He opens his eyes in a bed when he hasn't slept in one in months, under warm covers, with the smell of woodsmoke and broth in the room, and when he turns his head Cosette is dozing next to him, sitting propped up against the headboard, the sleeves of her shirt rolled up, dark hair falling messily out of her braid. There's a wound in his side, and he feels it pull when he shifts, grits his teeth against the pain. “Cosette,” he says quietly.
It doesn't take much to wake her, and she starts at the sound of his voice, turning and frowning when she sees him awake. “You left without telling me,” she accuses immediately. “You swore you wouldn't, Enjolras, and you did, and you almost died. I don't care if you killed him, what good is that when you would die as well?”
Enjolras relaxes. “He did die, then.”
“You should have told me.” Her expression softens, just a little. “Did you want to spare me his death? I know he was my father by blood, but Valjean is my real father, and I don't regret any of it.”
He moves carefully until he can put a hand over hers. “I wanted to spare you mine.”
“You were that sure you would die? All the more reason to take us with you. We were days away from taking the castle, and then you just did it on your own.”
“I'm sorry.” He tests how deep he can breathe. His ribs are probably bruised but unbroken, from tumbling down stairs during the battle. It's the wound in his side that would have killed him, if he weren't found. “I wasn't supposed to survive. There was a prophecy.” Her eyes widen. “There was a prophecy when I was born. I would slay a tyrant and die of it.”
“That's why you joined us.”
“I joined you because you and Valjean swore that if you took your father off the throne things would be different. I trusted you to make it true.”
“Anyone else would have run, made sure they never in their lives had to deal with politics or kings.”
Enjolras shakes his head. “I can't. I wouldn't.” Facing the way he is only hurts his side worse, so he turns away from Cosette before he speaks again. “I don't know how I survived, or why.”
“Practically speaking, it's because there were traitors in the king's castle, hoping for our return. One of the wizards healed you, and one of the knights protected the two of you until the rest of us made it to the castle.” She brushes his hair out of his eyes. “Other than the king, it was almost a bloodless victory. I have you to thank for that, for taking my kingdom without blood on my hands.”
He has to turn back towards her at that. “Queen Euphrasie, then?”
“Don't start. It's only Cosette to my champion, I insist on that. But yes, I'm going to be crowned soon, a few weeks at the latest. Papa said we shouldn't take time to make it a formal event. If other kings and queens want to size me up, they can do it when I'm already on the throne, or they can travel quickly if they want to risk the end of winter.” She puts her hands together on her lap. “You can't do that again, sacrifice yourself without telling me, prophecy or not. I need your help to put the kingdom back together. But you never really thought about the future, did you?”
“I thought about the future all the time. It wouldn't have been worth dying for, otherwise.”
“Then you never thought about what you would do.”
“I never thought it was an option,” he admits, and the thought that there may be options now is terrifying. Unless there's an infection in his wound and he's to die slowly, there are years stretching in front of him now, and while he's glad to spend his life working with Cosette to bring their kingdom into a shining beacon of what it could be, he doesn't know how, doesn't know what goals to work towards. “I don't know what I'll do, besides work beside you to help the people govern themselves as much as they can.”
She stands up, the mattress shifting as her weight leaves it, and goes over to the fire, adding a piece of wood. The room is larger than Enjolras is used to, stone walls and floor covered by moth-eaten rugs and tapestries. They must be in the palace. “Well, the advisers who have wished themselves on me think you should marry me, that the hero of the kingdom should become its next king, but I've told them we won't suit. For one thing, I have to marry for an alliance, we have precious few of those after what my father did.”
“You need better advisers.”
Cosette looks over at him, and he knows he's made her point for her. “I do.”
“I can't. Not yet, anyway. I thought I was going to die, I never learned anything I would need to know.”
“You can have time if you want it. You've earned that. You can spend your life in a hut in the woods and I'll come to see you when I'm sick of being queen, you've earned that too. But don't think your life isn't worth anything because it's longer than you thought it would be.” She frowns, tired and careworn. It's dark outside the window of the room, and he left their camp before dawn. He doesn't even know if it's the same day. “You never told anyone? No one ever knew?”
“Lamarque knew. When I was a child, and my parents sent me away because they knew what the prophecy meant, they told him.” He sighs, shifts. He'll need a healer with herbs soon. “I told someone once.” A boy with curly hair and a wicked smile in a tavern somewhere on the road, in a rare moment where Enjolras had found himself tired and scared and admitting he didn't want to die. Enjolras hadn't been sure what he wanted or expected to hear, but he didn't get any of it, just a solemn expression and a night in the boy's bed upstairs, both of them all mouths and too-desperate hands, and Enjolras had left at dawn with the boy standing half-dressed and frowning out the window, biting down on his lip like he was trying to keep from saying anything.
“You should have told me.”
“You wouldn't have let me.”
“No, I wouldn't have. It was my kingdom to take back. I would have accepted your help, but I wouldn't have accepted your blind sacrifice.” She frowns at him. “Take time to heal, and then take time to find your way. We have time to sort ourselves out now. Just rest, I can see how exhausted you are. I'll stay here until you wake again.”
“Don't you have a country to rule?” he asks, but he's already sliding into mumbling, her permission reminding him of his exhaustion, of his likely blood loss.
He lets the dark swallow him up again, and knows he'll wake this time.
The man looks up and smiles briefly, then hands him a mug with some sort of tonic in it, one that tastes of honey and rosemary. It soothes his dry throat and some of the dull throb in his side, which confirms before the man even opens his mouth that he's a wizard of some kind. “Her Majesty and Lord Valjean are having audiences today, sorting out the most immediate damage of her father's legacy and the most urgent needs of the kingdom with a new queen. I'm Combeferre, the healing on your side is my work. I wish I could have done more, but it was a mortal wound, and it was all I could do to keep you alive.”
“It was more than enough,” says Enjolras, as warmly as he can, and shakes Combeferre's hand. “I'm pleased to meet you, and I thank you for my life. I owe you more than I can ever repay.”
“Courfeyrac—he's a knight, and he protected you from some of the more loyal of Tholomyes's men—wanted to be here, but her Majesty insisted on his presence in the throne room. He'll stop by to meet you when he can.”
“I'll look forward to meeting him.” Enjolras tries to push himself to sit and grits his teeth when he needs to accept help from Combeferre to prop himself up on the pillows. “When will I be able to leave the room?”
“There's no hurry,” Combeferre says, tone mild. Enjolras can feel the censure in it anyway. “Queen Euphrasie was very insistent that you have the time to heal, as much time as you need and more.”
“Cosette worries too much.”
Combeferre raises his eyebrows. “Do you have such urgent plans, then, that you can't wait a week or two to walk around the castle?”
Enjolras deflates, scrubs his hand across his face. “No, I suppose I don't.”
“Then we'll find something, and in the meantime, you'll let yourself heal.” Combeferre pours another cup full of the tonic. “Drink. You need to get your strength back. You were exhausted and malnourished even before you were stabbed in the side.”
Enjolras doesn't explain, and he's glad when Combeferre doesn't say any more on the subject while he drinks the tonic. “I'm not ready to sleep again yet,” he says when he's finished, “and I don't have anything with me. Do you know where I could get a book of some sort, or anything like that?” He isn't used to having leisure time, but he won't say that to someone he's just met. People who haven't spent years living on the road and in the woods don't always understand.
“I can send for a book, if you know what you'd like to read. Or I could tell you a little about the palace, if you like. The queen tells me you haven't been before.”
“You can probably call her Cosette, if she trusts you alone with me.”
Combeferre smiles, a brief grin that settles into something light. “It's hard to get used to. This has never been an informal court. We were all hoping for the princess's return. You won't find much resistance, except among the people who profited from his corruption, and Cosette and Lord Valjean have already dealt with many of those.”
“Perhaps you'd better begin with what I've missed since I was wounded,” says Enjolras, and settles in to listen while Combeferre tells him everything.
The palace is large, and seems much larger now that he's making painfully slow progress through it rather than running through determined and with a mission in mind. For now, his only mission is making it to the throne room and Cosette, and it takes most of an hour, for all he hates every time he has to stop and rest.
“She won't fault you for turning around,” Courfeyrac says at one point when Enjolras sits down halfway down a flight of stairs, alarming a passing servant. “She will fault you for interrupting her audiences only to faint at her feet.”
“I will do no such thing,” says Enjolras, but when he stands again he lets Courfeyrac help him up.
When they get to the throne room, it's packed full and Enjolras can only barely make out Cosette standing at the front of it, Valjean at her side, while she holds someone's piglet, carried in for reasons Enjolras can't guess at. She sees them the moment they enter and shouts over the sea of people. “Enjolras, come over and say hello!”
The crowd parts, to Enjolras's surprise. They all want to see the man who killed the last king, he's sure, and he shrugs off Courfeyrac's helping hand to walk slowly down the length of the hall, listening to people mutter as he goes by. For the most part, they seem pleased to see him, a few starting tentative cheers, but they aren't used to him the way they're clearly already used to Cosette.
“You didn't tell me you were coming down for a visit,” Cosette says, handing the piglet to Combeferre, following at Enjolras's right shoulder, before she hugs Enjolras briefly and kisses him on the cheek. “I would have made a better effort to introduce my champion to the public.”
“I don't need to be introduced.”
“My people disagree.” The words settle well in her mouth—being queen suits Cosette, even if she plans to be a different sort of queen, plans to put as much power into the hands of her people as she can. She's wearing a gown she never would have been able to wear on the road, and she looks less tired than he's seen her for years, though ruling a kingdom can be no easier than taking one back. “Turn around and smile, Enjolras.”
Enjolras does, and Combeferre and Courfeyrac shuffle to the side as though they've rehearsed it, stepping aside and letting him have full view of the room. It's full of people: farmers, wizards, smiths and knights and nobles and maids and all of them watching him. “I'm glad to be here,” he says, and the words echo across the hall louder than they should, which puts a tiny smile on Combeferre's face.
“I present Enjolras, Queen's Champion,” Cosette says, and her voice is magnified as well, and then she smiles a familiar smile. “I would introduce him as a knight, but he isn't one officially yet, and he can't kneel to be knighted yet.”
“It would be an honor.” It seems like the correct thing to say, at least, because it makes the crowd applaud, sure now that it's what they're supposed to do.
Under cover of the applause, Cosette turns to Valjean. “Will you run things for the next five minutes? I need to show Enjolras his surprise and then send him back to bed.”
“Of course.” He squeezes her hand and shoos them to the side, where Combeferre and Courfeyrac follow, Combeferre passing the piglet to its owner on his way.
“My surprise?” Enjolras says, eyebrows up, when she's drawn him a few steps away from where they were standing.
“I was going to bring him to your room later—he turned up today, and I knew you would want to see him.” She raises her voice just loud enough to be heard over the last of the cheers. “Feuilly!”
That name makes Enjolras spin around too fast for his side's comfort, and sure enough close by, smile on his face and cap on his head, is Feuilly. Enjolras goes over to him right away, gives him a hearty hug that makes him wince, and pulls back again. “I didn't ever expect to see you in the palace—I thought you were back at your trade.”
“I decided that the fight was more important than masonry, even if the rebellion doesn't pay, and then in a tavern on my way back I heard that my presence was unnecessary—I came anyway, though, to see Cosette crowned, and to see you. I only arrived this morning, and I've been seeing the queen give audiences.”
Cosette smiles fondly at him. “I don't think I'll let him leave, either, I'm sure there are outbuildings to build, and I let him go once because he only had to survive but now I can pay him to build for me—a country as well as an expanded wing for our new government to live in.”
“We'll discuss it,” says Feuilly, smiling back, and claps Enjolras in the shoulder, a movement that's gentler than it looks and that does more to hold him up than knock him off his balance. “Perhaps in the privacy of your room, Enjolras? You can introduce me to your friends as well, while you rest.”
Enjolras thinks of objecting, but Cosette nods. “A lovely idea. Courfeyrac, Combeferre, you'll show Feuilly to Enjolras's room, won't you? I'll stop by after audiences to take him to his own chambers.”
“Of course,” says Combeferre, and starts forging them a path through the crowd after a brief bow, which Courfeyrac emulates but Feuilly and Enjolras don't.
It's harder to get through the crowd this time, everyone more willing to be obviously curious now that Enjolras has been introduced by the queen, all of them reaching out for him, murmuring thanks for killing Tholomyes or welcoming him to the palace or a hundred other things he doesn't make out, because Feuilly is steering him along and it's all Enjolras can do to follow.
Combeferre stops walking when they're a hallway away from the throne room, finally away from the press of people, and the rest of them stop a few seconds later. “You'll accept my help getting upstairs, of course,” Combeferre tells Enjolras in a tone that brooks no argument.
Enjolras argues anyway. “I'll never get stronger if I allow myself to be coddled.”
“You aren't healed yet, and you'll injure yourself worse if you keep moving around before you're ready, so I'll help you upstairs.”
“Let him, Enjolras,” says Feuilly. “That way it won't take hours for us to get up to your room.”
“Fine,” Enjolras sighs, and lets Combeferre carry him back to his room with magic, glad for the weight off his legs even if he can't say it out loud.
“And you? What are you going to do now?” Feuilly asks, when they're all warm from mulled wine and growing sleepy, turning to face Enjolras completely. “You never talked about it before.”
“I don't know.”
“Enjolras,” says Cosette, and there's a wealth of words in just his name.
“I didn't expect to survive,” he says, grudging. Feuilly deserves to know almost as much as Cosette did, but it's still a secret he's kept close to his heart since he was a child. “There was a prophecy, that I would kill a king but it would be the end of me.”
Feuilly doesn't scold him, doesn't do anything at all for a moment besides sit and look like he's considering the words, weighing them. “Prophecies aren't always right,” he finally says. “I'm glad that this one was wrong. I can see that it would make it hard to decide what to do next, though.”
“I might travel a little,” Enjolras says, and only realizes it's true now that he's said it out loud. “See things that I didn't get the chance to, when we were in hiding, or that I never thought I would see again.”
“I'll go with you,” Feuilly says immediately. “The country can wait a little while, you need some company.”
“Nobody is going anywhere until Enjolras is fully healed.” Cosette's voice is firm, but she's smiling between them. “You can be my eyes out there, and when you come back—because I expect you both to come back to me—you can tell me what the people need, and what they're doing with increasing freedom to govern themselves.”
“Of course we'll come back,” Enjolras says, because as uncomfortable as he is in the palace he can't imagine leaving Cosette on her own. She's the queen he's fought for, and he'll stay at her side if she needs him.
“We'll come with stories, and perhaps some new people for your council.” Feuilly smiles. “Your Majesty. I'm not sure I can get used to that.”
“And so you shouldn't. I'm trying to train everyone out of it, Queen Euphrasie is bad enough.” She twists her hands in her lap. “You'll stay at least until I'm crowned, won't you?”
A crown doesn't mean much to Enjolras, nor to Feuilly, but it does mean that Cosette will be queen, uncontested, free to do as she pleases, make the changes she and all of them have been planning for years, and that does mean something. “At the very least it will take Enjolras months to heal enough to travel if he insists on walking around the castle like he did today,” says Feuilly, and Enjolras is relieved that it makes Cosette beam, bright and honest.
Feuilly stays later than Cosette does, after they've finished the meal, and Enjolras already knows what he wants to talk about, at least in part. They did most of their catching up in the afternoon, after Combeferre and Courfeyrac excused themselves. “Cosette has already scolded me.”
“I never thought you would trust prophecy. Not when there was still something to fight for.”
“I was never afraid to die.” Enjolras pauses, considers that. “I never had the chance to be afraid to die. I like to think that if I were prophesied to support a tyrant I would have fought it, but I don't know.”
Feuilly frowns and looks down while he thinks. “I think you would have fought it. Just wish you had fought this one, as well. We could have killed him together, without you finding yourself injured.”
“It's done, Feuilly.”
“I know. The question is just what comes next. Travel, I suppose, if that's what seems the best option to you.”
“It's the only option I can think of, and I don't even know where I would go. I don't really have a home to return triumphant to, not really.”
“Then we'll just travel, see what we can see. If you can't live your life without prophecy, there's the oracle in the western forest.”
“I don't think I want any more prophecy, but I'll consider it. Thank you, Feuilly. It's good to have you with us again.”
“I'm only sorry I couldn't help more.”
“You're going to help rebuild the country. That's more than anyone could ask.”
Feuilly stands up, fussing with the covers on Enjolras's bed before he fixes him with a stern look. “You're going to help rebuild it too, Enjolras. Don't forget that. Cosette and I both expect it of you, and we'll have it from you, in whatever way you can give it.”
“Everything I have,” Enjolras promises. “That much has never been in question.”
“Good. The rest of it can be worked out as we go along, then.” Feuilly steps away from the bed. “Get some sleep. The fast you heal the faster we can leave, and Cosette's coronation is in a week, she'll want you well and standing.”
Cosette is in Enjolras's chamber at what would be dawn if the sun were in the sky, pacing back and forth in front of his fire in a white gown already dusty around the hem, every inch a queen even if she'll have to wait hours for her crown. “Tell me the rain isn't an omen,” she says after a while, shattering the silence. “Shouldn't a queen meant to take the throne be crowned in sunlight?”
“Rain makes things grow, doesn't it? But it doesn't matter, Cosette, I'm a lesson in omens and prophecies being wrong. So it rains. What does that matter to you? You'll still be queen. You'll still be a good one.”
“And I'll have you, and Feuilly, and Papa, and a whole council of people to make my kingdom a good one. Once you're done traveling.”
“I'm not going anywhere for a little while longer,” Enjolras promises. “Long enough to make sure my side is healed and you are steadily on the throne.”
“Yes, and when you go you're taking Feuilly with you, and no doubt Combeferre and Courfeyrac as well, and there's half of my council gone!”
Enjolras finally levers himself out of bed, too restless to stay even though it's still wise to be careful of his side. If Cosette is pacing his room, he can at least have the decency to stand while she does it. “You can ask us to stay. All of us would, if you wanted us too, and Combeferre and Courfeyrac haven't offered to come yet, though they're welcome with Feuilly and I if they want to travel.”
“Perhaps it will be good for me. I can see if I can rule a country without my friends, with only Papa to help me put it together.”
“You can always call us back,” Enjolras promises.
There's a knock on the door, and Cosette opens it herself. It's Feuilly on the other side, uncomfortable in finery but wearing it for her sake. “I thought I might find the two of you here,” he says with a small smile. “I asked one of the maids to bring us breakfast soon, and we can pretend we're on the road again until Valjean or someone else comes looking for us.” He gives Cosette a quick bow. “Your Majesty.”
“Not for a few hours more, I'm not.”
“You've been our queen for a while now, Cosette.”
Feuilly's words make Cosette give one last look over at the window, the patter of rain against glass, and she finally relaxes, sinking into a chair next to Enjolras's unlit fireplace. It's chilly in the room, but he didn't have a chance to build a fire before Cosette arrived. He's still moving too slowly to make moving or crouching comfortable, and he's grateful when Feuilly moves to start the fire.
The three of them are laughing over stories from the road by the time Valjean knocks on Enjolras's door a few hours later, looking harried and dressed as finely as Cosette and Feuilly, Enjolras still putting off donning his coronation garb. “I should have known you would be here,” he tells Cosette, rolling his eyes but still smiling. “Are you ready to be crowned, or should I come back later?”
“You know,” she says, “I think I am.”
“Shall I put the crown on?” she asks, loud enough to be heard over the rain pounding against stone, all the fine speeches over with.
Enjolras cheers, and listens to the roar of other voices around him as well, catches Cosette's grin before she puts on her crown, queen of the land by the will of her people, something very few kings and queens can say.
Spring is well and truly here now, instead of the slushy end-of-winter that it was when Enjolras killed Tholomyes, and the kingdom seems to be blooming under Cosette's influence. Ambassadors arrive every day, and so do the people, wanting to see for themselves what the new queen is like.
Enjolras doesn't have duties, for all Cosette fondly calls him her champion and asks his advice on weaponry, on farming, on disputes. He trains himself slowly back to something like strength, fighting with Feuilly and Courfeyrac and the other knights and telling them all not to go easy on him even though they continue to do it.
He takes to walking on the battlements, to see the bustle of humanity inside the palace and outside it, farmers planting, riders coming in and out with messengers or visitors.
Combeferre finds him there one afternoon, when he's thinking about going outside the palace walls for a walk and wondering if he'll have to take guards, since Cosette insists not everyone thanks them for putting her on the throne. “I wondered if you might want to come to the library and look at some maps, plan out where you'd like for us to go.”
“Courfeyrac and I haven't left the palace since we were children, not to go far anyway. We'd like to see some of the world, and the queen would feel safer if you had more companions than Feuilly alone.”
“I won't forbid you from coming, but I don't want you to feel like it's a duty either.”
“It isn't, I promise you that. Now, do you want to look at the maps?”
“Shouldn't we ask Courfeyrac and Feuilly?”
“They're in the library already, I just wanted some fresh air, so I thought I would be the one to come out and see if you wanted to plan the journey or if we should do it.”
Enjolras wonders if he should feel annoyed or pressured, but Combeferre is just looking out over the fields, watching a rider on the western road, and Enjolras knows they can't just wander the kingdom. He would have thought to find maps eventually, and he would have asked his companions. This is just his companions asking him, and he can't find fault with that. “I'll help you,” he says, and follows Combeferre inside.
Courfeyrac and Feuilly are at a table covered in maps and papers, arguing quietly about whether the amount of bandits in the south will have increased or decreased on the past few months and whether it's worth traveling on certain routes. Feuilly is the first to look up and smile. “I was hoping Combeferre would find you. What do you think about the bandit problem?”
Enjolras raises his eyebrows and sits down. “I think two of us are knights of the realm and one of us is a wizard and one is more than handy with any weapon he puts his mind to, and that the queen would appreciate us taking care of a few bandits for her.”
Courfeyrac grins. “So you're for not avoiding the south regardless of bandits?”
“It's been a long time since I saw the ocean,” says Enjolras, and pulls a map closer to him.
She sees them off at the palace gates, sleeves rolled up, browner than usual from the sun, doing what work she can even when her people try to tell her she should stay inside. “You'll all be back before snow flies,” she tells them, not an order so much as a truth that will be fulfilled if she has to ride out and drag them home herself. “And you'll send word to me when you can—you have a wizard with you, so you have no excuse to do otherwise.” She glares at Enjolras. “And if you get yourself hurt again, I am going to lock you in the palace for the rest of our lives.”
He hugs her, because he doesn't regret the journey, the chance to find out who he is without a prophecy hanging over his head, but he does regret having to leave her behind. He traveled for a long time, but it's been years since he did it without her. “We'll be back, and we'll find some more members for your council along the way. That was the deal, wasn't it?”
“We'll take care of him,” Courfeyrac promises, dropping a kiss on her hand.
“I can take care of myself,” Enjolras says, trying not to be offended.
“Yes, and you did such a good job of it,” says Cosette, moving on to give Feuilly a quick hug and Combeferre a brisk shake of the hand. “If anyone lets him get killed, I am going to be very displeased, it's not every day a queen finds a champion and I would quite like to not deal with the hassle.”
“You always have me for backup,” says Feuilly, and then squints up at the sun. “Now, if we're going to get any respectable distance today, we should leave. If you'll stop saying your goodbyes so we can actually make them necessary, your Majesty?”
“Before the snow falls,” she says again, and finally steps back from them and waves them away, turning away and clenching her fists in a way that probably means she's trying to keep from dashing at her eyes. Enjolras turns away, hitches his pack up his back, and begins walking, sure that the others will fall into step behind him.
They walk the day away, until people stop looking at them as though they recognize them, more just curious at the group of strangers, well-dressed and -outfitted, two with swords. They're walking busier roads than Enjolras ever did, raised with the knowledge that he should stay out of the notice of the king's men and then traveling with Cosette, where it was doubly true, and he's glad for the camaraderie, Combeferre and Feuilly quietly arguing about the relation of light and fire spells while Courfeyrac whistles back at any birds they pass in an uncannily good imitation of their calls and asks Enjolras what the names of plants are and if they're poisonous before picking them, only to pass them to whichever traveler they pass next.
That night, they sleep in bedrolls in the forest in a loose square around the fire, still needed to take off the night's chill, and the ground isn't as soft as the bed Enjolras has become used to, but he still sleeps better than he does most nights.
“Fine,” says Enjolras. “I'm assuming you know the way.”
Combeferre smiles and doesn't answer, though an answer is unnecessary anyway—for all Combeferre protests he's hardly left the palace and its immediate environs, he hasn't yet been wrong about a turning to take or avoid, and Enjolras trusts his assessments of things.
The inn is a little ways into the woods at a crossroads, halfway between two larger villages, and at a perfect place for those who have business in the woods. As a result, it's full and bustling by the time they arrive, shortly before sundown. They're greeted by a cheerful woman who doesn't blink at them and tells them to make free with dinner and drink when they pay her enough coin for two rooms for the night, and then they're swallowed up by the crowd, all gossiping about their work, their acquaintances, a wash of cheerful humanity.
Enjolras sits and listens and eats the hearty bread and stew the inn provides until Feuilly elbows him gently in the side. “The man in the corner is watching you like he's seen a ghost. Do you know him?”
Years of instinct make Enjolras move as casually as he can to look, though Feuilly would have said if the man seemed dangerous. It takes him a moment to find the dark corner Feuilly must mean, the only corner where there's only one man sitting, and another moment to dismiss him as someone who perhaps knows who Enjolras is but not anyone he knows. A second look, though—Enjolras might know the face, though he doesn't know it with the few days' growth of beard and the expression that shows he's spent a few nights on the wrong side of a bottle. It's been years, and Enjolras never thought to see him again. Never really wanted to. “I might,” he says. “If you'll excuse me?”
Combeferre grasps his wrist before he's managed to stand up completely. “Are you in danger?”
Enjolras can't be sure, but the man hasn't stopped looking at him yet, and he doesn't seem angry, or like much of a threat given how light his bottle of wine is when he hefts it, not bothering with a glass, to his lips. “No. I won't leave your sight, though.”
He makes his way through the crowd as casually as he can, moving through the sea of people until he stops in the least crowded corner. The man has put down his bottle, and when Enjolras stops in front of him he sighs and finally, finally drops his gaze. “It is you, then. Amazing what a few years can do.”
“I can't say I ever expected to see you again.”
“No, you expected to die.” He glances up, then away again, like he can't stand looking at Enjolras when he's this close. “I heard, when Queen Euphrasie took the throne, that one of her friends had killed the king. I knew it must be you, but no one ever talked about the one who did it. I wish I'd known you were the Queen's Champion. I thought of you.”
“I thought of you as well,” Enjolras says, because it's only honest, and because he obviously made an impact with this man and doesn't know what to do about that. “I'm Enjolras.”
“Sir Enjolras, I would think. I'm Grantaire, without any fancy titles at all, although people are quite fond of Useless Drunkard. I don't think that comes with an honorific, though.” There's a sharp, bitter edge to his tone, and Enjolras has never known what to say to comfort. When Cosette had low moments, Valjean and Feuilly and their other friends were there for her. When Enjolras had low moments, he kept him to himself—or, once, confessed them to Grantaire, and he can't kiss Grantaire and take him to bed this time, not without explaining to his friends and companions.
“You helped me. I owe you a great deal for that. I don't care what other people call you.”
“Most everyone says that, and then most everyone conveniently forgets it.” Grantaire finally looks at him properly again. “It's good to see you well, or somewhat well. You look like you've been ill.”
“I nearly died, it took me some time to heal.” Enjolras frowns. There should be more to say to him, the only person Enjolras ever told about the prophecy after Lamarque was killed, before it became necessary to tell Cosette. “I was sorry to leave you, that morning.” It's true, and may be of some comfort to him.
“I was sorry to let you go. I thought, perhaps if I were nobler, I would have gone with you, even if I wouldn't have done much good, but I never asked.” His mouth pulls up, and it isn't the smile Enjolras remembers, the one he kept with him until it got blurry with time, to think of when he needed comfort. “In the end, I think I was too much of a coward to watch you die. I couldn't come with you.”
“You could come now,” Enjolras blurts, and then curses himself for saying it.
Grantaire must see the way he flinches, surprised at himself for the suggestion, because he shakes his head, and for some reason his smile feels a little more honest. “No, you have your companions, and what use would you have for me, anyway?”
“I don't think of people in terms of what use they have for me, or I try not to. We all just travel together because we're friends. You could ask, and I could ask them. I mentioned you to Feuilly. He would probably be glad to see you.”
That makes Grantaire thoughtful, but after a moment, he shakes his head. “I can't, but I know someone who … is the option to petition to your friends to travel with you open to anyone?”
“Not everyone, but why? Do you have someone in mind?”
“She wants to travel, and I don't want her to run away. She may say no, she's got no reason to trust people from the palace, but ...” Grantaire shrugs. “She's staying here. I could ask her if she wanted to meet you, if you want to meet her.”
“Why does she mistrust the palace?”
“Her parents were supporters of the old king, fled when they saw what way the wind was blowing, lost their money and their morals. She's glad enough Queen Euphrasie is on the throne. She can take care of herself.”
Enjolras shrugs. He won't say yes or no outright without talking to the others, and while he isn't inclined to trust some strange woman he's not inclined to deny a request from Grantaire either. He doesn't know if he truly owes him anything, but he feels as though he does. “Ask her to find us, now or in the morning, and I'll talk to my friends. I can make no promises to her or to you, but I've just proven I'm not averse to traveling companions.”
“Go, then. Ask your friends. I'll talk to Éponine, and she'll find you or she won't.”
Enjolras takes that as his dismissal, and backs away a step. “Thank you.”
“What are you thanking me for?”
“I don't know.”
“I'll thank you, then.” And when Enjolras opens his mouth, Grantaire shakes his head. “For surviving. I'm selfish, perhaps it's difficult for you, but I'm glad you're among the living yet.”
Before Enjolras can ask how Grantaire knew to say it was difficult to survive (his friends all are so grateful that sometimes he feels like a monster for his moments of regret and uncertainty), Grantaire stands up and brushes past him, grabbing his bottle as he goes and raising it in a salute before he disappears, greeting a few of the people in the inn's room as he goes.
Enjolras stays for only a few seconds before he goes back to his own table, where Combeferre and Courfeyrac are arguing over whether the man at the next table is cheating at dice and Feuilly is keeping an eye on the man at the next table to see how long it takes him to overhear. Courfeyrac breaks off when Enjolras sits back down. “You did know him, then? You could have invited him to sit with us.”
“I met him briefly a few years ago.” He can't explain all of it, or not quite. “He says he has a friend who's been thinking of traveling, and that he'd feel safer with her in our company. I don't know her name, or anything but that her parents were supporters of Tholomyes but that she had no love for him. Any of you can say no, he wasn't even sure she would want to come with us.”
“If you trust he wouldn't ask us to take on someone who would hurt us, then I wouldn't mind. We can always part ways if we don't get along,” says Feuilly.
“Courfeyrac and I were supporters of the king in name before he died. I'm willing to meet her,” says Combeferre, and Courfeyrac nods a moment later.
“We'll meet her, then,” says Enjolras, “and see from there.”
“You must be Grantaire's friend,” he says, because none of the others seem inclined to say anything, falling in behind him.
“I thought I might as well meet you. He took me in a few months back, so I thought I'd do him the favor of letting him think I might be safe.”
“You're Éponine,” says Combeferre, and Enjolras steps to the side to let him by, to hold out a hand for her to shake. “I remember you, before Lord and Lady Thénardier left the palace.”
“And I remember you, though the last time I saw you, you were learning spells for Tholomyes. Tossing curses around for someone else, now?”
“No one is on trial here,” says Feuilly, placating, and offers Éponine a hand to shake. She shakes it, still frowning between the rest of them. “Will this be a problem?”
“It doesn't have to be,” says Courfeyrac. “I remember you too, Éponine, and you weren't loud in your support like your parents. You had a little brother, didn't you?”
“And a sister. My father threw her on the mercy of a foreign nobleman. Gavroche ran off.”
“Are you looking for him?” Enjolras asks.
She shakes her head. “Won't find him unless he wants to be found. My best hope is he'll find me.” She raises her chin. “I'll travel with you, far as the next town, if you'll have me. Grantaire will think I'm safe enough, then, won't offer to come with me. I won't have him making sacrifices.”
“Sometimes they're worth it,” says Enjolras, too strong, and she's the only one who doesn't tense up, though she's sharp enough that she must notice it.
“You can travel with us as long as you please, unless someone objects,” says Combeferre, as even as ever. Nothing can crack him when he doesn't want to show cracks, and it's handy, even if Enjolras knows it's just another legacy from Cosette's father.
She shrugs and shoulders her pack. “The next town is far enough for me. I bought bread and cheese, enough for breaking our fast and something at midday, to buy my way into the party. Shall we go, eat on the road? It's promising to be warm today, may as well make our progress when we can.”
Enjolras waits to hear if anyone objects, but they all merely look to him, and he nods.
Éponine waits until all of them have gone past before she follows them outside, and as they go on the road she stays conspicuously behind, slowing when any of them try to drop back at all. If she doesn't trust them at her back yet, it's her own business, and Enjolras won't push. He points them on the right road, instead, down towards the coast, and talks to Feuilly about the last time they were passing through these woods, with Cosette and Valjean, well off the highly-traveled roads they're on now.
“You're the queen's champion, and you killed the old king,” she begins, and he picks up a few more sticks, not bothering to do anything but nod. It doesn't seem like her main point, and he doesn't feel like bothering to confirm what she already knows. “What I don't know is how you know Grantaire.”
“I don't know how you know him either,” he points out. “I met him on the road, once, and he did me a favor. I thought I might do him one in return.”
She starts picking up branches as well. “He caught me trying to steal eggs from his henhouse, when I was on my own, and he invited me in and cooked me breakfast and asked me to stay, and gave me his bed, and didn't object when I slept with a knife in my hand, and found me work until I had coin enough to buy my own eggs.”
“I can only hope that we'll be as much help to you.”
“You don't need to be.” She looks at him sidelong. “I didn't come with you for more charity. I came with you because the roads are a little safer now, but I don't want to take any chances. I intend to survive a while yet.”
“You can travel with us longer than until the next town. Until there's somewhere with work you want, perhaps.”
She snorts. “Funny, they don't train lords' daughters to do much of use with themselves but attracting husbands, or they didn't. Your Euphrasie might want to change that as well.”
“You seem to know plenty.”
“I didn't learn anything that will make anyone of repute give me a job, and I'm sure you've guessed that. I'm not a maid, or a farmer. I could be a thief, but I'd rather stay away from that.”
Enjolras straightens up, his arms full of wood. “Why do you think I'm traveling? I never learned how to do anything but fight well enough to kill someone, and I was expected from birth to die doing that. Now that I have more time than I thought I did, I don't just want to be a sword. We have more in common than you might think.”
“I'll think about it,” she says, and starts back for the camp, her arms full as well.
Enjolras lets her have time before he follows, and by the time he gets there she's teaching Combeferre how to skin the rabbit Feuilly caught, and Courfeyrac is encouraging the fire into a blaze high enough to cook it when they're ready.
She doesn't say much through the evening, and she sleeps away from their camp, enough brush set up around her that she'll be warned well in advance if any of them approach her. Enjolras lets it be, and shakes his head at Courfeyrac when he looks like he wants to mention it.
“Do you think Éponine will continue on with us?” Feuilly asks when they're away from the others, looking at the smoked and salted meats in a butcher's stall, the ones that might last.
“I don't know her well enough to guess yet. I hope she does.”
Feuilly raises his eyebrows. “I didn't think you would care one way or another. I know you took her on as thanks to Grantaire, but she has to do what she can for herself.”
“She's as lost as I am,” Enjolras says, and does his best not to grit his teeth at the admission. Everyone else knows his troubles, he might as well admit to them when they're relevant. “It's good not to feel alone in that.”
Feuilly shrugs. “The way I see it, all of us are lost. Combeferre, Courfeyrac, and I, we may know more about our skills and what we want to do with our lives now that Cosette is on the throne, but that doesn't mean we know everything, or I doubt any of us would be with you.”
Enjolras doesn't lash out, and say that at least none of them are having to think about what to do now that they're alive against all odds, against prophecy. He knows it isn't fair. “I'm glad you all are,” he says instead.
“Me too, though I miss Cosette's presence. It seems strange to be traveling without her. But we'll be coming back to her more ready to be of help, so I don't feel too guilty. And maybe we'll bring her Éponine, and others, to help on her council.”
Enjolras turns away from inspecting some salted ham, which he isn't overly fond of but which is plentiful and cheap. “You think Éponine would come back to the palace? I don't know much, but I know she didn't leave it in a way that would make anyone want to come back.”
“I think Cosette needs her, the same way she needs all of us, to remind her that not everyone's lives were made better when she took the throne. She helped me, all of you did, brought me out of a difficult life, gave me more books to read, but the opposite has happened to Éponine. Don't you think Cosette would like to know how to fix it for others like her?”
“It's up to Éponine. We can try to find someone else, if she leaves us, if you think it's important. And it seems you do.”
Feuilly doesn't answer that, just turns to the butcher and starts bargaining, a quick exchange that Enjolras never learned. Feuilly has always been master of it, and Enjolras is happy to stand back and fill their pack with what the butcher wraps for them when the transaction is done.
They wander the town together after that, chatting with shopkeepers and picking up supplies, finding Courfeyrac on the way, his buckle fixed. It's another hour before they can tear Combeferre away from his new friends, who, it seems, were convinced to teach him the magic-less illusion that performers are so good at.
“Are we going, then?” Courfeyrac asks when they're all collected, the new weight of supplies shared out between their packs. “I know Éponine said she wasn't coming back, but I want to be sure she's safe and well before we leave her.”
“We'll have something to eat on the grass of the commons,” says Feuilly. “She can find us if she wants to, and if she hasn't by the time we've eaten and had some time to digest and talk, then she can either catch up to us, or she found somewhere she wants to stay. She knows where we're going next, I made sure of that.”
“Then we'll do that,” says Enjolras, and leads the way to a free patch of grass. It's midday and hot, and all the farmers are out of their fields, sitting with friends and family, wandering from stall to stall in the market and doing just what they're doing, having their lunch on the grass. It's a large enough town that they're easily ignored. They see plenty of travelers, and Enjolras and his companions already have the dirt of the road ground into their skin, so no one is likely to recognize them as from the palace.
Éponine finds them when they're almost finished eating, snatching a hunk of bread and some cheese from their stores just as Combeferre is starting to pack up, and then taking the piece of sausage Courfeyrac offers her. “There's no work,” she says, and Enjolras suspects it's a lie but doesn't care. “If you don't mind, I'll travel with you a ways, try again at the next town.”
“You're more than welcome,” Enjolras assures her, and, when she looks away, returns the smile he gets from Feuilly.
Éponine is quiet, and sharp. Combeferre and Feuilly both try to coax her into conversation, though Feuilly is often more successful. Enjolras lets her keep her thoughts to herself, and finds that she walks beside him more often than he would have expected, maybe for exactly that reason. Courfeyrac treats her the same as he does the rest of them, but that's with teasing and gentle questions about their lives, and Enjolras can't blame her for steering away from Courfeyrac when she can.
She fits in well, to his surprise, as they work their way towards the coast over the next week, not going particularly quickly, stopping whenever anything takes their fancy. After the second town, she stops talking about leaving them and starts telling them better routes to take if they really want to see the best of the roads to the coast. She's palace bred as much as Combeferre and Courfeyrac, so it's a surprise how well she knows it all, but Enjolras doesn't ask about it.
Cosette sends a letter by bird when they're two days' travel from the coast, and it arrives midday, when they've stopped to take a rest from the heat. It's long, full of messages for all of them, but mostly for Enjolras. She talks about calling for volunteers from any villages that can spare them to come after harvest to spend the winter at the palace, to help rule their own country, and about visitors to the palace, foreign royalty looking for an alliance.
“She likes that one, Marius,” Feuilly says, pointing at the page. “She mentioned him three times, everyone else was barely mentioned.”
Courfeyrac looks over at them, interested. “Prince Marius from Gillenormand's kingdom? He stayed in the palace a few years ago at his grandfather's behest, he was nice enough. Not the heir, though he should have been, there was something strange going on with their line of succession, but he obviously hated both his grandfather and Tholomyes, so it endeared him to all of us.”
“I remember him,” says Éponine, unexpectedly. It's rare she can be convinced to talk about her life at the palace at all. “He was kind. If she's hoping to make an alliance, she could do worse.”
Enjolras jumps in to answer before anyone else can. “I don't know if she's planning to marry any time soon, but it's a comfort that she isn't in danger from him, if she's interested. Valjean could protect her from anyone, of course, and she can protect herself, but I'd rather she didn't have to.”
“Marius wouldn't hurt anyone,” she says, and doesn't say anything else on the subject.
That night, Enjolras writes back to Cosette, telling her about their travels, responding to her questions and her news. He talks a little about Grantaire, and more about Éponine, and scribbles an I miss you at the end. In the morning, Feuilly attaches a note of his own, tightly folded so nobody catches sight of a word by accident, and Combeferre whispers the spell that will send the bird back to the palace.
On this journey, when he smells it, he has to stop and inhale for a few moments, lagging behind the others for a moment until Éponine turns around and gives him one of her rare smiles. “Were your parents fishermen, or something?”
“No, merchants. But they traded from the sea, sometimes. I've just always liked it.”
Courfeyrac turns around then. “Are we going to lose you to a ship, then?”
“Cosette would kill me.”
“You could go off, be an ambassador for her Majesty, see the world, if you want to.” Feuilly is frowning, though, and tempting as the thought is, Enjolras doesn't think he could do it, leave the country when it's still healing, when now that he's alive he has a responsibility to help it heal.
“For now, I'm happy just to see it. Well, smell it.”
“We could perhaps work on seeing it if we weren't all standing in the middle of the road,” Combeferre says mildly, gesturing out in front of him. Enjolras starts walking again, since he was what held them up in the first place, and the rest of them fall into easy step again, Courfeyrac and Feuilly continuing a conversation about possible renovations at the palace and the rest of them mostly silent, eyes on the scenery and the hill in front of them.
When they reach the top, they can see the ocean, vast and only a few miles further down the road. Enjolras keeps his eyes on it as much as he can as they walk the rest of the way, and nobody speaks to him, because all of them, even Éponine, are coming to know him well enough to know when to leave him to his own thoughts. He'd known, at one point, that he would never see the ocean again. It's stranger and sobering to know that he is seeing it again, that it may be the first of any number of times in his life.
Courfeyrac, up ahead by a few paces by the time they get to where the road turns away from the beach, keeps walking straight instead, down to the stones next to the shore. “We'll have a meal here,” he says, and doesn't bother to make it a question. “Maybe stay the night in the shelter of the slope down to the beach, once we see how far the tide goes. We aren't likely to see anyone but some gulls, we've been alone on the road a while. Everyone else is going directly to a port, they aren't taking the scenic route.”
The rest of them look at Enjolras, and he would protest that it isn't his decision alone, but he knows that they're by the ocean in the first place because of him. “We'll stay,” he says, because it's what he'd rather do, and he can afford to be indulgent.
It's early in the afternoon, so they don't bother starting to set up camp yet. Enjolras drops his pack where it won't be easily seen from the road and the others follow suit, and they all walk out onto the beach. It's rough walking, smooth stones, but Combeferre is already yards away inspecting some kind of crustacean scuttling away under a rock—they're edible, in large enough quantities to make boiling them worth it, and Enjolras makes a note to see about catching some for their dinner. It's been a while since their last stop.
Everyone seems content to go about their own tasks for the afternoon. Combeferre looks at the wildlife, conjuring up some kind of elaborate spell to look closely at the smaller creatures. Feuilly finds a freshwater inlet and some driftwood and proceeds to empty out his pack and wash every scrap of cloth in it with the precious supply of soap he brought with him from the palace. Courfeyrac and Éponine sit and sharpen and polish their weapons, everything treated with utmost care.
Enjolras sits on a rock and looks out to sea. There are fishermen out on their boats, going back and forth for their day's haul, probably fishing from whatever village harbor is nearest. There are a few islands as well, and the shape of the bay curving around, but mostly Enjolras watches the waves, the occasional gull or tern flying down, the rare head of a porpoise surfacing.
Feuilly comes to sit next to him as the others start to get the cookfire ready for the night's dinner, since Combeferre apparently packed a bucket full of shellfish. “You've been quiet,” he observes.
“I didn't think I was ever going to see this again,” Enjolras says. It makes Feuilly flinch. “I kept a running tally of all the things I was never going to see again, I couldn't do otherwise, and other than my friends, the ocean was one of the things I would have missed most.”
“Do you miss the thought of dying?” Feuilly asks, carefully, and Enjolras wonders how long he's been waiting to ask it. He and Cosette must have discussed it, in those early days when Enjolras was still healing and Cosette was waiting to be crowned.
“No, never that. Dying wasn't a thought I relished, but I thought it was inevitable.” He picks up a smooth shell and starts tracing the light marks on it. “I miss having a purpose. Everyone tells me I don't need one, beyond supporting Cosette if that's what I wish, but I've grown up with a purpose. I don't know what I survived for.”
“Most of us,” Feuilly says slowly, “don't grow up with a purpose assigned to us, the kind of thing that goes down in legend and song. Some of us find purposes—the orphanage found me an apprenticeship with the stonemason, even if it wasn't what I wanted to do, and then when I was trained you and Cosette found me, and I had that purpose. And you never know when they'll change. All you can do is let them.”
“You say that like it's easy.”
“I think you're just too stubborn.” Feuilly smiles halfway before it drops away from his face and he looks out to sea. “None of us expects you to know anything tomorrow, or a year from now. You'll find ways to be of use, and that's what matters to you, from what I can tell.”
“My friends, and work to do, work I can find meaning in. It shouldn't be that hard to find.”
“Don't worry about that yet.” Feuilly bumps him gently with a shoulder. “Worry about healing first. You've spent your life preparing to die young, and that's no way to live. Whether you think so or not, there's healing to be done. So you'll do that, while we're down here by the sea, and then you'll decide where we go next, and eventually you'll decide to go back to the palace, and you'll be ready to help Cosette, which is all the meaningful work you should need.”
“What, none of you have anywhere you'd like to visit?”
“I'm content to let you lead, and I suspect the others feel much the same, though I haven't asked Éponine.”
Enjolras doesn't have anything to say to that, and the two of them sit there in silence for a few minutes. The tide has come in far enough to lick at their feet, both of their boots shucked off farther up the shore, where they'll be free from the dangers of salt water. It's been a warm afternoon, and there's only a little bit of the ever-present chill in the ocean.
Courfeyrac interrupts them eventually, walking in front of them to block the light from the sun, hands on his hips and pretending to frown. “Do the two of you intend to sit around and gossip like hens all day, or are you going to help with dinner?”
Enjolras smiles at Feuilly and stands up, brushing sand off his palms before he gives Feuilly a hand up. “Just tell us what needs doing.”
When he isn't working, he spends as much time on the beaches as he can, the sandy ones and the rocky ones and the ones somewhere in between. He takes a few swims, on the hotter days, and even convinces most of his friends to join him when they aren't working at the time, though Combeferre insists that if men were meant to swim they would be born with gills (and then starts experimenting with spells for the purpose).
A letter from Cosette reaches them on their last day in town. She writes of more plans, more visitors, tells them she misses them and that she looks forward to meeting Éponine and asking for her ideas. She also writes of Prince Marius again, more than anyone else, and Enjolras recognizes the way she writes about him and sighs when Feuilly reads the letter and his eyebrows go up. “We should trust her that he's everything she implies he is, shouldn't we?” he asks.
“Cosette is a good judge of character. We never joined up with anyone who betrayed us, and every final choice was up to her.” Feuilly frowns down at the letter. “Though I do look forward to meeting him, if he intends to stay.”
“Do you think we should go back?”
“No. Not until you're ready. And I'm not ready. And I'm quite sure Éponine isn't, if we leave for the palace right now she'll stay right here.”
Enjolras breathes out. “Very well, then. Do you want to write something back?”
“I'll have a note ready for you to send in the morning,” says Feuilly, and leaves Enjolras to write his own.
Enjolras waits a few moments to see if anyone else speaks up and says where they want to go, but no one does, and he can't say that he's surprised about it. “I thought north, to the mountains and the mines.”
“From one end of the kingdom to another?” says Combeferre.
Éponine raises her eyebrows. “Do you have somewhere else to be?” She looks back at Enjolras. “There are a few towns on the way I might want to avoid, my parents settled towards the north, but I'm willing to go. I'd like it. Grantaire's home is on the easiest road up there, I might like to see him too. To let him know I'm safe.”
The rest of them all flick looks at Enjolras, nearly in unison, and he wonders if he reacted at all, or if they just know that his thoughts on Grantaire are difficult to parse even for him. Still, Éponine made a request, and that's not to be taken lightly. If things are strange, and Enjolras can't shake the memory of the first time they met, then they don't have to stay long. “It makes sense, if that's what you'd like,” he says, as neutrally as he can, and thinks he probably fails in the execution judging by the way she smiles.
On this journey, they don't linger. There's little to see on the road they're on but forest and the occasional village, and while they don't take the fastest road, enjoying their own company too much to risk having to fall in with someone else out of politeness, they don't go too far off the path either. It's only a day or two until they're away from the lingering scent of the ocean and back into forests and farmland. The first crop of hay is about ready to be harvested, and they pay for lodging with a widow for the night by scything one of her fields, borrowing a few extra scythes from her neighbor so they can all work together.
It's a little over a week before they make it back to half-familiar roads, the same ones they traveled just after Éponine joined them, and Éponine takes the lead instead of going to the tavern, traveling into the woods, a few miles off any main road, to where the paths could have been made by deer or hunters but probably haven't seen a wagon in a long time.
When Éponine stops, they've reached a small farmstead, a few pastures carved out of the woods, a house and a barn gray with weather and a little crooked with age, goats tethered outside the barn and a large garden planted at the side of the house. “This is where he lives.”
“Alone?” says Courfeyrac. “Must be lonely.”
Éponine shrugs. “He was glad enough to take me in. Are we going to knock on his door? There won't be space enough in the house for all of us, but the barn has a warm hayloft.” She nods towards the house. There's candlelight inside, though it isn't quite dark enough to really necessitate the use. “He's in, and he'll look outside and notice us standing here first. Shall I knock?”
“Please do,” says Feuilly, and they all fall in behind Éponine as she leads them up to the door.
A stranger answers the door, a man with a grin on his face that fades into confusion as he sees them. He's leaning lightly on a cane, and he looks over his shoulder after he takes them all in. “Grantaire, you have more guests.”
“This isn't an inn,” comes the half-familiar voice, and then Grantaire is at the door behind his friends, and he blinks when he sees them all. “Éponine, I wasn't expecting you.”
“We're on our way north,” she says. “You were on our way, so we thought we would stop and say hello, ask if we can sleep in your barn tonight. If you have another guest ...”
“I have three, but there's still enough space in the barn as long as you don't mind squeezing in tight with the goats. I'm only lucky none of you have horses.” He looks at them again, as if he's still not quite sure they're there. “Come in. There may be enough stew left from dinner.”
“If it doesn't stretch, we have some early peas we bartered off a farmer yesterday, and some bread and cheese from the village before that,” says Combeferre. “We're more than willing to share. Thank you for being willing to take us in, just on the strength of knowing Éponine.”
“You're the heroes of the kingdom, aren't you? I couldn't leave you out in the cold. Or the heat, as the case may be. Come in, meet my other travelers—actually, it's good that you came.”
Enjolras brings up the rear as they troop into the little house. There are three others inside—the man with the cane, who's looking intrigued now that Grantaire has mentioned heroes, another man by the fire with a needle and thread and what looks like half the cloth contents of someone's pack on his lap, and a woman sitting on what must be Grantaire's bed fletching arrows. She's the one who speaks first when they're all inside. “I'm Musichetta, and Lesgles is over by the fire there, and Joly is the one standing in your way. Are you friends of Grantaire's?”
“I know them,” Grantaire says, saving Enjolras having to try to find an answer, since Éponine is silent and the rest of them looked to him. “They're traveling the country—were just down on the coast, if I remember right, and my friend Éponine here went with them. Where are you going now?”
“The mines, in the north,” says Courfeyrac. “Enjolras wanted to see the country when he wasn't running for his life, thought we'd do the length of it. And are you friends of his?”
“Enjolras?” says Joly, moving out of the way at last and over to the other chair by the fire. Those two and the bed seem to be the only chairs Grantaire has, so the rest of them keep hovering awkwardly in a clump. “Not the same one who's the Queen's Champion?”
“He is indeed the same one,” Grantaire says before Enjolras or any of his companions can confirm it. “We're sharing a roof with a hero. Or, well, the goats will be sharing a roof with a hero, unless he decides to use his hero status to ask for the bed. Considering the three of you will share it and I imagine he'd want to sleep alone, though, it's more efficient to send him out to the goats.”
“The goats are fine, and I'm not a hero.” Enjolras slings his pack off his back and starts rummaging around for his share of the food. “Though I am the Queen's Champion. I only wanted to travel for a while, before helping her more, and Feuilly, Combeferre, and Courfeyrac offered to join me. Grantaire introduced us to Éponine.” He points at each of them in turn, and the three already settled in Grantaire's home wave to him. “Where are the three of you traveling to?”
“The palace, actually,” says Lesgles. “Well, eventually. We thought we'd travel a little first, like you, and I knew Grantaire from when we were children, so when I found out where he was I thought we'd give him some company here in the middle of the woods.”
Grantaire rolls his eyes and smiles. Enjolras has only met him a few times, but it's strange to see him as smiling and relaxed as he is with these three. “I'm a mile from the inn, you exaggerate. I couldn't go without ale for as long as I would have to if I were a hermit. Or I'd have to distill my own, and what kind of grain can you grow in the woods? I don't think pine liquor would do anyone any good.”
“What's taking you to the palace?” Combeferre asks, taking Enjolras's food and combining it with his own, handing both to Grantaire and letting him take them over to a counter where he can cut the bread and cheese.
“The queen is calling for representatives from each village to be on a council of sorts,” says Musichetta. “I'm sure you've heard. Our Lesgles was chosen by our village, and Joly is a healer, wants to learn in the palace, and where one of us goes, all of us go. I'm a hunter and a farmer, don't know what I'll do in the palace, but the travel in between will be interesting.”
“Where are you traveling?” asks Feuilly. “We've just been down on the coast, and it's lovely there. You can get lodging for work in the fields in between as well.”
Joly shrugs. “We're not sure, though we're close enough to the coast that we've gone recently.”
“What if you went north with them?” Grantaire asks, and Enjolras looks sharply over at him. He doesn't look up from what he's doing, and his expression doesn't seem to have changed, but he must have had reason to make the suggestion. “There's no harm in a larger party, is there?”
Lesgles snorts and turns to them instead of to Grantaire. “He's only saying this because we're trying to convince him to come and he thinks he can better serve himself by sitting here in the woods slowly growing a terrifying beard and gaining legends about stealing people's children.”
“I have never stolen a child, what would I do with one? And, dear Bossuet, what would I do while traveling, hm? Or worse, in the palace.”
“Same as me, probably,” says Musichetta. “Make yourself of use on the road and figure something else out when you get to the palace.”
“Cosette—Queen Euphrasie, sorry—would welcome anyone who wants to be useful,” says Feuilly, surprisingly firm, and even more surprisingly looking at Grantaire. “I'm just a stonemason, and she found room for me on her council. If you're a farmer or a hunter, well, there's always room for more in or near the palace.”
“I don't even know what I'm doing there, not really,” Enjolras says quietly, and gets an assessing look from Musichetta and Joly as a result.
Grantaire finishes with his cutting and starts laying the food out on the table, fetching bowls and mugs, of which there are more, and pouring the remnants of a stew into them. “It isn't much, but it's something,” he says, and makes a gesture that is probably all the invitation they'll get. He doesn't comment further on the conversation, and Courfeyrac starts talking about the coast, and news from the palace, which they're a little out of date on now.
The conversation flows easily, once they're all used to each other. Joly and Lesgles (those who know him better call Bossuet, for reasons Enjolras doesn't manage to catch, but Enjolras keeps to the name he gave) obviously know Grantaire well, full of jokes that he grins at and scolding him when he tries to do the dishes when he was the one who made dinner. Enjolras, Combeferre and Joly end up doing them, the three finishing them quickly while the rest share around some of Grantaire's supply of ale. Éponine seems wary of the new people, but Musichetta takes to her and draws her attention whenever it looks as though she might withdraw.
When Enjolras and Feuilly, always the earliest to wake and the earliest to get tired, start yawning, Grantaire shows their party out to the barn, with a neat little spell for light that he mutters before they go out instead of lighting a lantern. “I'm no wizard,” he says when Combeferre makes an inquiring noise, “but I know a few tricks. You never know when they'll come in handy.”
The barn, when they get there, is a little drafty but cozy enough for a summer night. Grantaire brings the goats in to a few stalls, and feeds chickens in a coop attached to the barn while he's out, starting a riot of clucks and crows while he does it, since all the chickens were roosting for the night already and not pleased with being disturbed. The ladder to the hayloft is rickety, but the hayloft itself is sturdy and still piled with the last of the winter's supply, enough to cushion their bedrolls. “This will be more than enough,” Enjolras says, when Grantaire hovers at the bottom of the ladder like he's worried, or has something to say.
Grantaire tilts his head, frowning, like Enjolras has said just the wrong thing, and Enjolras wants to ask what it is, but he doesn't think Grantaire would listen, or give a straight answer, even if they were alone. It isn't because he's the Queen's Champion or a hero, if that's what he is, he feels sure of that even though it would explain the way Grantaire watches him sometimes. He doesn't know what impact their night together had on Grantaire, but it was something. “If you say so,” he finally says, and turns away, extinguishing his light spell well before he's out in the moonlight.
When Enjolras turns away from the ladder to set up his bed, his friends are all watching him, paused in their own work, Combeferre's light taking over for Grantaire's. Éponine is the one who speaks, finally. “Come on, may as well get some sleep,” she says, because Éponine knows when not to ask a question, and he goes.
Grantaire finds him before anyone else does, by the bed of well-kept and beautiful flowers, wildflowers and kept ones that Enjolras recognizes from all his travels, the group of them never found together but beautiful for the variety. “The flowers are lovely,” he says when Grantaire stops a few feet away but doesn't seem inclined to say anything.
“I took seeds and plantings when I traveled. Are you going to take Joly and the others with you?”
“If they want to come.” Enjolras turns to face him. “I don't know why you don't.”
“You ran away from the palace when you didn't know what to do with yourself, though anyone would think the Queen's Champion had a clear enough purpose. I can't spend some time in the woods.”
“Is it family property?” Enjolras asks, uncomfortable with the turn of the conversation.
Grantaire shakes his head sharply and looks down at the bed of flowers. “The last owners got taken away about a year ago, word was they'd spoken out for your Cosette. I took it over. Least I could do, for them and the goats. I was done traveling, anyway. Learned a lot of trades, never could settle on one.”
“What sort of trades?”
“Oh, I know a little bit about everything, magic and swordplay and all the best bardic epics, I'm sure there are good ones being composed about you. And farming, apparently.”
Enjolras raises his eyebrows. “You don't think you'd be welcome in the palace?”
“Your queen may be a good one, but I don't know if I can trust royalty. Her father's rule wasn't kind even to those of us who weren't in active rebellion. I'm content to stay where I am.” Grantaire bends to snap the stem of a flower in the bed, a bright red spray of blooms Enjolras doesn't recognize. “Here, to tie to your pack, for luck on your journey. Early blooms are a good omen up north, and this is early for them there.”
There's a shout and a laugh from the house, and Grantaire turns towards it, smiling a little. “It was good to see them again. I'll be glad if they go with you, or stay with you. They can take care of themselves, but it can't hurt to have a few more people watching their backs. And if you all go together, they'll be less likely to try to convince me to come. And so will you, come to that.”
Enjolras grits his teeth. Anything he has to say to that will be unwelcome, as much as he wants to ask Grantaire why he wants to stay when his friends want him to leave, when he isn't happy. Grantaire has given reasons, and Enjolras has to trust them, and Grantaire isn't any of Enjolras's business no matter what it's beginning to feel like. “As long as it's what you want.”
Grantaire gives him a strange look, but turns toward his house as the door opens and Lesgles and Joly come out, Lesgles in a sprawl and Joly looking alarmed, standing above him. “Did you two wake Musichetta?” Grantaire calls across the garden.
“Yes, and she says if you have eggs she'll cook them for us,” Joly yells back. “So we've come to collect them.”
Grantaire laughs and moves away from Enjolras without a glance his way. “I'll show you where to go, though it's early for them to have laid many, and one of them is broody, so I wish you luck with her.”
Enjolras lets him go and goes back to staring at the flowers, or more at the bloom he's holding. It isn't long before there's the sound of a commotion in the barn, the goats and chickens waking all at once, bleats and crows that lead to a yell from Éponine, a barely-heard groan from Courfeyrac, who isn't at his best in the mornings.
Combeferre is the first to stumble out of the barn, and when he catches sight of Enjolras he changes his trajectory from the house to the bed of flowers. “You're up early, you could have woken us.”
“There wasn't much point in it. Everyone has to wake up before we can go anywhere. And Grantaire and I were talking.”
That makes Combeferre frown thoughtfully, fingers tapping against his thigh. “Did you get things worked out a little?”
Enjolras blinks, looking away from the flower in his hand again. “What do we have to work out?”
“I don't know, Enjolras, you tell me. It's obviously something, from the way you two are around each other, and I'm not going to ask what. It isn't my business.”
“I hardly know him.”
Combeferre hums, bending down to inspect a bee as it lights on one of the brighter flowers. “Doesn't mean that you don't mean something to each other. I'm not going to tell you to do anything you don't want to do, Enjolras. Why do you keep asking him to come with us?”
“He isn't happy here.”
“Why does that matter? I know you believe in freedom from tyranny for everyone, or you wouldn't have fought with Cosette, but happiness is a personal matter and it's harder to assure.”
“He helped me once,” Enjolras says, reasoning through it as he speaks, and then amends that. “I made him help me once, he may have asked what was wrong, but I burdened him with it, and I knew it was a burden. He could have been killed for his information, Lamarque and I went through a lot to keep the prophecy about me secret. I would like to repay that, somehow, now that I know where to find him.”
“And that's all?”
It's as much as he knows how to say, anyway. “Yes,” he says.
Combeferre doesn't answer him, just watches the bee buzz away. “Shall we help with breakfast? Courfeyrac still has some of the honey he bought in the last town, I imagine it would be a welcome addition to whatever we eat.”
Enjolras accepts the change of subject and starts walking, still stupidly clutching the flower. It will no doubt wilt before he manages to tie it to his pack, but he doesn't want to put it down either. Combeferre looks at it sidelong as they walk to the house, but he doesn't say anything, just fills a cup of water and hands it to Enjolras when they get there, already talking to Musichetta about what she's planning to cook and what their supplies can add to the meal.
“You can send us a letter any time, and we'll come for you,” he hears Éponine say quietly when Grantaire gives her a hug, and Enjolras doesn't object even though they've never discussed it and it would be foolish. “You know how to find a suitable bird, so you know how to send to us.”
“Won't need it, but I'll keep it in mind so I can say hello if need be,” he says, giving a brief tug at the end of her braid, and moves on to Joly.
It's another quarter of an hour before they start walking away from him, and Enjolras doesn't manage to say anything to Grantaire but “goodbye” in the meantime. Feuilly must notice, from the squeeze his gives Enjolras's shoulder as they start walking, but everyone is kind enough not to mention it, even if the newcomers seem to just be noticing that something might be off between them.
When Enjolras lags a little, not enjoying the heat and the silent way his friends seem to be conspicuously avoiding the subject of Grantaire (and it wouldn't be so disappointing if Enjolras knew exactly why it is that he's so disappointed Grantaire refuses to come, because he's not stupid enough to think it's for Grantaire's sake alone), he finds himself falling into step with Joly.
“You're kind to take us with you,” says Joly. “It's easier to feel safe with some friends around, isn't it?”
“You would have had Lesgles and Musichetta, wouldn't you?”
“Yes, but then I would have been worrying about them as well as myself. There are a lot of you, and two of you are knights, and one of you is Éponine, who Grantaire told us about. It helps.” He pauses for a moment. “That sounded mercenary of me, I think.”
“I know what it's like wanting your friends to be safe.”
Joly smiles at him. “I figured you did. Stories are starting to go around, you know? About you and Queen Euphrasie. And a little about Feuilly. We won't talk about them if you don't want, but I know enough about you to like you.”
“I like you, from what I know of you,” Enjolras says, and Joly keeps smiling and doesn't say anything, and the two of them walk along in silence until Lesgles falls back with them and asks Joly something about a friend of theirs from home, and then he listens to them chat and laugh until Courfeyrac finds a good place for them to camp.
Still, they aren't in a hurry, and having more company makes things easier instead of more awkward. Within a few days, they've started gathering around the cookfire at night, trading stories, whether those are about their lives or other people's stories. Musichetta and Éponine get along well, and Joly and Combeferre talk about medicine, and Lesgles talks cheerily to whoever's closest and makes dinner nearly every night, picking up minor burns nearly every time but never minding and always producing something delicious.
They often speak of Grantaire, dropping tidbits about his life, and Enjolras puzzles them over as they travel, turning them over in his mind, wondering how someone who's seen the country end to end, who has worked five different trades despite still being young, is content to stay in the woods taking care of goats and flowers.
“Write him a letter,” says Feuilly one evening, when Joly and Lesgles and Musichetta have wandered away from the campsite on pretext of a walk, really looking for some rare privacy. “He would answer.”
“I doubt he would.”
“You care about him.” Each word sounds carefully chosen, and Enjolras frowns, thinking it over, the “about” that is kinder than a “for,” and maybe truer, or at least should be.
“He helped me. And it's my own fault I wouldn't let anyone else do it, but the fact is that he did. I don't … I don't know if I owe him anything. I don't think I do. But I don't want to forget about him either.”
“Write him,” Feuilly says. “The worst he'll do is not answer.”
“We'll write Cosette instead. It's been a few weeks since we heard from her, and she hasn't heard about our new companions yet. She should know we have a member of her big council and a healer and a huntress traveling with us now.”
Feuilly smiles, but he watches Enjolras closely anyway while Enjolras asks Combeferre about calling for a bird when they make camp, and he has a note ready for Cosette when Enjolras is ready to send his own, as does Courfeyrac, and surprisingly Lesgles, who shrugs and says he may as well introduce himself early.
Enjolras thinks about it, though, as the blooms Grantaire gave him wilt and eventually wither enough that he has to take them off his pack. Éponine turns up wordlessly with another bright spray of them a few days later, and he ties them on, and every time they wilt again on their way north, someone replaces them, without a word about it.
From anyone else, it might sound accusatory, but Lesgles just sounds honestly curious, and he's traveling with them. It isn't as though the answer he's looking for is a secret. “Cosette wants to be sure she can rule on her own, though she has her father there to help her—her adoptive father, not the other one, obviously.”
“I don't know. The others are happy to be traveling, but it's my fault we're out in the first place. I was at loose ends, after I killed Tholomyes. I still don't know what to do.”
Lesgles raises his eyebrows. “What, and you think mining is it?”
“No, but I thought it would be good to see as much as I can. At least I'll be a good adviser to Cosette that way.”
Lesgles mulls that over, scratching in the dirt and pine needles in front of him with a stick. “She's going to have a lot of advisers,” he finally says. “And we'll all know different things. That's why she wanted so many, I think. You don't have to know everything, you just have to know what you know.”
“I don't know that I know anything useful.”
Lesgles shrugs. “That's your own call, but I don't think you've got to know this country top to bottom to be worth something to it, or to her, or whatever you're thinking. Just do what you're interested in, I'm willing to bet it will come in handy. And if it doesn't, well, you're still the Queen's Champion and I'm sure you look good in decorative armor and jeweled swords, or whatever that entails.”
Enjolras rolls his eyes, but he knows he's smiling. “At least I have being decorative to fall back on.”
“And it's not like you have to be one thing for the rest of your life. I was a farmer, and I've been a cook, and now I'm going to be in politics and probably complain about farming and trade laws. You've been a warrior, and you can be whatever, but it doesn't have to stay the same. Life would get boring.” Lesgles yawns. “I think my exhaustion has finally overcome the heat.”
“Go to bed, then.”
“Two people away from camp is fine. One is a recipe for disaster. I should know. Come back, there are coyotes and bears and goodness only knows what else in these woods. Not to mention bandits.”
“Fine.” Enjolras stands up and offers Lesgles a hand to heave him to his feet. “Thank you. For the advice.”
Lesgles shrugs. “I'm not wise, or anything, but I know all about not knowing what to do with yourself.” He starts walking, but he stops to give Enjolras a sideways look a few seconds later. “Grantaire knows more.”
That more than answers the question of whether the newcomers know there's history between Enjolras and Grantaire, but Enjolras can't be surprised about that. He knows that when he's around Grantaire he has a tendency to watch him a little too closely, trying to puzzle him out. “I'll keep it in mind,” he says, and follows Lesgles to the camp.
It feels good to make himself of use, though he isn't as skilled as many of his friends. Enjolras hunts with Musichetta, helps Feuilly move stone, helps to raise a barn frame under Lesgles's direction, and the only thing that keeps him from feeling as though he doesn't know anything useful is the knowledge that Éponine and Courfeyrac do much the same that he does, and cheerfully.
Enjolras writes Cosette more and more frequently as they travel, frequently enough that Combeferre sits him down somewhere at the foot of the mountains and teaches him how to call a bird, a trick he never learned in all his years of travel because he was always with everyone he wanted to talk to. He writes about the people they meet, how glad they are to hear about their queen, how they're working hard to recover and rebuild, how the harvest is bountiful and they have hopes of not needing the grain stores too much come winter.
Cosette always writes back, even if it's only a line or two. Often, she talks about breaks on taxes for the households and villages struggling the most, or about sending troops out not to fight but to shore up dams and keeps and storage. Sometimes, she talks about the people still coming to the palace to see her or to stay, and the plans for a new wing on the palace where her large council can stay and meet in comfort. Almost every letter, she mentions Marius: his awkward sweetness, the difficulties around his inheritance, how he's quiet and shy with her but how she can talk to him, and Enjolras is irrationally jealous and fiercely glad both. Without fail, every letter ends with I miss you, but don't come home until you want to.
“Do you miss the palace?” he asks Courfeyrac after one of the letters and a long day of meeting miners who had a day out of the mines for a festival for a local spirit, when they're the last two lingering at a spring washing.
Courfeyrac hums quietly. “Some. I miss the friends I have there, though it was hard to trust anyone but Combeferre there. You never knew who was on your side. It should be easier now. Do you feel guilty for keeping me away? You shouldn't. None of us would be here if we didn't want to be. I'm a knight. I've traveled before.”
“Cosette says she misses us, and that we should come home when we can.”
“That's an interesting choice of words, especially if she's directing them at you.”
Enjolras shrugs, finishing with washing the grime of the day off his face and arms. “I haven't had a home since I was a child. I've been traveling since Lamarque took me in.”
“Do you want one? You started traveling again as soon as you could.”
“I think I do, and I think the palace would do well, as long as I can leave sometimes.”
Courfeyrac smiles. “Good. I would hate to lose you to living in the woods with goats for company.”
Enjolras raises his eyebrows. “I don't think that life is for me, either. Grantaire may have his reasons for hiding in the woods, but he could do more, and so can I. I want to do more than that, and if it means living in the palace, there are worse fates than that.”
“Well then. We'll worry about you doing better first. Maybe then we can convince Grantaire to leave his little woods retreat. I think he'd take the palace by storm, don't you?” Enjolras doesn't know what expression he has on his face at the thought of Grantaire scoffing at the remaining nobles from Tholomyes's court and bringing his goats to live in the stables, but it makes Courfeyrac smile. “That's what I thought,” he says, drying his hands on his dusty trousers, undoing all his hard work, and leading Enjolras back to the barn they're sleeping in.
“Where are we going next?” Musichetta asks the first night they start turning south again, not because anyone begged to move on but because they all went towards the southern road without a word about it. “You've done the south, we've all done the north, and the palace is towards the east, so what does that leave, the west? Is there anything to see in the west but farms?”
“There are more than four directions on a map, no matter what the compass says,” says Feuilly, a little irritated in the way Enjolras is starting to recognize in himself and in the others from long travel in the heat, from the same company and no separate rooms in a home to retreat to. “And do you object to the west? I'm from there.”
“We could visit your home,” Lesgles offers.
“Not much there,” says Feuilly, looking away, and Enjolras looks quickly around the circle, sitting around the cookfire even though it's too hot for anyone to enjoy the flames. No one looks like they're going to be inclined to press. Enjolras is grateful for every one of them.
“We should stay in our borders,” Éponine says quietly, redirecting the conversation. “There are other times to travel to see things farther away, and I'd like to do it someday, but it's far to travel, to see the deserts or the jungles the ambassadors would talk about before Tholomyes … well, before. But there are other places. The lakes on the northeastern border, I haven't been but they say you can see all the way to the bottom even in the middle of the water, and that there are some that are always cold, even at this time of year. I could use some cold.”
“I went to the lakes a few times,” says Enjolras. “I wouldn't mind going again. Does anyone object?”
“Cool water sounds good after the last few weeks,” Musichetta says. “Maybe we can find a place to settle for a week, to enjoy the last of the best of the summer weather. Take a few swims. Help with the beginning of harvest.”
“It sounds good,” says Combeferre. “My family came from that region before we moved to the palace. I remember loving the lakes. I'd like to see it again.”
Enjolras looks around again, but no one objects. Everyone looks interested, a little less worn, and for that Enjolras would go places far less pleasant than this one promises to be.
If the Queen's Champion is still taking members into his party, it reads, I have two travelers here who want an adventure before they go to the palace. I thought of you.
“Grantaire has travelers who want to meet us,” he says, passing the note to Joly, who's next to him. “To come with us, perhaps. It would be a little out of our way to go to him again, but there must be a reason he contacted us instead of wishing them luck on their adventures. Even if it's just because he knows them as well.”
Enjolras expects grumbling—even though they have a destination and a rest in mind, the heat and the dust of the road have been making everyone increasingly irritable—but instead the worst reaction he gets is a shrug. The ones who know Grantaire well are smiling and Enjolras's friends don't object, though the smile Combeferre bites down is smug.
“We'll go,” says Musichetta. “I'm interested to meet these travelers.”
“I'm sure that's his main reason for not offering to send them to meet us somewhere,” says Courfeyrac, and the two of them exchange a smile.
“I don't want to speculate.” Enjolras sighs when that only makes the smiles around him wider. “Shall we start moving south, then? We'll send a bird back tonight, once we've made a little progress.”
Feuilly is the one who starts them walking again, with more purpose than before. There isn't a turn ahead of them for a while, but by the end of the day they manage to bend their path south, and at the end of the day Enjolras calls a bird when no one else seems willing and attaches a note saying they're on their way and will be glad to meet the travelers, whoever they are.
Joly falls into step with him the next day, in the afternoon stretch when everyone is always quietest. “You could have asked Grantaire to send them to meet us. If they're travelers, they'll know their way.” Enjolras doesn't answer that, waits for Joly's point. “I want him to come too. I think he wants to come too. He's just … Grantaire, he's always been stubborn. It isn't you, is what I'm saying.”
“It probably is, a little bit. The first time I met him I burdened him too much, and I don't know if he's forgotten that, or if he can.”
“Or if he should.” Joly hesitates. “I don't know everything. But it's worth talking to him about it all, if he matters to you.”
Everyone traveling with him knows the answer to that, so Enjolras doesn't bother answering. “We'll see when we get there,” he says instead, and he's glad when Joly changes the subject to needing to stop and resupply his stock of blister balm.
Lesgles is the first into the clearing, where Grantaire and two strangers are picking tomatoes from their bed, the air smelling strongly of the plants over the scent of woods. They're both men, one slight and one stocky, their laughter fading into curiosity when they see the size of the party coming to greet them.
Grantaire smiles brighter when he sees them, which is a surprise even though it shouldn't be. “I was wondering when you might come. You didn't mention when you sent your message.” He meets Enjolras's eyes for a moment before glancing away. “Every time I see you your party is getting bigger.”
“That's all your fault, I would argue,” says Éponine, the first to approach him and give him a firm hug. “Who are these, then?”
Grantaire gestures the men over. “Bahorel is a blacksmith,” he says, gesturing at the larger man. “I met him a few times, and he stopped in on his winding way to the palace, where he says he wants to make swords. And he brought a bard with him, because every blacksmith needs one of those—the illustrious Jean Prouvaire, who will let you call him Jehan if you're very nice, and who can probably make better ballads about the Queen's Champion than about swords.”
“I can make plenty of good ballads about swords,” says Jean Prouvaire mildly, and turns to smile at them. “You don't have to impress me first, though, you can call me Jehan. I prefer it, in fact. And we're honored that you came here to meet us.”
“You're honored,” says Bahorel. “I'm appalled at the state of their swords, what have you been doing, scything with them?”
Courfeyrac laughs. “We haven't met with any trouble, so we've let them get dull, I'm afraid. Maybe we'll have you sharpen them as your price to come with us.”
“A good smith never works for anything but coin, but I might be convinced.”
Grantaire laughs, and it's a surprising and good sound. “I thought this might work out. Come on, all of you, we can leave the tomatoes be and draw some water so you can bathe and rest a little while.”
That gets everyone moving, the temptation of a bath too much for anyone to resist, and Enjolras pauses so he can bring up the rear, and stop next to Grantaire when he reaches him. “It's good to see you again.”
“Always a relief to see you alive,” Grantaire returns, backing away a step, and then Bahorel is calling out from the door that a host should see to his guests and Enjolras doesn't have a chance to ask what that means.
“No,” says Musichetta, after a look at Enjolras, “the barn will do well enough for us, there's plenty of space up there now that you have a fresh crop of hay, or should, and you can't let us put you out of a bed.”
Grantaire frowns, but he doesn't object, and he only rolls his eyes when Bahorel complains that he was never offered the bed, and nor was Jehan. The conversation turns from there to what they saw in the north, Jehan mentioning that he'd taken much the same route at one point during his apprenticeship and winning Combeferre's interest by talking about a wizard he'd met there.
It's late by the time they all start yawning, and they filter out in pairs and threes to the barn to set up their bedrolls. Enjolras, too lazy to move from his sprawl in a corner, is the last, and can't say he minds, not even when Grantaire goes tense the moment Courfeyrac apologizes through a yawn and leaves them. “We should probably talk,” Enjolras says when the silence goes on too long, and forces himself to sit up.
“About why you're so uncomfortable with me. Why you won't come with us when you want to, when you're wasted here, when we want you with us.”
“I don't know why you do.”
Enjolras does him the courtesy of thinking about it, though he's thought of it often enough and couldn't come up with a satisfactory response. “I can't speak for the others,” he finally says. “But I like you, and you helped me once. I told you that when I met you again.”
Grantaire is moving around the kitchen stacking dishes with sharp movements that seem destined to break some of the crockery. “And I told you when I met you again that I was a coward who wanted to come with you the first time but couldn't get up the courage. I can't come with you now that it's easy.”
“You can if I ask you to.”
“It's the same worry, though. Don't you still worry you're going to be killed, and somehow the prophecy will be true? They always seem to come true when they're the worst thing that could happen, but all the ones about better worlds and golden ages, those remain unfulfilled.”
Enjolras stands up. He needs to be on the same level as Grantaire for this conversation. “Doesn't everyone worry they're going to die? I never worried, I knew, and it turned out to be wrong. Mostly I'm glad to be alive, even if I can't find a use for myself.”
“Didn't you tell me when you met again people don't need to have uses to matter to you? I distinctly remember it.”
“I may not need to have a use, but I would like to be useful. It's different, and not relevant. Grantaire, if you just tell me you want to stay, that you don't want to come, I won't ask again.”
Grantaire turns to face him, and he's frowning. “I don't understand you.”
“I don't understand you either, so I suppose we're even. I don't expect you to become an adviser to Cosette, or to stay at the palace if you don't want to, I don't expect anything of you. I'd like your presence.” He takes a breath. “I thought of you often after that first night. You were the only person I told until after I was supposed to be dead, and I was surprised to find you again, and happy. And my friends—or our friends, I think they're that—they'll tell you I speak of you sometimes.”
“I thought of you as little as I could. It broke my heart to think you were dead.” Grantaire runs a hand through his hair. “But I still don't know where that leaves us.”
“I don't either.” Enjolras dares a step towards Grantaire, and Grantaire holds his ground. “But I'm not dead, Grantaire, and to the best of my knowledge I'm not dying. That's a start.”
“It's a start,” Grantaire agrees, and this time he's the one to step forward.
Enjolras knows where this is going, knows that he could close the distance between them in two steps now. His blood is pounding in his ears, and it takes effort to swallow and say, his voice as even as he can make it, “I can go to the barn now, if you like, and you can think, and know that you'll be welcome with us tomorrow or whenever you send a bird, or if you just turn up at the palace. Cosette would like you.”
“I could stay,” says Enjolras. “Not forever, that's not what I'm offering. But tonight.”
Grantaire is the one who closes the space between them, the one who oh-so-carefully leans until he can just brush his mouth against Enjolras's, but Enjolras is the one to bring his hands up to grasp the collar of Grantaire's shirt, to keep him there and pull him in to kiss him harder. “Stay,” he says when they finally pull apart. “Just promise me that when you leave tomorrow you won't tell me you're going to die again.”
“I wouldn't. And it's not true. I'm avoiding prophecy these days.”
“Well, then.” Grantaire steps back, but not quite out of reach, and he smiles when Enjolras sways after him. “Come to bed.”
This time, Enjolras waits until they've removed their clothes and climbs on the bed over Grantaire, straddling his hips and kissing him slowly, taking the time to see what makes his hands clutch wherever he's holding on. Grantaire seems as determined to make it good, and even more determined to make it slow, his hands everywhere but where Enjolras wants them most and all the better for it.
“You've gotten better,” Enjolras whispers when Grantaire sucks a mark into the skin of his shoulder, where his clothes will cover it. There's a moment of jealousy in that, though he knows he has no right to it, but mostly he's glad to be back here, no matter what happened in the meantime.
Grantaire looks up at him with a smile. “I think I should be offended that you don't think I was good the first time.”
“You were exactly what I needed.”
“Fuck, stop talking,” says Grantaire, and kisses him again, rolling him over until they're on their sides and he can tangle his leg with Enjolras's, rock their hips together.
It isn't everything Enjolras wants—everything he wants would take nights and weeks and he would no doubt learn more in the meantime that would make it last even longer, and if he thinks about it too much it could scare him that he could easily see that time stretching and stretching—but it eases the ache in his cock, and it leaves him able to kiss Grantaire and to wrap an arm around him until they're pressed so close together he can feel Grantaire breathing.
Enjolras tries to make it last as long as he can, wishes it could stretch until dawn, but it's been too long since he was with someone—Grantaire wasn't quite his only, but it's still been since well before Cosette took the throne—and Grantaire is determined to make him come. All Enjolras can do is hang helplessly on and kiss Grantaire, hold onto him until he comes as well.
“You never asked me to stay,” Enjolras says a while later, when the kisses have died down and he can breathe again, on the softest bed he's slept in in months. “That first night. You said that you thought about coming with me, but you never asked me to stay.”
“Would you have?”
“No. Is that why you didn't?”
“No.” Grantaire is silent for long enough in the dark that Enjolras begins to wonder if he'll get an answer at all, if he was closer to sleep than he sounded. “You were so brave, so ready to face up to that prophecy if it meant that a tyrant was off the throne. I may not be brave like that, but I couldn't ask you to be anything less than what you are.”
“That sounds brave to me,” says Enjolras through the choking in his throat. “And maybe that's why I want you to come with me now.”
Grantaire brushes his hair away from his face, an intimate gesture that feels more so than sex. “I can't right now. I have a life. I have goats.” Enjolras laughs, can't help it, a burst of sound that seems loud in the quiet house. “I know you all want me to come with you, to come to the palace, I think that my friends want me around and yours think they owe me something for that one night, and maybe I can, but not right now.”
“Ask me again before you go back. I don't know what I would do there, but it sounds like neither do you.”
Enjolras shifts, uncomfortable more with the topic than with the soft mattress. “As long as you promise that if you change your mind you'll send a bird right away. We'll come for you.”
Grantaire yawns, and Enjolras does the same a second later. “I'll think about it,” Grantaire says, and it's the closest thing to a yes that Enjolras expects to get, so he kisses Grantaire again and settles against him to try to sleep.
Enjolras mostly leaves Grantaire be, though all their friends seem to be keeping a close eye on the two of them. Grantaire spends the day talking to Éponine and Joly and Musichetta and Lesgles, and Enjolras tries to spend as much of it as he can getting to know Jehan and Bahorel. Bahorel fits in easily enough, more than willing to joke with them and work beside them, and Jehan is kind, if shy, and has a tendency to watch them all like he's storing everything up to think back over later.
Jehan, unexpectedly, is also the one to clasp Grantaire's hand the next morning, when they're all preparing to leave, and say “You can come.”
“That's been made very clear,” Grantaire says, and Enjolras is glad he sounds less tense about it than he has been. “But you'll have to enjoy the lakes without me.”
Jehan smiles anyway, like he gleaned something from that that Grantaire didn't mean him to, and they move on with their goodbyes, trading words or embraces or claps on the back with Grantaire.
Enjolras is left for last, and he knows that was due more to everyone else's kindness than his own maneuvering. He doesn't know how to say goodbye this time, so he doesn't do it. “Write to me if you change your mind. Or even if you don't.”
Grantaire smiles and steps back without touching him. “I'll keep it in mind. Enjoy the lakes. Take a swim or two for me.”
“You should do it for yourself,” Joly calls from a few yards away, which only proves that everyone is eavesdropping.
“I will,” Enjolras says, instead of reiterating the sentiment, and steps away as well, because they have to say goodbye sometime.
Feuilly, when he looks over at him, is rolling his eyes through a smile. “Come on, then. We won't make it far if we don't leave soon, and if you aren't going to be convinced we may as well go.”
Grantaire looks around at all of them. “It was good to have you here again. Let me know when you're heading back to the palace, or coming by here again.”
“We will,” says Éponine, and takes Enjolras's arm to start dragging him away, though her grip is gentler than it would have been weeks back.
In the evenings, Jehan always has his lute in his lap, but he rarely plays it unless asked. Bahorel, on the other hand, is always laughing and telling stories about his apprenticeship and the village where he came from before he decided to travel with Jehan. As with everyone else, they fall into the group easily, and Enjolras takes to sitting in the evenings and listening to the conversation washing over him instead of contributing himself. It's good to travel with a group this large, to listen to them joke instead of talking in tense, quiet voices about overthrowing a king who could have been spying on them. From the way Feuilly smiles and joins in the conversation more than Enjolras has seen him do with anyone but themselves and Cosette, he must feel much the same.
On their fourth night traveling, a rare cooler night that shows signs into turning to rain before morning, Enjolras volunteers to find wood for a bigger fire than what they need to cook the last of Grantaire's vegetables and Bahorel offers to go with him instantly. Enjolras isn't surprised when Bahorel starts talking as soon as they're away from everyone else. “Is the queen really worth what everyone says about her?”
“Yes. Do you think she would have called for a council with representatives from every village if she weren't? I wouldn't have fought for her if she won't.” Enjolras stops walking and makes sure Bahorel is looking at him. “I don't trust monarchs, rulers that the people don't choose, but Cosette is a first step, and I did get the chance to choose her. I understand that people who don't know her might be wary.”
“I was in the rebellion out west, two years ago. Didn't even care the lost princess hadn't shown up yet, we were just sick of Tholomyes.”
Enjolras raises his eyebrows. “I'd heard no one survived that. I wanted to help, but we couldn't make it in time.”
Bahorel waves his hand, shrugging off what must have been a terrible time. Cosette had nightmares for weeks after the rebellion and everything they heard about it. “What good would that have done? No, I just want to make sure you do trust her, because I don't want that happening again. A good fight is one thing, but no one wants to take on an army.”
“I'm glad you asked,” Enjolras says, and smiles when Bahorel looks surprised. “She wouldn't want people just trusting her because she's better than a terrible alternative, or because she's a princess. She would be glad you asked.”
“I guess I'll have to see, won't I? But between you and Feuilly, I'd say she chooses her companions well, so I think I'll give her the benefit of the doubt, whether I trust queens or not.”
“As I said. Don't trust her because she's a queen, and don't trust her until you meet her. For what it's worth, she'll like you. She'll like all of you, I've been writing to her and she's pleased to meet everyone, though I haven't written a letter about you and Jehan yet.”
Bahorel grins. “Be sure to tell her I'm devastatingly handsome. Wouldn't say no to a queen, even if I have less than no ambition to be king.”
“At the moment, she seems both busy and infatuated with someone else, but I'll be sure to let her know.”
That gets him a clap in the shoulder. “She can keep me in mind, and in the meantime I'll forge swords. You're the Champion, aren't you? You could use a sword to go with all the legends. Pretend mine was the one that killed the king, I'd make a fortune.” When Enjolras frowns, he just laughs. “Or go around righting wrongs, that seems more your style.”
“I'll keep it in mind,” says Enjolras, and bends to pick up a piece of firewood.
By the time they get to the lakes, the sun has come back, and they're all glad for it. It doesn't take long to find a suitable place for a camp that will last them a week instead of a night, and Enjolras is glad to set his bedroll down and know it will be a while before he has to carry it anywhere else.
He sends a letter to Cosette when they get there, telling her about Bahorel and Jehan and mostly Grantaire, about how he's still not sure he knows what he's doing but he wants her to meet his new friends, and that he wants to meet Marius as well, since she keeps speaking of him. When Feuilly encloses a message, Enjolras gets to talk to him alone for the first time in what seems like weeks. “What do you think of Marius? She keeps writing about him.”
“I think I want to meet him before I'm sure of anything, but I trust Cosette to make her own choices, and so do you.” Feuilly taps his hand against his leg a few times. “Are you almost ready to go back, then?”
“I think so. Autumn is on its way, and she wants her council in place as soon as possible. Everyone here deserves to be on it, in whatever fashion they want.”
Enjolras folds the letters tightly shut and whistles the little spell Combeferre taught him, waiting for a free bird willing to come. “I'll be on her council as well. I still don't know more than that, but I can learn.”
Feuilly smiles. “And that's only taken you a few months of traveling to figure out! Well done.” He gets more serious when Enjolras doesn't do anything but frown. “Most of us aren't brought up with a destiny, Enjolras. We have to figure it out on our own.”
“That's what I'm trying to do,” Enjolras promises, and he's glad when the conversation is interrupted by a crow landing on his outstretched arm.
“Bards do.” Jehan looks briefly up and him and then back down at his lute. “About you, and the Queen, and Feuilly, if you must know. Mostly you. If there's a prophecy there's got to be a song about it, and I like this version better, where it doesn't come true.”
“You must admit it would have made a better song if I'd died a hero.”
Enjolras winces as soon as he's said it. He's been comfortable with his own death for years, known beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was coming, but his friends don't like to hear about it, not really. He can't blame them, but he isn't used to talking about it yet enough to know what to say. Jehan, instead of looking sad or uncomfortable, just tilts his head contemplatively. “Maybe a better song,” he finally says. “Not a better world, though. I'd rather have to work harder on a song, given that.”
Enjolras turns that over for a few moments and nods. “I don't know how I feel about being a legend.”
“You don't really get a choice about that, unfortunately. But you don't have to be a legend forever. People are going to forget that's you, in the songs. They always do. Or they'll assume bards have exaggerated for effect, though we don't do it as much as people think we do. But the good thing about being a legend who lives is that people forget, and you get to live your life.” Jehan's smile is rare and sunny. “Most people want to be remembered, you should consider yourself lucky.”
Musichetta, in the water, lets out a particularly loud shriek that seems to be more triumph than surprise or anger. Joly, perched on a rock, is laughing, and Bahorel is tugging at his arm, trying to get him in the water. They're all drenched, and happy, and by now Enjolras has no hesitation calling them his friends, something he never could have expected before he killed a king, or even when he left the palace with Feuilly and Combeferre and Courfeyrac. “I'm lucky,” he agrees, and Jehan smiles again before he starts playing, singing quietly, an old song Enjolras recognizes instead of a new one.
“Cosette wants us in the palace,” Enjolras says over the cookfire that night. They're eating freshwater fish, mostly because of Feuilly's expertise. “Or she wants me, and Feuilly and Combeferre and Courfeyrac, but I hope the rest of you will come with us.” He looks at Feuilly. “She's thinking of getting married, and she wants us to meet him.”
Feuilly nods slowly. “Then we'd better go, then. Marius?” Enjolras nods. “I was wondering if things might be going that way for them. Are you ready to go back?”
“I am, I think, and if I'm not, then I can always leave again in the spring.”
“Cosette would be losing half her council,” says Éponine, spearing a bite of fish on her plate. “If you think everyone wouldn't end up coming, you're wrong.”
Combeferre raises his eyebrows at her. “You're coming, then? You never seemed sure that you were.”
“I can leave as easily as Enjolras can, and I might have more chance of finding my brother if I can ask people in the palace.”
“Besides,” says Bahorel, “there's time before the snow falls. We can always have a few little trips after we get there. But if you want to go back, I'm with you. Everyone else?” Nods go around the circle, some a little slower then others.
“You might want to write Grantaire,” Courfeyrac says, a smile tugging at his lips, and Enjolras nods. He was hoping Grantaire would write them first, but it's no reason not to try.
It takes less time than Enjolras was expecting to get his answer, and then it isn't what he thought Grantaire was going to say at all—excuses, putting him off until winter, until spring, until Enjolras left him alone. You won't have to make much of one, it reads. The goats and I were on our way to you. Come back a little way along the main roads and you'll meet me.
“What are you grinning about?” Combeferre asks when he catches Enjolras writing his return note (Are the goats really coming? We'll meet you as soon as we can).
“Grantaire is on his way to meet us, he was when I wrote him,” Enjolras says, and doesn't care that his obvious excitement makes Combeferre laugh.
“Then we'd better get going soon.”
“I think he's bringing the goats.”
Another laugh. “It's one way of doing things, anyway. And one of them had a kid, there may still be some milk for the last leg of our journey. Do you want me to go rally the others while you send your message?”
Once everyone knows that they'll meet Grantaire on their way, they're inclined to move much faster, and it's only a few hours before the last of their things are packed and they're on the road. They move faster, probably more because it's the last leg of the journey than for any other reason. Even with the detour to meet Grantaire, it should be less than two weeks until they're at the castle gates. Now that he's close, Enjolras itches to be there, to meet Cosette and see how she is now that she's settled into being queen, to learn to be the knight and member of her council she's named him.
In the end, it's two days of travel as fast as they can given the size of their party and Lesgles's presence in it when they meet Grantaire, which was earlier than Enjolras was expecting. He must have left early, only a few days after them given he does indeed come into view with four goats on leads at his side.
The others, when he comes in view and gives a loud whistle and a wave to let them know it's him, rush at him across the space of the road. Enjolras lags behind with Joly and Lesgles and lets even them go ahead of him, laughing and greeting Grantaire, all of them happy to see him because they know just as Enjolras does that he's been missing from their company all this time. He should have been the first to join them and he's the last, and now it finally feels like the journey may be over.
“You decided to join us?” Enjolras asks when the crowd of them falls back a little, even though the question has been answered ten times over by now.
Grantaire shrugs and smiles, a little awkward but, Enjolras thinks, pleased to see him. “Thought it was time to be brave, and there was a young family looking for a place to stay. I thought they might do a better job with the place than me, but they didn't want the goats, and I hadn't the heart to leave or sell them.”
“Well, we're glad to have you.” He knows he's smiling wide enough that it feels like his face might split, and someone in the crowd around them is laughing, so he can't help adding. “And the goats. Are you ready to go?”
“Are you?” It's half mockery and half honest question.
Enjolras answers by reaching out and lacing his fingers through Grantaire's, leaving him a hand free to hold on to the leads, and gently turns him around to start the walk towards the palace. “We'll have to see, won't we? But I think I am.”
Everyone falls into step around them, chatting to Grantaire about the lake, and Cosette, and how on their next journey he should just give in and come with them, and Enjolras listens, lets the conversation buoy them along the road, Grantaire's fingers still wrapped tight around his and Grantaire listening just as much as he is, smiling and nodding along with all their stories. Cosette is waiting at the end of the road, and places for all of them, time to figure out what they want.
He may not know yet, but he's ready to find out.