A/N: A bit more love for this fic, please?
Chapter 9: The Lodgers At the Estrapade
If there was one thing that had not changed about Zephine it was her predilection for lodging on the second floor. "It's a nice little place, and not bad for thirty francs a year," Zephine explained in a very embarrassed voice when she admitted Fantine and the older Thenardiers to her small room. The children remained playing on the first floor under Jean Valjean's watchful eye.
"Pooh, what a hole! I had thought to see a house," M. Thenardier grumbled as he took the only armchair in the room. "You could fit two of these holes in our bedchamber!" he told his wife.
Fantine looked to Mme. Thenardier, who merely gave an indolent shrug, and then settled herself on the least comfortable seat atop a chest of drawers. She dearly wished for something to support her now aching ankle, but settled for simply resting her foot on a drawer handle. 'This place is hardly a hole,' she wanted to say. There was a proper bed in an alcove, a good fire in a stove, cheery curtains in the window, and a large table that was probably for her friend's sewing work. She glanced at Zephine, who was opening the window for some air. The afternoon light made the burn on Zephine's face stand out even more starkly than before, and Fantine had to look away before anyone could see her shudder. "I'm sorry about Dahlia. I wish I'd known," she finally said.
A half-smile crossed Zephine's face. "I heard you left Paris. I thought Dahlia had too till we became neighbours by accident."
"You two were always close," Fantine pointed out.
Zephine merely laughed harshly. "At least I was the one who could be here at the end. She had that coughing, wasting sort of illness." She smiled uneasily at the Thenardiers. "Family by any chance?"
"We only met on the road," Mme. Thenardier said stiffly.
"We decided to travel together," Fantine supplied before the Thenardiers could say anything more. "The old man is actually my father," she added.
Zephine nodded slowly. "One of those girls there-" she began.
"Yes. My daughter. You remember her?" Fantine said quickly.
"Of course. She was such a beautiful little thing the last time I saw you both. And now almost a little lady!" Zephine remarked. "The three others are yours?" she asked the Thenardiers.
"So she tells me," M. Thenardier guffawed as he leaned back in his seat.
Fantine had to keep a straight face despite her companion's rudeness to his wife. "Are there any other rooms that can be leased in this house?"
Zephine gestured to the floor. "There's a nice one downstairs, next to the concierge's room."
"What about the other rooms on this floor?" Fantine asked.
"A musician who might move out soon, a writer, and then there's Monsieur the swellest of the lot," Zephine said. "Actually he's a student but we all call him Monsieur here to tease him."
M. Thenardier scoffed audibly. "These bohemians! I am doubly certain that I won't have my family under the same roof with such a disreputable sort." He gave Fantine a withering look. "You said this was a good place, Mademoiselle Fabre."
"It's safe and snug," Fantine argued weakly. She could see Zephine's eyes narrow as she pursed her lips, just the way she once did when dealing with some half-hearted excuses from her former lover Fameuil. 'She knows I never had any other name than Fantine and that I have no father either,' she recalled.
"But too small for three children," Zephine said primly. She looked at Thenardier and smiled sweetly. "There might be nicer places; there's the Hotel de la Porte-Saint-Jacques."
"Is it far from here?"
"No, just a few streets away."
Fantine noticed Mme. Thenardier shifting in her seat as if to protest this, but the older woman simply remained silent. 'Perhaps she might want a different address,' she thought. She waited for M. Thenardier to excuse himself on the pretext of seeking the privy before she looked at Mme. Thenardier again. "Did you want to go elsewhere?"
Mme. Thenardier sniffed. "As long as the place is big enough for my girls."
"This quartier isn't the place for large houses on a few sous. You'd know that too, Fantine," Zephine said wryly, even as she seemed to be studying her former friend. Perhaps she liked what she saw, since her voice was a little more earnest when she spoke again. "Will you stay here?"
"I shall have to ask my father," Fantine replied. The words were becoming easier to say, especially when she didn't have to think too much about what it meant. 'Will he want to stay? What if he still wants to go elsewhere?' she wondered as she hobbled downstairs, taking care to give M. Thenardier some room to pass her on the stairs. She saw that all the children had fallen asleep on the floor near a stove: the two Thenardier girls were curled up together, while their brother was sprawled across their feet. As for Cosette, she was using Jean Valjean's shin as a pillow instead of the carpetbag next to them.
Jean Valjean signed for Fantine to be quiet. "How is your friend?" he whispered.
"Haven't asked yet," Fantine said. She fisted her hands in her skirt, wondering how to phrase her question without sounding improper. "There's a room here, that's big enough for a family to stay in."
Jean Valjean smiled at her kindly. "Fantine, I cannot."
"There's nothing wrong with it, if people think you're my grandfather," Fantine said.
"It is not safe for you and Cosette. There might still be a search for me," Jean Valjean said.
Fantine shook her head. "There has to be some way! Maybe someday they will stop looking for you."
Jean Valjean looked down. "That would only be a hope."
Just then the older Thenardiers came down the stairs, arguing loudly. At the sounds of their parents' voices, the three Thenardier children quickly woke and scrambled to their feet. "Maman, what's happening?" Eponine asked.
"We're going to our new home, my dear," Mme. Thenardier said as she took Eponine's arm. "Come on, keep up!"
Cosette, having been woken by this sudden commotion, let out a surprised cry as she ran to her playmates. "Where are you going?"
Mme. Thenardier stopped on seeing Cosette, and how Eponine seemed to hesitate at the sight of the other girl. "Well go say goodbye to each other; Cosette will be staying here with her mother," she told her own daughter.
"Maybe you can come here again and play," Cosette said to Eponine.
"If we have a nice house, you should come and see it too," Eponine said.
Cosette nodded before hugging Eponine, and then Azelma before the girls were scooped up by their parents. "Bye! See you soon!"
Just as Fantine took Cosette by her shoulders, she realized that the little Thenardier boy was trying to hang on to Mme. Thenardier's skirt, begging to be picked up. The woman cursed at him and kicked him aside, sending him to the floor screeching in pain.
"Madame!" Fantine shouted in shock as she ran to the sobbing child and picked him up just as the front door slammed. She tried to call out and then run after the Thenardiers, but to no avail; the family seemed to disappear in the crowds around the Place du Pantheon. She clasped the still wailing little boy to her chest in an attempt to soothe him and shield him from the now cold afternoon wind. 'How far can they get in the storm?' she wondered as she looked up and saw the sky turning a vicious dark gray. She wrapped her shawl more tightly around the boy before trudging back to the house, all the while trying to bite back her own panic. What would she do if she had to care for this child as well?
When she returned to the house, she saw Zephine already shutting the windows against the impending ill weather while Jean Valjean was lighting an old lamp. Cosette had already retrieved her book from the carpetbag and was poring over the very dog-eared pages. "Maman, can he stay with us?" she asked when she saw Fantine and the small Thenardier boy.
"I think he has to," Zephine chimed in. "Better with you than with that woman."
"He doesn't even have a name," Fantine said.
"Ponine said that sometimes his father calls him a gavroche," Cosette reported.
"We can't call him that," Fantine said disapprovingly. "Perhaps you should name him," she said to Jean Valjean, who seemed to have lapsed in a melancholy.
Jean Valjean looked at the little boy, who had calmed down enough to start sucking his thumb. "The name 'Victor' would suit him," he said as he stroked the boy's hair to further soothe him.
"Then Victor it is," Fantine said. 'Maybe I can have him and Cosette baptized at the same time,' she thought, remembering that Cosette had been taking catechism lessons from Sister Simplice before their abrupt departure. She rubbed her hands together for warmth as she heard rain beginning to howl outside the house. She also noticed that Zephine was shivering too even if she was right next to the candle. Something about the way the flickering light fell on Zephine's face moved Fantine such that she couldn't resist speaking. "What happened?"
"An accident," Zephine said flatly as she put the candle further away from her.
"Oh how terrible!"
"It was long ago, don't mention it," Zephine muttered before going back upstairs to her own room.