24. Coping Mechanisms

Enjolras sits at his customary table, which, until a few days before, was decorated by a map of the old French Republic. He has his head in his hands and is writing something that seems to be very difficult. Combeferre is seated next to him, and from time to time will discuss a particular wording with him, or try to dissuade him from sending the letter at all.

The back room is rather oddly quiet, this day. Grantaire is ensconced by the window, brooding as usual and mostly sober for once. Feuilly, on the other hand, is possibly not, quite, though the only way you can guess this is by the fact that he's even more silent than normal.

Combeferre shakes his head. "I don't think you have to send this letter at all, Marcelin," he says in as gentle a voice as he can muster. It is not the first time he's said that today, nor does it seem likely that it will be the last.

"Yes, I do. It is my fault. I should have..." Enjolras trails off and puts his head in his hands again. In a more muffled voice, he adds, "Someone has to tell them that their son is dead."

Feuilly is carving something into the already battered tabletop with his penknife, with rather a dogged air. Occasionally he glances up at the pair, grimacing in sympathy, but on the whole he appears absorbed.

Combeferre offers, "I could write it."

Enjolras shakes his head. "You weren't there, and you shouldn't have to, just because it makes me upset. I ought to be upset, God knows. At least I'm not dead. A little misery is the least I owe him."

Jeanne comes in through the back door her brother showed her, once upon a happier time. She looks around the room, rather shyly, and smiles a little as she recognizes Feuilly and Combeferre. "Bonjour," she says, quietly.

Grantaire sighs as he listens. As the door opens he glances up in some surprise, not having expected her here or so soon. "Jeanne."

Feuilly glances up sharply, also startled, and puts down the penknife. "Madame."

Enjolras is distracted from his self-absorption. When this odd woman is greeted by Grantaire, of all people, he manages to say, "Bonjour," rather than "What are you doing here?" but he cannot stop himself from asking, "Who are you, madame?"

Combeferre smiles more genuinely at Jeanne than he has managed for Marcelin. "Bonjour, Jeanne."

Jeanne answers with some dignity, "My name is Jeanne Tirmont. And you, m'sieur?"

"Marcelin Enjolras," he answers with the same sort of dignity, a few social classes and some education higher. "What brings you to our little hideaway?"

Grantaire pushes swiftly to his feet, hoping to avert disaster; though it takes him a minute to speak, because he's not at all used to talking to Enjolras straight out. "She's my sister."

That is odd enough to give even Enjolras pause. A month ago, he would have been on his feet forbidding her entrance because of her gender, let alone her family. "Oh," is all he says, now, then, "An odd place to visit your brother, isn't it?" That is quite subdued, for him, and would normally have been said in a much harsher tone of voice, but he's too tired today.

To which the R cannot help but retort, "It's where she found me, isn't it?"

It is left to Jeanne to make the obvious joke. "Where else could I find him?" She glances at the man in question. "Might I sit with you?"

Feuilly just watches. Very, very quiet, and faintly amused.

Combeferre chuckles. It's been days since he laughed at all. "Welcome back to Le Musain."

Grantaire flashes a wry glance at the two of them, and pulls out a chair for her.

Enjolras quietly asks, "Back?" Combeferre nods. Marcelin looks steadily at him for a moment, then goes back to working on and worrying over the letter.

Jeanne winks and sits down. "Merci." In an undertone, she asks, "That's him?"

Grantaire retakes his seat. "The one and only."

Jeanne raises her eyebrows. "I didn't think he'd be so, well, quiet."

Grantaire shrugs slightly. "He's ...upset over all of this."

"And well he might be." Jeanne adds, "You always said he was excitable. Noble, maybe. Ready for a fight. And don't I remember something about disliking women?"

His tone takes on a defensive edge. "He's just had a fight. Precious lot of good it did him. And he wasn't expecting to lose it."

Feuilly quietly goes back to his furniture-defacement.

Jeanne holds up a hand in defense. "All right, so maybe he's perfect, and I just don't see it."

Grantaire's jaw tightens. He starts to answer that, then breaks off in disgust, glancing away.

Jeanne pokes him in the arm. "Don't take it so to heart. I didn't insult you, now, did I? And I'm sure he's always so sweet to you." François is not the only cynic in the family.

"God, Jeanne!" He jerks away; then, with a sigh, "How are you managing?"

"Not well. That's why I came." She sighs, too. "I need help, and I haven't got it yet."

Grantaire reflexively pokes in his pocket, though he finds nothing there. "I've written to the aunt," he says, lest she think he's been falling down on the job. "We'll see how that turns out."

Across the room, Feuilly glances up again, studying the siblings covertly.

Jeanne drums her fingers on the table. "But I need something in between now and then. We were never rich enough to have money to save." She smooths her skirts, though they do not need it. "I need income, and there's none to be had."

Enjolras smacks his hand on the table. "I cannot do this," he declares, then repeats in a more choked voice, "I just can't."

Grantaire refrains heroically from grinding his teeth. "I'm doing my best, sister." He looks up, then, at the outcry, and his face changes subtly.

Jeanne blinks, surprised, despite the many warnings, that Enjolras made such an outburst. Perhaps she shares her brother's misconceptions about when advice is merited, because she asks, "What is it you cannot do, m'sieur Enjolras?"

Enjolras looks at Jeanne, not at all happy about addressing her. "I have to write a letter," he explains in a slow voice, as if he is speaking to a retarded child. "I am responsible for the death of one of my friends, and someone must tell his parents. It should be me." He crumples the letter. "But I cannot."

"Then don't." Grantaire's voice is very low, and very gentle.

Combeferre says, again, with slightly less patience, "I will do it, Marcelin."

Feuilly watches silently, dark eyes compassionate, though his expression is unreadable.

"It's my fault. I should. I must." He puts his head on his arms. "I could get him killed, so why can't I write a damned letter?"

Jeanne stands up, her maternal instincts overcoming her memories of what her brother's said about Enjolras, and crosses the room to pat the poor boy on the shoulder. "Let m'sieur Combeferre do it. You can sign it."

Feuilly's eyes widen. He almost cracks a smile.

Enjolras starts when her hand lands. "Do you think so?" It's a small, defeated voice. One would think he was five instead of twenty-two.

Grantaire blinks at his sister, no less so at Enjolras' reaction. He sits back a bit, impressed.

Feuilly, for a wonder, speaks up. "Good thought." He glances to Combeferre.

By contrast, her voice is fervent and reassuring. "Yes, I do. Let your friends help you. They all want to." She glances around the room for confirmation.

Combeferre is quick to nod, and answer, "I would love to help."

"We do," Feuilly assents quietly. "If you'll just let us."

Grantaire nods mutely.

Enjolras responds well to this little bit of mothering. He pushes a clean sheet of paper and a pen toward Combeferre, and draws a sleeve across his eyes. "Thank you, Madame Tirmont." A slight hesitation, then, "Jeanne."

Grantaire's eyebrows lift at that.

Jeanne answers sincerely, "You're welcome, Marcelin." She takes her hand off of his shoulder, then goes back to sit with her brother with just a hint of a smile in the corners of her mouth.

Feuilly blinks several times, then looks down at the penknife in his hand, as though to ask if it knows something he doesn't.

Combeferre takes the writing materials with a small smile, then sobers as he begins to write.

Grantaire is too deeply moved not to take refuge in flippancy. He watches Jeanne as she retakes her seat, and crosses himself, deadpan. "I don't even want to know what just happened."

Jeanne spreads her hands. "He needed someone to surprise him and point him in the right direction, or he needed a mother. I don't know which I was, but it seems to have worked."

"So it seems." He shakes his head dazedly.

Jeanne asks, only half seriously, "Why are you so surprised? I thought you'd known him for years."

Enjolras hails a waitress. Combeferre doesn't look up from the letter.

"I have. This is the first time he's listened to reason from a woman." He slants a wry look up at her. "Nearly the first time he's listened to reason."

Jeanne leans back in her chair, satisfied with what she has accomplished. "Well, perhaps his battle rattled his brains and they settled back into a better place."

Somehow in the course of the afternoon Feuilly has ended up sitting on his table. Now he stands, though he doesn't move away from it. He appears to be lost in thought again.

The waitress comes over, her stance slightly wary. "...help you, m'sieur?" It's a dicey business waiting on a known radical the week after a riot.

Grantaire laughs shortly. "Maybe."

Enjolras nods curtly. "Oui. I want..." he's not sure what the right way to say this is, as he's never done it before. "I would like a bottle of wine. S'il vous plait."

Grantaire shoots a glance across the room then. "Or maybe not."

Jeanne smiles complacently, seeing nothing wrong with the situation. "So the boy wants wine. That's not exactly abnormal."

Combeferre looks up from the letter, surprised. "Marcelin?"

The waitress double-takes. Stammers a moment. Looks helplessly to Combeferre.

"Of course it is!" Grantaire expostulates in an undertone. "My God, Jeanne. This is Enjolras."

Enjolras is getting impatient, which he does with practiced ease. "Yes, I am Marcelin, and, mam'selle, I would like a bottle of wine." He glares at Combeferre. "And I don't need anyone's permission for it."

"Right away, m'sieur," she says faintly, there being nothing else for it, and escapes. Someone will have to remind her why she didn't stay on the farm.

"He doesn't drink?" She's a bit surprised, understandably. After all, Grantaire spends much of his time at that occupation. It's not obvious how he acquired a friend, or whatever that Enjolras lad is to him, who doesn't.

Combeferre looks levelly at Enjolras, and asks quietly, "Are you sure this is wise?"

Feuilly leans back against the table with a mildly nonplussed air, because mildly is almost the only kind of emotion Feuilly ever shows, and watches the waitress depart.

Enjolras returns the look. "I don't care if it is, I'm going to do it anyway." In a louder, overly polite voice, he asks, "Would you care for some wine, Etienne?"

"Not at the moment, merci." Combeferre goes back to the letter, but every few minutes he glances up at Marcelin and wonders what's going on.

Grantaire looks at Jeanne as if she's simple. "Doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't swear, doesn't look at girls. Are you serious?" He can't quite find the words to express his astoundment, except 'It's Enjolras', which explains nothing and everything.

The back door opens and Courfeyrac enters, one arm around Manon's waist.

Jeanne shrugs slightly. "Perhaps he's decided to become human." She turns to look at the new arrivals, and notes another woman in this club that François has always presented as purely masculine.

Combeferre sighs in relief. "Bonjour, René, Manon!" He's so glad to see someone who isn't Marcelin.

The waitress returns just then with the requisite items, studiously expressionless. Manon raises dark eyebrows at her. "Good afternoon, Enjolras, Etienne. --Boys." She doesn't quite register Jeanne yet.

Oh, and Manon is exactly who Enjolras wanted to see right now, especially with Courfeyrac smiling fatuously. "Bonjour." He isn't sure what to do about the wine.

Feuilly lifts a hand. "So glad you could join us." He is weirdly genial now. It may be the stress.

Courfeyrac waves a hand at everyone. "I'm so glad to see you," as if it's been months. He clears his throat. "Manon and I have something to tell you."

"Oh Lord," is Feuilly's response to this announcement, not without piety. "Let me sit down." And he does.

Combeferre folds the paper. If they have an announcement, it may well be important, and it will be distracting from the miasma Enjolras is creating.

Grantaire blinks at the couple, shrugging slightly to Jeanne.

Jeanne offers, belatedly, "Bonjour."

Manon meanwhile has noted the presence of Jeanne, but she forbears reacting beyond a small, not unfriendly grin, until René has said what he has to say.

Courfeyrac slightly tightens his hold on Manon. "We're getting married."

"Wine," Enjolras says in a monotone, and manages to pour himself a glass.

Combeferre beams and begins to applaud. "Oh, congratulations!" He ignores Enjolras and stands, walking over to embrace Manon.

Feuilly sits back in visible shock, then lets out a small "ha!" and breaks into one of his rare grins. "Good. Good for you."

Grantaire blinks. "Well, well."

Jeanne has never seen either of these people in her life, but it seems like good news. "Congratulations," she ventures, more quietly than Combeferre.

Manon is red to the ears, but being Manon, doesn't look down. She hugs Combeferre roughly. "Thank you, dear."

Combeferre moves to hug Courfeyrac next, giving him the requisite thump on the back. "I'm so proud of you."

Grantaire's attention, for once, is entirely distracted from Enjolras as he gets to his feet to go and follow Combeferre's lead. It is Feuilly who, after a moment, pushes to his feet again and quietly crosses over toward the other table.

"You're all to attend," Manon continues, mock-sternly, "or I'll personally throw rocks at your windows."

Jeanne looks at the table, a little confused, and certainly not comfortable enough to hug these people. She stays where she is.

Combeferre reaches over and ruffles Manon's hair. "Of course I'll be there. I wouldn't miss it for the the world."

"All of you," Manon reiterates, and then, "who's your friend, Grantaire?" She tilts her head at Jeanne, smiling.

Grantaire leaves off cuffing Courfeyrac in a rare show of affection to apologize. "Courfeyrac, Manon, my sister, Madame Tirmont. Jeanne, this is Courfeyrac, and his... fiancée, Manon, who's an even more terrible woman than you are."

Feuilly says cautiously, under the clamor, "Enjolras?"

Jeanne stands up. "A more terrible woman than I? I didn't know there could be anyone worse." She smiles broadly. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Manon, Courfeyrac."

Enjolras looks morosely into his glass, resembling Grantaire more than he would believe. After staring at the liquid, he raises it, mutters, "Congratulations," and nearly drains the glass.

Courfeyrac's ebullient mood is destroyed like a soap bubble. "Enjolras?" he asks, in almost a squeak.

"Likewise," returns Manon quite graciously; then her gaze darts to Courfeyrac.

Feuilly hesitates maybe a split second. "Excellent idea." He snags an abandoned glass from the nearby table, fills and raises it. "To Monsieur and Madame Courfeyrac. May they be ridiculously happy."

Enjolras appears to be addressing his wineglass. "Don't I look like myself? Everyone's asking." He glances up at Courfeyrac, then when Feuilly proposes a toast, lifts his glass again. "Ridiculous."

Courfeyrac frowns and looks at Manon. "Thank you," he begins, though not everyone has joined in yet.

Grantaire blinks at all of them, and twice at Feuilly. "I'll drink to that," he says after a moment, though this at the moment is purely metaphorical, and nods to the couple. "Felicitations."

Jeanne's eyes widen a little. If she is not used to Enjolras, she is doubly unused to his more callous moods. "May you live together... in happiness." Her voice catches, and she sits down, her hand to her eyes.

Combeferre takes an empty glass and raises it symbolically. "To your health and long life."

"Thank you," Manon echoes, and slips her arm through Courfeyrac's. She's still smiling, but the tension in the air is not to be so easily dispelled.

Courfeyrac asks Combeferre, quietly, "What's wrong with Enjolras?"

Feuilly flashes one of those unexpectedly dazzling grins at the group, and kicks out a chair at Enjolras' table, dropping into it uninvited. He's not Combeferre; but he can, at least, do his best to defuse this. "So," he says softly.

Combeferre looks back at the man in question, who is filling himself another glass even as Feuilly joins him. "Everything, I should think," he answers unhelpfully.

Grantaire casts another look in Enjolras' direction, and reluctantly goes back to sit down by Jeanne. He essays irony. "It's not usually like this."

"The man's impossible," Manon mutters, half pityingly.

Jeanne is trying to compose herself. "No? No one's drinking and getting married, on your average Tuesday?"

"Not drinking and getting married, no." Grantaire grins lopsidedly; it comes out looking rather sickly. "We'd all be exhausted."

Enjolras raises the glass in another sardonic toast. "So," he answers uselessly.

Feuilly quirks a brow, and mulls this over for a moment. "Courfeyrac," he says then, matter-of-factly, "has always been your friend. They've a right to look forward to happiness." He pauses a beat. "Prouvaire would have wanted them to."

Combeferre nods. He looks quite defeated. "I don't know what's wrong with him, or if I ever knew." He looks back, but Feuilly seems to be handling the situation. "I believe I shall go home."

Manon's expression is wry. "You don't have to know what's wrong with everyone, Etienne. And it's all right if you don't know how to help."

Metaphorically, that hits Enjolras in the stomach. His eyes close, then he looks darkly at Feuilly. "I want them to be 'happy.'" He nearly spits the last word.

Combeferre's shoulders sag slightly. "It doesn't look all right, but I can't do anything else." He leans forward to kiss her on the cheek.

Manon pats his shoulder, returns the kiss lightly. "It'll be all right, my dear."

"You don't know what you want." Feuilly's tone is mild. "You don't know what to do at all, do you?"

Courfeyrac advises, "Go home and rest. We know where he lives, if it comes to that." He thumps Combeferre on the back and gives him a very gentle push toward the door.

Grantaire puts in quietly, "Take care."

Combeferre tiredly raises a hand to wave farewell to Grantaire. "Take care of yourselves, François, Jeanne." He goes without bidding Adieu to Enjolras or Feuilly, as they are absorbed and he's had enough of that tangle.

Grantaire watches him out, then leans his head in one hand briefly. "I pity that man."

Enjolras takes another sip of wine. "I know what I don't want. I don't want to have to think."

Jeanne wipes her eyes with a rather dirty handkerchief. "Ah," she says intelligently. "You'd know."

Courfeyrac looks around the room, from Feuilly and the drinking Enjolras to Grantaire and his sister, who seems to be crying. He asks Manon, "Do you think we should leave?"

Grantaire sighs, and moves to put an arm about Jeanne's shoulders. "Jeannette?"

Manon runs a hand through her hair. "Maybe." She leans against him a moment.

Feuilly leans his elbows on the table, hands clasped. He says nothing for a bit, because he can think of nothing to say. Presently he hazards, "It's more than Prouvaire and the rest, isn't it?"

Enjolras blinks several times before he answers. A child would recognize his idea, and sympathize with its failure when he has tears in his eyes despite his efforts. "I wasted years of my life, Paul." That, even the unaccustomed familiarity, is quiet. "Years. I could have been -- God, I don't even know -- but instead I wasted it working for some idea that could never have worked."

Silence again. Feuilly doesn't even breathe for a moment. Then he does, and wordlessly reaches out to rest one fine-boned hand firmly on Enjolras' shoulder.

Enjolras sets down the wineglass carefully, then bangs his fist on the table. "And damn it, now I've decided to really live, I can't, because I feel guilty." The last word is almost a curse, and he seems to have forgotten to keep his voice down.

Jeanne looks over at M. Enjolras after this outburst, then up at Grantaire. "At least he's talking," she offers quietly.

Grantaire flinches at the bang, his arm tightening around her shoulders, but then he nods.

Feuilly jumps, wincing; his hand falls, and his gaze drops. Then, more diffidently, he says, "There's no need to feel guilty. Just... we worry about you. All of us."

Courfeyrac backs away from this. He didn't want to have any tension today, and he doesn't want any more than he's already had. He opens the door for Manon.

Manon bites her tongue. After a pause she says, "It was good to meet you, Jeanne. Take care, Grantaire. --Enjolras, Feuilly." This last is said more quietly, with no real expectation of being heard. She squeezes Courfeyrac's shoulder, and slips out.

Enjolras looks down at the table, at the note for M. and Mme. Prouvaire that Combeferre abandoned. "How can I not feel guilty?"

Feuilly follows his gaze. "Ah, God, Enjolras, there was nothing you could have done."

Grantaire watches the couple depart, then looks back to his sister questioningly.

Jeanne looks toward the door. "Shall we go?"

Grantaire lets out a small sigh. "'s all I can think of to do."

"But he thought there was." Enjolras shakes his head. "You didn't see his face. He thought I was there in time to stop them, that it was all going to be all right." His eyes are fixed on some point under the table. "And I wasn't, and it wasn't, and he's dead."

Jeanne stands up and heads for the door.

Feuilly looks down, raking a hand through his hair. After a moment he says with some difficulty, "We all knew what we were getting into."

Grantaire pushes to his feet, with another glance at the two, and follows her, opening the door for her.

Enjolras shakes his head. "You don't see, do you? It doesn't hurt so much that he's gone. I know he chose to be there, in a dangerous place. But he saw salvation, and I was a minute too late. Who else had such hideous false hope?"

Jeanne leaves without a backward glance.

Grantaire goes out after her.

Feuilly offers a subdued "Evening," to the departing siblings, and then sighs. "It's not your fault."

That is definitely not convincing. "It is." He looks at his wineglass again, and pushes it away. "I have to find a way to live with that. Really live, not just think about childish dreams."

Feuilly studies him a minute in mute sympathy. Finally he takes a breath, and reaches out to slip an arm about Enjolras' shoulders in a rough hug.

Enjolras, to his own mild surprise, returns the half-embrace.

"You have friends, Marcelin," Feuilly says quietly, "if you'll just let yourself. We're here for you."

Enjolras rarely acknowledges this. He takes a deep breath, probably preparing to contradict, then lets it out again in a long sigh. "I'm glad." He's suddenly embarrassed, and crosses his arms over his chest, looking at the floor. "I'm sorry. I've been so stupid."

Feuilly's smile is understated and wry. "Why should you be different?" He pats him on the back once, and sits back a bit, still half-smiling.

"I wanted to be different." This is honest, and also a little obvious. "Maybe better, maybe not, but different. I almost thought I was." He looks at the table with its burden of wine. "I must have been wrong."

"Most people are," Feuilly says mildly, "from time to time."

Enjolras fishes in his pocket for money to pay for this indulgence. "I know." He laughs as if it hurts to laugh. "Thank God Chantal didn't see this."

It still takes Feuilly a minute to remember who Chantal is. He chuckles a bit. "Yes, well."

Enjolras adds, wryly, "She saw worse, so I don't know why I'm worried about it."

Feuilly outright laughs at that. "She did, didn't she?" He leans back in his chair, grinning crookedly. "There, you see, you are different. I don't know any other man who could build a barricade, walk away from it stinking drunk, and come back again in the morning to save the day."

Enjolras smiles slightly. "I don't imagine many get the chance to prove that they could."

Feuilly chuckles again. "True. Just goes to show you."

"Show me what?"

Feuilly spreads his hands, all innocence. "Who else would have tried?"

Enjolras laughs, and this time, he means it. When he catches his breath again, he shakes his head. "I don't know. I really don't."

"Only you," Feuilly says cheerfully, and glances at the clock, and sighs. "I should be going."

Enjolras nods. "Take care. And, thank you."

Feuilly quirks a smile. "Take care of your own self. You're welcome." He pushes to his feet, cuffs Enjolras lightly on the shoulder, and turns to head out.

Enjolras puts the appropriate money on the table, but instead of leaving, he simply sits there, thinking, for a few minutes, then takes up a sheet of paper and a pen. Within a quarter of an hour, he has completed the letter. He departs to mail it.

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