A/N: This was originally my submission for a fanfiction collaboration on the Abaisse boards where each participant had to write a short fic detailing how and/or why your chosen Amis came to Paris, but I was proud enough of it that I felt like people on here might like it as well. Feedback is extremely welcome and highly encouraged. Thanks to those who take the time to read this!
It's dark in the backroom of the Musain. The only light comes from the soft glow of a candle in the center of the table. The fire started to dwindle an hour ago, and the temperature rapidly dropped soon after. Feuilly shivers ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly so, and pulls his threadbare coat closer to his shaking frame. Even with the barely adequate light, it is obvious the painter is unwell.
"If you're feeling ill, you should go home." I say.
He growls in return. "I'm not ill," but then he coughs, a large hacking one, and we both know it is a lie.
When his fit subsides, he jumps into his work with as much vigor as he can manage in his current state, placing out the fan, paints, and brushes. He mixes a little black into the red to deepen the shade, and a rose slowly starts to take form with each brush stroke. The fan is beautiful, even if the materials themselves are cheap. The colors are vibrant against the black fabric. I find myself entranced by his hands, how fast and confidently they move, and how small and they look.
You can tell a lot about a person through their hands. Bahorel's are big and calloused, the hands of a farmer and a fighter. Prouvaire's are soft and delicate, but purposeful when holding a pen. Feuilly's are pale and smooth though, with little flecks of paint decorating them. The hands of an artist, not a worker.
The rest of the man is not so picturesque. He looks tired. Draping shadows accentuate the dark bruises under his eyes.
My fingers begin to itch for paper of their own because this is just the sort of scene I might have tried to capture at one time. I search around, but the closest thing I can find is one of Combeferre's discarded pamphlets, though there is enough space on the back under the medical student's spindly writing for a decent sketch. Before I can stop myself my fingers are flying. I am only barely intoxicated, so the lines are bold and confident. A long one here, an ovular curve, and the body begins to take shape, though the picture is nearly impossible to perfect. For a moment it might be close, but then Feuilly sneezes or coughs and the light shifts so I have to start all over again.
An hour, perhaps more, passes without either of us pausing to check the time. It's not until Louison asks if we are planning on passing the night here that we both startle out of our reveries and realize the lateness of the hour. The fire is now completely dead, and the room is cold, though it was unfelt only a moment before. I am not bothered by this for I'm accustomed to spending nights in this exact spot, but Feuilly seems almost distressed, an emotion that is out of place and one I attribute to the man's obvious illness. In the rush to pack his supplies a pencil rolls out of reach, and for the first time that evening Feuilly's gaze comes to rest on my work.
"You've been sketching me?" He asks.
I mumble an affirmative and feel a blush creep up my neck, infusing my cheeks with pink. The drawing is rudimentary, decent enough at very best. Feuilly's rose is a better piece of work and I tell him so.
"Thank you, though this is quite good Grantaire." I beam at his praise though it is somewhat diluted by exhaustion.
Instead of thanking him, I say "I'm out of practice," which is a lie. I've spent too many nights perfecting pictures just like this one, illustrating images of Combeferre studying fervently for an exam. Joly and L'aigle laughing over some trifle. Enjolras who, when no one else is watching, looks so worn from carrying the world on his shoulders. Those go into the fire soon after. They're not how I want to remember my golden god Apollo. Kindly put, I do not allow myself to get out of practice. "Your rose is still far better."
"It is a popular design requiring little thought or skill to replicate." Which is good because those thin, pale hands are shaking now with illness and fatigue. He moves to leave, but I can't let him go in this condition. He'd likely collapse in the middle of the street.
"Take a glass of brandy before you leave. It will warm you, though you might not need it with your fever."
He scowls at me now, but it is tinged with relief. Feuilly shares little about his life beyond a few simple details. We don't know where he works or where he lives, and the one time he let slip his wages we didn't see him for nearly a week, so embarrassed was he. Yet, wherever he lives cannot be more comfortable than here, so once he is seated again, I pour him a large glass of the amber liquid. It's fruity aroma fills the ear, coating the inside of nose. I try my best to warm it over the candle, but succeed in little more than burning my hand with the small flame.
He takes it gratefully nonetheless. "You said so once, but I did not believe you." He murmurs almost inaudibly, still looking at my sketch. "You studied at the Ecolé de Beaux Arts once, didn't you?"
"I was drunk, why should you have believed me?" I say, bitterness in each word. Although it should not hurt, the fact that they do not trust my word always does. "But yes."
"But you aren't drunk now, and your skill is undeniable. This might be mistaken for reality if it were not on a page."
I take the drawing now, and hold it over the candle. Its edge catches fire, and as it slowly burns I take a large swig of brandy straight from the bottle.
Feuilly looks on me with curiosity. "What happened?"
"It was a long time ago," I'm not nearly drunk enough for this.
Feuilly looks at me intently though, unwilling to let the topic go now that he's latched on, for I spout a lot of nonsense. When something is revealed to be true, then it is to be thoroughly excavated, and thus is the mystery of Grantaire. "With talent like this you could have been great."
"Damn right." I mutter, taking another swig of the bottle. It no longer burns when it goes down, but I can feel it go straight to my head since earlier I did not eat, making it that much easier to dredge up the past. "But they didn't think so. Didn't think so at all."
"They weren't thinking-" Feuilly begins, but I cut him off with a dismissive wave of my hand.
"They were right I suppose."
He looks uncomfortable now, and it's obvious the liquor has gone straight to his head as well. His face is still pale, but his cheeks rosier. At least the glow looks healthier than the death pall before. "Why did you come to Paris in the first place then?" His fingers fondle the empty glass, and I think about refilling it, but I am selfish enough to want the rest of the brandy to myself now that I have started.
"I had hopes. High hopes. Perhaps too high. I had talent, and I knew it would be difficult. Of course my parents weren't happy about this, but they supported my tuition because they felt it was just a whim of mine. When I got done playing bohemian I would come home and learn law like a proper son, following the steps of my brothers. I wanted to prove them wrong desperately."
"Why did you stop then?"
I continue, Feuilly's question almost unheard. "I underestimated the tolerance of people. They would say, "Look at that young man. Isn't he talented? It's a proper shame that he is so ugly. If he could paint he might go somewhere, but instead he just sits all day, sketching things like a girl in her drawing lessons.'"
He begins to protest as I knew he would. But even he cannot deny the power of appearance in this world. He of all people should understand the allure of golden hair, a slender hand, and a refined face.
I put the now empty bottle down on the table, and point a limp finger at the painter. "No one wants an artist who isn't worthy to be painted himself, and no one wants an artist who couldn't do that painting if someone actually wanted it in the first place. " It's a bitter sentiment, but a true one nonetheless, though I wish I didn't have to be the one to impart it. "No one wants someone whose work can't go beyond rough sketches on the backs of old pamphlets. You could be great too. But it's money that holds you back. There's always something..." I trail off, properly drunk now. I will hurt in the morning, but now the alcohol takes my aching heart and wraps it in a numbing embrace. I can't think, and therefore I can't feel.
Feuilly has no such advantage though, and appears to be on the verge of something not quite resembling tears, and not quite resembling understanding either. That's when I know that it really wasn't smart to give him a brandy at this time of night (or perhaps morning), and in this condition.
"I dropped out when I turned 19, started doing portraits for people on street corners. It brings in enough pocket money to supplement my allowance, which will keep coming as long as my parent's benevolence or delusions of me continuing my studies lasts."
Feuilly says nothing, and the evening ends quietly after that. He falls asleep in that chair, and doesn't wake the next morning except for my prodding in order to make him more comfortable. It's a Sunday, so he'll miss no work. The others come in later that morning. They politely inquire about him. Joly makes a remark about how happy he is to see that Feuilly is resting and that he hopes that he won't spread his disease around. Enjolras settles into a chair in the opposite corner, not speaking to anyone. His golden hair catches a beam of light from the window, and I sigh, pick up a pencil, and see that first line appear, signaling a new day after the long night.