Brooklyn. That dreary stretch of cracked pavement and trash-strewn asphalt on Flatbush, where the hookers cluster on the corner by the church at night. An empty, dusty front yard leading up to the crooked steps. His parents are in the process of restoring all of that, he’s said how many times, but as far as you’re concerned, the only trouble with these steps is the hazard they pose to your compromised equilibrium.
Still, you manage to reach the top in one piece, tearing the brown paper bag that you clutch for dear life only slightly. It does its job, covers the bottle inside, despite being obvious; that’s all you ask of it. You’ve always been a fairly low-maintenance kind of guy.
You take a deep gulp from the bottle before daring to knock. Step back, or fall back, onto the step below. Hope and pray and toast to the off-chance that his parents have slept through your disruption, that the footsteps that clatter down the steps and rustle to a halt just behind the door belong to him. Not that they would begrudge you the interruption, maybe. They’ve always offered to be there for you, if you need it. But now you need him, and the door swings open, and you release the breath you hadn’t realised you were holding as he grabs a fistful of your pyjama shirt to tug you inside.
His whisper is hoarse, his feet already leading you both back upstairs, to the bedroom you have come to love more than your own. “Grantaire?”
The bed creaks as he shoves you on to it.
“What the hell, Grantaire?”
He’s busied himself with the spare blankets and pillows, tossing things pell-mell onto the floor for you - just as he’s always done, since these nighttime visits began to increase in frequency sometime between the last summer holiday and your birthday.
You stare at your hands. Those long, crooked fingers like bleached twigs, blotted with the ink your pen leaked into them while you slept through Talmudic study, smudged with charcoal and grime from the street, sticky with the whisky you sloshed across them trying to climb the steps, to stumble down the street, to take a swig as you’d shouted at your parents and gesticulated rudely at your sisters and taken a swing at your brother and run off.
Another pair of hands close around yours, the honey-brown skin contrasting against your own, warm and callused and firm - firm enough to tug the bottle from your white-knuckled grip and set it on the bedside table with a ragged sigh.
“Come on, man,” he says softly, guides you to the nest of pillows and the Pokémon comforter on the floor. You avoid his eyes for all you’re worth, petrified of the pity, the disgust, the annoyance you might find there, but this is Bahorel (really, you should know better). Bahorel knows you better than anyone, knows the way you pull your shoulders in tight when you’ve said something you might regret, the way you run your fingers through your sidelocks almost regretfully, tug at them as if to test, before tucking them up underneath one of the knit caps he bought you for your birthday.
Bahorel sees the worn-out toes of your leather shoes scraping against the woodboards, digging wildly, as though you expect to be able to bore your way through, floor by floor, from his bedroom at the top to the damp basement below, through the foundations of the house and into the centre of the Earth itself. He sees the flush in your cheeks, and knows that you are burning, and you are cold, and your jaw is screwed shut and your mouth is dry, and he lays a hand across the bones of your hunched shoulders, pushes you onto your back, covers you up with the cotton-polyester mix Pikachu comforter that you were always jealous of (your parents would never have let you have anything like that, and there was a time that you hated him for his luck, before you knew any better, before you realised how happy he is to share).
When at last you find your voice (or, better put, your voice finds you), the alcohol has hit you in full-force, watering down your train of thought until it flows, a tangle of rivers, streams and puddles in your aching head; you choke: “I can’t.”
The words crumple on the tip of your tongue, like a bit of scrap paper forgotten at the bottom of a pocket, but this is Bahorel (Bahorel knows you). As distorted and smudged and crooked as your letters have become, Bahorel can read you as easily as ever. He hands you your bottle for a final, wordless swig before tucking into the bottom compartment of the bedside table, behind a pile of books.
“I can’t,” you repeat. Can’t, can’t, can’t. Was there ever anything you could do? Your mother, with her tight lips and the hard lines of her brow, has never thought so. Has always been happy to tell you, your grandmother, your aunts and uncles and all of her friends. I’ll never understand you, she had said, and she had meant it, and she loves you anyway.
But, it hurts all the more for her love. Because you can’t believe in her as your mother, in her ability to understand you, to love you, just as you can’t believe in your father’s choices, in the stories you grew up with, in the God you have tried and tried and failed to find in the words of the Torah, in your grandmother’s misty-eyed faith, in your sisters’ gentle affection.
Because your mother loves you, she has to hope for you, and for as long as you are you, she will be disappointed. And that hurts. Claws at the insides of your stomach, stings at the back of your throat; a bitter, tangy wave of bile that sticks to the roof of your mouth, burning away the words as you flap about and stare and try to explain yourself.
Bahorel, because he knows you, reads all of this. There are reasons why you have allowed him to get to know you so well, why you run to him and to no-one else, as pathetic and humiliated as you are, as much as you would rather lie down across the subway tracks and hope it ends quickly. There are reasons why you have chosen him for your best friend (or he chose you), not the least of which his almost imperceptible nod, the warmth of his hands again on your shoulders as he helps you into a sleeping position and ruffles your hair - not the very least of which his impossibly tender, throaty hssshhh and the eyes that he keeps pointedly aimed at the ceiling and not at you as he promises, “We’ll sort it all out in the morning.”
“Ok,” you say, blushing in the darkness. You close your eyes, force the breath to leave your chest slower, longer.
“Sweet dreams, you sadsack.”
You have to bite back the smile, but it breaks through anyway with a laugh that might actually have been a cough.
“Fuck you,” you say fondly.
Sleep comes blessedly easy after that.