48. Gone Astray

Vezet. December 23rd, 1832

God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Savior was born upon this day
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy...

It is not a terribly long walk from the coach-stop to the domicile of the Enjolras family, but it is quite long enough for those taking it to feel the effects of the cold wind. The chill, the situation, and carrying luggage conspire to make Marcelin's cheeks red well before he reaches the porch.

Pausing under the trees, Grantaire says quietly, tentative, "I can still go back if it'll be easier."

"It would be much easier," Marcelin answers testily, "but we are here, and this must be done at some point. If you go back, that leaves me with my parents who think I ought to have died in the rebellion, my sisters who cannot think for themselves, and Chantal, who probably believes that I have gone mad. Come with me, please."

"All right," meekly. "All right, I'm here."

"I appreciate it, truly." Marcelin shakes his head. "I hate visiting home. At least your aunt is a pleasant woman."

Grantaire laughs, perhaps with an edge of hysteria. "Ah, she likes you."

"She likes you, too, as far as I could tell. For that matter, Chantal likes you well enough. I am here, too."

"Yes, you are. Fortuitously enough." Grantaire takes a breath. "Shall we get it over with?"

"We might as well." Marcelin half-smiles and looks incongruously shy, then leans toward Grantaire to steal a kiss.

Grantaire blinks; then returns the kiss soundly. Warmly, even. "All right, then."

Marcelin smiles, then looks toward the house and sighs. "This is going to be very difficult."

Grantaire reaches out to clasp his shoulder. "You'll be all right."

"I hope so. I am glad you are here." Marcelin takes a deep breath and straightens his shoulders. "We should go."

Grantaire nods, and lets him go, stepping back to follow.

Marcelin carries the bags the rest of the way to the porch, tries to compose himself and look dignified, and knocks on the door.

The door flies open almost at once, to reveal the maid all smiles. "Ah, there you are, m'sieur."

"Bonjour, Babette." Marcelin steps back slightly. "This is my friend, m'sieur Grantaire. Grantaire, this is Babette."

Babette curtseys uncertainly. Grantaire looks terribly awkward, and would probably shove his hands in his pockets if he didn't have baggage to contend with. "Pleased," he mutters.

Marcelin sighs very slightly. "Might we come in?" he asks testily.

The maid blushes scarlet, and scurries out of the way.

"Merci." Marcelin picks up his second bag and enters.

Grantaire follows, casting a rather apologetic half-smile at Babette.

Inside it is blessedly warm, and smells faintly of cinnamon. There is a murmur of many voices from somewhere nearby, the majority of them feminine. The travelers are barely well in the door when a door swings open and Chantal bursts into the hall. "Marcelin!"

Marcelin embraces her, murmuring, "Chantoinette," into her hair. "It is so good to see you."

Chantal clings to his shoulders, burying her face in his coat a moment. "Oooooh, I missed you. Was the trip all right? How are you?"

Grantaire grins a bit, watching, and moves automatically to shut the door before finding that, predictably, the maid has beaten him to it.

"The trip was fine. I am well. Grantaire has been taking care of me." Marcelin lets his sister go, smiling at her, and tousles her hair gently. "Your hair has grown out, Christian."

Chantal goes red, ducking her head slightly. "Well. Yes." She looks up, grinning. "I'd like to see you call me that in front of Julie. She's awfully funny when she's trying to look disdainful about the whole business." And, with one of those lightning changes of subject and mood, she glances past him. "Is...?"

Grantaire quirks a smile. "Hullo."

"We certainly are lucky," comes an acerbic bass voice from the hallway as Gautier follows his daughter. "Welcome home, Marcelin. Our son is back from the wars against decency, sense, and reason, and he has brought a friend," with a momentary appraisal and dismissal of Grantaire. "How lovely."

"Father," replies Marcelin in a neutral tone, "m'sieur Grantaire."

"M'sieur," Grantaire murmurs, and sketches a bow; perfectly courteous, and yet with the elusive trace of mockery that tends to get him hit.

Chantal bites her lip, and falls back a pace, tucking her hands behind her back.

"I am sure the pleasure is all yours," Gautier responds with a nod. "Marcelin, you know where the guest room is. Chantal, help him." He returns to whence he came.

Marcelin prods Grantaire's arm. "Stop that." He looks vaguely apologetic. "Father is -- Father. I am sorry." He tries to smile at Chantal. "We can handle the bags ourselves."

Grantaire blinks at him innocently, and shakes his head, forbearing comment for once.

Chantal sticks her tongue out at the door, and mutters something she certainly learned in Paris, as it's none too respectful nor is it strictly decent. "S'allright. I'll help you." She moves to take charge of the smallest of them.

Marcelin shakes his head slightly, smiling. "All right, all right. Off we go, unless we'll be tripping over Elise on the way."

Chantal snickers slightly, and starts up the stairs.

Marcelin gestures for Grantaire to follow her, then picks up the remaining luggage. "Off we go, rising above the level of our parents."

Grantaire quirks a wry grin, and complies.

Chantal giggles again, dragging the suitcase along with her, heedless of the havoc she's wreaking with her skirts and the stair rail. "Right."

A quiet opening of a door and soft, even footsteps as Julie approaches, with a haughty grace that three Roman Claudias, Aurelias and a Julia for good measure would very likely have caused significant damage with their fingernails to acquire. One brief glance at the girl mounting the stairs and a disdainful frown touches her brow. "The fact that you have been consorting with rabble doesn't require you to make an effort to render your clothes in a similar state of disrepair." That delivered, her eyes sweep over the rest of the party. The presence of Grantaire earns an expression somewhere between curiousity and displeasure, momentary as her eyes complete the detail by resting on Marcelin. "And the rabble in question makes an appearance, I see."

"It is good to see you, Julie," Marcelin says. He might very well have learned the lack of sincerity in his tone from his father. "This is one of my friends, m'sieur Grantaire. Grantaire, my sister Julie."

"Mam'selle," Grantaire murmurs, in a yet milder tone than he used to her father, but with less well-disguised amusement. "Delighted, I'm sure."

Chantal pulls a face at her sister. "They're my clothes. That's a fine way to greet your siblings, let alone guests." She lugs the suitcase up onto the landing after herself.

Julie sniffs, with a practised air. "Graciously greeted, brother. Delighted. Well, I am sure you are... Monsieur," because 'I am sure you are, strange-and-definitely-not-aesthetically-pleasing-person who-is-spoiling-the-atmosphere for-reasons-I-know-not' would be beneath her breeding. She fastidiously smoothes her own skirts, which isn't to imply they needed it. "Never mind my manners, attend to your own. And remoulding your features too. How quaint."

"Quaint, indeed," Marcelin says irritably. "Haven't you been married yet, Julie?" He looks apologetically toward Grantaire. "Pardon my sister, Grantaire. She has yet to learn manners."

Chantal tilts her chin up at that hereditary angle of arrogance. "At least I'm making myself useful."

"I do," rejoins Grantaire very gravely, though a glitter of sardonic humor doesn't leave his eyes. "To be sure."

Julie arches her eyebrows, carefully dismissive. "My manners, whatever their quality, were, at least, not acquired in Parisian gutters." She smiles, without warmth, any queen bestowing her customary greetings upon the masses. "Well, then, I will leave you to playing at porters, if that is what you define as 'useful.' Not all of us feel inclined to seek husbands for ourselves from the peasantry." And with that parting shot and a lift of the head, she retreats.

"Etienne is not a peasant," Marcelin says in defense of Combeferre. He shakes his head as she leaves. "I love my family," he says, and sighs. "Present company excluded, of course."

Chantal literally sputters for a moment. By the time she can find words for her outrage, Julie is gone. She stands, breathing hard, for a moment. "Someone," she says then, with all the stony irony a seventeen-year-old can bring to bear, "is envious."

Grantaire dissolves into wry chuckles. "Lucky thing she doesn't. The world doesn't need any more shrewish fishwives."

Marcelin smiles. "That it does not." He tries to console Chantal by saying, "She has no idea what she misses by scorning 'peasants.' Our parents are horribly mistaken."

Chantal mutters, unlocking the door to his bedroom, "Even Maman agrees he's a gentleman. She's just jealous she didn't find him first."

Grantaire chuckles again, depositing what he carries on the hallway floor, and holds his peace.

"If I knew anyone who deserved her, I would have brought him home," Marcelin says mildly, "but I do not know that many well-bred young men in any case."

"I'm not sure anyone deserves her." Chantal dusts her skirts and looks up at them wryly. "'m sorry. Anyway. Do you need help unpacking?"

Grantaire grins crookedly at her, and rakes a hand through his hair. "I don't think... do we?" He quirks a brow at Marcelin.

"I wouldn't think so," Marcelin answers, not exactly looking at his sister. "The room is right here, Grantaire." He walks through the open door, abandoning them in the hall.

"Because I--" Chantal hesitates, studying her brother for a moment, then blushes. "All right. Well, I better go downstairs then." She starts for the stairs.

Grantaire looks wry. He cuffs Chantal gently on the shoulder as she goes by, and follows Marcelin in with the rest of their belongings.

"Ah. That was fun, wasn't it?" Marcelin asks sarcastically. He sits, half collapsing, on the bed. "I apologize for everything I have ever said about your family."

Grantaire chuckles slightly, and shakes his head, tucking his hands in his pockets, standing aimlessly in the middle of the room. "My sympathies."

"Yes, I suppose I would have yours." Marcelin pats the sheets and dust flies up. "They do not seem to have cleaned this room very well, but it will be yours until we go back. I still have my own, of course. It is probably in worse shape, though that is small consolation."

Grantaire nods slightly in acquiescence. He seems subdued suddenly, and even a little lost.

"Sit down. Relax. The unpacking will wait." Marcelin holds out his hand to Grantaire. "Please, I did not ask you here to hurt you."

Grantaire catches his breath, and looks up at him, momentarily vulnerable; then the moment passes, and he smiles crookedly. "Never thought you had." He takes the hand and kisses it, and drops down to sit on the edge of the bed.

Marcelin smiles wistfully. "This is an exercise in madness. Thank you for following me here. I am sure you will be careful. I only hope that I can learn to do the same." He kisses Grantaire's cheek. "I must learn to watch my tongue around my father, or he will have my head."

"Your father can take his disapproval and--" Grantaire catches himself, and grimaces, tightening his fingers on Marcelin's penitently. "Sorry. I shouldn't say that."

"It might be good for him," Marcelin says mildly.

"I'm sorry." Grantaire slips an arm around his shoulders. "I just... hell. They don't know how lucky they are."

A thin, childish soprano echoes down the hall. "Marcelin? Are you in the guest room?"

Marcelin goes from melting comfort to stark terror in a heartbeat and stands up as quickly as he can. "Yes, Elise, we are," he answers in as calm a voice as he can muster.

Grantaire blinks, and lets out a breath sharply. After a moment he pushes to his feet as well. "Another country heard from."

The door opens and in comes Elise, a ten-year-old version of her mother. "Marcelin, Maman wants to talk to you. Hello, m'sieur." Her eyes touch lightly on Grantaire and dismiss him much as her father's had. She curtseys almost deeply enough to be polite.

"Thank you, Elise," Marcelin says. "Please tell her I will be there in a few minutes, after I have helped my friend unpack."

"Hello, yourself," Grantaire says mildly, and to Marcelin, for appearances' sake, "S'allright. I can manage."

Elise nods. "I'll tell her you'll be right down, Marcelin." She leaves.

"Elise," Marcelin begins to say, hoping to stop her, but the door shuts in the middle of the word. "Damn."

A rough hand lands reassuringly on his shoulder. "It's all right. Deep breath. She won't kill you."

"No, I know." Marcelin turns and embraces Grantaire for a moment, kissing him, then pulls away. "I suppose I must go."

Grantaire returns the kiss tenderly, and lets him go. "So, go. Be brave. I'll be here when you get back."

Marcelin smiles. "I'm sure of it." He makes his way through the house to find his mother.

The room is referred to as Maman's parlor, although it hardly merits the term, being scarcely more than a closet as rooms in this house go. It is impeccably furnished, and absolutely off-limits except by invitation. Régine sits calmly at her desk, writing letters while she waits for her wayward son to arrive.

Marcelin knocks lightly on the door.


"May I come in?"

Régine lays down her pen unhurriedly. "Marcelin. Come in, dear."

He does, a trifle hesitantly. "You wished to speak with me?"

"Certainly. Why not?" She waves him gracefully to a chair. "Not having heard from you much less seen you in six months, dear. How have you been?"

He sits, trying to moderate his smile. "I have been well."

Régine turns in her own seat to regard him steadily. "Circulating sedition as industriously as ever?"

"No, Maman," Marcelin answers truthfully. "Not at all."

Silver-gilt eyebrows arch. "Not at all? Good God, child, have you reformed?"

Marcelin pauses and considers carefully before answering, "Yes."

Régine clasps her hands before her. "Tired of playing the crusader, have you?"

"To some extent."

"To some extent." She studies him intently for a minute. "We found ourselves in over our head, did we?"

Marcelin blushes slightly and tries to avoid her gaze. "Yes. You were right, Maman."

Régine regards him a moment more, expressionless. "I am so glad you think so," she says dryly, then, and rests an elbow on the desk and her head in her hand, daintily. "One hears you brought a friend home with you."

"I did, at that. One of the ones who survived my political experiment." Marcelin puts ironic weight on the last two words.

"I scarcely expected him to be one who did not."

"Mother, really." Marcelin is exasperated.

"Marcelin, really." Régine lowers her hand, glancing at her fingernails. "Do I know the boy?"

"You have met him in passing."

"Have I."


Régine beckons impatiently. "Enlighten me, child. I don't remember all your passing friends."

"I thought that bringing Combeferre would be too much of a slap in the face for Julie, so I brought Grantaire."

It takes her only a moment or two. "I thought you did not count this Grantaire among your friends."

"I was also a dangerous revolutionary, need I remind you." Marcelin tries to stop himself from smiling. "I've changed."

"Dangerous." Régine smiles with a tolerance calculated to annoy her offspring. "--So you have. You now associate not with radicals but with reprobates. How reassuring."

Unthinking and defensive, Marcelin protests, "He isn't anymore."

There is a slight pause. Régine lifts her eyebrows delicately. "Oh?"

Marcelin coughs. "Yes. You didn't think I would befriend him in that state, did you?"

Régine taps her fingers once on the desktop. "Convenient, that."

"Necessary," Marcelin corrects her.

"Convenient," she repeats, "that your friends should change their ways just as you were changing yours."

Marcelin retains his composure. "I have had some influence in the situation."

"Oh, how sweet." Régine puts a hand to her heart, solemnly. "My son, the cleansing influence. Reforming the lives of all around him. How very touching."

"I wish it were so," he answers earnestly, attempting to ignore her sarcasm. "However, one must do what one is capable of, and I am not capable of helping many people simultaneously, as I learned to my shame."

Régine, for a wonder, has no answer to that. She gazes at him in silence for a moment, with an expression difficult to read.

"Yes, Maman?" Marcelin shakes his head and finally allows himself to smile. "I doubt that you understand. I wanted to help him partially because he was in great need of help."

"Selfless of you," she says blandly.

"Not precisely." He very nearly smirks.

"Ah." Régine quirks a brow expectantly.

"He helped me after the foolish political uprising failed," Marcelin offers by way of an incomplete explanation.

Régine shakes her head. "I see. Well, he is welcome, provided he behaves himself."

"I will take full responsibility for any misbehavior of his," he answers.

Régine half-smiles. "I should hope so, dear." She leans back slightly in her chair, looking him over. "Now suppose you go and tidy yourself up a bit, change that dreadful coat, and I shall see you at dinner?"

Marcelin nods courteously and stands. "I shall see you there, Mother." He leaves the room, gently closing the door behind himself.

Marcelin taps lightly on the guest room door and opens it without waiting for an answer.

Grantaire turns from the window, his somber expression lightening somewhat. "Still in one piece?"

"More or less." Marcelin shuts the door. "She was most curious about your presence."

Grantaire leans backward against the windowsill, arms folded comfortably. "Oh?"

Marcelin smiles. "She wondered why I stooped to consorting with the depraved." He crosses the room to stand in front of the window. "Do you think I should have told her it was rather the other way around?"

Grantaire chuckles. "Oh, now. You exaggerate. --No, probably not, all things considered."

"I thought so. It might take rather too much explanation." Marcelin glances out the window.

Grantaire follows his gaze. "Pretty view."

Marcelin blinks at him a moment. "It is, yes. It's the inside of the house that is ugly."

A wry smile. "Well, you'd know." He reaches out to take Marcelin's hand gently.

"I do know. I did know, and still I brought you." Marcelin sighs. "I am sorry. Must I inflict all of my pain on you?"

Grantaire tightens his fingers. "Fair-haired boy. Don't apologize.-- Given a choice--"

Marcelin finishes for him, "You would be home. You would be with your sister. You would be any number of places but here." He shakes his head, looking out the window again. "You do not need this. I am sorry."

Grantaire straightens, moving to take him by the shoulders. "Given a choice, I wouldn't part from you this side of hell, so don't apologize, all right?"

Marcelin bites his lip, frowning. "That does not give me the right to torment you."

Grantaire chuckles ruefully at that. "God knows..." He breaks off, amends gently, "What makes you think you are?"

"I am not, directly, but my family certainly will." Marcelin shakes his head. "I don't understand."

"Don't understand what?" softly.

"What do you have?"

Grantaire regards him quizzically. "How d'you mean?"

"I find I only understand words, and then only words that are written so that I can study them." Marcelin sighs. "I do not understand you. I do not understand my family, least of all my mother, I should think."

"Ah, well, don't fret." Fingers trail soothingly through his hair. "I doubt they understand you, either."

Marcelin kisses his cheek. "That seems likely. Do you?"

Grantaire returns the kiss, quirking a wry smile. "Only occasionally."

"I suppose that is only fair." Another kiss.

Grantaire's arms slip around him, then. "If you say so."

"I hardly ever understand you," Marcelin muses, returning the embrace and resting his head on Grantaire's shoulder. "It rarely matters."

"Just as well," Grantaire murmurs, and sighs, burying a kiss amid Marcelin's hair. "Just as well."

Marcelin says, "Probably so." He sighs, too. "This is much better than staring at a wall trying not to hurt my parents."

"Even though they don't care if they hurt you," Grantaire says quietly. "You and your damned unselfish streak. It'll kill you one way or another."

"There are many more ignominious deaths," Marcelin answers, half-smiling, before kissing him again, this time with more feeling.

Grantaire lets the matter drop then, in order to give the kiss the attention it deserves.

Eventually, Marcelin smiles. "Ah, yes. I brought you home to keep me company."

"That was it," agrees Grantaire, a bit breathlessly.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Marcelin says, somewhat ruefully. "I should take my things to my room. Soon."

Grantaire reaches up to smooth back a strand of fair hair. "I could come and help you."

Marcelin begins to protest, "Then I shall never finish," but he interrupts himself and says instead, "So you could."

"I have my uses." Grantaire drops a kiss to his forehead. "Shall we see to that, then?"

Marcelin blushes and lets him go. "Yes, we should."

Grantaire quirks a brow, and shrugs very slightly. "All right."

Marcelin picks up both of his bags. "Are you ready?"

Grantaire pushes away from the window to follow him.

Marcelin strides rather more quickly than is necessary through the hall to his own room. He opens the door and finds that it seems to have been dusted. "How pleasant," he murmurs to himself, and enters, having seemingly forgotten Grantaire for the moment.

Grantaire leans in the doorway, watching him.

Marcelin sets the bags on his bed and turns back to the doorway. "Come in. Shut the door. Make yourself at home."

Grantaire complies, oddly shy of a sudden, and comes over to lean on the bedpost instead.

"I wanted to say -- " Marcelin falters, stares fixedly at a point on the wall that is away from Grantaire, and begins again. "I don't want you to feel as if I am taking advantage of you. I know this trip is a burden. If it is one you don't want, please, I'll pay for you to go home tomorrow, but you must tell me so."

Grantaire blinks, taken aback. "I don't. It's not like that at all, I..."

"It is," Marcelin protests. "I don't understand why, but it is."

"It's not. I-- I wouldn't leave you. Unless you told me to. I wouldn't want to, Marcelin."

"You are a fool," Marcelin tells him softly. "This is more trouble than I am worth. But I will not tell you to leave. I don't want you to leave, God help me."

"'course I am." Grantaire half-smiles at him. "You knew that."

"Yes, I did." Marcelin turns, smiling, and kisses him gently. "I simply don't mind."

Grantaire slips an arm around his shoulders. "Ah, good. I don't know if I could change at this late date."

"I don't want you to change anymore," Marcelin assures him, supporting it with a kiss. "But, you know, we were going to unpack."

Grantaire takes in a breath. "So we were."

"It isn't strictly necessary."

"Isn't it?" Grantaire leans in to steal another kiss. "Just as you like."

"This is nice," Marcelin says lightly. "There will be enough time for chores, later."

"Doubtless." The fingers find their way back into his hair.

"Chores and dinner with the family." Another kiss. "We might as well enjoy this while we have the opportunity."

Grantaire pulls him close. "Might as well."

This is the room where I slept when I was a boy. It used to be my nursery. I would bet that half of my old toys are under the bed yet. I used to take them out to play with Chantal on this bed, before her nurse chided me for letting her play with boys' things. I sat on that windowsill the first time I read an essay of Rousseau's.

Your presence is disconcerting. You were not part of my childhood. You should not belong in this room, and yet, somehow, you do. You make this house bearable in a way that it has not been since I understood my family's hideous shortcomings. It is strange that you are here in this bed that I have never shared with anyone, but it is a benign incongruity. I am glad you are here, to put it mildly.

This holiday would be easier if you were not you. If you were a woman, I could introduce you to my parents with no hesitation. I could write to your parents asking for your hand. I would have written that letter long before anything got to this stage, I am sure. This is more and less at once, more immediate and intimate and powerful than any slow flirtation, but it is less because it will never be anything more.

You are too much to me, more than I ever meant you to become. I never meant to depend on you, but it is obvious that I do. You are too good to me, too supportive. Do you know how much I need you? I could not have made this trip without you. Without you, I would have been lost for the past six months. I owe you more than I can give you; I can only try to make amends. Because I cannot ask someone with sense, because I cannot ask someone who knows what is best for you, I will ask you. Merry Christmas, Grantaire. Stay with me.

If I ask you, will you? Are you willing to give up the freedom of your own space?

Somehow, I think you should not, but it might help me. That is the quintessential explanation for a present from me to you. I am terribly selfish. I admit that, to myself if not to anyone else. I am not willing to lose your company if I can keep it by any means. I would be lost without you.

All is bustle and squeak in the dining room by dinnertime. The nuclear family is present, M. Enjolras at the head of the table with his son on his right, his wife on his left, and various daughters and friends scattered nearby. The table itself is more crowded than is usual, what with the visitation of several more distant relations in honor of the holiday. The servants try to stay out of their lady's eye while serving quickly and efficiently.

Gautier surveys the spread of his dynasty and clan members. He finds it satisfactory, except for the pale blemish of his son and the inexplicable friend thereof. After the servants have scurried about delivering salad, he has them serve wine to all and sundry. He comments to his wife, "This should be an interesting dinner."

Régine merely smiles tranquilly at him, and glances down the table in some complacency.

Jacqueline sips her wine and contrives a face. "Oh, no, this will not do. I'll have to find your cellar..." She randomly fumbles with and sticks a pin back into her greying hair and inquires of a servant, "Surely you can show me where it is located?"

"Madame?" asks the flustered maid, nearly dropping her tureen of soup. "I'm sorry, Madame, no, I can't, sorry."

Elise prods Chantal in the arm and nods toward her brother's friend. "I bet you wish he brought your fiancé instead, don't you?"

Grantaire is quiet as befits a stranger, absorbing the goings-on with an expression of mild humor.

"Elise, don't be childish." Felicienne turns a falsely brilliant smile upon the man to her left. "I'm sure he's perfectly charming. He'd have to be if Marcelin brought him." In a teasing voice, though her eyes are filled with challenge as she regards her cousin.

Chantal attempts to quell her sister with a glacially grown-up stare. Felicienne being unquellable, she ignores her entirely.

Marcelin smiles at Felicienne and lies smoothly, "I am glad you have faith in my judgement, cousin." He raises his eyebrows very slightly for Grantaire's benefit and shakes his head a tiny bit.

Grantaire looks yet more amused, but holds his peace.

Elise wrinkles her nose at Chantal.

"You can't? I remember, back when I was a young maid in this house, that I would sneak behind Papa Enjolras' with my friend Madeline - our names rhymed, which was why she was my best friend - and we would drink the house dry and leave the bottles outside the room of the very one presiding over this table." Hm. Maybe that's why they won't show her where it is, thinks Jacqueline fuzzily.

Julie sits primly in her chair, paying at least as much attention to the perfection of her posture as to anything that may be on the table. "Judgement really need not be called into question" she remarks. "When one has been traipsing around as part of a seditious rabble, one's acquaintances and oneself are all likely to be of the same low calibre."

Fortunately for the maid, she is well away from Jacqueline by this comment.

Felicienne makes an overly dramatic gesture of disbelief and anger. "Julie! Do not such say such things! Marcelin would never be a part of those terrible rebellious student groups we hear so much about! Would you, Marcelin?" Simpering.

Marcelin is overcome by a sudden fit of coughing. "I -- I would not join such a group."

"Julie," her mother chides in a tone of crystalline rebuke. "Manners." She shakes her head slightly and glances aside to conceal a ceilingward glance.

And your great-aunt is a virgin. Yeah, right. Jacqueline totters her way back to the table to sit.

Gautier glares at his son. "I should hope not." Marcelin looks suddenly pained, as if, perhaps, a foot has encountered his toes below the table.

Grantaire is hard put to stifle a snort. "Far too busy for political nonsense, isn't he."

Chantal ducks her head of a sudden.

"You would know," Marcelin says quietly, then, more loudly, "My studies are very time consuming. Even if I had the inclination, I would not be able to participate in such a thing."

Julie arches her brows, sceptically, but merely replies "Yes, maman" in a tone that implies anything but.

Régine smiles mildly, and turns aside to corner a maid with reinforced instructions, sotto voce, as to Madame Jacqueline.

"Julie, please pass the salt," says Elise in a well-enunciated voice of a timbre appropriate to a young lady.

The maid nods. "Yes, Madame. Immediately." She approaches Jacqueline hesitantly and speaks rather too loudly, in case the lady in question is deaf as well as drunk. "Madame, would you like some fresh air?"

Jacqueline suddenly becomes very satisfied with the quality of the wine. Equally as loudly (she never took well to being treated like an old lady, drunk or no): "Oh, being with family and friends is too dear to be traded in for some silly fresh air!"

The maid looks back at Régine with some consternation.

Régine lifts a hand, shaking her head slightly, to signify 'let it go', and turns back to the conversation. "I am much reassured, Marcelin, dear."

"You should be, Maman," Marcelin assures her. It earns him another baleful glare from his father.

Jacqueline seems to drop out of the conversation and concentrate on the small rings made in her wine glass by the footsteps of the room and goings on at the table. Very interesting.

Julie gracefully complies with her sister's request, albeit with a disdainful sniff and returns to assuming aristocratic disinterest in the idea of food.

"You shouldn't speak that way to Mother," Elise chides her brother.

Chantal volunteers mendaciously, "Marcelin took very good care of me while I was visiting." She determinedly does not look at either of her sisters.

"Your mother took care of you when you were visiting," Gautier corrects his daughter, somewhat red-faced. "Your brother had little to do with the matter."

Grantaire just half-grins at the tabletop, trying not to look more entertained than is strictly courteous.

Marcelin finds his dinner intensely interesting.

Régine directs a dangerously bland look at Chantal. "To be sure, dear."

Elise frowns. "Maman?"

Jacqueline examines Grantaire. "I remember a boy who looked just like you. Shameful little tease. I kicked him in his tailored short pants as a girl."

Marcelin coughs violently at this, but cannot bring himself to respond.

"Elise?" returns Régine patiently.

"May I have a second helping of potatoes?" Elise asks.

Grantaire blinks at the woman, utterly floored for the barest of instants. Then flashes that oddly engaging gargoyle grin. "Well, I hope you won't hold it against me, madame."

"There are few things more vulgar than airing one's shameful escapades in company." Julie addresses neither Chantal nor dear aunt Jacqueline, directly, but merely moralises to the air.

Jacqueline sighs. Must she eat food after the first drink? "Could I have another glass of wine, dear?" she directs at some random, hapless servant.

The servant goes and whispers the request in Gautier's ear. He answers, "No. Of course not."

Chantal regards her elder sister balefully. "How helpful of you to say so. I wasn't aware anyone was."

Marcelin clears his throat. "One should not preach at meals, Julie. It is bad for the digestion."

Jacqueline snorts. "There are few things more annoying and unbecoming than pretending to be a paragon of nuns in this house. I am old. I am unmarried. And I do as I pl...where is that wine?"

The servant tentatively approaches Jacqueline and explains quietly, "I'm not to serve you, madame."

Régine clears her throat. "How is your back, Jacqueline?"

"Oh, my doctor said that it should be fine with a bath and a good, vigorous back rub from," Oh, Jackie can't wholly embarass her sister. Which lie for this time? "my little Spanish maid, Isabel. She cannot speak a word of French, but she's quite a marvel."

Felicienne watches the light through her wine glass intently, ignoring the side conversations. "Of course you'd never participate in such groups," she says smoothly. "I'm sure your 'studies' take up far too much of your time." As she shoots a sideways glance across Grantaire to her cousin that says yes, she does indeed know precisely what she's saying.

Marcelin's eyes widen and he nearly gasps. "Cousin, I resent what you are implying."

Grantaire lifts his eyebrows sharply, but has the presence of mind not to try and soothe his companion. He slants a wry glance at the girl.

Aunt Suzanne excuses herself swiftly and walks around the table to collar her daughter. "Felicienne, I want to talk to you for a moment."

Jacqueline giggles a little too much, jiggling a hairpin into her potatoes.

Felicienne looks up with a pure and innocent look of bewilderment, perfectly executed. "But Maman, I'm simply making conversation with my cous--yes, Maman." She gets up without another word and departs, but not before shooting Marcelin another knowing, wicked glance.

Gautier shakes his head. "Thank you, Suzette."

Jacqueline hunts around for her hairpin with her fork. Sheesh. Maybe she should just shave it off, eh?

Julie watches her various tediously vulgar relations while ostensibly using her entire attention to pretend not to care in the least about her food beyond the art of holding a knife daintily. "One would think manners were something forgotten at the dining table with the proper arrangement of hair and dress," she murmurs smugly. Her own manners being utterly impeccable, of course.

Chantal does make a face this time, although at her plate rather than directly at her sister.

Marcelin clears his throat. "One might well think that, sister."

"Shocking," murmurs Grantaire in all gravity.

"People should learn to be polite, especially at the table," Elise opines.

Régine stays well out of this discussion among her offspring, occupying herself with the distraction of Jacqueline.

On the cusp of dawn the next morning, Marcelin goes into the guestroom and lightly prods its occupant.

Grantaire shifts, turning half over to squint up at him, briefly disoriented. "Mmmf?"

Marcelin kisses him on the forehead. "Come for a walk with me before the family wakes."

Grantaire half-smiles, and sits up a bit, scrubbing a hand across his eyes. "'f you like," amiably enough, though indistinctly.

"I would, at that." Marcelin rummages around in the mostly dark room looking for clothes. "Here." He offers a shirt.

Grantaire suppresses a yawn, and chuckles. "Merci." He sits up the rest of the way to snag it from Marcelin's hand, and shrugs it on as he blunders out of bed. "What's the occasion?"

"I want to talk with you, and we're unlikely to find another time."

Grantaire shrugs in acquiescence, and struggles into the rest of his clothes. "As you say."

Marcelin offers him an overcoat and buttons his own. "It is probably quite cold outside, unfortunately."

Grantaire accepts it, smothering another yawn. "Likely. December makes a habit of that. I don't mind if you don't."

"I don't mind," Marcelin assures him. "Are you almost ready?"

"Whenever you are."

Marcelin nods and leads the way through the dark house, down the back stairs, to the garden, treading quietly.

Grantaire follows, surprisingly light-footed, with his hands lodged in his pockets against the chill.

"Happy Christmas Eve," Marcelin says quietly once they are a short distance from the house, crunching over frosted, brown grass.

Grantaire watches him sideways, not quite smiling. "And to you. Such as it may be."

"As good a day as any," Marcelin says, half to himself. "Elise will be up at this hour tomorrow, wondering what Père Noël has brought her. I -- I did not know when to offer you your present. Will you consider accepting it early?"

A pause. Grantaire blinks at him. "If you like," cautiously.

"This is not about what I like at all." Marcelin stops walking. "I want to know what you would like."

"Like to know what you're getting at, is all." Grantaire regards him quizzically.

Marcelin takes a deep breath, braces himself, and looks away from Grantaire. "I would like to know if you would consent to sharing a flat with me." After this sentence, he ducks his head.

Grantaire blinks, taken aback. "Well, for-- pity's-- sake," he says blankly. And then chuckles. "Do you really have to ask?"

Marcelin straightens and ventures in a small voice, "You will, then?"

"God--" Grantaire catches at his hands. "Of course. Of course I will, if you like."

Marcelin turns to face him. "I told you, this is about what you like." He smiles wryly. "I was rather fond of the idea, myself, or you can be sure I wouldn't have proposed it."

"Oh, to be sure." Grantaire laughs again, and reaches out to smooth his hair.

Marcelin embraces him with the exuberance of a small child. "Thank you."

Grantaire returns the embrace fiercely, and chuckles a bit. "Thank me, fair-haired boy? I told you I wouldn't leave you."

"I heard you, but it was not the same." For once, Marcelin does not protest the nickname.

Grantaire bestows a kiss behind his companion's ear. "You should listen to me. I'll do what you like, go where you like, anything. Anything you ask."

Marcelin's breath catches. "Stay with me. Ask things of me; not just what I want, but what you want. I want to make you as happy as you make me."

To which Grantaire has no reply except a kiss, and that at length.

Behind them, the trees quake slightly. Régine halts at the head of the path as though the frigid air had frozen her there, one hand resting on a low-slung branch, and her fingers clench.

Shortly before oxygen deprivation sets in, Marcelin breaks the kiss, then, smiling blissfully, kisses Grantaire again, lightly.

Grantaire reciprocates with a soft sigh, his eyes still closed, and trails his fingers through Marcelin's hair slowly.

There is a sharp snap as a twig breaks from the branch under the pressure of Régine's fingers. "Marcelin!" she says, in a strange harsh voice unlike her own, that carries through the stillness of the morning.

Marcelin lets go of Grantaire immediately. He turns and stares at his mother, dumbstruck, unable to think of an expletive dire enough for the situation.

Grantaire, a heartbeat slower to react, lets his hands fall and looks over with a sort of smothered dread.

Régine is composed, but deathly pale. She stares at the two of them in cold silence for a minute; then, in a tone at once even, incisive, and very soft, "Step away, m'sieur. At once. --Marcelin. What do you mean by this?"

Marcelin's chin rises to that familiar angle. "What did it look like, Mother?"

Grantaire hesitates, but: "At once!" Régine's voice lashes at him, and he backs off a careful step, his eyes on Marcelin.

Régine stands carefully, as though she might shatter with a sudden movement. "Have you no shame?"

"No," Marcelin answers. "I have been ashamed of this, but not now."

Grantaire pushes a hand through his hair desperately. "Madame--"

She cuts him off, ignoring him entirely, her attention fixed on Marcelin. "Why not?" frostily. "You have renounced what morals you had, you have given up even being honest with us, you take up with this kind of rabble, you dare bring your -- paramour home and commit your indecencies under my roof. And you tell me you are not ashamed."

"What did you want me to say? 'Maman, I have given up revolution and taken up immorality'? 'Papa, meet my lover'? Of course not. I have been honest with you, as much as I could have possibly been expected to be." Marcelin shakes his head. "I am not ashamed, Maman. I have done far worse things in my life than kiss him."

Grantaire takes in a breath, watching dismayed.

"Should that soothe me?" Régine inquires icily.

"I was not attempting to soothe you. I simply wanted to give you some sense of perspective." Marcelin bows his head. "I see that I was wrong. Why should you understand? You were never so foolish as I am." He looks up at her again. "But, Maman, even if it is foolish, it is too late."

Régine glances between them for a moment, expressionless. Then, without a word, she turns on her heel and walks away swiftly down the path.

Marcelin chases her. "Mother, wait."

Grantaire murmurs, "God," makes half a move to go after him, and thinks better of it. Instead he leans heavily on the nearest tree, to wait it out.

Régine whirls, halfway down the lane. "What?"

"Please -- don't -- God, I don't know." Marcelin stares at the path. "What I have done is wrong. I know. Please forgive me. I did not mean for this to hurt you or anyone else."

"Forgive." She looks up at him stonily. "Forgive what? It goes beyond forgiving or not forgiving, Marcelin. You have no idea--" Régine breaks off, clenching her teeth.

"Then tell me. What is it that I have done that I do not understand?"

Régine turns away. "You do not understand, Marcelin, because you have never had children of your own. Nor intend to, apparently."

Marcelin pauses, trying to make sense of this. "I am nothing but a disappointment, am I, Maman. I cannot do anything correctly: I am not a dutiful son, I cannot find a wife, I cannot even, God help me, foment a successful rebellion. But Maman, I'm trying."

"To foment a successful rebellion?" Brittlely.

"To mend myself so that I can move past my failures," he corrects. "I told you, I have given up on revolution. He is all I have left."

There is a very silent pause. "Is he," Régine says at last, in a cold, dry voice.

"It often feels that way. My friends are so busy that they have little time for me. I would be alone in Paris without him." Marcelin offers a partial apology. "I don't have time to come home, and you never write." He shakes his head. "God knows Father is happier when he does not see me."

"Your father," Régine says quietly, without turning, "is not half the man you are, or could be if you would."

Marcelin sighs deeply. "I cannot be anyone but myself. I am sorry, Mother, but again I must disappoint you."

Régine presses her fingers to her temples. "You are twenty-two years old. Do you even know who you are?"

"I know who I am not. Beyond that -- no." Marcelin reaches out to touch her shoulder. "Please, Maman."

She does not turn, nor relax her stiff bearing, but neither does she shrug off his hand. "You are Marcelin Enjolras. Not my son, not your father's son, not Chantal's brother, not this Parisian boy's lover--" she stumbles over that, barely, and continues. "Not the republican, not the law student, not the heir to this house -- and absolutely not the failure. You are Marcelin, and nobody else. I want you to think about what that means."

"But I am all of those things," Marcelin protests. "Giving me my name again does not make me newborn." He clears his throat. "I wish to God that it did."

Régine passes a hand across her face, and, reaching up to take his hand, walks on down the path toward the clearing.

Marcelin walks with her, glancing at her nervously. "I'm sorry."

Régine shakes her head. She is silent until they emerge from the trees, into a little open space where stone benches flank a sundial. Here she takes a seat, smoothing her skirts unhurriedly.

Marcelin stands, fidgeting with his cuffs and looking at the ground. "Mother?"

"Sit down," she says mildly, "for heaven's sake."

He does, and as he sits he looks at her again, opens his mouth, but stops himself from asking another question.

Régine looks him in the eye, her face still calm. "What do you want me to say to you, Marcelin?"

"I have no idea. I'm sorry." He sighs.

Régine looks away again, silent for a moment. "Good. Because I can think of nothing to say."

"This was all a mistake," he says bitterly. "I -- I want you to say that it is going to be all right."

"No one can promise you that." Régine smooths her skirts again, superfluously. "I have never told you fairy tales, and I do not intend to start now."

Marcelin buries his face in his hands. "I should never have come home."

"Nonsense," she retorts. "Spare me your dramatics, dear. That is not what you should never have done."

His pride wounded, he sits up again. "I know I have made mistakes. This is most certainly another of them."

Régine shakes her head. "Discretion, child, at the very least."

"I had no idea that anyone would be up at this ungodly hour," he protests. "I thought I was being discreet."

"I doubt that thinking was what you were doing," Régine says dryly.

Marcelin blushes. "I was thinking about many things. Very few of them had anything to do with self-defense."

Incredibly, she laughs at that. "No, I suppose not."

Marcelin blinks and asks, "Maman?"

Régine shakes her head, her amusement subsiding swiftly. She takes in a breath. "Marcelin, why...?"

"Why what?"

A slight, vague gesture. "Why this boy? Why--?"

"I wish I knew," he answers, looking away from her again. "I only know that sometimes, it is right."

Régine studies him quietly. "I hope you are correct."

"I hope so, but, if it is not, I will continue to make the same mistake."

"Why?" asks Régine again, very quietly.

Marcelin coughs. "Because I like him."

Régine sighs, and looks away across the lawn. "Be careful, child. At least be careful. It could have been your father who found you. Or your sister. Think, please. I did not raise you to be a fool."

Marcelin coughs, again. "I will try, Maman. I promise."

She rises, abruptly, and turns to face him as though she would speak; but says nothing, only gazes at him for a minute.

Marcelin looks back at her, fidgeting with his shirt. "We will be careful."

"Good," Régine says after a moment, and turns away, smoothing her skirts once more.

Marcelin stands. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"Not screaming. Not disowning me for being so wrong."

Régine turns back, looking up at him with that bland expression that scarcely ever changes. "You are my son," she says simply.

Marcelin half-smiles. "I seem to recall that."

Régine nods slightly. "See that you do." With that, she starts for the path back to the house.

Marcelin hesitates, then follows her quickly. "Maman."

Régine pauses, turning once more. "Marcelin?"

Marcelin embraces her.

Régine stiffens; then, slowly, her arms go around him and she leans against his shoulder for a moment, wordlessly.

Marcelin says again, quietly, "Thank you."

Régine frees herself gently. "Good morning, dear."

"Good morning. I shall see you at breakfast."

"Certainly." She inclines her head, and sets off down the path.

Marcelin sighs and allows her to leave, then makes his way slowly back to the tree where Grantaire waits.

Grantaire looks up, straightening cautiously.

"It will be all right," Marcelin reassures him, offering him a hand.

"If you say so." He takes the hand between both of his, regarding Marcelin a little worriedly still.

"Perhaps I exaggerate somewhat. It will not be awful, at least."

Grantaire hesitates, then nods slightly. "All right."

Marcelin kisses him, promises to be cautious notwithstanding.

... Previous ... Interlude ... Table of Contents ... Next ...