As an unperfect actor on the stage, / Who with his fear is put besides his part, / Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage, / Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart; / So I, for fear of trust, forget to say / The perfect ceremony of love’s rite . . . - William Shakespeare
They were both bent over the same book, heads close, Combeferre translating as fluently as if the page were written in French rather than Greek. The Greek triumph over the Persians. Feuilly kept staring at the odd letters, unable to find any meaning in them but fascinated by the idea of a different alphabet for a different language. The Poles used the same alphabet but they pronounced everything differently - one would spell chose as szoz.
One long curl had come loose from the ribbon that held the rest back, catching at his whiskers every time he tried to surreptitiously flick it out of his face. Finally, he pulled away a little to firmly push it behind his ear, when suddenly, Combeferre was kissing him. Or trying to kiss him and failing miserably, as it takes the interaction of two sets of lips to kiss effectively. Feuilly was simply too stunned to reciprocate, if he even wanted to reciprocate, which he did not know yet. He was also too stunned to pull away immediately.
It seemed he had caught himself an actual paederast. All those years of avoiding certain walks in the Tuileries at certain times of day, and here he was, alone in a posh flat, with an actual paederast. And it could only have been Combeferre, of course - he had been too kind, really, ever since they first met, too interested, not in the way Bahorel sought a kindred spirit in brawling, but declaring (inventing?) so many of the same interests, proposing ways in which Feuilly might develop his art and his studies. He had been too kind. And now the payment had come due. A payment he was loath to make.
But to not reciprocate was to see Combeferre flush and stammer an apology, and that felt wholly wrong, too. After so much, what did a kiss really matter when to withhold it was to embarrass someone who had been a friend, who might still be a friend.
Feuilly cut off the flood of apologies with his own. “No, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting it, that’s all.” What was appropriate now? To kiss him like a girl? To say no, leave, and never have access to the group again? He liked Combeferre far more than Bahorel, who was the only one he might ever see again if he followed that course of action. “You may do what you like,” he found himself saying, though his heart was not in it.
Combeferre was not awkward - his tongue knew what it was doing in every language, including that of love - but the whole situation was not right and caused no enjoyment. It had to stop - nothing else would do.
Feuilly pulled away again, apologising over and over, possibly more distressed by his refusal than Combeferre was, though he did not dare look at his friend. “I’m sorry. I’m not - I’m not like you. I’m so sorry. I’ve hurt you, and I didn’t want to, and I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do.” His tongue seemed to prefer honesty at the moment - he was so completely unsure of what to say or do that his mouth was far ahead of his brain, which was too confused to put any stop to the rush of words. “You’ve done so much, and this is the payment, and I shouldn’t withhold it, I know, but I don’t know what to do.”
“Payment? Is that how you see it?”
“I should have seen it before. I’m sorry. You’ve done all sorts of things for me, how could I possibly have thought you would not expect some form of repayment? I should have seen it.”
“Until tonight, I have only done what a friend would do.”
“No, you haven’t. A friend buys you a drink when you’re broke, takes you to the theatre when you’re depressed and he’s tired of listening to you complain but doesn’t let on otherwise, walks you to the clap doctor when you’re suffering the after effects of love, at the outside pays part of your share of the rent one period because you’ll do the same for him the next. You’ve gone so far beyond that. A friend doesn’t find you clothes and take you to places you would never see on your own, buy you paints and offer to hire tutors, pay for your seat in the pit rather than in the gods and try to rent a flat for you when you are already making your rent just fine. That’s what you do for a mistress, not a friend.”
He finally dared look at Combeferre, who did seem suitably chastened. “I’m sorry. I have only ever tried to give you what you deserve, what you might not otherwise be able to have.”
“Again, that’s what you do for a mistress, a girl who deserves fine things and a nice flat because of her beauty and charm, despite her low birth and paltry honest income.”
“It isn’t for your beauty,” Combeferre insisted, “though indeed, you are handsome, but for your talent, for your intelligence. With what I could do for you, you would not have to waste your life slaving for three francs a day.”
“Yes, I could be kept,” Feuilly spat out. “A girl may not be able to afford pride, but I have enough of a living that I can. Do you really think me handsome?” he added as an afterthought.
“Don’t play the fool - you know perfectly well that you are. You have more refinement in your features than the sons of far better families, and you constantly show yourself to best advantage. You are as much of a coquette in your way as any grisette.”
“I have always benefited from women liking me, but I rather assumed from the paederasts in the Tuileries that men had rather different tastes. I suppose you pay attention to such things.”
“I cannot help noticing them,” Combeferre admitted.
Out of nervous habit, Feuilly started twisting his stray curl, oblivious to the charming picture he made every time he did so, a rather frequent occurrence when in Combeferre’s company but usually for different reasons. “I think I have no choice but to bid you adieu.”
“I shan’t make such overtures again,” Combeferre insisted, a hint of desperation in his voice. “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
“I should never have accepted such companionship in the first place,” Feuilly insisted as calmly as he could, trying to calm the turmoil in his brain. “I was in the wrong, so it is for me to put right.”
“What of the others?”
“That’s exactly what I mean. I should never have met any of you. Well, Bahorel I already knew because he enjoys slumming. But the rest of you - pride before the fall and all of that.”
“Courfeyrac will be terribly disappointed. What will you say to him?”
“Nothing. Put the whole madness behind me and do what I ought to be doing.” Feuilly sighed. “It isn’t about other people. It isn’t about you, really. You are merely the instrument. This is my punishment for reaching too high. I have stayed too long in the garden and now must be reminded that I was born for toil and sweat and pain in life.”
“You speak of ambition as if it were a flaw in your character.”
“It is. We are not the same. It is easy for you to want things you are not supposed to have. You are permitted to want. You have no idea what it is like to know you should not want anything, to know that to want something better than the general run is to be criminal and then go after it because if the desire is criminal, what greater harm is there in attempting to fulfill that desire? You, with your medical education that your father supports as an eccentricity and your two-room flat that he pays for that you don’t actually like and your swanning around town with me on your arm and your desire to take me to bed rather than a girl because a girl will never understand that your soul has been forged in a struggle against the normal run of life that she can never conceive.” He had meant to argue with Combeferre, not to agree. “Fuck,” he cursed at his realisation, his head in his hands. “Fuck.”
“We are not the same,” Combeferre repeated calmly in the rather infuriating way he had of reminding you that your argument was made on false premises.
“Fine, so we’ve more in common than we ought, precisely because I am not what I ought to be. And I know how horribly lonely it is to lie next to a girl who cannot begin to understand what is going through your mind and latches on to infuriating simplicities any time you try to explain to her precisely why you seek sympathy. But taking me to bed is hardly going to be any sort of solution.”
“It wasn’t the bedding I was after.”
“It was the sympathetic touch.” Feuilly did not realise he had said it aloud until he felt Combeferre’s hand on his shoulder and looked up into his dark eyes. Somehow, the only thing to do in the moment was to kiss him, with all the tenderness he had been unable to muster before, to accept that there could be understanding, and even comfort, in the rasp of unshaven jaws, to give in to the need of the moment without regard for what might happen next.
But it was only for the moment. He pulled away again, less decisively this time. “I should go.”
“No, I’m sorry. I’ve - oh, fuck it. This is not a love affair, I am not like you, and there will be rules to whatever this madness is,” he suddenly insisted loudly, volume taking the place of firmness, his lips still moving faster than his brain.
“Whatever you say,” Combeferre agreed calmly.
“No one can know what is going on.”
“Of course. It would ruin you, and that is as far from my intentions as possible.”
“There will be no touching of pricks or arseholes.”
“And I am not your bum boy at your beck and call.”
“You are as free as you have ever been, answerable to yourself alone.”
And to God, Feuilly added silently. To God. Fuck. David and Jonathan, David and Jonathan, he started to run through in his head like a chant. Comrades, kisses, comfort, nothing sinister, nothing filthy, I’ve covered all that, just David and Jonathan. He had to get out before something burst, tears or confessions or violence, he was uncertain just what was pressing so hard against the walls of his breast, but he knew he had to leave before he burst. “I should go,” he said as calmly as he could. Combeferre nodded. “I will come back,” Feuilly insisted.
“In your own time.”
“In my own time.” He fled, telling himself that he would not go back to the flat, telling himself that he would only see Combeferre in public. It was the only way out of the madness without giving up everything. He nearly ran home, breathing hard, moving fast, keeping to the darkness as much as possible, until he had to stop to catch his breath. Everything was patently wrong, including that he felt soothed by the dark tangled streets, the shadows in which he said he would not live again but were always there for him. What would anyone say, he thought, if they knew he had just kissed a man and did not find the act repulsive? What would anyone say, he reminded himself, if they knew he had enjoyed the suspense of a midnight robbery?
He leaned against the damp wall of some unknown house, bowed his head, and prayed. You have always understood, You have never steered me wrong, You have forgiven the worst a man can do and permitted this sinner to repent. You gave your bond to David, You gave him Jonathan, You do understand comradeship. Can comradeship overcome what I fear is in his heart? Do You know his heart? Everything I have ever wanted is so close to my grasp. Is that Your doing or is it hellish temptation? Do I reach for it, or do I stay where everyone except he says I should be? I will do whatever You ask; I am no man’s servant, but I am Yours.
He went home feeling no lighter, but at least the constriction in his chest was gone. The question was now with He who had never steered him wrong. Feuilly vowed that he would not see Combeferre, or any of the rest again, until there had been a sign as to the blessing or folly of his actions.
But before the week was out, without any sign but his own volition, he was drawn back to Necker. Falling into step with Combeferre as he left evening rounds, climbing the stairs to the furnished flat Combeferre so hated, Feuilly accepted the attentions he had provoked. Because in the end, the sympathetic touch meant more than his fears.
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