"So, my friend..." Bossuet smiled as he clapped a hand on Courfeyrac's shoulder before sitting down beside him. "What are we doing for your birthday this year?"
Courfeyrac's smile was tight in response, not quite erasing the harried look from his eyes. "Trying to get all of our work done before finals. That's what we're doing. Can't it wait?"
"Nonsense." Bossuet gave Courfeyrac's shoulder a small squeeze. "It's one night. You can afford to take one night to celebrate your birthday. We all can. We can get back to studying the day after your birthday." Bossuet smiled. "Come on. What'll it be? Drinks at the Corinthe? Dinner at Musichetta's place? She and Joly have a few new recipes they're dying to try on someone. Anything you like. Just name it and I'll see it done."
Courfeyrac closed his eyes momentarily, laying his pen down on the open books in front of him. Bossuet was used to this. The timing of Courfeyrac's birthday was unfortunate, usually falling right before or just in the middle of Dead Week. As a result, he was always loathe to pull people away from their studies just to celebrate his birthday. It always took a little gentle bullying to convince him that none of them minded, that they'd, in fact, be grateful for the break. And for as long as Bossuet had been part of the group, the task of that bullying had fallen to him. Enjolras had been banging his head against Courfeyrac's stubbornness for too many years to have any calm left about it, Combeferre wouldn't push once Courfeyrac said "No," and Marius felt like he'd be overstaying his welcome to even try. Bossuet usually managed to get the deed accomplished with little to no pain on both sides, so it fell to him.
"Really, Bossuet. I'm kind of overwhelmed here. Can't we do it in June? After the school term is over?"
Of course, some years, Courfeyrac was more reticent than others.
Bossuet pulled on his most charming smile and bumped Courfeyrac's shoulder with his own. "Just one night. We'll keep it simple, OK? Dinner at our place, then you can get back to your studying." When Courfeyrac looked like he might protest again, Bossuet raised an eyebrow, "Come on. You have to eat, regardless. An hour. Two hours, tops, then you can get back to whatever it is you were doing before, OK?"
Courfeyrac held out for barely another minute before sighing and shaking his head. "OK. You win. We'll have dinner."
Bossuet rubbed his hands together, a wide smile blooming on his face, and said, "Excellent! Now, what kind of cake do you want?"
Courfeyrac hit him with his notebook.
It had taken all of Marius' patience to wait until Courfeyrac had emerged from his room to deliver those well wishes. He had everything ready for breakfast and Courfeyrac's present wrapped and sitting prominently on the kitchen table. And since Courfeyrac was normally an early riser, Marius had been awake and waiting for him since just after six. It was now almost eleven and Courfeyrac had only just now shuffled into the living room. He'd hugged Marius back as tightly as he was being hugged and when Marius finally let go, Courfeyrac offered him a soft smile. "What's all this?"
Marius waved a hand at the table. "I'm making you breakfast! And I got you a present. And just..." Marius' voice petered out. "It's your first birthday since I moved in and I wanted to make it special?"
Courfeyrac's smile widened and his eyes took on a suspicious sheen as he pulled Marius back in for another hug. His voice was rough when he finally answered. "Thank you, Marius. You didn't have to do it, but... thank you."
Marius ushered Courfeyrac to the table and asked, "Scrambled or over-easy?"
Courfeyrac shrugged, "However you like them is fine."
Marius raised an eyebrow. "Well... OK, but how I like my eggs doesn't matter. it's not my birthday. It's yours. So, scrambled or over easy?" At the slightly pained look in Courfeyrac's eyes, Marius hastened to add, "Or we have cheese! I could make an omelet! Or... oh no. Are you allergic to eggs? Do you not like eggs? I can make French Toast! Oh wait. That has eggs in it, too. How about pancakes? I think we still have some of those mini chocolate chips left over from--"
Marius cut himself off at that pained shout, heart hammering far too fast at the thought that he'd just screwed up what he'd been trying so hard to get right. "...yes?"
Courfeyrac offered him another small smile and reached up to pat his arm. "Scrambled is fine. I didn't mean to worry you. This is lovely and I'm just an idiot, OK?"
"You're not an idiot."
Courfeyrac shook his head, his smile drooping a little at the edges as he did. "Yes, I am. But that's neither here nor there. You're trying to do something nice for me and I'm being ungrateful. I'm sorry."
Marius reached out to give Courfeyrac a brief hug, which Courfeyrac returned as readily as he ever did, then turned around to start cracking eggs. It was one of the things he loved most about Courfeyrac -- he was so free with his physical affections. It had been odd at first, sure -- Marius hadn't been properly hugged since he was five -- but once he'd gotten used to it, he'd come to rely on it. Physical affection had given him an entirely new vocabulary to express himself with when he couldn't find the words he needed. And if he held on a little too tight or a little too long sometimes, Courfeyrac never complained, never teased, never did anything but hang on just as tight and just as long. It was one of the things Marius loved most about him -- those hugs were freely given with no strings attached.
Tossing a glance over his shoulder to catch the pensive look on Courfeyrac's face, Marius couldn't help but think that today it seemed like Marius wasn't the one most in need of those hugs. Every time Marius stepped away from the pan to get something else he needed, he stopped and gave Courfeyrac a quick hug. By the time breakfast was ready, Courfeyrac still looked far more subdued than usual, and Marius wasn't quite sure what to make of it. He was about to call him out on it when Courfeyrac's phone let out a soft chime. Courfeyrac glanced at the message, winced, then quickly turned the phone off and flipped it over. Marius frowned. "...everything OK?"
Courfeyrac's response was quick -- almost too quick. "Of course! I just need a break from answering all those Facebook messages. I haven't heard from half the people sending them since my birthday last year -- my fingers are getting tired!" Courfeyrac offered Marius a bright smile, then turned back to his eggs and cinnamon toast.
Marius was sure that Courfeyrac had meant that smile to be reassuring.
...if it had reached his eyes, it might have been.
They finished the meal in silence, but Courfeyrac roused himself enough to coo appreciatively over his present -- one of the fancy-bound copies of Ray Bradbury's stories from Barnes and Noble -- before hugging Marius again and retreating back to his room to get dressed.
Marius didn't think much of it until he realized that nearly an hour had passed and Courfeyrac still hadn't come out to take a shower. When his quiet knock on Courfeyrac's door received no answer, Marius pushed the door open a crack. Courfeyrac was laying on his bed, curled onto his side with his phone in his hand. Every time it chimed, he would sigh, tap out a quick response, then go back to staring pensively at it. It made Marius wonder who it was he was waiting to hear from. He wouldn't ask though. That was a line he wouldn't cross.
No. Marius wouldn't cross the line of intruding on Courfeyrac's privacy, but he could do the dishes. He could clean the bathroom. He could do all the less desirable chores that Courfeyrac usually took on himself. He didn't question why Courfeyrac felt the need to retreat, today of all days, but he could make sure that he had as much of that day to rest as Marius could possibly give him.
So, he did.
And when Courfeyrac didn't emerge again until it was nearly time to leave for Joly's, Marius didn't pester him then, either. He didn't ask if Courfeyrac planned to shower, though he'd held off taking one himself so he could leave as much hot water as possible for Courfeyrac. He just pulled Courfeyrac into another hug... and didn't say a word when it was Courfeyrac who held on a little too tight and a little too long this time. Acceptance. It wasn't much, but it was what he could do. He just wished Courfeyrac would let him do more.
Feuilly stared around the living room, his eyebrow raised. "I thought we were just doing dinner? Something quiet?"
Jehan looked over from where he was helping Combeferre hang the last of the banners and shrugged. "For Courfeyrac, this is quiet."
Feuilly dropped the card he'd brought onto the table with the rest of the presents, doing his best to ignore how quickly it was lost amidst the bright ribbons and wrappings of the other gifts. Jehan was right. Had Courfeyrac been the one throwing the party, this would have been mild. He relished bright colors, huge decorations, loved making a big deal out of every birthday....
...except his own.
It was something Feuilly had noticed in the past two years. Every time they gathered to celebrate a birthday, Courfeyrac was in the thick of it -- baking homemade cakes, organizing decorations, mixing cocktails -- but on his own birthday, he always seemed subdued. He always passed it off as worry over finals -- the curse of having a birthday in early May -- but Feuilly had started to wonder lately if it was more than that. There was no help for it this year, though. The decorations were up, the alcohol was being poured, and dinner was already in the oven. It was far too late to change plans, so he threw himself into the preparations, helping out where he could until it was time for Courfeyrac to arrive. Then he settled himself in the chair closest to the door and waited.
His patience was soon rewarded.
When Courfeyrac arrived, Marius in tow, and everyone shot off their party poppers and started cheering... Courfeyrac flinched. It was small, barely noticeable, but Feuilly had been watching for it. And as their friends all rushed over to grab Courfeyrac into a group hug, Feuilly continued watching. Courfeyrac returned every hug with as much vigor as he was being given, his smile widening with each hug, but something wasn't right. Feuilly could feel it when he claimed his own hug -- Courfeyrac was tense, far more so than he ever was, and for just a moment when Feuilly's arms closed around him... he flinched, again.
As everyone else filed into the dining room, Feuilly hung back, caught Courfeyrac's arm to hold him back, too. Voice pitched low to keep this conversation quiet, Feuilly asked, "What's wrong?"
Courfeyrac offered him a brilliant smile and shook his head. "Nothing. Why do you ask?"
"You seem... I don't know. You seem off. Are you sure you're all right?"
"Just a little stressed from school. You know. The usual. It's fine, Feuilly. Don't worry about it. It's my birthday! Aren't we here to party? Lighten up!" He nudged Feuilly with his elbow, tossed him a jaunty wink, then bounded off to join the others and claim a drink with such alacrity that Feuilly wondered for a minute if he'd imagined the whole thing.
...until Marius stepped up to join him.
"You're not wrong."
"Hm?" Feuilly turned to look at Marius, an eyebrow raised.
"You're not wrong. He didn't get up until eleven, spent the whole day in bed, and didn't even shower before we came over here. Whatever this is," Marius nodded in Courfeyrac's direction, "it's an act. It's a good one, but it's an act." He frowned. "I've never... this is the first time I've seen him like this."
Feuilly sighed. "It isn't the first time I have." At Marius' continued look of confusion, Feuilly said, "I've noticed it for the past few years. He always seems a little off on his birthday. I don't know why. I don’t know what it's about, but there it is. I'm not sure that anyone else has even noticed. Enjolras certainly never has; I've asked. And Combeferre... I'm not sure what Combeferre thinks, but I know that he never gets in on the act of pushing Courfeyrac into having a party when he claims he doesn't want one, so that has to mean something. I just don't know what."
Marius' frown deepened. "We'll keep an eye on him."
It wasn't a question. Where Marius was normally uncertain, even timid, just now, he was anything but. Whether Feuilly agreed or not, he was going to be watching Courfeyrac like a hawk all night if he had to. Suddenly, as easily as that, Feuilly felt much better about the whole night. He gave Marius' hand a firm shake and agreed, "We'll keep an eye on him."
Of one mind, and quite like determination, Feuilly and Marius walked over to join the others, moving to flank Courfeyrac without saying a word, but the look in their eyes daring anyone to say anything about it.
No one did.
It was almost ten o'clock by the time Courfeyrac managed to get a minute alone. He was almost shaking by then, his heart pounding hard enough in his chest that he could count his own heartbeats without feeling for a pulse... and tell by the count that they were coming far too fast. He made his way outside, a glass of water clutched in one hand and his phone in the other. When that phone gave a soft chime to indicate that he had yet another message, he flinched, couldn't help it. He couldn't... he couldn't answer another one of those messages. They were so empty. They didn't mean anything, and every single one of them was like a knife to the heart.
In spite of his misgivings, or maybe even because of them, Courfeyrac forced himself to check the latest Facebook message. It was from his mother, and it was less a birthday wish than it was a performance for the rest of the people on his friends list to show how much better she knew him than they did.
Like all the others.
And like all the others, Courfeyrac forced himself to respond cheerfully and gratefully to this one, too. Moments later, his phone LED lit up again -- blue this time, instead of green. An email. He opened it. He read it. And this time... this time he couldn't stop himself. A lump rose in his throat and the next thing he knew, there were tears streaming down his face and he couldn't get them to stop.
The email was from Combeferre.
I saw you leave. Feuilly and Marius noticed, too, but I managed to stop them from going after you like the bodyguards they're attempting to be for you tonight. I convinced them to wait for you to tell them you want them. And since I don't want to intrude if you want a moment alone, so will I. But just... know this: You mean more to me than I can possibly say. Also, I'm so very glad that you're in the world, because I honestly don't know what I'd do without you. Let me know if you need me and I'll be outside before the ink dries on that email. You're my best friend and I love you.
That e-mail wasn't a performance for anyone else. That e-mail was exactly what Courfeyrac needed to hear right at that moment in exactly the way he needed to hear it... and that was why it hurt so much. It was an abrupt reminder that apart from Marius' surprise breakfast, a phone call from his sister early that morning, and one from his parents later that day... most of the birthday messages he'd received had been more for others' eyes than his own. The ones that had been heartfelt, like Combeferre's, were few. He needed those messages. He wanted those messages. They were the only thing that kept him breathing on his birthday. But at the same time, they left him with this sick, churning feeling of guilt. He knew how swamped his friends were this time of year. He knew they had projects and papers and finals to study for. And they were wasting their time sending messages to him. They were wasting their time buying presents and cards and throwing parties and it was all his fault that they were taking time away from their studies to do it.
Courfeyrac curled up on the stoop, arms wrapped tightly around his stomach and face pressed into his knees, desperately trying to keep the quiet tears from turning into anything louder and more embarrassing. He didn't like people making a fuss out of his birthday like this. He couldn't stand it. But he also couldn't say "No," and there was the problem. Just once... just once he wanted to ask that they put off those celebrations -- or forgo them entirely -- and have someone listen.
Courfeyrac was so wound up in his own anxiety by then that he didn't even hear it when the glass door to the deck slid open, but by the time the person who'd opened it joined him, he knew who it was. Nearly choking in his effort to swallow his tears, Courfeyrac stuttered out, "I'm fine. You should go back inside. I'll be in in a minute."
A soft hand threaded its way into Courfeyrac's hair and he jerked away, more ashamed at its disheveled state than he could readily admit to. A quiet voice said, "I overheard Marius saying you hadn't showered today and wasn't sure I believed it. He was telling the truth though, wasn't he?"
Courfeyrac turned to face his visitor, ready to deny it, but the understanding in those blue eyes, the gentle frown on his face... Courfeyrac never could lie to Enjolras, not even when they were children. When another minute passed without Courfeyrac able to give him an answer, Enjolras swallowed hard, his lower lip trembled. "Why didn't you tell me? You... when we were kids, you used to love your birthday. It was your favorite day out of the whole year. The bigger the party, the happier you were. I thought..." He shook his head. "Never mind what I thought. When did that change?"
Courfeyrac finally got his voice under enough control to answer. "Senior year. The IB exams. I kept... I kept trying to get everyone to tell me when a good date was, but we were all so busy. And there was all that studying and no one could take the time. And then college was the same way -- do you have any idea how very much it sucks to have your birthday fall during Dead Week? Everyone kept putting me off, asking if we could celebrate in the summer. And now law school... it has to be worse, doesn't it? After all those years of people putting me off, do you really expect me to believe that it's not a huge imposition? Where's the fun in that?"
Courfeyrac could hear himself getting louder, could hear the tears leaking into his voice as he forced the words out, but by then, he couldn't stop. "So, people put you off and put you off, and they act like it's such a fucking burden to celebrate your birthday. So, they call you instead. And that's fine, as far as it goes, and you tell yourself it's enough, and at least this way you're not being a bother... until suddenly they're not even calling you."
Courfeyrac held up his phone, shook it in Enjolras' face as he continued, not even noticing that there was no longer any music coming from inside, that there was dead silence apart from his own voice. "They leave you messages on fucking Facebook. That's what they do. They might not call you or email you or text you any other time of the fucking year, but on your birthday, there's always that post on your Facebook wall, like a G-d damned performance art piece for everyone else to read and understand how important they are to you when they can't even be bothered to pick up the damned phone and wish you a happy birthday to your face!"
Courfeyrac was on his feet now, and he was shouting, and there were a lot more people on the patio than there had been just a moment before, and he still couldn't stop. The pain was like a poison inside him, black and ugly, and he'd been choking on it all day and there was still more. "I hate it. All of it. I just... I wish I could just sleep through the whole fucking day and be done with it. I wish I could ignore every one of those damned messages, turn off my phone and pretend they don't even exist. But I can't. Because of you. All of you. None of you are the problem. And you don't deserve this and you're trying to do something nice for me, and I just... I can't..." He broke off then, letting out a soft whimper before finishing off with, "I just wish it was tomorrow already," and dissolving back into quiet tears.
Several people moved at once then, but Marius and Feuilly had been creeping steadily closer since they got outside and they beat everyone else to it, bracketing Courfeyrac between them in a tight, protective embrace as he continued to cry. Bossuet's stricken voice cut through the silence. "I... I had no idea. If I'd known, I'd never have pushed. Combeferre... is this why you didn't? Did you know?"
Combeferre sounded just as shaken when he answered, "I had some idea, but... not this. I didn't know it was this bad, not even close."
For his part, Courfeyrac just tucked his face into Feuilly's shoulder and shut it all out. He hadn't thought it possible, but he'd just made it all worse. It was bad enough that he was an imposition. It was bad enough that he was ungrateful. Now he'd gone and thrown his friends' love back in their faces like it didn't even matter when it was the only thing that did and how selfish did that make him?
"You're not selfish." Quiet words in his ear, barely voiced, that he'd done nothing to deserve.
"You're the least selfish person we know." Soft kisses pressed into the greasy disgusting mess of his unwashed hair, and how could they even bear to touch him?
"You do so much for us. All we want in return is for you to be happy. And if this doesn't make you happy... it doesn't make us happy either." Arms squeezing tightly around him, promising strength, strength he had no right to lean on.
Courfeyrac looked up then, met Enjolras, Marius, and Feuilly's eyes in turn. That was when Combeferre stepped up and asked him, soft voice serious... "What do you want? Right now. If you could have anything, do anything... what would you want?"
And though he cursed himself for how weak and pathetic he sounded, all Courfeyrac could say in answer was, "I want to go home."
Combeferre leaned in and touched their foreheads together. "Alone? Or with company?"
"I..." Courfeyrac's throat closed and he couldn't answer, but when the four bracketing him started to move away, he managed to shake his head.
Feuilly gave Courfeyrac another squeeze and said, "We'll all come. And when you've had enough of us, you just say the word, and we'll leave you alone."
They were a somber group after that, piling into their cars and driving over to Marius and Courfeyrac's apartment. And for once, neither Courfeyrac or Bossuet was up to lightening the atmosphere. In fact, Courfeyrac didn't say a word for the rest of the night. It was days before he was back to his usual self, embarrassed beyond belief at his outburst.
But that outburst had accomplished one thing...
...the next year, things were very different.
"So, my friend..." Bossuet smiled as he clapped a hand on Courfeyrac's shoulder before sitting down beside him. "What are we doing for your birthday this year?"
Though he'd been bracing for it for what felt like weeks, Courfeyrac still winced at that far-too-casual question before managing to answer it. "Trying to get all of our work done before finals. That's what we're doing. Can't it wait?"
And this time, Bossuet's answer was, "Of course, it can. If that's what you want."
"It really, really is. Feuilly and Jehan have that edTPA crap to deal with, and you, me, and Enjolras are swamped studying for the bar, and Combeferre and Joly are in clinics what seems like 24/7, and--"
When Bossuet held a hand up to stop the flow of words, Courfeyrac hunched in on himself, as though waiting for a blow. But all Bossuet said was, "So how does June 5th strike you? We should all be done with exams and projects and some of us will even be graduated by then. Not only that, but 'Chetta and I were planning on getting a beach house for a couple of weeks -- you could all come down for a few days and we could have an extended party, maybe?"
Courfeyrac let out a breath he hadn't even been aware he was holding and said simply, "You want the truth? That sounds wonderful."
And it was really that simple. On the day of his birthday, Marius pounded down Courfeyrac's door bright and early to demand he hand over his cell phone. And Courfeyrac did. Without a single qualm. He spent the day completely unplugged, not a Facebook message in sight, and various of their friends wandered in and out throughout the day as schedules permitted, using Courfeyrac and Marius' place as a safe zone to de-stress for a few hours as needed. For the first time in eight years, Courfeyrac didn't feel like an imposition, like he had to keep up a front. He felt useful. He felt needed. He felt relaxed. And that was all he'd ever wanted.
So, when the entire group showed up later that evening with a cake, Courfeyrac found that he didn't mind. He'd been surrounded by friends all day who loved him as much as he loved them. The cake was strawberry shortcake -- his favorite. Combeferre and Jehan had made it from scratch... and it was delicious.
When Marius handed Courfeyrac back his phone the next day, he had only one thing to say for the friends on Facebook who hadn't done more than leave empty messages.
~Best. Birthday. EVER.~