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Un Regard Volé, un Coeur au Désespoir

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“Papa, I’m fourteen years old. I’m old enough to go go the mall on my own,” Cosette reasoned, curled up in one corner of the sofa while Valjean sat nearby reading--or he had been, until she’d spoken up. They’d had this argument before, but it was getting harder and harder to keep her his little girl. She knew they didn’t live an ordinary life. Books and television and the internet had told her all of that. He knew his less-than-expansive explanations didn’t satisfy her, either, but he wasn’t ready to tell her the truth, if he ever would be.

“Cosette, you know how I would worry. What if someone snatched you? What would become of me? There are bad people out there, just waiting for a lovely young woman like you, unaccompanied.” He marked his page and closed the book on his lap, settling in for an extended discussion.

“You wouldn’t have to worry so much if you’d let me have my own phone. I could text you, stay in touch, let you know I was safe.” Cosette sat up straight, her feet on the floor and shoulders squared. “You won’t let me attend school, you won’t give me my own phone, I’m not allowed to talk to anyone online without your approval--sometimes this house feels more like a prison.” She sighed, her frustration visible in the lines on her forehead. “When are you going to let me grow up?”

Valjean shook his head wearily. “Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up, my dear.” But he knew this was only going to get more difficult as time went on. She had every reason to protest the cloistered life that they lived--or at least she thought she did. If she knew the truth--perhaps then she would understand why he homeschooled her, why he seldom let her out of his sight, why even when they went out shopping or to a museum or on a walk, he was always looking over his shoulder.

But then she would look at him differently. Despite these increasingly frequent arguments, he knew she still looked at him as her savior, perhaps only a step down from a saint, at times. She loved him, and that was all he needed. The thought that something could destroy that love, even tarnish it, was unbearable. So he kept his secrets, and instead offered her what rationalizations he could when she got like this.

“If you wait until Friday, we can go together,” he offered instead. He hated the malls with their crowds and their security, and their large open spaces. They made him feel exposed, watched, hunted. But if it would pacify her, he would do it--for her.

Cosette sighed again and slumped back onto the sofa. “But I’m bored, papa. Why can’t we go today? Now? You’re not busy, there’s nothing on television, and I need a new skirt.”

At that, Valjean chuckled. “You have plenty of skirts, my love.” While she may have been isolated, kept safe from the world, he had at least done one thing for his beloved Cosette. He made sure she never wanted for a thing, especially after she’d gone without for so long at the hands of the Thénardiers. She had a closet full of dresses, skirts, blouses, slacks, a row of shoes in a rainbow of colors. And usually she was quite content with what she had. He knew this was just an excuse, a reason to get out. Perhaps another compromise would soothe her ruffled feathers.

“Why don’t we go to the Luxembourg, instead? The flowers are in bloom, it’s a lovely day, and we can get some croissant and sit on a bench, feed the birds--would that do?”

Cosette’s lips pursed as she considered the compromise. “I suppose it’s better than sitting indoors for the rest of the day.” She nodded and rose. “All right, the Luxembourg today and the mall Friday?” Valjean nodded once in acquiescence and Cosette drew near, kissing his cheek. “Thank you, papa. I’ll go change.” She hurried off to her room and Valjean sat back, rubbing the bridge of his nose. He didn’t know how much longer he would be able to keep her safe and close--but for his sake, for her sake, and for poor, dear, Fantine’s sake, he would try for as long as there was breath in him.

The gardens were indeed quite lovely that day. The sun was shining, there were rows of carefully cultivated flowers to admire, and people young and old were there, dotting the grass, taking children to the play area, sipping wine on the terrace of the café. Valjean walked along the avenue, beneath the shade of a row of trees, Cosette’s delicate hand tucked into the crook of his elbow as she strolled alongside him. He loved the Luxembourg for its peaceful feel. It almost felt like going back in time here, surrounded by the statuary from another century. Though he was always on guard when he was out in public, here he felt a bit more at ease for some reason.

They stopped to buy coffees and croissants and found an empty bench to occupy while they ate. He let Cosette’s chatter wash over him, their earlier fight forgotten by her, at least. It still troubled him, but there was nothing to be done about it, at least for now. He didn’t take any particular note of the young man the first few times he passed, but on his fifth pass, Valjean began to surreptitiously watch him. He looked to be in his late teens or early 20s, well-dressed but not expensively, and while he did his best to look innocent, he noticed the young man stealing glances in their direction with each pass.

He began to grow nervous, wondering if he might be a plainclothes detective, someone who had recognized him or thought he had. It was harder to focus on the story Cosette was telling him as he waited for the young man to pass by again. If he saw him again, they would leave, take a circuitous route home, and depending on whether he thought they were followed, perhaps they might even stay a hotel for a few days while he found them somewhere new to live. He hated the idea of uprooting Cosette, she seemed so happy in their house on the Rue Plumet, but he would rather be safe, at the end of the day.

The man passed again, and Valjean’s hand tightened, crumbling the remains of his croissant as he prepared to hustle Cosette out of the gardens. But it wasn’t until he saw where the man’s eyes were going that he felt a true shaft of fear stab through him. And when Cosette paused in her speech and her eyes lifted and met the young man’s, he knew his time had run out. It was not Javert that had found them, but something much more dangerous and inevitable. Young love had found his beloved Cosette, and for the first time in their lives together, he felt not that he could lose her, but that she was already lost.