What can be done? The only answer he knew was to continue doing the same thing that they had since they had met. The late summer burst into autumn, autumn faded into winter, and Combeferre and Eponine continued to meet, although they retreated into a café by December. Over weekly lunch, seated next to the fire, they talked, studied, and made small exchanges: a thick pair of gloves for running pamphlets, firewood and a basket of food for keeping an eye on this or that watchman, and a wool coat for Christmas. He would have given her more and resigned himself to the status of penniless medical student if he thought that doing so could have driven the unrest from her face, but he had long since learned that anything of value quickly disappeared from the Thenardier residence; she had already confided that her two most valuable dresses had been pawned off, and he feared he knew the fate of the coat and gloves come spring.
But no matter. While Enjolras still avoided Eponine, he had approved of her services as a runner, she was progressing well and seemed to be as happy and healthy as could be expected, and his own studies indicated that he had a great career before him – so long as he stayed alive for it. All seemed well, until, in the first week of February, Eponine disappeared.
At first, he thought little of it. Her life was subject to whims far more forceful and dangerous than his, so it was only natural that she would miss a few of their little reunions. He left a note with the owner of the café, now accustomed to the odd pair, to give to her whenever she arrived.
He checked back two days later to no avail. It concerned him that she would vanish without a word, so after that, he returned every day, sometimes multiple times, until the now-irritated owner simply asked him to leave his address and promised to notify him when the girl came. After a week and a half, Combeferre could hardly suppress his panic. Was she sick, dead, or simply gone? Why had she sent no word?
He had alerted his companions to Eponine's disappearance only shortly after she had gone missing and when they met again, his anxiety had begun to spread to the rest of the group. Even Enjolras looked a concerned at the prospect of losing his unofficial runner when he asked Combeferre for news. When Courfeyrac showed up, he valiantly tried to break the mood, throwing his arm about Combeferre's shoulders and declaring, "Don't worry, my dear Pygmalion. Your girl has been looking after herself her whole life; she won't die for two weeks' separation from you."
Combeferre looked up at his friend blearily, giving Courfeyrac the opportunity to take in the full effect that fear had on him. His askew cravat was tied poorly and dark circles lined his eyes. "If she doesn't, I very well might." He laughed unsteadily. "This is completely ridiculous. Have you ever seen me such a mess?"
"Not after you botched your first dissection," Courfeyrac ticked off on the fingers of his left hand, "not after Grantaire, Bahorel, and I forced you into a drinking contest, and not after you shot your first man in the July Revolution, so I'd have to say: no."
"I know you won't take my words to heart, but hear me out. I approach life on the principle that we should fight like tigers for that which we can influence, but that gives us the right to go along peacefully with the turns that fate throws our way. Fretting or yelling won't change a thing. Why, not two weeks ago, that poor fellow Pontmercy shows up again at my apartment and announces that he's moving back in. After how many years! Did I complain or try to fight the poor boy? No! I simply–"
"Wait, Pontmercy as in Marius Pontmercy?"
"How many other Pontmercy's do you know? I hope there isn't more of him…"
"Good God! Is he still there?"
"I expect he's staring off into space from my balcony at this very moment. Why?"
"Take me to him! Now!"
"I believe Eponine once said that they lived near each other; I know they're acquainted. What if he knows something we don't?"
"But why would he–"
"Please? My friend?"
Giving up all hope of the dinner that he had been so anticipating, Courfeyrac nodded and jogged out to the street to hail a cab, pausing for a moment as he left to tell Bossuet to have his plate when it came.
Pontmercy, it happened, was not sighing on the balcony but instead hunched over Courfeyrac's desk, so engrossed in whatever he was trying to write that he did not even look up when they entered.
"Pontmercy," Courfeyrac called as he removed his hat, to no avail. "Pontmercy? Marius!"
"Mmm?" Marius voiced, looking up slowly over his shoulder. He had somehow managed to streak a line of ink across his own cheek. "Ah, Courfeyrac – I did not expect to see you home so soon."
"Neither did I, but we've got something important to ask you."
"We?" Marius then saw Combeferre hanging in the doorway. "Oh. You." Using the formal address. They had hardly spoken since Marius had disappeared from the society, and the Bonapartist evidently did not remember the Republican kindly.
Marius stood up very straight. "You insult me, you do not speak to me for – three years? four? – and now you would come to ask a favor?"
"Not now, Pontmercy," Courfeyrac chided, trying to remember how to deal with these sudden fits of pride. "This may be urgent."
"This is your home, and as a guest I must follow your rules, but I really must object to–"
"Please. Pontmercy. Have you seen Eponine?"
Marius' demeanor instantly melted. He gaped at Combeferre. "Eponine?"
"She is your neighbor, is she not? She disappeared nearly two weeks ago."
"How do you…?" Marius began, then stopped abruptly. "Two weeks ago, you said?"
"Not quite, but yes."
"Oh. Oh, there was a robbery. I…heard about it, you see. It was in my building. And I heard that the police got her family. I haven't seen her since, so she may be in prison. That's all I would know. But her family was certainly gone when I left. It was no longer safe there, so I came here."
"Prison! To the police headquarters then, Courfeyrac. Perhaps the bank first, if she needs bail. Any thought of how much it would be?"
"For a young thief? Not much, I should think. But I doubt the police will see you tonight."
"The bank, then, and the station tomorrow afternoon."
"I'll go to the station in the morning while you're working and sent word as to where we should meet."
Combeferre nodded gratefully, then turned to Marius. "Thank you, Pontmercy. You've been a great help, and I hope we may meet on easier terms next–"
"Wait! Do you know her father?"
Combeferre blinked. "No. Why?"
"Oh…be careful around him. He is dangerous. But…" Pontmercy chewed his lip, "let me know if you find any information about him. I owe him a certain debt."
"Of course. Is there anything else we should know?"
"Why, yes, actually. What did Eponine say her family name is?"
Pontemercy gave a mysterious shudder. "That's correct, as far as I know, but be forewarned that they also go by Jondrette, and Genflot, and Fantabou (or perhaps Fabantou? Fatanbou?), and Alvares, and Balza…no, Baliz–"
"So many names? Do you think she would give a false one to the police?"
"I don't know."
"Well write them down!" Courfeyrac cried, clearly happy to finally be on the hunt. "Do you expect me to remember all of them? Two copies, if you please."
Marius complied, then handed the first list to Combeferre.
"A thousand thanks. Will you be coming with us?"
"Ah…two should be enough, I think. I am not sure I can…ah…"
"No matter. Perhaps we may further reconcile later, but I must go."
"Tell me what has happened to the father, and all is forgiven."
Combeferre almost countered that he did not feel the need to be forgiven for an old political discussion but wisely held his tongue. "Good. I'll do my best." They shook hands and Courfeyrac saw him to the door. There was much to be done before tomorrow.