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Achilles Heel (vivere disce, cogita mori)

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It was past midnight by the time Grantaire returned to his lodgings in relative triumph from the Bal de Sceaux. He began to fill a final tumbler of brandy in preparation for bed. The sudden and startling knock at his door was not an interruption unfamiliar to him in the early hours, but Grantaire was more accustomed to it heralding a demand for unpaid rent, or the guest of a neighbour lost while stumbling towards the staircase, than the unexpected visitation of an archangel. Nevertheless it was the latter sight to which his door now gave way. On Grantaire’s face consternation fought a losing battle to displace confusion as he groped for some good deed of his, unknowingly committed, which might explain this unexpected pleasure.

In shirtsleeves, his hair loose around his face, Enjolras was a vision in ivory and gold. Framed in the shadows of the doorway he presented a sight so arresting that it took a moment for Grantaire, drunk and exhausted as he was, to be sufficiently de-dazzled to notice the unsettled look in his eye, the hand clenched tightly at his side, and, finally, the blood and bruises accentuating a pallor that was, now that he came to look more closely, perhaps more extreme than he was used to seeing.

Enjolras squared his shoulders. “Grantaire, am I disturbing you? Only – ”

“Not at all,” he said, and turned aside to usher him into the cramped apartment. Enjolras’ presence and undivided attention was having the sobering effect of a pitcher of cold water in the face. As Enjolras passed Grantaire took note of the livid bruise that marked his cheekbone and the traces of blood marring the delicate corner of his mouth.

“You’re fortunate in your timing. I’ve just returned from several hours at the place where every fallen woman in Paris is only too happy to let herself be picked up,” Grantaire began. “As for yourself? From the look of you, you’ve spent the evening in far less convivial company. Should I deduce that your vision of a new Republic couldn’t be contained within four walls, and that the planning of its exact delineation spilled into the street again?”

Enjolras sank against the wall, almost looking grateful for its support. “We had a more than usually disruptive crowd tonight – including, I think, some paid provocateurs. Towards the end they took issue with us, and Bahorel and I took issue back. You’ve seen it before, when verbal sparring cannot avoid giving way to the physical.”

He took his hand from his pocket, a torn scrap of paper fluttering from between his fingers to the floor, and shook it out with a grimace. His knuckles were bloody and swollen.

“I believe we had the best of it, but still – I’d be obliged if you’d assist me in dealing with the worst of it. I just need to clean myself up, if you’ll oblige me with the means?”

“Gladly – and on top of that, I can oblige you with the best and most immediate remedy at my disposal,” Grantaire said, and he pressed the bottle of brandy into Enjolras’ undamaged hand. Enjolras frowned, but drank unquestioningly, giving every sign of distaste and shuddering as he swallowed.

Fetching a damp cloth from the nightstand and taking Enjolras’ hand between his own, Grantaire wiped off the worst of the blood on his knuckles, testing the flex of each finger in turn. Enjolras’ breath caught once or twice but he was otherwise stock-still, looking resolutely over Grantaire’s shoulder as he brought the cloth up to his face and, with tentative swipes, gradually erased the dried blood at his mouth.

Enjolras’ lower lip was very red, swollen as though stung, and still faintly slick from his mouthful of brandy. Preventing his gaze from lingering too blatantly was, at this hour, more effort than Grantaire felt capable of putting in.

“Why seek out my particular bolt-hole,” he said, hoping to distract himself as much as Enjolras, “when you have your more suitable lieutenants to hand and to heel?”

Enjolras passed a hand over his face. “Your lodgings are closest to the Musain. I also thought you might find being called upon at this time of night less of an inconvenience than Combeferre or Joly – you having currently, as I understand it, no mistress who might be occupying both your attention and your sheets.”

Grantaire could take no offence at this bluntness – Enjolras had always had the wit to wound him, but never the malice – and he responded only by muttering “Ah, indeed – that inch of common ground where we both unhappily plant our flags.”

He was about to take the bottle back when Enjolras raised it to his lips again, drinking deeply and swallowing hard. Grantaire, somewhat taken aback, gave a nod of approval.

“You’ll find that the most effective cure and protection one can afford – although at that price for a bottle I’d rather hoped it would last me more than one evening. No matter – I am nothing if not hospitable, and you may immerse yourself in these Stygian waters to any depth you desire, only leave me enough to splash myself awake tomorrow. Now, are you injured beyond what’s evident, or merely your pride?’

“The shock’s subsiding, I believe – the drink is helping, I’m obliged to you,” Enjolras said, and drew the back of his hand across his mouth. “In the street, I went down and took a few kicks to the ribs, but it’s hardly –”

He broke off to drink again, Grantaire watching in fascination as the muscles of his throat flexed and another shiver ran through him. Made daring by the licence so far granted him to lay on hands, he reached out to grip the juncture of Enjolras’ bare neck and shoulder. Cold sweat clung beneath his hair and, under the worn-thin linen of his shirt, he was trembling.

Grantaire jerked his head towards the bed. “Lie down, and let’s assess the damage. If I make matters worse, then you’re at liberty to turn me in or shoot me, as you like.”

With some reluctance but no apparent difficulty, Enjolras unbuttoned his waistcoat, pulled his shirt over his head and, still in his mud-spattered boots and trousers, stretched out on his back. He fixed his gaze upon the smoke-discoloured plaster of the ceiling. Divested of a winding-sheet, his corpse-pale body was bruised rather than broken, marked with dirt and sweat, a scattering of purplish marks below his ribcage and down his side. Along his ribs blood had dried darkly on a shallow scrape where perhaps some kind of blade, before being turned aside, had pierced the skin.

Grantaire retrieved the cloth, dropping it in his washbowl, and brought both forward. “Well. I’m neither a druggist nor a doctor, and so the most I can do is clean you up somewhat and give you this.” He set down what remained of his best pot of liniment. “I find it makes injuries less intolerable – though this is after singlestick rather than single-minded pursuit of liberty, if we are to suppose a vast gulf between the merits of the two. I take it you’ll stop me if anything inconveniences you, or – ”

Enjolras cut his eyes at him, then let them fall shut. “It won’t. Be quick, and don’t concern yourself with either cosseting or provoking me.”

Falling silent, Grantaire crouched next to the bed and leant across to spread the washcloth, damp with tepid water, over Enjolras’ chest. The beat of his heart was palpable beneath his palm, but other than this sign of life Enjolras, lying still and pale on the stained and crumpled sheets, resembled nothing so much as a gilded marble sculpture on top of a tomb.

It was hardly the way Grantaire might have chosen to bring him to bed. In the high spirits of the evening just passed, he had almost been able to forget the future’s imminent lows, but Enjolras was a constant reminder of quite how devastating a blow it might bring. Enjolras, who had no use for gods or faith-cures, was nevertheless a monument to faith in a cure-all for mortal disorders, and his marble splendour was likely to end up smashed as soundly as the tombs at Saint-Denis. Grantaire dipped the cloth back into the bowl and wrung it out, watching the water grow dark with dirt and blood.

Having cleaned off the worst of it, he fell to pressing a dry cloth along the curve of Enjolras’ ribcage and smoothing it over the otherwise unblemished plane of his stomach. His breathing had eased and his tension appeared to be ebbing from him with each exhalation. Grantaire eyed the bottle, half-full and still in Enjolras’ hand, and then thought better of it. Any drunker and he’d surely give in to the already powerful urge to let the cloth drop to the floor and use his tongue.

“Now, lie back and let me anoint you,” he said at length, reaching for the liniment and smoothing it over the tips of two fingers. “There’ll be nothing to permanently mar this canvas. You are still a work of art – though you should pray no panel of experts will one day find you fit to hang.”

Opening his eyes, Enjolras gave a snort of derision. “You’re not making too bad an Aceso, Grantaire, but if you want to play Cassandra into the bargain then I’ll take my medicine elsewhere.”

Grantaire bent his head again and, tense with sudden irritation, began to rub the salve into Enjolras’ skin more roughly than was strictly necessary.

“It’s true, the future is a matter for the grave and not the frivolous – as though there could be anything frivolous about the grave. At the dance at Sceaux, you know, a matter of hours ago, I found myself feeling as you do – as though another world was possible – for there at the edge of things rather than the storm-centre, no one spoke so inescapably of uprising or conflict or of revolution, merely of inconsequential indiscretions. And all were equal in their contemptible frivolity and self-absorption, true, but certainly it’s equally as true that I saw no one getting knifed in a doorway at midnight for their trouble. You should join our excursion next year, Enjolras – if my brandy’s going down so well tonight, you’d find the healing-waters there a veritable Asklepieion, if you’d only deign to accept an invitation so indulgent – ”

Enjolras answered mildly, but the colour was returning to his cheeks as rapidly as if Grantaire had slapped him.

“I don’t begrudge you any pleasure-cruise you can afford. Enjoy yourself by all means, but when you drift back to harbour, reeling, you may rest assured that all will be just as you left it, and just in need of – ah!"

As he broke off his rejoinder in a sharp gasp Grantaire jerked his hand away, unsure which one of his admittedly less than tender touches had brought it on.

“Too much?”

Enjolras took another mouthful of brandy and resettled on his back, his breathing ragged. “No – go on.”

Grantaire went on, acutely conscious that at each sweep of his fingers over damaged skin Enjolras drew his breath in hard though his teeth in a manner suggestive of something just in the neighbourhood of pain, but not quite that. His gaze was back on the ceiling, and, rather than stopping or seeking to guide Grantaire’s hand, Enjolras appeared content to let him carry on circling the tips of his fingers where he liked, applying more gentle pressure as his hands moved lower to work the salve into the muscles of his abdomen. When he took his hands away entirely Enjolras sighed in discontent, and moved quite brazenly beneath him as though demanding their return.

If Grantaire let this development pass without comment, it was only because he was momentarily at a loss for words. Without meeting Enjolras’ eye, he began to experiment, applying greater or lesser force to his bruised skin and noting the encouraging way Enjolras’ breathing quickened in direct proportion to the firmness of his touch. Emboldened, Grantaire pressed the heel of his hand down sudden and sharp on the worst of the bruising, looking up in fascination as Enjolras squeezed his eyes shut and opened his mouth in a veritable gasp of delight. When Grantaire let his gaze fall back to the tilt of Enjolras’ hips, the swell of his cock was too obvious to be disbelieved by one or denied by the other.

“Extraordinary,” Grantaire said, keeping his voice light. “So you’re flesh and blood after all. I might have known you’d have a grim enough way of showing it.”

Enjolras, propping himself on one elbow, gave a half-smile and a shrug. “It’s nothing personal, if that makes it easier for you. I’ve known for some time that I sometimes have this particular response to hurt or injury. It’s a natural reaction of the body to stimulus, neither uncommon nor worth my forming any specific opinion on.”

He spoke as though reciting from a dusty medical text, but his voice, noticeably roughened by the drink, had lost a little of its customary edge. Grantaire sat back on his heels for a moment, his own voice growing sly.

“Do you traffic with those who’ll give you pain for your pleasure, then, Enjolras? I know Paris is full of such arrangements, although I never took you to be in need of them. Or do you simply venture out of an evening, dressed to kill, and court this kind of scrapping in the street, the way grisettes who’re spoiling for a fuck go wandering the docks in search of suitors?”

“That isn’t… I don’t seek it out, I merely deal with it when the need happens to arise.” Enjolras brought the bottle to his mouth and glanced directly at Grantaire over the top. “The workings of the body are to be dealt with, not mused about at length or agonised over. If I allowed myself some crisis of confidence every time I felt the urge for my hand on my prick then I’d never be out of the confessional – and you may imagine my dislike of spending time on my knees when I’ve not willingly chosen to.”

Grantaire shivered at the directions in which these words dragged his imagination, an effect which was surely deliberate on Enjolras’ part. His hand still rested flat above Enjolras’ waistband. In what he considered to be payment in kind, Grantaire edged his fingers down an inch or so until they met the heat of Enjolras’ erection, and listened to his breath hitch.

“All right, so it’s an appreciation with you, not an addiction. And would you like – or, should I say, do you need to be dealt with right now?”

Absurdly, he was trying to smooth his voice into something like the way it had been when he had conversed some hours previously with the ball’s various vivacious young ladies, hoping to betray nothing of his desperation, disbelief and terrified excitement. He realised this hope was in vain as soon as he heard himself speak, but, in an unsteady tone, plunged on regardless:

“Come, Enjolras, will you let me bring you to completion? I’m told I have some degree of skill with my hands – we can go for as rare a blend of agony and ecstasy as you require – ”

He risked a glance upwards. Enjolras, his gaze a bit unfocused, was clutching the rapidly emptying bottle so tightly his knuckles were white.

“Your mouth, if you’re offering. If only to save us both any more of this conversation.”

Grantaire allowed himself a long, shuddering exhalation, and stood. Still on the bed, his arms loosely braced behind his back and his head to one side, Enjolras raised an eyebrow.

“Up, then,” Grantaire chided, gesturing to the low, curved chair that slouched before the window. “Go on – you look all very well as a wounded martyr, but I’d rather not feel as though I’m sucking off Saint Sebastian.”

Rolling his eyes to heaven – which did nothing to diminish the resemblance – Enjolras pulled himself upright, ignoring Grantaire’s outstretched hand, and crossed the room to throw himself into the dubious embrace of the chair’s threadbare velvet upholstery. By the time Grantaire joined him Enjolras was reclining carelessly with one leg slung over the chair’s arm, the lamplight gleaming on the leather of his boot. His hands were already working down the buttons of his fall-front and it only remained for Grantaire, still sceptical that he was both awake and sound of mind, to draw a shaky breath and drop to his knees.

There was little enough finesse in the way Grantaire leaned in, bracing himself on his knees, and took the hard length of Enjolras’ cock almost to the back of his throat. Enjolras gave a startled gasp, and, when Grantaire drew back to suck at just the tip of him, slid both hands into his hair and bucked his hips insistently. There was something to be said for this kind of imperious enthusiasm, but Grantaire, too close to finishing while fully-dressed already, chose to move his head back and wrap one hand around the base of Enjolras’ cock. He began to work his lips and tongue along its length with slow deliberation and as much enjoyment as though he were kissing his mouth.

Even on his knees before Enjolras like this, staring up like a supplicant, every tired comparison to worship and prayer that Grantaire’s exhausted and exhilarated mind could conjure hardly did justice to the situation. This was neither veneration nor sacrilege, for Enjolras with his cock stiff and slick against Grantaire’s mouth, one hand fingering the livid bruising on his chest, had attained human rather than godlike dimensions. It felt more like a perverse memento mori – a reminder not of the certainty of death, but of the certainty that Enjolras was, in this instant, alive like any other.

Grantaire sat back and looked up to see Enjolras with his eyes wide and his mouth bitten red, open and panting. Satisfied, he bent his head again and took him back between his lips. Enjolras’ hands clenched in his hair, urging his mouth down and his cock deeper, and Grantaire reached up with some degree of irritation to knock his hands away, pushing Enjolras back into a more recumbent angle, tilting his hips up and taking the opportunity to work his trousers down to his knees.

“Stay like that, will you?” he muttered, his mouth hot against the crook of Enjolras’ hip and thigh. “Let a man follow his own strategy when we’re pursuing a common goal.”

Enjolras, with bad grace, clasped his hands on the arms of the chair and settled back, spreading his legs with an impatient and expectant look. Grantaire found himself unsure whether he gained more pleasure from granting Enjolras the whole of his mouth unreservedly and hearing his gratified sigh, or from withdrawing it and watching him writhe in frustration. After a while he set his hands decisively on Enjolras’ hips, holding him perfectly still while he licked and sucked his cock at relative leisure and occasionally broke off to grin to himself as Enjolras cursed with all the force and exhaustive variety of a Marseilles fishwife.

Just as Grantaire was anticipating the hot pulse of Enjolras’ seed on his tongue, Enjolras, gasping, leaned forward to tug his head away. He took hold of Grantaire by the shirtfront and managed to drag him up into the seat with him. The position was awkward and the confines of the chair just too small for convenience, throwing them flush against each other. Grantaire’s knees were bracketed tightly either side of Enjolras’ hips, his cock stiff against his stomach between them. Enjolras took hold of Grantaire’s wrists and guided his hands up to clasp around his throat, tipping his head back and running his tongue over dry-looking lips. Grantaire’s hold around his neck remained a slack embrace as he watched Enjolras wrap his own hands tight around his cock, looking up at him as though in challenge.

“Go on – you must have learnt enough of my weaknesses by now.”

When Grantaire’s hands obediently tightened on his throat, Enjolras smiled, and Grantaire felt rather than saw him accelerate the strokes to his cock. Keeping a tight grip with one hand, feeling the muscles of Enjolras’ throat flexing under his fingers, his pulse beating hard against the pad of his thumb, Grantaire moved the other to slip two fingers between Enjolras’ lips as he gasped for breath. When, with a look of calculation, Grantaire moved his hand further down and pressed it hard against the bruising on his ribs, Enjolras came with a choked-off cry, spilling warm and wet against Grantaire’s stomach, one hand clutching at his shoulder as though suddenly afraid of overbalancing.

Grantaire withdrew his hands from Enjolras almost immediately, and watched as after a few rushed intakes of breath the frantic rise and fall of his chest slowed. Enjolras passed a hand through his hair and leaned back against the chair-cushions. Around his pale throat Grantaire’s hand and fingernails had left distinct impressions. When he spoke his voice was unfamiliar, being close to a whisper, and the words did not sound entirely like an afterthought.

“Grantaire, do you need me to – ”

With a deadpan expression, Grantaire glanced down at the spreading stain at the crotch of his trousers. Embarrassment had long been a foreign emotion to him, and seemed particularly unnecessary at this juncture. He felt near to hysteria.

“Too late – I have saved you the bother. You can hardly find me more contemptible. Are you surprised? Sanguis Christi, inebria me! I believe I’ve been ready to spend since I first saw you licking the blood off your lips.”

Enjolras sighed, his grip on Grantaire’s shoulder tightening. “I can hardly complain. Come here, at least – ”

He pulled him further forward into his lap, and Grantaire, breathless, let Enjolras kiss him. Tangling a hand in his hair to keep him still, he took Enjolras’ lower lip between his teeth in the manner he’d been imagining for both the past few hours and quite a few past years of their acquaintance. Enjolras’ lips parted obligingly under the press of Grantaire’s tongue and Grantaire grew light-headed as his mouth was flooded with the taste of blood and brandy.

Grantaire realised that Enjolras kissed – or kissed Grantaire, at least – in the same way he usually gave speeches. Both were delivered in a manner that was at once passionately sincere and coldly dedicated. The slide of his mouth against Grantaire’s was earnest and assured but somehow studied, as though he was thinking back to draw on notes taken carefully some time ago. This could have been the first time or the fiftieth that Enjolras had put theory into practice; it was impossible to tell, and, to his mild astonishment, Grantaire could not find it in himself to ask. Instead, eventually, he lifted himself off the chair with some reluctance and retreated to the bed to find the cloth and washbowl.

Having cleaned Enjolras up before himself, he let the washcloth hang from his fingers with a look of mock-rapture. “Holy blood, then, and spunk into the bargain – to think of the price this rag could fetch in a basilica! What an investment – I’ll almost shudder to have it cleaned off, although I shudder far more to think of the expression on the face of my laundress. I don’t suppose you’d weep, Enjolras, and let me dry your eyes, just to complete the trinity and give me something to remember you by?”

Enjolras, already dressed to leave, gave no response other than a further look askance. He turned towards the door. The looseness of his shirt did nothing to hide the circle of bruises beginning to bloom on his neck, and Grantaire fought the urge to pull his collar closed against them for him.

This was followed by the less charitable thought that, had he only discovered these particular aspects of Enjolras one day earlier, the knowledge would have won him the price of at least one drink last night with either Bossuet or Courfeyrac. He had whiled away previous evenings with both of them speculating - with varying degrees of investment - on Enjolras’ preferences, if any, and his likely technique in the sheets. None of their guesses had quite hit on how the past hour or so had played out. However, as he saw Enjolras out down the stairs, going so far as to brush an errant lock of hair behind his ear as he leant past him to unlatch the door, Grantaire felt less inclined to cash in on this privileged information than to hoard it to himself, as though such gentlemanly behaviour might gain him greater profit in the future.

“And where’s your topcoat, by god? And your hat? The nights are cold enough to catch one’s death,” he muttered, struck by the chill in the hallway, and sounding even to himself like an overprotective governess.

“God knows,” said Enjolras absently. “I’ll get another. Nothing is irreplaceable.”

“That’s as may be. Try not to court too much trouble, even so – however much you may like the blood on your hands.”

He had spoken without thinking, and certainly without meaning what he said. Enjolras’ look of reproach was sharp enough to wound.

“I’ll try not to trouble you again if I do,” he said quietly, and threw open the door to the fading night, letting it fall shut heavily behind him without a backwards glance.

Grantaire once more saw the future cut short, abrupt as a knife in the gut. Returning to his room, to the armchair, he saw the bottle of brandy mercifully unfinished and sat down to watch the dawn break over the rooftops. As usual, its lurid pink and gold seemed to display far more enthusiasm for the new day than he himself could find to summon up.