The sun is already streaming in through the window when Jean Valjean awakens.
He stretches a little, basking in its gentle warmth, and gives thanks to God for allowing him this simplest of pleasures. To wake up safe and warm, tucked up in a comfortable bed –
He pauses mid-stretch. This bed is a little too comfortable to be his own. The pillows are soft and luxurious, the coverlet smells faintly of roses, and the mattress does not creak as he sits up to stare about the room.
Now that his mind is starting to more fully awaken, he is quickly coming to the realisation that something is wrong. The light is coming in at the wrong angle, too bright for his small bedroom in the cottage, and the room itself appears to belong to a young woman – there is perfume on the dressing table, and a hairbrush, and a variety of little knick-knacks in front of a rather ornate mirror.
Valjean attempts to breathe through the sudden shock of disorientation: this is not a situation he has ever been in before. He has never woken up before in any bed other than his own – first in the little cottage he had shared with his sister and her children, then the hard bunk at Toulon, the mairie of Montreuil-sur-Mer, the gardener’s cottage at Petit-Picpus, and, at last, his own little room at the back of the garden in the Rue Plumet. The idea that he is here – in a room that is unknown to him, a woman’s room, filled with a woman’s things –
He takes a deep breath, attempting to calm himself. Surely this is just some strange dream, the kind that enters through that peculiar window between sleep and wakefulness and blurs the edges of reality.
He scrubs his hands over his face, hoping that the sheer physical act will be enough to break the illusion –
And pauses. Feels himself go statue-still for long seconds, his fingers splayed over his face, his breath trapped within his lungs.
Somebody shaved off my beard while I slept, a near-hysterical voice in his mind supplies, but the part of him that is still somewhat capable of rationality is cataloguing a far more disturbing range of differences. His face is the wrong shape, its weathered skin now smooth and seemingly in the full blush of youth. Long tendrils of hair brush lightly over his neck. His back does not pain him.
But the thing that brings his skin out in a cold sweat – that sends his guts into a spasm of knowing – is the burning in his right hand, the way the fingers do not quite obey his commands. While the fingers of his left hand are deftly mapping the unfamiliar contours of his face, those of the right one rest against his cheek, crabbed, only registering the slightest of sensation. Looking down at the hand, he sees a silvery web of scar tissue over his palm, obviously not long healed, still surrounded by dark red skin.
His panting breath does not belong to him.
He scrambles out of the bed and stumbles on too-light feet to the mirror in the corner, although he already knows what he will see.
Peering back at him from behind a curtain of dark hair, wide-eyed, is Éponine Thénardier.
The only thing Valjean can do is stare.
For long moments he gazes into the mirror, entranced, as each movement he makes is echoed by the frightened young woman looking back at him. He raises his eyebrows, she raises hers; her hand follows his as he slowly moves his fingers.
He finds himself murmuring nonsense, just to hear what his voice sounds like – or, perhaps, he is simply going mad. He supposes that he shouldn’t be surprised, really, given everything that has happened in his life; but still, it’s a pity, given that he has of late been more serene than he has been in years. That this madness should come upon him now, when at last his life has fixed itself into some kind of happiness, doesn’t seem quite fair.
The meaningless words coming from his lips, he realises, have resolved themselves into prayer, long years of habit guiding his mind into the comforting, well-worn path that he can tread without conscious thought. What he’s praying for, he doesn’t even know, but it’s enough to calm his mind and bring him back around to a place of rational thought.
He allows himself a wry smile. He has been in worse situations. As perplexing as this particular situation is, this is not, in fact, the worst start he’s had to a day. Not by a long shot.
Squaring his shoulders and watching as the girl in the mirror does the same, he takes a deep breath and considers his options. Now that he’s calmer, he can recognise that he’s in Éponine’s room in the Rue Plumet house. He hasn’t been inside the room since Éponine recovered from the injuries she had sustained at the barricade, when a bullet had passed through her hand and scraped her shoulder. Once her condition had improved, the room had become hers at his insistence, and he had permanently removed himself from it in order to allow her privacy. Cosette had helped her to furnish it to her liking, and he can see now that Éponine’s tastes run mostly towards the simple, with a few hesitant concessions to the frivolous.
So, he knows where he is. He knows who he is, somewhat. The why and the how remain opaque.
All that remains, for now, is the what.
At that thought, his heart shudders wildly.
Cosette – !
He searches hurriedly for a dressing-gown, wrapping it around himself in an attempt to preserve Éponine’s modesty, and steps hesitantly into the hallway, unsure of what he will find.
Not ten paces away is a small figure, and he almost collapses in relief.
So overjoyed is he that it takes him several seconds to fully take in the sight before him.
Cosette stands there in her nightgown, fists clenched at her sides, practically radiating tension in its purest form. Her face is twisted into a grim rictus, her pretty features contorted into the kind of scowl that would put fear into the hearts of criminals and righteous men alike.
It is an expression he has never seen on his daughter’s face before – but nonetheless, it is an expression with which he is intimately familiar.
His stomach drops. He licks his lips, forces his mouth to form the only word that his addled brain can dredge up.
The furrow between Cosette’s delicate eyebrows deepens. “So it would seem.”
For the second time this morning, Valjean feels madness licking at the corners of brain.
What is happening here? And how – how – for the love of everything that is holy, is Javert here, in this house, wearing Cosette’s nightgown and looking at him with Cosette’s eyes and appearing to be about two seconds away from arresting someone just for the sense of normalcy that it would bring?
Even as he watches, he can see Javert’s policeman’s brain ticking over, taking in this latest development and adding it to his collection of evidence. If Javert had his notebook with him, he would be scribbling madly. It’s oddly soothing, in its way – Javert is still himself, despite everything. As much as Valjean dislikes the thought of more people being caught up in this madness, a selfish part of him is glad to not be alone.
Evidently coming to some kind of conclusion, Javert turns and strides purposefully down the hallway. Calmer now, Valjean finds a moment of amusement in seeing his dear darling Cosette stomp down the hallway as if she’s about to bring the full weight of the law upon some unsuspecting criminal’s head; however, curiosity quickly gets the better of him, and he hurries after Javert.
Javert is looking out the window at the end of the hallway, satisfaction written across his face. Valjean peers past him, down into the garden, and sees....
His face scrunches up a little in surprise.
“... Do I really look like that?”
He sees himself, standing just outside the cottage in his nightgown, looking dazed and a little flustered. His white hair shines in the early morning sunlight, and, absurdly, Valjean feels a flood of relief that his beard remains in place. On his face, however, is a pensive frown he is quite certain he has not, in many years, had any occasion to make, but one which he has regularly seen on Éponine’s face, most often when he encourages her to read her scripture.
Valjean feels a kind of mild frenzy welling up inside him. He is here, Éponine is there, this is real and God in Heaven has seen fit to test his faith in some new and mysterious way.
He doesn’t realise he has started laughing until he feels the grip of Cosette’s – Javert’s, he hastily corrects himself – slender fingers upon his shoulder.
“Valjean.” Javert’s tone is steady, though Valjean finds he must suppress a shudder at the sound of that name spoken with his daughter’s voice. “I know this must be difficult, but you must try to keep your wits about you. Whatever has happened, we must go talk to the young lady – hmm –” He cuts himself off, his eyes skittering back to the figure in the garden. “To... to this person, before they take fright and run out into the street in hysterics.”
Valjean isn’t sure what impression Javert has formed of Éponine that he assumes this would be her response to any situation she finds herself in, but he follows after him as Javert marches on down the hallway, his long, lightly curled hair flowing after him, lace nightgown swirling about his delicate ankles.
Once out in the garden, Valjean finds that, far from the hysterical distress that Javert had predicted, Éponine seems quite calm – to the extent that she has rolled up the sleeve of his nightgown and is slowly raising and lowering an arm, up and down, curling a hand into a fist, feeling along the bunched biceps with the fingers of the other hand.
She turns to face them as they enter the garden. The grass is damp with dew between his toes, and Valjean takes a moment to honestly enjoy the feeling of being young again, of movement unencumbered by the weight of more than sixty winters.
Valjean sees his own blue eyes widen slightly, and he wonders what must be going through the girl’s mind as she watches herself trip lightly through the garden towards her.
“Well,” she says, as he and Javert come to a stop in front of her. “This is novel. Has this often happened before in your house, Monsieur?”
The quip startles a laugh out of him, and he feels himself relax, despite everything. “Not that I can recall, Mademoiselle.”
“Mademoiselle no longer, it seems.” Éponine spreads her arms once more, flexing her newfound muscles appreciatively. “Why, Cosette, I feel like I could pick you up with one hand,” she says in mild wonder, and for a moment, she advances, looking as if she might be about to do just that.
Javert makes a shocked hissing sound in the back of his throat, taking a skittish step backwards – surely the first time in his life he has ever done that – before Valjean hastily intervenes. Though not, he notices, before a blush spreads across Cosette’s delicate cheeks.
“Wait! Éponine, there is – this is not –” He pauses, collecting himself, and considers how to phrase this. Is there really any good way of explaining this? He ponders briefly, before deciding that no, there is not. “This is not Cosette. It is Javert.”
“Javert? Inspector Javert?” Éponine looks shocked, and for a moment Valjean is treated to the sight of the wary, hunted expression that he must have worn in the past every time someone said that name to him. She has nothing to fear from Javert now – no more, indeed, than Valjean himself does – but her years on the street must surely have left their mark. Valjean watches as Éponine’s eyes sweep sceptically over the girl standing beside him. Perhaps it’s the scowl, or perhaps it’s the way Javert attempts to draw himself up to his full, currently diminutive height, but whatever the case, she apparently accepts what he has said, with an alacrity he finds admirable.
“So.” She paces a little, before stopping to scrutinise them both. “If I’m in your body, Monsieur Fauchelevent, and you’re in mine, and Inspector Javert is in Cosette’s, then...?”
Valjean has never heard himself make the sound that he utters now. He claps his hand briefly over his mouth to stifle the shriek, but then lets it fall away in despair.
“Cosette!” His breath comes in gasps. “My delicate flower, trapped in – in – that!”
Javert harrumphs beside him. “It is not quite so bad as all that, surely.”
Valjean barely hears him as he whirls around and begins to run back towards the house. “We must get dressed!” he calls over his shoulder as he flies up the steps.