The journey – by hired coach, a mode of distance transport to which Combeferre was previously unaccustomed – is agony.
They sit beside one another, not across; each with enough space so as to make an absent touch of the shoulder seem intentional and a press of the thigh seem suggestive. With each touch Combeferre feels Enjolras relax against him, and for half of their journey he strives to make his attentions seem accidental… but with more than a hand's width of space between them, all touch requires effort, and any such illusion is difficult, surely, to believe.
Enjolras does not comment upon it, but on one occasion Combeferre sets his ungloved hand upon his knee, spreading his fingers, and he sees Enjolras cast down his gaze and smile.
It seems to Combeferre a great shame that they had never spoken of home with one another so extensively until August.
The mountains of which Enjolras told were the same which Combeferre would rise to see break the horizon each morning. The river in which Enjolras learned to swim was the same in which Combeferre nearly drowned at twelve, and the caves which Enjolras so feared as a child were the same in which Combeferre had gotten lost exploring. Yet though they grew up but few leagues apart, they knew alternate customs, spoke differently, had different memories. In Paris they spoke of landscapes, but never names: Enjolras did not like to think of himself as local.
What might have been different between them, if four years ago Combeferre had thought to ask from which town Enjolras hailed?
There is neither wall nor toll as they approach town, a contrast from Paris to which Combeferre has never given much thought. In Paris one cannot enter or exit at will without question; in the country it is easy to be an outsider and yet easier still to encounter hospitality.
The coach passes through in short time.
The estate of Enjolras's uncle is far removed from town, but as they draw nearer Combeferre notes that Enjolras himself has acquired a new energy. His cheeks are rosier; he holds himself straighter.
"You will benefit from fresh air," says Combeferre to him, "and from open spaces. As will I."
Enjolras bows his head, his flaxen curls falling to shield his face. Is he smiling? "You are right, Combeferre, as you so often are."
They arrive at the estate just before sunset: in the hours following the sky, then violet and orange, turns dark. The evening September air is cool and clean; if Combeferre leans from the window in his given bedchamber he can see the stars and feel the country air all at once, a benefit beyond what he can hope for in Paris.
After so much time travelling it is a great blessing to be alone. He can read, if he so wishes, or write, or simply sit and think without worry of intrusion: even in Paris, within his own apartment and his own bed, this is a rare pleasure. Over the past few months - full with worry and violence and suspicion - he has taken little time for himself. Here, he can do so, at least until morning.
But as night falls, he can think only of Enjolras.
His uncle has prepared two rooms for their stay.
Neither are the bedchamber which he had used as a boy, a fact which at once troubles and relieves him. This room now is brighter than his, with a full window and two oil lamps opposite one another on the walls, sparsely furnished.
It suits him, even as its unfamiliar nature is discomfiting.
Perhaps what is more unfamiliar is that he is alone. In years past this has suited him perfectly; indeed, even during the most recent spring he would have felt at home anywhere in this house, alone or otherwise — but he has spent the entirety of August with Combeferre, has shared his bed with Combeferre, has suppered with and dressed with Combeferre.
At the time the lack of independence seemed suffocating: an inconvenience to bear until he was fully healed (the day of which has yet to come) and could live in his own apartment again. In August he thought to himself: this is a necessary trial , and knew that even if he became well soon his apartment would not be safe. It would have helped no one, were he to have been arrested in such a state.
And Combeferre's behavior did very little to quell his agitation.
Now, however, after days of close-quarters travel and many more nights together with Combeferre than Enjolras has ever thought he might share with anyone, his bed feels empty.
In the morning they wake early.
For Enjolras, this is from habit; for Combeferre, a symptom of agitation. Nevertheless they find one another - Combeferre in his nightshirt, examining an enduring flower bush, Enjolras dressed and seated beneath a tree - in the garden shortly before dawn, as though attracted by natural magnetism, and they sit together in silence as the sun rises above the line where earth meets sky.
As the sky grows brighter, the chirrups of insects fades; the singing of birds begins. When Combeferre looks up, he sees them perched upon branches with red and golden leaves.
Autumn has come to their hometown, and summer, as all things, has come to an end.
Combeferre thinks to himself that the progress of the seasons is a natural phenomenon: constant, unavoidable, yet comforting in its cyclicity. Civilization, he has always maintained, has its own sort of pattern of progress, but unlike nature it is unpredictable with science. Progress in men comes from foundations carved of hope; yet it crumbles and falters even in the face of a people's tenacity. When suppressed, however, it seeps into men's souls and stays there, dormant, until it can take its course: through education, through deliverance, through liberation. Natural progress is more true than forced change.
Enjolras sets his hand upon Combeferre's arm.
"Good morning, my friend," he breathes, and something about his tone gives Combeferre the feeling that his thoughts, although unspoken, were heard.
"My uncle is a solitary man," says Enjolras, his back curved over the writing desk. After but a day of sun his hair seems lighter. "It is that, and nothing more. Do not feel he harbors ill will for you, Combeferre."
"And is it a tendency of a solitary man to leave a room when another enters?"
He does not look at Enjolras while he speaks, engrossed in surveying the furnishings of the old bedchamber.
Most of the books on Enjolras's childhood shelves are ecclesiastical in nature. To even touch them feels sacrosanct — these are remnants of the boy Enjolras had been some ten years ago, a boy whose interests have changed and whose path, written for him, has been altered.
The boy who read these books no longer exists, Combeferre is beginning to learn, and the disconnect frightens him. Combeferre has maintained his self through childhood, through his time as a Polytechnicien and a Fourierist and a student and an extern and now even a revolutionary. He thinks of himself as a boy and knows he has matured, developed, since then, but remained the same person.
Enjolras at three and twenty is not what Enjolras at thirteen hoped he would become.
"Yes," Enjolras replies solemnly, "for I speak only of him. Perhaps it is also that he is in mourning, if you doubt my own reasoning - but you know my thoughts upon generality. Do trust in my opinion of my own family."
He looks up from his parchment just as Combeferre turns from the shelves.
Their eyes meet, and Combeferre finds himself transfixed by blue.
They sleep in the same bed that night, Combeferre's head upon Enjolras's chest. After August he will never tire of listening to Enjolras's heartbeat, strong and steady, nor of his breathing, constant and clear. Enjolras, tactile as ever, runs his fingers through Combeferre's hair.
Temptation swells, then wanes.
"I begrudge you nothing," says Enjolras in a whisper.
Combeferre thinks of his mistakes: how he has treated Enjolras, how he has sheltered him, how he has ignored his wants and his thoughts out of his own discomfort. How he has allowed his guilt to consume him even at the prospect of Enjolras's death.
Now that he is healed, they can have this discussion which he has disallowed for so long.
"I owe you everything," he returns, gentle for his own sake. "I owe you everything, Enjolras, and by God, I shall -"
Enjolras places two fingers upon his lips without fumbling.
"The natural progress which you have sought to develop is a noble cause, but it is not a worthy one, Combeferre. Not when peace earns men so little; nor when the consequences of neglect are so dire."
His breath catches in his throat, and he allows Enjolras to move his thumb to his cheek, cupping his face in his hand.
"And yet I believe in you, and in your philosophy - it is a terrible thing, to strike another man, yes. Should the flood of dawn bring liberation before the flash of a volley I shall lay down my arms and welcome it, and stand beside you as it comes."
"But no flood of dawn has come, Combeferre, no soaring victories have been achieved from men throwing away their guns and swords for their homeland. It is a more terrible thing to stand by while the strikes are dealt, to see men fight for themselves and their families and for France herself with pistols and paving stones, all other means exhausted, and to say, alas ! if that man were not so brutal I should join in his cause . A strike such as this wounds deeper, for it is a denial of fraternity and of liberty. You are above such a thing."
Enjolras's voice rises and falls as a sung hymn. Combeferre listens to his breath, rhythmic, as he speaks, closes his eyes from the moonlit room as though Enjolras were singing him a lullaby.
"And you have shown yourself to be above it, beside me and in my stead. I value your concern and I share it, as a brother in arms, as a fellow man. But this is my belief, dear Combeferre. I have expressed it to you without quotation, or reference, as it is mine, whether its tenets were shared by other men before me or not."
Combeferre could have found fault with it, perhaps, months ago, but he cannot now - cannot bring himself even to try.
"And so I have forgiven you our quarrel," murmurs Enjolras, his fingers stroking the back of Combeferre's neck with utmost tenderness. "Now that the deeds are finished. Now that we may move forward for the Republic."
Enjolras wakes with his arms around Combeferre, sleeping soundly, pressed close to him.
Combeferre wakes to an empty bed.
After he rises, washes, dresses, he watches Enjolras through the window: his hair shines in the morning sun, and his face is pensive. The moment he moves, Combeferre ducks behind the curtains, heart pounding.
"Combeferre is a student of medicine, Uncle. He begins his internat in November."
"You did say so, Jean-Nicolas. And where will this position be?"
Combeferre stares into his morning tea, silent, until he feels Enjolras's knee knock against his under the table.
"The Necker," he says, "And Enfants-malades . I will be housed in their quarters."
He looks up to see that Enjolras's uncle is staring at him, his brow wrinkled in some unplaceable emotion.
"You will care for children there?"
"Yes, I shall."
"When I practised —"
"You are a doctor, Monsieur?"
"Ah-ah. No more of that. Here, you are family - but I was a doctor, yes, some years ago in la Réunion , long before the birth of my nephew..."
Combeferre catches Enjolras repressing a smile; bumps their knees and cannot resist the expression himself.
Then he sips at his tea to calm the flutter he feels in his chest, and listens.
Enjolras retires to his chamber at mid-day, a pallor in his face and hands.
Combeferre's stomach twists in agitation: he wants to accompany him, to mind him, but there is nothing which he can do that Enjolras cannot do for himself alone. Not anymore, at least. For Enjolras, unexpected headaches are normal.
The library is musty and unkempt, with one high window: enough light by which to read, at this time of day, not enough to illuminate the entire room. It will distract him, however, from the feeling of helplessness - is that all that it is? - that he has grown so accustomed to since July.
He finds a magazine detailing navigational instruments, sits against the wall, and settles himself to read.
That night is the second they spend in the same bed, of their third on holiday.
It is a habit - leftover from his injury and subsequent recovery - which Enjolras has no desire to break.
In Combeferre's bed, however, they slept beside one another, without touching. Here, Combeferre lies with his head upon Enjolras's chest, their legs tangled together. They are so close that Enjolras can feel his breath upon his neck, hear his heartbeat.
It is a new mode of communication, of connection, beyond a clasp of hands or touch to the shoulder, to feel another man's life in one's own body.
"Years ago he was a Frigate captain under Bonaparte; to-day he manages the little orchard. My mother says that the earth here is unfit for apples — she is from Limoges, have I not told you? In any case I haven't any idea how he has maintained the business for so long on barren land, but he has, and thus my allowance is secured. Improbable as it is for this reason I do not complain. I suppose the trees will die when he does: such is the way of things."
"My uncle supposes so, also."
The estate is but few leagues from his childhood home, and yet Combeferre remains surprised that Enjolras's uncle knows of his family.
"What do you suppose?"
"Ask me again after supper, Combeferre; by then I shall have made his acquaintance."
"And that of the apples!"
Combeferre's younger sister is a lighthearted and lively girl, who prattles on end before her mother and father but listens with rapt attention when Enjolras speaks. All through the afternoon and evening, her unkempt dark hair is only half covered by her cap, and there are ruby red stains at the cuffs of her sleeves. "Raspberries," she told her brother, when he chided her upon their arrival, and in lieu of scolding her further he had wrapped her in his arms and swung her in circles around the terrace as she laughed and laughed and laughed.
Generally Enjolras is not comfortable around women, young or old — and she is young, small for thirteen and sickly, precocious and naïve at once. His meeting with Combeferre's eldest sister the previous winter had been brief, and little was required of him. The middle sister Enjolras has never met, and as she has married and moved away there is a chance he never will.
Sylvie finds him exciting.
"Monsieur Enjolras, however did you meet my brother?" she says first, in the salon prior to supper. "You are such particular friends!"
Before he can answer her, she is told to fix the table by her mother, and darts off.
"Monsieur Enjolras, do you like to read novels?" she says second, after they have all sat down and begun to eat. Combeferre, beside him, has a laughter-like coughing fit. Enjolras swallows his mouthful of chestnut bisque and shakes his head. "Why! Myself, also! I have been reading François Quesnay; do you know him? I hardly know what to make of his — "
"Sylvie," scolds Combeferre, "do eat your dinner. Perhaps Monsieur Enjolras would like to answer you upon economics when he is finished eating." But he beams with pride even as his mother frowns.
And Enjolras does not miss the grateful glance Combeferre receives from his father.
They go for a walk through the orchard after eating, just the two of them, arm in arm.
When they are far enough from the house that he is sure they have not been followed, Combeferre says, "I do hope Sylvie did not perturb you. She is… well, she is lonely."
"I was not perturbed."
"Weren't you? ...she wants nothing else but to board at the convent, but Mother refuses on account of her sensitivity. Myself, I cannot imagine wanting to become a boarder, if provided the option — the lycée was such hell — but it is different in convents. Besides, young girls deserve to be with other young girls. Perhaps she would recover there in ways we cannot yet know..."
The sky is pink again: Enjolras's skin has an otherworldly cast. Their walk continues until they find a tree with patches of grass beneath it.
"I never wanted to attend school," says Enjolras quietly, shrugging out of his coat as he makes to sit against the tree. "Nor did I have the opportunity, for a time. I saw myself in the quarry, and then when my father died the monastery."
Combeferre can't look away from him. His eyes are distant, looking into space as though he sees something visible only to him. It is the same expression he bears when speaking, unscripted and unprompted, to rouse a crowd, but here in the evening sun it is solemn and sad.
They clasp hands. Enjolras's skin is smooth and cool.
"Every man wished as a boy to become something different than he did. I am happy now in Paris, am glad to have known my uncle… and I would not have met you, had I stayed in Le Puy-en-Velay and become a quarryman."
He takes the cut of apple - its flesh is jagged from Combeferre's distracted use of his penknife - and bites down.
Sweet things appeal to Enjolras more than he cares to admit. Fruit is no exception. The apple is ripe and fresh, and he finishes his piece in short time.
Combeferre has learned of this vice over the years through observation; it is Enjolras's hope that the knowledge stays between them.
Of all his traits which only Combeferre knows, it is the least dangerous.
"You have —"
He doesn't finish his sentence aloud, reaching instead to hold Enjolras's cheek in his hand and rub his thumb below his lips, brushing away the little piece of fruit there.
They lock eyes.
A breeze passes.
He feels a sudden lightness in his head. Enjolras closes his eyes, then opens them, slower than a blink — Combeferre's gaze is drawn to his lashes and then to the pale blue of his irises, the dark of his widened pupils — and his lips part.
For mere seconds Combeferre feels as though he is dreaming — but his dreams of Enjolras are not like this, they are in Paris, in cafés and in apartments, where they discuss politics and philosophy, not…
At Combeferre's touch the heaviness in his chest dissipates.
And then he drops his hand, turns away to eat his fruit and look wordlessly up at the sky.
Enjolras cares little for clouds and stars alike; he watches Combeferre himself, instead. The drum of his fingers against his thigh and lift of his head to adjust his spectacles are tics which Enjolras has come to know and to appreciate, in the last months. For all of his friends, Enjolras can name habits: Courfeyrac twirls his cane in the palm of his hand when he lies, Bahorel crosses his arms and grips his elbows when listening to stories, Joly takes his pulse at his neck when it is raining and his wrist all other times.
Enjolras takes a slice of apple from the handkerchief laid on the ground beneath them and holds it to Combeferre's mouth.
Combeferre accepts, his lips touching Enjolras's thumb and forefinger; and Enjolras wonders if he felt the same spark a moment ago, in the opposite position.
At some point Enjolras lays his head in Combeferre's lap; at some point Combeferre begins running his fingers through his hair; at some point Enjolras says, wry-toned, "if it was only fresh air which we sought, Meaux would have been sufficient," and Combeferre replies, "yet man requires more sustenance than water and air, and Meaux cannot provide."
He runs his forefinger along Enjolras's lips again, then along his jawline, and behind his ear, down his neck; he feels Enjolras tremble, and thinks to himself, there is no greater sustenance than this.