Combeferre awoke with a deep, dull ache at the base of his skull, a building pressure in his sinuses. He worked his jaw slowly, hoping to persuade his ears to pop and relieve some of that heavy feeling. No such luck. Slowly pulling himself upright, Combeferre slid over to the window and breathed deeply of the salt-laden air. There was more moisture in the air than there had been yesterday, and the clouds overhead were hanging low, heavy and dark. He’d be surprised if they saw out the morning without at least some rain, but Combeferre trusted his gut. This storm wouldn’t break until later that night. There would be time to prepare.
By the time Combeferre slid off of his bed, Marius was standing behind him, face towel and toiletries bag in hand. For a moment, neither spoke, silence stretching between them like a living presence. Eventually, Marius nodded at the window. “There’s a storm brewing.”
Combeferre nodded. There was an unspoken understanding here, one that Combeferre had sensed the night before, but hadn’t had the energy to point out… and now didn’t have the courage. The silence built between them once more, piling high with the questions Combeferre hadn’t been able to bring himself to ask last night and the answers he suspected Marius was aching to speak.
Before Combeferre could put those seething questions to words, however, Marius took the matter out of his hands. Turning away, he busied himself with stowing his toiletries before all but fleeing the room. Combeferre sighed. A second chance had just slipped right through his fingers. Second chances didn’t come along often, third chances almost never, but somehow he knew that this wasn’t over. He would get another chance before this was through, and some inner prompting was telling him he’d best not miss it.
Having dawdled his way through his morning routine as long as he could, Combeferre fully expected to be the only one left upstairs, so finding Joly waiting for him in the upstairs hall when he emerged from his bedroom was a surprise. Joly offered him a small shrug, a twisted quirk of a smile on his lips. Ah. So, since he hadn’t gone to see a doctor, the doctor was coming to see him?
Joly was quick and efficient, Combeferre had to give him that. Once they were tucked away in the privacy of Combeferre’s bedroom, Joly subjected him to a brief but thorough physical exam. When he finished, his small, twisted smile widened into a real one which quickly warmed his eyes. “I appreciate your cooperation, Combeferre. Really.”
Combeferre snorted out a laugh as he pulled his shirt back on. “So, I’ll live, then?”
Joly tucked his stethoscope back into his medical bag. “You expected me to find differently?” Turning back to face Combeferre, he shrugged. “Enjolras worries. You know that better than any of us. So, I think you understand full well that my agreeing to this had less to do with a concern for your state of health and more to do with a concern for his state of mind.” When Combeferre slowly nodded, Joly smiled again. “Good. Then we can move on past this and get to the crux of it. Jehan would never press you—that’s a line he won’t cross—and Enjolras wouldn’t know how.” He looked up. “But I do, and I will.”
The smile slipped from Joly’s face then and he leaned forward, locking Combeferre’s gaze with his own. In that look was a culmination of a thousand late nights on emergency shifts together. In that frown was scores of shared breakdowns over lives lost in spite of heroic efforts. In the bags under narrowed eyes were the hundreds of large coffees bought for each other in lieu of proper meals. Joly understood him in ways that no one else in their group ever would, and Combeferre couldn’t answer that understanding with anything less than full honesty.
It took less time than Combeferre expected to tell the tale. By the time he was finished, Joly was sitting on the bed beside him, letting out his breath in a low whistle. Combeferre waited patiently for the shoe to drop, inwardly cringing over how preposterous the whole thing sounded in the light of day. He turned towards the window, taking in the rolling storm clouds overhead, the soft swell of the waves as the ocean began to stir in response. Out there, where the ocean and sky met the shore, it was easy to believe—to know—that what he’d seen had been real. Courfeyrac had come back to him, had even left evidence the last time, and Combeferre had never doubted Courfeyrac before. Now would be an incredibly poor time to start. Bolstered by the building fury slowly rolling in from deep out to sea, Combeferre turned to face Joly once more. “Well?”
Joly met his gaze calmly, no worry in his eyes. It was with rising hope that Combeferre saw instead that the gears of Joly’s mind had turned inwards. That meant he was working the problem scientifically. And that meant that Combeferre had an ally. One who believed.
Joly smiled. “Well, nothing, Combeferre. I refuse to draw conclusions based on so little evidence and so should you.” Clapping his hands against his thighs, Joly stood up from the bed. “Now, I think Marius said something about going into town to pick up a few last minute things before this storm that’s brewing lets loose. I think the plan that was forming when I came up here was that we’d split into teams to get things done more efficiently, and I’m thinking you’ll want to put in a word there before we all head out. After all, you know best what we’ll need, don’t you?” With that, he reached out to give Combeferre’s shoulder a squeeze, a wealth of meaning in that gesture that words could not convey.
You know best. I trust you. I believe in you.
And because Combeferre understood Joly as well as Joly understood him, when they turned to leave the room and head back downstairs, Combeferre wordlessly held his arm out for additional support. Those stairs were tricky at the best of times, and he’d seen Joly’s wince, quickly hidden, as he stood. Joly took his arm with no comment but a tightly clenched jaw as they made their way downstairs. He had no comment for Bossuet either, when Bossuet met them at the foot of the stairs, Joly’s cane in hand. He merely took it from him, shifting his weight from Combeferre’s arm to its solid wood length with a soft sigh. Bossuet smiled at them both, one eyebrow quirked upwards. “And the verdict is?”
Joly let Bossuet tuck his free hand into the crook of his arm and turned them towards the kitchen. “The verdict is that he’ll live and I’m hungry. Have we sorted out breakfast yet or do we have to go into town for that, too?”
Bossuet and Combeferre’s gazes met briefly over Joly’s head as they walked. Bossuet’s other eyebrow lifted to join the first. Combeferre shrugged in response. Normally, Joly got around better than most people, having adjusted to his prosthetic years before Combeferre had met him and hardly ever needing his cane, but… it was the storm. On bad days, that leg ached and caused him no end of trouble. Still, pity was not welcome, nor was special treatment. Joly would do what was needed, and if he couldn’t, he would be honest about it. Another understanding. So, Bossuet’s only comment was, “They managed to cobble something together, but they had to raid the last of Combeferre’s supplies to do it. Apparently your restocking trip didn’t cover everything—I know you and Enjolras were never big on breakfast, but you could have had a little pity for the rest of us!”
A soft snort from Joly. “We won’t be the only ones looking to ride out this storm; let’s hope there’s something left on the shelves that we’d be willing to consider breakfast.”
It was on that pronouncement that they reached the kitchen, quickly drawing everyone’s attention. Enjolras half rose out of his seat at their entrance, his face a grim mix of worry and nerves. Joly patted Bossuet’s arm and headed straight over to him, doubtless to talk him down. Combeferre sat down at the end of the counter, next to Jehan, waving at Grantaire and Bahorel over by the stove. Bahorel promptly walked over to put a bowl of oatmeal and some toast and honey in front of him. Combeferre raised an eyebrow at the repast. “Those are the old slow-cooked oats we kept in the pantry. You really must have been desperate.”
Bahorel settled down across from them as Jehan pushed a mug of tea in Combeferre’s direction. As he apportioned the honey between the oatmeal, toast, and tea, Combeferre considered their options. They’d gotten power back some time during the night, as evidenced by the cluster of cell phones plugged into the power strip at the other end of the counter, but that didn’t mean they’d keep it for long. There was no point in restocking anything perishable that they weren’t immediately going to use. Storm season was always a delicate business that way. Combeferre’s house had a generator if it truly became necessary, but it had only come to that once in all the years he and his family had lived on the island.
In the end, they divvied up the chores into groups. Since Enjolras had helped Combeferre stormproof the house the last time and claimed he remembered how it was done, he and Feuilly stayed behind to do it this time. At Feuilly’s nakedly grateful look, Combeferre couldn’t help but smile. There wasn’t much he could do to ease the burden Enjolras had, as usual, taken squarely upon his own shoulders, but time alone with Feuilly always seemed to calm him down when he needed to be calmed.
Bahorel and Grantaire were tasked with gassing up as many of the cars as they could, as well as getting gas for the generator, while Bossuet and Joly were to pick up whatever odds and ends in terms of basic supplies they might need, medical and otherwise. Combeferre claimed Jehan and Marius to come with him to scour the stores to find food to restock the pantry. Jehan raised an eyebrow at that choice, and Combeferre couldn’t have explained it if he tried, but he somehow knew that Marius would be best off with the two of them, in spite of the friction that always seemed to spring up between he and Combeferre. After last night… something had changed. And Combeferre didn’t want to let Marius too far out of his sight until he figured out what it was.
By the time Combeferre found parking near the market, the wind was whipping up, shaking down leaves from the tops of the trees with every gust. The temperature had also dropped. This was to be no lazy Sunday browse. They had to buy what they needed as quickly as they could so that they and all the merchants could pack up and get home. Honestly, Combeferre was surprised that any of the booths were still open. Giving Marius and Jehan each a part of the list and a direction, they split up. They had picked up what they could at the grocery store—whatever canned goods they could rustle up, along with crackers and chips and as many of everyone’s favorite snacks as they could find, along with several bags of ice. They’d keep in the freezer until they lost power, and then afterwards they could pack the few perishables they’d bought with them for a time. Unfortunately, just as Combeferre had feared, the shelves had been picked fairly clean already. Had that not been the case, Combeferre wouldn’t have even tried for the open air market that day, but with so many of them soon to be trapped under one roof together, he’d felt he had no choice.
Combeferre hurried through the market, feeling the press of the storm overhead like a ticking clock. The worst of the storm might hold off until nightfall, but that didn’t mean it was going to be sunny skies until then. They were running out of time. He picked up the remaining items on his part of the list, as well as several other things which caught his eye. He met up with Jehan on the way back to the car, but by the time they reached it and got the bags safely stowed, Marius still wasn’t there.
Both Combeferre and Jehan tried calling and texting, but reception was patchy at best with the storm winds kicking up. Marius didn’t answer. Cursing under his breath, Combeferre led Jehan back into the market, towards the cluster of stalls he’d sent Marius to… and there he was. His own bags set safely off to the side, he was helping a young woman pack up her stall. She wasn’t anyone Combeferre recognized, but given how long it had been since he’d lived on the island, that wasn’t much of a surprise.
What was a surprise was this: though Combeferre and Jehan were nearly frantic with the need to be away, to get home ahead of the storm, neither Marius nor his new companion seemed the least bit concerned. They might have been packing for a Sunday picnic, for all the speed they showed. The woman wore a small, soft smile on her face, her eyes crinkling at the corners every time Marius even so much as looked in her direction. Marius’ face claimed an equally sappy smile as he packed scarves and hats and gloves away into their plastic bins, every time he looked up and caught his new friend’s eye.
If Grantaire had been there, he’d have been rolling his eyes and poking fun at the clearly already-smitten couple. Combeferre had no interest in poking fun. He just wanted to be away from this place, to get home before it wasn’t safe to be on the roads, but Marius showed no sign of picking up the pace, even once he spotted Combeferre and Jehan running over to join them.
“Marius. I appreciate your desire to help, but we really need to get going.” Looking pointedly down at his watch, Combeferre continued, “We have to get back before this thing breaks.”
Both Marius and the woman turned towards Combeferre as he spoke, twin smiles on their faces. The woman turned back towards Marius, then, her hands a flurry of motions that were too precise to be mere gesticulation, but it wasn’t until Marius responded in kind that Combeferre understood. Sign language. Once they were both facing him, the woman’s hands flew into motion, again. A moment later, Marius’ voice followed.
“I know it feels so, but this storm is not as imminent as it looks. The worst of it will hold until tonight. We have time.”
There was a pause, then another exchange of signs, before Marius turned back to Combeferre and added, “Cosette is right, Combeferre. We have time enough for this. It will be alright… and I think you know it.” He tilted his head, then, waiting for Combeferre to respond.
Standing there, watching the two in front of him—soft smiles on their lips and confidence and faith in their relaxed postures—time slowed to a crawl. How many times had Combeferre known something similar when he was young? His storm sense had been uncanny. Then again, his storm sense had had help.
Ignoring Jehan as he started plucking at his sleeve, urging him to at least start helping to pack things if he wasn’t going to help drag Marius back to the car, Combeferre turned away, lifted his face into the gently driving rain, and took a deep breath. In spite of the building fury of the storm, in spite of the sharp salt tang in the air, there was a clear, clean feel in it, one that Combeferre still could not associate with danger, even after all these years. Marius and Cosette were right. This was the calm. And it would hold.
Turning back to the stall, Combeferre dove in, lifting piles of knitwear from the table to place into their labeled bins. Jehan stood off to the side, watching the three of them work for a moment before shaking his head with a short laugh. “OK. I guess we’re doing this, then.” Moments later, Jehan had them organized into an assembly line of sorts, with Combeferre and Cosette packing things into bins as quickly as they could neatly do so, and with he and Marius relaying them to Cosette’s car.
When all was packed away, Combeferre felt a slight qualm about sending Cosette out into the beginning rumbles of the storm threatening louder and louder overhead, but she simply smiled and patted his cheek. There was a quick press of lips where her hand had just patted before she leaned back and said, as distinctly as she could, “You’re sweet. All of you. But I’ll be fine.” Glancing up, her smile widened, and she said again, in a voice that was no quieter, but was clearly inwardly directed all the same, “I’ll be fine.” Turning back to Combeferre, she added, “We all will.”
As she walked away to have a last signed conversation with Marius, Jehan leaned in close and said, “Well, congratulations, Combeferre. Maybe it really isn’t you, after all. Maybe everyone on your island is equally uncanny!”
Combeferre gave Jehan a playful shove, which Jehan returned with interest, before yelling out to Marius, “OK, enough is enough! I know you’re all convinced that we have time before this thing really slams down on our heads, but I’m getting wetter with every second we stand here and I’d like to get back and shower off before I have to do it in the dark with no hot water.”
Maybe it was because their spirits were running high along with the storm. Maybe it was because, no matter how dire the storm looked, Combeferre still thought of the island as safe. Maybe it was Marius and Cosette’s reassurances still ringing fresh in their ears. Whatever the case, neither Combeferre, nor Jehan, nor Marius was paying as close attention to their surroundings as they should have been. So, when the first crash of thunder sounded overhead, nearly simultaneous with the first flash of lightning, all three jumped.
When the second crash sounded, right on the heels of the first, Jehan let out a short squeal and bolted in the direction of the car and supposed safety. Marius paused to gather the groceries that had fallen from his bags when he’d jostled them before, but the third crash of thunder had even him abandoning the remaining apples in favor of a mad dash back to the car. But Combeferre… Combeferre was frozen to the spot by Cosette’s few accented words: ~”I’ll be fine. We all will.”~ Because Combeferre had never in his life been afraid of a storm. Combeferre had never in his life run from thunder, or hidden from lightning. He felt more at home, more alive, in the midst of an island storm than he ever had anywhere else… and now was no different.
Ignoring Jehan’s frantic appeals that he get a move on, ignoring the eyes that Marius turned on him from the backseat of the car—wide and shining and sadder than any hound dog Combeferre had ever known—Combeferre spread his arms wide tipped his head back, breathing in the rising force of the storm and silently daring it to do its worst.
Moments later… it did.
Heralded by another bright flash, there was a mighty crack that had nothing to do with the thunder, and everything to do with a branch overhead breaking loose from the trunk which had held it since Combeferre was just a boy. It came down squarely on the power line right over Combeferre’s head… and, frozen with shock and numb with a sense of betrayal he couldn’t have explained if he wanted to, Combeferre could only stand there and watch it fall.
Just before the line connected with the wet ground at his feet, Combeferre felt a hand close firmly about his wrist. Dragged nearly off his feet and still staring in shock at the falling power line, Combeferre barely even registered that someone was pulling him towards the car, much less who it might have been. There was a fleeting impression of being held tightly to another’s chest, arms like bands of steel closing around him as the ground blurred beneath his feet, speeding by faster than he would dare drive in this rain, much less run, and dark, brown eyes under wild curls, fierce with the reflection of lightning that was continuing to rain down even as they fled for safety.
Though neither Jehan or Marius could tell him later how he’d gotten from the center of the parking lot to the safety of the car without getting himself electrocuted, Combeferre knew. He knew it with a wild certainty that he couldn’t explain. He knew because there was no mistaking those fierce, wild eyes, nor the feel of the body he’d been pressed against as he was dragged to safety.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been rescued thus.
And sitting in the car, coughing out the water he’d inhaled in that desperate flight just as he’d coughed out the water of an ocean long ago, Combeferre was more convinced than ever that he was right. No matter who had seen, no matter who believed him, no matter that his frantic scan of the parking lot revealed no one abroad but them, Combeferre knew.
Courfeyrac was here. He was real. And he had just saved Combeferre’s life. Ignoring Jehan’s fussing, Combeferre pressed a hand to the driver’s side window and whispered out into the night, “That’s one more I owe you. Thank you, my friend… thank you.”
And though he might begin to doubt it later on, in that moment, Combeferre was absolutely certain that another hand pressed against his from the other side of the glass, and the look in the dark brown eyes above it said more clearly than words ever could…
~I’ve missed you, too.~