The next morning, Matthew woke early. The sun had barely risen and the constant background noise of traffic on the road below had been reduced to an occasional swishing as a solitary car went by. He sat up, the crackling of blankets deafening in the silence. Despite the hour, he was completely awake and he knew that he would have no chance of getting back to sleep even if he tried. The room felt stuffy and claustrophobic and his thoughts moved sluggishly in the dense air. He needed to get outside, the better to put his mind in order. Trying not to make any sound, he got up and dressed in the first things he could find, intending to go down to the village again.
He slipped outside into the startlingly cool air of the morning, shutting the door behind him with a muted click. The dormant house observed him dispassionately as he began to descend the hill, the soles of his Converse slapping flatly against the road with every step. He casually stuffed his hands into the pockets of his hoodie, surprised when one unexpectedly made contact with a heavy lump. It was his phone. Drawing it out, he saw that he had no fewer than twelve missed calls from Alfred. Of course. He must have been watching on TV. Matthew hadn't told him about what he and Francis had done and now he felt horribly guilty at the thought of how Alfred would feel. Their whole relationship was founded on the understanding that they would tell each other everything. He decided that, although it was early, he would have to make the call now. He sighed. His whole life seemed to be a succession of apologies, both given and received. Alfred launched into his angry speech as soon as he picked up.
'Hello, Matt. Thanks for telling me about going on TV. It's great to know that I can always depend on my brother to keep me updated about what's going on in his life.' he said bitterly.
'Al, I'm really sorry. I just wasn't sure about how to tell you. I wasn't sure if you'd understand. You do tend to judge people without knowing them, like you've done with Francis.'
'Oh, right. Sorry. So he stalked a guy, wrote three books of poetry about him, hid away for four years and then dramatically revealed all on TV, but he's a nice guy really. A nice, normal guy.' The hurt was obvious in Alfred's voice and Matthew was brought close to tears by his shame. Alfred continued in the same vein. 'So I'm just at work yesterday – in a restaurant – when I get a text from Mathias saying he's just seen you and that French guy on YouTube. So I just tell him that if he's trying to fool me then he's not gonna succeed, because there's no way my little bro would do something like that without telling me about it. But he keeps going on about it, so when I get home I decide to check it out. And sure enough, there you are. With him. And from what you say, it sounds like you're more than friends. But yeah. Thanks again for letting me in on it.' For several seconds, there was silence as each one of them breathed shallowly, the mechanical ear of the phone listening and passing on the message to the other. Matthew felt his tears continuing to rise, then, when he could bear the stinging in his eyes no more, they overflowed.
'I'm sorry, Al. I was wrong not to tell you, I really was. But we are just friends, I promise. Except…' He cut himself off. He had said too much.
'Except what?' Alfred demanded, the hostility in his voice undimmed.
'Nothing,' Matthew replied weakly. 'Nothing at all.' Then he hung up and continued his walk to the village.
Once there, he found the bench by the pond where he had sat before under such different circumstances. According to his phone, it was not even seven o'clock yet. The single shopping street was desolate, all the windows shuttered, and all the houses were draped with heavy hangings of sleep. He would not be disturbed for a while. He scrunched up his face, trying to slow the march of tears down his cheeks. He could just imagine Alfred swaddled in his hamburger-print bedspread, scowling down at his phone, trying to be tough but in reality stung by his brother's betrayal. And then there was Francis. Francis, Francis, Francis. His poetry, of course; his charmingly antiquated speech; his lively features, so quick to turn from one expression to another. Matthew's feelings were hopelessly tangled. He knew that falling for someone else so soon after leaving Gilbert was probably a bad idea, but he just couldn't help it. His attraction to Francis was increasing with every passing day, giving him limited time to decide on the best course of action. He knew Alfred would disapprove of him being with Francis but he realised that he would have to stop taking his cues from his brother all the time. There was a difference between being protected and being smothered. He was in love, no two ways about it. He was in love, and it was far too late to get out of it now.
Francis too had been up with the birds, and he had heard Matthew going out, no matter how quiet he had tried to be. For the first time in a while, he felt excited. He still couldn't quite believe that Arthur hadn't wanted his head on a pike but wasn't going to complain about it. He really had punished himself enough, he decided as he flitted around the house, having an adrenaline rush in the unfortunately cramped space. He felt gloriously, gleefully impulsive. He wanted to do something crazy. He hadn't been to Paris in a while, which pained him, since it was his favourite place. Now, if he so desired, he could jump in his car and go straight there, maybe even bring Matthew with him. Ah, yes. Matthew. He prayed that their little argument the previous night would prove to be of no consequence.
The poem was not yet complete, but he was beginning to see its form, like the preliminary sketches for a painted masterpiece. He hoped that he could find the words to do his new muse justice and decided that dancing through all the rooms like and overgrown child was not going to help him in this task. Filled with the thrill of writing, he hurried to his study and sat at his desk, pen brimming with ink and mind brimming with ideas. His face was set in a wonderful smile that he knew would be impossible to erase if he tried. He had a new muse, and what more than that could any poet want? He had a new love, and what more than that could anyone want?
Matthew stayed out for several hours, far longer than he had anticipated. When the small, sleepy coffee shop opened at around eight, he found himself going in and ordering breakfast. Seated at one of those delicate, wrought-iron garden tables by the window, he watched as the stillness of the morning was ruptured, pinprick by pinprick, as people began to go about their business. He felt a strange mix of contentment and excitement as he sipped his warm coffee and nibbled on a heavily sugared cinnamon whirl. Abruptly, the memory of the previous night came back to him and he dropped the pastry. It fell onto the plate with a dusty thump, causing the few other customers to turn and look at him. He blushed and averted his eyes so that he was staring out of the window. He blamed himself for the argument. Looking back, his turbulent emotions restored to calm, he saw that he had been unfair in blaming Francis for his own poor choice of words. Then, when they had fought, the things he had said had been calculated to hurt. He sighed deeply and aimlessly tore a pattern along the edges of his napkin. He needed a little more time to himself, just to think, then, he decided, he would apologise once he got home. Wait… When had he started calling Francis's house home?
At any rate, the day turned out to be pleasantly sunny and, lured by the breathy rushing of the river that flowed through the village, he found himself following its course for about four miles. He felt peaceful and curiously weightless as he navigated the erratic terrain of the riverbank, making intermittent stops to cool his tired feet in the brutally cold water. He called Alfred again and got no answer, so he left a message telling him that he loved Francis and that there was nothing that he could do to change that. Then, when he was too tired to walk any further, when the sun was turning from yellow to gold to sepia, when the summer air was sharpening and taking on a chill, he turned and went back to Francis's house with his lengthening shadow trailing behind him.
At the sound of a timid knock at the door, Francis dropped his book and rushed downstairs to answer it. His finished ode to Matthew had been carefully rolled up and tied with a silver ribbon, a sprig of lavender inserted in the gap between the paper and the binding; he had always been a great lover of romance and romantic gestures. Now, he picked it up from his desk and hid it behind his back, wanting to surprise its inspiration when he came in. On opening the door, he saw that Matthew was as beautiful as ever: a little more burnt than before from his day out, his hoodie tied casually around his slim hips and his hair falling over his eyes as it always did. They paused there, one just over the threshold, the other on it, neither quite sure of how to proceed. They ended up speaking at the same time, their voices mingling in discord as they tried to make themselves heard.
'Francis, I'm really…'
'It wasn't…' They came to an uncertain halt, the hasty, babbled, incoherent apologies enough for them, neither wanting to drag the ordeal out any further. Seeing his chance, Francis produced the little scroll.
'Mathieu,' he started to say, more hesitantly than usual, 'I wish to… tell you something. I have come to know you these last few weeks and I have come to like you in that time.' He paused to judge whether or not it was safe to continue. Taking Matthew's lack of interruption as agreement, he pressed on. 'A few days ago, I felt something I had not experienced in a while. I felt the desire, and the inspiration, to write. There was a reason for this, Mathieu, and that reason was you.'
For Matthew, the world stopped in that moment. He stuttered, his linguistic talent again having deserted him as it always did in times of need.
'I-I… R-Really? B-But why me?' Francis looked amused.
'Mathieu, I understand that you are shy, but this false modesty does not become you. You could inspire a hundred poets with your beauty, your sweetness, the way you sing when you think no-one is listening.' This last made him blush. His voice really wasn't all that good - tuneful but weak.
'Are you trying to tell me you love me?' he asked, emboldened and intoxicated by the praise that had gone to his head. Francis merely handed over the scroll and its lavender sprig.
'Read this and see for yourself.'
'I feel like a tourist.' Francis whined as they stood in the motionless queue for the Eiffel Tower. Matthew shook his head with a smile. In the three weeks since he had first read the poem by the light of the evening sun, he and Francis had formed an almost-perfect relationship.
'Oh, Francis. Such a proud Frenchman. It was you who wanted to go to Paris, remember?' Francis sighed.
'I know, but I had visions of something greater. Of boating along the Seine, of strolling hand-in-hand through the Tuileries gardens, of…' Matthew cut him off.
'Shh. We can do all that, but I want to go all the way to the top first. And I want to take the stairs just so I can boast about it to Alfred.' Francis stiffened at the mention of the name.
'Ah, your brother. He does not like me very much, not at all.' Matthew offered him a lick of his ice cream to cheer him up.
'Don't worry. He's just very protective of me. Once you meet him, you'll get on fine. Look, the queue's moving now!'
The view from the top was wonderful, the city and its environs radiating out in all directions and displaying a potted history of architecture. Matthew leaned up against Francis, grateful for the loving arm around his waist that stopped him from collapsing with exhaustion after their ill-advised climb. His breathing still wasn't quite back to normal.
'I wonder what all those people down there are thinking about. I wonder if they're in love, or if they're missing someone, or something like that,' he mused. He turned to Francis. 'Why don't you write a poem about it?' Francis smiled and stroked his hair.
'I only take inspiration from one thing, my love.' They stood in silence for a little while, watching the busy lives going on below. Eventually, Francis said, 'We should take a picture of ourselves.' Matthew coloured deeply.
'Oh no, we don't need to.'
'But surely you want to show Alfred some photographic proof of your achievement?'
'Alright then, but you do it. I'm useless at taking pictures.' He handed Francis the camera, since the Frenchman thought that carrying it himself would make him look like a tourist, then tried to get into a vaguely photogenic pose. Francis pressed a few buttons, then held the camera out at arm's length.
'Smile, mon cheri,' he said as he pressed the shutter button. Matthew arranged his features into a rictus grin, feeling self-conscious even though about a hundred other people were taking identical pictures. Then, without warning, Francis kissed him right on the lips. He had become used to these spontaneous shows of love, but he could never say for certain when one would happen. Still, it was far from unpleasant, even if he would have preferred not do it in public. When they pulled apart, Francis looked at the camera and cackled in triumph, then showed to picture to Matthew.
'What? How? I thought… Oh, you had it on timer, didn't you? Well, I can't send Alfred a picture of us kissing. Do it again – No, I'll do it. I don't trust you.' Matthew was horrified. Francis was laughing hysterically.
'Ah, Mathieu, this is not for your brother, unless you want to show him. No, this is for our own collection – our first holiday is an important occasion, non? Now, if you are still desperate to make your brother jealous, we can do it properly.'
'I hate you,' Matthew muttered.
'I love you too.' Francis said, laughing as he did so.
Matthew hummed to himself as he dusted the mantelpiece that contained all the precious memories that he and Francis had together. He couldn't quite believe that they'd been together for ten years, married for eight and proud fathers to Jeanne, the most wonderful daughter anyone could ask for, as Francis was fond of saying, for five. For the first time in a while, he gave their mementoes a proper look. There was the first poem Francis had given him, framed and given pride of place, as well as one he'd written for Jeanne when they'd first adopted her. There was their wedding photo, several others from their various travels abroad, and a big studio family one of the three of them. In the middle was a vase containing two preserved roses from their wedding and a sprig of lavender that they had put in once Jeanne had been added to their family.
He was brought out of his memories by the sound of the car pulling up outside, then Jeanne's excited little voice as she chattered to Francis. The two had gone out shopping, something Matthew usually did. He sincerely hoped that Francis had resisted spoiling his little girl. He went to open the door and leaned against the frame as he watched Francis unload the boot. He had a disconcerting number of bags. Jeanne, her white summer dress swirling around as she skipped, ran over to Matthew and hugged his knees.
'Hello daddy!' she said gleefully, grinning with lips that were coated in sugar. This did not bode well.
'Hey Baby J,' he said, using his nickname for her. 'Did papa let you have a cake?' She nodded enthusiastically.
'Yeah, a custard tart! And we brought you back a cinnamon thing because you like them.' She reached up and seized his hands. 'I want to show you what we bought! We bought lots of clothes, and they're all really pretty!' Oh dear, Matthew thought.
'Hello, mon cher,' Francis said cheerfully, coming over to them. 'I hope you were not too lonely without us.' They shared a quick kiss, making Jeanne giggle and squeal in childish horror. As they went inside, Matthew cast a sideways glance at the numerous bags.
'You certainly bought an awful lot,' he said in an undertone.
Francis and Jeanne's purchases littered the living room floor. With every fairy outfit, impractical party dress and frilly top, Matthew had felt his heart sink a little further. He plunged his hand into the last remaining bag.
'What's this? Lip gloss? For God's sake Francis, she's only five! We discussed this: no makeup until she's at least twelve.' Francis pouted.
'I am sorry, Mathieu, but who am I to deny my princess anything?'
'You're her father, that's who. She needs jeans and T-shirts, not dresses. I don't see why you couldn't just have said no. You're spoiling her. It's bad enough with Alfred and Ivan bringing her all those things whenever they come and visit.'
'I know, but I was in such good spirits on account of that new publishing deal…'
'Yes, yes, three more books over the next four years, well done.' He sighed, unable to stay irritated for long. 'Well, never mind. At least she'll look cute in those clothes.' Francis saw that he was forgiven and wrapped his arms around Matthew. Jeanne ran over to them to join the embrace. Enveloped by two sets of arms, Matthew reflected on the beginnings of their relationship. It had been strange at first, being a poet's muse, and it was true that both of them had needed a little help from each other to get used to loving again, but it had all worked out in the end. They weren't perfect, but then again no couple was. For now, it was enough that, with each other and Jeanne, they had found a love that was – totally and unconditionally – returned.
Author's Note: BOOM! Attack of the totally unnecessary family fluff! Mwahahahaha! Yes, the story is finished now, but I hope you enjoyed. My mind can't quite process the fact that 27 people were following this story! I love you all, every single one of you.