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Dashed in a Hundred Million Pieces

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Grantaire will be the first to admit, he isn't totally stellar at making decisions. In fact as far as decision making goes he probably shouldn't even be trusted to choose what he wants for breakfast, but occasionally - or so he's told - he manages to accidentally stumble down the right path.

He is as yet undecided on what the decision to move in with Jehan qualifies as.

It's not that Jehan's a bad roommate or a particularly unpleasant person. In fact, as someone who can one day be wearing a too-large pink jumper with tiny bird skulls in his hair and the next be wearing a leather jacket and a flower crown, he's more than a little interesting. He can hold his liquor better than anyone Grantaire's ever met, flips between languages as if they're one and the same, is spectacular in a fight and spouts mythology at anyone who'll listen. But for such a tiny, unassuming little poet, he really takes intrepid to a whole new level, and that's probably where the problems start.

Jehan's been living in a yurt for the past few years, but an unfortunate accident with candles and incense sticks means the yurt is no more - Grantaire's story is much less interesting; he just flat out got evicted. Between the two of them, their funds don't exactly amount to much, and certainly not enough to afford an apartment in the city, which is where Jehan's sense of adventure rears its oak leaf wreathed head. He sits on the pavement, his bags at his feet as he unravels battered maps and jabs his finger thoughtfully at forests and lakes, muttering to himself until he eventually gives a particularly vicious little stab at the forest a few miles from their own city with a cheery, "No place like home, right?"

That's probably about the time Grantaire begins to realise he might not have made a brilliant decision.

The place Jehan finds for them is a charming but alarmingly ramshackle cottage which looks like it’s never seen civilisation in its life. From the outside it just looks overgrown, the grass in the garden tickling their shins as they force the gate open, the path totally concealed beneath their feet. It takes a few good kicks to get the stiff wooden front door open, but when they finally do, Grantaire is decidedly underwhelmed. Jehan, on the other hand, is thrilled.

The large bay windows let the late afternoon light stream in, catching the dust that drifts lazily past and casting long shadows over the dirty, bare floorboards. There are scraps of wallpaper still determinedly clinging on, peeling off in places, the stray curls littering the floor in tiny little piles amongst dead leaves and the occasional empty beer bottle. Along one wall there is an impressively sized and surprisingly fancy fireplace, the hearth stuffed with rubbish. At least they can burn it for warmth.

The kitchen is in a similar state of decay, and the fact that they've managed to get running water is only because the guy who sold them the place managed to get it sorted out - left up to Grantaire and Jehan, the two least responsible people in the world, they'd have been without water forever. There's a less impressive fireplace wedged in between the back door and what is presumably a storage cupboard, and absolutely no appliances. There is a dead frog in the sink, but that's about it. Grantaire only discovers there is only one bedroom when he goes to look for the bathroom.

"I can't wait to decorate in here," Jehan sighs dreamily as he arranges his bags in a neat little pile by the bedroom door.

Grantaire gives him his best unimpressed look. "We don't have any furniture. Where are we gonna sleep? How are we gonna eat?"

Jehan hums thoughtfully and sits cross-legged on the floor, twisting his hair up into a messy bun. "I know a few people who owe me money, I can get enough for a bed if nothing else. We'll need a fridge first I suspect. It doesn't matter so much about cooking per say, but if we have a fridge at least we can keep things like milk and yoghurts and such."

Grantaire hopes Jehan knows how to cook, or there won't be any cooking being done at all.

"We really didn’t think this through," he groans, dropping his bags unceremoniously on the floor, pencils spilling out and rolling in all directions.

Jehan stands up with armfuls of cleaning products and flounces off towards the kitchen. "I'll fix it, don't worry. I’ll call in all the favours I can. Go make yourself useful and find some firewood while I clean, why don't you?"

It's a clear dismissal. Jehan is the type who likes to be left alone while he cleans so there’s nobody to get in his way or do things wrong. Grantaire is more than happy to leave him to it, so takes up his sketchbook and ventures out, his battered boots leaving a trail of dust behind him.

 

This is the first time since being rushed into the decision that Grantaire actually has time to really think about it. He could go rushing off into the trees to go seek out the wood, but the grass beneath his feet is still wet from the rain so it’s likely that anything he finds will be damp and useless anyway. Instead, he stamps his feet to ward off the chill and begins to hint through the voluminous pockets of his worn old coat - too battered to keep out the unexpected cold of September - turfing out receipts and packets of fudge until he finds his cigarettes. The packet is nearly empty, a measly three left, and it’s not like there’s anywhere to buy more out here in the wilderness.

It’s admittedly the first time Grantaire has ever ventured out of the city, save for one depressing school trip to the seaside when he was seven, and the seaside is nothing more than a different city with a depressing beach attached. Still, it’s not like he really had any reason to stay in the city. Sure, he’ll miss loitering in art galleries and having paint supplies and cigarettes to hand, but it’s not as if he had a job to stay for, and his apartment wasn’t exactly nice.

He realises the irony in that as he sits and looks at the falling-down cottage that is now his home. Sure, it’s charming in its own way, with its bay windows and heavy oak door and ivy growing up the front of the house and probably undermining all the brickwork, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s in such a state of disrepair Grantaire despairs for its potential future. On the positive side, he’s never restored a house before, and it’ll be interesting if nothing else. In fact he’s expecting the ‘nothing else’ to be quite accurate; it’s not as if he knows how to restore a house, and it’ll probably be more stressful than anything else. It’s already making him do work, having to go off and collect firewood as if it’s the eighteen hundreds.

He blows one last smoke ring into the air then stabs the cigarette out and stomps off.

The forest air is crisp and sharp in a way Grantaire doesn’t expect - so used as he is to the second hand smoke of the city - and it’s refreshingly pleasant, but that doesn’t make him happy to be there. There’s something disconcerting about his surroundings that puts him on edge, whether it be the way the dappled light drifting down through the treetops casts the sort of shadows that seem to stretch on forever into nothingness, or the eerie sense that the whole forest could come alive while he’s got his back turned. It’s pretty enough, but on the whole he decides he could do with a lot less nature in his life.

Predictably, his search for firewood does not go well. Almost everything he comes across that looks like it could’ve been of some use is damp or rotten, and for the most part he finds himself stumbling around empty handed and increasingly aware of the fact he doesn’t remember the way back. Esteemed explorer he is not.

He wonders how long he could be gone before Jehan might notice something is wrong - probably days. Jehan has ‘free spirit’ perfected to the point of being an art form, and he gets distracted terribly easily. Grantaire’ll have to find his own way back, assuming he can even find any firewood first. It’s looking bleak. The best he can manage is a few, blissfully dry twigs that were saved from the deluge by being under other things, but they still look a bit ropey and probably not much use. Regardless, he refuses to return home empty handed and resolutely gathers them up anyway.

Grantaire has no way of knowing how long he’s been idly wandering around a forest with an armful of twigs, having no watch to speak of, so instead he squints up at the tiny scraps of sky he can see peeking through the tops of the trees, trying to judge by the sun how late it might be. It should be noted that Grantaire has absolutely no idea how to gauge the time from looking at the sky. He’s so busy peering at the sun he doesn’t notice the faint cracking around him, and it’s not until he loses his footing that he realises the cracking came from his feet on an unfortunately placed branch.

Even with years of ballet and fencing under his belt, all the grace that Grantaire possesses is not enough to save him as he goes feet first down the embankment he’s had the misfortune of stumbling across, and it’s only out of luck that he avoids any serious injury. He hits the ground hard on his back, arms now empty of his bounty, and lies staring dazedly up at the trees for a second before picking himself up off the ground in the sort of mild anger that often accompanies a minor embarrassment that could’ve been avoided.

He’s pretty sure the curse he unleashes uproots a few birds from their nests, but it feels good all the same as he kicks at the ground as if it might take the blame. He regains his composure with petulant dignity, kicks halfheartedly at one of his dropped sticks, then glances around with the sort of surprised realisation people have when something around them has changed and they haven’t quite noticed.

The clearing he’s so ungracefully intruded on is small, smaller at least than the walled garden back at the cottage, and is swathed in a blanket of field chamomile - Grantaire looks down guiltily at the trampled patch of flowers where he fell. The flowers are bathed in the soft afternoon light filtering through the trees, giving the whole clearing an ethereal look, as if it might be glowing.

He knows he should gather up his poor attempt at firewood and re-embark - bark, he’s so funny - on his quest for more, but the image he’s presented with is the sort of image his artistic brain can obsess over until he gets it right, and he knows he has to sketch it.

He takes a little more time over this than his other, rougher sketches; there’s something about the feel of this that he wants to be immortal, he wants to be able to run his fingers over the pencil smudges and remember how it feels to be sitting here, feeling peaceful and serene and like the world around him no longer exists.

As his frantic hands dance around the page, he is so intent on his work that he doesn’t notice the air getting colder and colder around him, not until his fingers are numb and going blue around the edges.

He looks up and blinks in surprise.

There is someone sitting only a foot or so away, craning their head so they can peer at Grantaire’s drawing from behind their glasses - glasses that appear to be crafted from woven twigs, tiny leaves sprouting in the hinges and around the uneven lenses. Behind them, eyes such a pale grey they could almost be white blink back at him, radiating curiosity.

He looks so unreal Grantaure half considers that he might be hallucinating. Dead, frost covered leaves cling to his coffee coloured hair, the locks cut roughly and hanging down in his face - a stark contrast to his unearthly skin, such a pale blue it lingers more on the edge of silver, hardly even blue at all.

Grantaire can manage nothing but an undignified, “Uh.”

He is close enough that Grantaire can feel his breath on his skin, ice cold little puffs that ghost through the air, but when he laughs it is a rich, languid sound; the way warm honey slowly oozes from a spoon. “We don’t get many of your kind round here,” the stranger says in a low voice that rumbles like distant thunder. He slowly cocks his head sideways in a show of curiosity, and as he moves the flowers beneath him crunch with ice.

Grantaire laughs awkwardly. “Artists?”

“Humans.”

Grantaire pauses, the bluntness of the answer throwing him off guard, then abruptly stands. The stranger stands too, and his height is startling; he must be a good seven foot tall at least, with awkward, long limbs that look spindly and out of proportion, like a wizened old tree.

“Aren’t you cold?” he blurts out. Even with his thick coat and boots, Grantaire is feeling the chill; this stranger wears nothing more than loose trousers that hang to his knees and a white pelt draped around his shoulders.

“I suppose you could say I am cold,” he chuckles to himself, as if revelling in some private joke. He gives Grantaire a grin that is lazy and inviting, but there’s something about it that feels a little predatory.

Before he can stop himself, Grantaire asks, “What are you?”

The stranger raises an eyebrow and drops the grin, taking on an appearance of lofty dignity. “That isn’t very polite. You haven’t even asked my name.”

“Sorry. What’s your name?”

“Your manners need work,” he says haughtily. “But I suppose I can make exceptions, given your apparent curiosity. You may call me Combeferre.”

He offers a hand for Grantaire to shake, and he takes it reluctantly; as expected, it’s unnaturally cold.

“I’m Grantaire,” he says numbly, still certain he must be hallucinating, or dreaming.

Combeferre cocks his head inquisitively again. “And what are you doing out here, Grantaire.”

Grantaire gestures to his pitiful attempt at collecting wood. “Getting firewood. We just moved in.” He’s aware his vocabulary has been dramatically reduced, but given the shock, he thinks he’s allowed.

Combeferre hmm’s in thought, then beckons with a spindly finger and slinks off into the trees. Grantaire has no choice but to clutch his sketchbook to his chest and follow.

It becomes clear that Combeferre has an intense and deep knowledge of the forest that Grantaire is never going to acquire, if the pace he sets is anything to judge by. He clearly expects Grantaire to keep up, not once checking over his shoulder to see if Grantaire is still behind him, but it’s not exactly easy; not only is the ground still slick from the rain, Combeferre leaves behind him a trail of frost and ice that makes Grantaire slip more times than he’d care to admit, and on top of that, it’s getting dark.

Eventually, the inevitable happens, and Combeferre disappears out of view - not that it’s exactly a problem, because Grantaire can still find him simply by following the trail of ice he’s left behind him, like the trail of breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a sarcastic voice quips lets hope there’s no witch at the end, but he resolutely ignores it.

When he finally catches up to Combeferre he’s so busy catching his breath that he doesn’t immediately realise where he is - home. Combeferre is standing smugly by a small shed at the end of the cottage’s back garden (also walled, larger than the front and including an admittedly pretty tree), gesturing to the shed door.

“Here you are,” he says primly. “Firewood.”

Grantaire peers inside - it’s stacked floor to ceiling with logs. Dry, perfectly usable logs. There has been a wood store behind the cottage the entire time. There’s even a little basket conveniently left for him to ferry the wood inside. Grantaire is dimly aware that he’s just probably wasted a few hours of his life, but then he thinks of the grove, and the sketch and decides that maybe it wasn’t a complete waste.

“You still never told me what you are,” he says to Combeferre.

When he receives no answer, he looks up to find he is alone.

 

Inside, Jehan is lying on his back in the centre of the living room with his opium pipe, an impressive collection of candles dotted around the room in clusters, organised by colour.

“Careful petit,” Grantaire warns. “Remember your poor yurt, may it rest in peace.”

Jehan flaps a hand at him idly, a serene smile on his face, and pats the floor next to him in invitation. Grantaire leaves the basket of wood in the doorway and acquiesces, lying flat on his back to let Jehan curl up with his head on Grantaire’s chest.

“I called in some favours,” he mumbles sleepily. “And I cleaned. I got the frog out of the sink. His name’s Terrence and I moved him to the pond in the back garden.”

“I thought the frog was dead?”

Jehan gives him a conspiratorial wink, which Grantaire resolutely ignores. He shifts about to try and get comfy on the hard floorboards, staring up at the dirty ceiling and wondering how many more nights he’s going to spend on the floor.

 

None, is the answer.

Grantaire wakes to find himself alone on the floor, a blanket tossed halfheartedly over him and all the candles snuffed out. Jehan is throwing open the windows to let in fresh air, and with them open it’s easy to hear the approaching vehicle crunching up the gravel drive.

“I thought you only called them yesterday? Who are they, the Flash?” Grantaire groans, sitting up and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He’s still wearing his coat and boots, having fallen asleep in them, and awkwardly shrugs himself out of them.

Jehan, on the other hand, looks as fresh and chipper as he always does, even with stubble on his chin, but it’s easy to forgive him for not shaving when it blends so charmingly with his freckles. “Get up dear, we’ll get done quicker the more hands we have.”

Reluctantly, Grantaire follows him outside in his bare feet, lamenting the lack of coffee on hand to wake himself up, so in its place he relents and lights his penultimate cigarette. At the end of the garden a very battered van pulls up, and out of the drivers seat steps quite possibly the most threatening man Grantaire has ever seen in his life.

He might not be as tall as Combeferre was (if Combeferre was even real), but he’s definitely pushing the boundaries, and on top of that he has a lot of bulk. He’s swathed in a huge black trenchcoat that reaches his combat-boot clad ankles, his face half hidden behind a black mask that completely obscures his eyes.

This doesn’t stop Jehan from trotting over and standing on his toes to press a kiss to his cheek. The man rolls his eyes in a way which suggest he isn’t happy about it but has learnt by now there’s no point trying to resist.

“Claquesous, it’s been much too long,” Jehan chirps, “you’re doing us such a favour. Here, this is Grantaire.”

He takes Claquesous’ arm and tugs him over to Grantaire. Claquesous sighs and extends his hand under Jehan’s expectant gaze, crushing Grantaire’s hand in a way that suggests there will be no friendship between them, no matter how much Jehan uses the puppy eyes.

Even so, Grantaire thinks friendship might be on the cards when Claquesous opens the back of the van. He hasn’t just bought them a bed, or a fridge, he’s bought them everything. The van is stuffed with furniture that is toeing the line between artfully vintage and just plain knackered, and Jehan looks completely thrilled, climbing in and investigating everything with an increasingly more delighted look.

He especially thinks friendship is in their future when Claquesous hands over an impressive hoard of cigarettes, the sheer number suggesting he’s been overseas and smuggled them back. Grantaire makes a show of getting to his knees and pretending to worship him, which manages to draw a smirk, before they’re both roped into unloading the van - even though Jehan is perfectly capable of carrying the furniture himself, which he proves as he hauls an armchair inside while leaving Grantaire to struggle with a wardrobe.

It takes them a while to get everything inside - and it would’ve taken half the time if Jehan hadn’t kept stopping to chat to Claquesous - but once they do Grantaire has to admit, it feels slightly less ramshackle than before. Only slightly. They might not have anything yet to make the place comfortable, but they at least have everything they need to make it liveable. Now it’s looking a bit more like a home and less like a falling down cottage abandoned in the middle of nowhere, it really isn’t that bad.

Claquesous finishes emptying out the back of the van by throwing out the last few eclectic items left behind - a stepladder, a curtain pole, a watering can and an ironing board - then makes a point of carefully handing a blue bike with a basket on the front to an ecstatic Jehan.

“We even now or what?” Claquesous demands in a voice that actually makes Grantaire take a step back. He has the sort of voice that makes you feel like you are in imminent danger of a smack in the face, at the very least; this seems to have no effect on Jehan.

“You’re getting there,” he says cheerfully. “It was nice to see you again, you should come by more often,” he says sternly, then turns his head and taps his cheek.

Claquesous looks incredibly put out by this, lets out a disgruntled noise as a sign of strong protest, but reluctantly bends down to kiss Jehan on the cheek anyway. He glares over at Grantaire, as if daring him to ask for one as well, then stomps off to get in the van and drives off in a haze of pollution.

“Are all your friends quite so lovely?” Grantaire asks dryly.

Jehan jumps on the bike and begins riding in circles around him. “Oh, he’s not so bad. We go back years. He’s just a little grumpy.”

That’s almost certainly an understatement. Claquesous does grumpy like Combeferre does cold.

Speaking of.

“Hey, petit? Does something ever happen to you that you can’t explain and you’re not sure if it was real? When you’re not high, I mean.”

“Oh yes,” Jehan replies pleasantly, screeching the bike to a stop with a smile. “All the time.”

 

If anyone should be able to restore a beaten up cottage in the middle of nowhere, it should be an artist and a poet. Jehan unofficially takes charge, directing Grantaire around with tins of paint while he lays carpets and moves the furniture around and bullies the garden.

Grantaire pointedly does his best not to think of Combeferre, but really, it’s not exactly easy trying to forget about an encounter with a magical ice breathing creature, regardless of whether or not it actually happened. Once or twice, he thinks about going out to try and look for him, but then Jehan is lying on his back on the floor trying to decide what constellations he wants on the ceiling or demanding Grantaire’s decision on if he should paint the bathroom cerise or stick with a more traditional theme, and Grantaire finds he doesn’t have the time.

It’s not until he sees the frost on the window that he starts to think Combeferre might be looking for him.

Grantaire’s not-so-stellar decision making skills come into play again. He still has work to do around the house, so he could stay and do that, or he could go gallivanting off into the words trying to find some fairy that might not even exist.

Grantaire really is not the best at making decisions.

“Cerise,” he says distractedly. “I’m just gonna get out of your hair while you paint, okay?”

He leaves Jehan wrestling with a can of cerise paint and splattering it all in his beard - and the fact that he already had it indicates he intended to paint it that colour all along - and troops outside in his useless coat, already fishing in his pocket for a cigarette.

It’s easy to see where Combeferre’s been, given the fact that him leaving behind a trail of frost seems to be a permanent thing, so Grantaire sticks his hands in his pockets and follows it off into the trees.

He discovers Combeferre perched daintily (not easy for someone his size) on a log on the shores of a small lake, one that Grantaire had no knowledge of. There’s a small part of him that doubts if it was ever there at all, and he’s finding that he wouldn’t actually be surprised if it had just show up overnight. Stranger things have happened.

Combeferre seems somehow more alive than before, more vibrant, his inquisitive eyes wide as he digs his toes into the earth and looks out over the lake. It gets colder as Grantaire heads closer, and he huddles deeper into his coat to try and ward the chill away.

“The lake will be frozen soon,” Combeferre reports cheerfully. “Frozen right over. You’ll be able to walk on it. Or skate.”

Grantaire eyes him with something akin to suspicion for a moment before biting the bullet and asking; “are you the one that does it? Freezes it all?”

Combeferre laughs, throwing his head back as he does - he doesn't seem to do it because he finds it particularly hilarious (although that arguably is why he’s laughing) but more because he just seems to be enjoying himself, like there’s joy in the very air and it’s lifting his soul. He seems in better spirits than the last time Grantaire met him at any rate.

“Goodness, no,” he says once the peals of laughter have died away. “I’m not Winter.”

“But...there is a Winter?” Grantaire asks skeptically.

“Of course. You don’t expect Mother Nature to do everything herself, do you?”

He pats the log beside him amiably - an indication for Grantaire to sit. He does so warily, tugging the collar of his coat up around his chin.

“So, at risk of sounding impolite,” he says dryly, remembering his previous scolding, “what are you?”

“I’m only a frost spirit, and not a very important one at that.” Combeferre shrugs.

Grantaire wants to make the argument that when you’ve never met a spirit before any spirit is an important one, but he’s a little busy trying to digest the information and get past his overwhelming natural instincts to deny the whole thing.

“Oh, look!” Combeferre takes his hand and points out over the water; his hand is so freezing Grantaire almost yelps; it’s much colder than last time they met. On the opposite bank there’s a pair of swans idling near the shore. “You should draw them.”

Grantaire shakes his head. “They’re too far, I won’t be able to get close enough.”

Combeferre’s palm is beginning to warm in Grantaire’s, but it isn’t making Grantaire’s fingers any less blue. He wants to rub his hands together to try and get the warmth back, but there’s something quite pleasant about the way Combeferre’s large hand envelops his own, holding it gently as if he’s afraid he could crush Grantaire if he holds too tightly. Given his size, maybe he could.

“Why did you want to see me again?” Grantaire asks eventually. He can’t imagine any reason a spirit - important or otherwise - would actively seek him out.

“I told you, we don’t get many humans around here. I think you’re quite interesting, and you’re not bad looking, for a human.” The way he says it implies there’s something to be said for a spirit finding a human attractive, and they are not good things.

Grantaire almost laughs, because clearly Combeferre hasn’t met many humans ever, if he thinks Grantaire counts as ‘not bad looking’ - after all, his eyes are pale and watery, sitting above a nose that’s too big for his face and has been broken too many times; it’s not made any better by his prominent square jaw, dotted with stubble out of sheer laziness, and he’s pretty certain his unruly hair could serve as a nest for the swans. Combeferre, on the other hand, is practically radiant.

“So you want to gawp at me?” Grantaire says dryly with a hint of a smile, arching an eyebrow in challenge.

Combeferre laughs again, his haphazard glasses slipping down his nose. “Maybe,” he says mischievously. “Though if I was going to ‘gawp’, I’d want to watch you draw.” He goes silent for a moment, then makes a thoughtful noise and tugs Grantaire clumsily to his feet.

Combeferre makes his way purposefully around the shore of the lake, Grantaire struggling to keep up with his long strides, and releases Grantaire’s hand when they reach the opposite side. Grantaire immediately begins blowing on his fingers and shaking his hand around to try and get the circulation flowing again.

“You need gloves,” Combeferre says quietly as he drops low to the floor.

The swans are watching them both with interest, not moving in a way which makes Grantaire feel like they’re ready to attack at any moment; swans can be vicious, after all. Combeferre edges closer to them, somehow confident and wary at the same time, and extends a hand delicately to the swans. There’s a moment where nothing happens, and then one of them glides closer regally, letting Combeferre gently stroke his thumb over its head.

“There,” he says triumphantly. “Now you can draw them. They’ll sit quite still for you, but not forever.”

Grantaire is already fumbling in his pockets for a pencil, loose sheafs of paper gripped in his numb fingers. He sits down in the wet sand, as close as he dares get, and rests the paper on his knee. It’s not the easiest thing, trying to draw with practically numb fingers, but it’s a challenge, and he finds himself enjoying it.

Combeferre quietly takes a seat next to him - Grantaire doesn’t look up, but he knows because he can feel the chill in the air suddenly increase - and Grantaire becomes acutely aware of eyes watching the frantic movements of his hand.

He almost jumps when Combeferre’s hand darts into his coat pocket (and only because he can feel the cold against his ribs through the fabric), and he puts his pencil down to raise an eyebrow at him. In his pocket he has a battered book of Wilfred Owen poems that Jehan had practically forced on him, and Combeferre pulls it out by its corner and holds it in the air curiously.

“I used to like books,” he says absently. “People used to come camping out here all the time, and I’d borrow the books from them and read them while they slept. Of course, people don’t really come out here anymore. Do you mind if I read it?”

Read?” Grantaire says with mock offense. “But here I thought you wanted to watch me! Sure, knock yourself out.”

“I can multitask,” Combeferre replies with a wry smile.

Grantaire chuckles under his breath and returns to the drawing, but he keeps one eye on Combeferre; sure enough, his eyes flick back to Grantaire as often as they scan down the page, and every time he looks back to Grantaire a little smile tugs involuntarily at his lips. Without his permission, Grantaire discovers his lips are mirroring the action.

He scoffs at himself, and turns his attention back to his work.

He only realises it’s going dark when he’s squinting to see and the swans are getting restless. Combeferre is done with the book, the closed tome between them on the ground, and is instead watching Grantaire intently, his knees drawn up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them.

Grantaire blinks in the failing light, then carefully folds up his drawing and stuffs it in his coat pocket. “I should be getting back,” he says awkwardly, acutely aware of the fact someone just spent hours watching him. He stands and stretches uncomfortably, accepting the book as Combeferre hands it to him.

Combeferre gives him a calculating look for a moment. “Get some ice skates. And gloves too, and a better coat, then meet me here when the lake is frozen.”

“I can’t skate,” Grantaire says bluntly.

“I didn’t ask if you could. Books, too. More books.”

Grantaire lets out a long sigh. “How many?”

Combeferre gives him an unrepentant smirk in return. “All of them.”

 

“There’s sand on my book,” Jehan says in an unimpressed voice. He brushes it off with a sigh, looking at where the wet sand has stained the pages.

“I thought you liked them like that?” Grantaire asks, towelling his hair as he emerges from the distinctly cerise bathroom. It’s sort of like taking a shower inside bubblegum. Alarmingly. “I thought you said there was no sense in having pristine books because they have no character, and battered books have their own story to them.”

“A fair point,” Jehan concedes, finishing dusting off the sand and returning the book to the shelf. Grantaire made them out of repurposed wood, and if they’re a bit lopsided he can’t be blamed. The wood itself was lopsided, all gnarled and twisted, but at least he did his best.

Grantaire catches Jehan by the arm as he turns away from the shelf, giving his best pleading look. “If I promise not to get more sand on, can I borrow some more?”

Jehan raises an eyebrow. “Have I ever said no? Help yourself. Just don’t ruin them too much.”

“You got teal paint all over Oscar Wilde,” Grantaire points out.

"Irrelevant." Jehan shrugs and disappears into the kitchen, coming back with two bowls of noodles in a suspiciously dark sauce, one of which he hands to Grantaire before throwing himself ungraciously into an armchair. "Just don't make them unreadable," he concedes around a mouth full of food.

Grantaire decides not to point out the state of Jehan’s copy of Paradise Lost, which is barely holding onto its binding, and instead shovels a forkful of noodles into his mouth. As it happens, the suspicion was entirely warranted because the sauce flatout burns his mouth, but oddly enough in a pleasant way. He gives it a dubious look - it still looks like the kraken could rise from it at any second - then takes a more cautious bite. (Jehan, fearless as he is, is wolfing it down like he’ll never eat again.)

“Oh hey, can I borrow your phone? I need to call Claquesous.”

Jehan gives him a look as suspicious as the one Grantaire gave the sauce. “Grantaire, I respect your life choices and your right to free will, but I thought you were trying to cut back on alcohol?” he says cautiously.

“You have sauce in your beard. And I don’t want alcohol.”

“Cigarettes?” Jehan scrubs at his beard with the back of his hand. “Because if he’s bringing you cigarettes I want some, amongst other things.”

Grantaire contemplates saying that he needs ice skates and thermal clothes because he’s had another encounter with a supernatural creature in the woods and is intending to go ice skating with him on a frozen lake. “Yeah, cigarettes.”

Jehan nods sagely and tosses him the phone, upending his bowl in the process.

 

“Let me ask you a question,” Claquesous growls as he hops out of the cab of his decrepit van. “Do I look like a fucking delivery boy to you?”

“You do to Jehan,” Grantaire unwisely quips.

Claquesous fixes him with a level glare - or at least, Grantaire assumes that’s the look he’s getting from behind the mask - then slams the door and stalks off to the back of the van. Jehan takes that moment to come trotting from the house, hands hidden up the sleeves of his voluminous jumper.

“Prouvaire I am not your delivery boy,” Claquesous hisses as he’s pulled down to be kissed.

Jehan fixes him with his trademark scary-sweet smile, the one that implies he’ll quite happily use your blood for ink. “You’re whatever I tell you to be until I decide your debt is paid off.” He holds his hands out expectantly, accepts the packages Claquesous grudgingly passes him, then drifts back inside without another word.

When Claquesous turns to Grantaire he’s wearing the most intense scowl Grantaire has ever seen on a person. He sensibly decides not to ask what it was Claquesous did to get in Jehan’s debt. Maybe he’s finally learning how to make decisions after all.

Wordlessly, Claquesous passes a box of cigarettes to Grantaire so fiercely they smack him in the chest and almost wind him, then pulls out something that looks more like a duvet than a coat, the most hideous scarf Grantaire has ever seen, a hat shaped like a monkey, and finally a pair of suspiciously brand new looking ice skates tied together by the laces, which he hangs around Grantaire’s neck.

“Some advice,” he states as he slams the door, “free of charge because I’m clearly being generous today. Don’t get attached to Combeferre.”

Grantaire is certain that a few weeks ago he would’ve been surprised that Claquesous even knew about that, but now he’s merely curious as to how. He opens his mouth to ask, but as Claquesous climbs up into the van he tilts his head so the light hits his eyes; yellow, not hazel, definitely one hundred percent supernatural yellow.

He drives off leaving Grantaire stunned in the driveway, clutching a coat helplessly to his chest.

 

The only thought going through Grantaire’s head as he laces up the ice skates is how much he doesn’t want to do this. He’s tried before, on a proper rink with adult supervision - because he was eight, not because he still needs adult supervision at twenty four years old - and that didn’t exactly go well. He does not want to think about how it’s going to go on a frozen lake where he can’t grab onto the sides if he feels like his life is in immediate peril. Mostly because there aren’t any sides. Because this is a lake. He has visions of falling through the ice and freezing to death.

Combeferre is, of course, unperturbed, too busy leafing through the pile of books Grantaire was gracious enough to carry all the way out for him.

“Why is Oscar Wilde blue?”

“I take no responsibility for that,” Grantaire grumbles as he struggles onto his knees - wearing something that is more duvet than coat does make moving particularly difficult. He isn’t brave enough to get to his feet.

Combeferre puts down the book with an amused smile and offers his hands to Grantaire to help him up. Through the gloves it’s harder to feel the chill, but his hands still aren’t what you’d call warm.

“I’m going to break my ankles,” he complains as he’s pulled to his feet, wobbling.

Combeferre scoffs. “Where’s your sense of adventure? Trust me, I won’t allow you to break your ankles. It’s really very easy once you get the hang of it.”

Grantaire stumbles his way down the bank, his fingers - pudgy in the gloves - in a vice-like grip on Combeferre’s arms as he makes a valiant effort at not putting his life at risk by being unable to balance his entire body weight on a thin blade. He’s momentarily distracted as he watches Combeferre fashion his own skates out of ice - because how in the hell is anyone supposed to not be distracted by that - but the distraction is ruined as Grantaire steps onto the ice and immediately begins floundering like a gross combination of a duckling and bambi.

Combeferre laughs, the bastard.

“It’s quite easy,” he soothes, “I’ll show you.”

With some effort, he prises one of Grantaire’s hands off his arm and glides so he’s standing next to him instead of in front. He moves his feet into an ‘L’ shape, the right meeting the left in a ninety degree angle, then pushes off gently on the right foot, dragging a hapless Grantaire with him.

“The less you think about what you’re doing, the easier it will be,” Combeferre promises, moving so he’s again in front of Grantaire, skating backwards so he can lead him.

Grantaire gives him a look which implies he doesn’t think this will ever get easier. “I don’t know why I agreed to this.”

“Because you enjoy my company,” Combeferre says cheerfully.

Oh Christ, he’s right. Grantaire has met a mythical ice spirit deep in the forest, but it’s okay if it all turns out to be some sort of hallucination because hey, he likes his company.

Annoyingly enough, it turns out Combeferre is also right about the fact that Grantaire sort of manages to improve, through a combined effort of sheer determination and occasional suggestions from Combeferre, although his growing exasperation isn’t enough to get Grantaire to stop looking at his feet.

He probably should have listened.

But in his defence he wasn’t expecting to look down and see someone under the ice.

Judging by the look on their face, they aren’t too happy about it either. They’re peering up in the space between Combeferre and Grantaire’s feet, teeth - pointed teeth - bared in what is undoubtedly a snarl. Their very face is a contradiction, all delicate features and a killer jawline offset against midnight blue scales and intricate webbed fins, gills that flutter eerily along their neck and a look that implies they’re about to rip someone’s throat out and enjoy it. Grantaire peers over his shoulder to see the rest of them and, yep, there’s a tail. Granted, it’s not easy to see it against the murky depths of the water, because it’s black, but the scales glitter in the moonlight as it moves.

What is that?” he demands, losing his footing and having to clutch at Combeferre to keep his balance.

Combeferre chuckles softly as he steadies him. “Oh, that’s only Montparnasse. He’s throwing a tantrum because I froze him under there. Just ignore him.”

Ignoring him proves rather difficult, since Montparnasse seems determined to keep pace with them, sinking his claws into the underside of the ice and dragging himself around.

“Sticking to the theme of my manners being appalling, how old are you?” Grantaire asks, purely so that he doesn’t have to look at the death threat beneath his feet.

“Never ask a lady her age,” Combeferre says dryly. “I’m four and a half.”

Grantaire scrunches his face up. “Four and a half years old?”

“Four and a half thousand.”

Grantaire trips, and below him Montparnasse begins to laugh. The thought is staggering, that someone - because he isn’t going to be impolite enough to refer to Combeferre as something - could live to be that old.

“The things you must have seen,” Grantaire murmurs, barely realising he’s said it aloud.

Combeferre shakes his head, his expression a twisted mix of a smile and sadness. “You have no idea. What’s living in the city like?” he says tactfully, clearly wanting to change the subject before Grantaire can ask him to elaborate.

“Busy. Dirty. Nothing like this.” He gestures around him with one hand, the other still clinging to Combeferre’s as if it’s the only thing between him and a nasty fall - because it probably is.

“Did you make money as an artist?”

Grantaire laughs bitterly. “Me? No. People don’t exactly consider art a respectable career, and I’m not good enough.”

Combeferre bristles. “You certainly are.”

“You’re biased. You don’t have anything to compare me to.”

Combeferre falters mid sentence, because he doesn’t have much of an argument to that, but wears a stern look which implies he won’t be moved on his point regardless. “That’s like you saying I’m not good at my talents because you have no other frost spirits to compare me to.”

“Oh no, I’d say you’re very skilled at freezing unsuspecting...things under lakes.”

“You’re biased,” Combeferre says primly, “and don’t call him a thing that’s not nice.”

Grantaire rolls his eyes. “Do forgive me for once again proving myself less than polite,” he drawls sarcastically.

“You’re insufferable. Why do I like you.”

“Well it’s clearly because of my good looks.”

Combeferre furrows his brow and scowls. “Stop doing that.”

“What?”

“That thing where you put yourself down. Because it is completely untrue and unwarranted.”

Grantaire mutters “biased,” under his breath, but doesn’t argue further because Combeferre gives his hand a harsh tug which reminds him he’s relying on Combeferre to not end up sprawled on his backside in the middle of a lake with some sort of mer-creature laughing at him.

“Okay, question,” he says instead. “Is it just you and Montparnasse in the forest?”

“That’s like asking if you were the only human in the city. Of course not, this is our home.”

Grantaire, in a bout of confidence, lets go of one of Combeferre’s hands and is simultaneously smug and relieved that he didn’t immediately fall. “Then how come I haven’t seen any others?”

“Because they don’t want you to.”

“But I saw you.”

Combeferre lets out the kind of long suffering sigh which implies the answer to that is clear. “Because I wanted you to. Clearly.”

Grantaire wants to ask why, but that would be taking the conversation round in a circle, and they’ve already established that Combeferre has deluded views on Grantaire. He’s still trying to get his head around why Combeferre seems so keen to spend time with him, but then again, he’s also still trying to get his head around Combeferre full stop. He’s nearly there.

Combeferre reaches out with his now free hand and gently tucks a stray curl behind Grantaire’s ear. It tickles a little, and the cold of his fingers are sharp against the skin kept warm by the ridiculous hat.

“How do I know all this is real?” Grantaire blurts out suddenly.

Combeferre tilts his head curiously. “Doesn’t it feel real?”

It does, but that’s irrelevant. Grantaire has had plenty of dreams that feel scarily real; that’s kind of the point of dreams, isn’t it? “If I told people I’d met a frost spirit in the forest, they’d think I was hallucinating.”

“That isn’t what I asked you.”

Grantaire sighs. “Yes, it feels real. But that doesn’t mean it is.”

“If you start questioning the existence of things in that manner, you’ll never stop. No answer will ever be sufficient to prove anything either way. Besides, just because something seems improbable doesn’t mean there’s any excuse for you to not believe in it.”

“Yeah? Santa’s improbable. Are you telling me I should be believing in him?” Grantaire raises an eyebrow in challenge.

“Don’t be difficult.”

Grantaire gives him a half smirk, then very cautiously lets go of Combeferre’s other hand, stumbling along on his own in what could be called an acceptable manner.

“See,” Combeferre calls after him encouragingly. “You said that was improbable!”

“Hey, I am not conceding any points,” Grantaire insists, righting his balance so he looks less like bambi and more like he can pretend he knows what he’s doing. Maybe he does have to agree that this isn’t quite as difficult as he thought it was going to be, now that’s he’s sort of getting the hang of it. With a bit of practise, he might be able to pick it up. At least it’ll give him something to do out here in the middle of nowhere.

Or at least, that’s his thinking. Until the ice cracks.

Grantaire suffers from the sort of heart wrenching moment you get when you know something bad is about to happen and that’s not a single thing you can do to prevent it, because this is exactly the sort of thing he was concerned about, but then it gets hard to concentrate because the ice gives way.

He’s not sure he has the vocabulary sufficient to describe the cold, so he settles for fucking freezing. He thought Combeferre’s skin was cold, but it’s nothing compared to this, to the way it penetrates every fibre of his being all at once, every single cell assaulted with sharp pain that makes him draw breath involuntarily.

A few feet away, Montparnasse is staring at him in a mix of both shock and indignation, his claws still sunk into the ice from his unusual travel method. It’s pretty clear from the look on his face that he isn’t used to having humans in his lake, and he isn’t sure what to do about it. With effort, he dislodges himself from the ice, but that’s the moment Combeferre takes hold of the massive hood on Grantaire’s coat and hauls him upwards.

It’s a struggle to get him on his feet, spluttering, shivering, but Combeferre and his seven foot of bulk manages to do it, guiding him none too gently to the bank. He coaxes Grantaire into sitting down (not that it takes much coaxing) and makes short work of stripping him of his sodden coat, taking the pelt from his shoulders and enveloping Grantaire in that and his arms both. The pelt doesn’t look that big on Combeferre, but it swamps Grantaire.

“Never again,” Grantaire mumbles, teeth chattering. “I don’t care how nicely you ask.”

“I’m sorry,” Combeferre says guiltily. “I should’ve known there was a weak patch -”

“Blame yourself I’m going to hit you with those books,” Grantaire says bluntly. “All of them. At once.” He turns in Combeferre’s grip to give him a weak smile. “I’m fine. Still alive, aren’t I?”

“That’s beside the point,” Combeferre mutters, but he does sound relieved, if still more guilty than Grantaire would’ve liked

Across the lake, Montparnasse appears out of the hole left in the ice by Grantaire. His hair, which under the water had drifted around in an ethereal sort of way, is stuck to his face as he unleashes a prolonged hiss in their direction, then sinks back into the water so only his eyes are showing above the ice.

“Sod off!” Grantaire calls at him with the grumpiest look he can muster. Montparnasse flips him off in return.

“Oh, ignore him,” Combeferre says fondly, rubbing Grantaire’s arms vigorously though the pelt to try and warm him up. “He’s just throwing a tantrum because Jehan hasn’t been to see him.”

Grantaire stiffens. “Jehan?”

“His sort-of-boyfriend, if that’s the right word. You’ll know him if you see him. Quite tall, lots of fur, big horns. Freckly. Looks like he could have a bird nesting in his hair. He’s quite charming, actually. But that’s irrelevant, you need to warm up. I’ll help you home, it’s the least I can do.”

Grantaire nods numbly. He certainly has business at home, that’s for sure.

 

He finds Jehan in the bath surrounded by so many candles it’s definitely some sort of fire hazard, but Grantaire doesn’t really mind; it’s not the biggest bathroom in the world and the steam makes it quite warm, which is exactly what he’s looking for. Jehan gives him a placid smile as he slips through the crack in the door, then sinks a little lower in the water.

“Don’t get your horns wet,” Grantaire says cheerily.

Jehan sits bolt upright, the motion sending a tidal wave cascading over the side of the bath, extinguishing a small group of candles. He sweeps his wet hair back from his face and tries to look nonchalant.

“I feel like you’re making a stab at my character.”

“What, that you’ve been withholding the truth? No no, whyever would I do that?” Grantaire strips out of his wet clothes and wraps himself in the fluffy dressing gown hanging on the back of the door. It’s lilac, but he can’t do much about that.

Jehan raises an eyebrow and looks unimpressed. “Look, I -”

“I’ve met Combeferre,” Grantaire says bluntly. “Montparnasse misses you, by the way. I’ve never seen something with claws sulk before.”

Jehan’s face falls and he sinks glumly back into the water. “Are you mad?” he asks eventually.

“Me? Nah.”

“Nah?”

“Nah.”

“You just found out I’m not human and the best you can manage is ‘nah’?” Jehan raises his head a little, an odd expression on his face.

Grantaire grins, towelling off his hair. “If you’re expecting me to write some epic poem decrying your existence, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.”

“I do like a good poem decrying my existence.” He drapes himself lazily over the side of the bath. “You’re taking this suspiciously well.”

“I told you, I met Combeferre.” Grantaire shrugs. “Everyone I’m meeting is turning out to not be human. I mean, am I even human?” He makes a show of checking his body.

“Painfully so. Why are you wet?”

Grantaire scowls. “Skating on a frozen lake is never a good idea I don’t care what attractive charming frost spirit tells you it is they are lying.”

Jehan nods sympathetically, then sits up a little straighter. “Attractive and charming?”

“Shut up,” Grantaire says immediately. “You are clearly using your faery wiles to twist my words. I’m going to get dressed.”

He ducks out of the bathroom to the sounds of Jehan sniggering.

 

Jehan appears half an hour later dripping water all over the carpet, clearly unconcerned about his distinct lack of clothes. Grantaire is, by this point, huddled in front of the fire with a nice warming mug of cocoa (okay, it’s scotch, who cares), and is really not expecting to have his retinas burned by the image of Jehan’s athletic calves (among other things) as he turns around. He lets out an entirely fabricated shriek and covers his eyes.

Jehan ignores him. “Do you want to see?”

“I think I’ve seen enough, thank you. You could have my eye out with that thing.”

“Not that! I mean me. My other form. The proper one.”

Grantaire cautiously lowers his hands - Jehan has moved to stand behind the sofa, which is thankfully covering him from the waist down. “Yeah, I was meaning to ask about that. Where are the horns and the fur?”

“This is a sort of disguise, if you like. I can shift my form.”

“Like a werewolf?” Grantaire unleashes a low howl.

Jehan shrugs. “I guess. It’s just not quite as dramatic. Do you want to see, or would you rather keep the illusion that I’m small and non-threatening?”

“You? Non-threatening? Jean Prouvaire, you are delusional. Come on then, dazzle me with your hirsuteness.”

There’s a brief moment where nothing appears to be happening, and then the air around Jehan sort of shimmers, like dust particles floating in front of a window, and he begins to unfold upwards. It’s sort of like watching a sped up video of a tree growing. He’s not quite as furry as Grantaire first thought upon hearing Combeferre’s description - he imagined him furry all over, but it turns out just to be his legs (goat legs; he’s some kind of faun), his chest, and some sort of ruff around his neck and shoulders that somehow manages to look bedraggled and luxuriously soft all at once. The aforementioned horns have sprouted their way out of his hair, huge shiny black things that arch in the air and curl towards the back of his head, flicking up at the ends. On top of all that, his delicate ears have been replaced by floppy ones that poke out sideways out his hair, like a horizontal rabbit, and his freckles have increased by at least sixty percent.

All in all, it’s pretty impressive, though it would probably be much more imposing if he wasn’t having to stoop to avoid the ceiling.

“How do you even exist?” is the extent of Grantaire’s response. He’s getting alarmingly used to people’s remarkable habit for not being human. Consider it one of his finer achievements.

Jehan ducks to avoid the light fitting, then takes an awkward seat on the sofa, which is now much too small for him. “Are you asking how we reproduce?” His voice is much deeper now, rumbling around the room like a distant roll of thunder. “I can go into detail if you like, but it’s not that much different.” He gives Grantaire a coy, obnoxious smirk.

“I am definitely not asking that. I’ve had enough of your intimate anatomy for one day. My retinas haven’t recovered.”

“Besides,” Jehan continues, “won’t you soon find out first hand? I mean, given that you think Combeferre is attractive and charming.”

“Objection. You’re a filthy liar. What does Claquesous really look like?”

“Don’t change the subject! Besides, you don’t want to know what Claquesous really looks like, he’s all made of darkness and voids and other suitably unpleasant things.”

Grantaire smirks. “And yet, he’s your bitch.”

“He’s not my bitch, he owes me a blood debt which is a serious thing, stop changing the subject.”

Grantaire lets out an exaggerated yawn as he downs the last of his scotch. “You know, I’m pretty tired. I’m gonna head to bed. Goodnight Mr Tumnus.”

“Grantaire get back here!”

Jehan stands so quickly in his attempt to follow him he cracks his head on the ceiling.

 

Combeferre is exactly where Grantaire expected him to be; at the side of the lake, surrounded by a very neat stack of books. Grantaire gives the lake a wary, mildly threatening look, then stoops to see what Combeferre is reading; the title says ‘The Snow Child’, but Combeferre’s long fingers are covering the authors name.

“You look better,” Combeferre says cheerfully without looking up. “That’s good to see. You looked worryingly blue for a while.”

“Not as blue as Oscar Wilde, thankfully.”

Combeferre laughs softly and snaps the book closed, using one of the leaves from his hair as a bookmark. “I think any shade of blue isn’t a good look for you. It indicates too little oxygen for my liking.”

“Keep ingesting oxygen. Got it.”

Grantaire takes a seat on the floor besides him - his huge coat making the action quite difficult - and tugs his stupid monkey hat as far down over his ears as he can manage. The temperature’s dropped quite severely in the last few weeks, and the grey clouds massing in the distance are threatening snow.

Unperturbed, Grantaire turns his attention to the stack of books on Combeferre’s other side. “Only just getting started?” he teases.

Combeferre smirks. “Almost finished, actually. I’ve read all those.”

Grantaire’s eyebrows shoot up into his hair. He’d got the feeling Combeferre would be a voracious reader, but that’s a little ridiculous.

“No shit,” he mumbles.

“I wanted to get them finished before my workload increased,” Combeferre says as if reading so many books is hardly out of the ordinary. He nods to the clouds lurking in the distance. “The first snow is on its way. Not my responsibility but I’m still going to be rather busy. Have you got anything Greek?” He runs his fingers down the spines of the books in the stack as if reviewing them in his head.

“I can get you Percy Jackson,” Grantaire says sarcastically.

Combeferre raises an eyebrow. “I have no idea who that is but your tone implies you are, what’s the phrase these days, ‘taking the piss’,” he says dryly.

“Well, it is Greek,” Grantaire points out with a grin, “it’s just less about Zeus’ rampant dick.”

“It’s hardly Greek mythology without Zeus’ rampant dick now is it?” Combeferre adjusts his glasses in a scholarly manner and tries to fight the smirk from his face.

“Now lets not be hasty, I didn’t say Zeus’ rampant dick wasn’t involved, I just said there was less rampant dickage. In fact, if anything it’s more to do with Poseidon’s rampant dick, but there are rampant dicks on everyone’s part, Hades included -”

“Stop saying dicks,” Combeferre interrupts in the most serious manner he can manage.

“Would you prefer trouser snake?” Grantaire asks with a perfectly straight face. “Or is meat popsicle more suited to your sensitive capabilities?”

Combeferre swats at his arm with the book and gives him a fond smile. “You’re impossible. Change the subject, something not about phalluses.”

Grantaire holds his hands up placatingly. “If you insist. So if Zeus’ rampant phallus isn’t to your taste, who is?”

Combeferre looks in deep thought for a moment. “Athena,” he says eventually, though he still looks to be mulling it over indecisively.

“I’m a fan of Dionysus myself. A man after my own heart,” Grantaire says dramatically, placing his gloved hands over his chest.

“Oh? Did your father sew you into his thigh and give birth to you as well?” Combeferre asks wryly. “What a startling coincidence.”

Grantaire raises an imaginary glass. “Led to a life of drinking and debauchery in us both.”

“And a flair for dramatics, it seems.”

“I try my best. Impressive amateur dramatics aside, despite your busy schedule I’ll bring you books about Zeus screwing everything that moves.”

“Much appreciated. What about yourself? Have you been keeping busy?” Combeferre asks, sounding genuinely interested. “It’s Christmas soon, isn’t it?”

Grantaire nods, though there’s something of an unpleasant feeling settling in his stomach as he realises he’s completely forgotten. It’s not like he usually makes too much of a fuss, just sends out a few cards and the occasional present, but he knows full well Jehan’s completely enamored with it - Jehan’s Christmases usually involve a suspiciously massive tree, as much tinsel as he can possibly get his hands on and ugly reindeer sweaters.

“You don’t look best pleased about this,” Combeferre remarks with a small smirk, which he at least has the good grace to try and hide.

“I’d forgotten,” he admits. “Now I have to do last minute shopping.”

“And that’s bad, yes?”

Grantaire nods absently, looking out over the frozen water and catching a faint glimpse of movement under the ice.

Combeferre makes a thoughtful noise, drumming his fingers idly on the book cover, causing little webs of ice to spread across it in intricate patterns. “You could always make things. Then you wouldn’t have to go shopping, correct? I mean, you could draw things.”

Grantaire considers this, then dips into his coat pocket and pulls out his smallest sketchpad, flipping it open to the last sketches he’d done of Jehan in all his furry glory. He’d still have to go shopping for supplies, and he wouldn’t have much time…

“You’re a genius.” Grantaire stumbles to his feet, brushing sand from his jeans and coat. “Help me break through the ice.”

Please,” Combeferre says primly.

 

When Grantaire makes it back the cottage in the vanishing afternoon light, Jehan is sitting in the middle of the back lawn in his full sized hulking-yet-somehow-still-delicate form, dripping water on the grass as he combs his hands through his fur to de-tangle the knots.

“You’re suspiciously wet,” Grantaire says cheerily, “been to see the boyfriend?”

Jehan peeks out at him from under his sodden hair. “He’s not my boyfriend.”

Yeah right, you-”

“He’s my husband.”

Grantaire paused mid-sentence, his mouth hanging open in what was no doubt a highly unattractive manner. “When did that happen?”

“Last summer solstice. Lovely ceremony, very traditional. For our kind, I mean.”

“Which entails what, exactly?” He’s not entirely sure he wants to hear the answer; there was something about the way he said our kind that was implicit of something unpleasant.

Jehan grins at him and wrings out his hair. “You look like you’re expecting me to say ‘sacrifice children’ or something. I mean, we exchanged vials of each others blood but that’s a bit different.” He reaches up to a silver chain on his neck and fishes a little bottle out of his mass of fur; inside is a thick, deep teal liquid that shimmers faintly as Jehan rolls the jar between his fingers, the light sometimes making it appear almost black, sometimes the colour of the Mediterranean. “We wanted to get married in a stone circle, but it’s not as if Montparnasse can really leave the water. We did have a bonfire though,” he finishes brightly.

“That is not nearly as sinister as I was imagining,” Grantaire admits.

“I mean, there is a sacrifice.” Jehan gets up slowly and lets the jar settle against his chest. “But it’s not a human sacrifice, just a crow. You paint the blood on each other’s faces.”

Grantaire pulls a face. “Sounds delightful.”

“You know what is delightful?” Jehan says conspiratorially. “Christmas trees.”

Uh-oh.

 

Grantaire has a mental list of places he’s happy to be at eight o’clock in the morning, and there is exactly one item on it; ‘in bed’. ‘Perched precariously on the back of an unsafe bicycle clinging to Jehan’s waist as they rattle along at a dangerous speed’ is not on the list, but if it was, it would probably be somewhere in the four hundred and nineties. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s exactly what he’s doing.

He’d wanted to try and avoid more shopping than was totally necessary, especially having spent the evening before wrestling with the tree; it had been exactly what he’d expected it to be - monstrously huge and healthier than any tree uprooted from its home and relocated to a corner of someone’s living room had any right to be. Sure, it looked good, but he was pretty certain it would have preferred being left where it was. He certainly thought it looked better before Jehan got his hands on it - smothering it with tinsel and baubles and standing on Grantaire’s shoulders to put a particularly large star on the top which only just fit in the gap between tree and ceiling. He’d rather hoped that would be the end of it, but that was before he was coaxed onto a bicycle.

Eight o’clock in the morning in December is cold, and still dark, and on the whole not exactly pleasant; Grantaire has his face pressed into the back of Jehan’s huge parka, relying on the furry hood to keep him warm with his hat pulled down over his ears - the whole experience is made worse by the fact that the roads out in the country are full of potholes, and by the time they rattle into the city Grantaire is pretty certain he’s got bruises in places he didn’t think could be bruised.

“I’ve got so much to do,” Jehan sighs as he clambers off the bike, struggling to chain it to some railings with his frozen fingers. “I’ve got to get cards and presents and some warmer clothes and candles and lights and-”

“I haven’t,” Grantaire mumbles, trying to huddle down further into his coat. “Just need a couple of things then I'm going to post them. Meet you later shall I?” He slinks off into the crowd before Jehan can answer, desperate to avoid getting dragged around the shops for hours debating the merits of white window lights over blue. He’d been there before and he wasn’t doing it again.

Its not that he doesn't enjoy shopping with Jehan, because that time they went shopping for Halloween costumes after an ungodly amount of shots was admittedly hilarious, it's just the Christmas part he has a problem with. Even so early in the day, the streets are hellishly crowded, and it seems Christmas makes people forget their manners if the amount of people barging him out of the way are anything to go by. He makes no special effort to get out of their way, calmly lighting up a cigarette and letting the smoke envelop him in a way which might hopefully repel other people.

He’d like to say it’s good to get back to the city, except it’s not. It’s exactly the same as it always was, only now the hazy exhaust fumes are glowing cheaply under the Christmas lights and mass consumerism is hidden behind tinsel and good will. He hadn’t realised how much he enjoyed the solitude of being surrounded by miles of wilderness, but now he's beginning to think that by following Jehan out to the middle of nowhere he might actually have made a good decision for once in his life.

Moving against the tide, he drifts his way idly through the few shops he has to visit, eyeing expensive writing paper and watercolours and alcohol based markers with a critical eye, then sulks off with canvases in oversized carrier bags to hunt out a back street café he used to frequent. He chats with the waitress for a minute or two, flirts with her for old times sake, then hides himself in a corner to write his letters with an over-sweet mug of coffee.

He scrawls out a lengthy letter to Feuilly and folds it around his present, writes a cheery card for Joly and Bossuet (the envelope of which he sticks down with a plaster), and finally writes a much more serious card for Enjolras (and only politically antagonizes him a little, you’ll be proud to know). He tries to make his coffee last as long as possible to avoid having to venture back out into the cold, but eventually has to give up and slink to the post office, then spends the rest of the day lingering in pubs while he waits for Jehan to reappear, no doubt laden with Christmas cheer.

Sure enough he appears weighed down with so many bags Grantaire begins to doubt their ability to make it home on the bike, but it’s impossible to say no to someone wearing a hat shaped like a Christmas pudding.

 

Grantaire doesn't think he's ever seen snow on Christmas Day. As far as he's concerned, white Christmasses belong in songs and over-enthusiastic fairy tales, but when he drags himself out of bed and yanks open the curtains he’s greeted with a dazzling blanket of white that is too perfect for its own good. He stares at it dumbly for a second, listening to the crackling of the fire that indicates Jehan is already awake, then gathers his blanket around him and pads into the living room.

Jehan is sprawled half in front of the fire and half under the Christmas tree, wearing a particularly hideous snowman sweater with a strand of tinsel weaved into his hair, a pair of snowflake boppers bouncing merrily on top of his head and sprinkling a fine layer of glitter everywhere as it falls off. There are two small piles of presents stacked near the sofa, obviously organised by recipient.

Grantaire yawns in greeting and flops face first into the sofa, one of the cushions bouncing off and making a break for freedom across the floor.

"You slept in late," Jehan chides, sounding disappointed. "I promised to meet 'Parnasse at twelve, I don't want to be late."

"We won't," Grantaire mumbled into the cushions.

Jehan raises an eyebrow. "We? I didn't say we," he says meaningfully.

Grantaire cracks an eye open and peers at him. "Don't worry, you can have your alone time, I just have something for Combeferre."

"Oh, I bet you do." Jehan gives him a knowing look and winks playfully. He wiggles out from under the tree, puts one last present on top of Grantaire's pile, then sits on the floor with his back against the sofa. "Come on, the sooner we start the sooner we can get out there and get you some Christmas kisses."

"You're delusional, petit," Grantaire groans, but he reaches for his presents all the same.

 

If there's something Grantaire can't get used to, it's the generosity of his friends. Every year he expects them to forget about him, to bypass him when it comes to giving out gifts, and every year they surprise him. Jehan, bless his heart, has not only bought what appears to be an entire art store's worth of paint but has also got more cigarettes than Grantaire can count and a crate of good quality beer - the kind that is alarmingly expensive. (Jehan, in turn, is so thrilled with the framed painting of Montparnasse that Grantaire has been sneakily working very hard on that Grantaire has to fight off the barrage of enthusiastic cheek kisses he receives as a thank you.) There's the usual first aid kit from Joly - a running joke - alongside a pair of new boxing gloves, and a course of tango lessons from Bossuet; from Feuilly a set of very fine brushes, a very awkward card from Enjolras, and finally a very cheery letter from Courfeyrac and Bahorel who are somewhere in the depths of Europe and, from the sounds of it, having a marvellous time.

Grantaire would much rather spend Christmas huddled inside his pyjamas and putting his new paints to good use, but Jehan seems absolutely adamant that not only will he be getting Christmas kisses but Grantaire will too, so it's with great reluctance that Grantaire allows himself to he wrestled into his massive coat.

"Bahorel's adopted a kitten," he informs Jehan as he steps out into the snow and tugs his stupid monkey hat down over his ears. "Says he found it on the streets in Bulgaria."

Jehan hums thoughtfully, bounding through the snow like a child. "Always thought he was more of a dog person." He takes the wall at a running leap - or rather, the best approximation of a run he can manage with snow up to his shins - and tumbles gracelessly over, landing in the snow with a soft whump. Grantaire trudges after him in a much less enthusiastic manner

"What if we got a kitten?" Jehan asks cheerfully as they make their way through the trees, Jehan always a few steps ahead. "It'd be nice to have a pet. We could get some lizards too, or a snake! Some chickens for the garden maybe, once the weather clears up..."

Grantaire snorts, a smirk on his face. "Calm down Doctor Dolittle. You'll be wanting to open a zoo next."

Worryingly, Jehan looks to be considering it.

Something cold suddenly hits the back of Grantaire's neck, sliding down beneath his collar and dripping down his back; he looks up to discover all the snow has slid from a branch above him, most of it now down his back. He knows Combeferre says he didn't have much to do with the snow, but even so, he's outdone himself. Grantaire's first experience of the forest those few months ago were that it was dark and deserving of suspicion, constantly giving the impression that someone was lurking behind a tree waiting to jump out; now, blanketed in white, it seems almost tranquil. The floor beneath him crunches softly with every footfall, sparkling where the sun hits it and making it an almost blinding white; the snow before them is completely untrodden and inviting, like a thick quilt tossed over the landscape just waiting for someone to jump in.

The lake is, unsurprisingly, still completely frozen over; even so, Jehan breaks through the ice with alarming ease, and almost immediately a head pops up out of the water. Montparnasse slicks his hair back from his face, then hauls himself up onto the ice, hardly out of the water before Jehan is accosting him with his Christmas present.

"I don't even celebrate this stupid holiday," he complains. Montparnasse’s voice is as deep as the Atlantic, rich and sultry, but he also hisses a little which completely ruins the effect. Grantaire notices that despite his protests he has no trouble accepting the gift, and then is treated to a very enthusiastic public display of affection that he could definitely do without seeing; he turns away and sits down in the snow to wait for Combeferre.

He realises pretty much immediately that it was a bad idea when the wet seeps into his jeans and he begins to go numb in places he'd rather not go numb. He gets back up again and stamps his feet, lighting up a cigarette and glancing back out over the lake, prepared to quickly look away if anyone is missing their clothes. Turns out they're just plain missing.

He's not exactly sure where they could have gone; there are no tracks leading away from the lake, and Montparnasse can't exactly go on land anyway meaning they must be somewhere in the lake, though he's pretty sure Jehan can't breathe underwater.

"It's a mystery," he mumbles aloud to himself, lips a little numb, then resigns himself to waiting alone for Combeferre.

For a while he wanders around aimlessly, then sits back down in the snow for a few minutes, then gets up and walks around the edge of the lake; he finds a fallen log to sit down on after brushing the snow from it, has another cigarette, takes another aimless walk around the lake, and then it starts to get dark and he starts to give up. He's just about give up completely and walk back home when someone plucks the cigarette from his hand.

Jehan is suspiciously wet, his bedraggled hair clinging to his face as he puffs furiously on the cigarette, cheeks red.

"Fucking cold," he complains, huddling deeper into his sodden coat. Somewhere along the line, he's lost the hideous orange hat he was wearing; Grantaire can't find it in him to be disappointed. Behind him on the ice Montparnasse is sitting with his tail dangling in the water, preening over the circlet that was apparently his gift from Jehan - it glints in the setting sun, reflecting the rose coloured light from the blue stones set in its centre. "Look what he got me, isn't it perfect?" Jehan fishes out a chain hanging around his neck and holds up a little bottle for Grantaire to see; the pinks and golds inside look suspiciously familiar.

Grantaire glances up at the sky, then squints at Montparnasse. "Is it...?"

"The sunset," Jehan says happily. "Isn't it beautiful? He promised me the night sky for our anniversary too, any galaxy I want. He's such a sap, but don't tell him I said that," he adds quietly, tucking the bottle back under his clothes carefully. "What happened while I was away, did you get smooched to within an inch of your life?"

"He didn't show."

Jehan pats his arm sympathetically. "I'm sure he has a very good excuse," he says soothingly, though there's an undertone which suggest that he'll be having very firm words with Combeferre if he doesn't.

"Or he just has good sense," Grantaire mutters. Even so, he leaves behind his gifts for Combeferre; the first Percy Jackson book, the most highly recommended book of Greek mythology he could find, and his most hard-worked on painting in years.

 

The weeks after Christmas are, for the most part, quiet. Jehan disappears more and more often, re-appearing soaking wet to find that Grantaire has spent the whole day holed up in his room, hunched over a canvas and smoking furiously, face flecked with paint. They have a rowdy New Years party, inviting everyone they can think of and going so far as to Skype Courfeyrac and Bahorel in the Czech Republic, who are a few hours ahead and therefore already much drunker than everyone else. Even Claquesous makes an appearance, a small cloud hovering over the corner where he, Joly and Jehan are passing round an opium pipe and contemplating deep philosophical matters such as the best flavour of Pringles. Enjolras, surprisingly, gets more drunk than anyone, and spends most of the evening sighing over Feuilly before passing out at the kitchen table. Had Combeferre been around at the countdown to midnight, Grantaire might have kissed him.

But he wasn’t, so they soldier on with the new year regardless, though Grantaire starts to notice how much he enjoyed his conversations with Combeferre; even the ones about rampant dicks. Jehan makes himself ridiculous New Years resolutions, things that involve them covering the kitchen in a fine layer of flour while they try some new recipe for a pie or Jehan pulling the curtains down after deciding he wanted to give aerial silks a go but having no silks to speak of and improvising. Grantaire accidentally knocks over a vase while practicing fencing in the living room and gets his nose broken after sparring with Jehan to test his new boxing gloves (and subsequently having to use the first aid kit; Joly was thrilled). The snow starts to melt and with it Grantaire's fascination of Combeferre.

Or at least, it does until he shows up in the garden.

Grantaire is perched awkwardly on the broken bench outside the back door blowing smoke rings into the air lazily when Combeferre climbs awkwardly over the wall, something wrapped in a blanket cradled gently in his arms.

"How now, spirit, wither wander you?" Grantaire calls sarcastically, stubbing out his cigarette.

"Scotland. You'll forgive my absence, but duty calls," Combeferre says apologetically. "Thank you for the gifts."

Grantaire scratches the back of his neck awkwardly. "Yeah, well, it wasn't much, just a little something."

"They were perfect," Combeferre insists. "I got you something in return."

Combeferre takes a seat on the bench as best he can and sets the blanket bundle very gently in Grantaire's lap - it lets out a very tiny meow, wiggles for a moment, then a small white face pokes its way out of the folds and looks up at Grantaire with intense blue eyes.

"You've been talking to Jehan," Grantaire says flatly, giving the kitten a grudging scratch behind the ears.

"He thought you might like the company," Combeferre admits. "He said you'd seemed a bit down, thought it might cheer you up."

Grantaire feels like pointing out it was Combeferre's company he was missing and that it would also cheer him up to have more of it, but he keeps his mouth shut instead. Having a kitten around wouldn't be a bad thing, and he's a sucker for small fluffy animals at any rate.

"Thanks," he says with genuine gratitude. "This makes my gifts look crap in comparison."

Combeferre lays a hand on his arm. "They were wonderful. I've never had anyone paint something for me before. It was beautiful."

Grantaire gets a bit embarrassed; he isn't used to getting compliments on his work. He wants to tell Combeferre that he's being biased again, but he's sure he'll just get glared into accepting the compliment; sure enough, Combeferre has a look on his face which implies he's not to be argued with.

"It was alright," he concedes.

"Well, that's a start," Combeferre says with a sigh, though he smiles all the same. He leans over to pet the kitten, leaning into Grantaire as he does; Grantaire is pretty certain his heart rate goes up, which he tries to ignore. "When I go away again, she'll look after you."

"Where are you going? How long?"

Combeferre sighs. "All over. I can't neglect my job, after all."

"Things to freeze, husbands to trap in lakes?" Grantaire asks with a playful smile.

Combeferre laughs lightly. "I'm afraid so. I'll call in as often as I can, promise." He stands up from the bench and grabs the edge of the pelt as it begins to slide from his shoulders. "Jehan says you wanted to kiss me at New Years."

The traitorous bastard. Grantaire makes a mental note to never make drunk confessions to Jehan again. He opens his mouth uselessly, intending to perhaps say something (though someone really ought to tell his brain that because it hasn't yet decided exactly what he's going to say), but he's saved from having to try as Combeferre gives him a very chaste kiss. Combeferre blinks for a moment, as if he surprised even himself with his actions, then his pale cheeks go red and he makes a very abrupt exit, leaving behind a bewildered Grantaire clutching a kitten.

 

Grantaire foolishly lets Jehan name the kitten. He picks Belial. Grantaire feels like he should be surprised that Jehan would name a kitten after a biblical demon, only he isn't. If he’s perfectly honest, neither biblical demons nor kittens are at the forefront of his mind. Instead, he’s thinking about how cool Combeferre’s lips were, the sharpness of it, the way he felt Combeferre’s breath like knives in his lungs. He thinks about how fetching he looked with colour on his cheeks, how endearing the look of surprise on his face was-

Jehan is giving him a knowing look.

“This is all your fault,” Grantaire grumbles, folding his arms and slouching down in his chair.

Jehan snorts. “Well of course it was. Don’t take me for the wrong kind of romantic, R, but I was tired of watching you two dance around each other. Someone had to intervene.” He drops two sugar cubes into his tea and tries to keep Belial from sticking her face in it curiously, eventually giving him in and setting the kitten in his lap.

“We were not dancing around each other. He probably doesn’t even like me that way.”

He kissed you!

“Because you told him to!”

Jehan sets his teacup down so hard on the table half of the tea sloshes over the side; Belial mews at him reproachfully. “This is why I don’t get involved in people’s ridiculous relationship issues, you’re all so stubborn! Look, Combeferre might be friendly, but he isn’t social and certainly not with humans, he wouldn’t have spent so much time with you if he didn’t like you. I didn’t tell him to kiss you, I just gave him a nudge in the right direction and pointed out that you’re a stubborn ass who can’t accept when people might like him.”

“Wow Jehan, say what you really think,” Grantaire says sarcastically.

“You are so frustrating.” Jehan puts his head on the table and groans loudly. Belial climbs up out of his lap awkwardly, trots across the table completely oblivious to any discomfort and plops herself in Grantaire’s lap, beginning to purr. “Please just stop denying yourself happiness for once in your life.”

Grantaire pets Belial sulkily. “I’m not denying myself anything.”

“Then kiss him back!” Jehan shrieks into the wood of the table. “Humans, you’re so complicated. Why can’t you just admit when you have feelings?” he mutters, sounding genuinely vexed.

Grantaire leans across the table to pat Jehan’s hand sympathetically. “We do it just to make your life difficult, petit.”

Without lifting his head from the table, Jehan flips him off.

 

Eventually, the last of the snow melts away. The weather isn’t exactly much warmer, but it’s a nice change to be able to go outside without getting wet feet. Now the soil is visible Jehan starts talking about getting the garden cleaned up so he can plant things in the spring, and unfortunately for Grantaire he gets roped into it. De-weeding a garden in cold weather isn’t his - or probably anyone’s - idea of fun. Especially not when Jehan falls down the steps and goes over on his ankle, leaving Grantaire alone while he limps inside to go and attempt some form of first aid.

Grantaire very nearly gives up out of principle, but he thinks about how excited Jehan is about getting the garden planted and resolutely keeps going. After all; he was sort of right about Combeferre (not that he’s intending to admit that out loud). Truth is, Combeferre does make him happy, and though Grantaire isn’t exactly believing of the idea that maybe someone might actually find him attractive, he thinks he could maybe come around. Combeferre did kiss him after all. The thought gives him a feeling of warm contentment that he isn’t used to, but honestly, he’s quite looking forward to getting used to it.

Maybe Grantaire can stop being stubborn for once in his life, but unfortunately it looks as if the weeds can’t.

They’re probably mocking him, or at the very least somebody is, watching him putting all his effort in tugging uselessly and being bested by a plant. Cursing under his breath, he shifts his grip further down the stem and yanks harder; the thing hardly budges, but a few of its leaves do break off. The notion to give up starts to creep back into his mind, until a cold hand clamps around his; for a moment he almost doesn’t think it’s Combeferre, because usually Combeferre’s hands are cold enough to cause frostbite and this is barely cold enough to sting, but then the plant develops a crust of ice and begins to shrivel up.

“Shouldn’t you be in Wales freezing sheep or something?” Grantaire asks conversationally.

“Shouldn’t you be wearing gloves?” Combeferre retorts, lifting Grantaire’s hands to his mouth and kissing his knuckles. Grantaire goes a little red and looks away, embarrassed. “I told you I’d call in as often as I could, and I meant it.”

Grantaire reclaims his hands and shoves them into his pockets to keep them warm. “You’re off somewhere else then?”

“Canada. Just for a little while, and then I’ll be back. I’ll bring you something nice to make up for it.”

“You don’t have to make it up to me. It’s your job, after all.”

“No, maybe not, but I just want an excuse to bring you nice things.”

Grantaire laughs. “What, am I kept man now? You know you’ve already won me over, right? You can stop trying to court me now.”

“If there’s some rule where you can only bring people gifts when you’re trying to court them then I’m neither aware of it nor intending to adhere to it. You’ll take my gifts and like it. Speaking of.” Under Combeferre’s pelt is a small, crudely made leather satchel, out of which he produces a dusty box.

Grantaire eyes the box suspiciously for moment - it looks old, and not necessarily in a well loved way - but when he opens it there is a very small moment where he thinks he forgets to breathe. Inside, nestled in a silk lining, is a bottle of nineteen forty three Glenvivet malt whiskey. Grantaire’s no connoisseur of expensive alcohol by any means (generally speaking because he can’t afford it), but he knows this stuff isn’t cheap.

“You like whiskey, don’t you?” Combeferre asks, sounding a little anxious. Clearly he can see the look of utter disbelief on Grantaire’s face and has mistaken it for something else.

Grantaire closes the box and sets it down carefully on the garden wall, then kisses Combeferre in a much less careful manner.

 

Despite Grantaire’s best efforts at keeping Combeferre as long as he can (involving bribery in the form of kisses and offering repeatedly to go to Canada with him), he eventually has to leave. Grantaire’s life goes back to being dull as he savours his whiskey and returns to spending all his time in his room, obsessing over small details in paintings; things like the perfect balance of blue-grey and silver in an iris, for instance, or the thin highlights of rich honey in hazelnut-coloured locks. Sometimes he forgets to eat; sometimes Jehan will take him by the arm and forcefully lead him to the kitchen to remind him.

Belial follows Grantaire around in a manner which suggests she has no desire to do anything else. She plays with the frayed edges of Grantaire’s jeans while he paints, or sits quietly in his lap, or rolls around in spilt paint and ruins all the carpets. She gets soil in her fur and brings dead birds into the house, which Jehan gets surprisingly pleased about; he probably uses the bones to make more jewelry for his hair. She sleeps at the end of the bed every night and wakes Grantaire up every morning. In short, she makes a terrible mess, but it’s impossible to be annoyed at her.

Occasionally, Jehan will come in from working in the garden covered in soil and cheerfully announce that Combeferre is outside, and Grantaire will drop everything to go see him. Sometimes they sit on the broken bench by the back door together and lie half in each others laps while discussing philosophy or mythology or the paradoxical nature of time travel; sometimes they walk through the woods or down to the lake, and always Grantaire returns home, puts aside whatever canvas he is working on, and paints everything he can remember; and he remembers every detail. The first time Combeferre had tentatively held his hand, the time they lay on their backs and traced constellations in the sky, the way Combeferre’s kisses seemed warmer and warmer every time he came home.

Grantaire can finally admit it to himself; he has feelings for someone, and they have feelings for him, and he’s happy.

 

Spring rolls around, and with it the first hints of flowers begin to peek out from the ground. Grantaire moves from the bedroom to living room and sets up in front of the window, intending to paint Jehan’s handiwork in the front garden. It’s a little odd, to see it neat and organised, so used as they are to seeing a hideous mess and grass up to their knees, but once they start planting the flowers it’ll admittedly be something special - at least if Jehan’s grand plans are anything to go by.

Grantaire looks around for his favourite brush, finds Belial wrestling with it, distracts her with ear scratches until he can sneak it away, then settles down comfortably to eradicate every spot of white on the canvas. The sound of Jehan’s radio is drifting into the room from the back door, the weather is clear and sedate with soft blue skies and the possibility of sun, and he has a cold bottle of beer resting by his elbow; all in all, it’s a nice day.

The music becomes quieter for a moment, and then it stops altogether. Caught up in his painting, Grantaire barely notices, and he only realises he’s no longer alone when Belial begins to mewl and abandons where she was playing with his sock to trot over to the other side of the room, looking up at Jehan hopefully. He doesn’t pick her up. There is soil smudged on his face, but the expression he wears is grave. Grantaire puts down his paintbrush.

“Combeferre’s outside,” Jehan says quietly.

There’s something about the tone, the look on his face which drives Grantaire outside, slipping past Jehan with barely a word. Despite the clear day, it’s still not warm outside, not warm enough to be out without a coat and a pair of shoes at any rate, but it doesn’t occur to Grantaire that he should have put them on until he’s halfway across the garden; it’s empty of Combeferre, but the door to the woodshed is open.

Grantaire finds Combeferre inside, huddling in the furthest corner from the door out of reach of the weak sunlight streaming in through the door; his breathing is laboured, cheeks flushed, eyes no longer silvery but a watery blue, like a melting puddle. He gives Grantaire the best weak smile he can manage.

Grantaire kneels beside him and takes Combeferre’s hand; it’s warm.

“What’s happening?” he asks, hardly daring to voice the question. Combeferre looks worryingly ill.

“I bought you something,” Combeferre’s voice sounds tired, but the look he gives Grantaire is fond, loving. With great effort, he lifts his other hand and offers the closed fist to Grantaire; inside is a small bottle, filled with a silvery white liquid, thick like syrup and shimmering, the way it swirls around the bottle making it look like a tiny blizzard.

“You can’t give me this,” Grantaire says, voice thick, but he closes his hand around the bottle all the same.

He doesn’t realise that a tear has dripped down his face until Combeferre reaches up to wipe it away. “You’re cold,” he mumbles, giving the best stern look he can manage. “Here, take this.” With difficulty, and with Grantaire’s help, he sits up, then drags the thick pelt from his shoulders and wraps it around Grantaire’s.

Grantaire knows what’s happening, knew it as soon as he felt Combeferre’s warm, clammy hand, but he doesn’t want to admit it to himself, as if somehow denying it will reverse everything.

“Is this my fault? Did I do this?”

Combeferre flat out glares at him, and for a moment it’s as if nothing has changed and everything is fine. “If you say that again I’m going to tell Jehan to hit you for me.”

“But if you hadn’t have come back-”

“It was my choice,” Combeferre says softly. “It was worth it.”

Grantaire doesn’t have the heart to tell him that he’s wrong, that there’s no way Grantaire could ever be worth this, that he should’ve just waited, Grantaire would’ve waited for him; he doesn’t tell him this, because it’s too late. With all the best will in the world, no matter what he tries or how hard, there’s no way for him to fix this.

Instead, he gropes blindly for the tool rack on the wall, taking hold of the first sharp thing he can find and wincing from the pain. He doesn’t have a bottle, so the best he can do is close his hand around Combeferre’s and watch the blood drip down his arm; Combeferre brings their hands up to his face and leans into Grantaire’s palm, leaving a red smear on his cheek.

“It’s so warm,” he mumbles.

There is nothing more. No more words to convince Grantaire of his worth, no more laughter or stubborn glares, no fond looks or light-hearted jokes; no more icy kisses or numb fingers or freezing breath mingling with his own.

All that is left is a cold bottle digging into his palm.