Plain Civility

Author:   Pairing: Combeferre/Pontmercy  Rating: PG

The first day was altogether humiliating and on the whole I cared to recall nothing of it. All I remembered was jabbering for seemingly hours on end, only to be shot down with a few calm words. He was the one who stood out in my mind, who sang after I made a fool of myself, and whose name I did not remember until Courfeyrac enlightened me.

"Combeferre, our resident saint. The only one who can tame Enjolras's temper, which is enough to merit canonization in itself."

Reluctantly, at Courfeyrac's urging, back in the cafe where I don't quite belong. Keeping quiet and distant to avoid being an idiot once more. He's speaking again; I'm bobbing my head along to a speech I'm sure everyone understands except me. So concerned with being unobtrusive that I don't hear half of what he says.

And the next time, Enjolras working himself into a frenzy over something Feuilly mentioned. Combeferre stepping aside with him and talking his anger down a burning determination around the eyes.

Back again, in the corner. Combeferre going on about Catullus and Robespierre and everyone in between, me wondering if there's anyone he hasn't studied. Enjolras occasionally giving me sharp looks for not appearing to hang on his every word. After the fifth glare, I gather my books and go outside.

Days later, both of us are at Rousseau's. I don't expect him to notice me, and then he's crossing the room and greeting me as if we've known one another for years. "What now, Marius? You've haven't come around lately."

I mutter something ridiculous and he laughs a little, kindly and quietly. I'm almost positive he must only be doing it out of sympathy for me, but there is an almost tangible sincerity there, and then I'm wondering if he could be insincere even if he wanted to. I go to the next meeting without Courfeyrac's encouragement.

"You should speak more," he says, through with his lecture, face flushed from success rather than embarrassment.

"I don't know as much as the others," I say, not looking up.

He smiles. "There's nothing wrong with learning. It's what we advocate, you know. And you can't tell me living with Courfeyrac has done nothing for you."

Courfeyrac tugging off his boots and laughing, falling into bed after depositing a giggling grisette at the door. "Combeferre amazes me," I venture, no doubt sounding every inch the sheltered ingénue I've been for most of my life. "I've never known anyone like that, quiet but effective. He hardly notices it himself, I think."

"He's a good boy," Courfeyrac concurs, like a doting father.

"But it seems," I say without thinking (brilliant, Marius, you never do learn), "as if he only humors me when he talks to me. That is, he seems too interested for it to be real."

Half-drunk, Courfeyrac still has enough logic in him for me to believe it. "Combeferre is civil, above all. Even if he hated you, he would be civil. It isn't in him to be callous. But he doesn't humor you. You're one of us, there's no reason to. You have your head in the clouds, my boy, but being a dreamer doesn't make you stupid. Rest assured he's intelligent enough to see that." He's asleep within minutes; I sit awake and think of Robespierre.

"Come dine with me?" he asks, not as if I'm an obligation, but as if I really am one of them. I remember Courfeyrac's words and try not to appear wary. He speaks earnestly and listens to my replies as though I'm not a dullard and there are a million fascinating possibilities for conversation between us. We meet for meals regularly and it seems that he does want to know me more thoroughly, that I truly am interesting, and it embarrasses me when I think how disappointed he'll be when he realizes I'm anything but.

He knows my weaknesses, but touches on them carefully. "There's no need to hide yourself when you meet with us. The more open you are, the more likely you are to appreciate what you find out."

"There isn't much I'd be able to contribute," I remind him. "Nothing relevant, anyway," I amend, remembering ­ that I've just regaled him with half a dozen tales of Corsican history.

He laughs his warm, soft laugh. "You deserve more credit than you think."

I've heard enough by then and, gibbering insanely, I try to tell him then that he's had it wrong all along. "You don't realize, and I thank you for trying with me, but there's no sense in essaying to find merit where none exists. I'm not of the same substance as you or any of the Amis. You're built to turn the world around; I lack both the skill and dedication to be anything more advanced than a lawyer, not to mention I can hardly keep myself alive, let alone an entire country."

I finish on an almost defiant note and lower my eyes in order to avoid watching his amiable face fold into a frown. One of his hands is keeping me from dropping my chin, which is the last thing I expect. "There's more to you than you think," he says, frustratingly unfazed. He's a little flushed from his wine, but when he leans down and kisses me it's no less genuine. Like a blessing, nothing more. There's no sense now in trying to convince him further. I stumble home and don't answer Courfeyrac when he asks why I wear such a strange expression.

His room is filled with what appears to be every book ever written. We talk of apples and pears and things anyone but he would sound foolish trying to discuss seriously. ­ "Regard," he is saying. "The poisoned apple, Eve's apple, the worm in the apple-whereas the pear, while more irregular in appearance, is no less savory and has far less stigma attached to it." It seems impossible not to admire his confidence, the proficiency with which he speaks of even the most menial subjects.

I kiss him first this time, thinking that it's sloppy and ineffectual and not saintly at all, but he doesn't seem to mind. Somehow one of his arms becomes locked around my waist; to keep him from releasing me, I try not to tense, though inside I have only the faintest idea of what I've done. I'm half out of my chair and half against him, eyes wide open, and utterly at a loss as to where to place my hands. I've seen Courfeyrac winding his fingers in the dangling curls, sinuous stands, and trailing ribbons of countless girls, but his hair is shorter than mine, so this is of little assistance. Instead, I place one palm lightly against the side of his face, then less lightly, when he gives no sign of pulling away. Once he shifts, I move from my seat, almost-standing and not sure if I'm supposed to sit on his lap like a shopgirl or hunch my shoulders and try to kiss him from above. Somewhere, the two options cross and I end up losing my balance and pulling him onto the floor with me when I grab for his shoulder. For a moment, he looks as surprised and bewildered as I'm sure I do, and it's such an uncharacteristic expression that I can't keep from smiling.

Then he's stretching out his hand and I almost forget to apologize for my clumsiness, though it doesn't appear to matter that I've sent him sprawling out of his chair. After minutes that linger long enough to pass for hours, we've somehow managed to relocate, tangled on top of blankets in such a way that falling again requires far more expertise than we're willing to pay it. No sense anymore in worrying about what's happening and how to react to it, too distracted by the strands of hair falling over his forehead or how he sounds when he murmurs, "I told you there was more. Try and deny it now," in such a way that I can almost believe him.

When he kisses me again I stop trying to argue entirely.

He still smiles when I occasionally come by the cafés, still asks after me and if I'd care to dine with him. It's left to me to turn him down as mildly as I can. He never takes offense, only nods and excuses himself. Courfeyrac was right, it isn't in him to be callous, and it leaves me feeling all the worse that I have to be the callous one. I remind myself every time that my response is logical, that whatever else might have happened would only have ended disappointingly for him.

One afternoon I attend a meeting and we blandly acknowledge one another, nothing more. I know then that I have been successful. And I would feel triumphant if I knew how.

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