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Baptism by Fire

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Grantaire was not a happy man. A cloud of apathy had settled over his life. It sapped the enjoyment and motivation from even the simplest things and left him feeling drained and hopeless. He was beginning to wonder why he even bothered to get out of the bed in the mornings.

Outside, the weather had the audacity to be perfect. A clear blue sky, tinted mauve by the setting sun as it sunk behind the buildings. He threw a scowl at the window and would have pulled the blinds closed – if they weren’t currently broken, hanging lopsided with the cord hopelessly unstrung. Instead he popped the cap off a beer bottle and threw it at the sunset. It bounced off the window and skitted along the floor with a satisfying clatter.

His satisfaction didn’t last long, though. Throwing himself onto the ratty sofa he flicked through the TV guide, feeling more and more uninspired as he scrolled through the list. By the time he’d completed a full cycle of the programs on offer he was too disgusted to watch anything. Instead he left it sitting on the guide, highlighting a shopping channel. But even the obnoxious blue of the menu became irksome after a while. He was about to throw something at the TV, throw himself out of the window, anything to break his incorrigible bad mood, when someone began knocking at his door.

Harried, flustered and persistent, the knocking continued despite Grantaire’s intention of ignoring it. He wasn’t expecting anyone, he wasn’t in any state to receive anyone. But the sound was going to drive him mad if it didn’t stop soon and it was becoming evident that it wouldn’t go away unless he answered it.

Had Grantaire known that the cause of the knocking was about to change his life forever, he probably would have stayed on the couch and buried his head under a cushion. He would at least have approached his destiny with something more fitting than a staggered stumble as his tired legs remembered how to walk.

“What?” he demanded, pulling open the door and scratching at his stomach through the thin material of his grey t-shirt.

“Please?”

It was his neighbour, the lady who lived upstairs – he couldn’t remember her name, something Spanish – holding her baby and looking panic stricken. He might have noticed her bloodshot eyes, the way her hands were shaking, that her hair was heavy with grease and her bottom lip chewed to pieces – but he was suddenly preoccupied with holding the baby which she thrust at him.

“Five minutes,” she told him, her Spanish tongue struggling to pronounce the words. “Please?”

“What?” he recoiled from the baby, trying to hand it back.

“Five minutes, I promise.” She’d stepped out of his reach, shaking her head. She had her hand held up, five fingers splayed. “Five - five minutes. You be good – Bella, huh? Be a good girl.”

“You can’t just leave me with your baby!” he shouted, holding the baby awkwardly before him. He had one hand under her arm, the other sort of placed under her feet. It was a good job she could support her own head.

“Five minutes,” his neighbour shouted over her shoulder before she hurried down the hallway.

Grantaire shifted the unaccustomed weight in his arms, curling the baby against his chest and took a few steps in pursuit, but she’d already disappeared around the curve of the corridor to the stairs. He didn’t know if she’d gone up or down.

He stood frozen in the hallway, completely baffled. He glanced down at the baby and then back down the corridor; torn and hesitant and utterly thrown. The baby was chewing on her sleeve and staring at up him with the biggest and most adorable brown eyes he had ever seen. He frowned at her.

“Five minutes?”

She continued chewing.

“Fine.”

It wasn’t exactly like he could do anything else with her. He didn’t really have a choice. He shifted her in his arms so that he had a more secure grip and retreated back to his apartment. Closing the door behind him, he stood and stared at the baby for a while, not entirely sure what he should do with her.

He didn’t even know how old she was. They’d moved in upstairs a month ago, but she must have already been a few months old. Closer to one than not, Grantaire appraised. She was clearly capable of holding her head up and the knees of her onesie were slightly scuffed. Grantaire heavily suspected that if he were to put her on the floor she’d start crawling. Which was not a good idea. His apartment was a baby death trap. Bottles and bottle tops littered the floor, not to mention that his art supplies were everywhere; toxic paint, aerosols and a craft knife which had been worryingly misplaced. There was no way the baby was being put near the floor.

Wondering how he always managed to end up in these ridiculous situations, he sat down on the sofa and held the baby out before him. Supporting her up with a hand under each arm he stood her on his knees. She bounced up and down and gargled something incomprehensible. It might have been a chuckle.

“So. Bella. Bella.” It was a shame Twilight had ruined that name. “Is it short for anything?” he asked, bouncing her on his hip. “Arabella? Isabella?” her eyes widened is recognition. “Isabella. Izzy-B. What am I supposed to do with you, B?”

He had no experience with babies, what so ever. Small children he could cope with. They were easy to entertain; you just pulled silly faces, told them ridiculous stories or drew them pictures. And so long as you respected them, they respected you. He’d helped with enough kids clubs in his more productive college years to know that. But babies? They didn’t understand sarcasm, they could barely discern shapes. He didn’t have a clue what he was supposed to do.

At least she wasn’t crying. Thank god.

She usually was. Apparently neither the walls nor floors in this buildering were particularly thick. Last week she’d been screaming until 4 o’clock in the morning. He held her entirely responsible for that fact that he’d then overslept and missed his shift. Although it was difficult to feel too mad, especially when she was bouncing on his knee, sucking her sleeve and studying his face intently.

He held her gaze for as long as he could without feeling silly and turned to catch the last rays of sunlight slipping from the window. She was still blinking at him when he glanced back.

“What are you staring at? Do I have a silly face?” he screwed his eyes closed and shook his head gently from side to side.

She shrieked with laughter and threw her hand out to poke at his nose.

“Oh!” he over exaggerated, popping his eyes and leaving his mouth agape. “What was that?”

She poked at his face again, her tiny palm gently prodding at his cheek. Her mouth was open like she wanted to laugh, but she was back to gargling incoherently again.

“Is that funny? Is it?” he laughed, catching her hand before she could poke him in the eye.

He bounced her up and down for a bit, eliciting more shrieks of laughter and more incoherent gurgles. But after a while she grew restless, and began trying to poke Grantaire in the eye again. Until she discovered his hair and began tugging at it.

“Alright,” he said, trying to untangle her hand, wrecking his brain for something to do.

The TV had switched itself off; he didn’t know they did that anymore. The remote had been dislodged onto the floor, just out of reach. Not that there would be anything baby appropriate on the TV anyway. It was getting late. How late he didn’t know. There were no clocks on this side of the apartment, his phone was charging in the kitchen and he couldn’t really twist to see the microwave, not whilst juggling Bella as well.

Making sure to scoop up her legs, he held her close to his chest and tried to push himself back to his feet. It was harder than anticipated – ignoring the natural urge to throw out a hand to push himself up. He rocked back into the sofa cushions, bracing his knees and pushing himself up with his legs, keeping a secure hold of Bella.

“Well then,” he told her, keeping up the running commentary which seemed to entertain her. For some reason she seemed to like the sound of his voice. She’d be the only one.

Picking way across the cluttered floor he caught the time on the microwave. He hadn’t exactly been paying attention, but he was sure Bella’s mother had been gone longer than five minutes. It wasn’t that he particularly minded anymore, and it wasn’t like had had plans, but surely she was going to need some food or a new diaper or something soon.

“As long as she comes back eventually, right?”

She rubbed her nose on his shoulder, and began sucking on his t-shirt.

“Oh, no, not a good idea.” He couldn’t remember the last time he washed that particular shirt. She peered up at him, looking innocent, and proceeded to stuff the fistful of shirt back in her mouth.

“Alright,” Grantaire held her at arms-length until his muscles began to ache.

The floor was out of the question, and he obviously didn’t have a high chair or a crib or anything, so he placed her down on the counter top. It was clean, and large enough for him not to worry about her falling off. It wasn’t like he was going to leave her unattended up here; he just couldn’t hold her anymore. She was surprisingly heavy.

He’d been right about the crawling. Although thankfully, after moving and hand and knee’s space to her left she stopped and sat up, looking around. Her eyes lit up when she spied the pot of utensils and began reaching for it. Grantaire stretched across for a clean plastic spatula, figuring it was probably the safest thing – the plastic wouldn’t be toxic would it? She grabbed it eagerly began to chew on it.  

“You are a very strange child,” he told her with a smile.

She was completely engrossed by the spatula, and he in turn was engrossed by her.

When his phone began ringing it startled both of them. It buzzed around on the counter top and blared out a completely inappropriate ring tone, which could only mean Bahorel.

Disconcerted by the noise Bella looked as though she was about to erupt into tears. Holding a hand before her, as if he might be able to catch her if she decided to dive off the counter top, Grantaire stretched to reach his phone.

“Hullo?”

“You actually answered. I’m amazed.”

Yes, he’d been hiding in his apartment for the past few weeks. And alright, maybe that had involved ignoring all calls as well. He would have ignored this one too if it hadn’t been about to make the baby cry.

“Yeah, um, sorry.”

“Don’t suppose you’d be up for a drink tonight? Feuilly had to bail so I’m in need of a…wingman or whatever you kids call it these days.”

Bahorel was precisely three days older than Grantaire.

“Sorry, I can’t. Genuinely busy this time.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Baby sitting.”

The snort that blasted through the speaker was a little insulting.

“Babysitting? Yeah, alright. Who was stupid enough to trust you with their child?”

“I’m being serious. I guess my neighbour was desperate,”

“I’ll say.”

Grantaire wasn’t in the mood for Bahorel’s unique blend of humour, which usually seemed to entail teasing on the verge of insulting.

“Well if you get a chance I’ll be at the Kettle.”

“I won’t,”

“Never say never,” Bahorel replied cheerily before hanging up.

The Kettle & Black was a college hipster place downtown. Grantaire didn’t know why Bahorel was headed there, and honestly he didn’t want to know. Even if Bella’s mother returned that instant, Grantaire wouldn’t make an effort to meet Bahorel. He had an evening of lounging on the sofa being miserable lined up, and he intended to return to it.

Of course that depended on Bella being collected.

It had definitely been more than five minutes now. More like fifty.

It was an absolute miracle that she wasn’t crying, or hungry.

“I thought babies were supposed to be hard work,” he cooed, brushing his fingers through to soft dark hair on her head. She didn’t look up from the spatula.

Grantaire was just about to start getting worried that B was never going to be picked up, when he heard raised voices and angry sounding footsteps from the apartment above.

“Hey, B I think your mom’s home,”

He picked her up, letting her keep the spatula, only because she looked like she would scream blue murder if he tried to take it from her. It wasn’t possible to hear what was being said upstairs – he could only make out the angry muffled tones of two, maybe three people. He hesitated in his kitchen, not entirely sure that he wanted to interrupt whatever was happening upstairs. But she had said five minutes, and it wasn’t like she was actually paying him…

He looked down at Bella, then up to the ceiling.

He was about to give them another ten minutes to resolve whatever the hell was going on up there when –

Shit, shit, fucking shit.

That was a gunshot.

He froze.

Shit.

Should he do something?

Clutching Bella, with his arm cradling the back of her head, Grantaire scrambled to unlock the door and raced down the corridor. He didn’t meet anyone on the stair way, or the corridor. When he reached the door of the apartment directly above his, it was wide open.

“Hello?” he shouted. His heart was hammering, galloping far too fast. He could feel it rattling his ribcage. Bella could obviously feel it to. She began to whimper slightly. “Sssh,” he told her, trying to be reassuring. If he didn’t sound it, it was because he was imagining the worst. That had definitely been a gunshot.

Films had lied to him. It had been much louder, and much more chilling. He dreaded what – or who he might find inside. His hand stroked the back of Bella’s head, the other clutching his phone, thumb poised over the screen.

The door creaked as he stepped through, the floorboards groaned slightly under his weight. The apartment was spotless. It looked barely lived in. There were a few child’s toys scattered on the floor in front of a worn out sofa, but other than it was empty.

“Hello?” he called again, moving through the deserted living room.

Bella had her face buried in his t-shirt. He felt bad for bringing her; he should have left her downstairs.

He padded across the room, as stealthily as possible whilst carrying an infant, and pushed the bedroom door open. The room was empty. Which left the bathroom.

He almost didn’t want to look.

“Excuse me?” he said, pushing on the door with the back of his hand. “Hello?”

His hand curled protectively around the nape of Bella’s head, keeping her turned away from the room.

“Christ!”

Never in his life had he wanted to un-see something so desperately. Never in his life had he seen so much blood.

“Oh Jesus,” he scrambled backwards, fleeing from the scene; his thumb was already flying across the phone for an ambulance, police – anything.

Bella began to scream.

“It’s alright, it’s alright,” he tried to reassure her, but his promises were empty. Nothing was ever going to be alright again. Her mother was lying in the bathroom in a pool of her own blood. Not even the best ambulance crew in the world would be able to do anything.

“It’ll be alright,” he faltered outside the apartment, leaning against the wall to stop his head from spinning.

“It’ll be alright…” he slumped down the wall, clutching the baby to his chest wishing that he wasn’t lying.

Chapter Text

“Sir?”

Grantaire tracked his eyes up to the police officer crouched before him. She had nice eyes, eyes that invited your trust.

“I need to ask you a few questions.”

He nodded, unable to speak for some reason. His tongue felt heavy and his throat was dry.

“What’s your name?”

“Grantaire,” he managed. His voice sounded scratchy. He brought a hand up to rub at his throat and noticed that he was wrapped in a blanket. An orange blanket. He’d seen those in films. They were given to people in shock. Was he in shock?

“Alright, Grantaire, I’m just going to ask you a few questions about what happened. I need you to answer as honestly and precisely as you can.”

He nodded. What happened. What had happened?

Everything was a blur. A fucked up blur.

The ambulance crew had arrived first. They found him sitting in the hallway with Bella crying into his shoulder. Grantaire had directed them inside with as much lucidity as he could manage. Moments later they returned to inform him that she was dead.

The police showed up not long after. There had been an argument about disturbance to the crime scene vs. trying to save someone’s life; that was when some other residents came to investigate the fuss. Grantaire thought it was strange they hadn’t shown up sooner.

Someone had taken Bella from him; by that point he’d been too out of it to notice who. He might have been given the blanket then as well. Perhaps he was in shock. He didn’t know. He couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the image burned into his retinas.

He screwed his eyes shut but there she was; slumped beside the bath. Her eyes were wide, clear and still as glass. And just as lifeless. Her jaw was slack, her head resting at an awkward angle against the tiles. He’d always thought Tarrantino films exaggerated the blood splatters. Apparently not. It had been everywhere. The shower curtain was beyond repair, a great swathe was smeared down the wall as she’d fallen. It was on the ceiling, the mirror, the window. Grantaire wanted to be sick.

“Did you see who shot Ms Martell?”

Martell. That was her name. Lucia Martell. A memory surfaced of her introducing herself on the stairwell, struggling with the pram and an armful of shopping. Grantaire had been late for a shift but he couldn’t very well leave her struggling, so he’d ended up carrying the pushchair back up two flights of stairs to her apartment. They’d passed each other a few more times on the stairs, but never exchanged many words. He generally ended up helping her with the buggy. Maybe that’s why she’d asked him to watch Bella. Perhaps he was the only person who’d answered his door.

“No.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I was downstairs,”

“Why were you downstairs?”

“In my apartment. I live in the….flat below.” His brain was hazy, even the simplest of words were proving slippery.

“And you came upstairs…?”

“When I heard the gunshot.”

“Did you see anyone leaving the apartment?”

He shook his head. “No, there wasn’t anyone. On the stairs, or the hallway. The apartment was empty, except from….” Her.

“Do you think that strange? That you didn’t meet anyone? How long did you wait until after the gun shot before you came to investigate?”

Grantaire screwed his eyes closed. Which question was he supposed to answer?

“I, um…I panicked. Didn’t know to do – I had Bella –”

“Ms Martell’s daughter?”

“Yeah, I was babysitting. I didn’t know what to do.” He suddenly registered that Bella had been taken from him. He sat up straighter and glanced around.

“Could someone have had time to leave before you left your apartment?”

“Where is she? Bella, someone took her,”

“She’s fine. Can you answer the question?”

“What?”

“Was there long enough between you hearing the gunshot and you leaving your apartment for someone to exit?”

“Um, I don’t know. Probably? There must have been.” He pushed himself up, neck craned to get a clearer view of the corridor. “You sure Bella’s alright?”

“Yes, she’s in safe hands.”

“Can I see her?”

“I just have a few more questions, Grantaire,”

“I didn’t see anyone.”

“I know. I need you to describe exactly what you were doing at the time of the shooting.”

“What? Am I – am I a suspect? Are you asking me –?” He brought his eyes back to the officer. She didn’t look as trustworthy anymore. “I was in my kitchen.”

“What were you doing in your kitchen?”

“I was – how is this relevant to anything?”

“Answer the question please.”

He stared at her for a beat; took in her navy blue suit jacket and grey silk shirt. Going by his knowledge of crappy procedural cop shows, he guessed she was a detective. She had tiny little diamond studs in her ears. Most likely real, no one bought fake diamonds that small. He was getting distracted. What was he supposed to be answering? Should he ask for a lawyer? He wasn’t really a suspect was he?

“What were you doing in your kitchen?” she repeated.

Fuck it. “I was checking the time on the microwave. Lucia said she was going to be gone for five minutes, but she’d been much longer.”

“What was the time?”

He screwed his eyes shut, trying to remember.

“Nine…twelve? I don’t know. But she’d been gone more like an hour. I was getting worried. Then I heard voices upstairs.” He gestured vaguely behind him.

“Voices? How many?”

“Two, maybe three?”

“Male, female?”

“Um, yeah – both.”

“What were they discussing?”

“I can’t remember? I don’t know! They were angry…then bang.”

His head was reeling. How many fucking questions was she going to ask?

“This was at 9.12?”

“Probably. Just after, I guess.”

“And then what happened?”

“Like I told you. I panicked. I had Bella, it was a fucking gunshot. I didn’t know what to do. But then I figured I had to come and see what was going on.”

“So you came up here.”

“Yeah.”

“Can you describe the scene?”

“Can I describe the scene? Can I fucking forget the scene?”

The police officer, no detective, took a deep breath. “Was the door open or closed?”

“Open.”

“Any sign of a struggle?”

“Other than someone being fucking shot?!” Was this person for real? “No. I didn’t touch anything. It’s exactly like it was. I left the apartment and phoned you as soon as I saw her.” He dragged his knees to his chest and focused on his jeans; trying not to see the image of her lifeless body.

He tried to remember her on the stairs instead. Hair pulled into a tangled bunch, eyes tired but smiling. She was wearing a floral dress under a too-big blazer, cinched in with a man’s belt double wrapped. He remembered because it reminded him of something Eponine would wear.

“Can you think of anyone who would want to harm Ms Martell?”

“No. I didn’t know her that well,”

“You were babysitting for her?”

“Yeah, but I don’t know who she associated with.”

“Did you ever see anyone suspicious entering or leaving her apartment?”

“I live a floor below! I pass people on the stairs, but they could be going into any apartment. It’s a big fucking building.”

“Alright, Grantaire. Thank you. If you remember anything else that you might think is important, please let us know. I’m going to have to ask you not to leave town for a little while, okay? We’ll probably need to ask you some more questions.”

He nodded.

She stood up to leave.

“Can I see Bella now?”

“She’s just down there, with my colleague.”

Grantaire pushed himself against the wall to stand up. He peered through the crowds of people in the corridor and finally saw her, in the arms of another office down the corridor. Throwing off the blanket he staggered towards her. Past the taped off apartment door. Past a bunch of suited people with crackling radios. When did his life turn into CSI?

“Hey, there,” he greeted Bella. He thought her eyes light up when she saw him, but he didn’t really trust his judgement just then. Everything felt unstable. “What’s going to happen to her?” he asked the uniformed officer. He must have been a father, possibly a grandfather. He held Bella in his arms with a practised ease.

“Social services will take care of her. She’ll go into temporary care tonight, until we can find her somewhere more permanent.”

Grantaire held out a finger which Bella wrapped her whole fist around.

“She’ll be alright?”

“We’ll make sure she’s looked after.”

Grantaire nodded. “You’ll be alright, won’t you, B?” He stroked her head with gentle fingers. “Yeah, you’ll be fine.”

The officer gave Grantaire as reserved smile. The radio clipped to his lapel crackled into life and relayed a message which meant nothing to Grantaire.

“Car’s here. We need to go.” He told Grantaire.

Grantaire freed his finger from Bella’s hand. He took one last look at her and rubbed his thumb across her cheek with a soft caress.

“Goodbye.”

He waved as she was carried down the corridor. Something like longing churned in his gut.

He needed to get out of here. He needed a drink.

Assuming that he was free to leave, he made his way back to his apartment to grab his keys and wallet. He was far too sober to deal with any of this.

=

The Kettle and Black was on the other side of town. He didn’t consciously aim for it; he would have caught the subway if that had been his intention. But he followed his feet, his mind a whirling mess of confusing thoughts until he found himself being stopped by a bouncer wanting to see his ID.

It was a Wednesday, so the place wasn’t especially busy. People, mainly college students and arty hipsters, milled around the high tables and bar stools. It wasn’t a bad place. He used to be a regular in the good ‘ole days. They served a mean black Russian and it wasn’t too pricey. He hadn’t been here in years though and he had no idea why Bahorel had dragged him here.

There were a few seats free at the bar. Dragging a hand through his hair, and realising that he hadn’t bothered to change out of his ratty grey t-shirt which had a few more holes than could be considered fashionable, Grantaire headed for them.

“Double jack,” he told the bar tender. Resting his elbow on the counter top and dropped his head into his palm.

“Do mine eyes deceive me?” Bahorel boomed. Grantaire felt himself being pulled into a one arm hug which still contained more force than any hug had the right to. “Or is it the valiant R, returned at last to help us conquer tequila shots and jaeger bombs once and for all!”

Game of Thrones was simultaneously the best and worst thing to have happened to Bahorel.

A small cheer erupted; Grantaire glanced behind him to see a group of people he’d never met before. He glanced around them, unsurprised; Bahorel had an uncanny knack for just finding people like that. They disappeared when Bahorel took a seat next to Grantaire, though. He glanced around at their retreating backs, bemused.

“Good to see you, Dude. I honestly didn’t expect you come out tonight.”

“Me either.”

The bar tender returned with drink. Grantaire picked up the glass tumbler and drained it, immediately ordering another.   

Bahorel didn’t ask how he’d been, didn’t press him on why he hadn’t made a public appearance in the past few weeks. He knew. He knew that Grantaire had bad weeks and the best thing to do was wait them out and be there when he felt like resurfacing. They’d been friends for, what was it now? Seven years? He hoped Bahorel knew how grateful he was for their friendship.

“So,” Bahorel leaned against the bar and launched into a roundup of everything Grantaire had missed. “Courf’s got a gig as Benedick in an Off-off Broadway re-hash of Much Ado About Nothing next week, which we are summoned to attend, pain of death I’m afraid. Set in the 1980s from what I can gather.  Apparently it’s hilarious. Feuilly was accepted into Columbia. We’re celebrating tomorrow. You’d better show.”

“Of course I will. That’s fantastic.”

 “There’s an extra meeting this week because Enjy’s planning some big rally, I was listening. It sounded important. He asked about you.”

Grantaire almost choked on his drink, but Bahorel continued undeterred.

“Jehan’s dating someone new. He seems alright. I gave him the left bollock talk and he passed the douche bag test. Joly’s epidemic of the week is the West Nile Virus. Combeferre’s been invited to London to present his paper on hypoplastic leukaemia. And that’s what you missed on Glee.” He grinned and sipped his own drink.

“Busy week.” Grantaire commented. He spun his glass around on its base, watching the liquid swirl up the sides. It came repeatedly close to spilling over the top. “Enjolras asked about me?”

Bahorel chuckled knowingly and threw an arm over Grantaire’s shoulder. Grantaire’s long-suffering crush on Enjolras was the worst kept secret in the world.

“Wanted to know if you’d died.” Bahorel laughed.

Grantaire tried to laugh, but it wasn’t funny anymore. Not when he knew just how much of a possibility that was now. He needed to move building. He closed his eyes but Lucia flashed before him again. He rubbed the heel of his hand into his eye, trying to clear the image.

“Everything alright?”

“No.” Grantaire down his answer with the rest of his drink. Signalling the bar tender back for another glass. “She’s dead. She’s fucking dead. Just…gone.” Drink combined with shock was a lethal combination. His words were already slurred. “Just like that.”

“Who’s dead?”

Grantaire ignored him, staring at his drink. “How is that we’re so fragile? We coat ourselves in armour, trying our best to defend against words, heartbreak, eighteen hour shifts, crappy pay, sleepless nights, fuck up after fuck up – we pull ourselves through all of that, make ourselves tough and strong…but all it takes is one angry person, one act of heated aggression and,” he clicked, a crisp snap from his long fingers. “Gone. Fucking gone.”

He folded his arms on the bar top and dropped his head into them, pressing his forehead against his wrist.

“R, is everything okay?”

“Life is a sick and twisted joke. A cruel invention. We break out necks trying to live, and then we die.”

 “R…”

Grantaire lifted his glass and knocked back his drink, relishing the burn as the whiskey hit the back of this throat. “And then we die.”

He tried to stand; coming here had been a bad idea. He just wanted to drink himself stupid and switch his brain off. He appreciated Bahorel, he really did – but right then he needed to be alone. He took a step around the seat, and went to shrug on a jacket before he remembered he brought one with him.

The room swayed for a moment and he blanched.

“Grantaire?”

He rocked sideways, threw an arm out for support, but it was too late. He hit the floor with a thump.

Chapter Text

15 Sep 2016 10.58
Bahorel: You passed out at the bar so I took you home
Bahorel: Your head will probably hurt today
Bahorel: A lot.
Bahorel: you hit the bar on the way down
Bahorel:…and I have may have walked you into the doorframe as I carried you home. sorry.

15 Sep 2016 11.32
Bahorel: I also ate all your cereal (sorrynotsorry)

15 Sep 2016  14.06
Bahorel: assuming your alive, me and feuilly are playing gta all afternoon. If you fancy it.

Grantaire squinted at the screen as he scrolled through the multiple texts from Bahorel. There were also a couple from Courfeyrac, lamenting that he’d missed Grantaire yesterday and letting him know that there was a front seat ticket booked for his opening night performance. Apparently Bahorel hadn’t been joking when he said pain of death, because the text went on to explain exactly what would happen if Grantaire didn’t show his face. Grantaire snorted, it was more amusing than threatening, but he got the sentiment.

He fired back a reply that he’d be there, and then one to Bahorel to turn down an afternoon of Grand Theft Auto. As appealing as it sounded, Bahorel’s prediction was correct. His head was throbbing.

Throwing the duvet off and bracing the cold afternoon air, Grantaire stumbled towards the bathroom to assess the damage.

There was a lovely purple stain blossoming along his temple and disappearing into his hair line. He locked eyes with his reflection for a few seconds, staring at the hollow green eyes marred with smudges of tiredness. He frowned, scratched at the stubble along his throat before letting his eyes wander around the bathroom. His fingers absently clutched at his collar bones, as he scanned the room. It was identical to the room a floor above; a room currently being examined in minute detail by teams of forensics. A room currently swathed in blood. He closed his eyes and backed out of the room.

He needed to find a new apartment.

His phone buzzed in the pocket of the ripped jeans he was still wearing.

Bahorel: He lives! No worries. See you later tho yeah?

Grantaire blinked.

Grantaire: ??

It took mere moments for Bahorel to reply.

Bahorel: Feuilly got into C. We’re celebrating, remember?

Right. Yes he did remember. Grantaire yawned and padded across to the kitchen.

Bahorel: 7pm. Musain. Be there or be square.
Bahorel: seriously dude, be there.

Grantaire tapped back an affirmative, and froze in his tracks. The kitchen was a mess. Cereal was strewn across every surface, including the floor. Milk splodges covered the breakfast bar, with the almost empty container thrown in the sink. There were also crumbs, abandoned pieces of cutlery, and smudges of things he didn’t want to examine. Bahorel had finished off more than just his cereal. Grantaire pulled open the fridge to find that yes, it was a mess. The butter looked like it had been hacked at, olives were rolling around loose on the shelves and the cheese had bite marks.

Grantaire: what did my fridge ever do to you?

Bahorel didn’t reply.  Grantaire didn’t expect him to.

Picking his way through the trail of breakfast destruction, Grantaire put some coffee on and extracted the lone croissant which Bahorel had miraculously overlooked. As he munched through the soft pastry, he gauged the level of cleaning required and decided that he’d do it later. He filled a mug straight from the coffee machine, before swapping the pot into place. The echoing trickle as the coffee hit the bottom of the glass followed him as he padded back to bed. He held the croissant between his teeth as he stopped to pick up and sketch book, and curled back into the tangled nest of pillows and duvet. 7pm was hours away. He didn’t plan on actually getting up any time soon.

The good weather from yesterday hadn’t lasted; outside everything was muted and grey. After a while the heavens opened and rain pattered against his window panes. To maximise the floor space of what was only a moderately sized apartment, Grantaire had the bed pushed up against the wall. The window sill acted as both a bookshelf and beside table, and he rarely closed the curtains. More often than not it was only the sunlight flooding his face which managed to wake him up. He’d once had black out blinds, but after sleeping for two and half days straight, he came to realise that wasn’t a sensible idea. He set his sketch book down on the bed, and hunched forwards over his crossed legs, lifting his mug and holding it clasped in both hands.

There was something mesmerising about watching rain. He tracked the drops as they ran down the window, meandering and merging with other drops. He watched the fast ones that raced down, disappearing out of view, and the ones which plodded at a more sedate pace. If he held his hand against the light, the shadows of the drops made it look like it was raining on his arm.

His landline chirped and broke his trance. He wanted to ignore it, but something told him he shouldn’t. He never used that phone; it had been included free with his internet deal, plugged in and promptly forgotten about. No one even had that number.

He set his mug down on the window sill and fished it from under the bed. It wasn’t a number he recognised.

“Hullo?”

“Mr Grantaire?” asked a clipped, no-nonsense voice.

“Speaking?”

“Hello, I’m calling from the 84th precinct.”

Grantaire began to panic, he daren’t let himself speak, let himself breathe, for fear of what was going to come next. He thought they’d said he wasn’t a suspect…

“If it’s convenient, we’d like you to come in so that we can record your statement,” the clipped voice continued. Although posed like an option, her tone betrayed the command. If convenient. Grantaire read through the lines. If he didn’t come now, they’d drag him in later.

“Yeah, sure. Now?”

“If possible.”

“Fine.”

“Give your name at the reception and you’ll be directed to Detective Perry.” The clipped voice hung up before Grantaire could confirm the name, or the address. He didn’t readily know where the nearest police precinct was located, was he supposed to?

He changed into some more respectable jeans, hid his unwashed hair under a beanie and pulled on a sweatshirt. He’d originally opted for a hoodie but with his bruised face making it look like he’d been in a fight, he realised that he looked dangerously like a ‘hoodlum’; probably not the best idea if he was about to walk into a police station. Especially not as he was already worried they thought he was a suspect. A sweatshirt and a jacket were probably a safer option.

According to the browser on his phone, the precinct was a couple of blocks from his house. The rain had picked up, beating down with an unwelcome intensity. By the time he reached the station he was soaked.

The receptionist glanced disdainfully at the water pooling around him on the linoleum flooring before asking him to take a seat. His jacket was heavy with water and clung awkwardly to his shoulders. He regretted opting for a sweatshirt, he should have just stuck with t-shirt, because three sodden layers each slumping and sticking with no disregard for each other was making him feel uncomfortable. He plucked his hat from his head and wrung it out on the floor, earning him another glare from the receptionist. At that point he no longer cared.

“Mr. Grantaire?”

“Yeah,” he raised a hand and stood up to greet the Detective. It was a different lady to the one whom he spoken with the day before. At least she didn’t bother to look trustworthy. Her dark hair was scraped back into a bun and her eyebrow was arched. She looked like she was 112% done with everything.

“Follow me,”

She led him down the hall way and showed him into an interrogation room. There was a two-way mirror and everything. She gestured for him to take a seat at the metal framed table which was bolted into the floor.

“Am I in trouble?” he couldn’t help but ask, taking a seat and glancing around. The walls were poorly plastered and painted a dull grey. The chair was hard and uncomfortable. A knot of worry was squirming in his stomach.

“I just need to record your statement in regards to the events of September 14th 2016.”

“Alright,”

She set a tape recorded on the table and stated her name and Grantaire’s for the record. After citing the case number, date and time, she launched into a stream of questions, the same stream of questions he’d been asked yesterday.

Where had he been at the time of the shooting? Had he seen anyone on the stairs? Did he know of anyone who might wish to harm Ms. Martell? Could he describe the events leading up to hearing the gunshot? Could he describe his actions after hearing the gunshot? How many people did he hear in the apartment? Did he think he would be able to recognise the voices again? Had he seen anyone strange entering or leaving the apartment in the weeks before?

“Alright, Mr. Grantaire, I think that wraps everything up. Thank you for your time.”

Grantaire lifted his head from the table; he’d answered the last few questions through gritted teeth with his forehead pressed against the cool metal. His mouth was dry from all the talking, and he was beginning to shiver in his cold, damp clothes.

“Done?”

“If we have any further questions, we know where to find you.” Detective Perry gathered up her things from the table and stood up to leave.

“Wait,” Grantaire dragged his sleeve across his face and stumbled to his feet. “What happened to Bella? – Ms. Martell’s daughter,” he added when Perry didn’t reply.

“She’ll have been taken into protective services,”

“Can I see her?” he was suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to see if she was alright.

“I’m sure that can be arranged,” Perry smiled cordially.

=

Grantaire stuffed his beanie back on his head and stepped out of the police station into the gathering dusk. Somehow the sun had set whilst he’d been answering question after endless question. He pulled his phone from his pocket and was surprised to see the time, along with a few missed texts from Bahorel.

15 Sep 2016 18:28
Bahorel: Don’t forget this eve!

15 Sep 2016 18:46
Bahorel: Dude?

He tapped out a reply assuring Bahorel that he was on his way, and headed for the subway at a slight jog. He was going to be late, but that was generally expected of him.

As predicted Grantaire was the last person to arrive at the Musain. He ignored the mocking whoops of joy and pushed past them all to wrap Feuilly in tight embrace. Feuilly had recently outgrown him; now standing a good 6 inches taller than him. Grantaire could no longer sling his arm easily round Feuilly’s shoulders. He was Grantaire was still trying to figure out when that had happened.

“Congratulations,” he said, giving Feuilly a squeeze and pulled back. “Always knew you’d do it,”

Feuilly laughed and shook his head.

“Seriously,” Grantaire promised. “Let me buy you a drink,” he grinned and disappeared to the bar, retuning with whisky shots and beers. They hogged a corner booth as the rest of their friends spread across the tables and chairs around them. Mismatched conversations flew between everyone, with people jumping in good-naturedly whenever a snippet from somewhere else caught their attention.

Soon Grantaire and Feuilly were six shots down and slurring reminiscently at one another. They’d grown up together in foster homes and care centres around New York; brothers in all but blood. Ever since Feuilly had arrived at the same care home, head held high despite his black eye and bloodied nose, and his fists balled ready for a fight, Grantaire had known they would be best friends. When Feuilly managed to get himself in three fights on their first day of school alone, Grantaire had taken it upon himself to look out for the kid, not that Feuilly really need it. He quickly realised what Grantaire never could, that it was easier to keep his head down and get stuck into books. He’d do more good in the long run with a decent education. Grantaire realised he’d been looking up to Feuilly long before his recent growth spurt.

“I always knew you’d make it.” He repeated himself, clapping Feuilly on the back and beaming.

Feuilly dipped his head and blushed, taking a swig of beer and not meeting Grantaire’s eyes when he replied. “I’m not there yet. I’ve still got three years of grad school to get through first.”

“Yeah, you can quit waiting tables though, eh?”

Feuilly shook his head. “I wish. The scholarship only covers my tuition. I’ve still got to find money for rent, food – and text books. Looking at the prices I may need to find a third job.”

“Well, damn.” That just didn’t seem fair.

Feuilly knocked back his beer and shrugged.

“When do you start?” Enjolras asked Feuilly, turning around to join their conversation, glass of red win in hand.

“Couple of weeks. I’m going to try and get as much shift work in as I can before then. I don’t know what the workload’s going to be like – I can’t imagine that it’ll be any less than last year. God knows if I’ll be able to work around it.”

“It’s disgraceful that our schools don’t offer adequate scholarship programmes that cover more than just tuition.”

“Well they do,” Grantaire lazily chipped in.

“Not to people who really deserve them,” Enjolras fired back, dismissively.

He wasn’t even sure if Enjolras knew the full story behind Grantaire’s college days, but even so he couldn’t help take the remark a little bit to heart – if only to wind Enjolras up. Grantaire was an ass at the best of times, but when he was drunk his greatest skill was annoying Enjolras.

“Because I didn’t deserve my full ride?” Grantaire pulled a mock worried face and sipped from his bottle. “I mean I did drop out in second year, so maybe you’re on to something.”

Enjolras blinked at Grantaire with something that was almost guilt, before re-calculating his argument. “I meant football players, athletes who have hundreds of thousands of dollars given to them to attend the top universities, who wouldn’t have been able to pass high school math if it weren’t for the fact that they throw well or run fast.”

“I failed high school math, and I run pretty fast.” Grantaire leant over to stage whisper to Feuilly, “Maybe I’m secretly an athlete.”

Feuilly laughed.

“No everything is about you, Grantaire.” Enjolras snapped.

“That’s a shame.” He replied with mock sincerity.

Enjolras scowled at him and Grantaire grinned back. Irritating Enjolras was safe territory; it was the one constant he could count on.

“I’m trying to have a decent conversation with Feuilly about injustices in the school system – not to mention the fact that our minimum wage is a joke. No one should have to work two jobs, let alone someone trying to get a degree.” He turned back to Feuilly and the pair of them probably would have had a very intelligent and eloquent conversation, if Grantaire hadn’t cut him off.

 “We’re celebrating, Enjolras, you can give the activism bull crap a rest for one night. I came out to drink and forget my problems, not learn about new ones.” He was irritated from sitting in the police station all day and possibly still slightly in shock. Couldn’t he just care about himself and his friends for just one evening without having to care for the entire world and their problems too?

“You’re impossible.”

“I try my best,” he intoned.

A hush had fallen over the group. Enjolras and Grantaire stared at each other amidst an awkward silence before it was quickly covered up with a cough and a forced subject change from Joly.

“Text books?” he said without subtlety, leaning over from his conversation with Combeferre. “I know a great place you can get them for cheap. It’s out in Williamsburg, but I saved myself a fortune last semester of Med School. I’m sure they stock architecture too.”

“Or you can just befriend an older student and steal all of their books.” Bahorel added his two cents.

“What use did you ever have for text books?” Bossuet ribbed him in return as conversations and laughter picked up once more.

Courfeyrac untangled himself from his table and sauntered towards the bar for another round of drinks.

“Hey, uh,” Marius grabbed him of his way past. “Didn’t your cousin do Architecture, Courf?”

“Which cousin?”

“Oh, you know,” Marius clicked his fingers searching for a name. “The one who’s always flying around the world digging things up?”

“You mean, Marie? She did Archaeology,” Courfeyrac cuffed Marius lightly around the back of his head and chuckled.

Marius quickly turned beetroot red, matching the red bottle of cider in his hands. “I always get those two muddled up,” he confessed sheepishly.

The group dissolved into good natured laughter and Enjolras and Grantaire’s bickering was promptly forgotten. Enjolras twisted back to talk to Joly and Bossuet and Feuilly just shook his head at Grantaire without saying a word.

“More shots?” Grantaire suggested as a peace offering.

“If you’re paying.” Feuilly grinned.

Before long Feuilly was struggling to stay upright and Bahorel called time on the celebrations. It was a week night and they were a largely respectable bunch; most of them had to get up for work in the morning. Gradually everyone filtered home in various states of inebriation.

Grantaire stayed in the booth, picking the label off his beer bottle and trying to delay the inevitable. He really didn’t want to go home. When he thought about the prospect flashes of Lucia flooded his mind and bile rose at the back of his throat. He’d thought drinking would help dull the images, but the more he drank, the harder it became to focus on anything other than her.

“Come on, R, home time.” Combeferre’s voice was soothing and gentle. Grantaire didn’t know how he managed to sound so sober.

“No, I’m fine. I’m not going home.” He tried to sound as controlled and confident as Combeferre had, but fell spectacularly short.

“Where are you going then?”

“Dunno, but I can’t face home right now.”

Combeferre was a saint. He didn’t press the matter; he simply offered his spare room instead.

“You sure?”

“Of course.”

It took Grantaire a while to navigate his way across the bar to the door; the floor seemed to be tilting from side to side. When he finally made it outside Combeferre was standing beside a yellow cab. He opened the door and helped Grantaire shuffle in, giving the address as Grantaire pressed his face against the cool glass of the window.

They drove home in silence, the cab driver singing along to the radio and boasting about various celebrities he’d ferried around.

Grantaire wasn’t entirely sure how the made it from the cab to upstairs. He had one final moment of lucidity, in which he marvelled at the soft sheets, before falling fast asleep.

Chapter Text

The sound of an alarm clock chirping loudly through the wall woke Grantaire with a start at an ungodly hour the next morning. He rolled over and stuffed a pillow over his head, fully intending to go back to sleep – when he realised the pillow was far too soft and smelled far too fresh to be his own. Right. He was at Combeferre’s, and it would be rude to oversleep his welcome.

Grantaire’s head protested against any sort of movement. Pain hammered against his skull as he stood up and, for a moment, the room wobbled. He dashed for the bathroom down the hall, and only when he was convinced that he wasn’t about to puke over Combeferre’s hard wood floors, did Grantaire stagger towards the living room.

Combeferre was brewing coffee in the kitchen, partitioned off from the lounge by a wide archway and home to an impressive island in the centre. Grantaire had forgotten how nice Combeferre’s apartment was. That’s what you got for being a specialised doctor, he supposed.

“Morning,” Grantaire muttered, taking a seat on a high barstool at the island and rubbing the heel of his hand into his eyes.

Combeferre gestured to the coffee, evidently too asleep for words.

He looked a sight; wrapped in a stripy blue dressing gown with impressive bedhead and eyes cracked half open behind his glasses. If Grantaire had stopped to catch his own reflection in the bathroom mirror, he’d have known his birds nest hair, bloodshot eyes, and thickening stubble were just as bad, if not worse.

He nodded at Combeferre’s offer and gratefully accepted the mug of coffee, inhaling the fumes with a sleepy smile. Whoever had planned to get that pissed on a Thursday needed to be shot.

No. No they fucking didn’t.

Grantaire balked at the colloquialism and buried his face into the crook of his elbow.

Combeferre watched him silently, draining his coffee before mustering the art of speech.

“How are you feeling?”

Grantaire gave a groan in response; to which Combeferre hummed in agreement.

“Help yourself to breakfast.”

Grantaire thought about it, but he still felt like he was on a boat and eating didn’t seem too appealing. He heard Combeferre troop from the kitchen and the shower start. It brought the boiler in the kitchen to life and momentarily jolted Grantaire from his daze. He soon returned to it, however, and before he knew it Combeferre was hovering by the archway, dressed for work and trying a scarf around his neck.

“I’ll be home around 7. Stay as long as you like.” Combeferre was almost out the door before he backtracked to add, “If you want to leave, keys are in the drawer by the sink – post them through the mailbox when you’re done – but if you’re still here when I get back, we’ll get takeout.”

“Thanks,” Grantaire mumbled. It was an appealing plan, he wasn’t working and spending a day in Combeferre’s lovely apartment would be a nice break from reality, but he already felt like he’d encroached upon Combeferre long enough.

Thinking about work, he should probably ring the bar for another shift. He hadn’t worked in almost ten days; Eponine had probably already found someone to replace him. It was a shitty job and the tips were measly, but at least she let him pick up or decline shifts at will. It made dealing with Bad Weeks much easier. He considered his position for a moment, slumped half asleep at Combeferre’s breakfast bar. He still had a few hundred bucks left over from his last big art piece. He could survive for a while longer on his savings; although, if he planned to find a new apartment he would need every last dime to cover the move. He still had three months on his current contract and he’d be damned if he was staying there that long.

He knew Combeferre took his laptop to work, but he was sure there would be a tablet lurking around somewhere. Combeferre was an ‘early adapter’ if ever there was one. Grantaire founded it lying on top of the blue-ray player. Unlocked. Combeferre was also far too trusting.

Pouring himself another cup of coffee, Grantaire padded back to the guest room, already brining up a search for apartments in Brooklyn.

=

Apartment hunting fell by the wayside as Grantaire discovered the games on Combeferre’s tablet. He was still in bed, stripped to his boxers with the comforter tangled around his legs, when his phone began to ring. The noise shocked him and his Temple Runner proceeded to crash into a tree. Oh well, it was still a high score. He hoped Combeferre wouldn’t mind that Grantaire had systematically shattered all of his existing records.

Grantaire fished his phone from the pocket of his jeans – which was a little tricky given that they were scrumpled in a heap on the floor. It was an unknown number. A sense of unease squirmed in his gut; he’d been forced to give the police station his cell phone number, they couldn’t want to haul him in for more questioning could they?

“Hello?”

“Mr. Grantaire?”

“Speaking?”

“Oh, hi,”

The voice sounded too cheerful to be working in a police station, but he kept his hopes guarded.

“I’m Cosette Fauchlevant, with the CPS. Detective Perry said you wanted to visit Bella?”

Grantaire sat up and nearly dropped the tablet in the process. “Yes. Is she alright?”

The woman laughed cheerfully. “She’s fine. I’m free from 2 if you wanted to pop by and see her?”

Grantaire promised that he would and hopped about looking for a pen. He began peering under the bed before he remembered that he was at Combeferre’s, and that pens would be kept in sensible places; like on the console table in the hallway, next to the landline and a handy notepad. Grantaire scribbled the address and thanked her for the call.

His spirits lifted a little and he felt himself smiling as he pottered about in the kitchen making himself some toast. It was only when he returned to the bedroom that he realised there was a problem. His clothes stank of stale rain and whisky. As he didn’t want to make a terrible impression on the care workers, he was going to have to change. Whilst he was okay with drinking Combeferre’s coffee and borrowing his wi-fi, stealing clothes was crossing a few too many personal boundaries. Grantaire was going to have to make a trip home.

He allowed himself to take a quick shower at Ferre’s apartment, revelling in the soft fluffy bath towels and apple scented body wash. He felt flush, and cleaner than he had in days – which only made wriggling into yesterday’s clothes even more uncomfortable. He stole a glance at the wardrobe that lined the wall of the spare bedroom. There were probably spare jumpers and old jeans in there, and Combeferre surely wouldn’t mind…but Grantaire couldn’t bring himself to encroach on Combeferre’s hospitality like that.

Well, there was no point in delaying the inevitable too much longer.  He made the bed, washed up, and stuffed his beanie over his fluffy curls before stepping out to make the dreaded journey home.

He slipped Combeferre’s spare key into his pocket, completely forgetting that he was supposed to post it through the mail box.

 =

Grantaire used the subway ride to plan his attack. He visualised everything he would need and tried to remember where it was located; he planned to spend as little time in his apartment as physically possible. Of course, he’d have to go back properly at some point, he knew that. He just wasn’t ready to face that reality just yet.

It took Grantaire a grand total of two minutes and fifty three seconds to sweep round his apartment, stuffing a notebook and a spare change of clothes into a backpack, and swapping his rain-soiled clothes from some fresh from the laundry bin. He was pleasantly surprised to find he actually had some clean clothes left. Fate was obviously smiling down on him – for once. He kept a wide berth of the bathroom, figuring it would be easier to buy a new toothbrush than risk triggering the horrific image of Lucia sprawled against the bathtub so identical to his.

He pocketed his phone and wallet and swiped his keys, pulling the door closed behind him and letting out a deep breath. A heady feeling of relief washed through him, carrying him to the stairwell on autopilot. He wasn’t looking where he was going and presently collided with someone hurrying down from the floor above.  Mumbling an apology, Grantaire stepped back to let them pass; realising then that he’d collided with a uniformed police officer, an officer clutching a large plastic bag marked ‘evidence’ in big, bold letters. It was filled with a jumble of textiles, and Grantaire spotted a Teddy Bear’s nose pressed against the polythene.

Bella’s teddy.

The police officer disappeared down the stairs before Grantaire could ask him any questions. He turned and glanced up the stairwell, sucking a breath and darting upstairs before he could change his mind.  

Lucia’s door was open and the corridor outside her apartment was chaotic with activity. Forensics’ teams were sweeping the place in full white body suits complete with little blue plastic booties over their shoes, whilst a couple of other officers secured the scene. One of them was arguing with the building manager.

Trying to appear inconspicuous, Grantaire ducked his head and swept through the chaos. He slowly made his way down the hall, pretending to fiddle with his keys outside another door, whilst he eavesdropped on their conversations.

 “…much longer is this going to take? I can’t rent this place out when you’re messing around. Every second you waste here, I’m losing more money.”

“We should have everything we need by the end of the week.”

“The end of the week? That’s another 200 bucks. Who’s paying for this? And you know she still owes me for two month’s rent?”

“I’m sorry sir, but the department is not responsible for reimbursing you. Perhaps you can take it up with the housing association, or the lawyers who will be settling her estate.”

“Her estate, ha. That spic didn’t have two cents to rub together.”

Grantaire’s blood was boiling, listening to the building manager talk like that whilst the police officer didn’t so much as bat an eyelid. A woman had died and he was concerned about losing rent money, like it was a big inconvenience?

Grantaire stuffed his keys back in his pocket and barged past them, running down the stairs and out into the fresh air, stalking from the building before he could do something stupid: like punch his landlord in front of a cop.

He kept walking until his head cleared, and found himself in front of a ‘Family Dollar’ discount store. He stared at the giant white and red lettering, overcome with an idea. It wouldn’t replace the teddy that the cops had confiscated as evidence, but Bella should have something that belonged to her.

=

At three minutes passed two he came to a stop outside the address. He had to check the scribbled piece of paper twice to be sure. He appeared to be standing outside an apartment building; he’d been expecting the CPS offices, or a care home, or something.

Tentatively, now wondering if he’d written the address down wrong, he pressed the intercom.

“Hi, Cosette?” he asked when a woman answered the buzzer.

“Grantaire? Hi, come on up.”

The door buzzed and clicked open. It was an apartment building, but world’s away from his own. This was the up market part of Brooklyn, where artsy college grads with rich parents came to live. The floor was tiled with encaustic slabs, making up an intricate swirling pattern that echoed back his footsteps. There was a lift, but it looked a little rickety so he chose to take the stairs, bounding two and a time with his hand trailing along the wrought iron railing.

“Hello,” Cosette beamed at Grantaire when she opened the door and ushered him inside. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but a petite Korean girl in high-waisted jeans and a pastel blouse wasn’t it. “Sorry for the mess,” she gestured around the apartment at non-existent messiness and closed the door behind him. “Bella’s through here.”

Grantaire plucked his beanie from his head and suddenly felt so glad that he’d bothered to stop and change. The place smelt of fresh linen and vanilla, with bursts of soft colour and flowers everywhere. He followed Cosette into the lounge, and there was Bella, sitting on the rug, bathed in natural light and still chewing on the spatula.

Grantaire was sure his eyes were deceiving him, but he thought Bella lit up when she saw him. He dropped his backpack and crossed the room, sweeping her up into his arms.

“Hello, Bella,”

She gurgled her happy chuckling sound and immediately began to tug on his soft curly hair. Behind them Cosette hummed.

“Can I get you a drink?”

Grantaire twisted around, Bella still in his arms. If he could see the happy, soppy look on his face he might have been embarrassed. Cosette thought it was adorable.

“Coffee, if you have it.”

“Sure,”

“Hey Bella, look what I have,” he settled her back on the floor and dug the stuffed animal from his bag. There hadn’t been a lot of choice in discount store, but the plush bumblebee seemed entirely fitting.

Bella dropped the spatula and grabbed for it, her little legs wriggling excitedly as she pulled at the silver wings and tried to bite the antennae off.

Grantaire settled into the sofa and shook his head. “You’re an odd one, Izzy-B,” he laughed.

“At least she’s put the spatula down,” Cosette call from the kitchen. “She screamed blue murder when I tried to take it away.”

“How come she’s staying with you – if you don’t mind my asking?”

“It’s a little unorthodox,” Cosette admitted. She pottered about behind the breakfast bar that separated the lounge from the kitchen, putting the coffee on and producing two large polka dot mugs. “But we’re really struggling for placement space at the moment. Especially for emergency care situations. It was this, or she stay in the office overnight.”

“The office?”

“You’d be surprised – and appalled at how many children are spending the night in offices at the moment.”

“Why?”

He remembered how the system worked, and sure he’d been placed with some pretty horrible families, but he’d never heard of staying in an office. Once he’d been driven 2 hours upstate to stay in farmhouse outside of Vermont, but they’d found him somewhere. That farmhouse had actually been one of his favourite placements; though he wasn’t sure the CPS officer who’d returned to collect him had been impressed by his muddy demeanour or scrapped knees from climbing trees.

“It’s a little complicated,” Cosette returned with two steaming mugs.

Grantaire accepted one of them with a grateful ‘thanks’. The coffee was smooth and strong.

“We’ve lost a lot of funding recently, so many of our care homes have been closed, and,” Cosette paused to take a drink. “Well the new legislation hasn’t helped any.”

“Hm?”

“Foster families can now refuse to take on children much more easily. It was supposed to benefit the child. To stop them being placed in homes that already have too many children, or with families that don’t have the capability to look after their special needs – infants, kids with disabilities, for instance. In theory it’s a good idea.”

“But in practise,”

“It’s a nightmare, yeah. It means that any child deemed even slightly problematic is rejected from most places.”

Grantaire watched Bella bash the bumblebee against the floor, gurgling and smiling, and wondered how anyone could call her problematic.

“I understand that accepting a young infant for the night is not an easy task, but if people have signed up to provide emergency care – then they should be prepared to accept all children, shouldn’t they?”

She turned to Grantaire, with something passionate burning behind her eyes. It was something he’d seen before in Enjolras. “I was only able to take her because I was working from home today – if I hadn’t been then.” She shook her head. “I’m afraid to say the system is broken.”

“It’s been broken for a long time,” Grantaire replied sadly. “But it seems like it’s only getting worse.” He drained his coffee and placed the mug on a side table so that he could scoot on the floor in front of Bella. She crawled into his lap and tugged on the front of his shirt, shoving the bumblebee in his face to make sure he was paying attention to it. He laughed and swept a hand across her head. “Where will she go now?”

Cossette sighed. “I’ve been calling everywhere, and I’ve not had much luck. Elmtree House said they’d take her, but – ”

“Elmtree?” Grantaire’s gaze shot back to Cossette. “Up near Beacon?”

“Yes, you know it?”

“She can’t go there.”

“They’re the only place that has said yes,”

Grantaire stomach churned. “She can’t go there. I was there for a few years. Worst couple of years of my life.”

His hand stilled on Bella’s head and he hugged her closer.

Cosette placed her coffee mug in her lap and took her time before answering. “That must have been a few years ago. I’m sure it’s different now.”

“Is Ms. Magee still there?”

Cosette’s eyes gave away a flash of surprise. She’d been on the phone to a Ms. Magee just a few hours ago. “Yes.”

“Then nothing’s changed. She can’t go there.”

“Ideally I’d like to place her with a foster family, but unless somewhere gets back with a ‘yes’ soon, I have no choice. She can’t stay here. Unless you want to take her?” She was laughing; evidently it wasn’t a real solution.

Grantaire knew that, he was the last person that should be looking after a child. He didn’t even really have an apartment at the moment. And he had no experience with caring for children. It was the worst idea. No matter how terrible Elmtree house had been, it would be better than nothing, right?

Chapter Text

No one else called.

Cosette delayed as much as possible, happy to let Grantaire and Bella watch kids cartoons on TV whilst she got on with some work. She set her laptop up on the breakfast bar so they were never out of sight, her attention torn between them and the clock.  It was evident that Grantaire really cared for Bella, and that Bella in turn felt safe and at home with him. But Cosette didn’t have a choice. It was almost four thirty. If she didn’t leave now, she’d never get to Elmtree with time for Bella to get settled before bedtime.

“I’m really sorry, Grantaire,” Cosette said. “I have to take her.”

“I know.”

Bella was dozing off, clutched against his chest; her head nestled into his shoulder. He didn’t want to say goodbye. He felt fiercely protective of her, and letting her go to such a miserable place felt like a betrayal.

“You can visit her at Elmtree,” Cosette reassured him.

“Yeah.” Theoretically, yes. But he didn’t think he was brave enough to set foot in that place ever again. “It’s only temporary, right? A foster family will eventually take her, or she’ll be adopted?”

“I hope so.”

“You don’t sound very hopeful. What about her father?” Grantaire was clutching at straws and he knew it.

“He wasn’t listed on her birth certificate, so there’s no real hope of finding him. We might not want to.” Cosette added. “I read the file, I know what happened. Cases like that, it’s often the husband or boyfriend.” She sighed, sadly.

That thought hadn’t even crossed his mind. Suddenly Grantaire was overcome with the horrible thought of what might have happened to Bella if he hadn’t been babysitting.

Had Lucia known what was coming when she thrust Bella at him? He tried to remember what she’d looked like, but all he could remember was her glassy lifeless eyes. He screwed his eyes shut and shook his head.

“We have to go.”

“Yeah,”

He handed Bella over, pausing to plant a gentle kiss on her forehead. She was asleep now, and peacefully let Cossette strap her into the CPS car seat. The bumblebee was stuffed in beside her.

“It was nice to meet you, Grantaire.”

“Yeah, pleasure.” He was feeling a little listless as he stepped outside of Cosette’s apartment.

“I’ll make sure all of Elmtree’s contact details are forwarded on to you. And I’ll keep looking for a foster family.”

“Thank you.”

He watched Cosette carry Bella down towards the garage, wondering why it felt so wrong to watch her go.

=

Grantaire made his way from Cosette’s house with an abject air. He didn’t know what to do with himself. At half past four in the afternoon, the little artisan coffee shops which filled the streets around her apartment building were empty. The lunchtime and afternoon tea customers were gone, those coming from work not yet arrived. He contemplated pulling up a chair on one of the patios underneath a green awning or trellis of trailing flowers, but he didn’t want a coffee; he wanted to get very, very drunk and then crawl under a duvet and sleep for a week.

He also didn’t want to go home.

He scuffed his foot against the pavement, working a stone loose from the grey tarmac. He rolled it under the toe of his boot, oblivious to the way he was blocking the sidewalk.

Why couldn’t things ever just be easy? All he wanted was a hassle free, inconsequential life. Was that too much to ask for? He wasn’t equipped to deal with this kind of shit.

Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Grantaire was surprised to find a key. Combeferre’s key. He closed his fist around it, feeling the edges dig into his palm. Could he go back? Combeferre had said “stay as long as you like.”

Grantaire could only hope that he’d meant it.

=

It was half seven before Combeferre got home; looking rather dishevelled with stiff, tussled hair and bleary eyes behind his glasses.

Grantaire was dozing on the sofa when he returned; a cushion hugged to his chest and two empty beer bottles sitting on the coffee table beside him. He stirred as the door closed behind Combeferre and squinted sleepily up at Combeferre as he passed through the lounge.

“Hey,”

“I’m glad you’re still here.” Combeferre smiled down at him. He dropped his bag by the sofa and fished his wallet and keys from his back pocket; depositing them on the console table, before slumping into the arm chair perpendicular to Grantaire’s sofa. Combeferre tipped his head back and closed his eyes letting out a groan of exhaustion.

Grantaire peered at him through half cracked eyes. Combeferre always appeared so well put together at meetings, at outings – even after nights out he always presented himself as a calm and tidy individual. Grantaire felt like he was getting a glimpse of something very private and guilt squirmed in his chest. Everyone deserved their own spaces and he was definitely invading Combeferre’s.

Grantaire realised he’d had never actually spent that much time alone with Combeferre – which was odd considering they’d been friends for almost three years. There had just always seemed to be someone, or a few someone’s with them as well. In fact, it was almost eerie not hearing Joly, Bossuet or Courfeyrac’s raucous laughter drifting in from another part of the apartment.

“Fancy ordering a take-away?” Combeferre asked, lifting his head and regaining some semblance of his usual respectable, presentable appearance.

“Sure.” Grantaire twisted his feet onto the ground and sat up, rubbing at his sleep-flecked eyes. A nap had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now he just felt groggy. “Anything in particular?”

“I’ve had the weirdest craving for spring rolls all day,”

“Chinese it is then.” Grantaire stood up and stretched. “Mustard sauce?” he asked through a half yawn.

“Of course.” Combeferre grinned through his exhaustion. He lifted a hand to tug it through his hair and Grantaire noticed he wasn’t wearing his watch. His wrist looked empty without it. Grantaire guessed he’d forgotten to replace it after surgery or something. Surgery. He stared at Combeferre with something close to awe. They were basically the same age and Combeferre was responsible for performing, or at least observing, complex surgical procedures on people. Grantaire was happy if he managed to get out of bed before noon. He really needed to ring up for another shift. What was he doing with his life?

“Menus are by the fridge.” Combeferre added as Grantaire padded towards the kitchen. “I might take a shower.” He sat on the sofa for a while longer, clearly mustering the energy to move, before he hauled himself to his feet.

Grantaire heard the floor boards creak and a few minutes later the boiler kicked into life behind a cupboard door on the far wall of the kitchen. He flicked through the small stack of menus by the fridge; uninspired. Stacking them back in the neat letter rack on the counter he pulled out his phone instead and began scrolling through until he found what he was looking for. There was a new place that had opened up around the corner from Combeferre’s a couple of months ago – he’d been eager to try it for a while.

With the food ordered, Grantaire slumped against the counter, absently flicking through the apps on his phone. Without a distraction, his mind began to buzz with the cloud of responsibilities he’d been putting off for days. He needed to think seriously about his apartment and enact the break clause if he wanted to move. He needed to pick up some more work before his savings dwindled to nothing. He needed to answer that email about a commission.  He needed to find somewhere else to stay. He need to…

Grantaire screwed his eyes shut and tried to block out the noise. He pulled another beer from the fridge and popped the cap, letting it scitter across the counter.

He could start with the easy item on the list. He pulled up the contacts list on his phone and called Eponine before he could change his mind.

The Soldier of Waterloo, Brooklyn, how can I help?” the phone was answered by a woman who managed to sounds charming yet bored all at once.

“Hey, Ep. It’s R – got a shift for me?”

“R!” she exclaimed. “I thought you’d up and quit on me. Big art project I take it?”

“Erm, Yeah, it’s uh…going great.” He lied, hoping Eponine would be too distracted by the chaos in the bar to notice. He could hear a cacophony of voices and glasses clinking, and loud music from the surround system as Eponine flicked through her shift register.

“Alright, I’ve got next Tuesday 2 ‘til close, I need someone to open Thursday morning and the Saturday lunch crew looks a little light?”

Grantaire hated opening shifts. He almost declined before remembering that he wasn’t in a position to be picky.

“Put me down for all three. Thanks, ‘Ponine.”

“No problem-o.” she scribbled down his name into the register. “I’ll see you Monday for Courf’s opening night?”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”

“It’s going to be hilarious.” She agreed, hanging up with a loud smack of a kiss down the line.

Grantaire pocketed his phone and examined the fridge magnets plastered over the fridge door. There were a couple of photos tacked under letters of the alphabet, two he’d seen before; a group photo at the Musain held in place by the letters A, B and C, and a shot of Combeferre and his sisters on one of their Graduation days under the letter L. The other one was new, which was impossible seeing as it was clearly an old photo of Combeferre, Courfeyrac and Enjolras on what looked like a themed bar crawl at college. Enjolras was wearing a white t-shirt which glowed under the UV tinted lights and, like the rest of them was covered in flecks of neon paint. The paint dusted his cheek bones and peppered the erratic curls of his hair. He was grinning a little awkwardly, looking so much younger, and more vulnerable than then man Grantaire knew today. He removed the Y magnet and picked up the photo examining it more closely. Courfeyrac and Combeferre’s darker skin tones created a much better contrast with the paint, the specks glowing like nebular clouds on their cheeks. It was a stunning photo, considering it was a candid taken half drunk on a night out, and Grantaire was still staring at it when Combeferre padded into the kitchen.

He’d changed into comfortable looking jeans and a grey marl sweater, rolled up to his elbows. He was dragging a hand towel through his still damp hair.

“How long will the food be?”

“They said thirty minutes,” Grantaire proffered the photo to Combeferre. “How come I haven’t seen this before?”

“Oh that, yes.” Combeferre took the photo and smiled. “Courfeyrac found it last week – he was going through some boxes. You know, I think he’s only just got around to unpacking. He made me a copy. It’s a good look don’t you think?” he smiled, tacking it back to the fridge. “I miss being that young; drinking with no fear of a hangover. I hate it when my body reminds me I’m getting old.”

Grantaire snorted. “We’re not old. Don’t make me feel worse than I already do.” He opened the fridge and offered Combeferre a beer.

“I thought you’d sworn off weekday drinking?”

“I said it was a terrible idea, I didn’t say I was going stop.” Grantaire smirked.

“Touché.”

They returned to the living room to wait for the food. Settling into the sofa and armchair as before. Combeferre turned the TV to a generic sitcom, but kept the volume low so they could talk. For the first time in days, the knot of panic and fear began to abate from Grantaire’s gut.

“Save anyone’s life today?” he asked, a little mockingly, because he couldn’t help being an arse sometimes.

“Well I didn’t have to tell anyone they were dying, which is always a plus.”

Grantaire snorted in stunned agreement.  

“And I got to tell a little girl that she’s in remission. It was a pretty good day, actually.” Combeferre sipped his beer and settled into the sofa. He kicked his feet up on the coffee, socked toes wriggling to get comfy. “Definitely better than expected, given my hangover this morning.”

Grantaire groaned just thinking about how queasy he’d felt that morning. How Combeferre had managed a full day at work was beyond him.

“How about you?”

Grantaire shook his head and looked away, conveniently taking a drink to delay answering. He still wasn’t ready to talk about it. Any of it. Thankfully Combeferre didn’t press him.

“It’s okay,” Combeferre said softly.

Grantaire risked a glance across the sofa. Combeferre’s face was so sincere; like he actually genuinely cared to hear about Grantaire’s day. People always said it was better to talk about things. Carers, counsellors. That was always their advice. Talk. But talking required having someone who wanted to listen. It had taken Grantaire too long to realise that most people who asked things like ‘how are you feeling?’, or ‘how was your day?’ didn’t really want to know.

He shook his head again and turned back to the TV.

“Well you don’t have to tell me, but I’m happy to listen anytime you change your mind.” He really seemed to mean it.

Grantaire nodded, an odd sort of lump forming in his throat. He was half tempted to tell Combeferre everything, but the food was delivered before he had the chance.

It was everything Grantaire had hoped it would be, and then some. Combeferre was also suitably impressed, declaring that he was going to eat there from here on out.

“Forget cooking. Why bother when you can order food that tastes as good as this?” he hummed around a mouthful of orange chicken. “Good find,” he told Grantaire.

If Grantaire had been nervous to hang out with Combeferre on his own, then he needn’t have been. They worked their way through the six pack of beer Grantaire had picked up on his way home, and found themselves wrapped deep in a conversation about technology in the Harry Potter wizarding world.

For a while, it was peaceful. Grantaire even managed something that could pass as relaxation.  

Bang. Crack.

The sound of a gunshot filled the apartment. Grantaire jumped out of his skin, sending his beer bottle clattering to the floor. His heart was pounding, pulse racing and his eyes were wide with fear before he located the sound to the TV. The harmless sitcom they’d been watching had been replaced by a cop show of the CSI persuasion.

“Oh fuck,” Grantaire whispered, leaning forwards to drop his head between his knees whilst he tried to slow his heart rate to a normal level.

Combeferre turned the TV off and moved to the sofa beside Grantaire. Hesitantly, he placed a soothing hand on Grantaire’s back.

“It’s okay, breathe.” He instructed.

Grantaire nodded, trying to suck breath into his heaving lungs. He was panting and gasping. His mind was racing. Luchia kept flashing in front of him; her glassy eyes, pallid skin, and all that blood. So much fucking blood.

Grantaire screwed his eyes shut and tried to ground himself in the room, but it was too late. He was lost, spiralling.

He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes trying to blot out the image of Luchia’s lifeless body. Instead, it intensified, blaring a negative engrained on his retinas, fading and looming like he was falling towards her down an infinite worm hole. Everything zoned out. He was panting for breath. Dazed and confused.

He was five years old, huddled against the wall whilst thick clouds of smoke billowed through the door. He tugged at his hair, falling in thick dark curls around his face, obscuring his vision. The room was filled with smog that burned his lungs. Heat was radiating from the floor. An alarm was blaring, it hurt his head. It was too loud. Too loud.

 “Breathe, Grantaire. Nice and slow,” Combeferre’s voice sounded far away.

Grantaire forced his eyes open, staring at the floor, his vision framed by the tangle of curls falling across his face. He could see his hair. He could see the floor. Beige carpet; Combeferre’s floor. He was having a panic attack. He forced himself to remember the grounding technique at kid at a foster home had taught him once. All those years ago. When Grantaire found himself locked in the wardrobe, unable to get out. He could hear them hammering on the walls, he could feel the darkness closing in. Bella was screaming. The fire alarm blaring. A voice cackling through the wardrobe door.  

No. Grantaire shook himself. Combeferre was next to him. He was here, in Combeferre’s lounge. He was safe.

He forced himself to lift his head and glance around, focusing in what he could see. Five things he could see. He could do this.

“The floor, one.” he muttered out loud.  “The carpet, two.” Voicing the list helped him focus. He could see his lap, his hands. He lifted his head and blinked at the mock fireplace. Five. He could feel, what could he feel? He placed his palms on the soft leather of the sofa. He scratched at the coarse fabric of his jeans. The soft fleece of his hoodie. Three. The solid floor under his feet; he wriggled his socked toes: four. He could hear the static click of the TV as it cooled down. He turned to face the window and listened for the soft roar of the city outside, and he could hear Combeferre’s calm voice, three.

He could smell the remains of the take away sitting in boxes on the coffee table, and Combeferre’s apple scented shampoo. He turned to face Combeferre and took a deep, shuddering breath. He could taste beer on his tongue.

“Welcome back,” Combeferre said gently, his hand rubbing small circles into Grantaire’s back.

“Thank you.” Grantaire managed, taking deep controlled breaths as his anxiety ebbed away and he regained sense of his surroundings.

“Are you alright?”

“I will be.” Grantaire breathed; nodding.

Combeferre’s hand gave his shoulder a squeeze. “I’m just going to get you a glass of water.”

Grantaire nodded, scratching at his scalp and letting out a deep breath. He hadn’t had a panic attack that bad for a while.

Combeferre returned with a glass of water, which Grantaire gulped down gratefully.

“I assume that had something with not wanting to go back to your apartment yesterday?”

Grantaire could only nod.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Grantaire was fully prepared to say “no” and shrug the whole thing off, but he figured he owed Combeferre some sort of an explanation. He placed the empty glass on the coffee table, not missing how much his hands were shaking.

“My neighbour… was shot in her apartment.” He said at last. “I found her in her bathroom.” His voice cracked and tears threatened to well up in his eyes. He fought them back, swallowing the painful lump in his throat. “It was like something from a horror movie.” He said quietly. “There was so much fucking blood.” He dropped his head into his hands and tugged at his hair so hard he threatened to pull it out in handfuls. “I see her every time I close my eyes.” He admitted in a small voice. “I see her when I step into my bathroom. I can’t go back there.”

“No.” Combeferre agreed. He hand was back, tracing a soothing pattern across Grantaire’s shoulders. “Do they know who did it?”

“No. It’s an ongoing investigation. No witnesses. I heard a voice – but I didn’t see anyone. I spent most of yesterday in police custardy.”

Combeferre’s hand stilled. “Why didn’t you say anything?” he implored.

“I couldn’t face talking about it.”

“Well you can stay here as long as you like.”

Grantaire glanced up, furtively.

“I mean it.”

“Thanks Ferre, but I can’t impose like that. I’ll find a new place. You don’t want me moping around in your way.” He’d already outstayed his welcome. He’d email his landlord tomorrow and clear his stuff out over the weekend. He could always crash in a motel until he found somewhere more permanent.

“Well actually, I’m headed to Paris for three weeks on Wednesday. So you won’t be in my way. My sister was going to house sit for me, but I don’t quite trust her not to throw a house party. Plus, I was going to have pay her $100 a week for her city living expenses. You’d actually be doing me a favour.”

“A favour?” Grantaire laughed. Only Combeferre could twist putting a friend up into them doing him a favour.

“Yes you would.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I can’t…can I?”

“Grantaire, I might be polite. But I never offer things I don’t mean. Stay here whilst you get a new apartment sorted. Please.”

Grantaire mulled it over. It became increasingly apparent this was the best, and only, choice he had. He felt guilty as hell, but he nodded his acceptance. “Thanks, Ferre.”

“Hey, what are friends for?”

“I don’t deserve a friend like you.”

“Nonsense.” Combeferre said sternly. “You’d do the same for me.”

“Yeah,” but that was different.

“Say,” Combeferre pulled away and stood up, walking with smooth graceful motions so as not to alarm Grantaire. “I got a new chess set for my birthday, which I haven’t had a chance to open yet. Care for a game?”

He pulled a polished walnut box from the bookcase nestled into a corner nook, eyebrow arched behind his glasses with a traces of childish excitement.

As distractions went, it was a pretty good one. Grantaire didn’t miss the gesture of leaving the TV safely switched off.

“Only if I can be black.”

“You’d feely pass up first-move advantage?”

“Counterplay’s more my style.” Grantaire managed to smirk. He pushed himself off the couch and began to tidy away the take away boxes as Combeferre set up the chess board. “Another beer?”

Combeferre glanced up from arranging the pieces, he’d settled himself cross-legged on the floor by the coffee table. “Why not.” He smiled; such a warm and comforting smile which helped alleviate the lingering thrum of panic under Grantaire’s skin. Maybe things would start to be alright.

Chapter Text

Grantaire slept better than he had in weeks, possibly months, and for the first time in recent memory he woke naturally early. Of course, his good mood didn’t last long, it never did. Without the haze of a few beers, he began to remember the previous evening in all of its embarrassing glory. He’d had a full-blown panic attack and probably freaked Combeferre out for good. Although he’d quietly weathered the situation and then proceeded to thrash Grantaire at chess without voicing any judgement, Grantaire knew it must have been swirling through Combeferre’s mind. Grantaire suddenly felt hot and claustrophobic. A wave of intense regret surged through his gut as it did whenever he overshared. There was a reason he was loud and boisterous about meaningless conversations – it saved him from talking about his own problems.

He threw the covers off and staggered to his feet, pulling on some clean clothes and stomping his feet into his boots. The small rational part of his brain knew he was overreacting, but his anxiety was taking control and every ounce of it was telling him he had to leave. He set about gathering up his things which had managed to scatter themselves around every inch of the guest room, and shoved them into his backpack with abandon. He was stuffing a hoodie into the depths and trying to squeeze the zip closed, when a polite knock sounded at the door.

“Yeah?”

Combeferre poked his head around the door and, upon seeing that Grantaire was up and dressed, opened it fully and stepped through.

“Good, you’re up – I didn’t want to wake you.”

Combeferre was dressed in pale jeans and grey sweater. His hair was fluffy, long since dried from a shower, and he was wearing his reading glasses. He looked like he’d been up for hours.

“I was wondering if you wanted to get brunch? I’m not on shift until later and it’s a lovely morning.”

Grantaire turned to peer through the window, giving the outside world his first glace of the day. Sure enough, golden sunlight was filtering through the buildings, setting the caramel coloured leaves of the trees outside the window ablaze.  Grantaire considered the proposition as Combeferre waited patiently for his reply. He either didn’t notice that Grantaire was in the middle of packing, or decided not to acknowledge it.

“Sure,” Grantaire said after a pause. He stilled his hands, letting the backpack fall open and forced himself to face up to what he was doing. Why was he so determined to flee? He literally had nowhere to go, and Combeferre hardly seemed to want him gone.

Combeferre smiled warmly. It was the same smile he’d given Grantaire when his rook cornered Grantaire’s king the evening before; a mix of delight and accomplishment that Grantaire didn’t quite understand.

=

Grantaire pulled his beanie over his ears and stuffed his hands in his pockets against the biting cold of the morning air. A strong northerly wind was rippling through the city, bringing with it a taste of the arctic chill to come. Autumn had barely begun but already summer was a distant memory. Grantaire scuffed his boot on the pavement as they walked towards the bakery.“How long are you in Paris for?” he asked, dipping his chin beneath the collar of his coat. He knew Combeferre had told him yesterday, but his mind had been understandably elsewhere.

“Three weeks,” Combeferre replied. He looked like he still couldn't quite believe it was about to happen.

“That’s one long conference.”

“The conference is only a week – the last week – but I’m going over earlier to meet with the Parisian lab that we wrote the paper in conjunction with. They want to iron out a few details before we make the presentation.”

“It all sounds very grown up.” Grantaire commented with a chuckle.

“I know. To be honest, I feel like a fraud. I’m meant to be an expert in something when most days I wouldn’t mind running some decisions past my professors in med school.”

“Nervous?”

“Terrified.” Combeferre admitted with a small smile.

“Ah, you’ll be fine. You give speeches all the time.”

“To crowds which have already gathered, or students in pubs that wouldn’t leave unless the bar closed. What if no one turns up? What if they leave half way through?” Combeferre confided his fears, much to Grantaire’s surprise. He’d always seen Combeferre as stoic and unfazed by everything, it was oddly reassuring to know he too harboured some anxious insecurities.

“Then you’ll have had three weeks in Paris – in the fall – all expenses paid. I think you’ll still come out okay.”

Combeferre nodded, lost in his own thoughts for a moment.

“Are you going to try and see a bit more of Europe whilst you’re over there?” Grantaire asked as they turned a corner and waited to cross the road to the bakery. A few cars zipped by before the coast was clear. They sauntered across, Grantaire hopping onto the curb and waiting for Combeferre to take the lead. The bakery was a small rectangular store front sandwiched between a laundromat and a newsagent. A flight of stairs on the left led up to the apartment building above, and down to the basement bar on the right. A pair of plant pots framed the door on either side, which was emblazoned with Chetta's Cakes in a bold flowing font.

“I might try to,” Combeferre said, stepping through the glass front door and holding it open for Grantaire. A bell jangled as it swung to; announcing their presence.

Inside the walls were painted a soft cream, with accents of burnt pink. The menu was written in an elaborate script on a large blackboard behind a glass counter filled with pastries and fancy cupcakes in all their piped buttercreamed glory. Grantaire scanned the menu delighted to see find that the along with the cupcakes they were clearly famous for, the place also served croissants, waffles and pancakes. He wondered if Combeferre came here often, and tried picturing sitting alone by the window sipping on coffee with a pain au chocolat. It was a good fit for him, sophisticated and grown-up in all the ways Grantaire was not.

“My sister’s working in Brussels at the moment,” Combeferre continued after they’d ordered, shrugging off his coat and folding it over the back of a rounded wooden chair. “If she can get time off, I’ll make a trip over to see her.”

“What does she do?”

“Lawyer, she’s working with the European commission. I’m not entirely sure what it is that she does, I know it’s something to do with international relations which involves speaking lots of different languages and that she’s absolutely in her element. She moved out there immediately after she graduated so it’ll be good to catch up with her.”

A towering stack of pancakes was set before Grantaire, along with a gruyère and prosciutto croissant for Combeferre and two tall black americanos. It all smelt divine and Grantaire trucked in hungrily. He'd always been confused by the idea of bothering to go out for breakfast but he was quickly coming around to the idea. He could live on those pancakes and die a happy man - as happy as Grantaire managed at any rate.

“If you get a chance to go to Brussels – I’d recommend taking a day trip up to Bruges,” Grantaire suggested.

“Oh really?”

“ I hear it’s a beautiful city – and apart from that statue of the kid peeing in Brussels, there’s not much to see there.”

Combeferre laughed. “Have you been before?”

“Me? God no. I’ve never been out of the country. Actually, unless you count Jersey – and who would? – I don’t really think I’ve been out of the state.” Grantaire admitted, instantly regretting it. There he was again, revealing far too much about himself. God, what must Combeferre think of him? Pretending towards a great cultured intelligence when he hadn’t even left his goddam home state. He had made it years in their friendship group without admitting that, what was happening to him? He blamed the stress of the past few days. How was he supposed to control what little brain to mouth filter he posseed when half of his mental faculties were worrying about Bella or busy reliving the moment he found Luchia?

“Of course, Amsterdam is also a must.” Grantaire continued, hoping to steer the topic of conversation away from himself. “and London. You know, you’re better off getting one of those interrailing passes, taking the rest of your annual leave off and travelling around the whole continent.”

“Is that what you would do?”

“If I had the money, hell yeah. Rome, Vienna, Barcelona, Prague. All the art, all the beer, all the history.”

“That would be quite the trip.”

“Yeah, it’d cost a fucking bomb.”

“If you had to pick one, then?” Combeferre wrapped his hands around his mug and asked the question peering through the steam curling from it. “One destination, anywhere in the wold – all expenses paid, where would most want to go?”

Grantaire hesitated, torn between giving the easy answer that would roll off his tongue no questions asked, or the honest one. “It’s a toss-up,” he admitted eventually.

Combeferre piqued an eyebrow in interest as he sipped his coffee.

“Rome, easily. Or…Disney world,” he said before he could stop himself.

Combeferre failed to hide his surprise, almost choking on his drink. “Disney world, Florida? I wouldn’t have pegged you for the type.”

“I know, me either.” Grantaire shrugged. “But it’s every kid’s dream, right? The archetypical middle class family holiday. Everybody who’s anybody has been at least once. I bet you went with your parents?”

“A few times,” Combeferre admitted, placing his coffee on the table and knitting his brows together, not following Grantaire’s train of thought and worrying which it might be leading to.

“I never went. We talked about it, my mom planned to go one summer. I think she ever got as far as booking the plane tickets. But,” he chewed on a mouthful of pancakes, wondering why he hadn’t managed to stop himself talking yet. “Then my dad drank himself into a stupor and dropped a lit cigarette on the couch and my dreams of meeting mickey mouse went up in literal flames.” He kicked back in his chair and lifted his coffee cup, unable to meet Combeferre in the eye. “'Course after that there was no hope." he continued, as flippantly as he could. "Foster families can barely afford new clothes for you, let alone trips like that. So yeah, if I could go anywhere it’d probably be Disney world. Just to see what the fuss was about. Not to mention it would wind Enjolras up no end, and that’s always a strong reason for doing anything.”

Combeferre looked blank when Grantaire eventually managed to face him again. He blinked and his usual calm, reassuring smile was back in place once more. “It’s really not all it’s cracked up to be, you know. It’s crowded, over-priced and humid. Donald Duck made my sister cry and thunder mountain is sorely disappointing.”

“Thanks,” Grantaire smirked. “But they’re all lies, right?”

“Thunder mountain is the greatest ride ever,” Combeferre owned-up with a laughed.

“Better than the tea cups a Coney Island?” Grantaire scoffed sarcastically. “Wait, so how did Donald Duck make your sister cry?”

“It was ridiculous, we were staying in one of the park hotels and the characters were mingling with foyer. Clara was dressed like Cinderella for the day – she was four at the time, it was truly adorable – so Donald Duck offered to walk her down the stairs like an escort. Then Laurel, who was seven and had refused to dress up because she was ‘too old for Disney’, threw a fit that Donald hadn’t offered to walk her down the stairs." Combeferre's eyes shone with fondness as he recountered the story, and Grantaire found himself smiling along with the retelling. "She was in floods of tears and the poor guy had to walk back up the stairs, just to escort her down as well. Bearing in mind that he was wearing a giant false head and flippers and could barely see where he was going. My dad caught it all on camera, it’s hilarious.”

“Which ones working in Brussels?”

“Laurel,” Combeferre grinned.

“I bet she’d loved to know you still tell that story.”

“She has plenty of worse ones about me, I’m sure,”

“Okay, now those, I need to hear.” Grantaire laughed.

Chapter Text

Grantaire didn’t see much of Combeferre for the rest of the weekend; he seemed to be determined to spend every possible hour at the hospital before he left for Paris for three weeks. Although he’d written extensive instructions delegating his responsibilities, and though he had great faith in his colleagues, Grantaire could tell Combeferre was not relishing handing over control.

He lazed around Combeferre’s apartment, enjoying the warmth and the tranquillity, and watching more than a few harmless, gun-free comedies on Ferre’s Netflix account. Despite Grantaire’s best intentions he hadn’t been home to move more of his stuff from his apartment. Instead he’d gone shopping for essentials – boxers, a razor, and a pack of cheap black t-shirts from the Target around the block, in order to delay the inevitable for as long as he could.  He was enjoying the pleasant break from reality that hiding out in Combeferre's apartment had afforded him and he knew that the moment he stepped foot in his apartment reality would drown him once again.

He passed the bakery on his walk back to Combeferre’s apartment and found himself admiring the display of apple turnovers in the window. Before he knew what happened he was balancing a brown paper bag and a cardboard tray of coffee along with his other supplies. He had to wedge them against the wall whilst he fished the key from his back pocket and let himself back into Combeferre’s apartment, nearly sending everything crashing to the floor. When he finally managed to open the door, he was met by the sound of conversation drifting from the lounge. He froze, still balancing the coffee cups precariously against the wall. The meeting. Shit, he’d completely forgotten. He cursed internally, and screwed his eyes closed for a moment. He wasn’t prepared to deal with Enjolras, especially not at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon when alcohol would be out of the question. He wasn’t like he had anywhere else to go, though. Stuffing the keys back in his pocket, he carefully transferred the coffee cups back to his free hand stepping across the threshold and kicking the door closed behind him.

“Hi,” he called out, trooping down the hallway and poking his head into the lounge. Combeferre and Enjolras were sitting cross legged on the floor surrounded by binders full of information and loose sheets of paper.

Combeferre glanced up and gave him a smile, Enjolras nodded in his direction before turning his attention back to the laptop in his lap.

“I stopped at the bakery,” he gestured with the goods in his hands. “But, I completely forgot about the meeting,” he owned up, “So there won’t be enough to go around.”

“I already brought snacks,” Enjolras said without looking up from what he was typing. He probably didn’t mean to sound as blunt as he had done, but it cut Grantaire to core with the same twinge of insignificance that always plagued him whenever he ended up comparing himself to Enjolras. Sure enough a box of donuts was sitting on the coffee table. Grantaire unconsciously gripped his small bag of apple turnovers more tightly in his hand.

“It’s alright – I don’t think we’re expecting anyone else.” Combeferre said, drawing Grantaire’s attention back to him. He was still smiling despite the fact that he looked utterly exhausted, with deep circles under his eyes and his hair swept back from his forehead in messy tufts. He must have literally just got back from his night shift at the hospital. “Courf’s rehearsing and the others are working or busy,” he explained. Whilst Enjolras continued to ignore Grantaire.

“I’ll get some cups then,” Grantaire retreated through the arch to the kitchen, dumping his bags on the table.

Enjolras resumed talking almost as soon as Grantaire had stepped out of the room.  Grantaire tried not to reel from the realisation that he wasn’t wanted, or needed for the meeting. He retrieved three mugs from the cupboard and redistributed the coffee between them, adding sugar to his own and cream to Enjolras’. He wrapped the turnovers tighter in the paper bag and stowed them in the fridge to save them for later.

He placed the coffee cups on the table and swiped a glazed donut, making to retreat to his room. ““I’ll leave you to it,” he said.

“No, stay.” Combeferre told him.

Grantaire hesitated. “You don’t need me interrupting,” he gave a half laugh.

“We value your input,” Combeferre disagreed.

“Really?” Grantaire couldn’t help but glance at Enjolras.

“Sometimes.” Enjolras replied without looking up from what he was typing.

Grantaire continued to hover, eventually it was Combeferre’s encouraging smile that convinced him to stay. Shrugging, he threw himself onto the sofa, resting his arm on the back of the cushion and tucking his leg underneath him.

He tried not to interrupt. It was clear the pair of them had lots to discuss before Combeferre left for his conference, so Grantaire tried to tune them out and let them get on with it. They were planning a series of voter registration rallies from what he could gather; hosting sessions in the clinic waiting room, among other places. Grantaire easily switched off, focusing instead on the way the light bounced off the curls in Enjolras’ hair, and the way Comberre’s toes were fidgeting with the corner of the rug as he listened intently to Enjolras. Grantaire really didn’t give a damn about the upcoming election if he was being honest. The fact that they’d even nominated that orange buffoon meant America was lost, in his opinion. He was about to tell Enjolras he thought as much, just to see the way his outrage would light up his face, but something stopped him. It might have had something to do with the way Combeferre kept glancing across at him, assuring him that he wasn’t being ignored, or the way the soft September sunshine was filtering into the room, or the fact that Grantaire didn’t want to disturb the calm bubble he’d been living in for the past few days. Whatever it was, Grantaire sat back in the sofa content to just watch them talk, to the point where Enjolras actually ending up asking for his opinion.

“Do you have anything to add?”

Grantaire was so stunned that just blinked for a few moments. Was Enjolras seriously asking for his input?

“It’s unusual for you to be this quiet. Unsettling, actually,” Enjolras continued.

“No, it’s,” Grantaire shrugged. “A good plan.” He admitted with a shrug. “’course it’ll never work. Just because you’ve forced people to register doesn’t mean they’ll actually go and vote. If they were planning on voting surely they’d registered already? You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Especially when the water’s stale bureaucracy.”

“True, not all of them will vote. Some might. Some people might not have realised that they needed to register.” Enjolras replied.

“And you really want those people voting?”

“Everyone deserves the right to vote.” Combeferre stepped in calmly.

“Even idiots?”

“Even idiots.” Combeferre said with a smile.

“And what if they all vote for Trump?”

“Hopefully they’ll have more common sense than that.” Enjolras countered.

Grantaire snorted. “Your faith in humanity astounds me. People are stupid. Always have been, always will be. And people don’t vote with common sense.”

“Then what do they vote with?”

“Ego. Pride. Arrogance. Whatever the hell makes them feel good. Truth is, without giving someone a partisan ballot paper and dragging them to the polls with the promise of free booze, you can never guarantee which way someone will vote.”

“You think they had a better system in the early 1800s?” Enjolras raised an eyebrow, looking thoroughly unimpressed.

“Not better. The whole ‘only white men can vote’ thing was pretty bad. But different. Hell, if all I had to do was hand in a coloured piece paper and was given a free shot of whiskey for my effort, I know I’d be a hell of a lot more inclined to vote.”

Enjolras’ eyes flew wide at the implication, and Grantaire settled his face into a deadpan expression. “You don’t vote?!” Enjolras demanded.

Grantaire had to physically fight his grin. Come on, he couldn’t be expected to go a whole evening without winding the man up. Not when it was that easy. Grantaire stood up and stretched. It was getting dark outside, dinner time.

“You staying for tea? I’m cooking meatballs.” He said, making a point of ignoring Enjolras’ shocked and appalled expression. The fact that it was focused entirely on him, following Grantaire as he padded from the room, was too delightful.

“You don’t vote?!” Enjolras repeated, his voice was higher, almost cracking. Grantaire buried his face in the fridge and broke into a wide grin.

=

Grantaire was the last person to arrive at the theatre on Monday night, which was something of an accomplishment seeing as he was the only one who hadn’t been working that day. He slipped into a seat on the end of the row beside Jehan, just as the lights dimmed and atmospheric music began to swell from the speakers.

“Thought you weren’t going to make it,” Jehan whispered giving Grantaire’s arm an affectionate squeeze.

“Nah, wouldn’t miss this for the world,” he whispered back, trying to surreptitiously wriggle out of his jacket without annoying the audience members sitting behind him. Truthfully, he was a little apprehensive about the play. Much Ado About Nothing had never been his favourite of Shakespeare’s works, and Courfeyrac’s theatre troupe had a reputation for, well, interesting adaptations to say the least. Grantaire had been somewhat dreading the production and had made sure he was on the mellow side of tipsy before heading out.

It turned out that he needn’t have worried. They’d opted for a cold-war-era, top-gun style setting, featuring Courfeyrac as a hot shot fighter pilot version of Benedick - replete with sharp ceremonial whites and mirrored aviators. It was obvious from early on that the production was set to take the city by storm. Benedick was a role Courf was born to play, and his cocksure but sensitive portrayal was a tour de force.

After long standing ovation and a great deal of selfies by the stage door, everyone was in high spirits and they descended upon a bar a couple of blocks from the theatre for the after party. Marius settled himself at the piano in the corner and began filling the place with loud and only slightly out of tune showtunes, to which the treater troupe was more than happy to supply loud belting melodies. Before long they’d managed to scare everyone else away from the establishment.

Grantaire settled into a chair, propping his feet against the legs of the table and watching the scene unfold with a smile. After a glass of red wine during the interval and jäger-bombs on arrival, Grantaire was decidedly more than tipsy; his head clouded with the pleasant buzz of mild drunkenness. Courfeyrac threw himself into the seat beside Grantaire, face flushed with adrenaline and Jägermeister, and a grin lighting up his face that threatened to put the sun out of business.

“Well done, mate. The show was class,” Grantaire reached across to clink his glass against Courfeyrac’s.

“Thanks,” somehow he managed to look even happier than he had before.

“First version of the play I actually liked.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Fully serious. I’ve never had much time for that play.”

“You don’t like Much Ado?” Courfeyrac gaped. “I thought it would be right up your street – the title’s a pussy joke for crying out loud!”

“The title is genius; I’ll grant it that.” Grantaire raised his glass in a small salute and took a drink. “And there are some great lines.” He placed his hand over his heart and proceeded to quote with an overly dramatic air: “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes.” Inflecting for innuendo and finishing with a smirk. “But I have my problems with it.”

“Oh and what might they be?” asked Courfeyrac, slurping at his drink.

“Claudio, mainly. I mean the man’s a wet lettuce. And he’s so quick to judge Hero, who, incidentally, is too quick to forgive him. Not to mention the ending doesn’t make a lick of sense. Why would he ever agree to marry her ‘cousin’? How would that fix anything? And – for that matter – how do they explain away Hero’s death? I know it was the 1500s and people regularly dropped like flies, but we’re supposed to accept that Hero dies of humiliation? Was that a Thing back then?”

“Maybe. Just about everything could kill you in those days.” Courfeyrac laughed. “Plus humiliation apparently turned Cedric Diggory into a Death eater, so anything’s possible.”

“Fair point.” Grantaire conceded, shaking his head at the absurdity.  “But I liked your addition of the almost-car-crash, it added a sense of realism – and the bachelorette party was a nice touch; it gave the accusation of infidelity more grounding. You almost had me feeling sorry for poor Claudio at one point.”

“Oh the horror!”

“It was tragic.” Grantaire laughed. “Made me question everything I thought I knew about myself.” He added with a grin. “But seriously, your rapport with Beatrice was spectacular.”

“Well cheers to that.” Courfeyrac raised his glass to click against Grantaire’s again. “You know, I learned from the best.”

“Oh yeah, who’s that?”

“You and Enjolras of course!” Courfeyrac replied easily; clearly more drunk that Grantaire had initially realised him to be.

Grantaire paled and shook his head. “Oh no, we’re not Beatrice and Benedick.”

“Erm, you bicker all the time, criticise each other with witty remarks, and constantly drive each other up the wall. How are you not?”

Grantaire glanced over at Enjolras, standing by the bar talking animatedly to Feuilly and Combeferre.

“Because underneath all of that, Beatrice and Benedick are in love.” He replied softly.

“And you don’t love Enjolras?” Courfeyrac sounded bewildered. Grantaire took a deep breath. Usually everyone did a good job of pretending his feelings for Enjolras didn’t exist, he wasn’t prepared for such a blunt challenge. To be honest, in the turmoil of the past week, Grantaire hadn’t really spared them a second thought. He took a drink to avoid answering, his eyes still glued to Enjolras’ conversation. He knew – or hoped – Courf’s question had been a humorous rhetorical remark, but he found himself seriously considering the question. He’d been in love with Enjolras for so long – ever since Bahorel had introduced them at a New Year’s party more than four years ago - that he’d begun to take his feelings for granted. He wasn’t actually sure if there was any weight behind the emotion anymore, or if he was just playing the part.

“I don’t know anymore.” He replied honestly.

“What does that mean?” Courfeyrac leaned close; Grantaire couldn’t tell if he was concerned or just eager for gossip. Most likely a combination of the two.

Grantaire shrugged. “I think at this point I love him because it’s easy.”

“Easy? Unrequited love is easy?”

“Yeah.”

“There are about a gazillion songs and films and books and sonnets that would beg to differ.”

Grantaire gestured vaguely with his glass, searching for the right word. “Familiar, habitual, you know?”

“Not really.”

Grantaire struggled to vocalise his thoughts. Not entirely sure why he was pushing this point. Once again he was having trouble stopping himself from talking. Loving Enjolras was such a deeply ingrained instinct that it had become part of who he was. Grantaire didn’t doubt that he’d always find him stunning, that he’d always admire Enjolras’ obstinate foolishness for thinking he could make the world a better place, and that some part of him would always crave validation from Enjolras. But he’d long ago stopped hoping Enjolras would love him back. At that point, he wasn’t even sure he wanted Enjolras to reciprocate his feelings anymore.

“It’s like,” he put his glass down and began tracing circles with it on the table top. “I’ve become so used to not expecting anything in return that it’s…safe. There’s no risk of heartbreak if your heart’s already broken.”

Courfeyrac reached out to clap Grantaire on the shoulder. “I know that was probably supposed to be profound.” He said. “But it just sounded miserable.”

“I don’t know,” Grantaire dipped his head. He’d never found the notion of relationships very appealing. He could hardly live with himself sometimes; he couldn’t expect anyone else to put up with him for that long in close proximity. It had been a blessing really that Combeferre had been out at work for most of the weekend, otherwise he’d surely be sick of Grantaire already.  “I’m better at loving from a distance: I only mess things up. And if I’m in love with Enjolras then at least I have an excuse for not trying.”

He’d been on a couple of dates in the last four years, and hooked up with more people at bars than he was proud of, but it had always ended in disaster. Grantaire clung to the rationale that no relationship seemed to stick because he was really holding out for Enjolras, rather than letting himself risk a closer examination of his flaws and trust issues.  “It’s just easier.” He took another drink, avoiding making eye contact with Courfeyrac. He hadn’t meant to be so candid with his admission and he didn’t think he could bear the look of pity that would inevitably be etched across Courfeyrac’s face.

Instead, he glanced back towards the bar. Feuilly was regaling Enjolras and Combeferre with an amusing anecdote. As he reached the punchline Combeferre’s face broke into a wide smile, eyes gleaming behind his glasses. It was an infectious smile and Grantaire felt his mouth curl reflexively.

“Well I love you, R, for all your eccentricities and strange notions of love. ‘Unrequited love is easy’; god you can be weird sometimes, you know?” Courfeyrac told him affectionately; lightening the mood in the effortless way only he could muster.

“Thanks, Courf. I love you too.”

“Of course you do. Everyone loves me. And you know what else everyone loves? Tequila. We need shots.”

“Tequila shots are definitely something I can get behind.” Grantaire drained his glass and stood up, already a little unsteady on his feet with a warm glow well and truly settled around his brain.

Courfeyrac skipped to the bar and threw his arms around Enjolras and Feuilly’s shoulders. “Alright, lads? We’re doing tequila shots!” he announced, leaning across the bar top to catch the bartender’s attention, and dragging the pair of them leaning forwards with him.

Grantaire propped himself next to Combeferre and shared a smile.

“More weekday drinking,” Combeferre raised his glass at Grantaire. “We’re terrible, aren’t we?”

“With friends like these, you can’t hardly blame us,” Grantaire laughed.

“I will draw the line at tequila though, I’m afraid.” Combeferre told Courfeyrac, manging to stop him from ordering an entire bottle.

“But we’re celebrating!”

“I know, but I’m on shift tomorrow. I’ve already had too much. In fact, I should probably turn in.”

“No, don’t go,” Courfeyrac whined, untangling himself from Feuilly and Enjolras he wrapped himself around Combeferre instead. “I’ve hardly seen you. And you’re going to Paris soon!”

“I know, I’m sorry,” he ran his hand up and down Courfeyrac’s back. They hugged for a few moments more, before pulling apart.  “The play was outstanding.” Combeferre told him. “I’ll have to come and see it again when I get back.”

“Yeah, definitely. Will we see you before you go?”

“Well I hope so,” Combeferre laughed. “You promised to drive me to the airport.”

“Oh yeah,” Courfeyrac chuckled. Somehow – between them – Marius and Courfeyrac had managed to buy a car, though it was perhaps more aptly described as four wheels and a collection of scrap metal held together with magic and a prayer.

“Good luck with that,” Feuilly shook his head.

“I’m beginning to think I’d be better off with a cab,” Combeferre smiled and shook his head. He knocked back the last of his drink and stepped away from the bar. “Will you be okay to make your own way back, R? Sorry I’ve not seen much of you think weekend, I feel like a terrible host.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Grantaire laughed, leaning forwards to give Combeferre a fleeting goodbye hug. “I’m still really grateful you’re letting me crash at your place. I’ll see you tomorrow at some point?”

“Possibly. I’m working through ‘til midnight tomorrow, though.”

“Me too. Late dinner before you leave for Paris?”

“Sounds good.” Combeferre wrapped his scarf around his neck and gave everyone a wave as he left – pausing to speak to Joly and Bossuet by the door on his way out.

“You’re crashing at Ferre’s?” Courf asked with some unreadable gleam in his eye. “Since when?”

“Just recently.” Grantaire screwed his eyes closed and shook his head, still not ready to talk about it. “I’m having a few problems with my apartment. I’m crashing at Ferre’s until I figure them out.”

Enjolras nodded like Grantaire’s presence at the meeting suddenly made sense. Grantaire hadn't even thought to explain the day before. “You know under the city administrative codes –” Enjolras began before Grantaire cut him off.

“It’s fine, Enjolras, I’ll figure it out.” He met Enjolras’ eyes, briefly, before looking away. He stared at the bar top, feeling Courfeyrac’s eyes burn the back of his neck. “Where are these tequila shots we were promised?”

“Right! Tequila.” Courfeyrac began to wave at the bartender.

Grantaire tried to shove all thoughts of unrequited love and his apartment woes, or more specifically those of the apartment above, from his mind. The bar was full, the night was young, and Marius had just started to play tunes from Rent; it had all the markings to be a very good Monday evening. Grantaire wasn’t going to let mind ruin the evening for him.

When Courfeyrac started to sing “Five hundred twenty five thousand shots of tequila,” Grantaire couldn’t help but smile.

Chapter Text

The Sergeant of Waterloo was a British style pub, set on a street corner in a building that had most certainly seen better days. The whitewashed walls were cracked and peeling, and in patches had been stained black by the soot and pollution from the road. An old-fashioned sign swung from the second story, depicting an 19th Century soldier carrying what Grantaire presumed – judging from the plumed hat, epaulets and stars on the man’s shoulders – to be a general; either that or a very decorated sack of potatoes. Grantaire passed under the sign and pushed through the heavy door into the dark and dingy room beyond. A large wooden bar blocked off the far corner of the room, leaving an L-shape full of mismatched wooden chairs and tables scattered on an uneven floor. A Pool table and a darts board were tucked up against one wall, the other filled with high backed pews grouped together to form booths.

“Afternoon, R,” Eponine greeted him as he slouched through the door. “You’re looking more chipper than I expected. I was half thinking I’d get a call saying you couldn’t make it.”

Grantaire feigned offence, with a hand clutched to his chest. “Ponine, you wound me! It takes more than a few tequila shots to keep me hungover.”

“Yeah and you definitely had more than a few.”

“God, I know.”

“How’s the ankle?”

Grantaire didn’t bother to hide his confusion as he walked towards the bar.  He had woken up to find a twinge in his ankle that morning, how the hell did she know about that? He wasn’t limping that noticeably, was he?

“You don’t remember standing on a chair to belt out Bitch of Living with Courf, then? Or falling off and giving Joly a small heartattack when he thought you’d died?”

Grantaire scratched at the back of his head, as he tried to recall the previous evening. He suspected much of it had been lost to a hazy blur. “Can’t say that I do.”

“I don’t suppose you remember signing Totally Fucked and scaring off the last patrons in the bar either?”

Grantaire shook his head, looking bemused. “Sounds like it was a good night.”

“It was something, alright.” She threw an apron at him. “Just don’t flake out on me. Today’s going to be busy.”

Grantaire swept his eyes around the room, apart from the regulars who never seemed to leave the back booth, the place was empty.

“Yeah, looks real busy.” He scoffed.

“It’s Tuesday.”

He shrugged.

“Don’t tell me it’s been so long that you’ve forgotten the schedule. Tuesday: it’s delivery day.”

He had forgotten. Grantaire groaned inwardly. He hated working Tuesdays; cataloguing boxes of stock, unloading endless crates of beer and countless bags of peanuts. It was mind-numbing and exhausting and not at all what he’d been expecting to do that day. He’d been looking forward to brushing up on his pool skills, or reading his phone behind the empty bar. He’d downloaded a new book and everything.

“Is it too late to call in sick?”

“Yes.” Eponine replied shortly. “Now get yourself in uniform and get your ass in gear.”

“Yes ma’am.” Grantaire replied drolly.

=

As he lugged yet another box that felt far too heavy, and contained something that sounded decidedly unlike beer bottles clinking together, to the basement store room, Grantaire struggled to reign in his concerns. He’d long suspected that the bar was little more than a front for black market dealings orchestrated by the group permanently camped out in the back booth. The fact that new orders came in every single Tuesday without fail, despite the fact that their stock barely dwindled during the week, didn’t help to assuage his fears.

He tried to ignore his thoughts, stacking a particularly heavy box into the corner of the room and standing up to crack his back. Plausible deniability and all that. If the box said it contained 25lbs of peanuts, then that’s what it contained. The fact that he’d nearly pulled every muscle trying to shift it didn’t mean a thing; he was just hungover, with a bad ankle, that was all. He didn’t even want to start thinking about what the box might contain instead.

“Fuck’s sake, I hate Tuesdays.” Azelma groaned, sliding another box into the corner and giving it a kick for good measure. “Can’t wait to be rid of this fucking place.” She flopped to sit on top of the box, reading through a checklist and marking off the boxes they’d stacked already. Her bright red hair fell in her eyes as she skimmed the pages, forcing her to sweep it back off her face, leaving it heaped on one side of her head without taking her eyes off what she was reading.

Grantaire wasn’t sure how old Azelma was. She’d been working there for longer than he had, and still didn’t look much older than fifteen. But she was related to the owners or something, and Grantaire generally didn’t question her presence. They usually got on quite well, he could count on it being a decent shift if either she or Bossuet was working, but clearly something was putting her on edge today. Grantaire didn’t think it was wise to ask what.

“Is he fucking serious?” she muttered under her breath, flipping a page forcefully as she rushed to continue reading the items listed on the other side. Throwing the clipboard down on the box beside her, she stood up and stormed from the room.

Grantaire made a point of ignoring the clipboard, sticking to moving boxes around the other side of the store room instead, and carting the few kegs of tap beer upstairs that he knew they were actually running low on.

Azelma and Eponine were both engaged in a furious discussion with the group in the back booth when Grantaire returned to his station behind the bar. He found a cloth and began wiping it down as means of distracting himself from accidentally overhearing anything incriminating.

Thankfully, he was interrupted with a phone call and rushed to let himself out of the side door in the alley behind the pub, to take it in relative peace and quiet.

“Hello?”

“Grantaire, hi, it’s Cosette.”

“Cosette? Is everything okay?” panic twinged in his gut. “How’s Bella?”

Cosette hesitated and Gantaire’s panic churned into overdrive. “I looked into Elmtree.”

Unfortunately, a truck blared by the end of the alley, Grantaire twisted away and covered his other ear to better hear the phone. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that,”

“After you raised your concerns about Elmtree, I looked in it, and,” she took a deep breath. “You were right.”

Static blared in Grantaire’s mind. He staggered back to fall against the wall as memories of Elmtree flicked through his thoughts like an exceptionally distressing flipbook.

“There’s nothing officially recorded, but I spoke to my contacts and reached out to a few kids whom I knew were transferred from there recently. I’m sorry Grantaire, I should have listened to you but there was nothing I could do.”

“Well we need to get Bella out of there, now.”

“I can’t,” Cosette said, her voice breaking.

“Why not?”

“I need a reason to transfer her, and on paper there isn’t one.”

“Well find one!”

“No one I spoke to would agree to officially file a complaint. With no formal grievances, I don’t have a case against them.”

“Well,” Grantaire said decisively. “I’ll file one.” He’d successfully avoided thinking about Elmtree for the past decade or so. The last thing he wanted to do was dredge those memories, but if it would help Bella, then…

“When were you last there?”

Grantaire had to wrack his brains to think of the date. “’97?”

“Nearly twenty years ago?”

“Yeah, Christ I’m getting old.”

“An officially recorded statement from you would be really helpful to set a precedent, and it might encourage other people to come forwards, but I’m sorry; that won’t be enough to warrant Bella’s transfer. Elmtree will argue that they’ve improved since then and there’s nothing to prove otherwise.”

“Can’t you speak up? They’d believe you.”

“All I have is hearsay. It wouldn’t carry much weight. Unless someone offers to foster or adopt her, my hands are tied.”

“Fuck.”

“Yep.”

Grantaire screwed his eyes closed and dragged a hand through his hair. He knew he shouldn’t have let Bella be carted off to Elmtree, he should have stood his ground, been more persuasive. The amount of time he spent arguing with Enjolras over nothing, and for the one thing that really mattered he was as passive as fuck.

“Surely there must be somewhere else she can go? There are plenty of other care homes in the city,” he should know, he’d lived in enough of them.

“I can’t apply for a transfer without probable cause. I’m sorry, Grantaire.”

“Then why tell me?” he snapped.

“I thought you’d want to know,” Cosette replied, staunchly standing her ground. She was right. “Look, I’ll be in the office all day tomorrow if you want to come in and talk. It would still be useful if you could file an official complaint. It would help to get the ball rolling.”

“Right.” Grantaire replied distantly.

“I’ll text you the address. Around 2pm would work best for me, if that’s convenient?”

“That’s fine. Thanks, Cosette.” He hung up abruptly and fisted his hand around his phone, pressing it against his forehead as he tried to control his breathing. “Fuck!” he swore loudly. Letting his hand drop he tipped his head back and stared at the sky. A stripe of clear blue was visible above the alley way, he stared at it for longer than was probably acceptable, trying to summon the will power to move.

“R? You out here?” Eponine stuck her head round the door.

He pushed off the wall and staggered forwards. “Yeah, sorry. I had to take a call.”

“Everything okay?”

“Fine.” He shoved his phone back in his pocket and braved a smile.

“You sure?”

He nodded and ambled up the steps to the door, but Eponine blocked his path with her arms folded and her hip cocked.

“Look we’re pretty empty this afternoon, Ze can finish off cataloguing the delivery. If you need to take off, then go.”

He didn’t know if it would do any good. In fact, he knew it wouldn’t. But every instinct was telling him to grab the next train up to Beacon and check if Bella was okay. His mind was reeling. He needed to reassure himself that he hadn’t abandoned her to a hellhole. It couldn’t possibly by as bad as he remembered; how the hell would it have stayed operational for another twenty years if it continued to be as poorly managed and neglectful? The cynic in him knew it had. The bad always had a way of enduring, in a way nothing positive ever could.

“Go.” Eponine urged.

Grantaire nodded. He would have felt guilty as hell, had his concern not been entirely centred on Bella in that moment.

“Thanks, Ponine.”

“Don’t thank me. You owe me.”

“I know.” He replied, already half way down the steps.

“Big time.”

“Huge!” he threw over his shoulder.

Taking a deep breath and trying not to think about where he was going, Grantaire set off towards the station.

Chapter Text

Elmtree looked exactly like it did the day Grantaire had left – not triumphantly escorted by a new adoptive family, but chaperoned by an angry social worker who made no effort to conceal her discontent with Grantaire’s expulsion from the local elementary school. The only school that would take him was fifty miles away, didn’t he know how hard he was making things for her? Having to rehome him like this? Didn’t he think she had enough on her plate already? Grantaire had listened silently, hands stuffed in his pockets as he walked defiantly away from the place. He hadn’t dared to acknowledge the little bubble of hope which had swelled in his gut; yes, he was finally leaving, but who was to say the next place would be any better?

He’d promised himself he’d never come back, but here he was; standing in the reception with the same tacky eighties posters pasted onto the walls. They spouted information about ‘adoption!’ and ‘finding your foster family!’ in garish yellow and purple lettering with random patterns of triangles, dots and squiggles. They’d been outdated when Grantaire had been little. They looked practically pre-historic now. Clearly Elmtree hadn’t wasted any of their budget redecorating in the twenty odd years it had since Grantaire last stepped foot in the place.

He hobbled around the reception area whilst the receptionist retrieved a new visitor form from the back room. His ankle was throbbing from overuse. Perhaps pacing endlessly up and down the train carriage on the trip up hadn’t been the brightest idea, but the nervous energy which buzzed through him prevented him from staying still too long. The pain wasn’t entirely unwelcome though, each step – and the sharp jolt that came with it – was helping to ground him. Without it he might have spiralled into the memories which were pressing against the edges of his mind.

“Fill this out,” the receptionist flung a clipboard carelessly onto the desk. The pen attached by a ratty string clattered over the edge. Grantaire hobbled back and dutifully filled out the various questions. They were a repeat of the form he’d filled out online over the weekend, the one Cosette had emailed to him. The one he’d filled out on the on the off-chance that he might want to come up here. He never actually expected to find himself acting on it.

He scribbled his signature at the bottom of the page and handed it back, whereupon the receptionist began to copy the information into a computer which also looked like it hadn’t been updated since the 1980s.

His mind began to wander again, and he found his attention drawn to the ‘Our Children’ noticeboard which took up most of the back wall. Ten smiling faces beamed from the photographs pasted beside handwritten biographies. Grantaire supposed it was meant to look endearing, but the sight of it made him sick to the stomach.

You see, the thing about Elmtree was almost impossible to explain. On paper, everything looked fine and whenever he’d tried to vocalise his discontent to social workers or counsellors, they’d listen with a politely puzzled expression, unable to fathom what Grantaire thought was so bad. The children had been fed three times a day, okay the meals might have tasted like lukewarm cardboard and had clearly been reheated from industrial, prison grade frozen meal packs, but they were only mouldy sometimes and Grantaire knew it was better than nothing. There was never any physical abuse from the carers, no one was molested, and no one had ever died. The punishments weren’t inhumanely cruel like some of the horror stories that were passed the dorms as whispers in the night. But Grantaire knew that stemmed from a deep lethargy rather than any sort of kindness. The truth was the people who ran Elmtree just didn’t care about the children they were responsible for, and had no apparent investment in wanting them to be adopted.

They ran an ‘open house’ every third Saturday of the month but it wasn’t an organised affair. Prospective families were invited in to mill around and interact with the children, the only formal information available to them was from the display board in reception. The kids at Elmtree quickly realised that the only way you were ever going to be noticed was if you got yourself on that board. Things became very competitive, very quickly. The lengths they’d go to sabotage each other’s efforts became downright cruel. Pranks, bullying, and betrayal were all rampant during Grantaire’s tenure at Elmtree. And far from trying to prevent the competitive bullying, the administration seemed to encourage it.

Grantaire had managed to put himself on the board exactly once. It had been during in his first year at Elmtree, back when he was still fresh faced and optimistic. When the administration came to inform him that a family were interested in meeting him at the next ‘open house’, he was overjoyed. He woke early that Saturday, ready to meet potential foster families with a bright smile. He’d taken extra care to make sure that his shirt was neatly buttoned and his shoelaces properly tied. His hair was still a mess, but he never knew what to do with it. His mom had always managed to sweep it off his forehead so that it fell ‘just right’, but Grantaire only ever seemed to make it look worse.

Even the memory of the hope that burned bright and strong made Grantaire feel sick. He turned away from the reception, staring out at the overcast sky, focusing on the brightness of the clouds, trying to control his breathing, trying so hard not to remember what had happened next.

They’d ambushed him on the way to breakfast. Three older boys from his dorm. Jeering and jealous, they’d hauled him by the scruff of his shirt and locked him in the wardrobe. Grantaire closed his eyes and exhaled slowly, trying not to lose himself. The last thing he needed as a panic attack.

They’d sat outside the wardrobe, laughing and mocking him as Grantaire pounded his fists on the door and screamed his little lungs out. The family were long gone by the time someone found Grantaire and let him out. So was the bright-eyed young boy that had been locked in there. No one questioned why he’d been trapped there, no punishments were doled out. No prospective family ever showed any interest in him ever again.

“You’re not registered.”

The receptionist’s voice broke through Grantaire’s thoughts. He crashed back to reality, blinking and squinting against the brightness of the room.

“Sorry?” he turned back to her, hoping he didn’t look deranged.

“Registered. You’re not on the system. You need to fill out a form online.”

“I did,” he puzzled. “I filled it out yesterday.”

“Well it won’t have been processed yet. Come back into three to five days.”

“Three to five…days..? But, but I’m here, now.” He knew for a fact that he’d never work up the courage to come back here again. If he wanted to see Bella it was now or never. Rationally, he knew the form would have to be vetted properly, that they couldn’t just let anyone in off the streets. But he wasn’t thinking rationally. “Can’t you fast track it or something?”

“Not me.”

“But someone else could?” Grantaire read between her words.

The receptionist shrugged. “Sometimes the CPS fast track applications for emergency visits. But unless you know anyone at the CPS who owes you a favour –”

“Cosette Fauchlevant.” Grantaire slammed her business card down on the desk like a winning hand in poker. She didn’t owe him a favour, but if Grantaire was fairly sure she’d help him with this.

“You sure?” the receptions asked, glancing at the card sceptically.

“Hundred percent.”

“Alright.”

He watched with baited breath as the receptionist dialled the number. He couldn’t hear the other half of the conversation, but whatever Cosette said did the trick and Grantaire found himself being shown towards a corridor with a visitor’s pass on a lanyard around his neck.

“Visiting hours end in twenty minutes. She’ll be in the nursery, second floor, third door on the right.”

“Thank you.” Grantaire replied a little dazed.

The receptionist unlocked the door and held it open for him to step through. The moment the door opened the cacophony of noise hit him like a brick wall; shouting, shrieking, loud and slightly unhinged laughter. The door was pulled swiftly closed behind him, and locked; a fact that Grantaire tried not to dwell on. He was a grown man for Christ’s sake, he was free to leave whenever he liked. Gone were the days when getting himself expelled had been the only way to make people stop and pay attention to him.

A group of children ran from a room on his left, chasing each other down the corridor and disappearing into a room on the right. Grantaire stopped to let them past, taking stock and collecting his thoughts. Second floor, third door on the right. He hurried down the corridor, trying to supress the bitter memories that rose like bile as he passed through the corridors that had haunted his dreams for years. Blood began to pound in his ears. Grantaire picked up his pace, swinging himself round the bannister and sprinting up the flight of stairs. His ankle protested, but Grantaire ignored the pain that was now shooting through his joint like icy daggers. He reached the third door, took and breath, and pushed through it.

The first thing he noticed was the noise, quickly followed by the smell. Six cribs were lined up in two rows in the centre of the room, every single one of them housed a screaming infant. A couple of older toddlers were stood, supporting themselves with the bars, heads tipped back to bawl at the ceiling. The younger babies were squalling, limbs trashing, faces screwed up in discontentment. Grantaire spotted Bella instantly, she was sitting with her little hands clenched around the bars of the crib, whimpering softly. It was clear from the smell that every single infant the room needed its diaper changing.

“Hello?” he shouted, but there didn’t seem to be any staff members in the vicinity.  Grantaire marched to Bella’s crib. She immediately lifted her hands in the air, a clear indication that she wanted to be picked up. Grantaire complied, plucking her from the crib and clutching her to his chest. Her diaper felt full and squishy in his hand and Bella’s worried little face told him that she was miles from comfortable.

Grantaire didn’t remember there being a nursery during his time there. He wondered why they’d bothered expanding. Did they get a bigger budget for taking in infants too? That was the only reason Grantaire could fathom; clearly, they didn’t care enough to bother regularly changing their diapers.

“You okay, Bella?” he asked, brushing her hair from her face. She looked up at him with big eyes, her mouth wobbled and she began to cry. “Ssh, ssh, it’s okay.” He bounced her on his hip, opening the door one handed and scanning the corridor. Where the hell were the carers? “Hello?” he shouted. “Hello?!”

Well, fuck that. He ducked back into the nursery, bouncing Bella on his hip as he scanned for the room, spotting a changing table in the back corner. He’d never actually tried to change a diaper before, but he’d seen enough movies to understand the basics. What he’d failed to appreciate was that as bad as it smelled through the diaper, it was nothing compared to the stench when he took the diaper off.

“Holy fucking shit, Bella.” Grantaire balked, fighting the urge to drop Bella’s legs so that he could cover his nose with his hands. He also hadn’t realised just how much poo there could be, or that it would have the consistency of peanut butter and be smeared literally fucking everywhere. “What the fuck are they feeding you?” He turned his face away to take a breath of untainted air, trying his best to get through the process without having to take another breath. She gurgled something incomprehensible and waved her hands above her head. “Oh this is funny, is it?” Grantaire asked, twisting his face into his shoulder to protect his nose as he wiped away the last smears and rolled the diaper in on itself, dropping it into the bin beside the changing table. “Just don’t go and wee on me or anything,” he pleaded with her, struggling to open out a fresh diaper one handed. This shit was harder than it looked. He’d almost managed to secure it on Bella back-to-front before he realised his mistake.

Finally, finally, he managed to pop the buttons closed on her onesie and lift her back into his arms. “Well,” he booped her nose with the pad of his finger. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” he laughed, feeling exhausted. Bella seemed much more content now, her little hands balled fists in the fabric of his shirt and she nestled her head into his shoulder. “It’s alright, I’ve got you.” He walked her around the room, the pain in his ankle so easy to ignore now that his attention was focused on Bella.

The room was drab and dreary, there were none of the bright colours on the walls which he thought were supposed to stimulate children’s cognitive abilities, there were barely even any toys. Just five other infants, who all needed their diapers changing, who were all working each other into a crying mess. He walked over to Bella’s crib, but her bumblebee was nowhere in sight.

Grantaire didn’t think he had a particularly parental streak, but at that moment, in that room he wanted to take every damn baby home and parent them himself if it meant getting them out of the room.

“What are you doing here?” A carer demanded, opening the door and spotting Grantaire holding Bella.

“Visiting,” he held out his lanyard for the carer to see.

“Visiting hours are almost over,”

“No, I’ve still got nine minutes.” Grantaire returned.

“Well you can’t be in here on your own,”

“No? Well then why isn’t there someone in here with these babies? Why isn’t anyone checking on them? Why hasn’t any changed their diapers? Why isn’t anyone caring for them?” he demanded. Bella recoiled from his raised voice. “Sorry, B, I’m sorry,” he cooed, raising a hand to cradle the back of her head. He rocked her from side to side and glared at the carer.

“Visiting hours are over.” The carer said. “You need to leave.”

“Not yet, I just got here.” He was loath to hand Bella back. Leaving her in this dreary hell-hole seemed criminal.

“Do I need to call security?” the carer demanded.

Grantaire almost told her to ‘go right ahead’, but a restraint he didn’t know he possessed held him back. “No,” he conceded. Arguing would do no good. The last thing he needed was to be banned from visiting. Very reluctantly he placed Bella back in her crib. “I’ll come back,” he told her. “I promise.”

“Sir?” the carer prompted impatiently.

“I promise,” Grantaire repeated firmly.

Bella began to cry as soon as Grantaire walked away. Even above the din of the other infants wailing, her could hear her voice and it damn near broke his heart.

Chapter Text

The glass was cold against Grantaire’s forehead. He stared out of the window as the train slipped down from Beacon towards the city, watching the sun sunk into the Hudson and the city lights blur. It took him a while to realise he was crying.

The train pulled into central station and Grantaire followed the crowds of people up from the platform, feeling disassociated from the chaos around him. A gaggle of tourists stopped next to him to take photos of the clock. Grantaire stared at them, annoyed by their bright smiles and the happy laughter in their conversation. They asked him to take a photo of the whole group. Grantaire stared at the man who was holding out his camera, eagerly. Without even bothering to shake his head, let alone politely decline, Grantaire trooped off, ignoring the mutterings of ‘rude’ which followed in his wake.

It was still early when he pushed through the doors of the Metlife building, not quite yet 9pm. He knew he should really go back to the Waterloo and finish off his shift, but right then he could think of nothing worse. He let his feet walk him to the nearest bar, where he slumped into a back booth and ordered himself a bottle of red wine.

Bella was trapped in that neglectful fucking hellhole and there was nothing he could do about it.

He drank the bottle quicker than expected and ordered another.

=

He was half way through the second bottle, sitting with his head tipped back against the cushioned wall of the booth whilst his thoughts swirled in a tipsy mess, when his phone buzzed in his pocket. Grantaire drained his glass and fished it out, surprised to see that it was nearing midnight.

20 Sep 2017 23.52
Ferre: Do you pass a CVS on your way home from work?

Grantaire blinked at his phone, tapping back quickly; why?

Ferre: Can’t find my travel adapters. Would you mind picking up a couple on your way back?

Grantaire: sure

He didn’t bother to mention that he wasn’t actually at work, or if the fact that he didn’t know if there were any CVS’s on his way home. There was bound to be. Finishing off the bottle, Grantaire staggered to his feet and navigated his towards the door.

=

Grantaire rested his forehead against Combeferre’s door, collecting his thoughts before he could bring himself to enter. His hands were shaking slightly as he lifted the key to the lock. He took a deep shaky breath and steeled himself; Ferre was leaving for Paris. He had far more important things to be worrying about than having to deal with another panic attacked from Grantaire.

“Hey,” he said, aiming for a light a breezy tone and hitting something cracked and weary.

Thankfully Combeferre was busy packing in his bedroom, almost out of earshot, and definitely too distracted to notice.

“Travel plugs,” Grantaire said, stopping in the doorway to Combeferre’s room and holding up the shopping bag.

The room was a mess of organised chaos. Piles of clothes were folded everywhere - apart from inside the suitcase. Toiletries had been grouped together neatly and laid out by the pillow. A collection of electronic equipment was stacked on a chair in the corner and pairs of shoes filled the floor space. It could have passed for a piece of modern art – Packing: Deconstructed. And in the centre of all of it, stood Combeferre looking visibly tired with dishevelled hair and an expression of utter helplessness. The sight sobered Grantaire up in an instant.

“Anything I can do to help?” Grantaire asked, lowering the shopping bag and taking half a hesitant step into the room.

“I feel like I’ve forgotten something.” Combeferre said, turning to face Grantaire, where it became apparent that he was holding a toothbrush in one hand and a pair of socks in the other.

“Well it helps to actually put the clothes into the suitcase,” Grantaire managed a small smile.

“Right.”

“I got some travel plugs,” he said again, crossing the room to add them to the pile of electronics.

“Thank you.”

“When’s your flight?”

“8am.”

“Okay then.” Grantaire surveyed the mess. They had time to get things sorted. “I’ll put some coffee on.” He suggested, moving with a purpose again. There was nothing – for the moment – that he could do for Bella. But he could help Combeferre pack, and he could make sure that he ate; as distractions went, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

=

As the night wore on, and the alcohol wore off, Grantaire began to realise just how badly his ankle was throbbing. He managed to hobble around the kitchen, whipping up some cannelloni from the ingredients shoved to the back of Combeferre cupboards and had just finished laying the table when Combeferre wheeled his packed suitcase into the hall.

“All ready to go?” Grantaire asked, his voice still not sounding quite as light and cheery as he would have liked.

“I think so.” Combeferre replied, his attention still focused on the suitcase; as if he stared at the suitcase long enough a list of forgotten items might display themselves on the side. Eventually he shrugged, and stepped through into dining table. “I can always buy it over there – whatever it is I've forgotton - I have my laptop and the research, that’s the most important thing.”

He stopped behind his seat at the table and stared at the tray of food which was still steaming from the oven.

“This looks amazing,” he said at last, bringing his eyes up to meet Grantaire’s.

“It’s just food. And the sauce is improvised, because you only have half the ingredients I’d normally use.” He shrugged off the compliment, sitting down and digging in to help himself to a large portion. He realised that he’d barely eaten anything since breakfast, he was starving.

It was nearly 2am, far too late to be eating such a hearty meal, but Grantaire suspected that Combeferre was as used to eating meals at odd times of the day as he was. Although Combeferre had the excuse of working shifts, rather than just a fucked-up sleep schedule an unhealthy dose of depression that Grantaire had to blame. They were both clearly tired though, and for the most part they ate in silence.

“That,” said Combeferre, placing his cutlery neatly across his plate. “Was absolutely delicious. Thank you, R.”

“You’re welcome. Now go get some sleep. What time’s Courf picking you up?”

“Half five? Which is a little over... three hours away,” he checked his watch and balked. “Christ, how did it get so late?”

“Go and sleep. I’ll get the dishes.”

“Are you sure?”

“Definitely, go on, or you’ll oversleep and miss your flight.” Grantaire stood up to collect the plates, wincing as the movement sent pain through his ankle. He needed something more to drink. Asap.

“Are you alright?” Combeferre leaped out of his seat to hover awkwardly around Grantaire as he limped towards the counter.

“Fine,” he waved away Combeferre’s concern, or tried to anyway, but Combeferre was having none of it.

“What have you done?”

“I tweaked my ankle, that’s all. Dancing on the table tops with Courf last night. Or rather, falling off the table tops I’d been dancing on with Courf.” He corrected himself with a smile.

“lLet me see.”

“It’s fine, Ferre. Go and get some sleep.”

“You really think I’ll be able to sleep, until I check that it’s okay?” he countered, staring at Grantaire with an expression that said he wasn’t joking. Grantaire tried to hold Combeferre’s stare, but it was too knowing, too piercing, too…caring. He relented.

“Fine.”

“Sit,” Combeferre instructed, pulling up another chair and – almost before Grantaire had full sat down – pulling the affected ankle into his lap. He carefully pushed Grantaire’s jeans up his calf and rolled down his sock.

Grantaire’s ankle had swollen to the size of a tennis ball and was a lovely shade of plum purple tinged with mouldy mint green.

“Yeah, this looks completely fine.” Combeferre snarked with a deadpan expression. He began to prod and poke around the bones with tender, yet firm fingers. “It’s not broken, but it’s a bad sprain.” He diagnosed. “And that’s sometimes worse.”

“Great.” Grantaire made to lift his knee and move his foot away, but Combeferre held his foot in place.

“You need to keep it elevated, rest it and put ice on it for the first few days. If it still hurts after the swelling's gone, you can try swapping to heat. You’ll need some ibuprofen to help with the swelling, and that should help the pain too.” He rattled off the treatment with a calm and confident air, every inch an experienced doctor. “Have you been walking on this all day?”

“Well it’s not like I have any other feet.” Grantaire quirked an eyebrow.

“Eponine should have sent you home.”

Grantaire frowned, defensive. This wasn’t Ponine’s fault. “Techncially she did. Though not for that.”

Combeferre’s expression turned inquisitive.

“I got a call about Bella.”

“Who?”

“My neighbour, you know…she had a daughter. I was babysitting at the time.” Grantaire forced himself to say, swallowing a lump that had appeared in his throat.

“Oh, gosh.”

“Yeah. They took her into protective custody. And now they’ve placed her in a hell-hole of a care home.” He was staring at his hands, unable to meet Combeferre’s eyes as he spoke. “I endured a few years there,” he looked up and stared at the pictures on the fridge, trying to focus on something to stop himself from spiralling. “Worst few years of my life, and now she’s there. I went up to visit her and – fuck – Ferre, it’s got even worse since I left.” He finally managed to bring himself to look at Ferre, and saw that his expression was one of undiluted sympathy. “And I don’t know what the fuck  I can do for her. So yeah, my foot’s probably fucked because I trekked it up to Beacon and back today, but I had to see her.”

“Of course.” Combeferre agreed easily. “And there must be something we can do.”

“I dunno, I spoke to CPS they seemed pretty ill-disposed to do anything. I’m going in to speak to them tomorrow, make a formal complaint about my time there, but I doubt it will do anything.”

“There’s no one else she can stay with? Family members, god parents?”

“I presume they tried that.” Grantaire said, though he couldn’t be sure.

“I’d speak to Marius, he’s pretty up-to-speed with guardianship law, I know he’s been helping Eponine sort a few things with Gavroche recently.”

Of course, he had. Grantaire had completely forgotten. “Yeah, I will. Thanks.”

“If Enjolras has taught me anything over the years, if that there’s always something which can be done. Figure out what it is, and don’t stop until you achieve it.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Most things usually are.” Combeferre smiled. “Sorry I’m leaving, I’d try to help otherwise.”

“You’ll be back soon enough.” Grantaire smiled. His foot was still cradled in Combeferre’s lap, but somehow it wasn’t weird.

“Yeah.” Combeferre's smile widened into a yawn, which Grantaire found himself mimicking. “I should sleep.”

“Me too. I’ll do the dishes the morning.”

“Good plan.”

Slowly Grantaire retrieved his foot and stood up. Together they piled the dishes in the sink and ambled towards their bedrooms, switching out the apartment lights as they went.

“Keep it rested.” Combeferre made him promise, lingering in the doorway of his room.

“I will. If I don’t see you in the morning, enjoy Paris.”

“I will. Keep me posted about Bella?”

“Sure thing.” Grantaire limped towards his room. “Night, Ferre. Fly safe.” He waited until Combeferre had closed his door, before he stepped into the guest room. He closed the door behind him and crawled into bed with something warm and pleasnt burning in his chest.

Chapter Text

Combeferre was long gone by the time Grantaire woke the next morning. But as he staggered towards the kitchen to make some coffee, he found an ankle bandage and a handwritten note sitting neatly in the middle of the dining table.

R,

Keep your foot rested, if - as I suspect you will - you insist on walking then make sure you strap it up and wear some sturdy shoes. There’s an ice pack in the freezer to help with the swelling.

Thanks for looking after the apartment for me.

I’ll call when I land I Paris.

Ferre

Grantaire smiled as he read the note. He tacked it to the fridge with a spare magnet and hobbled towards the coffee maker. His ankle was throbbing; the ankle bandage was going to be a godsend.

=

At 2pm, as promised, Grantaire found himself in the CPS offices in Midtown; squashed in the middle floors of a skyscraper that had seen better days. Grantaire waited anxiously in the reception area. It had been all very well promising to give a statement over the phone, but now that he was here, it was a whole different kettle of fish – which, come to think of it, was a strange saying and Grantaire didn’t have a clue what it actually meant. Trying to distract himself, he began googling the origin of the phrase; and lost himself in a soothing tangle of Wikipedia articles before Cosette came to find him.

“You went to visit Bella yesterday,” she said with a wry smile once they were seated at her desk. Office space was in short supply, so she was stationed in a cubicle in the middle of the busy floor. As he glanced around, Grantaire saw she’d taken great care to brighten up her desk with a potted plant, a calendar of a beautiful lake somewhere that looked like England, and bright colourful stationary that she’d clearly supplied herself. Unless purple staplers and turquoise paperclips were now standard issue in the CPS – somehow Grantaire didn’t think so.

“Yes. Thanks for that. For pushing my application though.”

“Oh, no problem.” She smiled at him. “I did a background check on you right after we first met, and the paperwork had all been processed already. I signed it and sent it back to them as soon as it crossed my desk. She had it sitting in her inbox, she was just being too stubborn to look properly.” Cosette sighed.

“Well, thanks.” Grantaire again.

“How was Bella?”

Grantaire shook his head and swallowed. “Awful. I think the place has only got worse since I left. You have to get her out of there, Cosette.” He implored.

“Let’s take your statement, and we’ll go from there.”

“Alright.” A thick lump had appeared at the back of his throat, and it didn’t budge the entire time he was giving his statement.

They started at the beginning, and finished with Grantaire being expelled. Grantaire thought he did pretty well to keep calm as he reeled off his sorry story to Cosette. His throat jammed up a couple of times and his skin was crawling with the need for a drink by the time he’d finished, but he didn’t spiral into a panic attack; so that was a plus.

Recounting how he’d turned up at Elmtree as terrified seven year old, a trouble case, fresh from being kicked out of his third foster home in as many months; how he hadn’t cried himself to sleep no matter how much he wanted to, because he’d seen how the kids who cried were bullied; how he’d taken the other new kids under his wing and muffled their cries in his arms as they tried to adjust to life in this cruel and cold place where you couldn’t really trust anyone not to turn on you for a chance to get on the board – it felt unreal. Like he was recounting an old recurring dream, or a movie he’d watched too many times as a kid. He suspected he was disassociating, and he knew that was probably bad. But then again, anything which staved off another panic attack had to be considered slightly positive.

Cosette didn’t comment as he spoke. She recorded the whole thing on a sleek silver dictaphone and took notes as they went. When he finished, Grantaire slumped forwards so that his elbows balanced on his knees and his head slung heavy onto his chest.

“I’m so sorry that happened to you.” Cosette said softly.

“Yeah, I’m sorry the same’s going to happen to Bella. We need to get her out there. Now.”

“This will take time to be processed,” Cosette warned, “and like I said: it’s a historic case. I can’t promise anything.”

“Then get her transferred!” Grantaire begged, lifting his head to stare her in the eye. “She’s being neglected, Cosette. They all are!”

“I can’t.” She did at least look genuinley sorry.

“What about family? Didn’t Luchia have any relatives Bella could stay with?”

Cosette shook her head softly. “None that I can trace." Ahe fidgeted with her pen. "Fostering or adoption is still Bella’s best bet. But unfortunately she’s not a priority.”

“Why not?”

“Because she’s ten months old and she’s placed. There are new-borns in hospitals up and down the country looking for homes, who aren’t going to get them and,” Cosette shook her head, looking suddenly fierce, “because she’s latina. It’s always significantly harder to re-home non-white children. I’m sorry to say, but that’s the state of our great nation.” She sounded pissed off, but composed herself to give Grantaire a professionally terse smile.

“It’s fucked up.” Grantaire voiced what Cosette couldn’t but clearly wanted to say. “She just needs a home.”

“I agree.”

Grantaire shook his head and sat back into his chair, slinging his arm over the backrest he glared angrily at nothing in particular. He was aware that Cosette was staring at him, so he waited for her to speak. When she continued to say nothing, he glanced back and found her wearing a very strange expression.

“This might sound forward, but, you clearly care about her.” She said slowly. “Have you considered being her foster parent?”

“Me?” Grantaire scoffed. “I’m not fit to be a parent.”

“Trust me, you’d be better than half of the parents I deal with. When I ran your security check I, erm, did a bit of digging.” Cosette admitted with an unapologetic smile. “You’re 20 credits shy of a degree from NYU, you have a steady job and a good portfolio of art commissions. You have a lease on a decent apartment, a good credit rating. The only red flag would be that you’re single, but we’re currently pushing for more single parent adoptions to be approved. The system just can’t cope with the amount of children he have. We need to stop being fussy about letting LGBT couples and single parents adopt.”

Grantaire heard everything Cosette had said, but it took him a while to process the information. His mind was spinning.

“Me?” he asked again, still stunned. “You want me to adopt her?”

“It would take too long for an outright adoption straightaway. But if you register as a foster parent there would be a full background check, an interview and an environment assessment, but if that all goes well Bella could be with you in the next week. If things don’t work out we can always taker her back, but I think it’s the only way to get her out of Elmtree quickly.”

“Holy shit.”

“I know it’s a lot to consider, but please consider it, Grantaire. I really can’t see an alternative for her, as much as I’d like to promise otherwise.”

Grantaire stood up and wobbled on his dodgy ankle.

“I need to…um,” he shook his head. “I’ll think about it.” He promised before fleeing as fast as his sprained ankle would allow him.

Chapter Text

A gust of warm air announced an on-coming training as Grantaire hobbled down the subway steps. He pressed on towards the doors, slipping through just as they closed, and collapsed into an orange plastic chair with a solid thump.

Foster parenting. Him.

The idea seemed almost too absurd to consider. Grantaire knew he wasn’t fit to be a parent, and just because he would better than half the awful people Cosette had to deal with? Well that wasn’t exactly a high standard to be judged against.

The idea wouldn’t leave him alone, though. And the more he thought about it, the more he realised Cosette was right; it was the only short-term option. And if the choice was between leaving Bella at Elmtree and of her staying with him for the time being, then the answer seemed obvious. At least Grantaire wouldn’t neglect her, and her certainly wouldn’t fucking bully her. He was so preoccupied with thinking it through that he didn’t notice where the subway, or his feet, were taking him. Before he knew it, he was standing outside his old building.

“Fuck.” He cursed himself inwardly, tugging a hand through his hair as he decided what to do. Now that he was here, it seemed foolish to travel all the way back to Ferre’s empty handed. He was going to have to finish packing his apartment up at some point, and if he was going to be saddled with Bella soon, now seemed like as good at time as any. He swallowed, and keyed in the door code to the building. His ankle twinged as he trudged the numerous flights of stairs and he wished, not for the first time, that his building had a lift. It was immediately obvious that he wasn’t going to be able to empty much from his apartment in his current state, but he could at least pack it all into boxes and clear out the rubbish. He’d have to see if he could borrow Bahorel’s car, at some point, and he’d need to look into some short-term storage solutions. Why was life so complicated?

He unlocked his front door with trepidation and was greeted with the stale and slightly rotten smell of garbage that hadn’t been emptied for over a week. He hobbled across the threshold and closed the door behind him, but not before the building manager passed the end of the hallway, escorting the detective who had interview Grantaire what felt like years ago. He might have been imaging it, Grantaire’s eyesight wasn’t that good, but he thought he saw the building manager’s eyes narrow and glare at him. Grantaire bolted the door behind him, and sighed at the prospect of packing up his apartment. He wasn’t exactly the most organised of people and his belongings were strewn everywhere. He decided to start with the kitchen. It was as good as place as any.

Half way through filling his second trash bag with old food from the back of his cupboards, Grantaire was disturbed by an angry sounding knock on the door. He froze, rooted to the spot for a moment, praying that if he ignored it the knocking would go away. Nothing good had come from the last time he’d opened his door; his hopes weren’t high this time either. But like last time the knocking didn’t stop.

“I know you’re in there, Grantaire, open up,” the loud voice of his building manager came, muffled, through the door.

Throwing a tin of beans which had a use-by date of May 2014 into the garage bag, Grantaire stomped towards the door.

“Hello?” he said, trying to sound polite but succeeding only to sound slightly less pissed-off then he felt.

“Good afternoon, Mr Grantaire. May I come in?”

“Why?” Grantaire’s grip on the door tightened.

“I was wondering if we could have a little chat.”

“What about?”

“I believe you were the one who found Ms. Martell of Apartment 23?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve just been discussing your statement with Detective Perry. Apparently, you seem to be labouring under the illusion that she was murdered?”

“Well, yeah. I heard a gunshot and voi-”

“Voices, yes I’ve heard. But what I don’t understand, is why this might not simply have been a case of tragic suicide?”

“Suicide?” Grantaire spluttered, bewildered.

“Yes. The voices could easily have come from her television, and I’m sure you can attest to the fact that Ms. Martell never appeared very happy. She certainly had money troubles as she was unable to pay rent for the past two months.”

“It wasn’t a suicide,” Grantaire said roughly, wondering where the building manager was going with all of this.

“Now, that’s a shame. You see, if it had been a suicide, the police would close the investigation at once, the apartment would not be tarnished with the ugly reputation of a ‘murder house’ and we could both go about our business quite easily.”

“Both?”

“Yes, you were – I understand – planning to enact the break clause, were you not? Planning to move out, I think?”

Grantaire frowned. “I have enacted the break clause, I sent you a letter last week.”

“Oh dear, Mr Grantaire, it seems to have been lost in the post; no letter has reached me.”

“I posted it through your letterbox myself.” Grantaire’s frown deepened.

“So it was never handled by the post office, there is no record of it having been sent?” the building manager seemed elated. “Well then, it seems to be your word against mine. And I have no memory of receiving such a letter. As you know, the break clause must be enacted with more than 3 months left on your contract, which,” the building manager checked the date on his watch, “was yesterday. You will therefore be liable for the full outstanding cost of your rent.”

“What?” spluttered Grantaire. “You can’t do that. I posted that letter, and I sent you an email.” One month’s additional rent was something, but another three months? Well that was an entirely different matter; Grantaire didn’t have that kind of money just lying around.

“Well, email can be tricky – plenty of messages are blocked by spam filters,” he smiled sickly. Grantaire wanted to punch him. “Now, think carefully back to the night of September 14th. Are you sure Ms. Martell was murdered? If you were report to Detective Perry that perhaps you were mistaken and have reconsidered your previous statement, that perhaps you think Ms. Martell might have shot herself,”

Grantaire’s hand trembled on the doorframe, his knuckles white.

“Then I might have a second look through my inbox and you might be pleasantly surprised by what I find.”

“You can’t do that.” Grantaire said quietly, though he was fairly certain the building manager could do whatever the hell he liked.

“What good will it do, Mr Grantaire, in pursuing this murder charge? It wastes police time, time which could be better spent catching real criminals,”

“Real criminals? Luchia was murdered!”

“So you say. Yet no one else can verify these voices that you heard. No one else saw anything suspicious that night, Mr. Grantaire, apart from you. I’d think very carefully about why you are so insistent on pressing this matter, and you might save yourself a few thousand dollars in the process.” He handed Grantaire a business card, Grantaire took it automatically, seeing Detective Perry’s name stamped under the seal of the NY Police Department. “In the interest of fair warning I’ll extend the deadline for the break clause until the end of the week. Good Day, Mr. Grantaire.”

Grantaire glared after the building manager as he disappeared down the corridor, crumpling the business card in his clenched fist.

Chapter Text

Grantaire’s anger burned all evening, seeing him through three glasses of whiskey and producing a splattered mess of a painting from the supplies he’d carted across to Combeferre’s apartment. He was still simmering with anger when he woke early Thursday morning for his shift at the Sergeant. But after a cup of Combeferre’s finest Italian coffee and the fresh air on his walk to the subway, Grantaire managed to formulate a plan. He shot Marius a quick phone call before he lost signal underground and braced himself for what was sure to be a terrible shift. If Grantaire knew Eponine at all, and he liked to think he did, she would have left him a whole of heap of horrible jobs in retribution for skipping out of work earlier in the week. At least he’d remembered to stuff a packet ibuprofen into his bag; though not as bad as it had been, his ankle still wasn’t a hundred percent.

=

“Marius!” Grantaire greeted Marius with a warm smile, as he entered the café on the ground floor of Marius’ office building. The place seemed to be made entirely from glass, chrome and cream leather, and every single person in there was wearing a suit. Grantaire stuck out like a sore thumb.

“Hey, R,” Marius actually stood up as Grantaire approached the table.

“Sorry I’m late.” He slumped into a chair and threw his rucksack on the ground, noticing that he was still wearing his apron, having come straight from his shift.

“It’s no problem,” Marius smiled, settling back into his chair opposite Grantaire. “So, what can I help you with? You were pretty vague on the phone.”

“Er, yeah.” Grantaire scratched his head and gave Marius a lopsided smile. “I didn’t really know how to explain it. I still don’t, but the gist is – I need to become an approved foster parent, as soon as possible.”

“A foster parent?” Marius’ eyebrows quirked whilst his mouth gaped. “You want to be foster parent?” Marius asked, sounding like Grantaire had just said he wanted to fly to the moon.

“I know it’s unexpected.” Grantaire said, trying not to be offended by just how ridiculous Marius seemed to think the idea would be. “But it’s the only way I can help this kid.” He took a breath and launched into an abridged explanation. “I knew her mom before she…died; she was my neighbour. And this kid – Bella – she’s been placed in a hellhole of a care home. The only way to get her out is to foster her. So, I need to become an approved foster parent. Like, now.” Grantaire bent down to pull a document from his bag. “I have the form, I just need help knowing what to say. I figured, you’re a lawyer, you know what they’re looking for, and maybe you could help me fill it out?”

Cosette had wasted no time in emailing the form across to him, according to the date stamp on her email she’d sent it almost the moment Grantaire had fled from her office. He’d managed to print it out from the Sergeant’s office computer and after flicking through it had been glad of his foresight to call Marius. He didn’t even know where to be begin trying to fill it out.

“Let me see?” Marius gestured to Grantaire to hand over the document. He read it through quickly, flicking through the pages at an impressive speed. Grantaire had always wondered how Marius, easily the dorkiest and most social awkward person Grantaire knew (excluding himself on bad days) could ever survive as a lawyer, but watching him appraise the form with a clearly analytical eye, Grantaire’s opinion began to change.

“Okay, let’s start with the basics. Where do you live?” Marius asked. He pulled a pen from his jacket pocket, clicked it into action and it held it poised, waiting expectantly for Grantaire’s answer.

Grantaire stalled for a moment, expecting Marius to try and talk him out of the idea. “Um, currently? I’m staying with Combeferre, but my apartment’s out in Brooklyn –”

“Where would the child be living, if this all went through and you took her home next week?” Marius asked, sounding succinct and proffessional and every inch a lawyer.

“Combeferre’s.”

“Great, we’ll put his address – the authorities love that neighbourhood, they’re always trying to place children there.” Marius scribbled the address onto the form. “Plus Combeferre’s a doctor so that’ll look good, and he owns the apartment.” He added.

 “He does?” Grantaire asked quietly. “Jesus, he’s doing well for himself.”

“How long have you known, Combeferre?”

“Er, why is this relevant?”

“He’ll be living there too, right?”

“Yeah, it’s his apartment.”

“Then it’s relevant.”

Grantaire didn’t argue, Marius was the expert here. “Okay, um…I guess five years, or so?”

Marius nodded and noted it down, turning the page to the next set of questions. “You can fill in your education details…” he skimmed the page. “Employment – you work with Eponine don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll call it a restaurant, that sounds better than a bar – it still serves food right?”

“Sometimes…”

“Great, and what’s your title?”

“Er? I honestly don’t think I have one.”

“Well,” Marius scratched the end of his nose with his pen. “Are you ever left in charge?”

“When it’s just me and Azelma on shift, yeah I guess I’m in charge.”

“Alright,” Marius wrote ‘shift manager’ into the box on the form.

“And I do art commissions from time to time, if that counts?” Grantaire added, straining to see what Marius was writing down on the form.

“Anything looks good – you did that, er, mural for Joly’s hospital, didn’t you?”

“For the children’s ward, yeah.”

“Even better.”

As they moved through the form, Marius seemed to improve and reword Grantaire’s answers so that they sounded far more impressive than they actually were, without actually lying about anything. It was like dictating to a ‘quick-quotes quill’. Even Grantaire had to agree that on paper, thanks to Marius’ careful curation of the truth, he sounded like a respectable citizen and an excellent candidate for foster parenting.

“I can’t promise anything,” Marius said, throwing down his pen and letting out a contented sigh. “There’s still huge discrimination over single parent fostering, especially single dads, but hopefully that’ll do the trick.” He smiled and glanced at his watch, noticing his lunch hour was long over. “Shit, I have to get to work.” He scrambled to his feet, almost knocking a glass of water over the form, luckily Grantaire managed to snatch it out of harm’s way before it could be ruined.

“Thank you, this is…nothing short of a miracle,” Grantaire beamed.

“Let me know how you get on, and just ask if there’s anything else you need help with.” Marius pocketed his pen and turned to leave, weaving through the tables with all the grace of a baby gazelle. “Oh, are you planning on coming to the meeting next week?” he shouted across the café, walking backwards, bumping into empty chairs as he went. “Enjolras was complaining that you hadn’t been in a while.” He walked into the door and added a, “Well, see you!” before disappearing inside and saving Grantaire the trouble of answering.

Truthfully, Grantaire had no intention of attending the meeting. He had enough of his own problems to deal with, without trying solve all the world’s problems too. Not that he’d word it like that to any of his friends. Especially Enjolras, who never seemed to have any personal problems.

With Marius gone there really wasn’t much reason to stick around, especially with the wait staff shooting him disparaging glares. Ignoring them, Grantaire fed the form carefully back into his rucksack and slung it over his shoulder before loping out of the café. Combeferre’s apartment had better coffee than they served here anyway.

When he got back to Ferre’s apartment, Grantaire was surprised to find that it wasn’t empty. Joly and Bossuet were standing in the kitchen in a fit of giggles, covered from head to toe in flour, with what was probably supposed to be pizza dough lying in a heap on the floor.

“Hello?” Grantaire laughed, surprised – and pleased – the find them there. He’d been planning on sorting through the suitcases of stuff he’d managed to bring over his apartment, but an afternoon of pizza making seemed far more appealing.

“R!” They chorused.

“What are you doing here?” He dropped his bag in the living room and joined them in the kitchen.

“It’s Pizza Day!” Bossuet grinned, gesturing to the pizza ingredients littering the table.

“It’s a time-honoured tradition,” Joly explained. “Dating back to med school. Whenever Ferre and I managed to have an afternoon off together, which was once in a blue moon, we’d get together to make pizzas. Of course, now that we have more control over our schedule it’s become a more regular occurrence, though no less revered. Somewhere along the line, Bossuet managed to fold himself into the mix; now it’s almost a weekly occurrence.”

“But Ferre’s not here,” Grantaire was mildly confused.

“I know; but wanted to check-in on you, make sure you weren’t feeling lonely in Combeferre’s massive apartment.” Joly was always refreshingly direct.

“And we wanted to make pizza and Ferre has a pizza stone,” Bossuet added with a smile.

“So that’s what that thing is,” Grantaire peered through the oven doors to see the pizza stone heating up on the bottom rack. “I thought it was a weird chopping board.”

“He’s here in spirit,” Joly continued, peeling pizza dough off the cooker hood and adding it the pile for the bin. “And he said he might face-time us when he’s free.” He indicated to an iPad propped up by the breadbin, miraculously not covered in flour. On cue, Combeferre’s face filled the screen accompanied by chimes announcing an incoming call. Seeing as he was the only one with clean hands, Grantaire answered it.

“Hello,” Combeferre smiled at him warmly. He was sitting in a plush hotel room, wearing a navy blue button-down with a bright green lanyard around his neck. Through the window behind him, Grantaire could see the Eiffel tower poking between the buildings, shining brightly in its evening illuminations.

“Hi,” Grantaire replied, lifting up the iPad and waving whilst Joly and Bossuet crowded behind him adding their own cheerful greetings.

“Why did you let these troublemakers into my house?” Combeferre laughed.

“I didn’t let them in, they seem to have a key,” Grantaire defended himself.

“I may have to rescind that,” Combeferre leaned forward to examine at the state of the kitchen through the screen. “Is that pizza dough on my ceiling?”

“No…”

“Turns out, there’s a good reason we usually leave the dough making to you!” Joly laughed.

“Yeah, we should probably go back to sticking with the toppings.”

Grantaire laughed and shook his head. “Don’t worry, I’ll make them clean up.” He assured Combeferre.

“Traitor!” Bossuet gasped in mock offence.

“How’s the conference?” Joly asked.

“It’s excellent! Really great to finally meet the team I’ve been corresponding with all year. The time difference takes some getting used to though!”

“What time is it there?”

Ferre glanced at his watch. “Nearly nine,” he yawned. “It’s been a long day, and I can’t talk long; we’ve got an orientation dinner this evening, but I wanted to check in and let you know I’d got here safe. How’s the ankle, R?”

“Oh, it’s fine.” Grantaire said with a quick smile, trying to ignore the way Joly had turned to stare at him.

Combeferre didn’t seem to believe him, judging from his knowing smile, but he didn’t press the matter. “Make sure they don’t burn my kitchen down.”

“I’ll try my best,”

“I should probably go – I wanted to catch Enjolras before I go for dinner – sorry to be so quick! I’ll try and call again tomorrow.”

“Have fun!”

“Au revoir!”

“Goodbye.”

Combeferre ended the call Grantaire placed the iPad back safely on the countertop.

“So how good are your pizza making skills?” Bossuet asked.

Grantaire glanced around the kitchen and raised an eyebrow. “Well, I think I can probably make a pizza base without it ending up on the floor,”

“That, my friend, makes you an expert in our eyes,” Joly laughed and steered Grantaire towards the counter.

More of the pizza toppings seemed to end up on the kitchen table than on the pizzas, and they were all sporting tomato sauce smears across their cheeks before the pizzas actually made it to the oven, but Grantaire had never had so much fun making pizzas in his life.

It was pretty late by the time Joly and Bossuet peeled themselves off Combeferre’s sofa and made their way home. As promised, they’d tidied up the kitchen but there was still a lot of washing up to do. Grantaire didn’t think the pizza stone would survive the dishwasher, so decided he might as well wash the lot up by hand. The warm soapy water was therapeutic on his hands and he let his mind wander; thinking of the strong application form sitting in his bag, and the very real possibility that he might be able to help Bella. He found himself picturing her sitting in a high chair in Ferre’s kitchen, finger painting with tomato sauce on the tray, an adorable smile on her face and her infectious giggle filling the room. Suddenly, for the first time in weeks, Grantaire felt hopeful.

Chapter Text

Despite his proclaimed apathy, by the time it rolled around to the next friday evening meeting, Grantaire found himself walking towards the Musain. He’d only spent the day lazing around Combeferre’s apartment, tidying up a little and making an attempt to unpack. Some social interaction would do him good, even if it meant interacting with his friends at their most hopelessly optimistic and, god forbid, organised.

He still wasn’t used to being situated smack bang in the middle of Manhattan island which meant that his commute to the Musain was less than halved. For once in his life, Grantaire actually arrived early. But as he trudged through the doors into the cosy alpine style bar, he was surprised to find that he wasn’t the first person there. Feuilly was sitting at a table in the back corner of the bar which was raised up on the false second floor that they usually commandeered for their meetings. And he wasn’t alone. Grantaire approached, hesitantly, until he recognised Cosette and his curiosity got the better of him.

They were deep in conversation. Cosette had the same sleek silver Dictaphone on the table which she’d used to record Grantaire’s statement about Elmtree, and was taking notes with one of her turquoise cased pens. Grantaire was about to decide that he shouldn’t interrupt, when Cosette noticed him approaching and beckoned him over.  

“Hello,” he greeted both of them, not hiding his confusion at seeing them together.

“Hey, R,” Feuilly glanced up at him and smiled. “You’re early for the meeting, did you think it was still happening yesterday?” he ribbed Grantaire gently.

Grantaire shook his head at Cosette, not bothering to answer. She was watching their interaction with an amused smiled.

“Cosette, this is Grantaire; an old friend,” Feuilly politely introduced Grantaire.

“I know, we’ve met,” Cosette smiled politely. “Good to see you again, Grantaire.”

“Ah,” Feuilly glanced between the two of them. “She tracked you down to talk about Elmtree too, huh?” Feuilly guessed with a slightly puzzled expression.

“Er, yeah.” Grantaire said because it was easier than explaining. Meanwhile, his mind was spinning slightly; he’d never known Feuilly had been at Elmtree.

Thankfully Cosette didn’t correct him. she just began gathering her notes together. “Well I think we’re about wrapped up. I’ll let you get on with your meeting."

“Don’t leave on my account.” Grantaire protested.

“Yeah, you’re welcome to stay,” Feuilly added. “You’d probably enjoy the meeting. We’re working on voter registration at the moment, but I’m sure everyone would be more than happy to start campaigning for changes to the social care system, it’s something we’ve looked at in the past – we just didn’t know where to start.”

Cosette tilted her head to the side and smiled as she mulled the proposition over. “I have dinner with my father this evening, but maybe next time? That definitely sound like something I be interested in.” She promised, much to Feuilly’s delight. She carefully tidied away her belongings and swung her handbag over her shoulder. “Thank you for your time, Feuilly. I think your statement will really help.”

“You’re welcome,” Feuilly beamed. They shook hands and Cosette turned to leave, spurring Grantaire into action. He’d been meaning to call her and arrange another meeting, but he’d faced a mental block whenever he tried to pick up the phone.

“Could I, er, have a word?” Grantaire asked, inclining his head down the staircase.

“Of course,” she followed Grantaire back towards the relative privacy of the main bar area, looking up at him expectantly.

Grantaire was conscious of Feuilly’s eyes of them, it was making him uncomfortably aware of the fact that he’d have to tell the rest of his friends about Bella soon. Especially if he did end up fostering her. And especially if Marius knew. Honestly it would be a wonder he hadn’t told everyone already. He transferred his weight from foot to foot, working up the courage to speak. Once he handed in his application it would be almost imossible to turn back. Of course, they might reject him, the gloomy part of Grantaire's brain piped up unhelpfully. “I thought about what you said, last time we met, and, er,”

“Yes?” Cosette asked eagerly. Or perhaps she was just in a hurry to meet her dad.

“You’re right, it’s the only short-term option.” Grantaire admitted. He fished the form from his back and handed it over, scratching at the nape of neck sheepishly. “I had a go at filling this out.”

Cosette wasted no time in flicking through the document. The eager glint in her eye was unmistakable this time. “This is excellent!” Cosette leaned up on her tip-toes and caught Grantaire off-guard by pulling him into a hug. He nearly toppled off balance as she flung her arms around his neck. “It’s the right, choice. I know you’re the perfect guardian for Bella.” She sunk back to the flats of her feet and beamed up at Grantaire. “I’ll get this processed immediately, and we’ll plan from there, okay? There’ll be a full background check, they’ll follow up with your references, and then there will be a formal interview and environment assessment.”

“Environment assessment?” What, did they want to check how much he recycled? Grantaire clearly looked confused, because Cosette hastened to explain.

“A review of the place Bella will be living. Just to make sure it’s not full of asbestos, or with an unguarded balcony, you know? They normally conduct the interview at the same time. But don’t worry – once this is processed, I’ll coach you though it.”

“Right. Thanks.” Grantaire tried to smile but it was all a little too much to process. His head was spinning.

“I really have to go, but I’ll be in touch. See you, Grantaire!” she waved and dashed off, practically skipping out of the bar.

Grantaire stood in the wake of her departure for a while longer, letting his thoughts meter out. Formal interview. Environment assessment. Christ, this was actually happening. Taking a deep calming breath, he walked himself to the bar and ordered himself a large pint, buying one for Feuilly whilst he was at it. And then there was that mystery. When had Feuilly been at Elmtree?

It took him the walk back up the staircase, focusing on not spilling the frothy pints, for Grantaire to realise that he’d never actually told Feuilly about his own time there. It was perfectly understandable that Feuilly hadn’t wanted to tell him either. There were plenty of horrors from his childhood that Grantaire had resisted telling anyone, even Feuilly. Unless they were shared experiences, unless someone really needed to know, Grantaire usually avoided going into specifics. Why would Feuilly be any different?

Grantaire braced himself to ask Feuilly about it, but thankfully, before Grantaire had the opportunity of broaching the subject, Enjolras bustled into the bar and began setting things up for the meeting. He quickly enlisted their help in rearranging the tables, unwinding the extension cords for the multiple laptops and phone chargers which were inevitably required, and setting up Enjolras’ portable flipchart. It was a mark of how muddled Grantaire’s thoughts were that he didn’t even mock Enjolras for owning it.

“Everything alright, R?” Enjolras asked, propping open his laptop and peering at him through his dark rimmed glasses. Fuck, Grantaire had forgotten just how attractive Enjolras looked wearing those, especially with his blonde curls all tousled and swept across his head as they were then.

“Fine,” Grantaire frowned, confused by his concern. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Enjolras shrugged. “Marius said not to expect you this week, yet I find you here. And on time. Something must have happened. ‘Who are you and what have done to Grantaire?’” he laughed, clearly thinking he was being funny. But Grantaire wasn’t really in the mood to be amused.

“It doesn’t take as long to get here from Ferre’s, that’s all.” He shrugged.

“You’re still staying at Ferre’s?” Feuilly asked, sensing tension between them and jumping in to save the conversation.

“Yeah, whilst he’s in Paris.”

“How’s he finding it, do you know? I’ve not managed to speak to him yet. Finding a time when we’re both free is bad enough without having to factor in time zones,” Feuilly laughed.

“Seems to be enjoying himself.” Grantaire slumped into a chair at the far end of the table from Enjolras and began slurping his now-flat-beer. “He facetimed me earlier today, actually.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Did he mention if he’d had a reply from the hospital on whether we could set up in their waiting room next week?” Enjolras asked, deadly serious.

Grantaire just raised an eyebrow. “You really think he’d mention that to me?”

“You were in the meeting with us on Sunday, Grantaire, you’re just as much as member of this group as anyone – ”

“No. he didn’t.” Grantaire replied before Enjolras could start ripping into him about his participation levels. “He was at the Louvre. He just phoned to show me a man walking his dog outside by the pyramid, posing a striking resemblance to something I painted last year.” Grantaire sipped at his beer. “At least you can rely on the French to be every inch as stereotypical as I hoped they would be.” He smiled, only realising as he told the story how extraordinary it had been for Combeferre not only to remember Grantaire’s painting, but to think of calling him over it.

He sat dazed for a moment, oblivious to Enjolras and Feuilly’s continuing conversation, or the arrival of Joly, Bossuet and Jehan and the start of the meeting. It was only when Bahorel plonked himself in the chair beside Grantaire and gave him affectionate elbow to the ribs in lieu of a greeting, that Grantaire’s attention snapped back to the present. He shook the thoughts of Combeferre from his mind. He had far too many things to worry about at the moment, and was in danger of seriously overthinking the sentiment.  Whatever Combeferre’s motives had been, they’d succeeded in putting a smile on Grantaire’s face and casting a merry mood which had carried him through a day of otherwise uneventful unpacking. And really, that was all mattered.

Chapter Text

Eponine was in a foul mood when Grantaire walked into work on Saturday morning. He glanced at the clock on the wall behind him as he tied his apron around his waist. “I’m not that late,” he protested.

Eponine huffed and bustled past him, wiping down the counter with strong, angry swipes of the cloth. “It’s not you.” She snapped.

“Well that makes a change.” Grantaire smiled. “Anything I can do about it?”

“Not likely. Just stay out of the way and don’t – under any circumstances – go in the storeroom.”

“Sounds ominous. You got a body down there?” Grantaire laughed, trying to lighten her mood. “Look, I know Montparnasse can be a royal pain in the ass, but resorting to murder?” He caught sight of Eponine’s furious expression and stopped laughing at once; murderous would be an understatement. “C’mon Ponine, I’m only messing,” he said, adding under his breath, “last thing I need is to be involved in another murder investigation.” But apparently, he hadn’t been quiet enough to escape Eponine’s notice. Her eyebrows quirked.

“That’s a conversation for another time.” She commented, giving the counter one last final sweep before slamming the cloth down on the counter top and bracing her arms on the edge, elbows out turned as she leant against it. She brooded in a silent fury that Grantaire daren’t interrupted, steel reeling as he was from his previous attempt to cheer her up. Finally, she pulled her thoughts together and stood up. “You’re not far off the mark.” She yanked a bottle of whiskey out from under the counter along with two glasses. “Sometimes I really think I could rip his balls off,” she punctuated the sentence with a fierce twist of the bottle cap. Grantaire couldn’t help but flinch. “The pair of them, prancing around like kings. Not caring that I try to run a profitable business, a reputable business,” she muttered, speaking more to herself than to Grantaire. She poured out two generous measures of whiskey and passed one to Grantaire. He eyed it dubiously; it wasn’t even 11am yet, which was a bit early to be drinking even by his standards. But after Eponine downed her drink he didn’t think it was polite to refuse his. “You know,” Eponine turned to him. “Today’s going to be quiet. I think Ze and I can manage.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, just,” Eponine waved vaguely, “Go enjoy your Saturday.” She poured herself another drink. “I need you in all day Monday though. It’ll be just you and Bossuet. Try not to burn the place down whilst I’m gone.” She knocked back the drink and seemed to consider. “Or do. What do I care?”

Eponine was normally very guarded with her emotions. Grantaire didn’t think he’d ever seen her this bitter or angry before, and he certainly hadn’t seen her act so blasé about it. “Are you sure you’re alright, Eponine?”

“I’ll be fine.” She stowed the whiskey back under the bar. “Honestly, R. There’s nothing you can do here today.” She clapped him on the back and headed for the stairs down to the storeroom. She unlocked it with a key she wore on an extended keychain through her belt loops. A key Grantaire didn’t think he’d ever seen her use before. He began to wonder just what might be in the storeroom, seriously hoping that it wasn’t a body, before common sense got the better of him. Plausible deniability. If it had anything to do with Montparnasse then the less Grantaire knew it about it, the better. Eponine was right, there was nothing he could do there. He untied his apron and stuffed it into his backpack, slipping out of the front door and into the crisp autumnal sunshine.

He basked on the sidewalk for a while, letting the cars zip by him and the wind ruffle through his hair. Faced with an unexpected day off, Grantaire wasn’t sure what to do with himself. Although it was a Saturday, most of his friends would be working or volunteering, and as much as he needed to finish unpacking, Grantaire couldn’t face another day cooped up in Combeferre’s apartment – light and airy though it was. Nor did he fancy going back to his apartment to finish clearing it out. He was well aware that he’d missed the building manager’s deadline for changing his statement and wasn’t in the mood for another argument with him. Just the thought of their last confrontation was enough to have Grantaire seething with anger. He could hit the gym he supposed, half-heartedly (Bahorel had given him enough guest passes to his fancy gym to last Grantaire a lifetime), but his ankle twinged just at the thought. He’d never been much of a gym-rat, though he’d rarely give up an opportunity for a swim. But that meant heading back his apartment to pick up his trunks, which was a no-go. Which left…Bella. An afternoon with her was a far more appealing prospect, even if it did mean returning to Elmtree for the second time in under a week.

This time Grantaire wasn’t the only visitor. He joined the queue at reception behind a picture-perfect couple that looked like they’d just stepped out of the pages of a magazine. The woman had long blonde hair which fell down her back in blow-dried curls, whilst the man’s salt and pepper hair wouldn’t have look out of place on George Clooney. They wore smiles which had been perfected by a team of dentists and Grantaire swore he saw a freaking twinkle in the man’s eye. They were even holding hands. It was enough to make Grantaire’s gut squirm. They were the type of parents the foster system was looking for. How the hell would his application ever been accepted?

The catalogue couple were shown into the waiting room to greet the children they’d prearranged to meet, no doubt selected them from the board of doom, whilst Grantaire hurried up the stairs to the infant’s ward.

Bella was sitting in the same crib he’d left her in last time, in what looked like the same pink onesie. At least she wasn’t crying this time, but she looked far from happy; sitting in the centre of the small mattress, plucking at the material around her toes. Like last time, there wasn't any sign of the carers.

“Hello, Bella,” Grantaire greeted her, crouching to her level. She looked up and blinked at him with doleful eyes. “Remember me?” he reached his hand into the crib and gently stroked her hair. “Told you I’d come back.” She just blinked at him, her bottom lip began to tremble. “Shush, it’s okay. I’m here,” he swept to his feet and swept her into his arms. Holding her against his chest he bounced her lightly up and down, with a hand firmly supporting her legs whilst he continued to stroke her hair. “See, it’s okay,”

She bunched her hands into his sweater and nuzzled her head against his shoulder, still not making a sound.

“What happened to your lovely voice, huh, B? Not got any giggles for me?” He peered over her head to try and see her face. “No? I don’t suppose there’s much to laugh about in here is there? Shall we see if we can go downstairs, maybe find some toys, yeah? Let’s see if we can find out what happened to your bumble bee, shall we?”

Grantaire didn’t know what the rules were for visitors, but he remembered the big play room where he’d jealously watched far too many children happily playing with their prospective parents all too well. He carried Bella carefully down the stairs, keeping up his stream of narration, hoping it might cheer her up; she’d always enjoyed the sound of his voice before.

His hopes of finding some toys for Bella to play with were instantly dashed when he found the playroom, though. It was utter chaos, with the larger kids running around creating havoc and hogging all of the toys, whilst a few quieter children sat with demure adults, watching the scenes unfold around them in disgust. Grantaire quickly appraised the room and saw nothing that would interest Bella, and changed course for the playground. More than likely there’re wouldn’t be anything suitable outside either; there hadn’t been any swing sets or anything like that in his day and he doubted very much they management would have bothered to install one. But there had been some benches, and there was the great elm tree sitting in the middle of the lawn from which the place got its name.

It was a bright September afternoon, the sun still high in the sky radiating the last of the summer heat, and unsurprisingly the playground was filled with children running around playing a mixture of soccer, cops and robbers, tag and bulldog – all at the same time. The few benches scattered round the perimeter fence were occupied by the carers who were busy chatting, scrolling through their phones, or doing anything other than caring, so Grantaire headed for the elm tree.

If standing up whilst holding a baby had proved difficult, sitting down whilst retaining his balance with one proved infinitely harder. He ended up sitting down with a less than pleasant bump, but at least Bella stayed safely in his arms. Transferring her into his crossed legs, Grantaire plucked his apron from his backpack and spread it out on the grass before him as a crude make-shift playmat.

“There you go,” he cooed. “How’s that? Better?” Bella crawled a few paces, stopped, and crawled back, reaching her little arms up indicating she wanted to be picked up once more. Grantaire scooped her back into his lap and cradled her in the crook of his arm. Her feet wriggled in her onesie and grabbed hold of one of Grantaire’s fingers, gripping as tightly as she could and not letting go.

The great boughs of the tree shaded them from the sunshine, reducing it to dappled spots of light on the grass around them, and although noisome kids were running around the playground in front of them - some even taking running leaps at the tree to try and scale the branchless lower reaches of the trunk - it was surprisingly peaceful. If Grantaire blocked it all out and focused on the warm weight of Bella in his arms and the soft September breeze on his face, he could imagine they were sitting in Central Park, or the courtyard behind Combeferre’s apartment, or really anywhere other than Elmtree.

“It’s alright,” he tried to tell her as he rocked her from side to side. He racked his brains for a song to sing to her, babies liked songs, didn’t they? But only lewd and completely inappropriate songs came to mind. He was about to resort to singing Cheap Thrills, which someone had been blaring far too loudly through their headphones on the train ride up, when a small white butterfly danced through the air in front of them. For a moment Grantaire thought he was hallucinating, the butterfly was clearly lost, there weren’t any flowers in the vicinity of Elmtree; never had been, never would be. But it wove up and down in the air in front of them, perching on a blade of grass for a beat of its delicate wings before taking flight in swooping circles. “Look!” Grantaire urged Bella, pointing carefully with the hand that was still clasped in hers. She blinked up at him rather than following his finger, but it didn’t matter; Grantaire had just remembered an old lullaby his mother had used to sing to him.

Farfallina, bella e bianca, vola vola, mai si stanca,” he sang quietly, rocking Bella in time with the rhythm, “ Gira qua, e gira la, poi si resta sopra un fiore, e poi si resta spora un fiore.”

A fierce slew of memories Grantaire didn’t know he had rushed to the forefront of his mind. Suddenly, clear as day, Grantaire could see his mother sitting of the flower quilted comforter of her double bed, with her feet tucked up underneath her as she leant over Grantaire, brushing his curls from his forehead with soft tender strokes, her own hair swept all to one side and falling down the side of her face; curly just like his, but longer, tamer, and infinitely more beautiful.  She sang with a smooth deep voice, trained by church choirs and imbuing the old Italian children's song with a majestic quality that sounded almost operatic. Grantaire choked on a lump at the back of his throat, and the rest of the song died on his lips. But it had worked its magic. Bella was staring up at him, her eyes wide with wonder and a small smile tugging at her cheeks. “You liked that, huh?” Grantaire asked, his voice breaking ever so slightly for a mixture of reasons. He twirled his finger, tracing butterfly patterns in the air and dragging Bella’s little hand gently with it. He couldn’t remember the rest of the verses, so he sang the first one again, over and over, tracing butterfly patterns in the air and smiling as Bella’s little face lit up every time. Any doubts he had about handing in the application form vanished when her smile was accompanied by a gurgled giggle.

There you are!” Grantaire beamed, gently booping her on the nose. “I’ll have to learn some Spanish songs to sing you next time, won’t I?” She giggled again and the rest of Grantaire’s anxieties vanished in a happy haze. He’d been responsible for making Bella smile. A great wave of accomplishment washed through him; he could do anything.