44. Peace Process

Paris. August 5th

Combeferre sits at a table by himself in the Cafe Musain, composing a letter to Chantal.

The door eases open, and Grantaire enters, more sedately than one might expect him to. He hesitates, seeing Combeferre, then offers almost shyly, "'lo."

Combeferre looks up at the greeting, and sets down his pen. "Bonjour, François. How was your trip?"

"All right." The R is subdued, even shy. He wanders over to a vacant table, nudges at a chair as though he's going to sit down, but doesn't.

Combeferre pushes out a chair next to himself. "Don't sit all the way over there; it's unfriendly."

Brown eyes shift to regard Combeferre with marked irony. "And we can't have that, can we?" He shrugs, and crosses to take the indicated seat.

Combeferre looks down at his letter. "We shouldn't, but unfortunately we often do."

Grantaire's eyebrows lift. "Indeed," he says, neutrally.

Combeferre gathers a little confidence and meets his gaze. "You've worked it out, then?"

"We are working it out," Grantaire says with sudden violence, "if everyone will just give us half a chance to."

"I'm sorry." Combeferre looks away again. "I should have thought."

Grantaire repents somewhat. His tone softens to mere rue. "You knew, didn't you." It's almost a plea. "You knew it before I did myself."

"Knew what?" Combeferre is less defensive now, and more the worried friend he usually is.

"What I--" Felt is not a word that Grantaire uses easily. "How it was."

"I don't know how it is now," Combeferre admits, "so I can't really say. I don't want to know, not really. Just... that everything's working."

"You don't want to know." Grantaire sits back, a sharp sigh escaping him, and glances away for a minute.

Combeferre frowns, and gives him a little silence before saying, "Yes, I really do want to know. And before you ask or suspect or anything, I'd ask you just the same questions if you were some girl Marcelin was head over-heels for."

"God forbid," says Grantaire, reflexive flippancy, and then, "All right."

Combeferre asks, almost rhetorically, "It is working, then?"

Grantaire shrugs. "I don't know what you mean by 'working'."

Combeferre takes a deep breath. "Stable. Whatever it is. You've stopped fighting?" Another not-quite question. "And... you've talked?"

Grantaire nods slowly.

"Good." All Combeferre wanted was simple confirmation of this, and now, he can be relieved. "I'm so glad that it's settled."

"How can it be settled?" Grantaire bursts out. "How can it be anything of the kind when it doesn't make sense to begin with?"

Combeferre blinks, and considers his response carefully before speaking. "Relationships rarely make sense. Granted, this one doesn't, but why should you be any different?" That is a gentle tease, probably more properly pointed at Marcelin, but François is here and must endure it. "Almost anything can be settled over time."

Grantaire pushes a hand through his hair, agitated. "Time," he mutters. "You don't understand. God, this isn't-- he said himself it can't last."

"Do you think he knows?" The question would be harsh about anyone else, but Combeferre means it only as a statement of reality. "Think, François. He doesn't do this, never has. He doesn't know what he's doing."

"Neither do I!" It comes out almost with a laugh, but it's too bitter for that. "God, neither do I. I don't do this, not-- not with-- and I don't know how to help him, it's not just that he's changed, he's hurting. I don't think he knows how to be happy. And what-- what terrifies me is that you could be right, and I'm only going to hurt him worse."

Combeferre listens to this, trying to understand. When he thinks he has succeeded to some degree, he begins, "I know it's hard. I'm not blind. But he is happy, or at least happier. That's part of what frightened me." He frowns, but continues. "He never needed anyone, and he needs you. I don't know why. And if you hurt him..." A sigh. It must be said; Combeferre has to let this responsibility go. "He's not a child. He has to be able to protect himself."

Grantaire rests his head in his hands. "God, what am I doing? What have I done?" He looks up again, eyes haunted. "I wouldn't hurt him, Combeferre, I swear. I swear I'd rather die. But I don't know how to help it."

"Don't say that." Combeferre puts a hand on his shoulder. "You haven't done anything wrong, have you?"

Grantaire looks away. Very quietly: "I told him I loved him."

Combeferre winces slightly, but keeps his voice even. "When was this?"

Grantaire protests, as though Combeferre had said something entirely different, "I didn't mean it that way. I wasn't trying-- but he'll never believe it, and you won't either, will you?" It has the ring of despair. "That I never wanted any of this."

"I believe you." Combeferre says this as fervently as he can, though he is not sure how true it is. That is a matter for another time, when Grantaire is more sensible. Now, he needs reassurance, and that is precisely what he is going to receive. "I know that you've never once been able to convince Marcelin to do something he didn't want to do. Coercion is not an issue." This brings an unwelcome thought, and he asks, "Do you not want this, now?"

"I don't want to want it." There is a kind of fragility to Grantaire's voice, the echo of a frightened boy. "I don't want him to hate me. I don't-- I don't know. I don't understand."

Combeferre puts an arm firmly around Grantaire's shoulders, because that is as close as he can come to a hug, under the circumstances. "Neither do I understand. I'd bet my coat that Marcelin doesn't, either. That doesn't make it wrong."

Grantaire subsides into the half-embrace, though he doesn't relax, or look up. "I don't know how it can be right."

"Maybe it isn't right, but it's better than shouting matches, better than insulting someone so he'll look at you, better than getting so worked up that reason goes straight to violence." Combeferre sighs. "It's different. I could almost handle the fighting and the sniping. This -- no." He chuckles at a stray thought, then explains it: "I'd tell you to ask Alexandre and Bossuet for help, but I doubt Marcelin would do it."

"God," Grantaire groans, and buries his face in one hand a moment. "No."

"I'm sorry," comes another apology, "that was inappropriate." In a more serious voice, Combeferre asks, "Does it feel wrong?"

The answer is muted. "Sometimes."

"Then maybe it's right, sometimes." It's a soft suggestion.

Grantaire is quiet a long while. Presently the words "This is ridiculous" emerge from behind his hand, in very nearly his ordinary tones, and the sudden change from timidity to cynicism is somewhat jarring. He pushes his fingers through his hair, drawing a deep breath, and looks up again.

Combeferre looks back at him, sadly. "Everything is ridiculous if you look closely enough. Is that any reason to hurt yourself and someone you ...love?" Hard to say that. Frightening, even second-hand, even when he's almost-known it for a long time.

Not easy to hear it, either. Grantaire twitches a bit. Roughly, he says, "This is why I didn't want to care. It's more damned trouble than I know what to do with."

"Oh, come on," Combeferre chides him, "aren't there any rewards?"

Grantaire scrubs his hands over his face. "If I could believe I was doing him any good. If I could believe he wouldn't rather I left him alone." He represses a shudder.

Combeferre laughs at that. He simply can't help himself. "François, he'd tell you in a heartbeat if he wanted you gone. Don't you know that by now?"

Grantaire does not respond to the laughter, except to glance away. "I'm not so sure. I'm not so sure he knows what he wants."

"Then why worry about it? As soon as he knows, you'll know, and before then, it doesn't matter." Combeferre shrugs slightly, withdrawing his hand back into his own personal space. "So he's lost, just like everyone else. Pauvre petit. He'll live."

There is a pause. "I know." It's an unusually reasonable thing for Grantaire to say, and said very quietly. "I know. But it damn-all hurts." He takes in a swift, deep breath, and looks back to meet Combeferre's eyes. "I wouldn't hurt him, Etienne. I swear. I wouldn't do him harm."

Combeferre returns the gaze, and says again, "I believe you. Not if you could stop yourself."

The door opens, and the man in question enters, oblivious to the fact that two people have been discussing him for quite a while. He is a bit surprised to see them sitting together. "Bonjour, Etienne." It's almost an impersonal greeting; Enjolras feels that he is owed an apology. "Grantaire." That is much more friendly. Intimate, even.

Grantaire sits up a bit. "Enjolras."

Combeferre looks up with a smile. "Marcelin. Do sit with us." He refrains from asking, 'Were your ears burning?' which is, all things considered, good.

Enjolras takes a seat at the table, and looks from one to the other. "Is everything all right?" he asks Grantaire.

Grantaire raises dark eyes searchingly. "I don't know. Is it?"

Enjolras blinks, and completely misses the context of the question, now that it's pointed back at him. He looks to Combeferre for support, but the latter only shrugs. "It looks all right from here."

Grantaire half-grins, wryly. "Then I suppose it is."

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