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The Lotus Drinker

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Enjolras can hear snatches of the downstairs conversation coming up through the floorboards: it's muffled, but when someone exclaims, it comes through. He hears them when he's not coughing.

“Insufferable!” Joly is exclaiming just then, to their assembled friends. He had recently left the room they'd installed Enjolras in above the Cafe to keep a close eye on him, and slammed the door just a little on the way out. “Absolutely the worst patient I have ever tried to care for, and I treat myself, you know. Stubborn, rude, fatalistic, and he refuses to take the laudanum that will let him have a proper night's rest, which he badly needs--”

And the rest of the complaint is lost to a prudent question he can't really hear, from Combeferre, and then other voices chiming in: “--You cannot just take a day from being a martyr because you're ill, Joly, especially if you are an Enjolras--” that's Bahorel. “We could tie him down and make him drink it,” is Courfeyrac's suggestion, sounding all too pleased with the concept, and Feuilly says, “Perhaps in some soup or gruel--”

Above the din, at last, the rising tenor of Grantaire: “That will not suffice. The flavor of the drug is too bitter to be masked. Let me try. I will take it to him.”

Sounds of further argument, and finally of mutual accord, and a “Go with God,” from Jehan, half-seriously, and then the sound of Grantaire's footfall on the stairs.

Enjolras manages to make his aching limbs drag themselves into a semblance of an upright position. The act of sitting up requires enormous effort, and his head spins with sudden dizziness; he's collapsing back against the pillows when the door opens under Grantaire's hand, and it is not the picture he wanted to present at all, but Enjolras is too busy trying to keep his lungs inside his chest.

His hair is heavy with the sweat of fever, and he shivers and burns. His thoughts turn to Dante. Joly had put him to bed without shirt after he complained of the inferno-like conditions, but now he is cold again, all the blankets drawn up as far as they can go. He coughs. Once, only that, thank God, not the convulsion that sometimes seizes. It is the worst picture of him that has ever been drawn.

Grantaire, with his artist's sense, seems to agree. His eyes are round before he hides the reaction, crossing the room in a brisk stride that shows he has not begun drinking yet to claim the bedside chair. Then his blue eyes are wide again, and he is too honest. “You look terrible. I once drank with a man for half an evening before we realized that he was dead instead of passed out in stupor: he looked livelier than you do.”

None of the others have said it, save for Joly, who while often too tightly wound and prone to exaggeration seemed genuinely frightened by Enjolras' condition. The ailment should not have been so gripping, only Enjolras had made it far worse (to hear Joly tell it) by first refusing to take to sickbed, attending classes and hosting meetings between coughs, and then by denying the healing sleep Joly could provide from a bottle.

Enjolras had insisted that he needed his wits about him, and would take no such measures, could sleep on his own; only it proved that he could not, much, not while his body shook and burned and froze. But none of the others have told him what he looks like. Have avoided his eyes about it, and tried to do what they could to ease and entertain him.

But they had come, the others, an organized, efficient watch. Grantaire alone has been conspicuously absent the last few days, as Enjolras seemed to worsen, and he does not forget it.

Has dwelled on it over-much, even, but he has many hours to pass, and his eyes will not stay focused long enough to read. His friends read to him when he asked, and Grantaire had not been there --

“You will find the statue crumbled,” Enjolras agrees, hardly in denial about his condition. But Joly's potions won't cure him, will only remove his senses and paralyze his body, and he wants no part of them. Grantaire has two bottles tucked under his arm: one, his usual green with red wine, and the small slender brown bottle from the chemist's that Joly had sought to drug him with. “Had you looked.”

There's a bitterness in his tone he had not intended, but the hours have been long, and Grantaire gone with them.

Grantaire looks immediately chagrined, with anger and frustration at a boil underneath. He says, “Joly barred me, after your last turn. He said my constitution was likely weak, and that I should be more prone to catch your affliction. It was a long argument, won by Combeferre, and we will not discuss it. I had planned to come tonight despite the honor guard, but now that I have volunteered to journey into Hades they have relented without another battle. Those gentle men would follow you into greater hells besides, but I do believe they are tiring of fetching your water.”

Enjolras ducks his head, trying to ignore the trickle of fever-sweat trickling everywhere, and admits, “I...I have been unduly cross.”

“I am sorry that I could not be here,” says Grantaire, “but perhaps I can allay a few of your worries. All week I have attended classes in your stead, staying awake long enough to take notes, and learning more about the social compact of man and government than I ever dreamed I would be so lucky to know; your teachers have been alerted, and some sent letters; and I will read you all of it tomorrow.”

Enjolras blinks at him. His eyes are too dry, and it hurts to swallow, but he does so that he might speak again: “That is very good of you, Grantaire,” and Grantaire flushes a shade under the praise, and puts his burden of bottles down on the ground and out of sight. Then he leans closer to the bed, and reaches out and takes Enjolras' listless hand between both of his lively ones.

He is halfway bowed over the bed, over Enjolras, face hidden from sight by the falling curtain of dark curls. “I do try,” says Grantaire, gently. “I will try anything for you, even goodness.”

Enjolras' hand feels clammy despite the doubled warmth of Grantaire's, but the pressure is reassuring. He longs to slip free, though, or be able to raise his other without effort, and let his fingers slide through the comforting chaos of Grantaire's hair and hold. The unnamed thing that is between them has been enhanced by his decline. Usually Grantaire never reached first. But even that touch is a poor idea, Enjolras knows, and Joly would protest it. He should not allow it, but he cannot pull away.

“Golden tongues will give you no edge tonight,” Enjolras says instead. “I will not be taking tinctures known to send men into delirium, and make addicts and widows of as many, all for the sake of my night's comfort.”

“You are often very wise, even at the height of your follies,” says Grantaire, making the statement fond. Still he does not glance up, though he tightens his hold on Enjolras' hand, and slides their fingers together. “But tonight you are acting the fool. Enjolras. You know how I cleave to your will. Constantly. Yet here I must tell you that you are wrong, or at least mostly so. So instead of reading, I would tell you a story.”

He is too tired to argue the matter out again, not with Grantaire bent so; Joly had been difficult enough, had even threatened to dose him like they might a farm animal, for the good of restful sleep. Courfeyrac seemed equally animated to try the approach. If Grantaire failed in his mission, the results would be unpleasant for all of them.

Enjolras tightens his jaw around the cough that threatens. He says nothing. But he tips his head back to listen, which takes less effort. Grantaire's voice, liquid without the roughness of wine, passes time well, knows how to talk in such a way as to seize the air with its topical flights.

“That a tincture could be made from opium was first discovered by the lauded alchemist Paracelsus, who was in the habit of making astonishing discoveries. It so happened that the poppy flower, that mysterious blossom, if dissolved in alcohol rather than water, acquired a real magic. Paracelsus had found a medicine that worked swiftly on the pains of body and mind. He called it laudanum, after the Latin laudaure, that is, to praise. I would that I could bring you a flask of Paracelsus' preparation, for its ingredients were worthy of you: into his healing goblet Paracelsus placed amber, musk, and crushed pearls along with poppy, and found that he could brew a nectar fit for a God.”

Enjolras is listening instead of arguing, mostly because he is trying to suppress his body's instincts and keep his throat from closing. Grantaire goes on without pause, though he has fished free a handkerchief with one hand, the other stayed twined with Enjolras', and he uses it to mop the sweat that beads Enjolras' brow and keeps hazarding his eyes.

Grantaire's touch is light as he smooths the fabric across his forehead. “Certainly, as with any gift of the Gods, it comes with a price. Pain can be quieted, but it is not vanquished. Yet we ever seek its surcease. The draw of the praised cup can come to seize a man, for who would not swallow away his agony if he could? As Odysseus learned too well on the Isle of Lotus Eaters, no one may visit the land of flowers for long, lest he never want to leave. Once, we used Paracelsus' sorcery to cure every ill, and many traveled to the island and were lost; but now we know to be more cautious. A few drops, enough to ease the way to sleep, to dreaming, will do a man of your strength and steady mind no harm. Here any evil will be offset by the good, Enjolras.”

The words at least are like a lull, conjuring a breeze caught off Grecian seas, stirring the dense, heated air that presses Enjolras into his pillows, and Grantaire's telling as earnest a speech as he has heard him give.

The approach is more persuasive than Joly's had been, and it is difficult not to return to it some consideration. Grantaire is right enough, that addiction could not come from one dose alone, and he knows himself not to be the sort of man drawn to its pleasures without cause.

Enough of his friends have taken laudanum when caught by the afflictions that bred in Paris' close quarters; Combeferre spoke often of wishing to study enough to prepare tinctures of his own making. He had the idea that the Gods might be cheated after all, that he could surmise a medicine that eased suffering without ill effects. But until he had Combeferre at the still --

Grantaire is still talking. His hand tightens on Enjolras', his fingers do, and his head is further bowed. “Aside the lessons of history we have learned,” he says, “I can offer you my own. Joly is very good at his medicine, and must be commended; but he has not my training here. I know how to measure just such a dose as to bring you almost instant sleep; I know it well, and that is easy. Much more difficult to gauge are the quantities another sort of person than you are might desire: potions that carry them somewhere else, or bring visions to their sight, or take them from their world with finality.”

Grantaire's tone is flat; there is nothing sing-song in it, and it is too heavy with experience. “You must know that I would give you nothing that I thought could hurt you.” He is low against the bed; he lets his lips ghost across the knuckles of Enjolras' caught hand, barely felt but there, before he pulls away. Joly would throw a fit about contamination, but Grantaire is sitting back to show his face, and for a moment, Enjolras thinks that Grantaire's pallor must be more wretched than his own. “Please,” he says, and then, “Do you trust me, Enjolras?”

Unfair; a completely and utterly unfair tactic, more under-handed than Courfeyrac's plan, or Feuilly's, to make it now about Grantaire, and not Enjolras' will; it is so unfair. But Grantaire, having ruled his expression somewhat, is staring back with expectation, and with one ink-dark eyebrow up.

The cough explodes from him more explosively than his temper is trying to, and it is one of the bad ones. Grantaire is up on the bed at once, arm curved around his bent shoulders to hold him through it, the brace of his body hard and soft and strong around Enjolras. When he is done he lets himself sag against Grantaire, lolls at his neck, a moment; permits himself just that, though he will feel worse than coughing can ever make him if Grantaire takes ill from this.

Grantaire presses a kiss into his hair, its gold tarnished by sweat. He's unhesitant about it now, as though he's quite decided to take ill, and says what is unspoken: “I don't care, I really don't. Joly and the rest be damned.” Then he levers Enjolras back down, adjusts the pillows, fixes the blankets, and goes to pour a glass of water from the jug.

Enjolras takes it, and drinks, and Grantaire reclaims his seat, only making it on the edge of the bed now. He cants his head, looking expectant, expecting to resume their paused conversation. It had been an important one.

Enjolras rolls his eyes. Huffs out a breath. He can do that much. He would like to be able to throw his hands into the air in exasperation. But he cannot. He says, “Give me your thrice-damned witchcraft, then. I will hold you accountable for my person, Grantaire.”

“It so happens that is the position I hope to occupy in life and years.” He turns from the scrutiny of Enjolras' gaze, nearly shy, though Grantaire has said as much or more before, the nights Enjolras lets himself let Grantaire into his bed. Grantaire turns instead to filling the empty water glass with wine.

When he takes up the laudanum, he sets the glass on the bedside table, then becomes silently engrossed in a process that involves tasting the tincture on his own tongue, spitting it sideways once, and twice not; tapping out precise drops of liquid darkness into a spoon, and returning them to the bottle when he frowned at their size; after many minutes he arrives at a quantity that is stirred into the wine with vigor. Flushed now, instead of blushing, Grantaire holds the cup between his palms to warm its contents.

Enjolras watches all of it, and feels himself heated in a way that has nothing to do with the fever. Grantaire at the height of his powers is always a force to behold. The steadiness of his hand, the surety of his conviction here, is rare to see, and, yes, impossible not to trust. He will not deny that Grantaire speaks true: Enjolras cannot imagine the instance where Grantaire would risk him willingly, and for Grantaire to trust himself enough to compose the medicine --

He accepts the glass, when offered, and tries not to frown too much at it.

Grantaire says, “I will stay. I will stay until morning, when I will go to fetch the notes and letters and books, and then I will come back. But I will stay throughout it, and watch how you breathe; and I will not sleep myself, though your breath come even.”

Enjolras nods, and he keeps his eyes on Grantaire's pleading eyes as he takes the potion to his lips and swallows down to dregs before he can change his mind once more. The drug has a foul bitterness even one of the Musain's finest vintages cannot mask, and he wants to gag, but Grantaire is against him again and rubbing tiny circles into his back to ease it.

The effect is almost instantaneous. His head clears from being held in a vise, floating instead; the agony of his throat is completely gone, the aches of every muscle forgotten, and a wave of pure exhaustion is descending, thick and gentle, like a snowfall. The relief from days of ragged pain is monumental. He would cry out with joy, only his mouth prefers to stay slackened.

“Grantaire,” he manages to say instead. He still has his mind, most of it at least; he is himself, or a version of himself made numb and numbed. “Grantaire. Thank you.”

Grantaire says nothing to that, only moves to smooth back Enjolras' hair, combs though it with his fingers. There is a deep satisfaction in his expression from having been successful; it brightens his face and Enjolras likes the look of it very much. His tone, however, is kept wry. “Should I go for medicine instead of law, I wonder?”

“I am not afraid of it anymore,” Enjolras says in response to nothing voiced. The words seen to take a while to push together into an emerging sentence. “And I would not have you awake all night on my account, on unneeded watch, especially if you are to read to me all day tomorrow.”

Blinking, Grantaire lifts his head. He has studied Enjolras' stubborn mien too well. “I will sleep nowhere else.”

“I did not ask you to.” Difficult to coordinate the movement of the blanket under his hand. He is so spectacularly tired. But he edges down the blanket, so that Grantaire sees, and comes to slip underneath and lie beside him. “Joly will have my hide.” But he cannot remember why that should matter.

“Do not worry about me,” says Grantaire, easing closer. “If I take ill, the bed-rest sounds quite desirable. Only imagine it, all the laudanum I might ask for, and you, recovered, full of guilt, so that you must nursemaid me, and I--”

Enjolras is dreaming in the land of flowers before Grantaire's words are done, but not before Grantaire's arms come around him, and hold as an anchor until morning.