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God and Chance

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He says it was God, and she says it was chance.

If he'd gone down to the factory floor a moment earlier, he wouldn't have seen her heading towards the queue to the foreman, waiting to be hired. A step faster, and he wouldn't have seen the way she swayed, just a little, her hand to the wall to keep her upright.

He caught her under the arm. She turned as if to strike him. For a moment, before she looked down, her eyes were shining with a desperate will to live.

He says it was God that prompted him to ask when she had eaten last. Later, at the restaurant, she thanked him in a monotone voice before asking how often the factory hired new workers. When he said it was as often as he wished, she told him not to mock her. He smiled just to see her eyes flash.

She told him her name was Fantine, and he told her to call him the Mayor. Neither of them was lying.

Two weeks into her employment at the factory, he caught her by the arm again and took her aside. She was trembling until he asked whether the foreman was cheating him and paying her a wage less than sufficient to eat her fill.

An hour later, he was writing a letter in her name, to the innkeeper and his wife, to be taken by a city employee together with orders not to come back without her little girl. Inspector Javert volunteered for the task, citing business in Montfermeil. He returned within two days, Cosette following him like a little quiet shadow.

The Mayor fired the foreman, later, for other things Fantine told of him.

A factory worker works twelve hours for six days, not leaving time enough to raise children, so the Mayor decided it was time to have a full-time housekeeper. It took two months of furtive explanations about the widowed Fantine Tholomyès, and one quiet talk with the nuns from the hospital, for him to ask for a moment of her time after dinner the next day.

They were married by the mayor of Arras, and Cosette held Fantine's hand tightly the entire time. All three of them were smiling.

*

He says it was pushiment, and she says it was bad luck.

Javert made some curious sounds, before, but Fantine saw more than others, and she took care to tell Cosette that she should be sure to hug the good inspector every time she saw him, especially if he was with Papa. That was usually enough to dispell any talk of convicts and pursuits that made the Mayor-her-husband's lips so tight.

Fantine collected such fragments like pieces of a broken cup. She had enough to guess the shape by the time her husband roused her at night, knocking on the door to her chamber. He knelt at her feet to pour out his story, the names he had borne and the deeds he had done. The awful choice, between his life, their life, and an innocent soul accused of the crime of being Jean Valjean.

She touched the brand on his chest, then told him to do what he thought was right.

In the morning, she hid herself and Cosette so that he couldn't say goodbye to them before leaving. She knew him by now, and she knew that he'd be back for that goodbye before yielding, martyr-like, to whatever torture he thought God demanded from him.

When he returned from the innocent's trial, Fantine and Cosette were packed and ready for travel. He resisted, for one moment, before she rounded on him, telling him the truth too quietly for Cosette to hear. She knew exactly what happened to abandoned women with their absent men's money repossessed by the state, to their little daughters, in a world bent on killing all innocence. She knew she couldn't trust chance to save her twice.

That was the first time she called him Jean Valjean.

*

He called it providence, and she called it accident.

The boy came back trailing Cosette from one of her and Jean's trips to the poor quarters. Fantine always checked Cosette's skirts for fleas afterwards, but this time it was a student. The principle was the same; soon enough there was a horde of them, knocking at all hours as they looked for Marius or Cosette or left messages from one to the other.

Despite herself, Fantine remembered just how to feed them to make them behave. And she remembered other things, which she told Cosette, even as Jean thought it was all childish play.

Cosette blushed and denied everything in a way that made Fantine think it could be true.

She didn't listen to the high words of the boys, though Jean liked to talk with them sometimes, about their glorious revolutions and justice and the God they tried not to believe in. None of them could hold two thoughts to rub together, except maybe Grantaire. She caught him looking at the blond one, Enjolras, in a way that she remembered so clearly.

She told him he was making ridiculous faces, and he toasted her health with the glass of milk she'd given him.

Surrounded by the students and their books, trying on their ideas on top of her convent learnings, Cosette shined.

*

He called it fate, and she called it a mess.

It started with the girl, the grisette who was everything Cosette wasn't and everything Fantine had been. She raised the house up, beating down at the door on a restless, gun-filled night. Cosette shouldn't have known someone like that, a girl with her eyes painted and the clothes of a boy, but she still clutched this Eponine's hands and babbled half-words that the other finished, the two of them clinging to each other as another shot rang out over Paris.

General Lamarque was dead, and those foolish boys would be dead by morning. Marius, Marius, as if no other word existed in the language they shared.

Cosette was pale and ashen, and Jean saw it before Fantine could get some wine into the girls. He stood there, the care so plain on his face, each thought and prayer graven on his flesh. Fantine remembered the same expression, on another night, with another very right, very foolish choice.

She locked the gate behind him, then leaned her forehead against the door. She was too old for this, but she knew where the guns were, the ones she'd insisted on just in case of fate, or God, or the police.

Cosette and Eponine were already bent over a plan of the city, so alike the boys they had tangled up in their hair and laughter. Eponine was holding a policeman's baton.

*

She didn't know what surprised her more; that the inspector came to the graveyard, or that he did so in daylight.

His hair was pure white now. She shouldn't wonder; her own, under her veil, was all but grey.

"He was the bravest of men," Javert said.

"And she, of women." She was not so merciless as to forget that he, too, lost someone near. It shouldn't have surprised her so much, that his protege had been the dark, harsh Eponine.

He straightened, folding his hands on his cane, a soldier at attention. "I am-"

"No," she told him, her voice rasping a little. Not even forty, and she was already old. "He would have jumped into the Seine for anyone. It was who he was."

"It was who he was."

She left him there, at the graveside, a silent and sure sentinel. On the way home, she took off her widow's veil. It wouldn't do on a wedding day.

He said that it was God.