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Today, Grantaire’s community service team are assigned to clearing the park of weeds and vegetation. The ground will be cleared, the soil dug over, and the space divided into allotments. Council-run, of course, with the produce going to their own shops so that the citizens can benefit from a system which relies as little as possible on outside sources. Everything here is about sustainability.

Next to the others, it’s not a hardship to pull his shirt off and dump it with theirs on the ground, sweat beading on all their backs as they work. It’s hard, but Grantaire enjoys the way his body is adapting and growing in response to the exercise. His belly is shrinking, and his arms are definitely thicker than they were. That brings its own problems, occasional days of discomfort, but most of the time he’s just pleased to be getting stronger.

The sun inches down the sky, vanishes behind the buildings bordering the park (some of them still in the process of being renovated), and Feuilly invites him for a beer with the rest of them. Grantaire declines, as he always does, and goes home.

He could catch the tram – it’s free to all residents – but he walks instead. He doesn’t have work tonight, so he can afford to let his feet take the strain for a while. The air smells of brick dust and dirt for miles before he reaches parts of the city left alone by the building teams (because they’ve already dealt with these areas and moved on). Everything here is industry, production, enthusiasm. Grantaire is still struggling to keep up.

His apartment is on the fifth floor of his building. The part of the city he lives in has some of the cheapest rent, the buildings always ten stories high at least with the narrowest streets between them. Density, density, density. Grantaire climbs the stairs, thighs protesting, and sighs with relief when he reaches his floor. Sighs again when he unlocks his door and steps inside, flicking the light on.

His neighbour isn’t back yet. Grantaire strips as he kicks the plastic tub that was his first purchase on arrival under the tap and turns it on. He’s adapting to this as well; washing standing up in a bucket with a flannel, the water never quite cold enough. He’s getting used to only being able to buy certain types of food (he hasn’t stopped looking for jams and cheeses). He’s settling into the solitude.

Settling is generous. He alternates between relishing in it and flinching back from the unfamiliarity of it. Solitude is not something he’s accustomed to. But he’s discovering that he can adapt to most things now.

His neighbour appears after Grantaire’s washed himself as best he can and dressed in light cotton pants and a thin t-shirt. He sees it when his neighbour switches the light in his apartment on. Their windows are directly opposite each other, with only a metre or so between the balcony railings of their sills, and Grantaire waits for the moment when his neighbour sees him. When it happens, they both smile, and nod hello.

On Grantaire’s second night here, his neighbour waved to him. Since then, they’ve started talking. Grantaire’s window is already open, trying to catch any hint of a breeze that might float down the narrow gap between their buildings, and his neighbour comes over to open his as well so that they can speak.

“How was community service?”

Grantaire shrugs. “Park clearance. You wouldn’t believe how many bugs live in branches.”

His neighbour shudders, unpinning soft blonde hair. It falls to his shoulders, and curls in the heat. “I’m so glad my community service is indoors.”

“Bugs come inside, you know,” Grantaire teases.

“Don’t say that!”

They laugh, and his neighbour moves away from the window to unpack his bag. He works for the council, in the department for law. This, and other things, Grantaire has learned about him. His neighbour’s community service is on Saturday mornings. He doesn’t like things with more than four legs. He has a close friend who works in the city library and reads as much as he can, and insists on lending books to Grantaire as well.

His apartment is larger than Grantaire’s, and far better furnished. Which is to say that it’s actually furnished. Grantaire has a futon on the floor, a cardboard box he uses as a table, and a clothes rack covered by a spare sheet. His neighbour has a bed, two tables, a wardrobe, a desk, and several folding chairs. And a lampshade. Apparently lampshades are things that friends make for each other here. His neighbour’s is made of cream paper stretched over a wire frame in the shape of a large ball. Grantaire wonders sometimes who made it for him.

His own bulb hangs naked from a wire in the ceiling, with no shade to dim its harsh glow.

 

At home, Grantaire used to kayak. The side-to-side shift in balance was something he excelled at, his paddle pushing him through the water faster than anyone else. He could keep himself almost totally still mid-current and dip the tips of his fingers into the cold water surrounding him. The sound of the river would block out everything else, even the breeze rustling the leaves in the trees on the banks. In the middle, there was just the ever-present bubbling whisper-roar of running water.

In winter it would freeze at the edges. The stream closer to Grantaire’s house would freeze over completely, and he would toboggan down the hill towards it. He adored the simplicity of winter, and the thickness of broken ice. Slabs eased up with bare hands red from cold, a squeak and crack, and the bitter taste of it in his thirsty mouth. No matter how clear it looked, there was always dirt in it, little particles of mud and grit.

He would stay outside until his face and fingers and toes were numb, his limbs stiff, and wilt in the oppressive heat when he returned inside.

 

“Wait!”

Feuilly and the others look around, surprised. Grantaire takes a deep breath, holding in the extra air so as not to deflate under the weight of their eyes.

“Is anyone going to use these?” The branches and thick-stemmed vines they’ve hacked down and uprooted today are in a pile, ready for collection.

“Use them?” Feuilly’s eyebrows rise. “No, of course not.”

“When are they being picked up again?”

“Tomorrow morning, I think.”

“Okay.” Grantaire nods, smiles to convince them everything is fine.

“Okay.” Feuilly returns it, eyes sincere and expression inviting. “Beer?”

Grantaire isn’t sure whether the continued offer is painful or not, but it’s met with a declination as always. Feuilly and the others go on together – they’ve been in this group for years, and they’re tight-knit and friendly after months spent side by side, working to make the city a better place. Grantaire is the outsider here, staying behind with the abandoned vegetation and staring at it, seeing possibility and potential in the tangled mess.

Having to turn Feuilly down again stings less when there are other things to do. Eyes flicking from place to place, taking in the different lengths and thicknesses of the branches, hands testing their durability. The sun sinks as Grantaire sorts them into piles and then starts to wind them together.

The streetlight proves just enough illumination to work by, and a few people pause as they walk past to cast curious looks at the half-hidden person sitting in a circle of sticks and vines. Under Grantaire’s hands, the pieces come together. A latticed base is formed first. Springy and with plenty of gaps so that other branches can be anchored in place. The earth isn’t yet soft enough to anchor the slowly growing creation here.

From there, Grantaire plants strong limbs as bones. The way it will come together is already there, the structure hovering over what’s there like a vision or a second skin. Grantaire can see it so clearly – all it needs is for someone to fill in the gaps. The moon rises and the streets quieten down to near-silence, crickets singing in the undergrowth.

The darkness washes everything out, and the only real colour comes from the orange of the streetlamp, casting everything in a yellow glow. It would be better to work by moonlight, Grantaire thinks, but perhaps it would be even harder to see then. The shadows loom, but it’s not frightening. Something is being created here – it’s impossible to feel anything other than anticipation. Even when it goes wrong a few times and backtracking and correction is required, it doesn’t seem to matter.

The streetlight flickers out as the sky lightens from dark, rich blue to a paler cerulean. This early, there are even a few clouds, pale grey wisps that will vanish later as the heat rises. Grantaire tugs and pushes the branches into a final position and reaches for the thinnest vines with a smile, put aside until now. There’s flowering bindweed just strong enough to be eased through the last gaps between the branches, weaving in a random pattern through the whole thing.

Veins, Grantaire thinks. Bones, skin, and veins at the end, with sap instead of blood. Appearing to grow from the base, a thick trunk of interwoven branches which twist clockwise and form five flat surfaces which fan out like petals about halfway up. It comes up to Grantaire’s shoulders, uneven twigs poking from the top without order.

Exhausted and hungry, covered in dirt, Grantaire turns away to go home and pauses. There’s a person on a bike at the low park wall, their face in shadow. “Did you build that?”

“Um.” A man, Grantaire thinks, stepping closer to see. A friendly-looking man with brown skin and wide eyes. “Yes?”

“That’s incredible! Are you a professional?”

“Me?” Grantaire laughs. “No, definitely not.”

“You should be.” The man offers his hand, and Grantaire shakes it. “I’m Courfeyrac. I’ve got to know the name of the artist.”

“Grantaire. I’m not really an artist.”

“You made art, therefore you’re an artist.” Courfeyrac declares it with a bright smile. “You know, there’s a course for sculpture at the art school opening soon. You should check it out – maybe you could teach them something.”

Grantaire laughs again – Courfeyrac inspires easy smiles, it seems. “I doubt that. I’ve got to get going, but it was nice to meet you?”

“Yeah, same. I hope we bump into each other again.” Courfeyrac gives one last grin and stands up on his bike, pushing off down the street and around the corner. Grantaire goes home still smiling, and only the sight of the freshly-washed sheets on the futon prompts a thorough wash before sleep swallows Grantaire down.

 

His neighbour leans out of his window, smiling in anticipation as Grantaire leans out of his and holds the piece of toast out. He’s finally managed to find a cheese market, and although the prices are steep, he can do without other foods if it means tasting smooth goat cheese on toast again, real butter melting from both the heat of the bread and the heat of the air.

His neighbour’s teeth close, taking a decently sized bite with no hesitation. The toast crackles and crunches, and Grantaire leans back to take a bite for himself, watching. “Well?”

“It’s good.” His neighbour smiles, licks crumbs from the corners of his mouth.

“I told you.” Grantaire pretends smugness, tipping his head back and offering the last bit on impulse. His neighbour reaches over to take it, their fingers almost touching in mid-air, the gulf between their apartments almost breached by contact. But then his neighbour is pulling back and popping the last bit of toast into his mouth. Bread is another thing Grantaire allows himself to indulge in. He buys thick, brown loaves full of seeds, and doesn’t skimp on the butter. It goes rancid in this heat if left out too long anyway.

“Where to tonight?” his neighbour calls across as Grantaire gets ready. He has two part-time jobs, as a housecleaner and a janitor at a nearby school. On his bed, his neighbour is leaning back against the headboard with his laptop between his spread legs. It’s too hot to actually rest on his thighs, he says, and Grantaire believes him.

(He dreams of chunks of blackish ice, rubbing broken-off shards across his overheated skin, the cold painful to bear as it leaves streaks of water down his back, the insides of his thighs, the burning column of his throat.)

“I’m making ice-cream,” he calls back on impulse, bending down to pull his sandals on.

“Making what?”

“Ice-cream.” Grantaire stands up and returns his neighbour’s smile. “I create the flavours. Tonight’s special will be goat cheese, of course.”

“Of course.”

“But my personal favourite is orange. Not overwhelming or too sweet – just light, and very citrusy. More of a sorbet than an ice-cream.”

“Well I’d hate to keep you.” His neighbour’s hair is pinned up again, wisps escaping the twist and spiralling at the sides of his face. His smile is the best thing in Grantaire’s day.

“I’d bring you some back, but by the time I brought it up here, I’m afraid I’d be bringing you a puddle. A tasty puddle, but a puddle nonetheless.”

His neighbour laughs and waves goodbye as Grantaire slips out. The nights smell different to the days here. His sandals are cheap, just a strip of barely-cushioned wood keeping his feet raised above the dusty streets, and by the end of the night he knows his heels will ache. It takes longer to clean an entire building than he would have expected, but he’s getting faster.

He and his neighbour know that he’s not an ice-cream maker. Or a superhero, or a shapeshifer, or a drug mule, or a teacher, or a musician, or any of the other jobs he’s made up. The reality isn’t anything to be ashamed of, Grantaire knows. There’s pride to be had in doing a job and doing it well. But compared to what Enjolras does, sweeping and mopping floors seems so pathetic.

The halls of the school are dim until he turns on the lights. He sweeps each room and each corridor, the repetition soothing in its familiarity. The brush is soft against the plastic floors, the mop leaves a shining trail with no dry gaps. The only sounds are of his body and his cleaning implements. It’s a simple job, and Grantaire goes home at least satisfied, if not proud.

 

The clothes rack in Grantaire’s apartment is the second thing bought on arrival, just after the large purple bucket. At one end are normal clothes – lightweight trousers, the heavier pair of jeans from home (immediately discarded for being so hot), a couple of work shirts. The t-shirts usually end up draped over the sheet that covers the rack.

The sheet is there so that no one sees the rest of the clothes on the rack. Not even Grantaire. On the first day, after travelling all night and finally getting the key to the promise of a new life (a better life), the empty apartment had prompted a shopping trip. Only the essentials, of course. So had come the plastic bucket, the rack, the futon, and a burner for cooking. A pot, a pan, a set of cutlery for one. Three kinds of soap; for body, clothes, and the dishes. Only the essentials.

But there had actually been money left over – more than expected. So Grantaire had unpacked the new purchases and gone back out to buy some new clothes. Again, only the essentials. But those came cheap, and Grantaire’s eye had been caught by brighter colours and less practical cuts.

Grantaire can't look at the furtively-bought dresses from that day. There are only five, but there are so many more to be seen in town. Colours and patterns and flowing skirts in shop windows, hanging from market stalls. Almost all sleeveless, of course, some strapless, the material light and thin to accommodate the intense summer heat.

In the privacy of the apartment, when the opposite window is dark and the beautiful blonde neighbour definitely absent, Grantaire dares to try on the clothes at the other end of the rack. The fabric is soft against fingers brushed feather-light against it, the colours so bold. The one Grantaire’s hand eventually stops on is the brightest. A patchwork mix of clashing colours and patterns, the material a little thicker than the others. Shorter too, the skirt knee-length rather than falling to the calves.

The dress is pulled out and stared at, a hungry, hesitant gaze drinking it in.  

It’s not that Grantaire wants to be a woman. Grantaire just doesn’t always feel like a man.

There are no mirrors in this apartment.

The dress is tighter around the chest than expected, but the sensation of the skirt on Grantaire’s thighs sends goosebumps racing up legs, arms, spine. All body parts are fair game for the fragile possibility of transformation these forbidden clothes provide. The legs poking out from below the bright yellow and green and red hem are too hairy, the bare feet far too large to be a woman’s.

Grantaire’s is not the body this dress was intended for.

Standing still and trying to take steady breaths with closed eyes, it’s something completely new to just feel the dress against skin chilled despite the humidity. There’s the sound of voices from somewhere below, the click of heels in the street outside, but the apartment is caught in a quiet bubble. Like air caught in ice and kept frozen for months.

Going outside like this is unthinkable. But in here, Grantaire can run shaking hands down the front of the dress and the flatness of the body below it and feel…

Applying the word ‘beautiful’ is impossible. But by the time the risk of being seen grows enough to necessitate unzipping the side and stepping carefully out of the folds, there’s a tiny smile gracing Grantaire’s lips.

 

“Do you know what this is about?”

Grantaire shakes his head. The council representative he’s speaking to – Cosette – isn’t intimidating at all. She’s beautiful, Asian, and friendly, welcoming Grantaire in with smiles and kind words, telling him she’s thrilled to meet him. Her office is small, but bright, a little pot of flowers growing on the windowsill to their right, photographs of friends on the walls. Despite this, Grantaire is anxious. Surely being summoned by the city council can only be a bad thing? 

“I understand you’re the one who erected that lovely sculpture in the park your community service team has been working to clear?”

“Shit, I’m sorry,” he blurts. “I shouldn’t’ve just left it there, I wasn’t thinking – I shouldn’t’ve made it in the first place, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t apologise!” Cosette meets his embarrassment with more smiles. “Please don’t. I think the piece is beautiful. Have you done work like that before?”

“Only at home,” he says after a moment, blinking. “It’s nothing much. Just playing around.”

“You’re clearly very talented.” She looks down at the papers on her desk, turns one over. “Unfortunately, we can’t leave the sculpture there – you know the area needs to be dug up and dug in and properly treated. Luckily, it isn’t fixed in place there, so I wanted to ask you what you want to do with it.” She looks up, head tilted. He just stares, opening and closing his mouth like a fish for a few seconds before he can respond.

“Do? I…I didn’t make it to keep it, it’s not really mine. I wasn’t really thinking. I don’t know, you can do what you like with it. It won’t last for very long – those branches will crack and rot. It’s a useless thing, really.”

“Oh no!” she protests, leaning forward. For a moment, he thinks she’s going to try and take his hand. “No, anything that brings other people pleasure and joy is something to be treasured. It isn’t useless at all. I think it’s beautiful, and very cleverly made.”

Grantaire shrugs helplessly. “You can keep it if you want. I wouldn’t know what to do with it, myself.”

“Very well.” She writes something down quickly. “I hope you continue with this, at least. It would be a shame to lose such potential future art from you.”

On the way home, Grantaire takes a detour further east than he needs to, checking the maps pinned behind glass to find the art school. He doesn’t dare do more than find the advertisement for sculpture classes and note down the information, but the idea is planted firmly in his mind.

 

Sitting on his mattress like this, Grantaire can glance up whenever he likes to see his neighbour, working as usual on his bed. What the desk is for, Grantaire doesn’t know – it’s not as if the guy ever uses it. Were he capable of drawing more than stick men, Grantaire would ask his neighbour to model for him. Like this, especially, he’s beautiful – long legs stretched out in front of him, baggy shirt and shorts barely covering enough skin to be considered decent, hair pulled up into a messy knot. Occasionally they’ll catch each other’s eyes and smile, and Grantaire hopes the blush on his cheeks isn’t visible from the other apartment.

The next time he looks up from his book, there’s something on the wall to the side of his neighbour’s head. Closer inspection reveals it to be a spider. A huge spider. And his neighbour hates crawly things. Grantaire is on his feet in seconds, opening his window and waving to catch his neighbour’s attention. “Hey, hey!”

“Hm?” He looks up and smiles. “What?”

“Come over here for a second?”

“Have you got something new for me to try?” His smile grows as he puts his laptop aside and gets up. Grantaire doesn’t look at the spider – he doesn’t want to give the game away until his neighbour is further away from it. “What is it?”

“There’s a spider on your wall,” Grantaire tells him, biting his lip when his neighbour’s smile fades, and he glances behind him. He must barely catch a glimpse before his head snaps forward again, a sharp inhale jolting his chest. Grantaire doesn’t say anything, and watches as his neighbour looks down and takes a couple of steady breaths before slowly turning his head again. He closes his eyes this time, again getting no more than the tiniest peek.

“Fuck.” He shifts closer to the window, shoulders tense and voice high. “That…that is a big spider.” His breath shudders when he lets it out, and Grantaire comes right up to his windowsill.

“I’ll get rid of it for you if you want.”

Please.” His neighbour’s eyes snap to his, and Grantaire nods. He’s powerless against that tone of voice.

“Watch out then. I’ll come over.”

“Wait, hang on, we’re five stories up –” He skitters backwards as Grantaire clambers out onto his windowsill and steps over to the one opposite with no trouble at all, stepping down into his neighbour’s apartment with no ceremony. Once he straightens, they stare at each other for a moment. Grantaire’s the shorter of them, it appears. Shorter, darker, and broader. “Hi,” his neighbour whispers.

Grantaire smiles, shy. “Hey. I’ll just…” He looks round at the wall behind the bed (this apartment seems both bigger and smaller from the inside), and his neighbour makes a soft whining sound and steps towards the window.

“Could I, um. Could we swap apartments while you do it?”

Grantaire’s smile turns to a grin, and he nods. “Sure. If you can get over?”

“If you did it, I can too.” As good as his word, possibly motivated by his arachnophobia, he steps across the same way Grantaire did. As soon as he’s gone, Grantaire turns his attention to the spider. It is genuinely massive – he’s seen ones this big inside before, but they were always driven in by the cold or brought in by accident with the wood from the log pile.

“You’re displaced,” he murmurs, and lashes a hand out to grab it quickly. It panics, legs flailing against his palm, but he manages to drop it out of the window before it bites him. In his apartment, his neighbour is pressed against the wall furthest from the window, eyes wide.

“Is it gone?”

Grantaire nods. “It’s gone. Do you want me to check for more?”

“Please.” His neighbour’s shoulders sag, relieved.

Grantaire pulls the bed out and looks behind and under it. He finds a miserable-looking cricket behind the desk, but nothing apart from that. His report is met with a grateful smile. “You have to tell me your name now,” his neighbour insists, still in Grantaire’s apartment. The reversal of their positions is strange, adding an air of unreality to the situation.

“Grantaire,” Grantaire tells him after a moment. “My name’s Grantaire.”

“I’m Enjolras.”

“Enjolras.” Grantaire repeats it purely for the pleasure of shaping the sound in his own mouth. It suits him. Enjolras.

They swap back, Enjolras coming over first and thanking Grantaire again for taking care of the spider for him. Grantaire reads until Enjolras goes to bed, the two of them waving goodnight before Enjolras closes his blinds and turns out his light. Grantaire stays up until he finishes his book, Enjolras’ name rolling over his tongue and settling into his skin.

 

Into the woods beyond the wide shining ribbon the river carved gently into the land was a waterfall. The stream of it ran past the hill near Grantaire’s house, and wading upriver to the source was a day’s long work. It took effort to get lost so thoroughly.

He’d tried once or twice to walk the distance, but the stream always wound away out of sight and earshot, evading him with ease. Only when wading did the path appear. Grantaire would give the journey to himself as a treat, saved up for when he needed to get away and vanish and be lost for a while. He would pack himself food – chocolate bars and bread rolls and apples – and set out early.

The stream was shallow where it passed his house, water spreading out over soft grey stones and mud, the trickle and bubble of it a giggle as it found ways around the dams Grantaire built to try and hold onto it. Further up, it grew deeper, stones giving way to tougher mud, the narrower banks making for a swifter current. This stream was different – hurrying, intent. Further on, the banks grew too steep to climb, the sky barely visible through the leaves above. Shattering, splintering fractals of light dancing across the water’s surface and Grantaire’s skin.

He would pull himself on by holding onto the roots of trees where they stuck out of the banks, concentrating so that the current wouldn’t catch him by surprise and tug his legs out from under him. The level of the stream never rose above his thighs, though when he was younger he’d been in up to his chest in some places, holding his backpack above his head so his food wouldn’t be ruined.

The browns of the bank would give way after that to green moss on dark, wet rocks. Here, the stream laughed again, splashing high, glittering droplets cool on his skin. A welcome reprieve from the heat such exertion created. The stream widened, narrowed, widened again, and finally met a large pool. Grantaire had never seen it in winter (he’d tried to make the trip in autumn once, but the water’s harsh chill had forced him back), but he’d always thought that the ice here would have been like crystal. A serene circle of white-frosted glass that would slake his thirst the way the water further down never did.

He ate his food on the flat grey rocks and bathed in the patch of sun the pool provided, its boundaries keeping the shade of the trees at a distance. When he grew too hot, he could just strip and roll into the pool itself, ducking under and jumping out to dry and warm up again.

It always seemed such a contradiction that it took so long to struggle upstream to such a lovely place, and only an hour or so for the current to hurry him back home.

 

Enjolras has guests over. His curtains are closed, but Grantaire can hear them – everyone has their windows open now, bugs or no. The city is wilting in the heat, but there is laughter and the smell of cooking food coming from Enjolras’ apartment. Something spicy and hot. Fruit jams are hard to find here, but chillies are sold by the handful, tomatoes and peppers grown on balconies and in window boxes alongside pale green herbs that flourish in this climate.

Grantaire sits on the floor next to his clothing rack and lifts the edge of the sheet to gaze at the dresses. There are six now. His quest for jam has taken him to markets held in odd places at odd times, and he saw this wraparound dress at one today. It’s tie-died, red and green streaks and swirls on a thin gauzy material that would float around his legs if he put it on. He doesn’t dare until he’s sure he won’t be seen.

It’s made for a thinner body, he knows. Slimmer, with breasts and hips he doesn’t possess. He doesn’t mind not having them most of the time, but if he’s going to buy dresses he should at least make sure they’ll fit.

He laughs at himself. It’s not a consideration he needs to make – it’s not like he’ll ever have the courage to wear them in public.

But he’s taken to wearing them more often on his own. Waking up with Enjolras already at work, he can wear a dress while he sits in his tiny apartment. He’s worn them all now, enough to have favourites and preferences.

There’s a black one which buttons up at the front, patterned with little bright blue flowers. It’s so soft against his skin that getting into trousers afterwards makes him want to cry.

Someone in Enjolras’ apartment laughs – a woman, high and pleasant. Grantaire jerks his hand away from the clothes rack as if burned when the curtain of Enjolras’ apartment is pulled back, and Enjolras leans out, brightening when he spots him. “Grantaire!”

“That’s me,” Grantaire says, rising to his feet. “Good evening.”

“Have you eaten? Do you want to join us?”

“Did you say Grantaire?” A familiar voice – Grantaire frowns and comes forward, and Feuilly appears at Enjolras’ side, a grin breaking across his face. “You’re Enjolras’ neighbour?”

“Hi?” Grantaire lifts a hand, praying he doesn’t look as awkward as he feels.

“You have to join us now,” Enjolras tells him, eyes bright in the dusk. With the curtain pulled back, the full variety of scents is wafting over – Grantaire can see a man and a woman bent over Enjolras’ desk, three or four little burners lined up with smoking pots and pans balanced in a precarious line on top. “Please. You’re always feeding me. Let me return the favour.”

If they were all complete strangers it would be too daunting, but Grantaire feels like he knows Feuilly well enough to clamber over into Enjolras’ flat. Enjolras takes his hand to steady him as he crosses the gap between their windows, and Grantaire’s heart leaps into his throat.

The man and woman keeping an eye on the food are Joly and Musichetta, and there are two other men as well as Feuilly called Combeferre and Bossuet. They’ve been friends for years, but Enjolras and Feuilly draw Grantaire in as though he’s always been there. The food is delicious, and Grantaire sneaks a smile at Enjolras. “There’s no way you made this.”

“I might’ve done!” Enjolras pretends offence, but the others are snickering.

“How soon was the illusion shattered?” Bossuet asks. “Has he ever pretended he can cook?”

“I can cook a bit!” Enjolras insists. Grantaire ignores him, smile growing under Bossuet’s encouraging eyes.

“No, the most I ever smell is…hm, actually, anything I do smell is bland. Nothing like this.”

Enjolras sulks, and Grantaire laughs at Musichetta’s sly jokes, Joly and Bossuet’s recounting of an incident with their landlord. They’re funny, the three of them, and Grantaire hides his shock when they exchange kisses with each other, touching as though they’re all in a relationship together.

They ask him about where he comes from, and he tells them about the depth and coldness of water, about swimming, kayaking, fishing. Days of rain and winters of heavy snow, greens and blues and greys instead of the orange-brown-red of the dust here, the earth he and Feuilly pull weeds and roots from crumbling and cracking instead of staining his hands black like the wet, black soil he’s used to. Everything here is dry, he tells them, and hot to touch. But he’s enjoying the difference.

These people adore their home. Feuilly and Enjolras have never left, and though the others have travelled, they could never leave. “I’m so proud of it, you know?” Feuilly says, fingers laced on the table top. “When you think that only five or six years ago half these streets were still rubble, and now almost every building has a garden on it. And people like you want to come here.” He smiles at Grantaire. “You picked this city over everywhere else, and you’re not the only one – people are coming here because we’re growing again.”

“You and your plant metaphors.” Bossuet nudges him, easy camaraderie exchanged in casual contact and laughter.

“Everything fits together.” Combeferre waves his hands. “Isn’t that the point? Everything connects, intersects, crosses over?”

“Plants too.” Grantaire surprises himself by speaking, and looks down at his napkin to avoid looking at them, folding the square into triangles and diamonds and rectangles and squares again, a flower forming under his fingers. “Like those spirals – what’re they called? They appear in loads of different plants, like pine cones and stuff.”

“Fibonacci spirals,” Combeferre beams, nodding. “Yes, exactly.”

“Everything is circles,” Grantaire says. “Even time, right?” He teases out petals, uncurls leaves, and laughs as a puts a white rose on the table in front of him. “Maybe not time, I don’t know. I was never smart – I don’t know Fibonacci, but I know that’s maths, and numbers have never been kind to me. But circles and spirals seem to crop up so often – planets, stars, rings in tree trunks…what are those patterns that appear in water? In a bath or at the bottom of a swimming pool?” He shakes his head, smiling to himself. “Not that you see anything like that here. They’re not spirals, but it’s another pattern that connects things, isn’t it? I don’t know, I don’t know much of anything really. I’m not suited for anything in particular.”

“You’re good with your hands.” Musichetta scoops the rose up with her gentle black fingers and smiles to see it cupped in her palm, the contrast beautiful. “This is gorgeous. Can I keep it?”

“I’ll make you one out of paper if you like,” Grantaire offers, baffled. “That one won’t last long. But everything comes apart eventually.”

“Only to be repeated when the pattern begins again.” Combeferre’s eyes sparkle behind his glasses, smile triumphant. “You have a philosophic mind.”

Grantaire bursts out laughing. “I suppose a lot of philosophers have empty minds, so by all means, call me a philosopher.”

His good mood dims when Joly offers to run down the road and get them a bottle of wine – it’s expensive, but they’re having such a good evening, why not splash out?

“Beer’s better,” Grantaire can’t help saying. “Cider’s even easier – anyone can make cider. Though I suppose you’d find it difficult round here with so few fruit trees and bushes. If any of you know where I can find any fruit jam, I’ll make you a bouquet of paper roses. I’ve seen blackberry bushes on my way to work, and I’ve made blackberry wine before. Dionysus would approve, no doubt, of my many attempts to prostrate myself at his feet.” His cheeks are warm – he’s drunk on their laughter, on the company and the food and the giddiness and hopeful pleasure their attention has brought him. He’s not used to being tolerated by such people. “You let me talk too much,” he mutters. “I embarrass myself if I’m allowed to ramble.”

“But you keep saying such interesting things.” There’s nothing but sincerity in Combeferre’s voice, and Grantaire is lucky his skin is dark enough not to show a blush so easily. “You know how to make wine?”

“It’s easy enough with the right materials. I used to have a brewery for a bedroom, bottles all over the floor and great barrels along one wall. Cheaper than buying it, you see. I could’ve made a decent profit if I’d sold any.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“What I didn’t drink was either stolen or given away.” He’s talking too much, far too much, and he hurries on so they won’t ask about the thieves or the benefactors of his generosity. “Every now and then a bottle would blow – the sound was like a gunshot, and there’d be booze all over the room. Everything would stink. I can’t bear vinegar anymore – the smell reminds me of failed distillation. Funny the way smells are associated with things like that, isn’t it?” He’s babbling, why are they still listening, why aren’t they stopping him?

“You know so much,” Feuilly says when he takes a break to breathe. Grantaire could weep with gratitude – uninterrupted, he’ll prattle on for hours. “Why don’t you ever join the team after community service?” His words are not pointed or snide, his expression not cruel or cold, but Grantaire still shrinks, barely stopping himself from flinching.

“I…you go for drinks, don’t you?”

“Yes?”

“I don’t drink beer.”

Feuilly smiles, though Joly’s has faded. Grantaire looks away. “You wouldn’t have to drink beer.”

“I can’t drink anything else either.” His cheeks are burning – even with his complexion it must be obvious by now. “I suppose it’s like vinegar,” he says, trying to push past the sudden drop in joviality. “Association of memory with smell, with taste. Like if you eat something before getting ill, even if it wasn’t the cause, you can’t eat that thing again.”

“I can’t eat gingerbread,” Bossuet jumps in, nodding. His expression is miraculously unchanged – still cheerful, still happy. “I used to absolutely love it, but then I caught a stomach bug after making and eating some gingerbread men I’d made with my sister and bam! The smell of it turns my stomach. Just my luck, really – I used to adore it.”

The chatter returns, and Enjolras finds a notebook he says he doesn’t need and passes it to Grantaire. He makes paper roses for everyone, and folds birds, giraffes, mice, throwing stars, anything his fingers remember.

“I don’t drink either,” Enjolras tells him after the others are gone, Grantaire hovering by the window. “I’ve never liked the taste.”

There are many things Grantaire could say to that. The taste improves if you keep drinking and beat your tongue into submission. I could brew something sweet enough to make you down the bottle. You just haven’t tried all the varieties out there, there’s always something –

He just smiles instead, and steps carefully from Enjolras’ window to his, leaving the residual warmth and the smell of good food behind in favour of his smaller room, his futon on the floor. Enjolras closes his curtains, and Grantaire goes straight to bed, something light and pleasant fluttering in his chest.

 

The sculpture course is a little more expensive than Grantaire is comfortable with, but there’s clay on offer here. Clay and paints and wire and even a small forge for sculpting metal. The instructor’s name is Fantine, and she has the most beautiful eyes Grantaire has ever seen. From a distance, the only remarkable thing about them is their shape, but up close they’re full of gold, a deep, rich yellow shining in stunning rings and flecks among the dark brown. Fantine smiles when another student comments on them, tells him they’re her favourite physical characteristic. She asks them what they like most about themselves, and examples fly through the air – skin, breasts, hair, eyes again.

“My hands,” Grantaire says when her eyes seek out those who have stayed quiet, and the answer makes her smile.

“I hope you’ll put them to good use.”

There is little structure to be found here – Fantine is more of a guide than a teacher – and Grantaire gravitates to the clay, sinking fingers deep into the moist thickness of it, pulling and pushing it into new shapes. The first session is for experimentation, so clay is soon abandoned (with no small amount of regret) in favour of examining the other materials on offer.

Wood carving looks interesting, and the idea of papier-mâché on a wire frame is appealing, but Grantaire gravitates back to the clay without any regrets, smiling guiltily when Fantine raises an eyebrow. She’s smiling though, so she can’t really mind.

Clay is soft, malleable, putting up only token resistance when moulded. Much like Grantaire, when it comes down to it, who has always been easily led and swayed by persuasion and charisma. Under directionless fingers, it spreads into a puddle, grows into a tiny forest of stumpy trees, becomes a riverbed, vaguely flat with stones and twigs rising out of it.

A clay riverbed, painted and glazed, perhaps in the shape of a bowl? Square or rectangular. Grantaire could have a slice of river, or at least an imitation of one. Fantine passes by and compliments it. “You’ve worked with clay before?”

“A bit, back home. Nothing nice like this though – just river clay, really.”

“You’ve got a real touch for it,” she says. “I can’t wait to see your progress.”

Grantaire walks home on a cloud, a rare breeze dancing through the streets and lifting everyone’s mood. Enjolras’ apartment is empty, and sparked by bravery inspired by Fantine’s praise, Grantaire strips off and dresses again in the newest dress. It’s as light as expected, cool and beautiful, and Grantaire twirls in place, laughing for no other reason than that everything feels momentarily perfect.

 

“Grantaire!”

Enjolras’ shout and the slam of his door jerk Grantaire awake – he’s been napping in anticipation of a night shift cleaning at the school. When he sits up, Enjolras is already at the window, hair curling out of its bun and a bowl in his hands. “Quick!” he urges when Grantaire pushes himself to his feet. “Before it melts!”

“What is it?” Grantaire straddles his windowsill, bracing himself with a foot against Enjolras’, and smiles.

“Just open your mouth.” Enjolras’ eyes sparkle, and he holds out a spoon with something orange on it. Grantaire eats obediently, something warm coiling in the pit of his stomach at the intimacy of the gesture. Flavour bursts through his mouth, cold and sweet and orangey, and he inhales through his nose, inexpressibly delighted. “It’s sorbet.” Enjolras’ smile makes his eyes crinkle at the corners. “Orange and lemon. Do you like it?”

Grantaire laughs, the sound bubbling out of him. “I couldn’t have made better myself.”

Enjolras’ cheeks are pink with pleasure, and they share the rest of the bowl. Enjolras mimics his position on the windowsill, their legs close enough to touch if one of them shifted an inch in the right direction. Both of them are wearing shorts, and Grantaire observes the differences between them. Enjolras’ legs are thicker, tanned golden-bronze from all the sun, blonde hair barely showing against his skin. Grantaire’s skin has darkened as well, though he was brown to begin with so the difference isn’t much. His hair stands out much more, but his legs have a better shape to them, he thinks.

Would they look so bad emerging from a skirt rather than shorts?

The sorbet melts into a warm pool at the bottom of the bowl, and they take turns sipping until it’s gone and their lips are sticky from the sugar in the fruit juice. “Thank you,” Grantaire says.

“I saw it and thought of you,” Enjolras tells him, and Grantaire’s skin tingles.

They talk until Grantaire needs to leave, Enjolras complaining about slow progress at work and Grantaire telling him that it’s human nature to lie and cheat for gain. They argue, but it’s not vicious, not personal. Enjolras gets frustrated, Grantaire cynical, but they both provide examples for their points, and it always eventually comes down to the complexity of humankind. People are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Enjolras freely admits that he believes in the ultimate power of love and compassion, and Grantaire is almost glad when the quickening hour forces him to leave, because much more of that and he’s likely to pledge himself to Enjolras for all eternity.

Easily led, easily persuaded. It’s always been his downfall. Those with charisma back home had danced him in circles, set him spinning and pushed and prodded until he crashed and broke. He’s run away and he can still feel it happening again, Enjolras’ voice strong with conviction and earnest belief singing through his head.

Had Enjolras been born just a little earlier (six or seven years, maybe even less), those beliefs would have ended in martyrdom. Grantaire walks past streets still carved up from decades-old bombs, stumbles over cracks in the pavement caused by the weight of tanks on the stone, and thanks gods he doesn’t believe in for Enjolras’ too-late birth.

 

Grantaire’s slice-of-river graces Enjolras’ desk, and four other pieces decorate his own apartment. A dull-feathered metal heron balances over a glass pond (clay was too heavy for such spindly legs). A knotty slice of tree trunk hides tiny carvings and paintings of foxes and birds among its splinters. Tendrils glazed in dark, metallic colours rise out of an egg which unfolds and peels away at the edges into ragged petals, already rotting. A weird not-quite symmetrical piece, with one side mostly soft loops and curls and the other sharp angles and spikes, pooling in the centre in a smooth, perfectly round circle.

On his last day on the art course, Grantaire gives Fantine the blooming rosebud that’s been his last piece. Small enough to fit in the palm of her hand, it’s a perfect replica of the ones he makes out of paper, painted orange and yellow, pale at the base and darker at the edges of the petals, cream blending into sunset. The bottom is flat, and Fantine stands it on the table to beam at it.

Grantaire is startled when she takes his hand and squeezes it, and when she thanks him in a slightly wobbly voice he has to push down the urge to hug her. She is one of the kindest people he’s ever met, he tells her, and in return she squeezes his hand again and asks him to stay after class for just a minute.

Back at home that evening, Grantaire is still in a state of shock as he tells Enjolras what Fantine told him – that there’s a teaching assistant position opening up soon, and she thinks he should apply. His pieces would serve as proof of his talent, and Fantine is more than willing to give him a glowing recommendation.

“That’s fantastic!” Of course Enjolras is enthusiastic, brimming with excitement. “Will you go for it?”

“I don’t know.” Grantaire pushes a hand through his hair, shakes his head and tries to imagine himself teaching.

“You definitely should. You’ll be interviewed for it, won’t you? You should wear one of your dresses.”

The air leaves Grantaire’s lungs as if he’s been punched, and he takes a step back almost without realising, throat thick with horror and fear and the awful threat of tears because how does Enjolras know about that? “How do you know about that?” he chokes.

Enjolras’ eyes are wide, mouth open as he realises. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know it was, that you didn’t want me to…I’m sorry –”

How do you know?” Grantaire asks, and flinches at the way his own voice rasps, the words dragged from his throat. Just by saying that he’s acknowledged it, the stinging shame of it setting his skin on fire and chilling him to the bone at the same time.

“I’ve seen you a couple of times.” Enjolras sounds genuinely apologetic, but Grantaire wants nothing more than to hide under his sheets and possibly never come out. “I didn’t know it was something private, Grantaire, I promise, I didn’t –”

“When?” His voice is shaky, chest tight. He’d thought he’d been so careful, how has this happened? How could he have been so careless?

“I popped back home one time because I left something behind, maybe a month ago?” Enjolras bites his lip. “And last week, I woke up and I guess you’d just gotten back from your night job? I only saw you for a second before I fell asleep again, I swear I never spied on you or anything like that.”

Grantaire hugs himself, clutching at his elbows and clenching his jaw to stop his chin trembling. He has to swallow a couple of times before he’s sure his voice will come out steady, though it’s still damningly quiet. “What did I look like?” he asks, because no one else has ever seen him like that before, and he’s a glutton for punishment, waiting for Enjolras to say something cruel.

“You looked lovely.”

Grantaire’s head snaps up, staring at Enjolras on the other side of the gap between their windows. The gulf between their lives. “What?”

“You looked lovely,” Enjolras repeats, louder, but still gentle. The corner of his lips turns up just a fraction, hopeful and reassuring at the same time. “I have a mirror in my wardrobe – you could see for yourself.” When Grantaire shakes his head, Enjolras hesitates, then says, “I have a couple of dresses too, you know.”

Grantaire’s mouth moves, but it takes a moment to push the, “What?” out, breathy and disbelieving. “You?

Enjolras nods and goes to his wardrobe, pulling it open and removing two dresses. They’re both long and red, one darker and more formal than the other. “They’re a bit posh,” he admits, holding them up for Grantaire to see. “So I don’t really wear them often. Only on special occasions, really.”

“They’re really yours?”

Enjolras nods, ducks his head, puts them away and comes back to the windowsill. “I suppose you come from a pretty binaryist background?”

“You could say that.”

Enjolras gives him another small smile. “Me too. It’s fine here, you know. You can be whoever you like.”

“I don’t want to be a girl,” Grantaire blurts, starting forward and then stopping, legs pressed against the window ledge. “It’s not like that.”

“Not that there would be anything wrong with that,” Enjolras says, surprisingly firm. Grantaire can’t do anything but nod in agreement.

“Right. It’s just…I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“I have a pamphlet you might like,” Enjolras offers. “One of my friends wrote it. Jehan isn’t a boy or a girl.”

“Then what is…” Grantaire trails off, not sure whether to say he or she.

“Jehan’s not either. Ne’s agender.”

“Ne?” Grantaire repeats, brow wrinkling.

“There are lots of different pronouns you can use instead of he or she.” Enjolras smiles and goes to his bookshelf, pulling down a slim pamphlet. “There’s a table of them in here.” He hands it across, and both of them ignore the way Grantaire’s hand trembles as he takes it. “It’s very comprehensive. You can keep it if you like – I’ve got another one in my office at work.”

“Thank you.” Grantaire gazes down at the cover. How appropriate that the design is made of interlocking circles.

He sinks down onto his futon to read it, and Enjolras retreats to his apartment. Grantaire rushes through it, then goes back and reads it again, and then rereads the passages most relevant to him. Hours after Enjolras has turned off his light and gone to bed, Grantaire buries his face in his pillow and sobs, so happy and relieved that he can’t physically express it in any other way.

He still hasn’t figured everything out yet, but this pamphlet is like the guide he’s always needed and never knew existed. There are words and explanations for what he is. Reassurances that it’s perfectly normal to not always feel entirely male. The repeated statement that the most important thing is his comfort and wellbeing. The person who wrote this – Jehan, Enjolras’ agender friend – understands Grantaire without even having met him.

If he’s ever lucky enough to meet nem, he’s going to hug nem for a very long time.

 

Nowhere near brave enough to wear a dress to the interview, Grantaire is sick with nerves as it comes to an end. It hasn’t exactly gone well. He’s too self-conscious, too self-effacing, and not assertive or confident enough in his own abilities, which he’s sure are far below the standard they’re looking for.

“A final question, if I may.” The principal of the school peers at him over her glasses. “Do you actually want this job?”

He can’t answer immediately, has to swallow and take a couple of shallow breaths before he can nod and stammer something to the affirmative. “I just…” He glances at Fantine, who gives him a kind smile. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” he says quietly. “I’ve never taught anyone anything, and I don’t…I don’t want to disappoint anyone.”

He’s convinced he’s screwed it up, and at home he keeps the light off and curls up on his futon. If he stays here, Enjolras won’t see him, and Grantaire won’t have to tell him about it. He was an idiot to even apply, and an even bigger idiot for going to the interview.

People like him don’t get teaching positions in art schools. People like him work shitty menial jobs late at night when no one else can see them. People like him endure the awkward silences that fall whenever they meet a member of the family that lives in the house they clean. People like him don’t make interesting, kind friends like Fantine. People like him don’t hold the attention of people like Enjolras.

In the light coming through the window from Enjolras’ apartment, Grantaire reads Jehan’s pamphlet again, tracing the words on the pronouns page and fitting them around his own name, trying them out in his head.

He and his and him feel fine most of the time. But on the days when they aren’t, it would be nice to have something else to use.

He falls asleep making sentences in his head, the variety of possibilities easing him into pleasant dreams.

 

When the letter comes, Grantaire sits on his windowsill and waits for Enjolras to come home, reading it over and over until he practically knows it by heart. He looks up when the door to Enjolras’ apartment opens, and something warm jolts in his stomach when Enjolras’ face lights up at the sight of him. “Hey.”

“I got the position.” Grantaire smiles weakly and holds up the letter. He won’t be able to believe it until Enjolras sees as well.

“I knew you would!” Enjolras comes over and beams. “When do you start?”

“This autumn, in about a month. They’ve made a mistake, they must’ve –”

“Don’t you dare.” Enjolras straddles his windowsill and frowns. “You deserve this. I don’t know much about art, but even I can see how talented you are, and how happy it makes you. Enthusiasm and passion are the key ingredients for teaching, and you’ve got that in spades, Grantaire. You’ll be amazing at this.”

Grantaire looks down at the letter again. “I’ve never taught before.”

“You’ll be amazing,” Enjolras says again, earnest enough to make Grantaire blush. “You’ll be a great teacher. You’re skilled, you’re clever, and you’re patient, and kind, and lovely, and…” He trails off, and when Grantaire looks at him in surprise his cheeks have gone pink. “I, um…I just think you’re really great,” Enjolras mutters.

“I’m not.” Grantaire is startled, unsure of what to do. “I’m nothing special.”

“You really underestimate yourself, you know that?” Enjolras swings the leg that dangles over the street below, sandal barely clinging to his foot. “You’re wonderful. I’d really…” The silence stretches out for a painful moment before Enjolras continues, flushing red now. “I’d really like to go on a date with you.” He casts Grantaire a quick glance and then looks down again. “I hope I’m not ruining your good news.”

“Ruining?” Grantaire breathes, laughs, shakes his head. “You’re not, you…are you serious? Do you mean it?”

“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t.” Enjolras meets his eyes again and gives him a hopeful look. “Is that a yes?”

“I…yes, obviously yes, but are you sure?” Grantaire’s going to start babbling again, something in his chest singing because things like this don’t happen to people like him. “I’m not trying to back out or make excuses, I promise I’m not, but you’re just…way out of my league, you know? And I’m nothing, I’m nothing compared to you. I clean houses, Enjolras. I’m a janitor – that’s my night job. I’m not worth your time.”

Enjolras scowls, actually scowls, and pulls himself up, stepping quickly from his window to Grantaire’s and jumping down in front of him. They’ve never been in Grantaire’s flat at the same time, Grantaire realises. “You’re wonderful,” Enjolras tells him again, steady and firm. “You’re wonderful, Grantaire. Can I kiss you?”

Grantaire can’t even speak, so he just nods, hands finding Enjolras’ sides and holding on tight when Enjolras presses their lips together. He’s so gentle, cupping Grantaire’s jaw like he’s something delicate and precious, and Grantaire’s the one who ends up moving closer, opening his mouth and pulling Enjolras against him, something solid for Grantaire to lean into.

He can’t even question or doubt like this. Like this, there’s nothing but Enjolras; the feeling of Enjolras’ lips on his, their bodies pressed together, the soft noises Enjolras makes when their tongues slide against each other. Grantaire arches against him and lets everything but this fade away to nothing.

 

Literally the only feminine thing about Grantaire is the dress they’re wearing, but Enjolras still can’t stop smiling at them and squeezing their waist as they both walk into town for their date, no serious plans but to find a nice place to eat. It’s Grantaire’s favourite dress, the soft black one with blue flowers, and Grantaire can hardly breathe for nerves and happiness. No one is even giving them a second look, and Enjolras keeps kissing them as they walk, little pecks on their cheek, temple, jaw.

They’re so, so in love, and so, so happy.