62. Valley Of The Shadow

The evening sun shines through the window, lighting up the small office. The door opens and Claude enters slowly, closing the door behind her. She sits behind her desk and quietly buries her head in her arms, ignoring the mound of papers needing to be taken care of.

Presently there comes a quiet knock on the door.

Without looking up: "Come in." She doesn't bother to raise her head.

The door swings inward, admitting a slight, shabby, dark-haired figure. He regards her in silence a moment, then says mildly, "This a bad time?"

Claude looks up at the voice and sits up slowly. Her face is drawn and tired. She looks as though she's been struggling not to cry. "'S as good a time as any, I suppose," she replies, shrugging and indicating a chair. "Please, come in."

Feuilly hesitates, then shrugs as well, and drops into the offered seat with a marked lack of ceremony. "What is it?" he asks after a moment.

Claude sighs deeply, staring out the window at the disappearing sun. "I lost the Lessard girl today... pneumonia. She was always weaker than her brothers. I kept telling her parents she shouldn't work as hard, but they never listened..."

His expression does not change; it was slightly dour to begin with. "'course not," ambiguously. He glances out the window as well.

Her fingers close around a pencil. "I delivered her my first year on my own. She was only six years old..." The pencil snaps and she jumps, staring down at it. Abruptly she tosses it aside. Her voice is shaky when she finally speaks again. "What brings you here?"

Feuilly glances back at her, still impassive, civil, detached. "Nothing much. Friday night, I thought I'd drop by. Don't want to bother you."

Claude blinks, half-smiling. "No bother. Matter of fact, the Lessards was my last call of the night." Idly running a finger along the stack of papers.

"Ah. I timed it right, then," still mildly.

"Yes, well done. I don't keep the most regular hours," she answers, smiling wryly. Swallowing a bit nervously, she busies herself with jotting down a few notes about the Lessard case to write up later. Finishing that, she stands. "I've had enough of this place for one day." Quietly.

Feuilly rises mutely; doesn't offer an arm, but dips his head politely to her.

Claude snags her cloak with one arm and slips out the door, holding it open after her and casually leaning against it.

Feuilly quirks a brow as he steps out into the hallway, tucking his hands in his pockets.

Claude closes and locks the door securely behind her. Turning her back on it, she starts down the hallway with her shoulders a bit slumped. She doesn't say a word until they're outside. The bitter cold air seems to revive her and she takes a deep breath.

Feuilly ventures a hand on her shoulder, then, not unsympathetically.

Claude turns to him, about to say something, but is suddenly arrested by a tugging on her skirt. Looking down, her gaze encounters a gamin not more than eight years old. "Mam'selle Claude?"

She nods, laying a hand on his shoulder in an unconscious imitation of Feuilly's gesture. "Hello, Michaud. How is your brother?" Her earlier sorrow has vanished completely, replaced by concern for a new patient.

Feuilly's hands return to his pockets, his expression softening slightly.

Michaud's small frame is tense with worry. "Worse, mam'selle. Since last night. Please will you come?" He darts a glance at Feuilly, then back to her.

"Of course," she replies immediately before looking at Feuilly with a mildly apologetic expression. "I'm sorry. Perhaps some other night?" Unless you want to come, she doesn't add.

Feuilly shrugs slightly. "'course." He steps away diffidently.

"Unless..." She hesitates a moment. "If you're not doing anything, I could use some help." Then, quieter, "Samuel will probably not make it through the night."

Feuilly blinks, surprised out of his composure. "Well, if there's anything I can do..."

Claude nods. "There may be." Then turns back to Michaud. "Where is he?"

"This way." He turns and darts along the street, disappearing into an alleyway on the next block, followed more slowly by Claude.

Feuilly hesitates a moment, then sets off briskly after them.

The alley is dark, but a light drifts down from a window above them, enough to make out a small form against the stone. The wracking coughs echo through the deserted street as Claude drops to her knees in the grime without hesitation. She smiles as she takes his pulse. "Hello, Samuel."

The boy manages a strained breath and a grin which is heartrending in its faintness. "H'lo, mam'selle."

Feuilly approaches quietly, pausing to clasp Michaud's thin shoulder reassuringly.

Claude doesn't need her instruments to tell her the wheezing sound in Samuel's lungs isn't going to go away. Her heart sinks, even as she smiles at him. "Your brother told me you're not feeling very well." She glances at Feuilly, standing quietly behind Michaud, before looking back at him.

"Eh--" Samuel shrugs, with an attempt at insouciance; coughs again. "I been better."

Michaud glances up at the mam'selle's quiet companion, momentarily looking his age of seven years instead of his normal air of having aged far too quickly.

Claude biting her lip as she sees in the dim light how pale his cheeks are. His lips have a blueness to them, his skin chilled. He won't last much longer. She makes a fast decision. "Come on, Samuel," she says gently, slipping her arms beneath him and lifting him as carefully as she can. He seems to weigh less than the long-forgotten stack of papers on her desk.

Feuilly gives Michaud's shoulder another pat, and asks her quietly, "Can you manage?"

Samuel clutches instinctively at her shoulders, breaking into another series of coughs. "Where--?"

Michaud would ordinarily move out from under Feuilly's hand, but he stands mesmerized by his brother's hard coughing.

Claude glances at Feuilly. "This, yes," she answers, her arms tightening around the skinny body as she carries him as quickly as is safe to out of the windy alleyway. "I've done it before."

"All right." Feuilly nudges the smaller boy gently, guiding him after her.

Michaud walks in front of Feuilly silently, letting himself be led, his wide eyes never leaving Claude and Samuel.

Hurrying through the streets, Claude finally arrives at her flat. "Here we are, Samuel," she says gently, getting her key out carefully and trying to unlock the door without making him too uncomfortable, without much success.

Feuilly watches the struggle for a moment, then comes forward to take the key from her hand. "Here-- let me."

Samuel chokes, gets enough breath to ask, "Where's this?"

Claude glances over at him, almost having forgotten he was there, and allows him to open the door. "Thank you," she says quietly, stepping through into the relative warmth of her flat. Going to her room, she gently lays Samuel down on her bed, ignoring his soaked, muddy state. "This is my flat." She covers him with a few blankets. "Paul, would you take Michaud into the kitchen?"

Feuilly hesitates a moment, then nods, expressionless, and rests a hand on the boy's shoulder again to steer him in that direction.

Michaud resists at the doorway for a moment, not wanting to let Samuel out of his sight, but finally allows himself to be led away.

Samuel protests, "You don' have to--" and breaks off again, coughing, and subsides against the pillow.

Claude finishes tucking the blankets around Samuel and feels his forehead. Now that her hands have recovered from the cold, she can tell that it's burning hot. "It's all right. Rest now, cher," she whispers. "I'll get you something to drink when you wake up." And she heads into the kitchen after turning down the lamp, hoping that he'll wake up again.

Feuilly is sitting beside the grate with Michaud, quietly watching him. He glances up swiftly as Claude enters.

Michaud doesn't look up from staring at the ashes, crouching motionless as he tries to make himself invisible.

Claude smiles at him as she enters. "Samuel is asleep now, Michaud," she says, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Would you like to sleep while we wait for him to wake up?" Her other hand trembles slightly, though her tension isn't reflected in her kind smile.

Feuilly studies her sharply a moment, but doesn't comment.

Michaud seems about to protest, but just looks down again and nods silently.

Claude gently guides him to his feet. "I'll be right back," to Feuilly as she takes him into the front room to tuck him in on the couch. She's back a few moments later. The kind smile has disappeared, replaced by a look of resignation as she sits at the table and looks at him silently.

Feuilly raises his eyes from the floor and regards her, still silently.

"He really is sleeping," she says finally. "They both are, now. Though I don't know how good the odds are that Samuel will wake up again." Her voice almost cracks over the name and her fingers tighten on the edge of the table. "But I think I got to Michaud in time."

"In time for what?" Feuilly's dark eyes are unreadable. His fingers play idly with a fragment of kindling they've found on the floor.

Claude glances at him almost angrily before glancing away. "I know Michaud. Have known him for a long while. Years. I've watched him growing up, with Samuel. He trusts me. Hopefully enough to allow me to help him however I can." She stands abruptly and goes to the fire to stir it up.

Feuilly starts to say something, then cuts himself off. Says instead, mildly, after a moment, "What will you do?"

She stares into the flames for a moment. "Whatever I can," she answers finally. "Give him a place to stay when he can't take the cold. Or the emptiness of being alone for the first time in his life." Automatically, hardly paying attention to her movements, she starts boiling water. "I can't do anything if he doesn't come to me. But I pray he will."

Feuilly gazes up at her soberly. "You think he might not."

Claude shrugs as she turns back to tending the fire. "The only person in his life that boy has ever cared about, and that has ever cared about him, is the person currently dying in that room. I may never see him again after tonight. After all, what guarantees can I give him that he can trust me? I cannot save his brother, it's impossible."

"Claude." His voice is suddenly soft. "If you want him to trust you, you have to tell him the truth."

Claude closes her eyes. "I know," she answers quietly, her voice shaking. "But how do you tell a seven-year-old that he's going to lose the only thing he's ever cared about, and there isn't a damned thing you can do about it?" She looks up at him finally, eyes glistening. "I'm a doctor, I shouldn't have a problem with this, what's wrong with me?"

He regards her another moment; then gets slowly to his feet and takes her in his arms, silent again.

Claude takes a deep breath in a fruitless attempt to keep the tears from falling. "Samuel did everything for him, Paul. He'll be helpless on his own. I want to help him, but how can he possibly trust me if his brother dies after I said I would try and help him?"

Feuilly rubs her back gently. "He can see you're doing everything you can."

Claude nods, wiping her eyes lightly. "I know, I know he does. I just..." She shakes her head, glancing away. "I've known them since they were almost infants, barely old enough to walk. They're the same age as--" Cutting herself off sharply.

"As...?" gently.

Claude swallows. "...as my children would have been, if I'd had any," she finishes quietly. "I'm sorry, you hardly came to hear this."

A sharp intake of breath; then his arms tighten around her. "It's all right."

She pulls away slightly. "I'm sorry. I should never... damn." She pulls out a handkerchief and wipes at her eyes. "You didn't ask for this. I'm sorry."

Feuilly smooths her hair. "Came with you, didn't I?" He shakes his head. "Don't apologize."

"But you could hardly have expected me to be like this," she protests mildly, leaning into his touch. "You stopped by for a pleasant evening, and instead..." She gestures randomly.

"Don't apologize," he repeats calmly. "Things happen. I-- understand."

Claude pulls back and looks at him for a moment, her gaze filled with a sudden flicker of hope. "Do you?" she asks quietly, as if not wanting to hear the answer.

Feuilly regards her with somber eyes, tracing a finger along her hairline. "I know how you feel."

The gaze changes to surprise. "You mean, about...having children?" She automatically brushes a few strands of hair out of his eyes.

His jaw tightens, and he glances down for an instant. "That, yes." Shortly.

Claude watches him silently for a moment. Then, abruptly, she embraces him tightly, her lips finding his in an almost desperate kiss.

Feuilly is motionless, startled, for a bare instant; then he kisses her back savagely, fingers knotting in her hair.

After a moment, Claude pulls back, kissing his neck lightly as she leans her head on his shoulder. Then: "Why is this happening now? I just lost the Lessard girl. Now I'm losing Samuel, and perhaps Michaud..." She sighs heavily. "And I scarcely know how you fit into all this, either."

He strokes her hair a moment; then shrugs. "I don't, likely."

Claude glances up at him again, blinking once. "I wouldn't particularly like to think that," she replies quietly.

Feuilly meets her eyes blandly. "You don't need more trouble now, that's all."

"You'd consider yourself trouble for me?" she asks calmly, not loosening her hold round his waist.

Feuilly takes in a breath. "I don't want to be."

Claude touches his cheek lightly. "I don't think you are," she answers softly. "You may be one of the better things that's happened to me in quite some time."

He blinks twice, and quirks an eyebrow with dour humor. "That's sad." His fingers trail lightly through her hair again.

"Isn't it," she answers quietly. "Sad. But true." Gently putting her head on his shoulder again.

Feuilly smooths her hair once more, pressing her close. After a moment he remarks, against her ear, "I might say the same."

Claude closes her eyes. "I was almost hoping you would," she whispers nearly imperceptibly. "I only wish I knew what to do."

Feuilly shakes his head, and rubs gently at her shoulders, silent.

From the next room comes a sudden racking cough, and a low whimper.

Claude looks up immediately. "Samuel," she says quietly. Apologizing silently, she steps away and pours a mug of tea before going back to the bedroom. "Hello, Samuel," she whispers, putting a hand on his forehead.

Feuilly nods slightly, and follows her to the doorway, leaning there with one arm braced against the wall.

Samuel looks up at her with a valiant attempt at nonchalance, though his too-bright eyes are frightened. "H'lo again." A cough interrupts him. "'m in your bed, ain't I?"

"And your brother's on my couch," she replies, slipping a hand behind his shoulders and helping him sit up. "Here, drink this." Not having realized Feuilly's followed her.

Feuilly watches in silence. After a moment he pushes away from the doorframe and crosses quietly to the said couch, dropping easily to one knee beside Michaud in case he wakes.

Michaud wakes immediately, sitting up in a panic. His eyes focus on Feuilly's and he calms down a bit. "What's happening, m'sieur?" he asks. "Where's Sam?"

Samuel complies, clumsily, one hand fisting in Claude's sleeve reflexively. "...'m right here, brat. 'Tsallright." He coughs again, less violently. "You go back t'sleep."

Claude glances over at Michaud, and Feuilly, before turning back to Samuel and helping him drink the hot tea. "This should make your throat not hurt so much," she says gently. "Now I want you to sleep. Don't worry about anything tonight, just sleep." She eases him back down. "I'll be in the next room if you need anything."

Feuilly offers Michaud a hand, unobtrusively.

Samuel ventures another shadow of a cocky grin. "Where'll you sleep, mam'selle?"

"Okay, Sam," Michaud says, interrupting himself with a yawn. He lays back down on the couch, grasping at Feuilly's hand briefly, reflexively, before closing his eyes.

"Never you mind about that. My friend and I will be in the kitchen, talking." She glances over and watches as Feuilly silently soothes Michaud, then turns back to him with a mock-stern look on her face. "You, sleep."

Feuilly pats the child's hand, and braces himself to stand again.

Samuel chuckles, coughs. "Sure, mam'selle."

Claude smiles. "That's better." She stands, trailing a hand gently across his forehead before backing out and shutting the door quietly. She takes a deep breath and looks at Feuilly. "Well. He's still alive, at any rate."

Feuilly doesn't even bother to nod; only rests a hand on her shoulder again, gently.

Claude sighs quietly and heads back into the kitchen. She sits at the table, slumping a bit and scrubbing a hand over her face irritably. "I shouldn't be this tired, I've sat up all night with patients before," she says, annoyed.

He shrugs slightly, leaning against the wall by the door with arms folded. "So sleep."

"I can't sleep," she answers, staring out the window. "What if something happens? What if he needs me?" She's interrupted by a yawn, which she fights against unsuccessfully. "Dammit..."

"I'll wake you," matter-of-factly.

Claude glances up at him uncertainly. "Will you? But what about you, I shouldn't be keeping you here." She stands. "You probably want to be getting home, you've work in the morning."

Feuilly shrugs. "I can miss a day. But I'll go if you like. I'm not much help here."

Claude starts forward involuntarily. "No, please...you're a great help. You seem to get along well with Michaud, and..." She trails off, unable to think of any other reasons to get him to stay. Besides the fact that she just wants him there.

Feuilly watches her for a moment in mild bemusement. "All right," he says quietly.

Claude relaxes visibly. She's on the verge of saying so many different things, but eventually she settles for simply, "Thank you." She sits again and yawns. "Maybe I'll just...rest my eyes for a moment..."

"All right," he says again, and half-smiles at her.

She manages a half-smile back, a trace of genuine affection in her eyes before she closes them and takes a deep breath, relaxing. Sleep claims her almost immediately.

Toward dawn, there comes a faint, persistent choking sound from the front room. Feuilly stirs, sitting curled up by the now-cold grate, and straightens, wincing, to listen. After a moment he gets to his feet quietly, and slips out the doorway. He returns very shortly, crossing to the table, and gives Claudette's shoulder a gentle but insistent shake.

Claude moans quietly and starts to push his hand away when her mind suddenly catches up to her body. She opens her eyes and sits up. "What's--" Hearing the sound, she's on her feet and through the door in a moment's time, kneeling beside the bed.

Samuel is braced slightly on one elbow, fists clenched in the bedclothes. The pillow is stained with red. He gasps, chokes again, and clutches at her shoulder.

Feuilly follows her, raking his hair back, and pauses just inside the doorway, watching.

Claude curses under her breath as she slips an arm behind him and helps him sit up. Seating herself on the bed, she hits him on the back, trying to empty his lungs of the blood that's trickled into them in the short time he'd been coughing.

Samuel coughs again faintly, tears trickling from his eyes, and clings to her hand with all his strength.

Claude pounds his back again gently, then embraces him as tightly as she dares. She bites her lip and doesn't speak for a moment. Then, her voice a bit rough: "Michaud is in the next room, if you'd like to see him, Samuel."

Samuel goes rigid in her arms, thin fingers knotting in her sleeves in sudden terror. Then another cough overtakes him, and he nods against her shoulder, shaking.

Feuilly catches her eye, and heads silently into the other room.

Claude is silent for a moment, holding the shaking boy. She knows it won't be long for him now, but something keeps her from speaking. Instead, she simply strokes his hair gently, wondering if he'd ever had a mother to do the same.

Samuel whispers hoarsely, "You look after 'im," less a plea than a demand.

Claude swallows before replying. "I will, mon cher." She takes a handkerchief off the table beside the bed and wipes his forehead before giving it to him to wipe away the blood around his mouth. Ignoring the tears starting to flow down her face.

Sensing someone entering the room, Michaud stirs on the couch and opens his eyes. He starts as he sees Feuilly but relaxes, recognizing him. "H'lo, m'sieur."

Feuilly crosses to sit on the edge of the sofa, holding out an arm to him mutely, momentarily at a loss for anything to say.

Michaud stares at him for a moment, puzzled. Then his eyes spark with fear, though his face remains unchanged. "Samuel?" he asks quietly. The inflection makes it less a question than an acknowledgement of fact.

Feuilly takes in a breath, meeting his eyes. "Wants to see you."

He nods. Silently, he hops off the couch and walks slowly into the bedroom, his head high, though the fear still lingers in his eyes. All pretenses of bravado disappear at the sight of the blood on the pillow, however, and in an instant, he is a frightened seven-year-old again.

Samuel looks up, still clutching Claude's arm, and attempts to straighten, though the effort brings on another coughing fit.

Claude tightens her grip, supporting him until he can get his breath back, then assists him in sitting up. She glances at Feuilly for a moment, silent, then motions to Michaud, giving him a slightly wavery smile.

Michaud walks hesitantly forward until he's beside the bed. "H'lo, Samuel." His voice quavers. "He said you wanted t' see me."

Feuilly moves as though to rest a hand on Michaud's shoulder, but stops, and leans on the table instead, hands braced to either side, watching soberly.

Samuel inhales carefully, and nods, not quite looking at his brother. "Got t'talk t'you, brat."

Claude leans back a bit, giving him space but making certain she's there if he needs support of any kind.

Michaud nods, his eyes fixed on the pale face of his brother. He's breathlessly silent.

Samuel twines his hands in the covers convulsively, frustrated with his own lack of words, of time. "You... You mind y'self, hear me, an'--" he breaks off, coughing slightly. "Don't do nuffin' stupid, an'..."

Claude squeezes his shoulders gently. "I'll look after him, if he'll come to me," she murmurs to him, conviction glowing in her eyes.

Michaud nods, his eyes wide. "I won't, Samuel. I'll be smart, I'll watch, I'll..." He trails off, swallowing.

Samuel pulls away slightly. She is, it is implied, undermining his fraternal authority. "Don't you get in trouble. I-- I can't a'ways get you outta it--" Another break. He makes a face, swears startlingly, presses on doggedly. "You stay wiv Mam'selle, she help you out. Hear me? You hear me?"

"I hear you, Samuel. I will," Michaud whispers, two large tears tracing damp paths through the dirt on his face. He takes a step forward, trembling, then suddenly stops. His back straightens and he even smiles slightly. "I'll be okay." Walking over and stopping next to Claude.

Claude rests a hand on his shoulder briefly, meeting his eyes with a half-smile. Her other arm remains tightly around Samuel's shoulders, supporting him almost entirely.

Samuel coughs again. "Awright." He reaches out to embrace his brother, though he can't lean forward very far.

Feuilly watches quietly, expressionless, from across the room.

Michaud steps forward and finishes the embrace, holding his older brother carefully, as though he might break. He mutters something to him under his breath and tightens his grip for a moment before releasing him and stepping away, with an air of respect.

Samuel squeezes his shoulder, and lets him go, sinking back against Claude's arm and ducking his head.

Claude lays him gently back on the bed, drawing the blankets up and tucking him in gently. "Sleep, Samuel. It'll be all right." Then, a bit hesitantly, she kisses him on the forehead lightly.

He looks up at her with an unnervingly cynical expression, but says nothing, and submits to the kiss without flinching.

Michaud watches all this silently, his face wearing a softer version of the selfsame expression. Swallowing, he raises a hand and opens his mouth to speak, but cannot. Instead, he simply nods to his brother briefly and turns to slip from the room.

Feuilly straightens as though to follow him, but then hesitates, glancing down, and stays where he is.

Claude silently watches Michaud depart. Making sure Samuel is comfortable, she whispers, "Good night, cher," before rising. Back straight, she walks past Feuilly into the kitchen.

Feuilly stands motionless for a minute, gazing at the floor. Presently he looks up, briefly, at Samuel lying white-faced and passive under the covers, seemingly asleep; then takes in a breath, and follows Claude.

Claude presses her hands flat against the surface of the table, hunching her shoulders. After a moment, she turns to face him, tears streaking her face. "Paul..." she whispers, her voice cracking.

He crosses to her at once, reaching out to put an arm around her shoulders, silent and somber.

Claude rests her hand on his arm, laying her head gently on his shoulder and closing her eyes. Her shoulders tremble with repressed sobs.

"I know," says Feuilly softly, into her hair. "I know, my dear."

That gets a reaction. She raises her face and meets his gaze, confusion and sorrow flooding her eyes with fresh tears. She tries to blink them away angrily, but they refuse to be dissuaded.

Feuilly glances down fleetingly, his own eyes a little too bright, and lifts a hand to touch the tears away, uselessly. "It'll be all right."

"How?" she asks quietly, her voice rough. "He's dead. Or if he isn't yet, he will be soon. He's not going to wake up again, you could see it in his eyes." She grits her teeth, her body tense. Then, without warning, her legs give way and she nearly collapses against him.

Feuilly catches her with a swift intake of breath, and holds her close for a moment before easing her into a chair.

Claude leans back and closes her eyes, forcing herself to breathe slowly and deeply. Her hand blindly reaches out and finds his. Without opening her eyes: "I'm sorry..."

He drops to one knee beside her, clasping her hand. "'S all right."

She glances at him sideways for a brief moment before closing her eyes again. "I never meant...I had no idea tonight -- this morning -- would be like this..."

"'course you didn't." He half-smiles, faintly.

"I can't believe that only a few hours ago, you simply stopped by...I'm sorry..." She can't seem to stop apologizing as she lays her head on his shoulder, her tears finally stopping out of exhaustion.

Feuilly smooths her hair. "Don't be. You didn't ask for this."

Claude sighs deeply. "But neither did you...you didn't have to stay, you wouldn't have had to deal with any of this if you hadn't..." Arms tighten around his shoulders as she opens her eyes again, her face tearstained and pale from tiredness.

"Hush," he says matter-of-factly, and pulls her close again, still stroking her hair gently.

Claude concedes to do just that, taking another deep breath and relaxing. After a few moments: "I do appreciate you staying, you know..." Hesitantly.

Feuilly murmurs, "Don't mention it."

Claude brushes an errant strand of hair from his eyes, her gaze serious. "I have to mention it. Not many men would have bothered to stay. Thank you."

Feuilly regards her quietly. "Well, you're welcome, then."

Claude smiles at him suddenly, a spark of affection lighting her eyes. She starts a moment later. "Lord, what time is it? You're probably starving by now. And Michaud--"

Feuilly blinks. "I've no idea." He straightens a bit.

Claude squints at a clock. "It's...gods. Four thirty in the morning." She should be hungry, but the recent events haven't given her much appetite. "Well, I suppose I should light the grate again."

"Probably. Bit chilly in here." Feuilly hesitates a moment, then pushes to his feet.

Claude kneels in front of the grate and starts to relight the fire. That done, she closes her eyes, letting it warm her momentarily before pushing to her feet and facing him. Suddenly at a loss for words, inexplicably.

Feuilly tucks his hands in his pockets, boy-like. "Anything I can do?"

Claude shrugs. "Not that I can think of at the moment," she replies apologetically. A pause. "I'll check on Michaud..." She crosses and goes into the other room. Returns a moment later and leans against the wall for a moment. "He's gone."

Feuilly stares at her a moment, caught by confusion. "--Michaud's--?"

Claude nods, taking a deep breath in a futile attempt to steady herself. "Slipped out the door, I suppose..." She shakes her head and crosses to the grate. "Should have predicted that. Why would he stay here? Oh, he'll come back when he needs something. He respected his brother enough to do that. But...when will a gamin admit that he needs something?"

"Damn." Feuilly rakes a hand through his hair. "I can go look for him--"

Claude holds up a hand quickly. "No, please stay." She shakes her head. "He'll be found only if he wants to be, you'd only be wasting your time. I daresay I've done enough of that already," she finishes, muttering the last to herself as she fills a kettle with water distractedly.

Feuilly glances at the door. "If you say so." He wanders back over to lean on the table.

Claude watches him out of the corner of her eye. "You can lie down on the couch, if you like," she offers neutrally. "Get some sleep while I check on Samuel."

Feuilly shakes his head, glancing sideways at her. "Thanks. I'm all right."

"I was thinking a few hours of sleep might do some good," she continues, taking the kettle off the fire. She glances at him briefly. "For both of us."

"You look like you could use it," he agrees.

She sets the kettle down and straightens, crossing to him. Silently, she holds out a hand.

Feuilly's eyebrows lift fractionally. After a moment, he reaches out and takes the hand, watching her.

Her other hand rests on his shoulder momentarily before slipping down to circle his waist as she leans forward and whispers, "So do you." Tilting her head up, she kisses him, softly but firmly.

He goes still for an instant, then frees one hand to slide an arm tightly around her, returning the kiss.

Claude breaks it after a moment as she takes a step backward, leading him toward the deserted front room, and the couch. Her gaze steady as she looks at him.

Feuilly reaches up to tuck a straying auburn wisp behind her ear, and then straightens, to follow her.

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