...how can you define a look or a touch?
How can you weigh a feeling?
Taken by themselves now they don’t mean much,
together they send you reeling….
She accepts Marius’s money mostly because of pride.
Eponine knows he’s in love with Cosette, that he never thought of her with anything more than brotherly affection, if he thinks of her at all -- oh, she knows that with a certainty that feels like a bone-deep bruise -- but she thought he knew better than to offer her money. She hoped, stupidly, that he thought of her as a friend at least. But friends don’t take money from each other, and so she takes his money as a punishment he won’t even understand.
When Cosette’s father offers her money, though, there’s none of that, nothing to spark a startled anger sudden and hot in her chest. He offers it absently, all his attention fixed on the letter. Eponine looks at the crisp bills for a minute, and leaves them in his hand. In the distance, sirens wail. She thinks, Money won’t do much good against bullets or tear gas. A strange feeling, like excitement, rises in her. She nearly laughs.
Eponine gives him the letter. She knows that she should insist that Cosette see it tonight and not tomorrow, for Marius’s sake. Tomorrow may be too late. But the look he turns on the letter is strange, almost angry, and she thinks that maybe she’s lucky that he promised to let Cosette see it in the morning. Besides, the memory of Marius and Cosette looking at each other like there’s no one else in the world still hurts, too new a pain for her to be kind. She keeps quiet.
He looks up from the letter. Something changes in his expression, and he steps forward. “Go careful now,” he advises quietly.
She looks sharply at him, wondering where the trick is, but sees nothing but concern on his face. There’s no recognition there. And why should he know her, she thinks with a familiar stab of bitterness. She’s nothing like the pampered little girl who watched curiously from the stairs as he stole Cosette away to a life of apparent luxury all those years ago. She tries to remember his name -- over the years her parents mostly complained about him as ‘that thief who stole Cosette’ -- and finally dredges up the name Valjean from some recess of memory.
Valjean’s still talking, she realizes, something about keeping away from the police. He raises his hand.
She freezes in place as his fingers settle upon her cheek, light and warm against her skin. It’s the gentleness of the touch that unnerves her, and the increased concern in his serious eyes that baffles her. Why should he care if she gets hurt? She’s no one to him.
“There’s danger in the street tonight,” he adds, as though she hasn’t crept past the police vans and armored trucks to deliver Marius’s letter. His hand drops to touch her shoulder, and it’s too much.
Eponine tears herself from his grip and runs.
She’s halfway down the street when she realizes she’s been running blind. She has nowhere to go. Her footsteps slow. She hesitates at the intersection. She can’t go home, she knows, remembering the look on her father’s face as he threatened her with the knife. Once, a long time ago, her mother would’ve defended her. Now Eponine knows with tired certainty that her mother will only hit her too, once her father explains how Eponine lost them money.
She could find Gavroche’s hideout, stay the night at whatever place he’s squirreled away his belongings, but as much as she loves her brother, she knows they can’t live together more than a night or two without driving each other crazy. Besides, knowing Gavroche, he’s probably where the sirens are loudest, in the middle of all that trouble.
Eponine thinks of the barricade then, and Marius and all his friends. They think they stand a chance against those armored tanks, all those cops in their riot gear. They’re wrong. They’re all going to die.
Again that strange excitement touches her. This time she lets herself laugh, and hears the harsh, terrible joy in it. Well, she has nowhere else to go. Why not to her grave? Besides, a bullet might be quick. There’s something appealing about a good, fast death.
She takes a step, and then pauses, remembering Valjean’s gentle touch. It’s weird, how his touch seems to linger, like a bruise that doesn’t hurt. She thinks of his concerned look, and another, bitter laugh escapes her. Well, let him worry and wonder. He doesn’t know her. He won’t even blink if her name ends up in the papers, if her body is even identified.
She turns and goes, her eyes fixed upon the distant red and blue lights.
Eponine is almost to the top of the barricade when she’s struck. The blow hits her hard on the side. She goes stupid with pain, wondering who kicked her even as she starts to fall. She scrabbles for purchase, catches herself on something-- the leg of a chair, she thinks, the wood biting into her hand.
The pain blooms hot in her side. There’s a buzzing in her ears, not quite drowned out by gunfire. A bullet whistles past and strikes the barricade; the impact sends wooden chips spraying over her head. One hits her forehead, just hard enough to knock a little sense back into her.
She has to move. She hauls herself up and over the barricade, gritting her teeth against the agony. Once she’s over, Marius is there, and the concern in his voice is satisfying. He does care, even if it’s not in the way she wants. Eponine tries to answer him, thinks she says something about giving the old man the letter, but she can’t even hear herself over the noise in her head. Her vision is dark at the corners, Marius’s face blurry and indistinct.
She presses her palm to where the pain is worst and feels something wet and sticky against her hand. When she looks down there’s red staining her white shirt. She thinks, dully, a weary ruefulness touching her, that she should’ve known better than to expect a fast death. Life’s not that kind.
She says, or tries to say, “I don’t think I can stand anymore.” She falls. Someone catches her. The impact, and the jolt of agony that accompanies it, steals her breath. For a second she can’t answer Marius’s questions, struggling just to breathe.
Marius touches her face. His fingers are shaking. “Eponine,” he says. “Eponine.” He fumbles at her clothing and gasps as he pulls her shirt up enough to see the wound. His hand presses against the worst of the pain, and she groans. The thought flashes through her mind, there and gone before she can wonder at it: Valjean would’ve been gentler.
She gathers what little breath she has and tries to tell Marius it’s all right. It’s not the quick death she hoped for, but it’s death at least. It will be over soon enough. She tries to keep her eyes open and smile, to keep responding as he pleads with her to be okay.
Someone’s taking her pulse, his hands steady. Eponine wants to wave him off because there’s no point, but he only tightens his grip when she tries to pull away. She gives up. It’s taking all the strength she has left just to answer Marius.
“A through and through,” someone says above her. “We need to stop the bleeding. If we can get her to a hospital, maybe...”
The words don’t make sense at first. Then they do. She never considered living. She thinks of it, and horror takes her by the throat. If she lives, it’ll be jail or the street again. What kind of life is that? “No,” she says. The word is frantic. She’s been calm, relieved to put an end to everything. Now she claws at their hands as the man and Marius press things, cloth maybe, against the wound. The pain and panic make the protest a breathless snarl. “No.”
“Eponine, didn’t you hear?” Marius says. “You’ll be okay! Just stay still.”
She ignores him, shoving their hands away again. Someone seizes her wrist; the grip is gentle, but no matter how she tugs, it doesn’t loosen. Eponine squints until the blur above her solidifies into Enjolras’s stern face. He says, “Let us help you.”
Eponine tries to think of what will convince him. She’s lurked at the edges of these meetings, waiting for Marius, and heard a few of Enjolras’s speeches. She thinks she knows how he ticks, what’s important to him. “You need everyone you have,” she says. “I saw the cops, what you’re up against. Whoever goes with me will be arrested. Just-- just bandage me up and put me somewhere.”
“Eponine,” Marius protests. “You need a hospital now.”
Enjolras looks at her for a moment. His gaze is intent; she wonders what he sees, if he realizes how to desperate she is to die. At last, he nods and takes a handkerchief from his pocket. He holds it against her wound, the pressure and pain stealing her breath. “We’ll put her by the inspector and get her to the hospital as soon as we can.”
“Enjolras,” Marius says. He sounds like he’s choking.
Enjolras says, gently, “It’s her choice, Marius,” and Eponine closes her eyes in relief.
When she opens them, time has passed, though she’s not sure how much. Marius isn’t holding her anymore, and she can hear gunfire nearby. Someone’s put a coat under her head as a makeshift pillow, but the bench is still hard and uncomfortable against her back, a minor discomfort half-lost beneath the throbbing pain in her side.
She tries to sit up, but a surge of pain and a wave of dizziness tells her that’s a stupid idea. When she’s caught her breath, she turns her head, carefully. Her side burns, wrapped in what feels like a makeshift bandage. Her vision is blurry and dark at the edges again. She clutches grimly to consciousness. It takes a moment for her to realize that she’s staring at boots that don’t belong to any of Marius’s friends. She squints at them, confused, and then looks up. Some of her dizziness is edged out by disgust.
“Oh no,” she snarls. Well, she tries to. Even shallow breaths hurt. When she forces the next sentence out, it sounds strangled. “I’m not dying next to a pig.”
Javert sneers. “I’m not fond of the idea myself.” His expression’s sour, like being tied hand and foot and surrounded by enemies is inconvenient rather than a death sentence. His eyes narrow. “I know you,” he says, half under his breath.
Eponine starts to retort, and then thinks better of it. He should recognize her. She’s lost count of how many times she’s escaped arrest and kept out of juvie by the skin of her teeth with Javert hot on her heels. “And I know you. And what they’ll do to you when they realize they’re all going to die.”
Javert’s lips twitch into a smirk. “I’m shocked. You don’t think you’ll win this little revolution of yours?”
“It’s not my revolution,” Eponine says. Something like surprise flickers in Javert’s pale eyes. “And we’re all going to die.” She hears the satisfaction in her breathless voice too late.
Javert raises an eyebrow. He doesn’t look particularly upset about everyone’s impending deaths, not even his own. Any other time she’d feel gleeful and curious about what’s going on in the cop’s head, why he might be ready to die, but she’s too tired. The pain in her side keeps getting worse, and it’s hard to concentrate on anything else.
“That’s true,” he says after a moment. He leans back against the wall and looks thoughtfully at his bound wrists. “It’s just a question of how and when.”
Eponine can’t think of a response so she closes her eyes instead. The pain recedes a little, or maybe that’s just her body being nice and letting her lose consciousness again.
Then someone yanks on one of her braids. Her eyes fly open, and she stares into Gavroche’s dirt-smudged face. He grins toothily at her, but there’s something angry in his smile. He pulls at her braid again, hard enough to hurt, and says, his tone light but his eyes still furious, “That was stupid, getting shot like that.”
The agony in her side returns, worse than ever. She wishes he’d let her die unconscious, asleep like a coward. She opens her mouth, and then closes it at the sight of the empty bench. She stares for a second at the spot where Javert sat. It doesn’t matter, she tells herself, too much in pain to feel more than a flicker of curiosity about the cop’s fate.
She summons a smirk for Gavroche. “I wanted a scar to show off.” Even to her own ears her voice is raspy and weak. She gropes for his wrist as he tugs at her hair a third time. Her grip’s feeble, but he keeps still for a second, humoring her. “‘Sides, even cops get lucky.”
“Guess so. But we’ll make them pay,” Gavroche says. The anger goes from his expression. He looks half-gleeful at the promise of revenge. Then he cocks his head to the side like he’s heard something. He springs to his feet, grinning down at her. His smile is fond and full of mischief, promising some future unpleasantness for the cops outside. “I’m needed, sis.”
He stoops and presses a hard, clumsy kiss to her forehead. “Try not to die, would you? Mom and Dad might remember I’m their only kid left and start paying attention to me.” He wrinkles his nose at the prospect. Then he’s gone, whistling off-key and ignoring Eponine’s hoarse, “Gavroche!”
She tries to sit up again, and the pain wells hot and terrible in her side. This time she doesn’t so much as pass out as has her consciousness ripped away by the agony.
There’s a hand on her wrist again, feeling for her pulse.
She tries to pull away, but her arm won’t obey her. Her thoughts are slow and stupid, hard to hold on to. She thinks, I’m dying too slow. How long does it take someone to bleed out? She thinks, I wonder how they killed Javert. Did they waste a bullet on him? She thinks, It’s too quiet. Where are the sirens?
“It’s okay,” a voice says softly.
She recognizes that voice, just like she recognizes the hand that touches her cheek in reassurance. The strange gentleness is too familiar.
It’s a struggle to get her eyes open, but she manages it, staring in disbelief up into Valjean’s face. She knows he’s real -- she hurts too much to be dreaming -- but she can’t make sense of it. What the hell is he doing here? She tries to ask; the question strangles her. She coughs, and winces at the pain in her side.
His hand stills upon her cheek. His expression lightens a little, a quick flicker of relief as he meets her eyes. Then he glances over his shoulder, half-flinching like he heard something behind him. He drops his hand to his side.
“It’s going to be okay,” he says, the words a low, hurried whisper. “I’ll get you and Marius to the hospital.”
Before Eponine can tell him to leave her behind, Valjean bends and lifts her off the bench. Despite his care, agony flares. Her, “No,” comes out as a pained whine instead. She tries to twist out of his grip but the pain’s stolen away her strength.
It’s all she can do to keep conscious as he carefully drapes her over one shoulder, keeping her steady with one firm hand upon her back. She stares down at his feet and realizes he’s dressed as a cop, all black clothing. She’s still frowning down at his boots when he stoops slowly, this time grunting with effort.
A second later, a familiar head dangles next to her. Marius’s eyes are closed, his expression slack. It’s only Valjean’s prior reassurance that keeps Eponine from thinking he’s dead. The terrified rage that wells up in her chest at the sight of his deathly pale face catches her by surprise.
I wanted him to die, I wanted all of us to die, she thinks, furious at herself for still caring. But she’s beginning to wonder if maybe it was only her own death she wanted after all, because the idea of Marius dying makes her want to scream.
“It’ll be okay,” Valjean whispers, his voice strained. He straightens slowly; she hears his breath catch in his chest. Still he stands, his shoulder tensed beneath her, his hand still warm and firm upon her lower back.
She wonders whom he’s reassuring. Then she can’t wonder anymore, much less think, all thoughts banished by pain. Valjean begins to walk. He moves steadily, only the way he breathes betraying the effort it’s taking to carry two people. Each step sends a wave of pain through her. She stifles her groans, biting her lip until she bleeds, and wishes for oblivion.
The universe must answer her plea, because time does a weird little skip. One second she’s being carried over Valjean’s shoulder; the next, she’s resting against hard stone, foul smells stinging her nose and unsettling her stomach. She tries to breathe through her mouth. Her lip smarts and she tastes, faint but there, the blood she’s half-swallowed.
She should be angry that she’s still alive, but everything feels very far away. Her emotions seem muted, her thoughts slow and sluggish again. There’s a conversation going on above her, she realizes, and tries to focus on it.
“Please,” Valjean says. His voice is rough with desperation. “Please, another hour yet and then I’m yours, and all our debts are paid--”
“Enough,” the other man snarls. Then he laughs, a harsh, horrible sound. Surprise is a distant thing, too far away to touch her, but Eponine knows that laugh, has heard it nipping at her heels when the cops have been an inch away from catching her.
“The man of mercy comes again and talks of justice,” Javert snarls. “Spare me your speeches, damnit! I know this girl, she’s a delinquent. She should’ve been in jail years ago. And I saw the boy at the barricade, armed just like the rest of those cop-killers. Why should I--”
“Javert!” Valjean continues, softer, but no less earnest. “We’re wasting time. They need a hospital. My daughter loves the boy, I can’t let him die. And the girl--” He hesitates. It seems that he’s quiet for a long moment, or maybe that’s just time playing tricks on Eponine again, stretching out the seconds. “There’s already been so much death tonight. We can save two lives.”
Javert says nothing. Then another laugh escapes him. To Eponine’s ears it has a strange ring, more hopeless than angry. “How do you plan on getting them to the hospital? No taxi will take you.” Before Valjean can answer, Javert snorts. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll take my car. Come on. I’ll carry the boy.”
Eponine tries to brace herself for the pain, but even the careful way Valjean picks her up drags a weak groan from her lips. His grip tightens. His breath is warm against her forehead as he whispers, “I’m sorry. I know it hurts.”
She knows she’s all skin and bone, but it’s still strange how he holds her like she weighs nothing at all. Now that he’s not carrying her and Marius, his breathing’s almost even, like she’s barely a burden. He must be stronger than he looks, comes the dizzy, distant realization, but the thought slips away, growing indistinct, like she’s trying to look at it through fogged glass.
Her head rests against Valjean’s chest. She thinks she can hear someone's heartbeat, but she can't tell if it's Valjean's or her own, protesting at living.
“We’ll be there soon. You’ll be okay,” he promises again, and she hopes he’s wrong.
At first she thinks she's floating. Then she realizes there’s a bed beneath her. Still the buoyant feeling stays as she blinks at the unfamiliar white ceiling. She feels light as air, but drowsy, like if she closes her eyes for too long she’ll sleep a week.
Someone leans over her. The woman’s pale all over: gray eyes, colorless face, short hair that could be white or just a light yellow, and white labcoat with a name tag Eponine can’t make out.
The doctor half-frowns. When she speaks, it’s in a brusque, matter-of-fact tone. “Well, young lady, you lost a lot of blood, but you’ll be fine, barring any complications. You were fairly lucky. The bullet missed your vital organs and didn’t leave anything behind.”
Eponine should feel something at the news. She has a distant memory of fear and fury at the idea of living, but it’s like someone’s taken away most of her emotions and left her only with a tired contentment and the conviction that she never wants to leave this bed.
The doctor keeps looking at her, like she’s expecting a response. Eponine licks her dry lips and mumbles, “Oh.” She tries to sit up and stops as the doctor places a firm hand on her shoulder.
As Eponine squints and finally makes out the name Simplice on the doctor’s badge, the woman says, “Let me help you. You have quite a few staples in you at the moment. Now, I need you to answer a few questions, since you were unconscious when Je-- when Mr. Fauchelevent brought you in.”
“Okay,” Eponine says. She finds she can’t raise her voice above a whisper, but Doctor Simplice doesn’t seem to mind, helping her sit upright and giving her a few ice chips. It’s only as the last of the chips melts in her mouth that Eponine realizes Valjean’s still here, seated in a chair in the corner of the room.
He’s asleep, his head tilted back, his mouth slightly open. Eponine represses a giggle, because he’s changed out of his fake cop clothing and borrowed someone’s spare set of scrubs. He must’ve been desperate, because the scrubs are bright pink and decorated with Hello Kitty.
The scrubs are too tight on him; when he shifts, frowning, the fabric stretches against his chest. He still doesn’t look like much, mostly long legs and arms, but Eponine remembers how easily he carried her. He must be all lean muscle, to carry two people without much effort, she thinks, and then turns back to Doctor Simplice as the woman begins her questions.
Eponine answers most of them readily enough, still feeling that strange detachment: no, she doesn’t think she’s allergic to any medications. When Simplice asks if there’s anyone she should contact, though, Eponine laughs, a quiet, raspy sound.
“My parents won’t come, but Gavroche, my brother… He was at the barricade, he knows I’m hurt. He’ll come looking once he figures out I’m not holed up somewhere.” A thought occurs to her. She wrinkles her nose, or tries to. Her face feels a little funny. “He could be in jail.”
“Your brother!” Simplice repeats. Her voice is sharp, her expression pinched. Eponine watches with fuzzy curiosity as Simplice turns to Valjean, who’s jumped halfway out of his chair at the outburst. “Jea-- Mr. Fauchelevent,” she says, and it takes Eponine a second to realize that Fauchelevent must be Valjean’s alias. “You didn’t mention a brother.”
Valjean freezes in the middle of straightening. He clutches at the arms of the chair, bows his head for a second. “No,” he says quietly. When he raises his head, there’s a look in his eyes Eponine doesn’t recognize. He approaches her bed, his gaze fixed upon her face. He half-raises his hand, like he’s going to touch her again. Then he pauses, and his hand drops heavily to his side. “Your brother… Describe him, please.”
Eponine laughs. “You must have seen him. He’s eleven. About this tall--” She raises her hand and then winces as the IV tugs at her. It doesn’t hurt, exactly, but it feels like it should. “He probably got out before you came.”
“He didn’t,” Valjean says, very soft. If he wasn’t so close to the bed, she doesn’t think she would’ve heard him. He clears his throat, continues just above a whisper. “No, he didn’t. I’m so sorry.”
Eponine blinks at him, curiosity replaced by confusion. He looks ready to cry, his eyes bright and his mouth tight with pain. “What, did he get arrested? He’s eleven, they can’t do much to him.”
“No,” he repeats. “You don’t--” He reaches out again, takes her hand. He squeezes it, very gently. She knows the look on his face now: pity. “Your brother died. I’m so sorry.”
The words don’t make sense, and then they do. Still that disconnected feeling remains. She should be angry or upset, but all she can think is that he’s wrong. She shakes her head. “Gavroche isn’t dead.”
“I saw him die,” Valjean says. “He--” His throat works. He stops.
His sad face above the silly Hello Kitty scrubs makes her laugh, a low, throaty protest of amusement, because he’s wrong. He has to be. She remembers crowing to Javert about everyone dying, but she hadn’t meant Gavroche.
She shakes her head a second time. “Gavroche isn’t-- he isn’t--”
“I’m sorry,” he says again. He squeezes her hand. She thinks he’s trying to comfort her. He starts to say something about her parents, but goes quiet when she tugs her hand out of his grip.
There’s a suspicion growing in her that Valjean is telling the truth. She waits for the grief and anger to come, but everything’s still muted. She just feels tired, like she wants to sleep a year instead of a week. “My parents kicked Gavroche out when he was eight. You think they care if he’s dead?”
Valjean winces, his frown deepening. The pity in his eyes spreads to the rest of his face. He’s about to say something when the door opens and two cops march in. Valjean turns and sees them. Eponine can’t see his face, but she watches his shoulders tense.
Then he steps forward and sideways, effectively blocking Eponine’s view. “Good afternoon, officers,” he says evenly. “Can we help you with something?”
“No,” says the one cop, shortly, and leans around Valjean. Eponine recognizes him as Martel, a cop who sometimes questions her about her father and who’s always pinged her as a creep. Martel smirks at her. “Mr. Gillenormand's PI was right, Bellamy. That’s Eponine Thenardier.”
“I don’t know who let you in here, gentlemen, but I suggest you leave,” Simplice says. It’s only now, hearing the chill in her voice, that Eponine realizes the woman’s earlier tone was actually kind. Simplice moves forward, until she and Valjean are shoulder-to-shoulder. Eponine can’t see, but she’s pretty sure Simplice has crossed her arms. “My patient is recovering from surgery--”
“Your patient is a suspected looter, ma’am,” says the other cop, Bellamy. He sounds almost polite, for a pig, but firm. “You must’ve seen the news. A few of the looters and bystanders were killed. Some officers were injured. It’s very serious. We need to ask her a few questions.”
Staring at Valjean and Simplice’s backs, the strange pink and white wall they make between her and the cops, Eponine giggles. It seems like a big joke, to survive when she doesn’t want to, to live when Gavroche hasn’t, and then to be arrested after all. She stares at the Hello Kitty figures decorating Valjean’s scrubs until they turn into white smears, and giggles a little more.
“I’ve been performing this young woman’s surgery,” Simplice says icily, “so no, I haven’t seen the news. But she’s in no condition to be questioned. She’s heavily medicated. You’ll have to wait.”
Martel steps around Simplice and leans over the bed. “Oh, she doesn’t look too bad. A little pale, maybe.” He smiles unpleasantly. “What happened? Sprain your back trying to steal something?”
“Perforated appendix,” Simplice says without batting an eye. As Eponine blinks at the lie, the doctor purses her lips. She looks tempted to take Martel by the arm and drag him away from the bed, though all she says is, “Again, if you’ll return--”
“Hey,” Martel says. His eyes narrow and he grabs Eponine’s wrist. His grip’s tight, and it feels like when she’d tugged at her IV, like her body knows it should hurt and is confused by the lack of pain. He stares at her ID bracelet. “This says Eponine Fauchelevent.”
Eponine squints at the bracelet and sure enough, Martel’s right. She doesn’t get it-- Javert knows who she is, even if Valjean never recognized her. There’s no reason for her to be in the hospital under a fake name.
Martel scowls. He gives her arm a little shake, ignoring the surprised protest from his partner. Over his shoulder, Eponine sees Valjean’s expression turn wooden and Simplice divide a glower between Martel and Bellamy. “What’s with the name change? Trying to commit fraud or something?”
Eponine laughs, and then laughs more as the best joke occurs to her. “Call yourself a cop, Martel,” she says. She pulls her hand away from his and waves towards Valjean, smiling. “He’s Fauchelevent, and I’m Fauchelevent. Put it together.”
Martel snorts. He doesn’t even look at Valjean, whose expression is even more wooden than before. “You expect me to believe you’re married?” Disbelief drips off the last word.
“And you didn’t get us a wedding gift,” Eponine says. She swallows down another giggle at Martel’s expression.
“Sir--” Valjean begins, and then stops as Martel snorts again.
“That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all week.” He runs a dismissive look over her. Any other time she might’ve bristled and snarled at the smirk on his face, but the disconnect from her feelings means that she’s amused instead of offended when Martel says, “Fine, say I believe you. How’d you trick him into it? I hope he got a prenup--”
“Excuse me, officer,” Valjean says. He’s at the head of the bed suddenly, between her and Martel. He looks...different. Bigger, somehow, but not threatening. There’s an air of gentle command around him, like he expects to be obeyed. His tone’s still polite, but there’s an undercurrent of finality to it now. “As Doctor Simplice has explained, sir, my wife has just come out of surgery and is in no condition for questions. I suggest you and your partner return tomorrow, when she’s less medicated. Although, again, if you would just speak to Inspector Javert, I’m certain he’ll clear everything up.”
“Come on, Martel,” says his partner. “If she’s anything like my sister on painkillers, she’ll start singing show-tunes in a minute.” Even as Eponine, amused by the idea, tries to think of a song, Bellamy adds, “We’ll come talk to her tomorrow.”
Martel stares at Valjean, who meets his narrowed eyes with a bland, polite smile, and then at Eponine, who grins at him, pleased that Valjean’s going along with the joke. After a few seconds, he shakes his head. “Married,” he mutters under his breath. “Sounds like--”
“Martel!” Bellamy says, and Martel, still looking suspiciously at them, returns to his partner’s side. Bellamy looks vaguely apologetic as he smiles at Simplice. His smile falters when she doesn’t smile back. “Excuse us, ma’am. We’ll be back tomorrow.”
Eponine manages to hold it together until the door closes. Then she giggles. “His face!” She tries to clap, but Valjean touches the hand with the IV in it and she grins up at him instead. “I didn’t think you’d play along.”
But Valjean doesn’t seem amused. He’s frowning, an unhappy crease between his eyes. He looks at her intently. “He shouldn’t have spoken to you like that.”
Eponine laughs. He’s actually upset about what Martel said! As though she cares what a cop, especially a useless one like Martel, thinks of her. Besides, it’s nothing she hasn’t heard before, from cops and her parents. She’s about to tell him so when Simplice clears her throat.
Simplice takes the wrist Martel grabbed and looks it over carefully, running her thumb over the skin as though checking for bruises. At last she straightens, looking dourly satisfied. “Well, now that we’ve all lied to the police, I have a question,” she remarks dryly. “What’s going to happen when that officer checks the marriage records and realizes you aren’t actually married?”
“Ah,” Valjean says, and nothing else for a long moment. “Yes.” He’s not quite as pink as his scrubs, but he’s getting there. He rubs a hand over his head. “I’ll think of something.” Then he looks at Eponine again. His expression changes. He touches her cheek again. “But you should be resting. Let me handle things, please.”
She’s not sure what he means by handling things-- if the hospital thinks she has the money to pay for surgery, they’re in for a nasty surprise, but she won’t take charity, and she doesn’t see what he can do about the cops -- but she nods anyway. Talking to Martel has drained most of her energy. The drowsy feeling is getting stronger, until it’s an effort not to just close her eyes and sleep.
After he goes, Simplice leans over the bed again. “I have a few more questions for you.” A faint smile crosses her pale face as Eponine stifles a yawn. “If you think you can stay awake a little longer.”
“No promises,” Eponine says. The questions, now that Valjean is gone, are a bit more personal, and sure enough, she falls asleep halfway through talking about her drug use.
It turns out that Eponine should’ve enjoyed the happy floaty feeling more while it lasted, because the next morning Simplice informs her that they’re going to taper her off the strong painkillers and onto vicodin instead.
Eponine’s still feeling that disconnect, like her head’s stuffed with cotton, so she doesn’t put together that fewer painkillers means more pain until the discomfort begins to creep in, a faint throbbing in her side. She doesn’t object, though, just grits her teeth and bears it. She’s used to pain. Besides, the less drugs she’s on, the clearer her mind is.
Her memory’s still in pieces, but she manages to put together a basic outline of what’s happened: she and Marius are alive, somehow; Gavroche and all of Marius’s friends are dead; and she’s going to jail if she can’t escape the hospital before Martel arrests her.
This isn’t a familiar hospital with known exits, though, and she struggles with a possible escape plan. It doesn’t help that a nurse comes in to check on her every hour or so, to look over her bandages and to ask how she’s feeling.
Valjean shows up as soon as visiting hours start. The Hello Kitty scrubs are nowhere to be found. Even with her memory in pieces she remembers that. He’s wearing a suit and carrying, of all things, a vase filled with flowers.
She stares blankly at the vase and its riot of bright blues and purples and yellows, wondering if the vicodin is making her hallucinate. After a few seconds, she manages, “Thanks, I guess.”
Even to her own ears she doesn’t sound enthusiastic and instead mostly confused, but Valjean seems undaunted, placing the vase on the bedside table. He rearranges the flowers with a few careful gestures. Eponine can’t say how or why they look better, but somehow they do once he’s done.
Then he sits down at the chair beside the bed. He’s back to watching her with that same worried look of before, which should probably annoy her more than it does. It helps that this time he must be worried about himself as well.
“We should talk before the police get here,” he says.
No shit, Eponine almost says. She catches herself just in time, because Valjean doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who swears. “Okay,” she says instead. She figures she knows why he’s here. “Look, you don’t have to worry. I won’t tell Martel about your whole pretending to be a cop thing. Or that you’re not really Fauchelevent.”
Valjean looks startled. A couple emotions flicker across his face, there and gone too quickly for her to read. Then he leans back in his chair and runs a hand over his head. His ears are a little pink, like he’s embarrassed. “Well, thank you, but that’s not what--” He stops for a second. When he speaks again, his voice is slow, like he’s choosing his words carefully. “Do you remember what you said to the officer? About why your ID bracelet says Fauchelevent?”
“No, I--” Eponine stops. She has a vague memory of giggling in Martel’s face and his hand being tight and uncomfortable on her wrist. “I think I made some stupid joke about us being married,” she says. She squints at him. “Why?”
“Well,” Valjean says. Then he stops. He runs a hand over his head again, but this time it’s done absently, like it’s a nervous habit. Something like a smile touches his mouth, though it doesn’t reach his eyes, which are a strange mixture of sheepish and anxious. “It was a joke.”
When Eponine stares at him, baffled, he leans forward again, speaking in a low, earnest voice. “I started thinking. We already lied to the police. But what if it wasn’t a lie? We would have an alibi. We could say that Marius’s grandfather was mistaken. We were nowhere near the barricade because we were getting married in a small ceremony that was interrupted by your appendicitis--”
Eponine laughs. She immediately regrets it, curling in on the pain and waving off Valjean’s concerned hand. When she’s got her breath back, she shakes her head. “If this is a joke, it’s the craziest one I’ve ever heard. Besides, as soon as Martel looks for our marriage license, he’ll….”
She trails off as Valjean reaches into his pocket. He pulls out a folded slip of paper. Unfolding it, he holds it up for inspection. She takes it, holding it closer so she can read the small print. She’s never seen a marriage certificate before, but it looks real, dated the day of Lamarque’s funeral. Somehow Valjean’s gotten a hold of her social and her parents’ names, and has forged her signature. It’s even got the required two witness signatures at the bottom.
The first is Cosette Fauchelevent, written in a loopy cursive. Eponine wonders how Valjean explained everything, what convinced her to sign. For the first time she's curious about how much Cosette remembers of their childhood together. She remembers Cosette’s expression when Marius introduced her, but she doesn’t think there was any recognition in her dark, startled eyes, just surprise and alarm.
Then she reads the second name and chokes. She jerks her head up, fast enough that a wave of dizziness crashes over her. She stares at Valjean. “This is a pretty good forgery. I’ll give you that. I don’t think my dad could’ve done better. But there’s no way Javert signed this.”
Valjean smiles strangely, like something’s funny and not at all at the same time. He shakes his head. “You’d be surprised,” he says, quietly. Reaching out for the marriage license, he folds it carefully and tucks it away. “And it isn’t a forgery.”
“How did you get a county clerk--” Eponine begins. Then she stops. She needs to think, though it’s hard when Valjean’s watching her with that quiet expression of his. “So you’re saying the marriage is our alibi,” she says flatly. At his nod, she says, “Why?”
Because that’s what she doesn’t get. If Cosette’s willing to lie and sign a paper for a fake marriage, it has to be easier just to ask her to lie about where Valjean was that night. He doesn’t need such a complicated alibi….
Unless it’s to keep her safe as well. The thought almost makes her laugh. No, that can’t be it. Why would he bother? To go to these crazy lengths just to keep her safe, especially when he must know her past by now and how awful she and her family were to Cosette when they were kids-- she tells herself it’s impossible.
Valjean’s lips part, like he’s about to answer, and then something like exasperation twists his expression as the door opens and Martel, his partner, and a frowning Simplice enter. The exasperation, if that’s what it is, vanishes in an instant. When he rises to his feet and turns towards the door, he’s wearing a polite smile. “Officers.”
“Mr. Fauchelevent,” Martel’s partner says. She tries to remember his name. Bell, maybe? His tone is-- weird. Respectful, almost. She notices he’s looking at the vase of flowers. “Excuse us for disturbing you, but we have just a few follow-up questions.”
Follow-up questions? She doesn’t remember everything about yesterday, but she’s pretty sure Bell was much more in Simplice’s face about Eponine being a person of interest in a crime. Now it’s like he doesn’t believe she’s a suspect at all. Either this is a trick or something’s changed overnight.
Eponine looks at Martel, who’s scowling at her and obviously pissed off. She grins at him, and his scowl darkens.
“Of course,” Valjean says, still using that respectful tone. Maybe it’s his voice and the way he’s dressed that’s made Bell change his tune-- the suit makes him look respectable, like a businessman. He shoots Eponine a look that’s half a question.
Bell approaches the bed, Martel following him like a furious shadow, still glaring daggers at her. They stand on the opposite side of the bed from Valjean. Bell meets her eyes, and she’s bewildered by the lack of hostility in his face. “Mrs. Fauchelevent.” Again he sounds almost polite.
“Sir,” she says. She focuses on him and ignores Martel completely. She manages a tight-lipped smile, ignoring the pain in her split lip. She doesn’t bother to hide the fact that she doesn’t want to talk to him. Bell must know her history by now-- it’d look weird if she suddenly trusted cops, even when she supposedly has nothing to hide.
“Inspector Javert has cleared up the matter for the most part.” This close, she can see that his name tag actually says Bellamy. He smiles again, and now she’s certain that he’s apologetic, which is-- well, it’s weird, but if it pisses Martel off, she’s glad for the weirdness. “We just have a few questions we hope you can help us with.”
Eponine shrugs, very carefully. “Not sure how I can help you. I don’t remember much about the past couple days.”
Bellamy nods understandingly. “My sister’s the same way. Now, Mrs. Fauchelevent, we wanted to talk to you about Marius Pontmercy.”
Caught off-guard, she tenses. She doesn’t quite dare to look over at Valjean or Simplice, though she wants to. She’s been so busy trying to figure out how to get out of here, and then too baffled by Valjean, to wonder how badly Marius was hurt. Maybe that shows a little, because Martel’s eyes narrow. “What about him?”
“How well do you know him?”
“I met him about a year or so ago,” she says slowly. “I was passing out flyers on campus. He took one.” He’d been the only person to actually read the flyer and not throw it into the nearest trashcan, she remembers. It’s why she noticed him.
While Martel goes back to scowling, Bellamy leans forward, looking interested. “What kind of flyers?”
Eponine shrugs. “Don’t remember. I passed out lots of flyers.” It’s a good way to make money under the table, and a fairly steady job, even if it doesn’t pay well. There’s always somebody outraged or selling something who needs someone to pass out stuff to kids on campus. She doesn’t tell the cops that, though. You don’t volunteer information.
“So you’ve known him for approximately a year. What do you think of him?”
Eponine stares at him. For a second the half-crazy desire to say I was in love with him, but he only liked me as a friend wells up in her, but she ignores the destructive impulse, aware of Valjean’s quiet gaze. “I don’t understand the question.”
Bellamy frowns, not angrily, but like he’s trying to think of a better way to phrase it. “Does he seem like someone who would break the law?” She keeps staring, and Bellamy grimaces a little. “We’re still trying to separate the looters from the innocent bystanders. His grandfather claims he was a bystander--”
Martel finally speaks up, and his voice is low and darkly sarcastic. “But he also accused you of being the one who got Marius involved in the looting so we’re a little confused.”
Confusion’s not hard to fake when Eponine can’t figure out what the hell they’re talking about. She doesn’t remember any looting-- maybe some of the rioters had grabbed some alcohol from behind the bar, but she can’t see Ms. Hucheloup holding that against them, not with the amount Marius’s friends had drunk at the bar on a regular basis.
She shakes her head a little. “Marius ain’t a thief.”
“You’re absolutely certain?”
Eponine laughs again, and wishes she hadn’t. She curls in on the pain, which is worse than before. Bile rises in her throat, but she swallows it down. This time she doesn’t shake off Valjean’s hand as he touches her shoulder. Instead, aware of Bellamy and Martel’s eyes on them, Bellamy’s expression curious, Martel’s skeptical, she leans into it.
She says, a little hoarsely, as the machine she’s hooked up to beeps unhappily, “If he found a wallet with five hundred bucks in it, he’d find the owner and give it back. He’s a good guy.”
“And I guess you would--” Martel begins, and stops with a grimace as Bellamy says, a little loudly, like he’s drowning out his partner, “So you agree with Mr. Gillenormand that Marius was likely a bystander?”
“Yeah,” Eponine says. She still doesn’t understand what they’re talking about with looting-- shouldn’t they be talking about the riot? But the vicodin is either wearing off or she’s messed up her staples from laughing, because the pain’s hammering at her. She grits her teeth and repeats, “Marius’s no thief.”
Simplice murmurs something under her breath and stares at the cops. “Officers, I think that’s enough for the moment. I told you that she’s still recovering.”
“Right,” Bellamy says. “Thank you for your time, Mrs. Fauchelevent.” He turns to Valjean and says, still weirdly polite, “We may have a few more questions, but I’ll pass them along to Inspector Javert.”
It’s only then that Eponine catches the undertone to the cop’s voice. She nearly laughs, but stops herself just in time. Javert’s earned himself the grudgingly respectful hatred of pretty much every criminal in the city, but somehow she never thought about him having a fanclub among the other pigs. But Bellamy says Javert’s name like he’s got a notebook stowed away somewhere where he’s drawn hearts around Javert’s name a couple hundred times.
“Thank you,” Valjean says. His hand’s still on her shoulder, though as soon as the cops leave, his reserved expression crumples. His forehead creases, his mouth thinning into an unhappy line, like they haven’t somehow just convinced the cops they’re married and weren’t involved with the riot or looting or whatever the cops are calling it.
“Out, please,” Simplice says, polite but firm. Valjean blinks at her as she makes a shooing motion. “I need to check her injury, which means we need privacy.”
“Ah. Yes.” Valjean hesitates for a second. Just like when the cops interrupted, he opens his mouth to say something. Then he closes it, and simply goes without answering any of Eponine’s questions.
As Simplice frowns at whatever mess Eponine’s made of the staples, it nags at her. Gritting her teeth, she presses back against her pillow and closes her eyes, trying to think of what questions she’ll have for Valjean when he comes back, questions she’ll get an answer to soon enough.
First, she thinks, an ache twisting in her chest that’s worse than the bullet wound, she’ll find out what’s he’s done about Gavroche. Then she’ll figure out how long he’s planning for the con to last. Because it’s a con, it has to be. She just doesn’t know what his game is yet.
The day of Gavroche’s funeral is hot and muggy. The sun beats down on Eponine like it’s trying to push her to her knees. She leans a little more on the cane the hospital gave her, wishing for sunglasses and squinting against the harsh light.
From the corner of her eye she spots a small, suppressed twitch of Valjean’s hand, like he wants to reach out and steady her. He doesn’t touch her, though, just puts his hand in his pocket and turns back towards the pastor. She’s not quite grateful; she’s so tense that she’ll probably snarl if anyone tries to touch her right now.
The pastor’s droning on about heaven. She tunes him out. The only good thing about the pastor is that he isn’t pretending he knew Gavroche. She listens instead to the yells of kids playing, because somehow Valjean found a cemetery next to a playground. Gavroche, she thinks, would have loved it.
If Eponine turns her head a little, she’ll see kids shoving each other off the swings or going head-first down the slide. She imagines some of them, bored and curious one day, jumping the fence and discovering Gavroche’s grave. Well, if they try to figure out how he died, they won’t get much out of the tombstone, which reads simply: Gavroche’s full name, the too-brief dates of his life, and the words ‘Beloved brother.’
Her gaze lingers on the last part. Her chest tightens. An ache blooms low in her back, the muscles there too tightly knotted. When she adjusts her grip on her cane, the plain gold band on her ring finger chafes. It’s a strange weight she’s still getting used to.
She doesn’t look at Valjean again, but she’s acutely aware of him, silent and somber in his dark suit, his shoulders bowed, his expression quiet and pensive as he listens to the pastor. He plays the part of consoling husband well, staying close but somehow not near enough to smother her.
He’s barely touched her today, except to help her into the car at the hospital and out into the cemetery parking lot, his hand warm and steady on her elbow. He probably saw how she almost punched Marius when, white-lipped with pain and leaning heavily on his crutch, he clumsily took her hand and said how sorry he was. By the time Cosette hugged her, it took everything in her not to shove the other girl away.
Unwillingly, Eponine looks to where Marius is standing. He’s braced between the crutch and Cosette. His expression is gray and lined with pain, his eyes distant like he’s looking at the coffin and seeing nine other graves next to it. He doesn’t look like he’s been sleeping much. Even as Eponine studies the shadows under his eyes, Cosette touches his cheek with light, anxious fingers and smiles at him.
Eponine drags her gaze away. Stupid, she tells herself, stupid, stupid, stupid. Let Cosette worry about him. It’s none of her business. She catches Valjean watching her, a small crease between his eyes. He doesn’t say anything, though, just meets her gaze for a moment and then returns his attention to the sermon.
And that’s the thing that gets her, that silent understanding of his. It’s frustrating and unsettling, and she doesn’t know what to do about it. On top of that, she’s about ready to give up in disgust at ever getting an explanation out of him. He just keeps saying, “It was the best way to get us an alibi,” at her like a broken record.
But whenever Eponine says something expecting to have to explain herself, somehow he always knows just what she means, or at least that it’s not the time to question her about it. When he asked about the tombstone, she told him, “Put ‘beloved brother’ on it,” half-daring him to ask why not ‘beloved son’ too. But he hadn’t, just nodded slowly, and said, “I’ll make the arrangements.”
The pastor’s stopped talking, she realizes, aware of the sudden silence. When she lifts her gaze from the tombstone, he’s got his head bowed and his hands clasped in prayer. From the corner of her eye she sees everyone else following suit. She doesn’t bother -- she doesn’t believe in God, and even if she did, she wouldn’t be on speaking terms with him -- just watches until the pastor says, “Amen.”
Then he looks directly at her. “Do you have anything you’d like to say about your brother?” His smile is one of sympathetic pity, and she mostly want to tell him to go away.
“No.” The word scrapes its way out of her throat, short and sharp.
The pastor looks bemused and then, annoyingly, even more sympathetic. “Of course, of course.”
She’s supposed to throw a handful of dirt onto the coffin now, she knows, but it’s like her legs have turned to stone. It takes everything in her to shuffle forward and grab a fistful of the dirt, which is a dry, ugly yellowish-brown from the summer sun and lack of rain.
She holds it for a second; some of the dirt squeezes out between her fingers and falls back onto the mound. She looks down at the coffin, all polished and perfect. She doesn’t want to throw the dirt on it. She wants to kick the wood until it cracks. She wants to break open the coffin and shake Gavroche until he opens his eyes and tells her it was a stupid joke.
She leans down and snarls in a rough whisper, “Mad at me for getting shot! Called me stupid! Well, who’s the one who actually died? Who’s stupid now, Ga--”
Eponine chokes on his name. It lodges in her throat, and she can’t breathe. She clenches her teeth and swallows once, twice, a third time. It doesn’t do any good. If she tries to say anything else to the coffin, it’ll come out as a howl, and she refuses to lose it in front of everyone.
She throws the dirt and turns away before it hits the wood. It takes a second to trust her voice. “Let’s go,” she says, and doesn’t look at Valjean’s face as she walks past him towards the parking lot. She doesn’t know what would be worse: pity like the pastor’s, or Marius’s, or Cosette’s, or that damn understanding look again.
The car handle burns her fingers, but she ignores the pain and yanks the door open. A wave of hot air hits her face; her eyes sting as she climbs in and blindly fumbles with the seat-belt. She closes her eyes and tries to remember how to breathe.
Anywhere would be better than here. Even Valjean’s house and the guest bedroom Cosette’s apparently prepared for her, a thought that makes Eponine want to start running and never stop. She knows it’s just part of the alibi, that Martel would figure out that something’s up if she doesn’t live with Valjean, but it feels like a trap anyway.
It’ll only be for six months, she reminds herself. Valjean explained that much during one of his visits. The state doesn’t allow anyone to file for divorce until then. So she’ll live in the spare bedroom, make herself useful around the house to earn her keep, and play the role until she can get out and--
And what? Every time Eponine looks at the future it’s just as unappealing as when she stood at that intersection and chose death at the barricade. She’s angry again, resentful that Valjean saved her when she never asked him to, that she’s alive when Gavroche isn’t.
Some of that anger must show in her face when Valjean gets into the car, because he hesitates before he murmurs, “Cosette’s going to take Marius home. Is there anywhere you’d like to go?”
Eponine laughs humorlessly. I’d like to stay with Gavroche, she doesn’t say. “No.” She presses her cheek against the hot window. When Valjean starts the car, the glass rattles against her cheek. Maybe the vibrations will knock all these thoughts out of her head.
She closes her eyes, doesn’t open them until the car stops and the engine dies. She hauls herself out of the car before Valjean can get around and open the door for her. Her head hurts. “I need a shower,” she says. It’s even true. This borrowed black dress of Cosette’s sticks to her, smothering and too big. She wants it off.
“Your bedroom has a private bathroom,” Valjean says as he unlocks the front door. His voice is quiet and matter-of-fact. “Cosette put some clothes in the drawers for you.”
Eponine grits her teeth. It’s not like she can run off and get her clothes from her parents, but wearing borrowed clothing rankles. It feels too much like that winter when she dragged Gavroche kicking and screaming to an emergency shelter, because it was either that or freeze to death. The shelter staff looked at them with pity and forced a pair of winter coats on them and they’d sneaked out the next morning before CPS showed up.
“I’ll get clothes tomorrow,” she says. There’s a thrift store two blocks down, with good prices and pretty decent clothes. She doesn’t like to dip into her savings, but that’s better than wearing Cosette’s secondhand clothes.
It’s not until she’s in the bathroom and peeling off the dress that a thought occurs to her. Valjean thinks that she went to the barricade to fight, not to die. He hasn’t taken any precautions against another attempt.
Sure enough, when she checks under the sink, she finds cleaning supplies. There’s one cleaner with ammonia and another with chlorine, both nearly full when she tests their weight. Her dad made her drop out of school before she could take chemistry, but she knows what happens when you combine the two chemicals. Chlorine gas is a nasty way to go.
Eponine already locked her bedroom door; now she locks the bathroom door, thinking. She could pour both cleaners into the tub, breathe in the gas before Valjean figures out what she has planned.
About to twist the top off the first cleaner, she pauses. The memory of Valjean’s stricken look as he bent over her at the barricade crowds to the front of her mind and refuses to leave. He’ll look like that, and worse, when he breaks down the door and finds her.
She shouldn’t care, but still something like shame churns her stomach. She shoves the cleaners back under the sink. Then she sits down upon the tub. Frustrated disappointment wells sharp and bitter in her mouth. She punches her thigh, once, twice, hard enough to bruise, needing to hit something, but it doesn’t help. It’s not even that much of distraction-- she’s been in a lot worse pain.
Eponine’s not a good person, she knows that. A good person wouldn’t have helped her parents with so many scams, wouldn’t have done half the things she’s done, wouldn’t have rejoiced at the idea of everyone dying at the barricade. But she guesses she’s still got one small scrap of goodness left that her parents haven’t beaten out of her, because she can’t do this to Valjean. He doesn’t deserve to find her like that. He’ll probably even blame himself.
She’ll wait. It’s six months, she tells herself one more time, though the thought makes her tired. Six months, and then she can find somewhere quiet to die where Valjean won’t find her. Maybe the river, though the river’s cold in December.
When she trudges out towards the living room, uncomfortable in Cosette’s secondhand blouse and pants, her wet braids a heavy weight against her shoulders, she finds Valjean on the phone. She’s about to knock her fist against the wall or cough, something to let him know she’s there. Then she hesitates, surprised into stillness by his expression.
There’s a soft smile on Valjean’s lips that she’s never seen before, and it’s...weird, she decides, studying him. Not in a bad way. He doesn’t look sad or worried, which is definitely different. He looks younger, just a little, and for the first time she thinks to wonder how old he is. It’s probably on the marriage certificate, but she’s not about to ask to take another look at it.
A quiet laugh escapes him, and she jumps at the unfamiliar noise. It’s a nice sound, though, a little rough, like he’s not used to laughing. “I’ll ask her,” he says, and then turns towards Eponine. She braces herself for worry or reserve to creep into the edges of his smile, but his expression doesn’t change. “Do you like Thai? Cosette’s going to bring something home for lunch.”
Eponine’s been raised on fast food and whatever she could scrounge or shoplift from the dollar store. The closest she’s come to Thai food is those instant noodle things, but food’s food. It’ll probably taste fine. She shrugs, her face hot, still feeling stupid about goggling at Valjean like a creep. “Sure. I’ll have whatever.”
After he hangs up, the more-familiar pensive look returns to his face. He frowns down at his phone, scrolling through messages. Then he looks up. He smiles, though there’s an apologetic tinge to the curve of his mouth now. “I’m sorry. After lunch I have to go and check on something at the shop. I shouldn’t be long. Then we can talk.”
Eponine doesn’t make a face, but it’s a close thing. Then we can talk means another argument where she reminds him that she’s not a charity case and Valjean tells her that she doesn’t owe him anything. She’d call the conversations fights, but a fight means screaming and throwing things.
Then what he actually said sinks in. This is the first she’s heard of any shop. Well, he must have a job. How else could he keep up this place? She tries to guess what kind of job he has, but she can’t imagine him selling clothes or running a cash register. Maybe a book shop? The den is wall to wall with bookshelves, the collection's spines showing the household’s interest in everything from medicine to botany to what Eponine is pretty sure are romance novels. “The shop?”
A puzzled furrow creases Valjean’s forehead. Then his expression smooths and he laughs again. She’d take offense, but it’s obvious he’s not laughing at her. He shakes his head. “I guess we should be glad that the police interview wasn’t too in-depth,” he says, and she’s startled to hear a hint of dryness in his voice. “What would you have said if the officer asked about my business?”
His smile is warm, inviting her in on the joke. She catches herself half-smiling back, though it feels strange. She shrugs again, fiddles with the wedding band on her finger. “That’s easy. Martel already thought you were just some sugar daddy stupid enough to marry me. Why would I care where your money came from?”
She means it as continuing the joke, but Valjean’s smile fades. He opens his mouth to say something, and then frowns and shakes his head again. “Well, I own a flower shop over on 21st Street. Mum’s the Word.” Her expression must change, because Valjean looks half-embarrassed. “The name was Cosette’s idea. I think it’s clever.”
“Oh,” she says. That explains the garden outside. A thought strikes her. She straightens. Here’s a way to not mooch from Valjean. She says, not quite meeting his eyes, “I don’t know much about flowers, but I could help out at your shop. Sweep the floor, water the plants--”
She stops at Valjean’s frown, knowing what he’s about to say. Sure enough.... “I wish you’d believe me when I say you don’t owe me anything.”
“I’m not taking charity,” she says flatly. “And I owe you for Gavroche.” Not that she’ll ever be able to pay him back for the funeral. Valjean refuses to tell her the cost, but she figures funerals are expensive. She snorts, ignoring the twinge of pain from her side. The painkillers are beginning to wear off, because the ache stays with her as she adds, “Besides, what am I supposed to do for six months, just sit around?”
“Well,” Valjean says. He looks struck by this, as though he hasn’t actually considered what she’ll do for the next six months.
“I’m a lot of things, but I’m not lazy,” she says. He blinks, but she barrels on before he can speak, getting angrier with every word. It’s not Valjean that she’s angry at, exactly, except for the resentful part of her that wishes he’d let her die. It’s everything else: her parents, her lack of chances to get into college, her entire sorry existence.
She thrusts her chin forward, clutches at the cane so tightly that her hand hurts. “I’m smart. Smarter than I look. My dad made me drop out of school, but I got good grades before I quit. I’m not lazy and I’m not dumb and I’m fuc-- I’m really good with numbers! You can ask Marius. I used to tutor freshmen when they were having trouble with math. How’s that for a high school drop-out?”
When she pauses to catch her breath, Valjean holds up a hand as though asking permission to speak. Her heart’s pounding in her ears, her side aching even more. The same tiredness that dragged at her at the funeral weighs down on her again. She braces herself on the cane and waits for him to speak.
Valjean studies her for a second. The furrow’s back in his forehead. She’s not sure what she’s expecting him to say. She’s definitely not prepared for him to ask, “Does accounting interest you at all?”
Eponine squints at him, trying to figure out what he means. “Accounting?”
“Cosette’s been helping me with the ledger, but she’s going to college in the fall.” Valjean smiles at her, tentatively. “I was going to advertise the position in another week or two, but… Would you like the job?”
“I--” Eponine’s mind races. Accounting is a real job, nothing like the under-the-table ones she’s had, waiting tables and handing out flyers. This is the kind of experience you can actually put on your resume, the stuff colleges like. And she could save him the cost of hiring an actual accountant, which will pay him back a little for Gavroche's funeral. For a second excitement touches her. Then she tamps down on the emotion. “I don’t know much about accounting, but I’m a quick learner. I could shadow Cosette for a week or two, see how it goes.”
“Okay,” Valjean says. His smile widens. “Would you like to see the shop after lunch?”
“Sure,” Eponine says, which is how she finds herself back in the car an hour and a half later, listening to Cosette exclaim how she’s just so happy that Eponine will be helping out at the shop.
Eponine should resent her. She wants to resent her. Cosette has everything Eponine ever wanted -- a high school diploma, a father who actually cares about her, admission to a great college, Marius -- but it’s hard to dislike her when she smiles with apparent sincerity.
As Valjean parks, Eponine studies the shop with a curious eye. The door is painted a pale blue, and stenciled above are delicate green vines and a riot of flowers that announces, “Mum’s the Word.” She knows, because Cosette described it over lunch, that there’s a huge greenhouse behind the shop.
She gets out of the car before Valjean can open the door for her, then eyes Cosette warily when she springs out a beat behind Eponine and says, cheerfully, “We’ll catch up with you in a sec, Dad.” Uneasiness curdles her stomach. She’s still not sure if Cosette’s repressed all memories of her awful childhood or if she’s just been waiting for a decent time to yell at Eponine.
Valjean shoots Cosette a look Eponine can’t quite read, but nods.
Eponine braces herself, but as soon as Valjean disappears into the shop, Cosette grabs Eponine’s hand and squeezes it. She lets go before Eponine can really do more than blink in surprise.
Cosette’s eyes are very bright and earnest behind her glasses. “Thank you for agreeing to Dad’s plan,” she says, voice low and sincere. “I know this whole thing is strange--” She breaks off then, laughing a little, and Eponine almost snorts, because strange doesn’t begin to cover it.
Then Cosette’s expression turns serious. “I’ve been so worried about the empty nest syndrome hitting him hard. Thinking about him being alone--” She breaks off again, her expression clouding. Then she smiles brightly. “So I’m glad he’ll have someone here with him. You can make sure he eats properly!”
You want me to babysit him? Eponine bites the question back. Still, she can’t really see Valjean needing someone to look after him. So far this past week he’s saved her and Marius from death and jail, thrown together a fake but legal marriage and too-real funeral, and somehow convinced Javert to go along with all of it.
Maybe her expression reflects her confusion, because Cosette laughs sheepishly. Her face turns pink. “I just meant….” She shrugs. “He’s just...not very good at putting himself first.”
Eponine’s even more baffled, but this time she manages to hide it. She doesn’t know anyone who doesn’t put themselves first. How else do you survive? “Okay,” she says slowly. “But I’m not going to spy on him or anything. And I don’t really know how to cook, so--”
Cosette laughs. “Oh, you don’t have to cook. Dad and I know, like, the basics, but we pretty much live on takeout and dry soup mixes. Well, that and the dinners our cleaning lady Mrs. Toussaint makes for us sometimes.” She claps her hands together. “But Dad’s probably wondering what’s taking us. Let me show you everything!”
The shop is larger than it looks from the outside. The walls are painted a bright, cheery golden yellow that should be overwhelming but somehow isn’t. The two large public rooms are brightly lit. Everywhere Eponine looks there are flowers-- flowers in pots, flowers hung upside down to dry, flower seeds in special packaging, even paintings of flowers, though Eponine wants to laugh at the prices. Who’s going to waste $200 on a painting?
Cosette cheerfully introduces her to the two people working that day, both of whom eye Eponine and her wedding ring like she’s a hallucination, and who apparently are still bewildered at the idea of their boss being married, much less to a girl her age. She doesn’t get offended, mostly because she understands their confusion. She's tempted to tell them that she's older than she looks, just so they don't think Valjean's a complete cradle-robber, but in the end she just smiles politely.
Then Cosette takes her into the small office and walks her through handling the ledger and balancing the daily accounts. It doesn’t seem too complicated, as long as you stay organized and keep on top of things. And Eponine’s always had a head for numbers. She could be good at this, and useful without being a charity case.
Again that unwanted excitement touches Eponine, that, and another emotion she doesn’t recognize. The feeling’s warm and strange in her chest. She catches herself thinking about how she’ll have to go to the library, ask Mr. Mabeuf for a replacement card and check out some books about accounting.
“Let’s see if there’s anything else Dad wants me to teach you about the shop,” Cosette says, interrupting Eponine’s thoughts.
Eponine looks at her again, still a little wary, but more and more convinced that Cosette’s blocked out all memories of their childhood together. Still, she owes Cosette an apology, she knows, but at the same time she’s not sure where to even start. She ends up saying nothing, but guilt twists her stomach.
“He’s in the greenhouse,” one of the workers says when Cosette asks, jerking a thumb towards an exit.
When Eponine steps outside, the first thing she sees is that the door to the greenhouse is propped open with a brick that someone has painted all over with wobbly flowers. When they get closer, she sees that there are initials painted in the corner: C.F. and U.F.
Eponine can’t help herself. She nods towards the brick. “Your work?”
Cosette laughs. She smiles fondly at the brick as she pushes open the door. “You need to ventilate the greenhouse, so Dad would prop the door open with a brick,” she explains, her voice loud to be heard over the fans. “When I was ten I decided to paint a brick as a Father’s Day gift, give him something nice to look at. Of course Dad’s kept it ever since.”
Eponine doesn’t know what to say, but Cosette doesn’t seem to expect a response. Instead she leads her down the rows of plants, the air just as muggy as outside, towards the back where Valjean is bent over a flower.
He doesn’t seem to notice their approach, his face tilted towards the plant. His expression is thoughtful, and his hands, stained with dirt, are gentle as he strokes his fingers over the head of the flower. The touch is almost a caress, a slow sweep of his fingers across the petals, and though it’s not the same, Eponine remembers those same fingers, so gentle against her cheek.
Her throat tightens. Her face heats, and she knows she can’t blame the greenhouse’s temperature for it. It’s such a stupid thought, thinking about Valjean’s soft touch, but before Eponine can look away, Valjean straightens. His eyes meet Eponine’s.
Even as she hastily drops her gaze, feeling ridiculous, she spots his ears turning pink.
“I think Eponine’s going to be a good fit,” Cosette announces. When Eponine glances at her from the corner of her eye, Cosette’s looking between them, one corner of her mouth creased like she’s amused. “Maybe you can even show her how to take care of the flowers.”
The strange, prickling heat in her face goes. Eponine snorts, amused by the idea of her handling the flowers. Watering them, sure, but actually doing anything more? She pictures half of the plants in the greenhouse wilting and dying at her touch. “He can try,” she mutters. “Doubt I could keep anything alive though.”
“How can you be sure?” Valjean asks quietly.
She opens her mouth to retort, and then actually looks at him. The words dry up on her tongue, because he's smiling, a small, tentative thing that crinkles the corners of his eyes. It's not the relaxed smile of before, but there's still something in it that makes her face get warm again. She twists the ring on her finger and shrugs.
"Well," she says. When she looks up again, his expression hasn't changed. She catches herself smiling back, surprised that it comes so easily to her lips. "Guess it can't hurt to try."