Author's note: Please note that I am waving away the rather shoddy and under-researched medical science in this with the dual excuses of a) head injuries are weird and b) it's not like Hugo bothered with scientific accuracy either.
He learns to recognize Courfeyrac's walk before he remembers his face. Courfeyrac walks loosely with a casual gait that seems to dance down the hallway even when he is trying to be proper and presentable. He pauses before knocking on the door every time, pauses to ensure that his smile is fixed on his face (a smile that, for the first month, must be relearned every afternoon) and to ensure that he has a firm grip on his composure. He is the only one of the regular visitors who announces himself every time, giving his name casually as though it were ordinary to have to introduce onself to one's friends each day.
Courfeyrac talks of people and of places, shares gossip and news and editorializes every bit of it with his own opinion. It is through this gossip that Combeferre (for he has no other name, though this one feels wrong in his mouth, as though it belongs to someone no longer alive) learns how he came to be injured in the first place. Courfeyrac is meticulous about explaining things, is endlessly patient when Combeferre repeats questions and does not recall the answer. He tells Combeferre of the riot, of how it started as a peaceful gathering and turned violent when the police came to break it up, tells of how Combeferre went to protect as many as possible and took a blow intended for someone else. Of the aftermath he does not speak, leaving Combeferre to piece together the early days of his recovery on his own.
It is from Joly that he learns that he was once a doctor. Joly comes into the room without knocking and shares with him the details of his treatment, handing him page upon page of notes in nearly illegible handwriting and offering his own hopeful prognoses. (Combeferre does not tell him that he cannot read without splitting headaches, nor that he understands only half the words that come out of his mouth. He does not Joly well enough to know whether such an admission would offend him, and he does not want to cause offense to someone whose intentions are so clearly good.) He recognizes Joly first through his voice and later by the laugh that precedes him through the door. Only slowly does Combeferre learn to retain the splay of freckles across his nose or the shape of his face or the name Joly so cheerfully mangles. (Joly should always be cheerful, Combeferre thinks, and it makes him ache to think that he has been the cause of this man's distress.)
The blond man with the angry eyes he does not learn to recognize at all.
It takes a month for the wound on his head to heal enough for him to be released from the hospital. His steps are unsteady, feet not used to supporting his weight, and he clings to Courfeyrac as the latter guides him through unfamiliar streets. The shock of the city after the hospital's endless white leaves him dizzy and bewildered, the cacophony assaulting his ears and the stench tearing his breath from his lungs. Within ten paces his head begins to ache.
Courfeyrac narrates to him as they walk, pointing out landmarks and street corners and giving him names for each and every cafe and wine shop. Combeferre listens to none of this, too unsteady and confused to process language no matter the spirit in which it is offered. By the time they reach what Courfeyrac informs him is the hotel in which they shall be living, Combeferre's head feels as though it will explode and the bright patterns playing in the corners of his vision keep him from focusing on any of his surroundings. He excuses himself with as much grace as he can muster and goes to lie down, grateful beyond measure that the walls of Courfeyrac's room have been painted white.
"—and you understand, she absolutely could not allow such an insult to go unmatched. That would be quite absurd, not to mention a dent to her sister's honor. So she picked up the poker — stop me if you are getting weary — and said to him 'Gaston, I am more gentleman than you so I am giving you warning, but if you do not leave this house within ten seconds I will see that you leave it in pieces.' He, poor devil, was deep enough in his cups to laugh the threat away — let this be a lesson to you that women with pokers are never to be taken lightly — and when the ten seconds were up she fetched him a sturdy wallop across the unmentionables. Well, you can imagine how he bellowed of course. You could hear it from four streets down; we all thought someone had killed a pig. But, as she explained to the police, she only ensured that he could never to do another woman what he had done to her sister, which we can all agree was quite the public service. I say, that reminds me, did I tell you of the baker by the Corinthe—"
Combeferre sits in the main room he shares with Courfeyrac, listening as his visitor launches into another rather sordid tale. The man speaking never bothers to give his name, choosing instead to barge in at all hours of the day as though they were old friends and present Combeferre with food and gossip. Careful questioning demonstrated that the man behaves this way with everyone, and Combeferre has to admit that his visits are a welcome distraction. Alone of all his friends, this man does not treat Combeferre as though he is liable to break at any moment, does not have to leave the room to regain his composure when Combeferre asks certain questions, does not glance at him with sadness when he thinks Combeferre cannot see. This man is blunt and swaggering, his voice booming and his mustache painstakingly waxed. He walks as though he has every right to be precisely where he is at any given moment, and when he talks he looks Combeferre straight in the eye. Combeferre cannot remember ever feeling so relieved.
(Not, of course, that his memory is worth much anymore.)
"Does it bother you," Combeferre asks when the man pauses for a drink, "that I do not remember you or the people you talk about?"
Combeferre expects the man to reply flippantly, but instead he gives the question a moment's thought. Then he shrugs. "Would it change matters if it did?"
"It bothers the others."
"Of course it does. That's not the question I asked."
Combeferre considers, then sighs. "I suppose not," he says. "Regret doesn't seem to help the situation any."
"There you go," the man says, and grins. "By the way, the name's Bahorel. And you've never known any of these people anyway, so don't be concerned."
The man with the angry eyes comes by every afternoon. Each time Combeferre greets him with uncertainty, a question on his lips and a stone in his breast. It seems wrong, somehow, that this man's name will not stay in his mind, that this man's face is the one he cannot commit to memory. It seems wrong too that they should sit in silence, each not quite looking at the other, neither admitting aloud how oppressive the quiet has become. Combeferre makes polite, stilted conversation; the man answers with curt, almost angry syllables and cannot hide the pain in his face.
(Combeferre knows that he is being compared to the man he used to be and found wanting. He finds that he does not appreciate the comparisons. His name feels more like a shackle than ever.)
From Courfeyrac he learns that the man with the angry eyes is named Enjolras, a name he has heard repeated in the man's own voice every afternoon for two months and which does not stick until he hears it from someone else. He learns too that Enjolras was once his dearest friend, his brother in blood if not flesh. As he studies the man's pale face, its lines harsh and severe, unsmiling lips carved from marble and eyes cold as ice, he cannot see what it was that caused them to cleave together so strongly and wonders if it is he or Enjolras who has changed.
("He is a man of faith," Courfeyrac says, when Combeferre asks why Enjolras still comes, and will say nothing more.)
He takes up fencing, as reading still causes him unmanageable headaches and he thinks he may go mad if he has to spend all day with nothing to do. His friends look at him oddly when he tells them of his decision and he thinks that maybe before he did not willingly exercise his body over his mind.
(He thinks that maybe his friends would be happier if they too forgot what he had done before.)
"You're quite certain? Is there nothing I can do to change your mind? Have I done something to offend you, or make you feel unwelcome?"
Courfeyrac's slew of worried, nearly horrified questions almost causes Combeferre to change his mind, to cease packing his scant belongings and give up on his idea of moving into his own lodgings. Then sense reasserts itself and he only shakes his head.
"I've depended on you long enough. I am quite healed enough to live alone, and I will not be going far." He tries a smile. "No doubt you will be invading my home at all hours within days."
"It's no trouble to have you," Courfeyrac insists. "Quite the contrary, you are ever a delight, I assure you. No one fills an evening quite like you."
"Are you mocking me?"
"Not at all." There is a tinge of regret in Courfeyrac's voice, slight enough that Combeferre would not have noticed at all if he had not had ample opportunity to become acquainted with it over the past weeks. Courfeyrac, he can tell, thinks that he has hidden his disappointments entirely, and Combeferre is loath to tell him that those very disappointments are the cause of his imminent departure. He cannot bear to spend any more time in the constant company of a man who looks at him and sees a ghost overlaid onto his form.
"You are a good friend," Combeferre says. "A far better one than I could ever deserve given the circumstances. But I cannot rely on your generosity forever, even if you would be willing to offer it." I cannot rediscover who I am if I am constantly presented with who I was, he thinks, and closes his mouth tightly.
"I can't convince you otherwise?" Courfeyrac asks.
Combeferre shakes his head.
"Then at least permit me to help you move in. You might not remember any of the right questions to ask of the landlady, and I would feel quite dreadful if some oversight led you to living in unsuitable lodgings."
"If you insist," Combeferre says, and he is rewarded with a brilliant smile that he thinks may even be intended for him.
The new rooms are smaller than Courfeyrac's, lodgings purchased on a former student's meager allowance rather than an aristocrat's deep pockets. Courfyerac looked around in despair and all but begged Combeferre to reconsider, but Combeferre likes them. He appreciates the emptiness of the space, entirely his to do with as he pleases, and the muffled domestic sounds coming through the walls. He is still plagued by headaches, an affliction Joly tells him may continue for the rest of his life, but he finds the background noise soothing, a reminder that others have lives to live and problems to solve and that he is but one among many muddling their way through the world.
His nearest neighbors, he learns soon enough, are young and newly married, with a child already on the way and a curious habit of solving their differences through song. He thinks perhaps this would be a more unbearable habit if he could keep the tunes in his head for longer than a few minutes, but he is resigned to his shoddy memory by now and chooses to consider it a gift in this particular case.
When she gives birth a few weeks later, he brings them dinner and introduces himself. At their insistence he stays to eat with them, learning their names and stories firsthand rather than through half-heard fragments. She's sixteen, newly installed in Paris and missing her family dreadfully. Her husband, only four years older, has work and friends but little time and less money, and they are both worried for the winter. As he listens to them talk, Combeferre feels nearly at peace despite the topics at hand; he cannot remember a meal so free of the undercurrents of his past, and it feels as though a weight has been lifted. When she asks after his family he only shrugs and says he has none and it does not even feel like a lie.
Dinner becomes a regular occurrence, and it is not long before Combeferre is pressed into service watching the baby during the day while both her parents work. He knows even less about how to watch an infant than does the child's father, but he learns and when one day tiny Madeleine smiles at him for the first time he cannot help but smile back.
"You're a lifesaver," Madeleine's mother tells him as she comes to pick her daughter up, and her smile is genuine under the mask of grime and weariness. "How ever have you not found yourself a mistress of your own yet?"
Combeferre shrugs. "It's never seemed right," he says, and wonders if maybe he had once had a mistress, before. Then he banishes the thought; before doesn't matter, not anymore.
She shakes her head. "Well, I suppose it's a blessing you haven't," she said, and he laughs.
"For the both of us," he says, and shakes his head when she makes a noise of curiosity.
"You spend too much time alone," Madeleine's father declares, and drags Combeferre out with him in the evenings. Neither have more than a few coins to spare on entertainment, but between them they can buy a bottle of wine and tobacco, enough to relax and enjoy each other's company. Combeferre meets more of his neighbors, learns about trade and craftsmanship and how to proposition a prostitute in twelve languages. Most of the knowledge flows right back out of his mind, but he counts it a victory when even one thing sticks, when even one name comes back to him without prompting, when even one joke makes him roll his eyes rather than laugh as though he is hearing it for the first time.
His new friends are of a different sort from those he knew before, rougher and louder and less concerned with politics. They treat Combeferre with tolerant condescension, guessing him to be younger than his twenty-six years and treating him accordingly. He doesn't mind; in terms of experience he is far, far younger than any of them, and he would rather listen than contribute, preferring to sit at the edges of a conversation than force himself into the middle. They permit him to fade into near invisibility, and he finds that after months of constant scrutiny he craves nothing so much as insignificance.
When Bahorel drops by now he sprinkles anecdotes about their friends in with his wider gossip and never once mentions the reason that Combeferre no longer collects them himself.
Enjolras sits stiffly in one of Combeferre's chairs and looks into the unlit grate, clenching his cup so tightly that his bones seem about to poke through the flesh of he knuckles. When he arrived they exchanged stilted pleasantries and now sit avoiding each others' gaze as the silence grows heavier. Enjolras seems less like a man each time he comes, seems to have given more of himself than ever to the cause he serves until Combeferre wonders how there can be anything left. His name still comes awkwardly to Combeferre's mind, an awkward set of syllables that sit badly on his tongue and which he does not like to think. It has been weeks since their eyes met for longer than a fraction of an instant.
"Courfeyrac says you have been busy," Combeferre says at last. "Are your affairs going well?"
Enjolras nods once. Then, as though reminded by some silent speaker that he should use words, he says, "The tide is turning. I can feel it in my bones."
To this Combeferre has no reply. He murmurs something polite and meaningless and wonders again what it was that brought him and Enjolras together.
After a few more minutes Enjolras stands, makes his farewells, and leaves. Combeferre thinks he should feel more than faint relief.
(He tells himself that his headache is due to the changing weather and carefully does not connect the dots further.)
"The people are growing angry. You can feel it, can't you? Things are changing, things must change, and we will be there to help that change along!"
Courfeyrac perches in one of Combeferre's chair, his fine coat and hat looking out of place amid Combeferre's utilitarian decor. Neither man remarks on this awkwardness. Instead Courfeyrac leans forward, face intense as he lets his emotions run away with him, one hand gesturing almost wildly. Combeferre, by contrast, sits with his legs crossed, fiddling absently with his empty cup and listening in silence. He knows why Courfeyrac has come — it did not take long for him to pick up that he had once belonged to a revolutionary society, nor did he lose time in gathering that his friends all thought him still one of them. Courfeyrac has come as much to coax him back into the fold as he has to spend an afternoon in Combeferre's company. To his credit, he is not shy about admitting to this ulterior motive when questioned, nor does the exposure seem to have dampened his enthusiasm any.
"You can feel the tension rising," Courfeyrac continues. "It was the same in 1830, though you won't remember that. But let me assure you that it felt the same. A man had only to poke his head out the door to feel infused with revolutionary sentiment and passion. It's an itch, you know, a feeling deep between your shoulders that can only be scratched by toppling a monarchy."
"You sound like Bahorel," Combeferre murmurs.
Courfeyrac lights up even more, as he always does when Combeferre demonstrates his knowledge of his old friends. "His attitude is rather contagious," he says. "Particularly as he and I have spent quite a bit of time together as of late, recruiting and bolstering spirits and making our final preparations."
"So you've chosen your final course," Combeferre says, doing his best to sound interested rather than accusatory. Courfeyrac's talk of revolution makes him uncomfortable, though whether the discomfort stems from something he once knew or something he knows now he cannot quite tell. Courfeyrac has always been careful to paint his former involvement with the cause in vague terms, calling him a pillar of their organization and making no definite statements about his true role. Whether he holds back out of respect for Combeferre's desire to forge his own present or whether he fears that being candid will drive Combeferre away Combeferre can't discern, and it makes him wary.
"We have," Coufeyrac agrees, growing solemn once again. "We chose this path years ago and we can't back down now. The future must be forged strong and sure, not left to rot in the hands of flaccid kings and greedy politicians. We will fight for the people, for you and me and all of us, so that our voices might be heard and our grievances addressed at last. Our first republic was born from bloodshed after negotiation failed; this one will follow in its footsteps and grow stronger and more secure than the first ever did. We have planned for this, have learned from our mistakes, have coordinated and dreamed and plotted. We have promises of loyalty from influential men from all walks of life, have pledges from workingmen and soldiers both. When the time comes, we will greet it with confidence and cheer and we will emerge victorious."
Combeferre does not say that Courfeyrac sounds dangerously overconfident. He does not say that neither his neighbors nor their friends seem overly enthused with the idea of revolt. He does not say that he is not overly enthused with the idea of revolt. Instead he says, "Tell me of your preparations."
From the way Courfeyrac grins Combeferre can tell that he thinks this the revolution's first victory. As he begins to talk of guns and cartridges and promises and barricades Combeferre does not have the heart to tell him otherwise.
On the night of General Lamarque's funeral Combeferre eats with his neighbors. Outside the sounds of revolt all but shake the house, gunfire and screaming mixing with the tread of boots and the sobbing of Madeleine's mother until they form a nearly homogenous layer of noise. Combeferre ignores the pounding in his head and comforts Madeleine as her parents cling to each other and tremble.
(Madeleine's father asked Combeferre three nights earlier whether he would join the fighting when it erupted. Combeferre pictured blood running down Courfeyrac's face and shuddered.)
"What do they want?" Madeleine's mother demands during a lull in the fighting. "What could be worth this?"
"They want freedom," Combeferre says quietly, rocking Madeleine's tiny, warm body. "At any price."
"How can you hope to be free by getting killed?" Madeleine's father wants to know, the question addressed as much to the universe itself as to Combeferre.
Combeferre answers it anyway. "The future must be forged in blood, or so they believe." He looks down, one hand brushing reddish wisps of hair from the baby's sweating face.
"You know men out there." Madeleine's father does not phrase it as question.
"In another life I would have joined them," Combeferre agrees, and he feels something almost akin to guilt clenching his belly.
"Well I am glad you're living this one then," Madeleine's mother says, her voice fierce despite her distress. "Spilling blood won't do any good, and any freedom it buys isn't any use to those of us who have to work in the morning no matter how many of them die. You're too good to waste your youth like that."
Combeferre bows his head and says nothing.
When at last the dust settles he ventures forth and goes to Courfeyrac's. The landlady's red-rimmed eyes tell him all he needs to know, and he pauses only long enough to ask after the bodies. He feels lightheaded, as though he does not quite inhabit his own body, and he follows the directions without thought.
(He does not notice that his body has recovered part of its ability to navigate of its own accord, no more than he notices that he remembered Courfeyrac's landlady's name on the first try.)
The bodies are laid out in a morgue, arranged according to which barricade they defended, most mutilated nearly beyond recognition. Combeferre makes his way down the rows until he finds a face he recognizes, a face that only a week earlier had burned with life and conviction as it urged him to throw in his lot with theirs.
He names them all for himself, some with more difficulty than others, all after a moment's hesitation, names them all and does not know if he does it to seek condemnation or forgiveness. At last he reaches the end of the line, sees golden hair and crimson blood and features carved from whitest marble and for the first time the word Enjolras falls easily from his tongue.
When he returns home he takes Madeleine in his arms and at last mourns for the life he has lost.