Though history was one of Grantaire's favorite subjects, he still had problems focusing and paying attention, too distracted by wandering thoughts and glimpses of passing birds and shapeless smears of clouds barely visible through the windows.
Today, he couldn't seem to tear his attention away, pen idly tapping out a rhythm against his thigh.
The teacher was speaking about the 1832 June Rebellion, describing the context of the politics of the time. He frowned a little at the idea of it all, of the people of Paris unsuccessful in their attempts to do anything. Shit, they were mostly students and working men, probably not even that much fucking older than he was.
It refused to leave his mind, lodged there firmly even as he tried to take notes. He just couldn't stop thinking about it, about how young some of them must have been, what they must have thought was worth getting butchered in the streets. Because it sure as fuck wouldn't have been half the shit his teacher was talking about, about changes in power and distanced descriptions of industrialization. The more he thought about it, the more he could feel himself tangle around the ideas.
Grantaire tried to ignore it, because this wasn’t the first time he’d felt unwarrantedly unsettled. Sometimes he just started to get too involved and he'd be sobbing over something as distant as the Peloponnesian War. One night he'd curled up in bed, shaking with breathless sobs over the immense and overwhelming grief of the Holocaust. So, yeah, he was used to it, but he tried not to think too hard, because this wasn't the time to get overinvested in the potential emotions of dead people.
He kept circling it, going back to what it must have been like, building a barricade in the narrow, treacherously winding streets of Paris. How much hope and fear and, fuck, probably excitement and anger they would have felt, unaware of how pointless it would be.
He jotted down a date in curled, easy handwriting, mouth settling into a deeper frown. If he thought hard enough, he could almost picture it – towering piles of discarded and cast off furniture, rubble and rabble all coming together in the corners of the city. He could almost hear the raised voices and chattering, the way it would devolve as the combat drew up.
He could almost feel the weight that the barricade would be underfoot, the way a rifle would kick back against a shoulder, the sting of recoil deep in his muscles, the sharp sounds of gunshot, the acrid and bitter scent of smoke that would clog the throat. It blended together – the coarse fabric around the wrists, the dim and stinging confusion, what it would be like to hear others fall around the edges, what it might be like to be grabbed, roughly, by hands leading into the too-bright edges of the guard's uniform.
Grantaire swallowed hard.
The girl next to him looked over, brow furrowed in concern, mouthing "Are you alright?"
No. But he nodded all the same, turning back to his notes and ignoring the nausea drawing his throat tight. He tried to focus back on the lesson, fist pressed against his mouth. The little snippets of sensation, too bright in his imagination, pressed against him. He could hardly see, or breathe, each flicker of movement seeming like a threat in the smoke.
History was his last class, and the second it was over, he was up and out the door. He barely remembered the way home, brain still teasing out the scene into sharp focus, making it more and more detailed. And then, jumbled, the rush of confusion and desperation and how unprepared they must have felt, how overwhelmed, how afraid. Grantaire lurched, wanting to be sick and trying to shake the feeling off.
Like a sudden burst of clarity, fear and panic and hope and terror and fear and scared and the repeated question of where are you and - I'm alone. He let out a quiet keening sound, stumbling to the side of the road briefly to catch himself, clamping down as hard as he could on the nausea and vertigo swamping him before continuing for the house.
He hurled himself through the door and up the stairs, wondering what the fuck was wrong with him, and then the panic and fear and hope-faith-triumph-optimism-confidence-please burst through him again, followed by the same deep and abiding loneliness.
Grantaire sat heavily, and without really knowing what he was even doing, wishing he could do something to push back the sudden burst of emotions in his chest, something to-
Please. It was like a whisper in his mind, a panic that didn’t belong to him. Please I don't want to die alone, not like this, no, please.
There wasn't anything to reach back to, he knew that, but he tried anyway, and found himself strung out in another airless, motionless space of a breath. Jehan, the boy was Jehan, Jean Prouvaire, a student. Years older than Grantaire but still young, innocent, brimming with want and hope of a new world. Filled with pity for the women and innocents and children and-
(The flash of an image, a beggar woman spat on and shoved out of the way with the toe of a boot and the look on her face like Jeanne d'Arc.)
Grantaire closed his eyes, but it didn’t help, Jehan’s memories shoving themselves to the front of everything.
He was timid, his household cold, but he was valiant. He was fierce in his studies and his passions both (a flicker of sorrow for the potted plants he'd forgotten to hand off to a neighbor, whose growth he had so carefully cultivated).
Jehan, Jean Prouvaire, who was dying. Who was filled with hope and vindication and Romantic notions of Liberty and Long live France and the future. Who was alone and dying and afraid in this sunburst of pain and light and gunshot.
And Grantaire couldn't even process that, couldn’t fathom the depth of what was going on, but he reached back and tried.
You're not. He screamed it in his mind, reaching in what seemed futile fumbling. You aren't alone, I'm here, I'm here, I'm sorry, I'm no one but I'm here.
A fumble, an impression of curiosity breaking through the panic and pain and desperation.
Mathieu, Grantaire gave. I'm Mathieu. You aren't alone, Jehan, you aren't, I'm here, at least there's me.
And Jehan clung, and there was the strangest sensation of someone grasping at Grantaire's hands, another burst of memory-thought-feeling-sensation.
Please I don't want to, not like this, our Revolution, what if we fail-
It ends, Grantaire thought, because he didn't know what else to do, thoughts jumbled and tossed like a handful of dice. It's better, in a way, it's alright, I'll remember, remember you, all of you, your barricades.
Jehan eased at that, flooding Grantaire with all of it. Even still stuck in the suspended moment of crumpling towards the stones and the ringing of the musket and blood pooling in his hair and pain pain pain pain bursting apart-
He slipped, and Grantaire gasped. He started to pull back, an aching and echoing feeling in his mind.
No please, don't let go where did you go- And there was the burble of Jehan again, bursting upward with strength, and Grantaire grasped back at the loose and tenuous connection that was fading fast.
I'm here, he pushed, as hard as he could, babbling words and comforts faster than he could think them through.
There was a sensation, like a smile, like comfort, like an easing, like Jehan was clutching the words close. Then Jehan was desperately pushing hope and fear and elation and pain and thanks and slipping beyond the dark. Grantaire pulled back, reared away from the draw of the chasm, Jehan gone and lost.
He blinked, finding tears on his cheeks when he touched his face, the unforgiving feel of the floor beneath him suddenly surreal. Jehan was gone, and it wasn't fair and he felt so empty. Grantaire toppled over as he curled into a ball, sobs yanking their way out of his chest, and he hoped the emptiness would ease, even a little. He knew it wouldn't, so full of grief for a boy who had died or never existed at all. But it had felt real, and he'd only had Grantaire to hold his hands while he died.
There was no way to explain what had happened without looking delusional, so Grantaire never mentioned it to anyone, and eventually decided that it was solely a trick of memory and imagination, brought on by too much stress. His life was complicated enough without... whatever that was, so he just pretended it was nothing, (forgetting the tastes of foods he'd never eaten on his tongue, flashes of color and memory in his mind that didn't belong to him, sensations over his skin that just weren't physically possible). He ignored the way he sometimes jumped and checked for blood soaking his hair. He forgot everything until Jean Prouvaire was a blurry, half remembered name and an impression more than a person.
It worked until university, Grantaire scraping his way in just barely and deciding on something he knew his parents would hate, trying to swallow down the feelings that left him raw and useless. He was right, and it made things tense, but that was nothing compared to the swell of love and want and freedom when he finally got to study what he wanted, and the thrill of Paris which seemed to rise up under his feet like he knew it better than he knew himself, and it soothed the ache of the way the world dug in under his skin.
And then there was a rainy afternoon that caused phantom aches in his breastbone and ribcage, pinpoints of pain that never made sense to him, and he wandered the campus with a strange feeling nestled close against him. It was when he was walking home, done for the day, that he stopped dead cold.
There was a face he undoubtedly knew, but didn't know, that shouldn't be here, because Jean Prouvaire had died nearly two hundred years ago. Grantaire’s memory was fuzzy but he was sure, sure beyond doubt and question who that was, clothes thirty years out of date and smiling at the rain drenched branches.
"Jehan!" he called, before he could stop himself, because that was the worst idea. The younger man, shit, barely more than a teenager, probably still a teenager, turned toward him, brow furrowing in confusion.
"I'm sorry?" he asked, face flushing. "I don't think we've met."
"Jehan," Grantaire said again, helplessly. "No, shit, I'm sorry, of course not, but..."
He dredged up the words of a poem he couldn't bear to repeat anymore, the one that had lulled the too young revolutionary from his panic. Desperately, he sought some sign of recognition, entirely unsure whether or not he wanted to be recognized, and waited on that strange precipice of uncertainty until Prouvaire staggered.
Jehan's breath caught in his throat. Because suddenly the wild haired stranger with the grief stricken, desperate eyes was overlaid with the blooming, blood soaked sensation of too much all at once and crumpling downward, leaving Jehan strung out on an infinite moment of pain and shattering bone and defiance, and he had died when had he died.
Grasping at the man – who was he? did he know him? - Jehan tried to force himself upright, shutting out the chatter around him. He could hardly notice the whispers and murmurs and feel of cold hands for Paris of 1832 prying his head open and laying his soul bare. Dazed, he worked around the haze, like speaking through a shroud.
"You were there,” he managed, taking a moment to form the words that came haltingly. “You... you spoke to me?"
"I'm sorry," he said, sounding pained, worried. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you-"
Jehan shook his head to pacify him and to reorient himself, straightening a little, peering at his too familiar face. "Are you a medium too, then?"
"A medium?" he sounded bewildered, eyes soulful and gentle and all too familiar, too close even for this.
So he didn't know, which probably wasn't surprising. It's not like Jehan would have known what he was without the ghosts who murmured in his ears and the family who eventually started to look. But he still couldn't figure out who this was, who had walked him to the edge of the other side that was now an old and persistent presence, but that had once been a wide gulf like that between the world real and the world imagined.
"Or not. No, I'm sorry. Mathieu. You're Mathieu and you talked to me while I died. Thank you." His voice cracked when he hadn't been expecting it, and he screwed his eyes shut. "I wasn't sad to die, but you know that. But I was... I was afraid, and alone, and you were there when no one else was, thank you."
"Couldn't just leave you," Mathieu muttered, awkwardly, still steadying Jehan as though they weren't in the middle of the pavement on the edge of campus, where Jehan was just realizing that he'd somehow died in a failed insurrection only to be alive and with this man who - "And please, R. Call me R."
Jehan drew in a shuddering breath, studying R as he steadied himself, giving him a quiet bit of a smile as best as he could, trying to resist the urge to feel his head for blood. “R, then. I think I need to sit down.”
“Right, shit, of course,” R agreed, glancing around, his eyes troubled. “There’s a bench over there, unless…?”
“Bench works,” Jehan replied, letting R help him over, legs threatening to collapse under him, fighting back a wave of nausea as his head flooded with images and memories, leaving him gasping again, grasping at facts and thoughts. He could recall a quiet childhood and languages he had only half wrapped his mind around now came easily to his tongue, along with laughter in a back room and a barricade, uniforms and gun smoke, and then R, who had been there when Jehan had cried out into the dark.
The ghosts – real ghosts, not the ones flashing in movements and color in his mind – hovered and fretted around them, but he couldn’t move to reassure them. He bent his head between his legs as he tried to catch his breath, to make some sense of anything, R’s tentative hand on his back as he apologized again.
With the deep, paced breaths and long minutes, everything started to slot into place, names and faces falling into line. He sat back up slowly with the weight of a century on his shoulders and gave R a rattled smile, ignoring tears he couldn’t help, and held out a hand to the other man.
“Hi. I’m Jean Prouvaire, you can call me Jehan.” He took a shaky breath to steady himself. “It’s really nice to meet you.”
“Hey.” R’s voice was hoarse, and his hand was rough and calloused against Jehan’s softer one. “Mathieu Grantaire. Grantaire or R, if you don’t mind. It’s really, really good to meet you too.”
There was something familiar about the grip of his hand and letting go would be so hard. But the ruffled mess of dark curls and the searching, faintly red rimmed gaze struck a chord in a way Jehan hadn’t expected, like they fit. He had the feeling, though, that it would be that way for a while, until his brain settled back into something like normal.
They fell silent, and he couldn’t keep himself from reaching up any longer, fingers probing gently under his hair, searching out blood or wounds or anything his head screamed must be there. He wasn’t sure if he was more reassured or distressed to find nothing there, no slick, hot blood, no shattered bone.
“It’ll fade after a while,” Grantaire told him, still looking vaguely apologetic, the casual slump against the bench doing nothing to hide his apprehension. “I mean, it might come back from time to time, but it goes away eventually.”
Jehan nodded helplessly at that, taking his word and trying to calm himself down, if only so that the ghosts that trailed after him wouldn’t start to fret for him when he couldn’t reassure them. Taking in a slow, unsteady breath, he peered over at Grantaire. “You’re sure you aren’t a medium? Or something similar?”
He shook his head, expression shuttering closed even as he arched a brow. “I really don’t know what you mean. Look, honestly, I figured I’d just had a really bad fever or something until I saw you. I’m no oracle and I’m definitely not pretty enough to land myself in Cassandra’s shoes.”
Surprised at the Classical references, Jehan couldn’t help but smile, feeling the itching strangeness at the back of his head start to recede a little. He nodded thoughtfully, wracking his brain to think of anything along the lines of what Grantaire had done for him and coming up blank, headache still strong enough that he didn’t entirely trust his memory. “Did it ever happen any other time?”
“Not like that,” he said, something quiet in his voice. “I mean… I guess…. There might have been a few things that sort of hit along the lines, but congratulations, you’re the only one who’s died in my head. Why, d’you?”
Usually, he didn’t like such dry acerbity, but on Grantaire it made him smile. “I’ve never had anything like that happen to me. I do see and talk to ghosts, though.”
“You talk to ghosts,” Grantaire said, flat.
Jehan just tilted his head a little, shrugging. “You talked me through dying, are apparently okay with the fact that I’m a reincarnated French revolutionary, and you’re concerned about the fact that I talk to ghosts?”
“… Yeah. I can’t even argue with that.” He laughed, but still looked a little skeptical, studying Jehan like he didn’t know what to make of him.
“Thank you,” he said, softly, feeling himself start to blush. “I don’t want to seem like I don’t appreciate it, either then or this afternoon. I’m sorry you had to go through that, if it’s left marks.”
“Hey.” Grantaire’s gruff voice was surprisingly gentle, and he touched Jehan’s shoulder lightly. “I really can’t regret it, okay? No matter what it left. No one should have to die alone. It would have been shitty of me not to do anything. And yeah, I’m an ignorant fuckwad with no claim to any kind of worth, but… I was all you had, I wouldn’t leave you alone.”
Jehan doubted that he was that bad, as bad as he made himself sound, because he knew what it was like when he died, knew all the pain and panic and terror and everything he’d flung at Grantaire without consciously meaning to. Instead, he just reached over to pat his knee. “Still, thank you.”
Grantaire shook his head, letting the cool grey of the aftermath of rain surround them and take up the silence. But he seemed to note the faint trembling of Jehan’s shoulders and the way he dug his nails into his palms, and looked over again. “So, I only know you from 1832. Wanna tell me about you in this life?”
Jehan tried for a smile, appreciating the effort, and started to talk. He rambled a little, elaborating when R prompted him for more, eventually asking the other man about his own interests and studies, until he'd missed his next lecture. He felt more settled, though, felt more able to breathe in the tight, humid air, past the constriction in his lungs that wanted him to cough out smoke and grit that was never there.
They made their farewells after that, but Jehan knew, figured Grantaire knew, that it was more than a pleasantry, because there was no way that having a person die in your head wasn't as impactful as dying in someone's head. He traced his thumb over the new entry in his mobile, quiet and thoughtful all the way home.
One of the ghosts, a usually cheerful young person who tagged along to sit in on his lectures, kept close to his shoulder, a cool and constant presence as he walked, giving up on talking after he shook his head. He moved half in a daze, two sets of Parisian streets, both absently and idly memorized by rote but not intent, warring for his attention in his head.
It took a few days for it all to settle down, for the Prouvaire of 1832 to settle in beside the Prouvaire of now, for the memories of a loving but distant house to stop clashing with the clan of relatives who welcomed him with open arms and easy affection after his mother died, for the sounds of the barricade to stop ringing in his ears. And through all of it, Grantaire was there, the man seemingly content to drop by or meet up, popping up at the oddest of places, always willing to reach a hand out to ground Jehan but often flinching back or oh-so-subtly leaning away from touches he didn’t initiate.
He came over for dinner, one night, because that was the odd thing, Jehan learned, about walking to the void together, watching Noémie, still in her 1930s evening gown and ostrich-feather hat, perch-float on one of his chairs to study this new addition. They were still testing one another out, still searching out where they matched and where they clashed, but they fit with the easiness of trees that grew curved around one another. Grantaire in particular seemed to anticipate him, to pick up on his moods and his preferences without seeming to notice that he did.
And it was nothing more than the way he laughed, a little bitter on a joke that cut too close, and took a drink of his wine, emptying his glass, that made the pieces fall into place in Jehan's mind. He halted there, in the middle of his tiny kitchen, a laugh ringing in his ears, and a bitter plea, and empty bottles on a table where a man slept waiting to die.
"Grantaire?" he asked, eyes going wide, and paused. Because he remembered this man, older, maybe more worn down, a beautiful contradiction of too much feeling and trying so hard not to care, and Jehan had a hard time reconciling them, the skeptic who watched them with worry and the boy who clung to his hands so he wouldn't have to die alone in the street. "Good God, Grantaire, you're alive."
Grantaire stopped, giving him a strange look that was suddenly achingly familiar.
"Yes," he said slowly, drawling the word out, thick brows curving upward. "I mean, I would hope you'd noticed by now that I'm not one of your ghosts."
And here, Jehan would normally turn bright red, or laugh, because Grantaire had been getting slowly used to it, to the way lights would flicker, or cold air would come from nowhere to rustle his hair or brush his shoulder, the way Jehan's eyes would flick to someone no one else could see. But now, he shook his head, tears gathering in his eyes.
"No, Grantaire, you were there, I remember you," he insisted, and without thinking better of it, threw his arms around the other man, the part of his mind that was still raw, still alone on the other side of the barricade so grateful for a familiar face, so awed and shocked and humbled that it was Grantaire, Grantaire who Enjolras had dismissed and disdained, Grantaire who had been sleeping when Jehan had last seen him, who held his hands while he died and held him up while he pieced himself back together in a world shocking and shining and new. "Oh, God, you're alive, you're alive, you're here."
"Jehan," he said, gently, and how had Jehan missed how gentle he could be, even as his arms slowly came up to hold him, the tenseness in his muscles fading after a moment. "Why would I have been in 1832? At a revolt? "
"Because you were our friend," he replied, voice muffled by Grantaire’s shirt as he held on. "You were our friend and you loved us, even though you thought we were all going to die and begged some of our friends to go home instead. You didn't believe in our cause but you stayed, and you probably died there, but you - you-you, now-you - were the one who was there for me and now you're here, and Grantaire, I owe you more than I could ever repay."
"Hey," Grantaire soothed, before Jehan's catching, halting breaths could melt into heady, aching sobs. "Hey, shh, it's okay. Really, you're alright. And it doesn't matter, okay, we're here. You don't owe me a thing except pasta, but that's only because you promised me dinner."
Jehan just shook his head, sitting back after a moment, abashed and blushing, and wiped at his eyes. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to keep freaking out on you, it just... You laughed, and it all fit into place, and I knew you."
Grantaire looked bitter, and broken, the cracked idealism already leaving him desolate and battered by the injustices he pretended not to care about. Even without the memories, Jehan knew better. “I doubt there was much to know, Jehan. I don’t have enough courage to stand behind a barricade. Grand aire, grand hére, it all sounds the same to me.”
And Jehan really couldn’t be surprised that he still knew the now-obsolete word, or that it was still part of the pun, but he just squeezed his shoulder tightly and let it drop, for the moment. Because he knew how Grantaire thought of himself, could already see him spiraling down further into the fierce clutches of alcohol and addiction and melancholy, lost in a circle of self-doubt and self-hatred.
“What you’ve done for me,” he said instead, “is worth everything.”
He pretended not to see the way Grantaire’s eyes lost a bit of their shadow at that.
This was what Grantaire learned about Jean Prouvaire in the months that followed:
He was kind, and often quiet, and he wept over the inequalities that made bile rise in the back of Grantaire’s throat. He kept plants in his windowsills and cooed over them like they were children. His sense of fashion was at least thirty years out of date and sometimes more, and the ghosts did not help. He really did talk to ghosts, and there were always a handful around, which seemed to get his affectionate indulgence. He only knew his way around the city on autopilot, but he had memorized the locations of all the parks and fields within a reasonable distance. He had a large extended family who raised him and who loved him dearly, but his childhood was transient, and perhaps that explained why he was so bad at taking care of himself.
The ghosts, apparently, intervened when he wore himself out too much, when he was within inches of falling asleep on his desk and hadn’t eaten in too many long hours, but they were ghosts and there was only so much that they could do. Grantaire wasn’t much for responsibility, but he started to come around more often, doing his best to coax Jehan into eating more and remembering to sleep between bursts of study and poetry writing.
There was something about the fact that they’d been through his death together that made Grantaire reluctant to run, as he usually did when people started to get close. Jehan was good company, entertaining when drunk as he rambled on about nature and love and the tragedies of existence, words clear and bright and lyric even through the haze of alcohol. His quiet insistence kept Grantaire from dropping out of classes again, the stubborn look of belief surprisingly steadying his convictions.
It was just easy, as much as it was difficult, to spend time with the poet. He was often affectionate and liked to play with Grantaire’s curls when he allowed it, learning to ask first faster than anyone else Grantaire had ever met, humming songs from a century and more ago and twisting the dark locks around his fingers. And yet, around others, he was shy, and awkward, and never seemed to know what was expected of him, blushing and overenthusiastic by turns.
Some nights he called Grantaire sobbing, trembling and crying because not regretting his death in his past life didn’t mean that it didn’t shred him to bits, leave him with nightmares of the National Guard and the possible ways his friends might have died. Sometimes, Grantaire thought that was what distressed Jehan more than anything else, not knowing which of his friends had survived, if any had. So he didn’t mind picking up the phone, sleep deprived and mind drenched in alcohol to make the nights bearable, and speaking with him, or sitting back and listening as Jehan’s voice washed over him.
For all that Grantaire avoided certain things and certain times, avoided studying war and sorrow and suffering because it made him sick to his stomach and bitterly sad, he picked up enough to know what seeing death and gunfire and could do to a person’s head. And shit, Jehan didn’t deserve to choke on his thoughts and get lost in a fog the way that Grantaire did.
So he sat down with him the next time they were together and nudged his arm gently, which Jehan usually took as a cue to flop over against Grantaire’s side. “Jehan.”
“Mmn?” he asked, fingers idly twisting a receipt into a flower, glancing up at Grantaire past his lashes.
“You remember the discussion we were having about The Odyssey, right? And how I proposed that Odysseus’ decisions and struggles are representative of his inability to readjust to traditional social roles after the trauma of war – I mean, there’s also the whole bit about temptations and all that bullshit but I don’t even want to get into the religious readings. That the reason it takes him twenty years to get home is not just that Poseidon is furious with him, but that he’s lost track of himself and needs the time and the journey to learn how to cope with his experiences of war and that it’s essentially an extended metaphor for PTSD.”
Jehan nodded. “I remember that, yes. R, you know I do actually listen to you, right? No matter how many tangents divert you, I’m far too interested in what you’re saying to get distracted and stop paying attention.”
“So you say,” Grantaire replied dryly, fingers scrunching through the other man’s hair. “That wasn’t my point, though.”
“Then what was it?” he asked, head tipping to the side.
Grantaire tried not to let his expression give anything away, not sure he managed it, and reached for his drink instead before speaking. “My point’s that you shouldn’t have to float about on seas of nightmares and pain for twenty years. You’re not Shelley, Jehan, and I’d prefer if you left going overboard to your use of flowery adjectives. You’ve got the memories of a rebellion and of dying in your head, and it’s still haunting you. I know you can’t give very many details, but you died; you’re allowed to be fucked up after that, but you deserve better than drowning in it. You could talk to someone.”
Jehan’s head turned, glancing at someone Grantaire couldn’t see and listening a moment, features flicking through faint emotions as he did, before he sighed and looked thoughtful. “They agree. But, this hasn’t ever been a problem before.”
“There’s a difference between talking to ghosts and hearing and seeing how they died and having all the memories of the way you did plaguing you,” Grantaire told him, as gently as he could without sounding too soppy. “Jehan, you need to be able to sleep, and you’ve been jumpy. It could help. I mean, theoretically, that’s what they’re there for.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said quietly, twisting the paper almost to shreds now. “But… R, what if they can tell? What if I slip, about the ghosts, or back then? They’ll think I’m- you know.”
Grantaire continued running his fingers through Jehan’s hair, trying to soothe him. “I know. Fudge the details or something. They’re not going to be pushing for it, Jehan, you don’t have to worry about it too much. And if you need me to walk there with you and sit outside the entire time in case something goes wrong, I will. Because I’d probably be sitting around waiting for you anyway.”
“That’s fair,” Jehan allowed, looking up at him again. He sighed, and curled a little closer, repeating, “I’ll think about it.”
“Good,” Grantaire said. “You don’t deserve to have to fight with your head all the time. Your smile shouldn’t look so strained.”
Jehan paused, a ripple of emotions crossing his face too quickly to be read, then twisted, teary eyed as he took Grantaire’s face in his hands and kissed his forehead, voice catching as he spoke. “You are a very good friend, and I am very lucky to have you.”
Surprised at that, and a touch bewildered, Grantaire just smiled at him a little awkwardly. “Anything for you.”
Jehan learned a good deal about Grantaire, to add to what he knew from the last time around.
He was still much the same as ever. He drank to excess (his hands shook when he went too long without a drink, something he'd not noticed before), he was loud and outrageous, he flirted with women and was sometimes too pushy (but backed off in a moment if they said no and never reached for them), he was just as determined to seem as manly and physical as possible (it looked like an actor in a role he didn't understand).
And yet, he sagged sometimes, as though dragged down and wrung out by some force Jehan couldn't see. He acted like he couldn't understand the importance of equal rights, but when it came out casually that Jehan didn't want to date, didn't want sex with anyone, Grantaire had sat and listened and accepted it with a nod and a rambling discussion of textual interpretations until four in the morning when they both fell asleep on the floor. He was the first to help others, the individuals who caught his attention, always kind and never pushing for more than they volunteered. He still twisted away from being touched some days, tensing when it came without warning, but he was always willing to reach out, to touch someone’s shoulder or pull Jehan against his side to make the world a little more stable, a little more real.
He was, first and foremost, gentle when they were alone, whenever the facade dropped even the slightest bit. He was perceptive, always seeming to know when Jehan had a bad night. (He was unfailingly polite to the ghosts when they made their presences known, even if it was just a surprised "Oh, hello," when the lights flickered, even though he was abidingly skeptical and spoke bitterly about religion, about faith, about humanity.)
Things that Jehan hadn't understood a lifetime ago made sense, watching the way Grantaire's eyes went listless sometimes, the way he would wander aimlessly and restlessly for hours and seem no more settled than when he started, the way he pushed himself and pushed himself until he finally fell asleep exhausted or drank himself senseless and blurred.
But for all he seemed to accept it as his lot (how had Jehan ever thought he'd chosen that? Not the libertine revels, but the drink and the melancholy and the way his words wound around one another like a tangled ball of twine, an Ariadne with hopeless hands), he'd sat with him and, with eyes so gentle, always so gentle, had told Jehan he deserved more than the tumult in his brain.
He didn't fail in that task either, helping Jehan find somewhere to go and showing up that morning on the steps outside the building and holding two cups of coffee and nursing a hangover. It was enough to keep Jehan from fleeing, to help ease the prickle at the back of his neck and the feeling that a trap was closing in on him (He'd asked the ghosts to stay elsewhere, not to follow, because he didn't want them there, not for this).
Grantaire was always there, had become a fixture of his life so quietly and so easily and so resolutely that imagining otherwise already felt foreign.
Jehan needed the words for that constancy, needed some way to explain how he had been stricken to the bone with his memories, how steadying it was to have someone else who knew. He wondered just how deep a mark it had left on Grantaire, watched his fingers move, touching two points on his chest and the back of his head to reassure himself he was alive. Because Jehan did the same now, his fingers feeling for sticky blood or the sear of a gunshot through his skull, prickling now whenever the conversations with the dead got to be too deep, when he walked past places he knew must be infamous in any collection of people like him.
It wasn't something to explain to a counselor, not even in part. Even the little, edited things he had to say stuck against his ribcage and pressed themselves into the hollows of his lungs, because he worried, always worried, about what they would say if they knew he talked to the dead. (Jacques haunted the métro station because it soothed his memories of the place he died, isolated and slowly fading because they'd shocked his brain and broken his bones over and over and over until he'd managed to bite his tongue. The fear was still too close.)
Before he went back, Grantaire met his eyes, and there was less reassurance and more understanding (his fingers pressed against his thigh, against the knife he kept there, and that made Jehan's heart ease in ways it shouldn't have). He tried for a smile and went to talk.
The counselor listened quietly, asking questions and letting Jehan fill the space. He told her what he could, a concocted bit about a rally and police brutality, about being struck in the back of the head and nearly dying. It was close enough to the truth, far enough to avoid all the parts he couldn't say. He told her about the way his head felt like it was broken open, the way he woke up too aching to scream, the way he jumped now, the way his chest would seize with panic, the way officers in uniform made him want to cringe. (He didn't tell her about the way there would always be a ghost at his shoulder, the way Grantaire shadowed his side when they walked together, the way that he would forget for a moment which memories were real, the way he wound a charm around his wrist for protection, the way he tied more over the bed to ward off the worst of the dreams and the way they failed.)
She told him it wasn't abnormal, but that it was expected, that it made sense for him to react this way. That his mind couldn't process it all the way and kept him on edge in case something like that happened again (and he wanted to be bitter, to snap that maybe it was the loss of his friends, the way he didn't know what had happened, the way that he had died, that the future had lived long and was beautiful but he felt defeated all the same, but that wouldn't be fair, wouldn't be right).It was a relief, in a way. He liked her, because she didn't sneer at his hair or his clothes or the way he took a moment to remember how he was supposed to react, didn’t assume that it was his boyfriend waiting in the foyer, and because she offered to help him help himself and it never for a moment sounded condescending.
“Would you like to make another appointment, Jehan?” she asked, with a quiet, encouraging smile. “I think we could work on giving you some strategies to help with the panic, and if that doesn’t help, we can work on a longer term plan.”
He hesitated a moment, and then nodded, because he was so tired but it had never been in his nature to give up. “I… yes. I think that would be a good idea.”
She smiled, but it had nothing on the way that the knot in Jehan’s chest eased, the way it seemed just a little less intimidating.
For a while, Grantaire thought, it went well. He managed, somehow, to stay on top of his shifting and unreliable world, tethering himself to the point of Jehan and his apartment, the solid and steady weight of knowing that at least in the phantom pains that bit and the nightmares that jolted him awake, he was not alone.
It helped him balance precarious months, trudging through schoolwork and work and somehow, keeping himself from slipping again. But it tugged and pulled on his mind, brought on by some indefinite cacophony of emotions that filled and left him too quickly.
And for a few more weeks, he somehow managed to stay in line, managed to keep up with work even as the pages of his sketchbook bled dry, managed to smile at Jehan. It helped, walking him to his appointments once a week, tipping his hat down over his eyes as he sat in the waiting room chairs and pretended to sleep, or talked to people, or wandered around the block, always back before Jehan's appointment finished.
But it got harder and harder, sucking him deeper and deeper. He tried to shove back the emotions that threatened to down him like a hit to his knees, tried to make himself keep going on sheer force of not letting them down (more than he already had). The thoughts bit at his brain and the rushes of them dogged his heels, leaving him both breathing too fast and breathless.
He couldn't sleep. He walked for hours and hours and hours, grinding himself deeper and deeper into Paris' pavements and cobblestones, her benches and low walls, hoping for sleep or some respite from the thoughts that circled incessantly, mocking and taunting and pulling. It didn't help, just left him tired and reckless and aching.
He drank, because it always seemed to dull down the sharp edges of the world. He drank until he could sleep, until the thoughts that chased him would quiet enough for a few hours caught between canyons and abysses of time. But it didn't take the edge off, nothing did, and it was never enough sleep to throw off the weights clawing into his brain. It itched at him, made him want to run until he ripped his lungs from his chest and left them on the grimy floors of the métro stations.
Jehan sat up with him some nights when he couldn’t sleep either, petting through Grantaire’s curls in an attempt to soothe him, or walked with him through parks after scrambling over their closed gates. He would pull him laughing along the silent pathways while they shivered in thin coats and cool air. It eased it a little, pushed back the press of too much and too big and too everything. But as much as he cherished the moments, they didn't help long.
He started wandering until he hardly found time to sleep at all, no matter how deep exhaustion wormed its way into his bones. He wandered down streets he shouldn't have, drinking more than he should have, and had to slide the knife from his side (he was prepared, always prepared, knew how to use it, just in case). It was a rush, the first thing that broke through the haze in his head as he defended himself, too slow to keep himself from injury but not too slow to get out with his life, quick enough to get out of the alley and back up to friendlier streets, deserted and eerie with the faint glow of the street lamps.
It was still early enough in the morning or late enough in the night that he limped home rather than going to find someone, shirt wadded against his side to staunch the blood, only to find Jehan outside his door, his hair rumpled and his pajama pants still on.
"Delphine followed you, and came to find me," he said with barely a tremor, mouth pursed tightly as though it would hide the concern and the fear in his eyes. "You were hurt, R?"
"Just a scratch," he said, ignoring the burn of pain along his side, and gave Jehan an easy smile. "Come in, I'll be okay."
Turning on the light, he sat on the edge of his bed, letting Jehan watch and inspect while Grantaire tended to his wound, swabbing out the cut that ran from the edge of his stomach and scraped up the curve of his ribs. It was painful, but fairly shallow, would scar but wouldn't leave worse damage. He let Jehan put on the gauze and tape, exhaustion finally starting to corner him and press against him like an angry cat, leaving his eyelids fluttering a little.
"Oh, R," Jehan said, softly, fingertips pressing gently to unmarked skin, his eyes filled with memories and something else that Grantaire had never needed to try to put a name to. "I wish you wouldn't do this to yourself."
"I’m always careful," he promised, because it was all he could offer, and sighed, catching Jehan's hand and squeezing gently. "I'm sorry for making you worry. Stay if you want, I think I'm finally going to crash."
"I'll come by tomorrow night," Jehan said, and kissed the top of Grantaire's head in a surprisingly welcome gesture of affection. "Get some sleep, I'll bring you dinner."
He squeezed his hand again and thanked him, let the other man tug the blankets up around his shoulders, and closed his eyes. He was asleep, he thought, before the door to his flat even clicked shut.
Jehan knew, and had known, that Grantaire was capable of handling himself in a fight if need be, knew he had learned canne de combatwhen it was barely more than street fighting, knew he kept a knife at his side now and knew kickboxing for self defense, just in case. But he knew, as well, that Grantaire delighted in entertainment rather than fighting and he’d never expected to see him hurt, not like that.
It fretted at him, tattering his throat and his nerves for the rest of the day. He’d seen him falling deeper into misery and had tried, but it wasn’t enough. And he had his guess, couldn’t see how it could be anything other than depression, but he didn’t know how to say it, how to suggest it without making Grantaire close up and close off. The guilt of it nudged at him persistently, but he did his best to block it out, picking up dinner before going to the other man’s apartment.
The lights were still all off, the air stiff and stale, and Grantaire was still halfway curled up on his bed, blinking slowly at Jehan when he pushed the door open, trying for a smile and not quite managing.
Jehan tutted softly, not speaking much as he sat and started to peel back the bandage from the night before, cleaning the cut and rebandaging it while Grantaire buried his face against Jehan’s hip.
“Sorry,” he said, voice sounding dry and rough and distant, like it was an effort to speak, to breathe. “I just…”
“It’s alright,” Jehan promised quietly, working his fingers through Grantaire’s hopelessly tangled curls. “Too hard to get out of bed, today?”
That got a bit of a nod, and he hummed softly in thought. He hadn’t seen it last time (they’d not been close, not like some of the others, friends but not enough for that vulnerability), but he remembered Joly murmuring about it quietly, and they’d mostly just assumed it was Grantaire sleeping off too much to drink. Jehan thought he knew better, now.
“That’s okay,” he said, instead, wondering when he’d lost all his words, and shifted a little closer, something about the deep unhappiness that sketched itself out in Grantaire’s shoulders and curved spine doing more to tarnish Romantic notions of sorrow than his own death (still singing continuance and triumph and dearly won progress in his mind) ever had. “I’ll bring in food and we can curl up and watch bad movies together?”
“Yeah. That… yeah.” Grantaire tried again for a smile, but it still didn’t come anywhere near his eyes, looked deadened and dull, and he seemed so unhappy that Jehan could hardly stand it. Instead, he opened the door while he heated up dinner, cooing and clicking his tongue until a neighbor’s cat trotted inside. They wouldn’t miss her for a few hours, he thought, carrying in food with the cat on his heels.
“I have food,” he announced, nudging Grantaire into sitting up so he could climb up on the bed with him. “And also borrowed a cat.”
“You can’t just borrow people’s cats, Jehan,” Grantaire told him, but for the first time looked a little amused, clicking his tongue a few times before the cat leapt up on the bed, picking her way over Jehan to curl up in Grantaire’s arms, bumping her head against his jaw and purring.
Somehow, he managed to keep the cat tucked up against his chest while they ate, burying his face in against her fur when he pushed his plate away, something in his shoulders relaxing as she started to purr again, licking at his disordered curls. She nuzzled against him, squinting over at Jehan and looking so pleased with herself that he had to stifle a laugh.
The cat stayed for a long while, purring and kneading her paws against Grantaire’s shoulder, and Jehan leaned against him until it started getting late, enough that he needed to go home, departing reluctantly and accepting an affectionate hair ruffle before he went. It became a routine for the next few days, stopping by Grantaire’s apartment once or twice a day to check on him and coax him into eating, sometimes finding him standing in the middle of the room, staring blankly at some task that took too much effort to do, mumbling into Jehan’s shoulder when he was gathered in for a hug about how he just couldn’t make his limbs move, but mostly finding him flopped out on the bed, too drained even to curl himself up in a ball, empty bottles on the floor.
Then one day, he came in to find a beautifully done tart on the counter, the dishes all washed but only half dried and Baudouin floating near the tiny kitchen where the former soldier had taken watch the night before. He had taken a liking to Grantaire and was watching him as he buried his face in his arms and sprawled on the couch.
“Wanted to thank you,” Grantaire said, the words coming out as more of a sigh than anything. “I made you a thing.”
“Thank you,” Jehan replied, because he could only imagine how much effort must that have taken, and perched on the edge of the coffee table, petting a hand down Grantaire’s back. “You’re far too sweet to me. How’re you feeling today?”
“A little better, actually,” he grumbled, pressing his face deeper into his arms. “But then I start thinking about all the things I have to do because I’ve fucked up so much shit being too lazy to get up, and then I just can’t deal with it all again. It’s too much, Jehan.”
Humming sympathetically, he thought for a long moment, tentatively searching out the words. “It will be okay, we’ll get it all figured out. Grantaire…”
Grantaire tensed a little, barely peeking up at Jehan. Trepidation laced every line of his barely visible features, brown eyes holding just a hint of fear under the disconcerting blankness. “Hm?”
Jehan just continued to touch him, soothing and light. “Most people don’t have to deal with it hitting like this. Have you ever talked to a doctor about it?”
Grantaire shook his head, hunching in as best as he could while still stretched out and on his stomach. “No. Not worth it, I just can’t deal with it, that’s all. It’s not that bad.”
“That’s not what I meant, sweetheart,” he murmured, heart cracking clean through as he tried to coax Grantaire into looking back up again. “I meant that most people aren’t dealing with what you have to. It’s not that you can’t deal with what everyone else can, but that they don’t feel their brains being ripped to shreds and shrouded in fog and being too weighed down by blocks of cement to even move. You deserve so much better than this, R.”
At that, Grantaire finally looked up, face blank of anything other than faint suspicion. “Jehan…”
“It’s not your fault,” he said, breath hitching. “R, it’s not your fault. You try so hard and you do so well but you shouldn’t have to.”
“What do you want me to do?” Grantaire asked, defeated, cheek resting on his arm and bruises under his eyes so deep they looked nearly tattooed on.
“I’d like you to consider talking to someone,” Jehan told him, still rubbing his back gently. “I don’t want to make you do anything. I know it would be hard, and painful – you know that I know, Grantaire – but if it would help even a little…”
Jehan trailed off, fingers trembling slightly against Grantaire’s shirt. “I want to do the same thing you did for me, if you’ll let me.”
For a long while, Grantaire was silent. And then he nodded, closing his eyes.
“Okay,” he said, before repeating himself, louder this time and with more certainty. “Okay.”
Jehan could have cried for relief, but managed to hold it back. He stayed that night, settling in with Grantaire’s head back against his shoulder until they both eventually dozed off.
And the next day, they headed out, Grantaire silent and curled in on himself like the world was too bright, the disconcerting blankness edged out by a nearly sick anxiety, as he stuck close to Jehan’s side. In the waiting room, faux comfortable, he tapped his fingers silently and rapidly against his thigh until Jehan took his hand and held as tightly as he dared. When they called him back, Jehan squeezed his fingers.
Grantaire attempted a smile as he rose and Jehan tried not to flinch too much as their hands fell apart.
Grantaire did his best not to fidget and answered far too many questions. Some he answered reluctantly and haltingly, others he had to try hard to avoid, and he only flat out lied on one, waiting and waiting and waiting for a blow that didn't come.
Or it did, rather, in a different way altogether, with the words clinical depression and anxiety disorder ringing in his head, an appointment made with a counselor and prescription scrip clenched in his trembling hand, and he was not quite dazed as he stumbled back out to Jehan. He didn't say a word all the way to the pharmacy, or all the way back to Jehan's apartment, but the moment Jehan offered his lap, Grantaire broke, toppling over and curling up with his head on the other's leg.
There wasn't anything left to cry, hadn't been anything for months or years or who the fuck even knew how long, so he just curled up tighter, paralyzed and stunned and turned to stone, mirrored shield of desperate denial and uncertainty shattered around him. Jehan didn't say a word, just read quietly and let Grantaire sit close by.
It felt like hours before he could move, before the words sank into his brain, before he surfaced enough that he could speak. "How did you know?"
"I wasn't sure," he said softly, with a sigh slight and tender. "But you were melancholy, back then. Or at least that's what we called it, and you get so trapped in your head, so hopeless, so eaten up. I thought it wouldn't hurt, to ask, this time round."
Grantaire huffed, but didn’t move to pull away, just closed his eyes. "... I'm blaming you if this doesn't work."
"No you won't, dear," Jehan said absently, smoothing down tousled curls. "Because I'll be here to help you try again in whatever ways you want. I'm a very hard man to get rid of."
And it wasn't that easy; it took weeks before he didn't want to snarl and snap and rage at the counselor who slowly coaxed him closer to subjects that Grantaire didn't want to talk about. The voices that spat venom in his head, the flashes of pain that didn't belong to him, the way he couldn't eat couldn't sleep couldn't breathe couldn't move couldn't believe couldn't think couldn't will couldn't live couldn't die. It took months to find a dose that didn't throw his brain into a frenzy, didn't knock him out or keep him up or make him so anxious he couldn't sit up without his chest banded tight.
But it helped. It helped, just a little, just enough that he could breathe, could pick up his pencils without wanting to snap them or stab the points into his skin with detached horror. It helped the way it helped to see Jehan well rested, to see the way he tapped out little patterns on his knees to drive back memories that shoved him around his head, to see the way he could smile without so many shadows in his eyes.
They clung all the harder, clung the way they had when the slipping edge of the void drew them apart, because there was no one else to cling to. Jehan went home for a week and came home glowing and weighed down with gifts, but also tired, climbing into Grantaire's lap and bundling himself in blankets like it was all too much at the same time. Grantaire went home and came back stony and silent and let Jehan unclench his fist and sing in French gone obsolete and languages even older.
He let Jehan slip charms in his pockets to ward off nightmares and bad luck, and made him eat in return. He slipped a cold iron nail in his pocket again (never too careful, never too cautious, never take anything for granted now that the door was open and unable to be closed) and placed another over the lintel of Jehan's door. He let Jehan prattle and introduce him to the ghosts, and tried his best not to unsettle them in return.
But so much of the fear was gone, the fear that squeezed and pinched and took over the top of his spine, that made him unable to see or hear, like every sensation in the world was muted and tinted dull.
They hadn't reached, quite, the point of moving in yet. May as well have, for all the time they spent in one another's company. Jehan only laughed when Grantaire pointed that out.
"We've always lived in one another’s back pockets," he said, brightly and fondly and a little sadly. That was more common, as his sleepless nights ebbed, speaking of the friends they had apparently once shared - Les Amis de l'ABC, and Grantaire could appreciate the pun - as though it was a little less painful. "Why should you and I be any different now?"
"You couldn't speak to ghosts, last time," Grantaire pointed out, nudging him, but he sat up a little more. "Prouvaire, hey. Why haven't you looked for them? If you're here, and I'm here, they might be here, and it sounds like they were worthier and better men than I."
"No self deprecation," Jehan said in a sing-song, and then sighed. "I'm scared to look, in case they don't exist or I can't find them, can't reach them. Or that if I did, they wouldn't know me or believe me or remember me. You were there, now-you, but they... I don't even know how they died. And maybe, if it's all really meant to be, we'll run into them again. I ran into you, didn't I?"
"You did," Grantaire agreed, look softening a little as he held an arm out to Jehan in a silent offer of comfort, unsurprised when the poet all but collapsed against him, and kissed the top of his head, holding him as securely as he'd ever held back.
They did move into the same apartment as the year spun into winter, a quiet place, out of the way with two bedrooms and a decent amount of space, considering it was Paris, because Jehan’s family maybe spoiled him a tad too much.
Jehan gently shooed the ghosts out, letting Grantaire sit cross legged in the middle of the room to watch, skin crawling unpleasantly and nausea pressing up his throat until he cleaned up the energy of the flat, doing his best to ward it against the lingering malcontent energies and presences that liked to trail inside with his awkward, stumbling knowledge of protections. That done, he watched Grantaire set a new cold iron nail over the lintel before quietly letting the ghosts follow them inside as they moved in their things and started to unpack, Jehan trying to explain how frustrating it was to find useful information that wasn’t culturally appropriative while they set up the kitchen and living room.
Their tastes made for an odd looking apartment, Grantaire’s posters of famous artwork and his eclectic group of trinkets beside Jehan’s scifi movie posters and pressed flowers, blank spaces for pictures of friends they didn’t have. But he loved it, loved this, the way it fit together in clutter, the flowerpot that somehow ended up holding their bills and the piles of books and papers on the tables and corners.
Even better, to have the room of his own, to let his lives balance out beside one another on its surfaces. He placed potted plants on the line of the windowsill, and added drapes dark enough to block the light when he couldn’t fall asleep until sunrise. Jehan placed dystopia alongside apocalyptic nature, hung photos of his family on the walls, a little comforted to see their faces if he looked over. He folded cockades while weeping, and strung them along one wall, across from a triptych Grantaire painted – Persephone and Hades, and it was another of those moments where Grantaire somehow managed to capture both what Jehan had loved about the story in 1832 and what he loved now in its recasting of agency and choice and transgressive freedoms.
Having his own space was still novel for Jehan, and he reveled in being able to collect his clutter of things that caught his interest and line his shelves. His family had always joked that he could make himself at home in twenty minutes, but he could always pack up his belongings in the same amount of time, and there was still something amazing about spreading out a little, like ivy reaching up and up for the light. In contrast, he realized a few weeks later, to Grantaire, whose things were mostly still boxed up, confined to his room, as though he somehow didn’t feel he had any claim on the flat.
But it meant that Grantaire went to classes on all but the very worst days and it meant that Jehan actually remembered to go to bed before it got too late (and didn’t have to wait for the question of why he never brought anyone home). It worked, because Jehan knew what parks would match Grantaire’s moods, and because Grantaire always seemed to find the best food that could tempt Jehan to eat even when the smell of gun smoke and blood haunted him.
It left him trembling sometimes, because he could go and curl up in the other man’s bed when his dreams jerked him awake, and he didn’t have to pretend not to see the ghosts and could chat with them as easily as anything. Grantaire’s eyes filled with genuine warmth each time Jehan had a good day, and he still walked him to every appointment, and Jehan had never had a friend like this, not in his life.
Grantaire must not have either, because there would be a raw awe and vulnerability in his eyes sometimes, like he couldn’t believe Jehan was there. Or maybe it had always been there, in both lives, but it was only now that Jehan was learning to read it. It felt that way, sometimes, when it clicked why Grantaire would go quiet, or the way he leaned casually away from touching anyone but Jehan some days, or how certain words made his face go to a carefully studied neutral.
Jehan talked to the ghosts, picking out little pieces of information and hoarding them like sea glass and shells, because he felt guilt strike him every time Grantaire woke breathless or worked his fingers under his curls to check for blood at the back of his head. He had never considered himself a magic worker, knew he didn’t do much more than speak to ghosts, but he tried, winding together charms and trinkets and herbs, finding black stones smooth and round and just the right size to fit in the palm of Grantaire’s hand, because the least he could do was try to ward off the worst of it. He found people who knew even more about what they were doing and bought charms from them, because Jehan wanted to learn from last time, wanted to shy away from misuse.
Grantaire never teased him about that. But then, he lined his pockets with salt, some days, and kept iron on him and in their home, and tied dried thistles over the doorway, and he accepted each token with a smile. The trinkets he brought back (always waiting for Jehan’s approval before setting them on a shelf or a table) never made the hairs on Jehan’s neck rise or the ghosts hiss.
That was another thing that did not escape Jehan’s notice. Living together, it was just all the more clear that Grantaire’s moods would often change or crash after he got home, like his happiness rang hollow and empty, like there was some vacant gap, some thin veneer of emotion (glossy and metallic and false) that stripped away the moment he was alone. It was like he got swept up in the emotions of crowds, tugged after them aimlessly, and like it all ran out of him the moment he stopped. Then there was the way he always seemed to know what people were feeling, what Jehan was feeling, as if he were mirroring it back to them.
Sometimes Jehan got distracted, because he had classes and research and always new ghosts to meet or to say goodbye to. He still had the same insatiable desire to see and reach further and beyond the now, still furious over the way women and children were treated because they should have come farther than this, in two hundred years. They should have come further than too-low wages and too-entrapping credit. They should have moved from poverty to parity. It threw him for a loop, sometimes, things he’d grown up with suddenly seeming foreign and strange.
They weren’t always bad moments, with an improvement for every disappointment, some glowing triumph of progress. He couldn’t explain how amazing it was, to find health care and protections and social welfare programs, and Jehan cried for happiness as much as sorrow. Searching out those changes was how he found himself staring at a computer screen in breathless disbelief and something like joy and amazement, because there were words that named him, there were people like him.
He had a flash of a thought, imagining his friends leaning over his shoulder, still in their waistcoats and cravats, delighted and curious as they would bend a little closer to see and point at the words on the screen with an “Oh! Look; that’s me!” Because maybe not all of them would need the words or want them, but he could think of some who would, the way it would light up their faces to learn about this the way it lit up his (he thought of Grantaire, the Grantaire he used to know, who was a libertine through and through but never seemed to have sufficient words for the way he looked at Enjolras).
Jehan rose, computer clutched against his chest, and hurried, laughing and sobbing, to Grantaire. “There are words for me! There are words for what I am. It’s something, R.”
“Oh? What are your words, Jehan?” Grantaire asked, Grantaire who knew the power of naming, as he set aside his sketchbook and sat straighter, his eyes brightening just a little, and it gutted Jehan in the best way, to see him light up just because he was happy.
Jehan sat beside Grantaire, laptop still cradled against him like it held the secrets of the universe (and it did, at least in this), and he smiled shyly, tear tracks warm down his cheeks, the words strange and heavy and perfect on his tongue. “Asexual and aromantic.”
There was a thoughtful, respectful pause before Grantaire grinned in sudden understanding and he reached out to tug Jehan in against his side in a half hug, nothing borrowed in the brightness of his eyes, only genuine happiness, softness, affection, pride. “That’s amazing. That’s wonderful.”
“Isn’t it?” he asked, smile only growing. His family had always been of the opinion that they didn’t care who anyone brought or what their relationship was as long as they brought someone home to dinner, but it felt so good, so right to have words that matched him, words that turned away the stabbing points of well intended questions about dating and relationships and sex. He couldn’t stop crying, and Grantaire didn’t try to make him, and Jehan only smiled helplessly at the ghosts who came in to see what the commotion was, repeating endlessly and brilliantly that he had words.
One of the few unspoken things left between them were their views on the world.
It might be that Jehan knew him a lifetime ago, but he didn’t comment on Grantaire’s disbelief in all the heady possibilities of change. Or maybe, Grantaire thought, it was just that the sufferings of the world brought Jehan just as low, left him sobbing on the couch because it wasn’t fair, and he understood why Grantaire couldn’t have faith. But where Jehan studied and researched and fretted over how to make things less horrible, Grantaire felt trapped. Still, he listened when Jehan spoke statistics with a tremble in his voice and when he chattered about learning something new.
Grantaire had always had a soft spot for learning, for seeing the world unfurl and unfold around him, but it felt so wrong, so presumptuous to say that when he struggled to pass his classes, only going because Jehan convinced him it was worth it, when math and simple numbers spun his head in circles and the sciences left him cold. Reading, though, that he could do, loved to do, where he’d curl up with history books and art texts and read for hours.
That was how he met Cosette, who was taking an art history course as part of her history major, and she had gasped over the detailing edging the side of his notes. They started to talk after the lecture, Cosette hesitant and sheltered and Grantaire trying so hard to set her at ease, and spent most of the night talking and drinking coffee, until Grantaire realized that Jehan would be waiting up and Cosette made a face that suggested someone was waiting on her as well. But they got along well, seemed to fit together – not in the way he had with Jehan, because fuck, he would never click with anyone the way he had with Jehan, but enough that it felt like he’d known her for ages – and they continued to meet in the odd little gaps in their schedules.
She shyly agreed to let him paint her for an assignment, and Grantaire produced and discarded idea after idea, rejecting Aphrodite and Eris and Boudicca and Jeanne d’Arc before he finally settled on Freyja, all falcon sharp eyes and cat teeth hidden behind a diplomatic smile, draped in gold and amber and jet she was unashamed of crying. There was something wild and free and bold settled in behind placid seeming perfection and sweetness he only hoped to half capture. He almost couldn’t bring himself to be surprised when she showed up one day with a black eye.
“Now, how did you get that?” he asked her, cocking a brow.
Cosette laughed, pausing for a moment as they passed one another on the way to class. “I was at a protest this weekend with an activist group I’m part of. Papa was so upset, but I think it went well.”
“You’re in an activist group?” Grantaire arched his brow higher, surprised, tried to struggle away from the tangle of thoughts, of recalling endless demands and never being able to do enough or do it right until he’d just given up. Cosette had never judged him, never sneered at what he ate or wore or did, and the thought was settling. “Violence doesn’t seem like your sort of thing.”
“Well, no, it isn’t. It’s not our general policy, either – I got knocked over by someone who wasn’t paying attention, as it happens.” She shrugged, but then smiled, lighting up her pretty face with something hopeful and tentative. “Would you like to come, R? Les Amis de l’ABC is a really open group, so if your roommate wanted to come, he wouldn’t have to worry about people being assholes about the ace thing.”
And he knew that name, knew it because Jehan slipped it into conversations, knew that it was never very far from his friend’s mind or his dreams. Or his nightmares. He didn’t quite freeze, though he was sure something strange and curious must have flickered over his face before he smiled. “It’s not my usual thing, no, but, uh, tell me where and when and maybe I’ll bring Jehan by?”
“Sure thing,” she said, relieved as much as pleased, fumbling around in her bag and coming up with a little flyer, and his breath caught a bit to see the name laid out in black and white. “I hope you come. We’re always both so busy, and I think you’d really like a couple of our members.”
“We’ll see,” he said, though he already knew he would probably be there, hand crinkling the flyer just a little. He made his goodbyes and she made hers, and Grantaire tried not to crush the paper in his tight grip, feeling a strange blend of emotions he couldn’t process, just thinking of Jehan, how much he missed them and there was no way this could be a coincidence.
When he got back, Jehan was sitting on the couch. He was writing in one of his many notebooks with one of the fake-flower topped pens he’d accidentally taken from the bank, but he looked up, brow furrowing as Grantaire entered, clearly concerned. “Grantaire, what happened?”
“A good thing, I think,” he said, dropping his bag and smoothing out the flyer against his thigh, gently extending it toward Jehan, watching his face. “Look. I just… I didn’t think it would be circumstance.”
Jehan took it with a confused frown, then looked down.
“Oh,” he said, voice small. “Oh. You don’t think…?”
Grantaire nodded and sat beside him, hand hovering over his shoulder. “I think they probably are. Do you want to go? Because, I mean, it sounds like last time I wasn’t really that big a part of it and it’s not my thing, but if you want me to come, I will, and we can leave whenever you want or, well. Whatever you want, okay?”
Tears spilling over, he leaned over into the press of Grantaire’s hand. “I want to. I do. They’re alive, I mean, probably, they’re probably here and alive.”
“Then we’ll go.” Grantaire said it as easily as he could with apprehension and insecurity coating his throat like dust, drawing Jehan into his arms and against his side, and tried to hide the trepidation and the worry, because after all this time, after all that they had been through, he would do almost anything for Jehan.
As they made their way to the address on the flyer, Jehan left his hand in Grantaire's, now allowed to take it without verbal confirmation but only silent acquiescence. It settled his worry a little, because even if it went badly, he still had Grantaire and a friendship deeper than he ever could have hoped.
It was the same neighborhood, more or less, and he could remember walking streets that were so similar and so different all at once. The Café Musain was gone, of course, but it still jolted Jehan's mind to realize that they wouldn't meet there.
The building was so similar that it struck him all over again, and even more when the waitress waved them up the stairs. Jehan's grip tightened, because it felt so similar, and someone else must have felt that way too, to decide that this was where they would hold their meetings. Grantaire just squeezed back though, picking up on Jehan's panic.
"We can still turn around," he reminded quietly, and Jehan shook his head but didn't let go. The door to the upstairs room was open, and he looked uncertainly to Grantaire before collecting himself and stepping in, the threshold seeming like so much more than a simple piece of wood.
It took a moment, to re-place the faces. Because there was Courfeyrac, tanned and lithe and cheerful but in a style so modern Jehan couldn't breathe, laughing at something, and there were Joly and Bossuet, their fingers twined on the tabletop as they glanced up in effortless synch like they expected someone else to walk in, and that was as far as he got before a girl in printed skirt stood.
"R!" she greeted, hurrying over, all bright eyes and a warm smile, holding a hand out to him. "And you must be Jehan. I'm Cosette. It's so nice to meet you; I'm so glad you could come!"
"It's nice to meet you too," Jehan managed, letting go of Grantaire's hand (the joints gone pale with pressure) to shake Cosette's, and he couldn't help but smile even though it felt like too much and too little all at once. "I'm glad we could come."
"Is this your friend, Cosette?"
And Jehan knew that voice, coming from their left. Enjolras, tall and radiantly beautiful, face feminine, dark skin even and clear, his expression quiet and every line of him reading elegant reservation. His eyes were still the same, filled with fire and iced over all at once, dark hair in thin dreadlocks and pulled into a high ponytail. He looked every inch how Jehan remembered him in bearing and countenance. Jehan glanced at Grantaire as he looked up at Enjolras, his eyes gone a little wide, and his fingers twitched for a pen or a pencil or a brush. (Or a drink, but that was a phantom of Jehan’s memory, no reason it would be that now, when they didn’t know one another.)
"This is!" Cosette agreed, shifting. "This is Grantaire - or R - and this is his flatmate, Jehan?"
"Jean Prouvaire," he elaborated, with a smile. "But I like to go by Jehan, yes."
"Jean Prouvaire," she said, smiling back. "And this is Enjolras, one of our three founding members."
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Jehan said even as he accepted Enjolras' outstretched hand, because it was a joy to see him again, to see him so full of life and brilliance instead of some nightmare-conjured memory ghostly on the barricade.
But he was more curious to watch him with Grantaire. Because Grantaire hadn't yet heard the hymn-laden speeches or the firm convictions that had pulled him in last time, but he already looked a little captivated, and there was the faintest suggestion of a blush in his cheeks as they exchanged greetings, a redness that only deepened when Enjolras’ mouth twitched upwards at the pun of his preferred address.
Jehan didn't know what to make of it, didn't know what he should want to make of it. Because he knew it wasn't fair, but he still remembered the start of the rebellion, the way that Enjolras had snapped, the way that Grantaire had fallen silent and taken rebuke quietly, and looked up at him with eyes so tender and troubled. The devotion, the love, the admiration, had shaken him to his core, struck him with potential and left him trembling for poetry to sing it out. There was no way to know whether or not it was transcendent, or if Grantaire had slept there until he died, ravaged by alcohol or murdered by a stray bullet, or discarded to his grief.
It wasn't the time, though, and he couldn't help but be pleased when they were introduced to Joly and Bossuet, the former’s hand idly spinning a cane he still had and the latter in a worn coat but shaved bald, because he missed them (he had missed all of them, and ached to see them all here, all in place, wanted so desperately to embrace them and hold them and tell them how much they meant to him).They got on with Grantaire in moments again, and one more piece of the world slotted into place. It was still a relief when Grantaire, despite the fact that anxiety was probably ravaging him like a silent rot, let Jehan take his hand, let him anchor himself back down even as he tentatively felt out the pair sitting across from them.
It was so odd to sit here, to be new and different and a stranger, when he remembered all of them when they were brothers in arms, when it was the thought of them that made capture bearable. He met Musichetta too before the meeting started, and stayed quiet through the rest, not sure if his grip or Grantaire’s was tighter.
They were so kind it almost hurt. They were so polite, so very much strangers that it did hurt, and Grantaire seemed to notice, thumb rubbing against Jehan’s hand, begging off before too long with the excuse of work. Courfeyrac smiled at them sincerely, saying he hoped they’d be back again. When Joly, Bossuet, Musichetta, and Cosette echoed the sentiment loudly, Jehan could have cried.
“They seem pretty nice,” Grantaire said, as they walked back towards their apartment, finally breaking Jehan’s contemplative reverie, “if a little ambitious. What’d you think?”
“I missed them so much,” Jehan murmured quietly, sighing. “It was so strange, but also wonderful? But none of them seemed to recognize me.”
Grantaire hummed softly, nudging his shoulder. “Give it time. We don’t have to go back, if you don’t want to. But if you do…”
“You’ll be there. I know.” He smiled at that, knocking back. “Thank you. You’re a good friend, Grantaire, and I’m glad to know you. What did you think?”
Grantaire looked thoughtful, ignoring the compliment rather than rejecting it, but clearly still a little flustered. “Like I said, they seem nice. I don’t know yet.”
Jehan held his breath back just a moment, waiting. “And Enjolras?”
His face twisted up a little. “Ugh, Jehan, I want to paint him so badly. He’s positively angelic. But I mean, I dunno? He’s quiet? And polite? I don’t know him well enough to say. Why, did we not get along or something?”
“It was complicated,” Jehan decided, after a moment, because he didn’t have words for Grantaire, let alone Enjolras and what they were or could have been. “I don’t want to bias you, or anything, I was just curious.”
Because Grantaire was curious, was intrigued, wanted to paint him, but there was so much that hadn’t happened between them, Enjolras not yet having made an impression. And it was strange, and Jehan was worried, but he hoped that this time might be better, because Grantaire was trying so hard. He probably had then, too, but back then he had no diagnosis, no medication, no Jehan to brace himself against.
Grantaire had slipped easily into Jehan’s life, even as they had teased one another out, studied and circled. It had felt natural, normal, but none of the others knew who he was, how he died, that he had died, that he had died with them. They hadn’t dealt with the aftermaths of nightmares and the flickerings of the dead who had been his only friends for so long. He didn’t know what he would do, if they didn’t settle into his life like they had the first time.
What could be worse than losing them all over again?
Two weeks and two more meetings and Grantaire still didn’t know what to make of Les Amis de l’ABC.
A few hours and an impromptu brunch with Joly and Bossuet and Musichetta was enough to bring his total count of probably-friends up to five (six, if he counted the girl he called Florèal to see her laugh when they met out and about), and he was amazed at the way they came together so easily. It wasn’t the same as with Jehan (because who could ever slot into his life like Jehan-who-had-died-in-his-head?), and it was easier even than becoming friends with Cosette, the way their words and their jokes and their tastes all seemed to coincide with an easy humor and good nature. Jehan still seemed quiet when they went to their meetings, as shy as he ever was, gripping Grantaire’s hand all the way up the stairs to the back room and only letting go when they’d settled in the recess of the room, in the corner where their shoulders could arch back and touch wood.
So maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise when, as the threads of conversation loosened, moved from injustice to the mundane, they were coaxed into the talking even further, with earnestness and friendliness. Grantaire shifted, uncomfortably sipping at his wineglass, still not entirely sure what to make of them, still feeling outside because fuck, what did any of them think they were going to change?
“So,” Courfeyrac said, all friendly smiles and bright dark eyes, propping his hand on his chin as he leaned on the table, devilishly charming and apparently in the mood for gossip today. “Okay, there’s got to be a great story behind this. How long have you guys been together?”
“… Us?” Jehan asked, uncertainly and with a wave of a hand between them, blinking when they all nodded, save Cosette, who winced sympathetically and a bit apologetically. Grantaire nearly choked on his wine as he stared at them, bewildered.
“We’re… no. Uh, no,” he said, admittedly not very coherently, trying to decide if the knot of thoughts and feelings was confusion or bafflement or terror or panic or amusement or nausea because why why why why why.
Jehan, as always, seemed to notice, hand reaching over, and Grantaire tried not to flinch, but he couldn’t help it. Jehan just looked a little, quietly sad (but not upset, not disappointed, just understanding and what did Grantaire ever do to deserve such a friend?) and pulled his hand back before smiling at Courfeyrac and the rest.
“Ah, no, we aren’t together. I mean, for one, I’m asexual. And aromantic. The only romance I’m interested in is the song of nature in her apocalyptic fierceness, Ozymandias brought humble to the sands, and the melancholy of sacrifice.”
Grantaire snorted softly at that, watching Jehan with an amused affection, biting his tongue to keep from making a snarky comment about waistcoats and cravats layered on t-shirts and well fitted jeans, feeling a little of the vice clenched tightly around his chest ease.
“Sorry, Jehan.” Courfeyrac looked apologetic and a little chastised. “We shouldn’t have assumed.”
“It’s alright,” he reassured with a smile even though it had to have been painful, apparently less thrown by the supposition than Grantaire, who was still feeling blindsided. “I guess I could see how you made the assumption.”
“We used to get that all the time too,” Musichetta piped up, leaning against Bossuet and propping her leg up on one of the chairs. “Granted, we did hook up eventually, but, yeah, that’s a thing. Have you two known each other forever then, too?”
Jehan looked thoughtful and contemplative, twisting a stray napkin into strange shapes, and Grantaire almost wanted to reach for his hand to comfort him but still felt paralyzed in ways he had no words for. “It feels that way, sometimes. Like I’ve known Grantaire for a hundred years and more.”
“But we only bumped into one another about… a year ago? Something like that,” Grantaire added, careful to keep it ambiguous, partially because he liked Jehan’s little teasing hints of jokes that none of them would pick up. And shit, he didn’t know how to count it some days, whether to include the time in the 1800s he didn’t remember or to start from the day when he was sixteen and it felt like he was dying alongside him or when he’d seen Jehan again.
“Really?” Bossuet looked surprised, but smiled at them, like somehow that answer was even better. “You seem to know one another so well! We all kind of figured you’d known each other since you were kids.”
Jehan hummed, and laughed a little, eyes sparking with affection and joy that Grantaire still wasn’t used to. “What’s that line from the Harry Potter book? About not being able go through some things without becoming friends, or something like that? That’s us.”
“Fighting mountain trolls in your spare time?” Combeferre asked with a teasing lit to his smile, but he glanced at Courfeyrac and Enjolras with so much affection, familiarity, and softness in his eyes that Grantaire could almost feel it, and really couldn’t be surprised that something dramatic would bind the three of them together.
The conversation left him alone after that, and Grantaire tried not to fidget uncomfortably as he sipped at his glass, more than ready to be gone by the time Jehan rose but not able to regret the time when there was a flush of happiness and humor on Jehan’s cheeks. He still felt thrown and unsteady, unable to balance himself, like he'd extended too far or drawn back too quickly, about to fall face first into something he didn't know how to handle just yet.
Jehan chatted happily for a while, but he shot Grantaire concerned looks as they neared the apartment. And, bless him, he didn't protest when Grantaire offered him a weak farce of a smile and a raised hand before melting off into the shadows of Paris.
It had been weeks, more than a month since Grantaire had gone wandering like this, but now he felt like there were invisible things tearing at him, slicing him to bloodless ribbons, and it only subsided like a slow ebbing tide as he walked the familiar press of the streets.
The Amis had assumed that they were together. And it had never occurred to Grantaire, because shit, Jehan was Jehan, and he'd understood him well enough even before he'd found the words he wore like banners. It was easy to be affectionate with Jehan, or easy enough, and the part of him that was still five years old and alone seemed to have reared its head, begging for attention and touch that Grantaire tried so hard to disdain and dismiss. He should stop, if it made people think that they –. That he –. But then, it was hard to feel guilty about it when it settled the anxiety that churned like Charybdis in his stomach, when it was sometimes the only thing that brought Jehan back from the streets of the Paris of 1832, dusty and summer-hot and blood soaked, after his dreams. They kept each other centered, on something like a steady keel, staggering and correcting like drunkenly walking a balance beam.
And. And shit, Grantaire knew that they hadn't meant it as a slur, as something disgusting. Courfeyrac had suggested it like he expected some schoolboy sweethearts, all innocence and flowers and blushes, and it was hard to see devilry and debauchery in that. Or in Joly and Bossuet and Musichetta, who were open with Les Amis about their feelings for one another. But there was a world of difference between that and the words that hissed in his brain.
He already knew what Jehan might say, what Jehan had said with his eyes, because Jehan was easy with the world, and he wouldn't see anything wrong with that. He hadn't even been offended. Grantaire tried not to be. He did. It wasn't as though he would judge anyone else, and it wasn't about that. It was the fact that his heart still arrested when someone suggested that he might be so inclined, and maybe that was stupid, but it sent him sprawling back like his brother shoving his chest and sneering the words and disappointments their parents never voiced, how he was such a girl, like it was the worst thing he could be, weak and worthless. Extinguishable.
Sighing, Grantaire tangled his fingers in his hair, feeling the curls twist and trap them. Somehow, the ghosts and reincarnations, the screaming nightmares, and the antidepressants that made him feel a little less feral and a little more tethered, all seemed easier than confronting that jumbled knot of things Gordian-like in his chest. He didn't have the patience to pick it free or the courage to swing and slice it open with a word.
But the panic had been pressed back, swallowed down like bile until his throat was desert-dry, and the busy and well loved pathways of Paris had coaxed him into a better mood, if only slightly. Grantaire meandered home, taking strange streets that embraced him like the old friends that they might have been, stopping for something sweet to offer Jehan in apology, for making him worry and fret, and for flinching away from him earlier.
Not that Jehan ever begrudged him, but still, Grantaire had seen his eyes laid bare when he'd twitched away without thought, and knew that he didn't want to address the vague, half-formed assumptions that lurked there. Jehan knew that and never pressed for more, never asked for what Grantaire didn't want to give. That was the amazing thing, that they could speak frankly, or try, but that sometimes they didn’t have to; that they didn’t have to keep secrets, but they could.
Sure enough, when he finally made his way to the door, waylaid by the cats that stuck like shadows to his legs when he passed, like they could smell the dead on his skin, Jehan was waiting with a strange smorgasbord of leftovers and a comfortable, familiar silence that settled over him like a sun-warm quilt. For the first time since Courfeyrac spoke, as Jehan smiled over the casual gift of food, Grantaire felt the world sway back to steadiness.
It took months, but Jehan learned his friends again with fascination.
He hadn't been sure with Grantaire, their lives thrown into spiral by one another. While Jehan's presence may not have curbed Grantaire's addiction, Grantaire seemed happier now they knew one another, more sturdy, more convicted, fiercely if wearily putting the effort into taking his medication and trying to go to his classes. He was filling his time with things that made him smile and allowing, from time to time, affection to curb his self hatred. It may not have been much, but he tried.
It took longer to be sure with the others, but he started to see the changes in them, too.
Feuilly, who had passed through foster care and lycée but taught himself most of the things he knew and invested his time in the vast archive of the Internet, still worked steady and long hours. But now he was bolder, a little louder than before, a firm and correcting voice. Bahorel, who seemed as impenetrable as ever and as dedicated to avoiding classes, instead taking to rambling the streets and subways of Paris with Grantaire, fists still defending the people. Bahorel, who used they instead of he and wore carefree, transgressive fashions, whispering rebellion and hope in the ears of the small children they crouched down to speak to gently.
Joly, whose anxiety and fear of illness bit constantly at his heels, but who accepted the ineffable universe with cheer, stood with something straighter and less cautious in the line of his spine even as he sniffled from frequent colds, and spread cheer like others spread smiles. Bossuet still had ill luck and now carried sorrow like shadows under his eyes, perhaps some awareness of the barricades murmuring in his mind, but stood only the taller for it, only more cheerful. More so than before, it made him more able to comfort others when ill fate tapped their shoulder rather than his own.
And then, more than any of the rest by far, the triumvirate. The ones who had once entered Jehan's life like a thunderstorm and broken and remade it to the sounds of drums and rifle reports.
Enjolras, ever quiet and soft spoken until spirit gripped him and raised him high, seemed to have stepped back, content to lead but not to marshal. He had softened, if only a little, not the strident and unbending Roman general Jehan had first met, but the one who felt some quiet sorrow for the injured innocent, and who might not condemn himself to die to bring the world in his footsteps. He seemed to see the people more clearly, to relate to them in a way he never had, not as a mass to be moved but as individuals whose lives brushed his, stricken with sonder.
And beside him, Courfeyrac and Combeferre had risen higher still, the three in lockstep.
Combeferre seemed to take life with the same excitement, the same relishing of opportunity and availability and knowledge and art, a whispering crackle around him that suggested a willingness still, to look for ghosts as much as drafts when the door rattled shut. And he was yet more strident, more firm in his pacifism, eyes sparking and sparkling as he spoke for education, always education, and acceptance, praising the value of words and sights that brought people to see what he laid out.
Courfeyrac was the subtlest of them, Jehan thought. He'd changed so little, still outspoken in his beliefs and his pleasures, his love and his kindness burning even brighter as he secured spaces for everyone, coaxed out the best parts of them. He seemed to want to touch hands with everyone around him, wanted their lives to crash into his sidelong and glance off or fall into syncopated rhythm. There was still the underburn of anger, fury incited at injustice without interest in listening to a defense, but even that seemed tempered, if not tamed, like Courfeyrac wanted to keep the wildfire from consuming those beside him this time.
Les Amis had changed as a group as well, carrying more of what the ABC suggested. They were so much more focused on education, on changing the world through bringing people understanding and information than they had in the desperate gasps for a revolution too early. It spoke more of Combeferre’s hand than Enjolras’, but both seemed even more enthusiastic and even more determined, striking a balance between educating others and joining pushes for political movement, often peaceful but sometimes turning violent, caught up in a sweep for recognition and awareness. But it spoke of Courfeyrac too, who sought to find a place for everyone in their striving, so that all of them could find something worthwhile to contribute and be held in esteem.
Jehan knew he tended to the lyric, but they struck up poetry in his bones. His friends had learned so much from what had changed in this life or what had ended the last one. The world had changed things and had changed them. They were still growing, now with the chance to learn where they hadn’t had the time before. It made him ache for their lives to have been cut off so young last time.
He wondered, soft and still like a flower in dry air, how he had changed. He was still stuck between reserved parents and a tumble of Prouvaires, between movements of thought that threatened to eclipse him. In this life, he dreamt of smoke and dry wood, and dreamt of being twelve, with schoolmates shoving at him and the lights above shattering like gunshot while ghosts hissed protectively and he drew in on himself. He sometimes wondered, gasping against the darkness, if the changes had been for the better or had been for the worse.
Grantaire liked them, Jehan’s not-yet-friends-again, for the most part. He was still more comfortable with Cosette, even if they avoided talking about the odd, occasional pauses or gaps that neither one of them wanted to fill in just yet. Well, Cosette and Joly, Bossuet, and Musichetta, but he probably would have met them anyway.
He’d tried to rein it in a little, and Jehan helped with that because he preferred to be at home with their carefully-tended-but-still-slightly-bedraggled houseplants lining the sill of the grimy kitchen window. It hollowed out a space where Grantaire could be quiet and calm, and he appreciated that, but they were still two very different people, and Grantaire liked to be out, doing things and getting his hands dirty and participating in the eddies and whirlpools of Paris. It lifted him up, pushed breath into his lungs like bellows, and he worked his way deeper and deeper into the crevices of the city, seeking out the best places for everything.
Joly, Musichetta, and Bossuet were the same. They were the sort of people he would meet in those places, who never begrudged him a drink or some company, cheerful and companionable. So they were the first ones he’d invited home, stricken with a strange near shyness as they headed up the steps and he fumbled in his pocket for his keys, Musichetta quirking a brow at the dried thistle hung over the door.
“We could all use some protection,” he told her with a lazy shrug, swinging the door open and stepping in, calling a greeting that was as much for the ghosts as for Jehan, who returned it absently from his room. He watched as they stepped out of their shoes, settling on the almost absurdly comfortable couch. It was fascinating to watch the way their eyes flicked from decorations to clutter and around again even as the four of them kept up an easy conversation that flowed from one thing to another on puns and references and interjections.
The three of them wound up tangled together as the afternoon blended into evening, and it made Grantaire smile to see, because the undercurrent of affection and love there was nearly tangible. It was at once impossible and gorgeous to see them so at ease with one another.
“So, okay, I have to ask. How did you all meet? Or get together?” Grantaire finally found himself asking, curiosity piqued.
“Well,” Bossuet drawled, sharing a look with his two partners.
“I was innocently walking down the road to go do my shopping,” Joly informed him with faux offense. “And then I saw these two come careening towards each other on carts in the middle of an abandoned lot-”
“- And he started laughing so hard that we offered him a turn,” Musichetta elaborated with a bright smile. “Except then some old man started yelling at us-”
“- So Musichetta hopped in the basket, with Joly still clinging to the handlebars, and I ran us down the road and around the corner while Joly brandished his cane yelling about liberty,” Bossuet added triumphantly. “And that’s how the three of us met.”
“We then went to get lunch and had a fabulous discussion, and it was like we all just clicked into place, like we had all known one another for ages. We somehow started dating without really meaning to and it’s still the best thing,” Joly added, eyes soft and still a little amazed. Grantaire had to wonder if they remembered even a little of what had happened before, or if it was just a faint sensation of finding something they’d lost.
But he laughed, because it was a good story, and he could see it perfectly. It fit them so well, and he was happy for them, seeing how they all fit together. It was hard to be jealous at all with the way they looked at one another. “That’s perfect!”
“Isn’t it?” Bossuet said, beaming.
"And it's all worked out?"
"Oh, yeah," Musichetta said, then grinned as she nodded toward the wall. "The only thing we're missing is a poster like that one; I want it immediately."
Grantaire snorted, glancing over at one of Jehan's scifi movie posters. "You'll have to ask Jehan where he got it. I mean, I like scifi, but he's a movie junkie. Apocalypses are sort of his thing?"
"That... really doesn't surprise me as much as it should." Joly laughed. "Musichetta likes them too! Does that mean the art ones are yours, then?"
"Yeah, most of them," he agreed. "It's kinda eclectic in here, but I don't think it's too bad."
"Perfect," the three of the chorused, giving him a reassuring smile that somehow managed to be sincere rather than condescending, as though the word encompassed all the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of the room and those who decorated it. Grantaire couldn't help but smile back. They ended up staying for dinner and a film before tumbling out the door, and it was the strangest and most pleasant feeling Grantaire had felt in years. But Les Amis seemed to do that to him often enough, because a week and a half later found him running into Bahorel in a bar fight, which somehow led to them sitting in a hole-in-the-wall little place that served food at two in the morning.
They talked about what felt like anything and everything, countrysides and museums, Bahorel leaning on the table, interested rather than bored when Grantaire started rambling about where to find the best food, remembering what his mother had said, how to pick wines and discern cheeses and the way the flavors came together. Bahorel asked questions, fascinated, before launching into a loving description of their mother’s cooking. And somehow that wound around to the two of them talking about music, punctuated liberally with large gestures and pauses to drink. It moved from music to art, to color palettes, to their friends (did Grantaire have a right to call them that?), and to fashion.
He never would have expected that with Bahorel, but maybe he should have, because Bahorel's fashion choices may have been bold and unconventional, but they were always striking in a very intentional way, because Bahorel had taken one look at gendered clothing, and, having none, had done what they pleased. Maybe that was why Grantaire didn't flinch back or change the subject when he found himself explaining the shades of green that would bring out the best tones in Courfeyrac's coloring, because Bahorel was just nodding along, so assured and confident, so unquestioning of what anyone overhearing might think, and it was both strange and nice.
But fashion morphed into fighting again, because Grantaire had accidentally mentioned that he knew a touch of savate (because he clung to rare afternoons with his father's father before he was the perpetual disappointment, and then because he liked it and was good at it). And then they were off again, talking styles and techniques and places and opponents. It was an easy camaraderie of an entirely different sort to the few he had known, and Grantaire felt like he was flying high by the time he finally went home.
It kept happening. People he barely knew would draw him in, but Grantaire couldn't help wanting it, couldn't help tentatively trying. And the strangest thing was that Jehan was pulled along in his wake, like people saw them as some sort of allied unit, or perhaps that they were more comfortable with one when they'd had a chance to talk to the other more clearly. It was strange, and new, and vaguely overwhelming, because they were acting like they wanted to be friends.
Grantaire wasn't entirely sure what to do with that, so he didn't do anything, tried not to dwell on the hardness that would end up in their eyes, the bitter disappointment when he drank, or when he dropped out. Because it would happen soon; it was tempting and classes were so hard, so much harder than they seemed to be for everyone else, and he missed more lectures than he should. But Cosette smiled at him every time, and gave him notes from their shared class, while Jehan woke him and prodded him out the door on arduous mornings. So Grantaire did, he tried, even though trying would never be enough. It felt inevitable, that he would crash and burn no matter what.
It felt Sisyphean, only that the weight of the rock rolled him over as it fell back down the hill, but he tried. Even as hard as it was, even with the strain and stress and the sleepless nights that hunted him down, and when what sleep he did get was shattered by nightmares or noises in the dark, Grantaire tried. And eventually, he felt himself settling into the oddness of what still seemed to be Jehan's friends, and it was some remarkable and unbelievable slice of happiness, some faint warmth of welcome like a door opening in the winter air.
Jehan felt like he was floating, caught in two opposing lulls of currents, because Les Amis made him feel like he was truly breathing for the first time he could remember. He was no longer wavering on the threshold of worlds that weren’t supposed to meet, having spent so long in the company of ghosts that he could never quite forget. Not in the varied and half-empty, drafty houses of his relatives, and certainly not in the richly populated streets of Paris, with the dead who lingered long in the city. But with his friends, the call didn’t seem so loud, and the streets felt solid under his feet, and their smiles warmed him as much as the sun.
There was a boy who haunted the street where he’d been murdered, lingering at the corner where it joined the larger road. He seemed to Jehan almost a kindred spirit, easily blushing and quietly kind, always bending to speak to the cats whose eyes pierced planes most humans couldn’t see and smiling a quiet greeting to Jehan as he passed.
They spoke, sometimes, when Jehan would perch on the low wall and enjoy the sun. It was hard to trust ghosts, but easy at the same time, because they walked the same fine line that he did, if only on the other side, and it spilled out, the strangeness of being around living people, people whose blood flushed and flowed, who could raise or topple empires. But Jehan still felt trapped, like part of him was still stuck when he had died, or perhaps had languished like dust caught in sunbeams, because he felt so at a loss for words, for what to do with a new and strange dilemma. So he spoke, reaching for some way to explain to a boy just as stuck in place as he was.
“My mother knew the charms and lore, seiðkonur as much as anyone can be these days,” Ciarán said after a long and thoughtful silence, distant and soft. He spoke occasionally uncertain, outdated French patched up with English, because it was difficult for ghosts to retain anything new, his vowels and consonants pressing together oddly, making him stand out as much as his out of date clothes and long fall of blond hair worn proudly. “And my father wove plants like the Green Man. Nature doesn’t like to be still, nor magic, nor the spaces in between. I doubt the dead are much different.”
The ghost’s head tilted a little, and he smiled. “Maybe that’s what’s missing?”
Jehan studied him in return, thoughtful. “You think I need to spend more time with ghosts?”
“Not necessarily,” he replied slowly, green eyes large and intent. “But I think you have much more chances of learning things than many people had, and that you… might want to take advantage of that?”
It may have been spoken softly, but there was a hint of firmness underneath and truth.
All the same, it was strange, to try to delve deeper when for so long he’d just stumbled through it on his own, only rarely seeking advice. But he found, with effort, people who would talk to him, who knew more than he did, who had sifted through the layers of inaccuracies and pseudomystical prattle. Some days he dragged Grantaire along with him, Grantaire who found himself assisting in kitchens or entertaining children and walking away with secrets and good relationships in a way that Jehan could only admire as he tried to understand the rules and underpinnings that made up the elements of the strange and supernatural.
He learned things that were good to know, careful to avoid crossing boundaries or presuming without understanding, shying away from things that made the back of his head itch or chest crawl with uncertainty. There wasn’t a word for him, not really, and he didn’t learn much more about talking with the dead, just about dangers and things that could lurk in the shadows that he’d had at least half a thought to avoid already.
Maybe Jehan shouldn't have brought Grantaire along with him, maybe they had become too dependent on one another. But everything still hung too close, the icy reminder of his death and his memories and the turmoil of those weeks lurked in the corridors of his mind, waiting to slink out and prey on him. He still had nightmares and panic attacks and felt himself freeze, lost somewhere between the Paris before him and the Paris behind him. It was Grantaire who knew how to break him out of it with a touch on the shoulder, something so attuned between them, like some delicate, gossamer structure that would flutter apart, still too fragile to stand on its own.
It wasn't as though he spent all his time with Grantaire, now in the company of his old friends. Now, Jehan often spent time talking poetry with Courfeyrac or old films with Combeferre or current events with Feuilly (they followed some of the same bloggers, and it delighted him as much as it had to hear Courfeyrac use the words that Jehan thought he might to describe himself). But enough time and in the more hidden circles of Paris he knew even Bahorel didn't travel. It seemed like things they both should know some of, just in case, just to be safe and certain and sure.
More than anything else, it was because Jehan had fallen without meaning to into the habit, or perhaps the trap, of analyzing their friends. He hadn’t meant to start, hadn’t even realized he had for the first few weeks, but he watched his friends thoughtfully, a little dreamily, trying to figure out what they might be able to do, if anything. He idly threw suggestions out to Grantaire, who rolled his eyes but otherwise answered him relatively seriously or joked indulgently without derision. And it was strange, because sometimes he legitimately wondered, overhearing Joly and Bossuet laugh, not mockingly but with an undercurrent of respect and sincerity, about how it was best to listen to Musichetta’s advice and the accuracy of her tea-leaves, read as mostly-a-hobby.
The stranger thing, though, was the way he suddenly had a possible explanation for the way Grantaire’s moods sometimes rung hollow and empty. Jehan thought he now understood the way Grantaire seemed to mirror people without noticing it, why he would alternate from picking up on Courfeyrac’s quick bursts of hot anger before anyone else could, flinching like it was a physical blow, to going utterly, disconcertingly blank and eyeing people’s expressions uncertainly. The way he seemed to pick up what people meant more than they said, and Jehan was used to it by now, but he’d seen people’s brows pull in tight, like they hadn’t expected him to be so spot on.
Jehan didn't know how to confirm it, didn't expect anyone else to know or notice, but he watched, and thought, and wasn't sure, because it still wasn't something to bring up like so many other things. It crept like columbine into his mind sometimes, the question of how he could know so much about Grantaire, know him so well but also know next to nothing about his family, that store of information so very spare, but Jehan could see the hurts that were old and fresh, shallow and bone-deep, and he let it go. Because he didn't talk about his mother, about the fear that penned in his heart when he tried to explain the ghosts, how lonely, to be passed from relative to relative even as he reveled in the adventure of it, of what it was like to let her ghost pass on at last.
So he left it, because no matter what they were, they still fit into synch in a way no one could quite explain. He wondered how much of a footprint Grantaire had left in his head, how much of one Jehan had left in his, left breathless and awed and shuddering at the gestures they shared, passing from one to the other and back, identical phantom pains crunching their skulls apart.
Maybe he had learned to walk the thorny paths of Grantaire’s defenses and thoughts, to wander looping diversions back to the stem, because as much as he wondered - Bossuet's luck, perhaps, or the way newly-joined Éponine seemed to fade from awareness and into the shadows - he grounded himself in reality like a lightning rod, reluctant to move on fancies.
Yet there were always moments that couldn’t be ignored. Like the late September afternoon when Paris had burned amber with street lamps and orange autumn leaves for cinders as they had gone to speak to yet another woman in the pursuit of knowledge (and Jehan was fascinated because he'd heard she saw auras and energies flicker across her vision like heat waves). She drew up to Grantaire (movements like nearing a wounded bird, all fluttery caution) and tactfully asked him if he was alright, her eyes and vague shapes of her hands tracing something neither of them could see, and Jehan had paused. Perhaps it wasn't confirmation of what danced at the edges of his perception, the word he circled closer to but didn't dare to voice, not to himself and not to Grantaire, but it caught his attention. He coaxed Grantaire into testing out meditation with him, aware that there would false starts and jerky stops, the two of them snagging and catching on expectations and the way their brains spun out or up or in, bursts of poetry Jehan couldn't hope to capture.
Still, it was something, a step in the right direction. It was trying so desperately to balance on a beam he couldn't see, surrounded by an audience of apparitions who had seen so many fall and so few step gracefully from the other end, studying him to see how it might end. For what it might have been worth, Jehan was trying, cradling his lessons close to his chest and closing his eyes to memorize them, to learn a whole new humility in the face of forces he'd understood even less than he'd thought, but he faced them with a quiet and a steady and an understated determination.
“… I just think we make a mistake if we ascribe to the idea that science and rationalism is to be praised to the exclusion and especially the derision of the inexplicable,” Jehan said, and Grantaire glanced away from Joly and Musichetta’s banter, hearing the sudden prick of a sharper note in the man’s voice.
Bossuet nodded easily, clearly more interested in the debate itself than invested in the position opposite Jehan’s. “Okay, yes, I’ll admit that science especially can be exclusionary and elitist, but you can’t ignore the fact that so many people use religion and superstition as an excuse to avoid social progression.”
Jehan shook his head, frown deepening a little more. “There are, but I don’t think we can conflate superstition, as you put it, and religion. It’s fair to say that many of the dominant religions might do that, but there are religions and systems of belief that reject that sort of binarism. Belief doesn’t preclude social progressivism, especially when that belief exists outside of the dominant ideologies, some of which explicitly value traditionally excluded groups, such as women as magic practitioners.”
“Alright, that’s fair,” Bossuet allowed, not noticing the faint, brief flicker of the lights overhead that made Grantaire tense a touch. “But then we have to talk about appropriation and whether or not those systems can really be preserved in a lot of those cases, and question the correlation between the critical thinking that social progressivism demands and the belief in miracles and magic. Those groups can have all sorts of superstition and screwed up prejudices in the mask of acceptance and respect.”
“So we have to educate people on those prejudices; I won’t argue that it’s not a problem in those communities.” Jehan tapped his foot, and another flicker ran through the lights, the ghosts sensing and acting on his faint tension. “I do understand that – I try to be aware of those issues myself. But I think there’s also a responsibility on so-called rational people not to conflate non-belief with wholesale dismissal of those who do.”
“Right, but belief in the supernatural or spiritual so often goes hand in hand with the mysticism you’re criticizing,” Bossuet pointed out, leaning forward on the table. “Allowing our dearest Combeferre as an exception, there’s a reason most non-religious or rationality ascribing people don’t believe in, say, ghosts.”
“I do,” Grantaire drawled, propping an arm on the table and waving his fingers idly, watching the windows near Jehan carefully (the ghosts behaved, more often than not, but they could be vicious when Jehan was upset, and he hadn’t forgotten three weeks of Enjolras suffering cold coffee for a rather cutting comment aimed at Grantaire).
The rest of them, drawn into watching the conversation, blinked. Bahorel quirked a brow at him. “You believe in ghosts? R, I’ve heard your rants about religion and God.”
He rolled his shoulders in a shrug, trying to keep any bitterness from his voice. “If God exists, he’s metaphorically and morally bankrupt as well as impotent, gasping in the dying throes of pomposity and pretension, failures disguised in the elegant chain-links of DNA and the fine woven fabric of newly-discovered and star studded nebulae. That’s not the point.
“Refusing to accept the existence of God doesn’t mean I can’t entertain or accept the probability of ghosts or the supernatural at large. Equating them suggests that Christianity has to be accepted before the rest can be considered, and that’s bullshit. There are complexities of cosmologies and beliefs – which is why there’s a trend of magical realism in literature, to reincorporate the elements of the supernatural without necessarily accepting the cultural domination of Western norms and Jesus and saints and miracles and all that bullshit.”
“I’m inclined to agree, actually,” Enjolras murmured, speaking up from where he’d been listening quietly. Grantaire stopped, blinking, startled. They rarely agreed, and he knew he annoyed Enjolras when he started to ramble in circles and contradicted them, could feel the cutting disdain that slashed over him like a too-quick stroke of a sharp, thin edged knife.
“My skepticism of the supernatural does not give me the right to continue ignoring and disdaining alternative belief systems, especially when I don’t fully understand them,” Enjolras continued. “For example, my mother’s social status and assimilationist views in the pursuit of being considered rational and cultured, as well as the systematic destruction of indigenous belief systems in Haiti, mean that I have no more knowledge of those cosmologies than would any of you, regardless of my heritage. Critical engagement with the extant social order is not necessarily contradictory to a willingness to consider things not scientifically proven. Combeferre?”
“Exactly that,” he said, leaning forward as he started to formulate his own argument, but Grantaire just studied Enjolras for another long moment, still bewildered, still unused to Enjolras listening to what he was saying, let alone agreeing.
They didn’t speak much. Granted, Grantaire didn’t speak much with Courfeyrac or Combeferre either, often getting the sense that they didn’t particularly like him, or at least were frustrated by the acidic or morose notes that crept into what he was saying as he caught himself up in some new spiraling ramble. He thought he was starting to understand what Jehan meant when he said things had been complicated between them whenever he saw that little curl of disdainful pity in Enjolras’ lip.
But for all of that, he admired them, all of Les Amis, with their hope and belief and how hard they tried to create and see some better and fairer future. And Enjolras especially, who spoke rarely but with soaring conviction when he did, something subtle and captivating and arresting in his words and his eyes, like his vision swept over the degradation and painful pitfalls of the past and present and saw them but still believed that something better could be built from it. Enjolras, who was an immovable point of faith but softened to his friends, allowed himself to be corrected and refined, some sort of an archangel radiant and redolent with reserved splendor at the same time he was utterly, unbelievably human.
He sighed, eyes sliding back over to Jehan. The temperature had gone back up to normal, the dip only noticeable in the first place because he'd been waiting for it, and the lights had stopped flickering. Jehan was resting his arms on the table, listening to Combeferre speak with curiosity, defensiveness and discomfort fleeing from the lines of his shoulders.
All the same, he didn't catch Grantaire's eye, caught up in the conversation once more. When they all began to file out, Jehan shook his head, a small apologetic movement, but smiled when Grantaire nodded before he slipped out the door. Jehan took off down the street, probably to wander through the cemetery and sulk or back for the apartment. Only slightly concerned, Grantaire lingered to make a few more farewells before aimlessly strolling away from the café, taking his time and allowing the itch of the previous discussion to dissipate.
It came as a surprise when Enjolras fell in beside him halfway down the block.
"Do you mind?" he asked, dark eyes searching on Grantaire's face, nearly black in the evening shadows, bag slung over his shoulder and cutting into his coat like it was weighing him down.
"Not at all," Grantaire replied, with the easiest smile he could, a strange flush of feeling in his chest at Enjolras' faint hint of a smile, barely turning his full mouth at the corners. He tilted his head and cocked a brow up, flourishing his hands out a little in invitation. "Please, feel free. How may I be of service?"
Enjolras looked amused rather than irritated, his smile not quite fading right away. It was new for him, for Grantaire. "I'm a little surprised you aren't with Prouvaire - he seemed a bit upset earlier. Is he alright?"
"Oh, yeah, he's fine," Grantaire assured, feeling something in him plummet irrationally at the thought that Enjolras only followed him because he couldn't find Jehan and very consciously and firmly pushed that disappointment aside. "It just hit a little close to home, and he's had a hard week. He just needed some time to be alone - he needs people, but he needs his space, too. It's surprisingly hard for him to get, so I'm steering clear for a few hours."
Jehan, Grantaire didn't say, hadn't been sleeping well, had woken up from more nightmares than he had in months, screaming or shuddering or whimpering or stock still and silent, his eyes haunted and searching the floor, his hands, Grantaire's face for blood and smoke smudges. That wasn't his place to say, and he didn't want to explain it, not really, because there was no way to really make them understand the why of it all.
But when he looked over, Enjolras was watching him thoughtfully, brows tilted up in quiet, surprised contemplation, a new and slight interest to his eyes. "You two are very close, aren't you? You know him well."
His smile, he was sure, didn't sit right on his face, maybe melancholy, maybe wry, maybe a little self deprecating, even. Grantaire shrugged again, hands worming into his pockets, buried down deep like they could escape this at least. "We've been friends for a while. And we try to take care of one another - he'd leave the curtains half dyed green and I'd accidentally burn the apartment down for forgetting the stove if not."
"Ah, the stuff friendships are made of," Enjolras said dryly, and it took Grantaire a moment to realize he was joking, the affection in his expression brought on with thoughts of Courfeyrac and Combeferre. He wondered what they might remember, if they did at all, or if the world had just thrown them all together again.
They walked in silence for a minute, and it was strangely peaceful, a lull rather than something fragile and stolen, and it didn't feel broken when Enjolras spoke again.
"Do you come for Jehan's sake, then?" he asked, glancing over. "Not that you aren't welcome, but you often seem uncomfortable, and you had the strangest look when I took up your point today."
Grantaire huffed a quiet laugh, studying the pavement at his feet as he decided what to say.
"It's partially for Jehan, especially at first. He's got... stuff that makes it easier if I'm there, so I wasn't going to make him go alone. But I like you guys, and I think you say interesting things even if I think it's all kinda really optimistic and shit.” He paused, kicking at a stray pebble. “I just... Look, I know that you find me disruptive and annoying a lot of the time, and I can be fucking obnoxious, so I can't blame you. But I'm not actively trying to provoke your irritation or anything, I'm just shit at shutting up sometimes. It just kinda surprised me today, is all."
An odd look crossed Enjolras' face, something like surprise and something that might have been disbelief, and then another contemplative frown. "I hope we haven't made you feel uncomfortable or unwelcome."
“Nah,” Grantaire said, and grinned, and it only felt a little plastered on. “Thank you, for checking on Jehan. You all are important to him.”
Enjolras’ gaze got a little more focused, like something had occurred to him, but he simply nodded. “We do like to take care of our friends. We’ll see you next week?”
“Undoubtedly,” he agreed, nodding congenially. “Bright and early.”
“Thank you, Grantaire.”
“Any time,” he replied, unsurprised when they only exchanged a nod before Enjolras split off again, pausing just a moment to watch him go before he sighed. He was utterly uncertain of what to make of the whole exchange, uncomfortable realizations spinning out in the back of his mind.
It was easier to be brave and bold and forthright with Les Amis.
Though Jehan had spent his childhood shadowed by spirits, protected by their flurries of defensive anger, he’d never danced behind their shadow, or Grantaire’s, once they’d met. But he found himself bolder, more courageous when he had his friends at his back, the friends who never questioned his determination and identity. Who were so convinced of the need for equality and the wrongness of the systems of oppressions that swirled through society like heavy, battering snowstorms that his doubt and uncertainty drained away like infection from a wound.
Months and months, now, since he’d started to meet them all again, and the world finally felt like home, balanced solidly, carrying enough of the 1830s that he didn’t spin dizzily looking for things that weren’t there, but more grounded in this now, this reality. Months to learn them all over again and fall back into the warmth of family.
Except, and of course there was an except, there was some strange distance. Nothing like the difference that had existed last time with Marius, but the slight gap in understanding, because they didn’t know about the ghosts and they didn’t know about the PTSD as anything more than a dim abstraction. They didn’t know how he woke up with gunshot ringing in his ears, wondering if his friends had even noticed his absence by then, or if it had only been in the moments after the report that they realized he’d been taken. They didn’t know the terror and panic that seized him sometimes, in the wrong streets at the wrong moments, the gleam and glance of the sun on a window that made his heart jump into his throat, too much like a shadowed figure reaching for him. They didn’t know the revenants in the form of hot and sticky blood coating the back of his skull, soaking and dying his hair, trickling down his collar in a way it hadn’t had time to when he’d died.
But he needed and wanted to participate anyway, the times they joined the people in the street. It was a risk, of course, and he could see that Grantaire knew it too by the way his mouth tightened and his eyes went quiet, so quiet, like a cold mountain lake in the breezeless spring. Still, it was a risk they both knew Jehan needed to take, because he had a voice, and it was a voice that needed to be used, to be added to the breathless cry in opposition of everything he’d always fought. He knew that they wouldn’t blame him if he chose to sit it out, because Courfeyrac had made it clear that they never resented Joly for staying home when the pain or anxiety was too much, or when Cosette found the press of people too violent and overwhelming and slipped away to go home, but he wanted to go, to try.
As nervous as he was the entire way there, the entire day through, he felt a slight stirring of thanks that Grantaire had stayed home, wrapped up in a protective curl in his blankets, because the thought of Grantaire in that pressing crowd of seething emotions made him flinch, and there would be no way for it to end well. It might not have turned into a roiling mass of a riot, but they were hemmed in with anger, with fierceness, and it was overwhelming –
He was jostled, shoved back by someone who hadn’t been paying attention, and he fell, and for a moment his memories blended, convinced for half of a second that he was collapsing on cobblestone –
Then Feuilly’s hands were on his, helping Jehan to his feet and brushing him off.
“Alright?” he asked, calm and with only a touch of concern in his eyes, looking Jehan over carefully, and that was enough to snap him firmly back to the present, nodding.
“I’m okay,” he promised, letting his fingers pass through Baudouin’s arm and across Henriette’s hand as he reached up, reassuring both hovering, apprehensive ghosts that he was alright without words. His fingers skidded over the back of his head, checking automatically, even without the phantom itch of wounds a lifetime old, then the front, finding a thin trickle of blood and wiping it away, nothing more than a scratch. “Thank you.”
“Of course.” Feuilly smiled after a split-second pause, apparently reassured, though his hand stayed on Jehan’s elbow another long moment before he nodded and let go. “You’re alright to stay? You looked panicked, for a moment.”
Jehan couldn’t help but smile back, squeezing Feuilly’s shoulder. "I was just startled. But I'm alright, really. Thank you."
Feuilly's gaze was piercing - underlain with the dark circles of not enough sleep and face a little wan from too much work - but he relented after a moment, nodding. All the same, he stuck near Jehan for the rest of the afternoon, falling in beside him when they all started to head for home, exhausted.
"I need to head that way; I might as well walk you back. It’s only The Black Cat waiting for me at home," he said in response to Jehan's curious, questioning look, hands in his pocket and sign tucked under his arm as they walked.
It took Jehan a moment, but he smiled. As much as the mangy, ragged cat loved Feuilly (and Grantaire, surprisingly), he was a solitary and grumpy creature who certainly wouldn’t be waiting by the door. "Well, thank you. I appreciate the company."
Perhaps it shouldn't have surprised him that Feuilly was content to walk in quiet until they were away from the lingering loudness to the streets, only speaking when they were starting to near the apartment.
"You're sure you're feeling alright? Only, we try to save injuries for at least the second protest," he said, a teasing lit to his tone, a clever, genuine amusement to his dark eyes.
It certainly was enough to startle a laugh from Jehan. "Yes, thank you, I'm fine. It's just a little scratch. Grantaire will patch me up if I suddenly find myself losing the memories of how to do it."
Feuilly chuckled at that before looking pensive, nothing threatening in his posture or tone. "Is he doing okay? I wasn't sure if he skipped out because it wasn't his thing or if he wasn't feeling well."
Jehan really, really didn't like lying, but he wasn't sure what the best answer would be, opting for a cautious honesty. "A little of both, I think. He's wary of believing we’ll do what we want to accomplish, but he and I have had some bad experiences with things like this. You'll have to ask him for more specifics. And… I'd prefer if you please wouldn't talk to anyone else about this, but it's probably better that he stayed home today."
And he knew that the others thought them strange, didn't know what to make of their collection of unusual traits and general oddities (the way he and Grantaire jumped or huddled together or would press trinkets into their hands, little charms and adder stones and pieces of luck and health, and though they accepted them gracefully, only Combeferre seemed to understand the why), but it still made his heart clench a little to see Feuilly's slight surprise at the frankness, even if he nodded a moment later, thinking it over. "Of course. You both should do what's best and safest for you - though we liked having you there today."
He blushed a little at that, waving it off with one hand, unable to explain the flush of pleasure in his chest at being accepted and wanted and appreciated by them all. Feuilly didn't press, staying quiet as they made their way up the street and Jehan peeled off to enter the apartment building as the other man waved lazily, a casual and easy farewell.
When he got up, Grantaire would undoubtedly be waiting, tense and anxious, but for now, Jehan reveled a little in the feeling of something like success, of something like movement. Of something like friendships that he'd missed.
The first time Courfeyrac flopped over on Grantaire’s lap, he really didn’t know what to do, staring uncertainly until Combeferre laughed, giving Courfeyrac a disapprovingly amused look as though reminding him to ask first.
Grantaire had settled by then, nudging Courfeyrac’s shoulder with a quiet huff, surprisingly flattered at the implication of trust, or approval, or whatever it was. Which was probably a good thing, because Les Amis, on the whole, were a tactile group, and even though Grantaire was only barely used to it with Jehan, Jehan who had been in his head and who slept curled up with him some nights, it was nice. There was something nice about the way Courfeyrac leaned on everyone like a content cat, or the way Grantaire occasionally found himself absorbed into Musichetta, Joly, and Bossuet’s pile of limbs, or how Bahorel would sling an arm around his shoulder, or Cosette would come looking for a long and lingering hug. And at the same time, they respected boundaries, for the most part, not even seeming to notice when he angled himself away, a skittish discomfort itching under his skin.
But Jehan seemed to like it even more than Grantaire did, because he still forgot that they were people, alive and embodied and tangible, not shades and shadows like the ghosts he saw but couldn’t touch. He would melt into them, basking in their affection, and Grantaire could almost forget sometimes that the reason Jehan turned his head against their chests was to hear the slow and steady rhythms of their beating hearts.
The point was that they were welcomed and accepted and this sort of thing didn’t happen. It didn’t happen that someone like Enjolras would nod a greeting in Grantaire’s direction, or that Bossuet wouldn’t be unnerved when Grantaire thoughtlessly somehow knew his drink preferences without asking (“Residual memory?” Jehan volunteered with an apologetic shrug).It didn’t happen that Feuilly would care to sit with his rare free time and discuss or debate recent artistic movements like Grantaire had any useful insight on the matter. It still didn’t feel possible all the time, and it would have made him nervous if he hadn’t liked them so much.
It would have made him more nervous if he didn’t see the same looks on some of their faces sometimes – Cosette’s tentative smile when they eagerly explained a pop culture reference she’d missed, or Éponine’s suspicious and disbelieving scowl of frustration, or even Joly’s startled bewilderment when they kept up an easy pace with him while walking.
Maybe they were all broken, fractured in strange lines where the blast damage of what happened last time around crashed into the fine cracks of whatever had happened in this one, structurally unsound pottery that had been remade. Or maybe this was something so strange, so utterly inexplicable even within the margins of acceptability and normality that no one had words for it, for the remarkable and mystifying little space they had hollowed out for themselves, creating some little niche where they didn’t threaten to fall apart.
He wasn’t as pessimistic, as filled with doubt as he had been, according to Jehan. Grantaire couldn’t have said whether that was a brilliant new millennium teeming with life and light that terrified him but held, at the same time, fragile and diminished beauty, little sparks of something exquisite and sublime in a background of nightmare and horror. Or if it was that he had changed, a little less dashed to pieces against his vices, a little less ground under the heel of depression and anxiety and self hate. Maybe it was Jehan himself, who had thrown his life on new tracks twice-over, who made it a little easier to believe that they weren’t damned and doomed and perpetually on the brink of destruction.
Which was funny, really, because Grantaire was still the same man who had lived back then, a drunken wretch who hadn’t managed to extricate himself from the alcohol that dulled the sharp edges of the world and made his head a little less loud. The same man who had, in all likelihood, slept in the back room while his friends perished and fought and begged not to die alone. There was so much begging to be done in the fractions of seconds between killing blow and death, a universe contained in an expanded, exploded moment. They probably shot him down like a dog on the highway, with alcohol fumes at his throat, and there was nothing romantic or tragic to be found there.
But the alcohol kept the overwhelming rush of the world from burning him up, just singeing his ragged and raw edges into something almost like bearable, and Grantaire knew that they worried about it, about him, but they never looked disappointed or disapproving. Or if they did, it was in a way that didn’t have the same judgmental sting to it, and he didn’t quite know what to make of that.
In some ways, that almost hurt worse, when Musichetta would sigh and run her fingers through his hair in a way that was distinctly sad or Enjolras’ mouth would tighten a little even when he didn’t say anything, eyes seeming to strip Grantaire to his bones, the way they did when Grantaire just couldn’t bring himself to believe in what they were saying. The frown that bowed his mouth when Grantaire couldn’t hold tangible the sort of world they hoped for (because as much as it may have changed, how much hadn’t it?). But even that nipping, distressing sorrow was balanced out by Combeferre’s gentle, unobtrusive concern and Joly’s small affections and kindnesses, given freely with the same low thrum of positivity and warmth he did everything.
With them, the weight of the world slid off his shoulders like a too heavy mantle, and he let himself be wrapped up in their comfortable gravity, like a satellite pulled into orbit, cradled in the slow sway of their density. And then he could look at Jehan, catch his eye and see the same quiet amazement there, and wonder if they both felt like the pell-mell skittering of their running and rushing hearts had finally found a place to slow and stay.
The aching, painful climb to something like normal left Jehan winded and exhausted and desolate, and sometimes he almost wondered if it really was worth it to try to process the grief and the guilt and the anger and the stubborn pride he refused to let go.
It was, though, and he knew it, because he no longer woke up every night with the sound of death in his ears. He was no longer suddenly and deeply convinced that death was dancing, prowling, stalking closer to leap at his throat and tear his mind out again. Food didn’t suddenly turn to ash and gun smoke in his mouth and the press of panic didn’t wash over him as often, backfiring cars only making him jump, not tense for the inevitability of a bullet through his brain.
But all of that progress vanished in a moment. He and Grantaire, chatting idly, stepped through the doorway to the familiar back room only to hear a sudden burst of sound, a little tinny and distorted but clearly the sharp clap of rifle fire and none of that mattered. His mind fled blank and his knees went out from under him, whole body falling limp like his spinal cord had been severed, and he only half registered the cry of alarm and Grantaire already moving as if to catch him but he was gone.
His heart was pounding, head racing, rushing straight past panic attack into flashback, vision whiting-greying-fading at the edges as his mind screamed that the vague blurs of figures were his firing squad, his executioners, and that he should reach with heavy and immobile arms to check for the blood and bone and breaking at the back of his head. His throat felt raw and torn but he couldn’t make a sound, flailing desperately, scrambling for anyone, anything, something was missing and he was dying, perhaps was dead, and there was –
Hands in his, feeling more solid than they should, his own feeling like ice, numb and rigid and frozen all the way through. Yet he knew, knew the hands should be there, that if he let go, if they slipped away then so would he, over that slick and gaping edge into the void he couldn’t crawl out of, and he was so sorry, so sorry he wasn’t more careful, and he was supposed to be telling someone this but they weren’t there.
Except, cutting through the static and the blood rushing, running, rambling through his head, the sound of someone’s voice, a rumble like they were speaking from behind him, and it was familiar, too familiar, and-
R, Mathieu, R, he slid through them, not sure which was correct, if anything was correct, if he was hallucinating on the streets of Paris, bleeding out in the dust and the dirt and the grit, a sacrifice in the name of the Republic. Jehan wasn’t sure what was spilling from him, because R’s voice was ringing in his head, but his chest felt too tight to speak.
The command resolved itself in his racing brain, and Jehan struggled to pull in air, and then he breathed. He breathed, and breathed again, and drew air in, which wouldn’t work if he were dead, and he filled his lungs with desperation. And as he did, Grantaire’s words wormed into his head, into sounds, and Jehan slowly came down to Grantaire's steady stream of words and solid warmth against his back and deep, slow breaths, dazed and confused, his eyes twitching frantically and without focus around the room. And then Grantaire squeezed his hands and Jehan squeezed back as Grantaire shifted them and –
Oh, they were on the floor, Jehan’s weight resting against Grantaire’s chest and thigh, and the lights were artificial, too bright in all the wrong ways, and they were inside, on floor, not stone, and – oh.
"I thought..." Jehan managed, realizing, finally, where he was. He shuddered, turning his head to bury his face in against Grantaire's neck, clinging to his hands probably hard enough to make the bones creak and ache. Not dead. Not dead, not dead, not dead. In the future-present, where the rest were alive too, and he wasn’t at the barricades.
"I know," Grantaire murmured into his hair, holding back just as tightly, and that was more settling than anything, because Grantaire did know, didn’t have to ask or to question. And that was enough for now, as he buried his face in tighter, listened to the panicked thrashing of the other man’s heartbeat echo against his ear, and the murmur of what was probably very important and relevant discussion (the chattering of ghosts that was dying down, and wasn’t it nice, that they had learned to trust Grantaire to talk him back to himself), but Jehan couldn’t bring himself to care or listen, trying to remember how to breathe, how to be living and alive.
Then Courfeyrac (suddenly so strange to see him with his hair so differently fashioned and throat bare of a cravat) was by his other side, helping Grantaire lever Jehan up to his feet. He was unsteady as they helped him out of the doorway and toward a chair, but he was a little more grounded, felt a little more real, and leaned more of his weight over, fingers smoothing up into Grantaire's curls, running over the back of his head, because he knew what the other man’s mind was wailing (and how unfair, that he had to carry the echo and memory of Jehan’s burden).
"See?" he murmured, low enough that not even Courfeyrac could overhear. "You're alright, too. No blood, no damage."
Grantaire managed to give him a smile for that, leaving one hand tightly tangled up in Jehan's when they sat, the other restlessly probing the back of his head for an injury he wouldn't find, anxious and jumpy and unsettled. They both were, and he wondered just what had set him off, had been enough to make them both startle like that, because it had sounded like the rifle that had pierced him with a bullet.
“What happened?” he asked, voice shaky and raspy, and he unsteadily accepted a bottle of water from a wide-eyed but calm Joly.
“We were listening to some demonstrations of historical rifles,” Bahorel said, brows pinched and mouth drawn with concern. “Shit. I’m so fuckin’ sorry.”
Jehan shook his head, sipping the water slowly, like it could wash imaginary dust and blood and bitter smoke from his throat, and smiled at the rest of them, trying to reassure them. Because it was horrible, of course it was, but they were alive and here and so was he, and everything else paled in comparison to that.
“Do we need to get you home?” Courfeyrac asked gently, offering his hand out to Jehan, who took it and squeezed tightly.
“No, please, I’m alright,” he said, other hand still in a death grip on Grantaire’s, the man silent and pale beside him, but understanding, always understanding. “I just… I need to sit here for a little, to reorient myself.”
Courfeyrac nodded, but his face was still a little scrunched up with concern, wrapping both of his hands around Jehan’s when he didn’t pull away. “What happened, Jehan? R said it was a flashback? You don’t have to tell us, and I don’t want to upset you.”
“Flashback, yes,” Jehan said, slowly and thoughtfully, chest pinching at the thought of lying to them and face turning red, but he knew with a horrible and devastating certainty that they wouldn’t believe him if he told them the truth about this, voice soft when he spoke, because this was a risk all the same. He’d seen the way people looked at him when they knew, with pity or fear, and it cut so deeply. “I told you I have PTSD. I mean, I mentioned it. But. I was… at a protest of a sort, and it went badly, and I got hurt. And the sound just put me back there, and… I’m okay, mostly, but sometimes something will trigger it.”
“And you’re alright coming with us to ours?” Combeferre asked with a gentle concern. “We would never judge you for protecting your own health, Jehan, or think less of you for not coming.”
“No, I don’t have a problem with that.” He shook his head, and settled a little when Grantaire tapped his fingers along the back of his hand to the tune of a little Republican song, and it almost made him laugh. Instead, he studied the grain of the table, feeling his cheeks heat with the deepening blush.
"It helps, actually, to be there, because I trust you all. It's mostly just that... that sound. It used to happen when cars backfired, too, but I've been getting better about it."
"As long as you're comfortable," Combeferre replied, leaning forward to not-quite-touch Jehan's arm, and the gesture made his smile sweeten, murmuring his thanks.
Bossuet somehow wormed his way into switching places with Courfeyrac, and didn't complain when Jehan reached for his hand. His presence was warm and comfortably solid, the good cheer that he had for his own misfortune seemingly easing into a gentle acceptance of Jehan's.
"I know it's not the same thing by far," he said, with the little rueful quirk of his mouth that suggested he knew he was treading a fine line, "but Joly and I both have the worst nightmares sometimes – night terrors, too. Mine feel so real I have trouble remembering where I am when I first wake up, so I've picked up a few tricks for getting grounded again. If you ever need, you should call us, yeah? Or if you just need to get out of your head and into the city for a while - I know some places you might like."
And a little part of him jumped, wanting to say he had Grantaire for that, Grantaire who took care of him and who didn't deserve their scorn and dismissal. But this was Bossuet, who probably had more claim to being a good friend to Grantaire than Jehan did, and who was kind and sincere and honest, always earnest and with something to cheer. Bossuet, whose dreams and nightmares were probably of the barricades Jehan had left too early, though he wouldn't dare press him to ask.
So he smiled a little, fragile and quiet and feeling the faint movement of blood in his hand, and said, "Thank you. I'll keep that in mind. Truly, I appreciate it."
He let them cautiously lavish affection on him until he could breathe without resistance again, until he felt whole and settled and assured that they were alive, and then looked over at Grantaire, his curls still mussed from the careful feeling out of his head. Nodding, he made their excuses as he helped Jehan - still a little shaken - to his feet.
As they made their way out, Enjolras rose, hand brushing Jehan's elbow, dark brown eyes soft as he leaned in to murmur, "Take care of yourself. If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know."
"Thank you," Jehan told him, kissing Enjolras' cheek because he felt too wobbly to try for any other gesture of affection, and he didn't know how to speak further without telling him that he liked this side of him, a little freer with his softness and affection, a little less stern on the whole.
And then Enjolras stepped back, and Grantaire cast him a strange, unreadable look before looking to Jehan with concern. He probably would have been more bothered if he didn't fully intend to curl up with Grantaire on the couch and shiver his way through the aftereffects, the echoes of death that rang like funerary bells in his mind.
After the incident at the café, Grantaire drank. Not to excess, not to the point of stupor and insensibility, but it was more. It was more because Jehan was rubbed raw and added extra appointments with his therapist and jumped at shadows and ghosts Grantaire couldn't see, more because Les Amis trailed them with their eyes (and he couldn't tell if it was an accusation or pity, or which would be worse), more because suddenly the world seemed hypersaturated around him.
He felt dislodged from normalcy, swinging from cheerful, effusive highs to ransacking, winter-cold, bracing lows, from a bloody, cringing anger to arresting sorrow and fear. It felt like he was trying on moods, stripping them off like snakeskin as he moved through his day, and every movement and motion and interaction scratched over the rawness of it.
Too much, too much, but not the onset of the forest fire of depression descending to burn him to a seared Asphodel, and the drink pressed it back a little, fogged his mind and made the shifts less pronounced. But there was no way to explain it, even when Jehan's eyes tilted with concern as they followed the line of his flask, and Grantaire felt strangely detached from it all. But not too far gone to protest when Jehan pulled his head into his lap and scrunched his dexterous, clever fingers through the field of his curls until the line of Grantaire's spine eased, just a little.
And maybe he shouldn’t have skipped lectures to do it, but he dove deeper into Paris and hobbies, a whirlwind of kickboxing and fencing and dancing and any of the hundreds of things that caught his attention and fascinated him for however short a time. His paints, though, stayed untouched under his bed, Grantaire still unable to bring himself to use them.
Sure enough, the awkwardness with Les Amis slowly started to fade again, and Grantaire tried not to let the rest of it get to him too much.
"Do you ever get the feeling that all these plans are ridiculously ambitious and not always the things they should be prioritizing?" Éponine asked one day, taking the chair beside him with an air of complete ownership, one brow arching up.
"All the time," Grantaire admitted with a rueful shrug, studying her, taking in the sharp lines to her face and the clever shadows in her eyes, and wondered if he would have liked her if they'd met in the wrought days of 19th century Paris, if she had been there. Jehan couldn't remember if she had been or not.
She snorted, a little scoff of a sound, and stole his drink without a thought - he didn't bother to protest. "Idealistic bourgie kids, all of them. But I can't help liking the picture they paint."
"Yeah, me neither," he said after a moment. He sighed, mouth slashing up in a gross parody of a grin, bitter and broken. "Just hope they don't bite off more than they can chew."
Éponine tilted her head, cocking a brow up again as she scrutinized him. "Me too. Funny, though. I hear you're one to go to if y'need a meal or a métro pass or something of the like, as much as you like to say you don't see the point."
"I don't see the point of acting like we'll be able to revolutionize the government and save all the poor, pitiable denizens crushed under the relentless cogs of industry and modern capitalism," Grantaire corrected dryly, tempted to steal his drink back just for something to do with his restless hands. "At best, we'll get a flawed and flogged to nothing bill pushed through, at worst we'll be casualties on the media for a night and forgotten again, martyred to the brief and fickle memory of the internet, abandoned as the selfish, entitled curs of the worst of generations. The rest of it... that's not this. That's just being decent with what I have. Kids like that don't need to miss meals or classes or job opportunities."
Her expression spread into an actual smile and a huff of amusement as she rocked her shoulder against his. "You're not as horrible as you like to make yourself sound, you know. And you don't even do it for the gratitude, do you?"
He looked at her, confused. "I don't expect it – thanks, I mean. Just because I'm a miserable wretch who hasn't earned his activist credentials or whatever doesn't mean I want to pass by someone who isn't even asking for much."
"Credentials are bullshit," Éponine replied, a hot, bone bleaching desert wind, and reached over, some shadow of something that might have been approval in her eyes as she ruffled Grantaire's thick curls.
He didn't know what, exactly, to make of that, but accepted it, accepted the truce or friendship or whatever it was that she offered, exactly. Éponine was fierce and spiked and her back faced the wall and her eyes watched the door, and he knew her trust, even in small parts, wasn't freely given.
None of the rest of them commented on it, not even Cosette, who just smiled a little sadly, and held a look in her eyes like she knew something that Grantaire didn't, not yet. Maybe it was nothing more than the way that Éponine held herself like a weapon, an open knife blade in permanent threat, and the way that Cosette slid passive sometimes, a reactionless wall who waited out the storms with iced, static eyes, and the way that Grantaire drank and buried himself in anything at all but the world and tried so hard and so deeply not to care at all, even if he couldn’t claim reasons as good as theirs.
In the mean time, in between that and the nights he sat with Jehan because neither of them slept well, even on good days, he went out. He drew Courfeyrac into his dancing and his revelries and pulled Bossuet and Joly and Musichetta behind him to free concerts and cheap drinks. He listened as Combeferre debated theatre and films with Bahorel and bit back the comments he wanted to add, the fifty million buds of ideas that twined and tangled and tripped over one another in his mind, because he didn't want to derail them even when they were wrong, so very and deeply wrong, but so hopeful. It was kind of amazing.
He went out with Feuilly, once in a rare while, and Cosette making their third, to the museums and displays, to talk. It was never arguing, not with Cosette, and often an education with Feuilly, and Grantaire figured that maybe he just added the strange trivia and odd historical context. He could look and see and compare, and that was something worthy all on its own, something that he liked, enjoyed, because Jehan loved poetry and history and words, but he left this to Grantaire, and there was still something transgressively wonderful about being able to share that wonder, those deep and complicated and overwhelming responses with someone.
Then there was the problem of Enjolras.
Or, not a problem, per se, but something new and perplexing. Enjolras not only tolerated Grantaire’s tangential ramblings, he now seemed to listen with a contemplative attentiveness, head cocked to the side with a meditative frown instead of the indulgent, affectionate hint of a smile he normally had when listening to his friends chatter or an irritated scowl for the lack of coherence he might have expected from Grantaire. Sometimes, on some unpredictable, eldritchly incomprehensible schedule, he would manage to work Grantaire into his conversation with Combeferre or Courfeyrac or Joly, and ask for his input.
Then, in the lead up to another rally that he’d almost convinced himself to go to, Grantaire sat up a little more as Enjolras was assigning tasks and scrambling a little, tense, because half the law students had an unexpected obligation at the last minute.
He knew there wasn’t much reason to go if Jehan didn’t need him, and it wasn’t even like he would be of much help. And yet, emboldened by the faint coolness that meant some of Jehan’s ghost friends had chosen to sit with him, Grantaire found himself straightening and making an offer. “What can I do to help?”
Enjolras blinked, looking over with surprise and a hint of skepticism, clearly taken aback as he paused, hands stilling. “You? Grantaire, are you sure?”
“Don’t be a dick, Enjolras,” he said, a touch sharply. He held back the mockery that itched along the line of his tongue, lashing against the backs of his teeth, the instinctive, defensive snap back against the dismissal inherent in his question, the slight sneer of disbelief that felt too close to old, gnarled, badly healed memories. It passed in a moment, and he sighed softly, glancing down and then back to meet Enjolras’ eyes steadily. “What can I do?”
For a moment, it seemed like Enjolras might snap back something derisive, but then he seemed to accept it, even if it was a favor from a friend rather than part of the organized effort for the group. He held out a stack of papers – glossy printed flyers – with a quiet sort of gentleness, like he was making an overture of conciliation. “Would you have time to put these up on the southwest side of the campus? Not many of us will have the time to run over there.”
“Can do,” Grantaire said, and leaned forward to accept them with a smile that felt dangerously close to genuine. “By Tuesday?”
“Please,” Enjolras replied with a nod, and turned back to Musichetta to ask her a question. Grantaire, left with a stack of papers, turned to his bag and carefully slid the flyers in to keep them safe.
Of course it would go wrong, of course it would. Because when Grantaire went to leave the apartment on Monday, he was panicking, the sharp, biting taste of dread pressing against his bones, his chest cavity, filling him up as he scrabbled for the posters, unable to find them and dreading walking out the door, suddenly knowing with immutable certainty that he was going to fuck this up.
“Jehan?” he called, managing to keep most of the distress from his voice. “Did you see where I left the fucking papers I’m supposed to be putting up?”
“They’re on the stack on the table, top right corner,” he called back, appearing in the doorway a moment later and clucking his tongue gently, scooping them up and offering them out. “Would you like me to come with you?”
Grantaire took them, his nose wrinkling up with distaste. “I shouldn’t, it’s simple enough and I said I’d-”
“R.” Jehan spoke softly, cutting him off gently. “It’s not you and it’s not a failing. Of course it’s overwhelming, that’s usual, that’s the anxiety, and so is the fretting. I’ll come with you, and if anyone has a problem with that, they can go fuck themselves.”
He had the touch of stubborn sadness to his mouth that said he was thinking of their ill-fated revolution and the steely flare to his eyes that he sometimes got when it came to Enjolras. A moment passed and Grantaire couldn’t stop himself from nodding quietly, then slowly, slowly relaxing into Jehan’s mild, comforting embrace when it came.
But it wasn’t enough to stop him tensing several days later, when Enjolras halted by his table in the back corner and said, “Grantaire, about the posters-”
He grimaced, bracing himself, and Enjolras’ face creased briefly in an odd expression.
Enjolras only continued slowly, watching Grantaire carefully as he did. “I just wanted to thank you. I appreciated that; it made things so much easier.”
Unable to just accept the thanks, feeling insincere and guilty, he shook his head. “No, it was nothing, seriously. Besides, Prouvaire helped me out, so…”
“All the same,” Enjolras said, with a touch of his quiet smile, “thank you.”
“Yeah,” Grantaire replied, an overabundance of emotion, too tangled to decipher, crunching up in the lapse between his words. “No problem.”
There was a delightful consistency to his friends, and so Jehan took next no notice when Courfeyrac picked up another stray.
Hearing about the incident with the law professor from Bossuet shortly after the start of the new semester rung a faint memory, but nothing clear enough to strike up a full recollection.
It wasn't until Courfeyrac brought Marius Pontmercy to one of the meetings that he rather abruptly put the pieces together, a little startled. He'd never spent much time with the younger man, but it was enough to place him.
He expected the shabbiness of his clothes, the stiff awkwardness with which he carried himself - a less artful echo of Enjolras' good posture - and even, to a degree, the air of melancholy. Jehan hadn't expected the ghost that trailed him, a middle-aged man with greying hair and a troubled face, who watched Marius with concern and loss and longing heavy in his gaze.
Perked with curiosity, Jehan smiled at the ghost while Marius was distracted by introductions, making the man startle and smile back with uncertain bewilderment. Grantaire, to his right, raised an eyebrow, but Jehan shook his head a touch, settling in thoughtfully.
It didn't last long, because, as much as Marius' last first visit with Les Amis, it was a disaster. He sat stiffly and defended the government as infallible and the police as good and noble and something grand altogether, and just listening to it made Jehan wince, ignoring Grantaire's low huff. Then, as the last time, Combeferre looked at him calmly and flatly took apart his argument with a cutting phrase, and Jehan wondered if the bewilderment had been on Marius' face the time before.
Jehan almost expected him to disappear, after that. But Marius came back the next week, quieter and contrite but still unconvinced, and he was every bit as much Courfeyrac's shadow. He seemed to have gotten all caught up on Cosette, shyly glancing at her from the corner of his eye like she was the moon and the sun and the stars and the great celestial movements of the heavens, and turned so red it was almost worrying.
Cosette, for her part, didn't seem to notice, or didn't know what to do with the attention, hardly noticing him and carrying on as normal, chatting earnestly with Musichetta as the marine biology student talked with her about whales and rising water temperatures.
Jehan didn't know what to make of that, or of them, but it didn't take long at all to get a chance to speak with Georges Pontmercy, who bore the loss of his son with quiet, deep agony. He didn’t reveal much, but it was enough for Jehan to know that there was so much pain there, and many secrets, and that Marius, as awkward and as outdated his opinions were, was reaching without senses for some new focal point to steady his rapidly shifting and recently unreliable world. It made him sad, in a low, quiet place, because it was so unfair, so tragically unfair to see that happen. But tragedy and heartbreak and betrayal hid themselves deep, and there was nothing he could say.
It was outside of the café and away from the protections Jehan had placed over their meeting room, running into Marius and Courfeyrac on the street, that he met the other piece of the puzzle. It wasn't hard to realize what had happened, that Marius' mother had delayed her peaceful passage to watch over her son (and Jehan wept and wept, sobbed for hours over that alone because it struck too close to home, to the ghostly echo of his mother who smiled and hummed her lullabies like the wind rustling along the trees), only to see him raised in a cold house and taught to disdain the father he never knew.
Despair and sorrow did odd things to ghosts, dragged them and twisted them, weighed heavily on them until they crumpled and collapsed under the strain, washed them away from the world and left them distorted spirits, pale imitations even of their ghostly selves. She could do little more than keen in anguish and sorrow for her son, and melancholy followed her like a heavy train, a miasma of dolor and distress, her heartbreak bleeding into his own without intent. She shadowed Marius, oblivious even to the ghost of her husband, reduced to nothing more than the spectre of her father's house.
It made sense, in a horribly twisted kind of way, and Jehan fought off the blush that rose to his cheeks at the thought of interacting with someone he barely knew and knew too much of, and spoke to him. Grantaire, without even the full story, who had stroked Jehan's hair while he sobbed over the fate of Marie Pontmercy, followed without question.
Marius, though severe and intractable at times, was shy and capable of a thoughtful and sensitive kindness, while his rare smiles made up for his stiffness in manner. He was a good-hearted if naïve young man, easily flustered and intelligent, especially when it came to languages. His obnoxious, conservative political views were much easier to tolerate when he knew it was his veneration of the father he wanted so dearly to be close to (even if some of the things Marius said made Georges wince or sigh softly). It was the reactionary dualism of someone who had been raised in a black and white world and hadn’t yet learned about greys and colors and many of the things that some of Les Amis took for granted.
Jehan pushed, as gently as he could, so careful not to upset him, distress him, hurt him, asking about his father and what he had believed, had liked, had loved. He listened, even while Georges’ dry, rustling whispers about his flowers and his son undercut Marius’ martial rhapsodies, and Jehan wished he could say and explain and be believed. Jehan asked instead about Marius’ mother and her own convictions and affections, and felt a lamentation strike him straight through when Marius looked pole axed, as though she had never occurred to him as her own person, and then determined.
Marius needed time, to learn and to grow and to find his own foundations, and Jehan could understand that. He still wanted desperately to sit down with him and give him a crash course on social issues and current events, because how could someone possibly have such faith in an institution? But then, hadn’t Marius always had faith? In his grandfather, and when that was ripped away, in his father and the police force that had honored in him in a way Marius’ grandfather had not. Perhaps he couldn’t be as patient as Courfeyrac, who gave and gave and gave, who understood and offered so many things that were needful to feel like breathing again past grief, or as Grantaire, who could sit beside Marius and speak to him in an undertone and push back the demands inherent of activism and activists until the overwhelming feeling would subside, if only just a little, and who would then make him smile, and act like it was nothing. But Jehan would be patient, could try.
Because over all of that hung the shade of his mother, the musty, aching misery of his childhood and the lies and betrayal in her wake, suffocating him like a funeral shroud. There was no way for spirits so far gone to come back to themselves, and Jehan hated it, because all she had wanted to do was to watch over her child and see him healthy and happy and safe, and he had no choice but to get her to move on before she dwindled to a poltergeist when all her agency had been stolen from her already.
The morning of the confrontation, he slid his hand into Grantaire’s, and he was grateful for the company, grateful that even now and in this that Grantaire wouldn’t make him face death alone, and went walking through the forebodingly silent streets as rain pooled in the gutters. She may have been too far gone to change, to save, but she was not so far gone she couldn’t listen to him, her faded features unreadable as she did, and Jehan wished he could know how much she understood.
“Let him go,” Jehan pleaded softly, out of practice and wondering how to convince someone who had stayed so long that it was time to move on and move past. “He needs to learn happiness on his own, and he will, but you need to let him go.”
And when he ran out of words, fumbling for more, it was Grantaire who touched his arm. It was Grantaire who reminded him to breathe, his eyes quiet and filled with a startling depth of emotion, a fast running river of so many shades of sadness.
“I’m sorry, I know you don’t want to hurt him, and you don’t mean to, but you are. You must have wanted so much more than empty, austere hallways for him, and he’ll have them, but you’re carrying them behind him.” Jehan trembled, felt the tears welling up and spilling over, a raggedness in his throat. “And Georges will watch over him, and you need to let him grow. Look. Look at him, all grown, and changing.”
He spoke and spoke until his mouth was dry and his throat felt raw, desperate and pleading, trying to coax back whatever hint of Marie was left because he didn’t want to force her away, to banish her. Suddenly, she let out a mournful warble of a sound, a quiet wail, her indistinct, half-transparent fingertips brushing through the glass as she returned her attention to Marius. She lingered a long moment, gaze forlorn as she watched her son. And then, abruptly, she faded, the awareness of her skittering and sliding away somewhere Jehan couldn’t follow, couldn’t see, with the suddenness of a well-oiled door slipping shut.
He choked on a sob, turned his face against Grantaire’s shoulder and let himself be held as he cried, cursing whatever cruelty of fate gave this to him.
There was only so much denial even someone like him could have.
With Les Amis, Grantaire had learned, he was going to find himself surrounded with new and strange concepts no matter what he did. It still felt distanced, like some isolated island away from the dangers and treachery of the real world, where it was okay to transgress and transform. More than that, it was unintentionally winding up with vocabulary, with words to put to concepts, with the concepts themselves, finding himself challenging the thoughts that had been engrained in his mind, scrubbed deep like polish into an old wooden floor.
So maybe he wasn't radically revising his world, or altering the world around him, shoving it out of its comfortable mindsets and notions, but it had changed him. Or, Grantaire supposed, it was just hard to see liking people other than girls as the sickening, guilt-ridden secret he ignored.
That didn't mean that his stomach wasn't roiling, clenching, storm-tossed and tempest-ridden, when he settled next to Jehan on the couch, his fingers fidgeting over and over with a bit of cord, twisting it into something intricate and useless.
"Please don't make a big deal out of this," he grumbled, because even with Jehan the thought of vulnerability made him cringe a little.
"Never," he promised, shutting his computer, all attentive and gentle as he looked back at Grantaire, palm up on his knee in silent invitation.
How did words become so complicated, stopping themselves up in his throat and sticking there, clinging to the roof of his mouth? He worked for them, testing them even though he'd repeated them in his head time and again, because he was a coward, and they came out sounding clipped and rehearsed. Because if they didn't, he would speak in circles, an endless circumlocution that would never bring him to the point.
"What's the best word for someone who's not completely straight or completely gay?"
Jehan hummed softly, reaching out to take Grantaire's hand and squeezing gently, placid and calm as ever. "Bisexual or pansexual? Biromantic or panromantic, for that part."
"And the bi- doesn't mean binary, I know that much from listening to Cosette," Grantaire said, trying to curl his mouth up in a smile and sure it came out awkward. "I think I like the second set better, though. Pan, all, that which encompasses."
"Okay," Jehan agreed, and kissed his cheek, and Grantaire could have hugged him, wished he had the words to thank him for freeing the tightness in his chest just a little. Knowing and experiencing were two very different things, and this, this made it bearable to redefine himself so tentatively, so awkwardly. "That's what you want me to use?"
"Yeah." Grantaire snorted quietly, squeezing Jehan's hand gently, mock-scowling at him. "You could have at least pretended to be surprised."
Jehan stuck his tongue out, amused. "I'm not sure we could surprise one another, at this point. And you know my family says we're platonically dating, so."
"Jean Prouvaire," he said, grandly and dryly, "your family says a great many things, and while I think they're wonderful, I have to pretend I didn't hear anything half the time."
That earned him a quiet laugh. "I know, I have to as well. But. While we're on the subject of words..."
And that tone, that tiny stumble of hesitation, spiked terror in him, made his spine want to stiffen and muscles draw tight for flight, tensed for a coming blow. Grantaire swallowed down the fear and waved a hand for Jehan to continue.
For another moment, Jehan studied him, teeth brushing over his bottom lip as he laid out phrasing delicately in his mind. His eyes flicked away to the ghosts, always the ghosts who ringed the room, and he spoke slowly. "I know you don't see the ghosts, and that you've never tried to label what it was that happened with me, and all the other little things, but I'm really pretty sure that I know."
"And what's your guess?" Grantaire asked, feeling the trip of his pulse speeding, running away with him. "Have they words for aberrations? What academy or budding group bestows them? But, shit, sorry, I'm being an ass, I'll stop, I promise."
"I know you too well to be offended," Jehan informed him archly, shifting to settle more comfortably against the couch cushions. Grantaire could see the nervousness that tinted his cheeks faintly red, had him teasing the line of a book with his thumb, rifling through the pages as though it would ease his nerves.
"I think you're empathic,” Jehan eventually stated, meeting Grantaire’s gaze firmly. “That you pick up on other people's emotions, especially the strong ones, and reflect them back sometimes without realizing it, and that it gets more involved the more you're emotionally reacting to something. Like with me, when I was dying, that we were reaching out at the same time."
Grantaire fidgeted, wanting to squirm away from the suggestion. He felt his face twitch through uncomfortable expressions, trying to look for flaws in jagged edges that matched up too well, flashes of too many emotions, accusations of oversensitivity all crowded up in his mind. "I can't, I..."
"We don't have to talk about it now," Jehan murmured, glancing from the corner of his eye to study the lines of Grantaire's face, and fuck. "I just wanted to say."
And there was the build up again, the thoughts spiraling and racing and rolling in his head and he wanted nothing more than to put them to words and hope they ordered themselves in some sense of logic. Instead, he shook his head and bit them back, stayed sitting while they swirled like a hurricane around him.
He tried to let it settle, and it sat heavy on his mind for days and weeks and more. Grantaire poked and prodded at the idea occasionally, testing it out and weighing it in his mind. He wasn’t sure about it, but he would consider it, could maybe even accept it. He’d seen Jehan, struggling to learn and understand what it was he could do, and watched him claw his way to contentment, to happiness, to accepting the prices and the obligations.
Grantaire could, he thought, bring himself to that point. Eventually.
It was agony to watch the way Grantaire fell into himself, slow and too quickly all at once.
The medication couldn’t arrest it, and Jehan knew that, but it still felt like something should have slowed it more, should have made it easier to do something. But there were no miracle cures, and his desperation over seeing it so bad for the first time in so long just made it ache all the worse, watched as he grew quieter, his energy absorbed in prowling the streets of Paris as if she would bring him back to himself. He walked until the day he stopped, lying on the bed with only the slight movement of his chest to indicate that he was still breathing.
He barely managed to say or do anything, and Jehan couldn’t hold it against him, even when Grantaire shook his head at the mention of a meeting, then another. It broke Jehan’s heart so quietly to see him like this after so long, like a china plate that cracked like eggshell until it crumbled apart.
Musichetta, Joly, and Bossuet asked after him the first meeting he skipped, and Jehan did his best to explain without making them worry, but he knew they would. At least he knew they could be quiet and kind when it was needed. He wished, almost, that Grantaire could hear them, could be there, because even Jehan was a little surprised at the amount of concern from their friends. From Combeferre and Cosette and Feuilly, from Courfeyrac who looked like he understood and from Éponine who scowled faintly in her peculiar version of worry. From Bahorel who had noticed Grantaire’s absence from the streets, and from Marius (who carried himself a little easier, these days, who smiled with a little less hesitation). Even from Enjolras, because they were friends, this time around.
It was Enjolras, in the end, who stepped aside to speak with Jehan as the rest of them filed out in a burst of laughter and chatter that was so different from the heavy, stagnant silence of the apartment, haunted by ghosts and by depression.
“Is Grantaire alright?” he asked, his hand briefly touching Jehan’s elbow, face lined with understated concern. “I haven’t seen him for a few weeks.”
“He’s not been feeling well,” Jehan hedged. It wasn’t that he wasn’t allowed to say, because Grantaire had sighed and told him he could if he felt it would help (even if it was accompanied by the dull, flat look that suggested he just didn’t have the energy to be anxious about it). Yet he was reluctant to all the same, wondering where all of their care had been a century and more ago when Grantaire had so much less. But that wasn’t fair and more than that, hypocritical, because he hadn’t done anything either. Much like the rest of the Amis, Jehan had left it as Joly and Bossuet’s concern, and there was no point in holding it against himself or any of them now.
Enjolras’ frown deepened a little more, and he sat, gesturing for Jehan to do the same before his hands folded on the table in front of him. “If he’s been ill, if there’s anything we can do to help…”
“Thank you, but there’s really not much,” he said with a sigh, running his fingers through his hair. “It’s the depression, again. But he’s getting back out of this episode, and I’m sure he’ll be back here as soon as possible.”
“Really?” He blinked, look almost flattered. “I know he cares for his friends, but he doesn’t seem that interested in the meetings themselves. I would think he’d want to avoid them for a while. No judgment, of course.”
Jehan felt his mouth quirk up at that, more amused than upset. “It’s only our optimism and method he doesn’t believe in, Enjolras. His friends mean the world for him, and Grantaire would do most anything for a friend, or even just someone who needed help. I know you don’t mean it that way, but I wish you all could see how hard he’s trying.”
He picked a bit at his fingertip with a long, low sigh. He could see that things were coming together, that whatever tension between the two of them was drawing inevitably closer to some crisis point, and there were so many things he wanted to say. He wanted to warn Enjolras about the nightmares and the way anxiety would paralyze Grantaire or depression would leave him awake for days, to caution him. He considered voicing the suspicion that Enjolras and Courfeyrac and Combeferre shared some low level telepathy between them. While Jehan had slowly learned to differentiate between Grantaire’s uncanny awareness and reflection of emotion and Grantaire’s sly, carefully constructed defense mechanisms from the childhood he didn’t talk about, the triumvirate’s most seemingly innocuous comments could sometimes strike Grantaire like a blow and set him flinching.
But he wasn’t Grantaire’s keeper as much as Grantaire wasn’t Jehan’s. So while Jehan wanted, more than anything, to see the potential between them blossom into whatever strange and esoteric flower it might be, he couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t deliver a guide to the delicately traversed paths of Grantaire’s occluded mind. This much, though, he could freely give.
“Grantaire has weathered monstrous storms and hung heavy under the weight of albatrosses he never shot, but he’s trying so hard to do right by all of you, to keep coming, not to drink so much. He’s doing so much better, you don’t even know how bad it all was, and I know you don’t know everything, but I wish he got credit for that.” Jehan moved forward in his seat, desperate for Enjolras to understand.
“He tries so, so much to help people, even when he thinks he has nothing to give. I mean, Enjolras, that’s how we met. I was so scared, and alone, and Grantaire knew me from no one, but he held my hands all the same. He’s the one who talked me into getting help for my PTSD, you know, when I thought it was just one more burden, one more weight to bear without reprieve. He’s the sort of person who wouldn’t let anyone die alone, even if it meant he lived with the consequences.”
Enjolras looked about to speak, but Jehan clasped Enjolras’ hands in his own, stilling and silencing him with a slight shake of his head.
“The things he’s done for people, even as a teenager, even when he had no hope in the world at all… I know that you like to focus on systems of oppressions, on tearing them down little by little, but his care is quieter, more personal, and it’s admirable in its own way.”
“I’m hardly about to disagree with you,” Enjolras murmured after a contemplative, ponderous pause, his vivid dark brown eyes thoughtful on Jehan’s face. “But thank you, and you’re right. We – I haven’t always been the most sensitive, and he never deserved that. That does make much more sense. He’s a good person, and a good friend. You’re sure he’s alright?”
“He will be.” Jehan smiled, patting Enjolras’ hand gently. “Just be a little gentle when he does come back. He won’t act like it, but he’s had good reason to expect it to go badly. And if you want to talk to him, Enjolras, talk to him – Grantaire is capable of being straightforward and honest, if you catch him the right way.”
Enjolras’ smile turned a touch rueful, as though he hadn’t expected Jehan to say that. “Yes, Combeferre told me the same thing. But for now, you’ll pass on my regards?”
“I will. And you should listen to Combeferre, he’s usually right,” Jehan told him with a nod. Only moments later, he had made his farewells and slipped out of the café, sighing at the premonition of change that sent a faint shiver down his spine.
But then, he had changed as much as Grantaire had, had found his own steady and stable ground, learned how to feel at ease with himself and his space, to define his world without fear of falling. He had come so far, and it was only now that he was starting to feel as brave as his past-self, as capable of sacrifice or of survival. The fear had melted slowly, like ice trickling into a spring stream, until he found his limbs warm and capable of movement.
Meditative, he started for home, because it was home, and for the first time that he could remember, Jehan felt like he had set down comfortable roots, and didn’t worry about what would happen, didn’t think about an inevitable leaving again, just a comfortable familiarity of place.
Miraculously, no one said much on the subject of Grantaire’s disappearance or the sallow pallor of his face, or the way he still moved so sluggish and slow, the inaudible harmonies realigning themselves as he rejoined the world.
Joly, Bossuet, and Musichetta dragged him home with them, plying him with food and tea (the leaves made Musichetta’s smile rise with quiet knowingness) and burying him in their jumble of hugs and affection. Grantaire couldn’t help but laugh for having the best friends, whose soft furred cats twined around his legs and demand his lap and smelled the sorrow on his skin. Bahorel dragged him out to spar, and Grantaire felt his limbs kick back into motion, and his mind begin to clear when Feuilly and Combeferre engaged him in a conversation on linguistic prescriptivism.
That was the way things returned to normal, and if Jehan’s eyes were a little sharper, a little more watchful – well, it wasn’t unappreciated, knowing that the other man would have his back.
As the weeks spun out, Grantaire found himself speaking more and still more with Enjolras, somehow sliding into an easier camaraderie than even before. Grantaire began finding himself tentatively recommending books (“I’m sure you can’t come up with anything worse than the worst of Courfeyrac’s formulaic, trite romance novels” – said affectionately) and quietly working on separate projects over a shared table, Enjolras’ head bent to studying, hair spilling over his shoulders, while Grantaire sketched or wrote.
Until, one week, sitting on the ridiculously comfortable, probably meticulously negotiated couch, Enjolras looked suddenly something like nervous, turning to Grantaire with a serious expression, posture subtly straightening.
"Grantaire? I… I apologize if I’ve been misreading our relationship but it feels almost as if…” Enjolras paused, ran a shaky hand through his hair. “What I mean to say – to ask, is, if at all, you’d be interested in going out with me. As in…”
Enjolras trailed off uncertainly, and Grantaire blinked at him. Once. Twice. When he stayed silent, Enjolras suddenly fidgeted, momentarily dropping his gaze before continuing quietly. “I understand if you’re uninterested, and I don’t at all mean or want to pressure you into anything.”
Grantaire blinked again, trying to breathe past the initial wave of panic and disbelief and crushing certainty that this was some sort of joke, some taunt. And it didn't matter if it wasn't because he couldn't. Enjolras looked at him steadily, but there was a faint blush along his high cheekbones, and he tried not to feel he should prepare to be bitterly disappointed.
"Are you asking me on a date, Enjolras?" He hoped it came out even and level, holding the swirling, sweltering emotions as though on puppet strings or leashes, waiting for the other shoe to clatter like a pin on the floor.
Enjolras nodded, eyes searching.
"Right, okay, I mean..." Grantaire sighed, running his fingers through his hair and absently pressing them against the spot on the back, second nature to search for phantom blood. "I'm... I am incredibly interested. You call me like a siren song. But... look, Enjolras. I’m sure you know that there are complicated things. Well, I mean, fuck, there are always complicated things, everyone has issues and concerns and weird stupid little shit. And most of the time, it’s really ridiculous stuff, like hating it when people chew ice cubes or leave lights on or how the bed is made. Not to say that I don’t have those things, I totally do –”
Enjolras reached over, brushing his fingers against Grantaire’s knee as he listened attentively, and Grantaire tried for a smile that came out a grimace, trying to remember where he was going.
“Right, I have those. But it’s complicated, and I don’t just mean the fact that this is amazing and hard to believe – not that I would doubt you or that you mean it,” Grantaire continued, suddenly desperate to reassure Enjolras, head spinning as he reached for words that were failing him. “It’s not you, you’re a fixed and solid point, the all-piercing spear that might even actually be shattering the shield of my inability to believe in fucking anything, it’s just that it’s going to take me a while to actually believe this is real. That’s not the point I was trying to make, but-”
“You’re rambling,” Enjolras interjected, calm and even and soft, then shook his head when Grantaire started to wince. “No, don’t stop. It’s alright.”
Grantaire huffed, but nodded, looking for the words as his free hand fluttered helplessly.
“I just, I was trying to say – I am fucked up, okay? I'm depressed; I am possessed of an anxiety disorder; nightmares thunder through my sleep like Artemis' hunt and leave chaos in their wake, and I jolt like Orpheus from the underworld only to see Tartarus before me, or I lie awake ceaselessly, contemplating and spinning out impossible moments like a Fate desiring to cut her teeth on another's thread.”
Choking on a laugh that came out breathless, Grantaire barreled on, unable to stop now that he’d started.
“I doubt myself and hate myself and sometimes I can't get out of bed because I crumple like the caryatid under her load. I drink because I can't stop and I don't believe in your cause even if I believe in you, all of you, and I have so little hope and Jehan and I are practically, unhealthily codependent and I am a terrible idea."
Grantaire half expected Enjolras to make a face, or start a speech, but he just sat quietly for a moment before nodding.
"Grantaire, I already knew some of that, and the rest we can negotiate and figure out. I would like to try, because I like you and I care about you. I won't ignore or dismiss any of that, and I can’t say I’ll always react perfectly and I won’t make any impossible promises, but I will be as patient and understanding as I can, because you are important." He smiled slightly, pretty face lit up with a gentle hope - nothing drastic or radiant or illuminating, but something so very human - as he quietly paused to offer out one elegant, long-fingered hand, his eyes open and soft. "And it's not as though I don't have my own faults and sore spots."
"Okay," he whispered, the word coming out light on a breath, and he tentatively reached out, fingers brushing against Enjolras' before he took his hand. It felt like something deep in him settled into place, something about the act of taking Enjolras' hand washing away the usual involuntary feeling of not-quite-right he'd had since Jehan had died, like something about this was very right. Which was silly, because this would fall apart in a moment if Enjolras knew what a failure he had been, how cowardly, how useless. Maybe it was just the fluttery happiness, fragile and light as crêpe paper, of something unexpectedly wonderful.
And when he looked up, he smiled, feeling it fill him up, light in every corner and crevice for a long, precious second when Enjolras smiled back. He wanted to ask, knew he should speak, knew there were so many discussions and disclaimers and questions, but he couldn't bring himself to, not just yet.
Instead, Grantaire tilted his head in a silent request for permission. When Enjolras nodded ever so faintly, Grantaire twined their fingers together, aware that one person didn't make him whole and complete and worth anything, but so happy, so unbearably, amazingly, overwhelmingly happy to have this chance.
(He wondered if it was an echo, this sunburst in his chest.)
What’s it like to cross over?
The question had been circling in Jehan’s mind ever since Jacques first asked him while he was stopped over in the métro station a week ago. He hadn't really had much of an answer, because it had been just as he died, didn't remember if there was a pause, a point he could have decided to stay or to go. He only remembered Grantaire's voice and the feel of his not-hands and the sensations of the fight and the street and the summer all faded like he did, not so much tumbling as sinking into the void and the spaces between.
That hadn't been the part to catch him up, though. It had been the implicit desire, the curiosity contained, as though Jacques was thinking of passing on, of letting go, of changing. He had, after all, stayed there for so many years. Jehan wasn't used to ghosts leaving. Poltergeists, yes, or ghosts on their way to becoming them, spectre-spirits who were consumed with grief or fear or sorrow or rage. But the people who didn't have an agenda, who had stayed for others or who just weren't ready to move on, they didn't cross, often.
Or they did, but not the ones Jehan was close to. It left him feeling raw and a little guilty, because the last proper ghost he'd see do that was his mother. Aline Prouvaire had gone easy when he was ten, had smiled her four and a half year ghostly smile, bussed a coolly phantom kiss to his brow, made him promise to be good for his uncles and his aunties and his cousins, told him she loved him very, very much, and slid, slid, slid away from the realm of perception until he was standing in an empty room.
He had cried, then, for the first time. Because he'd lost her again, and had to grieve her in a way he hadn’t before. Jehan had survived, had let the wound heal up and scar over as much as wounds ever did, and done his best to grow. Grow he had, but always with ghosts at his side, those attracted to the many halls of many Prouvaire houses (Émilie, the poor girl, was allergic, hives rising on her arms until Jehan had asked the little ghosts to move out of her room).
They'd been the only constant, the only thing in his life that didn't change, that he didn't lose when he moved from house to house to house, unsure, always, of how long he would stay. Jehan had loved it, but it had been so lonely for so many years, and the ghosts had been his only constant friends, the few who trailed behind him. Friends, and protectors.
They made the air freeze and the school halls whip with sudden winds and burst the electric lights overhead until it was all plunged in darkness, as Jehan curled in on himself, coiling away from the bullies who thought him strange and weak and mild. After, always after, though no one ever suggested it was his fault or that he had done it, they thought him strange and untouchable.
He was used to the dead, had stagnated, had let his roots begin to rot in places because he didn't know how else to face the world. Jacques wanted to know what it was like to really and truly die, and Jehan had almost wanted to avoid giving him the answer. And now he couldn't sleep, hadn't slept all night, and it made him ache.
Giving up, he shuffled out for the main room, shooing out the ghosts and pausing in the hallway's entry arch. "Grantaire?"
"Jehan," he greeted, sitting up a little more on the couch. He smiled a bit but his eyes showed concern, and Jehan was a little glad, very quietly so, that dating Enjolras hadn't disrupted the comfortable familiarity between them. "You look like shit. Didn't sleep?"
"Couldn't sleep," he sighed, and vaulted, on a whim, over the back of the couch, sitting beside Grantaire but not leaning over into him. "R..."
"Take your time." It was the same gentle softness that only came up in moments like this, and he twined a lock of Jehan's hair around a finger before letting it go gently, waiting while he searched for the words he wanted.
It took a while, and Jehan ended up sighing again, unable to look him in the eyes. "Do you think I rely on the ghosts too much?"
Grantaire startled a little, but took the question seriously, mulling it over and turning it around in his mind before answering. "No, I don't think so. I think you used to, and I think you're still very used to having them as part of your support system, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. They're their own people, and your friends."
He sighed again, giving in and leaning over a little. "I think Jacques is thinking about moving on, and it startled me. I've just gotten used to them being here, to being here for me. Taking care of me. Defending me. And I don't want to take advantage of my friends."
"Take some time to get used to the idea, then. It's gotta be a shock." Grantaire tilted his head a little, dark, unruly curls hanging a little long and shadowing his face in the early morning light. "No one's blown out the lights - or the windows, thank fuck - in the café for a while. You can always ask them all to stop, I doubt they'll take it badly. You know everyone cares about you."
"I know," Jehan said softly, and patted the other man's knee. "I think I will. I think I'm in a place where I can handle most of my own battles, you know?"
"I know." And there was a blinding, brilliant, proud grin that made Jehan feel every painful centimeter of progress he'd made, and Grantaire kissed his forehead. "And if I remember right, you've got lunch plans with Courfeyrac and Cosette. Go take a long shower, don't worry about the hot water, and I'll make you some coffee."
"I will." Jehan smiled back, and thanked everything in the universe for whatever had brought them back together.
There was a knock at the door and it was too late at night.
Another, a little more insistent, and Grantaire stumbled to his feet to answer the door, automatically shoving a hand through his curls in a futile attempt to tame them. He flicked on the light before answering the door, uncertain and a little jumpy. “Enjolras?”
He looked as composed as ever, nearly, if Grantaire hadn’t been able to see the tightness to his jaw and the stiffness of his back, the way his mouth pulled down, not in severity but in distress, the faint redness to his carefully calm eyes. The way he couldn’t quite hide the faint hitch of his voice as he spoke. “Grantaire. Can we talk, please?”
“Come in,” he said after a moment, leading Enjolras back to his cluttered but cozy bedroom. His mind leapt with a horrifying nausea to the idea that this must be the break-up discussion, that Enjolras had tired of him, found him too needy and unfulfilling, but Grantaire dismissed that thought a moment later, because that was sorrow, not dismissal or pity or anger that lined Enjolras’ taut muscles. Forcing himself into a semblance of serenity, he sat on the bed, patting the space beside him in invitation, but Enjolras shook his head, pacing, restless, like a caged lion.
Grantaire wanted to ask, but decided to wait, twisting the fabric of the quilt in his fingers, unsettled.
“I need to tell you… But shit, it sounds insane, it’s unbelievable,” Enjolras started, then stopped, frustration and fear on his face as he turned sharply again, agitated.
Grantaire barely managed to stop the dry scoff because he knew unbelievable. Most aspects of his life fell in that category. Instead, he looked up steadily, open and waiting. “I say this in all sincerity, Enjolras, I am the least likely to judge before you finish, okay?”
Enjolras looked at him, almost cuttingly perceptive, before he pursed his mouth a little and nodded, drawing a breath and returning to composure.
“Please, I know it will sound unbelievable, but I swear, Grantaire, I would never lie to you.” He paused another moment, earnest and intense, until Grantaire nodded. “… What do you know about the June Rebellion of 1832?”
“Oh, fuck.” He jerked to his feet, eyes going wide, torn between flinching back and lurching forward to look for wounds he knew weren’t there (might not ever have been there). “Enjolras, do you remember?”
Surprise, incredulity, betrayal, and something like hope all flickered over his features, standing stock still as he stared at Grantaire. “I remember the end. You remember?”
“Jehan does,” he said, looking down and away. Grantaire felt suddenly unable to bear the rush of shame at what Enjolras must think of what he had done, or not done, but forced himself to look back up. “Are you… well. I can’t imagine you’re alright, but will you be? Do you need to sit?”
He shook his head, still watching him with the most peculiar expression. “I – no. No, I’m alright. Combeferre and Courfeyrac took care of me. How long have you known?”
Grantaire couldn’t help the way his face scrunched up at that question. “Oh, wow, that is… that is really complicated. Right. Okay.”
He sighed, steeling himself a little as he dropped back down on the bed.
“I’m… When I was sixteen, I accidentally wound up with 1832’s Jehan in my head while he was dying. Or maybe the other way around. I know it sounds ridiculous, I spent years trying to convince myself I hallucinated. But then, a couple of years ago, I saw him on campus, and that’s when he remembered. Jehan was the one who told me I was there, apparently, and about all of you. That was the first time I knew how badly I’d fucked it up, and Enjolras, I am so, sincerely sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” Enjolras asked, bewildered, and Grantaire felt like someone had broken open his ribs.
“I know that I’m… not the most motivated person, even now. And that I was an untreated, depressed, anxious alcoholic back then, and disdained your cause. But, fuck,” he said, words ripping themselves out painfully, “that doesn’t change, doesn’t excuse the fact that I got drunk as fuck, and fell asleep, and I wasn’t there when you all died. I am sorry. I am so, so sorry.”
Enjolras’ eyes widened just a little as he pulled in a slight, soft hiss of a breath.
“Oh, Grantaire,” he said, with unimaginable gentleness and sorrow, dark brown eyes grieved. “Have you been thinking that all this time?”
Grantaire’s brow furrowed, and he shrank back even as he looked up at him hesitantly, still half anticipating a crushing dismissal, a rejection for his failures. “Well… yeah. I’m a fuck up and a coward, and you all have been the best thing in my life, either of my lives, and I couldn’t even… I couldn’t… I was so selfish.”
The gasp wrenched his chest before he even realized it was building, and his shoulders jerked. Grantaire curled over involuntarily as he began to cry harder than he had in a very long time, wracked with sorrow and guilt. He wept, covering his eyes with a hand as though he could shield himself from view.
Very carefully, Enjolras pulled Grantaire’s hand from his face, taking the other as well, kneeling down in front of him and squeezing gently.
“Look at me?” he requested, and Grantaire could deny him nothing. The longer he met Enjolras’ eyes, the more his heaving sobs eased, until they were only a steady, silent stream of tears.
Enjolras let go of his hands almost reluctantly, starting to brush away Grantaire’s tears. “It didn’t happen that way at all, Grantaire. All of our friends were killed, and I was alone upstairs about to be shot. And I-”
His voice broke and he looked pained and young for a horrible moment.
“I was alone,” he continued, barely audible, kissing Grantaire’s forehead when he started to look away, his eyes forthright and honest. “And scared. I was certain we had failed, that I had let down those at the barricades, and that there was nothing worthwhile in my actions. I did not and do not regret my death, but I was guilt stricken and hopeless. But you woke. You woke, and declared yourself one of us, stood beside me, and told them to kill us both.”
Enjolras paused, biting his lower lip, as though the gravity of his words halted him for a moment.
“You asked if I would permit it.”
He spoke softly and with a delicate awe, as though confessing some precious secret, and reached for Grantaire’s hand again, clasping it in his, warm and smooth as he brushed gentle, barely there kisses over his tear-dampened cheeks.
“I took your hand, and they shot us. Grantaire, I was so terrified, tired, and despairing, but you stood beside me without question or hesitation. You gave me hope when I had none, and kept me from facing them alone.”
Grantaire felt paralyzed, amazed, overwhelmed, leaning helplessly into Enjolras’ touch, the weight of shame pressed back by the unbelievable words. “But, I…”
“Thank you,” Enjolras whispered, continuing his slight, sweet kisses as though trying to erase the evidence of tears. “I have wronged you so many times and in so many ways, and I owe you so much more than I can say. Thank you.”
Grantaire shook his head, tender and gentle as he carefully wrapped his hands around one of Enjolras’, tentatively, softly kissing the backs of his fingers. “You owe me nothing, Enjolras. I… thank you.”
And fuck, there was so much to talk about, so much to explain, to say, to ask, but Enjolras’ quiet smile was blinding, and if he had died seeing that, Grantaire must have died happy. He couldn’t help but smile back, bashfully kissing his knuckles again, sighing a little and settling as Enjolras’ free hand curled lightly around the back of his neck, and he felt complete, and safe, and like, perhaps, there would be a way for this to work out after all.
Though it had been quiet in Grantaire’s room, with nothing more than the soft murmur of voices, Jehan had found himself unable to sleep.
He’d gently ushered out the ghosts to give them privacy when Enjolras first arrived, and it left him alone in the flat, quiet and contemplative, until he eventually curled up by the living room window to watch the darkness of sky slowly change and pass and reluctantly give its place up to the first faint lights of the impending day. The sun hadn’t even had a chance to make a sliver of an appearance when the bedroom door opened and closed near silently.
“Good morning,” Grantaire said, voice barely loud enough to disturb the air. He looked tired in a gently rumpled way, his hair a flyaway aurora around his face, a rawness there that spoke of tears, but something peaceful too.
“Good morning,” Jehan replied, the familiar, affectionate smile as natural and easy as breathing. “Everything turned out well?”
There was an incredulous happiness lighting his eyes, and Grantaire gave a soundless, breathless chuckle, moving to join Jehan by the window. He absently shifted to thread his fingers into Jehan’s hair, and Jehan leaned into his touch seamlessly, thoughtlessly. “Yeah.”
He was quiet for a moment, the anticipatory silence one of Grantaire gathering his words from his strewn and scattered thoughts.
“He remembered the barricades,” he said at last, and there was an odd wonder there, with familiar worry and concern and sorrow underlying it. “He says that I woke, and declared myself for the republic, and that I died with him, hand in hand.”
The sudden sunburst warmth in Jehan’s chest somehow managed to be blinding and as gentle as the rosy gradient inching its way through the Parisian sky, because that was astonishing, awe-inspiring, breathtaking in its beauty, in the perfect, immutable symmetry and revelation of it.
“Haven’t I said you were never the sort of man to let someone die alone?” Jehan asked, gentleness in his words as he leaned into Grantaire’s side, and smiled again as Grantaire shook with silent laughter. “I’m glad. For both of you. And you talked?”
“Mm-hm,” he agreed, leaning his head against Jehan’s. “I told him about… everything relevant at the moment. We need to talk more, but… I think we also just needed to be there and hold on to one another until the world felt real again.”
Understanding perfectly, he nodded, eyes half closed and hands wrapped around his mug, an hour empty. “And he fell asleep?”
“Yeah.” Lightly running his fingers through Jehan’s hair, pressing against his scalp, Grantaire settled, any lingering tension running out of his spine. “Enjolras wants to know if you wanna get breakfast, or brunch, with us in a few more hours.”
“I’d like that,” Jehan said, the same peachy sunrise glow blossoming like an early spring flower behind the fragile trellis of his ribcage, relaxing even more against Grantaire’s side. “You’re not going to go join him?”
He smiled, and Jehan felt more than saw it, drawing him just a little closer. “In a while.”
And there was so much to be said, that could be said, about pride and survival and trust and love and thanks, but somehow, in this quiet space they had carved out for their own, in the comfortable and easy intimacy of familiar positions and actions and well learned curves of bodies, sitting and watching the sun leisurely rise, the words didn’t feel necessary at all.