"You've been awfully quiet. Didn't you enjoy the movie?"
Feuilly hunched down a little further into his coat, tucked his hands under his arms and curled towards the window of the car. A noncommittal grunt was the best response he could come up with to Courfeyrac's inquiry.
Of course, that wasn't answer enough. This thing between them was still so new, and they were both feeling their way through it, trying to figure out where the boundaries were. So, there was no pressure in Courfeyrac's voice, but there was concern. It was the same concern Feuilly heard there when Combeferre came to ABC meetings with bloodshot eyes, running on caffeine, sheer cussedness, and precious little else. It was the same concern Feuilly heard there when Enjolras slammed into the Corinthe, ordered a bottle of wine and slumped into a corner to drink his way through his latest disappointment in a world that just couldn't seem to care.
It wasn't that Courfeyrac didn't show concern for everyone in their group. He did. But his concern for Enjolras and Combeferre was… different. It was special. And as much as Feuilly hated knowing that he'd worried Courfeyrac, there was a small part of him that was leaping about like a small boy at Christmas, thrilled that Courfeyrac now showed that same level of concern for him. It meant something. It was a milestone. Feuilly couldn't return that concern with cold silence. Quietly, he said, "It was good. Quvenzhané Wallis was perfect. And we had an amazing turn-out. It should boost our local ratings pretty nicely."
For the next few minutes, silence reigned in the car, broken only by the gentle swish of the wipers as they brushed aside the snow that had started while they'd been in the movie theater. Eventually Courfeyrac said, "That's not what I asked."
Feuilly let out a soft sigh. "No. No, I guess it's not."
Courfeyrac wouldn't push. Feuilly knew that. He was sensitive enough to know that something about tonight had touched a nerve. Then again, it would have been hard to miss. When they'd gone into the movie, Feuilly had been boyishly excited, grinning from ear to ear over getting to share his favorite movie with his friends. By the time they were ten minutes into the movie, however, that excitement had dimmed… and fuck if he had any idea how to explain why.
"Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow, you're only a daaaaaaaay aaaaaaaaa-waaaaaaaaaaaay!"
"Fuck's sake, kid, turn that shit down, will you? I have a headache!"
Feuilly scrambled to reach the tuning knob on the old television. He'd been lucky enough that Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan had let him keep the thing, let him tinker with it until he'd managed to get it to pick up signals. The wire coat hanger was more reliable than the old rabbit-ears had been, but he still couldn't pick up more than a few of the broadcast stations with it. He'd thought about running a cable over to the house next door where his friend Tony lived, but the old set didn't even have a cable plug. Still, it was better than nothing. It was better than he'd had when he lived with his parents. It was even better than he'd had in his first foster home. His first foster home… Feuilly shuddered. He hadn't been sorry to leave that place. The Sullivans were strict, but they kept him well-fed and his clothes were warm and he had his own bed. It was much better than where he'd been before. Much better.
Anyway, around Christmastime, there were usually some decent old movies on the broadcast stations if Feuilly could keep the TV picking up signal long enough to watch. He practically had Miracle on 34th Street memorized; he turned up his nose at most of the Claymation movies, but they were better than nothing; It's a Wonderful Life had annoyed him at first but was growing on him…
…and then there was Annie.
Feuilly had always been partial to Annie.
Once Mr. Sullivan tromped back into the entertainment room, Feuilly risked turning up the sound a little more. This was one of his favorite parts, as staged as it obviously was. Annie's optimism was catching and it buoyed his spirits in ways that little else did. When he dared, he'd even sing along under his breath. Because if Annie could do it, so could he. Because Annie had it worse than he'd ever had it and hadn't lost hope. He just had to believe…
"I said turn that shit down! Stupid kid. Don't make me come up there!!"
His heart sinking, Feuilly turned the volume knob down almost to nothing, then scooted closer to the TV so he could still hear, ignoring the sting in his eyes from sitting so close… and from tears he refused to admit were fighting to fall. What he wouldn't give for a Daddy Warbucks of his own. But even at ten Feuilly knew that things like that didn't happen in real life. Kids like him didn't have families. Kids like him didn't deserve a Daddy Warbucks. The best kids like him could hope for was a Miss Hannigan. And even at ten, Feuilly had already had more than his fair share of Miss Hannigans. Maybe next year would be different… maybe.
…but he wasn't going to hold his breath.
Courfeyrac squinted, leaned forward in the driver's seat as the snow started to fall harder. Feuilly was almost pathetically grateful that his attention was being diverted, that he would allow his attention to be diverted. That was the telling difference between how Courfeyrac treated Enjolras or Combeferre and how he treated Feuilly. With Enjolras and Combeferre, Courfeyrac knew exactly how far he could push… so he would.
When Combeferre showed up at a meeting bloodshot, shaky and exhausted, it was because he expected Courfeyrac to pounce on him within seconds of his arrival, scolding and haranguing at top volume before dragging him home and tucking him into bed. Feuilly had seen that scene play out, had seen the undisguised relief in Combeferre's eyes when Courfeyrac took control like that too many times to believe otherwise.
When Enjolras showed up at the Corinthe, determined to drown his sorrows in a bottle of wine, Courfeyrac would make sure that enough of it got down his throat that he was able to purge whatever negative emotion had driven him to drink to begin with, then show up at Enjolras' apartment the next morning with charts and markers and notepads and plans and force Enjolras to whip himself through the hangover to begin the process that would lead to the ABC Group's next big activism project.
Courfeyrac was not nearly so certain with Feuilly. When Combeferre pushed him away, Courfeyrac would roll his eyes and bundle him into bed anyway, would sit on him if he had to, to get him to rest. When Enjolras cursed him out for forcing him to work through his hangover, Courfeyrac would hand over the aspirin bottle with a smile and otherwise ignore his protests. But when Courfeyrac pushed at Feuilly and Feuilly pushed back… he didn't stand his ground. He turned tail and ran. Feuilly had seen him do it. When Feuilly expressed any disapproval whatsoever, Courfeyrac would apologize, back off… and run. And when Feuilly had snapped at him for that, Courfeyrac had just stopped pushing altogether. Feuilly wasn't so blind that he couldn't see that Courfeyrac's extreme deference would ruin them in the long run if it kept up… but for now he was selfishly grateful for the reprieve.
Sighing heavily, Feuilly pulled his hands out of his pockets long enough to chafe some warmth back into them in front of the vents. This snowstorm had been in the forecast, but none of them had wanted to risk rescheduling the event. Too many students had signed up and bought advanced tickets. It would have been a headache of major proportions to reschedule, and there was no guarantee that any other day this weekend would have been better with even more snow in the forecast. And Feuilly had been excited, giddy with the chance of seeing his favorite story played out on a big screen, modernized and relevant for hundreds of thousands of kids the way it always had been for him.
Feuilly thought he'd been ready.
…he'd been wrong.
Foster home #8 was the one that nearly broke him. Feuilly was living with five other boys and his foster parents in a two bedroom, fourth floor walk-up in Harlem. How the fuck that was legal, or even kosher, Feuilly had no idea. There was barely enough space in the boys' bedroom to edge around each other if they were all standing up. Feuilly and Darnell let the younger four have the bunk beds and took turns on the pull-out loveseat and the air mattress. And since they couldn't really pull out the loveseat or leave out the air mattress during the day -- then there really wouldn't be any room -- that left Feuilly and Darnell doing their homework either squeezed together on the loveseat or sitting on the floor. More often than not, Feuilly would retreat to the library to get his work done, but if he wasn't home on time to do his chores, he'd catch hell from Mr. Hoschauser. And if he didn't catch it from Mr. Hoschauser, he caught it from Mrs. Hoschauser when she got home from work. It was a lose-lose proposition.
This time, fortune was not on Feuilly's side. He'd skated in the door with barely enough time to get the trash out and dinner started before Mr. Hoschauser made his 4 PM emergence in search of another bottle of whiskey. Seeing Feuilly calmly standing at the stove pouring two boxes of macaroni into a pot, he gave a grunt, grabbed his bottle and retreated back into his bedroom -- and his porn, no doubt. Feuilly's mouth twisted in disgust. In the beginning, he'd felt pity for the man. He'd been injured on the job and worker's comp barely covered his medical bills. He couldn't go back to the work he'd done before and that money didn't spread far enough for him to train for something new. He'd been a nice man once, Darnell had said, back when he was their only foster kid. They used to go to the park on Sundays, toss around a football. There was no football, now. There were no parks. Not with the Hoschausers. Feuilly and Darnell did their best to take their place, to see that the younger kids got outdoors sometimes, got a chance to do some playing of their own… but there was no one to do that for them.
Precisely at 4:45, the front door creaked open and Darnell came through the kitchen on his way to their room. On the way past, he ruffled Feuilly's hair, offered him a small smile. Those were the only kinds of smiles Darnell had these days. He was 17 to Feuilly's 14, and with a birthday just around the corner, about to age out of the foster system. He'd gotten a job unloading trucks at a local grocery store and it was grueling work, but at least his caseworker had helped him set up an account so he could put the money away where the Hoschausers couldn't touch it. It wouldn't be enough to afford college, but pooled together with a few other boys Darnell knew, it might be enough to get them a small apartment. Which sucked because Darnell was in the top 5% of his class and he liked school. He would have been good at college. He would have enjoyed it. He should have had a chance to go.
Feuilly crumpled up the empty boxes and threw them into the recycling bin hard enough to knock a few cans off the top. It wasn't fair. Feuilly was already at an age when a family taking him on permanently was pretty much a lost cause. He was a teenager, four years away from aging out of the system himself. He wasn't as good at Darnell as school. He wasn't cute anymore, and he couldn't pull off that sweetness that some of the younger kids still could. He had too many damned rough edges. If Darnell didn't have a shot, then what the hell kind of shot did he have?
The only good thing about today was that it was Friday. The Hoschausers let them watch a movie every Friday. It was the one true luxury the kids were allowed. Each kid got to take it in turn to pick one of the ten movies that the Hoschausers had that was kid-friendly. Today, it was Darnell's turn to pick. He and Feuilly usually let one of the younger kids sway their choices, but tonight… tonight Darnell took one look at Feuilly's face and offered him another small smile… and pulled a much-abused copy of Annie off the shelf. Feuilly would have liked to protest, to tell him that he didn't need to be babied like that, that they could have watched Finding Nemo or Wall-E or whatever the younger kids wanted this week and it would have been fine, but he didn't want to call attention to himself. He still hadn't gotten around to telling the Hoschausers that he'd failed his last English test. And if he raised too much of a fuss it would remind them he was there and then they might remember to ask about the test, and that was the last thing Feuilly wanted.
So, Darnell picked Annie and even though the two youngest boys -- Tyler and Johndavid -- whined about how old it was and how lame, by the time they'd hit the song "Maybe," everyone had quieted down and settled in to watch. Any movie was better than none. By the time the song was over, Feuilly was curled up around one of the throw pillows, trying to wipe his eyes without anyone catching him at it. Of course… Darnell did. He walked over to the couch, shoved Jayden over and plunked down next to Feuilly. He didn't say anything, but he ruffled Feuilly's hair then dropped his arm around Feuilly's shoulder to pull him in for a brief hug. And for a moment, just for a second, really, Feuilly let himself be pulled, let himself curl into that taller body, let himself feel protected. But when he started to feel another lump rise in his throat, he pushed himself back upright. Mrs. Hoschauser didn't like it when they cried, and Feuilly wasn't up for the double abuse that would end up heaped on his head between that and his failed test. He shrugged out from under Darnell's arm and turned back to the movie, more eager to lose himself than he'd been in quite some time.
The Corinthe was crowded when Courfeyrac and Feuilly finally arrived. The others had all beaten them there. They were ushered inside and had their coats pulled off and mugs of hot chocolate shoved into their hands before they were even over the threshold of the bar proper. Courfeyrac went laughingly along with it, giving in to the good cheer and high spirits, though Feuilly occasionally caught him glancing back, trying to gauge Feuilly's mood even as he was pulled away. Feuilly waved him off and, instead of joining him, tucked himself into a corner table where he and his foul mood would be out of the way.
Nearly every one of their friends wandered over at some point to check on him, but Feuilly waved them all away, not feeling like fit company for anyone and still not sure he could explain why. The last one to approach was Enjolras and he brought with him a loaded plate of nachos and two beers. And since Feuilly hadn't eaten since lunch, that would have been reason enough to invite him to stay… but Enjolras was the one person that Feuilly could never push away, no matter the circumstances. So Enjolras, taking his silence for the assent it was, settled in opposite Feuilly at the small table and pushed one of the beers across to him. They drank in silence for a while, sharing the nachos, and Feuilly quietly prepared himself for Enjolras' opening move. Unlike Courfeyrac, Enjolras would push. This moment of peace was just his way of giving Feuilly a chance to open up before he did.
Eventually Enjolras gave up on waiting, as Feuilly had known he would. Letting out a soft sigh, he said, "You have Courfeyrac pretty worried, you know. Truth to tell, you've got the rest of us worried, too. Tonight was a huge success, and it was largely due to you. The numbers are rolling in from everywhere in the county and it's all good news. I thought you'd be happy."
Feuilly hastened to reassure him. "I am. I am happy. I just… I don't think I can explain it."
Reaching out, Enjolras took Feuilly's hand in his and gave it a brief squeeze. "Try." When Feuilly just shook his head, Enjolras leaned back, a frown on his face. He took another sip of his beer before speaking again. "Could you tell Courfeyrac?"
"I tried." Feuilly sighed, then spent some time pushing his beer bottle back and forth in his hands until Enjolras rolled his eyes, grabbed his hand again to still it, and pushed the plate of nachos towards him. After helping himself to one, Feuilly said, "I don't even really know why I'm upset. I just… something about that movie got to me, and that's never happened before. How can I tell him what's bothering me if I don't even know, myself?"
Enjolras was quiet for a while after that. When he finally spoke again, what he had to say was about the last thing that Feuilly expected.
"Do you love him?"
Caught unawares and mid-swallow, Feuilly all but choked on the nachos at that. When he was finally able to breathe again, he said, "I'm sorry, what?"
Enjolras frowned. "Do you love him? Courfeyrac."
"I…" Feuilly's cheeks heated and he just knew that he was blushing as red as a tomato. Ducking his head, he mumbled, "Yeah. I do. But… so does everyone, right? We all love him. And he loves all of us. That's just how he works."
Enjolras nodded slowly at that explanation, then reached out and took Feuilly's hand, again. "That's certainly true. But that's not the whole story and you know it. Something changed between you two last month, when you were sick. He's… different, now. Around you. More like he is with me and Combeferre. That means something and you know that, too, I think."
Feuilly pulled his hand back and began fidgeting with his beer bottle, again. He and Courfeyrac had avoided talking to their friends about the quasi-change in their status since they still weren't certain that anything had changed. They spent more time together. There was more cuddling involved. Sometimes Courfeyrac spent the night at Feuilly's. Sometimes Feuilly spent the night at Courfeyrac's. But apart from that, nothing had changed. And Feuilly didn't want to put a label on it that it didn't deserve or that Courfeyrac might not want it to have. So he'd kept silent and, since Courfeyrac had done the same, Feuilly wasn't in a rush to say differently until he'd spoken to him about it.
When Feuilly looked back up to deny Enjolras' words, Enjolras let a small, melancholy smile alight on his face. "Well, that's a look I know. I saw it in the mirror enough freshman year to recognize it. You don't have to say anything more if you don't want to, Feuilly. I get it."
Feuilly blinked, then squinted at Enjolras. "Wait… what?" Enjolras couldn't be implying what it sounded like he was implying. That was ridiculous. Courfeyrac would have said… wouldn't he?
Feuilly risked a quick glance across the bar, picking out Courfeyrac's rousing laughter and extravagant movements easily. As expected, he was draped over Combeferre, peppering kisses across his cheeks, forehead and neck. He was always like that with Combeferre. So when he'd confessed to cold feet about this experiment, just a few days after agreeing to it, because he'd tried something similiar once before and it hadn't worked out… Feuilly had assumed that the one he'd tried it with had been Combeferre. They were joined at the hip so often; they finished each other's sentences; could order for each other at every restaurant and bar; and they seemed utterly incapable of keeping their hands off each other when they were anywhere close to in proximity of each other. Feuilly turned back to stare at Enjolras. "I thought he and Combeferre…?"
Enjolras tipped his beer bottle towards Feuilly before taking a long drink. When he put the bottle back down, he shrugged. "You wouldn't be the first to assume that. In another life… I don't know. I think in another life, they'd have been perfect for each other. But Courfeyrac can't give Combeferre what he's convinced he needs and Combeferre loves him too much to push the issue. They've known each other since they were kids, what they have has worked for them so far, and they've convinced themselves that it's enough." He sighed. "It wasn't enough for me."
"But… I thought you'd known Courfeyrac since you were kids, too?"
Enjolras nodded. "I have, but not consistently. Our parents vacationed in the same places; that sort of thing. So we've known each other since we were kids, but we didn't spend much time together until college. And when we decided to room together, Courfeyrac was already getting tired of people attacking his sexuality and as you said… everyone loves Courfeyrac. I was no exception. So when he decided he wanted to try forming some kind of a relationship with someone, just to get everyone off his back, I was more than willing to volunteer."
Feuilly leaned forward, eyes intent. "So what happened?"
Enjolras shrugged. "It worked. We were happy. We even had sex once or twice. Other than that, nothing much changed, apart from us becoming just as codependent with each other as he and Combeferre had always been."
Forcing down a growl of frustration, Feuilly said, "But you're obviously not together now, so…?" At Enjolras' raised eyebrow, Feuilly sighed and elaborated, "So, I'll repeat: what happened?"
Enjolras finished off his beer, then stared mournfully down into it until Feuilly took pity on him and pushed the rest of his over. Given how thoroughly Courfeyrac had been enjoying himself, it was more than likely that Feuilly would end up driving them home anyway. When Enjolras took the beer from him with a grateful smile and took a long drink from the bottle, Feuilly winced in sympathy. "They didn't approve?"
"On the contrary… they did." Enjolras finished off Feuilly's beer in one more long pull, then waved his hand vaguely in Grantaire's direction. Grantaire, though he rolled his eyes at his boyfriend, delivered a fresh beer, then after taking a good look at the two of them, shook his head and wandered away. Once he'd started in on the new bottle, Enjolras explained. "They invited me out with them whenever they visited. They sent me birthday presents. They sent any family invitations addressed to us both. They commented all over his Facebook about how beautiful we were together and started dropping hints that someday they'd love to welcome me into the family."
Feeling his teeth start to clench and his hands, too, Feuilly gritted out, "I'm starting to feel like a broken record: So. What. Happened."
The look Enjolras turned on Feuilly then was full of sympathy and no small amount of residual pain. "He panicked. He panicked because here he was, trying to carve out some small piece of happiness for himself, and there was his entire family, acting like in order to do it, he had to conform to everything he'd said he never wanted. And I was a lot worse at being open about my feelings then than I am now. So when he started to really panic, worrying that he was making me unhappy all over the place because he couldn't give me what I needed… I didn't know how to reassure him that he was. I couldn't say the words. I couldn't talk to him. So, he backed off -- easy enough to do since we weren't really dating, were we? -- and when the opportunity came to encourage Grantaire and I to pursue something with each other… well. He pushed us both into it. And since he didn't seem to care one way or the other by then, we let him do it."
Feuilly frowned. "I see what you're getting at, Enjolras, but it's not the same thing."
"Different verse, same song, Feuilly." Enjolras pushed his chair back and stood. "I lost my chance with him before I even really had it, because we couldn't communicate when we needed to. If you can't talk to him about whatever's going on with you, now, he's going to assume you can't talk to him about other things, too. He's going to start to think that you're unhappy, even if you're not, and he's going to push you away. He's already thinking about it; I recognize the signs. And if he manages to push you away, too… Feuilly, I'm afraid that he'll convince himself that he doesn't deserve companionship, at all; that he deserves to be alone. Don't let him do that to himself. Please."
Feuilly looked up into Enjolras' eyes and, seeing how they shone with the wetness of unshed tears, a surge of shame rose up in him. He hadn't even considered… In a hushed voice, he said, "I'll talk to him. I don't know how, but… I'll try."
Enjolras smiled, gripped Feuilly's shoulder tightly, and said, "That's all I can ask." Then, using Feuilly's shoulder as a crutch, he turned himself around and started across the bar, prompting laughter and more than a few cheers when he made it without falling, given how drunk he was. Enjolras was a bit of a lightweight. Feuilly watched as Grantaire eventually caught him and guided him to sit down next to him at a booth. The look on Grantaire's face when Enjolras snuggled into his side, one hand curling into the thick wool of his sweater, was so soft, so warm, so awe-filled… Feuilly couldn't help but smile when he saw it.
…until he caught the look on Courfeyrac's face, as well.
Courfeyrac was smiling, too, but it was a sad smile. It was the look of a man who'd seen paradise and willing turned away from it, who'd felt the sun on his face and still walked away into the shadows. Enjolras had no idea how dead wrong he was. Courfeyrac had cared. He'd cared so much that he'd made himself miserable rather than risk making someone he loved equally miserable. And he was still miserable.
Combeferre took the opportunity of Courfeyrac's momentary distraction to call the waitress over for the group's check. Feuilly recognized that sign as well as everyone else. It wasn't something that Combeferre did often -- settle up the bill as a whole so he could order them all home. Feuilly could only think of two other times that he'd done so. Both were times when he'd felt that someone should really go home but wouldn't leave if they had an excuse to stay.
…both of those times, it had been Courfeyrac.
When people started wandering over in ones and twos to settle up with Combeferre before leaving, Feuilly stood, as well. It was going to be up to him to get Courfeyrac home, since Courfeyrac had driven them here and Combeferre couldn't drive his own car and Courfeyrac's at the same time. Now it just remained to be seen if Courfeyrac would cooperate.
Grantaire, as usual, hadn't drunk anything more adventurous than water all night, but understanding some signal that Feuilly hadn't seen, he was doing his part to keep Enjolras away from Courfeyrac. He slipped Bossuet some money to give to Combeferre to cover Enjolras' bill for him. He then guided Enjolras to the door, bundled him into his coat, then outside to his car.
By the time the rest of their friends had cleared out of the bar, Feuilly finally made his way over, cash in hand. Combeferre waved it away. "Grantaire paid for the nachos and beer that Enjolras consumed from under you, and I've taken care of Courfeyrac's bill. You're fine, Feuilly." When Feuilly moved to protest, Combeferre shook his head and held up a hand. When Feuilly subsided, Combeferre turned to look at Courfeyrac, who was now nodding off on his shoulder, and said softly, "Just get him home safely. That's all I ask."
Feuilly had sworn to himself that he wouldn't ask, because it really was none of his business, but seeing the tender look on Combeferre's face, and the there-again-gone-again flash of pain underneath, Feuilly couldn't help himself. "You… you love him, too, don't you?"
Combeferre tucked Courfeyrac a little more firmly into his arms and answered simply, "Of course, I do."
"Then… then why--?"
"Why not try with him what Enjolras tried? What you're trying?"
Feuilly flinched back at the harsh tone of those words but stood his ground. He nodded once. "Yes."
Combeferre sighed, refusing to turn his gaze away from Courfeyrac as he answered. "Because a long time ago, I came to a realization. Being who he is, feeling as he does, his life was going to be hard enough. I could see it even when we were children -- that he was going to need someone in his life who could provide him some stability, who wouldn't try to force him into a box that he was never made to fit. He needed at least one friendship that wouldn't become complicated by romantic feelings, one relationship that he didn't feel like he'd screwed up just by being in it." Finally looking up to meet Feuilly's gaze, Combeferre said, "I love him enough to be that friend for him. And I will be that friend for him no matter what else changes around us, whether he finds someone who he can allow to be more than a friend for him or not. He will never be alone as long as he has me. I need him to know that. He needs to be so certain of it that he will never doubt it. So, no matter what I do or don't feel for him, I will not complicate our friendship, because I refuse to take that certainty away from him."
Feuilly swallowed hard against a sudden lump in his throat. "But… that's not fair. What about you?"
Combeferre shrugged. "I'm fine, Feuilly. I've had partners, lovers, people who were more than that, too. Someday, I’m sure I'll marry and have children." A soft smile crossed his face. "I think he'd like that." He turned that smile down towards Courfeyrac. "I'll do whatever I have to to make sure he never has cause to doubt the nature of my love for him, to doubt whether the love he has for me is enough. I will be his best friend and nothing more. Because that is enough for me."
"So… you don't mind… that we…?"
Combeferre turned back towards Feuilly and that soft smile widened. "On the contrary, I hope it works out for you two. I think… I think it will. He's older now than he was with Enjolras, and you're more mature than both of them combined. I think you have a better shot, anyway." At Feuilly's dubious look, Combeferre said, "Feuilly… I've spent all this time trying to ensure that he has at least one person he can love without worrying about what kind of love it is. Why would I be unhappy if he has two?"
With those last words, he rose, one arm still around Courfeyrac's waist, and motioned Feuilly to take Courfeyrac's other side. Together they got him into his coat and out to the car. It wasn't until he was safely buckled in and Feuilly had the car started that Combeferre waved and moved off to his own car. Feuilly took a minute while the car warmed to run his fingers through Courfeyrac's dark curls, feeling more at ease now than he had in weeks. Though he would never have dared outright ask for them, they now had Enjolras and Combeferre's unequivocal blessings on this… whatever it was. Feuilly hadn't realized until then how worried that he'd been that they wouldn't. So maybe… maybe he could open up. Maybe not as much as Courfeyrac wanted… but hopefully just enough.
"I have had more than enough of your attitude, young man! That hoodlum is a bad influence on you, and I've told you time and time again that I don't want you seeing him, and I don't want him around my daughter!"
Feuilly glared down at the mother of foster home #10 and fought the urge to do something nasty that would only prove her right. Mrs. Schmidt was a young woman, an army widow, and had one other child -- her own. Tania was eight years old and bright as a button, as warm as her mother was cold, as open as her mother was narrow-minded. And she loved Feuilly as if he really were her brother. He had no idea what had possessed Mrs. Schmidt to take on a foster child, much less one so close to aging out of the system, but he was grateful she had -- if for no other reason than that he loved Tania as much as she did him.
Feuilly had only been in this home for a few months and, with his high school graduation less than a year away and his 18th birthday just two months away, he didn't figure he'd be here for long, but he was determined to make the most of what little time he had. He had to bring his grades up. He had to get something onto his application that would look good, at least to the local community college. He had to do something so he wouldn't fuck up his chance at a future before he'd even had it. And fuck if he was going to lose the first human being he'd been sure who'd loved him since Darnell. He wasn't giving either of them up without a fight. But to do that… he had to stay. Biting his tongue on the answer he really wanted to give, he forced himself to answer, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Schmidt. It won't happen, again."
With his foster mother mollified, Feuilly fled to his room. At least he finally had his own room. In a house. With a yard. There was even a fucking white picket fence and a hyper yellow dog. It was so damned domestic, so damned perfect, that it made his teeth clench.
…if only the woman who owned it all wasn't such a raging racist asshole.
When he reached his room, Feuilly shot off a quick text to Darnell telling him how glad he'd been to see him, telling him again how proud he was of him for getting that scholarship and finally getting into college, and lastly… telling him that he might not be able to see him again for a while. Because Mrs. Schmidt wouldn't allow it, and he couldn't take the chance that he'd be kicked out of here and into a group home. That was a dead end if ever there was one. And thanks to his last conversation with Darnell… for the first time in years, Feuilly wanted better for himself than to be spinning his wheels in a dead end for the rest of his life. He wanted an education. He wanted to learn. He wanted to make a difference to someone. Darnell would understand. Darnell had always believed that Feuilly could do better than he had. Darnell was the one who'd finally helped him learn to read, to manage the dyslexia that had been the bane of his existence since he'd first picked up a book. Darnell was the reason his caseworker had finally gotten him the accommodations that would enable him to stop failing tests. Everything good he had going for him, Feuilly owed to Darnell.
Mrs. Schmidt would never see any of that. All Mrs. Schmidt would ever see when she looked at Darnell was the color of his skin. He was going to make something of himself. Become a doctor or a lawyer or fucking President and Mrs. Schmidt would still never be able to see more than skin deep when she looked at him. Her fucking loss. But Feuilly refused to let it be his loss… or Tania's. So he had to stay.
Eight months later, Feuilly walked off that high school stage with a diploma in hand, a letter of acceptance to NYU in one back pocket, and a letter approving his student loan in the other. He'd stuck them in there like talismans to remind himself of his own worth. He'd made it. He'd really made it. He'd graduated high school. He was going to college. The hell with anyone who'd ever said he couldn't.
Mrs. Schmidt had brought Tania to the graduation, and Tania had been pointing to him and exclaiming proudly to anyone who would listen that that was her brother on stage, no matter how her mother tried to hush her. He could tell. He'd heard her from the stage.
Feuilly's caseworker was there, too. She'd been the first one he'd had in years who'd really seemed to give an honest crap about what happened to him. She was the one who'd helped him fill out the student loan applications, the college applications. She'd even driven him to his interview, even though he'd tried to dissuade her. Fantine wouldn't be dissuaded. She'd insisted on doing whatever she could -- and in many cases more than she should -- for him. Someone had helped her out when she'd been in her own dire straights, she'd said, and this was just her way of paying it forward.
The only face that was missing from the crowd was Darnell's. He'd sworn he was going to be there. He'd promised. And Darnell didn't break promises.
When Feuilly got down off the stage, it was to find Fantine on the phone, a distracted, horrified look on her face which only intensified when she caught sight of him. Feuilly's heart clenched. He knew that look. That look meant bad news for someone. That look meant the kind of bad news that ended in hospital rooms and cheap pine boxes.
And Darnell wasn't there.
Feuilly stepped back, his heart hammering in his chest. Showing a motherly instinct that Feuilly had never believed he'd see directed at him, Mrs. Schmidt stepped up next to him and put a hand on his shoulder, gave it a gentle squeeze. She'd never warmed to the idea of Darnell as a suitable friend for Feuilly, but she had warmed to Feuilly. Some. A little. Enough that he hadn't felt entirely like a stranger in her house by the end. But she wasn't family. She'd never be family.
Fantine hung up the phone and said, "Feuilly… there's been an accident."
Feuilly's heart gave one last hard clench… and stopped.
"OK, I've got you. Come on. Just one more step and then we're on the landing and we can get inside. Then you can take a break. No, no, no, no!" Feuilly reached out as Courfeyrac listed sideways and pulled back for all he was worth. Courfeyrac overbalanced again, this time in Feuilly's direction, and Feuilly landed hard on his ass on the landing with Courfeyrac sprawled on top of him, laughing his fool head off. Feuilly couldn't help but laugh, too. Maybe he'd overreacted, but these outside steps were treacherous at the best of times and now that they were covered in snow and ice they were downright deadly. But Feuilly's apartment had been closer to the Corinthe than Courfeyrac's by far and given how drunk Courfeyrac was, Feuilly just wanted to get him somewhere while he was still conscious enough to assist in his own transport.
"All right, you. That's enough. Let's get you inside and dried off and fuck, I don't even know. We'll deal with it then." When all Courfeyrac did in response was to place a wet, smacking kiss onto Feuilly's cheek, Feuilly rolled his eyes and heaved himself back to his feet and opened the door before reaching down to help Courfeyrac up, too.
It was a fifteen minute struggle from there to get Courfeyrac up the stairs and into his apartment, and it was with great relief that Feuilly dropped him down onto the couch and collapsed next to him. Courfeyrac immediately rolled over and snuggled into Feuilly's side. Feuilly allowed himself a moment to hold him there, to press soft kisses into the crown of his head, before gently pushing him off and helping him out of his jacket and his boots. Courfeyrac grabbed at him every time he went past, even succeeded in tumbling him down to the couch once, half in his lap, but when Courfeyrac's hands started to wander, Feuilly blushed and quickly got up.
Feuilly knew that Courfeyrac had had sex before. Not often, but sometimes. He'd even once considered offering himself the next time Courfeyrac was in the mood. But that was before they'd started… whatever this was between them. They hadn't talked about it. And Feuilly was not going to let something like that happen when Courfeyrac was too drunk to really express what he wanted. So, instead of giving in to those fumbled caresses -- no matter how much he might want to -- Feuilly went into the bathroom and got a few towels, then into his bedroom to dry off and change into pajamas. He then grabbed a spare set of pajamas and went out to help Courfeyrac towel off and change. Courfeyrac made no more attempts to grab him, seemed to be focused more on staying awake… and on not throwing up if the green tinge to his features was any indication. How much had he drunk? Feuilly sighed. It didn't really matter. What mattered was that if Courfeyrac was drunk enough to be sick, Feuilly wasn't letting him out of his sight. He pulled Courfeyrac up off the couch and dragged him down the hall to his bedroom, tucking him in on his side of the bed… then he froze.
Courfeyrac had a side of the bed.
Feuilly's cheeks grew warm at that thought, and his heart began to beat a little faster. Courfeyrac had a side of Feuilly's bed and, now that he thought about it, Feuilly had a side of Courfeyrac's bed. Maybe that didn't mean anything to Courfeyrac, but it sure as hell meant something to Feuilly. Feuilly gently turned Courfeyrac onto his side and propped him up with a few pillows before crawling into bed next to him. Enjolras had been right. If after so short a time, they were already making spaces like this in their lives for each other, then Feuilly owed Courfeyrac a little honesty.
Maybe by morning, Feuilly would even have figured out what the truth was that he had to tell.
When Courfeyrac woke up the next morning, it was to a rolling stomach and a pounding headache. He took care of the first by reaching for the waste basket that had been so conveniently left next to his side of the bed and the latter by reaching for the glass of water and bottle of aspirin that had been left on the night table. That accomplished, he tied off the bag in the waste basket and pushed himself upright to go take it out to the garbage chute. It wasn't until he returned that he realized that the flip bolt had been open when he went outside. The only way that Feuilly wouldn't have closed that was if he wasn't at home.
A quick look around the apartment revealed exactly what Courfeyrac had feared. He even went back into the bedroom and flipped back the covers on the bed. Feuilly wasn't here. So where the hell was he? There was at least two feet of snow outside. No one should be out in that. Pulling out his phone, Courfeyrac checked for any new texts or voicemails. There was nothing. Just as he was about to start texting their other friends, hoping that Feuilly had at least told one of them where he was going, a flutter of something bright and yellow caught his eye. A Post-It note. Courfeyrac pealed it off the nightstand and read:
Hopefully you'll find this before you notice I'm gone. I just stepped out to get us breakfast. I should be back by 10 -- see you soon!
When Courfeyrac checked his phone and saw that it was only 9:45, he fell back on the bed in relief. Feuilly was all right -- even if he was an idiot for braving the elements just to get them breakfast. Surely they could have made do with what was in the refrigerator. After a few minutes of lying there staring at the ceiling, Courfeyrac pushed himself back upright. He wasn't feeling so ill that lying in bed was appealing, but the thought of just roaming around Feuilly's apartment when he wasn't there made him a bit uncomfortable. He'd never been here alone before. It wasn't like being at Enjolras and Combeferre's place. Not yet. He couldn't just go poking around.
Just a few minutes later, Courfeyrac had already figured out exactly how little there was to do in someone else's apartment when you were trying not to poke around. He couldn't even find the remote for Feuilly's TV. He'd thought about making coffee, or breakfast, so they'd be ready when Feuilly got back, but a quick look in the kitchen made it very apparent exactly why Feuilly had felt the need to go out to buy them breakfast. And Courfeyrac had thought his cupboards were bare. So, no making breakfast. He thought about sitting down with a book, but even the thought had his head throbbing in pain, again. Eventually, he sat down on the couch and leaned back, figuring that maybe a nap wouldn't be such a bad idea… but as soon as he put his feet up on the coffee table something crashed to the floor.
No… a photo album.
Courfeyrac leaned over to pick up the fallen album, handling it gingerly. Who even kept photo albums anymore? He laughed softly to himself. Feuilly did, obviously. It was one of his more charming quirks, really, his tendency to hold onto old ways of doing things for no other reason than "they still worked just fine and honestly, someone should." Courfeyrac was pretty sure Feuilly even had a working Polaroid camera somewhere. And really, Courfeyrac found it adorable, even inspiring, the way Feuilly worked so hard to preserve old traditions. Like photo albums.
Courfeyrac dusted off the book in his hands, turned it over once or twice, then glanced at his phone. 9:55 AM. Feuilly would be back soon. And he shouldn't. This was private. He turned the photo album over, again. It couldn't hurt to just take a peak… could it?
Feuilly pushed open the door to his apartment, stamping the snow off his boots as he did. It had been damned cold outside and if it weren't for the fact that it looked like there was going to be another storm that night and he was seriously lacking in food supplies, he'd never have gone out. But if he was going to be stuck here for a few days, and Courfeyrac might end up stuck with him, they needed groceries. So Feuilly had gone out. It took barely one block worth of walking to convince him that he'd probably made a mistake, but the thought of Courfeyrac waking up hungry and Feuilly having nothing to feed him but stale cereal was enough to convince him to keep walking, get to the store, and then get his ass home, again.
When Feuilly finally looked up from kicking off his boots and hanging up his coat, he noticed Courfeyrac sitting, very still, on the couch, staring at a book resting on the coffee table. Feuilly had thought he'd put it away before leaving, but clearly not. His heart gave an odd little lurch as he asked, "Did you look at it?"
Courfeyrac looked up to meet Feuilly's gaze and shook his head. "I was tempted. I really was. But it's yours, not mine. If you'd wanted me to see what was in it, I figured you'd have showed me. I wouldn't pry like that; I know how much you value your privacy."
~I lost him because we couldn't communicate when we needed to. If you can't talk to him about this, he's going to assume you can't talk to him about other things, too.~
Feuilly moved into the kitchen to put away the groceries, then filled the kettle with water and set it on the stove to boil. When he came back into the living room, he sat down beside Courfeyrac on the couch and picked up the photo album. He then handed it over and nodded. "Go ahead."
The corner of Courfeyrac's lips stretched up into a small smile, though his eyes remained uncertain. "Are you sure?"
In answer, Feuilly reached out and opened the album to the first page. Courfeyrac's smile widened and he turned his attention to the album. The first pictures were of Feuilly as a young child -- smiling, happy, carefree. Before foster home #1. He didn't have many pictures from back then, but the few he had were precious. There were even a few of him with his family, the few his aunt and uncle -- foster home #1 -- had been willing to part with. These gave way to pictures of other foster homes, other foster families, a few friends, but not many. It was hard to make friends when you moved every year, sometimes more than once a year, even. It wasn't until halfway through the book that Courfeyrac said anything. Pointing out a tall, gangly, dark-skinned teenaged boy, he said, "He seems to show up a lot. Who was he?"
Feuilly rested his head on Courfeyrac's shoulder, allowing himself the luxury of staring at that bright smile, the way one long arm draped around a younger, baby-faced Feuilly's shoulders… at how lurking around the edges of that sullen baby face, there was the barest hint of a smile. Feuilly reached out and touched the picture, ran a finger down the other boy's arm. "Darnell. He and I were together at the Hoschausers for almost two years. It was the longest stretch of time I did in any foster home." At Courfeyrac's querying noise, Feuilly said, "I was… difficult. Angry. I had trouble keeping that bottled up enough for people to want to keep me. Darnell helped me work through some of it, taught me how to keep myself in check so I could stay with him."
Courfeyrac looked up, gave him a hesitant smile. "It was a good place then?"
Feuilly snorted. "It was a shit hole. Mr. H was a drunk and Mrs. H beat the crap out of us for every little offense." At the horrified look on Courfeyrac's face, Feuilly quickly added, "But really, it was OK! Because of him." He nodded down at the book. "Darnell was the first person since my avuela who cared what happened to me, who cared if I smiled. He helped me learn to read. He got my caseworker to talk to the school about accommodations for the dyslexia that no one else had been able to figure out that I had."
Feuilly paused as Courfeyrac jerked against him. When he looked up, an eyebrow raised, Courfeyrac shrugged. "I just… you never said. I didn't know."
Feuilly leaned his head back against Courfeyrac's shoulder and whispered softly, "It's not something I talk about much. Cosette knows, but… that's different." When Courfeyrac did nothing but squeeze his hand in reassurance, Feuilly sighed and elaborated. "My last caseworker… Fantine. She's Cosette's mother. But that's all I can really tell you about that."
"It's not your story to tell. I get that." Courfeyrac raised Feuilly's hand to his lips and pressed a soft kiss against the knuckles. "So, back to Darnell?"
"Right." Feuilly pushed himself upright, reached over to start turning the pages, again. "He kept tabs on me even after he aged out. He was smart as hell, but he didn't have the money for school. The only kind of money his case worker seemed to find to help him out were sports scholarships, and he didn't want that. But he worked hard and he kept applying for merit scholarships and eventually he got a full ride to Brown, pre-med. It was the year before I graduated." Feuilly swallowed hard. "That day -- the day I graduated -- he was supposed to come down for the ceremony. He never made it. He had an accident when he got to New York." His voice hardened as he added, "He made the mistake of walking while black in the wrong neighborhood."
Courfeyrac jerked beside him again, but this time he didn't wait for Feuilly's prompt before asking, "So… he's…?"
"No." When Courfeyrac let out a sigh of relief, Feuilly smiled. "He was hurt pretty badly, but he lived. He was hit by a car while running away from the asshole with the shotgun. He survived, and he healed… but he lost a leg in the process." Feuilly turned one last page and there were Darnell and Feuilly again -- this picture was from just last summer, both of them in shorts and tee-shirts and in virtually the same pose as the first picture of them together. This time, though, both were smiling. The only other difference was Darnell's right leg -- below the knee, it was a riot of color. There were brilliant reds, deep purples, vibrant greens -- a veritable garden of flowers growing in paint on the prosthetic he wore.
Courfeyrac looked up at Feuilly, at the proud smile on his face, and began to smile, as well. "You painted it, didn't you? I recognize your work."
Feuilly nodded, an indulgent smile spreading across his lips. "He strips off the paint at least once a year and has me redo it for him. I think he likes having a piece of wearable, customizable art on his leg. Shows it off to all his friends and patients."
Courfeyrac laughed. "His patients? He's a doctor?"
"Well, not yet. He's in his first year of medical school, but he really loves to show it off, especially in the pediatric ward. Last time he had me repaint it, it was a whole Warner Brothers motif -- Bugs Bunny, Marvin the Martian, Daisy Duck, Petunia Pig. The kids loved it, from what he said."
"I think I'd like to meet this guy. He sounds like my kind of person."
Feuilly pulled their joined hands closer, and this time he was the one to place the gentle kiss on Courfeyrac's knuckles. When he looked up, he was smiling. "I think you'd get along like two peas in a pod. You remind me a lot of him. He always cared more for others than he did himself, even when we were kids. Still does." Feuilly closed the book, then stood up to replace it on the bookshelf. Before he could return to the couch, however, the kettle started to whistle. Turning back to Courfeyrac, he raised an eyebrow, "Your hangover up for some hot chocolate? I thought I'd splurge a little with the shopping, since it looks like we'll be stuck here for a few days."
Courfeyrac stood up, as well, walked over, and pulled Feuilly to him in a brief hug. "I think I can handle that."
Once they were seated at the table with their hot chocolate, Feuilly took a deep breath, then looked up to meet Courfeyrac's gaze dead on. "Quvenzhané's Annie could have been me. She could have been me, right down to the overcrowded foster home with the drunk adult who verbally abused her, and the social workers who were so overworked that they didn't care, to the streets of Harlem being more of a home than any foster home she'd ever been in, to the guy at the corner store being more of a father figure than she'd ever known. Those were my streets. That was my life." Feuilly took a deep breath, then let it out in a harsh grunt. "That world doesn't have room for fairy tales. There's no William Stacks waiting to sweep you off your feet to a life of luxury. That's fantasy. It's not real. It doesn't happen like that. Most kids in those situations age out of the system and no one gives a crap about what happens to them unless they're lucky enough to find a Darnell along the way, or a Fantine. They're the real heroes."
Courfeyrac reached out to take Feuilly's hand in his own, a look that held far more understanding than Feuilly felt he deserved scrawled all over his face. "That's what happened last night. You were used to Annie's happy ending being an untouchable fairy tale. But this Annie… her life… it wasn't untouchable. It hit too close to home, didn't it?"
Feuilly brushed his thumb over the knuckles of Courfeyrac's hand. On the second pass, he slowly nodded. "And it was wrong. It was making a fairy tale out of my life… and my life was no fairy tale."
In a clear bid for distraction from the gloomy trend Feuilly's words were taking, Courfeyrac let out a soft chuckle and said, "Oh, I don't know. You've certainly landed yourself a handsome prince."
"Oh! Is that what you are, then?" Feuilly pulled his hand back long enough to grab a few napkins off the table and throw them in Courfeyrac's direction. As Courfeyrac beat them away from his face, Feuilly said, "And what would Your Highness like for breakfast? Is the caviar acceptable or should I prepare a venison steak and quail eggs for you?"
The banter soon devolved into an all out napkin fight and when they finally calmed, there were napkins covering the table and spilling onto the floor in little drifts, and both Feuilly and Courfeyrac were spluttering with the remains of hysterical laughter. Eventually, Courfeyrac sobered and reached out for Feuilly's hand, again. "I'm glad you told me."
Feuilly gave Courfeyrac's hand a soft squeeze and said, "Me, too. I… Courfeyrac, I need you to know something else. Being open with people about myself… it's not easy for me. I'm trying. I'm really, really trying for you, but…"
"But…?" And that open, guileless look in Courfeyrac's eyes was going to be the death of him, it really was. Feuilly had a feeling that all Courfeyrac would have to do would be to turn that look on him and he'd give him whatever he wanted.
Feuilly reached out for Courfeyrac's other hand. Once he was holding them both, he said, "I need you to know that you make me happy. You make me happy in ways that no one but Darnell ever even bothered to try. You make me laugh. You… even if you aren't comfortable with the word 'love,' I can feel how much you care about me. And that is more important to me than any one word could ever be. Romance, marriage -- they're no guarantee of a happily ever after. For me, happily ever after has always meant one thing: family… friends. So whether you call it love, or platonic love, or family, or best friends… I don't care. So long as I get to keep it, I couldn't care less if I tried."
Courfeyrac's hands tightened almost convulsively on Feuilly's then, and he ducked his eyes… but not before Feuilly caught the telltale signs of tears. When he recovered himself enough to look back up, Courfeyrac asked, voice rough with those unshed tears, "Are you sure? I can't… Feuilly I don't think I have it in me to be a boyfriend. I've been trying. I really have, but… it's just not there. And I do care about you. A lot. The same way I do about Combeferre and Enjolras. But… is that really enough? To know that I love all three of you the same way?" When Feuilly moved to answer, Courfeyrac shook his head. "Don't… don't answer right away, OK? I need you to think about this. Really think about it. Because it would destroy me to know that you might miss out on someone who could really make you happy just because you felt obligated to keep a promise to me."
Feuilly stood up from his chair and pulled Courfeyrac to his feet and straight into a tight hug, smoothing a hand down his back when he started to tremble. "Courfeyrac… did you think I didn't know that? I've watched you with the two of them for years. I know how much they mean to you. I know how much you mean to them. Do you have any idea how long I've wished that someone felt that strongly about me? Do you have any idea how honored I'd be for you to list me among their company in your heart? Because I would be."
"No, buts. I am telling you, in absolute, unequivocal terms, that whatever love you have to give me… it's enough. It's all I could ever want. It's all I could ever see myself wanting." Leaning back, Feuilly took Courfeyrac's face into his hands and brushed away the few tears that had emerged. Staring straight into Courfeyrac's eyes, he said, "And I promise you, that if that ever changes, I will tell you. So, until that day comes -- and I hope it never does -- you can trust that I'm happy. OK? You make me happy."
Courfeyrac nodded almost violently before crushing Feuilly to him in another embrace. After a few minutes, he pulled back, said softly, and with no small amount of wonder, "What did I ever do to deserve even one friend like you?" At Feuilly's soft smile, Courfeyrac shook his head. "No, really. I must have been some kind of saint in my last life to deserve even one friend like you, much less three."
Feuilly leaned in and placed a soft kiss on Courfeyrac's forehead. "Forget a past life. You've done plenty in this life to deserve friends like us. You brighten the world just by being in it." He smiled. "Like Annie."
The smile that Courfeyrac turned on Feuilly then was all the proof of that statement that Feuilly could ever need. It was like feeling the sun come out after years of it being grey and dreary. Feuilly intended to bask in it for as long as he could, and maybe… just maybe… he was ready to give off a little warmth of his own in return.