Chapter 8


Love is a smoke made with the fumes of sighs. -William Shakespeare


The night, quiet with the gentleness of a backstreet in London, is warm and yet Arthur still finds himself buried in a scarf with his hands curled into fists in his pockets. He has his messenger bag around his shoulder as he walks, the rhythmic whack of the fabric against his thigh comforting, like the adventuring hand of a certain lover (but Arthur can't exactly smack the tanned hand away because he adored it so much).

There's nothing in the bag but a sketchbook, his wallet, a few pens, pencils, a cough drop, change and receipts he's stuffed in there. Arthur isn't quite sure what one brings to a photography exhibition besides a snobbish attitude and an eye for artsy black and white shots of the sky.

Sighing, he shook his head, feet turning down a corner. Surely he should have more faith in Francis than that. The Sky wouldn't be big enough for that lens of his. Arthur's feet take him right, left, down two blocks, back one, to a small corner shop where he has to ask for directions while buying an issue of The Times which joins his sketchbook, the cough drop, the pens and pencils and receipts in his bag.

Finally, with the help of the directions from the lady working the counter at the corner shop, he finds the bloody place and stands outside for a moment, looking at the display.

Comptine

~a collection by F. Bonneboy~

The word doesn't register in his vocabulary and Arthur senses something distinctly French about it and sniffs a little. But he goes inside anyway and his breath stops.

Upon walking into the small gallery, he is greeted by his own face. That day, sitting in the café comes back to him, and Arthur swallows a little upon seeing that lost face of his. All at once he wants to kill the Frenchman, run away and flush from embarrassment.

He managed all three.

Hurrying through the gallery and finding himself surrounded by photos of the world (Paris; underground - the skulls of an entire city stare at him|London; tube - a single person sits as the graffiti behind them on the brick walls that shelter the railings are bathed in golden light|Spain; a bedroom - a single green eye peeks over a shoulder, the rest of the body dark, perfect, bare and leaning on the railing of a balcony) before finding Francis, staring at him, swallowing.

His cheeks darkened as he felt the blue gaze on him. The reality of the photos around him makes him shudder and move closer to Francis. All his sketches of other worlds, magic and everything not quite there but on the fraying edges of human kind seemed to fade away when he was in this entire room dedicated to capturing things that we real.

And there, now only a foot from him, was their keeper, smiling and a few feet away- make that zero feet. Arthur found himself pulled into a warm and long hug from the Frenchman before roughly behind pushed away, held at arms length, Francis absolutely beaming at him. His words got a little lost before he shook his head.

"What the rudding hell that picture doing at the front," he demanded and that bright smile faded a few watts and those large hands, warm and delicate on his shoulders dropped. Arthur was pleased and disheartened by his reaction. "You could've at least asked!"

The Frenchman sniffed, not the kind like he was about to break out into sobs but the kind that made Arthur's heart give a little twinge of regret. "I thought you'd be pleased…" he murmured, tugged guiltily at a curl of golden hair, avoiding Arthur's eye. "Je suis désolé… I will 'ave it taken down-"

Arthur swallowed, folding arms over his chest. "Well it's already up there," he murmured, waving a hand at it, "might as well leave it. But no more, or I will kill you."

Watching as long and elegant fingers (used to capture moments) poked together, Arthur's gaze flicked up to see the blue eyes, the ones he could never capture properly, still looking guilty. "There is one more of you," he said, "but I will show you, oui?"

An offered hand. Arthur forgot for a moment that his own fingers, a different kind of elegant (used to forget moments), were connected to his arm and brain. Green eyes blinked and the Frenchman's fingers started to recoil but before the apology was even leaving the rosy lips, Arthur snatched his hand.

"I'm still going to kill you." The empty threat makes Francis laugh as he gives Arthur a tour of the exhibition.

At first, Arthur is awkward as he follows the Frenchman's lead through the exhibition but relaxes upon seeing the first picture because it's of nothing more than Francis' home in a small Polaroid, tiny beside the large printed canvases. Arthur bent over a little to see it and Francis' fingers left his, though warmth still tingled in the very tips.

Francis' voice almost comes from far away, another plane, but Arthur tunes in immediately. "This is the second picture people should see when they walk in," he said, pointing to the front lawn. "See the woman in the white dress? That is my cousin, Jeanne."

Arthur had almost missed the woman and he wasn't sure why. She was centred in the photo and Arthur had to blink to focus on her, he'd blame it on the ancientness of the photo however everything else in the Polaroid had been clear as day (the lilies in the front yard, the blue of the sky and even the green grass.

It appeared as though, like Francis' voice, as though she had been on some other world. Ethereal, like one of Arthur's faeries, only there is one sees it at the corner of their eye or blinks and squints so much so that their nose wrinkles.

Something clicked in the Brit's head and he looked back at Francis. The man smiled at him and again the artist stared at him before straightening. "This was the first picture I ever took," he murmured, running a hand through his hair, resting it on the cross at his neck. "It is perhaps my favourite here."

While Francis towed Arthur through the rest of the exhibition, through his entire life as the exhibition was a timeline of the Frenchman's life, from his childhood in the French countryside to the beautiful streets of Paris and then the mix-and-match of a travelling student, Arthur tried to figure out what exactly had clicked.

Why was he suddenly seeing the pictures in an entire new light? It was as if, when looking at them with Francis, their entire meaning changed. What one had expected from an empty street had a story behind it, one of heartbreak and loneliness. The hospital waiting room became, not a scene where people were taken to be saved, but where people came to wait to be hurt.

Only upon arriving at the last picture of the collection did all the feelings, thoughts and emotions of the night, days, weeks and years Arthur had been what he believed to be unchanged, changed and made themselves understood to the Briton.

The photo, the last in the long line of Francis' life, was of him. The same café from the beginning, the same day, the same rain, the same tea, the same everything. But this time, instead of looking bereft and lost, Arthur was smiling. Not bright like Alfred or Francis, but that own small smile that he rarely had. He was working on the sketch of Francis and he was smiling.

"It's lovely."

Francis and him were one in the same; they just captured realities in their own rights. The Brit had drawings that meant something only to him; the Frenchman had photos that had stories only he knew. And that entire exhibition, from the picture of him moping to the one here, was Francis at its very core. A Francis whom the Frenchman had just spent the better part of an hour leading Arthur through and revealing who he was.

The Brit realised he had done the same. The pictures of Alfred, the time spent moping on his couch. Inadvertently, the Brit had nearly spilled his entire life onto a canvas for Francis to capture and find out stories about him. There was only one thing Francis didn't know everything about.

Alfred.

At that moment, the two worlds, one with Alfred and one with Francis were merging and Arthur found himself ill with the shift.

Pushing through the crowd as best he could with one hand clapped over his mouth to keep words, tears, and whatever else had been bottled up inside, back because he felt like talking and that didn't make him feel good at all.

Outside, the cool air was like a release and he rushed down the steps of the gallery, nearly making it to the road before a hand was around his wrist and yanking him back. He stumbled, bumping Francis before pulling his hand away, glaring at Francis a hand still over his mouth as he avoided the blue eyes.

Above them, a streetlight gleamed, bathing them in an orange light.

"You call it lovely," Francis said quietly, keeping just enough distance so he could grab Arthur again, "and then run out… what is wrong?"

The fingers around Arthur's mouth tighten and he looked away, closing his eyes, shuddering. These were supposed to stay in his journal- never to be said allowed because in his journal, when he closed the cover he could pretend they didn't exist and go back to his drawings and live in that other world.

But Francis had shown him otherwise.

He couldn't keep it inside anymore.

"E-Everything-" Arthur said, looking up at him, hand falling away, "I-I am lonely and lost and so confused and I shouldn't be because before him I was alright! I knew who I was and I could handle myself and yet here I am, t-three years away from him and I-I have no idea what to do with myself! I am lost. A-And then you bloody show up and just yank me back on the bloody road and- y-you show up for a mere f-five seconds and I am smiling again-"

Arthur pressed hands to his wet cheeks, legs starting to move, to run, to hide- "I-I am a bloody fool."

But there is something keeping him still. Arms wrapping around his person and holding him tight to the warm chest. Out of instinct, Arthur tried to fight, tried to run and flee and never look back because all of those words, those truths were supposed to be quiet and his.

"Arthur, tranquille," a voice, smooth and soft as night was whispering into his ear and cause him to stiffen and then- "Please. I understand."

Slumped.

He took a minute to find his breath and shuddered against Francis the entire time. Francis doesn't let him go; merely rubbing his back softly and hushed him. There was a subtle rocking to their bodies and Arthur's breath soon grows steady in the stale pocket of air he'd made against Francis' chest.

Pulling his head away, he glanced up at Francis, swallowing and flushing with embarrassment as he tries to mope up the tears. "Bloody hell- I don't know what came over me, I am truly s-sorry."

"Arthur- it is fine." Francis said quickly, looking Arthur straight in the eye. "That- was amazing. I have seen something so raw, so… pure." A thumb brushed a stray tear away and Arthur leaned away automatically from the touch, the hug still too much of a personal space invasion for his liking.

Francis sighed heavily and looked down at him. "You have him and I have Jeanne. She is dead and your… significant other-"

"Alfred." The name burnt on Arthur's tongue.

"-Alfred. Is gone. It is natural that we would find solace with each other. That is what friends do." The Frenchman squeezed him again and Arthur was sure if he had been shorter, he'd have found himself under the stubbly chin, tucked against the long body.

Their breathings synced. "But they are never truly gone, there are small pieces of that live on, oui? Like my photos and your drawings… We never forget them, as they continue to exist. Never lose his love Arthur, it made you better and I am glad to meet the… after-product of your time with him."

Arthur flushed, mumbled something and then his eyes were drawn to the left side of Francis' head. A single firefly, bright even in the light of the lamppost, was fluttering, tiny wings beating as it buzzed closer, shimmering. Small pieces that live on…

The green eyes flicked back to the blue ones just in time to see them widen in surprise at the kiss. Arthur's fingers, still wet from tears, clutched at the edges of Francis' jaw, holding him and tasting the wine from the night- and the Frenchman's fingers were tight in the back of his own coat and for a moment the pressure on their lips came from both sides.

And then there was nothing.

Francis watched him with confused and hurt eyes, shaking his head. "Ah- I cannot-" he said quietly, "Antonio." A weak smile, the elegant thumb brushing across French lips to wipe the taste of Arthur from them and then a sprint back into the warmth of the gallery.

Above him, the firefly hummed, one of his hands was still suspended in the air but quickly fell to his side, clenching into a fist. What was he thinking? Drunk on emotions he'd acted on them and look where he'd ended up. Glaring at the small firefly, he scoffed at it.

"This is all your fault." Reaching up, Arthur captured the small bug in his hands and hurried home.

By the time he'd arrived back, the creature had turned to dust.