The first thing that catches Enjolras's eye when he enters the Musain Cafe for the first time is the walls. They're a dull black that it takes him a moment to realize must be chalkboard paint, because near the tables there are words and doodles, and all over, even the erased sections are stained with faint colored marks like the walls have soulmarks. “I told you it was interesting,” says Combeferre, behind him, and Enjolras takes that cue to finish going through the door. “There are murals, sometimes, there was one yesterday, but they're erased fairly quickly.”
“Combeferre,” calls one of the baristas, and she must be one of the ones who left a smudge of color on him when he came in for the first time a few days ago. Enjolras would bet, from her bright grin and the way she wears her colors proudly, that she's the burnt orange on his knuckles, Musichetta. Most of her marks are faint, except for a palm and fingers stained bright green from a handshake and a gleaming yellow fingertip, undoubtedly the soulmates Combeferre mentioned. “Is this the friend you talked about?”
“We thought we would come in for coffee.” It's after lunch, not a very busy time for a coffee shop, so there isn't a line, though there are people at many of the tables, a few with various colors of chalk that seem to rest in baskets on tabletops making pictures. “Enjolras, this is Musichetta and the man at the drink machine is Grantaire, and the two of you, this is Enjolras, he's my oldest friend and my brightest mark.”
“Pleasure,” says Musichetta, and offers her arm. Not everyone is quick to see if they're marked, but Enjolras appreciates the frankness, even if he's nervous. He doesn't take or leave marks easily—his first wasn't until he was a week old, not from his mother or his father but from a grandmother, and it's been infrequent since—and it's a relief when he brushes his palm against her arm and comes free with a light orange stain, leaving a red one in return. She beams at him. “There, Combeferre said I would like you and now the worrying is over with. What do you want to drink?”
“Small soy latte, sweet,” he says automatically, and leaves her to take Combeferre's order as well as he looks over to Grantaire, Combeferre's other new mark, a tiny bruise-purple spot on the back of Combeferre's hand. “You're Grantaire?”
“You'll forgive me if I don't shake hands,” Grantaire says, showing a pair of gloves as he goes to get the cups for their orders, but his smile is as warm as his tone is abrupt. “Combeferre is a special case, it's nothing against you.”
“I used a favor,” Musichetta explains, taking their money and patting Grantaire's shoulder as he passes her. They're easy with each other, probably friends for a long time, and both of them are covered in color, clothes and skin both. It takes Enjolras a moment to remember the chalk, which explains it.
“I'll look forward to getting to know you both,” he says, in the long awkward silence following. Grantaire may refuse touch, but the more people with shared marks the more likely they'll leave at least a little color on each other. It's worth being friendly.
“Sure,” says Grantaire, passing his drink over the counter, and Enjolras retreats, waiting for Combeferre to pick a table.
If he comes in the mornings, he's soon recognized by sight by the morning crew: Marius, who's nervous but makes good drinks and leaves a forest green mark on Enjolras's hand when he passes over a drink, and Éponine, who's quiet and wears gloves and has the unfortunate luck of a mark from Marius much darker than hers is on him.
There's a table in an out-of-the-way corner, close enough to the table of condiments that he can easily get an extra packet or sugar or a napkin if he wants to, and it's free often enough despite its good vantage point of the walls that Enjolras can claim it for his own. It wobbles some, the legs uneven, but he doesn't bother trying to fix it or reporting it, since it would make a bigger chance of his losing it. Instead, he brings his textbooks and his grading and looks at the walls on his breaks. Some days there's a multitude of conversations spread across them, and others there are intricate murals that he learns to take pictures of on his phone because they're always gone the next day.
Éponine swings by his table one afternoon as her shift finishes, a drink in her hand. “On the house. When you've soulmarked several members of the regular staff you get the occasional drink.”
Enjolras blinks at her. “Thank you, that's very kind.”
“Don't take it personally about R or me,” she says abruptly when he just expects a nod of acknowledgment before she leaves. “I don't touch people I don't know well, and he's … well, he has his own things to worry about. But it's not like you can't talk to us, you know?”
“I'll keep it in mind.”
Éponine smiles. “You should,” she says, and walks off to erase a drawing of a penis with her sleeve somewhere down the wall (Musichetta explained at one point that standing policy is to leave them if they're well-drawn and erase them if otherwise, and Enjolras is fairly certain that occasionally the staff members have a competition about who finds the best ones).
When he looks at the counter, Grantaire is just finished with putting on his apron, and when Enjolras raises his cup in a tentative toast, Grantaire just shakes his head, but he's smiling while he does it.
Enjolras looks up, startled from where he's taking a break from reading and trying to add a bird to today's mural of a forest. Grantaire, standing over him, has chalk dust ground into his skin enough that it almost obscures the marks on his hands, and he's not wearing gloves for once. It's rare to see Grantaire out from behind the counter, and Enjolras rudely gets stuck for a moment surveying the colors on him, recognizing the overlaps he has with Musichetta and Éponine and Marius, and the ones he's starting to have with Enjolras. “I'm not,” he says when Grantaire clears his throat.
“I'm on break for the next fifteen, Musichetta said something about labor regulations that I'm sure you'd approve of. Want a lesson?”
“Of course,” Enjolras says, even though every attempt to teach him art has ended in disaster.
Grantaire picks up a piece of chalk, one of the neutral white ones, and starts showing him how to shape very basic birds.
Twenty minutes later, Musichetta has to call Grantaire back to the counter, and the tree nearest Enjolras's table is filled with birds, half of them rough outlines that a child would be ashamed of and half of them increasingly elaborate songbirds and birds of paradise. Grantaire's work is good enough that he must be the one to do the murals, and Enjolras wants to ask why he erases them, but he doesn't know Grantaire well enough for that, lesson aside.
“Practice,” Grantaire says as he goes, tossing Enjolras a less worn piece of chalk in purple, several shades brighter than the mark he leaves on people. “I'll expect a better bird by the time you leave.”
Enjolras, as a matter of pride, manages a decent robin before he goes, and the next day when he comes back in the whole mural has been erased except for the bird.
“You'll have to meet Combeferre,” he says when they sit down across from him, sharing a chair even though there are extras nearby. “Chances are you'll mark him too. And Courfeyrac and Cosette should come as well, and our friends Feuilly and Jehan.”
“And our friend Bahorel,” says Joly. He beams. “I can't wait to meet everyone, it's been a while since I got many new ones.”
Enjolras doesn't really want to say that he's almost doubled his number since he came to the Musain, since he knows it's a low amount and he doesn't want pity from people he already likes and respects. “I'll try to have my friends come have one of our lunches here sometime.”
“And you'll text us,” says Bossuet, handing over his phone. “Put your number in, I get phone numbers from everyone I exchange marks with, it's the rules.”
With Joly and Bossuet around, Grantaire and Musichetta are away from the counter more, and Grantaire is different with the two of them. He laughs more, at ease and making jokes in a way he rarely does with Enjolras, and ends up getting all of them in on a drawing game with the chalk on the walls that involves all of them laughing so much that two patrons leave.
“Grantaire likes you,” Joly says once, entirely content, when Grantaire is making an elaborate concoction for some businessman or other.
Enjolras looks at the wall, lets himself be distracted by someone's attempt at a haiku over in one corner. “I'm not sure he does, actually.”
Bossuet kicks him gently under the table. “He wouldn't talk to you if he didn't like you. He just ...” He hesitates, frowning. “He's like Éponine, kind of, he'll ask about touching you when he's ready.”
It isn't fair or kind to ask and Enjolras knows it, so he keeps any further wondering to himself. If Grantaire doesn't want to touch him for whatever reason, it's not his business.
Enjolras looks up at Grantaire from his scrutiny of the latest mural, an undersea picture full of fish and coral and, at present, the pathetic outline of a fish Enjolras is debating on how to fill in. “It doesn't seem to be effective, either way.”
“You can't give up so soon. Come on.” Grantaire picks up a piece of chalk. “You've got the outline right, anyone can do a fish outline, so just put some stripes on him or something.”
“What if the fish is female?” Enjolras asks, mostly for something to say, and to his surprise he's rewarded with a laugh.
“Fine, I won't dictate the genders of your fish, as long as you do more than half-ass them, I taught you better than that.”
“You did.” Enjolras lets a minute pass in silence while Grantaire draws a tiny, intricate seahorse with what seems like no effort whatsoever. “Some of my friends may come in for an afternoon sometime soon, to meet Joly and Bossuet and Musichetta and you and Éponine and Marius and possibly your friend Bahorel, if you'd all like. We won't ask you to touch if you aren't comfortable, of course, but there seems to be so much soulmark overlap that people think they should.”
Grantaire's chalk squeaks against the wall, but his voice is level when he answers. “I don't mind. Why should I?”
Enjolras makes sure he's looking at his fish when he asks his next question. “Is it just me you mind touching? Musichetta had to call in a favor to get you to touch Combeferre, but she wouldn't have done that if she thought it would make you that uncomfortable, and you seem less careful about other customers. If I've done anything to offend you—”
“You haven't, I promise.” Grantaire shrugs. “I'm just a little peculiar, that's all. Don't take it personally.”
“I'll try not to,” says Enjolras, and he thinks he makes a fairly serviceable fish by the time Grantaire's break is up.
After that, though, he retreats to stand by the counter, which Grantaire and Éponine are manning under the excuse that someone needs to. “They're friendly,” he says. “They won't touch you without asking, either.”
“Never thought they would,” Grantaire says. “You wouldn't be friends with them otherwise. And I promise we won't spend the whole afternoon over here, right, Ep?”
She rolls her eyes. “Musichetta and Marius were just excited to meet your friends. They'll take over for us in a little while.”
“As long as you don't feel pressured.”
“For fuck's sake.” Before he's sure what she's doing, Éponine has stripped off one of her gloves and laid the back of her hand against his arm, staining both of them a little darker than he was expecting. “It's not a pressure thing,” she says. “It's a knowing them thing.”
“You didn't have to do that to prove anything.”
“I know I didn't.” She shakes her head and turns to Grantaire. “You and Enjolras can hold down the fort for a few minutes, right? There seems to be some excitement with Marius.”
Enjolras is tempted to follow her, since the excitement seems to involve Courfeyrac and possibly Cosette as well, but Combeferre and Bahorel seem to have it well in hand, so he stays at the counter instead, Grantaire frowning over at their friends, or perhaps at Éponine rushing in to make sure Marius is okay. “Do you want to go after her? I don't know how to make coffee but I could at least take orders.”
“I feel as though there's a really good joke about monks to be made here. Joly would be able to come up with it.” Grantaire shakes his head. “It's fine. They're literally ten feet away if there's suddenly a rush, someone will jump behind the counter with me. Tell me what you want to learn how to draw next, instead. You've already done birds and fish, maybe a land creature next?”
“Mice,” says Enjolras on a whim, and startles a laugh out of Grantaire.
It's an easier afternoon, after that. Enjolras wanders back and forth between the counter and the tables where everyone is congregated, and everyone else gets in the habit as well, the people who work at the Musain swapping easily whenever anyone is needed for a conversation at the table. By the end of the afternoon, everyone has everyone else's number, and most people are sporting new marks (including soulmate-bright ones that Courfeyrac and Marius and Cosette exchange, which explains the commotion and how Éponine avoids touch afterwards except from people she's already touched).
Enjolras leaves in a good mood, and two days later when he walks in there's a new mural of the inside of a cozy old-fashioned cottage, and near the floor next to his usual table there's a mousehole with a mouse looking out of it.
“I just wondered, that's all. It's close to the right hue for Grantaire, and I know that you ...”
Grantaire has left marks on a few of Enjolras's friends now and never brought it up with Enjolras, and that stings more than he wants to admit. He understands the urge to live with uncertainty over the small chance of not leaving a mark at all, but even then, if he touched Courfeyrac and Jehan, it shouldn't be that much of a stretch. “It's up to him. I think he's aware that I'm willing. And in the mean time, we're friends whether we have each other's colors or not.”
“Friends, but not anything else?”
“That's up to him.” Enjolras doodles terrible animals even on days when there aren't murals now, miniature elephants and lions and deer that Grantaire laughs and helps him fix, and he thinks there could be something else. He thinks there's something else already, but it's hard to tell when he isn't allowed to touch and be sure, not to leave a mark but to see how Grantaire responds to a hand in his or a kiss. “Not yet, anyway.”
To his surprise, the lights are on, and when he knocks, Grantaire opens the door, eyebrows raised, without his gloves and wearing a t-shirt that exposes more of the colors on his arms than Enjolras has seen before. “You forgot your bag,” he says, because of course he knows.
“I did. I should have texted, but if I had one of you would have insisted on bringing it to me and I didn't want to inconvenience anyone.”
“Come in, it's behind the counter, I can grab it for you now.” Enjolras follows Grantaire in and looks around. He's not used to the Musain when all the chairs are on the tables, and all the tables are pulled away from the walls, presumably because Grantaire has part of a wall done of what appears to be a mural of a bunch of hot air balloons. “I figured anyone can draw balloons,” Grantaire says from behind the counter, presumably when he notices where Enjolras is looking.
“I always wondered if the murals were yours, but no one would ever say for sure.”
Grantaire puts the bag on the counter. “Yeah, I have illusions of being a mysterious artist, and I like putting the art degree to some kind of use, but then I inevitably decide they're stupid and erase them. I like that people get to have conversations on the walls anyway, and they can't do that with a mural in the way.”
“You do beautiful work, either way.”
It doesn't seem like something that should be surprising, but Grantaire looks surprised anyway, fidgeting with something behind the counter. “They're just doodles. Musichetta says they might get me noticed, but I do them because I like to.”
Enjolras doesn't have much to say to that besides reiterating what he's already said, and that will just lead he and Grantaire into chasing each other in conversational circles. “Thanks again for the bag,” he finally says.
“Everything should be safe inside. It was just a minute after you left that I noticed it was there, but I didn't think to text you.” He shrugs and scrubs a hand across his neck, leaving a cheerful streak of orange across his collarbone. “Sorry.”
“It's fine, really.” Enjolras should take his bag and go, most likely, but he and Grantaire are good enough friends that it's hard to say whether he could be expected to stay and keep Grantaire company while he draws now. “You have chalk on your neck,” he says instead of deciding.
Grantaire's tone is rueful when he answers. “Pretty much a constant state these days. It starts collecting when I've been out of the shower for less than ten minutes, it's on everything I own.” He scrubs at his neck, but it only succeeds in smearing the color out further. “Did I get it?”
“No, it's—” Enjolras breaks off to wave ineffectually at his neck. “You just spread it around.”
“You could show me where,” Grantaire says suddenly, voice lowering, and it takes Enjolras a long frozen second to understand the significance. “You don't have to, but you could.”
Enjolras is very careful as he steps close enough to be within arm's reach, if he's assuming right. “May I touch your skin, then?” He clears his throat. “To show you where?”
Grantaire swallows. “Go ahead.”
Enjolras has been very careful not to imagine touching Grantaire for the first time, the usual clear spots of hand or arm, the face for people who assume they'll be close, the mark of a messy kiss from people who are very sure. Now that he's given permission, he has to restrain himself to raising his hand, telegraphing his movements so Grantaire can tell him to stop if he needs to, and resting his fingertips in a loose frame around the strongest concentration of color.
Grantaire takes a sharp breath, and he pulls his hand away, ready to apologize before he sees the five bright points of red standing out against the pastel smudges, brighter than he's ever left before. His fingers, when he looks, are stained bruise-purple, like he’s had his hand in a bowl of blueberries, and he holds them up for Grantaire to see, wordless. “They're very saturated,” he finally manages, but only after Grantaire has made a punched-out noise, taking Enjolras’s hand in his carefully, like he’s afraid he’ll leave another mark after the first one. There are couples who notice the saturation of their marks before they let go and make sure their mark is big enough to catch notice, but Enjolras is happy with his five little points of contact.
To his surprise, Grantaire dips his head and raises Enjolras's hand to his lips, kissing his fingertips so gently it almost tickles. “Okay,” he finally says.
“Is it?” Enjolras clears his throat, embarrassed at the waver in his voice. “You didn't seem to want to touch me, and I didn't know if it was because you didn't want any mark, let alone ...”
“I wanted it to be this bright, and I was scared it wouldn't be.” Grantaire sounds hoarse, and he's still holding Enjolras's hand. “But the universe seems to live to prove me wrong.”
“Can I—what do we do? May I kiss you?” It seems the thing to do.
In answer, Grantaire kisses him, Enjolras's hand still caught in his. Enjolras wants to touch his marks, suddenly understands the friends and lovers who do it as an affectionate or possessive gesture, but he contents himself with wrapping his other arm around Grantaire, bringing him in closer. “I thought you were attracted to me,” Grantaire says, “but I didn't think—I didn't even consider we'd leave this kind of mark on each other.”
“I did.” Grantaire’s hands are trembling now, and Enjolras moves to hold them properly, squeezing tight. “You’re always covered in so many colors, so I thought about it.” He smiles, unable to stop it bubbling up. “And you gave me art lessons and talked to me and … I don't stay at the Musain all day because I get work done here, I stay because of the company. And a large part of that is you.”
“That's good to know.” Grantaire loosens his grip, and Enjolras let's him. He can't blame him for needing a little space to think. “I suppose we should talk about things.”
“We could now, unless you don't want me distracting you while you work. I don't have anywhere else to be. I just have to text Combeferre at some point, he'll want to know.”
“We'll see how my art lessons are doing.” Grantaire's shock is slowly growing into a wild grin.
“Like you said, anyone can draw balloons.” Enjolras shrugs his jacket off and picks up a piece of chalk, letting Grantaire do the same and lead him over to the wall he was working on when Enjolras knocked. “And if I'm too awful, I can just hand you the correct color of chalk at the right time.”
“It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it,” Grantaire agrees, and touches his own neck, grinding the chalk in a little deeper around Enjolras's mark.
Enjolras looks down at his own, the chalk dust already settling in, a thin film over the deep color. “Tell me how to draw a hot air balloon, then, we'll see how I do.”
Grantaire puts his hand over Enjolras's, shockingly casual with his touch now that the best has happened, and helps Enjolras move his hand in an even arc, about the right shape. “That's the start. Think you can do it from there?”
Enjolras smiles at the wall and the marks of color from murals past, then at his hands again, the rainbow of colors he's acquired surprisingly quickly. “I think I can figure it out.”