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white candles & piano songs

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Even the air tasted different on Christmas day. She had always thought so, even in the years when they'd had very little. It was not any one thing - just, there was a sweetness to it, a hint of spice and brown paper and fat, a hot flavour even when the air was harsh enough to freeze washing on the line, as if the day had scrubbed and dressed and scented itself specially.

And that was enough to make it a special day - air that was bright on your tongue even as it froze you. But this time, Cosette had clean forgotten to open a window and stick out her tongue. This time, she had spent the day arranging and re-arranging things around the house, getting under Toussaint's feet, crying out every time she heard a sound from outside. It was never the door, but - it might be - !

'You'd think the girl had never seen her own mother before!' said Toussaint, and Cosette turned a to her with eyes suddenly dark and solemn.

'I have never supped with her before,' she said, and then had to go and sit in her bedroom. No sooner had she done so than she sprang up again, and ran to the kitchen door. She was forbidden entrance, so she stood at the threshold - across which came the scents of lemon and cooking chestnut - and said 'Papa, listen to me. You said I must do nothing but enjoy myself tonight, but you must bring Mama straight to the drawing-room when she comes. Give her wine and something to eat and I'll play the piano for you both. It's not breaking your rules; I'll be in heaven.'

She heard her father laugh; he sounded surprised, pleased. Her ears would never tire of that sound. 'Very well, dear child.'

'And you will have wine for yourself too,' she said, 'and she will feel at ease.' Then she turned on her heel and ran to practise.

When Fantine came, her pale hair was blown into a wild mane by the wind and her arms were filled with paper bags from the pâtisserie where she had worked the past year. Jean Valjean took the packages from her, and then her coat. 'My Cosette!' she exclaimed, coming into the room. 'You've grown taller again in just a week!' She ran to her daughter and kissed her.

'Come through to the drawing-room,' Valjean said. Cosette beat them to it, and heard her father pouring wine as she played a scale, two, a flurry of chords that she hoped sounded like Christmas bells, then broke into 'Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle'. She heard Valjean whisper something to Fantine; they applauded after, and Fantine cried 'encore!' so she threw back her head and sang a cantique she had heard in the street some days before.

She turned, afterwards, to see the two of them exchanging a warm glance.

'You must excuse me,' said Valjean; 'I have a dinner to finish.' He left his half-drained wineglass, so Cosette stole it, sat by her mother's feet and demanded stories from the pâtisserie, listened attentively until they were called into the next room.

There was a table set with a dozen white candles, like the columns of a miniature temple. There was a capon stuffed with chestnuts, vegetables roasted with slices of orange among them, quince cheese, an onion sauce and a berry sauce. It was like nothing Cosette had seen before - she had not gone hungry in a long time, but this was a kind of luxury that was almost unheard of in their house. And Papa had prepared it all without a word to her, except to ban her from helping or peeking. She had not known he could produce such wonders. And afterwards! When Fantine visited, she brought treats without fail: broken palmiers and part-smashed tartes, unsellable at work but still paradise to taste. But today, there was not a broken piece among the lot. There were individual apricot tartes for each of them, and flaky jesuites, and sticky madeleines - the last of which Fantine offered to Valjean with a flourish, and for which he offered, in exchange, a curious smile.

This, perhaps, was some remnant of their other lives, the ones they never spoke of. Cosette had so often fought down the urge to ask so many things - what had happened to tear the three of them apart, in those times before she could remember; what miracle had brought them back together; why her mother and her father did not seem to be anything like what a mother and father were expected to be. Tonight, though, she was content. The world tasted different today, and the lights burned all the brighter for the dark surrounding them. There were madeleines, and white candles, and they were all three of them here, and the only thing she cared to ask was to beg a glass of sweet wine.