There were few things in life more precious than a parent cradling their child in their arms. For Matthew, this was something he had experienced many times before. He knew all the ways a light beard could tickle his cheek until his sides grew sore from being snuggled so much by someone who loved him more than there were stars in the sky. He knew all the different songs that could be sung to him, from stunning ballads to drunken limericks made up on the spot. He knew the songs that were sung to a child when a parent was so immeasurably proud or in awe of their little one and he knew how to catch the crack or slip in their voice when something awful had happened and they needed a little angel to cheer them up again. He was good at that; at least, he thought he was.
He knew what it was like to hold a soft face stained with tears with tiny, chubby hands and he knew what the startled gasp sounded like when a parent murmured an apology for crying in front of them. "I thought you were asleep, my angel." He knew how to wipe the tears away with the sleeves of a cotton or silk shirt he had been gifted with – "It's itchy! It's scratchy! You can't make me wear any more wool!" – and how to kiss someone's forehead until their tummy felt all warm and bubbly again. He was small but he liked to think that for one day, far, far away, he was learning how to be a parent. Matthew had always been observant, after all. He picked up French twice as fast as his little brother did and while Alfred certainly beat him in how fast he learned to speak English, Matthew learned the importance of that language too.
He knew the way Alfred always put such an effort into speaking English perfectly, no matter what, and he knew the scowl on his brother's face when he'd say something wrong. While Matthew would mutter an all too quiet apology, Alfred would squeeze his hand and promise that he'd get it right eventually. "You'll get it right eventually." There would be a hug after that. "Until then," Alfred would murmur softly for he too had been a shy little thing until days spent waiting for a certain furry browed guardian to return, "we can speak the way that grand frère taught us to." It was moments like that that Matthew missed the most – when Alfred and he could laugh and race through wide fields of grasses taller than they were and roll until their clothes were positively filthy and they would have to part ways so that they could each be scolded at by their respective guardian. That was something else Matthew knew – how to be a good older brother. He was good at that. Making someone you love smile – that was another thing he knew was absolutely precious.
Every day, every night he could, he would do his hardest to draw smiles to replace the ones that he had lost and he would never see again. Sometimes he tried so hard, tears fell from the bright eyes that the most important person in his life had always adored. When this happened, if he was lucky, he would gain an apology and a pat to his head, perhaps a ruffle to his hair. Never a kiss to his cheek or forehead like he used to have. "I can do better, I promise!" he would wail. His head would drop, so low his spectacles threatened to fall off, and no matter what he cried out, what promises he would make, every so often, he would face another night where he'd have to press a cool wet rag against his cheek to keep the sting away.
"I – I …"
Matthew wasn't exactly sure what it meant to be a parent. He had been learning but then he stopped. He knew he had something better to do than learn – he had someone who needed to tuck him in at night. He knew that the sour smelling drinks in corked glasses and mugs that he was never allowed to touch were bad and awful things because they turned someone who should be a parent into someone who was utterly frightening. Someone with a voice loud as the wrath of Dieu he had always been warned about by the Jesuits, someone who cursed and threw breakable things against walls until they shattered into thousands of pieces, someone who would whirl around and glare at him so suddenly if he dared to breathe too loudly. In moments like this, he would flinch and pick up his tiny bear from the ground, holding him protectively. "I didn't say a-anything about … t-taxes," he would whisper. He was never heard. If he was lucky, he would have enough sense not to go up and hug his sometimes-monster-sometimes-father. Otherwise, he would be shoved away and he would curl up when he fell so his polar bear wasn't harmed.
"I gave you everything!" the fake monster, real person, screamed at him. He would whimper and flinch.
"I know." More screaming. He didn't dare look up when he heard the cracks in that loud voice which meant that his parent was back and his parent was crying. "I'm sorry, I can be better," he would whisper. He would set his friend down, tell them to go hide and edge closer to his Papa. A not so chubby anymore hand would tug at his shirt cautiously.
"I gave you everything!" The broken man would scream. Matthew didn't have to look up to see the drunken rage and depression in his Papa's eyes. He could only murmur a continuous stream of apologies and hope that he wouldn't get struck in the face like he had been last time. "Everything…. Why did you leave me…?"
"I did something wrong…. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I promise I'll be better. I'll make you smile tomorrow, I promise, Papa – "
"Don't lie to me, Alfred."
"… I – I'm sorry. … I won't do it again…"
Pretending to be someone else… Matthew was good at that too.