The old building burned faster than Enjolras would have dared imagine. Centuries of old wood and papers went up in the blink of an eye. The courtyard was covered in a living carpet of flame as the dry grass caught fire, and everywhere he looked was choked with thick smoke. Grantaire and Enjolras pulled on their clothes and fled the room, racing towards the dormitories. Combeferre was already there, yelling instructions in a voice that tried very hard to be strong. It was clear that with so many students to keep track of and such a large area, there was no hope of extinguishing the flames. The sounds of boys shouting and screaming echoed weirdly through the corridors as they shepherded the terrified students down the mercifully unburnt stairs and out into the dim light of the morning.
The fire department, summoned from the village, arrived twenty minutes later. Gillenormand, apoplectic with rage and shock and still wearing his night-cap, proceeded to lecture the fire chief at the top of his voice, as Combeferre and Enjolras counted the students to make sure no one had been left behind.
“They’re all here,” said Enjolras, eventually. He wiped a sooty hand across his forehead, leaving a trail of ashes.
“Thank God,” said Cosette, hugging closer a crying younger boy. “That’s the best we could have hoped for.”
“The best?” Gillenormand, evidently finished with his lecture, turned on his heel and marched towards the assembled students and teachers. “The best, you say? When my school is destroyed? No, no, the best will be only when we have discovered which of these criminals is responsible for this heinous act.”
Grantaire’s mouth fell open in shock. “Headmaster, why on earth would any of these boys be responsible?”
Gillenormand turned on him. “Do you think I’m a fool? I know these incurable reprobates would do anything to escape.” Cosette, furious, rose from where she had been crouching and advanced on the headmaster. “Besides,” he continued, before she could say anything. “This was found among the wreckage.” He beckoned one of the firefighters forward. In his hands, the man held the burnt-out husk of an empty gas can. “This was clearly an act of willful destruction. Once I find out who did it, and I will find out, mark my words, there will be no mercy for the perpetrator.” He surveyed the assembled students with a sharp eye, turned on his heel, and marched back into his house.
For a moment after he left, there was silence. Then some of the younger students started to cry. Grantaire, cursing under his breath, went to help Cosette comfort them; Enjolras, still struck dumb, stared at the burnt out school.
His thoughts were interrupted by a tug on his sleeve. He turned around and found to his shock that it was Montparnasse, standing directly behind him. The boy had on his usual blank expression, but Enjolras thought he saw a spark of something ominous in his eyes. “Want to see the boss man,” he said, staring at Enjolras.
“I don’t think Gillenormand is really in the mood,” said Enjolras, dumbly.
“Know something about the fire,” said Montparnasse, without blinking. Enjolras could do nothing but nod, and watch as the boy slunk away towards Gillenormand’s house. He felt a deep stirring of unease.
Because Gillenormand had locked himself into the only unburnt structure nearby, Enjolras and the other teachers spent the next hour trying to come up with activities to distract the students as they waited for the school to stop smoldering. They’d finally had some success with a game of soccer when Gillenormand stormed out of his house, followed by a triumphant-looking Montparnasse.
“Attention!” The children abruptly stopped their game. The headmaster’s voice was full of ice, but his eyes were shining. “You will be happy to know that my search for the villain behind the fire has come to an end. Thanks to the help of your classmate,” he indicated Montparnasse with a jerk of his head, “I know just exactly which one of you I will be expelling and reporting to the police.” He walked among the students, letting his gaze rake over their terrified heads. Enjolras knew that expulsion from a reform school would most likely mean either prison, or the permanent end of that unlucky student’s education. More than that, the school was for many of them their only ticket to a hot meal and a roof over their heads.
Enjolras felt his blood run cold as Gillenormand’s hand came thumping down on the shoulders of a young boy, like the gavel of a hanging judge. It was Gavroche. “Say goodbye to your friends,” said Gillenormand, coldly. “This is likely the last you will be seeing of them.” He started to drag him roughly by the shoulder towards his doorway.
“I didn’t do nothing! I didn’t do nothing!” Gavroche’s protests fell on Gillenormand’s deaf ears, even as the boy kicked and struggled. Some of the other boys looked as if they were about to protest as well, but Montparnasse’s work had been carefully done. Gavroche was no longer the ringleader he’d once been, and the boys, terrified by Montparnasse’s gruesome stories of juvenile prison and psychiatric institutions, were not willing to risk expulsion for their classmate. More than half of them stayed mute, and those who had reacted soon thought better of it.
Cosette rushed forward, blocking Gillenormand’s door. “Headmaster, you’re making a mistake! I can’t believe Gavroche would do something like this.”
“Out of my way, girl!” barked the headmaster.
Cosette stood her ground, chin raised. “I won’t let you abuse the boy like that. It’s completely--” Her words were cut off as Gillenormand pushed her out of the way. She stumbled off his stoop and fell to the ground. Grantaire rushed to her side, but she brushed him away.
“There will be no more discussion,” said Gillenormand. “This boy is in my custody until the police arrives. I will discuss your grossly unprofessional conduct with you later, Mlle Fauchelevent.” Pulling Gavroche along behind him, he entered his house and slammed the door shut.
“I have to make some calls,” said Combeferre, after a moment. Enjolras watched him disappear around the side of the school, like a man possessed.
They shepherded the students away from Gillenormand’s door, and into the courtyard of the burned-out school. It wasn’t the best place, but none of the boys could stop staring at Gillenormand’s house, trying to guess what was happening inside. At least the school was structurally stable, and it was a contained environment. Enjolras, still in shock, knew he should be trying to keep an eye on the students, or maybe try to teach them something, but he couldn’t bring himself to think about anything besides what had just happened. Finally, Grantaire instructed all the boys to line up in front of him. “Alright,” he said, in a surprisingly commanding voice. “We’re going to have a little chat about what just happened. We all know Gavroche didn’t have a single thing to do with this fire, and frankly, I think we also all know exactly who actually did set it. So, I really only have one question for all of you: where the hell is Montparnasse?”
He waited, but no one spoke up. “He was here a second ago,” said one of the younger boys, finally.
Enjolras counted the heads again. This time, two were missing: Gavroche, and Montparnasse. “He must have snuck off while we were distracted,” he said. He probably should have been concerned that a student had run away on his watch; instead, he was more angry that Montparnasse wouldn’t be around to answer for himself. He also wondered why the boy had run away just as he’d begun to win favor with Gillenormand. Was the whole fire a cover for his escape attempt? In that case, why implicate Gavroche? Something about the situation didn’t quite add up.
Grantaire seemed to be going through a similar thought process. “That’s one hell of an elaborate diversion,” he said, frowning. He turned to the students. “Can any of you think of a reason why Montparnasse would want to get Gavroche in trouble?” Once again, no one spoke up. “Come on, come on, he’s not here now and I don’t think he’ll be coming back any time soon. It’s not snitching if he isn’t around to get you for it.” Still, there was silence.
“I think they really don’t know,” said Enjolras. “He’s hated Gavroche since he came here. He was always picking on him. Maybe it’s just some kind of fixation.” He remembered the blank look of Montparnasse’s face, and the psychiatrist’s warnings about the boy’s delusions.
Grantaire looked unconvinced. “Something still doesn’t make sense. But I don’t think the answer will come from the students. I wish we knew more about Montparnasse’s life before he came to the school.” He sighed, and ran a hand over his face. Enjolras wished he could smooth the grief and exhaustion from Grantaire’s face and leave him as peaceful and contented-looking as he had seemed when they had woken up together, a few hours and a thousand experiences ago.
As the day dragged on, they began the grueling work of trying to clean up the debris from the fire. Enjolras and Cosette organized the younger boys to clean up the courtyard and the classrooms that had been farthest from the flames, while Grantaire led a few of the older boys into the kitchen, where the fire appeared to have started. Combeferre eventually mysteriously reappeared, and volunteered to take few boys and clean up the front of the school. Enjolras noticed he kept glancing up the driveway, as if expecting someone to arrive.
Towards mid-day, a cloud of dust appeared on the road, heralding the approach of an automobile. As the cloud grew and grew, Enjolras saw that it was not one car, but two. Combeferre’s mysterious phone call had evidently paid off.
The first car, which Enjolras recognized as Marius’ blue Cadillac, turned out to be carrying not only Marius but also an irate Eponine. As soon as she got out of the car, Combeferre went to greet her. Enjolras saw his friend say something to her, and touch her elbow gently. For a moment, she looked like she was about to start yelling at him or burst into tears; instead, she allowed him to steer her onto a bench, and rested her head on his shoulder. For a brief moment, Combeferre smiled.
The arrival of the second, unfamiliar car was far less touching. It was a new-looking black sedan, driven by a chauffeur and clearly official. The man who stepped out of it wore a suit that was both immaculately pressed and scrupulously modest, as if he were making a show of his humility. He himself was spotless, down to the mirror-bright polish on his shoes, but there was nothing fussy or impractical about him. He looked around, as if he was expecting someone, and his gaze settled on Enjolras. “You there!” he said in a clipped tone. “Where is Monsieur Gillenormand?”
Enjolras, who had faced down his fair share of bureaucrats, did not quail. “I’m afraid the headmaster has closed himself up in his house.” He held out his hand, slipping easily back into the mold of the competent young scion of a good family. “But perhaps you will be able to talk some sense into him, Monsieur... ”
The man shook his hand perfunctorily. “Javert, inspector of schools.” He sniffed. “Once again, I arrive to find Gillenormand’s conduct distinctly unprofessional. Well, we’ll soon sort that out.” He surveyed the burned-out school. “This time, I think he will not weasel his way out of things so quickly.”
With a nod to Enjolras, Javert turned and marched up to Gillenormand’s door. He hammered on it, shouting for Gillenormand to open up. After a minute, the door swung slowly open. Enjolras could hear Gillenormand’s obsequious greeting cut off by a sharp word from the inspector. As the door swung shut again, he was pleased to hear what he thought was more shouting.
“That’ll show him,” said Grantaire, coming up behind Enjolras. “Every few months, Javert shows up to abuse Gillenormand. He’s been trying to get him fired for years-- convinced he doesn’t do enough to keep the boys from ending up as criminals, if you can believe that. This might finally do it.”
“And Gavroche?” Enjolras crossed his arms and leaned a little closer to Grantaire’s comforting bulk. He wished he could lean his head against him, as Eponine had to Combeferre.
Grantaire sighed. “Who knows. Javert isn’t the most understanding man in the world, especially when it comes to students.”
“Should we go and talk to Eponine?” Enjolras glanced over to where she sat with Combeferre, talking quietly. “I don’t want to-- interrupt anything.”
“I think we’re alright,” said Grantaire.
As they approached, Eponine looked up. “I guess this is something you should hear too,” she said, beckoning them closer with a jerk of her head. She looked extremely tired, but more than anything Enjolras thought she looked furious. He sat on the other side of Combeferre, who was evidently also waiting for her to tell him something.
For a moment, all she could do was tap her heel in frustration. She opened her mouth a few times, about to start, and then closed it again. Finally, Combeferre put an arm around her shoulders. “You don’t have to tell us anything you don’t want to,” he said.
“It’s-- no, I do. I do.” She closed her eyes and swallowed. “I’m just not very good at-- well, at telling the truth. I wouldn’t even be doing it now, except, well, those bastards-- I think you deserve an explanation.” She smiled a bitter smile, and began. “I’m not Gavroche’s mother. I told you that when he came here because I thought it would stop anyone from taking him away from me. I practically am his mother anyway, in every way that really counts.” She sighed. “I guess I should really start from the beginning.
“Gavroche is my younger brother. Our parents were-- well, I think they were French, or Spanish maybe. Definitely not German, but they...well, they did very well for themselves during the war. If you know what I mean.” Her mouth hardened. “I didn’t know how wrong it was then. I was very young. Gavroche was barely born when the war ended and they decided to split. By then I knew I didn’t want to be like them, didn’t want them to raise Gav like they’d tried to raise me. So when they ran, I ran too-- I took Gav and some money and I left them. It wasn’t exactly easy those first few years, but…” She drifted off for a moment, her eyes fixed on nothing. “We survived. That’s what matters. We survived, and I was sure that they had lost track of us. I knew they were in South America somewhere, but I didn’t think they knew where I was. Or if they did, I didn’t think they cared. But I should have known.” Eponine laughed, a brittle and angry laugh. “I should have known those motherfuckers always turn out worse than I’d expected.” She glanced at Combeferre. “If only you’d mentioned that there was a kid here named Montparnasse. There’s no way you could have known,” she added quickly, as Combeferre looked guilty. “I might not have even recognized his name, or remembered the kid of a man my father used to run around with. It’s been a long time, and I never dreamed they would go so far as to send someone to Gav’s school.”
“So Montparnasse was sent to this school by your parents?” asked Enjolras, disbelieving. “To do what, get Gavroche expelled?”
“I expect they would have blackmailed me afterwards,” said Eponine, matter-of-factly. “Maybe they just tracked me down, maybe they think I would go to the police with something I know about them. Maybe they wanted to teach me a lesson.” She shrugged. “Maybe they just want some extra cash, who knows.”
“Jesus,” said Grantaire. “I can see why you kept your background under wraps.”
“Come on,” said Combeferre, standing up. “The best thing to do for now is take our minds off it. I bet we can put together something for lunch from what’s left of the kitchen.” When Eponine looked reluctant, he added, “I’m sure we’ll know when Javert finishes with Gillenormand. We’ll be able to hear the shouting wherever we are in the school.”
In the ruins of the kitchen, Marius and Cosette had managed to salvage a few loaves of bread and some cheese. With this, they made lunch for themselves and the students. For once, it worked to their advantage that most of the boys had either been orphaned or spent time in prison; none of them were used to soft living, and they knew they were lucky to have even a little food. Grantaire even managed to make a game of it, pretending they were marooned on a desert island and had to fend for themselves. Soon Enjolras himself almost forgot that he was standing in a burned shell of a building with his future and the future of forty young boys hanging in the balance.
The staff tried their best to proceed as if everything was more or less normal. At one point, while Combeferre was teaching an impromptu lesson on combustibility, Javert’s chauffeur-cum-assistant appeared and politely but firmly requested that Marius come with him. Marius insisted just as firmly that Cosette come with him, and the three of them disappeared into Gillenormand’s house. After that, a vague sense of unease settled over all of them; no one could think of a reason why Javert would have wanted to talk to Gillenormand’s grandson. Enjolras for the first time began to contemplate what his plans might be if he had to leave Fond de l’Etang. Two or three months ago, that would have been a liberating or at least reasonably positive thought; now, after the first real happiness he had felt in a very long time, the idea of leaving the school behind was difficult. The idea of leaving Grantaire behind was impossible. He tried to put it from his mind as evening slowly drew on.
Eventually Eponine and Combeferre left to investigate the conditions of the dormitories, while Grantaire read aloud from The Plague . Enjolras perched against the back wall, watching over the heads of the students as Grantaire lulled them with the sound of his gravelly voice. He found himself studying Grantaire’s expressions as he read, watching them shift imperceptibly as he brought Camus to life. Enjolras wanted to learn the meaning behind every shift, to know all of Grantaire’s moods. He wanted to wake up every morning as they had this morning, to Grantaire happy and peaceful beside him. He knew, with a simple, visceral certainty that went against every rational bone in his body, that being forced to leave Grantaire would be the most difficult thing he had ever done.
Just as Enjolras’ stomach was beginning to rumble with hunger again, Eponine and Combeferre burst into the kitchen. Combeferre’s collar was dangerously askew, and Eponine’s hair had fallen mostly out of its knot. “Come outside,” Eponine panted. “They’re coming out of Gillenormand’s house now.”
Enjolras made his way through the tide of students to reach the front door first. He stopped when he saw what was going on. Javert and his assistant were leading a white-faced Gillenormand out of his own door. His housekeeper stood on the steps, wringing her hands. Cosette and Marius, looking shell-shocked, stood with their arms around each other. Cosette held Gavroche by the hand.
Without a word to his employees, Gillenormand allowed himself to be bundled into the back of Javert’s official-looking car. Enjolras could scarcely believe what was happening. As the car pulled away in a cloud of dust, he half-expected the headmaster to turn it around and reveal the whole affair as some kind of twisted experiment. But the car sped down the driveway and passed out of sight without a pause.
The moment the car passed through the gates, Gavroche broke away from Cosette. “‘Ponine!” He shouted, barrelling past Enjolras and into his sister’s arms. She hugged him, shock written all over her face. “Wait ‘till I tell you what happened,” he babbled. “I thought I was dead meat for sure! But then that Inspector Javert gave Gillenormand a real talking-to. I thought he was going to cry. I wish he would cry. I didn’t cry at all, because I’m tough, like you. Are you here to stay? Why are you here? Want to see what the inside of Gillenormand’s house is like? I bet we can go in as much as we want now!” Eponine held him close as a crowd of boys converged around them, eager to hear Gavroche’s story of his adventures in the previously forbidden and therefore deeply mysterious house of Gillenormand. Enjolras and Grantaire extricated themselves and went over to where Cosette and Marius were standing, still staring disbelievingly up the driveway.
“Not to interrupt,” said Grantaire, “but what the fuck happened in there?”
Marius looked at him like he’d grown a second head. He seemed incapable of speech. Instead, Cosette answered, “Marius owns the school now.”
Now it was Grantaire who looked flabbergasted. “What?”
“Apparently,” Marius stammered, “the school belonged to my grandfather outright. I’m his heir, so now that Javert’s pronounced him…what was it?” He looked at Cosette.
“‘Deeply disturbed and both psychologically and physically unfit for any position of authority over any living creature whatsoever,’” Cosette supplied, helpfully.
“That was it,” he said. “Well, now that my grandfather’s apparently gone completely crazy, I’m the headmaster.” He looked dubious, as if he wasn’t entirely sure a madman wouldn’t make a better headmaster than he would.
Enjolras raised an eyebrow. “That can’t be the legal way to appoint a headmaster.”
“Who cares?” Grantaire shrugged. “Gillenormand’s gone, Marius is a good guy, Javert made the appointment and therefore he’s not going to complain about it, for a while anyway. I say, welcome headmaster.” He gave Marius a lazy salute, and Marius blushed to the tips of his ears and started to stammer. “Well, you’ll get used to it.” Marius looked doubtful, and Cosette giggled at him.
They made dinner in Gillenormand’s suspiciously well-appointed kitchen, and sat down to eat by firelight in the old courtyard. Luckily, the evening was mild, and the boys thought eating outside was a fabulous adventure. After dinner, Marius and Cosette announced to the whole school that Gillenormand was permanently gone, and that Marius would be the new headmaster. Several of the students started to laugh, but Cosette silenced them with a disapproving look. Enjolras noticed Combeferre and Eponine whispering to each other. Eponine then broke away and pulled Gavroche aside, talking seriously to him.
“What do you think?” Enjolras asked his old friend, settling down in Eponine’s vacated seat. “Will you stay to watch the foundation of Marius’ regime?”
In the firelight, Combeferre looked happier than Enjolras had ever seen him. “Unfortunately no,” he said, looking not very unfortunate at all. “Enjolras, I’m going home.”
Enjolras raised his eyebrows. “To Marseille?” They both had fond memories from childhood, but he didn’t think either he or Combeferre would be exactly happy to return to their hometown.
Sure enough, Combeferre looked momentarily appalled. “God, no,” he said. “I mean home , where I’m needed. Where I can make change.” He looked over at his friend. “I’m going back to Algiers.” He smiled, as if the very sound of it made him happy.
“I’ll miss you,” said Enjolras, sincerely. After a moment, he asked, “and Eponine?”
Combeferre smiled wider, then turned away as if he was embarrassed at his own happiness. “She’s coming with me,” he said, as if he barely believed it himself. “She and Gavroche. They need to go somewhere out of the way, and we talked about it, and she’s coming with me.”
Enjolras clapped his friend on the shoulder. “With her alongside you, I’m sure I’ll be reading about you in the papers soon enough.”
“I hope so,” said Combeferre, his eyes shining. “And...what about you?”
Enjolras looked around him, at the twilight gloom settling across the courtyard, at the boys chatting and laughing amongst each other. At Grantaire, leaning against the wall, his head tilted back to stare at the stars. “I don’t know,” he said truthfully. “Sometimes I think I could stay here forever, teaching and learning. But then I remember that there’s a world out there, a world where changes need to be made, a world where I could make a difference beyond the lives of these boys, and I think--”
“--you have a responsibility, or a debt to pay,” finished Combeferre. “You have more to do than can be done here.”
“Yes,” said Enjolras, half-sigh and half whisper.
“Where will you go?”
“I was thinking...Courfeyrac wrote me from New York, after he heard about Lamarque. He’s doing well there, and he thinks I would do well.” Enjolras rubbed at his mouth, a sure sign that he was struggling with something.
Combeferre looked over at him. “Could you do it?”
“I--” Enjolras stopped, and felt his heart tugging deep inside him. “I don’t want to leave him, ‘Ferre.” He stared at Grantaire across the courtyard. The idea of leaving him, of making him once again into the lonely figure he had seen on his first night, was impossible. “I’m sorry,” he said, standing up abruptly. “I need to get some air.” Combeferre just nodded at him, understanding.
Enjolras made his way out to the main entrance. The woods spread before him, deep and dark. It seemed like Fond de l’Etang was the last inhabited place on earth, in the middle of a vast sea. How could he go?
From behind him, he heard the sound of footsteps. He closed his eyes as Grantaire’s hand brushed softly against his waist. When he opened them, Grantaire was standing beside him, looking at him with a smile and his eyes full of something very strong and very deep. “Hello,” he said, in his gravelly voice.
“You’ve found me,” said Enjolras, softly.
“I’ve got something to confess to you,” said Grantaire, pulling him in by the waist so that his chin rested on Enjolras’ shoulder. Enjolras allowed himself to be pulled. All he wanted was to be close to Grantaire, and pretend that was how it could always be.
“Oh?” Enjolras asked. He could feel Grantaire’s heartbeat pulsing steady and slow.
“Something I think I’ve wanted for a very, very long time,” said Grantaire. “Something I want with all my soul. If I tell you, will you help me with it?”
Enjolras felt as if his heart was about to break. “Yes,” he said, “Anything.”
Grantaire pulled him close and looked at him for a long moment. “I’ve always wanted to see New York,” he said with a smile.