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Un Grand Peut-Être

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“Do you think me a coward?” The question was directed at no one in particular; rather, at the glass of watered wine that sat, untouched, between Enjolras' hands.

Grantaire glanced around the table. Prouvaire, dimmed; Courfeyrac, greyer and wilting, so apart he seemed not to be sitting with them at all. Grantaire himself had almost passed on by. At the last his eyes and feet had strayed, drawn perversely to their old café and the room where they had once laid so many plans.

It had been dark, without a single candle; and empty at first glance – but as he had looked, the slightest suggestion of movement had caught his eye. For a fleeting moment, Grantaire had entertained the thought of turning and walking away. The possibility dizzied him. Then, as he had known he would, he limped down the corridor and went into the darkness.

At the table it was, of course, Enjolras. Grantaire sat down opposite him and poured a glass of wine from an untouched bottle. Since Enjolras didn't speak, Grantaire didn't either. It had been a month. There didn't seem to be words big enough.

Prouvaire and Courfeyrac had drifted in seperately, as if drawn by some unknown magnetism. Prouvaire had greeted them with a cautious nod; Courfeyrac had thrown himself down, looking as if he wished he could be anywhere else. A waitress brought a candle, and they had sat grim and quiet in its light.

Grantaire now shook his head. “You're no coward.”

Enjolras darted a burning look at him, the first he'd given any of them. Grantaire stiffened his jaw, but Prouvaire cut him off before he could speak again. Without looking up, he said, “Perhaps. Perhaps we all are.”

Courfeyrac bridled. “We're not cowards.” He glared at them, and all the structure of his face seemed so brittle, so false. “You shame the dead to call us so.”

A shiver went through Enjolras at the word 'dead'. Grantaire did not miss it.

“Not the dead,” Prouvaire spat. “Not – not our friends.” His voice fell. “They are martyrs.”

Enjolras clutched his wineglass and said, “We should have all been martyrs.” His voice had a strained quality. “We should have thrown ourselves on their bayonets.” His eyes were too wide, reflecting twin candle flames. “I see them, in the dark of the night. Combeferre visits me, his face all blood and empty eyed. Joly, so startled by the bullet that took him down. Feuilly. I didn't even realise he was dead until I turned to see why he didn't answer me.”

Prouvaire's face had fallen, and he stared at Enjolras, helpless in the grip of memory. Courfeyrac drained his glass and reached for the bottle. Grantaire put out a hand to Enjolras, but it faltered and dropped. “Look,” he said, putting steel into his voice, “there's nothing you could have done to save them. Nothing at all.”

Enjolras turned his eyes on him, and they seemed to swim, as with a fever. “I don't want to have saved them. It's right that they died. They died glorious deaths, fighting in the name of freedom. I should have died with them.” He shook his head. “I should have known it would have been you, Grantaire, who would pull me down. I wish to God I hadn't listened.” He raised his glass, a crooked smile twisting his perfect lips. “Here's to you, Grantaire, and me. We're both cowards now.” He drank the wine in one swallow, and stood abruptly. “I'm leaving. I shan't come back here again.”


Up there, on the barricade, a hot gun in his hand and his fingers covered in blisters, his face with blood, Enjolras had never felt more free, and glorious, and shining. He would have gone on fighting until the bullets found his heart and then he would have died smiling.

Of course, it was terrible, terrible in a way he could talk about for hours and hours, pulse pounding in his ears, like the travails of the poor. The blood on the streets was so bright and so red it looked just like paint. He stood above it all, for the briefest of moments, and pictured himself in a grand painting, a battle scene.

But his friends came, and took his arm, and told him that he didn't have to die. It had been Grantaire, in the end, face flushed and eyes wild, who had begged him to come down. He looked so pitiful; Enjolras, flying, looked down at him as an eagle would on an ant. But there was something – maybe simply the generosity of the better man – that made him fold, and climb down. Instead of dying wonderfully, Enjolras lived. They fled into the sewers. Paris clambered from its bloody night into a stained and battered dawn.


Autumn came, shortening the daylight hours and chilling the air. The wealthy strolled on the wide boulevards and took tea in warm cafés, while in the narrow streets whores and homeless urchins glanced up to the darkening skies and tightened their coats. Every day was a little colder. There were days of rain, a heavy, dense fall that soaked any walking in it; and crisp, bright days where every colour leapt and the morning began wearing a skin of frost. Then, like an augury, came the first snow, falling in little white flakes that died on the ground.

Grantaire walked. After the rebellion, Paris had been quieter, emptier, for days, the streets subdued. But as the last bloodstains left the gutters, the city forgot, shaking off its grief and filling again with the noise and garbage of life. It was as it had been. For Grantaire, though, there was nowhere to go back to. He drifted at the edges of groups he'd once shunned, largely unnoticed. Friendships already had their structures; they had no room for refugees.

So he walked. He would begin in the café beneath his rooms, and drink enough to feel the heat in the pit of his stomach. Then, leaving that overwarm den, the streets. He hated to drink alone. So he strolled from wine shop to café, café to tavern, with a book under his arm. Sometimes he read while he walked. As the evenings grew colder, he took to keeping a flask of brandy inside his coat. He crossed and recrossed the Seine every day, but he never strayed too close to the Jardin du Luxembourg, and the streets around it. He stayed away from the Café Musain like an open wound.

Infrequently, days came when it was all he could do to crawl out of his miserable pallet and drag himself, wrapped in his blankets, to the canvas and his paints. These days didn't come often. After a few hours, the grey walls would begin to seem like the walls of a tomb; and everything he painted seemed to end up overwhelmingly black. He would return to his bed, and burrow into the thin blankets, and try to sleep again.

So, autumn drew on into winter, and Grantaire walked, and drank, and read, and walked.

Jean Prouvaire was on his way out of the café, drawing his coat and his scarf about him against the snow, when the bigger man bumped into him. He apologised reflexively, not looking up, and would have walked on had the man not said “Jehan?”

Prouvaire looked up. No one called him 'Jehan' any more.

It was Grantaire. In a perfectly inadequate coat and no cravat, a silver flask in his hand, he stared at Prouvaire as one staring at a ghost.

Prouvaire stood uncertainly, as the snow fell soft and silent around them, settling on their shoulders. Grantaire wore no hat, and his dishevelled hair was full of of it. “Grantaire,” Prouvaire said at last, “I have not seen you.”

Grantaire shrugged, attempting a careless smile and falling a little on the earnest side. “I have not seen you, either, so you can't accuse me of avoiding you.” Just then, a shiver overtook him and he hugged his arms to himself.

“I was going to do no such thing.” Prouvaire struggled for more to say. The man he might once have, at a stretch, called a friend looked paler, leaner. At last, he said, “Who do you go about with, now?”

Shaking his head, Grantaire kept his eyes on Jean, as if he dared not look away lest he disappear. “No one in particular.”

“Well.” Prouvaire, in order to avoid Grantaire's intent gaze, busied himself buttoning his coat. “I have things to attend to. I must take my leave of you.” He looked up, awkwardness filling his mouth like wool. “It has been... it has been good to see you.”

“Will you not stop to have one drink?” The naked pleading in Grantaire's voice made Jean's cheeks flush. “For old times' sake?” The words twisted ugly in Prouvaire's chest, and he shook his head, frowning. Grantaire made as if to step forward and close the distance between them, but he stumbled, hand flailing out for support. Prouvaire caught him, steadying him with a hand on his side.

“You're drunk already,” Prouvaire said, and Grantaire shook his head. He began to say something but was seized by a fit of wet coughing. His chest sounded rough and heavy. His legs trembled under him. Prouvaire looked around.

The street was dark and muffled with snow. Passersby hurried on, bundled in coats, scarves, hats. Looking back at Grantaire, Jean saw he was paper white, despite the biting cold. Casting one last, helpless glance about him, Jean put his arm around Grantaire, shouldering his weight. “Come along with me,” he said. “I shan't leave you here.”

“Gladly,” Grantaire breathed. “It really is good to see you again, Jehan.”


Crawling out from the sewers in the dawn's bleak light, Grantaire lost the others. He stumbled through the grey streets, drunk half on wine and half on death. Images he didn't want made a battleground of his battered skull. He passed by the ruins of barricades, by the weeping wounded and the silent dead, by gendarmes on the march. As he passed by, whores withdrew into doorways, and children stared with wide, impassive eyes. When he looked down, he saw that the left leg of his trousers was rent and soaked with blood.

Grantaire found a wine shop that by some miracle wasn't shuttered and he staggered in. It was almost empty. He collapsed into a seat in the corner and put his savaged leg up on the chair next to him. The owner tried to threaten him with a broom, but Grantaire made him bring him a bottle instead. He uncorked the red and drank from the bottle, like a beggar in the street. The wine spilled and stained his shirt, mingling with the blood there. He drank until he finished the bottle, and called for another one, and thought of Enjolras, alive, and so many of their friends dead; and he kept drinking until his leg no longer hurt and he passed out in his chair.

When Grantaire at last awoke from deep, dark dreams, it was to the cold winter sunlight streaming through the window onto the bed where he lay. The windowpanes were frosted, fronds of ice creeping like the fingers of ghosts over the glass. A shiver trembled through Grantaire's body; his teeth chattered, one short burst; then it passed. He squinted at the sunshine, and went to raise a hand to his eyes. He found he was unable. His traitor arm didn't respond; his nerves were the merest spark inside his body's meat.
Moreover, he noted, mind sluggish, this wasn't his room. This wasn't his bed. Both were much more pleasant than the damp garret he was accustomed to. The room was bright and there was the scent – as faint as perfume on someone who had just left – of roses. With effort, he craned his neck to look along the length of the bed.

At the edge of the bed was Jean Prouvaire. In an open waistcoat and shirtsleeves, he sat, slumped, on the floor beside the bed, cheek pressed against the mattress, face slack in sleep. The sunlight gilded his hair and cast deep shadows under his eyes.

With a hand that was clumsy with long sleep, Grantaire stretched his fingers to touch Jehan's spun-gold hair.

Jehan started up at the touch as if slapped. When he saw Grantaire, he relaxed, shoulders slumping. “Oh, Grantaire. It's only you.” Leaning in, with a cool, dry hand he felt Grantaire's forehead. Grantaire watched him with perplexed eyes. “You feel better. Cooler.”

Opening his mouth to say something, demand answers, Grantaire found he could do no more than cough weakly. His throat lit up with agony and his cough tailed off into a whimper. Jehan patted the air around him, soothing, and said, “Be still. I will get you water.” He was gone for the briefest of moments before he was back, kneeling again and slipping his hand behind Grantaire's head to help him to the glass.

The moment the water touched his lips, it awoke a thirst like a great and terrible beast. He groped for the glass with a hand he'd thought incapable. Water spilled down his chin, cold on his chest. When Jehan eased the glass away from him, he struggled, uselessly. Jehan pressed him back to the bed with one hand. A cold water headache struck him like a knife in the skull, and Grantaire closed his eyes against it, only to open them again when Jehan spoke.

“You've been ill, mon ami. Do you remember our meeting, in the snow, on the Rue Tronchet?” He half-smiled when Grantaire frowned. His whole face was painted in lines of weariness. “It is not the cholera, thank God.” With a familiar hand, he smoothed an errant strand of hair from Grantaire's forehead. At the touch, Grantaire let his eyes fall closed again. It had been an achingly long while since he had been touched by anyone. “You will live, Grantaire.”

Grantaire coughed again, and it was like a razor in his throat. I will live, he thought, as Prouvaire held him up again to the water. He swallowed it down like he hadn't drunk in a year; he could have drunk the seas. I will live.

When he threw the water up again, later, Prouvaire held the wastebasket for him, and rubbed his back, and afterwards brought him more water to drink, though he didn't let him drink so much. Grantaire slipped in and out of uneasy dreams as the day wore on. Every time he came to, the light was dimmer. At last, when Paris outside was grey and the room sunk in shadow, and Grantaire shivered in his sleep despite the blankets, Prouvaire slipped out of his waistcoat and crawled into the bed beside him. They curled around one another, like quotation marks, like brushstrokes. Waking in the darkness with his arm over Jehan, the little slip of a man, Grantaire thought, I will live, and for the first time in such a very long time the thought didn't seem like the direst fate in the world.

“I wish you wouldn't.”

“Wouldn't what?”

“Drink that.”

“Well, I wish you wouldn't berate me for a splash of harmless gin. I seize up without lubrication, you know.”

Prouvaire frowned. “You would be better off without it.” To Grantaire, he looked like a boy who had lost his dog, all exquisite seriousness.

Grantaire gave Jehan his most winning smile (which was not very winning at all, though Grantaire thought it was). He gestured with the pad of paper Jehan had lent him. “Without it, I cannot draw. Do you want to end up looking like a tramp? Or a woman?”

“Your hands still shake. I'm going to look as if I am made of jelly.”

They sat on the rug in front of the fire, Grantaire wrapped in a blanket with his back against a chair, and Jehan cross-legged, pen in hand. Jehan wrote; Grantaire sketched. He was sketching Jehan again. Beside the bed he slept in – Jehan's bed – there was a stack of loose drawings. Here was cast in certain lines a pot of roses, there a chair; but for the most part, the drawings were of Jehan. Jehan writing, bent double and scowling in concentration. Jehan sleeping, golden hair in tangles. Jehan put up with Grantaire's near constant scrutiny with patient amusement.

Now, Grantaire was scoring dark lines around Jehan's shoulders. “No. My hands are fine. For drawing, anyway. Art has always been the one thing I've been ubiquitously, relentlessly good at. No matter how much of a ruin the rest of me is.” He went on sketching awhile, before glancing up.

Jehan was gazing at him, from under his delicate brows. “If you tried,” he said, haltingly, and Grantaire got the impression that he wasn't going to like what he had to say, “you could be different.”

Silence fell over them like snow. Jehan's lip quivered, but he didn't not look away. He held Grantaire's gaze with a defiant lift of his chin. Sighing, Grantaire set his pencil down. “But I am not different,” he said. “You are different. You thrash about in your sleep and when you're awake you're always preoccupied, as if a part of you is somewhere else.” Jehan looked down. “The others are different. We despise one another for the memories we were part of together. Man cannot change. Man is changed.” Grantaire shivered, despite his blanket and the warmth of the fire. “But I am not changed.” A small, sad smile travelled over his face. “I was broken to begin with, you see.”

A moment more of silence. Then Jehan set his notepad aside and shifted, over the rug, to kneel where Grantaire sat. Grantaire looked up at him, eyes clear and without guile. Jehan curled a hand around the nape of his neck, fingers running through the short, soft hairs there. Lips parting, he bent, and pressed his forehead to Grantaire's.

Grantaire closed his eyes. Their breath met and mingled. Nose nudged nose. Jehan's hand on his neck felt almost proprietorial. Without willing it, his hand came up and took hold of the front of Jehan's shirt.

When he opened his eyes, he found Jehan staring at him.

“You feel hot,” Jehan said.

“I feel tired,” Grantaire confessed.

“Come.” Jehan gently took Grantaire's hand from his shirt and stood, pulling Grantaire after him. Ostensibly for support, Grantaire wound an arm around Jehan's waist, bringing him close. Together, they went to bed.


He didn't want to leave, but at last Grantaire conceded defeat in the face of Jehan's so-awkward, charmingly uncomfortable hint-dropping. Grantaire was aware of his own history; he had outstayed every welcome he had ever had. Stepping out after his days in the bright, warm rooms was a wrench in the guts, but he made his boots walk him down the stairs and out into the snow. He didn't look back. (If he had, he would have seen Prouvaire vascillating in the doorway, mouth all troubled and tremulous. If he had, Prouvaire might have called him back again.) On the long, unsteady walk home, the period of his convalescence faded with each step into no more than another chapter in his personal history, his degenerate epic: the memory of sunlight in his eyes and the scent of roses on his clothes.

In his own dank home, he had closed the door and come halfway into the room before the person waiting for him rose from their seat in the shadows. Grantaire stopped still, hands closing into fists.

Enjolras, unsmiling, stood, and regarded Grantaire with an inscrutable eye. He said nothing. Grantaire wondered if all his meetings were to be like this now: stilted, strange, and punctuated by heavy silences. Not knowing what to say, Grantaire said, “Good day.”

Enjolras stared at him as if he were the most tedious being on earth. “I had heard you were dying,” he said, folding his arms. “I came to see if it was true.”

Grantaire spread his hands with a smile that reached for wry. “As you can see, I'm alive and well. I am comforted to hear I'm still a subject of gossip about town.”

At last, a familiar exasperation flickered over Enjolras' face. But more was unfamiliar. Where once he had been dishevelled, disregarding fashion in favour of oratory and arms, he was now as smart as a pin. His sleeves were without a scuff, his waistcoat a lá mode. His unruly curls had been made to behave. Only his hands were ink-stained. Grantaire remembered that. That seemed an echo from another time. Now, this new Enjolras narrowed his eyes. “You don't look well. You barely look alive.”

Shrugging his shoulders and turning his head in a non-committal way, Grantaire said, “I am recuperating.” In the dimness of his rooms, he felt chilled to the bone. He tightened his coat – a borrowed coat, deep sapphire blue with frayed cuffs and more than a little too small, courtesy of Prouvaire – and looked about the room for the first time in what was only weeks, but seemed like a year. It was then that he noticed what was wrong. “Enjolras, where are my paintings?” He looked to Enjolras, and then around again, as if they were somehow hidden behind his few meagre sticks of furniture.

Enjolras raised a razor-sharp eyebrow. “Oh, those canvases you painted?” he said, as airily as if discussing a lost hairbrush. He smiled a little absently. “I burned them.”

“You... you burned them?” Grantaire took an uncertain step toward Enjolras, the possibility that it might be a joke flitting through his mind – then summarily extinguished by the look on Enjolras' face, and the turn of his clothes, and everything that was new about him. “Why?”

“They were so...” Enjolras waved a hand, “dark. So fatalistic. All doom and gloom.” His eyes darted about the room, too intent. “Altogether too much of a pessimistic frame of mind. No one needed to see those.” His overbright eyes lighted on Grantaire again, and he smiled a calm smile. “They kept me warm, though, while I waited for you.”

On unsteady feet, Grantaire went to the fireplace. He fell to his knees. In the grate, amidst the heaps of ashes, were the charcoal remains of what might have once been canvas frames. Grantaire sifted the ashes in his hand, spilling them over the floor. They were cold, the fire long dead. Looking up, he saw Enjolras watching him, face untroubled as still water.

Without thinking, Grantaire closed the distance between them. He took Enjolras by the lapels, held him, fists white-knuckled. “My paintings,” he said, and what he wanted to be a snarl came out more as a kind of yelp. Ash from his hands smeared Enjolras' smart red coat. “How could you?”

Enjolras fixed Grantaire with a stare. Grantaire felt his breath, soft, calm, upon his face. Close to, Grantaire could see lines on Enjolras' face that hadn't been there before.

Grantaire had always been the bigger of the pair. But he was thinner now, and weaker. So when Enjolras seized his shirtfront and shoved him to the wall, forcing him to stumble backwards, there was little he could do. Suddenly, his world was all Enjolras: his glare, his face, the same as ever and at once different, inches away; his hand at Grantaire's throat, full of easy potential.

Breath coming short, searing his raw chest, Grantaire lifted his chin, surrendering his throat to Enjolras' hand. He still held his lapels, in weak hands. The thought of his lost paintings smarted in Grantaire's heart: he had hated them, but they had been by his own hand. But the thought warred with the intoxication of Enjolras' proximity, the heady scent of him, the well-remembered lines of his face, changed but still the same. All he wanted, Grantaire thought, cloudily, all he really wanted, was some fragment of what he had lost. Jehan was a scrap whirling in the smoke of the fire that had consumed them. Enjolras was too.

Grantaire leaned forward, so gently, pressing his throat into Enjolras' hand. Enjolras' eyes widened, so briefly anyone else might never have noticed his surprise. Then, leaning from his shoulder, he pressed the other man into the wall. Grantaire's hands at Enjolras' lapels shook as he pulled Enjolras cautiously against him.

He had never imagined Enjolras to be warm. He was, though: a furnace against Grantaire's chill. Grantaire's bruised lungs ached for air; Enjolras' ink-stained hand at his throat, body against his body, trapped him, held him. Enjolras' eyes, fathomless, never left his. His mouth, a little open; his lips damp and cheeks flushed. He had never looked more angelic, not even on the barricade.

Spots swam before Grantaire's eyes. His chest was bursting, his head so light. A little noise escaped him, faint and urgent, eloquent of inexpressible want. To die with his world full of Enjolras, he had the chance to reflect, would be the best of all possible ways to die. Then his legs went from under him.

He collapsed to the floor, back against the wall. Enjolras let go and whirled away from him, taking one, two, four, six, steps to the other side of the room, each one a gulf of limitless space. He raked his hand through his hair, mussing his hitherto-immaculate curls. On the floor, Grantaire wheezed. Blessed air filled his lungs. A cough overtook him, racking his body and shredding his throat. He curled into himself, pain all over.

Enjolras spoke without turning. His voice was thick with something – some kind of emotion, the first he'd shown. “I'm sorry.” He shook his head. “I wanted to kill something. My hands... it seems all they long for, these days.” There was a sad humour to his tone.

Grantaire hugged his knees to his chest and tried to catch his breath.

At last Enjolras turned. His face was all taut lines and fierce eyes. “Do you know, I had a dream?” A crooked smile like a scar twisted his beautiful face. “I dreamt you and I died, that night on the barricade. We died as dawn broke. I took your hand and we died in one shining, blessed moment.”

“How nice it must have been,” Grantaire rasped, “to die quickly.”

Enjolras laughed. He hung his head, and his golden hair obscured his face. His murderous hands hung limp at his sides. “Yes.” The light of the evening's dying sun, slanted and bounced from window to window into Grantaire's dim tenement, limned him in blood red. “Well. That's out of the question, now, isn't it?” Grantaire caught Enjolras' gaze as he looked up, and saw that his eyes sought the answer to his own question.

In reply, Grantaire held out a hand, from his position on the floor.

Enjolras crossed the room, and took it, and allowed himself to be pulled down.

In later years, the question of Enjolras' erstwhile friends came up from time to time. In the more formal political circles in which he moved, such shabbiness, such mutual disregard for social convention, such unashamed friendship as they had enjoyed, caused muttering and sidelong looks. Enjolras let it come, wash over him, and die down again. He had come too far and risen too fast for rumour and resentment to injure him now.

Sometimes he saw Courfeyrac. They crossed each others' path most often at parties, and least often at meetings. Courfeyrac was cold, and bright, and poised, with glittering eyes that saw everything. Enjolras never saw so much as a shadow of his once-friend in the new man he had become. He found that, more than anything, he was glad.

His awareness of Jean Prouvaire was marginal – he was just another little artist in a city of thousands. He knew Prouvaire still wrote, and had published a book of poetry. He knew that the book had been widely panned by every critic of any importance, and had sunk without a trace. As for himself, Enjolras had not read it.

(What Enjolras didn't know – what no one knew – was that Prouvaire had hidden away a stash of very different poems to the thin, boneless fare he had published. He added to it daily. His secret poems were as deep and dark as nightmares, and he showed them to no one.)

Grantaire had been the only one who had not been changed by the failure of the uprising. His downward trajectory had remained the same as it had always been.

Grantaire, Enjolras still remembered well. That old dream of how things might have ended – dying together in a blood red dawn – was as faded and dog-eared as a well-thumbed photograph now. The life before the uprising seemed ethereal, as if he had imagined that, too. In his memory, the two blended together, the dream and the life; so that if Enjolras idly thought of it, he thought of that self as another man, who had died long ago. The man who had been Grantaire in that other life had died too. In death, their story was complete. They were perfect.

But Enjolras did not think of it often.