Cosette’s phone rings early in the afternoon on Friday. She’s just finished meeting with her graduate advisor and is taking the long route off campus, the one that takes her right by the park where the grass is blanketed in bright orange leaves. When she sees who’s calling, an unexpected rush of giddy joy floods through her. “Hi, Éponine!” she chirps, picking up eagerly.
“Hi. Cosette.” Éponine’s voice is slow, soft.
It feels like ages since Cosette has heard it, although it can’t have been more than a couple days, and she can’t stop from grinning. “How are you?”
“I—listen, I need to—there’s something I need to take care of and I can’t make our movie night today.”
“Oh.” Cosette feels a pang under her sternum. “That’s fine, we can take a raincheck. Éponine, are you okay? Is everything alright?”
“Yes, yes, I’m okay,” Éponine rushes to reassure her, “Something’s just come up last minute and I—I just need to take care of it.”
She sounds distracted and Cosette can clearly picture her gnawing at the inside of her cheek, a nervous habit Éponine has had since childhood. It still surprises Cosette the details she can remember from those five years she spent with Éponine’s family, though she had barely been nine years old when she…left.
“Of course, do whatever you need to.” She hesitates for a beat. “Just…let me know if I can help or anything.”
“Right, thanks, Cosette. I’m sure you’re busy, I’ll let you go—”
“Éponine,” Cosette breaks in before she can hang up, “I mean it, really. If you need anything, I’ll be there. I—I want to.”
Éponine is quiet for a long moment. Cosette fears suddenly that she’s said too much, pushed too hard. Her…calling it a relationship brings about a strange shiver at the base of her stomach that she can’t quite face yet, but her connection with Éponine is such a delicate, complicated thing, like an intricately spun spiderweb. It’s stronger than it looks and is more beautiful for its intricate lines and twists, but Cosette worries she’ll brush up against it carelessly and break it. And she doesn’t want that.
“I know,” Éponine finally says, quietly, “I’ll talk to you later, Cosette. And I’m sorry about tonight.”
Cosette forces herself to sound cheerful again. “No problem! Talk to you later, Éponine.”
They exchange quick goodbyes and then Éponine hangs up, leaving Cosette staring down at her phone, more than a little dazed.
“I think Éponine is avoiding me."
When Cosette speaks, she breaks what had been a long, comfortable silence. The living room is suffused with the lackadaisical serenity of a lazy weekend. Marius had begun the afternoon curled up in a patch of sunlight on the far end of their couch, absorbed in his well-thumbed copy of Das geheime Leben der Bäume . As the day wore on, Cosette had watched her roommate steadily migrate down its entire length, drawn to follow the warm rays of light as they grew longer and further out of his reach. At Cosette’s muted confession, he twists backwards over the arm of the couch, one lanky leg dangling onto the floor, to peer at her upside-down.
“Why do you say that?” he asks, nose wrinkling in confusion.
Cosette ticks off the reasons on her fingers. “She cancelled our standing movie night, she hasn’t come to any of the Amis meetings lately, usually she works on Saturdays in the morning and I bring her coffee but she wasn’t there, I texted her yesterday to ask how she was doing and she still hasn’t answered…” Aware that she’s starting to sound a little petulant, Cosette bites her lip, giving her voice the space of a breath to steady, “and I haven’t seen her at all in over a week. And I don’t know what I should do?”
Marius blinks, then carefully marks his place in the book and, with a near incomprehensible contortion of limbs, sits upright to fully face Cosette. “That all sounds fairly recent. So it wouldn’t have anything to with your,” he makes an implicative gesture, “history? I thought you had worked everything out with Éponine.”
“We did! And it doesn’t! I think?” Cosette sits straight up. “Oh, no, what if we didn’t and it is?”
“I shouldn’t have brought it up,” Marius says, flustered. “I’m sure it doesn’t, is what I’m saying. It’s probably some other issue. Wait, no, not necessarily an issue , I just meant some other…thing.” He worries at the cover of his book, looking pained. “This is why nobody but you asks me for advice.”
Cosette dismisses that absurd statement out of hand. She and Marius had grown up together, there was no one in the world who knew her better and, as such, no one she better trusted with her often runaway feelings. Her father, bless him, was a wonderful, loving man but his tactics for weathering Cosette’s frequent and dramatic emotional journeys varied from offering silent support to immediately calling Toussaint, her old nanny, for help.
But Marius had always been a kindred spirit. He was the only person Cosette had ever told about her childhood past with Éponine, beyond a handful of therapists over the years. The two of them had met when Cosette and her father had moved in next door to Marius and his grandfather, spying each other through the wrought-iron rails of the fence separating their yards and quickly becoming constant companions in a way only two similarly lonely children could. They had played grand games of pretend together, attended the same all-girls schools together, and, for a brief and tumultuous period of time, gone out together. And when Marius’s grandfather had eventually, inevitably, kicked Marius out of his house and disowned him for good measure, they spent holidays off from university together, in Cosette’s home instead.
“I’m not,” Cosette begins, “asking for advice, per say, I just really need a third party perspective, as it were. To make sure I’m reading things right!”
“And you’re asking me ? This is worse than I thought,” Marius sighs despairingly, “If you like Éponine, you should do the exact opposite of whatever I would do. Which would be to avoid the situation until you inevitably embarrass yourself in front of her.”
Cosette shoots up from her seat, startling Marius. “ Like Éponine! Wha—whoever said anything like that?”
Marius yelps, “What are you talking about? You’re obviously into Éponine! That’s like the one thing that isn’t in question right now!”
“Because it wasn’t even part of the question, Marius!”
“Well, maybe it should be.” Marius crosses his arms in a manner that Cosette imagines he meant to look stern but is mostly defensive. “I don’t see how this can possibly be a surprise to you. You practically beam every time you talk about her, Cosette, when you’re not fretting over her wellbeing or what she thinks of you.”
“That—that’s just normal friend levels of worry! I’d be just as concerned if it were anybody else.”
Marius looks unconvinced. “I’m friends with Éponine too, you know. I’ve known her just as long as you have and I’m not completely oblivious.”
“Exactly!” Cosette points a decisive finger “We’re very close friends. Just like—like you and Courfeyrac! Wouldn’t you be worried if he started avoiding you and missing meetings and such?”
“Yeah, I would, Cosette,” Marius says, his face suddenly going an alarming shade of red. He rubs the back of his neck awkwardly, not meeting her eyes. “Because I like Courfeyrac.”
What? Dizzy with too many revelations, Cosette slumps back into her seat. “Oh my god.” She likes Éponine, she wants her. She braces to be overwhelmed by the shock and awe but instead it just feels…right. Like something in her soul had known all along, waiting patiently for her to wise up. “Now I really don’t know what to do.”
“Like I said,” Marius says with audible relief, probably that his confession is being bookended for the moment, “imagine what I would do. And then not that .”
On Friday, two weeks after Éponine had cancelled their movie night, Cosette stands at her apartment door, Marius’s not-advice running through her mind like a stuck record. She’s not sure if her heart is racing from nerves, fear, anticipation, or all of the above.
Maybe this is still too soon, she thinks, maybe Éponine needs space, maybe she isn’t ready to see Cosette.
She considers turning on her heel and leaving, letting Éponine come to her instead, if she wanted to. A sort of compromise on what she wanted and Marius’s not-advice. But if there’s one thing Cosette has never done, it’s back out of a decision she has already made.
She raises her hand, curled into a fist, and tentatively knocks three times. A heartbeat passes, then another. Cosette shifts her weight from foot to foot, swallowing past the nervousness rising in her throat. She begins to knock again, another three raps, this time stronger and louder, but she only manages to get in two before the door swings open.
Éponine stands in the doorway, practically glowing as warm lamplight from beyond spills around her and out into the hallway. The sight of her is at once so familiar and so jarring that Cosette feels like weeping. Rather than do that, she swallows hard and affixes what she hopes is a sunny smile on her face.
“Hi, Éponine,” she says weakly.
Éponine’s eyes widen. It’s utterly unfair how beautiful she looks in that moment, barefoot and slightly disheveled, her lips parted ever so slightly in surprise. She’s wearing a baggy sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up to her elbows and her hair is half tied up, half flying loose around her shoulders. It’s all Cosette can do to not immediately break down and lay her heart bare.
“Cosette, you—you’re here.” Éponine throws a quick glance over her shoulder, looking as discomposed as Cosette feels. “You didn’t call, is everything okay?”
“Yes, I’m sorry, I just—” Just what, Cosette? “Well, I haven’t seen you in awhile and I wanted to make sure you were okay because the last time we talked it seemed like you were maybe upset about something, so I was worried and thought I would come by since you, um, haven’t really been answering my texts.” Cosette pauses to take a breath and realizes she’s been rambling on Éponine’s doorstep. “I guess what I’m saying is…I miss you.”
Éponine’s knuckles turn white where she’s still gripping the door. She sucks in a breath as if readying to respond, but doesn’t say anything. The silence between them is weighty, but neither of them pulls away from it. Cosette thinks she couldn’t have moved even if the floor were to fall away beneath her feet.
After what feels like hours, Éponine drops her head with a sigh. “No, I’m sorry,” And she sounds it, although Cosette can no longer make out the expression on her face. “I haven’t been fair to you at all. You had better come in, I think I have something I need to tell you.”
Oh, dear. That was either a good sign or a very bad one.
Cosette simply nods and follows Éponine when she gestures Cosette across her threshold. Surely, Éponine deciding to open up to her was a positive thing? Unless, the reason she had been hiding it to begin with was that it would upset Cosette, and Éponine was trying to spare her feelings. Would Éponine do that?
Cosette is so distracted by her turbulent thoughts that she almost entirely misses the scrawny young boy slouching on Éponine’s couch. He looks up from where he had been picking at his shoelaces to stare at her and Cosette stares right back, her thoughts screeching to an audible halt. Whatever she had been expecting, this had certainly not been it.
“Um, hello?” she says, bemused.
“Hi,” he says, blinking owlishly back at her. He can’t be more than thirteen years old and bears a striking resemblance to Éponine, right down to the streak of mischief in how the corner of his mouth crooks upward.
Cosette opens her mouth, then closes it again…then opens it once more and looks helplessly to Éponine.
She grimaces. “Cosette, this is…my kid brother, Gavroche.”
“I’m not a kid,” Gavroche says indignantly, “You can’t call me that.”
“I can and I will, kid,” Éponine retorts. She sounds sharp, but Cosette can hear the fond undercurrent in her voice clear as day.
Gavroche is already turning his attention away from her. “So you’re Cosette?” He grins and that streak of mischief becomes a full-blown stripe. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Oh, yeah, ‘Ponine has told me all about—” Gavroche sputters as he’s struck square in the chest by an expertly launched throw pillow. “Hey!”
“Don’t you have a bag that still needs to be unpacked?” Éponine says loudly. She looks flushed suddenly, although Cosette has yet to shed her jacket and feels perfectly comfortable in the apartment. “Here less than a month and you’re already running your mouth at my guests. Scram, kid.”
Ignoring Gavroche’s continued protests (“You’ve never even had guests before, ‘Ponine”), she herds him down the hallway and into, presumably, his bedroom.
When she returns, she’s biting her cheek in that impossibly endearing way.
“Why don’t we…” Éponine tips her head in the direction of her small kitchenette and Cosette goes mutely. “Can I…get you something? I mean, you know where everything is already, it’s not like you haven’t been here tons of times before. I did have to move some stuff around since Gavroche got here so maybe things aren’t the same anymore…”
Her words trail off into uncertain implication and it’s only because Cosette can’t pull her focus away from Éponine’s face that she notices how Éponine won’t meet her gaze. A lock of dark hair falls from where Éponine has tied it back, curling against her cheekbone and Cosette is gripped by a sudden ache of longing to reach out and run her hand through Éponine’s hair, to graze her thumb ever so gently over her cheek, brushing the errant curl back. She tucks both hands firmly in her pockets.
“I didn’t know you had a younger brother,” Cosette says. Just a normal, casual conversation is all they were having.
“Would you believe it, I didn’t either.” Éponine laughs, the sound tight with nerves. “At least, not that he was even alive and out there. You were gone by the time he came around and I already had a foot out the door. Only thinking about myself, really.”
Cosette shakes her head. “No, that isn’t true at all, Éponine. You were a kid, we were kids.”
“I know, you’re right, of course.” The firm set to her jaw doesn’t relax. “But I’m still going to do something now. I’m petitioning to become Gavroche’s legal guardian.”
“Oh!” Cosette is momentarily stunned at the declaration. “Wow, I didn’t know you could do that.”
If Éponine had hackles, they would be fully raised. As it is, her shoulders are tensed nearly to her ears and her chin juts forward stubbornly. “In fact, I’ve already started the process. So, it’s happening no matter what you or anybody think about it.”
Realization hits Cosette like a sudden burst of sunlight through the clouds. “That’s why you’ve been gone so much recently!” All at once, she was embarrassed at the careless thoughts she had been moping over for the past weeks, the baseless doubts she had been harboring. This whole time, she had been consumed by her own emotions while Éponine had been facing this all alone.
Then, the second half of what Éponine had said finally makes it through. “What I think about it? Éponine, I think it’s amazing!” She leans forward and takes both of Éponine’s balled-up hands in her own, squeezing hard in an attempt to convey the depth of her emotion. “I’m so happy for you. And Gavroche!”
“You are?” Éponine looks up from where her eyes are fixed on their clasped hands to meet Cosette’s gaze, finally.
“Of course I am!” Cosette says, elated. “You two will finally get the chance to have a real family. I was so lucky to have Papa looking after me and Gavroche deserves that too. You both do. Oh, this is so wonderful!”
She’s startled when Éponine’s eyes grow watery, swimming with the bright sheen of held back tears. “Oh, no, what’s wrong? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“No, it’s not you.” Taking back one of her hands to roughly swipe at her face, Éponine lets out a relieved, if shaky, breath of laughter. “Damn, I’m such a mess. I thought—god, I was so scared to tell you any of this.”
“Scared? Of what?” Cosette grips Éponine’s hand harder. She has never known Éponine to fear anything.
“That you wouldn’t want to ever see me again,” Éponine admits and it’s like the final barrier of the dam bursts. “After all the shit we went through, I thought me and, now, Gavroche would just be this constant reminder. You finally get to leave all that behind and then I show up and drag you right back into my family crap all over again. It would be so selfish of me to do that, right? I couldn’t stand the idea of you, I don’t know, resenting me for looking after my brother. God, it all sounds so ridiculous when I say it out loud.”
“It doesn’t.” Cosette can barely hear her own voice over the rushing in her ears. She hadn’t known Éponine had been feeling this way. How could she not have known? She’s pressing Éponine’s hand too tightly now and forces her fingers to relax. “But, Éponine, I could never—” She has to stop briefly when she gets too choked up to speak. “I would never do that.”
“Of course you wouldn’t,” Éponine says and now both of them are a mess, teary-eyed and laughing and holding hands. “You’re Cosette, perfect and understanding and caring without a single mean bone in your body.”
“Stop!” Cosette blushes.
Éponine is smiling at her with more affection than Cosette can bear and the original reason for her visit jumps to the forefront of her mind.
She tentatively runs her thumb over Éponine’s knuckles, emboldened when Éponine still doesn’t pull away. “I have something I need to tell you too.”
“Oh?” Éponine raises an eyebrow.
“Nothing as remarkable as yours, to be sure, but something I’ve been scared of as well.”
Éponine grows serious again almost instantly. She doesn’t say anything but gives Cosette an encouraging nod.
It should be so easy. Just as effortless as it had been to accept her feelings. But Cosette is terrified. If Éponine could be so honest with me, she thinks, how can I not do the same?
“I was so worried when I didn’t hear from you,” Cosette begins, “that something had happened, yes, but also…that you had decided you didn’t want me around anymore. And I didn’t know why.” Éponine is vehemently shaking her head and Cosette smiles in response. “I know now that’s not true, obviously, but it made me realize some things. One thing, mainly.”
Somehow, they’ve moved closer to each other. Enough so that Cosette can feel the heat rising off Éponine’s skin. Enough so that Éponine must be able to hear how her heart is racing.
When Éponine speaks again, she sounds breathless. “And what’s that?”
Cosette only hesitates a second before bringing up her free hand to cup Éponine’s cheek. She only pauses long enough to make her intention clear and read the desire on Éponine’s face in return. Then, their lips meet with all the yearning and craving hunger that Cosette had been hiding away.
Kissing Éponine is everything Cosette had imagined and like nothing she has ever experienced. Like leaping off the edge of a cliff only to land comfortably in your own bed. When Cosette pulls back for breath, Éponine gasps and the sound goes right to the core of her.
With an eagerness that thrills her, Éponine presses her body flush against Cosette’s and kisses her again. The edge of the kitchen counter digs into Cosette’s back and she doesn’t care, too busy reveling in how Éponine’s hands have moved to her hips, two white-hot brands dragging across her skin. Cosette can’t imagine ever wanting her to stop. Her hands find the nape of Éponine’s neck and she twines her fingers through Éponine’s hair, marvelling when Éponine hums with pleasure at the gentle pressure. That the world has allowed her this, that this moment is hers and Éponine’s alone fills her with such rapturous bliss that Cosette is sure she’ll burst with it.
Just then, a loud bang comes from elsewhere in the apartment, quickly followed by a shout of “Sorry!” from Gavroche.
Cosette and Éponine startle apart, both breathing as if they had just surfaced from a plunge into deep waters. They look at each other in shock before Éponine lets out an honest-to-god giggle and slumps forward to rest her forehead on Cosette’s shoulder.
“So, um…” she says, words muffled against Cosette’s sleeve.
Cosette scrambles to remember how to speak. “That’s, uh, all I wanted to tell you. Yep.”
“I thought it was a very good talk.”
“Um, same.” Same? Cosette screws her eyes shut in mortification. “I mean—”
Éponine says, “I’m really glad you came by.” Then lifts her head and offers Cosette a smile so tender it sends her knees to trembling.
“Me too,” Cosette says. And when Éponine slips her hand back in Cosette’s, her heart in her chest has wings.