"But you're with me on this, right?" said Cosette. "You agree?"
"That Irma has a foot fetish?" said Éponine over her shoulder. "Ehhh. Shoe kink, maybe."
Cosette carefully placed the high-heeled ankle boots she had been dusting back on their pedestal. Irma, cobbler extraordinaire as well as the store manager, gave her employees creative freedom for the vast majority of merchandise displays, but when it came to the shoe section, her control was absolute.
Cosette had learned not to question it.
"What's the difference between a kink and a fetish?" she asked.
"Kink's just something that really does it for you," said Éponine, shaking the shirt she was folding with gusto. "Fetish is, like, you can't even get off without it."
"Oh," said Cosette. Now there was an idea. "Maybe I just have a fetish I don't know about yet," she muttered to herself.
Éponine had heard her, though. "Wait, what?"
"Nothing," said Cosette quickly.
"No, hold up a second," said Éponine, abandoning a half-folded shirt to turn fully toward Cosette. "Are you saying what I think you're saying? You've never gotten off?"
Cosette sighed, rolling her eyes. "You caught me," she said, resigned. Éponine already seemed to think Cosette was a massive prude; this was just going to make it that much worse.
Éponine goggled at her. "So, like — the whole time you were dating Marius, you never — really? Not even once?"
Cosette shook her head mutely.
"Huh. That's kind of funny," said Éponine, sounding thoughtful rather than amused. Éponine and Marius knew each other from lycée; it was Éponine's connection to Marius that had landed Cosette her current job. Cosette's relationship with Marius had been brief but intense, infiltrating every inch of both of their young lives; eventually, they'd agreed that what they had wasn't healthy, and gone their separate ways. Cosette still checked up on him every so often, though; she was pretty sure he was dating a man now.
"Why 'funny'?" Cosette asked, bracing for impact.
"Did I ever tell you I had the biggest crush on Marius in high school?" said Éponine, with the faraway upward glance of a person lost in memory.
"Aren't you... a lesbian?" said Cosette in bewilderment.
"Yeah," said Éponine, a bit of a laugh in her voice. "I am, but I didn't know that at the time. I was brought up to be suspicious of other girls, like, jealous and shit, you know? So it took me a while. I just knew I was supposed to like boys. And Marius was nice to me, and, like, totally nonthreatening. When I thought about dating other guys I'd always get these mental images of them fucking me and I hated it. But Marius always seemed sort of... pure. Nonsexual. In retrospect, it's obvious why I thought he was this, like, ideal man."
She turned back to her pile of shirts. "It's just funny to me that I turned out to be a little bit right. That boy is many things, but if you dated him for six months and didn't get any orgasms out of it, 'sex machine' is clearly not one of them."
A thousand responses rose to Cosette's lips. He tried, she wanted to say. He tried so hard. But we were both virgins, and we were both raised by men who were middle-aged when we were born, and we had no idea what we were doing. It wasn't his fault. It's me. I'm the broken one.
Instead she said, "I guess that's fair."
Éponine laughed. "I bet Courfeyrac's having a lot of fun with him."
Courfeyrac? Oh. That must be Marius' new boyfriend.
"It's certainly one way around the problem of the female orgasm," said Cosette. "Dating men, that is."
"Well, not for you," quipped Éponine. "Your solution would be dating women, am I right?"
She had finished with her shirt pile, and now she came back around to the other side of the table, leaning over a stack of maroon skinny jeans to make eye contact with Cosette.
"Take it from me," said Éponine, in a hilarious approximation of suave. "The best prescription for a severe lack of orgasms is a lady between your legs."
"But I'm straight," said Cosette. It came out with far less confidence than she would have expected.
"Trust me, I'm aware," said Éponine, her smile crooked. "But so what? It's about skill, not sexuality. A tongue's a tongue, you know?" She slid her elbow down onto the display table, resting her chin in one hand. "And don't forget, I thought I was straight for kind of a long time. So did Marius. I'm not gonna argue with you, because that'd be a dick move, but it's something to keep in mind, right?" She winked.
Cosette blinked back, thrown. There was a pause.
"I'm just messing with you, babe," said Éponine. "Forget I said anything. Just, you know, you should really get a vibrator or something, because you are seriously missing out."
"Oh, I don't — I don't touch myself," said Cosette in a rush.
"WHAT?" yelped Éponine. Her voice was uncomfortably loud in the high-ceilinged (though mercifully empty) boutique. "Well no fucking wonder you've never had an orgasm!"
"Keep your voice down," hissed Cosette.
"Never had a what now?" Irma's voice drifted up from the back office.
— it was too late.
Already Cosette could hear the CLACK, CLACK, CLACK of Irma's favorite Louboutins as she made her way to the front of the store.
Irma was young for a store owner. She'd dropped out of lycée at 17 so that she could train with her aunt, a cobbler and tailor, and had eventually taken the Bac as a candidat libre just to prove she could. When her aunt passed away, Irma had inherited her small alterations storefront, which she promptly expanded into a boutique known for its custom pieces.
Not yet thirty, Irma was a fiercely handsome woman, once written up in L'Officiel as "quite possibly the prettiest boot-stitcher in Paris," and she was always a fashion plate for her own work: everything she was wearing, even the Louboutins, had been altered to fit her to perfection.
She came to a halt next to Cosette, angling the toe of one of the high-heeled ankle boots exactly three centimeters to the right. "What's all this about Cosette never having had an orgasm?"
Cosette groaned. "Can we not gossip about my lackluster sex life, please?" she pleaded, fixing her eyes on the ceiling rather than risk making eye contact with anyone. "It's depressing enough without my coworkers giggling about it."
"Girl," said Irma, putting a hand on her shoulder, "this is not gossip. This here is what we call an intervention."
Cosette abandoned her patch of ceiling. "What?"
"Fucking exactly," said Éponine. "Cosette Euphrasie Fauchelevent, you're telling me you don't masturbate? For serious?"
"Look, I was almost obscenely Catholic as a child, okay?" said Cosette defensively. "The Bible said it was a sin, the nuns said it was a sin, I slept in a dormitory with a dozen other girls until I was 18 and then I had a roommate in my dorm and now I live with my extremely pious father and the walls are really thin! I'm not exactly rolling in opportunities here, okay?"
"I mean, I grew up sharing a room with my little sister and it never stopped me," said Éponine, "but I take your point. You have some hangups about it, that's fair."
"And it sounds like buying a vibrator is out of the question, if you were being serious when you said the walls were thin," said Irma seriously.
"I was being serious," insisted Cosette.
"So like... Marius' apartment was the only place you felt secure enough to try anything?" mused Éponine. "You'll have to get another boyfriend with his own apartment, I guess."
"Or, well," said Irma. She tilted her head to one side, exhibiting her long neck. "I suppose you could try here, at the store."
"W-what?!" sputtered Cosette. Surely she could muster up a more intelligent response? "What do you mean?"
Irma gestured grandly at the dressing rooms against the back wall. "There's those, of course," she said. "You could rub one out in there after closing. Or if you want, I keep a pallet in my workroom — I'm not opposed to letting you in there while I'm covering your break."
Éponine gaped at her. "You'd really let her — can I do that?"
"Sorry, hon," said Irma, not sounding sorry. "This is a very special favor for a sister in dire need."
Éponine stuck out her tongue. "Ugh, you're no fun. If you really wanted her to come, you'd let us both use the dressing rooms after hours so I could give her a hand."
"Bitch, you don't think I'm perfectly capable of doing that myself?" said Irma, head and hip cocking simultaneously to one side.
"Are you guys for real right now?" said Cosette.
Her voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere far away.
"Orgasms are serious business," said Irma, though Cosette still got the impression she was trying not to laugh.
"I am dead serious," Éponine assured her through a poorly-suppressed smile. "You remember what I said before, right? About your 'solution'?" She waggled her eyebrows. "I'm up for it if you are."
"If you think her assistance is necessary, I suppose she can join you," said Irma with the sigh of the heavily put-upon. "But I wasn't kidding when I said I could help. I'd be happy to."
She winked hugely at Cosette, who managed a weak smile.
"Um, I'll... think about it?" she said.
"You do that," said Irma, nodding her approval. "A girl who's never had an orgasm? That's just tragic." She glanced around the store. "But let's get to work on the sale rack for now, hmm? Closing isn't for another two hours."
It didn't happen right away, because of course it didn't.
But Cosette hadn't been lying when she'd said she would think about it. Jokingly made they may have been, and yet the twin offers sat in the back of Cosette's mind like the vibrator Marius had bought her still sat at the back of her closet. Unlike the vibrator, though, still new in its packaging, Cosette couldn't help taking Éponine's and Irma's words out now and again to examine them, hurriedly stowing them away after only a few cursory glances.
She'd tried touching herself in her bedroom late one night. The excuse she'd given to her coworkers about "thin walls" had sounded silly once spoken aloud. Surely she could just keep quiet?
Her heart had been pounding in her ears as she'd brought a hand to the place between her legs, cupping herself hesitantly. Marius had touched her here, extensively, and it had left her squirming and twitching like a bug on its back, but no closer to relief. What could she possibly do that he hadn't done?
She'd rubbed her clit, just a few light strokes through her panties, and it had triggered the tiniest of gasps, loud as a gunshot in the empty silence. She'd heard a noise, real or imagined, coming from her father's room down the hall, and had frozen, paralyzed and chastened, unable to get the image of her father's disappointed face out of her head.
She could quiet her gasps, but she couldn't quiet her mind. She didn't try a second time.
Two weeks passed. Éponine and Irma went on just as before, teasing Cosette no more and no less than they always had. But Cosette couldn't help seeing them in a different light.
When Éponine was eating homemade fruit salad on her break, scooping pieces of peach and plum into her mouth and licking the juice off her fingers, for instance — Cosette saw that very differently.
Or when Irma counted out the registers at the end of the night and her fingers were flying on her calculator while her eyes were still intent on the cash — well, that was different now too.
God help her, Cosette had caught herself staring at Éponine's breasts that day, tiny and perky under a sneeze-worth of tight fabric, wondering what it would be like to put her hands on them.
Would she like it?
Why was it a question? Shouldn't she just — know?
The breakthrough came one afternoon while she was browsing Instagram, trying not to fixate on a picture where Éponine was showing off her tongue ring. As Cosette hurriedly scrolled away, she landed on a picture of Marius and the guy she was fairly certain he was dating — Courfeyrac, Éponine had called him, though his Facebook page listed his first name as Jérémy.
Marius' boyfriend's face was heart-shaped next to Marius' oval, and his skin was a coppery gold against Marius' milk-paleness. Their differences somehow offset each other's attractiveness to great advantage; they were strikingly handsome together. But what really caught Cosette's attention was Marius' expression. He was glancing sidelong at his grinning partner, and he looked almost... sly. Or, perhaps not sly, but rather... lascivious. Fond, certainly, and a little bit trying not to laugh, but he was — well, he seemed more adult, more mature than the Marius she had known, who'd had all the earnest intensity of a big-footed puppy.
He looked like he knew something she didn't.
She pulled up Facebook Messenger and scrolled down to her last conversation with Marius — something shallow and innocuous about a TV show they both followed.
She took a deep breath, typed out her message, and hit SEND before she could overthink it.
The dot next to his name was green, but it was still a nervewracking two minutes before the ellipsis popped up to indicate he was typing.
Cosette could vividly picture the way Marius was almost certainly smiling fondly at the thought of Courfeyrac. Knowing that it wasn't for her this time didn't hurt as much as she had expected it to.
Cosette had lived abroad in London for two years in her teens. She knew French boys were fairly hands-on compared to their English counterparts. And if they were all queer we-don't-have-hangups-about-looking-gay types too... well, given how prudish Marius could be, it sounded like a recipe for disaster.
Cosette pushed back from her desk. Her eyes were still directed toward her laptop screen, but they were unfocused, unseeing. Her stomach wasn't full of butterflies so much as it was full of silkmoths, still taking shape in their fibrous cocoons: the promise of fluttering wings was still muted, veiled and mysterious. Was this excitement or was it fear? Unconsciously, she crossed and uncrossed her legs.
Unlike Courfeyrac and company, Éponine had never been touchy with Cosette. In fact, both Éponine and Irma touched her noticeably less than most straight women did, almost as if they were afraid of being seen as predatory. There was absolutely no chance she would be able to recreate Marius' experience of gaining and then losing access to an affectionate touch. She had nothing to go on but her own imagination, which stalled as soon as she pictured putting her hands on another woman in a sexual way. It was like — what had Marius said? — a block, a mental block.
She wanted to know. She was sick of wondering, sick of trying to draw conclusions with no evidence.
That settled it, then. Her coworkers had made her their offers, and Cosette was going to accept, come what may.
It didn't happen the next day, because of course it didn't.
But Cosette was ready now, or at least close enough to ready that she could bluff past her lingering doubts when the opportunity presented itself.
Such an opportunity came with the arrival of the first shipment of fall clothes and shoes — Irma had asked both Cosette and Éponine to stay two hours after closing instead of their usual one, to handle the influx of goods.
It was coming up to the end of the second hour, and nearly everything had been inventoried. Cosette and Éponine were playing an impromptu game of laser tag with their scanners; Irma was reviewing a forest of packing slips. Then suddenly she cried out, a Eureka! kind of cry, and began digging through the boxes behind the counter.
When she emerged, she was holding a long shoebox. "I've been waiting for these," she said reverently.
The shoes, when she withdrew them, were a glittering web of laces and eyelets. Cosette couldn't even imagine what they'd look like on someone's leg.
"How are we going to display them?" asked Éponine. "Do we need one of those above-the-knee leg manikins?"
"Already ordered it," said Irma, still gazing with a glazed-over expression at the shoes. "For now I was thinking we'd just put them on one of the full-size manikins as part of an outfit."
It was rare for Irma to put her favorite shoes anywhere other than in pride of place in the shoe section. She had to be desperate to display this pair.
"Like, right now? Or should we leave 'em for morning shift like the rest?" asked Éponine.
Irma didn't answer.
"Aren't they gorgeous?" said Irma dreamily. "I want to fuck a girl wearing these so damn bad."
Cosette sucked in a breath. This was it. This was her opening.
"C-can," she started, but she choked on her own words, the can becoming a cough.
No. This was going to happen. Tonight.
"Can I try them on?" she said softly.
Both Irma and Éponine turned to stare at her.
"B-before you put them on the manikin?" Cosette continued. "My feet are display size, so..."
Wordlessly, Irma held out the shoebox.
The front counter had a line of sight into the fitting rooms, each room blocked off from the rest of the store by only a curtain of heavy fabric. Cosette could feel all eyes on her as she made her way over. She squared her shoulders and walked tall, too wracked with nerves to attempt anything as risky as swishing her hips.
Reaching her destination, she settled herself on the broad cushion on the fitting room bench. The open shoebox she placed by her feet, undisturbed.
"These look pretty complicated," she said, as nonchalant as she could manage. "Irma, do you want to help me put them on?"
She was wearing her favorite ballet flats. It was the work of a moment to toe them off, and then, for good measure, she spread her legs apart under her skirt.
"Well?" she said, trying not to let her mounting terror leak into her voice.
Irma made a little noise, something just a hair too dignified to be a whimper. "Are you... are you sure you need help?" she said, and the strangled quality to her voice was immensely gratifying.
Éponine was darting looks at first one of them, then the other, her eyes huge and dark.
"Many hands make light work," said Cosette, and this time she made sure to make eye contact with both of them.
Éponine made a little noise that was definitely not too dignified to be called a whimper.
That seemed to be quite enough encouragement for Irma, who sprang into motion and made quick work of the distance between them. She sank gracefully to her knees at Cosette's feet, smoothing a dark hand up Cosette's shin.
"It would be my pleasure," she said in an even voice. She seemed to have regained her usual impeccable composure, though the speed with which she was retrieving the shoes from their box betrayed her eagerness.
The base of each shoe fit perfectly, closing over Cosette's feet like they'd been made for her. Irma's hands were as nimble and deft with the laces as they were with cash and calculators. The only reason Cosette was not yet entirely laced up to each knee was that Irma would pause every few inches and caress Cosette's leg, kissing along its length.
Cosette wasn't entirely sure if what she was feeling was arousal or exhilaration. And if it was arousal, was she aroused by Irma, by attraction to Irma, or was she aroused by the unmistakeable sexual charge of what Irma was doing?
Éponine had come tripping over in Irma's wake, watching them hungrily, and Cosette found that terribly confusing too: was she turned on by being watched, or was it simply so strange and nervewracking that it was giving her an adrenaline high? And if she was turned on by being watched, was that because Éponine was watching her or just because anyone was?
Irma's mouth was leaving tiny trails of wetness on Cosette's legs, making Cosette tremble when even the slightest puff of air brushed against her. Her confusion over how to categorize the feelings she was experiencing was fading from the forefront of her conscious mind, overtaken by — well, by feeling the feelings she was experiencing.
Irma looked up at Cosette from the floor, the fairy lights on the ceiling of the boutique reflected in her dark eyes like stars, and Cosette was overwhelmed by how very beautiful Irma was. A week ago she would have quickly followed such an observation with the caveat that even a straight girl could recognize the aesthetic appeal of another woman; tonight, her brain didn't seem to care about such rationalizations.
Cosette let herself feel.
There was the faint texture of the cushion beneath her against the bare undersides of her thighs. The soft cotton of her skirt under her hands. The rub of her bra against her unmistakably hardening nipples. The way her underwire cut into her ribs when her chest heaved. The pinch of the laces against her calves. Irma's plush mouth tracing Irma's steady progress up Cosette's legs. The warm weight of Éponine's gaze.
If she submerged herself in sensation, basked in the feel of it, there was no time to get lost picking apart the implications.
When Irma's lips left her skin and the shoes were fully laced, Cosette was uncomfortably aware of her own internal monologue beginning to resurface. She didn't want to think.
"Éponine," she said. "Little help?"
Éponine looked oddly torn. Her wide-eyed, serious expression seemed almost like a mirror of Cosette's own inner anxieties. But then she shot a glance at Irma, and by some sort of mutual agreement the two of them moved towards Cosette as one, Irma gliding her hands under Cosette's skirt to the elastic waistline of her panties, Éponine darting in to settle at Cosette's side on the low bench. Éponine's hands immediately took up residence at Cosette's hips, hovering right above Irma's, and just like that Cosette was overhwelmed with feeling again, how heady it was to be touched and held by two people, two beautiful, amazing women who should by all rights be able to have anyone they wanted and who were still, inexplicably, dancing to Cosette's tune.
"Please," said Éponine, just as Irma said "May I?" and Cosette nodded, eagerly awaiting where this rushing river of feeling would carry her next.
She obligingly lifted her arms to allow Éponine to pull off her top, tilting her hips to let Irma vanish her panties, and then both of them were touching her, fondling her, exploring her. It was like they were competing to see who could draw more noises from her lips.
As far as Cosette could tell, they were both winning. Cosette was a hot mess of sounds, the noises leaking out of her too fast to catalogue: moans and hums and mewls and whimpers and especially choked little gasps. Irma's clever fingers had quickly slipped inside Cosette, moistening her folds by spreading the wetness Cosette hadn't realized she was producing. Soon Irma had Cosette shivering and moaning, both of Cosette's tightly-laced legs pressed against her sides and Cosette's clit under her thumb.
But it was hard to know who to give credit for Cosette's wanton reactions — Irma below her waist or Éponine above it. Éponine had given her own fingers a peremptory lick, then sent them diving into Cosette's bra, tweaking and twisting Cosette's nipples until they were hopelessly oversensitive and then blowing on them deliberately. A light breeze over her moist, pertened nipples or a hard push on her clit — how was it that both could seem equally intense?
Then Éponine's mouth found the skin under Cosette's ear, and Cosette had never thought of herself as someone with a sensitive neck, but as was becoming more and more apparent, none of the usual rules applied tonight. It was like Éponine mouthing wetly at her neck had closed some sort of invisible circuit: Cosette's nerves were on fire from the crown of her head to the tips of her fashionably-shod toes.
"Don't worry," said Éponine hotly into Cosette's ear. "I'll be gentle — no marks."
"Nnnn," said Cosette, overwhelmed by arousal and stupid with it. Her skirt had been pushed up to pool around her waist, and Irma's mouth was busy on the insides of her thighs, the swell of her belly, the jut of her hipbones — miles and miles of erogenous skin Cosette had never given much thought before tonight — and yet Irma's mouth maintained a maddening distance from the focus of Irma's fingers.
How do they coordinate so well? thought Cosette, giddy, half-convinced she was being touched by eight hands and four mouths instead of four hands and two mouths.
She was abruptly and uncomfortably aware of how exposed she was, her bra flipped inside out and sliding down her torso, her legs flung wide and her toes curling. The curtains behind the window displays had been drawn for hours and all the doors were securely locked, but it wasn't the fear of strangers that had Cosette squirming — it was the fear of herself, her own self-judgment, her ever-present need to question her own reality. A not-insignificant part of her was cringing in shame from the knowledge that she was offering up her naked body, her most private places, in a public space, with not just one person she had never dated, but two. A part of her was cowering in the corner, mortified, the word SLUT echoing in her ears.
But another part of her — and Cosette was beginning to admit to herself just how large a part — loved it. Was glorying in it. Not only at the exposure itself, but also at the shame it triggered: a bizarre feedback loop of shame and shamelessness that Cosette had never felt before.
She didn't realize she was hyperventilating until Éponine's hand cupped her cheek. "Hey, shhh, it's okay, we got you, breathe," she cooed, stroking Cosette's hair away from her face. "Do you need to stop?"
Irma had pulled back too, Cosette realized; her hands had stilled and she'd sat back on her heels, regarding Cosette with concern.
"I'm, I'm okay," managed Cosette after a heroically deep breath. "I think I just got — caught in my own head? I mean I'm not really contributing, I'm just — sitting here doing nothing—"
"I wouldn't say nothing," said Irma dryly. "I'm going to be getting off to the noises you're making for at least the next month, easy."
Cosette looked helplessly to Éponine. "I don't know how to explain it, it's like I'm — floating—"
"You need to participate a little more, then," declared Éponine. "To keep you grounded. We can fix that, easy."
"We can?" said Cosette. Or at least tried to say. Her words were muffled by Éponine's kiss.
Éponine was kissing her. She was kissing Éponine. Oh god.
It was absurd for this, this of all things, to feel more momentous than everything that had come before, and yet Éponine had not been wrong about the significance of participation.
There was a difference between kissing and merely being kissed, and Cosette quickly, instinctively, chose the former over the latter. Éponine's mouth was hot and mobile, demanding an active response. Her lips tasted of cake-batter chapstick; Cosette sucked shamelessly on her tongue and tasted strawberries.
Dimly she was aware of Irma lifting one of her legs so that her calf lay against Irma's back, which felt suspiciously bare of clothes. She must have taken off her top.
Then Irma hoisted up Cosette's other leg and Cosette had to clutch at Éponine to keep her balance.
"Lean back and get comfortable," said Irma wickedly. "Oh, and I highly recommend digging in your heels. In fact, I insist."
Cosette met Irma's heated gaze, then tried and failed not to stare at her breasts, loose and swaying slightly as she curled forward toward Cosette.
Cosette gulped and nodded.
Éponine helped her maneuver her lower half forward and her upper half backward, her shoulder blades prickling with cold when they made contact with the wall. She no longer needed Éponine for balance, but clung to her anyway.
"We've got you," Éponine said again.
When Irma's mouth finally made contact with Cosette's swollen lower lips, there was no sudden choir of angels. Cosette let out a soft gasp not so unlike those she'd let out when Marius had tried to do this to her. It felt strange, tingly, almost a stinging sensation: a little pleasure, but mostly just perplexion.
Her disappointment was short-lived, however. Irma swiftly found a rhythm and stuck with it, inflicting a maddeningly consistent pattern on Cosette's clit, light on-off flicks that seemed endless. Just when Cosette was sure she could bear it no longer, Irma treated her to a long lick up her inner coastline, spreading her lower lips wide for better access. The contrast between the focused, teasing attention on her clit and the warm, relaxing glide below it was so perfect that Cosette nearly took Irma's head off squeezing her thighs together.
Embarrassed, Cosette parted her knees once more, half-expecting a reprimand, but Irma merely said, "Fuck yes, fucking bury me," and Cosette hurried to oblige.
Irma's tongue was back on her and the angel choirs really were singing this time. Irma's finger crooked up inside her, deeper than she had gone until now, and when she rubbed up against Cosette's inner walls it felt almost like she was pressing against Cosette's clit from the back. Cosette shuddered with the sudden intensity, pressing her face to Éponine's, as though kissing could serve as a pressure valve for the rising torrent of feeling inside her.
They kissed desperately, sloppily — Cosette had exactly zero conscious awareness of what she was doing with her own mouth, other than a vague sense that she might be moaning. Éponine was fondling one of her breasts appreciatively, and Irma was alternating between two techniques: one that stoked the fire coiling in her belly and another that made Cosette see stars. Beyond that, she would have been hard pressed to offer specifics. Her stomach muscles now seemed permanently clenched — when had that happened? How long had she been digging her heels into Irma's bare back?
Cosette didn't know, and hardly cared.
She had, in fact, almost entirely forgotten the original point of the exercise, and was sighing lustily into Éponine's mouth when she finally noticed the peculiar sensation growing deep inside her. It was like warmth, like tightness, like pressure, like pleasure, like pain, radiating out from somewhere between her hips. It was like — it was like — the way water rushed out to sea in anticipation of a wave about to crash.
Éponine's fingers were closing around her nipple, and that too was a glorious tight heat just beneath her skin. It was like some kind of live wire inside of her was connecting the most sensitized point on her chest to the one between her legs.
"I think — I think I'm—" she stammered, her nails digging into Éponine's upper arm. Her breath was coming in short gasps; the sense of expectation was almost incapacitating. "Please, please, oh god—"
Cosette was pathetically grateful for Irma's steadying grasp on her hip, Éponine's arm around her waist, their sturdy support holding her in place as the wave crashed through her at last. She cried out, curling in on herself like a penitent in prayer, then arched back towards the wall, only Éponine's tight embrace saving her from smacking her head against it. A starburst of feeling exploded through her, filling her up, drowning her; her eyes were open but all she saw was white.
And then the feeling subsided, leaving a shivery, tingly kind of warmth in its wake.
Cosette sagged against Éponine like she'd just run a race. "That — that was an orgasm, right?"
Irma had leant her head against Cosette's trembling thigh, and was now looking up at her, eyes bright. "In my expert opinion? Yes. Yes it was."
"Ah," gasped Cosette as another, smaller wave left her twitching.
"Aftershock," said Éponine sagely, hugging her a little tighter.
"Oh," sighed Cosette, collapsing into Éponine even further. Her eyelids seemed impossibly heavy. "What — what now?"
Irma began to unbend, pushing off the floor until her face was nearly level with Cosette's. "Do you want to taste yourself?"
Cosette's eyes fluttered open. When had she closed them?
"Okay," she said shyly. It seemed rude to refuse — and she couldn't deny she was curious. Marius had never shown any interest, had always conscientiously rinsed; he'd seem to think inflicting it on her would have been impolite.
Irma's mouth was slick and warm on Cosette's, the taste strong, but not unpleasant. And there was something so terribly, spine-tinglingly intimate about tasting it this way that the taste itself hardly seemed to matter.
It suddenly occurred to Cosette that this was the second woman she had kissed, which meant she had now officially kissed more women than men.
By some metrics, she could be said to have had sex with more women than she had men.
She wasn't sure how she felt about that.
"What now?" she asked again when Irma pulled back, licking her lips like a satisfied cat.
"Well," said Irma. "I'd suggest an attempt at round two, just to see if you even could, but I do have to actually lock up at some point. So maybe we'd better rule this little experiment a success and call it a night."
Cosette didn't want to move, but Irma had a point. Not to mention the fact that her father still expected her home before curfew, despite Cosette being twenty-two years old.
Éponine gave Cosette another encouraging squeeze, this time so tight it almost hurt. "Irma's right," she told Cosette, with an odd sort of forced chirpiness. Was she all right? "Let's get your clothes back on."
Cosette's limbs still felt treacherously weak. Irma and Éponine ended up redressing her like she was an overlarge doll.
Of course, Irma also made a point of unlacing Cosette's elaborate footwear, placing them back in their box like they constituted a matched set of holy relics.
"You were magnificent," she murmured, half to Cosette and half to the shoes. "Positively exquisite. Thank you."
"No, thank you," said Cosette, with all the sincerity she could muster, blissed out as she was. "You — I still can't believe — shouldn't I be returning the favor?"
"Don't you worry about me," said Irma. She had already made it back to the front registers and was wiping her hands on a moist towelette. "I got exactly what I wanted. I don't know who you've been sleeping with, but to the truly sophisticated mind, giving good head is its own reward."
Her movements as she bent back to the task of inventorying their newest merchandise were brisk and businesslike, but Cosette fancied she could discern a swish to Irma's hips that hadn't been there a few hours ago.
"If you say so," said Cosette weakly. "I mean — just — let me know. If there's anything I should be — doing."
"Why don't you ask Éponine," said Irma, her voice sly and knowing, and Cosette felt Éponine tense next to her.
"Éponine?" she said, turning to throw a glance at the other girl.
"I — was wondering if you could give me a ride home?" said Éponine.
Such a mundane request didn't seem to merit such obvious apprehension, but Cosette's mind was too blown to analyze it further. "Of course," she said immediately. "Any time."
Éponine had been riding a rather terrifying motorcycle as long as Cosette had been working with her, but she didn't have access to it anymore; her only explanation had been "Montparnasse got out of prison." Cosette's father, meanwhile, would not hear of Cosette taking the Métro alone after dark, and had bought her a very boring, but very safe, silver Volvo.
Cosette floated through the next ten minutes like someone in a dream, never fully grasping how she was making it from Point A to Point B. She tried to help Irma and Éponine put the boxes they'd inventoried into storage for the morning shift to shelve, but it was as thought she had oven mitts on her hands and gauze over her eyes. Nothing quite seemed real.
"You're useless to me now, I see," observed Irma. "I really can't complain, since it's my own fault." She turned to Éponine, making a shooing motion with her hands. "You two clear off, I'll wrap up in my own time."
"Are you sure?" said Éponine. Was Cosette imagining it, or did Éponine sound nervous?
"Go on, get out of here," said Irma, her tone brooking no argument.
Reluctantly — reluctantly? — Éponine slung her backpack over one shoulder and made for the rear entrance, dragging Cosette by the wrist as she did so.
She let go as soon as they cleared the door, but Cosette still felt absurdly as though she were being towed, tripping after Éponine all the way to her car.
Having reached their destination, the two of them stood there, staring at each other.
There was a strangely pregnant pause. Why, Cosette wondered, did it feel so much like she had stood here before?
She opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out.
"Keys," said Éponine.
"Now would be the time to get out your keys, if you have them."
"Oh," said Cosette. "Right."
She fumbled for her keys, the jangling metal loud in the void of the night.
They got into the car wordlessly, and the silence continued as Cosette turned over the engine and pulled out into the street. It wasn't awkward, exactly, more like expectant. But expecting what? Cosette's hands were growing stiff and cramped where they were clutching the wheel. She felt like she was on a quiz show, poised in readiness to smack the buzzer as soon as she heard a question she could answer.
But no question seemed forthcoming. Éponine was staring out the window into the blue-black night, fiddling with a loose thread at the cuff of her sweater, and she wasn't saying anything at all.
It was a very soft sweater. Cosette knew that because her bare skin had been rubbing up against it the whole time Éponine had been holding Cosette in her arms.
The sense-memory overtook Cosette with a visceral intensity, and with very little transition she found herself feeling both very cold and very lonely. Not even four feet distant from Éponine, Cosette was still struck by just how keenly her absence was felt.
"You're a really good kisser," she blurted out, apropos of nothing.
Were those the words the silence was expecting? Somehow Cosette didn't think so.
"Wha — I, um — thanks?" said Éponine, sounding wrongfooted. "I mean, so are you. You know that, right?"
"I mean I know I'm not usually terrible," said Cosette, "but, like, I was kind of really out of it, and probably pretty sloppy, and did you know you're the second person I've ever kissed? After Marius? Well, obviously after Marius. But still, only two people, three people, sorry, you're just the second, but anyway it's weird if you think about it, such a low number, given how much the French kiss, in England it was—"
"Cosette!" said Éponine. "Slow down, I can't understand you!"
"Oh — oh — I'm sorry," said Cosette. She took several deep breaths through her nose. The car interior had yet to warm up; it made her flaming cheeks feel even warmer in comparison. "I was just saying you're, um, the second person I've ever kissed, so, um, I might not be the best judge?"
The look on Éponine's face was one part surprise to three parts bemusement. "Got it," she said, repressed laughter saturating her voice. "Thanks all the same."
Then she sobered, returning to worrying her cuff like nothing had happened.
Cosette's frustration mounted. She had no idea what Éponine was so reluctant to say, but clearly there was something.
She realized belatedly that she had gone round the same roundabout three times, and hurried to pay attention to the road, swallowing down the demands on the tip of her tongue.
But it turned out she didn't need to interject. Éponine was ready to speak. "So, did you," she started, and then fell silent again for a moment before trying, "Did you think—?" and then falling silent again.
When she finally finished her sentence, it wasn't anything Cosette would have thought to expect.
"You know that stuff I said about dating women being your one-way ticket to orgasms?" she said, looking resolutely out the passenger-side window. "That was bullshit."
"Um... okay?" said Cosette, nonplussed.
"I just want to get this out there before we go any further," said Éponine, sounding pained. "Caveat emptor and all that. Okay?"
Cosette had no idea what was going on, but she nodded anyway.
"I've had partners I couldn't get off," Éponine continued, like she was imparting a horrible secret. "Some not at first, some never ever. There's no special," she waggled her fingers in the air, "lesbian magic. I'm not saying we're not a safer bet than your garden-variety straight guy, but..."
"But...?" added Cosette.
Éponine didn't elaborate.
"I don't understand what you're getting at," Cosette said, plaintive.
Éponine growled a little, wedging her hands under her thighs. "I was going to ask if you'd thought any more about how straight you are, but I feel like an idiot. When I said that — that stuff, weeks ago. Ages ago. I never thought you'd take me up on it. I said it as a joke! And now — now you're—" She seemed to be struggling for words. "You can't actually convert a straight girl to lesbianism with orgasms, that's not a thing!"
"Éponine..." began Cosette. She realized she'd been staring at Éponine for a little too long, too long to be safe, but all she wanted to do right now was pull Éponine into a hug, maybe pet her hair—
She pulled over.
When the engine had quieted, she reached for Éponine, but Éponine buried her face in her own knees, dodging the touch.
Cosette rubbed tentatively at Éponine's shoulder blades. "Do — do you honestly think that's what happened?"
"No!" Éponine quickly turned her face to the side so that Cosette could hear her, then winced. "Maybe? I don't know, I'm just trying not to get my hopes up." Her eyes fell closed. "And doing a shit job of it."
"Why are you—" Why are you hoping I discover an interest in women? Cosette didn't say. She didn't need to. The answer had been staring her right in the face all along.
"Oh. Really?" Whether the culprits were butterflies or silkmoths, her stomach was now full of fluttering wings.
Éponine sighed, straightening up only to slump back against her seat. "You caught me," she said, resigned, and Cosette was hit with a wave of déja vu for the second time that evening. Éponine was holding out her hands, a ta-daaa! motion. "I have a big, fat, lesbian crush on you!"
Cosette couldn't process. The questions that plagued her every train of thought were coming thick and fast now, too thick and fast to even follow; at times like this, her brain was a radio that did nothing but spew out static, no matter where the dial was turned.
Telling Cosette point blank about this crush of hers seemed to have opened the floodgates, though, and Éponine was talking fluidly now, reminiscing. "... always kinda felt like I knew you even way before we met. Marius wouldn't shut up about you, you know? And then you started at the store and it was all I could do to shut up about you. You were everything he said you were, and more. You still are." She took a deep breath. "So to answer your question, yes, really."
"Then why not get your hopes up?" asked Cosette. Of the million questions she wanted to ask, why had this one jumped out of her mouth first? "You said it yourself, you thought you were straight at one point. And isn't Marius your oldest friend? What about him and Courfeyrac?"
Éponine laughed, but it was hollow, bitter. "Because," she said, "I've been around the block a few times, all right? I know that I'm not the kind of girl who gets a happy ending. It's not in the stars for me."
She gripped the headrest behind her head, her bent elbows hiding her face from Cosette.
In the distance, a siren flared to life.
Before Cosette could summon the nerve to speak, Éponine made a deeply unhappy noise and said morosely, "And now I've totally fucked up by telling you all this and making it all about me. You probably wanted to, like, have a sexuality crisis in the privacy of your own car or whatever, but no, I had to go word-vomit my issues all over you. Thanks a fucking lot, Irma!"
That cut through the static. "Irma knows? About you — about us?" said Cosette, mildly alarmed. "She... did she plan," gesturing vaguely at the car, at the space between them, "this?"
Éponine opened her arms, looking at Cosette sidelong, and now Cosette could see the tears glinting on her eyelashes, still unshed. "She pulled me aside, commended me for recruiting you into the carpet-muncher's army, and told me snap you up before somebody else did," Éponine said, her eyes rolling up to the ceiling. "So yeah, I'd say she had her suspicions."
"I don't know what to say to that," said Cosette blankly.
Éponine sighed again, sounding marginally calmer now. "Look," she said. "I'm sorry for dumping on you like this. I was," she swallowed, "I was really just going to ask you if you'd thought any more about how straight you actually are, I just — I lost it, obviously."
Cosette's eyes were fixed on Éponine's small hands, which Éponine was now wiping repeatedly on her jeans, a self-soothing ritual of some kind.
Éponine wasn't done. "It's an old story, you know? Everybody has crushes sometimes, not all of 'em are gonna be returned. I'm just being dramatic. I'll get over it." Her voice wobbled as she spoke. "I'm — I'm really glad I got to be the first girl you kissed. That's — that's something special. That's more than most people get."
She used her torn cuff to dry first one eye, then the other, and Cosette realized Éponine was crying — really crying, tears coursing silently down her cheeks as fast as she could wipe them away.
But she was smiling nevertheless.
"It's time I moved on, anyway," she said, pushing her hair behind her ear. "Go out with a bang, you know." Laughter. "A literal happy ending!" She tilted her head back against the seat so that the tears poured out the corners of her eyes.
"Éponine," said Cosette simply. Éponine turned to her, and the bittersweet expression on her face made Cosette's heart ache. She reached out a hand to cup Éponine's wet cheek, sweeping a fat tear away with her thumb. "Éponine, you've got it all wrong. This isn't an ending at all."
Éponine's tears made her lips taste like salt. Cosette kissed her until the taste was gone, kissed her cheeks until they were dry, holding Éponine's face all the while, until the only thing glistening was her eyes.
"You didn't convert me with an orgasm, you silly goose," Cosette said gently. "I did what I did because you inspired me to think a little harder about my sexuality, and I talked to Marius, and he told me it was normal to be confused before you try things, and normal to want to try things even while you're still confused, and normal to still be confused after you try things too. I don't know what my sexuality is, I have no idea what I'm doing, but it's looking less and less likely that I'm totally straight. Does that answer your question?"
Éponine nodded slowly, letting out a breath Cosette hadn't realized she'd been holding. "It does, but — why did you—" She swallowed. "Kiss me?"
Cosette kissed her.
Éponine kissed her back without hesitation, but when they pulled apart to breathe the words bubbled out of her once more. "No I mean why did you kiss me—"
Cosette kissed her again. She knew, distantly, that she should stop, that words needed to be exchanged, but she was drunk on Éponine's mouth—
"Cosette, please," said Éponine, pushing her away. "Don't play with me." Her voice was strained, and even as she pushed Cosette away she seemed to fall towards her, unable to help herself, like a book falling open to a favorite page.
"I'm not, I'm not playing with you," said Cosette. Her voice came out in a whisper. "I just really — I really want to kiss you. And maybe hold you a little. I don't know what I'm doing, okay? I... All I know right now is what I want."
"What you want, or what you want right now?" asked Éponine, just as softly.
"I don't know," said Cosette, desperate to be understood. But how could Éponine understand her if Cosette didn't understand herself? She groped for words. "I, I said it's not an ending, you know? It's a beginning. You don't have to have everything figured out at the beginning of the story." She tipped her forehead into Éponine's, nudging her lightly. "There's plenty of time to crash and burn later."
Éponine blew out a little breath through her nose, and the sound of her high, closed-mouth laughter was almost like crying. Maybe it was a bit of both. Cosette gathered her forward over the console until Éponine's head was nestled between Cosette's neck and shoulder, letting Éponine's little noises vibrate through her collarbone.
It felt good.
Cosette still didn't know what to think about it, but holding Éponine like this, the ghost of Éponine's kiss still on her lips — it felt good. It felt right.
"I take it back," said Éponine, straightening up. "Irma's a genius. A busybody and a terror, but a genius."
"Yeah, what is her deal, anyway?" said Cosette, smiling. "What's the verdict? Foot fetish, right?"
"Evidence was inconclusive," countered Éponine, her smile just as wide as Cosette's. "I still say it's only a shoe kink."
"Are you proposing we do more field research?" teased Cosette.
"Well... I'd rather have you to myself for now," said Éponine shyly. "But we'll see where the story goes, I guess."
"Then here's to a happy beginning," said Cosette, and she gave Éponine one last, lingering kiss before pulling away to put the car in gear.
Éponine leaned one elbow on the windowsill, pressed her hand to her lips like she was savoring the kiss, and stayed that way all through the comfortable silence of the ride home.