Notes: Thank you once again for the reviews, follows, and favorites! I may not be able to respond individually, but rest assured that all your feedback is helping me give my best to this fic, such as it is. But to answer a question brought up: although the circumstances here are different, the execution in the previous part is book canon, as is Éponine's time in jail mentioned in this chapter. We're almost at the end now. Corrections, suggestions, and constructive criticism are welcome, as always.
Day Five: The Pied Piper of Hamelin
He hadn't looked like a man when he executed Le Cabuc. He had looked like a boy with a gun.
They all look like boys with guns here at the barricade, with their smooth faces and their clear eyes. Éponine is younger, but she already knows more about hardship than they do. This is a children's crusade, and, because of that, the execution scene had been nothing short of ominous. The memory of it blazes in her mind, the image of Enjolras bending the man down, pistol in hand, his golden hair falling across the sharp and shadowed angles of his face, rendering her unable to sleep.
Inside Madame Huchloup's house, Éponine studies the loose section of wall, marked by sloppily arranged wooden boards, the crooked nails driven only halfway through. She knows her streets; she knows this wall will lead into an alley, and that alley will lead to salvation because it is a thieves' shortcut unknown to the police. She can make her escape now, under cover of night, and put the revolution behind her. She can live again.
The opening of doors, the dark gaps between the boards seem to promise, Gavroche and Monsieur Marius fading into mere whispers at the edges of her subconscious. The end of walls. Space, the sun, the city yours once more. Gather your rivers and break free. Remember that jail cell, the cold wet floor, the bars over the sky? You promised yourself in there that nothing would ever hold you again.
She reaches out and pries off a nail. The rusty iron trembles in her palm the same way the gun had in Enjolras'. She is suddenly gripped by the mad urge to start tearing at her prison, to go, just go, little bird, quick-witted and fleet of foot, you will not die here-
There is a slow, ponderous knock at the door. When she opens it, her gaze is already trained downwards because she thinks it's Gavroche. But what she finds herself staring at are fine-quality boots, lean legs, narrow hips.
"What are you doing here?" she asks.
Enjolras shrugs. He smells like someone's tossed him into a vat of whiskey. In the feeble lamplight his cheeks are pale and there's a feverish glint in his blue-black eyes.
Her first instinct is to snicker; so he isn't too high-and-mighty to enjoy baser pleasures, after all! And then she realizes that she'd rarely seen him drink in the time before, and amusement gives way to the most piercing sorrow as she remembers what had transpired earlier, how he'd stepped into the role of executioner by unspoken agreement. It's his barricade and his revolution and, ultimately, his burden.
There are many ways to escape, and she will not begrudge him this one.
She retreats in silent invitation and he staggers through, his sleeve brushing against her arm. She closes the door and turns back to the room to see him already sitting down on the bed, leaning casually against the wall, elbows out and ankles crossed with that elegant grace wound so intricately into his sinews that even alcohol can't conquer it.
There is a prince in a street rat's bedroom, but Éponine is too old for fairytales.
She sinks into the mattress, as far away from him as the small space will allow, stealing a glance at his profile. The women of Paris like to giggle about his angel's face, but in this murky sea of gold and shadow his features are thrown into odd relief, too harsh to be pretty.
"You did what had to be done," she says.
"Perhaps," he sighs, and then falls silent.
The secret, uncharitable part of her, the part that turned its nose up at Cosette and made rude gestures at her father's back, thinks, If I'd only known that all it takes is alcohol to shut you up, I'd have forced entire bottles down your throat long before June, and this whole sorry mess could have been avoided.
But there is another part of Éponine that wouldn't leave without Gavroche, the part that gave her feet the wings it needed to climb the barricade and deliver Cosette's letter to Monsieur Marius, and it is this part that now makes her stretch an arm across the distance and rest her hand on Enjolras' shoulder.
"I am sorry," she rasps, "that you had to be the one to do it."
He sends her a fleeting half-smile in the gloom. His skin is warm through his shirt, beneath her palm. He is thinner than he was before; she'd heard rumors that his family had cut him off.
There's a question that's been nagging at her for months. "What turns someone like you into a revolutionary?"
His eyes meet hers. His voice, when he speaks, is small and raw with pain. "Someone like you."
She draws back, wrapping her arms around herself. "We never asked you to wage war for us, Enjolras."
"And I never asked you to stay," he quietly retorts. "Why did you?"
During the long fire-lit nights at the Musain and these slow and endless days at the barricade, she'd come to know bits and pieces of him- never the whole picture, but enough to realize what he in his drunkenness wants to hear. Tell me this is your fight, too. Tell me you believe. This poor little rich boy, who's never understood that people like her already fight tooth and nail trying to wedge themselves into the cracks of society and they take only what they can get, this aristocratic-faced bourgeois who sparked a revolution with his big ideas and his big words, who would see Paris in flames for the sake of building something better from the ashes.
They will get tired of waiting for you, she thinks. The barricade will fall, and you're going to die. The oily lamplight renders his features translucent; he already looks ethereal, almost a ghost. Boys like him are not meant to live long. The passion that drives them always consumes them in the end.
He's waiting for her answer. She can lie to him, I believe, I believe, I will be with you until the very last. She can make his burden tolerable. She's the mistress of faking it, she is more Jondrette than Thénardier.
But he knows her as Éponine.
She breaks eye contact, choosing instead to stare at the section of loosely-nailed boards in Madame Huchloup's house. The opening of doors. The end of walls.
"I'm staying, 'Ponine," Gavroche had told her in the lull of the grace period after the execution, his lower lip jutting out stubbornly. "And I think you are, too. This is bigger than us, y'know? Leave and see if you can look yourself in the eye ever again."
"If I am water, you are fire," she says at last, distantly, free with her words because Enjolras is too inebriated, he will have forgotten them by the time morning comes. "Burn me up, bourgeois boy. Turn me into smoke."
She wakes up to daylight. He is sprawled out next to her on the tiny bed, snoring softly, one arm flung across her waist. The weight and warmth of it isn't exactly displeasing, but before she can process the strangeness of the situation, Joly barges into the room and does it for her.
"Enjolras, there you are!" he cries. "I tried to feed Javert and he bit me, Enjolras-" He falters to a stop, taking in the scene as Éponine throws off the offending arm and practically leaps from the bed.
"I'll… come back?" Joly stammers, looking confused.
"It's not what you think," snaps Éponine. She jabs Enjolras' side, perhaps a bit too roughly, and he pulls himself into a sitting position, blinking lazily, his golden hair falling into his dark blue eyes.
"What is the matter?" he asks Joly in a voice scratchy from sleep.
Joly holds out a trembling hand that's riddled with tooth-marks. "Javert bit me," he repeats, less panicky than before, his eyes darting between the two other people in the room.
Enjolras groans, rubbing his temple as he stands up. "Diseases cannot be transferred via human bites."
"You're not exactly a doctor, are you? I think I'm already coming down with something-"
The two students walk out, still arguing. Enjolras doesn't spare even a backwards glance in Éponine's direction, but, then again, she never expected him to.
It's the fifth day of revolution, and the people at the barricade are restless. The hung-over Amis wander the street desultorily, inspecting the two ramparts and checking their weapons. The cow moseys over to the corner of Rue Mondétour, earning an absent-minded pat from Courfeyrac and a very black, sour look from Bahorel.
Éponine hauls a bucket of water for Aurore to drink from, but Monsieur Marius stops her. "You shouldn't be doing heavy work," he says. "You've only just healed."
"I can handle it," she replies.
He takes the bucket from her anyway. There's a prickle at the back of Éponine's neck, and she turns to catch Enjolras' glance in their direction. He frowns when their eyes meet before looking away and resuming his discussion with the few remaining workers.
Aurore tips its nose into the bucket, lapping at the water greedily. "Poor thing," says Monsieur Marius. "It must dream of fields and hay."
"And what do you dream of, Monsieur?" she teases.
He grins at her. "That's Citizen Pontmercy to you."
She groans. "This is madness."
"Psst!" someone hisses from beyond the smaller rampart, and the worker posted there as a sentry automatically cracks his rifle.
It's a man in army uniform. At first, Éponine thinks they've moved up the customary grace period, but when she peers through the gaps of furniture she recognizes the face.
"My name is Valjean," says the old man. "I told the Guard I can talk some sense into you people, but I've come to volunteer."
Enjolras and his lieutenants are summoned, and, after a short consultation, they let Valjean through. He's smuggled some biscuits in his pockets, which are quickly distributed among the grateful rebels.
"There is a penalty for betrayal, Citizen," warns Enjolras. "We have the spy Javert tied up-"
"- And gagged," Joly butts in. "Gagged, now."
A long-suffering expression flickers across Enjolras' face. "And gagged," he continues. "We will not hesitate to do the same to you."
Valjean nods. "I understand."
"Ahoy there!" booms the officer's voice, much later, across the barricade at the Rue de la Chanvevrie.
Grantaire, who is leaning against a piano with bottle in hand, tips his head in the direction of the sound. "Yes?" he calls out.
"You have one of our men," replies the officer.
Grantaire's eyes flutter to Valjean. He takes a swig of liquor. "Yes," he says again in an agreeable tone.
There is a brief pause.
"Well, give him back," the officer finally demands, annoyed.
"He's changed sides," Grantaire roars. "Go away."
They hear the officer's boots thudding on the cobblestones as he stomps off. The Amis look at one another and start to chuckle. Éponine presses a hand to her mouth as mirth bubbles up inside her. Even Enjolras smiles.
Sometimes it's the bigger picture. Sometimes it's the little things.
Their punishment that night is the withdrawal of the grace period, but it had hardly been necessary in the first place. The people left at the barricade are the most fervent believers, the ones who have been given plenty of time to change their minds but refuse to.
However, belief doesn't fill stomachs, and the last of the food has run out.
"We're fine for now," says Combeferre to Enjolras, within earshot of Gavroche and Éponine. "We can skip dinner tonight. But I don't know about tomorrow, and the day after that…"
Éponine glares at Gavroche, who's already starting to square his shoulders. "No," she barks. "Don't do it."
"I've done it many times," brags the gamin. "I'll wait until later, when they're nodding off."
"You and I both know luck runs out," she hisses, slipping into argot. "One wrong step, one beam of light-"
"Sis," he interrupts, laughing in her face, "I can be shadow. I learned from the best, didn't I?"
Éponine was the first to hold Gavroche in her arms when he was born, kicking and shouting at the world. Her mother wept bitter tears and her father bowed his head, because it was yet another mouth to feed, but Éponine had been happy because she missed the dolls that had been sold and here, at last, was someone to whom she could tell the stories from the books long gone. And so she watched him grow, from a skinny baby to a skinny little boy, teaching him how to be quick, how to con, how to disappear, until he was even better at it than she was.
But luck runs out, when men are angry because they've been tricked, when everyone's on edge and looking for the slightest excuse. A foot can slip, a soldier can glance at the wrong spot at the wrong time and decide to follow orders.
Inside her borrowed house, Éponine hears the shot in the stillness of night. She curls up in bed and starts to cry. A life of vanishing around corners and ducking from the police has taught her to be silent, but before she was Jondrette, she was Thénardier and had been capable of throwing the most glorious, spoiled tantrums that had made her once doting parents' ears ring.
And so she sobs and screams, pummeling the threadbare sheets with her bare fists, as outside there are rushing footsteps and a muttered conversation taking place outside her door. She shouts her rage into the walls until her throat is raw, her eyes screwed up and puffy with hot tears, salt dripping down her nose, into her mouth.
Strong arms wrap around her shuddering frame. Gasping and wheezing, she strikes out, her closed fist slamming into an elegant jaw. Enjolras reels back, looking shocked, and suddenly she's yelling at him in the language of the streets, her streets, her chest tight with hatred, her stomach churning with bile.
She is Éponine Thénardier, and they took her brother away.
He remains silent and still, absorbing all of her verbal abuse, and when her screams finally give out, when her sobs fade into whimpers, he doesn't move to hold her again. Instead, he slips his hands into his pockets, regarding her with creased brow and shadowed eyes.
"Blame me," he says simply.
"No," she whispers, voice ugly and thick and rotten. "You can't have my blame. I already gave you everything else."
"It's dull in our town since my playmates left!
I can't forget that I'm bereft
Of all the pleasant sights they see,
Which the Piper also promised me.
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land…
The music stopped and I stood still,
And I found myself outside the hill,
Left alone against my will,
To go now limping as before,
And never hear of that country more!"
To Be Continued