In spite of the many months that Courfeyrac had known Marius Pontmercy, and in spite of how quickly and easily they had seemed to forge a friendship from the beginning, certain aspects of the young man’s behavior continued to strike Courfeyrac as peculiar and uncomfortable. There were times when Marius would behave in a manner that seemed too formal to Courfeyrac for how familiar they were. He would cut himself off abruptly mid-speech and apologize over nothing; in response to a small friendly gesture, Marius’s eyes would drift toward the floor and he would say to Courfeyrac, “You didn’t have to do that.” He would often respond to any display of affection as if it had been an act of courtesy.
At first, it was difficult for Courfeyrac to pinpoint why this bothered him; if it were simply a quirk of his friend’s temperament, he could not justify to himself how uneasy it made him feel. He did not realize why until one day, when Marius had apologized to him yet again for having spoken too much about his latest piece of translation work.
“It’s perfectly fine,” Courfeyrac had replied, “I wouldn’t ask about it if I didn’t want to know.”
“Well,” said Marius more quietly, no longer meeting Courfeyrac’s eyes, “thank you for listening anyway.”
“I listen because I am interested,” Courfeyrac reassured him, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice, “not out of some misguided sense of civility. In fact, I never offer you a thing that I don’t genuinely want to give.” Courfeyrac pressed his lips together, regarding Marius with concern. “Marius, you thank me for such basic kindnesses that I have to wonder how you are accustomed to being treated.”
Marius froze, his eyes widening only for a moment before he quickly composed himself into the polite, somber young man Courfeyrac recognized from the first day he’d taken Marius in. He seemed to turn off all real feeling in order to present himself in a manner he assumed was more socially desirable (a skill Courfeyrac himself had developed, it was true, but Marius did not appear to be doing it of his own volition).
In fact, such suppression of natural emotion was not at all desirable to Courfeyrac. However, should he point this out, Marius would most likely apologize for it, and that would only serve to make Courfeyrac more angry at the thought of a past that had trained so sweet and sincere a soul to dissemble itself.
When Marius responded, his voice was flat and devoid of feeling. “But they are kindnesses.”
“You don’t owe me thanks for listening to you speak!” Courfeyrac dismissed the thought, continuing without entirely having thought it through, “I sometimes get the impression that you see the fact that I don’t raise my hand against you as a kindness.”
Marius’s expression wavered, as if he were struggling with himself over whether or not to answer. Courfeyrac felt as though he’d been punched in the chest.
“My god, Marius.” Courfeyrac reached a hand toward Marius, slowly; when Marius didn’t pull away, Courfeyrac rested it on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry.” The hand moved to Marius’s back, and drew him closer until he was flush against Courfeyrac. Marius seemed to melt into his warmth, all the tenseness seeping from him as his entire body relaxed. Courfeyrac’s hand rubbed Marius’s back in gentle circles, and his voice was low and soothing. “I shouldn’t have said that. I won’t say it again.”
Marius’s voice was so shaky it made Courfeyrac’s heart ache. “No, no, I’m s—.”
Courfeyrac couldn’t bear to hear it. “I won’t allow you to apologize—” Marius stiffened in his arms— “because you’ve done nothing wrong. Come now, Marius.” He pressed a kiss to his temple, and it seemed to calm Marius again. Still holding him close, Courfeyrac took in a deep, slow breath, then let it out, as if encouraging Marius to match him. Gradually, his friend seemed to do so, the harsh rise and fall of his chest slowing and evening to meet Courfeyrac’s. Marius was soon breathing more easily against him, and Courfeyrac felt all the intensity of anger and sadness drain from his chest, to be replaced by an even greater intensity of affection. He felt such happiness at the simple fact that Marius was no longer distressed that it almost overwhelmed him; it was a tenderness he could not have described if he tried. He wondered what Marius must feel about him at this moment, but knew that it wasn’t the sort of thing one asked about. Rather, such sentiment revealed itself in its own time…
Suddenly, Marius’s arms wrapped themselves tightly around Courfeyrac, in an act of reciprocation that was obviously more instinctive than it was familiar. Courfeyrac let out a breath of his own; then, he smiled.