Traveling the wide world has not changed Chris' heart, only made her more aware of when she needs to open it.
But the odd looks stopped when they settled into an inn for the night, and Nei and her troupe pulled out their instruments to entertain the group. It was hard not to relax at their music when they were experts not only at playing it, but at judging what tune would best suit the moods of the people they were playing for. When Chris slipped quietly away from the group even Roland's foot was tapping slightly, though she knew he'd be horribly embarrassed if he knew anyone had noticed it, and Borus was in the process of convincing a pretty young barmaid to dance.
She'd thought she'd gotten away without anyone noticing (aside from Nash, of course, but she'd long since accepted the fact that the day she did anything without Nash seeing would be the day he'd either left her side of been left cold in the dirt), but almost as soon as she'd striped off her armor down to her linen underclothes there was a knock at her door. "Come in," she replied to it as she unbound her hair.
She was not really surprised when it was Salome who walked in, bringing the sound of the music with him when he opened the door. Louis would have just walked in, Nash would have kept up a steady rap at the door until she answered him instead of stopping after one knock, and her other knights wouldn't come to her room alone but there was no way she'd have missed the sound of mail clanking if they'd all come up together. Of them only Salome would come to her in her room on his own; he was the only one who could do so without reproach from the others, for they'd never even consider him doing anything untoward with her.
But maybe their minds would change if they saw him now. He walked up to her and grabbed her shoulders, not at all roughly, then stared down into her eyes. They stood in silence like that for a long while, neither moving, both of their expressions calm. If it were any other man, or most any woman, Chris would have shoved them aside and out the door, but she had an absolute trust for Salome that would never be broken by a mere look or a touch.
"Chris," he said at last. "I'm so glad to have you back."
Then he turned and walked back out the door without saying another word.
- - -
He was walking with her as she wandered the grounds of Budehuc Castle, seeing how much it had flourished since the first time she'd taken a wrong turn on the plains and ended up at the run down building with its small population of desperately loyal citizens. As they walked she pointed out the buildings that hadn't existed back then, the gardens that she'd provided seeds for, the restaurant whose entire menu had been chosen by here and prepared with recipes and spices that she'd found. She would never seek to take the castle from Thomas, but she couldn't help but feel an almost proprietary pride when she saw how much it had grown with her help.
It was when they were walking by the lake that they heard the sound of someone plucking at a bouzouki. "That doesn't sound like Nei," she said, and turned her course to follow the noise to its source. She blinked when she saw the girl attempting to play the instrument, though it was far too large for her. "Shabon?"
The small girl started and fumblingly tried to hide the instrument behind her before she saw who had spoken and relaxed. "Oh, Chris!" she said when she saw her, then shifted her gaze to the man with her. "A-and Sir Salome. Sorry! Shabon didn't mean to disturb you."
"There was no disturbance, Shabon," Chris said kindly. "We just wished to know who was playing. Shouldn't Nei be helping you practice?"
"N-no," Shabon stammered, then blurted out, "Please don't tell Nei that Shabon borrowed her bouzouki! She always looks so elegant when she's playing it, not like with a bodhran, and I wanted to try too!"
"Ah," Chris said, understanding. It had been the knights she'd always tried to imitate when she was a child, not the beautiful noblewomen she'd been expected to emulate, but she certainly understood someone trying to shape themselves into something more than they thought you were. "I think your drumming is already lovely, Shabon, but I won't tell. Just make sure you don't harm Nei's instrument."
"Oh course not!" Shabon said, her eyes widening, shocked that Chris even thought such a thing could happen. "Shabon would never hurt Big Sister's things!"
"Good-bye then, Shabon. We'll see you tonight."
As the walked away to leave her in peace, though they stayed within hearing range of her music, Salome said, "She seems fond of you."
"That's unsurprising, considering how we met," Chris replied, stopping when she caught sight of a patch of healing herbs growing near the lakeside.
"One of the stories from the time you were gone from us?" he asked, watching as she knelt down to study the herb.
It was still not a full flourish, and didn't look like it would get there if it remained as choked by grass and weeds as it was. She stripped off her gauntlets and tearing at the greenery as she answered, "I could almost forget that, it happened so soon after we started out and so close to home. Nei and Toppo asked Nash and I to look for Shabon because she'd gone missing. We found her being chased by the appraiser, Guillaume." He face twisted as she stood again. "He wished to... he is a vile man. But we rescued her from him."
"Would that I could have been there to assist you," he said, dipping a handkerchief into the water of the lake then taking her hands and beginning to wash the dirt from them. He didn't ask permission before doing so, but nor did she do anything to try and make him stop.
"It was not so bad," she said, watching his hands move over here. "They had been playing in Vinay del Zexay for so long that as long as they were with me it was as if I was traveling with a part of home."
- - -
One night she heard a flute playing faintly from her room and followed the sound across the hall into his room, not even thinking to knock. He was sitting by an open window, and gestured her to come closer when she entered. When she reached the window and looked down, she could see that the music came from Nei, playing under the moonlight.
"I never knew that she was a flutist as well," he said quietly, pitching his voice so it wouldn't carry in the night and disturb the elf.
"Neither did I," Chris admitted. "I've never seen her with one before."
"She should play more often," he said, standing so he could look out at her too. "It's a lovely compliment to the night."
"For a moment I thought it might be you. I was rather upset to think you might be hiding such a talent from me," Chris said with a teasing smile.
"I'm afraid the only art I have any talent at is cooking, Chris, and you're aware of that."
"Cooking, and the art of preparing a perfect cup of tea," she corrected. "And that is if you don't wish to consider directing movements on the battlefield an art. ...I don't."
"I'm glad to hear that your time away from us hasn't hardened your heart enough for you to find beauty on the battlefield. War is a horrible thing," he admitted, "however necessary it might be at times. It should not be called an art."
"My heart had never been hard, Salome," she said softly, then, looking down on the yards once more where the music had just stopped, "/Oh.../"
Salome followed her gaze, to where Roland was stepping out of the shadows. Nei reached out to him as he came close, pulling him into an embrace. "So, it seems the rumors about them are true."
Chris turned away, uncomfortable with witnessing their intimate display. "I am happy for them," she said after a moment of silence.
"Roland is a night, Chris, and we are at war. This is not the time--"
"This is the best time," Chris cut him off. "When we are alive, when we know we might not be soon enough. It is the time when we should hold onto happiness as tightly as we can when we have a chance at it."
Salome reached out to rest his hands on her shoulders again, as he had the first night after she returned to the knights. But this time he did not stand silent. "Is that what being in the world with Nash has taught you?" he asked, a rough note in his voice that she'd never heard before.
It was her turn to study his face in the moonlight, both of their expressions calm if only you didn't look closely into their eyes. "That's what I decided for myself, after watching so many people live their lives." She smiled then, and brought up her hand to touch his cheek lightly. "If our being knights is the only reason you're holding back, Salome, I believe you should learn a lesson from even the coldest member of our group being willing to take love when he can find it."
Outside the window the music started again with the first few notes of an ancient love song, Salome leaned in at last to kiss her.