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With All the Pretty People

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Courfeyrac was born small— slight of bone, the midwife said, swaddling him in his Lord father’s silken cloth. Thin hair and thin muscles.

His mother wrapped him in red for luck, for passion, for the rising sun to be on his side. His father gifted him with jade, the green of steeped tea ran through with earthy veins; he wanted wisdom and harmony from his son. His nurse planted morning glories outside his window, the blue of a calm ocean. Courfeyrac grew up directed by these colors, invoking red when the situation called for brilliant smiles and forceful words, green when he ought to sit still and listen to learned teachers, blue when the typhoons swept in. Always with an eye out for new and fascinating things, he soon learned the rest of the palette on his own— the yellow of sunshine and innocent idealism, the purple of distinguished majesty like his father presiding over court, the brown of warmth and settling in, the black of definition.

It was a red day when he first met Combeferre. Well, it wasn’t the first time they’ve seen each other— Combeferre worked at the palace, after all, fixed and maintained things all around, learning his father’s craft— but that afternoon was the first time they met met. Combeferre, his dominant arm casted and in a sling, was struggling to unearth a magenta orchid from its pot. Courfeyrac, passing by, immediately dropped his textbooks and calligraphy workbook on the ground and swooped in to help. So focused on the task was Combeferre that he only noticed his kind assistant was the young prince after they got dirt everywhere— taught the manners and rules of civility that was the lot of peasantry, he immediately got on his knees to apologize. Without a second’s hesitation Courfeyrac was pulling him up, proclaiming they’ve got everything wrong, that they shouldn’t speak apologies, but rather thanks, and it wasn’t Combeferre speaking to Courfeyrac, but vice versa.

How do you mean, your highness? Combeferre asked, still nervous.

I mean that your flowers and gardens make me happier all the time. Courfeyrac grabbed Combeferre’s dirty hands with his. How can I not thank you?

You behave strangely for a prince, Combeferre observed, his smile bursting like he couldn’t believe his luck. Courfeyrac was hardly oblivious to his meaning— the dinner parties his parents liked to throw were prime grounds for observing other members of lordship and aristocracy. His parents have always taught him decorum and respect for everyone, so Courfeyrac could never wrap his head around the lords that demanded difficult, contrary things of their servants, the ladies that demeaned their maids-in-waiting for a haughty laugh. To think that the poisonous behavior Courfeyrac found so alien was actually expected of someone in his position was something of a bitter revelation.

Don’t worry, Courfeyrac declared, with all the solemnity a twelve-year-old can muster. I won’t ever behave like all the other princes. I’ll always be strange. You can count on me.

That’s… very nice of you to say, Combeferre laughed. I appreciate it. Thank you, your highness.

Just call me Courfeyrac please, he replied, scrunching up his nose. It’s my name, it’s gotta be used.

…If you won’t mind calling me Combeferre.

Courfeyrac was ecstatic. He began swinging their hands, still joined together, grinning widely.

Awesome! Combeferre! I love that name! It’s very nice to meet you!

And you as well, Courfeyrac. Combeferre returned with just as much enthusiasm dancing in his eyes, even if his voice remained steady. He repeated, Courfeyrac. Hi. I’m... very happy that you’re my prince.

And their friendship grew on, in the way of steady trees; in the way the sun returned every morning. Combeferre, Courfeyrac soon learned, was several years older than he, and had his birthday just as all the maple trees set themselves aflame. Courfeyrac’s birthday was timed with the first green shoots from tilled earth, the nubs of apples on the white-striped trees. They traded eight happy years of presents before the tides changed.

Their little province, see, marked the small stretch of fertile ground by a river plummeting into the ocean. Flowers bloomed and trees bore fruit by the sweet-running water. Before them were craggy cliffs and worn boulders that looked like molars of an ancient sea beast. Behind them were stretches of dusty desert. West and east were richer, larger kingdoms of prolific production and trade. The traders held Courfeyrac’s father, the lord, in high esteem, for he always provided port and safe haven in the middle of a tumultuous sea, asking for but little in way of tariff. On smooth summer days when the gardens had no need of constant supervision, Combeferre picked up work at the docks, helping moor gigantic trade ships and receiving coins and exotic trinkets in compensation. Courfeyrac’s offers of help at the dock were constantly rebuffed by the workers with awkward smiles and incredulous scoffs at his height, his slim arms, his smooth skin. Ever kind, Combeferre would task Courfeyrac with counting products, calculating taxes and the like, putting Courfeyrac’s palatial education to use. They spent many afternoons together like this, Combeferre tall and hauling crates, Courfeyrac discretely lifting and dropping, lifting and dropping the weights for the scale, praying against all odds his arms would begin to define themselves with muscle.

On Courfeyrac’s nineteenth birthday, the color of the sea changed. Some dark, ashy cloud had drifted over their skies and bred burning rains, bolts of lightning that razed ancient oak trees to the ground. The stumps of these trees provided an unending bonfire for poorer folks without constant access to a home hearth, but they worried Courfeyrac’s mother nonetheless. It’s never a pretty sight when the old battles the new, she pronounced darkly, I fear we may be caught right in the middle.

It was hardly a prophecy— the lady of the land spoke with confidence by the way of gathered history, wrinkled white-haired witnesses whose wisdoms have reached the lady’s ears. The lord was suitably concerned, asked his wife, his counselors, even his young son if they have any idea what was to come. Courfeyrac had no idea, and in turn asked Combeferre (for he had long since learned that Combeferre thirsted for knowledge like a fresh-born moth that attempted to beat its wings endlessly before its three months on earth was up). Combeferre, expectedly, had an idea.

We must build a guiding light, he said, voice having deepened with age, sounding quite like an adult when Courfeyrac brought him before the lord. Courfeyrac felt his breath catch in reverence for his friend. For we know not when the overcast will pass, and in the meantime trading ships need a marker for sheltering port, visible from at least three village lengths out at sea.

That is an enormous undertaking, young builder, the lord said, not unkindly. Do you consider yourself capable of taking lead on such a task?

It would be my honor sir.

You will be saving lives and increasing commerce in our province— young man, you will receive much more than honor should you succeed.

And so Combeferre’s task began. The goal is a grand tower of stone, a torch to be kept lit on top. There were two cliffs in proper proximity to the main province that would be suitable sites for construction— initially, Combeferre had chosen the taller one, for height equaled ready visibility. However, the taller cliff was truly completely, utterly barren, and in the interest of speedier results, they began construction on the lower cliff, strewn already with rocks that could be shaped onsite and placed into formation. Hours into the task, Combeferre had already proven himself a laudable leader, jumping in with clear and realistic plans, constructive in his critique, yet readily bowing to the expertise of those older and more experienced than him. His construction team fell into neat working patterns and schedules, easy and efficient.

If the construction team respected Combeferre, they adored Courfeyrac. For the young prince was always there beside Combeferre, eager to lend a hand or sing a cheerful ditty to brighten the mood. And he always brought flowers— a little pot of lucky wisteria blue to brighten the ocean, a tulip to shyly tuck into Combeferre’s pocket, a medley of daylilies to plant around the perimeter of the lighthouse foundation. Courfeyrac knew the workers by name, asked after their husbands and wives and children with genuine care. Lunchtime chatter was filled with both exaltations of Courfeyrac’s lordly aptitude and good-natured teasing regarding the status of Courfeyrac’s courtship of Combeferre.

They passed weeks like this, and the lighthouse was gradually gaining height. Combeferre was granted leave from his duties at the palace, but in the evenings he would often return, taking supper with Courfeyrac’s family and updating the lord and lady on their progress, conversation interspersed with his and Courfeyrac’s anecdotes from the day. Nowadays, the lord and lady smiled quite fondly at Combeferre, and would often quietly take their leave when Combeferre and Courfeyrac were too caught up in conversation to notice, leaving the two to each other’s company. Whenever that happened, Courfeyrac would laugh with pink in his cheeks and usher Combeferre from the table, heading to his room where they would proceed to chat for quite a while yet. Courfeyrac liked it when Combeferre talked out the logic of his decisions regarding the lighthouse construction, and Combeferre liked the way Courfeyrac’s eyes would gleam in excitement when he recounted stories. And both of them liked to talk about the flowers blooming all around the palace. Nights like these ended in a sated pleasure that was bone-deep, when Combeferre would finally untangle himself from where he and Courfeyrac had curled up together and head back to his home.

One evening saw to a brutal storm, and Courfeyrac found sleep elusive. The planter of red hibiscus Courfeyrac had moved into his room in anticipation for the storm was shaking. A feeling of unease in the pit of his stomach, Courfeyrac pulled on his thickest rain jacket, as red as the flowers, and left the palace. Briefly, he considered waking Combeferre, but it had been a long day, and Courfeyrac would hardly feel right waking his friend from long-deserved sleep for some aimless middle-of-the-night romping. The lantern he grabbed on the way shone steadfastly, and the prince found himself climbing the now-familiar road to the lighthouse construction site. Nobody was there, of course— the storm began bellowing some time after the sun went down and had been raging steadily for quite some time since. The rain was tepid, but the sea wind swept his skin cold, and with stiff arms Courfeyrac brought his lantern up and looked around, trying to find what his mind found so pressing to bring him here. It was nothing, he thought to himself. Everything’s normal, my mind was simply agitated from a bad night. I’ll go home in a bit.

But of course, that couldn’t be the case. The construction site itself saw nothing abnormal, the stones holding fast in their staggered spaces. It wasn’t until Courfeyrac took a look over the cliff that he saw something off— something visibly yellow, caught on the rocks below. Courfeyrac couldn’t lean down more without risking a fall, so he just swept his rain-soaked hair back and squinted through the deluge, searching the yellow for any sign of familiarity. The distinct color was what finally tipped him off— it was the saffron-dyed cloth that always accompanied the eastern traders. The crate holding it must’ve gone overboard, Courfeyrac thought, dashed to smithereens on the rocks. Only the stretch of cloth remained.

With a jolt of fear, Courfeyrac realized there might very well be sailors out on the sea right now, as the storm thundered on and on and on around them. If the waves had taken precious cargo overboard, what’s to say the sailors weren’t lost? Courfeyrac tried to calm himself, tell himself that the cloth may have been drifting a long time, and finally found its way of land tonight (for he was sure it hadn’t been there earlier today, when he and Combeferre ate lunch side by side, feet dangling off the edge of the cliff). But ultimately, he knew he couldn’t take the chance; he couldn’t risk potential lives for the sake of his own comfort. So Courfeyrac took a steeling breath, and stood with his arm stretched as high above him as possible, lantern light valiantly blistering through the onslaught of rain.

It was only after Courfeyrac’s switched sore arms three times that he remembered the second, higher cliff, and almost hit himself for his stupidity. Without a moment to spare, he made for the rocky path that would lead him up there immediately. This was a far less familiar task, and took a heart-stoppingly long time to accomplish (for what if the sailors had been following Courfeyrac’s light all this time, and it suddenly blinked out? What if, without guidance, the ship sailed into the jagged shoal just east of the port?). Courfeyrac reached the top of the cliff with scrapes on his hands and cuts on his knees, but he resumed position immediately, bracing his knees wide to fend against the fiercer winds at such altitude. He closed his eyes and imagined Combeferre there with him, speaking softly and surely to him, reassuring him with warm hands on his back.

You can do this, Combeferre would say, would wrap himself around Courfeyrac and keep him steady.

I'm weak, Courfeyrac would whisper, throat closed up from the cold. I'm not strong like you. I wish I were you.

You're you, that's why you're here. Combeferre would look sad, so sad, the way he did when people were in pain around him, and he could do nothing to help. I love you. I love you, stay strong, you have to stay strong Courfeyrac—

I know. He couldn't even cry— his eyes felt frozen shut, burned in his skull. There was no color, all around him only grey. I'll stay, I have to. I wish you'd stay too.

By the time the storm’s stopped, Courfeyrac’s barely conscious. His elbows were sore, his muscles frighteningly numb, but the lantern light kept high. When gentle hands braced his shoulders and pushed for his arms to release their pose, Courfeyrac passed out altogether, knees buckling beneath him.

When he woke, he was in his room, the sun was the yellow of dandelion flowers, and Combeferre was prodding at a little portable hearth by his bed. He tried to croak a hello, but no sound would come from his throat. Hearing the rustle of bed sheets, Combeferre turned, his eyes widening when he saw Courfeyrac conscious.

Prince! Courfeyrac found himself swept up into an embrace, and had a sudden image of himself as a crate full of honey or precious gems tucked neatly into Combeferre’s arm for transport onto another ship. You’re finally awake!

Courfeyrac lifted shaky hands to pat a shaking Combeferre on the back, and it occurred to him that he’s never seen Combeferre so… apart before— hair askew, dirt smudged across his face, clothes bunched up and wrinkled. Clearing his throat, Courfeyrac gestured mutedly for the cup of cool tea sitting at his bedside, and Combeferre obligingly lifted it to his lips. When Courfeyrac thought himself capable of speech again, he managed a whispered, Are you okay?

Me? Combeferre exclaimed, an angry incredulity in his eyes. I’m not the one who thought it fit to stand in the worst storm this province has ever seen, for an entire night, no less. What— Combeferre’s fingers pulled at his hair, an indication of true agitation Courfeyrac has only seen a couple of times before. —What in the world possessed you to do such a thing?

In the bright light of a new day, Courfeyrac found himself quite embarrassed in trying to explain his reason. After all, things were swept ashore by the ocean all the time— indeed, what did possess Courfeyrac to assume the worst and pull a stupid stunt like that?

While Courfeyrac was busy chastising himself, Combeferre’s eyes had grown soft, and his large hand found its way to the back of Courfeyrac’s head. He gently soothed Courfeyrac’s curls, combing out the knots put there by rain and wind.

Well, whatever possessed you, it was a kind spirit, he said quietly. A ship from the east was stranded out at sea, and had all but given up until they spotted your light. They found their way to port a little before the storm subsided. When I went down to welcome them, the captain told me the story, and I went up to get you.

A quiet awe caught in Courfeyrac’s throat, and he wanted to cry from relief. So he had been right. He had made the right decision out there on the windy cliff, beside Combeferre’s lighthouse, and managed to save the lives of a captain and his crew. Tears sprang to his eyes, and when he quickly tried to blink them away Combeferre laughed something exhilarating and pained.

You’re a hero, Courf, he said in hushed wonder. You did a feat of stone last night, you did what the lighthouse couldn’t do yet. You’re amazing.

Well, it was your idea, Courfeyrac managed to say, his voice still not quite right and his attention completely taken by the way Combeferre watched him with steady eyes. I can hardly take all the credit.

You will take all the credit you deserve, and that’s literally all of them. Trust me I counted. Combeferre’s arguing face was a teasing, adorable thing, and Courfeyrac couldn’t help laughing and tipping his head to poke his nose against Combeferre’s. He heard Combeferre’s breath conspicuously stop, saw beneath his lashes Combeferre’s parted lips.

May I— Courfeyrac swallowed, fingers flitting up and briefly touching the shaven sides of Combeferre’s head, then flying away again, fretting nervously in the air around them. May I kiss you, Combeferre?

Combeferre’s breath came out stuttering like pulses, and Courfeyrac felt his ears burning while he waited for an answer. He didn’t pull away, though, their proximity intoxicating like it has always been. Courfeyrac liked the physical way Combeferre embodied certainty— the wide spread of Combeferre’s forehead, the squared chin, the broad shoulders— and was always trying to find ways to get closer, closer. A kiss— the kind of thing shared by blushing young lovers and couples that were decades old— was a favored progression of their relationship for Courfeyrac. His heart ached to know Combeferre felt the same.

Finally, Combeferre closed his eyes, reopened them with his characteristic conviction, and Courfeyrac’s dug little trenches into his palms. Courfeyrac, he said, please know that you are the most important person in my life. I would gladly kiss you. But I need to know you feel the same, because I— I would let you do anything, Courf, but— I—

A newfound strength coursing through his body, Courfeyrac sat forward and wrapped his fingers in the front of Combeferre’s shirt, pulling them closer together yet.

I love you. Oh God, I thought this was a dream— of course I feel the same, how can I not, I love you I love you—

Combeferre dove forward and their lips met in an impassioned kiss, mouths molding around each other. Courfeyrac’s fluttering fingers came to rest by Combeferre’s ears, gentling tracing the sensitive skin there, and Combeferre shuddered, pressing deeper into their kiss. The sun lit warmly on their sides, and Courfeyrac’s kicking off the sheets tangled around his legs and pulling Combeferre into his lap.

Careful, careful, Combeferre panted, hovering over Courfeyrac, hand braced in the sheets beside him. You’re still weak from yesterday.

No I'm strong, like you, Courfeyrac breathed, just, please? Come here?

Eyes transfixed on Courfeyrac’s, Combeferre slowly leaned forward and lowered himself down, until they were pressed chest to toe, their lips just brushing. On either side of his head, Courfeyrac could see Combeferre’s arms, weather-worn and familiar. Steady. Tipping his head up, Courfeyrac softly nipped at Combeferre’s bottom lip.

Thank you, he whispered. A single tear slipped its way out of the corner of Courfeyrac’s eye, and Combeferre bowed his head against it, nuzzling it away. I love you, so much. Always have.

Always? Combeferre chuckled lowly. What a coincidence, same here.

I want to hear you say it.

Say that I love you? 

Please.

Combeferre gently stroked a curl of Courfeyrac’s hair from his eyes, fingertip staying to trace down the contour of Courfeyrac’s cheek, his chin, the dip at the base of his throat.

I love you, Courf, he murmured, half-lidded gaze the warm brown of settling in. I love you. I love you.

The yellow sun gleamed, a blue ocean glimmered. At their feet, red hibiscus swayed, and green leaves rustled charmingly in the wind. Courfeyrac’s laugh was tinkling glass, and all around them the colors danced.