Combeferre lay in bed, one ear tuned to the sounds of the waves outside. His heart slowed, his breathing quieted, each in their turn falling into the rhythm of that sound. The ocean tonight was calm, peaceful. It was what he needed. Enjolras had been right about that. Sighing softly, Combeferre rolled over, reaching out one hand to touch the windowsill. There was a cool breeze coming up off the beach, carrying the scent of the mist-laden, salt air that had always smelled like home to him. If he just rolled to his knees, he could lean his entire body out into that air, let the faint spray touch his face. How often had he fallen asleep thus as a child – body curled up against the window, head pillowed on his arms on the sill? Too many times to count, as his mother had once teased. But adolescent bodies are more forgiving than adult ones when sleeping in odd postures and, as tempting as the idea might be, the thought of how stiff he would be come morning was enough to dissuade him from attempting it.
Before even another ten minutes had passed, Combeferre found himself kneeling at the open window, anyway, hands braced on the sill so he could lean out and breathe deeply of the salt air on the breeze. It was just as refreshing as he remembered. His family had moved off the island when Combeferre was twelve, citing a need for his father to be closer to his work. Now that Combeferre worked in the same hospital, he understood that reasoning, but at the time, he had been devastated. He’d lived all his life on this island, the sea on all sides forming the boundaries of his world. Going to the mainland was for special occasions, for visits, an unwelcome necessity. Combeferre was never happy on those visits, no matter how brief they might be. His dreams were full of the island, its gently sloping beaches, the whisper of the waves, and the smell of salt air. He’d never have left if the choice had been his.
That first year away had been awful. There was no window by his bed in his new room, no way to arrange it so there could be -- and even when he stood at the window, straining to smell the ocean… there was nothing. The sea was too far or his nose was too weak. One night he’d awoken in the dark, suddenly unable to remember the sound of the waves, and he’d quietly cried himself back to sleep.
Combeferre had cried himself to sleep on too many nights after leaving the island.
Combeferre couldn’t explain it, but leaving the island had been as hard a blow as losing a parent would have been. There was a hole in his heart where the island had been, and it ached constantly, as though somehow the island needed him just as much as he needed it. It was a year before Combeferre unknotted from his grief enough to look outside himself to consider the new possibilities around him. It was another eight years after that before his parents explained that they hadn’t moved off the island for his father to be closer to work – they’d moved off the island because his parents had feared that he was limiting himself, becoming unwilling to look beyond the shores of the place that had birthed him to find a wider future. They’d told him that they were now sure they’d made the right decision, now that he’d been accepted to medical school inland and was all set to build a grand future for himself – a future that didn’t involve confining himself to a small island in the middle of a wind-swept sea.
It was another four years after that before Combeferre spoke to either of his parents, again. Even now, six years after that, their conversations were stilted, awkward. By moving him away from the island when they did, Combeferre’s parents had taken something from him – something fragile and undefinable and so, so precious – and he’d never again gotten it back. At 33 years old he was an internal medicine specialist – a rising star in the field -- an activist, a writer, and a friend… and he was completely adrift.
Enjolras, his best friend of many years, had finally pulled him aside and suggested that maybe a vacation would be in order. Combeferre had come straight to a meeting of Les Amis from a twelve hour shift at the hospital. He’d been dead on his feet and only sheer cussedness had kept him upright. Marius had said something stupid and Combeferre, unable to watch his tongue with his own nerves so raw, had snapped back at him before he’d even decided he was going to open his own mouth. Heart pounding, head pounding, Combeferre had apologized and fled outside. It wasn’t until Enjolras caught up to him and asked him what he was doing that he even realized he was clutching the railing of the balcony, leaning out into the night air and inhaling as deeply as he could. Enjolras must have thought he was going crazy.
“Combeferre… my friend, I’m not going to mince words – I’m worried about you.”
“I’m just tired. It’s nothing a little sleep won’t—“
Enjolras cut him off with a shake of his head. “It isn’t just about tonight. I’ve known you for years, Combeferre, and though I’ve seen you content and seen you satisfied… I don’t think I’ve even once seen you happy.” He reached out, then, and gripped Combeferre’s shoulder. “And it seems to be getting worse, not better.”
Combeferre sighed, deliberately relaxed his muscles. Enjolras merely raised an eyebrow. Finally Combeferre shrugged. “It’s nothing I can easily explain.” He snorted, his lips twitched in a sad facsimile of a smile. “Nothing that you won’t think me ridiculous for, at any rate.”
At that, Enjolras gripped Combeferre’s other shoulder and leaned in close to touch their foreheads together. “I could never think you ridiculous, Combeferre. And I’d never laugh at you; you know that. If it would help, you can tell me anything.”
Combeferre leaned in against him, letting his head fall on Enjolras’ shoulder. Enjolras’ arms went around him, cradling him while he hid his face, veritably cocooning him in the warmth of his friendship. But Enjolras smelled of the clean, fresh grasses of the country, the warm golden light of summer sunshine. There wasn’t a breath of sea air in him, and Combeferre couldn’t explain. Enjolras wouldn’t understand, no matter how desperately he would try. So, instead, Combeferre said softly the one thing that Enjolras could understand, “I’m homesick.”
Breathed out in a whisper in a small space between their bodies, those words were a ragged plea torn from a grief-tightened throat. Enjolras’ arms tightened around him and he placed a soft kiss into Combeferre’s temple. He said nothing. There was nothing to say.
Two weeks later, at Enjolras’ insistence, Combeferre had requested a week off from his duties at the hospital. He’d contacted his relatives on the island, asked them to open the house for him – his childhood home that his parents had inexplicably never sold. And just a few days after that, he and Enjolras were on their way to the island – the first time Combeferre had been back in twenty-one years.
Combeferre leaned a little further out the window, inhaling deeply of the ocean air. He couldn’t get enough of it. Even the beaches on the mainland weren’t this richly saturated with that smell. A soft smile lifted his lips as he hung there, fingers clenched tightly on the windowsill, his heart racing. For the first time in years… he felt alive.
Suddenly, Combeferre couldn’t stand to be inside for one more second. Pulling himself back in, he got up off the bed, foregoing footwear, foregoing even a nightshirt, and padding quietly from his room and down the stairs. Even all these years later, he still knew his way through this house better than anywhere he’d lived since. His senses were sharper, his mind faster, his step more sure. It was as though when he’d been away, he’d been only half alive, and now that he was back… he could breathe, again.
Combeferre left the house by the porch door – the one that led straight onto the beach – and the moment his feet touched sand, he was off, racing over the dunes towards the water. In that moment, salt spray stinging his eyes, and sand catching and sticking between his toes, he felt wild, like some creature let loose from captivity, nothing but the light of the moon and stars to guide his flight. Letting out a breathless laugh, he ran faster, years falling away, useless, on the sand, unneeded. He didn’t slow, even when he reached the ocean; he didn’t hesitate, but ran right in, heedless of the fact that he still wore his pajama pants. He didn’t stop until he was calf-deep in the surf, his chest heaving with every breath, his eyes white-rimmed and so, so wide – as wide as the smile he could feel on his face.
Falling to his knees, Combeferre let the waves wash over him, reveling in the sounds they made as they broke over his body, reveling in the smells and the feel and the brisk, deep cold… reveling in the feeling of being alive.
He was home.
The next morning, it was dismal – grey clouds overhead and the smell of rain in the air. There was going to be a storm -- a good one if Combeferre’s rusty weather senses were any judge. He told Enjolras over breakfast.
“A storm?” Enjolras frowned. “We’re right on the beach. Is it safe? Do we have to go further inland?”
Combeferre smiled. “We’ll close the shutters to protect the windows, and we’ll stay inside, but this house has stood for over 200 years. It’s safe enough.”
Enjolras paused, toast halfway to his mouth, then he smiled, too. Reaching out a hand, he gripped Combeferre’s across the table. As Combeferre’s fingers closed around his, Enjolras said, “I think that may be the first time I’ve ever seen you smile – really smile.” He shook his head. “I can’t… I can’t even describe it.” At Combeferre’s lifted eyebrow, Enjolras let go of his hand and made a gesture in his direction. “Even after one night there’s… it’s like there’s a weight that’s been lifted from you.” He made a face. “As clichéd as that may sound.”
Combeferre wrapped his hands around his coffee mug and took a sip. Still smiling that soft smile, he said, “A thing becomes clichéd because it is often true.” It was now Enjolras’ turn to raise an eyebrow. Combeferre shrugged. “I feel as if a weight has been lifted from me. So it seems silly to fuss over clichéd language, when what you said is so apt.”
They resumed their meal in contented silence, neither willing to break the stillness of that grey morning. As they worked together to clean the dishes and later to prepare the house for the storm, still they worked in silence. It was peaceful, comforting, and Combeferre was glad to have Enjolras with him. Without him, the silence would have seemed heavy and oppressive… lonely. With Enjolras at his side, however, the strength of his friendship was never more than an arms’ length away. He felt balanced. He felt steadier than he had in years. For the first time since he was a child, Combeferre knew where he stood, both without and within.
Combeferre took Enjolras down to the sea that day, but they didn’t stray out of sight of the house. With a storm brewing, it wasn’t worth it to take foolish chances. But they stood on the shore, watching the clouds roll in from the sea, breathing the salt air. Combeferre could see already that Enjolras didn’t feel that heavy intoxication that he did when standing thus, but it was enough to know that he stood in support, even if he didn’t understand. Enjolras was a country boy – the open fields and foothills of the great mountains were where his soul called home – so the fact that he was here with Combeferre spoke volumes.
They didn’t go in until a shift in the wind and a drop in pressure alerted Combeferre that the pending storm had become imminent. They made it back to the house just as the first fat rain droplets began to fall. Shaking water from their hair and laughing, Enjolras and Combeferre raced up the stairs to the screened in porch. They’d left it open at Combeferre’s insistence. Somehow he’d known that it would be fine. Besides, he’d always loved to watch from here as a storm swept in from the sea. Grabbing a towel for himself and handing one to Enjolras, Combeferre settled into one of the chairs, his eyes on the shoreline. From the low rumble that he could practically feel in his bones, this particular storm was going to be spectacular. He felt a brief pang for his camera, safely stowed in his old dresser upstairs, but decided against going to get it. His first storm back on the island… somehow it felt almost sacrilegious to let anything more than a screen stand between him and it.
Once he’d dried off, Enjolras said something about heading in to make tea. Combeferre nodded absently, and as soon as Enjolras left he was out of his chair and pressed to the screen. The sky had darkened, the wind whipped the dune grasses into a frenzy, and the rain lashed against the sand, flattening it. The smell of the ocean was everywhere. The air was so ionized that it was with a flash of relief that Combeferre saw the first bolt of lightning go to ground, the thunder crashing right on top of it. The waves leapt with almost playful fury, beating against the sand and reaching so far up the beach that Combeferre began to wonder if, this time, it would reach the house.
Combeferre stared out into that storm-tossed darkness for what felt like hours – long after Enjolras came back and tried to press a mug into his hand. He’d eventually put it down on a table nearby, Combeferre being so distracted he hardly noticed. The storm was electric and he could feel it all the way down to his bones. How had he ever moved away from this? Why had it taken him so long to return?
…how on Earth was he ever going to convince himself to leave again?
Heart suddenly pounding in his throat, Combeferre stepped back from the window and reached for that long-cold cup of tea, taking a sip to cover his sudden discomfort. How was he going to convince himself to leave? And did he even want to try? He had a life on the mainland. He had a career, friends, a cause he believed in. He had Enjolras. But this… Enjolras had been more on the nose than he realized those short weeks ago. Combeferre had so much waiting for him on the mainland… but he would never be truly happy there. Not like this.
Combeferre turned to take one more glance out the window, ready to go inside at least long enough to reheat his tea… and froze. There was someone on the beach. He was standing right at the shoreline, hands raised to the heavens like some witch straight out of folklore. The wind tore at his clothing, whipped his hair into a wild tangle over his head, and he seemed to pay it no mind, all his attention turned outwards towards the sea. Lightning crashed around him, one bolt going to ground not more than six inches from his foot, and still he didn’t move. Combeferre’s mouth went dry, his heart began to race. Putting his mug down as quickly as he could without breaking it, Combeferre turned towards the door. It was only then that Enjolras interfered.
Grabbing Combeferre’s arm, Enjolras pulled him back from the door. “Are you out of your mind? You can’t go back out there!”
Combeferre turned back to the window, made a wild gesture towards the figure by the ocean. “But someone is out there! If someone doesn’t get him to come inside he could be killed! This storm is no joke, Enjolras!”
Enjolras stared out into the rain, a deep frown drawing lines between his brows. Finally he said, “What on Earth are you talking about? Combeferre, there’s no one out there.”
“What?” Combeferre jerked out of Enjolras’ hold and pressed himself back against the screen. The figured had turned, was now in profile as he stared out across the ocean. He wore jeans – now soaked against him like a second skin – and a long sleeved shirt so rain-drenched that Combeferre couldn’t tell what color it was except “dark.” His feet were bare and dug deeply into the sand. Turning back, Combeferre reached out and pulled Enjolras to stand in front of him at the window, turning Enjolras’ head so it faced the figure dead on. “He’s right there! Right at the shore line. How can you not see him?”
Enjolras pulled Combeferre’s hands from his head and turned, reaching out to wrap a hand around Combeferre neck and pull him down to meet his eyes. Slowly, punctuating each word with a flex of his fingers, Enjolras said, “Because there is no one there. Combeferre, you’re seeing things. There’s no one there!”
Combeferre broke out of Enjolras’ hold and this time he made it to the door. He flung it open, ready to take that step down onto the galvanized sand, but suddenly the figure at the shore turned and locked his gaze on him. Later on, Combeferre would only remember broken pieces of that moment -- the quirk of lips that meant a smile full of mischief, the raised eyebrows over dark brown eyes, the tilt of a head that in any other circumstance would read ‘come hither’ – but for now, all Combeferre saw was a face that he knew as well as he knew his own. Better. A face he’d lost to the ravages of time some twenty-one years hence, though he'd once sworn he would never forget it.
And the shock of seeing it was enough that when Enjolras reached for him again, pulling him back inside and locking the door before pulling him back into the house proper and locking that door as well, all he could do was let out a cracked whisper that even he barely recognized as a name…