Enjolras learns about astronomy, mythology, entymology, and the dangers of Brownian motion while making a gift for Combeferre.
Enjolras knows what he wants to make Combeferre for his birthday this year.
It's been two years since they became fast friends, after Combeferre followed Enjolras as Enjolras skittered across the length and breadth of Combeferre's estate. They don't get to see each other on a regular basis, but their own friendship seemed to encourage their parents' rapport, and they usually get to see each other at least once a month.
Giving Enjolras a month to get his project together.
"I need these." Enjolras reaches out to tug on his mother's skirt, managing to snag the fabric with his smallest finger despite his overburdened arms.
His mother turns away from the counter where she'd been chatting with the store owner and frowns at the collection of pins, fabric, small glass bottles, and wood in his arms. "And why do you need all of this?"
"To make a present." Enjolras smiles up at his mother. "For 'Ferre's birthday."
His mother suppresses a smile of her own and bends down, adjusting Enjolras' wispy blond hair so that it sits more behind his ears rather than fluttering in front of his eyes. "You're five years old now. Isn't it about time you started calling your friend by his given name, or at least giving him the dignity of saying his entire family name?"
He's called Combeferre by a shortened version of his last name for two years, though, ever since they were first introduced, when Enjolras' mind had reeled at the list of given names that preceded Combeferre's family name and latched onto the only syllables he was certain he could pronounce. Enjolras sucks on his bottom lip for a moment, stopping when his mother places a finger across his mouth. Sighing, he nods. "I'll be sure to use his proper name. But I still need these."
"What on earth for?" His mother's hands rustle delicately through the collection of objects in his hands.
"To give him the bugs from our house."
There's a brief, startled gasp that sounds almost like hastily suppressed laughter from behind the counter.
Enjolras' mother frowns again. "The bugs… from our house?"
Not understanding what's so funny, Enjolras draws himself up to his full height—unfortunately not very impressive next to the adults in the room—and explains himself. "We've often gone looking for insects when we're together. He has a very large collection at his house, that he's gathered over the last few years. He's shown it to me several times. But some of the insects—and arachnids, because they're not the same—at our house are different. So I'm going to give him a collection from our house to go with the one he has from his house."
They've done a lot of things together, actually, from looking at bugs to star gazing to chasing rabbits to, once, petting a baby deer that had been too young to run away when they stumbled across it. Combeferre seems to love the outdoor world—and the indoor world, though Combeferre's parents had warned him after last time that if he set one more thing aflame he would never be allowed access to fire again, including candles. Chasing bugs was one of the first things they ever did, though, and Enjolras knows a few of the ones that will likely interest Combeferre.
"And all of this is needed for that?" The look on his mother's face is bemused now, but it's a gentle, accepting bemusement.
"Yes." Enjolras stares into his mother's blue eyes, willing her to understand. "So can I please have it all?"
"Very well." Standing, her arms now laden with all that he'd gathered, his mother turns to the counter. "I think we should make another stop before we head home, though, and find a few more… conventional gifts for your friend."
There are books everywhere.
Enjolras wanders slowly across the aisles of the small store, his hands held clasped behind his back as his mother had instructed, looking but not touching anything. His family has a large library of its own, and he's been tutored out of many of the books, but the number of books here feels… more intimidating, somehow.
More enticing, because it's unknown, because there could be anything between the beautiful covers that are stacked everywhere, and he wants to touch but he doesn't want to make his mother upset or hurt the books.
Combeferre would be most displeased with him if he damaged books.
Not that he's sure how he's supposed to damage them. His fingers are still clean—he's had nothing to eat since they left home, and spent only minimal time crawling around on his hands and knees in the other store. Still, best not to chance anything.
A book catches his eye, the binding navy blue leather that seems to invite his touch, silver dots picked out in startling contrast on the dark cover. Standing up on the very tips of his toes, Enjolras is able to make out the title of the book.
Hurrying back to his mother, he waits impatiently as she continues her conversation with the male proprietor of the shop.
"—at least one book in Latin. Something combining history and politics, perhaps—or poetry, I hear the boy's good with poems. And one in English, perhaps a botanical or zoological piece, he's been very interested in both lately. Yes, child, I can see you there, no need to bounce."
Enjolras frowns down at his feet. He isn't bouncing. He's just… not standing still. Shrugging, he raises his eyes to meet his mother's. "There's a book that looks really nice and I want you to see if the inside looks as good as the outside and if 'Fe—Combeferre would like it."
"Lead the way." His mother gestures with an elegant grace that immediately captures and directs the eye of both he and the shop-keep, and Enjolras determines that he will practice the movement, in case he ever needs to direct attention like that.
His mother lifts the book to her eyes, opening it and very gently paging through it. "Hmmm… in French, but well written…"
Enjolras makes a soft sound of dismay, circling his mother as he tries to find an angle that will allow him to see the book she holds.
Settling down so that her skirts pool around her, putting herself on his level, Enjolras' mother smiles as she holds the book so he can see it. "It's a combination of science, math, and legend. It's about the stars."
"I know. That's what astronomy means." Enjolras leans forward, studying the pages open before him. A picture takes up one page, showing a beautiful horse with wings coming from its back, while the opposing page holds part of a story describing a hero riding the winged horse.
His mother flips forward a few pages, and tables of numbers interspersed with charts of the sky flash by his eyes.
"It's perfect." Enjolras looks up at his mother, a grin brightening his face. "Stories and science! It's perfect."
"I'm inclined to agree. Here." His mother presses the book very gently into his hands. "Why don't you hold onto this while I look for a few more gifts to be a present from your father and I?"
Enjolras nods, settling down to flip through the book. He ignores most of the math sections—he can do math if he needs to, but Combeferre tends to be better and faster at it than he is. Instead he studies the sky-maps, trying to remember exactly what the star-flecked darkness has looked like while he and Combeferre studied it together, and works his way through several of the stories, happy to find that his French reading, at least, is quite up to the task of deciphering the stories.
He's disappointed when his mother summons him to leave, but he consoles himself with the thought of reading more of the stories later, with Combeferre, and his mother has to tell him repeatedly to slow down and stop fidgeting as they begin their trip home.
Collecting insects is harder than it appears to be.
Catching them is the first difficulty. Combeferre has always been the one to do the catching when they've done this together, and he always managed to make the use of nets and bottles and stealth look easy.
Enjolras finds that it's actually quite easy to make a mistake.
He also finds that Combeferre was quite right about one of the differences between a bee and a wasp being the number of times the insects can sting before dying.
The suicidal bees do him no good, though, the loss of their stingers always seeming to leave the rest of their body broken and flat-looking as well. It takes three forays and approximately a dozen stings before he has a specimen that he likes.
It takes four forays, the complete demolition of one of their nests during a moment of panicked retaliation, and approximately thirty stings for Enjolras to collect a suitable wasp body.
He turns to less painful collecting after that, giving the swollen, painful lumps on his arms, legs, and face a chance to heal while he gathers ants, butterflies, moths, aphids, beetles, flies, cockroaches, weevils, and grasshoppers.
It's while he's collecting spiders that he learns tiny wounds can lead to much larger complications.
He's not sure which spider it was that bit him, later—or, rather, which spider-bite exactly it was that went from mildly painful and irritating to impressively awful-looking, because several of the beasts bit him in their panicked attempts at flight.
The bite starts off small, barely a pin-prick on his wrist. By the next morning it's a large red lump, similar to the bee stings. By that afternoon it's twice as swollen and hideously painful, a dark red knob that sends bolts of agony up and down his arm when he presses on it.
It hurts less the next morning, but when he rolls up the cuff of his sleeve to study the injury he finds it's because the top of the red knob has sloughed off and the bite is leaking pale red and yellow fluid onto his nightgown.
He walks calmly down to his parent's room, knocks politely, waits for them to grant him entrance, and then proceeds to show them the bite.
He's relieved when his father turns pale and his mother gives a little gasp of dismay, both of them immediately yelling for someone to go fetch a doctor.
Apparently the desire he has to cry or scream at the sight of the injury and its discharge is perfectly normal, and not something that could be dismissed as childish.
The doctor wraps his arm in a foul-smelling poultice, which Enjolras finds almost as bad as the bite itself, and declares that he must stay in bed and rest for the next week.
He only has another week left to complete his gift. Enjolras rests for the remainder of the day, but the next afternoon and all the days that follow see him sneaking out his window and into the grounds, determined to complete his task.
Because his wrist still heals quickly, leaving behind a dark purple scar of puckered skin that shows starkly against his pale complexion, his parents only yell at him a little bit.
He arranges all of his insects carefully on the display board that he made, labeling them with small Greek letters beneath each and creating a key on a separate piece of parchment. Almost everything is perfect.
Almost everything, but one important thing is missing.
Luquetia lobella, the moth that they found on their very first visit together, is a pretty gray moth with black and white markings. It's not the prettiest of the moths and butterflies, but it's special, and he knows where his specimen is supposed to go.
Unfortunately, the moths don't begin appearing until shortly before Combeferre's birthday.
Enjolras doesn't manage to capture one until the day that Combeferre is supposed to arrive. He works too hastily, shoving the moth into the jar with the ether to kill it, not being as gentle as he should be, and by the time he pulls the moth out and tries to pin it on the board one of its small wings is folded nearly in half.
Frowning at the insect's body, Enjolras nibbles on one of his finger nails for a moment before making a face and pulling his hands away from his mouth. His fingers smell and taste like a combination of ether and glue, and neither is something he would recommend.
He wants this moth to look good.
Pressing down gently on the offending wing with the very tip of one finger, he waits five seconds.
When he releases the wing, it very slowly curls back up, almost as though mocking him.
Enjolras scowls at the tiny corpse. He doesn't want to have to go catch another one. There aren't very many of the moths around yet, and catching this one had taken him hours. Besides, Combeferre won't like that he wasted a life, even if it's a tiny little insect's life.
Stupid. Why had he been so hasty and incautious when preparing the moth?
Looking around the room, Enjolras tries to find inspiration.
His eyes light on the candle by his bed.
Heat is used to straighten clothes.
Might heat be useful in straightening tiny insect wings, as well?
Deciding that there could be no harm in trying, Enjolras goes to light the candle.
Combeferre had been expecting an effusive greeting from their hosts, congratulating him on his eight years of life, a greeting that he would nod and smile through and honestly enjoy a bit, though he would be itching to run off with Enjolras and see what new wonders they could find.
Instead he and his parents wander into a madhouse.
People dart back and forth across the carefully manicured estate, and Enjolras' name is called over and over again, in varying levels of panic.
After approximately five minutes and several hasty apologies from various members of the Enjolras household, Enjolras' father approaches them, running a hand through sweat-slicked hair as he does. "I'm so sorry, my friends. We meant to greet you properly, but there's… a bit of an issue."
"Your son?" Combeferre's mother says the words softly, a combination of sympathy and amusement in her voice. "What's he done this time?"
"Disappeared." Enjolras' father sighs. "He was supposed to meet us here for dinner, dressed and ready to greet you. When he didn't appear, we went to search for him and found half his bedclothes burned and his room empty. We're not sure exactly what happened."
Fire. Combeferre winces, studying his shoes, remembering the… issues he's had with the element himself. So alluring and so treacherous.
But why would Enjolras run afterward?
Enjolras wasn't one to run from problems. Whenever their parents confronted them about one or another adventure that had come to light, Enjolras always owned his part in it proudly, head held high. Not that the other boy was a tattle—quite the opposite. Enjolras was perhaps the best of Combeferre's friends at keeping confidence, despite his being younger than most of them.
"Could I see his room, sir?" Combeferre looks between all three adults. "To see if I find anything that can be helpful."
"Certainly." Enjolras' father gives him a haggard smile. "Any help would be appreciated."
"Tell us before you go haring off somewhere though, boy." Combeferre's father's hand falls on his shoulder in two heavy claps. "We don't want to be beating the bush for the both of you."
"I'll be sure to tell you where I'm heading, sir." With a brief bow to his host, Combeferre dashes up the stairs and into Enjolras' room.
The smell of smoke still lingers, though there's no sign of any fresh fire, just smudged soot stains on the carpet and a collection of half-burned bedding on the floor.
What in heaven's name had Enjolras been attempting to do?
Toeing through the ashes, Combeferre bends down, frowning at something that looks familiar.
It's a half a moth wing—half of a Luquetia wing, singed around the edges, and Combeferre finds himself smiling as he remembers his first encounter with Enjolras. The ashen wing blends in with the soot on the floor, but Combeferre would know those patterns anywhere.
What he doesn't know is where the rest of the insect's body is or what it might have to do with Enjolras' disappearance.
Walking in a slow circle out from the point where the fire burned, Combeferre studies the room, looking for anything that might explain what's going on.
And comes to a halt by the bed, his eyes arrested by an eclectic, beautiful, totally Enjolras insect display.
The display board is home-made, black and dark blue fabric trimming the sturdy wood framing, the fabric cut unevenly but determinedly. The insects displayed on it are arranged in a strange pattern, not by species but by some other mad scheme, not arranged in rows but rather in angular patterns that are almost, almost familiar to Combeferre.
Scrutinizing the boards more closely, he follows a set of three large insects, two beetles and a grasshopper, that form an almost-straight line, the last beetle just slightly off from the other two. Where has he…?
The insects are arranged in constellations, the larger insects for brighter stars, the smaller ones for dimmer stars.
Grinning, Combeferre reaches out and begins tracing the constellations he recognizes. Not all of them are properly placed in the sky—in fact, some are winter and some are summer constellations—but that just makes identifying them all the more fun.
There's an insect missing. At the center of the display, in the Gemini constellation, one of the brighter stars is missing.
A star that would have been represented by the moth?
He still doesn't understand where fire fits into this, but at least he thinks he has a fair idea of where Enjolras likely is right now.
He finds Enjolras roughly where he expected him to be, in the stretch of forest that has the proper depth of leaf-litter to encourage pupation and emergence of adult moths.
What he hadn't expected was for Enjolras to have his foot trapped in a sinkhole.
Enjolras is curled on his side, both his hands around his lower left leg, his left ankle and foot sunk deep into the ground. His breathing is slow and even, though there's a ragged quality to it that tells Combeferre's he's in pain.
Running to his friend's side, Combeferre kneels down beside him and places his hand gently on the other boy's shoulder.
Enjolras uncurls slightly, blinking up at him hazily. "'Ferre?"
"Right here." Combeferre moves down Enjolras' body, prodding gently at where Enjolras' leg disappears into the ground, earning a whimper from his friend. "What happened?"
"I needed to catch another moth." Enjolras' voice is thin. "Did you know that they can actually be quite fast? And their motion in the wind is very difficult to predict, even when they're not actually trying to run. And I needed to not damage this one like I did the other. So I wasn't paying attention, and… well…"
"You ended up with your foot buried in a badger hole." Combeferre touches the swollen skin of Enjolras' ankle. "And your ankle possibly broken."
"Insects are dangerous, 'Ferre. They sting and they bite and they lead you into traps and—" Enjolras makes a little gasping noise, not quite a sob. "And I can't get my foot out. Every time I try to move it I hurt really bad."
"I'll get you out." Combeferre quickly calculates what direction he should pull Enjolras in to free him with the least amount of wrenching on his ankle. "It's probably going to hurt when I do it, too, though."
"That's all right." Enjolras' voice is steady again. "I'll be fine."
Touched by the clear trust and faith in Enjolras' voice, Combeferre widens the hole, stretching the roots that are holding Enjolras' foot in place to give him the best chance of getting Enjolras free in one tug. Then he grabs the younger man under the shoulders, counts down from five, and pulls him free.
Enjolras doesn't cry. He does latch onto Combeferre's waistcoat with both hands, though, and his cheeks and lips are deathly pale, his blue eyes shining eerily from his ghost-white face.
"There we go. Free." Combeferre wraps his arms around Enjolras and hugs him tightly. "Do you think you can walk if you lean on me? Or do you want me to go fetch one of our parents to carry you?"
"I want to stay with you." Enjolras slowly shifts into a more natural sitting position, his injured leg stretched out in front of him. "I should be able to walk. It actually hurts less, now that it isn't being twisted around in bad ways."
And if all else fails, Combeferre will likely be able to carry Enjolras at least part of the way—the benefits of being older and bigger. "Take a minute to catch your breath, then, and we'll be off. Your parents are worried about you. They think you might have run away because of the fire in your room."
"Oh." Enjolras raises his head, a frown on his face. "I was hoping they wouldn't find that."
"It… was rather obvious."
"I was going to clean it up as soon as I had the moth." Enjolras sighs, levering himself to his feet by hauling on Combeferre, keeping all his weight on his good foot.
"What exactly happened?" Climbing slowly to his own feet, being careful not to unbalance Enjolras, Combeferre tries to find a way to offer support to the smaller boy as they begin limping home.
"I tried to iron the moth that I caught but damaged. It… didn't work very well." Shaking his blond hair from his eyes, Enjolras blinks up at Combeferre. "Did you know moths are combustible? And that smothering a fire is actually rather difficult because if you're not careful what you're trying to smother it with can catch fire as well?"
"The second part, yes. I haven't had cause to experience the first yet." Given his track record, Combeferre strongly suspects he'll experience the first some day, some how.
"At least none of the rest of your present got hurt." A smile lights Enjolras' face, open and honest. "I can't wait to give it to you! I think you'll like it a lot."
"I… think I've already seen it." Guilt curls through Combeferre, though he can't think of anything he's done that's actually blame-worthy, as Enjolras' face falls. "I didn't get a chance to study it properly, though what I did see was amazing. I can't wait to have a chance to examine everything you found, and how you arranged it—very clever and very unique. I've never seen a constellation of insects before."
The smile tentatively blooms on Enjolras' face again. "You like it? Really?"
"Because I tried really hard. And I learned a lot about bugs. Including what spider-bites can do—this is what mine looks like after eight days." Enjolras raises his wrist, displaying a thick circular scar.
"Wow. Even I haven't gotten anything quite like that. Though I have had a few injuries and bites and stings." Combeferre stares at the scar. "But you, Enjolras, you always manage to do everything… bigger than me."
"I just keep going until I finish what I started." Enjolras shrugs, though his expression is shy and uncertain as he looks up at Combeferre. "Do you think I did something wrong?"
"No." Smiling himself, Combeferre bends down, gesturing for Enjolras to climb up on his back. "I like that about you. You never do anything half-heartedly. I don't think you're capable of it. You're… you're pretty amazing. I'm very happy to have you as my friend."
"I'm glad." Enjolras' arms wrap around Combeferre's neck, holding tight. "Because I love having you as my friend, too."
Standing, only staggering a little bit under Enjolras' weight, Combeferre continues the trek back to Enjolras' house.
"…and Zeus, taking pity on his son in his grief, declared that Pollux's immortality would be shared with Castor, turning the two brothers into the constellation that we know as Gemini."
Combeferre closes the book, holding it tight to his chest. The sky is darkening rapidly, dusk giving way to night, but there'd been just enough light left for him to finish the story that he'd started. Given the centerpiece of Enjolras' gift, it had seemed an appropriate story to start with.
Enjolras gives a contented sigh, his head nestling down on Combeferre's shoulder as he looks up at the sky, searching for the first stars. "So the Greeks thought that the stars were alive, then?"
"Perhaps." Combeferre hesitates, his fingers gently running over the leather cover of the book. "Or perhaps they just needed a story to explain where the stars came from, to help people remember them."
"But if they don't think the stars are alive, then what Zeus did was kind of terrible, killed his son, and didn't actually fulfill Pollux's request." Enjolras' disapproval is clear in his voice.
"True enough." The first faint flickers of light are just becoming visible in the sky.
"I think I like Pollux and Castor, though. They were good brothers. They took care of each other, and they tried to take care of other people." There's a brief pause, and then Enjolras continues, his voice lower. "I think it was a good choice for your gift."
"I think so, too." Still hugging the book to himself, Combeferre smiles, thinking back on his rather more exciting than anticipated birthday. "Though not everything they did was good. Stealing women is a poor way to go about getting a wife."
"Oh." Enjolras frowns. "Why?"
"Because it isn't fair to the women, for one. They should have a say in who they marry and where they end up. Being kidnapped is not a good way to start a relationship." Combeferre pauses, not knowing how much weight that argument will hold with Enjolras, how strongly his family believes in equality of the sexes. Probably to some extent, at least, or Combeferre's mother wouldn't get along with them nearly as well as she does. "And it's not fair to their families, either. What would you do if someone tried to steal your mother or my mother or my sister to marry? It wouldn't be a very nice thing to do."
"I don't think anyone would want to steal your sister. She's tiny and slobbery and prone to throwing up on things."
Combeferre laughs at the not-inaccurate description of his baby sister. "Well, yes, right now. But she won't be like that forever."
"And anyone trying to steal your mom would be in trouble. Or my mom." Enjolras tenses. "I wouldn't allow anyone to take my mom."
"And no one would, not here and now." Giving Enjolras' leg a reassuring pat, Combeferre settles back on the grass, his eyes on the sky. "But that's why you've always got to think about the stories that we're told. There can be bad things in them that people didn't realize were bad when they were telling the stories."
Enjolras settles down next to him, his head pillowed on Combeferre's shoulder. "Do you think there are bad things in our world that people don't realize are bad?"
"Probably." Combeferre considers all that he's heard his parents talk about. "Undoubtedly. And some bad things that people know are bad but don't know how to fix."
For several long minutes Enjolras is silent, and Combeferre begins to wonder if he's fallen asleep. Then he speaks again, his voice soft. "Maybe we can help find the things that are bad. Maybe we can help people and change things for the better."
"I'd like that." Smiling, Combeferre teases at Enjolras' hair with one hand. "Between your stubborn determination and immunity to pain and my knowledge base, maybe we could get some interesting things done."
Enjolras presses himself closer to Combeferre, shivering slightly as the evening becomes more chill with the fading of the light. "Like Castor and Pollux. Heroes, sharing our immortality with each other."
"Heroes." Pulling Enjolras closer to himself, Combeferre gives the smaller boy a brief kiss on the forehead. "Perhaps. Or at least good people, who do the best that we can for everyone we can."
"That's what a hero is." The utter certainty in Enjolras' voice makes Combeferre's smile broaden. Then Enjolras lifts one small hand and points at a faint collection of stars. "Is that the Northern Star?"
"No, that's actually Ursa minor, the little bear." Raising his own hand, Combeferre begins pointing out stars and constellations, itching to check the book in his hands later and see what new knowledge it has for him about each one.
Before ten minutes have passed, though, Enjolras is pointing to another spot, far to the right. "What are those stars? Why are they coming and going?"
Squinting, doing his best to follow Enjolras' direction, Combeferre watches the patch of sky. For a full minute nothing happens. Then a bright line of fire flits across the sky, there and then gone. "Oh, those are falling stars!"
"Really?" Enjolras looks suitably impressed. "I didn't know stars could fall. How do they get back up?"
"They don't. They're not actually stars—there's some debate whether they're actually associated with the stars and sky at all, or whether they're just a strange weather phenomenon, but I like the theory that they're stones from the heavens, even if the Americans did think of it first. Ah, this is amazing! There goes another one."
"Stones from the heaven. Falling stars." Enjolras sits back up, gazing in rapt fascination at the streaks of fire in the sky. "The heroes coming back to the world, maybe? Castor and Pollux returned. It's so beautiful."
"Yes." Pulling Enjolras tight against his side again, Combeferre can't keep himself from grinning. "They are definitely beautiful."
The two of them stay there for over an hour, long after the meteors have stopped flashing, until the night has gone from cool to quite chilly and their parents are calling them to come inside. Standing reluctantly, helping Enjolras to his feet and giving him an arm to lean on, Combeferre bids the stars farewell, though he'd be quite content to stay outside all night, with the young man who is his dearest friend, and revel in the pale clear light of distant stars in a deep black sky.