Faces

He was a sad drunk, the young man in the wineshop Justitia knew by sight only. He could insult in Latin and let all and sundry know that he possessed this fine talent. He shouted that he had left the college months ago because he didn't care and couldn't learn. He was ugly because his forehead crinkled, and his nose was too large and his brown eyes too deep- set and bloodshot. Some evenings, Justitia would sit at a table by himself and watch the young man, who would be drinking, shouting things at the top of his voice until his companions turned on him and demanded he be quiet, for the love of God. The young man tried to flirt with the waitresses and any women who entered the wineshop, and mainly they ignored him. Sometimes they struck at him, sometimes flinched and wrinkled their noses in disgust, sometimes called the proprietor and demanded something be done. Then the young man would be admonished, but never anything more. Justitia wondered if he was such a good customer that the wineshop couldn't afford to lose him.

One night the young man was drunker than usual and he sat at Justitia's table. He called him alternately Prouvaire and Combeferre, and Justitia pushed his slipping spectacles back up the bridge of his nose and blushed.

"I'm not--" he started to say half a dozen times, but the young man cut him off and went on talking. He talked very quickly and incoherently and Justitia could only catch words. He heard 'king', 'father', 'wine' and 'creation' several times.

"What are you up to these days?" the young man finally asked him.

There was a silence for the first time in half an hour. Justitia thought perhaps he had an opportunity to explain who he was, and he was just about to speak. The young man, however, took his pause for uncertainty as to whether he should answer.

"Poor Combeferre," he began again. "Is Enjolras keeping you busy? Always revolution, revolution, revolution."

Justitia was horrified. The man must be out of his senses! One didn't just speak of revolution casually in a public drinking-place. If a spy were sitting at one of the tables listening--if that were the case, he and the young man would both be in prison before the next evening. On the other hand, he thought, if he were very lucky--if there were a spy and he was better with names than with faces--the unfortunate Combeferre might be arrested in his place. He looked around, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to them. To be safe anyway, he murmured, "Well, the discovery of such a chemical would be revolutionary. We're trying."

The young man waved a hand. "Chemistry? Bah. The important thing in life is happiness, which no one ever achieves. That's why we're all stuck in places like this, Prouvaire. We're all too stupid to figure out what we want. Maybe you will find out how to be happy. Trust me, the next day you'll be dead. Me, I aspire to keeping my hair. At least I've a chance of that. I'll get killed in a brawl or tagging after Enjolras, but, Combeferre- -" he switched names again just as Justitia re-adjusted his spectacles "-- I'll hopefully have all my hair. Bossuet is a disgrace. That won't happen to me."

"Yes, right," said Justitia, without the least idea of what the young man was talking about. There was a bottle of wine on the table, which he'd bought as an excuse to sit around watching, and he offered it. He wanted to study the young man. After all, Justitia thought, he had been painting his birds for years. It would be interesting to see if he /could/ paint people. A real, ruined face like the young man's would be--not nice to paint, exactly--but understandable. Real.

After a quiet moment, as the young man poured himself a glass of wine and drank, mumbling softly to himself, Justitia asked, "Will you let me paint you?"

"Paint /me/?" said the young man.

"Yes."

"You're out of your head."

Justitia shrugged a little, fingering his long, dark hair.

"Do you really want to?"

"Yes."

The young man drank off another glass. "All right."

"Now?" Justitia asked graciously. He was hoping the young man would agree if he was polite.

"Very well. But you must help me walk, little Prouvaire. I'm hard- pressed to do so by myself."

Justitia was willing. The young man leaned heavily on him as they walked back to Justitia's little attic rooms up in the top of the inn. He sat docilely on the chair, while Justitia sat on the bed in front of his easel. The only colours of paint Justitia owned were dark red and a pale, watery blue, and he worked with difficulty. By early morning, he'd filled four of his expensive canvases. The young man was asleep.

Justitia sighed and put away his things. In a moment of gratitude for the pictures, he got the young man onto the bed and stretched out on the rug, wrapped in a quilt. Patient modelling deserved thanks, he thought to himself. Then he snuggled into the quilt and quickly fell asleep.

When he awoke, the young man was sitting on the bed watching him intently.

"I don't remember last night very well. Who are you?"

"Niko," said Justitia absently. He used his childhood nickname as his real name, now that "Justitia" was known as the name of one of Theo's rebels.

"I'm R. How did I get here?"

"I brought you. I was painting you."

"Painting me!"

"You can see if you like." Justitia finger-combed his hair with one hand while he fetched the four canvases. The pictures were made up of bold and thin red brushstrokes on pale blue backgrounds and he had done two silhouettes and two faces with features.

"Huh. You should burn these." R looked up. "I don't mean that they're bad, but the subject is hideous. No one will buy them or look twice at them, though some may wonder what opium dream inspired them."

Justitia flushed. "I don't intend to sell them. They're for me."

"In that case, I'm flattered," said R dryly. "Put them away when you've got company. Do you capture many fellows off the street and lock them in your rooms to paint, Master Niko?"

"The door isn't locked."

"Yes, it is."

Worriedly, Justitia went to the door and jiggled the knob. R was right. It was locked. "Oh, for--" he murmured, kneeling and poking at the keyhole. Then, "No, just a moment--"

"What?"

"It's stuck, that's all," said Justitia, relieved. "I can get it open. The wood swells in the summer."

"Convenient."

Justitia ignored him and began tugging on the doorknob. He wasn't very heavy, and the door remained stuck despite his holding onto the knob and leaning all his weight backwards.

"May I help?"

"Please."

R curled his fingers around the knob, against Justitia's hand. His nails were cracked.

"All right; now, lean."

Once again, Justitia leaned all his weight back. R instead made a sort of hop backwards at the same time. The door creaked hugely as it was dragged past the doorframe, then came loose; he and Justitia were knocked over by the impact when it reached the extent of its openness.

"Well! It's open," R announced, as though it were not entirely obvious. "I think I must be off."

"Oh," said Justitia, berating himself for sounding like a fool.

"Farewell, good Master Artist. I wish you some sort of success, although that's unlikely, don't you think? No one is ever successful, unless he doesn't deserve it." R tugged his forelock pleasantly and went through the door, closing it behind him.

Justitia sighed. Then, with great gentleness, he picked up the four unframed canvases and set about pinning them to his wall. He had to take down a kestrel, a phoenix, a peregrine, and a dragon with feathered wings, which he counted among the birds because of Firedrake. Justitia was gentle with these too, and he put them into a box almost reverently.

That evening, Justitia was back at the wineshop, watching the ugly young man he knew only by sight, as, threatened by the gentleman friend of a woman he'd tried to flirt with, he turned to one of his friends and said, "Courfeyrac, tu praeter omnes une de capillatis."

Courfeyrac laughed and said, "That's right!" before going back to his conversation.

Justitia sighed. The young man looked over and raised his bottle in a mock salute.

A few weeks later, Justitia replaced the faces and silhouettes with the old pictures of his birds. However, he took down the dark red profiles sorrowfully. They ended up in a different box under his bed, marked "R". Some days, he took them out at looked at them.

He could never understand why his eyes stung while he did.