"Just stay away from me. No one wants you here."
The words are cold, deliberate, unsoftened by exasperation or indifference; they are meant to wound, and Éponine, watching, is suddenly overcome with contempt. S'pose he thinks he's too good to be civil. Guttersnipe though she may be, she understands common decency, and this clean-cut young man shows none.
And the man he addresses seems so inoffensive: scruffy, yes; graceless, yes; but what did he do to deserve that, except to say good-day?
She leans on the wall of the café, watching him watch the other walk off down the street, and is puzzled by his expression. There is hurt there, but no anger; bitterness, perhaps, but no censure. Like a kicked puppy, she muses. It reminds her, incongruously, of her sister.
Without thinking, she says what she would say to Azelma: "Why d'you let him do that to you?"
And flinches, as that wins her the reaction the fair-haired boy was spared. "Listen, girl, when I want the public opinion on what I should and shouldn't put up with, I'll ask for it."
He is younger than she thought, Éponine has time to note before she ducks her head, first line of defense. "'m sorry, m'sieur, it ent my business--"
Like a kicked puppy, taking it out on the first kitten who crosses his path. She lets a note of irony creep in. "--But I just was wondering, m'sieur, why anybody'd let someone talk to him like 'at, and out here in the street too."
Darting a look upward, she sees the anger fading from his face, replaced by a sort of sullen apathy. "Go to hell," he says tiredly. "You don't know."
"No, I don't," she admits, studying him through her lashes. "S'why I asked."
"Well, you'll have to wonder, won't you."
He turns away sharply. Éponine hesitates, then pushes away from the wall and jogs after him, catching at his sleeve. "Look--"
"What now?" He doesn't bother trying to dislodge her.
"Where are you going?"
"Nowhere, if it's any of your business."
"Why go anywhere? This is a nice place, don't let that boy tell you to go, he don't own the place. I know the one who does, he's a fine fellow. He'll give me a penny, sometimes... No reason you should go anywhere." She hears the cajoling note in her own voice, the idiotic soothing phrases, and again wonders why she's talking to this stranger as though he were Azelma. "Besides, it's going to rain."
"Gamine," says the young man, looking down at her with amused brown eyes, "why do you give a damn?"
Éponine blinks at him, floored. She says the first thing that comes into her head: "Because I hate a snob."
He stares. Then, perversely enough, he breaks out into laughter. She flushes, ducking her head again, but finds herself smiling in spite of herself.
"You don't mince words, do you?"
"No." She looks up at him again boldly, taking in the crooked, honest lines of his face. "Don't see why I should, not for no pretty boy. Dressed that nice he ought to 'ave better manners."
The young man grimaces, as though it were himself she's just chastised; but his voice is mild, now. "Ah... well. I'm not much for manners myself." Then, with a lopsided grin, "And neither, apparently, are you."
"Hunh," Éponine says, and then, as the rain begins to spatter down, "Tol' you, din't I."
"Proving my point."
"'Least I've enough sense to come in out of the rain, m'sieur."
"And hammering it home."
They grin at each other, suddenly in perfect accord.
"Catch your death," Éponine observes after a moment.
"You best go in."
"No, I'm going home." The young man hesitates, then digs a coin out of his pocket and flips it at her, not contemptuously, but lightly, as though it's part of a game. She catches it reflexively. "That's for the drink I didn't have," he says. "I expect you can put it to better use."
She snorts. "How d'you know I won't drink it myself?"
"Do what you want, girl. I don't care." He starts up the street again.
"My name's Éponine," she calls after him, half irked, half amused. Girl, indeed!
"Mine's Grantaire," he calls back. "Doesn't keep the rain off."
Éponine knots the coin in a corner of her skirt, unable to keep from grinning. "All right, I ent keeping you."
The young man sketches a precarious bow, catches his balance on a streetlamp, and disappears around the corner.