It's a ragged April evening, the air sharp enough to dig into the best of coats, and the waifish young man who goes with half-dancing step along the pavement, kicking at nothing with worn-down shoes, has only a thin shirt and trousers, and a dust-coloured cap. He sings vaudeville scraps, changing the original words for a string of insults against the rudely biting wind.
'Well, get on with it,' he says, stopping to look up at the stubbornly wintry sky. The sunset seeps across grimy clouds, as if the heavens were the gutter and the streets were spilling grease and lamplight over them.
Stepping forward again, with eyes still cast upwards, he finds himself accosted by a tall, slim man with a very nice coat indeed.
'It that you, Eponine?' the tall figure enquires, in a voice as silken and dark as his crimson cravat.
'Ah, evening, Montparnasse! I didn’t think I'd see you here. What are you up to?'
'Would you like to be up to something? Isn't it a wretch of an evening? I don’t believe it's April at all, I think the springtime's gotten drunk and lost its way in an alley. And if I know you, you'll have followed it there and rifled its pockets. Warmth to spare in those hands of yours, I'll bet.' He bobs up onto the balls of his feet to look Montparnasse in the eye. 'How about it, Parnasse, my friend? Help a poor boy out?'
'I'm not in the habit of helping, little Ponine.' He gives the other a lazy once-over. 'Except for helping myself, but what would I want with a stray like you?'
'Ah, now there’s a question! What would you want?' Eponine leans closer. 'Shall I guess? Dear Montparnasse, prowling around the skirts of the day with that restless look in your eye. I imagine you want to be-' he jumps back with a laugh before Montparnasse can grab his wrists.
'Watch it,' Montparnasse says, but he can’t seem to keep his lips from twitching into a smile.
As the gloom deepens above them, Eponine clicks his tongue impatiently. 'Ah, well. If you don’t want to hear about it, I'll be off.' He turns to go, and this time Montparnasse does grab him, long fingers tight around his arm.
'What are you going to do about it?'
Montparnasse relaxes his grip, and moves as if to offer his arm for Eponine to hold. Eponine laughs again at that, and instead sticks his hands into his pockets. And they go, under the dirty twilight, an oddly matched pair: the tall man with his coat and hat and unhurried saunter, the shorter with his rags and skipping walk.
Until Montparnasse, Eponine had never told anyone about the way her heart shifts from day to day. The only others who matter never needed it explaining. There’s Azelma, who was always in awe of her big sister’s knack for taking on the manners of ladies or gentlemen in their childhood games. She seemed to believe that Eponine had some secret power to be able to do so - when to Eponine, it was the most natural thing in the world, and it puzzled her how almost everyone stayed so fixed - or, at least, believed that they ought to.
Then there's Gavroche, who delights in having both a sister and a brother in one. He jokes sometimes, when they go to the plays together, that she's good enough to be on the stage and not in the audience, and she'd be insulted at that coming from anyone else - as if it were a matter of disguise and deceit, a false self that a person might put on for others’ amusement. But this is Gavroche, who understands the theatre better than most of its rich patrons, who knows that its tricks don't make it any less real.
Mostly, people see what’s easiest to see. Skirts or trousers, one way of holding the body or another, and they see a girl or a boy. On those days when Eponine is somewhere between, it’s strange to think how blind people are. Nothing is only one thing, after all. A city is a home and a wilderness, a man can be a father and a beast, a heart can be greedy and kind and broken and brave and a hundred other things. Why shouldn't a girl be sometimes a boy and sometimes something else completely?
Because that's not what a girl is for, says a voice in some torn corner of her mind, a voice composed from the hot, sour breath of every man who's ever hurt her. She tries to laugh at it, what do you know?, but those embers of shame and fury are too deep to laugh out. That such men can be so wrong about what she is, and that there's no way she can prove how wrong they are.
And so Montparnasse was a surprise. The way he always seemed to see Eponine as she - or he - meant to be seen, without letting his regard - or frank attraction - ever waver. And so she tried, for the first time in her life, to explain it, although language didn't seem built for such ideas.
And Montparnasse, who would later prove to not always be quite so patient, listened attentively, but said nothing. Had she judged him wrong, she wondered; did he think her cracked? She did not have to wonder long. After the first time they had their way with each other, he whispered:
'Well. You're a devilish girl.'
And before her heart could sink: 'And a delicious boy.'
Since that first time, they've had plenty more chances to take pleasure in each other, though they lack certain luxuries: stability, for one, and time. For all that Montparnasse aspires to idleness, he's out thieving most nights, and Eponine can't always shirk family errands. If they're on a job together, they might slip away and steal a fuck against a wall in some light-forsaken alley, but Eponine complains about it afterwards. It's not that it's rough - that's good enough fun - but that it nearly always goes the same way. There's so much more they could be doing.
And so on nights like this, when they find each other as if by accident - as if they don't know each other's favourite haunts - Eponine insists on variety.
It doesn't always go his way. As soon as they're through the door to Montparnasse's room, Eponine finds himself pinned to the wall with strong, slender hands and hungry kisses. Montparnasse is all sweet soft lips and sharp searing teeth, a giddying contrast it would be easy to yield to - if Eponine wasn't Eponine.
'Any more of that and you'll regret it all night,' he manages to hiss, jerking his knee up. Monparnasse springs back just in time.
'Play fair!' he gasps.
'Tuh, as if I'm the one who isn't! Look at you, Parnasse, in all that… stuff, done up so nice and neat. You've never had to work so hard to get the whole of me, as I have to just to get a bite of your pretty neck. That's not fair.' He pulls Montparnasse back towards him and slides an arm around his waist. The velvet under Eponine's fingers feels like summer nights in Montfermeil, even if the texture beneath, stiff ridges betraying the whalebone that keeps Montparnasse's waist so perfectly narrow, is pure Paris. 'All knotted and buttoned. You ought to let me have a turn.'
'If it's knotting up you wanted, you should have said.'
'Not in that way, you brute!' Eponine escapes from under Montparnasse's arms, and is at the wardrobe before Montparnasse can stop him.
'Don’t you dare.'
Eponine's pushing his luck, he knows. Montparnasse is so precious about his clothes. But what's luck for, if not for trying? 'Ah, come on. Why must I always be in rags? I could be a dandy. Wouldn't you like me as a dandy?' He runs his hand over the clean shirt that's hanging there.
'Enough,' says Montparnasse - but he doesn't move to stop Eponine.
'Why, do you think I’ll look handsomer than you?'
Montparnasse gives a snort, and Eponine grins.
'Oh, my pretty little Montparnasse,' he says with a wicked laugh. 'You oughtn’t to be jealous. You should be a good friend to poor Monsieur Eponine, who's lost all his clothes in a frightful robbery and simply must be fitted out in the latest fashion before he dares show his face in public again.'
'You're a terrible brat.'
'No, I am a gentleman, and I take my fashion very seriously.'
Eponine pulls off his ragged shirt, drawing a soft growl of appreciation from Montparnasse. Ignoring this, he hums a jaunty tune, unbinding his chest part-way in order to re-do it more securely.
The trousers come off next, with a warning gesture for Montparnasse to stay right where he is. What surprises Eponine is that he obeys – whether because he's enjoying the show, or is curious, or amused, isn't clear. A bit of all three, maybe.
'You can play the part of the tailor,' Eponine tells him. 'You'll tell Monsieur how fine he looks, and I will suspect you of flattery; you'll have to keep improving your compliments until I'm convinced. Perhaps remind me that the weather is bound to turn soon, ah yes indeed, soon we'll all have forgotten the sun was ever gone at all – and tell me about the long afternoons when the park is full of flowers and pretty girls, and how a gentleman will want, nay, need to look his best.'
'You could clean yourself up before touching my things.'
'You're not a very good tailor.' Eponine pouts and pulls on the shirt, and can almost hear Montparnasse's wince. 'Besides, I went for a walk in the rain last night, and got soaked right to the soul. How's that for clean?' He takes out a pair of linen trousers and puts them on, followed by a dark grey waistcoat.
It's been so long since Eponine last wore nice clothes that the feel of quality fabric on skin is almost as good as the touch of Montparnasse's hands. Eponine closes his eyes and runs a hand over himself, soaking in the sensation.
It would be bliss, if he couldn't also feel how badly the clothes fit. How big they are over his bony frame. Opening his eyes, he catches sight of himself in Montparnasse's floor-length mirror. The trousers are too long, the waistcoat too loose, the smooth clean cloth stark against bruised and weather-bitten skin; it makes him look like an awkward little girl in the wrong clothes, in a way that his gamin get-up never has.
'That's me', he thinks, and at the same time, 'that's never me.' Huffing and squaring shoulders defiantly at the reflection, he picks a cravat and loops it around his neck with lightly shaking fingers.
Montparnasse has been quiet all this time, not caring to join in the game, and Eponine is suddenly glad of it. To be told how fine Monsieur looks, now, would make it that much worse. For his part, he's lost all appetite for teasing. Fumbling with the cravat, he wishes he'd stayed in Montparnasse's embrace after all.
This is not how he had imagined the night would turn out.
'Monsieur.' Montparnasse has crossed over to him, annoyance gone from his voice, and taken the cravat from his hand. 'Let me show you.' He tugs the waistcoat off, too. 'I'm no tailor, and I won't flatter you, but I do know how to dress a man.' He does the cravat in a complicated bow, slowly, letting Eponine follow, then puts the waistcoat back on, buttoning it and turning Eponine around to tighten it at the back.
Then, with a quiet tenderness he would never show outside of these walls, he kneels, turning the trouser-bottoms up with neat folds. 'Is that better? My friend?'
When Eponine looks in the mirror again, he can't help but gasp. Montparnasse has added a silk hat to the ensemble, and made a brave attempt to tame Eponine's hair, and the effect may not be perfect, but it works.
'Why, Montparnasse, you're an artist.'
'So now you appreciate my talents.'
'Oh, I always knew you were good for a few things.'
'Wretch.' He all but purrs it. 'Let's begin again where we left off.'
Eponine darts out of his reach, holding onto his hat. 'But I'm all dressed up now! What a waste it'd be to take it all right off again.' He backs towards the door as he speaks. 'You know what I fancy? A night-time stroll.'
Montparnasse laughs in disbelief, but there's at least a little curiosity dancing on the edge of his expression. 'You're not taking a scrap of my wardrobe out of this room.'
'Aren't I? Just think. I could be a young bourgeois, on my way to dine, completely ignorant of what - or who - might be in the shadows. Watching - waiting -'
The knife-bright glint in Montparnasse's eye tells Eponine that he's won. 'You'll regret this when I catch you.'
'Just give me a head start.'
They end up against a wall in an alley, after all. But it's satisfying as hell to hear Montparnasse, for once, curse Eponine’s buttons, and the perfect knot of his cravat.