7. Sanctuary

In the kitchen, Combeferre has one arm around Christian's waist. He's ignoring Chowder, who's still sniffling, and trying to keep Christian calm.

Christian's hyperventilation has eased a wee bit, though he's still latched firmly onto Combeferre like the petrified child he is, too shocked to think about crying so far. "I didn't... he... they..."

Combeferre pets his hair, which isn't all that intelligent, but feels nice. "I know. It's all right." He offers a handkerchief.

Christian takes it reflexively, with an equally reflexive "thank you", and proceeds to mangle it in one tense hand while the other is knotted in poor Combeferre's coatsleeve. "...I'm sorry..."

"Don't be sorry. It's not your fault." His hand moves from Christian's head to his shoulder. "You didn't start any of this insanity."

"Didn't I?" Christian doesn't look so sure. He takes in another shuddering breath, glancing worriedly toward the now-somewhat-quieter front room.

The landlady comes in at this point, sees her help variously lachrymose and unconscious, and two of her patrons huddled in her kitchen, and stares. "What in the world...?"

Combeferre shakes his head. "No, no. François loves... to torment Marcelin, for his own personal reasons. Perhaps you were the most recent way for Grantaire to get attention from Enjolras, though it was certainly not an intelligent thing to do. Or perhaps he does like you as much as he seemed to. Whatever the truth is, it wasn't your fault." He looks up when the landlady enters, and says ruefully, "It's a bit of a rough afternoon out there."

Christian looks uncomfortable at this explanation, as well he might, and still not entirely convinced. "I'm sorry," he says again, lamely, to madame.

Who puts her face in her hands for a moment, makes her way over to the door and peers out, and then withdraws quickly. "Lord," she mutters. "The trial you are to me, you boys..."

Combeferre nods. "I apologize for their actions, and for my own." He looks as if he might bow, if he wasn't cradling Christian in one arm. "I'm sure, once everyone has come back to their senses, they will pay back any damage they've done."

"Ah, well, I'm sure it wasn't your doing, monsieur." Mme. Hucheloup goes to wet a dishtowel, preparatory to reviving Fricassee. "You're a sensible young man, I could wish... --Is he all right?" With a peremptory wave at Christian, who's still pallid.

Christian says in half a voice, "I'm fine, thank you." Sure.

Combeferre lets Christian go and takes a good look at him. "He will be fine soon."

Christian scrubs the hand with the handkerchief over his face, though he's still dry-eyed, which is doubtless just as well. "I will be. Yes."

Combeferre glances at Mme. Hucheloup. "We should probably be going, Madame," he says politely. "Good luck with my companions. They ought to be more sensible by tomorrow."

The widow shakes her head, lumbering over to where her employee lies by the door. "We can only hope so. Good evening to you, M. Combeferre. Don't you get in any more trouble, now."

Combeferre nods. "We'll try not to. Merci." He opens the door into the main room for Christian.

Christian smiles wanly at Madame, barely remembering not to curtsey, and ducks out.

Combeferre shepherds Christian through the room, not meeting anyone's glances, and into the street.

Chantal follows along docilely, head bent. She still hasn't quite let go of his sleeve when they get outside. She does hand the handkerchief back, though.

Combeferre tucks the handkerchief away. "I have been thinking about you and Marcelin ever since he started getting so openly angry," he starts, then trails off.

Chantal ducks her head again. "Yes?" Faintly.

"Yes," he answers, more firmly than Christian. "If your parents come and look for you, they will look with him first."

Chantal raises her head, blinking at him mutely.

Combeferre continues, "So perhaps it is not so wise for you to stay with him. You should find another place to sleep."

She nods slowly, missing her footing a bit on the uneven pavement. "Maybe..."

Combeferre puts out an arm and catches her elbow. "Careful." Once she's back in balance, he asks, "Do you want to stay by yourself?"

Chantal tilts her chin up. "I could."

"I'm sure you could stay with someone, if you'd prefer that."

Chantal darts him one transparent glance before ducking her head again. "I... don't know."

Combeferre nods. "Ah, it'd be your decision, of course. If you wanted it, I could lend you my spare room. It's small, but it would work."

Sure enough, she blushes again. "I don't mean... I... I mean, that's all right."

He shakes his head. "No, really, it isn't. When your mother receives that letter, she will send someone looking for you. Unless you want to be found, you need to find new lodgings."

Chantal wilts a bit. "Yes. I know."

Combeferre lowers his voice. "I can help you, if you will accept my assistance."

Oh, twist her arm. Chantal looks up at him again, those enormous eyes absolutely trustful. "I'd be grateful," she says huskily.

He smiles at that, and at her. "Ah, good." He waves a hand at the empty street. "Since I've nothing to do just now, shall I help you move?"

Chantal blinks a couple of times in bemusement. "R-right now?"

Combeferre shrugs. "The sooner you're hidden, the less likely it is that your Maman will find you."

Chantal nods, but: "Marcelin's going to be mad."

Gallantly, he answers, "I shall tell him. He is sensible enough to recognize the trouble." That reminds him of the earlier events. "At least, he is, most of the time."

That gets a wry, if shaky grin out of her. "Yes. Well."

Combeferre smiles back, glad that she seems to have recovered. "He worries about you. That's the only reason he was so angry."

Chantal glances at him briefly, an odd little fey glance. "Not the only."

His smile falls away. "True. But it was the biggest one."

Chantal looks as though she's half minded to say more, but shrugs and shuts up instead. The whole subject makes her blush anyway.

Once Combeferre and Christian reach the boarding house where Enjolras and Christian share a room, Combeferre says, "Pardon me," to Christian and leaves him in the street. There are a few silent moments, then even the people in the street can hear Marcelin yell, "She wants to do what?! No!" There is another pause, followed by another incredulous shout of, "With you?" Then more silence, for several minutes this time. Combeferre re-emerges on the street with two suitcases and a grin.

Chantal metaphorically peers out from under the table, looking worried.

Combeferre sets down the suitcases and embraces Chantal again. "It's fine," he whispers into her ear.

Well, she isn't about to protest that. She hugs him back tightly. "Wh-What happened?"

"Well, at first, he worried you were going to move in with Grantaire."

Chantal buries her face in his shoulder. "Oh my. Oh. Dear."

Combeferre laughs. "I'm just joking, silly. He wanted to know why, and he was afraid that you'd get into trouble, but he saw my point. He didn't really mind that you'd come to live with me, either. I'm sure he'd have been much more upset if I'd said Joly had invited you home." He winks.

Chantal dissolves into rather hysterical giggles. "Oh..."

Combeferre picks up the suitcases again. "Shall we be going, then?"

Chantal presses the back of her hand to her mouth for a moment. "...Yes. All right. --I can take one of those, you know..."

He is about to be chivalrous when he realizes that she's not supposed to look feminine, so he hands over a suitcase. "Yes, of course you can, Christian."

She grins lopsidedly up at him, and takes hold of the handle.

Combeferre grins and strolls happily. "All in all, it could have been much more difficult."

"It could," Chantal agrees, making her way after him a bit awkwardly. "--Is he all right?"

He nods. "As well as can be expected, under the circumstances. Perhaps he will worry less, now that you are safe from discovery."

"He's not hurt, I mean?" Chantal questions anxiously, lugging the suitcase along. "--Well. Maybe so."

Combeferre thinks. "He didn't seem badly injured. Slightly bruised, yes, but Jehan walked him home, and he's too responsible to go if Marcelin really had trouble."

Chantal breathes a relieved sigh. "That's all right, then."

He nods. "His heart was more hurt by your departure than his head by Bahorel's hand. He loves you, of course, and he cannot let you go easily." He glances back, and slows his pace so that she can keep up with her. "He wants what is best for you, as do I."

Chantal ducks her head again. "I know. I know." She tries carrying the thing in front of her with both hands on the handle. "It's silly, he didn't see me for months at a time before I came here..."

"He knew you were safe at home. Here, there are all sorts of trouble to get into, and ways to be hurt."

"Not with you," she scoffs.

Combeferre laughs. "No, that's why he's not angry. But I cannot be always watching over you. I have classes, and you need space to enjoy yourself."

Chantal thinks about this for half a block. "I can take care of myself," she says presently, with a shade of surprise.

"That depends on one's standards." He wasn't going to say this, but now he must. He pauses to find the right words, then, "Marcelin was less than pleased that you were conversing with Grantaire, let alone sitting with him. He would have you guard yourself more closely than that."

Chantal reddens. Is silent for several more paces. "I had to sit somewhere." A couple more. "He didn't do anything."

In a wry tone, he answers, "I would not know. I was too busy being irresponsible on my own behalf." More gently, he adds, "I trust that you did not, and that you are quite old enough to keep as much of your integrity as you care to have."

"I am," she says proudly, and in the next breath, "I don't think you were irresponsible."

Combeferre chuckles at the second sentence. "You were not paying close attention to me, either. I ought to have been able to still Gregory long before he got so worked up, and then there might not have been a fight at all."

Chantal slants a glance at him. "You shouldn't have to be the only one with sense."

He shrugs. "We are all young. They will learn to be calm, in time."

She giggles suddenly. "I don't think M. Bahorel will."

Combeferre laughs with her. "No, possibly not. But the rest will."

Chantal shifts the suitcase from one hand to the other for the umpteenth time. "How much further?"

Combeferre points to the building two down from where they are at the moment. "Right here."

Chantal blows out her breath in a 'phew'. "All right."

Combeferre looks down at her. "I'm sorry, I didn't think it would be that hard of a walk." He opens the main door and holds it behind him. "Just follow me."

Chantal goes scarlet again. "Wasn't," she says carelessly. "Thank you--" and goes in.

Combeferre leads Christian up a flight of stairs and opens the door to his room. "Here we are."

Chantal drags the suitcase inside and sets it down, going to hold the door for him in turn.

The room is slightly cluttered. There are piles of books everywhere: next to the bed, on the washstand, on a small desk that sits by the window, and on the windowsill. There is a small chest of drawers next to the neatly made bed.

Combeferre walks into the room, sets the suitcase next to the desk, and opens the door next to the washstand. "Just through here," he says, picking up the suitcase again.

Chantal shuts the outer door and picks up the other bag, following.

The inner room is even more filled with books. There is a small cot, which has the contents of several bookshelves strewn across it. A little window lights the room.

Combeferre blushes. "I'd forgotten it was such a mess," he almost stammers, and starts picking up the books from the bed.

Chantal peers around; then giggles a bit, setting down the suitcase and going over to help him.

Combeferre puts a stack of random books by the window. "I don't imagine Marcelin is this unorganized."

"No," she agrees, clearing off the end of the bed.

He sighs, then sneezes as a cloud of dust hits his nose. "I'm sorry."

Chantal deposits an armload of books on the floor. "I don't mind."

"I do. I didn't think I'd be inflicting my squalor on anyone else." He sets another stack of books by the window.

"It's not," Chantal protests.

Combeferre temporizes. "It could be worse, but it certainly could be much better."

"Etienne," says Christian's voice, as Chantal leans down to collect up another armful, "it's fine. All right?"

He capitulates. "All right. If you say so. Since you're staying here, your opinion is significant."

She straightens, grinning. "Thank you."

He smiles back. "You're welcome. Very welcome."

Chantal colors slowly, though she doesn't lose the smile. Shyly, she reaches out to take his hands. "It's very kind of you."

Combeferre lifts one of her hands to his lips and kisses it. "It's my honor."

The blush deepens. She ducks her head a moment; then, cheeks flaming, reaches up to twine her arms about his neck.

Combeferre is slightly surprised. He slowly puts an arm around her waist, giving her plenty of time to back away if she wants to.

Which isn't likely. She turns absolutely crimson, but she doesn't move, except perhaps to lean a trifle closer. He brings his other hand up and strokes a finger across her cheek. "You are absolutely lovely, Chantal," he says softly.

Chantal catches her breath. "'m not," she murmurs, embarrassed.

He smiles. "Yes, you are."

She glances down a moment, and then up again, biting her lip. Very, very cautiously, she reaches up to smooth his hair back.

Combeferre still smiles, a little more, maybe, at the touch. "It's all right," he murmurs, as if it matters what he says at the moment. He is being habitually comforting.

Chantal nods slightly, eyes wide and solemn. And then, of a sudden, leans up to kiss him, with all the ineptitude and passion of a besotted sixteen-year-old.

Combeferre returns the kiss, tentatively at first, and, as she does not seem unhappy, with more emotion. With the arm around her waist, he pulls her a little closer.

Chantal fairly well dissolves against him, tightening her arms around him with a small sigh.

Combeferre holds her, not tightly, but close. Presently she draws back a little, breathless, eyes bright, and blushing furiously.

He loosens his hold on her immediately. "Thank you."

She blinks at him, stammers a little. "I..."

He puts a finger to his lips as if to shush her. "It's all right," he repeats, letting her go entirely. "If you would like some time to get settled, I will go now."

Chantal blushes yet further, and ducks her head, tucking her hands under her arms. "All right," she says rather faintly.

Combeferre withdraws from the room. "Just call if you need anything."

"I will," Chantal says to the floor.

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