“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
- C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Now (February, 2017)
February has fallen on Paris like a worn grey cloak with holes where the sun shines through. The air is crisp, less so than usual, but then that's what climate change entails, and so much the better, Grantaire thinks at his old winter jacket and almost threadbare gloves. The light itself is interesting – when there is light, that is –, with hues and edges begging to be carved on canvas or etched in black charcoal. Grantaire tangles the pencil in his unwashed, almost solid black curls and fishes around for his phone; a glance at the time makes him grimace. He closes his sketchbook and unfolds from the chair he is sitting in in the middle of the Jardin du Luxembourg. Oblique rays of sun caress the fountain, the white paths around it with trees and statues standing immobile against the background of the Senate and the icy blue of the sky. People walk all around him, Parisians hiding their tell-tale stroll in hurried steps and tourists looking around just as much as the natives do but with less discretion, the supposedly bored look of the blasé local absent from their faces. Grantaire huffs a laugh and nonchalantly walks to the eastern gates, headed towards the Seine. That's how you recognise tourists: they don't bother to fake indifference. The cynic and the snotty student in him master the Parisian detachment to an art; the artists still gapes at the pure lines of Notre-Dame. This city never ceases to enchant him, and he quite likes it that way.
As long as Éponine doesn't know, it's all right.
He walks down the Boulevard Saint-Michel with the slanting afternoon light in his back, barely spares a glance to the fountain at the Place before turning right and following the river, eyes fixed on the pavement, dancing between the cohorts of tourists. Notre-Dame slides closer on his left and then disappears behind him as he ducks into the Rue du Chat qui Pêche, notorious for its name and the infamous café Musain, the only place between the river and the Boulevard Saint-Germain where Parisians are more numerous than tourists. It might be due to Louison's unfriendly face when a newcomer pushes the door open, but the narrow street and the discrete entrance are not exactly eye-catching. Grantaire still doesn't understand how the café stays afloat with the number of customers it has, but Ep once told him Montparnasse had told her when drunk even he wasn't privy to the secrets of Louison's account books, and god knows how charming Montparnasse can be when he wants to.
If the face he pulls at Grantaire when the latter steps in is anything to go by, today is not a day he wants to. Grantaire gives him his most blinding and sarcastic grin and a sloppy military salute as he weaves his way between the tables to the stairs and the first floor. The ABC has somehow managed to secure it for all its meetings, official or not (that is, for all the time). Witchcraft and dragon gold might be involved. A certain pair of persuasive blue eyes springs to Grantaire's mind as well but he shrugs it off and pushes the door open.
Until not so long ago, he always used to be the first to the meetings, for the excellent reason he usually spent his days at the Musain, only trudging up the stairs a little before the others arrived and settling in his assigned corner with some alcohol and a cigarette, waiting for the others to trickle in.
He no longer is the first, though: this year, he does go to classes and has been cutting down on his alcohol – and others – consumption. Courfeyrac is always the first triumvir to arrive, because Combeferre is being flayed in med school, and Enjolras is usually meeting other students to talk about coordination, protests and the like before relaying the information to their own ragtag group of starry-eyed idealists. Musichetta finishes her shift downstairs half an hour before, and she is often to be met upstairs, smoking at the open window until Joly comes in and starts ranting about colds, the flu, air pollution and lung cancer while brandishing his cane like some sort of germ-killing d'Artagnan. The rest of their group slowly comes in: Marius, Bahorel and Bossuet together from law school, Jehan from the Sorbonne, Cosette from the Rue Saint-Jacques, Feuilly from one of the ten jobs he has at the moment and then Combeferre and Enjolras who, despite widely diverging schedules, always manage to arrive together with a laptop open and an already advanced discussion on whatever fascinates them at the moment. Bar moths.
Enjolras's love for Combeferre does not extend to moths.
When she still used to live in Paris with him, Éponine had the most unpredictable schedule of them all. She would arrive first or last, sometimes not at all. No-one really knew where she was or what she did in these moments, not even Grantaire. He worried, but there wasn’t much he could do for her. Now that she’s not here any more, he still worries, but for different reasons.
Today being a relatively good day for Grantaire, Enjolras's entrance does not feel like a stab in the lungs but more like a moderate punch in the gut. He doesn't even see him enter as he is roped in a discussion with Bossuet, Chetta and Cosette concerning the latest Star Wars and turning his back to the door. Still, his Enjolras-senses tingle when the blonde steps in, and he wishes for a minute Éponine were here to smirk at him. On the other side of the room, Enjolras and Feuilly start talking about the latter's night classes as Courfeyrac and Marius loudly argue about whose turn it was to do the dishes last night. Jehan steps in with a tray laden with coffee cups and a bite on her pale neck, both courtesy of the sulking barista boyfriend downstairs, and Bahorel and Combeferre start clapping, the first for the hickey and the second for the coffee. Groups are made and unmade as people wander about the room; from time to time, they all fall silent to listen to one of them – Courfeyrac disagreeing with Combeferre on the meaning of the latest unemployment rates, Enjolras gently but firmly shooting Marius down on the matter of the impending presidential elections, Joly and Cosette teaming to propose a campaign to raise awareness on the theme of air pollution. It is a perfectly normal evening in the back-room of the café Musain, only lacking the usual squabble between Grantaire and Enjolras – and as the blonde warms up to the theme of refugees, R sees the occasion approaching. Everything is normal, things are even good – Enjolras smiled at him fifteen minutes ago –, which is why Grantaire really should have expected something to go wrong.
The sudden buzzing of his phone in the back pocket of his jeans startles him. All the people he regularly texts to are in this room, not to mention the few selected ones that call him. Éponine isn't, of course, but they talked on the phone less than a day ago.He is clear on the administrative side, has no bills due for the moment, has turned in all his projects...
Unknown number flashes on his phone's screen as he gets it out, and he lets the call end without picking up. Two minutes later, the phone buzzes again. He sighs, mutters an apology and walks to an empty corner of the room. The conversations are loud enough to create some semblance of privacy in a room full of people.
The world whites out. It's lucky he was standing next to a chair.
Then (nineteen months earlier)
“You're leaving Paris”, Grantaire blankly repeated. Éponine didn't bother to nod, still carefully watching him from across the table. The Musain was warm and quiet around them in this empty hour between lunch rush and end-of-classes time. She had taken a seat at his table after having shrugged her waitress's apron off. Grantaire closed his eyes for an instant and took a swig of his bottle without opening them nor using the glass he usually insisted on. When he opened them, she was still there, face unreadable as ever.
Unreadable, perhaps, for anyone else than her adoptive brother.
“In a month. I want Gav to get to know the place before school starts in September. You're coming too, I'm not moving all my shit on my own.”
“I don't have a car.”
“Someone will lend us theirs. Combeferre or Enjolras. They both have big enough trunks to fit our luggage.”
“I can't drive.”
“I can. I'm not asking you to drive us there, I want you to help us move out and move in. There's a difference.”
Grantaire huffed and raised his bottle again, only to find he had emptied it. He huffed again and forcefully set it down on the table, blinking furiously. Éponine minutely shifted in her seat. When he looked up, her face showed sympathy, as well as an unshakeable determination.
“I'm sorry, R,” she said, gentler. “I just can't stay in Paris. I can't raise Gav here, not with them around. I've got him and I'm not letting him go.”
“And you think the safest place to raise your baby brother is this fucking island four hundred kilometres away?” Grantaire spit out. “Why didn't you tell me this before? We could've worked it out together! Fuck, Ep, you have friends here, you have me, we would've figured it out together. But no, you do your shit on your own, as usual, and you just decide to go back there without asking for anyone's opinion –”
“This is no one's business but mine,” she said icily.
“No, it's my business too. I'm your fucking brother, Éponine!”
Éponine leaned across the table, all ice and iron, deadly determination in her eyes.
“Grantaire. I just got custody of my twelve year-old brother. The only reason I got it is because social services still remembered my state when they got hold of me, so my blood affiliation with Gavroche was enough. And I am not raising him in Paris. End of discussion.”
Grantaire swallowed. “But you just got this new job...” he tried lamely, more for the sake of not letting her have the last word. She shrugged.
“That was six months ago, before I knew I was getting Gav. Louison will understand.”
“You don’t know that. That woman isn’t human.”
Éponine snorted in amusement.
“Trust me, she’ll back me up on that one,” she said with enough force to shut him up. He stared at her for a while longer before raising his bottle, remembering it was empty and putting it down again.
“I need you to do one more thing for me,” Éponine said, softly enough for him to look up, surprised. “I can’t leave you here knowing you’ll end up at the bottom of a bottle without me to fish you out of it.” Grantaire steeled himself. He knew what was coming. “I need you to cut down on you alcohol intake. I can’t raise my brother while knowing the other is drinking his way to an early grave.”
Grantaire pursed his lips and looked away from her. He probably would have verbally torn anyone else to shreds. With Éponine, though…
“I’ll try, Ép. I’ll do my best.”
“Your best is enough.”
“You’re not only leaving for Gav, are you.”
Éponine’s hands tightened on the steering wheel and she shot him a furious glance. He deserved it, having picked a moment she couldn’t punch him or walk away to avoid the question. Gavroche was asleep on the back-seat of the car, the hits of the summer were lowly crackling from the radio. A few minutes passed in silence.
“Ép,” he prompted her.
“Still, say it aloud.”
“Fuck you,” she suddenly spit out. “You know, you know I’m not leaving you because Pontmercy and Cosette are fucking. Fuck you.”
Grantaire bit his lip and stared at the blur of the French countryside at the window. He maybe shouldn’t have pushed, but some words needed to be said aloud. Or at least that’s what his therapist had said in the first session he’d had with him three weeks prior. He definitely did not see Éponine drying something at the corner of her eye. She and him, they didn’t cry.
Now, Grantaire is crying. Fat, ugly tears that roll down his cheeks, watering the hem of his hoodie. Face twisted into a horrible grimace, mouth like a painful red wound, eyes two puffy slits bloated with tears. Things a blur, indistinct and fogged over. All strength concentrated in the struggle not to burst into sobs in Enjolras’s car. Can’t breathe.
Enjolras can’t really do anything. The car carries on.
First, silence. The air is punched out of him. He falls on the chair, breathless, clutching the phone to his ear. He can distantly hear the other person drone on, but it’s muffled, happening to someone else in another universe altogether.
A horrible sound fills the Musain’s back-room, like the whine of a wounded beast.
People are around him, asking – what.
The whine continues, deep-throated, animal, primary; a wail, the sound of all losses and griefs, the sound a heart makes when it is gutted out. He wants it to stop.
People keep talking around him – a hand on his shoulder, shaking him a little. He closes his throat reflexively, and the sound stops. Apparently he was the one making it. The sound. What? What’s wrong? The phone is wrong, fucking phone, where is it – ah. Shit. Unknown number my arse. What do you mean what’s wrong. He can’t breathe. Words. He doesn’t know how to
more. Are you all right?
No, not panic! Grantaire!
not fine. Panic. Oh my god. Oh m
y god. Please. Please no, no, nonono – what?
I can’t. Need a ticket. What do you mean what for, I need to get there!A fucking ticket FOR THE TRAIN! Fuck, let GO of me, I need to GO! He shakes the hand off, get OFF, he needs to go, I need to -
“R, what happened?”
He can’t help it, the whine comes again, as ugly and knee-cutting as before. A wounded beast.
Question. Answer question. It’s Enjolras’s question – oh god, nononono – can he even talk?
“Éponine. She had an accident.”
“Come on, get in.”
Grantaire takes a step back at the sight of the car next to Enjolras. Joly squeezes his shoulder and doesn’t budge from his side.
“Get in,” Enjolras repeats. “You need to get there as soon as possible.”
He doesn’t really understand. He says it. Uncharacteristically, Enjolras doesn’t roll his eyes.
“The next train is at 7 in the morning tomorrow. If we leave now we can be there around 1am, midnight if traffic’s kind to us.”
“You have class,” Grantaire points out, bewildered. Enjolras dismisses the objection with an airy movement of his hand.
“This is far more important. Come on, hurry up,” he answers, walking around his red Clio and getting into the driver’s seat. Grantaire blinks a few times.
“Come on, get in there, man. You know how he is, he won’t move before you’re inside,” Joly tells him. Grantaire turns to him, eyes wide. “It’s Enjolras, man. That’s who he is. Hurry, there’s no time to lose,” he adds, gently pushing him forward. Grantaire mechanically opens the passenger door and climbs in. Joly stands on the side-walk, with Bossuet and all the Amis gathered behind him. “Call us.”
Grantaire nods. Joly shuts the door. Enjolras starts the car.
He still doesn’t understand.
“We’re nearly there,” Enjolras says, his voice a stone in the pond of silence of the car. Lights flash by on both sides; a few directional signs: the sea is close. The island is close. And then –
Grantaire doesn’t want to think of it.
11:56 flashes blue on the dashboard.
He’s called the hospital thrice already, each time they stopped for gas, food or a quick dash to the loo. Coma. A stationary state, they say.
He’d better hurry, they say.
Enjolras is a good driver. He drives fast but safe, as concentrated on the road in front of him as he is on anything else. Sometimes, Grantaire wonders how things don’t melt under his gaze – glare –, under all this single-minded, blazing focus. Sometimes he feels he does, and whoever’s upstairs knows Enjolras doesn’t ever waste much concentration on him.
Sometimes, he wonders what would be left of him if Enjolras were to look at him like this, one day.
Suddenly, the sea is here, in all its enormous mass of liquid night. The bridge to the island stretches in a graceful arch speckled with yellow and blue public lights.
“Grantaire,” Enjolras softly says.
Enjolras is like Éponine: he doesn’t do softness. He is all flaring words and cutting beauty, hard and sharp like a marble angel. Grantaire turns around a little and glances at him: he still has his eyes on the road, hands at ten and two, but something in his body language makes it clear that his attention is now divided between what is in front of him and Grantaire himself.
“I… I know I’m not very good at all this, and that you’d prefer it were Joly or Jehan or, hell, even Montparnasse with you here, but…” He trails off. Grantaire doesn’t deny anything. He can’t play Icarus all the time, and being next to the sun requires some kind of energy and attention he doesn’t have. He does wish someone else were driving right now. “What I mean is that I know we’re not the best of friends, and that there’s little I can do for you. But whatever you need – whatever,” and here Enjolras glances at him, a quick blue dart to get his point home, “I’m here. For you. If you want.”
Grantaire swallows, thrown off. This Enjolras is not the one he knows. He doesn’t know how to deal with this.
“Okay. Thanks,” he finally says, gruff and hoarse. He adds: “I do. Want to, I mean. Thank you.”
Enjolras nods and slows down as they get near the end of the bridge. The direction to the hospital is marked on the right. The blond turns the steering wheel and Grantaire is taken by the sudden need to draw these long, pale, delicate hands. Not the time, brain. His fingers itch for a pencil and the smooth feel of expensive paper.
After a few minutes, the car slows down again as they enter the parking lot. Grantaire can already smell the hospital’s sanitised white light. He is shaking. The car stops.