Be Near Me When My Light Is Low
Author’s Note: This is an AU for the universe in which I usually write. Familiarity with Corner of the Sky is encouraged, as this fic contains spoilers. In addition, Corner of the Sky and The Blood of the Martyrs take place in near-identical worlds - the characters match up, the events match up, but marriage of the legal variety will not happen for Feuilly in Corner of the Sky. This fic will answer some issues in The Blood of the Martyrs, but I must stress that this fic is AU because Combeferre is not gay in my ordinary universe. I have just written slash of my own universe. I must be turning into Hugo, writing fanfic of my own fic.
“What in God’s name are you doing here?” Feuilly had been doing his best to keep his two lives separate, but here was Courfeyrac mucking it all up. He had no desire for his flatmate to see any of his student acquaintances, but nattily-dressed Courfeyrac was perhaps the worst of all.
“Have you seen Combeferre lately?” The hall was dark, Feuilly was not about to open the door any more than a crack, and it was impossible to tell more than that it was Courfeyrac standing there. But his voice was shaky.
“No, but I didn’t think anything of it. Something’s wrong?”
“Damn. Wait right there.”
“What’s the matter?” Laforêt asked as Feuilly scrambled to load up his pockets.
“A friend is sick. Can I take the flask?”
“It’s your flask.”
“But it’s your liquor.”
“There isn’t much left anyway.”
“I’ll bring it back full. Just not necessarily tonight.” He slipped the flask into one of his tail pockets, jammed his hat on his head, and followed Courfeyrac down the dark stairwell. “How bad?”
“It’s not just one of his headaches. I hadn’t seen him in days, so I go over there, right? The concierge says he hasn’t been out in days.”
“He’ll lose his job.”
“An internat is not a job.”
“He does have a salary, you know, but that isn’t the point. So he hasn’t been out in days.”
“I go up there. He doesn’t answer the door, but the door’s unlocked.”
“So you went in to snoop around.”
“Yes. Do you know anything about the current girl? I don’t. She could have robbed him blind, for all I knew.”
Feuilly uncomfortably admitted, “There is no current girl.”
Courfeyrac seemed to take no notice. “So I go in, just to see if everything is all right. He’s sitting on the floor, next to his bed, staring at the wall, and he doesn’t answer to his name.”
“Fuck is right. What the hell am I supposed to do?”
“Why didn’t you go for Prouvaire?”
“He isn’t as good in an emergency as you might think.”
“You and Prouvaire,” Feuilly sighed. Courfeyrac had a cab waiting in the main road, which showed how awful he had thought the situation was. Feuilly climbed in quietly, determined not to let on that he had never been in a cab before in his life. And he felt no reason to get back into a cab ever again once they were deposited in front of Combeferre’s building - with so much jostling, and still so much traffic at that time of evening, he would have much preferred walking.
Inside the flat, Courfeyrac lit a couple of lamps but seemed more apt to stand wringing his hands than to be of any use. “Go to the nearest restaurant and order some form of dinner. I doubt he’ll have eaten recently.” It was not an understatement, Feuilly thought, to suggest that Courfeyrac fled, rather gratefully.
He took one of the lamps into the bedroom. Combeferre was not staring at the wall but at his knees - perhaps he had come round a bit late, after Courfeyrac panicked. “Combeferre? Julien?” But there was no answer.
There was a small trickle of water left in the pitcher on the stand beside the bed, so Feuilly instinctively dampened the corner of a towel and started to bathe Combeferre’s face. The cool water seemed to work more than voices had done - Combeferre stirred, looked directly at Feuilly for the first time, and whispered, in an almost haunting voice, “Daniel.”
Now was hardly the time to remind him that he preferred not to answer to a name that was not his. “Look at you. What’s happened?”
“Why are you here?” An external observer might find it odd that the roles appeared reversed, that the workman addressed the student in the familiar while the student combined the polite form with a Christian name. A few curls had fallen out of Feuilly’s otherwise careful queue, and Combeferre weakly lifted his hand to push them behind his ear, his hand lingering tenderly on Feuilly’s cheek.
“Courfeyrac sent for me. He is very worried. Drink this.” He passed the flask to Combeferre.
“What is it?”
“Some form of brandy. Probably rotgut. It’ll do you good.”
Combeferre took a tentative sip and grimaced. “I think I’ve stored specimens in better liquor than this.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
He took a full swallow this time, then another, which emptied the flask. “Courfeyrac sent for you.”
“He came for me himself, to be honest. You disappeared. And then he found you here. Did you even see him come in? What else should he have done?”
“Does he know about us?”
“Does it matter right now? I asked why he didn’t go for Prouvaire, and he said Prouvaire isn’t any good in an emergency. I don’t think he knows. He asked me who your current girl was.”
“Yes, that would be his solution to anything.” Combeferre grasped at his hand. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Then you should have come to me yourself, rather than leave it to Courfeyrac.”
“You don’t appreciate when anyone comes to you.”
“You’re shaking. How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”
“I don’t know. What does it matter?”
“You’re the doctor.” Combeferre looked even more stricken at that word, but Feuilly just pushed on. “You should know why it matters.”
“Daniel.” He buried his face in Feuilly’s shoulder, shaking, not quite sobbing but obviously in no state that anyone else should see.
Feuilly held him close, feeling distinctly out of place. Their relationship had never been appropriate, but there was something even more wrong than usual in how he was suddenly the comfort. Particularly as he found himself wondering if he had ever been anywhere near as badly off as Combeferre seemed to be. It was a little too familiar that Combeferre was obviously broken and had not been out in days. “You don’t have to tell me what happened, but you need to tell someone, even if that someone is God. What ever has happened is too heavy a burden to bear alone.”
Combeferre pulled away to look at him, but he could not hold the gaze. He seemed perhaps about to speak when Courfeyrac returned, breaking the moment completely. “I brought dinner.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Courfeyrac stood in the doorway, looking hurt.
“I don’t care,” Feuilly told Combeferre firmly. “Wasting away will solve nothing.”
“It can’t be solved.”
“That’s all right, too. You’ve got to look after yourself.”
“And if I don’t, you will?”
“Don’t be absurd. Your father will find out soon enough and then what will happen?”
“I don’t want to think about my father. Christ. It was hard enough to get here at all.”
“And now you’ve thrown it all over?”
“I don’t know.” He hid his face in his hands.
“Courfeyrac, come help me get him up.” With only a modicum of physical force, they managed to get Combeferre to sit at the table in the other room, where a dinner for three had been laid.
Once they cajoled him into taking a few bites, biological necessity took over and Combeferre ate heartily, though without enjoyment. Courfeyrac made conversation almost entirely by himself - Feuilly had always known that he was not the sort who could long bear silence, not because of the voices that came then but because there were no voices at all. It was emptiness, not demons, he was always trying to fight.
But Combeferre did not respond to the desperate chatter, and Feuilly was utterly tiring of it himself, so he sent Courfeyrac away, promising to see him the following evening with whatever news might materialise. Indeed, with Courfeyrac safely on one side of the door and the remaining bottle of wine on the other, Combeferre did look rather more calm.
“Another glass of wine,” Feuilly ordered. “Medicinal purposes.”
“I already tried getting drunk. It doesn’t help.”
“You went too far, and you went alone. Will you promise me, before I go, that you will tell someone what has happened?”
“Why must you go?”
Feuilly wondered if he had sounded so stricken even after he had found comfort in Lydie’s arms. He knew better than to compare a murder to whatever might be eating at Combeferre, but it had to be something nearly as bad. “I have to work in the morning.”
“Might - no, I’m sorry. I know better than to ask.”
“What do you need?” Feuilly asked gently, almost tenderly.
There was no response for some time. “Might you stay the night?” Combeferre finally asked.
Feuilly drained off a glass of wine himself. Even without the push from this crisis, he had known such a request would happen eventually. He had permitted Combeferre access to nearly every other part of his anatomy, regardless of how often he reminded himself that he permitted it only as a favour and a means of continued access to the group of students, not as a shared love affair. It was going to come to this at some point. “I don’t think it’s a good idea in your condition.”
“I’m not asking you to bugger me,” Combeferre replied quietly. “I just - I’m glad you came. Maybe you’re right, that I shouldn’t be alone.”
At least he isn’t seeking to bugger me, Feuilly thought with a sick feeling for even having such relief at a time like this. “Why don’t you go to your family? Isn’t that what people with families do?”
“Not over this. Henri, maybe, but to go all the way to Marseille?” He was starting to shake again. When Feuilly handed him another glass of wine, he had to hold it in both hands.
What is to be done when he won’t even say what happened? Feuilly thought, idly stroking Combeferre’s hair. It isn’t that it needs to be talked of, but a bare statement would be helpful. Courfeyrac’s thought would be so much more helpful - there ought to be a girl. There had been girls before he latched onto me. But what would a girl do? Take him to bed. There’s nothing else for it, and if anything, he might actually sleep if he isn’t alone, and that will do him more good than anything else. “Let’s put you to bed.”
Combeferre shook his head. “It’s no good. I haven’t been able to sleep in days.”
“I’ll stay the night. The wine should help you get off, anyway.”
The last bed Feuilly had shared had been with Lydie. No, he corrected, with Laforêt when the weather turned so frigid that there was nothing else to be done. But Lydie was a better comparison, considering Combeferre’s affections and his mental state. With a girl, it would have been an easy thing, to simply climb into bed and hold her as she needed, but Combeferre was taller, and a little broader through the shoulders, and the whole thing was patently wrong.
But he could not bear to walk home and abandon a friend, even a friend who ought not to have been a friend and ought not to have certain affectionate entanglements. So he stripped down to his shirt, shook out his hair, and climbed into bed with Combeferre, who obviously needed the attention since he huddled into Feuilly much as Lydie had done whenever a client would hit her.
“Why do you need me so much?” he asked quietly, softening the question with a light kiss at Combeferre’s temple.
“You know things no one else does.”
“That isn’t true.”
“You are the translator between your world and ours.”
“Have you something for me to translate?” But Combeferre closed up again. “Whatever has happened, the more you say it, the less awful it eventually becomes. One day, you will be able to toss it out in the appropriate company without preamble and without shame but with a proper lightness, even cynicism. For example - ’I killed a man’.” Feuilly hoped his confession maintained the lightness and cynicism he intended.
“But you did not kill a man. And I killed a child.”
Finally, some truth was coming. “Not everyone can be saved.”
“The surgery was my failure, mine alone.” Now there were tears, hot and fast.
It was less awkward now to hold him close, lips to forehead. “What would have become of him had he lived?”
“But to die in such pain under the knife. My knife.”
It was distinctly uncomfortable to hear that word, that phrase, used for a medical procedure rather than a highway robbery or the elimination of a witness. “Scalpel, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but you are not usually a pedant.”
“A knife is a knife. It is the violence of the streets. You did not kill someone in anger or fear or for gain. A mistake, that is all. The doctors have killed plenty and will kill plenty more before the world ends.”
“But that is not what we are trying to do,” Combeferre insisted through tears. “To ease suffering, to save lives, to make the world better.”
“Yes, because the world will be better with more people in it,” Feuilly deliberately needled.
“You need not be sarcastic.”
“And you need not be melodramatic,” he replied kindly, with a kiss. “How many patients ever survive surgery?”
“It wasn’t his death, really. It was the autopsy. I’ve lost count of the number of corpses I’ve seen, the dissections never troubled me as they do some, but an autopsy to discover what precisely had been my failing - his face, dear god, his face locked in pain, not in peace. What I had done. He was only twelve years old.”
“When I was twelve years old, I was climbing walls in order to steal what was on the other side. I’m not sure the world was better off with me in it.”
“But look at you now.”
Feuilly preferred to change the subject. “Do you feel any better?” His shirt seemed to be growing no wetter, and Combeferre was breathing, even speaking, more normally.
“No. You are refusing to understand.”
“Make me understand. You are the wordsmith.”
“You’ve never had a life completely in your hands.”
“Yes, I have.”
“Infant siblings do not count.”
“As far as I know, I was an only child. I’ve had a man under my knife, too, and he did not survive, either.” Feuilly was careful to keep his voice flippant, but he knew his heart was racing and there was no hiding that from Combeferre.
“This is not a time for invention.”
Very deliberately, Feuilly said the words that had been haunting him for years. “I slit a man’s throat so that he would not call out, then my accomplices and I threw the body into the Seine.” It was easier than he had expected. His own advice, come to fruition - he had reminded himself of it for so many years that the vocalisation, in the end, meant less to him than he had expected.
Combeferre pulled away at his words, however. “Why do you tell me this now?”
“What will you do? Go to the police?” He had meant to sound flippant, but it was not working at all.
“No.” The shakiness in Combeferre’s voice was gone, which at least was something. “But why do you tell me such a thing? There is no comfort in such a confession.”
“No, there is not. But comfort is what you were seeking alone, and it is not what will help you. You don’t believe in the words of comfort, ’poor Julien, what a terrible thing to have happened, it was not your fault’. That is what the doctors told you, isn’t it? Or was it a hearty congratulations on your first body? Both mean that the life itself did not matter, and that is what disturbs you, isn’t it? That you could take a life, and only you can see what has been taken, while everyone else sees what has been left. And you know no one will understand, so you hide away from the world with your shame and your guilt, until you discover that it merely makes you haunted, and then you think you can be soothed by a loving caress and affectionate arms in your bed. It doesn’t work. It’s not that simple. A life cannot be replaced by a kiss. A death cannot be set aside through isolation.” He turned over and huddled at the edge of the bed. “If you don’t want my lessons, then don’t take them. I’m going to try to get some sleep, and nothing will ever have to be said about this again if that’s what you prefer.”
For a long time, there was no sign that Combeferre had even heard his outburst, even cared that he had stripped his soul naked for the comfort of a friend. But after Feuilly had nearly given up on sleep and was contemplating leaving entirely, despite the distinct possibility of getting his own throat slit at that time of night, Combeferre rolled over and ran his fingers through Feuilly’s hair. His fingers had some sort of magic in them, Feuilly had always thought, because he always felt both comforted and aroused whenever Combeferre’s fingers tugged at his curls, even though his tastes in general lay elsewhere. Then came a soft kiss on his cheek and an arm thrown around his waist. “I should not be ungrateful when I have been proved wrong. Thank you. I shall keep your confidence.”
Feuilly grasped his hand. “I’m sorry I snapped.”
“You had every right. I’m glad you’re here.”
They fell asleep curled together, Feuilly wrapped in Combeferre’s long arms. It was impossible for him to leave in the morning without waking Combeferre, so it seemed only appropriate to apologise with a kiss. Combeferre muttered something that sounded distinctly like “I love you”, but Feuilly managed to avoid answering anything at all. When he left, Combeferre had already fallen back into a much-needed sleep.
Feuilly’s mind was not on his work, but luckily, he was merely doing basic tints for most of the day. Had he still been with the printer, it would have been a disaster, but these fans were simpler. Instead, he thought over what Combeferre had said that morning. “I love you.”
He did not know what was harder - seeing how his friend could collapse rather than bend to nature or hearing the words that had been unsaid in all the time they had known each other. He had always thought of Combeferre as the one made of stone, firmly set in his beliefs, unable to be moved from the path of righteousness. In contrast, Feuilly had always bent to whatever company would have him, adapting his morals and politics to the group at hand. He would no more admit to Babet that he permitted a bourgeois student to kiss him without a fee than he would admit to Combeferre that he had quite enjoyed the danger of the chase and was rather proud of how he had gained the scar in his left palm. But the stone had collapsed and now sought the flexibility of the willow to prop him up again. Scaffolding was everywhere else in Paris, so why not in the broken Parisian soul?
That evening, Feuilly went to Courfeyrac, told him that some things had gone rather pear-shaped for Combeferre but that everything would come right eventually, no need to worry. But instead of going home, he went to Combeferre’s flat and permitted, not the buggery he was actively avoiding, but the more lenient lovemaking to which he had never before whole-heartedly consented. An entire week of nights in which he gave over his body - and his doubts - to the rebuilding of what he had thought the great edifice of revolution. “I need your strength,” Combeferre said to him in the midst of those nights. And Feuilly agreed. He was the workman, and therefore, he would be the scaffolding.
Combeferre finally rejoined the group at the café, still looking haggard but in far better shape than Courfeyrac had found him in a week ago. “I’ve got an announcement. After careful thought, and discussion with my father, I will leave for England in a few weeks. I am quitting the medical school. I don’t know how long I will be gone, but one of us should see England. I cannot turn down an offer that may prove of such use to us in the future.”
Feuilly felt as if a blow had been dealt as the rest of the boys peppered Combeferre with questions. So much effort, so much care, so much emotion he had put in, and all he received was a public announcement? Sophie had been right - he was the servant and should expect nothing more. He wished Combeferre good luck, bid everyone else good night, and stalked out into the damp night.
He had not expected that Combeferre would follow him to his flat. “I should have told you personally.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’ve taken what you needed.”
At the sound of his Christian name, Feuilly stepped into the hall and closed the door behind him in an effort to keep the conversation as private as possible. “We’re not the same. I’ve told you I will do anything for you, and you’ve taken that to heart, and I’m left standing here cursing myself because I dared believe you might actually care for me in friendship, particularly, not just as your bum boy.”
“You think you do. You, with all your privilege, can say you do, and think you do, and even mean you do, but your actions translate differently down here.”
“Don’t be angry, please. How can I take you aside in front of them? Especially now. If anyone knew about us, and then I left, your position would be completely undermined. And I’ve come to ask you to take my place. How could you do that if anyone thought I put you forward on my own base affections?”
“Take your place?”
“I leave them in your care.”
Feuilly shook his head. “It isn’t possible.”
“Daniel, please. Who else can I trust? Who else is strong enough?”
“I’m not. I bend to the necessity. I’ve never held to one thing in my life.”
“Except your faith.”
“Not even that. I used to believe in the Church as it is and then something turned my head, and now all I know anymore is God and His Son and the Holy Mother. I left the Poles and found you and now I’ve practically turned atheist. I bend with the prevailing winds.”
“That’s how you survived the storm and I nearly didn’t. I need you. I need your strength. If we don’t bend to the winds, then we will tumble.”
“And if we bend too much, we will accomplish nothing.”
“And I trust you to know how far.”
“It should be Courfeyrac.”
“Because he is one of you. You cannot put the translator in charge.”
“Will you at least think about it? For my sake?”
“For your sake,” Feuilly agreed. They did not dare embrace, or make too much of tender gestures, in such an exposed place as the narrow hallway. Combeferre thanked him and left, but Feuilly was left in profound confusion at his disappointment that there were no embraces.
There should not be embraces anyway, he reminded himself. We are not the same, and I am the servant. The scaffolding is the prop, a temporary requirement.
And when the stone does not need it, it is nothing but a heap of lumber.
Fiction ~ Home