All the Children, No More
Emile sits quietly on his bed, arms wrapped around one of the bedposts, his small feet crossed and toes pointed, trying to make a picture of himself. He always imagines that someone might be trying to paint him, someone he can't see, and so he's always trying to look right for it. Someday perhaps he'll come across a painting in a shop of a young boy, a boy with golden curls pulled back by a black velvet ribbon, with dark, serious blue eyes, wearing a shirt with billowed sleeves and silk-covered buttons, and a few blue cornflowers scattered over his collarbone; a boy with an innocent, smooth face and high cheekbones, and a wistful expression, as though longing for something great and seemingly unreachable in the distance. And that will be him, and he'll be able to smile to himself and recognise it, though of course not buy it. And therefore, he poses, alone here on the bed, watching the hall outside through a half-open door and pressing gently to the bedpost.
Suddenly, he hears voices and laughter, and, startled, sits up straight and climbs off the bed, hiding behind the door. The voices, naturally, are those of Noel and the youngest maid, and Noel and that maid bother Emile.
Noel is the boy who lives near to them, an aristocrat just like them, quite in equal status, of good lineage, and nice enough, but Emile doesn't like him in the least. It is only that Emile's mother does. She invites Noel to visit often, hoping that he'll play with his young second cousin, though it doesn't usually work out that way at all.
Between Emile's dislike and Noel's habit of charming the maids, they almost never see one another.
He waits until the laughter passes, and then creeps out again, following them half-unwillingly. He listens to the two of them, Noel's voice soft and loving and warm, and the girl's, delighted, surprised, giggling. For some completely senseless reason, it upsets him, and he feels briefly both sulky and hurt for a moment.
Then he turns and makes his way back along the hall, quickly, slipping into his room and shutting the door, finding the full-length mirror and posing unhappily, his dark eyes sparkling confusion.
Seven years later, the small boy is more a tall youth (much to his pride), and he spends long hours in his father's library, reading anything he can get his hands on. When he was younger, the library was splendid simply because everything looked old and stank of dust and there were ladders to get up to the higher shelves. Now, it is still delightful, but largely because of all the knowledge stored inside. He learns debate and sarcastic wit. He learns that young men may have opinions, and he gathers his. He finds newer books that still smell of fresh leather, and he learns about Rousseau and Voltaire.
He spends long hours in his father's library, and Noel continues to come by at least once a day, with older girls and older notions.
Noel is turning out handsome, and Emile's mother adores him still. He appears unremarkable in description - light brown hair; green eyes; a fine moustache - and yet he manages to make light brown hair and green eyes terribly attractive. Emile is starting to despise him, but that doesn't seem to bother Noel, who happily strokes his moustache and sometimes ruffles the golden hair of his second cousin.
Emile no longer poses before mirrors nor stares solemnly at every street-corner painter. Instead, he studies the way other people stand and sit and walk, and wonders what this says about their lives. He already knows that it doesn't necessarily tell the truth; he taught himself that. He frowns curiously at the servants and every now and then accosts one, asking quite seriously about her family and daily routine.
It is becoming the opinion at the house that perhaps young Master Enjolras is touched. Some of the female servants, however, are of their own opinion: that it is better to work for the Enjolrases and their touched boy than to work for the de Courfeyracs and their rogue son.
On the eve of his sixteenth birthday, Emile is once again in the library, immersed in a book of de Tocqueville, when Noel edges into the room. His footfalls are silent, and Emile doesn't look up until Noel is standing beside him.
"Bonsoir, youngling. What are you doing up so late?"
"Why are you here? This isn't your house."
Noel smirks. "I like it here. Saving that I've no one to talk sensibly with. You're only three years younger than I; surely you're not all that uninteresting. What are you reading?"
Emile lifts the book to show him the cover, and Noel lets out a soft cry of disgust. "Why on earth are you reading that? It's meaningful! Can't you read something proper and disreputable, by God?"
Emile decides he might have expected this and picks up where he left off, resolving to ignore his obnoxious relation.
Noel pats his head, grinning in disbelief. "You really are crazy. I didn't think it so when Françoise told me, but it's true. Very well, mad one, I'll leave you to what you enjoy. Me, however, I shall be clever in what I choose to do with myself. You may gather dust in this place, but I shall make sure they remember me. More than that, I shall make sure they remember me for doing something I'll have loved every minute of doing. Fare thee well, Emile."
Emile doesn't answer him.
Five years pass this time, and things change. Emile leaves for Paris. He's no longer the boy in the library reading for the joy of learning obscure things to please himself. Now, when he finds time to read, it is to gain understanding on the condition of the People; it is to gain points for his speeches; it is to gain the upper hand in arguments by knowing the forgotten things that kings have done wrong. In the daytime, there is school and public addresses and plotted insurrection, and at night, frantic scribblings and sleepless hours spent completing everything. His mother told him that Noel is in Paris, but he has no inclination to seek him, and far better things to do than wonder.
Then, in January, a week before he becomes twenty-two, he meets a young man in the street. He struggles to recall what pale brown hair and green eyes mean to him, but in the end it is the other who places him first.
"Emile!" cries Noel, laughing and wringing his hand in exaggerated fashion. And of a sudden, he ceases, looking oddly at Emile. "No. I oughtn't call you that now, I can see. Bonjour, Enjolras." There is something odd in his tone, a half sorrow, a comprehension and acknowledgement, acceptance. "What have you been doing with yourself?" But more subdued, considering.
"La Republique. Patria," is all Emile can think of to say, startled by how much Noel seems to have grown up.
Later, he finds that Noel hasn't really grown up all that much. Even after Emile convinces him to join the Cause, he is late for meetings due to other meetings, and it annoys Emile terribly, just as he secretly knew it would.
But for some reason, the odd feeling of sulkiness continues to arise whenever Noel pushes open the door half an hour late, grinning in his unashamedly sheepish way, winking aside at his audience of Amis.
Emile does not expect too much of him, and Noel seems to like it that way. They carry on, paying no heed to the strange, nastily vague longings that neither wish to contemplate.
By the time March comes, Emile no longer returns to his apartment to write speeches, but simply stays in the cafe, working as late as three o'clock in the morning. Noel notices, but doesn't comment.
Around the thirteenth, however, he begins staying along with the young man he calls Enjolras, watching Enjolras' white hands dance across the paper, watching Enjolras' dark eyes grow darker, considering every word five times over.
Noel frowns, wondering what he thinks, wondering why he puts down those words. Isn't the world lyrical enough, pretty enough, delightful enough? Why must the hopelessly silly man find the bad things and bring them up and talk about them and draw everyone's attention to them, and try to change them, of all the exasperating things? Aren't there enough happy things to counter the displeasing ones? Perhaps there is a king. It doesn't bother Noel. Perhaps he rules them uncivilly. Noel hasn't very much noticed. Nothing interferes with him and his romances.
And yet he does understand why it concerns Enjolras, and that makes it more exasperating than any else. Yes, there are hundreds of people outside, hungry and cold and homeless, and yes, they need care. Yes, Les Amis could make a difference and help them. But. The difficult, redundant but.
Noel sighs, stands from his own table, and slinks over to Enjolras', falling elegantly and silently into a chair. His strange little second cousin is such a peculiar child. A boy who looks like a girl pretending to be a man. A mad youth with girlish golden curls and feminine white skin, writing speeches to change the world around. Mad indeed. He wonders if, oh, if Emile might have been different if he had bothered to leave his girls and play with the child that long time ago. He wonders, if Emile had been engaged in life instead of being allowed to stay shut up alone in that library, would the aristocracy have gained a lovely, spirited cad who made everyone laugh?
He reaches out, suddenly, and captures one of Emile's soft, white hands. Emile meets his eyes, first appearing surprised and annoyed, then surprised and confused. He parts his lips, about to speak, and stops quickly, tilting his head to the side.
Noel smiles wanly, and kisses him with the same suddenness.
Emile startles, begins to pull back, and then pauses. "Why did you do that?"
"It's beyond me." He rests his cheek in one palm, amused. "Did you dislike it? Shall I again? I'll be happy to."
A beat, and Emile shakes his head. "No. I haven't time."
"I'll ask again tomorrow, then."
"All right. But I'll tell you the same thing."
"So you will. I don't care. I'll win you over like another one of my girls."
Emile's dark eyes go darker, though in anger instead of contemplation. He stands, and gathers his papers.
Noel can tell when he's gone too far, and he doesn't protest as Emile and Emile's speeches and Emile's white hands slip through the door and vanish into the dark outside.
Some of the Amis at Musain perhaps notice a tension between their leader and their laughter, but none remark upon it.
For his part, Emile avoids Noel as though he were a plague victim, casting suspicious looks at him every now and then when he walks too close, filled with a helpless fury at the way Noel has mistreated him.
Noel, for his own part, avoids his girls - though only somewhat - and moves into an apartment a little closer to Emile's, cheerfully murmuring about how much less it costs to rent. He makes no effort to come to meetings with any more punctuality than before.
They do not speak for a long time.
In May, however, things have the audacity to change.
Emile plans a speech in an alien cafe, and his Amis faithfully show. He notices, however, casting an eye over the crowd from his place on a table, that Noel is not among them. He feels a twinge of annoyance.
But his annoyance will not make itself known, and thus, carefully keeping everything but passion and inspiration from his voice, he begins his speech. He loves the feel of speaking before men, the exhilaration, the thrill. He loves standing on a table so that everyone can hear him. He loves the words he's memorised and the faces of those he gives them to. He loves everything about this, the wood under his boots, the soft vibration of his throat...
He is halfway finished when the table gives way beneath him.
Combeferre explains later that the wood was rotten, and that he was lucky to be only a little bruised from the fall.
Instantly, hands are offered, help is offered, they reach to pull him up. He leans gratefully on the first man there, who is dusting off his clothes. He realises, a moment later, that the man is Noel.
The next thing he realises is that he is virtually in Noel's arms, and the next, that Noel is explaining to Combeferre that he's just a little shaken, no real hurt, but ought to be taken home, cancel this, that, and the other, and expect him back by tomorrow. After that, Noel happily begins to drag him towards the former's apartments.
He doesn't gain control of himself enough to protest until they're about five minutes' walk to their destination.
"What are you doing?"
"I am taking you home. You look ill. Did you break anything? Silly man. Ought to take more care of yourself. I can carry you."
With an effort, he restrains himself from hitting Noel. "I can walk."
"I'm thrilled to hear that. Come along, then."
And Emile comes along, not exactly sure why.
When they reach Noel's home, he unlocks the door, kicks it merrily open, and ushers his companion inside before shutting it again. The room is dusty dark, and has two windows and no lit lamps. Emile moves to one of the windows, warily, looking out. "It's not particularly nice."
"Doesn't have to be. I can live in it, and there's a bed."
Emile looks over sharply, and Noel puts up his hands in defence. "All right, the view's terrible. But the room itself isn't so bad. Rather nice, indeed." He lights a lamp, and looks about proudly, wandering to the bed and flopping down.
"And now that I'm here, what do you intend to do?"
Noel laughs. "To be honest? I don't know. May I kiss you?"
"No," Emile says forcefully.
Lithely, Noel comes to his feet, stepping over to his odd little second cousin, tousling the golden hair just as he used to. "Why not?"
"You don't respect me. You've never respected me."
"That's harsh. I have, a little."
Emile turns away in disgust.
There is a silence, and then, finding that silence hideously unbearable, Noel speaks. "I have, a little," he repeats. He touches Emile's hair gently, half-stroking. "It's just that I sometimes think you're mad. Why must you try and change things?"
"It's important, though I don't expect you to care. Perhaps I am mad. At least my madness dictates morality. Your sanity doesn't seem to prevent you from 'walking out' with every pretty girl who crosses your path. How many mistresses do you have now? Seven?"
Noel giggles. "I'd be hard pressed to keep seven girls happy." He pauses, then adds, "I'd get them mixed up and all sorts of things."
Emile glares. "Of course. I apologise for my mistake."
"Oh, don't." Noel flings his arms about Emile's shoulders, and kisses him soundly. Emile doesn't protest, allowing himself to be kissed soundly, and even returning it, somewhat tentatively.
Encouraged, Noel continues kissing him, and Emile, unsure of why he is letting this happen or why he likes it or what will happen next, gives every kiss back.
If, on the following morning, any of Les Amis notice that Enjolras and Courfeyrac are wearing each other's shirts, none of them comment.
Emile thinks sourly that no one ever notices anything in Musain, and is considerably annoyed by the fact that Noel continuously looks over at him and giggles, tugging at the collar of a shirt that ought to be on himself.
God, last night was... God. And that is all he can manage.
That evening, as everyone starts to drift homeward, Noel bounds over. "Bonsoir, thou."
"Thou yourself. What am I going to do?"
"You could come home with me again. I expect it's awful in your apartment, all alone, with none but the cold stars to shine upon you in your solitary bed..."
Emile has another of those moments during which it is difficult not to hit Noel. "I happen to like my solitary bed. It's immensely peaceful. And quiet."
"And boring," Noel concludes dreamily. "Come with me."
"I oughtn't. I told you before, I haven't the time."
"Of course you have. All the time there ever will be. You're absolutely stinking of it, man. Come along."
"I shan't. I have work to do."
"Do it tomorrow," Noel suggests helpfully. And he kisses Emile's cheek to convince him.
"Stop that. This cafe's a public place."
"Very well then. Come home with me. I assure you that no matter how many mistresses I may gain, my apartments are not public."
Emile can feel himself weakening and it displeases him. "I don't wish to."
"Yes, you do." To prove this to the stubborn angelic boy, Noel slips his arms around Emile and kisses him once more, sweetly.
"All right," Emile amends, "I do."
Noel laughs. "I knew you'd see reason at last."
Long before June arrives, Noel calls them lovers, but Emile refuses to ever use that term. Noel gleefully comes to Musain at the correct hour every day that the Amis meet, and he puts the roguish, unashamed grin is put away.
He replaces with a blissful, satisfied smirk, which Emile does not find very much better.
By then, however, the two of them look rather different; with a few more careworn lines for Enjolras' son, and a little more worry for de Courfeyrac's. Speeches are composed by the two of them, somehow, with Noel taking the chains of solemnity into his hands to help Emile.
Sometimes he loses hold of the chains, but when he does, Emile can't be particularly upset.
On the second day of June, Noel returns to his apartment with a large flat package wrapped in brown paper, and dumps it unceremoniously on the bed. Emile is writing there, his parchment supported by a book, and he lifts his quill from the paper, looking inquiringly at Noel.
"Don't spill that ink, will you? New sheets." Noel smiles.
"Don't worry. I can tell." He caps the bottle. "What's that, then?"
"Open it and see, man. Oh, but you shall be delighted. It is a strange possession, acquired through daring, wondrous skill and accomplishment. Only with the lightest of fingers could it be purloined, and only the sharpest of wits could bargain with the angry dealer who found it sneaking out the door."
"I quite hope you're jesting," Emile remarks absently, untying the strings on the package.
"I am. Being a jester, what else is there for me to do?" Noel strokes his moustache and flops down beside his lover, barely missing the flat thing.
"Careful!" Emile finally tears the paper apart, and stares for a moment at what is revealed. "Where on earth did you find that?"
"Pawn shop. Isn't it lovely?"
The painting is of a young boy on a bed. It's not Emile's likeness, and his hair is rich chestnut instead of golden, but he wears a shirt sprinkled with a few stray cornflowers, and his arms are wrapped around the bedpost. He looks out into the distance, through a window in the far wall, and his green eyes are darkened with wondering.
"You did used to do that, didn't you? I remember seeing you once or twice," Noel remarks.
"It's lovely, indeed, Noel..." he murmurs quietly.
"Good. Now perhaps you'll give me a kiss and welcome me home at last, hmm? Some gratitude you show."
So Emile gives him the kiss, and more, and soon forgets the painting in the joy of an embrace.
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