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He spots them spotting him two weeks before Christmas. It’s while he’s being thrown out of a department store for taking a nap on one of the half-mattress bedding displays and, to be honest, he’s glad that there are so many people out and about. Not that he enjoys making a spectacle of himself or anything but he’d been trying to sleep off the wine and God knows what else from last night before his rude awakening and this is not the state in which he particularly wants to be meeting… Well, anyone, really.

So, he continues in the same vein as he’s been spouting since security first laid hands on him. Something about the tyranny of capitalism and the plight of the homeless and the blind smile of divine charity bought by a spare change feel good donation to a bell ringing Santa Clause on the curb. He makes the ‘e’ as audible as possible, ruins the whole effect by announcing that it’s there, but the words that come out of his mouth just sort of start tumbling anyway, don’t stop until the well runs dry or something hard and painful greets his face. Later he won’t even remember anything that he’s said. These people around him, though? This little kid clinging to someone’s hand? That store clerks who look a little bit too much like they understand? Those people might remember. Sometimes he thinks of them and that memory is all that even matters. That memory and the memory of whichever guard gets to write up the incident report.

He gets passed off to the mall cops and continues his overly vocal march to the parking lot until the officer at his left tugs him upward by about a foot, it seems, and hisses at him to “shut the fuck up” or they’ll bump his charge to an actual disturbance of the peace this time. They both know better than that, of course. Even the guy on the right knows better and he’s new, hasn’t seen or done this whole routine before.

“You can’t threaten me like that,” he mutters, even as he ducks his head and quiets down. “Besides, the peace has yet to be disturbed. Hardly anybody even noticed.” A glance back over his shoulder, all but dares both of his disgruntled companions to just look at how few people even cared, even remembered (no one remembered). It’s just a pleasant side effect that it also allows him to catch sight of the small group still following him through the crowd. The big, dark, bald guy too tall for his own good is like a beacon, a buoy bobbing along through the sea of shoppers. That glance is more than enough for him to turn his attention back to moving his legs. Better not to meet any eyes.

Left Cop is saying something which he hopes isn’t important because he hasn’t heard a word of it. “—gonna have our heads.” Good. Nothing important.

“Yes. I’m sure. Whatever you say.” He doesn’t look back again, just focuses on the look of wary irritation on the face in front of him. They were closer than he’d have liked before and they’re just getting closer with him standing still now, dragged off to the far left door, out of the flow of consumer traffic. Outside of the swarm of bodies, he can feel them and he’s not ready. Not for any of it. Not for now. Not for here. Not for this. It’s difficult to keep his voice steady and calm and he only keeps it from cracking by letting his words trip over one another as he spits them out, “This is just a warning this time, right? Go home. Get sober. Don’t shout at anybody on the way out. Sleep in a real bed. You know, those little half things are shit anyway. May I go now?”

It’s a familiar face that looks back at him, one who’s dealt with him so many times before that a change in behavior is obvious and, apparently, worrying. “Technically, yes, you’re free to go but— Alex, is something wrong?”

With a flash of his best shit eating grin, he flings his hands into the air and bursts through the door. “Nope! Everything’s just fine.” Then he’s off at almost a run for the bus stop with anyone who might call after him drowned out in the hustle and bustle of a chill December evening and his own bellowed, “Merry Christmas!”

The bus takes him to the nearest Metro station and people look at him oddly when he pulls the plastic card from his pocket and slides through the fast lane with a wave to one of the station attendants. God love the tourists. Some of them had probably seen him earlier, the homeless man sleeping in the back of Lords & Taylor. It’s like this every year with the deep pocket shoppers, hitting up every decent sale and high-priced shop within a few feet or a bus ride of the train. Once they’re done here, half of them will head up to New York City. The other half have already been.

He trots down the escalator, making noises under his breath that, in passing, might sound like apologies to the people who’ve left their feet and elbows and purchases in his way. For all that, he doesn’t see the little girl standing at the bottom until he’s just about on top of her and has to bite down hard on the inside of his cheek so he doesn’t curse as he quickly moves her out of the way. Who in their right mind would just leave there kid right there? It crosses his mind to ask her just that, as he gets into a crouch that puts him just about at her eye level.

Except all that comes out of his mouth are the words that he’d just cut into his own flesh with sharp teeth and soothing tongue. “Oh, fucking— Fuck!” And he backpedals in a crabwalk until he nearly drops right off the platform.

People look at him oddly again. Someone mutters something about “crazy drunks.” Someone else moves toward the child, murmuring quiet words of comfort, and he wants to stop them. He wants to. He wants to. He wants—

There is so much screaming then that he can’t hear, can’t speak, can’t feel anything but the stamping of feet and the cacophony of voices and stop stop stop stop the incoming train rumbles down the track the third rail buzzes at a frequency that normal people don’t hear don’t hear don’t— “STOP!”

And it does. He knows it will. And it does.

Problem is, the calm and quiet comes with a price.

It charges at him with a shriek that pierces his ears all the more sharply for the surrounding silence and he barely gets his hands up in time to catch its wrists and save his throat from laceration. “A child? Really?” He doesn’t even bother trying to guard his expression when it lets out that scream again, so much closer this time, and he feels as if his ear drums might burst. “Were you going for shock tactics or something, giving a little girl that ugly mug of yours or what? Why not just shove somebody in front of a train and be done with it?” When he pauses, lets it hiss in his face while he strains against its weight, a small voice in the back of his head tells him that he really shouldn’t say what he’s about to say but its slimy, rotting face is right up in his own and the words are out before he even really considers other options. “Or were you just not strong enough to finish your illusion?”

The only upside to the creature’s reaction is that its lunge in to snap at his turned cheek allows him to throw it off balance and he almost wishes that he hadn’t slipped through the veil when it topples over the ledge and onto the track. This would be so much easier if there were a train to hit it. Instead there’s just an empty platform and he barely has time to get to his feet before it’s clambering up and he’s under attack again.

“Oh, come on!” He dives out of the way, distancing himself from swiping talons, and scrambling for cover. “Can’t you take a joke?” There has got to be something he can fight with. Something. Anything. “Or just an honest passage of judgment, for that matter. You have to admit, you are pretty ugly.” Empty fucking Metro station. “And I’d be one to know.” He should probably just—

“Would you please stop taunting the thing, Grantaire!”

The voice from the top of the escalator works as an excellent distraction. One angry beast with multiple targets and potential attackers is so much easier to defeat than one angry beast with a pinpoint focus. Alex’s strike connects with its jaw so hard that even in a proper fist his knuckles crack. Probably shouldn’t have done that with his dominant hand, now he thinks about it.

He flashes the band of newcomers a grin as they make their way down to his level and the monster at his feet tries to regain its sense of balance and shake the lingering stars from its vision. “You know, no matter how many times you use that name on me, it’s still not mine.” Wiggling his fingers to make sure they all still work properly, he also takes a moment to kick out, heel of his scuffed and battered boot connecting with the back of his opponent’s head.

At the bottom of the stairs, now, there is a tall, young blond glaring at him and Alex does his very best not to appear affected by that fact in the least. It’s a difficult task, of course, for many reasons. The person in question is practically made up of stray sunlight, a star brought down to Earth with none of its raging inferno lost for the sake of the mere mortals around them. Uncontainable, the fire glows through flesh and bone, turns the layers beneath their skin into sheets of polished bronze, spills out in thick, loosely tied locks of spun gold. They look every bit a God, even wearing simple jeans and a T-shirt, red sash tied around their waist in place of a belt. If they do not rise to divinity, he might expect the only other option to be their early death or, perhaps, his own.

Surprisingly, though, the modern deity of the blazing sun, looking so severe with arms crossed and brow furrowed, isn’t the one who speaks next. Instead, it’s a flash of honey and gold that leans out over the railing, broad grin of bright teeth and hair tightly tucked up under a blindingly red and carefully knotted head wrap. Alex can’t help but smile back, really, when she blurts right out, “Are you going to finish it or not?”

He should, really. It’s his right, his duty, his whatever. Besides which his kill rate at this point must look preposterously low compared to the rest of them, assuming someone somewhere is actually keeping track of that sort of thing. When was the last time he’d been the one to deliver the final blow? The memory is somewhere out of reach. Maybe a month ago? Maybe two? Maybe he was drunk. That thought’s quite likely.

“Nah. Go for it.” He holds his hand up to wave his fingers around again. “Think I dislocated something with that pot shot.”

There’s a bark of a laugh and she leaps the rail with grace and ease. It’s a maneuver which, much like her entire demeanor and sense of style, looks perfectly natural, gradually built and developed over time rather than pulled out of a book or constructed to meet some else’s expectations, unlike some of the others around her. She is organic and utilitarian and wickedly keen. He loves that about her. That and how she’s almost a head shorter than he is and can still kick his ass every single time.

The dazed monster in front of him is just beginning to properly gather itself when she reaches it and plants her feet. Her right hand flexes once, palm and knuckles wrapped with a length of stained linen, and she rolls her shoulder before pulling back. Then her arm pistons forward and the creature barely has time to voice its rage before it explodes into a cloud of ash and dust, the veil falling to pieces right along with it.

Their sudden return to the platform is disorienting and deafening and Alex nearly loses his balance, the general commotion of impatient commuters slamming into his chest like a physical blow. A hand at his elbow, however, is enough to keep him steady and centered and he glances up with a weary smile. The one he receives in return is accompanied by a gentle squeeze.

“What Michel meant to say before is long time no see, Alex.”

Alex shakes his head with a laugh. “Don’t lie to me, Dom. We both know he said precisely what he meant.” He squints ever so slightly with a lopsided grin. “Did you get new glasses?”

Dominic chuckles. “Almost a year ago now, yes.”

“Where are Iggi and Deven? I know I saw baldy behind me earlier. I assume those two are together.”

“They’re on their way here. They called us earlier to let us know that this was most likely where you were headed.”

Alex wrinkles his nose. “They ratted me out? Those traitors!” He doesn’t even care how obvious it likely is that he still hasn’t fully slept off last night’s half-forgotten festivities. His shirt, he’s only just realized, has a tremendous wine stain on it, which he’s almost entirely certain was not there when he first put it on, and this hoodie always smells just a little bit like marijuana. How many people get a whiff of that when the next train pulls in and sucks the air away from him. “I’ll give them a piece of my mind the next time I see them. They should know better. Best friends’ rule: no tattling.”

Still glowing, just off to the side of the busy escalator now, Michel huffs a mirthless laugh, audible over the cacophony of people grumbling and jostling as they exit or enter. “Their so-called tattling just saved you.”

“I had everything under control!”

“You were circling a metro bench.”

“I was just waiting for an opening.”

“You were obviously panicking.”

Alex snatches his arm out of Dominic’s hand with a snort and a step back. “You’ve obviously never seen me panic before.” Then he takes a hop, skip, and a jump backward until he stumbles onto the train, the doors closing before it even registers with anyone (but Mali, perhaps, given the hand hiding her grin) exactly what he’s doing. With a sloppy salute and a wink, he watches Michel take an involuntary step toward the train as it pulls out of the station.

Once they’re out of sight, however, it’s only his too-close proximity to a dozen other passengers that keeps him on his feet.

Chapter Text

The first time he remembers seeing the man, Alex is five. They’re in Prague, visiting his grandparents, and it’s getting late and he’s waiting at the kitchen table for Maminka to come get him for bed. She's already taken his little sister upstairs, the child half asleep over their mother's shoulder, and she'd said she would be right back down. So he sits and he waits and he watches out the window, furiously scribbling a map of this city as he imagines it, grand and fantastic, with dragons guarding its most secret places and colorful stars marking all of the spots that he knows.

That's when Alex first sees him.

He’s a scruffy man, not well-loved by time or space, and he smiles up at the window around a dying cigarette. To Alex, at five, he looks very old, in his late twenties or early thirties, with dark hair and dark stubble and dark circles beneath bright eyes that reflect the faint curve of his lips, magnify it, make his face— his whole being glow. When he waves, dirty fingers smudged with paint swatches and charcoal, Alex can’t contain his excitement. First he smiles, bright and toothy, then he waves with his yellow crayon still in hand.

This strange man is an artist, he just knows it, and he wants the man to know that he’s going to be an artist, too. At four, he had announced his wild career plans to his parents and his father had rolled his eyes and Maminka had given him a sad smile but on his fifth birthday, when he still hadn’t changed his mind, she'd given him paper and some new crayons. Now the kitchen table is covered in loose sheets and bright drawings that he’s made for Děda and Babička and he picks his very best to press up to the window pane.

The man's smile grows brighter for a moment and he makes a small show of applause before the window shade slaps down against Alex's wrists.

The yelp of surprise and, he dare not admit, pain is ignored and his father mutters all those angry, English words that Alex knows he isn't allowed to repeat. They are followed by a snapped "Stay here." Alex says nothing, simply pulling his stinging hands and crumpled artwork into his lap instead.

Out in the front hall, he hears the door open and slam closed and he carefully peeks around the shade to see the man is no longer there. It’s just his father, huffing and puffing and pacing the sidewalk. Then his father pulls out a cigarette and Maminka comes to say that it’s finally time for bed.

Later that evening, once he’s tucked under his blankets, Alex curls up with his ear to the wall between his and his parents' bedrooms. They’re arguing in a broken stream of mish-mashed Czech and English and he can’t understand enough to really follow. Still, Father seems angry and Maminka sounds hurt and Alex falls asleep dreaming of monsters atop St. Vitus Cathedral.

 

The next time he’s nine and he’s been arguing with some of the older boys at his new school. Two weeks in New York, three days into the fall semester, it comes out he'd skipped a grade and some kids aren’t happy and they won’t stop calling him names or laughing at his accent. He's tried ignoring them but that doesn’t help much and then one of the girls from his art class stands up for him and that’s it. They corner him in the park between his house and the bus stop and three on one means knowing how to throw a punch doesn’t really make much difference.

He's seen two joggers go by and he thinks maybe they'll say something. They’re adults, right? Maybe they'll send someone to help. A full minute with his back to a tree trunk, arms over his head and knees up to protect his belly, he realizes that no one was coming so he’ll just have to bear it until they’ve had their fun. That’s what makes the looming shadow that stops the attack such a surprise.

Maybe it’s the police, he thinks. Hell, maybe it’s a kidnapper. He doesn’t really care who it is because his ribs hurt and his shins are bruised and, honestly, he just hopes it isn’t his dad. His dad thinks he’s pathetic enough as it is.

"They're gone, Alex," a strange voice says, low and gruff and accented in a way that Alex can’t currently quite identify in a way more specific than European. Not that he’s really thinking about the accent anyway. He’s too busy scrambling to his feet in confusion over how a total stranger knows his name.

The man before him doesn’t really look fundamentally different from the last time. He’s still scruffy and dirty and pleasantly smiling with unruly hair shading his eyes. Alex wouldn't call him old anymore but wouldn't call him young, either, and he has a bottle neck clutched in one hand, paper bag crinkling between his fingers that boast bloodied knuckles.

Then Alex hears his mother calling and, when he’s turned away and back again, the man has disappeared.

 

The third time, he's sixteen and in a shitload of trouble. They live in California now and he's been picked up for vandalism and his father has that look in his eyes when he shows up at the police station, the one that says Alex is going to regret so much as breathing when they get home. Once all the paperwork is filled out and he's been reminded of how lucky he is that he's still a juvenile and this is his first known offense, Alex trudges out the door with his gaze locked on his feet and he very nearly runs right into someone. That eerily familiar face makes him choke on his intended apology but the man simple smiles, almost sadly, and lights a cigarette. He's still standing there, watching and smoking, as the car pulls out of the lot.

That night, nursing a partially dislocated shoulder and a number of growing bruises, Alex climbs out his window to sit on the roof with his sketchbook and a stick of charcoal. It's the only place he can go where the shouting inside is muffled enough for him not to understand. His sister is spending the night at a friend's house and he's tremendously grateful for that. One less person to worry about; one person he can be all but certain is safe.

He wakes up to the sunrise with black smudged fingers and the roof tiles printed into his cheek and a man standing at the end of the driveway, watching him until he blinks.

Later that year, his dad starts back in on an old tirade. "You're not even my son, you little bastard." As much as he knows the words hurt his mother every time she hears them, Alex can't help but wish they were true.

 

He's been seventeen for all of three months and he's too young for a nervous breakdown but he's been hospitalized for one anyway. Dad says there's nothing wrong with him, he's just acting up for attention. He belongs in jail. The school therapist says he should be on medication for something, he doesn't really know what. As far as his classmates and school security are concerned, he's just a troublemaker, a dumb punk, and his peers are way cooler with that than the police. Then he gets into a fight one day and he starts screaming and beating the guy's head against a locker and no one can stop him because you do not touch his sister when she tells you to leave her alone and so fucking help him--

He forgets how to speak English somewhere in there and doesn't actually remember anything at all until he comes to with his wrists cuffed to a hospital bed hours later. The doctor and accompanying officer tell him that his sister is at the police station for questioning and someone is trying to talk to his parents in a room downstairs and they'd like to talk to him, as well. Alex just stares at them because it takes too long to process what they're saying. The audio track and the image just won't sync up and their words are far away and garbled. Nothing that happens the next few days stays with him, really, like his short-term memory is fucked, except the ever present question of why no one is acknowledging the wino sitting in the corner keeps nagging at him.

The doctors just start medicating and the next year goes by in a haze.

His dad kicks him out on his eighteenth birthday, halfway through his final year of high school and with his sister helplessly attempting to comfort their sobbing mother in the background. He barely makes it to graduation, living in a youth home run by a local church, but talking to one of the counselors there is the first time that a stranger has ever expressed any desire to see him succeed. They help him find a proper therapist, take a serious look at colleges, apply for scholarships, find a job. It almost feels normal.

During the process of moving into his freshman dormitory, however, he sees a familiar face among the milling students and families and wonders if maybe normal just isn’t meant for him. It’s the first time that he’s ever actually witnessed the man interacting with other people. There are two others standing there with him, one smoking a cigarette and brandishing a cane at him in apparent frustration, the other tiredly rubbing at his bald head as he watches his companions argue. Alex only catches the man’s eye for a moment, just long enough for the other two men to notice and glance in his direction, before all of the move-in day commotion gets too distracting and, when he finally tries to look for them again, all three are gone.

When his paranoia tries to run away with the fact that one of his new roommates is tall and bald and the other walks with a rather pronounced limp, he just has to remind himself that he sees a shrink for a reason. His mind is a monster and, shockingly, he soon learns that his roommates can sympathize. They’re thick as thieves by the end of their first semester. It’s the first time Alex can remember ever having anyone he would consider real friends.

 

He sees the man – even sees him with one or both of the other two – several times during his college career but he’s twenty-two when he finally, properly meets the apparition he’s spent so much of his life thinking must just be a figment of his imagination, a product of the mental illness that he and half a dozen psychiatrists have spent so long trying so hard and yet always spectacularly failing to treat with any real success. It’s late one cold night in January and he’s heading home from work with thoughts of his final semester swirling through his tired mind and he doesn’t notice at first that there are things moving in his periphery. Even when their existence does begin to register, he doesn’t consider the possibility that they aren’t just in his head. By this point, he’s more than just a little bit familiar with the idea of hallucinations. His hallucination have never had a physical, tactile presence before, though, and when a shadow suddenly reaches out and grasps his ankle and he barely avoids slamming his head into the concrete, he no longer has the option of explaining these things away.

The shadows themselves, too thick and solid, have dragged him a terrifying distance by the time he hears someone shouting and two pairs of sneakers pounding the ground in odd rhythm. Dizzy, he tilts his head to catch sight of his best friends sprinting in his direction through a world that seems to have otherwise stood completely still. Whatever has a hold on him just starts tugging harder.

Iggi, the faster of his saviors by far, slams into the densest portion of the shadows with his shoulder. The grip on Alex’s ankle loosens just enough for Deven, breathing heavily with pain etched into his features, to help him scramble up and away. Thoughts swimming, he only vaguely registers the fact that Deven isn’t supposed to move that quickly. Then there’s an explosion of black dust glittering under the streetlamps, dissolving the moment it touches his skin, and Iggi is sprawled on the ground a few feet away with three familiar phantoms standing behind him as he catches his breath.

A cane taps at the ground with an air of impatience. “Well? Has the situation grown grave enough for you or are you going to continue to ignore this until it’s too late?”

The bald man hums in agreement. “Grantaire, my friend, your hesitation has always been understandable, truly, but Joly is right. To turn your back on this now…”

Iggi and Deven look to one another as if they’ve just had some long-held suspicion confirmed.

“I fear that I owe you a thousand apologies, Alex.” There is a sad, tired smile below sad, tired eyes and a hand reaches out, a tentative offer. “I have done as poorly by you as I have by anyone I have ever known.”

Joly places a hand on the man’s shoulder, impatience softening into sympathy. “You’ve always done right enough in the end.”

Alex hesitates but a voice in his head urges him forward, tells him that he must, that this might very well answer so many questions, might finally explain why his life has gone so wrong. The voice only gets louder as he allows himself to be pulled to his feet, louder and clearer and more familiar. It is the man’s voice now and it speaks with a certainty and a flood of emotion that feels uncomfortably candid to the both of them.

“It seems that some divinity has mistaken me for a man of the same caliber as those who once blessed me in life by showing a tolerance for my presence. I had hoped to spare you from the consequences of that mistake but I am afraid that I have failed quite spectacularly in that endeavor. Your friends are as much a blessing as my own have always been. They will, I dare say, prove better teachers than I could ever hope to be. With luck, they will be able to ignite the flame within you that caught far too late in me.”

Then there is a burning in his chest, a flash of light and the smell of gunpowder, and the world around them lurches back into motion as the three phantoms disappear and leave him standing between his only two friends in the world.

 

It’s been two years and he’s had over a dozen confrontations with shadows and monsters that seem to grow progressively stranger and more horrifying and he’s stopped taking the anti-psychotics and developed a drinking problem instead. His friends don’t like it but there’s not a whole lot that they can do. He’s an adult and he makes his own decisions and it’s not as if he really should have been on that medication in the first place and it’s not as if he’s the only one who partakes in order to relax and cope with these things. Everyone needs something to distract them every so often from their apparent cosmic duty to battle some nebulous evil. Alex just partakes a bit more than most.

When it’s just the three of them, it’s not really a problem but Deven comes home from work one day with what he deems to be exciting news and his announcement that he has seen Joly talking to strangers changes everything. The next day, Iggi reports seeing Bossuet speaking to someone as well. Alex doesn’t mention that he hasn’t seen Grantaire in at least a week but he learned early on that his mentor or past self or whatever they truly are is far less active and certainly less consistent than the others. It is, he knows, the result of a shared anxiety, a feeling that they are here by mistake, included only as an oversight.

That feeling only continues to grow when Deven announces that he’s met one of the others and that they have all been invited to attend a housewarming party to meet everyone. Alex tries his very best to seem excited. He also tries his best to pretend that Grantaire’s continued absence doesn’t bother him as much as it does. The party comes and goes and, though he likes all of the people that he’s met and though Grantaire returns that night to such a warm welcome that it feels as if his heart might catch fire in his chest, Alex merely finds himself feeling more and more out of place. He is the weakest, by far, in mind and soul and he cannot believe that none of them can see that. How can Michel – a golden god whose presence turns his thoughts into static – not see that? They all call him R as often as they call him by his real name and he knows that he doesn’t belong here, no matter how much he wishes that he did.

 

Another two years later, Děda passes away and Alex travels to Prague for the first time since he was a child. His mother is newly divorced and his sister newly engaged and he stays there for over a year, far longer than he should, and lets his contact with his friends (how can they call him a friend?) lapse into silence. He drinks more and smokes more and while he can hide from his family just how poorly he’s doing, there is no hiding it from the phantom sitting in the corner.

When he finally goes back, he doesn’t tell anyone that he’s coming and he’s not sure if he ever plans to. They’re looking for him and he knows it. Grantaire tells him that they are, though he never pushes for him to instigate or invite a confrontation. All things in their own time, he says, and over the next several months Alex gets pretty good at literal shadow boxing.

 

Then it’s almost Christmas and he’s being kicked out of an outlet mall and he’s fighting a monster at a metro station and barely escaping and he knows that there’s only so much longer that he can run.

Chapter Text

“I should have stayed in Prague.” Alex is grumbling into his soda, sort of quietly but not really. It’s more of a stage grumble, like a stage whisper but less secretive and more irritable and, honestly, it’s a skill that Grantaire is fairly certain he used to employ quite frequently himself. “This hot dog tastes like shit.”

They’re sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Alex half curled in on himself against the winter chill and Grantaire silently watching and listening. People pass by but never between them, which would be surprisingly thoughtful of hundreds of strangers under normal circumstances. As it is, however, this consideration has nothing to do with not wanting to cut between two companions and everything to do with the fact that, as far as the public is concerned, it looks very much as if Alex is talking to himself and has evidently done something to make himself quite cross.

“You told them, didn’t you?”

This time Alex’s voice doesn’t carry so much as he stares at what’s left of his lunch, which is considerably more of it than what he’s actually eaten – a fact that will have to be discussed later. Right now, he sounds resigned and looks downright sullen, like a child who has suffered a dire, though inevitable, betrayal. Grantaire can’t help but feel a bit guilty.

“They didn’t need me to tell them where you were going.”

“I’m not talking about the station and you know it.”

It doesn’t matter how closely Grantaire watches; Alex still doesn’t look at him. To be fair, it would likely just make people think him even crazier. Muttering to one’s self is marginally better than talking to someone who isn’t there. Grantaire learned that in his own time without actually having an invisible companion seated a few feet away.

With a sigh, Grantaire lets his own eyes roam over the lawn before him, the reflecting pool showing the crisp blue sky, the wind blowing faint ripples into the water, just enough to make everything blur. “I spoke to Bossuet and Joly, yes.”

It’s a confirmation, not an unprompted admission, but Alex still looks hurt by it, as if a part of him had almost hoped that his whereabouts really had been discovered by mere chance.

“You swore you wouldn’t push me into anything,” he says, the bitter disappointment in his voice stinging Grantaire’s ears. “I suppose helping them corner me doesn’t count as pushing to you?”

A part of him grows defensive, wants to goad the man beside him – for he is a man, no matter how childish and petulant he can sometimes be – and turn this into a proper argument. Nothing they would say would be new, though, so there’s no real point to it. They’ve had the same conversation turned argument turned tentative agreement hundreds of times before. It always ends the same way: the two of them shouting at one another, two cynics spitting claims of free will and accusations of self-pity. Knowing the natural progression of such things, Grantaire bites his tongue until the urge has passed. There’s no point in having someone call the police over some hungover vagrant disturbing the peace. Instead, he does his best to keep his own voice calm and quiet and reasonable, which is a feat in and of itself. Calm and quiet are words that would have been used quite sparingly in any description of him before all of this had begun. Perhaps they would have been accurate descriptors of him at the very end, in those last moments, at least from an outside point of view. Dealing with Alex’s demons and, by extension, his own has changed his outlook in many ways.

“Deven and Iggi are your best friends.” It is the most diplomatic route he can currently find toward the conversation that they both know is coming but only he seems to understand as a grim necessity. He tries not to let Alex’s quiet snort of derision get under his skin. “They care about you – they all do – and they’re worried about you. I’m worried about you, Alex. It’s become far more dangerous to be on your own lately, if you hadn’t noticed, and seeing as you tend to be about as careful about anything as I ever was...”

“Don’t.”

Graintaire frowns. “Don’t what?” But he knows all too well what’s coming next.

“Don’t compare us like that, like you know everything about me just because part of it overlaps with you.” His voice is slowly increasing in volume and people are starting to give him a wider berth and Grantaire hates it. “It’s bullshit and you know it. Danger is always your excuse. Worry is your fucking mantra. The record’s broken so quit putting it on already and just admit it. You’re not half as worried about me as you are about what he thinks, about how fucking disappointed he must be that you can’t seem to get your—whatever the fuck I am to you under control like everyone else can. You can’t stand the fact that you managed to please him all of once in your entire miserable life and now you’re faced with being a total fuck-up all over again. Boo-fucking-hoo! Not my fucking problem.”

With that, the world steps sideways for a moment and Alex is gone as if he had never been there, his departure completely unnoticed by the people around where he had previously been sitting, though the pain and fury in his eyes remains bright and burning in Grantaire’s mind. Grantaire doesn’t move from his spot on the steps for a few more minutes, wearily surveying the lawn until Alex slips back through the veil, about halfway along the left side of the reflecting pool now, and stalks off toward Constitution Gardens. He only stops once, just long enough to give the rest of his food to a homeless man on a nearby bench. Later, once he’s had time to cool off, Grantaire will find him in one of the many art museums. They’ll sit for a time, Grantaire will apologize, and they’ll make their way home, where they’ll likely both drink more than they should of whatever Alex has on hand and they’ll have a familiar conversation with alcohol as their mediator. It’s an old, sadly predictable routine and Grantaire wishes that he had any idea how to change it. For now, all he can do is take a walk of his own.

 

“He really hasn’t changed, has he? It’s like they’re not bonding at all.” In perfect juxtaposition to the observation, Keani and Jehan simultaneously rest their elbows on the counter of the little breakfast bar where they sit, chins cradled in their hands and expressions almost identical in their unhappiness. Hunched over as they are, in fact, everything about them appears nearly identical. Standing, Keani would be a bit shorter, their hair and eyes are considerably darker, their face rounder, their complexion more suited to the islands where they were born, their clothing more modern, but the two have the same look about them, the same expressions, the same movements, the same poetic spirit, the same terrible sense of fashion.

Combeferre sighs, fingers steepled in front of him as he perches on the very edge of an arm chair. Behind him Dominic is cleaning his glasses with such care that his concern regarding the observation is nearly palpable. Neither of them speaks, both too lost in thought, though Combeferre does at least offer a quiet hum to show that they’ve heard. Dominic puts his glasses back on, furrows his brow, takes his glasses back off, squints at his own reflection for a moment, begins cleaning them again. It’s a shared habit that Combeferre determinedly resists for the time being. Instead, he finds himself tapping the tips of his index fingers together. He moves further back into his chair and grips the arm rests to make himself stop.

The rest of the room is similarly in varying states of emotional turmoil. Seated on the sofa beside him, Nita brushes her fingertips against Dominic’s arm in an attempt to calm him while Courfeyrac sits on the floor, looking exceptionally tired and a bit put-out by Combeferre’s shifting as it forces him to adjust his own now that Combeferre’s thigh is less easily used for a pillow. Across the room, Mali paces in front of the window, Bahorel protectively watching over her and only glaring at Feuilly ever so slightly following a mumbled comment about her wearing a rut in the carpet. Feuilly himself is sharing the actual window seat with Tabitha, who seems almost ready to fall asleep as she watches the hypnotic rhythm of Mali’s back and forth.

On the floor, arms crossed to pillow his head on top of the coffee table, Iggi sighs. “I wish we could have caught up with him before he caught the bus. I mean, it probably wouldn’t have ended up all that different but maybe he’d have at least listened.” Deven rubs his back, head resting on his shoulder.

Bossuet’s sigh is a perfect echo of Iggi’s, his eyes following a thin crack in the ceiling as he sprawls behind his own counterpart, head in Joly’s lap. “R said he’d probably run. We really should have been more prepared for it.”

“That’s my fault.” Combeferre purposefully ignores Courfeyrac and Nita’s sounds of protest. “I should have told you to hold back until we could get someone else there to help you.”

Tabitha snaps out of her trance to respond to that with a rueful laugh. “Like that would have helped at all in the long run. He’d have felt like a trapped animal. If anything, he’d have just been even more desperate to get away.” She rolls her eyes and reaches out to grab Mali by the arm and pull her close with a muttered, “Would you stop that? You’re making me dizzy.”

Mali grumbles but stops pacing and instead leans back against Tabitha with a dramatic huff. “I can’t believe he just handed me that kill! Not that I minded – I was kind of itching for it – but he’s the one who took the damned thing down. All he had to do was throw one more punch. Just charge it up and…” She aims a perfect punch at a speck of dust in the air before crossing her arms over her chest with a pout and sagging into Tabitha’s arms. “I don’t get it.”

Still at the counter, Keani reaches one arm forward to pick at a spot of dried grease that had been missed by whoever had cleaned the kitchen last. “He taught me how to fight, you know? Alex, I mean.” Everyone knew, of course, but no one said so, just letting Keani say whatever they needed to say to keep from letting the melancholy consume them. “I was so weak that my brothers used to make fun of me for it. ‘How can you join in a haka? You couldn’t intimidate a fly!’” They sniff a little and Jehan sits up a bit to wrap an arm around their shoulders. “Alex said he wanted me to feel strong enough that I’d scare them the next time they saw me dance so he taught me how to fight and everyone was impressed with my confidence the next time I went home to visit. My dad was so proud.”

“What happened to that Alex?” Courfeyrac made a face as he asked the question, not quite a scowl but close enough that it didn’t sit quite right over his features. “He used to have so much of Grantaire’s contrarian spirit.”

“He still has that,” Feuilly points out. “He simply focuses less on doing things out of spite these days and more on refusing to do anything at all.”

Bahorel snorts with a grin. “Also, very much like Grantaire, particularly near the end. Perhaps he’s closer to coming around than we might think.” His expression is serious when he turns his eyes upon Courfeyrac, however. “And you know precisely what happened to him.”

None of them need clarification of that statement. Every eye in the room glances toward the hallway, at the far end of which a closed door hides the two missing members of their party. The room remains silent for a few moments after that.

Then Dominic breaks the silence as he finally sits himself down beside Nita and clears his throat. “So, I suppose we should probably consider the question of what we should do next, shouldn’t we? Having any ideas at all might help to ease the tension when Michel and Enjolras – ah – get their shit back together. That is to say, I think it might help…at least a little.”

 

There’s music playing in his bedroom but Michel isn’t listening. To be honest, he rarely is these days. Mostly the music plays to block out the rest of the noise in the apartment. The walls are too thin for his liking sometimes, times like when Nita stays over with Dom or when his friends are all gathered out in the living room, moping and grumbling and discussing things that he is not currently ready to discuss with anyone but himself. In fact, if he’s entirely honest, he’s not sure he’s ready to discuss it with himself, either. Right now, he’s not even sure what his definition of self actually is. Does it include Enjolras at the moment? He’s pretty sure it doesn’t. Not right now, anyway. Unfortunately, Enjolras has no interest in joining their friends’ discussion either.

Michel closes his eyes as he presses his back to the wall at the head of his bed, pulling his legs into the lotus position with a sigh. Enjolras remains blessedly silent, though he very clearly exists as a heavy presence by the window, weighing down one corner of Michel’s mind. Most of the time, he doesn’t particularly mind. Other times, he envies Alex the degree of separation he maintains between himself and Grantaire.

There. He’s come back to the very train of thought he had wanted to avoid, though he supposes there’s a part of him that doesn’t want to avoid it at all. It just feels easier to steer clear of some things entirely than to struggle with and inevitably sink beneath the violent swells of emotion that surge around him now. Emotions aren’t something he’s ever quite mastered, after all, at least not on a particularly personal level. That’s one of the places in which he and Enjolras overlap without margin.

“You’re thinking rather too loudly to maintain any semblance of distance between us, you realize.”

With a sigh, Michel opens his eyes to find Enjolras turned to look at him now and, not for the first time, he finds himself mildly disturbed by how much it feels like looking into a mirror. If Michel had only taken after his father a bit more – skin a few shades paler, hair a bit more gold and a bit less brass – they could easily be mistaken for the same man. It hadn’t always been that way and he wasn’t entirely sure when the similarities had begun to grow so direct and plain. Sometime in college, certainly, once the testosterone had properly kicked in. Maybe it had happened post-surgery, when they had suddenly found themselves finally sculpted in a similar fashion. If he were to ask them, Dom or Nita would likely be able to remember. He would never go to them with such a question, of course, but the facts remained. They looked so much alike and sometimes Michel hated it.

“It’s your fault.” Those aren’t the first words he meant to let escape him but once they’re out he’s far too tired and frustrated to try to take them back. “You just had to use the wrong name. You had to antagonize him.”

Enjolras frowns, face pinched with irritation in a vain attempt to hide something else. Guilt, maybe? Sorrow? Michel doesn’t have the energy to find the right word. He barely has the energy to listen when Enjolras turns back toward the window, simply saying, “Antagonism was not my intention.”

After a moment of trying to think of something to say, something scathing or at the very least snappish, something that will properly express his own frustrations, Michel simply slumps forward until his face is in his hands and mutters, “I know.”

There’s a silence between them after that, one that stretches much longer in their minds than in reality, before the bedsprings creak, mattress dipping at the far corner, and Michel parts his fingers just enough to peek out at Enjolras’s back. Technically, Michel is already several years older than Enjolras was when he died and yet somehow, at moments like this, it always feels as if their ages are reversed with a much more drastic gap between them. He knows that all of them have felt the same way at one point or another. At least, everyone currently sitting in his living room has. They’ve discussed that fact on multiple occasions. An odd little voice in some back corner of his mind wonders if Alex has ever shared that feeling. A considerably louder and far more bitter voice reminds him that, at this rate, he’ll never have a chance to ask.

Michel has just opened his mouth to say something, though he isn’t entirely sure what it was going to be, when Enjolras interrupts him with a simple, “I’m sorry.”

Everything goes quiet again, classical music floating around them, between them. The silence stretches just long enough for Michel to recognize the current song as a piano concerto by Rachmaninoff. Alex, he thinks, would be able to name precisely which one.

“Stop.”

Michel jerks fully upright, startled by the command, and meets the gaze directed toward him with surprise for only a moment before his eyes narrow. “Stop what?”

Though his expression remains passive, there is a weariness about him that leaves Michel slightly rattled, loathe as he would ever be to admit it. “Letting your mind wander along such veins when you have no intention of holding a proper conversation regarding the matter at hand.”

“Why should I?” It comes out before he can think better of it and he bites the inside of his cheek to steady himself in the beat before he speaks again. He refuses to sound like a petulant child, no matter how young and lost and frustrated he might feel. “You have no right to tell me where my thoughts should or shouldn’t wander, not when my sole reason for not wanting to have this conversation is your inability to let the conversation change.” He squares his shoulders and takes a deep breath but goes on before Enjolras can interrupt. “You say that you’re sorry but what are you sorry for exactly? Do you even know? Is it for how often you say that you don’t mean to antagonize when you never seem to try to do anything to change the fact that you still do? Is it for the fact that your stunted emotional capacity has apparently managed to completely halt any growth within mine? Is it for the fact that every time we come to the topic of Alex and Grantaire you just get us both so stuck on how much we need them with us to complete some mission of destiny that we can’t seem to ever consider the elephant in the room, which is how much we just need them with us in general? Because if that’s what you’re sorry for then, by all means, let’s have a proper conversation!”

He’s leaned forward, speaking with his hands, voice having grown loud enough that he’s certain he must be audible, if not entirely understandable, in the living room and, were there anyone else to see him, he might be embarrassed by all of it. It’s just the two of them, though, and Enjolras’s expression is still as unreadable as ever, which is perhaps one of the most frustrating things about this entire situation. For as much as they are alike and for as much as they are, almost literally, of one mind, Michel still can’t ever seem to understand what is going on behind those eyes when Enjolras decides that he would rather not share it.

“I am sorry,” he says, his words evenly measured, “for allowing my emotions get the better of me.”

It is both admission and admonishment and it leaves a sour taste in Michel’s mouth.

“I was too impatient,” the confession continues, “and should have allowed you to take control of the situation. I had assumed that the relationship between Grantaire and Alex would have progressed along the same lines as the rest and that was foolish of me, given the personalities of both parties involved. I should have been more cautious and now, due to my mistakes, we are no closer to a desirable resolution than we were before. In fact, I may very well have set us back even further and, for that, I am sorry. Truly. Now, if you wish to discuss the topic of our respective feelings for a certain pair of cynical alcoholics, I believe we may both need a moment to collect ourselves before we continue.”

For a minute, all Michel can really do is stare. There’s a slightly dizzy feeling that comes along with the unexpected wave of words and he has to take a bit of time to let his mind catch up and truly process. Then he blinks – once, twice – and shakes his head before pushing himself to the edge of the bed and up to his feet.

“Apropos to current – well – this—” He makes a vague gesture between them. “I think I need a drink before I can even fathom the thought of discussing feelings with present company.” Before actually leaving the room, however, he glances back and does his very best to smile. “Thank you, though, for trying.”

Chapter Text

He had an anxiety attack in the National Gallery of Art once. When he’d felt it coming on, he’d separated himself from the group without saying a word and had wandered blindly in search of somewhere with as few people as possible. Eventually, he’d ended up tucked away in a tiny back gallery of the West Building, surrounded by still lives and silently trembling in front of an oil painting of magnolias. Looking back on it much later, that day was the first time he ever properly heard Grantaire’s voice in his head, instructing him on how to focus, how to study the soft lines, the highlights and the shadows, the richness of the colors, until his brain had slowly stopped buzzing like a hornets’ nest and his muscles had begun to loosen and his lungs had remembered how to breathe. It had happened just after they’d moved to DC, near the beginning of his junior year of high school. The school’s tiny art club went on fairly regular after-school trips to the various art museums and his mom had signed off for him to go just this once, even though his father thought that the very idea of having a club for something as “pointless” as art was “idiotic.”

Upon being found and asked what had happened, he hadn’t really known what to say – had barely even been able to speak – and his parents had been called by one of the teachers. He didn’t blame her for what happened when he got home that day. She didn’t know what his home life was like and she was worried and just following protocol. That had been the last time that he was allowed to go on a field trip, though, and his dad had made him drop out of clubs all-together because, if he wanted to do after-school activities, he should get into sports “like a real man.” So, for an excuse to get out of the house more, he’d taken advice from the voice in his head and joined a couple of beginners’ classes at the gym where the only tolerable phys ed teacher worked. His dad had laughed at him and said he’d never be good at any of it but still signed all of the papers anyway. Two days a week of kickboxing and three days of basic fencing and Coach says he’s a natural at both, which is great and all up until the point where that asshole from chem touches his sister and he puts the guy’s head through a locker door. After that, he’s not allowed to go to the gym anymore, either.

In college, he had started going to museums again and got into MMA and took fencing to cover a gen ed requirement and everything had seemed like it was almost heading uphill and yet…

 

Alex is standing in the National Gallery of Art, tucked away in a tiny back gallery of the West Building, surrounded by still lives and silently staring at an oil painting of magnolias. It’s actually called Giant Magnolias on a Blue Velvet Cloth by Martin Johnson Heade, which is a fact that he discovered in college during one of his 100s level art courses. They had been asked to choose a famous still life and build one of their own in a similar fashion. His had been an almost perfect replica of the original aside from the color of the cloth and the fact that his flowers had been torn and bruised and dying. Turns out that making bright things dark is sort of his thing.

“Something about this seems rather familiar.”

He huffs a quiet laugh but doesn’t bother to turn his gaze from the painting until Grantaire has come up to stop beside him. Even then, he only tilts his head ever so slightly in the other man’s direction, watching him from the corner of his eye with a crooked smile. The adjacent room is entirely empty with closing time rapidly approaching. That makes everything so much easier.

“I wanted to sit in the sculpture garden and listen to Rachmaninoff for a few hours but my phone’s almost dead.” He turns his eyes forward again, studying the softly blended whites and creams of the petals. “Thought this might calm me down a little bit faster today anyway, all things considered.”

Grantaire’s smiles, though the general cast of his face remains tired. “All things being mainly the person who most recently upset you, you mean.”

Alex shrugs and stuffs his hands into the pockets of his jeans with a sigh, his jacket folded over one arm, its removal doing a surprisingly good job of making him look far more presentable to strangers and far less likely to be shooed away from places like this. “It reminds me of how much you actually care. I guess that’s what I really needed.” He pauses, takes a deep breath, and sighs again. “Sorry for being such an asshole earlier, by the way. I sort of… I crossed a line.”

“You did,” Grantaire agrees without hesitation, his smile somehow growing even softer, “but that line wasn’t mine alone.”

The laugh in response to that is sharp and bitter but Alex finally turns away from the painting with a tired smile of his own. “Not gonna lie. It was more like vaulting an electric fence but I’m still sorry.”

Grantaire’s hand squeezing his shoulder is far more comforting than he’ll ever admit. “And I forgive you.” The hand lets go to lightly slap him on the back. “Now! I believe the staff would like to see us out as soon as possible. We should be on our way—” Here he stops to look rather too serious. “—so that we can discuss your abhorrent eating habits.”

Alex rolls his eyes, though his smile turns into a grin. “To be fair, that hot dog really was terrible but I’m pretty sure the guy who finished it cared a lot less about that than I did so whatever. I’ll just fix something when we get—”

That’s when the lights go out.

Both of them freeze for a moment at that, blinking at one another before simultaneously turning their eyes toward the ceiling as Alex mutters, “It’s not actually 5 yet, is it?”

When their eyes meet again, it’s only for an instant before Alex takes off like a shot. There are all of four rooms before he reaches the east stair lobby and yet it seems to take far longer than it should, each light going out with just that little bit less distance between himself and the door through which he’s just passed. It’s a sequence he’s seen in hundreds of horror films and he can feel the dread seeping into his bones. The heaviness of the silence around him, the way that the air feels as if it’s rapidly growing thicker and his legs aren’t moving nearly as quickly as they should – he knows all too well what it means.

Just as he passes through the final doorway, desperately cutting the corner short in a final sprint for the stairs, something finally reaches out and claws dig into his calf as he hits the ground too hard to properly brace for the fall. Though he manages to prevent his head from hitting the floor full force, the strike is still hard enough to leave him dazed and there are black webs and bright stars bursting into his vision as he feels himself being pulled back toward the shadows at a speed he is far too stunned to fathom. He vaguely registers Grantaire shouting and his mind is just clear enough to think, not for the first time, that there is some dark, cosmic humor in the fact that his mentor is there and yet has no power to help him. By the time he’s being dragged back through the doorway, his ribs catching the corner with a burst of pain that prevents him from quite managing to get a hold on the corner, he can feel himself moving far more quickly, sliding through the slick trail of blood from his leg. Then a second set of claws sinks into the opposite thigh.

He’s dealing with more than one here. Of that he is certain. As if to confirm that fact, a far too solid shadow moves in front of him even as he reaches the next door. This time he manages to catch the doorframe, though he’s not entirely sure if he would consider that his brightest idea when the claws that had previously latched onto him tear through flesh before coming loose. Through the pain, he barely recognizes the sound that escapes him as being produced by his own voice.

His injuries aren’t going to make this easy and there are definitely going to be a few more by the time he gets out of this, assuming that he even survives. Absurdly, the thought that maybe he should have stayed at the station after all crosses his mind in the midst of all of this. Even if he had left after listening to whatever they had to say, he has no doubt that someone would have been sent after him. Maybe it would have been Dom and Combeferre, hoping to reason with him, or maybe Mali and Bahorel, figuring that he wouldn’t necessarily want to talk but was still likely to get himself into trouble. He’d even take facing Michel right about now.

They attack before he quite makes it to his feet but at least this time he’s expecting it. The one in front of him flows into the form of a hound-like beast as it lunges and slams into him, front claws catching his shoulders and knocking him flat on his back, forcing the air out of his lungs. By reflex, he manages to get his feet under the thing and send it sailing tail over teeth across the room. Pain shoots through both of his legs and he can’t stop himself from screaming. There are tears in his eyes as the second one strikes out, his blood still thick and red on its claws and it manages to just barely catch his t-shirt as he rolls away. He vaguely wishes that he was wearing his jacket, just for that extra layer of protection, but he’s honestly not even sure where it is at this point.

The next strike barely misses again as he scrambles up. He just barely makes it into a standing position before his feet slip right back out from under him but at least it has nothing to do with one of his enemies this time, except in so far as the one that had dragged him here is what ends up breaking his fall. Not the most graceful way to give himself the advantage but he’ll take what he can get. In the dark, the faint glow that gathers around him looks far too bright as he reaches out and slams its head down with a crack. The explosion of black dust as it dies isn’t nearly as impressive when accompanied by the feeling of his bruised ribs and shoulder hitting the floor and the sense that something else has just launched itself at him again. This time he isn’t as lucky and it catches him in the back while he’s trying to right himself again.

It doesn’t stay on top of him. The momentum of its leap forces it to keep going after the initial strike and it slides across the floor for a few feet before turning to face him. This time its his palms that slip and his chin hits the ground just as the next lunge takes the beast sailing over top of him and slams itself headfirst into the wall. Again, not the most graceful but he’ll take it.

He’ll also swear profusely, in multiple languages, as he finally manages to get himself off of the ground and makes a break for the exit again. With the continued blood loss, he’s getting lightheaded and there’s no question in his mind that he doesn’t have the energy to take out a second monster right now. The best he can do is take advantage of the few moments it takes for the damned thing to find its balance and that’s exactly what he plans on doing.

By the time he actually reaches the stairs, it’s practically snapping at his heels but when he flings himself into the lobby and slams through the doors, it gives up and lets him burst back through the veil and into reality. Unfortunately, with the sun going down over the city, reality is very, very cold and his coat is still somewhere inside with his cell phone in one of its pockets. He’ll have to come back tomorrow and get it back but for now all he can do is stumble sideways and back into the beyond so that he doesn’t freeze to death on his way to the Metro.

“It would also probably help to not be stumbling through crowds of people any more than necessary while bleeding profusely.”

Grantaire reappears by his side, lifting Alex’s arm up and over his shoulder to help him stagger along. He isn’t even trying to hide the slightly hysterical edge of panic in his voice or the absolute terror that has settled itself behind his eyes. All he does is set his jaw and keep them moving forward and Alex knows without a doubt that they won’t be going home after this. For once, R has put his foot down on a matter and he’s done so without saying another word. This isn’t something that he’s going to let Alex handle alone.

Not that he would have the energy to argue anyway.

 

Michel takes another sip of his beer and does his damnedest not to let himself think too much about who had introduced them all to this particular brew. How it’s remained a constant feature of his and Dominic’s fridge, he’s not entirely certain but he has a feeling that Nita is most likely involved somehow. Then again, it might also have something to do with how often they all gather here. Whether they’re all really fans of the drink or not, well, he isn’t sure of that either but he knows without a doubt that several of his friends drink it mainly to reminisce and, he supposes, that’s a rather large part of why he drinks it, too.

He taps the half empty bottle against the arm of the sofa, having tucked himself into the corner not currently occupied by Dom and Nita (though somehow Nita’s feet have wound up resting in his lap anyway) and quietly smiles to himself as he watches the goings on around him. At some point or another, Mali and Tabitha had challenged Bahorel and Feuilly to some card game that Michel has never heard of and, at least a full hour later, they’re still at it with Jehan, Courfeyrac, and Bossuet all watching in fascination and Keani keeping score. Head on his arms at the kitchen counter, Iggi is softly snoring while Deven discusses one of his classes with Joly and Combeferre. Where Enjolras is at the moment, he couldn’t really say, though the most likely location would be his bedroom balcony and, so long as things remain this calm and pleasantly domestic, it’s perfectly fine with Michel if he stays there. After the events of this morning, they deserve to relax, at least for a little while, before they dive too seriously into the task of determining their next course of action and the moment that Enjolras joins them he knows that everything will be all business again. For now, everything is quiet and he really rather likes it that way.

When the knocking comes, however, it brings with it a sense of dread so heavy that all activity within the apartment grinds to a halt and even Iggi’s snoring goes quiet as he slowly lifts his head. There is a moment in which not a soul dares to move. Then the knocking returns, more insistent this time, desperate even, and it doesn’t stop until Michel has left his drink behind and finally opened the door. He’s not really sure who he was expecting but who and what he finds is enough to make his blood run cold.

“We’ve lost his phone or I’d have called,” Grantaire wheezes through clenched teeth.

For a moment that feels far too long, Michel can’t seem to get his body to function but then Enjolras has suddenly appeared behind him and his presence releases a very real and raw surge of panic. “Inside.” It only vaguely registers that everyone has dropped whatever they were doing and gotten to their feet. He’s too busy taking Alex’s weight off of Grantaire’s shoulders to pay that much attention but he’s grateful when Dom jumps in to help.

“Into the bathroom.” Combeferre’s voice is steady even as he rushes to clear their path.

Deven and Joly hobble on ahead, babbling to each other and not sounding nearly so calm.

“What happened?” Everything, even Enjolras, has begun to sound somewhat muffled, almost distant, and Michel has to remind himself to breathe.

Towels have been spread out on the bathroom floor and Deven places a folded one at one end for Alex’s head as he quietly orders them to lay him down. “We need to get a good look at his wounds. We need—I mean— Jesus.”

Combeferre and Joly both move to help Deven get started but Dominic takes Michel by the arm and forces him to turn away, saying quite simply, “We need to know what happened.”

It takes him a moment but Michel manages to parse the statement and the request inherent within it. The only problem is that he can’t quite seem to make himself move. Everything feels too slow and too fast all at once. His brain feels murky, thoughts thick and reactions sluggish. Dom frowns, says something that Michel doesn’t quite understand, then pulls him very suddenly into a tight and blessedly grounding embrace.

“We’ve got this, Chel. I promise. We just need to be sure that we know exactly what we’re dealing with, okay? Can you handle that?”

Michel nods, forcing the motion, small and slow and deliberate. Dominic looks him over upon their parting with worry still creasing his face but steps aside to let him pass anyway. He’s a little bit surprised by how steady he feels on his feet, really, as he steps back into the living room. Perhaps it has something to do with shock and the fact that he doesn’t feel fully attached to his own body at the moment. Maybe he’ll ask Dom or Deven about it later. For now, all he needs to know is whether Enjolras has actually been able to extract any of the story or has he just been standing there this entire time, holding Grantaire’s face in his hands, trying to get the flickering phantom to speak.

Chapter Text

In the end, there are really only two pieces of information that they absolutely need: what attacked him and how long ago did it happen? It takes so much effort to get the information out of Grantaire, however, that Dominic finds himself having to concentrate on his own breathing far more than he would really like to admit. He’s never quite managed to develop Combeferre’s ability to shut everything else out and completely focus under pressure but he still manages to be the calmest and often most rational member of the team at most times and, honestly, that’s a little bit frightening when he thinks about it. His friends look to him in the same way as their mentors look to Ferre and, honored as he may be, it’s a level of responsibility for which he’s never quite certain if he’s properly prepared.

It’s Combeferre who finally suggests that they take Grantaire somewhere less crowded so that it might be easier for him to collect himself. It’s Combeferre who moves from one room to another: checking on Alex, checking on R, reassuring a room full of people who are all some combination of sad and terrified and tired and angry. It’s Combeferre who eventually manages to gather the facts that the attackers were shadows – two of them, average sized, slightly stronger than usual and a bit smarter than most – which is followed a few minutes later by where the attack took place. It’s Combeferre who somehow makes it seem like Grantaire having to wrangle a severely wounded and bleeding – and eventually unconscious – Alex over city streets and around Metro stations and through crowds of rush hour rail passengers for over an hour to get to them is—well, he doesn’t pretend that it isn’t horrible and astounding and utterly traumatic but he does at least make it seem as if it’s something that they shouldn’t really worry too much about. Dom simply can’t even begin to imagine how a person ever develops to a point where they can convince the outside world that they are always so cool and calm and collected.

“How is he?” Combeferre returns to the doorway after another one of his rounds and, though he doesn’t visibly show it beyond the worried creasing of his brow, his exhaustion weighs heavily on Dominic’s mind.

The two of them have opted to hang back a bit, assist and observe, while Deven and Joly take the lead in the process of actually treating Alex’s wounds. It’s a decision that Dominic was more than happy to make, honestly, given the much more psychological track he’s taken in his studies. He knows more than enough to patch people up and determine if anything is likely to have been seriously damaged but when it comes to things like this, things like seeing one of his friends nearly bleeding out on his bathroom floor… His skills are far better utilized by running small errands as necessary and making sure that Deven doesn’t overwork himself and checking to be certain that everyone else is going to be all right.

“Well—” Deven’s voice cracks. He pauses. After a slow, deep breath, he moves on. “Well, I think we can officially say at this point that they didn’t leave any venom in the wounds.”

“He would be in much worse shape if that were the case,” Joly agrees, “and he seems to be stabilizing quite well. Considering everything that he’s been through—”

“—and how he looked when he first got here, things could definitely be a whole lot worse.” Deven sits back a bit, his spine crackling as he rests his shoulders against the nearby cabinet. The sound always makes Dominic shiver and Deven offers his usual apologetic smile before sighing. “I’d be happier if we could get him a blood transfusion just to get him a little further out of the woods but that would involve going to the hospital and going to the hospital would involve—”

“Coming up with a reasonably mundane explanation for why he looks like he’s been mauled by a wild animal in the middle of Washington?” Dom finishes for him, receiving a quiet laugh and a nod in response. “Yeah, as long as you’re sure he’ll pull through as is, I think we’d better save that sort of trouble for someone who doesn’t have an historically violent aversion to clinical settings.”

Combeferre’s sigh, while quiet, floods the back of Dom’s mind with a warm sense of relief but only for a moment before it chills again as Joly somewhat hesitantly asks, “How is Grantaire?”

There is something much heavier about the question than there should be.

“Still rather a mess.” Combeferre removes his glasses, absently cleaning them with his sleeve. “He has sacrificed a great deal of his own energy to keep Alex safe and is having some trouble holding himself together but, with any luck, he and Alex should begin to improve in tandem.” He pauses, returning his glasses to the bridge of his nose. “I had planned to have Bossuet watch over him until he had calmed down a bit but Enjolras insisted upon remaining by his side.”

Joly hums, nodding as he looks back down at the young man still laid out on the floor. They currently have him covered with a beach towel to help keep him warm, his bloody clothes having been hastily removed and tossed into the bath tub to make the process of examination and treatment easier. Dominic had also dug out the little space heater that he and Michel had bought for those odd months in spring and autumn when the weather tends to make ridiculously drastic changes within the span of a single day and had set it up near Alex’s feet. The bathroom had since become a bit warmer than was entirely comfortable for the rest of them but it had helped to keep Alex’s body temperature regulated while they got the bleeding under control.

“He’ll—um—He’ll need some clean clothes.” Deven says it without looking up. He’s spent the past two hours compulsively checking all of the bandages they’d applied to make sure that there isn’t too much blood seeping through. The most recent layer he had added only shows a few very small specks of red and Dom is fairly certain that he hasn’t seen any change in them for at least thirty minutes.

Finding something for Alex to wear is as good of an excuse as any to leave the makeshift infirmary and Dom is more than happy for it. There’s so much nervous energy built up inside of him at this point that, under normal circumstances, he would honestly just really like to get out of the apartment and go for a walk. Given their situation, however, he’ll just have to do his best to shake some of it off. Maybe that’s where all of Combeferre’s anxiety goes when it starts to overflow. Maybe it all goes into him.

With Grantaire and Enjolras having been sequestered in his room, Dom only hesitates for a moment before moving to knock on Michel’s closed door. At some point, too anxious to be comfortable amongst their friends but having been barred from entering the hallway bathroom, Michel had tucked himself away and hadn’t come out since. Combeferre had only peeked in twice. The first time, he had seemed to be attempting to meditate. The second, he had been pacing. Dominic would like to think that the pacing has stopped by now but, if he’s entirely honest, he knows that it hasn’t. All he can hear as he approaches his best friend’s room is the sound of classical piano and he knocks twice before peeking around the door.

Michel spins on his heels at the faint creak of the hinges, eyes just that little bit too wide, questioning and almost… The words “desperate” and “terrified” both come to mind but Dom tries his very best not to think too much about it. Instead, he offers a small wave and a smile that he hopes is reassuring as he actually steps inside and closes the door behind him.

“Prognosis is looking pretty good,” he says, trying his very best to keep his voice light. “He hasn’t woken up or anything but all of the bleeding seems to have finally stopped and Deven mentioned needing some clothes for him so I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to move him somewhere more comfortable soon, which is – you know – a good sign, right?”

All he wants is to see some of the tension drain out of Michel’s shoulders and, much to his relief, he’s granted that wish as his best friend very visibly relaxes, even manages a small, slightly sardonic smile. “Considering who we’re dealing with, probably just as well he doesn’t wake up quite yet. He’ll be a bear to deal with when he does.” Then the smile is gone and Michel is fidgeting, one hand tugging on the hair at the nape of his neck, a nervous habit that Dom has witnessed a million times since they were children, and he looks toward his closet with a sigh. “I suppose you’re actually here more for the purpose of finding clothes rather than keeping me in the loop, though, aren’t you?”

“No! No, I wanted to keep you updated, too, it’s just…” Dom can’t help feeling a bit awkward and shrugs just for the sake of moving, just to get some of that energy out. “Well, Enjolras is keeping an eye on Grantaire in my room and—I mean—” He shrugs again and he knows that his attempt at a smile has turned into more of a grimace. “I’d rather just let Ferre handle all of that, you know? We’ll probably end up giving Alex my bed, just so he’s in a central location, but until then…”

Michel laughs once – a painfully hollow and bitter sound – before actually heading to his wardrobe and crouching down to pull out the bottom drawer. “Until then, nobody wants to deal with Enjolras unless they have to deal with Enjolras. Trust me. I get it.”

Dominic hates the way that his friend’s voice sounds in that moment but he pushes forward and glosses over it because what else is he going to do? “So, uh, how are you holding up?”

For an instant following the question, Michel stills, then he takes a deep breath and sighs as he digs something out and pushes the drawer back in. “I’d be doing a lot better if Enjolras would keep his anxiety to himself instead of piling it all on top of mine. That’s for sure.” When he stands back up, he has an old hooded pullover in one hand.

Dom can’t help but laugh a bit at that. “Good to know I’m not the only one who feels like he’s become a dead Frenchman’s emotional dumping ground. I swear, if everyone else knew what a mess Ferre can be behind that mask of cool composure…”

The fact that Michel actually, genuinely laughs along with him, even just for a moment, eases some of the worry that’s been building up in Dom’s chest. If only that laugh weren’t followed so quickly by such a tired expression, a fleeting moment of joy dissolving into an air of sadness. He supposes that there’s nothing to be done for it right now, though. All he can do is accept the hoodie as it’s offered to him.

“There should be a pair of sweats in the dryer.” Michel stares at the shirt in Dom’s hand for a moment before looking up with a smile that doesn’t make it anywhere near his eyes. “That was his anyway. Good a time as any to give it back, I suppose.”

Managing to squeeze out perhaps one of the most forced smiles that he has ever aimed toward Michel in the decades that they’ve known one another, Dom murmurs a “right, thanks” and makes his way back out into the hallway without another word. Once outside, however, back against the door and still out of everyone else’s sight, he has to take a moment to close his eyes and collect himself again. It’s been long since decided that he’s not allowed to handle anything to do with Michel’s relationship with Alex – he gets far too analytical, apparently, or so says…pretty much everyone – but that doesn’t change how very badly he just wants to take Michel by the shoulders and shake him whenever moments like this come around. Being analytical, after all, isn’t the same thing as being patient.

“Moping, I take it?”

Dominic clutches the sweatshirt to his chest with a yelp, eyes flying open wide to find the terrifically unexpected face of Enjolras directly in front of him, expression impassive save for the vaguely irritable twist at one side of his mouth. With his heart racing a mile a minute, all Dom can manage to get out is a cracking and rather too high-pitched, “Jesus fucking Christ, don’t do that to me!”

Enjolras, for his part, looks entirely unimpressed but, surprisingly, also the slightest bit apologetic. Meanwhile, Combeferre has appeared in the hallway and the door to Dom’s back has opened. Taking a couple of deep breaths, Dom huffs, stalks over to the dryer, digs out a pair of joggers, and marches back toward the bathroom in what he hopes appears to be a properly aggravated fashion. In reality, he just really doesn’t want to be a part of whatever drama is about to go down, which is probably not something that he should be thinking when said drama involves his best friend but, honestly, even best friends can only handle certain things for so long and right now he has more pressing matters to attend to. Besides, Combeferre follows him rather than sticking with Enjolras so he’s obviously not the only one who is perhaps just a little bit too close to openly admitting that he’s ready to be done with his fearless leader's emotionally constipated bullshit.

 

“What do you want?”

It takes a great deal of energy not to rise to the bait as Michel glares at him from the bedroom doorway. This isn’t the way that their relationship used to be and he knows that this isn’t how either he or Michel truly want it. Unfortunately, he also knows why things have changed and that—Well, that’s why he’s here now, isn’t it? They need to talk. At least, if there is any hope of righting everything that has gone so wrong lately, they need to try. If only they weren’t both so spectacularly terrible at handling a proper heart-to-heart conversation.

“I believe that we had agreed upon a need for a certain discussion prior to…” He’s not entirely certain what the proper words would be to describe current events but he glances back down the hall to make his point.

Michel snorts at that but his scowl seems to soften ever so slightly before he turns, leaving the door open as he moves further into the room. “You mentioned a possible discussion. We never actually agreed that we were going to have it.”

“Fair and true.” After a moment, Enjolras enters the room as well and quietly closes the door behind him. The music, he notices, is still playing. He wonders to himself if Michel has continued listening to the general classical playlist or changed it to something else, something more specific. Were he a betting man, he would place money on the latter. “I believe, however, that current circumstances might very well warrant an attempt to…” He pauses, gathers himself, closes his eyes, sighs, opens them again. “We must come to a true understand, you and I, and not merely for our own sakes. Given the events of this evening, I believe that we owe it to our friends, to—”

“Alex and R,” Michel finishes for him, voice quiet and shoulders sagging as he stares out the window, stares but doesn’t quite see. When he turns, he still doesn’t quite look at Enjolras at first. “So what? You want to talk?” The look in his eyes when he finally actually grants his full attention is a mess of exhaustion, sadness, fear, frustration. It perfectly matches the storm raging within Enjolras’s own mind. “You want to talk about our feelings and hope that somehow it makes everything all better?”

With a slight shake of his head, Enjolras allows himself the faintest of smiles. “You sound so very much like him in some ways, you know?” He watches a frown crease Michel’s brow. “When you get upset, when you feel lost, you fall into a fit of bitter cynicism, as if something about that state of being has become a source of comfort. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t understand the appeal at times. Grantaire…” As he lapses back into silence, one hand working its way into his hair as he tries to pull his thoughts together, to make his expression of something so personal more coherent, he is grateful for the silence he receives in return, no matter how forced his companion’s patience might be.

“Grantaire is my counterbalance,” he says, finally. “It is a fact which I steadfastly ignored until far too late. You spoke earlier of our need to have them with us and I—the events of this evening have forced me to think on your words quite seriously and I have come to the realization that I must set aside my pride and admit that you are right.” Finally voicing the thought that has plagued him for the past several hours feels like monstrous weight being lifted from his shoulders. “Grantaire is my counterbalance and when we are apart, I find myself lost to a melancholy which I had never truly known until I awakened into this era without him by my side, as he had been in those last moments. I question my own thoughts in a way which I never did before. I find myself less confident in my own abilities, less certain that my friends should be looking to me for reassurance and strength. And to think that I feel these things when I never afforded myself the opportunity to know Grantaire so intimately as you have known Alex…”

He cannot continue and he knows that he doesn’t have to. The sight of Michel now, standing before him with so much pain so readily evident, leaves a tightness in his chest and a heaviness in his gut that he is not certain he would be able to properly describe if he were asked to do so. He sees in Michel so much of what he has never allowed himself to be or to feel, no matter how desperately he may have wanted to. Would he be able to truly share in those feelings now? Would he even know how?

Michel moves slowly and carefully to sit upon the very end of the bed, his entire demeanor changed, his righteous fury from their morning conversation long since gone and now leaving an emptiness in its place and, when he speaks, it is quiet and on the verge of broken. “I can’t explain it to you. I can’t make you understand how much—how much it hurts. There aren’t words for it, for the way it feels to have someone walk away—run away from you because they don’t know if—because they doubt you—because they don’t know how much of you really is you and how much of it is—and you can't even reassure them because their doubt--their doubt makes you doubt yourself.”

His words stutter to a halt and he stares at the floor, his hands gripping the edge of the bed so tightly that his knuckles have gone pale, and Enjolras knows that their conversation is through. Perhaps it will be continued at a later date, when Michel has had his time to think over what has been said, to process what it all means. Perhaps it will never be continued at all.

Chapter Text

Alex struggles over streets and around corners, leaning more and more heavily upon Grantaire, who takes his weight without complaint. The phantom is uncharacteristically quiet and steely eyed, a desperate determination written upon his features. They pause only once, knowing too well that the scent of blood without the world to mask it paints a target on their backs. R, however, is adamant that they have to get Alex a new coat, as much to hide the extent of his injuries as to keep him warm. He leaves his burden on a bench outside of a store and ducks inside for only a few moments. By the time he’s acquired what he’s looking for, by whatever means he’s decided to do so, Alex can feel himself beginning to properly slip in and out of consciousness.

He’s only vaguely aware of where Grantaire takes him. They pass through the gates at the station before actually returning to reality and their ride on the Metro is awkward, to say the least. It takes a great deal of energy for R to appear corporeal for very long and he does so very rarely these days. During their first few interactions when Alex was younger, before he could really understand that there were things that he could see that others couldn’t, R had expended far more energy simply to make his presence seem more normal. Now there’s rarely much point.

Somewhere along their train ride, while Grantaire is awkwardly laughing at a comment about his drunk friend, Alex finally blacks out.

Everything blends together after that, hazy and disjointed, the sounds of the world around him weaving in and out of distorted memories and fever dreams. Familiar voices rise in a panic. Single words stand out. Lost. Inside. What? Look. Need. None of them make sense. He is vaguely aware of changing hands. There is a certain sensation that comes with being in direct contact with Grantaire and that is gone and replaced by something else, something warmer. Then everything becomes quite suddenly much colder and the chill progresses in leaps and bounds until…

He is sitting outside of an old farm house on a cold night in early January. He is eight years old and he didn’t come in quickly enough when called so now his father has locked him out and refuses to let Mama let him in. None of the neighbors live very close and he doesn’t think about going to anyone for help anyway because he would have to go through the woods or across the field and he can hear things moving out there, in the dark, and he knows that there are wild things in the world that live in shadows and eat lost, little boys. Besides, it’s his own fault for not being fast enough to get inside before Father finished counting and he’s sure all of the neighbors would just scold him for being too slow and leave him out in the cold anyway. When he finds the little hole in the wood bin, just big enough for a little boy to fit if he squeezes himself in, he does so with the sense that there is something hunting for him and he covers his mouth and holds his breath when a creature blacker than the night blocks out the stars for a moment, a great hulking figure silently loping across his vision, stopping now and again to peer about with two bright, white sparks for eyes. The chattering of his teeth is going to give him away, he’s sure, but before it can find him the cold has started to recede, however slowly, and—

He is standing on a balcony, leaning forward with his elbows on the railing, a mostly empty bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It’s early fall and the weather isn’t sure what it wants to be doing and the sun is either setting or rising but that only matters because of the way that the colors are reflecting off of nearby windows. There is someone behind him, standing in the doorway, and he can hear the hum of excited voices coming from another room. They aren’t in a great part of town but they aren’t in the worst area either, which he knows because he’s been to the worst parts of town and this isn’t it, no matter how many times the person behind him says that he should move somewhere nicer. After all, he can afford it, can’t he? Maybe not on his own but if he moved back in with—Pain. Where did that pain come from? He hasn’t moved. Why does he—?

He is trying to get his sister to stop crying but she can’t seem to help it. She so small – so much smaller than she should be – and he wants to protect her from—

There’s a man who lives two doors down from their new home. The guy has a big dog and two little girls who like to come over and play with his sister and sometimes his father makes him go over there because his sister wants to play with her friends and Father doesn’t want to deal with having kids around. When the girls go upstairs to play in their bedroom, they say that there are no boys allowed and his sister runs away, shouting back to him that she’s sorry but rules are rules, and that leaves him alone in the living room with this weird guy who likes to talk to a twelve-year-old boy about how his wife killed herself after their son died in some undisclosed but horrible accident. Their son was twelve, too, as it so happens. He was such a good boy. You’re a good boy, too, aren’t you? Good boys don’t talk about seeing evil things hiding within their neighbor’s shadow that somehow, despite their sharp claws and sharp teeth, still aren’t as frightening as the neighbor himself. No, good boys don’t do that. They just do what they’re—

Father tells him that he’s a disappointment. If it weren’t for his mother, he would be out on the streets. He needs to escape by any means, though he hates the thought of leaving her alone there, and he finds work, takes apprenticeships, naturally excels at every task without even setting his mind to it, and yet he can’t seem to stay in any one place for very long. When he moves to Paris, he doesn’t tell anyone or even go looking for anyone to tell. He simply finds a place for himself, finds a routine, drinks his wine and his absinthe and his beer, tries his hand at opium and other things, makes a bit of money off of those who bet against him in boxing matches, paints a few commissions to get by. Often, he finds himself in the bed of anyone desperate enough to have him or in his bed with anyone desperate enough to follow him home, though he does his best to avoid waking up on the streets or in dark alleys. Then he makes friends with a medical student and the unluckiest man he has ever known and he follows them into a world of young revolutionaries who take to him like a good joke, call him their equal, watch as he drunkenly questions and teases their leader, the one man who has ever made him wish that he could believe in a better world, the most beautiful man he has ever—

Mama’s been in an accident and his sister calls to tell him even though Dad would be angry if he ever found out. Then Dad gets so drunk that he passes out instead of coming to pick her up when she’s released from the hospital the next evening and there’s another phone call and he doesn’t have a car but Deven does, so the boys pile in and drive two hours to go get her. They stop at a diner on the way to drop her off and Iggi makes Mama laugh and everything’s great until they get to the house and his sister comes out to get her and Mama starts crying and hugs him and refuses to let go and her arms just keep squeezing tighter and tighter until he’s struggling to—

Breathe. He has to remember how to breathe. There’s no way to make this better but an anxiety attack would definitely make it worse. It’s not like he hasn’t made some pretty massive mistakes before while binge drinking his way through a depressive episode. This is just the first time that the mistake has involved kissing someone who both enthralls him and terrifies him beyond belief. When the kiss doesn’t go anywhere and his lungs are still failing and his brain is skipping at a familiar scratch on a broken record full of self-loathing, he chugs whatever is left in his bottle and tries to pretend that he isn’t drowning and turns to go but—

Some part of his mind, struggling in vain to maintain any form of semi-linear thought, eventually processes the familiarity of this entire experience long after it’s begun and if only that could stop it. If only knowing that he’s spiraling out of control within his own mind could—

He is in an old hospital in the countryside, one that looks just like the set of so many horridly cliché horror films, made to vilify all of those crazy people, people like him. Its hallways are empty and bloodstained and illuminated by flickering fluorescent lights. Somewhere in the distance, people are talking, loud enough that he can hear them but not clear enough to understand. A nurse in a uniform that dates back further than he can even begin to identify strides out of the darkness, making her way toward him with purpose, moving too quickly, the failing lamp turning his own eyes into stop-motion cameras until she is right there in front of him, her face in his face, a blank space that his mind fills in with an ever-changing combination of features belonging to every behavioral health specialist he has ever known. His feet are stuck in place as if the floor has bubbled up to swallow his ankles and it feels as if something far too strong is holding his arms at his sides and there are shadows clawing at the edges of his vision and creatures with bottomless pits where their eyes should be and beasts with too-wide grins and needles for teeth and—

He is standing in a dim and empty room, only lit by pale moonlight shining in through a single window. It looks similar to every bedroom in every house where he ever lived as a child, though he had never seen one unfurnished before and certainly not at night. The closet door is open just a crack, just enough to show the darkness within, a darkness which moves of its own accord, edges slowly expanding and receding as if the shadows are breathing. Despite himself, he moves forward, unable to stop his hand from reaching for the door and pulling it open wide to find—Grantaire? Standing there, so much further away than the space of any one of his childhood closets should allow, he looks so sad, pained, almost terrified, and something twists in Alex’s gut. His chest feels tight. R’s mouth is moving, sound escapes, and yet his speech is indecipherable. The darkness expands to slowly swallow them both until—

Somewhere in the dark, a piano plays and everything else stops as if to listen. Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Sharp Minor. They both first learned piano while their fathers were away, sitting by their mothers' elbows, their thoughts and fears calmed by the chords. Many moments in their lives have been near mirror images of one another but these are the memories that can be set one on top of the other and move in unison with only the music differing between them. One plays Handel; the other plays Brahms. In the end, they agree upon Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

Chapter Text

The music is Keani’s idea. “Maybe it’ll help him find his way back,” they say, quiet and hopeful. So, once Alex is settled into bed, Dom pulls up a classical station on his computer and leaves it playing in his room while they all gather around the dining table to discuss what comes next, leaving only Deven and Joly behind to sit in the doorway so that they can hear the conversation while still keeping an eye on their patient. It’s a rather crowded affair, once they’ve all taken their places, but it’s easier to have them in such close proximity for something so serious, rather than being scattered around the room. Michel sits at one end, Dom and Nita to either side of him. He looks tired and distracted and either he doesn’t notice that Enjolras is keeping his distance or he simply doesn’t care. The rest of the phantoms stand or sit or lean in various formations around the dining space, perfectly folded in among their modern counterparts.

Jehan sighs from where he’s perched on a bar stool. “Feels a bit like old times, doesn’t it?”

Standing beside him, Bahorel pulls the poet into a tight side hug and kisses the top of his head.

It takes all of half an hour for them to go over everything, though it could have easily taken longer if they hadn’t all been so tired. As it is, the points are simple and the discussion concise. First, Alex seems to be healing fairly well but Deven, Joly, and Combeferre all agree that they would prefer to have someone with him at all times. The decision to keep him in Dom’s room is agreed upon in order to know that he’s somewhere safe and centralized and – as Nita points out – relatively difficult to escape. Since he’ll be staying in their apartment anyway, Dom and Michel – and Nita, since she practically lives with them anyway – will take care of things while everyone else goes home and gets some rest. Second, Feuilly brings up the fact that most of their recent encounters with shadows have taken place while someone was alone in a relatively unpopulated area – for instance, Tabitha coming home from work on an empty train one night, Dominic shelving books in a disused corner of the library, Iggi taking a shortcut on his way to meet Deven for dinner, Alex staying late at the gallery, etc. Keani excitedly suggests that shadows may be attracted to liminal spaces, which leads to a not-so-quick vocabulary lesson followed by Iggi declaring that he is now even more terrified of gas stations at night than he was before and a general agreement that it would be best for them to travel in groups as much as possible and stick to more populated areas when that is not an option. Third… Well, they all agree that there was probably supposed to be a third topic but the day has been far too long and stressful for anyone to care when it gets skipped.

Once the others have gone, Nita locks up behind them before turning to where Dom stands in his bedroom doorway, silently watching as Combeferre looks over Alex’s more superficial wounds yet again. Ferre had promised Deven and Joly that he would make certain that everything was as it should be while they were gone, which means that he and Dom will be taking first watch. In an hour or so, they’ll have to remove the dressings and get everything all cleaned up and bandaged again and Courfeyrac has volunteered to help, though they all know that he’d rather not and odds are good that they won’t ask. Nita could offer, too, she supposes but she isn’t particularly keen on seeing the actual extent of the damage and there’s really no point in pretending otherwise. If there’s anything she can do that doesn’t involve actually focusing on the state their friend is in, she’ll happily volunteer for that.

When she arrives by his side, Dom barely seems to notice until she has her arms around his waist and her cheek against his shoulder. She’s pretty sure that even then it’s mostly a subconscious response that makes him pull her close, tilting his chin down to kiss her on the forehead. It’s sweet in its own sort of way and she can’t fault him for being distracted at a time like this. Inside the bedroom, Courf is chewing at his thumbnail, eyebrows knit into a deep V as he watches Combeferre examine the rather nasty bruising around Alex’s jaw and Nita finds herself similarly unnerved by the discoloration – rusty reds, vibrant purples, and deep blues blooming all over what seems like every inch of Alex’s skin. Absurdly, it crosses her mind that he would probably be fascinated by the colors.

“This is just…so surreal,” Dom murmurs into her hair. He’s silent for a moment before quietly, carefully adding, “I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of us get this beat up before and to have it be Alex...”

At the bedside, Combeferre sighs. “Our greatest worry now is the possibility of internal injury. I am not inclined to believe that he has suffered any more than perhaps a few fractured ribs but only time will tell. If he fails to improve, we may be forced to seek outside assistance.”

Dom makes a quiet noise of frustration. “He heals so much more slowly than the rest of us, too. If he’d just bonded with R at a normal pace instead of being so fucking stubborn, this wouldn’t be such a big deal.”

All Nita can do is hum in understanding as she carefully stamps down upon the urge to point out that “a normal pace” is actually pretty difficult to define, given the fact that there was no known precedent set before their little group began this whole journey. Each one of them has reached different stages in different ways at different times. She’s a bit too tired to explore that train of thought right now, though. Probably best to just change the subject.

“Where’s Michel?”

That earns a slight laugh from Dom and a smile from Ferre but Courfeyrac is the one who actually answers, his anxiety temporarily giving way to a grin. “Gone to acquire more appropriate music. Evidently our current selection is not up to his standards.”

She simply has to grin right back at him. “That’s because our current selection isn’t one of his obnoxiously curated playlists.”

“You know,” Dom says, keeping his voice low, though he can't hide the fact that he's likewise amused, “I’m pretty sure Alex made most of those.”

“Probably, yeah, but Alex is also obnoxious so…”

The moment they hear Michel’s door open, Nita makes a rather dramatic point of snapping her mouth shut. Dominic rolls his eyes, Courfeyrac snorts, and a faint hint of a continued smile is the only sign that Combeferre even notices but it’s good enough for her. Michel only looks mildly concerned when he returns to utter silence but, much to Nita’s delight, she was right about the music.

 

Nothing much happens after that. Alex continues sleeping, Grantaire remains conspicuously missing, Michel disappears to his own room, and the quiet strains of classical piano cycle through periods of great intensity and intervals of calm while Enjolras paces up and down the hallway, the rhythm of his feet against the floor seeming to naturally adjust to count the time for each song. After a while, Dominic and Combeferre fall into a deep conversation about the physical effects of improperly managed mental illness and it might be the jargon or it might just be the overall atmosphere but Nita eventually finds herself tuning right out. It’s not terribly surprising, then, when she notices that Courf’s eyes are looking pretty glazed over, too.

“I think I’m going to make some tea.” She doesn’t really expect to receive any overt acknowledgement when she announces this, though the way that everyone looks slightly startled at her volume is rather satisfying. Not that she was being loud. Everything else has just grown so quiet. With a smile, she kisses Dom on the cheek before politely asking, “Would anyone else like some?”

The answer is no but thank you and that’s perfectly fine as long as she can still get out of the heaviness of that room and go to the kitchen, Courfeyrac almost comically close behind.

“I swear to God, Courf,” she mutters once she’s pulling a clean cup from the cupboard, only speaking just loudly enough for the phantom beside her to hear, “I don’t know whose coping mechanisms are worse.”

He hums, keeping his own voice equally low. “I dare say that, while the conversation may seem frightfully boring to both you and myself, Combeferre and Dominic do at least have a somewhat productive way of distracting themselves.”

“Unlike the guy walking a rut in the floor.” With the water on to boil, she takes a moment to watch Enjolras, whose eyes remain on his feet as he marches back and forth. “I wonder if the people downstairs can hear him.”

Neither of them speaks anymore after that, simply sharing a far more comfortable silence than they have experienced in any other company over the past twenty-four hours or more. It makes for a nice, if short, break from the stress and Nita savors it until the kettle finally whistles. Then her thoughts catch up with her and she takes down another cup with a sigh. Courfeyrac gives her a curious look at first but his expression immediately softens into one of sympathetic understanding when she reaches for Michel’s favorite tea.

She and her boys are, she supposes, an almost perfect example of history repeating in the smallest, most subtle of ways. They aren’t the only ones in their circle whose relationship seemed to follow a predestined track, of course, but it’s still a source of wonder to her at times how quickly and wholly they seemed drawn to one another as children. It had taken hardly any time at all for her to think of Dominic and Michel as hers, even when they were little. Their parents had all thought that it was adorable – the tiny princess and her two knights in shining armor – though her mother had worried at first that the friendship might lead to her becoming more boyish. Her willingness to talk back to adults and stand up for her own beliefs and throw a punch when she deemed it absolutely necessary had ultimately been the only “bad” things to come out of the relationship, though it was always difficult to say which of the three was the actual source of what behavior. To this day, Nita is pretty sure that their collective failure to ever pull any of their physical punches was probably all her fault. Patience had always been Dom’s thing, verbal sparring had always been Michel’s, and she had always been the one who preferred the quick, if often temporary, fix. Somehow, the three of them together struck a perfect balance.

All of that is how she knows without even seeing him that Michel is still awake. Even at the best of times he’s always had difficulty quieting his mind enough to sleep. It had gotten so bad during their freshman year in college that Nita and Dom had bullied him into going to a doctor about it. He had ended up at a psychiatrist and been diagnosed with insomnia and, much to the surprise of his friends, obsessive-compulsive disorder. During the process of finding the right medications, he had sat down with them and confessed to all of the little things he had been hiding for years. They listened as he described some of his more common intrusive thoughts and admitted to just how bad some of his compulsive behaviors had become, after which they did their very best to express their support without letting on to just how horrible they both felt for having never noticed that anything was actually wrong.

Once the tea is finished steeping and both cups are appropriately prepared, Nita takes a deep breath to slow her own thoughts a bit before giving Courfeyrac a lopsided smile. “Wish me luck.”

He rests a hand on her shoulder, squeezes lightly, and offers what she knows is the most reassuring smile that he can possibly manage under current circumstances. It helps. Not much but still. Anything is better than nothing.

With only one quick glance into Dom’s bedroom, where Combeferre seems to be explaining something about the pattern of the bruising over Alex’s ribs, she squeezes past the still pacing Enjolras to stop in front of Michel’s door. It takes a moment for her to get the two cups situated in one hand in such a way that she isn’t worried about spilling anything, then she curls her free hand into a fist, opens it again, closes it, and knocks. There’s no response at first but she still doesn’t for one second think that he’s sleeping and she’s about to knock again when she hears a quiet shuffling on the other side of the door before it finally swings open to reveal an image of pure exhaustion.

He’s still trying to hide exactly how terrible he feels but he’s not doing a very good job of it. Even if she didn’t know him as well as she does, it would be impossible to think that there wasn’t something horribly wrong. She’s not about to tell him that, though. They’ve been friends long enough for her to know that isn’t necessary. His guard is up out of habit, not because he thinks he can fool any of the people still present in his apartment. When she holds out his favorite mug, contents still steaming, he only hesitates for a beat before taking it and turning to go sit on the side of his bed. Nita follows, closing the door behind her.

They sit in silence for a full five minutes, sitting on the edge of his bed, not even looking at one another. Letting him start whatever conversation they’re about to have is the goal and Nita knows that she won’t be able to do that if she lets herself really pay attention to exactly how tired and drawn he looks, his face paler than it should be, his eyes slightly puffy. He’s been struggling not to cry since he disappeared into his room. She’s sure of that. It’s hard for him to not be in control; it always has been. So, she studies the room instead of studying Michel and it takes very little time for her to notice two things: the drawers of his wardrobe are sitting open and there’s not a speck of dust on any surface above floor level.

As if he’s read her mind, Michel sighs. “I couldn’t get my thoughts in order. I figured cleaning might help but I’ve moved on to reorganizing clothes so that obviously didn’t work out the way I’d hoped.”

When she finally does look at him, his attempt at a smile is so tired and sad that her heart breaks a little in response and she smiles back, hoping that her expression looks much more reassuring. “Obviously, yeah, but it was worth a try anyway, right?” She takes another glance around, then she heaves a sigh of her own, bumps him in the arm with her elbow, takes a sip of her tea, and finally rests her head on his shoulder. “You wanna talk about it?”

He’s quiet for a long time, just staring at the wall and drinking his tea, but she doesn’t push and so he eventually wraps his hands more tightly around his cup and lets it come to rest in his lap as he finally says, almost in a whisper, “I can’t help feeling like this is all my fault.”

In testament to how much patience and compassion she’s developed over the years, she doesn’t just lean away and smack him upside the head and she’s honestly rather proud of herself for that. Something most people don’t seem to realize about Courfeyrac is that, when he’s not soothing the tempers of others, he can have a rather impressive temper of his own. It’s a trait which he and Nita share and one which they rarely show but it’s there and Michel knows as much, which is also a part of why she resists the urge to hit him. That’s most likely what he’s expecting.

“Well, it’s not,” she says instead, determinedly keeping her head glued to his shoulder. “Unless, of course, you personally sent a couple of preternatural nasties after your ex, in which case you’re more than welcome to take the blame and maybe write a book while you’re at it because you could make a fortune teaching people how to do that, you know?”

Michel actual chokes out a laugh at that and Nita just has to sit up straight again so she can grin at him, pleased to see the corner of his mouth twitching upward with the faintest hint of a smile before he brings his cup up to take a sip of his rapidly cooling tea. “I’m proud to say that I have more control over my emotions than that. Wishing harm on Alex has never once crossed my mind.” His barely blossoming smile wilts at that. “Not my conscious mind, anyway.”

With a grunt of irritation, Nita wrinkles her nose before drinking some of her tea as well. “Intrusive thoughts don’t count.” She huffs and prods him in the ribs with a finger. “They’re not really you. They’re just little demons that are really good at imitating your voice.”

“I know that.” He leans away a little, sounding like he’s reminding himself of the fact as much as he is telling her. “When I’m thinking rationally, I know that. I just…” His cup passes back and forth from one hand to the other now, his shoulders slumping forward, eyes idly following the movement of the tea as it sloshes from side to side. His brows knit together so tightly that it looks as if he’s actually forcing his thoughts into some semblance of order. When he speaks again, his words are slow and careful. “Everyone talks about how strange it is that Alex and Grantaire don’t seem to have progressed half as much as the rest of us – I mean, I’ve talked about, too, plenty of times – but when I really think about it…” He has to pause again, this time closing his eyes for a moment and taking a drink. “I sometimes wish I had been that cautious.”

Nita turns a bit so that she’s actually facing him when she tilts her head to one side with a frown. “Why’s that?”

The look on Michel’s face is pure, helpless frustration, though she can’t identify the exact origin of that frustration at the moment and therefore can’t do anything to help him deal with it. All she can do is listen as he tries to piece together an explanation. It’s not easy.

“It’s just… Well, I know that a lot of it is…” Michel takes another drink and sighs. “Alex is stubborn.” Before Nita can say anything to the effect of “no shit,” he’s already moving on in a rush. “Being stubborn is a big part of why he hasn’t really let himself bond with Grantaire the way the rest of us have with everyone else, obviously, but it’s a big part of how he and Grantaire overlap, too, and it makes the relationship between the two of them—” The moment his thoughts grind to a halt is physically evident and he sounds more lost when he simply says, “Their relationship is different.”

His trouble with his words is getting frustrating for Nita, too, though she’ll never say as much. It’s not like it’s his fault that his eloquence goes out the window when his brain starts working against itself and it’s not like she’s frustrated with him or anything. She’s just frustrated with this whole situation. Whenever they had discussed the need to find Alex and convince him to come back, it had always been with some trepidation but this entire scenario wasn’t something that had ever come up. There had always been more conversation and reasoning and far fewer near-death experiences. In fact, not once had she ever considered a near-death experience to be in the cards. Maybe that was a little naïve, considering some of the monsters they had seen, but still. This isn’t how she ever imagined things would go.

“Did I ever tell you what he asked me before he left?”

Nita blinks a few times before warily shaking her head.

Michel doesn’t look upset so much as he simply looks resigned. “We’d had an argument that morning over the whole bonding issue and I—I guess I just couldn’t see—I just didn’t want to see any of his points. I kept talking about all of the benefits – being stronger, healing faster, having access to all of their knowledge, all of those things we all think are so important – but I couldn’t tell you a single one of his argument because I just—I wasn’t listening. I didn’t understand why I should have to.” He goes completely still as he takes in a deep breath and slowly lets it out. When he goes on, his voice is a bit deeper, a little quieter, like speaking is suddenly that much harder. “We only stopped arguing because I had to go to a meeting with my adviser and I don’t—I don’t know why I didn’t at least try to—I guess I was just being too stubborn myself to apologize before I left but—” He shrugs. “When I got home, he’d already packed up most of his stuff and he was just sitting here, waiting for me to get back, and the moment I walked in he looked at me and asked me if I could tell him exactly where my feelings for him ended and Enjolras’s feeling for Grantaire began.”

There is a dead silence between them, then, and Nita very suddenly realizes that Michel is looking straight at her and for some horrible reason, for the first time in her life, she can’t actually bring herself to meet his eyes. Something heavy and cold has sunk deep into the pit of her stomach and it’s making her feel sick and she doesn’t know what to do with that fact. She doesn’t know what to do at all.

She doesn’t have to do anything, though, because a moment later he looks away, staring at a speck of dirt on the floor. “I couldn’t. I knew why he was asking and I knew what he wanted to hear but I also knew that he knew the truth and I just… I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell and he knew that when he asked me but he still—he looked so—he looked crushed, like he’d really, truly hoped that he was wrong and I'd have all of the right answers and we could just go on as if everything was fine. Then he told me about the call from his sister and about his grandfather dying and he said that he was going to Prague for a while to be with his family and…that was it.” Moving just for the sake of moving, she’s sure, he leans over to set his cup on the bedside table. “I thought about it a lot at first, you know? But then he didn’t come back and Enjolras was furious about it and it was so much easier for me to just forget about that last conversation and let myself be angry instead and I thought—when Feuilly and Tabs said they might have seen Grantaire getting on the metro and we started talking about the best way to find him, I thought that I’d been angry for so long that I’d be able to stay angry when I saw him again but…”

“You couldn’t,” she murmurs into her own cup, turned to face straight ahead now, still not quite able to look him in the face.

Michel huffs a short, hollow, little laugh. “I couldn’t but Enjolras could and now look where we are. His idea of ‘playing nice’ was to take over and say exactly what we both knew he shouldn’t with the expectation that Grantaire would have enough control over Alex to make him stay, which isn’t fair to Alex or R, by the way.”

“It wasn’t fair to you, either. He didn’t even give you a chance to try!”

They both go quiet again, just for a moment, then he holds out a hand for her cup and she lets him set it beside his own. When she wraps her arms around him, she makes a few grumbling noises and makes sure he gets a good look at her pout. That at least gets him to smile again, however exhausted he may be, and he hugs her, cheek resting on top of her head.

“I like Keani and Jehan’s philosophy,” he says after a while. “Sharing a soul doesn’t necessarily mean being the same person. I think that’s an understanding that Alex and R have but Enjolras and I don’t.”

Nita sighs. “Then maybe – just maybe – this would be a good time for you two to work on that.”

Chapter Text

Deven isn’t planning to panic. Then again, he supposes that no one in their right mind would ever plan to do such a thing. It’s an unpleasant experience, to put it mildly, and it’s one with which he is just a little bit too familiar for his own liking. If anyone were to ever tell him that they wished that they could experience it to its full extent in a similar fashion to the way in which he does, he would… Well, he would probably advise them to seek psychiatric evaluation, honestly, because anyone who actually believes that they would be better for having experienced mind-numbing, soul-crushing anxiety most certainly has one or two things already wrong with them.

That being said, he wasn’t planning to panic but he’s panicking anyway and, to make matters worse, he’s only been awake for an hour.

“Should I fetch his medication?” Bossuet asks from where he stands on the other side of the room, nearest to the door.

Joly, crouched in front of Deven with a hand on his counterpart’s knee, shakes his head. “There is no need as yet. It would merely leave him incapacitated for the better part of the day, which is best avoided if at all possible.”

Iggi has climbed up onto the bed, positioning himself behind where Deven has sat up on the edge of it, and has wrapped his arms around Deven’s chest, chin resting on his shoulder as he hushes the quiet whining that the anxiety brings, whispering things that at first sound like nonsense but slowly resolve themselves into instructions for how to breathe. This is a familiar sensation. The warmth and closeness and calm repetition of things that a perfectly logical brain should not have to be told push back against the rushing white noise of half-thoughts and worries until everything grows quiet, everything grows still.

“What happened?” Bossuet again. “I had thought that he was simply getting dressed.”

“He was,” Joly confirms, though he makes no move to explain, simply looking Deven in the eye as the world settles back into place around him.

Absurdly, the first thing that comes to Deven’s mind and, in those first unfiltered moments post anxiety attack, out of his mouth is, “You shouldn’t have got down so low. You’re going to have a hard time getting back up.”

Joly laughs, softly smiling. “You are quite right. I have made a grave miscalculation.” That said, he simply drops down onto his rear with a quiet grunt. “I suppose I will simply have to remain here until we are all prepared to continue with our morning.”

Deven leans back into Iggi’s chest as laughter tickles his ear. He has to be patient. The tension always drains slowly, no matter the speed with which the anxiety itself subsides. Iggi’s closeness helps, though, and bless him for knowing that without having ever been told.

A short while later, Iggi lightly bumps their heads together to draw Deven’s attention and quietly asks. “Are you ready to tell us what triggered this? If you’re not, we can just wait until you are. I called Dom while you were in the shower and he said everything’s looking good on their end. Alex seems to be healing faster and Ferre thinks he might even wake up pretty soon but it’s not like you’d even need to be there for that, right? I’m sure the crew over there can take care of things without you for a while longer.”

Iggi is rambling – just a little bit – and the panic wants to rise again as the information begins to process but Deven simply takes a deep breath and determinedly shoves it back down. He has more control than that now, which is a good sign. Besides, there’s no need to lose it again if Combeferre’s assessment proves true. So, hand shaking a bit, he silently points to his cell phone, currently resting on the floor a foot or so away. He’d dropped it when the anxiety hit, needing to make certain he managed to sit down before his knees gave way of their own volition.

Joly picks up the device and hands it to Iggi, who only pulls away enough to sit beside Deven instead of behind him. The look on Iggi’s face when he wakes up the phone and sees the notification on the lock screen is momentarily panicked, though thankfully his anxiety isn’t clinically severe. When he pulls himself together, the reaction has turned into little more than a grimace.

“God, I hope he wakes up today,” Iggi mutters, “but if he doesn’t, I vote we hand this over to Michel. I mean, I get why she’d text you first but…”

“Who?” Still in the doorway, Bossuet is frowning as he asks. Still sat on the floor beside the bed, Joly’s head tilts slightly to one side to express his own curiosity. He hadn’t actually been in the room when the panic started, though he’d shown up very quickly, sensing that something was wrong.

Deven takes a deep breath and lets out a slow sigh. “Natalie. Alex’s sister. She sent me a text this morning. I haven’t actually opened it but…”

“She’ll most certainly be looking for her brother,” Joly finishes for him with a small nod of understanding.

Bossuet wrinkles his nose a bit. “I agree with Iggi. This should be discussed with Michel.”

With a sigh, Deven nods before resting his head on Iggi’s shoulder and quietly asking, “Can we just sit here for a few more minutes, though?”

Iggi turns just enough to kiss Deven on the head. “Of course.”

 

The problem with saying that no one should be going anywhere alone right now is that some people are much busier than others and sometimes schedules just don’t line up quite right. In Tabitha’s case, working multiple jobs around her school schedule and needing to fit in a few extra hours at the beginning of the winter holidays so that she can afford to take some time off and go see her adoptive family before Hanukkah is over makes the idea of having to drag someone along with her everywhere just that much more stressful. Mali and Keani have reassured her a dozen times that they don’t mind, of course, which is why they’re both wonderful and amazing and she loves them dearly, but it doesn’t make her feel any less like an inconvenience when she has to drag them out of the flat at an ungodly hour so that she can work an opening shift at the coffee shop or when she looks at the clock before opening to the public and realizes that being here with her means that Mali is currently skipping crossfit.

“Hey.” Having flipped the last chair down from its table, one of her coworkers steps up beside her to squint out the window. “Aren’t those your girlfriends?” He barely steps far enough aside for her to avoid bumping into him when she lets the first customers in and Tabitha has to clench her teeth behind a closed-lip smile so as not to let the people coming in see her irritation. “Have they been sitting out there this whole time?”

She doesn’t actually have to answer that as their morning supervisor calls for him to get back behind the counter and help her while Tabitha takes a deep breath and turns toward greeting the last few people to come in before she finally lets the door close. The last two just happen to be Mali and Keani, the former sneaking in a quick peck on her cheek and the latter giving her the sort of quizzical look which says quite plainly that they’ve noticed how forced her smile is. With a sigh, she squeezes their hand and then makes her way toward the front to help get through the first round of the morning rush. It’s simple, routine, rhythmic. People who show up this early tend to be regulars or those who are likely to become regulars and their orders are almost always exceedingly simple. Black coffee, flat white, double shot, coffee with one cream, vanilla latte, cappuccino with two shots, coffee with two creams and one sugar, two soy lattes, house roast java box, red eye, americano, two black coffees and a macchiato.

If she has to work this early in the morning, she appreciates it being at a job where she doesn’t really have to think.

“I didn’t think we were allowed to have friends just come in and hang out.”

Granted, she’d appreciate it even more if she didn’t have to deal with this dumbass.

“Cole! Shut up and do your job.” Their supervisor shoots him a glare as she hands Tabitha the next two drink orders. “As long as they order something and don’t cause any trouble, her friends can hang out all they like. Now we need a bacon and egg biscuit, no cheese, and two cherry danishes.”

Tabitha smiles at his grumbling and whips up another flat white and a cappuccino, extra foam, for a familiar young couple who come in every weekday morning and always leave a generous tip in the jar by the espresso machine.

Aside from Cole being a dick, the shift is surprisingly pleasant. It’s relatively quiet, there are only a few minor complaints about things like cheese not being fully melted or a reheated pastry still being a little cold in the middle, and the only person who has an issue with their drink shocks everyone by admitting that he misspoke while ordering and therefore it’s his own fault. Tabitha makes the drink he actually wants and her supe gives it to him for free anyway. When her break rolls around, Tabitha grabs a double shot and heads out to join Mali and Keani by the front window, where Mali is texting while Keani scribbles lines of poetry on napkins which they will inevitably leave hidden all over anywhere they might go.

“Michel wants us to go see if we can pick up Alex’s stuff from the museum lost and found after you get off work.” Mali sets her phone aside and steals Tabitha’s drink but nearly chokes when she takes a sip. “Ugh! What the hell is that?”

Tabitha grins. “Straight espresso to carry me through. Almost went for a black eye but today hasn’t been too bad so that sort of felt like overkill.”

“Two shots in a black coffee,” Keani says before Mali can even ask, and they smile fondly as they raise their eyes from their writing.

Mali snorts. "All I'm taking away from this is that somehow regular coffee is the part of this that makes it overkill and I am astonished that you are even still alive with that sort of attitude."

Keani doesn't even seem to hear her as they continue with a sigh. “Alex practically lived on black eyes during his final semester. He couldn’t remember what day it was most of the time, occasionally forgot how to speak English, described to me in detail what various colors sound like, and almost ended up in the hospital with heart palpitations at least twice.”

“But his portfolio show was breathtaking,” Tabitha adds, “and we all nearly pissed ourselves when we came face-to-face with that detailed sculpture he did of the barricade.”

Keani sighs, expression far away and dreamy. “I wonder what he ever did with that.”

Tabitha hums into her coffee before taking a drink and only coughs a little when the liquid burns her mouth more than expected. “It’s still on display in the fine arts building.”

Mali snorts. “Wonder how he’d feel about that.”

“Oh, he’d hate it!” Keani sounds absolutely gleeful and tucks a poetry riddled napkin away inside of a table menu for someone else to find.

There isn’t that much left of her shift when Tabitha goes back and she busies herself with cleaning and restocking and lets the more recently arrived members of staff get into the swing of things with their customers. It’s a continuation of the routine, making sure that everything is ready for the afternoon. Wash this, fill that, mark down whatever needs to be ordered, make sure all of the food safety logs have been filed for the morning, consolidate recycling, wipe down a few tables. At some point in all of this, Cole has disappeared and she is simultaneous relieved and annoyed by his absence up until the point where she finds the back door propped open, smells cigarette smoke, and the annoyance outweighs everything at the sight of the large bin still full of tied-off garbage bags. He’s a lazy pain in the ass, sure, but he usually at least takes the trash with him when he sneaks out for a smoke while she cleans.

“For fuck sake, Cole,” she grumbles. Her voice is a little bit louder, just enough to be heard by anyone in the back lot, as she rolls the bin outside. “If this is still about my friends being allowed to hang around the shop, I’m going to kick your ass for being such a childish little prick.”

He’s not standing in plain sight, though, and that gives her pause as she looks around for the tell-tale trail of smoke. The only time he hides outside is when his girlfriend stops by and Tabitha has found them making out behind the dumpster more times than she’d like to remember. If that’s where they are, she’d rather just kick it and scare the shit out of them, though now she thinks about it she can’t really imagine Cole’s girlfriend willingly coming to see him with how cold it’s been lately. Tabitha really should have grabbed her jacket on the way out.

Except she’s halfway to the dumpster and, really, it’s not nearly as cold as she’d expected it to be. It’s still chilly but not quite enough to make her shiver and the breeze that had caught her off-guard that morning seems to have died down enough that it isn’t swirling through the wind tunnel created by the shops that back up to either side of the delivery corridor. Even more surprising is that there’s no real warmth from the sun, either, despite it being almost directly overhead.

There’s an odd sort of feeling just starting to creep across the borders of her consciousness when a sound behind her makes her jump and she spins to find Cole standing by the corner of the building, cigarette in hand as he gives her a small wave and a rather unenthusiastic, “Hey.”

“Hey?” Everything else shuffled into the back of her mind, Tabitha scowls and pointedly kicks the side of the bin still propped back on its wheels in front of her. “Hey yourself, asshole. Are you just trying to piss me off at this point or what? You just have one fucking job to do at the end of your shift. It’s not like it’s all that hard to…”

It’s the continued smell of smoke that leads her to trail off, an odd prickling sensation beginning to come over her mind, and she finds her gaze drifting down from his face to the unlit cigarette held loosely between his fingers. Then they focus on something else, something behind him. There’s a thin, almost invisible trail of smoke wafting up from a barely half-finished cigarette on the ground a few paces behind him. Now that doesn’t seem right.

“Cole?” She recognizes the feeling nagging at her now and she knows with full certainty that he isn’t going to answer. He’s just going to stand there and stare at her until she makes a move. They always just stare until they either see an opening or you make the first move.

“Feuilly.” She doesn’t even bother to keep her voice down. “Feuilly, I need Mali and Keani back here. Now.”

That is apparently the first move that it was waiting for. Out of the corner of her eye Tabitha sees Feuilly’s form come together as he sprints inside at almost the exact same time as the creature in front of her lunges forward, still wearing Cole’s face. It’s that familiarity with the visage it presents that tends to make a doppelganger one of the most difficult beasts to fight. There’s a sort of subconscious hesitation that must be overcome and that hesitation is precisely what they rely on for the upper hand. Tabitha knows this – everyone in the team has come to know this – and sometimes a single blink is just enough time to make the difference between throwing the first punch and taking a blow to the sternum.

It knocks the air out of her lungs with a well-placed shoulder, striking precisely where the ribs meet and pushing upward in a way that would have easily tossed her through the air like a ragdoll only a few short years ago. She likes to think that she’s learned a few tricks since then, however, and using her opponent’s angle and momentum to her advantage comes far more naturally now than it did before. If it wants to fling her aside, then she’ll let it do so but not without her fists balling up into the back of its shirt as she rolls off to the side and drags it in a quick, clumsy circle that ends with them both on the ground and the doppelganger’s skull cracking off of the pavement. When it looks back at her, dazed and unbalanced, there is blood running down a face that now looks less like her coworker and more like a vaguely familiar portrait that someone has carelessly doused in paint thinner. The sight makes her stomach turn but there’s no time to worry about that now. Breathless, scraped, and bruised as she is, she can’t lose what little advantage she’s managed to gain.

Everyone in the team has their own set of skills and while most of hers overlap with others, Tabitha is more than a little bit proud of her own ingenuity. When she was younger, establishing her place over and over again within one foster home and then another, she had been accused more than once of “fighting dirty.” She’s always been quick and wiry, though, and had grown used to rarely being a match for the strength of those who decided to go after her, so it only made sense to learn how to use whatever she could get her hands on to her advantage. In this particular case, a fist full of spilled garbage and loose gravel slammed into her opponent’s face works rather nicely to keep herself on top of this situation, even if she can’t quite identify how much of the soft, sticky texture that sends a shiver down her spine is sandwich scraps and how much is the wet clay of the doppelganger’s flesh.

Palms stinging and skin crawling, Tabitha scrambles to her feet as the bewildered beast flails after her, its resemblance to any particular person rapidly dissolving into a mess of incongruent features. It looks far more like Frankenstein’s monster than a proper human, piecing itself together from half-remembered past transformations. Unfortunately, the individual parts are all far too detailed for Tabitha’s liking. She needs those details to blur, the edges to grow dull and shapes to become vague representations rather than easily identifiable body parts.

Well, that or she needs Mali and Keani to show up already.

When her heel catches the edge of a trash bag, she stumbles and swears but at least manages to stay on her feet until one blind swipe of a hand with a painfully sharp manicure manages to snag her calf. She does her best to turn her shoulder into the asphalt and successfully manages to keep her head from hitting anything but it still feels like an electrical current shoots up her neck when she tenses and she hears as much as feels an unpleasantly sharp crack when her elbow strikes the ground. The pain brings tears to her eyes even as she rolls onto her back and slams her foot into the doppelganger’s nose with a satisfying crunch. If she’s going to end up with broken bones, at least she got to fracture a part of its newly solidified skull in return.

Then there’s someone gripping her good arm and pulling her to her feet but they’re too tall to be Mali and those hands are two rough to be Keani and it’s Feuilly’s almost panicked voice a little too loud in her ear. “The veil is too thick. I can’t pass through. I can only hope that someone heard me and has more luck than I.”

All Tabitha can do with that news is swear profusely and put some distance between herself and her enemy.

“What can I do to help you?” Feuilly’s jaw is set, eyes burning with determination when she finally manages to meet his gaze. “I cannot touch the beast but you…”

“If you could take an edge off of the pain, that would be great.” Her words come out a bit more snappish than intended but she knows that he won’t take any offense to that fact.

He simply nods. “I will do my best.” With that, he rests a hand on her shoulder and fades into nothing and his disappearance is accompanied by a sensation akin to a gentle wave washing over her.

The ache and sting of her injuries gradually begin to recede into something more annoyance than actual hindrance. Her elbow has begun to swell and complains when she attempts to use it but the pain no longer feels like an insurmountable burden upon her ability to move. It’s far more relief than some others might receive, even more than she had honestly expected, and she hopes that her gratitude is palpable as she dodges the bloodied doppelganger’s next desperate attack.

She can’t easily take the offensive at this point but she can keep dancing just out of reach and watch for openings to aim the occasional kick at its head or ribs and just hope that she can wear this thing down before she runs out of energy herself or, worse, takes another spill. It’s already getting frustrated, having obviously expected a much easier target than she has proven to be. That does lead her to wonder, though. The whole point of not going anywhere alone had been to avoid what seemed to be increasingly coordinated attacks, hadn’t it? So, had Cole simply been unfortunate enough to come face-to-face with a wandering monster or had this particular creature actually been watching and waiting for the perfect opportunity to get her alone and found him to be the easiest means by which to do so? Had anything ever harmed someone else for the sole purpose of getting to one of them before?

Her train of thought doesn’t get much further than that before it’s completely derailed by the sudden, crashing wave of relief that hits her at the sound of sneakers pounding against floor tiles and boots skidding over crumbling asphalt and concrete.

The roar that comes out of Mali as she launches herself at the scrabbling beast is nothing short of vicious, a sound so near primal that someone less familiar with the source might doubt that it could have even come from someone so small. When her first blow strikes home, it elicits an earsplitting screech from the target. Her second turns that screech into a growl and a whine.

“Tabby!” Keani comes to a halt between Tabitha and the now very lopsided battle only a matter of seconds after the fight truly begins. Their eyes are just a little bit wider than usual, showing too much white and too much pupil, and their voice is pitched high in barely contained panic and, realistically, Tabitha is fairly certain that such sights and sounds should trigger some sort of unpleasant feeling. She is, however, far too tired and far too grateful for their presence to care.

“Oh god. Oh god, are you okay? Bahorel thought he heard Feuilly shouting but we couldn’t find him and we couldn’t find you and no one else was reacting to any noise so we figured it had to be coming from this side of the veil but then we had all sorts of trouble getting through and—Your arm!”

With Mali swearing over the slowing scuffle in the background, all Tabitha can do is squeeze out a single, quiet laugh and shake her head and, after a moment, allow herself to be led further away to lean against the coffee shop’s back wall. What comfort Feuilly had been able to provide her is beginning to wane and she knows that with her now out of harm’s way, at least for the time being, his energy has switched gears from simply relieving pain to actually helping her healing begin. The transition is a familiar feeling, though it seems far more sluggish than it ever has before. Then again, she’s not sure that she’s ever suffered this much damage in a fight so that likely has something to do with it.

Speaking of damage… “Cole.” Scowling at the pain that shoots down her arm when she leans the wrong shoulder into the brick, she nods toward the nearby corner and is pleased to find Keani’s eyes lighting up with understanding a second later.

“I’ll check on him. You stay here and—Well, don’t sit down or anything just in case you need to move quickly or—Yeah, you know. I’ll be right back.” That said, they scurry off along the wall, wrinkling their nose as they carefully avoid stepping on the still smoldering cigarette on the ground. If it weren’t potential evidence, they would grind it out and throw it away and grumble about the effects of such things on both the body and the environment and Tabitha would gladly fall asleep as she listened but that isn’t really in the cards for today. There was someone outside of their team involved in this situation and there is every chance of that turning this alleyway into a crime scene when everything is said and done. What the crime will be, however, remains in question until…

“He’s alive!”

There’s another unearthly shriek of outrage, another slew of growling and swearing, and then the world around them bursts into whorls of dust and puffs of warm breath on cold air as they slam back into reality so hard that it makes Tabitha feel dizzy. From much closer than expected, Mali mutters an apology for not warning anyone, after which Bahorel’s voice rumbles lowly, too quiet for anyone other than Mali to hear. Whatever he says, it leads to a snort and a bit of grumbling but what that’s all about is a question for much later and, once the world stops spinning, Tabitha shuffles after Keani instead.

Before she can actually reach the corner, however, a horrified voice shouts from behind her, “What in God’s name is going on out here? Where’s—Jesus Christ, Tabitha, what happened to your arm?”

Keani is the one who jumps to respond, bless them, as Tabitha’s mind has slowed almost to a crawl and she can’t seem to get thoughts to translate into words, even when all she needs to say is, “Somebody came after them and Cole's hurt! Call 911!”

In the doorway, the supervisor on duty fumbles for her phone as she rambles to herself in a panic. How did this happen? Oh god. What a way to start her shift! Christ Almighty.

Tabitha simply peers around the corner to see a rather badly beaten but thankfully still breathing Cole, then sighs and collapses to the ground, Keani and Mali both leaping to help slow and cushion her fall. If this is even a fraction of how Alex felt, she thinks, then no wonder it’s taking him so long to wake up. His injuries were far more severe and yet here she is, fading in and out of consciousness as the adrenaline drains from her system.

“You’re mumbling, babe.” Mali is leaning forward, holding herself up with hands anchored against her thighs and a faint grin doing little to brighten the edges of the exhaustion that lines her face. “Caught Alex’s name in there, though, which… We should probably call Michel and tell him what just happened.”

Keani nods and offers a thin smile of their own. “Hey, captain. There’s been an unexpected change of plans and it involves a hospital visit and a police report.” They scrunch up their face with a quiet huff as the sound of approaching sirens cuts through the air and the last thing Tabitha hears before she lets herself drift away is a muttered, “I am not looking forward to that conversation at all.”

Chapter Text

The voices start to properly weave themselves into Alex’s consciousness again long before he can convince his eyes to open. They make a lot more sense than before, enough so that he can actually identify who each one belongs to and can make out full sentences, and it’s a bit of a relief, really, even if the thought of waking up surrounded by the friends he’s been running from for the past several years is… Well, the situation is less than ideal but he supposes it’s what the circumstances warranted and he can’t really bring himself to hold his discomfort with all of this against Grantaire. After all, the options had been this or death and he’ll take a little bit of awkwardness over whatever death might entail for someone like him.

He can feel people moving around the room, around the bed, around him. Someone touches his left hand, fingers light and lingering only just long enough to make the contact feel deliberate. There’s the shuffling of people to his right and he recognizes the sound of Deven quietly discussing something with Joly and Combeferre, though their voices are kept low enough that he can’t make out what they’re actually saying. The person to his left moves away from the bedside and the space that they occupied grows instantly, discernably colder.

“Alex?” Deven comes closer, a chair scraping along with him. He’s still quiet, as if trying to keep everything he might say confined to one room.

Nita, on the other hand, barely tries to keep her voice down at all. “Hey Ferre? We need a trio talk, if you’re free.”

Combeferre murmurs an apology and excuses himself.

Alex wants to make a crack about that, just a simple, sly remark about how things must be getting serious, about the trio and the triumvirate, as he teasingly dubbed them so long ago. He wants to say something just to make people laugh and lighten the horrible sort of heaviness that seems to be hanging around everyone and that he knows, without a doubt, is at least partial his fault. His eyes still won’t open, though, and wanting to get his body to do something, anything, isn’t getting him anywhere. It still feels as if he stuck behind a wall, as if his muscular and nervous systems aren’t quite hearing him when he tries to tell them to function. His only consolation – if you could call pain a consolation – is that trying to make his fingers move, however unsuccessfully, makes his arm cramp which makes everything from the elbow down on his left side flex and contract and goddamn that hurts.

Deven starts swearing under his breath.

“If you are making some attempt to communicate,” Joly says from somewhere near his elbow, tone vaguely amused, as someone’s hands begin to massage the convulsing muscles, “perhaps it would be best to avoid injuring yourself further in the process.”

Yeah. Thanks for the suggestion, doc. Never would have thought of that otherwise.

“Did he just try to say something or am I imagining things?” Iggi sounds so hopeful, struggling to keep his voice just as hushed as the rest, that it makes Alex’s heart ache.

“I believe he may have, yes.” Bossuet. So, is it just the four of them, then? Just his best friends and Grantaire’s closest. Could he really be that lucky?

No one says anything else for a moment. Aside from, whichever one of them is struggling to make his arm stop spasming, no one even seems to move. Despite how quiet it’s been, the relative silence of the room suddenly seems strange to his ears and it makes him feel slightly unsteady, like he’s almost falling backwards into his own mind and the helpless darkness therein. When someone does move, things sound muffled again and he can’t tell if he’s looking at the back of his eyelids or into that same horrible limbo that’s laid claim to him since his encounter at the gallery and, loathe as he would be to admit it aloud, that prospect absolutely terrifies him. In desperation, he casts his senses out, grasps onto any tiny sound or sensation, catches what might be a quiet conversation in some other room or might just be his mind playing tricks on him. It doesn’t particularly help the rising panic.

As if on cue, Grantaire’s voice tiredly murmurs, “Follow me.”

That’s easier said than done, though, isn’t it? After all, how does one follow a waypoint without any frame of reference for its direction? How does one follow anything without the ability to move?

The answer comes in the form of a sudden, sharp tug at his consciousness. It’s a dizzying sensation and his empty stomach does a violent somersault that kicks bile up into his throat where it burns just long enough that he almost expects his first action upon waking to be choking. There’s still an uncomfortably raw feeling and a horrible taste coating his tongue, his mouth dry and sticky with dehydration as he finally manages to force his voice out in the shape of a simple, hoarse—

“Fuck.”

There is still silence around him at that but this time it’s a silence which tells him that his mind is clearing because he can time its length by how many bars of Un Sospiro play quietly in the background before he finally gets a response in the form of Deven choking out an almost hysterical laugh. “Well, if that isn’t the most appropriate way for you to greet the world, I don’t know what is.”

Despite his muscles feeling clumsy and sluggish, Alex manages a particularly lopsided grin before finally getting his eyes to open just enough for him to put his friends’ locations around him into some sort of hazy perspective. Everything he tells his body to do feels like it’s on a delay, though, and even once it does actually listen it’s slow and weak in its movement. It’s frustrating but at least it’s something. He has to remember that the most important part is just that it’s doing something. When he blinks, it takes longer than it should to get his eyelids to come unstuck again but he eventually manages to open them a bit more on the second try and finally gets to actually look around.

He’s in Dom’s room, he realizes through the lingering bleariness. It’s barely changed at all from the last time he saw it and he makes a mental note to tease Dom for that later. Then again, who knows how much time he actually spends there. For all Alex knows, he might be spending most of his time at Nita’s, though that’s doubtful with how full her apartment used to be and likely still is, since they obviously haven’t moved out and got a place of their own yet.

None of that is the important part of this situation, though, is it? He needs to be taking a more general stock of his surroundings. The fact that Deven and Joly are on one side of him is worth noting, for instance, the latter leaning forward ever so slightly over the former, whose hands are only now moving away from his sore arm. Iggi is hovering near the foot of the bed. Bossuet is standing by the door.

“Well, this is cozy,” Alex mumbles. His words are slurred in a way that hasn’t been particularly familiar to him since long nights spent partying in college.

Iggi and Bossuet simultaneous lunge toward the hallway, practically falling over one another to shout out to someone, everyone, “Guys, he’s awake!”

The overhead light and the afternoon sun coming in through the window alert him to a sharp, nagging headache that’s taking up residence at the base of his skull even as Alex hears chairs scraping across the floor somewhere out of his line of sight. A little voice in his head reminds him that the sound most likely comes from the dining area. It would be quieter if it were from the living room, where everything is closer and more comfortable and the floors are covered in the soft overlap of mismatched rugs.

That’s assuming, of course, that Dom’s room isn’t the only thing that’s remained the same. Just because he used to know this flat like the back of his hand doesn’t mean that he could navigate it in the dark today. Anything could have changed after he left. It’s not as if the world he knew would remain static when he ran away. It’s not as if he had expected it to.

Had he?

Whatever the answer, he doesn’t like this particular inner-voice’s tone.

“How are you feeling?” Deven asks, eyes wide and excitement evident.

Dragging his thoughts back into order, Alex knows that the question comes less than a minute after his eyes are open. Time definitely isn’t moving as slowly as he feels like it is. “Like I narrowly escaped being consumed by the void.” His voice sounds terrible but he’s pleased when everyone in the room still laughs. Someone snorts in the hallway. He manages to hold his grin for a moment longer before he has to let it fall in order to conserve energy and mutters, “There any way I could get some water and maybe some painkillers.”

Deven presses his lips into a line at that, brow slightly furrowed as he looks back over his shoulder. Joly hums with a slight frown but nods. “So long as you try to eat a bit of something as well,” the phantom says. “Best not to take much on an empty stomach.”

Food doesn’t sound particularly appealing at the moment but his brain is starting to catch up with the aches and pains and the headache is starting to creep toward his temples and it’s all starting to feel like the worst hangover of his life so— “Sure. Whatever. I just need something before I start my new lease on life with a migraine.”

That makes both Deven and Joly’s expression soften just a bit.

A few moments later Dom is there helping him into a seated position, which is a far more difficult and painful affair than it has any right to be, so that he can accept a glass and a couple of pills from Nita. It takes a certain force of will and an intimate knowledge of the potential consequences to stop himself from just gulping all of the water down in one go. He has to keep his stomach as happy as possible if he’s going to have any chance of keeping much food down and having a pint of water sloshing around in there definitely wouldn’t help. For now, though, apparently all he gets are some crackers anyway.

“Sorry,” Nita says as she perches on the edge of the bed. “I sort of figured you’d appreciate the quickest snack possible. We can get you something better in a bit. Probably after I drag Dom out for groceries because the cupboards here are painfully bare and I’m going to have to sit him and Michel down and have a talk about that.”

Dom huffs from where he still stands nearby, arms now crossed over his chest. “We’ve been a little bit busy chasing cryptids lately, okay?”

Nita narrows her eyes at him. “Don’t you dare try to blame the invalid for the fact that the most nutritious thing in your kitchen right now is a can of fucking Spaghetti-O’s.”

Alex snorts and raises his glass ever so slightly as he croaks, “Cheers to that.”

The room gradually grows fairly quiet for a while then, most of its occupants wandering off to see to their own needs while one Frenchman or another – Enjolras excluded – watches him slowly and cautiously consume as many crackers as possible before his stomach starts to protest. If they notice the fact that he’s gone a bit clammy by this point, they don’t show any sign of it. There are doctors among them, though, so he holds no delusions as to their observational skills and he isn’t surprised at all when Combeferre disappears only to have Deven reappear with a faint frown a moment later. A quick once-over is all that’s needed before his friend gently seats himself at the foot of the bed.

“I’d like to think that I don’t actually have to tell you this but, well, you’re just going to have to ride out the withdrawal.” It’s a simple statement, said quietly so as not to carry out into the rest of the apartment, keeping the words slow and deliberate and their absurd level of knowing contained to the room.

Iggi has returned as well, going straight back to hovering as he’s always done whenever Alex has been too stubborn to admit that he really does still need and want the support of his closest friends.

“I know it’s going to be rough and we’ll help you through it the best we can,” Deven goes on, “but until you’re…” He sighs and furrows his brow. “Until you’re much better than you are right now, frankly, there’s no alcohol and there’s sure as hell none of whatever else you’ve been doing lately.”

There is no denying the level of disapproval creasing his friend’s face and, honestly, Alex feels oddly grateful for the familiarity of it. Deven’s way of expressing his disappointment without actually casting any sort of harsh judgement has always been a gift for which all of his friends, Alex especially, have always been grateful. In university, it had on many occasions been the key factor in preventing more than one of them from making terrible and potentially life-altering decisions. Without Deven, Alex thinks, he has no doubt that he would have gotten himself killed by something far more mundane than a few shadows before he even had a chance to graduate.

“Whatever else I’ve been doing?” Alex mutters with a faint grin. “You know, to be fair, you caught up with me the morning after a party, so whatever you think I may or may not have done prior to waking up at the mall is mere speculation and should not be taken into consideration while judging my everyday life choices.”

Iggi snorts at that and Deven rolls his eyes, worry giving way to a sort of fond exasperation. “You’re a mess, you know that? Can’t even text your best friends to at least let them know that you’re back in the country but you’re already finding parties and getting yourself beat within an inch of your life. I guess somethings just don’t change.”

With a grimace, Alex looks down at his hands for a moment and shrugs. He regrets that particular motion immediately. “Parties seemed like they’d be exponentially less likely to result in awkward conversations with people I’ve been avoiding for literally years.” With a sigh, he forces the grimace to twist into another, far more subdued grin when he looks back up. “Also, definitely seemed less likely to end in a confrontation with my ex but seems like I might have made a bit of a miscalculation there.”

Unlike the disapproval and disappointment, the looks of sympathy – or, in Iggi’s case, more like pity – he gets for that statement leave a bitter taste in his mouth and he takes another drink as much to wash the flavor away as to hide his scowl.

“Look…” Deven sounds uncertain of himself, hunting for the right words and turning to face Alex a bit more fully. “Look, I’m not going to lie. It’s going to be… Well, I don’t really know how it’s going to be but…” With a sigh, he wrinkles his nose and glances back toward Iggi, who looks back into the hall before walking around to sit on the opposite edge of the bed with an expression that provides all of the warning Alex needs to ready himself for what comes next.

“To put it bluntly,” he says, “Michel has been an absolutely fucking miserable human being since you left. He’d gotten a little better until recently but he and Enjolras are constantly butting heads and sometimes they’re just plain at each other’s throats, which is coincidentally how they’ve been for the better part of the past couple days, ever since we found you. This is, as you might expect, a surprise to no one but a pain in the ass for everyone. So, much as we all love and adore you, dude, I feel safe in saying that we’re all pretty tired of walking on eggshells and you’re going to have to pardon our collective failure to be more than marginally sympathetic to the hardship that is going to be actually holding a proper conversation with the guy you walked out on for reasons that remain a mystery to everyone except maybe Dom and Nita, assuming that you even bothered to explain them to Michel himself.” Iggi pauses for a split second to point at him, having obviously caught sight of something in Alex’s expression that he didn’t even realize was there. “Yeah. I know you. I know you and I know how bad you can be at actually telling anybody anything that they need or deserve to know and I know that you are a complete and utter failure when it comes to expressing anything important to one specific person. So, seeing as the rest of us have been dealing with the mess you left behind for the last few years, I’m definitely not sorry to say that your recent near-death experience had better as hell have knocked at least enough sense into you that you realize it’s time to suck it up and sort your shit out before you actually do manage to wind up dead.”

The silence when Iggi finishes is deafening and a little bit terrifying and Deven looks mildly distressed as he chokes out a slightly high-pitched, “I doubt you actually needed to be quite that blunt!”
Iggi folds one leg up under himself and shrugs, expression entirely unrepentant. “Better he gets an earful from me than a kick in the balls from somebody else.”

Alex is just as glad that he can chalk his pallor and nausea up to withdrawal rather than having to actually admit to his current state of discomfort and the nasty, nagging sensation in the pit of his stomach that he is loathe to actually, officially identify as shame. He’s grateful for the honesty, really. That’s always been a big part of their friendship and it’s nice to know that nothing there has changed but... Still not so sure he needed it all to come out quite like that.

After a few deep breaths and a couple of false starts, Deven finally manages to collect himself and shakes his head with a sigh. “Okay, well, all of that aside, it’s actually really good to have you back.” His smile is tired and still a little upset but genuine and he pokes Alex in the leg, carefully avoiding the hidden scrapes and bruises. “Even if, as Iggi has pointed out, you did manage to almost die on us straight out the gate.

Head tilted to one side, Alex squeezes out a considerably less cheeky grin than he would have liked. “Well, you know, I am nothing if not dramatic so...”

“Uh, speaking of drama.” Iggi clears his throat and gives Deven a rather pointed look at Alex can’t quite figure out how to interpret.

Deven, however, instantly goes three shades paler. “Oh god. Right. Um. Should we—That is, would it be better if we at least waited until—”

There’s a frustrating sort of apprehension curling itself up in the pit of Alex’s stomach as he listens to his friend stumble on whatever is meant to come next. Iggi stands up and starts hovering again, as if he can’t quite sit still while Deven stutters and fidgets, picking at bit of fuzz on the blanket. Alex knows them both well enough to know that this is all a rather bad sign and he’s not going to like what he’s eventually going to hear. Before either of them manages to actually get any words together, however, they’re saved by two quick, staccato raps at the doorframe and a hushed voice that turns that ball of apprehension into stone.

“Deven, your phone.” The floorboards groan ever so slightly as Michel shifts from one foot to the other, careful not to actually cross the threshold or even step quite close enough to be seen from Alex’s position. “I’ve already talked to her twice. I’m pretty sure if I pick up again, she’s going to call the police with a tip that I’ve murdered all of you.”

The looks on both Deven and Iggi’s faces don’t particularly help Alex feel any better but Iggi does, somehow, manage to figure out exactly what to ask him in order to make him feel a million times worse. “So, you wouldn’t happen to feel up to talking to your sister right about now, would you?”

Alex tries very hard to ignore the rather unflattering sound that comes out of his mouth. “Oh shit.” His voice cracks. “Gimme the phone.”

Iggi hurries to do just that, snatching a vibrating mobile from Michel’s outstretched hand and tossing it at the bed as it might burn him. It lands by Alex’s hip, a bomb that only he has the knowledge to defuse, and he hesitates a little bit longer than he should before he picks it up and taps answer only an instant before voicemail tries to pick up. What greets him is, somewhat unsurprisingly, a familiar voice shouting so loudly that he needs to neither bring the phone to his ear nor turn on speaker. He does the latter anyway as she continues to babble in rapid Czech about how his ex has probably left him dead in a ditch somewhere.

[You know,] he says, forgoing English for the time being, voice raised just enough to cut through her ranting, [without your name on caller ID, 99% of the people most likely to answer this particular phone would have good reason to think that you’d called the wrong number and just hang up on you.]

The shouting stops. There is silence. Then the shouting begins again.

[Where the fuck have you been?] Her voice breaks up in a way that is equal parts bad connection and some overwhelming emotion that toes the line between relief and fury. [I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for three days. Three days! Do you have any idea how long that even feels right now? I’m trying to get things squared away for Christmas, promising Máma that everything’s going to be fine, and the whole time I’m just waiting to hear back from one of your friends that they’ve found you—!]

[Dead in a ditch?] Alex leans his head back against the wall with a sigh and smiles faintly as he switches to English for his friends’ benefit, “If Deven knew I’d been found dead in a ditch, I’m pretty sure he’d have called you before you could call him but whatever. Say hi. Everyone can hear you.”

[Oh, so he really is actually alive, too? Miracle of miracles!] Her sarcasm is biting but all it does is make him laugh and a moment later the speaker crackles with her sigh. “Hello, Deven and whoever else ‘everyone’ entails.”

Deven squeaks a hello, followed closely by Iggi’s “hi, Tali” and Nita and Dom shout a greeting from the hallway. Presumably still standing at the door, as Alex has yet to hear him leave, Michel remains silent. Honestly, though, if he’s the one who’s had to deal with all of the panic and rage before this, Alex can’t really blame him.

“Niko also says hi.” On the other end of the line, his sister has finally begun to properly calm down. “He’s making fun of me for freaking out but would also like to let you know that he was about to call you in as missing and his brother was ready to pull some strings and get us on an overnight back to DC so we could start looking for you.”

Alex wrinkles his nose. “Okay. I concede that it probably didn’t look great for me to go falling off the grid right now but that seems a little like overkill.”

“You would think that, wouldn’t you?” It’s Nita shouting from the hall again and Alex glares in some vague semblance of her direction even as Natalie laughs.

“Thank you, whoever just agreed with me! I appreciate your grasp on common fucking sense.”

With a huff, Alex determinedly ignores the laughter that seems to be wandering away now. Around him, both of his best friends and their suddenly present counterparts all look as if they’re trying very hard not to start laughing as well. It takes more energy than he would like to admit to keep himself from pouting at them. He already feels childish enough just being publicly chastised.

There’s another laugh over the phone before his sister pauses for a moment and then speaks again with a quiet sigh and a far less jovial tone. “Seriously, though, Alex. I’ve been worried sick. I mean, it’s one thing when you go on a bender but you can’t just disappear like that. Please.”

Alex can feel the heat that rises into his face, knows full well that those who can actually see him right now can identify the shame and embarrassment that causes it, and he refuses to actually look at anything but his hands as he slumps back against the headboard. That stone in his gut seems to have invited an ache along to take up residence in his chest. “Look,” he says, much more quietly than he would like, “I’m sorry. Really. It’s just… It’s been a rotten couple of days, okay? I made some stupid decisions, I lost my phone, I…”

He what? Having made so many excuses in the past, for everything as serious as brawling with shadows to as stupid as passing out in a stranger’s hotel room because he just got that wasted, it should be easier to just spit one out now. The level of pain he’s in, though, and the way that his muscles still feel sluggish and his mind feels just that little bit too slow finally forces him to accept the dreadful realization that he’s likely going to be relying upon others for even the simplest of things for much longer this time than he has ever had to before. It’s a terribly embarrassing thought, one that makes him despite the fact that it has always been his policy to keep his reasons just a hair off from the truth.

With a deep breath, he closes his eyes for a moment and steels himself against what he knows is coming. “I got jumped by a couple of guys on my way home from a party.”

He’s just glad that her panic so often makes her forget English even if he hates that her panic has begun to feel so familiar. [You what? Jesus Christ, Alex! Why am I only just finding out about this? Are you okay? Did you call the police? I can still come home early if I need to. Niko’s brother could get me that flight if—]

[No. No don’t—I’m fine, okay? I promise. Things are—] Eyes squeezed shut so tightly that he sees lights flashing against the back of their lids, he forces himself to block out the world around him, to not think about how much the lying always hurts or about how much he hates making his family worry so much. He’s far too good at making his family worry far too much. [Things are being handled. I swear. I’m not in the best of shape but I’m staying with some friends and—] He hears her getting ready to say something to that, something he doesn’t want her to say even more than he simply doesn’t want to hear, and he cuts her off before the words can even start properly forming.

“Real friends, Tali.” He doesn’t know why he drops back into English when keeping such things between himself and his sister would be so much easier, so much safer, but as long as he keeps his eyes closed he doesn’t have to overthink it, right? All he has to do is say it. “I actually have those here, remember?”