53. Time It Was

June, 1838

The streets of Paris, once familiar, now strange once again. A little older, God only knows if wiser, Jaden wanders the street, hands in pockets, admiring the nice little neighborhood.

In the early afternoon, two men come up the street together, talking quietly: one fair and strikingly good-looking, the other dark and somewhat scruffy. At the corner they pause, evidently about to part; the second takes the first by the hand for a moment, smiling a bit. He says something which is inaudible beneath the ordinary street noise; his companion's cool blue eyes warm for a moment, before he nods, nearly curtly, and walks away.

This little scene gives pause to slow wandering steps, as violet eyes taken in the two men, recognizing one at once, the other more slowly. A step aside takes Jaden under the sheltering overhang of a small shop, as if to hide there, though his gaze never leaves the now alone fellow on the street.

He watches the other out of sight, still half-smiling, then turns aside to continue on his way.

With clothing much less flamboyant than in the past, he is not so noticeable as once he was. Silent, until the other man draws near, then a quietly spoken, "Hello, François," in accented French.

Grantaire starts, turning, and for a moment stares blankly, trying to make sense of the face, the features, the eyes which he associates now more with Chantal than with-- "Jaden." He rakes a hand through his hair, reflexively. "Isn't it?"

A quiet smile, and then a nod. "Oui, it is. You remember me."

"I couldn't very well not," Grantaire says, truthfully enough. "Well. Where've you been hiding?"

"Home, in England," is the answer, dark eyes drinking the taller man in. Then Jaden glances away down the street, nodding slightly. "That was Enjolras, was it not?"

Grantaire blinks once. Possibly he colors slightly. "It was," he concedes.

Jaden smiles faintly, returning his quiet gaze to Grantaire. "And how have you been, mon ami? Well, I hope."

Grantaire shrugs. "I get by." It's almost his old indifference, except that there's the sense that it's conscious. "You?"

"As well as ever," Jaden replies, practiced casualness. Now isn't this awkward?

Dark eyes study him keenly. "You don't look all that well."

One small hand flutters dismissively, the glint of a exceedingly plain gold band showing there. "The trip was tiring," Jaden replies quietly. As if he's going to admit to anything more, standing here in the street.

"Ah." And he cannot for the life of him think of anything else to say. He stands there, hands finding his pockets, and is quiet.

Jaden clears his throat, and tilts his dark head slightly. "I am not keeping you from anything, I hope?" Offering him an out, should he wish it.

"'course not," Grantaire lies affably. "Nothing's ever that pressing. Shall we find somewhere to talk, or were you busy?" Pleasantries, R, for God's sake, since when are you such a genial son of a bitch? He ventures a grin, but it's wry.

A strong drink would be a kindness. Jaden nods, agreeably, and returns the grin, though his is a bit wan. "Certainly. We can catch up. You know a place?"

Grantaire shrugs, ineffably French, ineffably R. "Don't I always?" And with a beckoning jerk of his head, he starts up the street.

Jaden can't help a little laugh at that, nodding again, then moves to trail after.

They end up in a murky little place whose windows are translucent at best, where the tables and the floor are kept swept but nonetheless have a dubious look to them; where the serving girl's hair is a highly doubtful red, and where, once ensconced at a corner table, they are satisfactorily private.

The place is unimportant, though it is dingy enough to almost, but not quite, take Jaden back a few years. Settling into his seat, he keeps the old puppyish look from his eyes, ordering a bottle of wine, and two glasses from the serving girl. A raised eyebrow questions if that is satisfactory with his companion.

Grantaire only smiles, with a slight 'go-ahead' nod, and leans back in his seat.

Jaden leans back as well, once the girl departs, and brushes a hand through his hair. "So, how have the years been to you, François? Other than 'getting by'."

Grantaire chuckles a bit. "You know you're one of three people who ever calls me that?"

Jaden smiles faintly. "Well, it is your name. Would you prefer m'sieur Grantaire?"

Another shrug. "If you insist. --Now what's the matter with you, enfant?" The epithet is less appropriate than it ever was, but his tone is kinder than it has been since the conversation began.

That kind tone is nearly Jaden's undoing, but a hard swallow keeps him steady, and he shakes his head, essaying a smile. "Why ever would you think something the matter? I am back in Paris, and with an old friend. Nothing is wrong."

"The hell," Grantaire says bluntly. "Something's happened. Do I hear it, or not?"

Spared by the arrival of the serving girl, and by the chance to fuss with bottle and glasses, pouring for both and paying and tipping the girl. "I got married," Jaden says once she is gone again. Perhaps that will placate him.

Grantaire blinks. "My God."

Jaden shrugs lightly, almost in imitation of his companion. "It is that surprising?"

A small snort. "Your Virginie?" He pokes at the glass, fidgetishly, but leaves it on the table, his attention on Jaden's face.

Jaden reaches for his own glass, taking a deep drink, then staring into it. "Her name is Grace. A very well-bred and nice girl."

Grantaire blinks once, expressionlessly. "And you're miserable." It's a statement rather than a challenge.

"We have a daughter," Jaden adds, almost as if he didn't hear, smiling a bit more at that. Then he glances up from the wine to look at Grantaire again. "Grace did not mind me leaving to return to Paris."

"Christ." The R pushes a hand through his hair again. "I'm sorry."

Jaden takes another drink from his glass. "What for? You did not push me down the aisle, after all." He shrugs lightly again.

Grantaire sighs. "And so you're back."

Jaden smiles faintly into his glass. "Yes. But you need not fear me trailing you everywhere again, François."

Grantaire half-grins. "You did, rather, didn't you? I'd forgotten."

Jaden gives a quiet chuckle. "I was a silly puppy then, oui? In this place," he nods to the room, "it doesn't seem so long ago."

"Not so silly." Grantaire studies his hands a moment, and falls silent again.

"Yes, well. You were a Saint to put up with me." Jaden lifts his glass to him in a brief toast, then drains it, before setting it back on the table. "You still have not answered my question, though."

Grantaire chuckles slightly. "Sodden useless sort of saint. What question was that?"

"I asked you how you have been, other than just getting by," Jaden reminds him.

"What's to have been? I live. That covers it."

Jaden shakes his head slightly. "As succinct as always, mon ami."

"I do try." Grantaire flicks a grin.

Jaden allows himself a fond expression, then says quietly, "It is good to see you again."

"And you," which is a half-truth, but spoken with all the best intentions. He toys again with the untouched glass for a moment. "You plan to stay for a while?"

Jaden busies himself with refilling his glass. "Perhaps. I'm not sure." A faint smile. "I shall likely stay at least long enough to see the city again."

"Good. That's good." Something like hesitation flickers across Grantaire's face. "You're managing all right?"

Jaden nods at that question. "Oh, I'm managing just fine. You needn't trouble yourself over me, François." He drains his second glass, then pushes it away. "Though I suppose I should let you get on your way, and go find some lodgings for myself."

Grantaire watches him soberly. "I wasn't going anywhere."

Jaden smiles wanly, daring to reach out a small hand to brush Grantaire's fingers on the table. "No, but I should still go. Perhaps you will allow me to buy you and Enjolras a drink some night." With that, he stands, raking his hair back from his eyes. "It was good to see you," he says again. "Be well, François."

Grantaire goes still a moment. Then he reaches out an awkward hand to stay him. "Jaden--" Half contrite, half in trepidation.

Jaden's smile falters a bit, and he looks away. "I have to go," he murmurs, almost a plea. "Let me go." Before he makes a fool of himself.

Grantaire's fingers close on his wrist. "I... you knew. All this while. Didn't you? Is that the matter?"

Jaden quivers, but can't seem to bring himself to pull his wrist away. "Knew what? How you felt about him? I'm not as stupid as I seem, François." He keeps his gaze averted.

"How I felt." Grantaire's jaw tightens. "God. You don't-- he needed me, you understand? Needed someone, and I couldn't tell him no, I-- God help me, I-- it's not what you think." Though what he thinks Jaden thinks is anyone's guess.

"And you needed him, no matter how-- how I wanted you to need me," Jaden gets out, voice strained. "Please, François. Let me go. Before I embarrass you, and make an even bigger fool of myself. Please."

"Oh, God. Good holy God, boy." The hold doesn't slacken. "It's not what you think. It's not... oh, hell." He looks up at him bleakly. "What can I say to you?"

"I saw you..." Jaden's voice breaks now. "I..." he shakes his head, tears flooding his eyes. "I'd hoped..." He swallows hard, closing his eyes. "François..." the name is more a plea than anything.

Grantaire buries his face in his free hand a moment, tiredly. "Don't call me that," and then swears. "God in Heaven. I mean-- I don't know what I mean, damn it. I'm sorry, boy. I swear I am."

Jaden's breath hitches in his chest. "I shouldn't have come back. But I wanted-- I needed to see you again. I love you, François." And now he does tug on his wrist, attempting to pull away. "Let me go."

He does let go then, but: "Why! What the hell for?"

"Does it matter?" Jaden turns away, scrubbing at his face, trembling. "Oh, what does any of it matter now? I shouldn't have come."

"For a poor miserable useless dolt who drank too much and didn't speak your language and got himself mixed up in riots, no, damn sure you shouldn't have. My God, boy. How can you-- oh, God. God has a sense of humor, I tell you, and it's vicious. He makes fools of all of us, just to watch us squirm."

"You weren't useless to me," Jaden says, almost in a whisper. "No matter what others said about you, you were more to me." He scrubs at his face again, dragging in a ragged breath. "I'm sorry. I should go."

"The hell I wasn't!" Grantaire stares at him a moment, then takes in a slow breath. "Jaden--" gallicized almost out of recognition, it comes out softened, even hesitant. "Listen to me. You were always a friend. Better than I deserved. I don't-- I'm sorry."

Jaden chokes on a sob now, slim shoulders shaking as he hugs himself. "At least there's that," he gets out. "Don't be sorry, François. You weren't the s-stupid puppy who trailed you all over Paris. You weren't the one who-- God. I have to go. I'm sorry to put you through this."

"Wasn't I?" All the pent exasperation has gone out of Grantaire's voice, leaving it merely rueful. He hesitates, then pushes to his feet, to take Jaden gently by the shoulders. "Quit crying, for God's sake. It'll be all right."

Jaden quivers at the touch, and tries, truly he does, to stem his tears. "No, it won't be," he says quietly, tone bleak. "I'll go back to England, and you can go back to him, and one of us will be happy." He swallows, dragging in a deep breath. "Please let me go, François. Let me leave."

"And don't come the martyr with me." Now it's harsh, though there's an undertone of rough sympathy. "Call me names if you must, but don't give me that." He puts out a hand, awkwardly, to smooth back Jaden's ruffled hair. "God in Heaven, boy."

Jaden closes his eyes again, shaking badly, but he doesn't try to pull away. "Why would I call you names? This isn't your doing. And I'm not being a martyr, it's just-- the way things are." A choked little sound escapes him, and he all but begs again, "Let me go."

Grantaire sighs. "Boy. Jaden." He seems about to say more; but he falls silent, instead, and bends to kiss the other's forehead lightly.

Jaden shakes his head, eyes still closed. "What a child you must think me," he whispers, fighting back more tears. "I can't do this any longer, François. I need to go."

"I don't," Grantaire says quietly. "I don't think that." He ruffles his hair again, and, finally, realizes it would be kinder to let him go, and does so.

Jaden looks almost lost for a moment, once released, hugging himself tightly. "I am sorry," he whispers. "I didn't mean to do all this. All I wanted--" He shakes his head slightly. "It doesn't matter. I do love you, François. I won't pester you again. Goodbye, mon ami." Then he turns towards the door.

Grantaire rakes a hand through his hair, watching. "Take care of yourself," he mutters.

Jaden takes one last glance back at the room, eyes drinking Grantaire in, then he slips out, quickly.

It was real, it was magic. It was calm, it was savage.
It was cool as a breeze; it was warm to the touch.
It was never enough; it was always too much.
It did all the things love does, that's how I knew it was.

Should I have been surprised?

Such small things. A touch, a smile, the warmth in his eyes. And all for one another.

Such small things, yet they speak volumes, if you know how to listen.

Once, I looked at him that way. Once, I would have given anything to see his eyes warm at mere words from me.

O God help me, I still would.

The years have done nothing to dampen the spark that burns in my belly at the sight of him, the longing the sound of his voice incites. I must be mad, to still hold to the image of him. The image that haunts me each time I close my eyes.

How can I love him so? I mean nothing to him. Meant nothing to him. He has always loved Enjolras. Child that I was, even I could see that.

And so I left, and now that I have returned, I see the hopes I carried with me are futile, as they always were. He has what he wants, what he has always needed. And while the selfish part of my soul rages at the unfairness, the part that has grown in these past years is glad for him.

He needed someone.

No, admit it, he needed Enjolras.

I just wanted him to need me.

And what shall I do now? Should I return to England, and the wife and child there? Or remain in Paris, the so-called city of love, where I can, at the very least, see him from time to time, and perhaps drink myself into the past and go walking on the fog-shrouded little streets and dream?

How morose. Perhaps I should break into song, like one of the operas Grace so loves. God, when did the wine begin to get to me?

I should sleep, but I fear I will dream. Though perhaps I have drunk enough to keep him at bay for one evening, at least.

Sleep. And perhaps tomorrow I will decide what to do.

Oh, God. What did I do to deserve this?

I should have known.

And still, still, with this poor, confused, this girlish boy weeping before me like a child, talking of love, for God's sake -- still all I can see is you. Your face as it was when you'd stand there telling me how contemptible I was; your face as it is when I hold you, your heart beating against mine. Damn you, lover. I'll never be able to speak of this to you, so why do you have to be mixed up in it?

Why? Did I make you this wretched, that Fate sees fit to retaliate this way? Did you feel like this, watching me, knowing and not-knowing and wanting only to escape?

God help me. God help him. God forgive me.

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