She tasted blood. Her cheek stung with the back of her father's hand, and the street echoed with her scream. Footsteps died away into the darkness. She huddled there, against the damp stone.
He emerged from the shadows, a face she knew in the gloom – Inspector Javert. Her parents feared him. She knew him on sight, but he did not know her. She was quicker than the others, able to slip away before he saw her. But this time, she did not move. Her heart ached.
Javert saw her, the trickle of blood in the corner of her mouth. Something passed over his face – an emotion, an almost sort of contempt, she did not understand. "It was you that screamed?"
Lights flickered along the street. "Why?"
"A man tried to steal my purse, sir." She stood, wiping away the blood.
"Why aren't you home?" He was suspicious still.
Memories of her father's hand cracking across her cheek flashed through her mind. Eponine didn't mean to tell the truth. "My father turned me out, sir."
Again she saw it, disgust mingled with pity. "Have you nowhere to go?"
Her voice almost disappeared. "No."
You are a fool, Eponine, she thought, an utter fool. Why don't you run?
Javert looked at her, a gutter rat, little more than a child, a day away from selling herself on the street. He shouldn't care, but sympathy stirred inside him. "The Mercy," he said, "do you know it?"
She shook her head.
Of course not; she wouldn't. Gutter filth never set foot inside churches; their thieving was done elsewhere, as if God would strike them dead for picking pockets under His watchful gaze. They never thought that His eyes followed them everywhere.
"It's—come with me." He pivoted on his heel.
Every instinct told her to do so. Yet, she followed, staying close in the gloom.
The church glowed dimly. Her footsteps wavered.
He almost smiled at her hesitation. "Come, you'll be safe here until morning."
Singing filled the air as they entered, cherubic faces turned toward heaven. Eponine felt out of place, a sinner in a sanctified place. Her steps slowed. She wanted to flee. The church made her feel small… small, and sinful, and dirty inside.
She backed away and fled. Drops of rain spattered her face. She reached the alley and stood there trembling.
Though he did not know why, Javert went after her.
"I don't belong there," she said, teeth chattering. "Why did you bring me here?"
Misery was in her face. He knew it well.
"They took me in once." His voice softened. "I was born in the gutter too. But you don't have to stay there. The Law can help you… the Church can help you, if you let it."
He wanted her to want that, to be something more than the pathetic little urchin that she was. She reminded him of…
No, he did not want to think of that.
"The gutter is where I belong," she whispered. Her voice cracked. She was a gutter rat, after all. It was why Marius never looked at her twice, never saw the love shining in her eyes. She was beneath him, a student, a rich man's grandson in love with a pretty, golden-haired girl who wanted for nothing. Eponine brushed away her tears. She would not let this man, this inspector, this adversary, see her cry.
It wasn't an invitation.
She turned—and looked back at him. Marius was lost, lost to that pretty girl Cosette. He was further from her now than he'd ever been before, because she had nothing, because she was no one. But Javert had been a gutter rat too, and he wanted Valjean. She could tell him—tell him of the little house, and the perfect garden, and in the golden-haired girl, and the man—tell him, and Marius would never see Cosette again.
Rain dripped onto them. Eponine opened her mouth—and stopped. She couldn't. Something wouldn't let her.
"You won't go inside," said Javert.
She shook her head. Not in that place. Not in that… holy place.
"Have you somewhere to go?" Javert knew very well what happened to girls out alone at night. He'd seen it too many times. Paris cared nothing for them. The police cared nothing for them. It was considered their own fault most of the time.
Eponine hesitated. She thought of home and her father's angry fists. Icy fear rushed through her. Then, she thought of Marius' flat, his bare little home above the street. He wouldn't be there. He would be at the barricades.
Javier made as if to go but hesitated. "It wasn't a stranger who struck you, was it?"
She looked at him, wondering why he cared. She barely shook her head.
Darkness crept around them. Javert held out his hand. "Give me your fists."
Trembling, she held them out, fearful that he would clap irons on them. Everyone said how Javert was, how he stood for nothing in the streets, how one mishap would land you in a cell. But this was not the Javert they spoke of, not the Javert she feared.
He pushed them upward, in front of her face. "If he strikes you again," he said, "you strike him back. Like this." His fingers guided her fist. "Show me."
Was this a trick?
Tangled, wet hair fell into her eyes.
Javert stared at her. "Come, girl, I haven't all night."
He too had things to do, much more important things. Revolution was upon them, riots and barricades would form in the dawn. Yet still he stayed, and still he cared.
Shaking, Eponine halfheartedly swung her fist at him.
Years of abuse, he'd endured… years in the street.
"Strike like you mean it!"
Her father's face flashed before her, igniting the sting in her cheek anew. She swung hard, full of anger—and fell.
Javert caught her without thinking. He felt warmth under the thin, threadbare garments, a woman beneath the gutter rat. He stood her on her feet, suddenly repulsed. He wanted to save her, to protect her, this miserable gutter rat that so reminded him of himself.
But no one had saved him. He had done it himself. He'd fought and been victorious, born in a jail cell, lived a youthful life in the gutter, now an inspector. Society respected you if you kept the rules, if you upheld them. This girl, this gutter rat, could not do the same. He knew the look in her eye, the defiance. He knew her father. She thought he did not recognize her, that he'd never seen her, but he did. Javert knew all that happened in the streets of Paris, every criminal's face that paraded before him.
He even knew her name.
Pushing her away, he cast aside his feelings. "Go," he said.
The next time he saw her, she was dressed in boys' clothing, her hair spilling out from beneath a grimy cap. Her eyes stared heavenward without sight and a crimson stain spread across her chest: dead in the gutter.
He stared across the body of the boy at her, his metal pinned to the silent chest. He'd cared about them both, his little gutter rats.
"Inspector," said a voice behind him. "We can't find him."
Javert reached across and closed her eyes.
"I'll find him," he said.
And his footsteps faded away into nothingness.