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Steal Away

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[September 1822]

'You are a baby! Worse than a baby. Worse than Cosette!'

Eponine crushes Azelma's cheeks between her fingers. It hurts, but she won't, she won't cry. 'Papa will wake soon, and we can ask,' she whispers.

'Stupid!' says Eponine, squeezing hard. Papa's folded in half over the table, snoring. 'Have you seen Papa ask before he slips the patrons' purses away? You do not learn to steal by asking for things. See, it is just there. You will take it, I will hide it, and we'll see what a fuss he gets himself into trying to find it.' She lets Azelma's face go. 'Are you going to?'

Azelma nods and steps up close to their sleeping father, reaches to his watch-chain with her fingertips. Then she looks back at Eponine, and takes her fingers away, and cries loudly: 'Papa! Eponine is trying to steal your watch!'


[April 1827]

Sometimes, when Eponine isn't near, Azelma digs into her sister's hidden hoard of clothing scraps, and tries to see if she can turn herself into a boy, too.

It used to only be a part of their games, but they play less and less, and Eponine is angry and secretive with it now. 'This is mine,' she hissed, when Azelma last asked to play at Gentlemen-in-Paris.

So she tries, on her own, but the clothes are all too loose and she can't get her look right in the mirror. She doesn't know the secret of it, and never will, not if Eponine won't teach her.


[January 1830]

Azelma jolts out of half-sleep when she feels the warmth of Eponine vanish from her side. It's a harsh, clear night. She sees her sister standing by the water, and the water is so big and terrible, hard and white as ice under the moon, black as a pit where it flows under their bridge. The others sleep on, a grey huddle that could be human bodies, could be a pile of dreadful beasts.

'Come back, it's cold, it's cold,' she says, coming to Eponine's side. Her face is still stiff and sore from crying herself to sleep, but she sees how fixed Eponine's face is, and tries to fix her features in the same way. Cold and hard like the moon, eyes dark enough to stare down the night.

'No, I'll not come back,' says Eponine, voice slow and soft. 'You must, though. Me and the river, we're talking business. Go keep warm and leave us to it.'

Azelma says nothing, but sits by her sister's feet and leans against the thin rags of her petticoats. Maybe the thin rags of heat that're all her body has to share will pull Eponine out of this strangeness. They stay like that in silence, watching the terrible water.

'No,' Eponine says, at last; it sounds like she's talking to herself. 'it's too cold.'


[July 1831]

All of Paris is out in the summer evening, and Eponine is laughing and drinking with her dandy boy in the crook of a stinking alley.

'You're a poor prig, 'Zelma,' she says, bony fingers clamped suddenly around Azelma's wrist. 'You'd be in the lumber quick as a wink if you'd the nerve to blag from anyone but your own sister.'

'I nearly got it!'

'Nearly ain't -' Eponine breaks off with a harsh laugh, Montparnasse curses, Azelma skips backwards waving the gin-bottle that she's slipped from the dandy's pocket. 'Not bad,' Eponine says. 'Give it here, now.'

'No fear! I blagged it fair and square, so here's to me.' She pulls it open and swigs a bit, trying hard not to make a face.

'Hush, 'Parnasse,' Eponine says to the boy's muttering. 'She's just a kid. Thought I told you to stay put, 'Zelma?'

'Thought Papa told the same to you.'

'I'm the devil and I can do as I please, but you should be getting out of here. Here, I'm taking you -'

'Not back there!' she cries with more terror than she meant to.

'No, just - come on.' Everyone's got a sour face on as Eponine drags her from the alley. 'Just stick by me.'


[June 1832]

She's got better at following Eponine, now, but Eponine's always a step ahead.

'You get away!' Eponine shouts, spinning around in the street and catching Azelma in the act. A man today, head to toe, and with a face of fire, Eponine looks savage, looks destraught, looks wildly happy.

'Where are you going?'

'To meet a gentleman. Don't you come along and spoil it.'

Eponine's eyes are brighter and stranger than they've ever been, and Azelma can't see that she'll be able to help shift it this time. 'Let me -'

'Get inside, 'Zelma.' Eponine says. 'Get inside and get - get away.'

She goes; she waits; then she turns. She's got better at following, now, and she wants to witness this new adventure of Eponine's.


[June 1833]

'See, 'Ponine?' she whispers; 'I did it.'

She's dressed finer than she can ever remember. She stands under a new day in a new world, holding a bright watch in her hand. Brand new, a present from her father to himself, purchased in Paris before they sailed. She'll hide it, hide it well, in a New York pawn shop. He'll get in such a fuss looking for it; he'll miss it more than he'll ever miss her.

It's not enough to get her very far, but it's enough to get away.

'I told you I would.'

She won't cry. She won't.