Enjolras is a difficult man to know.
The Société des Amis de l'ABC meet with regularity in the secret backroom of the Café Musain, and inside that room they're men who enjoy each other's company, men who enjoy debate and making plans for the future and sketching out utopias that will never be while indicting society for its worst and most abhorrent faults. They turn the law inside and out, they pull Charles from his throne and ransack Saint-Cloud, they exchange firm hand-clasps and terrible puns and stories of their mistresses, and when they pass each other on the street, many of them pretend not to be acquainted.
Oh, with some there's no point pretending. Bahorel knows everyone in Paris, it seems sometimes, and he doesn't need to make any sort of show; if agents of the Sûreté kept note of him after the death of Lallemand and attempted to follow all his innumerable friendships high and low, they would have gone mad. One might as well count the stars in the sky, distinguish the many points of light from one another and tot them up in a long column of scrawled unhappy figures. Joly and Bossuet discover in each other such an affinity that keeping their private lives separate is never attempted. From their first shared cup of wine they are twin souls, young men of great good humour and charming idiosyncrasy who fit together like pen and penwiper.
Courfeyrac spends himself among them like currency. Marius is his own friend, an attempted transplant into the garden of thorns which didn't quite take, kept separate thereafter except when permitted carefully controlled visits to further his political education, but otherwise Courfeyrac is brilliant and careless and friend to the student body entire – save for those without distinction, humour, or interest. His friendship with Bossuet precedes the formation of their society, and endures outside it, in whispered asides in lectures and exchanges of notes during Blondeau's worst and most high-nosed flights. Therefore, he comes commonly into Joly's way; and Grantaire is frequently to be found in their company, making a common third and a frequent fourth. They drink together and sometimes even study, confounding the law school and the École normale and the state of the arts, and entertaining young ladies of dubious virtue and quite reproachable morals.
Combeferre's work at the Necker keeps him busy. He has his own friends, quiet complex men of the École polytechnique who spend their time cleaning blood and gout from under their fingernails or in pursuit of natural science, but he is known to share a glass of wine with Courfeyrac outside their meetings, and it is commonly presumed that he spends many more evenings in discussion with Enjolras. Strangers when the Friends began to meet, their conversation is a rewarding and illuminating thing, a back and forth which never seeks to decimate but only to come to an understanding. Their minds mesh well, and opinions cross back and forth between them until they blur, but nevertheless they remain distinctly different men with different ways of thinking. There is a quickness to their thought and a development of their conversation which suggests that they must improve it in their own time.
Feuilly is otherwise removed from their concerns: a matter both of necessity, the need to labour, and careful care. Jean Prouvaire is a man of many interests and spends much of his time, according to his own accounting, with others of his Romantic inclination. He brings scented air into their closed rooms, the far-off perfume and spices of the Orient and the fresh jasmine trod underfoot in the gardens of Kublai Khan, and lends a wrenching and glorious majesty to their talk of weapons and stockpiles and gunpowder. It is necessary in the doing of what is right to see it also as something beautiful.
Enjolras, however – he is never commonly present except at the Café Musain, where his presence is unbearably palpable. There is much that can be deduced from study, however. He is a man of few friendships; the archives of the Moniteur are at his fingertips; he attends the lectures of Guizot at the Sorbonne and makes corrective notes in the man's published works in private, turning their margins into an inky morass. He does not attend the theatre. He contributes articles to the Journal des Débats, and, later, to Jeune France, and occasionally peruses subscripted copies of Le Globe with a crease between his eyebrows. There is much in science and literature that confounds him, but on history he is sound. In 1824 he must have been still walled up in a provincial college, but he speaks of that year with the veins standing out at his temples and the clench of his jaw pronounced, as though he witnessed the accession of Artois, as though the law of the double vote was a personal injustice, tearing the franchise from his hands.
Grantaire is frequently privileged to watch him in full flight of rhetoric.
“What is the Republic?” Combeferre asks meditatively, and Marius looks perturbed.
“An intangible dream,” he offers. “I do not mean to say it was not a good one, yet the execution –”
“A state,” Enjolras says, still making notes on Thiers' history of the republic, “where the law is the expression of the general will, what Rousseau called the volonté générale. All legitimate governments, in which the public interest is predominant, are republican.”
Marius, who is, after all, young in a way it is impossible to imagine Enjolras being young – Enjolras, Grantaire has decided, having been born full-grown like Minerva, like Helen from the eggshell, Venus from the sea-foam – looks more unsettled still, and indignant with it. His rhetorical training has been neglected. He has a great deal of passion and intelligence, but no instrument for shaping it. It spills out of him wildly, unchannelled. “And therefore all governments which are not republican are not legitimate?”
Enjolras inclines his head very slightly.
“And if the ruler is a just man?” Marius asks. “If he is unelected, but seeks compromise with the people; if he works according to their best interests; if he seeks the greater glory of France and the extension of her empire, if he shelters her and her citizens from the Austrian and Belgian wolves, if he is a man of personal greatness enough to fill such a great position –”
“Do you truly think such a man exists, or might exist?” Grantaire asks, with enough amusement to make him duck his head. He doesn't often interfere in Pontmercy's political education, unless it is to undercut it or to hum something by Béranger slightly under his breath. The company in the Café is too congenial for all that. He would rather dice with Bahorel, or concoct new and more offensive insults and slanders in competition with Bossuet – and yet there are some fallacies too ingenuous to permit. In others, at least. If there is such an idolatry in his own mind, at least he's not grossly drunk enough to yet offer it tonight.
(Enjolras, he thinks. Enjolras is such a man. They have all thought that of him, at one time or another. He is their example of antique virtue enclosed in flesh, possessed of an angelic morality and chastising wrath.)
They all know that Marius wishes to offer Bonaparte as an example, from the way his brow knits and the passionate nostrils flare with brief temper. The wary glance at Enjolras and then Combeferre explains his silence. He is learning, like a dog taught to heel; to fear, but also, perhaps, to understand.
Grantaire does not blame him for not wanting to rouse Enjolras's derision. There is nothing more contemptuous in the world than the way Enjolras pronounces the name of the Emperor with all its original Italian flavour: Napoleone Buonaparte, rolling all ten syllables gingerly over his tongue as though the chalky clay of Corsica still clings to them.
“Perhaps not,” Marius says at last, and if a little of the bright gleaming idolatry dies in his face with that concession, a little wisdom enters them. Grantaire does not know what he is thinking of – the Bonaparte family dividing Europe up between them like a pie, Caroline clutching her pearls and Eliza spreading her legs for the men of the guard, Bernadotte with crown and sceptre and Mort aux roix! in faded tattoo across his chest. The men dying of plague in the hospitals of Egypt and of cold in the wilds of Russia, fingers and toes and cocks and noses turning black. These things are true, but forgotten in the wake of too many old soldiers sit in goguettes around Paris talking of the glory of Austerlitz, the clarion of Marengo, with their listening audience of young men thrilling to the memories of France unconquered, France triumphant, a France they can barely remember.
Enjolras is that sort of young man himself, Grantaire thinks, although making that observation would earn him a ball-shrinking look from the cold blue eye. He thrills to the stories of the tennis-court and the guillotine, the arguments on the Convention floor and the sound of heads falling into baskets, Marat's I am the wrath of the people – and yet the impulse is not dissimilar, to sit and learn and listen and dream of the days before one's birth. He is one full generation too late, out of step and out of time, grown to manhood in a country divested of her empire like a woman of her clothing, dishonoured, its attempt at self-government and self-definition brushed aside, its kings back on the throne, its continental watchdogs ready to spring again should it attempt to rise. A generation born after glory and ambition and hope. And yet Enjolras is all those things, here, in this room, however spare and bare his existence outside it.
“There can be great men, but not perfect men,” Enjolras says, but kindly. “The human condition does not allow for it. And only a perfect man can be permitted autocracy.”
A pause; Combeferre smiles, directing the gentle emotion first at Enjolras and then to the fire. Courfeyrac, who has been watching this catechism in silence, laughs now.
“Ah, Enjolras,” he says, and the affection in his voice warms the room more than the fireplace. It draws them all together whatever their differences. “What concessions we are making today, on all sides! Are not the sins of your great men forgotten in the face of their patriotism?”
“Obscured, if not excused. You mean to argue the case of Rousseau yet again?”
“No, I count that argument as lost. What is a newborn babe compared to a newborn nation, after all?”
“You split the same hair,” Combeferre says. “Courfeyrac would have it that our progressive idols cast in bronze should not have feet of clay; Enjolras, that patriots don a bronze skin which excuses their humble beginnings. I take a middle ground: I suggest as Carrel does, on dit que nous n’avons pas assez de vertus pour vivre en république; je réponds que nous n’avons peut-être plus assez de vices pour vivre en monarchie. The imperfection of the man does not matter; it is the imperfection of the state we must concern ourselves with. To require an ideal virtue in the patriot before licensing him to act for his country is to ordain that no man may ever act."
"I can't decide if you have an unduly high or an unduly low opinion of your fellows," Courfeyrac muses. "Can't we nevertheless aspire to the heights?"
"Why only aspire?" Grantaire, with a nod to Enjolras. "You have your model already in your midst. Stuff him with straw and sawdust until it leaks from the joints, mount him on Montmartre – what a banner to follow!"
"The only thing I wish to raise at present is the level of discourse in this room," Enjolras says, flinty, and returns to Marius. "What is a republican?"
Later that evening, Enjolras is still writing, his black stock unfastened and his outrageously blond head bent over his work. Combeferre is correcting his first draft as he produces it, in neat lead pencil over the scrawled blue ink.
Courfeyrac, to all appearances, having dispatched Marius home to his study of German after seeing him dispatch a good meal and brushing off his attempts to pay for it, is sitting sprawled in a chair with his long legs crossed at the ankle and talking about a ball he attended last week, calling on Grantaire to verify his story – and simultaneously shaping the article in deft cross-examination.
“Really,” Combeferre says, and squints over Enjolras's crabbed hand. “She offered to accompany you into the coat-room?”
“Well, I was looking for her cloak,” Courfeyrac says, and shakes his head in pretended sadness. “An offer made for the sake of politeness, in the chivalrous spirit – and then, I'm afraid, she took advantage of me.”
“I see why you didn't accompany your protégé home,” Grantaire says, and swallows more wine. “You wanted to stay behind and boast of your exploits, and you couldn't do that without mortifying his virgin ears.”
“It discomfits him, and I have a care for his blushes,” Courfeyrac says in exculpation of his friendly failure. “And in any case, I know why you've stayed behind, and not followed Bossuet and Bahorel on to greater excitements – you want to hear the details yourself.”
“You abandoned me,” Grantaire says in disgust. “I was relying upon you to fix my fancy with some young woman there – and you went off and left me to my own devices.”
“And did they prosper?”
“They did not,” Grantaire says, and takes another gulping mouthful. “This gargoyle's face is not permitted entry to the mossy grottoes where love is made.”
“Chut!” Enjolras says. He doesn't usually lend them a fraction of his attention when he's working, but in his own way he's as prudish as young Pontmercy – although without his squirming embarrassment and odd concatenation of bourgeois and Romantic morality. Enjolras would simply rather the flesh didn't exist. That is another thing Grantaire has deduced over the years; unlike the others, he maintains no mistress. “I commend Marius for his virtue.”
“And yet, watch,” Courfeyrac says. “He'll end a district attorney with a hopeful family, with perhaps a little romantic regret when he thinks of his liberal youth.”
“If you believe that, why are you wasting your time with him? And ours?”
“There are worse things,” Courfeyrac says, and smiles as if to foresee his own future. “And besides, Marius would first have to first bring himself to talk to a woman in order to court one.” He rises to his feet.
“Come on,” he says to Grantaire. “Let's find the others, or at any rate some amusement of our own, and I'll tell you what that abandoned woman did to me in the cloak-room. Combeferre, the third paragraph on the second page – regard it again; the verbs are not in agreement, and the second point is weak and could be strengthened. Enjolras, my dear – good night.”
That is who Enjolras is when he is most himself. Whatever life he lives outside the Société is his own business, and undoubtedly scrupulous and wholly upright, conducted in strict accordance with his republican code.
That code is no less rigorous for being self-imposed. As far as Grantaire can tell, it requires a lack of all interest in gambling, in wine, and in the embraces of women – and even their company. Enjolras saves his passion for the memory of the wrongs done to the masses. He seems to mull over his words before he shapes them, and begrudges unnecessary expostulation. He is daily engaged in a hollowing-out of the self, a constant act of self-discipline, until all that is left is a vessel for the republican spirit; a mouthpiece for the necessary revolution; a leader for their particular cénacle, clearing a path into their desired utopia and sternly bearing the weight of their expectation.
Therefore Grantaire is surprised to encounter him near the Croix d'Or on the rue de la Rouquette some weeks after Marius's last visit to the Musain. Enjolras, he knows, spends time among the workmen, involving himself in their quarrels and their concerns, but this is nevertheless unexpected.
He's encountered Enjolras by chance before, and sometimes tips his hat to him, sometimes follows his cue and pretends no acquaintance. He once shook Enjolras's hand in the street and attempted something baroque enough to be a secret Freemason handshake for the sake of that directed displeasure and the impossibility of public recourse or reproach. Now he sees Enjolras walking along a dark street with his straight shoulders and indisguisable height and fair hair under his hat, and whistles.
La Carmagnole, of course. It offends Enjolras almost as much as Henri IV, and the effect on him is instant; he stops, his head inclining to the side, and then turns slightly, his gaze moving around the dark like a hound scenting the air.
“Are you lost?” Grantaire asks, pitching his voice to carry, and the elegant man he'd been trading wit with bridles. “Oh, don't worry – he's not one of your number, I assure you.” Then – “Enjolras! What a surprise. Do you need an escort back to more salubrious streets?”
Enjolras is still silent as he draws closer, a dark shape in the night. Grantaire's interlocutor slips away. When Enjolras has drawn abreast of him, he says, “You are indiscreet. Don't hail me by my name in public.”
“You worry too much,” Grantaire says, but he lowers his own voice a trifle. “If overheard, I promise you that Vidocq's men will simply think I'm importuning you – or even, quel impossible, that we are both men of southern extraction, and connected in some fashion in ways that smack of neither the seditious nor the scurrilous. I don't expect the Parisian police to distinguish between the accents of Poitou and Languedoc, not when they seem incapable of distinguishing between arse and elbow.”
“A little more than that. Why did you hail me?”
“Do you require direction from here?”
“I am where I mean to be, but I can dispense with your company.”
“What beautiful manners,” Grantaire says, charmed, and then, “I think you ought to depart, white sepulchre of great pulchritude. I'm not sure that you understand; in the evening, this is where men go to couple with cocottes, to fuck pansies, to make daisy-chains under the bushes – and I can assure you that the Sûreté watches, even if it won't arrest. You will be more comfortable elsewhere. Allow me – where do you lodge?”
Enjolras's mouth tightens with disgust at his bluntness; or perhaps at his pursuits – but Grantaire is accustomed to being judged by him, and found wanting. He's hardly alone in that. The great mass of humanity for whom Enjolras would so passionately turn the fulcrum of the world with his ungloved hands is, nevertheless, in the singular rather than the massed, hardly pure enough to pass beneath the yoke of his expectations. Grantaire is permitted into the backroom of the Café, and that is enough for him; that is passport enough. To that limited extent, he is acceptable; into that limited circle he is trusted.
Whether he is to be trusted with Enjolras's particulars is apparently a matter for debate, but at last, after apparently strenuous thought, with what internal quarrelling Grantaire can't begin to guess, Enjolras unbends long enough to say, “Presently, in the rue Guénégaud.”
“Very well. I will see you there.”
The walk back to the rue Guénégaud is silent, or nearly so. Grantaire attempts a jest, and is snubbed; he attempts to comment on the benign evening and the mild air, and is rebuffed. Offering details of the last supper he shared with Joly and Bossuet earns him a severe glance that reminds him to be careful of whose names he drops in public.
At last, he hums under his breath and is merely ignored – an improvement! – and directs his glances to Enjolras's particular profile, set in cameo against, by turns, the cluttered streets and the stretches of evening air.
Commonly the sky is pink at dusk. Tonight it's a steely blue; cold and grey with a thin film of cloud. The set sun lends a yellow-green tint to one edge of it, forcing a resemblance to one of Géricault's uncanny backgrounds. There's still enough light that the lanterns are not lit. Enough to read by. Soon there won't be. The moon is out already, a dim pale-yellow circle that seems absurdly and unusually small, a tiny hole torn through the blanketing cloud.
Enjolras says, when they're not far from his lodgings, “Stop that.”
“I'm aware that you're attempting to provoke me with your music-making.”
“Silence speaks,” Grantaire says, feigning shock. “I am attempting to do you a favour; would I do that and bait you meanwhile?”
A speaking glance – it is no wonder Enjolras sometimes barely opens his lips when the Café is busy and merry. He doesn't need to, to convey his point. His eye is all.
“Perhaps I would.”
“You are not content merely to walk; you must stir.”
“I don't like silence.”
“Is that why clamour attends on your heels?”
“Pardon?” Grantaire says, stunned at the breadth of such hypocrisy. “You, who beats the war-drum; you, who lights the fire under the kettle; you, who fills the air with argument – what is the republic, Combeferre asks, and you have an answer; what is a republican –”
“Someone who puts public interest before private,” Enjolras says, as though Grantaire is one of his malleable young minds in need of shaping. Enjolras, for all his inhumanity, is no more than twenty-three, downy as a chick, with shards of eggshell still in his curls. Grantaire has a few years on him, and infinitely more experience of the world. “Someone who seeks equal rights for all; someone who seeks justice for all, and does all the good for others that he hopes they will do for him. Are you a republican, Grantaire?”
A rhetorical question. Enjolras is perfectly aware that he isn't. Grantaire doesn't expect good from others, because he knows the quality of his fellows; therefore he doesn't do it. He disbelieves in change, and smiles at the talk in the Café Musain even while he enjoys the company and the stimulation.
“I put private interests first – and that you know. You met me tonight on such an errand. While you seek the betterment of all, I seek my full glass, my full belly, and my empty cock. Are you pretending to be surprised?”
“No,” Enjolras says. “I was ascertaining your moral fibre. Come inside.”
Grantaire follows him up the stairs to his rooms, and waits while Enjolras unlocks his door. His insistence on absolute privacy for his politics is sometimes laughable. “Do you mean to lesson me in private? Is this an attempted conversion? Do you mean to play Blinding Reproach to my Saul? Your hair is damascened gold – but it won't suffice. Light in the sky to my Constantine, Angel of Revelation to my Beast? You won't accomplish it; better not to try.”
“Such is, of course, your dictum.”
“Here's another: better to sprawl in indolence than engage in Sisyphean struggle.”
Enjolras tightens his mouth and at the same time opens the door. His quarters are small, but surprisingly well-tended. There's a carpet over the bare floorboards, and his sitting room – study? Yes, undoubtedly he calls it that – is well-lit, with oil-lamps that kindle quickly and cleanly. For reading, no doubt; against eye-strain. It's cleaner than many students' lodgings, but not painfully so. The only thing of note – because the books are expected, and the many papers, the small plaster head of Marianne – is the day-bed.
It's positioned directly under one of the taller lamps in a way that suggests it's used for reading. An antiquated thing with only one bolster, and a little thin cushioning. Prouvaire keeps a lush velvet-brocade divan that one can sink into with an opium pipe between one's teeth, but this is sparer, requiring partial uprightness and stern attention. Grantaire has seen something like it in David's portrait of Mme. Récamier. It hasn't been in fashion in nearly thirty years.
The Empire, succeeding the Consulate, required more pomp than Pompeii, heavier pieces; a solid sense of the eternity it aimed at. The returned Bourbons, a gilt-bronze fantasy that encompassed everything from clocks to console tables to commodes and cupboards, relieved only by white and coloured marble. The classical references are still made – the lyres and laurels, the anthemia and amphorae – but they sprout with a lack of taste and restraint, making no attempt at veracity. This fragile wood and wicker lit bateau would have been long since discarded by an owner desirous of a more fashionable salon: it is an unexpected thing to find in Enjolras's rooms, and yet it suits him.
“Jupiter to your Danaë, perhaps,” Enjolras suggests, returning to Grantaire's earlier volley, and removes his coat.
Grantaire hiccups with suppressed amusement, distracted from the récamier both by the maladroit reference and the loss of a layer of clothing. Enjolras spends too much time reading broadsheets and republican history, and too little reading anything else. “Pardon? I think you need more instruction in the classics.”
“Yes,” Enjolras says, with continued patience. “That's what I am attempting here.”
“Os impurum; irrumatio.” The Latin is clear and crisp in his mouth where Buonaparte is slurred. There can be no possibility of mishearing him. “Or fellatio; I am not fixed to a particular role. I don't care for the strict delineation of parts, but that I expect you could deduce from my usual preference for equality.”
Speech is beyond him. Grantaire couldn't be more astounded than if Jove himself had appeared trailing glittering fool's-gold; the analogy is after all apropos, but Enjolras as Club to his Head would be more fitting.
In the silence, Enjolras makes a point of unfastening his cuffs, and then removing his stock. Then his waistcoat, fingers steady on the jet buttons. In his shirtsleeves, he's a tall clean perfection of form and function; white linen, fair hair, blue eyes. A little private flesh shows at his throat where his cravat held his collar together.
The spit had dried in Grantaire's mouth as Enjolras competently divested himself of his outer dress, and now he has to swallow to work up a little moisture, enough to speak. “This is a punishment,” he says. “You've seen how I look at you, and you mean to punish me for my imagined trespass.”
“You can hardly mean to reward me for it.”
“No,” Enjolras says again, and still in detached accents. They could be talking in the Musain; Grantaire could close his eyes, and be listening to Enjolras in conversation with one of his friends. “I mean nothing by you. You are known to me, and trusted, to a small extent; and while you may consort on occasion with men, you boast publicly only of the women. I incur little risk by admitting you to this portion of my life. I prefer to hold them separate, but since you crossed my path – I would rather couple in my own rooms with a man known to me than with strangers elsewhere.”
A frown. “How much have you drunk? You're particularly slow tonight.”
“Not enough not to rouse to a touch; but as you don't indulge, in wine or in other matters – ah, d'être pur comme Enjolras –”
“Puer?” Enjolras says, turning the word around, in a pun Grantaire would like to have made himself. “No. A man; and not untouched by the sexual response. I dislike the distraction, but I manage it as I can. You were looking for a fuck – will I do?”
“Will you do?”
The light unencompassing words are so insufficient as to be ludicrous. This is how men go mad; see flocks of Furies; drink absinthe and stagger in the street, lie in the gutter watching the stars reel and explode. Tear their skin and hair with their own fingernails, bite their own flesh until it bleeds.
Grantaire could imagine himself to be mad, but when he takes Enjolras's arm to test the veracity of both the man and his proposition, it's solid, the linen warm from his skin and the flesh of the forearm yielding slightly under his fingers as they encircle it.
Enjolras's eyelids drop a little at the touch. When Grantaire attempts to kiss him, however, he turns his chin away and says, “Not that.”
“You're saving your kisses for your wedding night?”
This spurned sally is not dignified by direct reply. “It's a waste of time.”
It's a waste of mouth. In that pale face it's an always-unexpected flag of colour, the shape of it a bow drawn at a moon made of honey. Denied, Grantaire kisses the corner of Enjolras's jaw instead, and despite his expectations, is not denied; that is allowed. Then the warm hollow of his throat, exposed by the gapping collar.
It moves under his lips as Enjolras swallows, and now he expects a withdrawal, a blow, an invitation to an exchange of shots in the morning light –
Enjolras puts a light hand to his back, fingers curved and the palm not touching. “You procrastinate." He permits Grantaire to suck a red blossom into his collarbone before he pushes his head away and frowns at him. “Don't treat me like a woman. I don't require love-making.”
“What do you require?”
“A fuck,” Enjolras says, and eliminates the last distance between them. The warm scent of his hair rises up to Grantaire's nostrils.
“I had no conception that you even allowed yourself a private release. How is it that you permit yourself la petite?”
Enjolras's response is again not a serious answer, but a question of his own. “You're telling me to prepare for disappointment?”
“Not at all; I'm called grande-R for a reason.”
“Called so by yourself.”
“Enjolras,” Grantaire says, attempting to instruct, “if you are desirous of fucking, you must not puncture the amour propre of your proposed partner. Allow me to kiss your throat again.”
An incline of the head says, without saying, If you must.
It's remarkably like making love to a statue: one that suffers his attentions but in no way invites them. Grantaire has no taste for martyrdom, even if he has one for the fine quality of the skin under Enjolras's ear. He would give it up if it were not for the way the silent pulse beats under his tongue, and then beats faster. The intimate press of the man against him, the perfume of his skin and hair.
If Enjolras doesn't see the point of these caresses, he is nevertheless not as disgusted by them as he pretends. His body is undeniably roused; and Grantaire can only wildly wonder if he was so when he brought Grantaire into his rooms, when they walked through the darkening streets. Already readying himself with anticipation, perhaps, if he was seeking his release by the Croix d'Or as he claims.
Or perhaps he began to rouse in earnest only after Grantaire put his lips to his throat and sucked response from him? How strange, to think that this is a body that functions just as his does, with blood pulsing in similar channels under the skin, with secret triggers and hidden reflexes, made of the same flesh and bone.
Unfastening a shirt-button reveals an inch of new skin to his mapping mouth, and the next another. A third reveals that Enjolras's chest is moving up and down with his quickening breath, remarkably hairless save for a light dusting at the sternum. Several buttons more bring Grantaire lower still, kissing as he goes. One last button, and the impulse to simply start on Enjolras's trousers, to take and tear and have, is too strong.
He curls his tongue in Enjolras's navel instead, and in an instant the humeur amoureuse is lost.
“Euh,” Enjolras says, his voice going higher than usual, and steps back. His shirt is fully parted now, held together only where the tails are tucked into the trousers. He pulls it off and dabs at his belly. “Did you learn that trick from one of your fucks?”
“What, have none of yours attempted it before now?”
“They keep their mouths shut and bring me off quickly,” Enjolras says, and throws the shirt aside. He means it as a reproach.
What Grantaire hears, however, is that no one has ever taught Enjolras the slow pleasures of the body; when he has known the flesh, it has been in fumblings and furtive handlings in the dark. It's something he could teach, but not a lesson this pupil desires to learn.
“Tell me why,” he says instead, watching Enjolras sit on the edge of the récamier and begin removing his boots. “Why do you present such an incorruptible face to the world, and keep your private desires in the dark?”
The bullion-bright head is bent over his work, as so often Grantaire has watched it bent over various tracts at the Café Musain. A wave of violent wanting comes over him again. He wants to bite the tendon in the strong white neck, to take it in his teeth like it's a string of pith on an orange he's about to remove. He wants to go to his knees and take apart the remaining buttons on Enjolras's boots with his mouth.
“Why do you assume that I'm less myself in the company of my friends that I am when I pursue selfish ends?” Enjolras inquires, and they could indeed be discussing a point of partisan orthodoxy. “I would say that that face is the true one; this, a brief lapse that allows the former its existence.”
“A face? A mask.”
“An aim,” Enjolras says. His boots are off now. He looks at his empty hands as if they hold scribbled answers for him. “An aspiration to an ideal state I haven't yet reached.”
“Why attempt it? There is no shame in being merely a man, and failing in apotheosis. Your own companions would argue that there is no necessity; you, yourself, have argued that. The great man is excused much, remember.”
Sharply: “And would you say I am a great man?”
“I – you trap me into either flattery or disparagement,” Grantaire says. He attempts a jest, a piece of specious connotative coquetry. “I have yet to see for myself; are you warning me to prepare for disappointment?”
“Perhaps I am.”
If Grantaire was referencing base matters, Enjolras is serious. Isolated again, as though not moments before they stood pressed together as Grantaire mouthed him from neck to navel and thought feverishly to possess him. A futile hope, he sees suddenly.
That warm swelling expectation has been lost, and now something less lusty and more painful is present. The nameless, shapeless, swooping thing he feels for this ungraspable man, this lion-cub, this boy. An emotion that belies even his own ability to laugh at it, to mock it, to turn it inside out and beat it hollow. The only word Grantaire has to put to it is admiration, and it is insufficient.
“I could not possibly be disappointed,” he says at last.
From him the words are nothing; are base again, with nothing metaphysical to them. From a Courfeyrac, a Feuilly, a Bossuet – but Enjolras would hardly ask that question of them, their opinion matters; to them he must be a leader, the necessary hub from which the spokes of the wheel run to the rim, and that wheel runs along the rutted path into the future.
And Grantaire must be what Enjolras expects from him, so he lightens his tone, and inserts the ribaldry into it which is necessary to return them to the firmer footing of before. “That, I can promise; I'm sure you'll prove me right in a moment. Nevertheless – If you won't explain why, explain at least what. What you did with men before me. What you like.”
“Is it necessary?”
“I want to hear it.”
“I don't do it so very often,” Enjolras says, but his own expression has altered. “Perhaps – perhaps five times per annum, if as much as that. Is that the kind of thing you wish to hear?”
“The first time,” Grantaire says. “You must have been very desperate, to think of seeking it out.” If he thinks about that, he may find his own way back from stumbling enlightenment to thought-blotting desire. The one is far easier than the other, and less painful, and more familiar. He is a man who likes a rut, in a multitude of senses.
Enjolras sighs. Seated, his trousers are pulled taut over the groin by the part of his knees. It isn't a deliberate show of himself. For that, he'd have to spread wider, and sit differently, with his back arched. He would have to be a different man. He doesn't seem to be urgently roused any longer, but his palms are flat on his knees again and his eyes less distant.
“Yes,” he says, begrudging it. “I was. It's not that I don't – ” A swift glance – “I am aware that there are private remedies. Manual means. I avail myself of them when I must. But they are not always sufficient, and – it is not uncommon for the demands of the body to temper the ability of the mind.”
“The brain is present in the body, therefore by necessity the mind is subject to the flesh.”
“Yes, that would be your argument,” Enjolras says, relaxing a further fraction. “Combeferre shares your belief; he has made some study of the effects of blows to the head on the thinking apparatus. But an army surgeon he studies with has some particular theories about the subjection of body to brain –”
“Enjolras,” Grantaire says softly. “The first time.”
A slight flush, unpretty. It rises from Enjolras's collarbone, and reminds Grantaire that he's half-naked before him, his belly creased softly in sitting and the curve of his shoulder warm and solid, sharp elbow resting on his thigh and chin on hand. Nipples small and discreet. How could he have forgotten? He could eat Enjolras with his eyes alone.
“Yes,” Enjolras says. “Well. I'm not – I am accustomed – without vanity, I've been the subject of approaches before.” His mouth thins. “From men – those who ought to know better – and from women – those who are no better than they should be. I've never been tempted by them. I'd been in Paris a year at that point, but I wasn't aware – I didn't know where men of a certain inclination – of my inclination clustered.” A firming of the jaw; an act of courage in that statement. “I don't believe that I would have sought them out if I did. Not then.”
“You had a lover?”
“No,” Enjolras says. Then, as though the idea is a new one: “Perhaps. He wished to be, at any rate.”
“Tell me, am I acquainted with him?”
“You sound as though you would dislike being so.”
“I merely wonder.”
“No. Nor am I, any longer. He attended some of my lectures at Louis-le-Grand in my first year here, and pretended to feel a great deal of interest in republican ideas that proved to merely conceal an interest in my person. I believe he left his studies and returned home, but I can't say I particularly cared to enquire.”
Grantaire feels a little helpless sympathy for the hapless student, and a great deal of jealous satisfaction. And a confusion. This youth, dismissed for false pretences of philosophic bent; he, who makes none, here now –
“But nevertheless – you went to bed with him?”
“I allowed him to bring me off with his hand,” Enjolras says precisely. “A fraternal kindness I returned, on several occasions, until I became aware that his increasing intimacy with my person was accompanied by a concurrent decreasing lack of interest in my politics.”
“How old were you?”
“Old enough. I controlled myself well enough until that point, and perhaps I would have continued to do so unaided, if I hadn't allowed – That Rubicon can't be uncrossed.”
“Not so,” Grantaire says, with an elevation of his eyebrows. “I know a great many women who make sport out of yielding again and again to those more desirous of plucking the blossoms of spring than gathering the bouquets of summer – let us merely say that a little pretence, a startled gasp, a splash of claret, and then! A shining louis left on the pillow. You can play that game as many times as you have the patience for it.”
“That's not what I meant.”
“No?” A thought strikes him. “What was he studying?”
The corner of Enjolras's mouth lifts in an almost rueful amusement. “Theology,” he says. “After that – I made it my business to discover where such men found another. I made use of a man I had occasional contact with in the course of opposing the restoration: his politics were rather more purple even than Marius's, but his loathing of the white unflinching, and I had heard him speak with both respect and sympathy for de Cambacérès. It was a risk – but he was able to direct me where you were so eager to direct me from.”
“Did you go alone?” Grantaire asks, and when Enjolras looks at him, at last loosens his own cravat. It's difficult to breathe with Enjolras looking at him so and speaking like this. “Did you?”
“Take off your trousers.”
“Did you go alone?”
The angled corner of Enjolras's jaw becomes more pronounced at Grantaire's stubbornness. When he shifts, the shape of his erection is perceptible against the line of his thigh, a thing not merely deduced through touch but empirically present. Grantaire wants to go to his knees and nuzzle it through the heavy serge. “Yes. Perhaps a year after the theology student.” Another pause. “A man offered to pick my pocket. I suppose you know what that means?”
“I do. Did you let him?”
“Of course not. I'm not a fool, or an innocent, whatever you may think me. And besides – he wasn't to my taste. No; I found another, and he began with his hand, and then offered the use of his mouth. I accepted.”
“And did you reciprocate?” Grantaire asks, and these are thoughts he could entertain until threadbare, until his brain has embroidered them anew, until he's sore and abraded –
“Not on that occasion,” Enjolras says, and suddenly smiles, a slow and charming thing that spreads over his features like warm butter and transforms them. He looks younger. He might have freshly risen from a loving-couch, his face wet from being buried between a woman's thighs. “Come here, and I'll demonstrate.”
His impulse is still s'embrasser, to stand between Enjolras's legs before the récamier and bend down to kiss him as roughly and claimingly as he is capable of. To do that, however – to attempt it is to meet the fate of the unknown student who received Enjolras's first clumsy touches and now has his contempt.
He takes Enjolras's face in his hands but doesn't stoop to touch their mouths together. Tilts his chin, turning it back and forth under the bright light.
The carved lineaments have an antique look to them, even with the massy hair out of place and a flush on the pale cheeks. This is a face that could have looked out from the portico of the Forum, that might have strolled through Lutetia Parisiorum when it rose from the mud. Wide eyes so pale a blue that in some lights they look blind. A nose as straight as a blade, with elegantly curled nostrils. A broad brow made to be diademed with laurel leaves: lightly-muscled forearms and mannered hands, made to drive a blade between a tyrant's ribs.
An ideal thing; but a thing of flesh.
“Has anyone fucked you between the thighs? Up the arse?”
“What?” Enjolras says, and flinches under Grantaire's continued scrutiny. His pulse beats like a secret hammer against Grantaire's thumb, curled under his chin.
“Pedico, pedicari, pedicavi,” he enlarges, as though declining the verb will help. “Salaud. Buggery, if you must – no, I know what you'll say. A waste of time?”
“I – a little advanced. And not what I intended in inviting you here.”
“What did you mean?”
“Hands,” Enjolras says. His voice is back to its measured tenor. “Mouths.”
“Those, I am capable of providing,” Grantaire says, but what he does is straddle Enjolras's thighs and kiss his neck again.
Enjolras's arm comes around his waist, but after the first permissive moment the muscle in his throat stands stiff with impatience, so Grantaire licks the hard unyielding line of tendon and shifts his seat. Enjolras makes a soft noise, half-surprise and half sudden enlightenment. “Ah,” he says, and the arm tightens.
He moves, barely, and then with more assurance. It is clear, even if Grantaire hadn't known it, that Enjolras has never held a woman on his lap in public or private and felt the yield of a firm arse against his cock, a pair of thighs around his waist. He is discovering for himself the movements of this particular dance, the way to derive his best enjoyment from the position.
Grantaire allows him that for some time before he must move himself. It's too much, watching Enjolras's face change and feeling him finding his rising pleasure against him. Then it's not enough.
A pushing on the shoulders, a fiercer savaging of the throat with teeth and tongue; and the straight back yields, and yields, until at last to not to topple over Enjolras has to swing one long leg up onto the récamier.
This necessitates a quarter-turn of his person which Grantaire follows, from the perpendicular to the parallel.
Then, Enjolras under him, he says “Allow me to teach you the further joys of the dry fuck – you seem untutored in it. A little rough on the laundry; a man may chafe himself like a schoolboy in the attempt of it –”
“I grasp the theory.”
He does, and they move together, a mutual and yet selfish seeking. Grantaire has never done this with a person he is not permitted to kiss, and it's strange to lie like this, tête-à-tête – in a plural of senses; an execrable pun, and one he must never share – and simply pant.
Enjolras solves the difficulty for himself by grasping the back of Grantaire's shirt and pressing his face into the curve of his neck. The gesture is not a caress; it must be meant to save his own dignity. If his lips brush Grantaire's throat, it is not a kiss. Nevertheless.
It's intimate, and yet distant, enveloping, but contained. If allowed to continue unchecked, one or the other of them is going to come to their completion still breeched like the schoolboy he spoke so slightingly of. What a fall for dignity! Grantaire wishes to advance his borders, not lead them on a sideways scouting expedition.
At last, with heroic effort, he struggles upright.
Enjolras pulls at his waistcoat. “Grantaire,” he says, and his beautiful voice has come unstrung. “Not yet –”
There are red depressions on his skin where Grantaire's buttons have pressed into him. Grantaire removes the offending garment, and pulls his half-untucked shirt from his waistband. He hasn't gall or patience enough to strip bare in Enjolras's rooms. Rough and ready will suffice.
When he finishes fumbling with his buttons and his linen, his cock springs out, ludicrously eager. It is an ugly thing, urgent and flush with blood, the matted black hair at the base attempting its own escape into the free air.
Enjolras had ceased to protest when Grantaire began to undress. Now his regard is narrowed, and Grantaire is suddenly aware that by his own accounting, Enjolras hasn't seen very many men; has taken them in in fraternal hand with lowered eyes and attempts at dignity that marry poorly with copulation, in dark unlit rooms and spaces with strangers. He could curse the unkind clarity of the reading lamp above them.
Enjolras lifts his eyes, the blue satin of a summer sky in Anjou. “If perhaps you moved forward – if you sat bestride my shoulders, we could attempt irrumatio that way.”
Grantaire's mouth is dry again. A phrase commonly said; and now for him made real, twice in this room. He dampens his lips. “I might choke you.”
“You are looking for compliments.”
It is terrible how Enjolras misreads his best impulses and deciphers his baser ones clearly; at the same moment, and in the same impulse. “It is not – an act best not attempted. You can't trust me enough yet for that.”
“'Yet' implies that there will be trust in future –”
“Enjolras,” Grantaire begs. “You may never have repeated an act with the same man; but allow me to assure you that there is a measure of understanding that builds up through such repetition. You cannot know that I will not ram myself into your tonsils and stop off your breathing, and in such a fashion – you could not prevent me.”
A pause. One that accepts this statement, one that admits without speaking that there exists a small measure of confidence already, the same that allows Grantaire his suffered presence in the backroom - however it is leavened with dislike.
“Perhaps I should have said – 'yet' implies there will be future encounters.”
“You proposed them yourself.”
“Subject to the success of this encounter.” A push is enough to make Grantaire move off him, to draw away to one curved end of the récamier. “Then allow me,” Enjolras says, a touch of severity in his voice. “Allow me to show you how this is best accomplished.”
A shuffle, and it's arranged to his exacting satisfaction. He slides from the récamier to the floor, pulls Grantaire's knees apart, and then his head is in Grantaire's lap and his mouth is on him.
The terrible thing is that Enjolras is good at it. Oh, not studied, or whorish; but not hesitant or unpractised, either. It's something he's done before. He wasn't telling Grantaire fantasies to arouse him. This is something he's done for other men, something he may – must – enjoy. It is a living dream. It is a living shattering of dreams; of ideals, so that men may live.
“...et quod pruriat incitare possunt,” Grantaire murmurs faintly, as that mouth moves on him. His own words fail him; he won't shame Enjolras or what he's doing for him with the first lines of that poem. Instead he buries his hands in the marvellous thick fair hair, sliding his fingers through the corn-silk abundance, and with painful restraint stays still and lets Enjolras work on him as long as he can stand it.
It is heaven; it is hell. At last, it is Purgatory, balanced on a knife's edge, and Grantaire is as gentle as he can be in lifting Enjolras's head from him. “Suffisamment. I'll finish myself.”
A stroke, two –
Enjolras observes him as he completes the transaction in his own hand, expression peculiar. “Stop that,” Grantaire says as he strokes, throwing an arm before his face. “No man should be watched in the sublime moment.”
“Your manners are gentlemanly.”
“A warning is merely polite. Have your past lovers not – Ah, Enjolras.” A word half prayer, half groan.
It may be his release wet between his fingers that makes him suddenly wildly tender, but his esteem for this man seems to crush his lungs again. He cannot express it. To do so would earn another reminder not to make love to him, or worse. Derision; freezing anger and bitter exile. He touches Enjolras's hair again, a caress briefly permitted before Enjolras withdraws from him and rises to his feet.
Grantaire fears, for a moment, that he means to terminate this unsatisfactory encounter; then he sees that Enjolras is merely – merely! – attending to his own arrangements.
“No,” he says, and his voice is still too rough. “Come here; allow me.” He wipes his left hand on a front-tail and takes Enjolras by the elbows. Rises to his own feet.
“I think, if you were to put your mouth on me – No,” Enjolras says quietly. “Manual means.”
“Another time,” Grantaire promises. “The next time; I will hold you down and spread your thighs and let you fuck my mouth until you spend. That, to begin with.”
Enjolras makes no answer, but he leans against him and lets Grantaire take him in hand. His cock is undoubtedly as well-made as the rest of him, but closed in the curl of Grantaire's fist it's simply a cock. Arbor vitae, yes, but a pulsing, demanding piece of stubborn proud flesh that blindly seeks out its satisfaction.
It's true that he is guilty of what Enjolras accused him of. He imagined Enjolras to be a man unlike other men, perhaps more akin to a Greek statue than Grantaire is comfortable confronting. All polished marble and beautiful contracted muscles showing to best advantage, a perfect harmony of mind and soul. The generative organs small and shrunken, an unnecessary addition to the whole, best hidden by the bronze acanthus leaf placed there by a later hand. Blind between the closed legs the way stony goddesses and sporting nymphs are in effigy, permitted their nudity as long as the fork of their thighs have no split to them.
That is what he thought of Enjolras, a smoothness, a lack, an unheeded lack. This is what they all think of Enjolras, and what Enjolras expects of himself. That expectation must be a weight as heavy as a Pheidippidean Poseidon when placed on a living man.
The truth is both stranger and more mundane. Slipping in his hand, this thing of flesh and silky skin and smoother secretions; the warm hair damp with sweat and heat at the private juncture of his thighs.
“Oh,” Enjolras says, and if it's a torment to him, there is no denying that it's also a pleasure. He presses his face into Grantaire's shoulder and allows more of his weight to transfer between them. A little more stroking, coaxing, working, and his breath comes painfully from the back of his throat.
“Hush,” Grantaire says, and Enjolras lifts his head, suddenly aware of his own sobbing breath. “Hush,” he says, still gentle, and brushes a little of the damp hair, darkened to brown, from Enjolras's temple before pressing his lips to the hot flushed skin. “I have you.”
Grantaire has him. He is having him, Enjolras – in body, if he cannot possess the vault of his mind or his ambitions. That monument of republican self-discipline and straight lines. In the middle of Enjolras's own study, held to his body, the long lean form shuddering against him as he finds his release at last.
He was wrong to imagine that it might have found Enjolras easily on the day-bed, moving together like the lit bateau was a boat indeed. It's a wrench, and a defeat more than a victory. A private thing, the heavy eyelids concealing it from Grantaire's eager scrutiny.
After the spasm has ceased, they remain heavy in the suddenly blank face. It is as clean of thought and feeling as Grantaire has ever seen it.
Then Enjolras's mouth twists in self-disparagement.
Grantaire's felt it himself before, many times – the swelling crescendo and then the sudden stop, an egg rolling off an uneven table and cracking on the floor. If opium dreams could be punctured in such an abrupt moment, all smoke-drinkers would be shrieking mad instead of merely stupored.
“Thank you,” Enjolras says, in a different tone.
He pulls away, and rebuttons his fall-front. A frown – a searching look around the room that doesn't manage to encompass Grantaire's presence in it – and he finds his shirt crumpled on the floor and resumes it.
There's nothing else to clean his hands with, so Grantaire completes the ruin of his own shirt by adding to its stains. “How lucky I didn't trouble to remove my clothing,” he remarks.
“That was not my fault,” Enjolras says. Grantaire watches with bemusement and a little incredulity as he moves across the room to his desk, seats himself, and begins searching among his papers.
A few more moments, and he dips pen into inkwell and starts scrawling something.
“Are you moved to poetry? Prouvaire will be intrigued to learn he has a rival.”
“As I said,” Grantaire says, raising his voice, “the next time – I will see that you come straight away, before I let you attend to me. That will take some time, because I'll make sure to tire myself out beforehand; and then, that complete, I will have you another way before I let you dismiss me.”
Enjolras's shoulders tighten, pulling the linen taut across the yoke. “Grantaire,” he says, lifting his head. “Enough.”
“What are you working on?”
It begins to appear, in the long silence, that Enjolras doesn't mean to answer any further, having answered him enough in the past while.
At last: “I am revising my article,” he says. “It requires some refining; I must make Combeferre's corrections; and I have some further points to develop, and now the necessary attention and clarity of thought to make them. ” His pen scratches, in need of mending. “You should go.”
“And will you wish to see me privately again?” Enjolras nods curtly. “Tomorrow? Next week?”
“In a few months, perhaps. I'll apprise you.”
“Poor Attis,” Grantaire remarks, and if there’s a knife-thrust there, there's a tender edge to the knife. “Since you couldn't be born unsexed – wouldn't you follow his example, if only you could?”
Silence. The scratch of pen on paper, and then the harsher sound of the penknife paring. There’s no answer, and at last Grantaire takes his leave.