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Au Coeur de la Nuit

Chapter Text

As the bus drove away in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes, Enjolras was surprised to discover that he could, in fact, get dirtier. The red dirt of the country road settled into the creases of his khakis and the weave of his shirt, mingling with the accumulated grime of a full day of travel. When he had left Paris in the morning, sneaking out of his apartment before he could encounter any angry landlords, police, or, God forbid, family members, Enjolras had looked like the well-heeled student he until recently had been. Now, standing beside his battered suitcases outside of a third-rate boy’s reform school twenty minutes from the nearest backwater town, he was sure he looked just as tired and run-down as the locals on the bus. It was, he mused, either the first shift towards a new life of gratifying public service and edifying connections with the common man, or the final transformation in a long, depressing slide into ignominy, failure, and the ultimate embrace of death. Either way, no one was coming to help him with his bags.

The persistent red dust had just succeeded in turning his usually blond hair into an unattractive reddish-brown mop by the time Enjolras lugged his suitcase up to the walls of the school grounds. A sign over the wrought-iron gate told him something he already knew: despite his best efforts, he had reached Fond de l’Etang. Winded from the trek up the driveway, exhausted from travel, and still not quite sure he wasn’t having one of his more elaborate nightmares, Enjolras slumped inelegantly against the cool metal. For a moment, he considered abandoning his bags, chasing after the bus, and begging the driver for a ride back to civilization. But that would mean abandoning both the friend who had gotten him his new job and returning to the unpleasant situation that had gotten him kicked out of university in the first place. Taking in his surroundings-- the worn dirt road, the scrubby autumnal forest, the dead grey stone of the wall made somehow gloomier by the setting sun-- he tried once again to remind himself that keeping his pride intact was worth any amount of personal discomfort. He might have stayed there, fused to the entryway like a pensive neoclassical sentinel in a sweater vest, had it not been for the sound of shifting gravel.

Standing on the other side of the gate about a foot away from Enjolras stood a small boy of remarkable appearance. He was dressed plainly enough in a worn pair of black knee-pants, a white shirt, and a blue sweater with the crest Enjolras recognized both from the gate he was leaning against and the letters that had confirmed his appointment to the school. What was more unusual was that the boy, apparently bored with the sartorial limitations of a uniform, had supplemented his costume with an elaborate tricolor cravat, a pair of extremely ancient galoshes, and an improbably large tricorn hat. Over his small shoulder, the boy had slung a little bundle on a stick. Enjolras could see what looked like the edge of a comic magazine sticking out of the end, beside the plush paw of an indeterminate animal. The boy was staring at the road beyond with the unflinching gaze of an alley cat.

“Are you supposed to be here?” Enjolras asked.

“My sister is coming to pick me up,” said the boy. Reluctantly, he turned away from the road and looked at Enjolras. “What’s it to you, blondie?”

Enjolras raised an eyebrow. “I’m your new composition teacher. Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“It’s Sunday,” said the boy, apparently unfazed by the presence of an authority figure, albeit a very young and very disheveled one. “Don’t they have Sundays off where you come from? Or do they work all the week through? It must be pretty bad there, if you came here instead. Or are you running away? Are you in trouble? Are you a criminal? Is this where you’ve come to hide out? How come you’re so filthy? And why is your hair so long? You look like a girl. Are you in disguise?” The boy grew more and more animated with each question, and Enjolras quailed in the face of inquisitive youth. Would this be what teaching was like every day?

“Gavroche, stop bothering your new teacher,” said a strong voice from behind the gate. Enjolras could just make out the lanky figure advancing towards them through the gathering dusk. He found himself grinning for the first time as he recognized the glint of glasses and the impossible gleam of a perfectly white shirt against brown skin. Combeferre, at least, looked the same in this dusty, quiet corner of nowhere as he had in the libraries of Paris or the streets of Marseille.

“I caught a criminal!” said Gavroche, puffing out his chest. “He’s trying to disguise himself as a girl, but I spotted him right away.”

“Is he supposed to be here?” said Enjolras, simultaneously trying to straighten his shirt, push his hair back, and wipe some of the dirt from his face.

“It’s Sunday,” said Combeferre, reaching past a smug Gavroche to undo the padlock on the gate.

“So I’ve heard,” said Enjolras.

As the gate swung back with a creak, Enjolras found himself once again face-to-face with his oldest friend. Combeferre clasped his hand in a firm shake, smiling just as broadly as Enjolras, albeit with a touch more gravitas and a touch less dirt. “Good to see you made it in one piece,” said the other man.

“Barely.” Enjolras frowned down at his ruined clothes and once again tried to flatten his hair. “I’m afraid this isn’t the best first impression to give my new employer.”

“Oh, Gillenormand won’t see you tonight,” said Combeferre, leaning over to pick up Enjolras’ suitcase. “Most Sundays he drives into town for lunch with his grandson. He usually doesn’t return until late.”

“Best day of the week,” piped up Gavroche.

“Anyway, the headmaster will probably expect you in his office tomorrow morning,” said Combeferre. “Right now, all you have to do is get settled in.” Enjolras made to follow Combeferre up the driveway, but his friend stopped suddenly with an uncomfortable look. Enjolras watched him examine the boy at the gate with what looked like pity. “Gavroche,” Combeferre asked, “don’t you think you’d better come inside before it gets dark?”

“My sister is coming to get me,” said Gavroche, who had resumed his examination of the road.

Once again, Enjolras saw Combeferre look uncomfortable. “Don’t you think maybe she would have come by now?”

“No,” said the boy, still refusing to turn his gaze from the road.

“Gavroche,” said Enjolras suddenly, “how would...how does your sister get here?”

“On the bus,” said Gavroche. “She works in the town.”

“Oh,” said Enjolras, meeting Combeferre’s eyes. “Well, I heard that the late bus from town was cancelled today. Mechanical failure,” he added, as Gavroche turned skeptical eyes on him. “No one was allowed to leave the station.”

“Did you see my sister in town?” said Gavroche.

“What does she look like?” Enjolras asked.

“She’s got brown hair,” said Gavroche, “and blue eyes like I’ve got. And she’s tall and she wears a blue dress sometimes.” Over the boy’s head, Enjolras watched Combeferre’s expression shift.

“I think I saw her,” said Enjolras, improvising. “She seemed very upset that she wouldn’t be able to see you tonight.” Slowly, Combeferre started to move towards the school again. Enjolras did the same, and after a moment Gavroche let go of the fence and followed them.

“I bet she gave the bus driver a talking-to,” said Gavroche determinedly. “I bet she gave him a real piece of her mind.” He looked up, and in his eyes Enjolras saw for the first time a very uncertain little boy, trying very hard to bluster.

“That’s right,” said Enjolras, “I think she almost made him cry.” Gavroche, apparently accepting this as something his sister could easily do, looked satisfied.

They had now reached the main building of the school. It looked to Enjolras a little like a prison from a Victorian novel, somewhere ill-famed and ghostly. Aging stone and heavy oak gave an impression of faded splendor and institutional power, and over the arched doorway a worn stone coat-of-arms hinted at a noble past, but it was clear from the prevailing smell of chalk, soap, and old paper that the building, whatever it had once been, was now a solid bastion of the sensible glories of Education.

Enjolras was forcibly reminded of his own school days as he followed Combeferre through the arched doorway and into a small stone hall. To be sure, Enjolras’ school had been somewhat less shabby and more filled with various priests, but the general air of forcible cleanliness and dejected youth was so familiar that he half expected to get a reprimand for walking the hallways without his school jacket on. It was only belatedly that he realized that this time, he would be the one handing out demerits for untied laces and back-talk. It wasn’t, he thought, a pleasant realization.

“Want to see the world’s largest tricolor rosette?” said Combeferre, turning to Enjolras with only a hint of sarcasm in his eyes.

“Not particularly,” said Enjolras. Combeferre chuckled darkly, and led him through the hall into a larger entryway where, sure enough, the wall above a large staircase was decorated with an absolutely enormous rosette of blue, white, and red bunting. Beneath the decoration hung two old-fashioned photographs, one of a smiling woman in a large hat and the other, slightly newer, of a sour-looking old man. The arrangement reminded Enjolras unfavorably of a portrait of Lenin he had once seen on the wall of the Soviet embassy in Paris. “Jesus, Combeferre.”

“I did say it was huge,” said Combeferre. “That’s Gillenormand underneath it. The man, obviously, not the woman-- she’s the Countess, our patron.”

“She don’t look like that now,” said Gavroche, from beside Enjolras’ elbow. “She’s old.”

“Gavroche,” said Combeferre, “You’re missing dinner.” The boy made a face at Combeferre, but obediently scampered away down one of the stone hallways leading further into the school. “I think he likes you,” Combeferre said, looking after his student.

“Does he?” said Enjolras, wary. “I can never tell, with children.”

“No, you were never very good with kids at all.”

“Thanks very much,” said Enjolras sourly. “Did you tell Gillenormand that when he hired me?”

“He probably would have liked you more if I had,” Combeferre said, as he led them up the stairs. As they passed the portraits, Enjolras studied the face of the headmaster. No, he didn’t look like a man who cared particularly about the welfare of children. “Gillenormand,” Combeferre continued, “would hire a child-eating witch to teach writing if she came cheap enough. You, my friend, were the only applicant willing to take the salary he offered.”

“I had to get out of Paris,” said Enjolras, “and this was my best option. But if it’s that bad, why do you stay on?”

“First of all, because I like the children,” said Combeferre, as they walked down a darkened hallway on the second flood. “And second, because Gillenormand is apparently the only headmaster willing to ‘overlook’ the fact that I’m an Arab. For a significant pay cut, obviously.”

“A pay cut?” said Enjolras, outraged. “Doesn’t he know you were top of our class? Doesn’t he know you’re a doctor? What difference--” Combeferre shot him a tired look. It was a discussion they had had before, in various different disguises, and one that always ended up going nowhere. “Well, he’s damn lucky to have you.”

“I know,” said Combeferre.

They walked in silence down the hallway. To their left, a series of locked and darkened doors suggested classrooms closed up for the day. Through the windows lining the right-hand wall, Enjolras could see a large courtyard, dark except for a beam of light spilling out of what he assumed was the dining room. Across the way, another line of darkened windows matched the ones he now looked out of. The corners of the school were marked by squat towers. Night had fallen quickly in the absence of a city’s bright lights, and the only sign of life Enjolras could see was the lone shape of a man standing pensively in the courtyard, silhouetted in the light from the dining room. He looked, thought Enjolras, just as lonely as the empty school.

“Our rooms are through here,” said Combeferre, pushing open a heavy door at the end of the hall. It opened on another, identical hallway of dark stone, punctuated by three doors. “I’m at this end, you’re at the other. I have a key for you-- lock your door every day, unless you want the students going through your things. We just had the locks replaced, so it should be a few weeks before they figure out how to pick them.”

“Surely they don’t have any reason to steal from us?” said Enjolras.

“Who needs a reason? I think some of them are just very bored. This is a reform school, remember.” Combeferre unlocked the door at the end of the hall, the one that was supposed to be Enjolras’. As they stepped into the room beyond, he flicked on the light switch, and the room was illuminated by a single lamp hanging from the ceiling. “I’ll leave you to unpack,” said Combeferre. “I’m afraid Gillenormand will want to see you in the morning, before classes start. He’ll tell you exactly what’s expected of you, but as far as I know you’ll be starting with the older boys after lunch. There’s not much you have to do,” he said quickly, seeing Enjolras’s alarmed expression. “Frankly, they’ve learned not to expect much from teachers and they won’t object to an easy start. Just get to know them a little, and try not to be overwhelmed. There’s some coffee in the kitchen for us adults around six-thirty or seven o’clock.”

He paused with one hand on the doorframe, and was silent for a moment. Enjolras watched him glance around at the shabby stone, the ancient wood, the scuff marks from generations of inhabitants, and sigh deeply. “This isn’t a bad place,” he said, in a softer voice than before. “The students are troubled and Gillenormand is a terror, but...there’s something. Potential, maybe, in most of the students and the staff. I know it isn’t what you’re used to, it isn’t a grand struggle of the highest principles or the great philosophical center of our time, but, well, it’s the chance to change a few small lives, I suppose.” He raised his gaze to Enjolras’, dark eyes still and serious behind his horn-rimmed glasses. “You’ll do well here, don’t worry. And it’s good to see you. Goodnight, Enjolras.”

He left, and Enjolras was alone. For a long moment he stood by the door, taking in the room that was now his. It was small, certainly smaller than the set of rooms he had had in his old-- in his parents’ house, but not smaller than his bedroom at school had been. The furniture consisted of a bed, a dresser of darker wood, and a bedside table that matched neither. A desk and a rickety-looking chair stood in the corner, and a blue rag rug lay across the stone floor. Someone had attempted to cheer up the room with a pretty lace curtain for the single window, which Enjolras guessed would have a view over the woods when the sun was up.

Crossing to the desk, Enjolras noticed a small painting hanging on the wall above it. It was of a hawthorn tree in full bloom, branches bending over a stream. Enjolras knew that his friends in Paris had often teased him for his cool attitude towards art. It was true that he often had trouble understanding why people bothered to spend so much mental energy finding meaning in a picture of a flower or a piece of land when there were so many other problems to think about. But for some reason-- maybe because of the bleakness of his surroundings, or the disappointments of the previous days and weeks, or even just because it was late and he was tired-- Enjolras decided that this painting, which after all was only a tree, was as deeply evocative as any realist mural he had ever admired. It was good to have something beautiful to look at, when everything else was so faded.

After he had finished unpacking his bags, Enjolras found he was no longer tired. At least, he was tired, but he couldn’t quite face the idea of shutting himself in the bleak little room and lying there in the darkness for the ten or so minutes it always took him to fall asleep. Instead, he pocketed the key Combeferre had given him and stepped out of his room into the hallway beyond. Very little had changed. In the windows across the courtyard he could see occasional shifting shadows where the students moved about their dark dormitory. As a teacher, he supposed he had the responsibility of making sure they weren’t getting up to any trouble in there; as a young man, he supposed he really didn’t care. That sort of thing could wait until tomorrow, when he was officially appointed.

No light showed from under either of the other doors in the hall; Combeferre and their mysterious third colleague must have gone to bed. Enjolras crossed to the window and found it unlatched. He leaned against the wood and stuck his head into the cool evening air beyond. Here it was easy to see the stars. He wondered whether that was any consolation for living so far from the advances of civilization.

Although dinner was over, the light in the dining room had evidently been left on. By leaning out the window and looking directly down, Enjolras was able to see the broad beam of yellowish light that spilled into the courtyard. The man who had been standing there before, the one who had seemed to him so lonely, was still there. He was now leaning against what looked like a goalpost, head back, staring up at the stars. Enjolras found himself studying him as he had studied the little painting in his room, taking taking in dark hair and a short, muscular form. Idly, it occurred to him that this must be the third man, the colleague who lived between him and Combeferre. He wondered why he was in the courtyard so late, staring so intently at the sky. Was there something in the air of this school that made people melancholy? Certainly Enjolras himself wasn’t usually this imaginative, or this emotional. He lingered in the window, observing.

Even though he knew the man was in fact a living man and not a painting, it was still a shock when he turned his head and accidentally locked eyes with Enjolras in his window. For a long, slow moment Enjolras held his blue-eyed gaze; then, he unfroze and drew back abruptly, embarrassed to have been staring so directly for so long. The look on the other man’s face had been abject shock-- Enjolras had clearly intruded on a private moment. He fled back into his own room and locked the door behind him.

Whatever spell had kept him awake and in such a contemplative mood had been broken by the presence of another human being, one with such clear eyes. Enjolras prepared for bed at last, kicking himself for having wasted so much time romanticizing when he should have been getting a good night’s sleep in preparation for the day ahead. Tomorrow would be long and strange, full of new things and new people, and it was only as he was about to drift off that Enjolras was able to admit to himself that he was dreading it.