Author's note: I've been holding onto this one for a while now. It was supposed to be part of a larger project, but that project is probably not ever going to happen so I figure I may as well dismantle it for parts and put up what's left. I suppose this is kind of a return to type for me, and there's no denying that I've missed writing this kind of thing, for all the trouble it gave me in production.
The streets of Paris stank in the summer heat. The Seine flowed sluggishly, its waters brown with mud and garbage, while on the pavestones flies buzzed incessantly around the corpses of men and animals left to rot. Those who traveled on foot did so as quickly as possible, ladies with handkerchiefs to their noses to block out the stench. Only the gamins scampered through the alleys as usual, many discarding hats and shirts as they baked in the sun. Barely a breath of wind passed through the city – only the scuffling feet of children and startled birds moved the stagnant air. Trapped inside stone walls, Paris stewed.
Combeferre counted himself among those who could not avoid stepping outside. The trek from his rooms to the Necker was the work of ten minutes, fifteen at most, and he dutifully undertook it each day, picking his way around piles of garbage and trying not to retch. Though he could have hailed a cab and gone the distance in a fraction of the time, Combeferre chose instead to save his coin for a worthier and less selfish cause. Many of the souls who shared the streets with him could not afford to travel otherwise; if they could brave the heat and the stink then so could he.
Across the city the cholera still raged, claiming more victims than ever. Combeferre spent his days bending over dehydrated patients, cleaning vomit from floors and bed sheets, applying his science as best he knew how and looking into the devastated eyes of mothers and siblings as his best failed to produce any results but death. With each new corpse he felt his heart clench more with something close to despair, though he took care never to let it show. His patience deserved steadiness and compassion, and their families would not be comforted by his fear.
He took solace in his friends, joining them each night with relief. Among them he felt lighter, not so much freed of tension as able to set it aside for a few hours and lose himself in their exuberance. Even on the worst days he made himself put in an appearance, made himself socialize when all he wanted to do was fall into bed and pray for a night without dreams.
Still, despite his best intentions, there were days when Combeferre could feel his resolve slip, when he could not erase from his mind's eye a young girl's terrified face or mute the sound of a father's desperate pleading. His heart felt heavy as stone, a weight in his chest that dragged him down with every step and made it harder than ever to breathe. On those days he walked into the Musain with his eyes fixed on the ground and didn't say a word, took a seat in one corner and tried to hear his friends' laughter instead of agonized screaming.
He paused in the doorway one such evening, keeping to the shadows as he gathered the necessary resolve to go inside rather than turning around and sending word that he was ill. He heard laughter over the usual thrum of voices – Jean Prouvaire's, he realized after a moment. Prouvaire appeared impervious to both heat and stink and carried on as normal, either alone or with whichever of his friends he could convince to accompany him. The lucky companion this evening seemed to have been Bahorel, judging by the way this last interrupted Prouvaire's laughter. Combeferre could not quite make out their words, but he imagined that they were each attempting to recount their adventures in their own unique fashion. Bossuet interrupted liberally, his sardonic voice cutting through the noise.
Despite everything Combeferre relaxed ever so slightly at the familiar sounds and at last stepped into the room. Sure enough, Prouvaire and Bahorel sat near the front, the former perched on a table for ease of oration and the latter sprawled in a nearby chair. Bossuet lounged a little ways away, face bright with sweat. Courfeyrac and Feuilly had claimed a table in the center of the room, the former gesturing mournfully towards his wilting hat. Feuilly's cap too suffered in the heat, but he seemed rather less put out by that fact than Courfeyrac, and he had no shame in rolling up his sleeves to combat the temperature. They shared a bottle of wine between them, though clearly most of it had gone into Courfeyrac. In one corner Joly, scented handkerchief pressed to his face, scribbled notes into one of his books, while beside him Grantaire declaimed drunkenly about the wickedness of city life. Had Combeferre cared to pay attention, he would have found Grantaire's monologue liberally peppered with deliberately misguided references to Rousseau.
The intended target of Grantaire's rant paid him no attention. Enjolras had claimed a table in the opposing corner, books spread out around him, looking as though he did not even notice the stifling temperature. His hair too seemed impervious to the heat, not limp in the slightest, and, not for the first time, Combeferre theorized that his friend had so succeeded in setting aside concerns of the flesh that he did not even notice the discomfort. Enjolras raised his head as Combeferre walked further into the room, a welcoming smile on his lips, and Combeferre felt the tensions within him ease a little. Courfeyrac stopped him to press a glass of wine in his hand, and Combeferre found it in himself to smile at them both. While his friends still laughed all could not possibly be hopeless.
He accepted the glass from Courfeyrac, dodging as one of Bahorel's friends gestured too wildly, and slipped into a seat across from Enjolras. His friend set down his pen and met his eyes. "How was your day?" he asked.
Combeferre shrugged. "Somewhat trying," he admitted. "We were particularly busy at the hospital this afternoon."
Enjolras bowed his head. The two of them had long since grown beyond the need to perform their entire conversations aloud, and Combeferre heard his understanding and sympathy as clearly as though he had shouted it as loudly as Grantaire or Bahorel. He allowed himself a small sigh. "All the nurses are praying for rain," he said, and trusted Enjolras to hear all the things that he himself had left unsaid.
"We do need it," Enjolras agreed. "The farmers are worried their crops will fail unless the storms come."
"Shortage on top of epidemic," Combeferre said with a slight wince. "I pray it does not come to that. No one has the resources to manage that well, especially not after last winter's freezes." He fiddled with his wine glass, bringing it to his lips and then setting it down without taking a drink. Around them the clamor continued as normal, though Prouvaire had given up trying to hold his own against Bahorel's volume and instead held court with some of the philosophy students. A snippet of their discussion drifted towards Enjolras and Combeferre.
"…so great a hero!"
"I agree, one misstep hardly seems enough to justify an eternity of torment."
"But should he not be punished too for abandoning wife and family?"
This last came to them in Prouvaire's voice, quieter now but no less impassioned. Enjolras' lips twitched. "Ulysses," he said. "Véron and Prouvaire have been arguing about his damnation for two days now."
Combeferre too smiled a little. "So which of them has been rereading Dante?"
"Both, I expect," Enjolras said. Combeferre nodded, heaviness creeping back into his heart. With the mention of abandoned family came the memory of a young mother's distraught face, the touch of her desperate hands on his sleeve as he proclaimed her youngest dead. The little boy had been barely four, come and gone from this life in the blink of an eye. Combeferre remembered too those children without mothers to weep over their corpses, children without names or homes, as much victims of poverty as they were of disease. He gripped his glass tightly, trying and failing to recapture the peace he had felt only a few minutes before.
Enjolras picked up one of his books, bowing his head again as he went back to his reading. In the other corner Grantaire continued to elaborate on his thesis, throwing rhetoric into the air, asking of no one how men who voluntarily crammed themselves into tiny rooms and trampled each other could possibly call themselves more intelligent than animals. Combeferre fiddled with his glass, watching the light hit the wine, his earlier distress creeping steadily back into his heart.
"What's on your mind?"
Enjolras' quiet voice pulled him back to the present. Combeferre blinked, finding his friend once more looking at him, a slight frown on his delicate features. Combeferre shook his head. It would do no good to tell Enjolras of his feelings – despair was as foreign to Enjolras' nature as apathy and to try and bring it out in him would be a crime. Instead he asked, "What are you reading?"
"Something of Courfeyrac's," Enjolras admitted. Combeferre, who had spent rather more time than was healthy browsing Courfeyrac's bookshelf, felt his eyebrows rise nearly to his hairline. "He assured me it would be quite educational," Enjolras said, a touch wryly. "I cannot say he was incorrect in that assessment." His voice lost the tinge of sarcasm as he added, "It is enlightening though. Prouvaire is correct when he says that literature reflects the conditions of the people."
"I would hardly call Courfeyrac's habitual reading material literature," Combeferre said.
Enjolras gave him a chiding look. "Would you make literature inaccessible to the people?" he asked. "Should the tastes of workingmen not count for as much as those of you or I?"
"You're right," Combeferre said, shaking his head. Ordinarily he might have furthered the discussion, or perhaps even argued the point, but tonight he could not find the energy. Enjolras, who had found a theme he liked, either did not notice Combeferre's unusually quick agreement or chose to try and distract him.
"Imagine it," he said. "Once all the people can read, imagine how literature will flourish. Works of philosophy sitting next to stories of love, adventures and plays sharing shelves, a true democratization of literature. All men's tastes will be respected, all men's thoughts heard. Children too – why should age bar one from contributing their thoughts and being heard? Libraries open to all with no book or student turned away." His eyes were blazing, looking not at Combeferre but through him. He spoke with the certainty of a prophet, spoke not as one who hoped for a better future to come but as one who knew it would. Combeferre wanted to accuse him of having spent too much time with Prouvaire but he found the words stuck in his throat, taken away by Enjolras' effortless conviction.
"I wish I could see the future as easily as you," he said instead, his words tasting bitter in his mouth. He did not say that he sometimes lacked the strength to work for his own hopeful outlook, nor did he mention that each failure at the hospital made it that much more difficult to maintain his optimism.
Enjolras blinked, some of the fire leaving his expression as he looked at Combeferre in unmasked surprise. "It's not easy," he said, responding as much to Combeferre's unspoken thoughts as to his actual words. "How could it ever be easy?"
Combeferre frowned. "You make it seem effortless," he pointed out. "I have never seen you falter in your convictions no matter how much they are tested."
"Appearances can be deceptive," Enjolras said. "I assure you, my friend, I work every day to maintain my faith, and there are days when it is more difficult than others. But I would no more permit my doubts to shake my convictions than I would permit them to shake my friendships, though both are occasionally subject to strain." His lips twitched again. Then he sobered, looking steadily across the table at Combeferre. "To hope is the greatest possible act of faith," he said. "And to have faith is the most difficult thing a man can do in the face of overwhelming despair. But it is also the most rewarding."
Combeferre sighed. "I know," he said. "I just wish…" He did not finish his sentence, not certain even in his own mind what he would have said.
"There's no shame in wishing," Enjolras said. He smiled, reaching out to touch Combeferre's hand. "Nor is there any shame in needing support. After all, the revolution was fought for brotherhood as much as for liberty. None of us were meant to struggle through our lives and our doubts alone."
"And I thank God for that," Combeferre said.
"As do I," Enjolras agreed. He squeezed Combeferre's hand and let go. "I would be a lesser man indeed if I did not have all my friends to share their hope when I doubted my own."
Combeferre nodded, feeling the knot in his heart start to unravel. He picked up his wine glass and half raised it in thanks before finally taking a swallow. The rich liquid enveloped his taste buds as around him his friends filled his ears with talk and laughter. Combeferre closed his eyes and allowed them to share their hope.