Chapter 1: Bonheurs enfantins, trop vite oubliés
In keeping with the style of Les Choristes, expect lots of introspection and a feel-good ending. In keeping with my own writing habits, expect a good amount of social awkwardness and some light politics.
Also, I absolutely recommend listening to the soundtrack while reading, because it's beautiful and definitely the highlight of the movie. Also also, Les Choristes is a very sweet movie to watch at any time in your life but especially when you are feeling down. That's my advice of the day.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
Combeferre is Algerian. I figured he could either be using a French last name (maybe his mother's maiden name, I don't know) for the sake of making his life a little easier, or his family just acquired a French last name at some point. If anyone wants to suggest an Algerian Arabic last name that could theoretically be Frenchified into Combeferre, go for it + I would love you forever.
Expect weekly or bi-weekly updates! Actually, the entire fic is already written, but I like to give myself time to go back and look over stuff as time passes. The chapters get progressively longer, by the way.
Next time: Schoolboys, Marx, and overly serious discussions of The War.
Chapter 2: Pour le moins, déconcertant
Some light period-typical homophobia coming up, of the looking-down-my-nose-at-your-'choices' variety. I mean really light, but if it upsets you, let me know and I'll adjust the tags or this warning accordingly.
Neither Enjolras' nor Grantaire's expressed opinions are necessarily my own.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Enjolras, who was a morning person through sheer force of character, managed to be dressed and working on a very tentative lesson plan for almost half an hour before he was summoned to M. Gillenormand’s office around six-thirty. He followed the summoner, a boy of maybe eight or nine years old, back the way he had come with Combeferre and up the main staircase to a suite of rooms in one of the school’s towers. The boy left him in a nondescript waiting room, really more of a hallway with one door, another massive flag, and a bench where he was clearly supposed to sit. Enjolras could imagine generations of nervous children sitting there, staring at that damn flag, waiting for the arbitrary ruling of a higher authority which at a reform school like this one had the power to wipe out a student’s chance at any education whatsoever. The brass plaque on Gillenormand’s door, he noticed, was the cleanest thing he’d seen in the school so far. Enjolras decided to stand.
“You may come in.” The voice came from behind the door, which Enjolras belatedly realized was clearly ajar. He pulled it open and stepped into his new boss’s office.
His immediate first impression was that someone had dressed up a stuffed vulture in an old-fashioned suit and left him in the headmaster’s office as a prank. After a second, he recognized the man whose portrait Combeferre had pointed out the night before. He had beady eyes and a long hooked nose, and wore the kind of bow tie that had been in fashion twenty years before.
“M. Gillenormand, my name is--”
“I know your name,” said the headmaster. “I hired you.” He scrutinized Enjolras closely. “Hmm.” He shuffled some papers on his desk until he came upon Enjolras’ resume, which he studied.“I understand you were until recently a student in Paris.”
“Yes, sir,” said Enjolras. “Politics, with a focus on--”
“I don’t care,” said Gillenormand. Enjolras bristled. He was not easily made uncomfortable; Gillenormand could have shuffled his papers for an hour without getting a reaction from Enjolras. But he did not like being interrupted, or belittled.
Gillenormand continued, unaware of Enjolras’ growing annoyance. “I hired you as a rhetoric and composition teacher, and I fully expect that a basic understanding of the French language will prepare you adequately. We have a textbook, of course.” He reached for a book beside him and stroked its cover almost reverently. “You will find it most helpful. Stick to the textbook, monsieur, and you will be able to ignore even the most troublesome student.” He folded his hands in front of him and stared at Enjolras once more, assuming this time a paternalistic air. “Allow me to give you a piece of advice, as one who has seen rather more of life. You are not in Paris now, monsieur. I know that in the past you may have had some more fanciful and youthful ideas and...associations that have caused you trouble.” Enjolras felt his cheeks start to go red, but not with shame. Who the hell was this man, who thought he could sit there like Enjolras’ father and tell him how to live? He took a deep breath, willing himself to stay calm. This man was not his father, and he did not want a repeat of the scene that had gotten him disowned the first time.
“Consider this a blank slate,” Gillenormand went on, “a place where you can leave these childish things behind and assume a more adult role as a watchman and a taskmaster for the next generation. The sort of specimens we get at this school will not be convinced by your logic and your speeches. They will not be inspired to become our next generation of leaders. We will be lucky if they become our next generation of shopkeepers, as that requires more arithmetic than most of them can handle. Many of them have already broken the law, and those who have not certainly would if given an opportunity. The only way they will ever make something of themselves is if we catch them now and force them to learn that the way to success is through discipline and obedience. Our mission is to transform these orphans and criminals into useful members of society; if they happen to also get an education while they are here, this is an added bonus and frankly something of a surprise. Do you understand?”
Enjolras, through great effort, forced himself to nod. If he opened his mouth now, he would certainly say something to get himself fired before he he even officially started.
“Excellent. You know,” the headmaster sighed, glancing out his window at the courtyard below, “I used to like teaching, but these students just cannot learn.” He shook his head, and took another moment to study Enjolras, as if he expected some kind of change to have come over him as a result of hearing such a rousing lecture. When Enjolras remained stubbornly the same, he sighed slightly and continued to speak. “Here is a schedule of your classes, a roster of students, and a copy of our textbook. We keep the textbooks for the students locked in the classrooms, to prevent theft and disrespectful behavior.” Enjolras took the things that Gillenormand offered him. “That is all I have to say to you,” said the headmaster. “You may go.”
He was still muttering curses to himself when he finally found his way to the kitchen. Combeferre hadn’t shown it to him last night, but he followed the warmth and the smell of food down to the first floor, to a stone room in the corner of the school. It was the first part of the school he had seen so far that looked truly inhabited. A long, old-fashioned stove took up almost an entire wall, and unlike Enjolras’s room, the walls were decorated with peeling wallpaper. As promised, there was a pot of coffee and some rolls on a little table by the door. Combeferre sat by the stove, deep in conversation with a young blonde woman in a nurse’s uniform. They both looked up when Enjolras entered, and the woman’s face broke into a sweet smile.
“You must be Enjolras,” she said, rising from her chair to shake his hand. “Combeferre was just telling me about your arrival.”
“She’s been bothering me about you since I told her the new hire was a friend of mine,” said Combeferre with a smile. “Enjolras, may I present Cosette Fauchelevent, our school nurse, psychologist, and general spirit of gentleness?”
“He’s exaggerating,” said Cosette, as Enjolras helped himself to some coffee. “I’m not so gentle-- I can be quite terrifying if I try.”
“Unlike Enjolras, who is naturally terrifying and couldn’t be gentle if he tried,” said Combeferre, stirring his coffee.
“I’m sure that’s not true,” said Cosette.
“No, he’s right,” said Enjolras. “I admit it.”
“I think you have some gentleness in you,” said Cosette, suddenly quite serious. “Perhaps it just needs to be coaxed out somehow.” She studied him with an appraising eye, and Enjolras, who had been perfectly unfazed by Gillenormand’s icy stare, felt himself begin to blush.
“I really don’t think anyone can coax anything unexpected out of me,” Enjolras protested.
“Have you ever let anyone try?” A new voice, deep and gravelly, sounded from the doorway. Enjolras turned. It was the man he had seen last night in the courtyard, the mysterious third colleague. He had a large nose, unruly hair, and a puckered scar that cut a jagged line across his unshaven jaw. But his lopsided mouth was curved into a wry smile, and his eyes were blue and full of laughter when they caught Enjolras’. He continued, “I’m told I’m very good at that sort of thing.”
The man’s eyes were kind, but his words put Enjolras on his guard. Could the man be flirting with him? Two months ago, Enjolras might have reacted to that very well indeed-- but Gillenormand’s none-too-subtle crack about “associations” clearly meant that at least one person at this school besides Combeferre knew the full reason Enjolras had had to leave Paris. As much as Enjolras hated being forced to keep part of himself a secret thanks to the prejudices of others, he realized that allowing himself to be known as a homosexual, publicly or semi-publicly, was not a very good idea if he wanted to continue teaching at an all-boys school. Cosette and this new man seemed nice enough, but he did not put it past Gillenormand to try to test him. “I don’t know what you mean,” Enjolras responded, rather more coldly than he had intended.
The other man’s expression dimmed, and Combeferre rolled his eyes. “Now you see what I mean,” he said to Cosette. “Enjolras, this is Grantaire. Grantaire, Enjolras. Grantaire is the sports instructor, and also teaches arts when Gillenormand is feeling generous.”
“I think we caught a glimpse of each other last night,” said Grantaire. “Sorry I didn’t introduce myself then; I thought you might be a hallucination. Also, you were spying on me from a second-story window.” He tried another smile, but Enjolras refused to engage with him.
“I was minding my own business, thank you very much” said Enjolras. He didn’t need Grantaire to know that he had spent several minutes trying to guess the color of his hair. In fact, he didn’t need to look at Grantaire at all. He kept his eyes fixed on his coffee.
“You know, when you talk like that, it almost makes you sound like an adult,” Grantaire continued. “How old are you, anyway? Does Gillenormand think hiring a teenaged heartthrob will stop the boys from sneaking out to go to the movies?”
“I’m perfectly old enough,” said Enjolras, who was really starting to get annoyed now. He hadn’t spent ten minutes picking out his most grown-up looking outfit this morning to get cut down by some unshaven gym teacher.
“Really? I would hardly guess you’re over twenty one,” said Grantaire, slyly.
“Who asked you?” said Enjolras sharply, finally looking up to meet Grantaire’s eyes with his own infuriated ones.
Grantaire looked like he was about to make another smart remark when a bell sounded throughout the school. “Breakfast!” said Combeferre. “We’d better go prepare the classrooms. Enjolras, did Gillenormand give you what you needed?”
“He did,” said Enjolras, remembering the packet of papers the headmaster had handed to him. Somehow even a two second conversation with Grantaire had made him forget that he was supposed to teach a class in a few hours. It was infuriating to think of himself getting so easily distracted, although he had to admit it had been nice to be a little less anxious for a short time. “I just haven’t had a moment to look them over.”
“Well, it shouldn’t be anything too complicated. We’ll all be together at lunch, so if you have any questions, we’ll try to answer them then. Now, we have to run.” Cosette headed out across the courtyard. Grantaire lingered for a second longer, a little half-smile on his face, before he followed her.
Combeferre waited until he was out of earshot, then gave Enjolras a pointed look. “Be nice, Enjolras. We’ll talk about this later.” As his friend strode out of the room, Enjolras thought he knew how a disobedient student in one of Combeferre’s classes might feel.
The next few hours Enjolras spent in his room, sitting at his desk, preparing for his new students. He used the edge of the desk to wedge the door to his room open, so that the sounds of students eating and talking and eventually heading to class drifted in with the cool air from the hallway. From the roster Gillenormand had given him, Enjolras saw that the school was really very small-- only about thirty or forty students, all young boys. Only their names were listed, so Enjolras could only guess what kind of children would be waiting for him in his first class. He recognized Gavroche, the boy who had been waiting for his sister, on the roster; hopefully, that would be an advantage and not an inconvenience. The boy had seemed nice enough.
The textbook Gillenormand so energetically encouraged him to use turned out to be just as dry and boring as any Enjolras had ever been forced to read. Three pages into the the introduction, Enjolras had made up his mind that no student of his was going to learn writing from The Diligent Student’s Guide to Proper French Grammar and Composition. He had brought a few books with him when he left Paris, and he was sure Combeferre would have some others with him; from these, Enjolras planned to cobble together a curriculum he hoped would be a little more useful in the coming years. These students needed to understand that the France Gillenormand had grown up in, the France that the textbook’s imaginary Diligent Student was preparing for, no longer existed. The war which had made so many of these students into wards of the state had exploded the old order, and Enjolras truly believed that more change was coming. The students at Fond de l’Etang needed to be ready to live in a new and, Enjolras desperately hoped, more equitable world; but first, they would have to fight for it. It was with this in mind that he began to draw out a lesson plan.
Another bell rang to summon the school to lunch. As Enjolras made his way to the dining hall, he was caught up in a tide of groups of boys streaming out of their classrooms and down the stairs. They all wore outfits similar to Gavroche’s, although without the hat and boots. They shouted, laughed, and pushed past each other on their way to lunch, barely sparing a second glance for Enjolras. Combeferre and Grantaire followed in their wake, chatting easily. Enjolras fell in step with them as they entered the dining room.
Two long tables dominated the stone dining hall, both set with simple metal plates and cutlery. Another table along the wall held a massive pot of soup, two baskets full of bread, and a dish with some kind of vegetable. Cosette, wielding a large ladle, served the food alongside an older woman Enjolras assumed was the cook.
“We’re supposed to sit up here,” said Combeferre, indicating a raised platform at one end of the hall. The table on it was set with four places, and had its own pot of soup and basket of bread. There was also a bottle of wine, and a pat of butter alongside the bread. Someone, Enjolras suspected Cosette, had tried to cheer the table up with a checkered tablecloth.
“I assume Gillenormand doesn’t eat with us,” said Enjolras, as he sat down beside Combeferre.
“God forbid,” said Grantaire, whose first action upon sitting down was to reach for the wine bottle. Enjolras frowned, and poured himself a glass of water. Grantaire grinned at him as he took his first sip. Cosette joined them at the table, pouring herself a small glass of wine and pointedly leaving the bottle out of Grantaire’s reach.
“Gillenormand goes home for lunch,” said Combeferre, as they helped themselves to soup.“He lives here, in that stone house just inside the walls. You might have seen it yesterday, although he was out. He has his own cook there, and it’s where he spends most of his time.”
“I thought you said he ate lunch in town?” Enjolras spoke around a mouthful of bread, which was unsurprisingly rather stale.
“That’s only Sunday,” said Cosette quickly, “when he eats with his grandson in town. Except sometimes, he invites him for Sunday dinner, around seven o’clock.” She blushed suddenly, and Enjolras couldn’t tell if it was from the wine, or from something else. “Or so I’ve noticed. I don’t know his schedule, it’s not my job to keep it.” She took another sip of wine and looked eager to change the subject.
“Until you arrived, Gillenormand was filling in for the grammar and composition teacher,” said Grantaire, obligingly. “Whatever you decide to teach them today, I’m sure they’ll be so relieved to be free of him they’ll do whatever you want.”
“Hopefully my lesson plan will be good enough anyway,” said Enjolras. “I don’t want to rely on coincidence to keep the students happy.”
A small disturbance at one end of the hall briefly drew their attention. Gavroche and a few of the older boys appeared to have discovered the joys of fingerpainting, with the help of some mashed peas and the carrots from the soup. Neither Combeferre nor Grantaire seemed particularly inclined to stop them, so Enjolras too stayed in his seat.
“Looks like his sister didn’t come for him after all,” Enjolras remarked.
Grantaire, Cosette, and Combeferre exchanged looks across the table. “He was waiting out there again?” Grantaire asked concernedly, peering across the hall to where Gavroche sat.
“Again,” said Combeferre, with a sigh. He turned to Enjolras, lowering his voice a little. “To tell you the truth, we don’t know why he does it. He tells these stories about his ‘sister,’ and he does have one, we think-- but from what we can tell she’s only a year or two older than him. The woman he described yesterday, the woman who works in town, is his mother, not his sister.”
“She comes to the school sometimes,” said Grantaire, after a deep swallow of wine, “but never to visit him. She leaves packages at the gate, food and sometimes clothing, but, well…” He drifted off, his eyes fixing on something Enjolras could not see. Then, he poured himself another glass.
“We think she’s afraid, or ashamed,” said Cosette quietly. “I would have guessed she was his sister, actually, if she hadn’t insisted we list her as the mother on the school’s medical forms. She’s very young, maybe our age or younger. But you know how these things sometimes go.” She, too, took on an faraway look, sadder than Enjolras had yet seen her.
Combeferre wore the sort of look that Enjolras knew from long experience usually concealed a feeling of admiration. “Most of the town knows she has a son, and they don’t make it easy for her,” he said. “But she won’t leave him like some of these children’s parents have. I think the only reason she doesn’t visit him is so the other students don’t make fun.”
“Half of them would be jealous that he has even one living parent,” said Grantaire. “Or at least one living parent that they know of.”
“It’s tragic,” said Enjolras, “how the war has affected these children. We can only hope the good that came of it will be enough to make their sacrifices worth it.”
Grantaire snorted. “The good? What good?”
Enjolras frowned. “We freed Europe of a dangerous threat. Whatever the cost, it was a noble cause. At least these children will live in a free France, and freedom is worth more than anything.”
“If you ask these children whether they’d rather have living parents or a free country, I guarantee each of them will choose their parents.”
Enjolras wasn’t sure whether Grantaire was serious. Surely everyone who had lived through the Occupation understood that the value of freedom was greater than any one person, living or dead. “Everyone paid a price,” he said.
Grantaire raised his eyebrows at him. “Oh, really? What price did you pay?”
Enjolras had the decency to flush. “The oppression of the Occupation caused us all to suffer.”
“But you, specifically,” said Grantaire, who evidently was not so easily put off, “what price did you pay, besides the shock of knowing you and yours didn’t run the country anymore?”
Enjolras gritted his teeth. “It was a difficult time for all of us. There was rationing, and the police, and I-- I had to stop my classes, and--”
“Your classes?” Grantaire laughed, loud and brittle. “Oh, god forbid, my mistake, you really did suffer. What times we have lived through, to have you stop going to classes. What a loss for France! What a blow to the world!”
“The suppression of education is an extremely serious--”
“I’m sorry I ever doubted you!The state should give you a medal, really, with a sacrifice like that. No, a whole holiday. A week of holidays. Change the name of a month!”
“This is absolutely not a laughing matter in any way, you--”
“Who’d have guessed, a war hero, right here at this table. Oh, sir, I’m so honored. Will you sign my napkin?” His eyes looked almost manic as he let out another loud laugh.
“I can’t believe this!” Enjolras exploded, turning on Grantaire. “Look at you, sitting there, laughing about the sacrifices other people made on your behalf, as if you don’t owe them all just as much as I do. What would you do if there really was a war hero here? Would you laugh in his face too, tell him that what he did was all for nothing just because a few lives were sacrificed? What’s a life in the face of liberty? Nothing on this earth is more valuable than liberty, and I don’t know how anybody with even half a functioning brain could live through something like the war and not realize how important it is, how much more there is to this world than your happiness, than your personal experience, or the experience of any one person. How can someone possibly be so unbelievably selfish?”
Enjolras stopped, his face only a few inches from Grantaire’s. Over his own heaving breaths, he could hear that the entire room had gone silent. He stared at Grantaire, expecting rage or perhaps fear, but the other man’s eyes were wide and filled with an expression Enjolras didn’t recognize. He felt he was teetering on the edge of something, but he couldn’t tell what.
“At least you didn’t curse,” said Combeferre, breaking the spell. On the other side of the hall, someone muttered, then laughed.
Enjolras got up, his face scarlet, his limbs trembling. “I have to go prepare my class,” he said, curtly. He nodded to Combeferre and marched out, using all his self-control to keep his head held high.
Luckily, Enjolras had practice forcing himself to calm down. He spent the remaining hour before his class in his room, pacing, using all the tricks he knew to stop himself from punching a wall or doing something equally stupid and futile. It didn’t help that he could hear Grantaire’s voice every now and then, drifting up from the courtyard where he was leading the students in some after-lunch exercise. It also didn’t help that he couldn’t stop himself from listening to it. Grantaire, he now realized, had an tiny but unmistakable hint of the South in his accent. It made Enjolras want to talk to him about it, to ask him where he was from and if they knew the same places or had mutual friends. Just his luck that the man should be the most unfathomably frustrating human being he had ever met.
As he walked to his classroom, he caught a glimpse of Grantaire in the courtyard, jogging along the edge of a makeshift soccer pitch in an old undershirt and a pair of shorts. Enjolras didn’t particularly think that was appropriate attire for a teacher, especially not an undershirt that showed so much of his arms and back; but really, it wasn’t his job to keep Grantaire from looking like he’d just rolled out of bed.
He ultimately succeeded in putting Grantaire out of his mind only when the nerves hit him. He was five minutes away from his first class ever, and whatever the others might have tried to say to reassure him, he was still extremely unsure of his own ability to control a bunch of rowdy boys. As a child, he himself had usually been described as “gifted” on a good day and “creepily solemn” on a bad one; he suspected these students would not be the same.
Much to his relief and surprise, his little outburst in the dining hall seemed to have done him some favors. The students seemed to be half terrified and half excited at the prospect of him blowing up again, and none of them particularly wanted to be the one he shouted at next. They sat patiently in their desks, watching their new teacher, waiting for him to do something exciting or unusual. It was unnerving, having three rows of young boys staring at him in front of the blackboard like cats watching an interesting bird, but Enjolras had faced down worse crowds in the past.
The only thing that really threw them for a loop was his first assignment.
“What do you mean, you want us to tell you what we’re going to read?” said a redheaded boy in the third row. “Ain’t that your job?”
“Isn’t that your job,” said Enjolras, automatically.
“No, I ain’t got a job,” said the boy, scratching his ear with his pen.
“What? Never mind,” Enjolras continued, “we’ll get to grammar later. What I said was, I would like you all to write down the sorts of stories you like to read.”
“Don’t like to read nothing,” said another boy, all the way in the back. The boys on either side of him nodded.
“Do you like to go to the movies?” asked Enjolras.
“Sure, everyone likes the movies,” said the boy, perking up. “I like the ones with American cowboys and Indians. I’m going to be John Wayne one day.” He twisted his face into an imitation of the star, holstering an imaginary gun in his belt. The boys on either side of him laughed appreciatively. Enjolras recalled that there had been a set of brothers in this class; he supposed this must be them.
“Well,” said Enjolras, “maybe we can read a story about cowboys and Indians. Would you like that?”
“I guess so,” said the aspiring cowboy, grudgingly.
“We’ll read all kinds of different stories,” said Enjolras, “and of course, a good amount of nonfiction.” There was a general groan. “You don’t like nonfiction?” said Enjolras, genuinely surprised.
“Course not,” said Gavroche, “we’re kids. Nonfiction is for boring adults like you, blondie.” The class sniggered.
“My name is M. Enjolras,” Enjolras reminded them, looking at Gavroche sharply. The boy smiled angelically back at him. “And nonfiction teaches you about life! About the world around you! Do you want to be unprepared for life?”
Gavroche thought about it for a moment. “I guess that could be okay,” he said, scoping out the attitudes of the boys around him. “We might go for that. As long as you were teaching us about life, and not history or something dumb.”
Enjolras sighed. “I’ll do my best, but I can’t promise you won’t accidentally learn something about history along the way.”
“Hmm.” Gavroche narrowed his eyes. The other boys watched him, waiting for their cue. “Okay. As long as there are a lot of cowboys and Indians also.”
“Great,” said Enjolras. “We’re agreed. Now take out some paper, and write down the things I told you to write.”
The rest of the class passed smoothly, as the boys finished writing and moved onto a debate over the comparative merits of storylines in action comics and detective comics. Enjolras quickly learned that whatever Gavroche did, most of the other boys copied; lucky for him, Gavroche really did seem to like him. Unfortunately, he also liked calling him “blondie.”
“That was an alright class, blondie,” said the boy very solemnly, as he and the other students filed out of the classroom. “Keep it up, and we may have the start of something here.”
“Thank you,” said Enjolras, amused, as the door slammed shut. He surveyed the empty room, and sighed with relief.
He returned to his room to find Combeferre looking through the books he had brought. “You’re welcome to borrow any of them,” said Enjolras, sitting down heavily on the bed. “Although I am planning on using a few of them for my class.”
“Which ones?” asked Combeferre, “Das Kapital, or The Rights of Man? Or maybe Les fleurs du mal, I hear that’s technically no longer illegal.”
“Both of the first two, probably,” said Enjolras. “Baudelaire I admit might not be the best choice for this age group. Can I look through your books?”
“Of course, comrade, what’s mine is yours,” said Combeferre, only slightly sarcastically. “But not right now.” He went to the door, shut it, and stood in front of it, arms crossed.
“Uh oh,” said Enjolras.
“Uh oh indeed,” Combeferre said. “Although I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t already know, deep down. Why were you so rude to Grantaire today?”
“How do you expect me to react when someone starts spewing nonsense like that? Come on, Combeferre, you can’t have agreed with him.”
“That’s not the point,” said Combeferre. “And it’s not the moment I was referring to. I meant earlier, in the kitchen.”
Enjolras was suddenly tense, tapping his fingers on his knee.“Well, I’ll admit I might have been a little...harsh.”
Combeferre sighed, and sat down next to him on the bed. “Look. I think I can guess what upset you. You thought he’d heard about the Lamarque thing.”
Enjolras met his eyes. “I can’t risk-- I mean, I don’t want something like that happening again. Not now. Besides, how much do you trust him?”
“Oh for god’s sake, Enjolras, he’s not a plant. None of us would care if you’d had an affair with the king of England, much less a radical university professor. Well, Gillenormand cares, but he already knows. Is that what you were afraid of?”
“No. Well, yes. I mean, it made me jumpy. We are in the middle of nowhere, after all-- I don’t know what people out here are like, if people in Paris reacted so badly.” All of a sudden, Enjolras felt very tired. He was far away from home, thrust into a strange and depressing landscape, and now on top of that, he had to worry about controlling himself around this new and magnetically aggravating man.
“I can understand that,” said Combeferre, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “You don’t have to worry. I told you before, none of us teachers care, and Gillenormand can’t afford to fire you. Although he might try, if you read Marx to his students.”
“We’ll see, won’t we,” said Enjolras, with a half smile.
“It really is good to have you here,” said Combeferre, smiling back. “Cosette refuses to discuss Marxist theory without first discussing Stalin’s atrocities, and Grantaire reads too much of the new existentialism. Now I have someone to talk to.”
“Is Grantaire an existentialist? I would have guessed nihilist, or completely disinterested,” said Enjolras.
“You’ve only had two discussions with him,” Combeferre reminded him.
“I suppose that’s true,” said Enjolras, frowning. “I guess I just feel as if I know him very well.” Combeferre just looked at him for a long second. “Well, it’s true!”
“Is it,” said Combeferre. He looked like he was trying to hold back a smile.
“Nothing! Did I say anything?” Combeferre was really smiling now, and it reminded Enjolras of when they were ten years old and Combeferre’s older brother had sent him a new book Enjolras hadn’t been allowed to read at home.
“No, but you have that look on your face.”
Enjolras kicked at him.“Stop it!”
“Are we going to wrestle? I thought we settled that argument ten years ago. I always win.” Combeferre now looked smug on top of his grin, and Enjolras couldn’t help but smile in return. The smile turned into a chuckle, and soon they were both laughing. For a few moments the whole room was filled, probably for the first time, with the sound of laughter.
“I haven’t laughed this hard in weeks,” said Enjolras, eventually.
“Me neither,” said Combeferre, “but you know, neither of us laugh very easily.” He leaned back against the stone wall, and closed his eyes.
“There’s not much to laugh about, these days.” They were both quiet.
“You know,” said Combeferre, not opening his eyes, “lately I’ve been feeling like something’s about to change. I don’t know why, or how. I thought it would be you coming here, but it still doesn’t feel quite right. It’s like someone’s about to open the window and let the rising sun into the room, or I’m waiting for someone to arrive, I don’t know. Something good. Something to laugh about. Do you know the feeling I mean?”
Enjolras thought he might, although he’d be damned if he could understand it.
Forgot to mention this at the end of the last chapter-- I know that Marius' grandfather is actually a reasonably sympathetic character, and also that he's definitely not the barricade boys' main antagonist, but I decided on him as the asshole headmaster because he symbolizes the archaic class structure that Enjolras is setting himself up against. Probably he's very nice to Marius.
One of Gillenormand's lines here is a shameless paraphrase of something my 8th grade math teacher once told me-- "I used to like teaching, but you kids just can't learn." Gotta love public school!
Next time: A change of scenery, and an important discussion about coats.
Chapter 3: Air éphémère de l'hiver
Maybe it's the terrible, terrible humidity where I am right now, but writing this wintry chapter was a lot of fun and I may have lingered too much on the descriptions of cold. Hopefully most of you are in less grossly hot places than I am right now.
Some new faces in this chapter, and a change of scenery, as promised!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As the weather grew colder and the days grew shorter, Enjolras found himself getting used to the rhythm of life at Fond de l’Etang. He woke up at six to plan his lessons for the day and was in his classroom by eight, when the boys started their first classes. From eight to ten he taught the younger boys spelling and basic grammar. It had taken a few days to for him to understand just how little these boys had been taught. Some of them had hardly been to school at all before they landed at Fond de l’Etang; some had been to school, but for various reasons had retained very little. He had to start at the very basics, which made for an easy if boring class. Luckily, the younger boys were more willing to sit through basic lessons, provided he drew enough bad stick figures for them to laugh at while they learned about adjectives and verbs.
The older boys’ class was what Enjolras was really starting to enjoy. Most of the students could read fairly well at this point; the ones that clearly couldn’t he had sent down to the younger boy’s class, to great protest. They weren’t opposed to the general concept of reading and writing, although it took some convincing to help them understand why they needed to write much more than their name and a simple paragraph. The real enemies Enjolras had to fight against were two: apathy and boredom. Years of being told the sort of aggressively discouraging nonsense Gillenormand had shared with Enjolras on his first day had convinced the students that they would never amount to anything-- so why bother trying? Fiercely, and with a little less patience than he should have had, Enjolras convinced them that learning to read and write competently was actually a possibility for them. Once he explained that the greatest prank they could play on the vague authorities they had all set themselves up against-- relatives, Gillenormand, the police, adults in general-- was to surprise them by becoming educated, most of the boys agreed to give it a shot.
The other enemy, boredom, he eliminated through more creative means. With Combeferre’s help, he tracked down some of the subversive political comics one of their university friends had drawn years ago. Once the colors and illustrations broke the ice, he started to read aloud from his collection of books; then, he gradually encouraged the students themselves to read to their classmates. They were now in Chapter 6 of Volume I of Das Kapital , and Enjolras thought the basic concepts were catching on nicely.
All things considered, Enjolras’ work was going well-- it was the time in between classes that was becoming a problem. Since the first big blowup in the dining hall, it seemed like no meal could go by without at least a small squabble with Grantaire. Whenever Enjolras voiced an opinion, Grantaire played devil’s advocate; whenever Grantaire expressed his thoughts about something, he did it in a way that never failed to get Enjolras riled up. It had gotten so that Enjolras was spending his free time constructing arguments to use at dinner-time, much to Combeferre’s amusement.
“When was the last time you opened one of these books?” said Combeferre one day after lunch, as he looked through the crates Enjolras had been using as a bookcase.
“I use them every day in my class,” said Enjolras, not looking up from his desk.
“I mean, when was the last time you read for pleasure,” said Combeferre, brushing the dust off of a copy of Weber’s Economy and Society and putting it aside.
Enjolras frowned. “I’ve just been so busy lately,” he said. “You know how things are.”
“I’ve finished three books in the two months you’ve been here,” said Combeferre, who was now inspecting a three-volume set of the works of Voltaire, “and I teach exactly as much as you do, and we read at the same speed.”
Enjolras considered. It was true, he hadn’t been reading much in his spare time, but he couldn’t say why, or when that had started. “I’ll tell you what it is,” said Combeferre, leaning against the wall and looking down at his friend. “Since you seem confused. You’ve been spending your free time doing other things.”
“Things which all seem to relate to Grantaire.”
This really made Enjolras pause. “Are you upset that I haven’t been spending more time with you? I know you wanted someone to talk to.”
“No, of course not,” said Combeferre. “That’s not what I meant at all. I’m just curious. I’ve never known you to go looking for arguments as much as you do with him.”
Enjolras studied his friend’s face to see if he was joking, but Combeferre looked just as calm and serious as always. “I’m not looking for a fight, his opinions make me angry. I have to argue when he makes points like he does,” said Enjolras. “It’s our debate training.”
Combeferre raised an eyebrow. “You argue with him every time he opens his mouth. Last night you turned his comments on the chicken into a twenty-five minute debate on judicial oversight for government welfare programs. I know for a fact you spent fifteen minutes after dinner arguing with him in the hall, because you kept me up.You brought notecards to breakfast and lunch. What I’m saying is, it’s unusual.”
“If you want me to stop, I’ll try,” said Enjolras, who was completely at sea. “But you’ll have to lecture him about it too, you know; it’s as much his fault as it is mine. More, because my opinions are solid and well-grounded and not stupid.”
“Oh, I know he’s also to blame,” said Combeferre,with just a hint of humor beginning to grow in his voice, “and I’m not lecturing , I’m just observing surprising aberrations in what is usually a familiar pattern. You know my scientific mind. Anyway,” he said, “I think you enjoy it. I think you like having someone oppose you, and I think you like hearing his opinions.”
Enjolras was starting to feel flustered in that special way Combeferre’s scientific questioning always prompted. “Look, he’s a good debater, I’ll give him that, but I don’t like hearing his thoughts-- well, I do, but only so I can argue with them-- well, not so I can argue, like I said, I don’t go looking for fights--I mean, I happen to argue with him when he happens to have an opinion I disagree with-- I mean, I ask his opinion, but only-- I mean, I don’t-- I mean, well, look, I mean, I...”
“Your face is turning bright red,” said Combeferre.
“What’s your point?” Enjolras spluttered, “and what the hell are you grinning about? Can’t you leave me alone?”
“Point? What point?” said Combeferre, trying very hard to swallow his smile. “I just came in to tell you that Cosette decided to go into town on Sunday, so I said I’d go with her. Do you want to come?”
“Oh. I was thinking of doing some planning then, maybe write a little…”
“Grantaire’s coming too,” said Combeferre helpfully, “so you won’t be lonely.”
Combeferre chuckled, but didn’t leave. “In all seriousness, though, you should come with us. There isn’t all that much to do, but it’s nice to have a change of scenery. We’d take the bus in in the morning and be back before dinner. There’s a cafe and a movie theater, and a small but perfectly decent bookshop.”
“Alright, you’ve convinced me,” said Enjolras, “I’ll come along. It would be good to get out of the school for a little while. I think it gets more depressing in the winter.”
Combeferre sighed, and picked up the towering stack of books he had methodically picked out of Enjolras’ collection. “It’s depressing in all weather. Can I borrow these? Since you seem to be spending your spare time doing...other things.”
Enjolras rolled his eyes. “Of course you can,” he said, “but if you keep needling me about things that don’t exist, I’m going to revoke your borrowing privileges.”
Combeferre’s laughter, and the words of their conversation, stayed in Enjolras’ head long after his friend had left.
The next Sunday was windy and cold, and as Enjolras stepped out of the school gates, he was thankful that he had remembered to take his winter coat with him when he fled his apartment. The sky, which could be seen clearly through the leafless branches of the trees, was one or two shades lighter than gunmetal grey. Enjolras hoped it didn’t start to snow before they made it back for the night. He could see Cosette and Combeferre on the other side of the gate, waiting where the path up to the school met the main road, Cosette’s eggshell blue coat a spot of color in a scene painted in shades of grey and bone-white.
As he walked towards them, Enjolras gradually became aware of the sound of gravel crunching under feet not his own. He didn’t look around until he was sure Grantaire was walking right beside him, his stocky body radiating an indescribable warmth.
His dark, curly hair matched the thick brown wool of his scarf, but the jacket beneath it, Enjolras noted, was thin, and torn in several places. “Shouldn’t you be wearing a thicker coat?” As soon as the words had left his mouth, Enjolras realized that once again, he had completely failed in his quest to have a conversation with Grantaire that didn’t start with some sort of judgmental accusation. “I only meant, that one doesn’t look very warm. You don’t want to get sick.”
Grantaire looked over at him. “Not all of us can afford to buy coats from the best stores in Paris.” His mouth was covered by his bundled scarf, but Enjolras could tell from the crinkles around his left eye and the way the edge of his scar puckered that he was wearing the sardonic half-smile he seemed to reserve exclusively for their conversations. Enjolras was about to respond that his coat wasn’t from a store at all, his father had had it made, so there , when Grantaire reached out and grabbed his turned-up collar.
Enjolras froze, lips slightly parted, breath clouding the air in front of him. For a moment all he could think about was Grantaire’s thumb on the inside of his collar, a millimeter from his neck, a hair’s breadth away from where Enjolras’ pulse was suddenly jumping, pumping hot blood to his rapidly reddening cheeks. Grantaire stroked his fingers along the lining of the coat, and Enjolras swore he saw his eyes fix for a moment on the exposed skin above his shirt-collar. Enjolras swallowed.
“Silk,” said Grantaire, “like I thought it would be.”
“What?” asked Enjolras, dazedly.
Grantaire put his hands back into his pockets.“Silk, in the lining of your coat. You can read as much Marxist theory and leftist social criticism as you want, but you can’t fool me-- you were a rich boy before you committed whatever sin landed you here.” Enjolras still didn’t move, and Grantaire looked away sharply, as if forced by some hidden emotion to tear his eyes away. “And I’m sure you’ll be a rich boy again, once you leave this place.”
“Not if I can help it,” said Enjolras, hoarsely. Something about Grantaire, about his posture or maybe his voice, seemed in that moment unutterably sad. He found he couldn’t bring himself to sound proud or abrasive, as he usually did. “Certainly not if my father has anything to say about it,” he continued. “We rich people get extremely upset when one of our own decides to do stupid things and then run away to hide in the countryside.”
They started down the driveway again. “I thought that was standard practice,” said Grantaire, sounding a little less hollow than he had a moment ago. “Rich boy knocks up a housemaid, gives her a handful of cash to fix things and keep her mouth shut, then goes on a fishing trip or a tour of Switzerland or something until it all blows over.”
He cut his eyes to Enjolras’, daring him to start a fight, to contradict him and defend himself. But Enjolras, to both his and Grantaire’s surprise, didn’t take the bait. “I wish I could honestly say I never knew anyone who did that,” he said, “but unfortunately for all of us I have some very...high spirited cousins.” He gave Grantaire a thin, rueful smile, and in return received a rich, genuine, and slightly surprised chuckle. “Do you know,” he continued, a little more seriously, “I think my father would have been much happier with me if all I’d done was get some poor girl pregnant. We’d probably even still be speaking.”
They were silent for a moment. Enjolras found he couldn’t look Grantaire in the eyes, though he could feel the other man’s gaze on him. He focused on the tops of the trees, reaching with spindly branches to the roof of the world. In Paris he had never noticed the trees the way he did here. He heard Grantaire open his mouth and take a breath, and he found he wasn’t afraid of what he was about to ask.
“Why are you here, Enj--” He was cut off suddenly by shouting from Combeferre and Cosette. The bus had come, and apparently it wasn’t willing to wait too long. “Fuck,” said Grantaire, and they both sprinted down the drive.
Twenty minutes later, the bus bumped and lurched its way into the village Enjolras only vaguely remembered from his arrival several months ago. On his way in, he had mainly noticed how small it was. Now, he saw that despite having a population the size of Enjolras’ largest politics lecture, it was actually quite pretty. They drove past a few streets of stone houses with wooden shutters and slate roofs, a handful of new and official-looking brick buildings, and a modest church. The bus dropped them unceremoniously in what passed for the central square of the village. A big stone building Enjolras guessed was the town hall stood at one end, surrounded on all sides by what looked like shops. The center of the square was dominated by the memorial obelisk so unfortunately ubiquitous in this part of the world. Enjolras and Cosette paused in front of it for a moment; Combeferre and Grantaire walked on to the shops.
True to Combeferre’s promise, the bookshop turned out to be small but surprisingly good. All four of them spent over an hour pouring over various books, newspapers, magazines, and records. The owner was surprisingly accommodating; Enjolras guessed he liked having young people in his shop every now and then. Combeferre got very excited over a new edition of some medical text Enjolras didn’t recognize, and the owner let him have it for a discount since, he claimed, it wasn’t the sort of book he was likely to get taken off his hands any time soon. Cosette’s eye was caught by a new record of the American jazz singer Billie Holiday, and when Enjolras, who was not a fan of popular music or music in general, rolled his eyes, she gave him a long lecture and made him swear to listen to it with her when they returned to school. Grantaire disappeared into a dusty corner of the shop for half an hour and returned with an armful of enormous books, which turned out to be museum catalogs and books of contemporary art. Enjolras, who had come looking for a book that would finally get him back to reading in his spare time, found that he spent most of the time looking for things to read to his students.
When they had all paid for their finds, Cosette suggested they take an hour or so to run errands, and then meet again at the cafe for lunch. They all agreed, although Enjolras noticed that Combeferre looked suddenly pensive.
Enjolras considered asking his friend what it was that had so briefly changed his mood, but since Combeferre seemed perfectly normal as soon as they left the bookstore, he decided it wasn’t worth it. Instead, he followed his friend in and out of various stores for the next hour, replacing parts of his wardrobe he had left at home and trying to avoid spending too much money. Combeferre, who had spent years gently and quietly judging Enjolras for worrying a little too much about his appearance, grimaced when Enjolras insisted they search the whole pharmacy for his particular shampoo. Enjolras counted it as a victory anyway since it turned out to be cheaper in the village than it had been in Paris.
“You really are ridiculous sometimes,” said Combeferre, as they crossed the square to the cafe. “I honestly think you spend more time on your hair than any of our female friends.”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” said Enjolras, who was in a good mood despite the cold.
Combeferre raised an eyebrow. “So you won’t mind if I tell everyone at dinner tonight?” Enjolras blanched, and Combeferre laughed.
The cafe was small and very warm, and Enjolras had to take his coat off almost immediately. It was not quite full, because most of the village was at home eating Sunday lunch, but there was a respectable crowd of working men and older villagers. The older woman sitting behind the counter nodded at them when they entered. She didn’t look like she was in any shape to be waiting tables, and Enjolras wondered if she had anyone around to help her.
Cosette and Grantaire had chosen a table in the back, away from the draft of the door. They had already ordered a bottle of wine. Cosette sipped hers as she studied the menu, while Grantaire seemed to be scribbling something in a notebook. He shut it as Enjolras and Combeferre approached, and scooted his chair closer to Cosette’s to make room for the two of them.
“I see you started without us,” said Enjolras, nodding at the wine.
Grantaire pushed it his way, along with an empty glass and a copy of the menu. “We got enough to share, don’t worry. Or do you not drink even when you’re off-duty?”
Combeferre sighed, clearly preparing himself for another argument, but instead of firing something back at Grantaire, Enjolras found himself reaching for the bottle. Grantaire’s sarcastic smile faded as Enjolras poured himself half a glass. Before Enjolras could take a sip, Grantaire raised his glass and offered a toast. “To the unexpected,” he said, glancing in Enjolras’ direction.
“To new things,” Enjolras responded, holding his gaze.
“Hear, hear,” said Cosette, raising her own glass.
“Oh, alright,” said Combeferre, pouring himself a sip. He joined in, and they all toasted. Enjolras was about to say something else, something nice about his colleagues, perhaps, when they were interrupted by a scene at the neighboring table. Two middle-aged men, dressed in nicer clothing than the other patrons of the cafe, appeared to be having an argument with a young woman Enjolras supposed was the waitress.
“I don’t see what’s so difficult about it,” said one man, in a nasal accent. “My friend wants a poached egg. Go to the kitchen and tell them to make him a poached egg. Is that hard?”
“Do you see it on the menu?” said the waitress, one hand on her hip. She maybe Enjolras’ age or younger, but she had a hard look about her, and her grey eyes were very sharp. Her dress, under her apron, was plain and a little thin for the weather, but well cared-for. Something about her seemed familiar to Enjolras, although he couldn’t say what.
“Well, no,” said the other man at the table, who was as thin and sallow as his friend was round and red-faced. “But I want an egg. Surely someone in this town can cook an egg.”
“Everything we have is on the menu. If it’s not on the menu, we don’t have it. Surely one of the two of you can read,” said the waitress, starting to turn away. “Let me know when you’ve decided to be serious.”
“Now wait a minute--” the red-faced man reached out and grabbed the waitress by the arm. She spun around, furious, and Enjolras’ whole table rose to their feet. Combeferre even took a step towards her. The man looked cowed, but didn’t immediately let go. “Look, no need to get excited. Just do your job, and let my friend order.”
“Let her go,” said Combeferre. His voice, always cool, was now icy and hard.
“I can fight my own battles, thank you,” said the waitress, without turning around. “Let go of my goddamn arm,” she said to the red-faced man, staring him straight in the eyes. He let go, slowly. “Good. Now get the hell out of my cafe.” Neither man moved. “I said, get out before I throw you out.”
The sallow man tried a smile. “Now, mademoiselle, don’t get upset,” he said, speaking very slowly. “I can see you’re very emotional. Is there some gentleman here we can talk to?”
The waitress’ face went from furious to downright murderous. Enjolras started to speak, but Combeferre beat him to it. He crossed beside the waitress and stood there, towering over both seated men. “She doesn’t need a man around to throw customers out of her own shop,” he said, “but I’d be happy to help if you need a little encouragement to get on your way.”
The two men stared at Combeferre, then at the waitress. Finally, the red-faced one stood up. “I wouldn’t stay here anyway, now that I see the kind of people they let in,” he said, collecting his briefcase. His friend stood up reluctantly, letting his gaze rake over Combeferre, taking in his brown skin, his hair, his nose. Combeferre didn’t blink. The man sniffed and made a face, then pushed past the two of them.
“Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out,” yelled the waitress, as the two men left. Even after the door had swung shut, she remained standing, staring after the men with hard eyes. Combeferre stayed by her side, similarly still except for his left fist, which he clenched and unclenched compulsively. “Thank you,” she said, eventually, almost shyly, looking over her shoulder and up at Combeferre’s face.
“It was nothing,” Combeferre responded, just as quietly.
“You two need a drink,” said Grantaire, beckoning them over with the wine bottle. “It’s the only way to get over dealing with people like that.”
“Oh, come on,” said Cosette, when the waitress didn’t move. “It must be nearly time for you to go on a break. No one will complain.”
Grantaire grinned. “Yeah, and if they do, they can shove--”
“Alright, alright,” said the waitress, laughing. She pulled a chair over from the recently vacated table by the window, and sat between Cosette and Combeferre. As she settled in, Enjolras was once again reminded of someone. He only wished he could figure out who. “What are you staring at, blondie?” said the waitress, noticing Enjolras for the first time. She elbowed Cosette. “Who is this new guy, anyway?”
“Oh, this is Enjolras,” said Cosette. “He’s the new teacher we were telling you about. Enjolras, this is Eponine.” The waitress nodded at him.
Combeferre cleared his throat significantly. “Eponine is Gavroche’s--”
“Gavroche’s mother,” said Eponine, firmly. Enjolras saw that Combeferre had been right-- she did look too young to be anyone’s mother. But her expression dared him to make a comment, and for once Enjolras backed down.
“I see the resemblance,” he said instead. “Gavroche also calls me ‘blondie’, no matter how many times I tell him not to.”
Eponine laughed again. “What can I say? He’s a smart kid.”
“You know, he really is,” said Enjolras, leaning forward. “He’s maybe the brightest in my class, and he really got involved once he started to understand how many of the obstacles he’s faced are really products of an oppressive class hierarchy.”
This time it was Grantaire who burst out laughing.“Be careful, Ep,” said Grantaire, “Enjolras will turn Gavroche into a little Marxist guerilla before you know it.”
Eponine only raised an eyebrow, a gesture that reminded Enjolras forcibly of Combeferre. “You say that like I would have some kind of problem with my brother becoming a Marxist. As far as I can tell, they’re not all bad.” Here she leaned her chin against her hand and looked at Combeferre. “Or do you have a dark side you’re hiding from me?”
“Oh yes,” said Combeferre, with a straight face. “Right after I leave here, I’m going straight to your nearest den of vice, to commit all kinds of crimes. Bad ones, you know. Embezzlement, or something.”
“Very convincing,” said Eponine, “I expect you have an impressive criminal record.”
“Oh, it’s really very short,” said Enjolras, seeing an opportunity to get his friend back for all the teasing of the past few weeks. “He’s only been arrested four or five times.”
Grantaire, Cosette, and Eponine started to laugh, but stopped when they saw Combeferre’s blush and Enjolras’ serious expression. “You’re joking,” said Grantaire. “Why on earth would anyone arrest Combeferre ?”
Combeferre cleared his throat, and spoke in what he tried to pass off as a quick and casual voice. “Oh, you know, political things; protests, obstruction of traffic, destruction of property, all in good conscience --”
“Mostly political things,” Enjolras cut in, with a growing grin. “But I distinctly remember an incident one night in Marseille that ended with you getting a very stern lecture from the judge about public indecency and noise complaints.”
“Well, we all do stupid things when we’re young, but what’s in the past is--” Combeferre spoke even more quickly now, and Enjolras felt a pressure on his foot where his friend was stomping on it repeatedly under the table.
Enjolras persevered, regardless. “I don’t really count last year as the past , do you? I mean, it was your most recent birthday. At least that’s what we told the gentlemen that gave us those free drinks, and those girls you met at the--”
“Enjolras, shut up ,” Combeferre hissed through his teeth.
All three of the others were laughing now. “No, no, we don’t mind,” said Cosette. “By all means, continue telling us about Combeferre’s wild and crazy life.”
“We’d be here all night if I did that,” said Enjolras, smiling cheekily at his friend, who stared daggers back at him.
Grantaire leaned in to Enjolras, jabbing his chest with an accusatory finger. “What I want to know is, where were you during all of this?”
Now it was Combeferre who smiled. “I’m glad you asked that question,” he said, as Enjolras visibly deflated. “Of course, Enjolras was right there with me the whole night, pestering the bartenders and disturbing all the young men who just wanted a quiet drink. And getting arrested for being drunk and disorderly.” Enjolras rolled his eyes as Cosette, Grantaire, and Eponine dissolved once again into laughter, this time at the image of a drunk Enjolras. Combeferre, the smug bastard, just smiled at him.
They spent the next few hours trading stories over lunch. Enjolras learned more than he had ever hoped to know about Grantaire’s attempt to convince Gillenormand to let him paint a giant mural in the dining hall, Eponine’s struggles as a highly irritable waitress in a community with a seemingly above-average concentration of inconsiderate assholes, and Cosette’s running battle with the cook over whether women should be allowed to wear pants in casual settings. The clientele of the cafe seemed to accept the fact that the only waitress was occupied on her own business in the back, and the life of the little village played out, like a scene in a movie, through the frosty windows. Enjolras had good food and good conversation, and when the draft from the doorway blew too cold, he had Grantaire’s warm bulk beside him, radiating heat and contentment. It was by far the most pleasant afternoon he had had in many, many months.
Finally, around six o’clock, Combeferre glanced reluctantly at his watch. “We should probably be going soon, if we want to catch the bus.”
“Oh, well,” said Cosette, blushing slightly, “we actually don’t have to worry about that tonight.”
“How’s that?” asked Grantaire, who was already winding his scarf around his neck. Enjolras was momentarily distracted by Grantaire’s hands weaving in and out of the green wool, brushing occasionally against his own shoulders.
“Well, Marius is driving in to have dinner with Gillenormand tonight,” she said, blushing still more furiously, “and he offered to drive us back in his car, if we met him here around six. He should be here s soon, actually.”
A series of things happened after Cosette mentioned Marius’ name. First, Eponine’s hand twitched, nearly upsetting her wineglass. Combeferre’s hand darted out to catch the glass, and he moved his other hand to the back of Eponine’s chair. She looked up, surprised, and then they seemed to be having a brief, entirely silent conversation; Combeferre’s face was concerned, Eponine’s resolute and a little sad.
Meanwhile, Grantaire, seeing Enjolras’s confusion, turned to him and explained, “Marius is Gillenormand’s grandson, who also happens to be deeply in love with Cosette. Oh, don’t look embarrassed,” he said to Cosette, “it’s pretty obvious to all of us that he’s crazy for you. And you for him,” he added.
“Gillenormand’s grandson?” Enjolras frowned. “I hope he doesn’t take after his grandfather.”
“Oh no, he’s really very sweet,” said Cosette, who was now glancing out the window every few seconds. “He’s nothing at all like Gillenormand, he’s so gentle and he really does care about the students. He should be the nurse, not me; he’s much more patient and he doesn’t get frustrated like I do.”
“See what I mean?” said Grantaire in a mock whisper, leaning sideways so that he was right next to Enjolras’ ear. Enjolras felt the hairs rise on his skin, and he was suddenly very aware of the warmth of Grantaire’s breath and the smell of leather and some kind of spice. “She’s crazy about him.” As he leaned in, his knuckles brushed against the back of Enjolras’ hand. Enjolras thought he did know what Grantaire meant.
The door swung open, letting in another blast of wintry air and a young man in a tan coat. Cosette immediately stood up, and Grantaire began to shrug on his jacket. If his friends hadn’t reacted, Enjolras would never have guessed this was Marius, Gillenormand’s grandson. Where Gillenormand was harsh and withered, this young man was shockingly boyish. He had red hair and an abundance of freckles, and his expression put Enjolras in mind of his students at the sound of the lunch bell. “Hello, everyone,” said Marius, peeling off his gloves to shake Combeferre’s and Grantaire’s hands. He waved at Eponine with a smile, gave Cosette a quick, shy kiss on the cheek, and stopped in front of Enjolras. “You must be the new teacher,” he said, offering his hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m Marius Pontmercy.”
Enjolras shook his hand. “You’re our headmaster’s grandson,” he said.
“Don’t hold that against me,” said Marius, with a smile. The others started to gather up their things and head towards the door.
“We can’t help who our families are,” said Enjolras, buttoning his own coat.
“That’s the truth,” said Eponine. As Enjolras passed her, she tapped him on the shoulder. “Can I give you this to give to Gavroche?” She held a box wrapped in brown paper and twine. “It’s just a little something, but I thought, since you’re his teacher…”
Enjolras took the package carefully. “Of course, I’ll give it to him.”
“And tell him--” she paused, looking more vulnerable than Enjolras had yet seen. “Tell him ‘Ponine sends her love.”
“Alright,” Enjolras replied. He considered whether to just ask her straight off about Gavroche’s mysterious sister, about her relationship to him and how they came to be in this part of the world. But before he could speak, a car horn blared outside.
“Hurry up!” Grantaire was leaning over the front seat of Marius’ Cadillac, honking the horn over Marius’ shoulder. Enjolras hurried outside and slid into the backseat, sandwiching Grantaire between him and Combeferre. As they pulled away from the curb, he could see Eponine standing in the window of the cafe, watching them go. In the growing twilight, she was lit up by the warm light of the cafe. He glanced over at Combeferre and watched his friend watch her through first the side window and then the back windshield, until the little square and the little village were far behind them, and they were consumed by the gloom of the cold forest.
I wish my English teachers had read subversive political comics to me.
Thanks to everyone who has left kudos, commented, or subscribed! Nice words are always appreciated.
Next time: the plot thickens, and so does the sexual tension.
Chapter 4: Gamins oublié, égaré
Fun game for this chapter: guess which sections I wrote drunk!
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(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Enjolras sought out Gavroche as soon as they got back to the school. He found him in the dormitory, reading a comic book. As soon as he realized Enjolras had something to give him, he sprang up from his bed and started to rummage around in the trunk where he kept his possessions. “Did you get that from Eponine?” he asked, as he sorted through clothes, books, and a few worn toys.
“Yes,” said Enjolras, standing beside him. “She also told me to send you her love,” he added, after a moment.
“Gross,” said Gavroche. “She’s usually not that mushy.” He emerged from his trunk holding a large switchblade, which he used to cut off the wrapping of the package.
“Are you allowed to have that?” asked Enjolras, skeptically.
“Is that all you ever say?” said Gavroche, shutting the knife with a snap. “Allowed to do this, allowed to do that. You should relax a little.” He removed the brown paper, revealing the colorful packaging of a toy airplane. “Oh, wow! Wait until the other boys see this!” he crowed, opening the box. He climbed up on the bed and started to pilot the little plane around Enjolras’ head. “The famous flying ace steers his trusty plane around the treacherous peak of Mt. Blondie in search of the enemy base…hold on,” he said, jumping off the bed again. He reached under his pillow and pulled out a bag of marbles. “The hero pilot prepares to drop the world’s most dangerous bombs on the enemy’s camp--” With a few bangs, crashes, and screams, he threw the marbles at Enjolras’ shoes. “Victory! Victory! Hooray for Gavroche, hero of the air force!”
Enjolras watched him take a victory lap around the room. “Would you like to be a war hero?” he asked. “I thought children your age had seen enough of war.”
Gavroche paused in the middle of the room, head cocked on one side, thinking very hard. “I don’t really remember any war,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I was very small, and Eponine says we didn’t know any famous fighters anyway. But everyone wants to be a hero, because it’s cool and exciting.”
“I guess neither of us know what it’s like to be a war hero,” said Enjolras, not a little bitterly. He remembered his first argument with Grantaire, the night he had arrived at Fond de l’Etang. He might not have had a chance to do his part for France, but he would defend the dignity of those people who had sacrificed more than others.
Gavroche sat down on his trunk and began playing with his plane again. “Why don’t you just ask Grantaire?”
“What?” Enjolras froze.
“I said, why don’t you just ask Grantaire what it’s like to be a war hero?”
“Was...did Grantaire fight in the war?” Enjolras sat down hard next to Gavroche.
“Sure,” said Gavroche, as if he was explaining something that should be common knowledge. “He was with the Resistance. That’s how he got his big scar,” he added, getting more excited. “In a fight. With Germans!” The boy drew a big slash across his own jaw. “Slash! Just like that. And he was shot with an actual gun! He won’t show me that scar, but sometimes you can see it when we’re all in our exercise clothes. It’s cool.”
Enjolras tried to do some quick math. Grantaire could only be two or so years older than he was, which meant he couldn’t have been more than 18 or 19 at the war’s end, but some of the members of the Resistance, especially the maquisards in the South, had been very young. As he ran through all the things he had said to Grantaire in their first argument, and their subsequent squabbles over the war, Enjolras felt a ball of guilt and shame settle in his gut. He got up and walked to the door in a trance. “Don’t break anything with that plane,” he called absentmindedly to Gavroche as he left.
Back in his own room, Enjolras shut the door and sank down on his bed. He could hear the bell calling everyone to dinner, but he wasn’t hungry. He stared out the window at the darkness that covered the forest. What must Grantaire think of him? The poor little rich boy, showing up unprepared and unqualified, whining about his own problems and talking about things he didn’t understand. Every time Enjolras had argued for something he was passionate about, Grantaire had shot him down with a comment on how brutal and ugly the world was. Grantaire had always seemed so jaded, and until now Enjolras had written it off as the pretensions of someone who was too lazy to try and make a difference in the world. He had felt so right whenever he argued against Grantaire, so assured in his faith that Grantaire was just a pessimist and that he, Enjolras, knew how the world really was. Now he wondered if he’d been making a fool of himself the entire time.
And it did matter to him that Grantaire thought well of him, he realized. He still didn’t understand quite what Combeferre had been teasing him about, but he did think of Grantaire as-- as a friend. A good friend, and someone whose opinion he valued. He hated the thought of being insensitive to any of his friends, and Grantaire was no exception. Filled with nervous energy, Enjolras sprang up from his bed and paced up and down his room. The idea of Grantaire secretly hating or resenting him this entire time made him feel worse than he had since his arrival. Maybe that was why Enjolras felt so flustered around Grantaire-- his subconscious was trying to spur him into action. To make things right between him and his good friend.
He stopped in front of his desk. Grantaire’s presence, he thought, was like the little painting of the hawthorn tree that hung on the wall beside him. It was a spot of something good in his life, and if it was corrupted by feelings of guilt, or taken away, he wasn’t sure how he would be able to remain at the school. No, he had to make things right with Grantaire. He cared too much about him-- about their friendship. About the wellbeing of his friends. The next time he had a chance to talk to Grantaire privately, he would apologize and beg his forgiveness, and then he wouldn’t have to worry about being without Grantaire’s company, and he could stop being so damned distracted by his hands and his hair and his warmth, and the unexplained depths in his blue eyes.
Unfortunately, Enjolras got no chance to speak to Grantaire at all the next day. As soon as he, Combeferre, and Grantaire had sat down to their morning coffee, the younger of the Querrec brothers dashed into the kitchen and told them they were needed in Gillenormand’s office. “But just Grantaire and M. Enjolras,” he said, out of breath. “The headmaster said M. Combeferre could stay behind.”
“That means it’s someone important come to visit,” said Combeferre, settling back into his seat. “He doesn’t like to show me off when it’s someone he wants to impress. Oh, don’t bristle, Enjolras; we’ll get our own back one day. I’ll make sure of that.”
Enjolras followed Grantaire up to Gillenormand’s office. Although he had seen the headmaster often since his arrival, he hadn’t been called up to his office since that first terrible lecture. He wondered what it could possibly be that was so important.
The first sign of trouble was the two orderlies in the waiting room. They were large, burly men, and even though they wore nurse’s scrubs, they looked like they would have been more at home in a darkened alley than some kind of medical establishment.
“This doesn’t look good,” said Grantaire to Enjolras, as they pushed open Gillenormand’s door.
“Gentlemen! Welcome, welcome,” Gillenormand greeted them with unusual friendliness as they entered his office. Enjolras saw that he was sharing the limited space behind his desk with a very tall, balding man in a well-tailored suit, whose hollow face demanded both respect and unease. “Doctor, may I introduce M. Grantaire and M. Enjolras, two of our teachers. Messieurs, this is Dr. Fell, director of St. Christina the Astonishing’s Asylum for Criminally Insane Youth.”
Grantaire and Enjolras exchanged a glance. “Pleased to meet you, sir,” said Enjolras. “What…what brings you to our school?”
Dr. Fell rubbed his long-fingered hands together and spoke in a dry, sandpapery voice. “A serious matter, a very serious matter indeed. I have come to present your fine institution with a new student.” He pointed with a bony finger to a shadowy corner of Gillenormand’s office.
Enjolras and Grantaire turned. Hunched in the corner, obscured almost entirely by the shadow of a large grandfather clock, lurked a boy of about eleven or twelve. He was dressed in old, patched clothing, and wearing a flat cap that looked like it might have once belonged to a soldier. His expression, when he stepped out of the shadows, was at once alarmingly blank and subtly malevolent. “This,” said Dr. Fell, “is Montparnasse.” The boy folded his arms and stared at Enjolras and Grantaire. “We have no idea where he’s from or who he is, or what his history was at all before he landed at our facility. You’ll be happy to know,” the doctor continued, without batting an eye, “that according to our most advanced medical examinations, Montparnasse has just recently been pronounced almost entirely free of psychotic delusions. Appropriately, we have decided to remove him from our...specialized facility, and place him in an environment with other specimens who, like him, are essentially sane and also persistently criminal.” Montparnasse, without breaking eye contact with Enjolras, slowly spread his lips into a shark’s smile. “Of course, he does still suffer from sociopathic tendencies, an inclination towards acts of extreme violence, and some slight mythomania.”
“Headmaster,” said Enjolras, carefully, “are you sure this particular environment is appropriate for the boy? Many of our students are only orphans, not criminals, and some of them are quite young.”
Gillenormand waved his hand. “Nonsense, nonsense,” he said, “as I have just been telling Dr. Fell, this school is incredibly advanced in its ability to handle these volatile students. It is one of the foremost institutions of corrective learning in the country, as you well know.” He shot Enjolras a sharp look where he thought Dr. Fell couldn’t see.
“Of course,” said Grantaire, dryly. “Highly respected.”
Gillenormand gave him a thin smile. “Just as I said. Now, take this young...man to the dormitories. Dr. Fell, may I offer you a little something to drink? I have sherry, port, a very fine cognac…” He steered the good doctor towards his liquor cabinet, turning his back completely on Enjolras and Grantaire.
Grantaire sighed. “Come on, then,” he said to Montparnasse, jerking his head towards the door. “Let’s get you set up.”
Montparnasse followed them down to the dormitories silently. He was silent throughout Grantaire’s explanation of the school’s schedule, and through their instructions on the school’s rules. He answered Enjolras’ questions about his previous schooling with single syllables whenever possible. In fact, the only time he showed the slightest bit of animation was when they reached the dormitories, and he started to read the names printed on the foot of each boy’s bed. He walked along the dormitory, sounding out each name, until he reached the foot of a bed about halfway down. “Gav-roch-e,” he said. He smiled slowly, and sat down hard on the next bed over. “I’ll take this bed,” he announced, putting his boots up on the pillows.
“Well, that’s Boniface’s bed,” said Enjolras, carefully, “but maybe if you ask him very nicely--”
“He can move,” said Montparnasse. “Plenty of beds here. This one’s mine.” This time, he stared at Grantaire with unblinking eyes.
Enjolras and Grantaire looked at each other. “Great,” said Grantaire. “We’ll just-- leave you to it, then. Lunch is at noon, don’t forget.” But Montparnasse had already closed his eyes and turned away.
At first, it seemed like Montparnasse was content to lurk at the edges of the school, observing the other students and absolutely refusing to participate in any activity, required or not. Whenever the other boys asked him about himself, he stared them down until they either started to cry or simply went away. Then, when he had been there a few weeks and the questions hadn’t stopped coming, he began to answer them with the most lurid and appallingly violent stories Enjolras had ever heard. Cosette reported being woken up five times in five nights by younger children scared sleepless by one of Montparnasse’s stories. Once he had begun to speak, Montparnasse slowly began to act out more and more, until he had almost surpassed Gavroche as the leading smart-mouth in Enjolras’ class. The difference was where Gavroche had been honestly inquisitive, Montparnasse was purely vindictive. Both Enjolras and Combeferre tried to offer him extra tutoring, but in both cases he flatly refused. Grantaire, who had always been in charge of breaking up scuffles, now had to physically intervene in vicious fights several times a week-- sometimes between Montparnasse and another student, sometimes between two students Montparnasse had goaded into fighting each other. The environment at the school, always grim, now took on a violent character Enjolras did not like.
None of these developments alarmed the teaching staff as much as Montparnasse’s subtle campaign against Gavroche. From his first day, Montparnasse set about undermining and goading Gavroche into worse and worse behavior, sometimes in retaliation, sometimes through dares and teasing.
“That boy is a bad influence,” said Cosette one evening, as she examined Grantaire’s arm in her pristine first-floor office. He was perched on the corner of her desk, which she had transformed into a makeshift nursing station. Enjolras sat by the door, trying to scrub some blood out of his shirt with a wet towel.
“Strong language, coming from you.” said Grantaire, gritting his teeth against the sting of antiseptic. His arm had been badly scratched up by a makeshift knife, of all things, in a fight between two of the older boys. “Sorry about your shirt,” he added, to Enjolras.
Enjolras put down the towel. “It’s fine,” he said, “I think it will come out if I really scrub at it. My fault for grabbing your arm, anyway.” He examined the cuff, where Grantaire’s blood had dripped when Enjolras had helped him up from the floor. He didn’t know why he had rushed to Grantaire’s side when he saw what had happened. Logically, he knew Grantaire wasn’t too badly injured, because he was still capable of swearing violently and at length.
Cosette began bandaging Grantaire’s scrape. “I think you’ll have to wash it,” she said. “Just leave it here with me, I’ll have to do my apron and Querrec’s shirt, anyway.”
Gratefully, Enjolras began to unbutton his shirt. He had reached the fourth button when a scuffle from the other side of the room made him look up. Grantaire was in the process of frantically shushing Cosette, who was giggling as she pinned up Grantaire’s sleeve. His cheeks were pink, and Enjolras realized this was the first time he had seen Grantaire blush.
“What?” he asked, glancing around and then down at himself. Did he have a stain on his undershirt, or something?
“Nothing,” said Grantaire quickly. “I’m just--”
“Ticklish,” said Cosette, through her giggles. Grantaire kicked her. “He’s very ticklish.”
Enjolras, suspecting something was up, continued to frown at them for a second, but Grantaire refused to look in his direction, and Cosette pulled herself together. “Alright.” He finished removing his shirt. “Where do you want this?”
“Just drop it in the basket behind my desk.” Enjolras crossed over to her desk, and Cosette stepped aside to put away her supplies. Grantaire stayed awkwardly perched on the corner. In order to go around her desk, Enjolras had to cross very close to him. Cosette had rolled up one of his sleeves to make room for the bandage, and Enjolras saw that Grantaire’s arms were just as muscular as he had guessed from the few times he had happened to watch Grantaire in his exercise clothes. He was suddenly very aware of being in only his undershirt.
Grantaire cleared his throat. “I think she’s talking about the one tucked underneath,” he said, after Enjolras had stood motionless next to him for a few seconds.
“Could you show me?” The words were out of Enjolras’ mouth before he had time to stop them. He felt his cheeks grow hot as Grantaire paused. Why the hell would he ask that? What kind of grown man needs help locating a basket in an area barely three feet across? But Grantaire hopped off the desk anyway, and stood beside him. Enjolras tried to shift and give him enough space, but even so Grantaire had to squeeze past him. As he pressed up against him, Enjolras’s whole body grew warm, and he fought down an absurd and completely illogical urge to grab Grantaire by the waist and hold him there.
“Here,” said Grantaire, quietly. He bent to pull a laundry basket out from Cosette’s desk. Enjolras absently passed him his shirt, which Grantaire took after the briefest bit of hesitation. Then, he looked at Enjolras expectantly. Enjolras, still distracted, didn’t get the hint.
After a moment, Grantaire pushed past Enjolras again, and this time Enjolras couldn’t stop himself from bringing his hand up to skim Grantaire’s waist. Grantaire froze. As soon as he realized what he had done, Enjolras drew his hand back sharply. “Sorry,” he said, quickly. Grantaire looked up at him. “I mean-- sorry. I have to go.”
He turned around and fled out the door, leaving a very confused Grantaire staring after him.
This time, Enjolras didn’t hide in his room. The weather was warm enough that he went outside the school proper and sat down on the woodpile in the farthest corner of the school’s walls. From here, he could see the lights burning in Gillenormand’s office and Combeferre’s classroom, in the kitchen and in Cosette’s room. It was just starting to get dark, and the air had that soft, melancholy spring feeling that always took Enjolras aback when he stopped to notice it. It was very quiet. He could hear the bustle of the boys inside the school faintly; otherwise, it was only the hum of insects and the rustle of the breeze in the budding spring leaves. Enjolras felt himself relax a little. The panic that had driven him out of Cosette’s office subsided, and along with it the desperate need to be rational and detached, to push down and control his feelings.
There was nothing for it, Enjolras decided, but to be honest with himself. He wasn’t stupid. He knew that he was attracted to Grantaire. Hell, he’d known that the moment Grantaire had entered the kitchen that first day at Fond de l’Etang. Enjolras wasn’t a stranger to his body’s impulses, and he wasn’t the kind of man who pushed down harmless attraction just because it went against societal norms. Under usual circumstances, he probably would have approached his attraction to Grantaire quite differently. But these weren’t usual circumstances.
As long as he was being honest with himself, he might as well admit something else: he had been badly hurt by the thing with Lamarque. Jean had been-- well, not the most important thing in Enjolras’ life, not while there were still battles for justice to be fought, but he had been near the top of the list. His relationship with Jean had been the best he had ever hoped for; that is to say, deep admiration and a whole lot of sex. It hadn’t been love-- Enjolras didn’t really believe in love, and he certainly didn’t think he was the kind of person that would be susceptible to something so distracting and wasteful as romance. But that didn’t mean it had been easy to watch Jean-- to watch Professor Lamarque distance himself completely after the scandal of their relationship went public. So when Grantaire had entered the kitchen that day, Enjolras hadn’t just been thinking of the line of Grantaire’s neck and how his stubble might feel under his mouth. He had been thinking about the sting of rejection, and the glare of public humiliation, and how he wasn’t willing to risk that for sex ever again. He’d lashed out at Grantaire, and for the first time tried to push away his desire for another man.
Now it was clear that hadn’t worked at all. Well, Enjolras was a rational man; he would go about this in a rational way. So, he wanted to have sex with Grantaire. That was natural and healthy. Should he? His relationship with Grantaire was completely different from what he had had with Lamarque, or with any other man. Grantaire was physically attractive, but it wasn’t his defining characteristic. Instead, Enjolras was drawn by his thoughts and his attitude, and the way he always felt at home in his presence. Would that change if they started to sleep together? It wasn’t something Enjolras had ever thought about with anyone else. Grantaire’s actual presence in his daily life was more important to him than his potential presence in his bed. He wondered why this was, and decided it was probably because Grantaire was already his close friend. Casual sex with a close friend-- which was obviously all he wanted from Grantaire-- would be a whole new set of negotiations. He would have to think about it very carefully before he embarked on a course of action.
All of a sudden, the pool of light Enjolras had been sitting in was marred by a long black shadow. “Damn it, Enjolras, this is usually my spot,” said Combeferre, emerging from the other side of the woodpile. He carried a bottle in one hand, and he looked, to Enjolras, unusually sad.
“There’s plenty of woodpile for the both of us,” said Enjolras, patting the spot next to him.
“Thanks,” said Combeferre, settling in next to him. Enjolras thought he was about to say something, but instead his friend just rested his chin on his hand and closed his eyes.
After a moment of companionable silence, Enjolras spoke. “Something is bothering you,” he said, glancing over at Combeferre.
“Mmm,” said Combeferre, without opening his eyes.
“Will you tell me about it?”
Combeferre sighed, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Honestly, I just don’t want to bother anyone about it. It’s really an extremely stupid problem. Probably the stupidest possible thing to be worked up over.”
Enjolras thought for a moment. “Is it a girl?” he asked, finally.
Combeferre just groaned in response, and dropped his head into his hand again.
Enjolras thought again. “Is it that waitress?”
Combeferre sagged even further. “Eponine.” He wasn’t looking at Enjolras.
“Well, what’s the trouble?” asked Enjolras, practically. “She seemed to like you well enough, and she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring or anything.”
“Enjolras.” Combeferre looked a little exasperated. “I’m not trying to get her to meet me behind the school for a quick fuck. I-- I think I’m in love with her.” As he said it, he turned to Enjolras with wide eyes.
Enjolras frowned. He’d thought Combeferre was aware enough to realize, as he had, that love couldn’t rationally exist. “How do you know?”
“Well, I--” Combeferre swallowed. “I’m always thinking about her. I mean, whenever I do something, I ask myself what she would think of me if she was watching me right at that moment. I see things or I read things and I think, ‘what would Eponine say if I showed her this?’ I think about how brave she is, and how smart, and how strong, and I just want her to-- I want to be around her, always.” He looked away, smiling a little at his own hyperbole. “I want to know what she thinks, and why she thinks it, and I want to see how she reacts to things and how she looks at life. I want to spend my life getting to know her.” He was no longer looking at anything in particular, but instead was staring out into the gathering darkness with a goofy smile on his face.
“Is that love, though?” asked Enjolras, who in all fairness to himself was simply trying to help a friend out of what he saw as a dangerous delusion. “That really just sounds like how friends feel about each other. After all, that’s how I feel about Grantaire.”
Combeferre gave him a long, long look. “You know,” he said, slowly. “That actually helps more than you think. Now I know whether I really love her or not.”
“Glad I could help,” said Enjolras, feeling very pleased with himself.
Combeferre looked at him again, and sighed. “It’s good I ran into you, actually,” he said. “We decided at dinner that we’d like to take the students on a little outing this week, since the weather is getting nicer and the atmosphere has been so...tense.”
Enjolras raised his eyebrows. “An outing? Where to?” He couldn’t imagine Gillenormand springing for a trip to anywhere particularly far away.
“Oh, just a little walk through the woods,” said Combeferre, cleaning his glasses against his sleeve. “We mix in a little science, plant identification, local history, that sort of thing. There’s a meadow about a mile away that’s very nice for a picnic. It’s easy to organize, and the children enjoy it.”
An idea occurred to Enjolras. “What about...surely you don’t want us to deal with Montparnasse in an open environment like that?”
Combeferre snorted. “Our headmaster has taken care of that problem for us. He finally cracked and sent Montparnasse into the cachot for a week after the boy lobbed a dead frog through Gillenormand’s window while he was having lunch. One week without him, and we’re taking advantage of it.”
“Well, alright,” said Enjolras, “as long as that’s taken care of, I think the outing sounds like an excellent idea.”
“It’s something to look forward to.” Combeferre stared off into the distance again. “We all need something to look forward to, in this place.”
St. Christina the Astonishing is a real saint and her story is honestly crazy.
I'm being pretty harsh to Montparnasse here, but it fits better with the Les Choristes mashup-- his analog in the movie is scary.
Next time: Cue the Marvin Gaye, it's time for a rating change.
The next few days passed quickly for Enjolras. Both the staff and the students were excited at the prospect of an outing, and with Montparnasse locked away, the atmosphere at the school had returned almost to normal. In the moments when Enjolras wasn’t dealing with his students or sparring-- mostly good-naturedly now-- with Grantaire, he tried to apply himself to deciding whether he actually wanted to sleep with his friend. The decision was proving more difficult than he had anticipated. Every time he brushed up against Grantaire, or stepped close to him, or watched him try to force a courtyard’s worth of little boys into straight lines for healthful calisthenics, the thought his mind was made up. But then he would talk with him, or argue with him, or spend a meal exchanging looks whenever anyone did something funny or strange, and the idea of risking all that for a fling seemed like more than he could take. He wished there was a way for him to have both, to be able to touch Grantaire and still talk with him, to spend all of his time with him both in and out of bed.
It was with this problem in mind that Enjolras set out the next Saturday on the school’s outing. It was a bright, sunny morning, and the air was full of the smell of spring. Everywhere he looked, Enjolras saw signs of new life. The trees were covered with a haze of pale green leaves, newly sprouted; twitters from the treetops suggested newly-hatched birds. The earth was warm with potential. As Enjolras watched Combeferre and Cosette teach the children about the root systems of trees, he felt an unexpected surge of happiness. Today, he decided, was a day for new beginnings.
He and Grantaire walked side-by-side through the woods, at the head of a long column of children. Grantaire had surprised the whole school by being able to whistle almost any tune you could name, and he now provided musical accompaniment to their hike. Enjolras found himself laughing again and again as Grantaire whistled everything from radio jingles to Beethoven. Eventually, Grantaire settled on a slow, melancholy song Enjolras remembered his housekeeper listening to on her little radio, in the kitchen that had been the only warm spot in his childhood home. He wished he could tell Grantaire that, tell him how the song made him feel both deeply sad and surprisingly at peace. There was a whole world of things he wished he could tell Grantaire.
True to Combeferre’s description, after about an hour of walking, the forest opened up into a broad, sunny meadow. It was too early for the abundance of wildflowers Enjolras remembered from his own childhood, and anyway they were too far north for fields of lavender and geraniums. Instead, the grass was dotted here and there with white-and-gold marguerites, narcissi, and the occasional brilliant red poppy. The boys streamed out of the forest, past Enjolras and Grantaire, chasing each other across the meadow and laughing. The adults walked more slowly, savoring the fresh spring air. At the top of a gentle slope, Cosette unfolded the picnic blanket she had brought, and set down the massive basket of sandwiches the cook had prepared. From here, they could see most of the meadow.
“Let’s stay here forever,” said Cosette, settling onto the checkered blanket.
Grantaire lay down beside her. “Alright by me.” he said, looking up at the few white clouds above them.
Enjolras stayed standing, watching the boys run back and forth in waves across the meadow. He wanted to sit down on the blanket beside Grantaire, to lie down next to him and watch him watching the clouds, and maybe touch his hair and see if the curls would stay curly even if he tugged at them, but even he admitted that might be a little hard to explain at the moment. So he stayed standing, filled with the restless energy of uncertainty and need.
Eventually, Cosette organized a game of tag, and Combeferre went off to teach the less athletically-inclined boys about the different parts of a flower. Then it was just Enjolras, still standing, and a gently dozing Grantaire. Enjolras shifted, considering whether it was acceptable now for him to sit down beside Grantaire. He tried to move quietly, not wanting to disturb his friend when he looked so peaceful, but the blanket shifted unexpectedly and instead of lowering himself gently, Enjolras roughly stumbled to his knees beside Grantaire’s head.
“Wha?” Grantaire raised his head an inch and mumbled sleepily, glancing around before noticing Enjolras, frozen two inches away from his face and staring at him guiltily. “What’s-- what’s goin’ on?” He raised himself up on one elbow, and as he did so, his hair flopped distractingly over his forehead. Their eyes locked.
“I’m going for a walk,” said Enjolras, abruptly.
“Okay,” said Grantaire, after a pause. They looked at each other. Enjolras could see Grantaire slowly waking up, taking stock of his situation.
“Okay,” Enjolras repeated, feeling that this situation was spiralling out of hand rather quickly. He got up before he could make more of a fool of himself. As he walked away, he heard Grantaire mumble something that sounded like a question, but when he looked back, he was already lying down again, hand over his eyes.
Enjolras picked a direction at random and walked with purpose. He’d had absolutely no intention of exploring the woods before Grantaire had made him unfairly flustered, but now that he’d committed himself accidentally, he was damn well going to make it look like the most intentional walk he’d ever taken. He crunched his way energetically over sticks and underbrush until he was sure he was out of sight of the meadow. Then he paused. Walking so harshly through such a quiet, lovely forest had made him feel like an invader. Looking around him, he found was at the edge of a small stream, flowing along roughly in the direction of the village. He walked along it slowly, enjoying the quiet. Just at the edge of his perception, he could hear the shouts of the boys, mixed with Cosette’s laugh. A bird sang in the branches of a tree high above him. He was conscious suddenly of a pregnant stillness in the air, as if the whole forest was waiting for something.
Enjolras rounded a bend in the stream and felt for a moment as if he’d stepped into a dream. Spread out in front of him, shocking in its absolute, entirely concrete reality, was a blossoming hawthorn tree, branches bending lazily over the water. Enjolras stepped towards it, cautious of breaking whatever spell he felt sure had brought him here. It was only when he’d reached it and spread his palm flat on the rough bark of its trunk that he knew for sure it wasn’t some kind of strange magic that had transported him from a pleasant but entirely real forest into the painting in his bedroom.
He ran his hand over the trunk, feeling a little silly. Obviously, some local artist had come across the tree, just as he had, and painted a picture of it, which had ended up in Enjolras’ bedroom. The only magic involved had been the kind that anyone with a little more artistic talent than Enjolras could conjure up with a paintbrush and canvas. But, he reasoned, that didn’t make the painting any less beautiful, or the tree any less miraculous.
“My favorite place,” said a voice behind him. Enjolras turned to see Grantaire standing by the edge of the stream. He, too, looked dreamlike.
“What?” If it hadn’t been for the roughness of the bark under his hands, Enjolras might have thought he was asleep in his room, dreaming of the man in front of him, painted soft and mysterious by the dappled sunlight falling through the trees.
“This is my favorite place in the forest,” said Grantaire. He looked cautious, and Enjolras wondered if he, too, was trying not to shatter a spell.
“I-- is it?” Enjolras found that his throat was dry, and his words came out lower and raspier than he’d intended. In the soft light, Grantaire looked shatteringly beautiful in a way Enjolras had never seen a person look before.
Grantaire took a few soft steps forward, staring past Enjolras at the hawthorn tree. “It is,” he said softly, stopping within a few feet of Enjolras, hands in pockets, to stare up at the spreading branches, heavy with blossoms. “The ancient strength of the tree, the soft newness of the flowers, the clear life of the stream-- and just knowing that whatever is happening in other places, whatever changes, whoever changes, this will always be here, just the same, waiting. For decades, maybe centuries.” His face was, for a moment, exquisitely sad; then, like a ripple of wind over a pond, like a page turning in a book, he was his old self again. Enjolras wondered how often he made that choice, to turn the page on what he felt most deeply. “You know, I painted this tree once.”
For a moment, it seemed like Enjolras’ world froze. Of course, he realized, of course it was Grantaire who painted the picture above his desk. Of course it was him, with his smile like slow lightning through Enjolras, and his clever hands, and his rough voice. With his eyes, bright and brittle and soft and kind and always far too sad. Who else could have made something so simply beautiful and hung it in such a dark, melancholy place?
Enjolras felt like his heart was breaking open. Not in the painful way it had in Paris, all shock and sharp words and shame. Like the acorns, like the bulbs, it was opening up to new life, turning towards Grantaire’s warmth. Grantaire, who he was in love with. Who he loved. He realized he was smiling like an idiot.
Grantaire looked at him. “Are you alright?”
“You have flowers in your hair,” said Enjolras. It wasn’t why he had smiled, but he couldn’t stop himself from reaching up to brush away the white petals. His hand tangled in Grantaire’s curls. He should have pulled away after a moment, but instead he moved closer and let his eyes run over Grantaire’s face. He saw the other man swallow heavily, his eyes flicking to Enjolras’ mouth. Enjolras felt like something was pulling him forward. “Can I kiss you?”
“Yes.” The sound of Grantaire’s voice, deep and rough and distracted. The melting heat of his mouth, the roughness of his stubble against Enjolras’ cheek and jaw. The smell of leather and spices, and the softness of his hair under Enjolras’ hand. Enjolras kissed him slowly, gasping a little when Grantaire pulled him in by the waist. Grantaire took the opportunity to push his tongue past Enjolras’ parted lips, and Enjolras gasped again. Grantaire’s body was warm and strong against his.
Eventually, they pulled apart, and Enjolras flushed under Grantaire’s hungry scrutiny. He knew how he must look, dizzy and pink, smiling with slightly swollen lips, unable to focus on anything besides getting closer to Grantaire again. “God damn,” said Grantaire, studying him. He backed them up until Enjolras was pressed against the hawthorn tree. He kissed him again, hands pressing roughly into Enjolras’ waist, and began to suck a line of open-mouthed kisses down Enjolras’ neck, unbuttoning his collar with one hand. This time, Enjolras couldn’t stop himself from letting out a moan, head lolling back to hit the tree. Grantaire looked up with laughter in his eyes, and Enjolras felt a rush of joy through the cloud of lust. His laugh turned into another moan as Grantaire fixed his mouth on Enjolras’ collarbone.
Grantaire’s hands, always restless, seemed incapable of pausing on one part of Enjolras’ body. He ran them up his chest and arms, his neck, his ass. Enjolras could feel the hard line of Grantaire’s cock against his thigh as the man pressed fully against him and captured his mouth once more. When he pulled away this time, they were both panting. Grantaire’s eyes ran over Enjolras’ face, hungry. He gave a wicked little half-smile.
“You look like a man with a plan,” said Enjolras, raising his eyebrows. In response, Grantaire kissed him, then sank to his knees. “Fuck,” Enjolras cursed, staring down at him.
“Alright?” Grantaire asked, one hand at Enjolras’ belt buckle.
“God, yes , of course.” Enjolras almost laughed. Grantaire shrugged, as if to say you never knew until you asked. Enjolras was considering making a comment about not asking stupid questions, but decided it definitely wasn’t the priority as soon as Grantaire palmed him through his pants. “ Fuck ,” he said, instead.
Grantaire hummed his agreement, and began to untuck Enjolras’ shirt. The warmth of Grantaire’s hands on his chest and his breath on his cock were driving Enjolras insane. He tried to wriggle a little bit, encouraging Grantaire to get a move on, but it just made the other man chuckle and trace the outline of Enjolras’ cock through his underwear.
“Hey-- shit!” Grantaire scrambled to one knee and Enjolras snapped his head back up as a third voice cut through the quiet of the forest. Cosette, hands in front of her eyes, had just rounded the bend of the stream. “I am so, so sorry,” she said, from behind her hands. “But we’re heading back to the school, so I thought I’d see if you were com-- I mean, if you were ready to leave.”
Enjolras turned bright crimson and tried to stuff his shirt back into his pants and buckle his belt. Grantaire, equally surprised but at least fully dressed, answered her instead. “It’s fine,” he said, in a surprisingly steady voice. “We’ll be right behind you.” Cosette walked quickly away, and Grantaire turned to Enjolras, almost sheepishly. Enjolras was still wrestling with his fly, which seemed to have become stuck on the tails of his shirt. “Here,” said Grantaire, untangling the cloth with his nimble fingers. He went to buckle Enjolras’ belt, but Enjolras batted his hand away.
“I can do it,” he said, and Grantaire’s face fell. “Oh no,” said Enjolras, quickly, “I just mean, if your hand is that close to me again right now, I won’t be able to stop myself and then we’ll never get back to the school.” Grantaire let out a laugh that was more relieved than perhaps he had intended. “Grantaire--” He looked up, and Enjolras kissed him, softly and sweetly. “Let’s go.”
How Enjolras made it through the evening, he didn’t know. The walk back was spent trying to keep up a normal conversation with Combeferre without staring too much at Grantaire, walking ahead of him with a persistently apologetic Cosette. He thought he could sneak off when they arrived, but by the time they got back, dinner was ready, and God help the man who tried to go against the tide of forty prepubescent boys heading for a hot meal. He was so distracted during dinner that he twice called Combeferre “Courf,” and tipped the gravy boat over onto Cosette’s lap. Finally, Combeferre rolled his eyes and told him to just go, since his mind seemed to be somewhere else anyway. If he hadn’t been so restless, he would have been embarrassed by how fast he left.
Grantaire caught up with him outside his bedroom door. Enjolras grunted as Grantaire pressed him up against the cool stone wall, then leaned forward to catch him in a long kiss. When they pulled away, Enjolras applied himself to mouthing along the line of his jaw. “I thought dinner would never end,” gasped Grantaire into Enjolras’ ear.
“Combeferre just got fed up with us,” said Enjolras, pulling back from Grantaire’s neck. “Come on, let’s get inside before he comes back and rolls his eyes at me again.” He fumbled with the key, trying to unlock his door without letting go of a laughing Grantaire, who insisted on kissing him very distractingly every few seconds. Finally, the door opened and they tumbled into Enjolras’ room.
As soon as Enjolras had switched on the lights, Grantaire pinned him against his desk. His eyes were very dark, and Enjolras felt himself shiver under Grantaire’s scrutiny. When it looked like Grantaire would be content with just staring at Enjolras all night, he decided to speed things along by tipping Grantaire’s chin up with one hand and pulling him into a messy kiss. With the other hand, he tried to unbutton Grantaire’s shirt. Eventually Grantaire reached down to undo his own buttons, and after a searingly pointed look, Enjolras began to do the same.
“You’re really clumsy when you’re distracted,” said Grantaire, after he had shrugged off his own shirt and Enjolras was halfway through fumbling with his own buttons.
“Who’s fault is that?” asked Enjolras, finally leaning back and letting Grantaire do the work.
Grantaire stripped off Enjolras’ shirt and undershirt, then paused to flatten his palm against Enjolras’ chest. “I’m not complaining,” he said, “it’s just… I really thought you were always good at everything.” He laughed, but Enjolras could see something like awe in his expression. He didn’t really like it.
“Come on,” he said, rolling his eyes and pulling Grantaire forward so that his arms rested on either side of Enjolras’ hips. “I’m a human being. I’ll even prove it to you, if you like.” He kissed Grantaire again.
“How?” gasped Grantaire, “by tripping? Spelling something wrong?” Enjolras kissed him between every stupid question out of his gorgeous mouth. “Staining your socks? Ripping a paper? God, fuck --” Enjolras finally got him to shut up by pressing his thigh in between Grantaire’s legs and simultaneously running his hand down Grantaire’s back and into the top of his pants. Grantaire responded by untangling himself and dropping to his knees, evidently eager to finish what they had started in the woods. But when he reached for Enjolras’ belt buckle, Enjolras stopped him.
“No?” Grantaire looked a little crestfallen.
Enjolras pulled him up so that they were nose-to-nose, and he could wrap a hand around his neck. “No,” he said, pulling him in by the hips.
“That’s completely fine,” said Grantaire, quickly. “We can go slow, whatever you want, just--”
“Fuck me,” said Enjolras. For a moment Grantaire was still, and Enjolras worried he’d gone too far. Then a slow smile started to spread across his face. Enjolras relaxed. “Alright?”
“You are such a bastard,” said Grantaire, kissing him quickly and roughly. “Yes, yes, of course, come on .” Enjolras followed Grantaire to his own bed, hands scrabbling at his own belt buckle. Grantaire rolled his eyes. “Just come here,” he said, reaching for Enjolras.
Deftly, he undid Enjolras’ belt and unzipped his fly. Then he seemed preoccupied by the sheer expanse of skin in front of him, so Enjolras removed his own pants and underwear. Once he was entirely naked, Grantaire pulled him down into his lap. The roughness of Grantaire’s pants chafed a little, but Enjolras stopped caring as soon as his hand closed around Enjolras’ cock. “Wait, wait,” Enjolras panted, reaching over to jerk open the drawer beside his bed. Grantaire ran his hand over the plane of Enjolras’ back, sending shivers up his spine. Finally, Enjolras’ hand closed around the little tub of vaseline, and he pulled back, triumphant.
Grantaire was leaning his head against the wall, staring at Enjolras with half-lidded eyes. His undershirt was untucked, and Enjolras could clearly see his erection tenting his pants. Before he went any further, Enjolras reached down and started to pull off Grantaire’s undershirt. He wanted to see all of him, to discover everything he could.
Grantaire’s chest was tan and well-defined, marred only by a large and nasty-looking scar on his lower abdomen. Enjolras ran a hand along it, and Grantaire shivered. “Not all of us are perfect,” he said, in a very deep voice. He wasn’t smiling anymore. In response, Enjolras took his face in both hands and kissed him, long and deep and messy. When he pulled back, Grantaire looked dazed, but happy.
Enjolras unscrewed the top of the vaseline, but it was Grantaire who dipped his fingers in. Enjolras whined unselfconsciously as Grantaire teased one finger along the edge of his hole. “Hurry the fuck up,” he gasped. Grantaire stifled his own gasp and pressed his finger into Enjolras slowly. The pressure was good, but not enough. Enjolras begged and whined until Grantaire was stretching him open with two, then three of his long, clever fingers. It had been far, far too long since Enjolras had been opened up like this, by another man’s hands. He felt the pressure building in his own cock as Grantaire prepared him, and tried to resist the urge to thrust wildly against Grantaire’s chest.
Finally, he stopped Grantaire’s hand. “Ready,” he choked, trying to untangle himself from Grantaire’s arms and legs. “Not like this,” he said, climbing off of Grantaire’s lap. Instead, he got on his hands and knees. When he looked over his shoulder at Grantaire, he saw raw lust in his eyes, and a wicked-looking grin. “Well, come on.”
Grantaire needed no second invitation. Enjolras let his head fall forward again as Grantaire lined himself up, spreading Enjolras’ ass open. He closed his eyes at the first press of something blunt against his hole. Grantaire was bigger than he was, and thicker than any man Enjolras had ever fucked. “Oh, Christ,” said Grantaire, pushing in slowly. “Oh, Jesus Christ, Enjolras, you’re so--” He didn’t finish his sentence. Enjolras grunted as Grantaire bottomed out inside him; the pressure was just this side of too much.
“Please,” he begged, as Grantaire started to thrust slowly. “Please, god, I can take it, faster, fuck!” Grantaire sped up, thrusting roughly into Enjolras. He could hear ragged gasps behind him over his own moans and curses. He knew he had a foul mouth when he was getting fucked, and for a split second he wondered if he should try to muffle himself, but then Grantaire thrust again and hit Enjolras’ prostate, and he wasn’t capable of making any kind of rational decision whatsoever. “ Fuck!”
Grantaire was thrusting faster now as his control wore away. “Fuck, Enjolras, I’m so close,” he swore.
“Touch me,” Enjolras begged. Grantaire reached for his cock, hard and leaking. His hand was still slick from opening Enjolras’ ass, and when it closed around him Enjolras swore again. Grantaire was reaching the end of his rope now, thrusting wildly, and his pace on Enjolras’ cock was just as rough. Suddenly, he let out a long, ragged moan, and Enjolras felt the heat of his come spilling inside of him. A few more twists of Grantaire’s wrist and he was crying out and coming all over his sheets.
Afterwards, Enjolras kicked the sheets off the bed and lay in Grantaire’s arms. He traced the puckered line of his scar across his chest. “You know, Gavroche told me,” he said, looking up into Grantaire’s warm eyes.
“Told you about his hero teacher, did he?” said Grantaire, stroking his hand through Enjolras’ tousled hair. His voice was slow and a little ironic. “It’s a good thing he doesn’t know what it was like,” he added, tangling his fingers with Enjolras’. “Otherwise he’d know I wasn’t a hero at all, just a kid scared shitless, wandering through the mountains, starving and freezing, doubting his own convictions.” He looked away.
“You’re a pessimist,” said Enjolras, bringing their linked hands up to Grantaire’s chin and turning him back to meet his eyes. He studied him for a moment, taking in the too-big nose, the large lips, the scar. “Lucky for you, I know that you’re a good man.” He kissed him softly.
When he pulled away, Grantaire’s eyes were filled with that same perplexing expression Enjolras had been unable to identify on his first night at the school. Instead of replying, he pulled Enjolras close against him and rested his forehead against his cheek. Enjolras reached down to pull the as-yet-unsoiled blanket over both of them, and turned off his bedside light.
When he woke up he was as happy as he’d ever been. In the dawn light Grantaire looked soft, and he smiled in his sleep. Enjolras was content to lie in bed watching him, as he’d wanted to during the picnic the previous afternoon.
It was still early when Grantaire began to stir. He blinked a few times and seemed to have forgotten where he was, until his eyes fell on Enjolras and his expression cleared. “Good morning,” he said, running his hand tentatively up Enjolras’ shoulder. Enjolras smiled at him, and leaned in for a kiss. Grantaire obliged him, running his hand through Enjolras’ hair, and Enjolras felt his body responding in several agreeable ways. He slung one leg over Grantaire and pulled himself up to look down at him, spread out and soft.
They were too preoccupied to notice the sounds of running, far away on the other side of the school. All Enjolras could hear were Grantaire’s gasps in his ear. He was just about to reach down between the two of them when Grantaire stilled his hand. “Do you smell something?” he asked, raising his head.
“I don’t--” Enjolras stopped. Now he could hear unmistakable voices, loud in the courtyard. He sat up, listening. Grantaire, too, pulled himself up. Over the clamor of voices and running feet, one word in particular was terrifyingly clear.
Well, hopefully the smut was believable if not necessarily enjoyable to read. I've never written sex before, and let me tell you it was not an easy thing.
Nearing the end now! Thanks to everyone who's subscribed and commented. If you want to continue the conversation, come say hi on tumblr @jennetjourdemayne.
Chapter 6: Plus douce que l'espérance
Well, this is it! Thanks to everyone who commented and subscribed. You guys are great!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
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