A/N: Done for a gift exchange on tumblr. Modern AU for plot convenience.
'Twas the night before Christmas,
the snowy night stark,
not a creature was stirring,
except for the Lark.
Jean Valjean grunted sleepily in response, his eyes remaining shut as he continued to snore blissfully in the warmth of his bed.
With a renewed energy, the voice chirped again with urgency. "Papa!"
Valjean jolted awake, sitting upright in bed. He blearily blinked away the sleep from his eyes, focusing on the shadowy little figure beside him.
Nine year-old Cosette stood in her flowery pink nightgown (of which she was very proud) with her hand resting atop Valjean's arm. Her eyes were wide and shone in the sparse moonlight that had entered the room; it gave her the effect of a ghost. Valjean shook himself and smiled at her tiredly.
"What is it, Little Lark?"
Cosette looked down abashedly. "I can't sleep."
"Nightmares?" Valjean asked, incapable of suppressing his worry; how long would Cosette carry those terrible memories of the past to sleep? Even here on Christmas Eve, safe with him, and away from the Thénardiers? His chest automatically tightened at the thought of them, and Cosette must have noticed his reaction.
Cosette shook her head. "No, but...tomorrow's Christmas," she said, indicating just how important the day was by gesturing with her hands.
Valjean nodded, his tired mind still not quite comprehending what it was Cosette was trying to get across.
"Why can't you sleep, Little Lark?" Valjean asked, patting the bed and inviting Cosette to sit with him. She did so, twirling a strand of her dark hair nervously between her fingers.
"Do you think Santa's really going to come?"
Valjean suppressed a smile and turned to her seriously. "I don't see why not. Père Noël comes to good children, and I believe you've been more than excellent this year." He noticed the look of hesitation on Cosette's face. "Unless you have something to hide?"
Cosette's eyes widened and she gave him a look so full of worry that Valjean couldn't help but smile to reassure her.
"Papa...will you promise to keep a secret for me?" Cosette clasped Valjean's huge hands in her own doll-like ones, imploring him once more with that irresistible innocence.
Valjean nodded seriously.
"I hit Claude-Michel yesterday. He called you an andouille."
Valjean laughed. "A dummy, huh? Well, thank you for defending my honor, Cosette," he said. "But don't do that again. Save violence for self-defense and spiders."
Cosette smiled half-heartedly, but Valjean could see the genuine worry in her eyes. "Will Santa still come?"
Valjean paused, pretending to be deep in thought. He looked at Cosette gravely. "I'm not sure, Cosette."
Cosette's eyes began to well up with tears and she looked down.
Valjean clenched his fists, realizing too late what he had said. Cosette didn't deserve to be upset on such a night; a night which she had no good memories of as other children did. What was wrong with him? Valjean shook his head at himself and picked Cosette up, settling her onto his lap.
"There is a way we can guarantee Père Noël's gifts for you, Little Lark."
Cosette looked at him curiously, her smile returning at Valjean's pet name for her. "What?"
"Well, Pére Nöel likes cookies, doesn't he?" Valjean mused. "Just like a certain little girl I know." He ruffled Cosette's hair fondly. "So how about we make some? Pére Nöel will smell them all the way from the sky and wouldn't dare miss this house."
Cosette brightened. Without hesitation Valjean rose, abandoning his warm shelter of pillows and blankets, and smiled as he followed Cosette into the kitchen.
Cosette stood on her tiptoes to reach the aprons hanging on the hook near the cabinets, waving away Valjean's offer to help. After a few more attempts of jumping and stretching, she finally wrestled the aprons down and handed one to Valjean. Naturally, it was the pink cupcake-patterned child's apron he had given her a few months ago. Thanking her, Valjean threw it over his neck, not even bothering to tie the ends at the back; he saw no possibility of those ends ever meeting around his bulk.
Cosette fumbled with Valjean's Kiss the Chef apron, and Valjean watched her patiently as her little hands finally managed to tie a knot he knew would take hours to undo later. The apron swished around her ankles, and Cosette nearly tripped over it as she planted her very official chef's hat on her head.
"What kind of cookies are we making?" Cosette asked as she began to rummage through the cupboards, her little brow creased in concentration at the seriousness of this task. Valjean winced as she withdrew the peppermint candies he was allergic to.
"Ah, Cosette...didn't you know Pére Nöel doesn't like those? They give him bad tummy aches."
Cosette looked up in confusion, but dismissed him and put the candies back, opting instead for the chocolate chips Valjean directed her to.
They set about to mixing the dough, and Valjean hovered behind Cosette, picking out eggshells and murmuring "a little more, Cosette," when he saw the flour still distributed unevenly in the mixture.
As Cosette began measuring out the sugar, Valjean's eyes widened as her hand was poised over the mixing bowl, ready to incorporate nearly a pound of sugar in the batch.
"Easy on the sweets, Cosette," Valjean said. "I have it from good sources that Pére Nöel is on a diet—watching for his waistline, you see." He patted his stomach, and was chagrined to note the extra softness around his own girth. Cosette grinned.
"Maybe you should too, Papa," she said, patting his stomach in turn. When her back was turned Valjean shook his head, watching her begin to roll the dough in pieces onto the cookie pan.
Cosette's fingers were nimble at her task, and it was with great precision and care that each cookie was formed so they were all of equal size and shape. Valjean watched her, wondering at how quickly she seemed to adjust and to learn. It was only a year now since he had found her frightened, lost, and hopeless in the woods. So much had changed. He had to give her a Christmas unlike any other, at the very least to make up for the ones spent with the Thenardiers'.
Valjean marveled aloud at her handiwork as he slid the cookie pan into the oven, eliciting a toothy grin from Cosette. A dim memory emerged from the depths of Valjean's mind, and with a playful smile, he flicked a handful of flour at Cosette's face, coloring her features white.
Cosette froze, staring at him in shock. Betrayal flashed in her eyes, and Valjean stood uncertainly for a moment.
Cosette was silent for a moment. "Why did you do that?" She asked quietly, looking away and already wiping the flour from her face.
Valjean's heart sank and he hurriedly crouched down and held Cosette's face in his hands, meeting her eyes. "Oh, Little Lark, it's only a game—"
Before Valjean could say another word he was choking on the powdery flour and Cosette was running away, shrieking with delight.
"You're so easy, Papa!"
"Is that so?" Valjean spluttered, grimacing at the taste in his mouth as he hauled himself to his feet and began to chase after Cosette. He caught her, and they collapsed on the couch, dissolving into exhausted laughter.
With the cookies baking in the oven, Valjean settled in with Cosette, dimming the lights and pulling a blanket around her shoulders. She burrowed in against his chest happily, her soft chatter filling the warm air, which was slowly being permeated with pleasant smells of vanilla and chocolate. As Valjean absentmindedly stroked her hair, he allowed his breathing to slow to match that of Cosette's steady heartbeat thrumming gently against his chest. Here with her, Valjean felt time slow down—it was only him and Cosette in that moment, Cosette with her happy childish chatter and warm weight pressed against him.
Valjean began to drift off, lulled by the sound of Cosette's voice and the warmth of the atmosphere. He allowed himself to sink into that warmth, to keep this moment of comfort and love alive for as long as possible—
"Papa! The cookies!"
Valjean cleared his throat, lingering in his comfortable position despite Cosette's sudden absence and the incessant high-pitched beeping of the kitchen timer. He blinked to clear the sleep away from his eyes, and grudgingly shuffled to the kitchen, trying not to let his growing exhaustion show.
"Are they done?" Cosette asked, reaching out to take a cookie as Valjean pulled the pan out from the oven.
Valjean inhaled sharply, whisking the hot pan away from Cosette's hands. "Careful, Cosette. You don't want to burn your fingers." He set the pan on the counter, pulled out a plate from a cupboard and, after allowing them a few minutes to cool down, Valjean and Cosette began to arrange them with painstaking care on the plate in a way that would she believed would most please Pére Nöel.
"Don't they look good?" Valjean nudged Cosette proudly. Cosette grinned, and a look of realization passed over her face.
"Papa—the reindeer will get hungry too!"
Valjean stared at Cosette blankly. "They'll eat the cookies, Little Lark."
"No, papa, reindeer can't have chocolate!"
"Ah. No, of course they can't. Well," Valjean said, opening the fridge and rummaging through the drawers, "how about carrots?"
Cosette beamed and nodded, arranging the carrots next to the cookies.
At long last their task was complete. Valjean looked at the clock on the wall and contained a sigh. It was far past the time for Cosette to be in bed.
"Can we read a bedtime story?"Cosette asked as though reading his mind, running off to her room before Valjean could respond. Valjean trod back to the couch, waiting. Cosette returned with a familiar book and held it out for Valjean to take. He did so dutifully, smiling a little at the faded cover of Le Petit Prince, worn from many adventures with Cosette.
As Valjean flipped the book open, landing on a chapter they had returned to so many times, Cosette discreetly pulled something out of her nightgown's pocket. Valjean thought nothing of it until he discovered some crumbs brushing the sleeve of his shirt.
"Little Lark," Valjean said, attempting sternness but breaking down into laughter, "what do you have there?"
Cosette raised her head innocently. She pulled out another cookie from her pocket and offered it to him. "Just a snack?"
Valjean thanked her and tucked the cookie in the pocket of his nightshirt and continued to read, finding that, even with some practice behind him, he still stumbled in his speech when reading aloud. But to Cosette this was nothing; she laughed at his impressions and voices, and grew somber at the serious tone his voice took in the correct places. The pages flew by, and by the time Valjean reached the end of the chapter, Cosette's breathing had slowed to the steady rhythm of sleep.
Valjean closed the book and carefully eased Cosette from his arms, laying her to rest on the arm of the couch. He pulled the blanket over her, tucking the corners the way she liked, and slowly rose, checking every few seconds to ensure that Cosette was still sleeping. Shivering with the sudden lack of heat from Cosette, Valjean went to pull on the red-knit sweater conveniently draped over the arm of the couch and returned.
Valjean moved with stealth across the room and aimed for the locked supply closet down the hall. After looking back at Cosette, Valjean found the hidden key in the inconspicuous crack in the wall and opened the closet, pulling out an array of brightly colored gifts of varying sizes and shapes. With a secretive smile Valjean carried the parcels to the living room, setting the gifts under the tree with great caution and backing away slowly. His eyes suddenly fell upon Cosette's stocking hanging above the fireplace, the one she had knit herself. He dropped a few candy pieces in it for her, and stood back to admire his handiwork. He remembered the cookie he had saved and munched on it, deep in thought.
Valjean froze, cookie halfway to his mouth, his blood running cold at the voice. He slowly turned around, catching his reflection in the window as he did so.
His white hair shone, incandescent in the moonlight, and crumbs dusted his red sweater, accounting for the look of guilt and panic on his face. With his festive attire, there was no denying who he resembled.
"Cosette," Valjean said. He abruptly stopped. What could he possibly say?
"Papa?" The question wavered in the air, and seemed suspended for a long moment. Valjean couldn't look at Cosette. He had ruined Christmas for her—not only that, but their first real Christmas, with cookies and stories and gifts.
Cosette stood, her eyes half-closed from the weight of sleep, and walked to Valjean. She looked up at him and took his hand in hers. Valjean, too shocked and disappointed in himself to do anything, remained frozen in that position until Cosette next spoke.
Valjean waited with a thudding heart, feeling as though he were back on trial, only now with Cosette as his judge.
"Are you Santa Claus?"
Valjean nearly fainted. The words that would next come from his mouth were formed from the pure instinct for survival, and the even stronger urge within him to preserve Cosette's childhood for as long as he could.
God help me, Valjean thought desperately. Just as he made up his mind to change gears to somehow fix this disaster, Valjean suddenly lost all control of his own words and started babbling to cover up his panic. "It's been a long night now, with all of the houses I've had to visit—for all those millions of children who needed their gifts. Ah...time to go back to bed, Little Lark. And, Cosette," Valjean said seriously, "this must be kept a secret at all costs, alright?"
Cosette nodded, her eyes wide and glowing with awe as she watched Valjean pick off the crumbs from his sweater.
"I can't wait to tell Claude-Michel tomorrow—we'll see who's an andouille now! My Papa is Santa Claus!" Cosette exclaimed, beaming proudly.
Valjean wore a petrified smile as he watched Cosette bounce away to bed.
What have I done?