catherine's corner

initium sapientiae
or, marius amazed

I.   May, 1830

Of course he's fond of Pontmercy. We all are, aren't we? There's no reason not to be. Rather stupid, rather pretty, girlish. If you think that kind of thing is charming, it's charming, but I don't think so. The boy needs a bit more sense if you ask me, which no one ever does, least of all him. He doesn't care what I think.

For that matter, he doesn't care what Pontmercy thinks either. Charming? He is not susceptible to charm, even boyish charm with wide eyes and hanging on every word, which Pontmercy does. They all do, really, but not quite so much as our Marius. Who could help hanging on every word, really? Not Pontmercy, who can't even make his own sense half the time.

"Here, boy, sit down. Have a drink or two. It'll make more sense then."

*   *   *

I don't know this man. I've been aware of him, slouched in his corner or sauntering around the room, not making much sense in particular. I'd recognize him in the street, but I don't know him at all, really. I can never tell what he's thinking, or if he's thinking -- which Enjolras would say is doubtful -- and I've never really wondered.

Now I wonder. I can't help but wonder; what makes him so suddenly affable? Is it that pathetically obvious, how lost I am?

"I doubt that." He's watching me. What's the matter with the fellow? "Thank you just the same."

*   *   *

So he's pushing me away, is he, and blinking those big brown eyes. As if he doesn't know what I'm talking about. Well, for once he has an excuse, because I've no idea what's on my own mind. I want him not to be so damned confused. I want him to be comfortable, more than he is now with only L'Aigle and Courfeyrac to vouch for him and what do they know about him, anyway? Not that I'm going to be much help in getting him accepted. His words speak better for him than anything I could possibly say, especially if Pontmercy wants to be accepted by everyone.

What if I befriend the boy, if he lets me? Will Enjolras ignore him like he ignores me? No glass of wine is worth that. I'd tell Pontmercy so, but I would like to have a companion in this corner.

"Oh, go on. It won't hurt." What's another lie? "Sit down, at least."

*   *   *

Childish of me to hesitate, when he's only trying to be kind. Childish not to want to talk to him, simply because it's clear what Enjolras thinks of him; am I so easily led as all that? Ridiculous to feel uneasy. It's not as though I have the right to keep anyone at arm's length, when I am still finding my way here.

I am not a child. I can manage this much, for God's sake, a simple conversation.

"Very well."

*   *   *

Some of the others will sit with me sometimes. Courfeyrac, on occasion. Joly, when he is not certain he is contagious. Combeferre, when he thinks I'm being excluded. Perhaps he does not look closely enough. I'm always excluded from what I want the most, which is to be one of them, one of Enjolras's Friends instead of the man who watches.

"Sure you don't want a drink?"

It is all I have to offer, Pontmercy. The rest will give you rhetoric and ideals. I have only endless tides of words and wine. Accept them, boy. Accept me.

*   *   *

"I--"

I can't read his expression. I don't know what he's thinking, whether he's mocking or consoling, concerned or amused. For all I know-- but this is stupid. What do I think is going to happen?

"--all right."

Enjolras isn't here, Courfeyrac is distracted; it's not as though anyone is watching me.

"Thank you."

What's the worst that could happen?

*   *   *

You're shy, are you, lad? Don't drink much, do you? Silly boy. The world's too damned confusing to watch with sober eyes. Have a glass to start.

"You're welcome."

In more ways than one. Welcome to the wine; God knows there's more where that came from. Welcome to the corner; there's no one over here but me and the green fairies, and maybe they'll cease twittering at me when I've other company. Welcome to my friendship; there's not much demand for it.

Take the wine, boy. Don't make such a face at it.

"It's not poison, you know. Won't kill you."

And if I smile at you, that won't kill you either. Perhaps it won't even hurt me.

*   *   *

He's less disconcerting when he smiles; not so intimidatingly grim.

"I know that."

The light over here is so bad, it's like seeking out a troll in his cave -- but this is all right, I can handle this. I can find it in me to like him, in this mood; I can smile back at him, sit back a little, without feeling as though it's all bravado.

I simply... can't think of anything to say.

*   *   *

I didn't know you were so damned quiet, Pontmercy. I think I'd have let you stay lonely if I'd known your silence was so contagious. You've taken my wine and you're grimacing at it. You've taken my words and you're not giving me any in return. Thank you so much. All I wanted was to talk to you, really. Probably.

I'll just smile for the moment because there aren't any words. I could tell you it's nice to have you nearby because it's nice to have anyone nearby, but wouldn't that be a little odd? I don't want you running off so soon. Wait until I've gotten a little frightening.

For God's sake, lad, drink. You're not going to put up with me very long unless you do. I've become dull suddenly; what wit I possess is blunted by your silence. Don't be bored. You know I'm never so taciturn as this, don't you? Do you know anything about me but what Enjolras has implied? He doesn't do anything more than imply, that one; he wouldn't waste his precious words on me when he could be talking about the Republic.

I shouldn't mind him so much. I wouldn't, maybe, if I had someone who understood what I was thinking, but you don't drink and I know I don't even understand myself when I'm not drunk. Join me in my dissolution, Pontmercy, and maybe we'll have a comfortably useless conversation.

I can't say that. I already have, and you weren't listening, were you, boy? I suppose I'll take a drink myself. Teach by example.

*   *   *

A prolonged splutter, then. "God. --Sorry."

"Whatever for?"

"It's, er--" The boy coughs again, half-grins ruefully. "It's a bit--"

"Well, yes. I rarely bother with the worthwhile wines. This is just as strong and it doesn't cost nearly as much -- but if you'd rather have something decent --"

"No, of course, that's all right. I'm sorry." Second sip. Careful. "Right. --I do apologize. --Anyway-- what were you saying?"

"If it was anything useful, I've forgotten it. But then, that's one reason to drink this stuff." A gesture with a wine glass. "No need to say anything of consequence."

"Why not?"

"Hell, boy, even if you made a glorious speech I'd forget the first half by the time you were done and the second half by the time someone else spoke. Why bother saying anything at all with this stuff in your head?"

Eyebrows lift. "You'd rather sit here in silence, then?"

A chuckle. "Now, I didn't say that. Don't you ever talk without saying anything of consequence, or have you been infected by our mighty Enjolras's economy of words?"

"Well, I--" He ducks his head, coloring. "I try not to. I mean..."

"Oh, is that how it is?" Another chuckle. "You don't drink much, do you?"

"Well-- no."

An almost paternal nod. "Should, you know. Get you used to not being able to think."

The boy gives him a surprisingly direct look. "I don't believe I want that," mildly.

"Ah, well, why not? Nothing wrong with a lack of comprehension, except that you'll be quiet and blink blankly."

"I suppose."

"Nothing wrong with that. Bet you're cute when you're confused." A glass clatters on the table. "I mean --"

Marius blinks. Blankly. "I don't--"

Grantaire looks away from him. "I meant -- I don't know. I'm sorry."

"What did--"

"I don't know!" Grantaire picks up his glass again with a hand that trembles slightly. "I -- I don't know. More wine?"

Pause.

"Very well."

*   *   *

I knew I didn't understand him. I've said something wrong now, or failed to say something, I don't know what. I don't belong here, among these men; I don't understand their jokes or their subtleties--

"I'm sorry."

Say something, Grantaire, please. I don't know what you want from me, I don't know what to say, but I can listen. Talk to me.

*   *   *

Sorry, boy? It's me who should be sorry. I meant to comfort you, make you feel at home, maybe, make you like me if anyone could like me, and what have I done? I've confused you, haven't I, you poor thing. Not used to compliments, not our Marius -- but I wasn't wrong, was I? You are cute with your cheeks all pink and apologizing as if you're the one who's done something wrong.

"It's not your fault I'm confused. If I didn't drink, maybe I'd understand myself."

I'm the one who sins here, boy, didn't you know? Haven't you heard Monsieur Enjolras? Everything I do is wrong, from inviting you over to pouring you wine to telling you that awkward little truth. If I put my hand on your shoulder now, when I fill your glass, I'll compound my many crimes.

I'll do it anyway, mind you, if only to prove to you that I can do worse than this, in case you didn't know that by now.

*   *   *

Yes, you might well do that. Steady, Pontmercy, calm down, boy, it's all right, boy, yes, I know, I know. I could certainly use some steadying. I could stand a clearer head. Yes. Thank you.

"Why do it, then?"

Not that I'm not. It does soothe the nerves a bit.

Not that I could tell you why I'm nervous, all of a sudden. Not that you've asked. You can tell, can't you? Yes. Damned -- obvious, Pontmercy. God, but I'm a fool.

*   *   *

You're trembling under my hand. God, boy, but you need a drink, more than I ever did. Or I need to stop drinking and blunder my way out of here before I do anything more to you. I meant well, really, I did. I'm sorry.

"Sometimes I don't want to understand myself."

Why don't you brush me aside and push away the wine? Don't you see? Didn't you hear me and my thoughtless praise? I don't suppose everyone tells you you're a pretty boy, however true it may be. If I tell you how charming you are, will you understand, then?

You'd be afraid of me if you understood me. I only want you to be my friend. Drink your wine, Pontmercy, and let me find solace in my own glass. I don't like worrying about the reasons behind what I do, but you and your apologies and your curling hair are tying me in knots.

*   *   *

"Why's that?"

"Sometimes I don't make sense."

"Ah." Marius sets down the glass again, carefully, with something that might be a cough or might be a stifled chuckle. "Well. I suppose... in that case..."

"In that case what?" asks Grantaire with trepidation.

A pause. "...that would... be a reason."

"It would, at that." Grantaire peers at him. "I should have drunk the wine myself instead of offering it to you."

"...Sorry." The boy's dark eyes are troubled. "I-- didn't mean to--"

"There, now. It's not your fault, is it? I knew you didn't drink." Grantaire stands, slightly unsteadily. "Come on, Pontmercy. Let me walk you home so you don't lose your way."

*   *   *

I wasn't going to lose my way, except I might, because I can't think properly and God knows I should have known better. Really it's entirely your doing, I suppose I ought to have known, I've been warned, you get me drinking with you and then you treat me like a child. I'm damned annoyed with you, except I'm not....

"All right."

--because you've been very kind, in a peculiar sort of way, and you haven't asked me to be brilliantly witty or wildly fashionable or single-mindedly devoted to your cause, you haven't asked anything of me except company, which I can give. For what it's worth.

*   *   *

You silly boy. You don't understand me, do you? Haven't I made myself clear? I'm dangerous. I'm probably mad. I don't know quite what I want from you, but I've got some inkling and I doubt you'll like the idea if I present it. Stay away, Marius, naf. I'm going to hurt you without meaning it, and won't Enjolras hate me then?

But you're already halfway lost, aren't you? You drank Bacchus's venom with me, and unlike me you're not used to the sting. I'll walk you home. I can do that, well enough, can't I, without letting you be hit by a carriage or some such thing.

And after that? After that, I should go home and sleep off my wine like every other night. I don't know if I shall or not, but I should.

*   *   *

This is ridiculous. I don't need a nursemaid. I don't need to be walked with, I don't need to be watched over. I certainly don't need your arm around my waist as we go, as if I was about to keel over any moment--

Oh dear.

Well, all right. I don't mind that much. It's comfortable rather than otherwise.

*   *   *

Marius, you're falling on my shoulder. You're giggling, Pontmercy. Giggling at your own stumbling feet. How very dear of you.

I mean, I'm sorry I got you so drunk. Poor thing. You're more confused than ever. I didn't want this. I didn't want to be responsible for you with your soft lips smiling at me. I would hire you a fiacre if I had the money. I would carry you home in my arms, except I'd fall over and drop us both in the gutter.

I might do the last, in any case, if you insist on smiling at me like that. I'm not much good at resisting temptation.

*   *   *

"Well. We're here."

"So it seems." He does not immediately move to open the door, his hand knotting again in Grantaire's coatsleeve. "Thank you."

"Steady, now. You're welcome, I'm sure." Grantaire pats the boy's shoulder. "Do you have your key?"

"Somewhere... oh. Here. Yes."

A pause, then, "Open the door, Pontmercy?"

"I was," says Marius indignantly, and does, albeit with some difficulty.

Grantaire does not relinquish his hold on the boy's shoulder, for fear he will topple over. "In you go, then. Out of the cold."

"Is it?" vaguely.

The breeze along the twilit street is mild. "Not that I'd noticed, to tell you the truth."

He stumbles a little over the threshold, and again at the foot of the stairs; and Grantaire follows him patiently inside, slinging an arm around his shoulders to help him manage the steps.

"Not so windy inside as out. Almost cozy in here, really."

The boy blinks, chuckles. "I suppose it is." He struggles momentarily with the latch, faintly amused at his own clumsiness. "I-- thank you again--"

"'course. Don't mention it." Grantaire reaches over and lifts the latch for him, then pushes the door open. "After you, m'sieur."

*   *   *

I don't think I've let anyone in here, have I? since I moved, not even Courfeyrac. I hadn't realized quite how shabby it is, how bare the floor, the cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling. What was I thinking?

"I'm sorry -- it's --"

Right. Best to lean on the dresser, there. Easier to keep my balance, and not as absurd as falling into a chair, which I might in a minute. I'll just lean here till you've gone--

--except--

*   *   *

It's really not as cozy as I said, is it? Poor Marius. How did you end up in this little pit of an apartment? I don't want to make you uncomfortable, of course, child, not in your own place.

"Mine's worse."

Which isn't precisely true, but you don't have to know that. You're still staggering. I'm trying not to push you off balance any more than you already are. But --

But you're not yourself, already.

You're still as pretty as ever. Let me help you keep your feet, Marius. Let me kiss your cheek.

*   *   *

I didn't--

I don't--

Was I supposed to have foreseen that? Should I have been ready for it? Was that what he meant all along, and did I walk into it like an utter, trusting fool? For God's sake, I don't--

--but he looked so crestfallen when I pulled away, and I was drunk and I thought how uncivil of me, when he's been so patient with me and I've been acting like a fool and so I caught his sleeve and--

I didn't mean--

--and then his arms were around me and held me fast, his mouth against my ear and he whispered my name, I don't even know his, as though--

--and so I--

--as though it hurt him to say it and he was warm and close and intent and I couldn't think straight so I just--

I don't understand--

--and by then it was far too late.

When I woke, there was no sign of him. It might all have been a dream; but I know better in every nerve and fiber. I know he was there. I know what happened.

The only thing I don't know is why.

*   *   *

Forgive me, Pontmercy. I didn't mean that. I didn't meant any of it except that I wanted you to talk to me and maybe drink a glass of wine. I didn't want to touch you, not like that. I didn't want to hold you in my arms and --

God, I hope I didn't want it.

If I did, Enjolras is right about me: I am beyond salvation and there's nothing of me that's worth an effort from anyone, least of all you, pretty Marius. I'm not worth a wrinkle of your fair brow.

So I crept away from you like a cheap whore, praying you wouldn't wake. You deserve the chance to be free of whatever I made you do.

It wasn't your sin; it wasn't your fault. Let it go. Don't let my mistake hurt you.

I'll remember so that you can forget. I don't want you to remember. I never meant to hurt you at all.

Forget me. Please. Don't let me ask that of you again.

II.   June, 1832

"Marius." Grantaire interrupts the boy's reverie by settling a hand on his shoulder.

Marius starts, glancing up wide-eyed; then relaxes a little, sinking back against the wall with a sigh, and summoning a half-hearted smile. "Grantaire."

"Look -- I'm sorry."

There is a short, blank pause. "For what?"

"I -- oh." Grantaire pulls away. "Nothing, I suppose." But his sleeve is caught gently, and the boy looks up at him with concerned, serious eyes.

"What's on your mind?"

"If -- no. Nothing." Grantaire covers Marius's hand with his own. "Go on, go back to dreaming about what's-her-name."

"There's no use in that now," bleakly.

"No use in anything," just as bleakly, "but we're all still here, aren't we?"

Marius studies him. "It's better than being alone."

"Not exactly, I would say. Better to die alone than to know that you're taking along all your best friends. Though you wouldn't want to be lonely, and who knows if Charon's good company, at that."

Silence awhile. Then, cautiously, "You could still leave."

"I have debts to pay here."

"What do you mean?"

Grantaire looks at him silently for a moment, then away. "Nothing."

Marius leans forward slightly, resting his elbows on his knees. "Are you sure you don't want to talk about it? Whatever's bothering you-- I-- I've troubled all of you often enough..." He is blushing again, earnest, awkward.

On the end of a sigh, "You don't remember, do you? I told myself it'd be better if you didn't, and I thought I knew, but --"

The boy blinks. Then pales. "Oh," he says in half a voice.

"Damn." Grantaire spreads his hands and turns to face Marius again. "Damn me to hell where I belong for that. I'm sorry. I was sorry then. It's not enough, is it, because I would insist on making you remember, when you could have died in peace from that, at least." He runs a hand through his hair absent-mindedly. "Forget it if you can, Pontmercy. Dream about your little girl. You'll be safe then."

"From what?" A small, humorless laugh. "She's gone. What more can happen to me?"

"Don't ask questions like that when Fate's listening. You won't like the answers she wants to give you." Grantaire shakes his head. "You're not in the best place in the world, petit, not if you want to see another week's worth of sunrises."

Marius shrugs, very slightly. "It doesn't matter."

"I'll leave you to it, then. Far be it from me to disturb a man's apathy." Grantaire turns away.

"You don't understand." His voice catches. "You don't know--"

"I don't know anything. Thank you, Pontmercy. I'm aware of that."

"I didn't mean that!" Marius seizes his shoulder. "I-- I don't know what you want me to say. I... God. I don't know."

Grantaire freezes. When he speaks again, his tone is gentle, much at odds with his conduct of moments before. "You don't have to say anything. It was all my fault. You're innocent. Go back to your dreaming. At least you'll be happy until you're dead, that way."

The boy's fingers tighten. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I told you, it wasn't your fault." Grantaire takes another step away from him, trying to get out of reach without using much energy. "Back to sleep, Marius. I'm just another nightmare."

"Don't say that. Please."

"And why not?"

"Because it isn't so. I--" Marius tugs lightly at his sleeve. "I wouldn't want not to have known you, Grantaire. Even -- in spite of -- you've been a friend to me. I'm not so lost in dreams that I don't know that."

"I have?" Grantaire does not sound as defeated as he has, all day long. He grins at Marius, suddenly. "Good. That was what I wanted."

A prolonged pause. Then, finally, a little sadly, the boy smiles back. "Was it really? Well, then."

"Do you mean I succeeded? Marvelous. Amazing. A first. And just in time for this." Grantaire takes in the barricade with a wave of his hand.

"You did, at that." Marius hesitates; then, swiftly, pushes to his feet and embraces his friend. "And I thank you for it."

"You're welcome." Grantaire waits a breath before returning the embrace.

A light kiss brushes his cheek. "Good night, mon ami." And with that Marius pulls away gently, ducks past him, and slips out into the darkness.