got it,” Grantaire barked and jumped to his feet. He skittered through the attic dodging boxes gracefully and took the first and second flight of stairs three at a time, making straight for the kitchen where he knew Cosette would be.
            He heard the sharp, jarring clap he had become all too familiar with in this house just before he burst into the room to find Cosette on her knees on the ground, clutching her face, and Éponine above her with her arm thrown in a curve across her chest, the trailing end of a swinging smack. With her other hand Éponine clutched Catharine by the brown curls.
            Éponine looked straight at Grantaire. Rage and disgust were written across her face. “This little fucking thief stole this doll! She stole it from the toy shop by the church!”
            “Are you serious Ép? You think this frightened little ten-year-old fucking shoplifted a giant doll from the front window? How the fuck does that work you moron?! I -”
            “Grantaire bought it!” Grantaire jumped in surprise. He looked down at Cosette on the ground, but she was looking with wide, watery eyes over her shoulder to a spot just past Grantaire. He turned his head slowly.
            Angèle was standing in the shadows of the hall on the balls of her feet, knees slightly bent and body hovering low like she was about to pounce. She was wearing his hoodie again, and there was something stuffed in her tiny balled fist.
            “Angèle…”, Grantaire whispered in awe.
            The girl swallowed and tip-toed forward, coming up beside him. “Look,” she shouted, thrusting her fist forward into the light of the kitchen. He could see it now: the receipt.
            “Look,” she exclaimed again staring Éponine straight in the eye, “this is proof! He bought it with his own money! I saw him!”
            Cosette stared at her sister. Her lips were parted just so, but it was more than shock. She was enraptured. She would have looked with no less wonder and reverence if her own mother had appeared at the door with open arms, beckoning for her daughters. “You’re in the kitchen,” she breathed, and if had not been in such shock Grantaire would have laughed. In the kitchen indeed.
            “She’s right, Éponine. It’s her birthday. I bought the doll for her just this evening.”
            Éponine tore her eyes from Angèle. Her face twisted from shock to anger again. “What? This? How much did this fucking thing cost? 50 euros? 100? You spent that on her?”
            “Why shouldn’t I have?”, Grantaire challenged. “You got a new phone for your birthday. What was that, 200 euros?”
            Éponine stepped back, looking lost. She stood up straight, her shoulders slumping, and dropped the doll. It hit the tile in a flump of fabric and small clatter of her porcelain face. Cosette scrambled forward to recover her and check for injuries. She clutched her to her chest as though she was afraid that Éponine would snatch her away again.
            “You’re fucking insane, Grantaire,” Éponine said flatly. “You’re stupid for these brats. But I don’t fucking care. Spend your whole paycheck on bullshit to spoil them. That cunt there doesn’t even fucking work or do anything.” She gestured at Angèle, who had crept a few steps backwards. “But go the fuck ahead. Why should I give a shit?” She threw up her hands, looking with exasperation at the ceiling.
            “You’re a real fucking bitch, Éponine,” Grantaire snarled.
            Éponine shrugged, making a high-pitched keening noise and flailing her hands around some more in careless gestures. She turned around and marched off into another room.
            Grantaire scrambled forward and scooped Cosette and the doll up in his arms. She nuzzled into his chest, shoulders trembling. When he had her secure against him he turned to regard Angèle.
            Every muscle in the girl’s little body was wired. She was buzzing with electricity, and he knew the adrenalin rush must be overpowering her. “Angèle,” he said to her, “I am so fucking proud of you. You’re incredible, you know that?” She shrugged and disappeared into the shadows.
            Grantaire carried Cosette up the steps. “I’ll tell everyone I bought you the doll, Cosette. They won’t try and take it from you again.” She nodded.
            “She hates the kitchen,” Cosette whispered. Grantaire smiled. “She hates Éponine. She… she never talks around them. They think she can’t talk.”
            “She’s afraid of all those things. But she overcame that fear to defend you.” Cosette didn’t respond to that. She just smiled a little to herself and clutched Grantaire.
            Upstairs Angèle was sitting at the head of her bed. Grantaire released Cosette and she placed Catharine carefully down and scrambled across the mattress to pull her sister into a tight embrace. “I love you,” she murmured.
            “I love you too,” Angèle squeaked back, pressing the words into Cosette’s shoulder.
            Grantaire hung back to let them have a moment together. When Cosette pulled away he cleared his throat. “Hey, uh, can I finish with your hair?” He thought it might help to calm her down.
            This time Angèle came without protest. She settled on the edge of the bed with Grantaire cross-legged behind her. The bed frame creaked under his weight as he dragged the brush through her hair.
            They were quiet for most of it, letting their heart rates settle, sinking into the easy silence of this closeness. After a few minutes, Angèle spoke again, and Grantaire felt a lump in his throat and a wet stinging in his eyes at her words.
            “I want to help people that don’t have anyone to help them. Just like you, Grantaire.”
           

 

Chapter Text


           In the wild and wandered wayside some while beyond Paris, a lonely dirt road curled into a long driveway and ended in a grand but quite forgotten residence. Had there ever been any passersby, they might have beheld the manor and held their breath – for it seemed at any moment likely to collapse under great walls of ivy and be reclaimed into the field and glen. But there never were any passerby, and the sole two residents went quite invisible to the world.

           On a grey day, the smaller resident was within, gracelessly galumphing down the stairs making quite a lot of noise for a skinny-legged little child. Under one arm he carried an excessively large and beribboned stuffed elephant, violet in hue and glassy in stare, and in his left hand a tin bucket. For efficiency of transportation the battered DVD case containing The Addams Family had been deposited inside the bucket, which was otherwise filled with marbles, smooth river stones, bits of broken bottleglass and five-for-a-buck pieces of colorful quartz which the boy purchased whenever possible at highwayside gift shacks and new age novelty shops. In his right hand, he balanced a small plastic mixing bowl of stove-top pasta which he had seasoned with butter, cinnamon, brown sugar, powdered sugar, dinosaur-shaped rainbow sprinkles, a few drops of vanilla and a hint of cloves. At the bottom of the stairs he scuffled in his mismatched socks across the foyer tile into the sparsely decorated family room and deposited his cargo on the coffee table. This table, along with all other furniture, had been pushed to the side of the room against the wall, leaving as much carpet space open as possible. With his hand now free he positioned the three-and-a-half-foot-tall purple elephant in the arrangement of stuffed animals occupying the couch.

           “Sir Edmund is now present,” he announced to his plush audience, “and we should like to apologize to him very much for neglecting him until this moment. It was a simple and unfortunate oversight that he should have been left behind on our archeological expedition in the upstairs crawlspace. He has now been recovered and dusted off to the best of our ability. In addition, lunch and entertainment has been procured, and all that is left for us to do is prepare for our evening guests – that is, to cover the windows, light the candles and arrange the pentagram. We thank you very much for your company.”

           The room was bright and spacious, painted a pale grey with vases of silk flowers on the side tables and hung with quaint little drawings that the boy’s father had referred to as “originals” and “priceless”. Overall, the austere space was not exactly the dark and morbid chapel he had imagined for this anticipated day, but it would have to do. Perhaps if he scattered some bread on the ground outside, the boy thought to himself, he might hear some ravens croaking.

           Thoughtfully the boy adjusted his overlarge glasses, tucked a bit of limp peachy-colored hair behind his ear and scratched at a mosquito bite on his calf (which had already burst open and smeared a little blood down to his ankle, but the boy hardly noticed, let alone minded). The candles had already been placed around the room – exactly 100 teacup candles that he had found in a package in the basement and 17 others of various sizes, shapes and colors that he had gathered from around the house. He was particularly fond of the pair of deep blood-red ones that were thicker than his frail wrists and a foot high each. How properly gothic, he thought to himself of them, and allotted them a crowning space on the mantle. The rest of the candles littered every available surface and he imagined it would take quite a while to light every one. First things first, then – he plucked The Addams Family from the bucket, took the DVD from the case, inserted it into the DVD player and snagged the remote from beside it.

           “Are we all ready? Twenty-eighth time’s the charm, won’t it be? Let’s not get all mucked up in the dénouement today!” He turned to address his friends, remote in hand.

           They each stared, blank and unseeing, at the opposite wall. The longer he watched, the stiller they were, the smaller they seemed, the duller their chipped glass, embroidered or button eyes. The boy felt a cold weight clutching at the pit of his stomach, and he sighed. “Come now,” he said lowly to the pile of old stuffed animals and sighed. “Just one more day. Be lively for me for just one day more. It is the end.” He turned again and caught his reflection in the dark monitor screen. “Enough of that,” he said to himself, and turned the TV on.  

           Thereon the boy spent nearly an hour in a kind of reverie, reciting the entirety of the dialogue along with the fancifully macabre and quirky Addamses as he went about his very serious business of draping black shrouds over the tall windows and lighting each candle one by one with an inscribed silver lighter he had found in a junk drawer in the attic. He would sincerely have preferred matches for their old-fashioned and manual quality, but as his thumb began to bruise and bleed from clumsily striking the lighter again and again, he thought that giving his blood and pain to the illumination of each and every candle was properly Romantic.

           When the work was finished, the room glowed ludicrously golden, and if it were the most ridiculous fire hazard that side of the Seine, the boy did not notice. He missed nary a beat in the liturgical recitation of his favorite film, and moved on to placing stones from his tin bucket down upon the carpet one after another in careful and precise arrangement. Things were coming together very nicely, he thought, and he smothered the growing anxiety in his stomach with louder Gomez-ing.

           With the windows covered it was impossible now to tell whether the sun was up or down, and the boy was frightened to draw back the curtains and check. With Chekov’s twilight upon him he rushed to finish his work. A great number of teacup candles had already sputtered to a stop – he hadn’t really thought that one through – and in the settling gloom, the boy began to stumble over his lines until he came to a stop. “Fuck,” he hissed, and straightened from his stooped posture with the bucket in one hand (now considerably lighter) and a smooth bit of green seaglass in the other. “I didn’t even make it to the party that time. For shame.” He paused the film and looked helplessly around at the half-finished star on the ground, and then at the pile of stuffed animals, and held his breath in the unsettling quiet.

           Softly, the boy lowered himself to his knees and put aside the bucket and the glass. With the noise of the TV gone and his fuzzy friends feeling particularly inadequate, the large house seemed almost crushingly empty. But ever faster the sunset hour approached, or else it was gone already, and he could feel whole hives of bees humming underneath his skin and an absolute burst of agitated moths in his belly. He gripped his knees and wished – he wished a flurry of conflicts, for sunlight’s return, for midnight to descend, for the sound of his father’s car upon the gravel driveway and for a more profound hiddenness. For Sir Edmund to grow a skeleton and muscles and walk to where he sat in a heap, because the distance between himself and the couch seemed too great in that moment to manage with his own trembling legs.   And then, as though the universe had heard his fragile wishes, it granted him one: An unsteady dragon’s roar of tires on gravel, and the boy’s heart raced faster than before.

           The boy was shocked into stillness, stiller than marble, stiller than steel, his fingernails digging into the flesh of his thighs and sure to leave crescent-shaped bruises there. Nausea flooded him as the dull rumble slowed into silence far too nearby for comfort, and the heavy swoosh and hard slam of a car door followed.

           He prayed for the impossible, used all his mental force to ward off the inevitable, but it came against his will in the most unexpected way; a hard, sharp knocking at the door, strikingly discordant with the expected key in the lock. This was not his father.

           “Have they come already?” the boy whispered in his surprise to his audience. “I hadn’t thought that they should use the door! And oh, the pentagram is hardly half done… What have I been doing?”

           He rose unsteadily to his feet and found the gravity to meander warily towards the door, grand and shadowy white at the end of the tiled foyer. The harsh rapping came again and he gave a squeak, quickening his step.

           When he opened the door, two men in blue looked back at him from above.

           “Police. Are you Jean Prouvaire?”

           The words with which to answer seemed lost inside him entirely. He adjusted his glasses and nodded meekly.

           “Are you home alone?”

           Again, he nodded.

           “Alright son, you’re going to come down to the station to have a little talk with us. Your grandparents will be picking you up from there. What the hell is that? Chevalier, go put out those candles. That’s a damn fire hazard. Pardon my language, son.”

----

           “Do you want to light some candles and take a bath? I won’t leave you, we can take one together.”

           Jehan sniffled and shrugged from inside their blanket burrito. Grantaire reached in and wiped the salty damp from their freckled cheek with his thumb. He hummed softly. “That tempest really took it the hell out of you, huh.” Jehan gave a small nod. “But you’re alright now. The earth is soaked and some great oaks fallen, but all in all the world is still standing, eh?” Again they nodded sincerely. Grantaire exhaled a small laugh, more comfort and tension relief than amusement.

           The last hour since Eponine had made her hit and run life-bomb and Combeferre, Joly and Bossuet had been swept out the door in her wake had been a little slice of hell, but Grantaire had battened down the hatches and weathered the storm. He knew Jehan would do the same for him. Jehan had alternated between shrieking to be let go and lying on the floor in a dead-weight slump, but Grantaire knew without a doubt the outcome of loosening his grip, for even a moment: A locked bathroom door and a lot of cleanup, both material and bodily. Possibly stitches in a mood like this. He’d been on both sides of the door, and he wasn’t going to let it happen tonight.

           Grantaire wondered that he had really found kin in this one. Anyone else, he pondered, would have found it supremely odd: Three years ago an abusive motherfucker who was loudly fucking half of Montfermeil tucked the kid’s best friend under his belt in the dicking melee. It could hardly be called a shock and certainly didn’t bear consequence in the now. But Grantaire understood; inside of Jehan was a demon. A smothering black oil slick with teeth and claws. The match could be small as a wick and the flame could last a heartbeat and a half, but open their mouth and flick it down, and you’ve blown a veritable gasoline bomb. Montparnasse, Eponine, any earthly thing was just a spark; it was the demon already crouching in wait underneath Jehan’s skin that did the real destruction. Grantaire understood. He was possessed of a same such beast.

           A small, wet “thank you” floated up from within the plush cocoon, and Grantaire smiled. “You know it, babe. I’m not going anywhere.” A huff and some wiggling followed, scooting the pile closer against Grantaire’s chest. He reached inside, finding hair to stroke.

           “I don’t know that this is necessarily the best time to say this, but… She told me. That’s why we left the Quidditch game early, remember that? She saw Combeferre and flipped her shit. And Jehan, she feels incredibly guilty. So sorry and guilty. She knows it was a very un-best-friendly, downright dickish move to you, and to Combeferre, and she deeply regrets it.”

            The blankets huffed again, and sighed. “What am I gonna do anyway,” they warbled, “pretend I’m not also trying to cuckold Combeferre? That I wouldn’t fuck my close friend AND his boyfriend in half a hapless heartbeat? Am I supposed to be angry at her? That’d sure be the tart calling the harlot loose.”

           “Hey, enough of that. You know how I feel about all this tart-talk. We both have our unhealthy vices, dear, and they don’t make us second class citizens.”

           “You don’t believe that.”

           Grantaire sighed. “That’s what Eponine said too.”

           “You can’t pep talk it away, R, facts are fucking facts. I’m currently trying to fuck two people who are happily in love, I can’t possibly be angry with Eponine for fucking my boyfriend three years ago.”

           “We’re all assholes. It’s the human condition. A virus of the earth with the exclusive objective of fucking shit up. But I’ll never tell you you’re wrong to feel what you feel… Even if acting on those feelings is, ah, of questionable morality. But feelings though, those are a judgement-free zone.”

           “You’re gross. You sound like me. Except for the ‘humans are a virus’ bit.”

           “Like you outside the middle of a depressive episode, yes. I learned this touchy-feely talk from the best.”

           “Can’t we just fuck until I feel better?”

           Grantaire chuckled. He didn’t know whether indulging Jehan’s ‘ignore all my problems under a barrage of orgasms’ method was really productive, but who was he to deny his dear friend some cheer-up dick? “Hell yeah. But I have a better idea first.”


----

           “Alright son, this bit’s easy. I’ve just got to go over my information and confirm the basics. Can I get your full name?”

           “Jean Mulally Prouvaire.”

           “And your date of birth? Oh, it’s --”

           “Today! I’m thirteen today.”

           “Oh, dear.” The officer called Chevalier gave a low whistle. “Well,” he said with mustered optimism, “Happy birthday, son. Thirteen’s a big one, isn’t it?”

           Jean nodded, smiling nervously. “I was supposed to --” He stopped himself, looking sheepishly at his knees, and the officer kept on.

           “Where were you born?”

           “Belfast.” The officer nodded, looking over the clipboard before him.

           “Alright, can you help explain this to me? Your records here, it looks like there’s another fellow on your birth certificate – a M. Rorke Mulally. Now, we’re under the impression that your father is Jean-Léon Prouvaire. Do you know what’s up there?”

           “Yes, well, Mr. Mullally was my mother’s first husband, see, and Father – that is, M. Prouvaire, well, he’s my father. Mum had an affair.” The officer paled, but Jean went on at ease. “It didn’t come out until I was five – hence the divorce and the expatriation, of course. Alas, that I could remember hills of emerald, but all I carried with me from the motherland were memories of kitchen cabinets and bawdy elder brothers, long gone.”

           “You said you’re thirteen?”

           “Sir?”

           “Never mind. What became of your mother, where is she?” He dug through his own stack of papers, seeming to search for the answer before Jean could give it.

           “Oh, in the arms of the Virgin, one hopes. Dear Molly Mullally grew her angel’s wings a moment too late.”

           “Excuse me?”

           Jean shifted in his seat, eyes glancing to the clock and then down at his hands. “She fell down the stairs. When I was nine.”

           “Oh. I’m quite sorry, my boy.” The officer shuffled his papers a little more, and then glanced up as though chasing a thought. “Fell, you say?”

           Jean fixed his eyes hard on his shoelaces and nodded, scratching at his calf again.

           The officer looked at him a moment longer before clearing his throat. “Well, son, now we’re on to the trickier bits. Remember that we’re recording, but please be as honest as you can. We’re only trying to help you, alright?”

           Jean nodded.

           “When was the last time you saw your father?”

           “Um, Thursday evening.”

           “Four days ago?”

           “Yes sir.”

           “And you’ve been alone all that time?”

           Jean shrugged. “Well, I’ve been to school.”

           “How do you get to school? You seem pretty far out of the way.”

           “There’s a bus stop about two miles down the road. I walk there.”

           The officer wrote something down on his clipboard.

           “But otherwise you’ve been unattended. No one has come by the house at all.”

           Jean wondered whether his shoes could be tied any better. He swung his feet a little, the long grey-white laces dragging on the carpeted floor. “I’m alright, I cook really quite well – I know how to make cereal, and pasta, and cake and pop tarts, and I’m good at keeping busy. I do all of my homework, and I write, I write stories and poetry and plays, and I play games – I can play both parts in chess, and I play pretend, and I read! I read a lot, chapter books, maybe two or three books a week, four if I’m quick! I’ve just finished A Series of Unfortunate Events and – and, oh, I’m memorizing The Addams Family! I’ve seen it 27 and a half times already and I’m very, very good --”

           “I believe you, son, but let’s keep on track here. Do you know where your dad went?”

           Jean reached down and untied his shoelaces, fumbling at tying them again.

           “Come on, kiddo, it’s alright. Hey, how’s about this – if you help me understand, you and your grandparents and I will go for ice cream when we’re finished, to celebrate your birthday. How’s that sound?”

           Jean straightened up, looking the officer in the face. Something cold ignited inside him. “That’s quite patronizing.”

           The officer leaned over his desk, leaning on his elbows. “You know a lot of big words for a thirteen-year-old.”

           He leaned back in his chair, playing with the button of his sweater. “I don’t know where he goes,” he muttered into his shoulder. “I don’t know, he’s never told me. He just goes.”

           “Is this a regular thing? He just disappears for days at a time?”

           Jean shrugged and then nodded again, studying the radiator in the corner now. “Sometimes just hours. Sometimes longer. Once he left for two weeks.”

           “And you take care of yourself. During those times, you go to school but otherwise you’re completely alone.”

           The boy’s stomach lurched, and he grimaced. “Yes. Completely… alone.”

           “Jean, does your dad ever hurt you?”

           Jean’s head whipped to face him. His mouth was trembling, and he shook his head violently, his peach-red hair fluttering against his face. “No, sir. Never. He’s – He gets angry sometimes, or scared, he gets scared very often and he yells and he… He’s just scared, see, he… he has powers. He can tell what people are thinking, and he hears spirits, and demons, and sometimes he just knows things. It frightens him, and he does get loud and sometimes he breaks things, but he’s just scared, it’s really all right, I do my best to take care of him! He’s never hurt me, he doesn’t... He… He needs me. He says so, he needs me, he knows that I’ll be taken away but he needs me…”

           “Taken away?”

           “Yes. Today. He said it would happen today, it was supposed to happen today, he’s been telling me so forever…”

           “Taken away by the police?”

           Jean shook his head.

           “By who?”

           “By the demons,” he whispered. “I’m one of them.”

           “Your father told you that you’re a demon?”

           Jean looked down at his lap again, and sucked in a shuddering breath. “I’m one of them. He said so. I’ll have powers, just like his, but even greater. I had to be ready for them today…”

           He couldn’t bear to look at the officer’s face. He didn’t know what he would see.

           “Well, Jean… No demons are coming to get you today. Just your grandparents. You’re going to go live with them in Montfermeil for a while. It’s a cute little town, I’ve been through, seen some kids your age out with their bikes. And your dad, he’s going to live in a hospital for a while. He’s on his way there right now, and they’ll take care of him, alright?”

           Jean shivered. “They were supposed to come… I was supposed to leave…”

           “You are, kid. You get to leave.”

           “No! I was supposed to leave everything…”

----

           “Alright, who’s this one? Or what. All nouns, verbs, and abstract concepts are permissible.”

           “Montparnasse.”

           “Sweet.” Using a sharpie, Grantaire scribbled a little cartoon of Montparnasse, complete with pompous pompadour, stupid smirk and spiked shoes, onto the beer bottle and handed it over to Jehan. Together they’d dragged the whole recycling bin into Grantaire’s studio and put a sheet up on one wall.

           Jehan, who was still clinging half an unravelling blanket cocoon to themself, admired the cartoon and giggled. “You’ve captured him perfectly.” Then, they braced themself on their back foot and launched it with full force onto the wall with an angry shriek. The resounding shatter was immensely gratifying.

           “Fuck yeah!” Grantaire congratulated, pulling out another bottle. “Who’s next?”

           “Eponine.”

           Grantaire hesitated. “Eponine? I know you’re pissed at her, and you have a right to be, but…”

           “It’s okay. Let me do this, R. This is to get feelings out, right? They’re leaving my body and shattering on the wall.”

           “Okay. As long as this is cathartic for you and doesn’t build any resentment.” He drew Eponine with her two little braids and handed the bottle off. There was no shriek this time, just a hefty grunt and the sharp smack of breaking glass. “Nice.”

           Jehan nodded. “It feels good. It feels better.”

           “Perfect. Next?”

           “Montparnasse again.”

           “Always a good choice.”

           The next three were all Montparnasse, and the sheet on the floor was littered with a growing pile of shards of greaser wannabees. For the sixth one, Jehan took a long time to consider. “Myself,” they said finally.

           “No. Nope. That’s where I draw the line. Get more specific.”

           “My… sluttiness?”

           “Nope. Try again. This whole thing is to avoid you hurting yourself. Think about what you really mean when you say that.”

           Jehan thought for a good long while. “Okay,” they said at last, “my self-loathing?”

           “Way better.” For this he merely drew a thick black scribble with a fanged mouth.

           Jehan let out a great huff of air when he hurled it, and their hand lingered in the air even after it smashed and fell. “Nice job, babe.”

           “My depression,” they said, without being asked, and Grantaire drew a raincloud and passed it over.

           When it, too, was in pieces on the floor, Jehan carried on without hesitation. “Combeferre and Courfeyrac’s relationship.”

           “Er…”

           “Feelings are a no-judgment zone! You said so!”

           “I dunno. This kind of counts as acting on the feelings.”

           “Please, R, I don’t mean the people, I love them dearly. Too fucking dearly. Just… the relationship. Come on, it’s just like Eponine, you let me do her. Let me get this feeling outside of myself. Please.”

           Grantaire allowed himself to be reluctantly convinced, though he still wasn’t sure. Feelings are a no-judgement zone, he told himself again as he drew a curly-haired Courf and an absurdly tall bespectacled Combeferre holding hands, with a heart around their clutched fingers. Jehan was allowed to feel jealousy and desire, as long as he kept it to privately breaking bottles in a safe and controlled manner rather than breaking up real couples. That seemed like solid logic to Grantaire. Jehan shouted as they threw this one too, and Grantaire noted that when it broke, the doodled hands remained intact.

           Grantaire waited for Jehan to give him the next victim, but it didn’t come. “Jehan?”

           “Um… I… Could I have a few blank bottles?”

           “Oh, um, sure.” He gathered three and handed them over.

           Jehan considered them, turning them over in their hands. They held one loosely by the throat, and Grantaire watched the way their hazy eyes seemed to flicker. He wondered what passed behind them. Then, one after the other, they smashed them wordlessly against the wall. They hesitated with the last one in their palm, rocking on their heels, and when they flung it forth, they heaved an angry sob with it. Grantaire abandoned the recycling bin and went to gather his friend in his arms. Jehan broke open again as easily as the bottles, quickly soaking the front of Grantaire’s shirt. He gathered the blankets around them and kissed the top of their head, holding them close and swaying gently until their shuddering slowed again.

           “Hey,” he whispered, “tonight was really hard, I know. But you’re doing really well. We’ll go to bed together now if you want. You seem so tired.”

           Jehan nodded against Grantaire.

           “Do you want to tell me about those bottles? Or do you want to keep them to yourself?”

           “Loneliness,” they whispered, and Grantaire felt his heart break a little. “And my dad.”

           “Oh, I know. I’m so, so sorry dear.”

           “And the demons,” Jehan murmured almost imperceptibly, and Grantaire felt their shoulders begin to shake again so he gripped tighter. “They were supposed to take me away. I missed them so narrowly. I could have been taken away from all of this, R, I didn’t need any of this…” Grantaire rocked them gently. He knew this story, knew it in fragments scrawled on bathroom tiles and post it notes, knew it ghosted in late night conversations, knew it recited around a mouthful of smoke. He knew the way it haunted Jehan.

           “I know it wasn’t real. I know I would have waited all night and still been there in the morning. But maybe… maybe if I had, maybe if the police had come a day later, I wouldn’t still feel like I missed them…”

           Grantaire didn’t know what to say. “I hear you,” he whispered, and hoped it was enough.

           He held them close for a few long minutes, cheek pressed to their hair, rubbing their back and waiting for the shivering to still again. When it did, Jehan pulled back a little and looked Grantaire in the eyes. They made such a beautiful mess, Grantaire thought.

           “Can we do Montparnasse a few more times?”

           Grantaire laughed out loud. “Until we run out of bottles, my dear.”

           “Start drinking.”

           “Best idea you’ve ever had.”

 

               

 

Chapter Text

            With a predicted average of fifteen days of rainfall and fifteen days without, the mistress of Parisian Novembers was as inclined to cry as she was to smile, and today she wept. Her anguish made rivers of the gutters and swamps of the parks. Éponine looked at the sodden overhang of clouds, flinching at the splashes upon her brown skin, and wondered what had happened to her that the sky should be so terribly, terribly sad. “Winter makes me cry as well,” she said hoarsely in sympathy.

            Her pocket had not stopped fucking buzzing since she had fled from Grantaire and Jehan’s apartment. Every time she thought of opening the damn phone and reading the deluge of messages, the knot in her stomach twisted harder, and with each successive yank it had grown thornier and more vicious until she swore her insides were bleeding. Bleeding rainwater and guilt. When it buzzed for the umpteenth fucking time, she ripped it from her sweatpants pocket, angrily pulled her arm back and chucked it, throwing out a vicious fireball of dark energy containing her shitty flip phone and sending it as far away from herself as it could go. In the rain and the darkness it was lost without even a landing clatter. In thirty seconds she knew regret would seize her - she had thirty seconds to run as far as her feet could carry her, far from all her guilt and all her recklessness and all her careless destruction. Streetlamps watched her blinking through their hazy, empty light as she tore through the empty rivers that once were streets, soaked from her toes to her knees and damp down to her bones. She ran until her chest ached, until her stomach was heaving, until her throat stung like sandpaper. She gasped for air that went down to her lungs like guzzling fireball whiskey, pumping legs that ached and trembled. When she slowed to a panting, shaking, nauseated, crying stop beneath a flickering streetlamp in the center of a footbridge crossing the Seine, she felt she was in almost as much pain as she deserved.

            Exhausted, she heaved her dance bag down upon the drenched concrete and threw herself against the carved stone barrier that separated her from 35 feet of empty air and the stormy black surface of the Seine. Somewhere, police sirens wailed. Cars skidded by on distant roads and the lights of buildings still glowed and blinked through the bleak darkness. The weight of the storm was so heavy on Éponine’s shoulders, and it pulled and pressed her down into that harrowing void below.

            In this darkness it was truly just a void, she thought. She could see the ugly yellow of the street lamps flickering against a null faraway emptiness. As deep and dark as staring into the night sky with too much light pollution to even see the stars. If she imagined hard enough, she could dream that she didn’t even know which way was up. That leaning forth, she was drifting towards the abyssal cosmos. Let her feet just leave the ground… That’s it, heels rising, toes just barely lingering… She was floating up, floating towards that night sky, where her filthy tears would flood the earth and wash Paris clean…

            “Miss? Miss!” She tipped back an inch and her feet hit solid concrete again.

            The voice came again, drowned behind the heavy static of the rain. “Miss! You dropped…” The voice cut out, and came in again. “You dropped your… You dropped your…”

            Wearily, Éponine straightened and wiped the damp from her face, shoving her mass of curls away from her eyes to see out onto the street.

            A figure was blurring and focusing in and out through the torrent. It came closer, dragging something along, until it was clear enough to identify: a soaked man with a squat little dog, more wobbling saucisson than canine. She understood now that he was panting and stopping every few steps to lean against his knees. She waited.

            Finally, he was only a few feet away. He was absolutely sopping wet like he’d just been dumped in the Seine himself, despite the black umbrella which was folded in his hand and his cotton candy blue raincoat.

            Unable to catch his breath for long enough to speak, the man simply reached inside his pocket, pulled something out and extended his hand to her. She looked down at his hand, puzzled.

            It was her phone.

            “Oh my god,” she whispered, looking back up at him. She couldn’t tell if he was perhaps a gallant knight in shining armor or a gallant gigantic moron. Nonetheless, she gingerly took the phone.

            The pair of them just looked for a long moment. They breathed heavily together, the man grinning like a fool and Éponine just blankly staring.

            “You dropped it,” he finally choked out.

            “You have an umbrella you’re not even fucking using.”

            “Oh,” he panted, looking down at it as though it was the first time he’d seen it. “Well,” he said, “I chased after you. And it was, you know. Blowing.” He extended the umbrella behind him and hopped backwards on one foot, pantomiming being blown away by the wind. Éponine gave a startled laugh.

            “Well you’re not running now,” she replied.

            “Oh,” he said again. Oh yes, it was definitely the latter scenario. Gigantic moron. “I guess you’re right.” He pushed the thing open, locked it, and held it over his head. For another moment they just stood staring at one another.

            “Well thanks,” Éponine snorted, picking up her dance bag and making to leave.

            “Wait!” the man called. Éponine rolled her eyes and turned back around. The man said nothing. Just continued to stare.

            “Uh,” he said.

            “Uh,” she returned with a mocking edge.

            “You’re wet!” he exclaimed.

            “Wow,” she replied.

            “I have an umbrella!”

            Éponine looked around as though there might be anyone else to witness this hilarity. Damn, she thought, she’s never going to be able to tell this story right. If only she had R’s story-telling magic. The thought of Grantaire made her gut seize again.

            “What I mean is! Uh! Can I walk you home! Because I have an umbrella!”

            Éponine raised a dripping eyebrow. “You mean, can you walk me home because you have a raging boner for girls walking alone in soaking crop tops.”

            “What? No! Gross.” To his credit he did look genuinely appalled at the thought. Wrinkled nose and everything. “Just because... You’re wet! It’s raining!”

            “You certainly are monsieur observateur.”

            “No, I’m Marius!” He extended his hand to her with a bright grin. “And this is Napoleon!” He beamed down at his lopsided corgi.

            Éponine couldn’t fathom how this was a real man. Reluctantly, she took his hand and shook it. “Éponine.”

            “Éponine!”, he repeated, and she nodded. “Éponine, I’m sorry, I’m not very good at… words? I’m sorry if I was rude and didn’t know, I’m… kind of dumb. But it’s just raining really hard and I hate to see someone out here getting so wet!”

            Éponine sighed. She was soaked down to her skin already and her teeth were beginning to chatter. Having an umbrella now wasn’t really going to do jack shit. Besides… “I’m not going home.”

            “Oh? Well, wherever you need to go, I’ll walk there with you! If you want!”

            A roll of thunder moved overhead, cracking and crawling from east to west. Éponine looked up at the sky. She had never been a spiritual person - her gods were her own two feet. If fate or destiny were the wheels that turned the universe, she had always been broken between them, and if there was any kind of divine justice, she was sure as hell on the wrong side of the law. But even Éponine knew how to read a sign when she came across one. She looked from one end of the bridge to the other, then to the lanky, sopping boy before her, and saw the sky split to the edge with colossal lightning.

            Marius jumped terribly, covering his head with one hand for a moment. “Sorry! Sorry,” he sputtered, presumably to Éponine. “Aaah… Loud noises…Not agreeable…”

            “I feel that,” Éponine said contemplatively. Then, “I’m not really going anywhere in particular. But if you want to walk me to some cover, I’ll go with you.”

            Marius seemed to brighten up at that, and recovered from his fright. He handed the umbrella over to her.

            “What, we’re not sharing?”

            “Oh, um, I didn’t think you wanted to be that close! That’s weird, right?”

            “But now you’re getting soaked.”

            Marius shrugged.

            “Well… alright. That’s uh, that’s pretty courteous of you.”

            He shrugged again and his face seemed to grow redder, though whether from the chill of the rain or the exertion of running or maybe just his own evident nerves, it was already pretty flushed. “I know where some cover is, in a park just over there, see?” He gestured back the way Éponine had come, towards a block of shaking trees.

            They walked there together at a comfortable distance, keeping a few feet between themselves which were occupied by the dog. Éponine watched him wobble and stumble along at length until she finally noticed - the little fellow was missing a paw.

            “Napoleon has three legs,” she observed.

            “Yep! One more than his namesake!”

            Éponine laughed aloud. Clever, she thought. “You know, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone half as cheerful in a downpour as you are, monsieur Marius.”

            “A little fall of rain can’t hurt me. When I get home I’ll put some clothes and a blanket in the dryer so they’re nice and warm, make some tea, put on a show… That’s worth getting wet for, I think.”

            “Observateur et optimiste, I see. Say, your accent’s a little funny. Where are you from, monsieur?”

            “Hampshire!”

            “You’re English! I wouldn’t have guessed it. You sound more like a German.”

            Marius chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck. “Ah, yeah, I get that a lot. I learned German and French together, I suppose I took to one accent easier than the other…”

            “Well I’ll tell you, you speak pretty well. You must have studied for a long time.”

            “Oh yeah, definitely. About a year so far.”

            “What?! Are you fucking with me?!”

            Marius stopped walking, looking a little frightened. “Did I s-say something wrong? I’m sorry-”

            “No, no! Just - a year?! That’s not long at all and you sound half a fucking native! What are you, like, a genius or something?”

            Marius blushed, looking at his feet and starting to walk again. Éponine trotted after him. “I’m not that smart, I just like languages, you know? They’re easy, you just learn all the words and how to say them... I like it. I’m pretty good I guess.”

            “Ha, and math is just adding numbers. That must be why I failed algebra. So, French, German and English, eh?”

            “Yeah!” His spark returned a bit. “And some BSL and LSF, I’m getting pretty good at those, and my roommate is teaching me Spanish! He's put post it notes on everything in our dorm with the Spanish names, heh... I just bought some textbooks on Punjabi too, that’s what my father spoke… I never met him really but I’m doing what I can to honor him, you know? It’s the hardest one so far. All new phonemes, new writing system, the tones… But I’m doing my best!”

            Éponine looked on in amazement. “That’s crazy. I’m calling bullshit, you’re either a liar or you’re definitely a genius.”

            Marius flushed uncomfortably again and shrugged. He wrapped his arms around himself. “W-well I’m n-not, n-not, not lying, I-I-I.. Uh, over h-here.” He gestured through the trees across the green to some blearily glowing structure in the distance.

            Éponine raised an eyebrow. Stuttering didn’t bode super well for not-liars, but she let it slide and looked over to where he had pointed.

            “That’s… a carousel.”

            “Is that bad?! I can take you somewhere else, this was - this was - this was -”

            “Take a breath, buddy.” At the look of panic on his face she wondered if the stutter wasn’t something more. He paused at her command and took a few breaths in, still shuddering hard from the rain.

            “Closest,” he finally finished.

            Éponine shrugged. “Whatever man. I guess it does have a roof. Come on.”

            She jogged towards it and he followed. A black iron gate surrounded the carousel. It was locked, but only about five feet high - easy to swing right over. When she landed on the concrete, Marius lifted up his wriggling dog and Éponine’s dance bag, passed them over to Éponine one after the other and awkwardly clambered over himself. Éponine wasn’t sure he managed the fence much better than his dog would have. She gave up waiting for him after about thirty seconds, taking her bag and the dog’s leash and retreating up onto the slick wooden platform to watch him struggle from underneath the great roof.

            At last he managed to topple over the fence onto his backside, and Éponine could have cried from laughter. “Come on,” he whined, it’s n-n-n-not that, that,” but Éponine waved a hand through the air, silencing his protests and unable to speak without cracking up.

            Finally, she gained hold of herself and took a good look at him – the first time she had really been able. He looked downright miserable, all red-faced and sopping and hugging his chest. His black hair was slicked down over his forehead, and he was more or less of a height with her, though much skinnier, and much prettier in her opinion – too pretty even, like he’d just wandered away from an Abercrombie display window, with classical features and big dopey eyes. There was something striking about those eyes, which were cast to the ground, and Éponine took a step forward to understand. It hit her with force – one of them was a dark almond brown, but the other was a heavenly sort of blue. “Oh,” she whispered in awe. He stared back at her – or rather, at her feet – looking a little attacked.

            “Hey man, I’m sorry. I wasn’t laughing at you. I mean – I know I was. But I wasn’t making fun of you.” He shrugged, not looking very convinced, and turned away. She was about to carry on apologizing but he had got his foot in a golden stirrup and smoothly swung his leg over the pink saddle of a pale stallion. He rested his hands on the horse’s dark wooden mane. He was smiling a little, seemingly to himself, and she hoped she had been forgiven. “Are you pretty cold?” she asked.

            He still didn’t look at her, but his eyebrows twisted in confusion and he shrugged.

            “It’s just, you were stuttering a lot is all.”

            He shrugged again. “Not very… good with words,” he said quietly, petting the horse’s mane lightly.

            “How can that be true?” she retorted, grinning. “You speak like, half a dozen languages, but you aren’t good with words?” She discarded her coat on the ground – it was keeping her much colder at this point than it was keeping her warm – and climbed up onto a zebra beside him. She hadn’t ridden one of these since she was very young, and remembered them being far bigger, so much higher up from the ground… But that’s growing up, she thought. It makes everything that once was huge so much smaller.

            Marius finally managed to look over at her and shrugged again. “Knowing words is easy,” he said, “knowing what to say is hard.” His stutter had gone away again, but he still spoke softly.

            Éponine nodded. “That’s true enough.”

            “Éponine?”

            “Yes?”

            “Why were you out in the rain if you weren’t going anywhere?”

            “Monsieur nosy as well, I see. She raised an eyebrow.

            “Oh! I’m sorry! That was rude, wasn’t it? I’m sorry.” He turned his head again looking chastised.

            Éponine sighed. She pulled out her phone impulsively, the way she often did to fill awkward spaces, but the little screen greeted her with 8 new text messages and 5 missed calls, and she knew that avoidance was staying right here with this man. She stuffed it back in her pocket and groaned.

            “Is everything alright?” Marius inquired. There was genuine worry in his eyes, and Éponine considered caving. Sitting here on a carousel zebra in the pouring rain beside a genius runaway male model with a nervous stutter felt so surreal, like the moment that you realize that you’re dreaming and anything is possible here, that there are no consequences for your actions. Grantaire told her once that in that moment he always took to the air and flew. Éponine had laughed and said the she looked for the prettiest boy to kiss. Well, Éponine thought, this moment is so divorced from my reality that it may as well be a dream, and the prettiest boy is here. If I’m dreaming, the moment is now.

            “No,” she confided. “I’m running away.” It was a bit hyperbolic and vague, but she wasn’t sure what else to say.

            “From what?” he exclaimed, astonished. His mismatched eyes were quivering and wide.

            Éponine laughed a cold, dry laugh. From a cheater, a liar, a whore. From an abuser. From a selfish brat. From someone who had caused so much pain in others that she couldn’t bear to think of it. From a letdown, from a masochist, from a loser. From a bad, bad person.

            “Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked instead of answering. At his go-ahead she gripped the zebra between her thighs and slid until she was halfway upside down to snag her dance bag and fish out some cigarettes and a lighter before righting herself without hands and lighting up.

            “Woah!” Marius exclaimed. “That was cool!”

            She exhaled a cloud of smoke, trying to blow it away from Marius. “What?”

            “You held onto the horse with your legs and you were? I don’t know this word? Like, the wrong way?”

            “Upside-down?” she suggested. Marius nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, yeah, I guess. I have pretty strong thighs.” She looked down at them and shrugged, smacking one lightly. He blushed and turned away.

            “So,” she carried on, feeling a little silly making such an obvious conversation play, “you said you live in a dorm? Are you a student at the university near here?”

            “Oh, yeah! I came here to study pre-law, but I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about studying languages instead. I could be a translator, travel the world…”

            “Is that why you wanted to study abroad?”

            “Well, sort of… I mean, yes, but… Staying at home didn’t really feel like an option anyway…”

            “Why’s that?”

            Marius gripped the golden pole of his carousel horse between his hands, worrying at it and looking off in no particular direction.

            “Oh, I’m an ass, now I’m miss nosy. My bad.”

            “No, it’s alright. I don’t mind. I just… words. Bad.”

            “Yeah? Well, you know. You don’t have to share if it makes you nervous.”

            Marius shrugged. “My g-grandfather and I… We had a, had a fight. I had to leave. I stayed in an apartment of my own just long enough to finish my A-levels, and then I came to Paris.”

            Éponine nodded, taking another drag from her cigarette. “I get that. I ran away from home too. Didn’t finish my schooling though. Didn’t care enough. I wasn’t gonna get a job that needed an education anyway.”

            “Didn’t you run away… Just now?”

            She gave a bitter laugh. “Seems I do that a lot, huh?” She considered the glowing cigarette in her hand, flicking away the ashes. “I was lucky the first time. I had a place to go. Good people to take me and my sister in. And a good reason to run away, too. I wasn’t just slinking off guiltily like the dog that got into the pot roast.”

            “And what reason was that? If you want to say?”

            Éponine shrugged. “Home was a den of wolves. Vicious things. We were in danger, things were bad, it was all closing in on us… We’d been well off once, aspired to be high society. I used to love my maman and my papa, but I have wondered sometimes where and when my family ended and the wolves began. When I ran away, it was because a business partner of my father’s got my sister all alone and cornered up in our kitchen. In our kitchen, he had the gall… But I have wondered… I have wondered sometimes if she wasn’t… part of the deal.”

            Marius was aghast. “That’s horrifying!” he sputtered out.

            Éponine shrugged, blushing. She didn’t really like when people got their feathers all ruffled about her life. She knew the sympathy was something to be appreciated, but the spectacle, the apologies, the “horror”, the pity, it all just… She would rant to Grantaire that it made her feel like a zoo animal or a charity project, that it was invasive and dehumanizing and patronizing, and those were all true. But deep down inside, it served to remind her of how fucked up her version of “normal” was. “Whatever,” she muttered defensively, wrapping her lips around her cigarette to avoid further response.

            Marius seemed to take the hint. He rubbed the back of his neck, glancing around. “Well, running from wolves is a pretty reasonable thing to do.”

            Éponine exhaled smoke. “All my life,” she rasped. She had a sudden thought. “Say, do you think we could get this thing working?”

            Marius looked affronted. “What, you mean the carousel?” Éponine nodded, grinning.

            “Uh… uh… how?!”

            “Well the controller booth is over there, see?” She pointed to a little stand by the fence, about the size of a port-a-potty. “We can totally get in.”

            “It’s sure to be locked!”

            Éponine gripped her cigarette in her lips, using her hands to locate a bobby pin in her hair and pluck it out. She took the cigarette from her mouth and smirked, displaying the pin to Marius. “I know it seems cheesy, like the sort of thing that only works in movies. But I don’t exactly carry my lockpick set around and I’ve done more with less.”

            “Is… Is this a joke? Sorry, I’m not good with jokes, I don’t understand sometimes-”

            “No way man, this is the real deal. You stay there.” She swung her leg back over the zebra and hopped down, skidding across the wet platform and down onto the concrete. The rain was much lighter now, still more than she wanted to walk through but not the downpour it had been earlier.

            “This is illegal!” Marius called nervously as Éponine chuckled and crouched before the door. The light of the carousel in the darkness of the evening cast shadows both stark and infuriatingly nebulous, making it a much harder affair, but lockpicking was more about feel than sight anyway. Carefully she bent the bobby pin and guided it into the keyhole, striking the pins in careful order. It took more than a few tries, but after several minutes and a few more half-hearted protestations from Marius, it popped open with a click.

            “Fuck yeah!” Éponine slid inside the cramped space, plopped herself down on the stool that took up 60% of the floorspace and closed the door behind her. Outside, Marius looked terrified. She looked at the dashboard in front of her. The controls seemed simple enough – she was lucky that it wasn’t key-operated – there was a motion power switch, a crank to control the speed, an emergency brake and a few buttons to control the music and lights. She hit the motion power and the music, cranked up the speed and hastily exited the box.

            The carousel had begun to slowly rotate and she nearly fell on her ass when she leapt up onto the slippery planks.  “This is fantastic,” she cried, wrangling her zebra again (which was now bobbing up and down rhythmically) and hooking a leg over his saddle. Marius looked positively terrified. He glanced around in every direction.

            “Hey,” she cooed, reaching out to pat his cheek, “Relax. This is fun! Besides, we were already trespassing when we jumped the fence. Live a little!” This didn’t seem to reassure him, but he managed a smile anyway. Napoleon seemed to be enjoying himself. He was running around the carousel, sliding between the golden poles and yipping. He fell down half a dozen times but never seemed fazed.

            The music was surprisingly pleasant for a carousel tune, and after a few minutes Éponine felt herself drifting off. Not to sleep, necessarily, but to a state of heavy calm, the kind that made her mind wander to softer places. “When I was a kid, my family visited Paris for a weekend. We didn’t get to travel much. My father owned a motel and it used to be a busy place, he didn’t like to leave for long… but when we visited, I rode on a carousel in a park just like this one.”

            “That sounds like a nice memory,” Marius replied airily. He seemed to have relaxed some as well. He held the worn reins wound about his hands like a child, and watched  Paris turn around him with a look of tender happiness.

            “Yeah. It wasn’t all shady villainy and the desperation of impending poverty. But I suppose… my father was a con man through and through, and what a con man does best is pretend to be honest. He didn’t hurt us then, but that doesn’t indicate that he wasn’t hurting anyone. Perhaps he only turned his teeth on his children when there was no one else left to eat.” The thought made her sad, and she rested her forehead against the pole in her hands.

            “Where is your family now?” Marius asked softly.

            “Here. Somewhere. They came here when they had nothing left. I had a hell of a panic when I learned that they had followed me, but… they never came for me.”

            Marius was looking at her now, but she couldn’t bring herself to look back. “Is it stupid that that hurt?” Tears slid down her face, sudden as a gasp, unbidden and unstoppable, but she made no sign of crying. “Sorry,” she whispered. “I’ve had a hard day…”

            “It’s okay,” Marius assured her. “I know.”

            Éponine made a distressed, inquisitive noise.

            “When I saw you on the bridge you looked halfway to throwing yourself off! I didn’t mean to be so pushy, but I wanted to get you home safe.”

            Éponine gave a choked sob. It was humiliating, having to be rescued at such a low point. Having to be seen like that. But he hadn’t probed about her mental state, hadn’t insinuated she was a threat to herself, hadn’t tried to “talk her down”… Merely aggressively offered his umbrella and stayed beside her. It was a kindness and consideration she hadn’t ever been offered without… “Are you expecting me to fuck you? Do you think you saved me and you get my ass as your grateful thanks?!” she spat.

            He seemed stung, and wrinkled his nose just the same way as when she’d suggested the same before. “No! I was just worried, and trying to help! I’m sorry if that wasn’t what you wanted…” He trailed off, looking down at his fidgety hands, seeming lost and wounded and just a little petulant.

            “God, I’m sorry,” she cried. “I didn’t mean to yell at you, I just… I’m just fucking like that, I don’t know why…” She rubbed her hand across her face. “Once a wolf, always a wolf,” she muttered pitifully.

            “Nuh-uh,” Marius chirped. He pointed to Napoleon, who was still yapping at trees as they revolved around him. “Napoleon came from wolves too. Now he’s just a fat baby who eats bugs.”

            Éponine laughed aloud through her tears. Marius carried on. “German Shepherds came from wolves, and they’re still pretty wolfy as dogs go, don’t you think? But they’re police dogs, and service dogs, and, well, shepherds. We let them keep our sheep safe, even though their fathers are the ones eating them.”

            Éponine looked at him in wonder, eyebrows furrowed, lips parted. He turned his head and they looked at one another for a long moment. “You seem sad,” he remarked nervously. She shook her head, reached out, and brushed her fingers against his hand. Looking down at where they hovered beside each other, he took her hand in his. They turned their heads forward again, quietly listening to the tinkling of the carousel music for a long while.

           

----

 

            Éponine returned to Jehan and Grantaire’s apartment that night. Grantaire answered the door wearing his boxers and a ripped gray t-shirt. When he saw her standing there looking like she’d been swimming, he sighed and waved her into the foyer without a word. She silently stripped down to her bra and black briefs, leaving her soggy clothes and dance bag on the pine foyer floor. Standing in her underwear she faced Grantaire.

           “They’re upstairs,” he rasped after a long moment. “And almost asleep.”

           “Can I see them?”

           “Only if you intend for the first words out of your mouth to be ‘Jehan is the best, better than the very best, but because there is no word for better than the very best, I just call them sir! Or ma’am. Whichever they prefer on any given day.’”

           “I’ll say it every day for the rest of my life if they won’t hate me.”

           “Well, they already broke a bottle with your face on it.  So we’ll just have to see.” He beckoned her to follow him up the stairs. “And if either of you use the word slut, tramp, harlot or whore to describe yourself, one another, or anyone except maybe Montparnasse, I’ll break bottles on both your faces.”

           Once they were at Jehan’s bedroom door, Grantaire disappeared inside for a moment and then popped his head out again to give Éponine the go. She entered slowly. In the darkness, Jehan’s eyes fell upon her with the sting of a knife.

           “I come to you totally naked as a metaphor for baring my heart,” she said, her voice warbling.

           “You’re not totally naked,” they returned airily. “You could be more naked.”

           Éponine grinned, dark eyes sparkling bright with tears again. She rushed forward and fell to her knees at Jehan’s bedside. “I’m sorry Jehan. I am so, so sorry. I slept with your boyfriend, a lot, and I kept it a secret from you, and I never told you. That is NOT what friends do, and I hurt you, and I hate that I hurt you. I want to be better, but you don’t have to forgive me. I fucked up really, really badly and I don’t know what I can do to make up for it.”

           Jehan studied her. “Will you talk to Combeferre? Will you apologize to him too?”

           She bit her lip fiercely and nodded. The thought made anxiety eat her stomach, but she would.

           Jehan breathed out slowly through their nose. Then, they placed a hand upon Éponine’s wet hair and drew her in for a kiss. “I forgive you,” they said when they were finished. Éponine gave a shaky cry of relief and buried her face in their neck, wrapping an arm tightly around their shoulder. “Go take a hot shower and come back more naked than this,” they said before rolling over and nestling into their pillow. Éponine chuckled wetly and climbed back to her feet, heading for the master bathroom. Grantaire grabbed her hand as she went.

           “Hey,” he said. “I was worried about you. I’m glad that you’re here, and that you’re okay.” She nodded, pulling him in for a hug.

           “I had a surreal evening…”

           “I’d love to hear about it in the morning.”

           “I… kind of want to keep it for myself, actually.”

           “Sure.” He shrugged. He released her, and she went quickly for the blissful relief of a shower. When she returned warm and dry, she only pulled on a discarded pair of Grantaire’s boxers before climbing into bed beside them. Sleepily, Jehan groped in the darkness behind themselves and brushed a hand over Éponine’s arm, pulling her in closer. She pressed herself against their back, face not far from Grantaire’s low snoring, and thanked the gods she didn’t believe in that she had found such a pack to embrace a dog like her.  

 

Chapter Text

 

            On Christmas Eve, a God descended upon the Thérnardier  motel.
            His hair was white as the winter sky and he stood broad-shouldered and looming above M. Thérnardier. His voice as he spoke to the master of the house was the thunder of tomorrow’s storm; a soft, low, dangerous promise. His yellow coat was threadbare. He took the barest room available for twice its worth. Grantaire carried his carpet bag to his room for him and the man looked him in the eye - Grantaire felt his breath catch in his throat, felt his knees shake under the graceful gaze of the old God - and he handed the boy a fifty. “Thank you, young man,” he had said in that rough gift of a voice, surely a timbre older than greatest oaks. He closed his door upon Grantaire and the boy remained for a moment longer, quite unable to move, wondering what parts of the ancient earth this being had sculpted with his great, coarse hands.
            In the morning he took Cosette and Angèle away.
            She had gone away wearing his hoodie, clutching Jean-Luc to her chest.
            She had gone away with long, clean hair, and clean teeth, and clean feet.
            She had gone away with her hand in Cosette’s. Her twin had her eyes cast to heaven. She had her eyes cast to Grantaire.
            She was gone. Grantaire lay on the bare, steel-framed bed in the attic. Light came in through the rose window, red upon the floorboards. He looked to the rafters.
            “She won’t forget you.”

 

Chapter Text

            Christmas came to Paris in a swirl of bells and snow and cheer. Grantaire kissed Jehan goodbye for the holidays, as they spent them with their grandparents at home in Montfermeil, and Grantaire kept them company via text as they suffered tense dinners with their recovering father and his new girlfriend. (Jehan reported to Grantaire that they had asked what her major at university was, and that she had sputtered and not answered the question. Grantaire had laughed his ass off and wished he had been there to see the look on her face.)
            He passed his holidays cleansing his soul of Academic Art with self indulgent paintings, silly comics for the internet, and an array of other personal projects. He filled the emptiness of the apartment by locking the cats in his studio with him (which resulted in more turpentine spills than comfort). Éponine came over often as well, sometimes to laugh and drink and sometimes to mope and drink and sometimes to dance with him and drink. Grantaire had been conscripted as a choreographer for the winter show, so they spent many an evening together at the studio micromanaging 12-year-olds through ballet-modern hybrid numbers that involved red tights and holly headbands.
            On Christmas day, Feuilly and the three Thénardier girls joined him for breakfast and a poor man’s gift exchange. Azelma baked sugar cookies, Feuilly brought buñuelos, Grantaire made pancakes and they all spent the morning stuffing themselves and watching holiday programs on TV.
            With the new year on the horizon, Grantaire picked up a last minute resolution and turned to the internet to learn how to sign “I’m so fucking sorry, man!!!” in LSF. (The profanity was a little harder to find documented online, but it was important to convey his sincerity and Grantaire was determined.) Quite some time had passed since the blunder Grantaire had made with Jehan’s guests, whom Grantaire could now identify as Joly and Bossuet, the first two members that had signed onto the weekly politics club that Grantaire was becoming familiar with. However, if Éponine could write an apology letter after three years, Grantaire could certainly right his wrongs after a month.
            With an address begged from Combeferre Grantaire arrived outside a sweet little apartment on a boulevard lined with skeletal trees. The branches directly outside his destination had been decorated with strings of fairy lights, and it was obvious who had put them there. The extension cord trailed right across the sidewalk and up the short stairs that Grantaire was standing on. Grantaire couldn’t believe that the city hadn’t contacted them about that DIY safety hazard yet, but he was endeared to the residents by their commitment to Christmas cheer.
            When at last the door (the candy pink door, it was important to note) opened to him, Grantaire went immediately into his memorized apology monologue, only to halt abruptly after four words to take in the man answering the door.
            “Are you… Is that flour?”
            “Why, yes it is.” The man - Bossuet, Grantaire recognized, despite the fact that he was absolutely covered from the top of his bald head all the way down his sweater in fine white flour, which shifted off of him in clouds every time he moved - had an odd tension in the line of his mouth, like he was trying not to laugh.
            “Are you… baking?”
            “No,” he said slowly, “I am... being a ghost. Of Christmas past.”
            “... Oh. Of course. Well. Is there a… living resident of this apartment that I may speak to?”
            Bossuet leaned backwards a little, looking over his shoulder into the apartment. After a moment, he turned back to Grantaire. “Not at this time. But we are… amenable to a seance?”
            And thus, Grantaire ended up in Joly and Bossuet’s kitschy pastel 1950s kitchen with the pair of them sheet-white with flour, a warm glass of cider in his hand, and a ouija board on the counter between them all. Though the plastic halloween shop ouija board had been pulled out of the closet as an extension of the original hijinks (the circumstances of which Grantaire would never learn), Joly did not hesitate to use it to make himself known here and there. Allowing Bossuet to translate would have been both quicker and easier, but the ouija board seemed to amuse him, and since Bossuet did not comment, Grantaire didn’t either.
            Neither of them seemed to have any interest in his apology monologue (Grantaire couldn’t help but internally pout at that a little, it had been very eloquent and sincere), as neither of them seemed interested in rehashing the events. Rather, the mere fact that he had showed up to apologize at all was good enough for them and Grantaire found himself quickly sucked into other topics.
            Conversation was easy, easier than Grantaire had expected given the communication barrier between himself and Joly. The boy was enthusiastic and dramatic in his expressions and above all else, verbal or not he made himself known. His exuberance covered Grantaire in flour. For his own part, though he was stiff at first, Grantaire found that being bright and open with this delightful and witty pair came as naturally to him as breathing. Their conversation with words and hands slid together so easily, without ever a pause for breath.
            Grantaire learned that they had grown up together, that they had been friends since they were little children living in the same (very posh) neighbourhood.  He learned that Joly’s family had never been fond of Bossuet, but that Bossuet had started teaching himself sign language the very day that they met, and how could Joly’s parents refuse anyone who loved their silent, nervous, isolated child so much? He learned that they had been each other’s first kiss in the woods when they were nine. He learned that they had parted ways when they were twelve and Joly’s family had moved to Seoul for his mother’s job. After four years Joly’s family moved back to Paris, and he and Bossuet attended the same school again; but they both decided that the other was way out of their league and too intimidatingly hot to talk to now, so they pined over each other for a full two months before they could work up the nerves to approach one another. He learned that they had been dating for the last two years, and that it had been in secret for the first of those due to Joly’s overprotective parents.
            The way they told these stories together in perfect tandem (though Bossuet provided the words to Grantaire, the story was hardly complete without Joly’s theatrical contributions) and smiling like loons made Grantaire’s heart glow. They seemed as though they could never get tired of talking about themselves, about one another. Like they could tell the story of their lives together over and over without ever getting tired of it, and it would inspire new delight and fondness between them every time. Grantaire thought that if he ever needed a good example to prove that true love was real he might parade these two around on his shoulders.
            And then they told him of an endeavor of theirs that had Grantaire very interested.
            At their favorite hangout, the famous cafe-by-day bar-by-night called the Musain where Grantaire recalled that their club meetings were hosted, there was a bartender. Or a barista, depending on the time of day. And according to the two of them, this bartender-barista was God’s personal, hand-crafted gift to all lovers of beauty and wit.
            She was an American girl, with russet skin and hair like a mermaid. She came by her French in the legendary bayous surrounding New Orleans. Her accent was “the sexiest, most delicious thing you have ever heard,” Bossuet assured him. She loved kickboxing, wicca, pet reptiles and women’s lacrosse. She was majoring in gender studies. She was built like Athena, like Atalanta, with the curves of luscious Aphrodite. She had the eyes of a fortune teller. And to top it all off, her brother was hard of hearing, and she was fluent in both ASL and LSF. “So why haven’t you asked her out yet?” Grantaire had demanded. Joly and Bossuet had looked at one another with a wicked grin.
            “Well you see,” Bossuet had said, “when we met her… I told her she really raised the bar…”
            “Well if she’s not a fan of puns, then she’s no one worth pursuing, Atalanta or no!” Joly mournfully shook his head at that and signed his response. Grantaire looked to Bossuet, who had a hand over his heart and was nodding his agreement.
            “Oh, she likes them all right,” Bossuet interpreted. “They’re her bride price. 500 puns.”
            “What?!”
            “We’ve been in there every Friday night for five weeks straight! We’re at a running total of 198. But the price of a date is set at 500.”
            Grantaire was aghast. He struggled to find the words. “You… you have found the greatest woman in the world.” Joly and Bossuet nodded furiously, sighing in tandem.
            “Well by God, I’ll help! I’ll go with you, we’ll knock it out of the park. All I ask is the price of my drinks.” They had laughed cheerily at that (Bossuet’s laughter was warm and golden and bright, with all the glitter of a child’s delight but the rich depth of a man, the most pleasant and musical laughter Grantaire had ever heard - Joly’s was ridiculously charming, open-mouthed but silent and breathy, shoulders shaking, grinning a brilliant white smile) and they gladly agreed.
            So Grantaire first set foot in the famed Musain on a busy Friday night, seated beside them at the bar to help them win their bartenderista. And by golly, it was true - she had a voice like honey and hips that could knock a man out and she was worth every single play on words. And so it became a hobby of his, going drinking with Joly and Bossuet on Friday nights and getting wittier as they got drunker. Grantaire found in Joly the only fellow he’d ever met who could drink him under the table, despite being half his size, and in Bossuet the best man to shepherd both their silly asses home. His respect for them grew tenfold as they all nursed hangovers together on Saturday mornings before Joly and Bossuet departed for club meetings.
            And on a morning shortly after the New Year, Grantaire found himself there independent of them, during the bar’s quiet daytime hours. He had arrived on Éponine’s arm but now she sat on the other end of the bar with Combeferre. Grantaire cradled a black coffee in his chilly palms and tried to look like he wasn’t eavesdropping. By the end, Éponine’s mascara was running but they were laughing like old friends.
            And not long after that, Feuilly began to summon him to the Musain after long shifts at work, and Grantaire found himself in closer company with Feuilly’s other friends than he had ever consciously intended. He learned that Combeferre was an enthusiastic disciple of Fox Mulder, and the pair of them spent a solid three hours discussing the possibilities of the universe, trading both science and X-files theories. He and Courfeyrac had a passionate discussion of the morality of vandalism, the blurred lines of graffiti and street art and public art, and street art as the voice of the oppressed lower class, and then they made a list of all of their friends in order of bangability. Sitting between Feuilly and Jehan, he collaborated on their flyer design for an upcoming wallpapering campaign, which devolved into 7 pages of his sketchbook being devoted to doodles of butts.
            However unintended, as he pounded the table with Éponine, Feuilly, Bahorel, Jehan, Courfeyrac, Joly and Bossuet as Combeferre drunkenly sang out the elements of the periodic table, it dawned upon him that their once separate groups had gently merged into one whole, and that he was a part of their hopeful society, despite having never attended a meeting. Cautiously he wondered if it was perhaps time to change that.

            And so it was that on a mid-January Saturday afternoon Grantaire wrapped a scarf around Éponine’s disgruntled face and prepared to go to their first ever meeting of Les Amis de l’ABC.
            “Hfhf fhoofif auh.”
            Grinning, Grantaire pulled the scarf away from her mouth. “Come again?”
            “This is stupid, R. You don’t care about politics. Why wasn’t drinking with them enough?”
            “Oh, come on. Surely you’re at least a little bit curious as to what goes on in those meetings.”
            “Boring, naive faffle about how we all need to get out there and picket McDonalds and save the whales.”
            “You don’t know that. Maybe ‘activist group’ is just a ruse, and they’re really having weekly organized orgies, with pig sacrifices and pagan worship and five orgasms each. And we dumb saps are missing out because they’ve fooled us with their cover story.”
            “Which of the Musain’s barstaff gets to clean up the pig blood and bodily fluids?”
            “Maybe they’ll make us do it as an initiation. With our tongues…”
            “Fucking gross.” Éponine stormed out the front door into the bright winter light and Grantaire trotted happily along out after her.
            When they arrived at the Musain, Feuilly and Jehan were milling around at the bar and they escorted the pair of newcomers up to the secluded second floor. The atmosphere here was a little homier and cozier than the clean commercial area below. Unlike the vinyl booths and wooden stools with tall, round little tables, the furniture up here was older, more worn and more comfortable. There were armchairs and a sofa, larger group tables with sturdy wooden chairs, and one long oak table in the light of the broad windows that spanned the back wall and overlooked the street. Grantaire and Éponine set themselves at a table in the corner with Jehan while Feuilly went below for drinks.
            Jehan set themself to painting Grantaire’s nails a pale shade of lilac as they informed him of how the meetings usually go. Grantaire was surprised to know that he had already met all of the members of the society - all except one, Jehan said, the fearless leader himself - but before he could elaborate, a ruckus echoed up from the stairwell as the rest of the group swarmed in together. Feuilly lead the procession with a tray of drinks. Joly and Bossuet were behind him, snagging glasses from his tray and coming to sit near Grantaire, Éponine and Jehan. Bahorel slid the tray from Feuilly’s hands and set it upon the table, and last of all came Courfeyrac and Combeferre, and emerging behind them -


            Eyes
            Blue eyes, hard eyes
            Eyes like summer heat, like chlorine, like lightning
            If a bullet had smashed through his ribcage and nailed itself in his wildly beating heart, Grantaire would not have known the difference between it and the sensation of her eyes upon him.
            Such silence as the drowning stillness of an erupted mind is the loudest and longest and emptiest silence there is, and if their friends still chattered, if the bar below still thrived, if Paris still vibrated with life, Grantaire did not know. There was but one sound in the world and it was breath escaping past her lips, and the hollow syllables awakening on his tongue, folding and unfolding around the word:
            “Angèle?”
            My electric child, my feral beauty, my Artemis of the rafters?
            Are you a ghost - are you for me alone?
            How can you be here? What dream, what vision of grief - Am I a child and you a child, in our rose-colored attic with my hands in your golden hair?
            I have not been real since the day you left.
            You look nothing like my paintings.
            “Angèle?” again.
            She pushed shoulders aside, tore air from lungs, took the stairs like a wrecking ball, and she was gone, gone, gone. Gone in half the heartbeat she had arrived in. She had struck the earth and receded into heaven, perhaps, and what she left was heavy silence, and eight pairs of eyes burning holes in Grantaire, and all he could do was stare at the empty place where Angèle had been.