A/N: I'm back. Yey. Sorry for taking so long, I was away from any writing material for five days and then I had to catch up on all the writing to be done.
But here is the next chapter. I hope you still like it.
Thanks for all the reviews and comments and PM discussions. I really really appreciate it!
Thanks also to judybear236 for comments
Tell me what you think about this latest chapter of mine...
All the best
Chapter 31: Recover and regroup
"I like you. You're trouble."
"Why thank you. That's the nicest thing anyone has said about me in days."
When the steps became audible, they had been sitting in the back room for no more than a few minutes, sharing a sip of wine to go with the early evening begun and waiting for the rest of their group to appear. Bossuet had considered the possibility of dinner, but Joly had proposed that they should wait for at least a few more of their band to reappear. Certainly, there would be the opportunity to exchange information, and this would be worth the wait. He could tell Bossuet was not happy about it, but he had resigned himself to the wait; slightly disgruntled but apparently seeing the point of Joly's proposal.
The steps, however, rendered any previous plans rather useless. They were coming from the passageway from Rue des Gres, and they were halting, almost careful, and certainly too light to be originating from one of their comrades.
Joly produced from his satchel a small pistol, loaded and ready, and placed it in front of him, his hand almost casually resting on the handle of the weapon. He had been carrying it around since after the attacks, and had kept it ready. There was no use being caught unprepared.
He nodded towards his friend, who thankfully understood the meaning without the need for words.
Treading softly, Bossuet got up and slipped towards the door as the steps came closer, opening it just as the intruder arrived on the other side, shielding himself with the door against whatever might be coming from this end.
Joly realized almost immediately that their concern was unwarranted, though.
Standing in front of the door was the girl Éponine, the one that Enjolras had invited to their assembly the evening before. She had been around their group for quite a while, mostly apparently attached to Marius, but Joly had to agree that the fact that she had saved not only Pontmercy, but also Enjolras and Prouvaire two days ago had put her character slightly in perspective.
Right now, however, she seemed to be in quite a different state.
She was pale and panting, supporting herself with both arms against the frame of the door. Her black hair, which at best of times was lank and uncombed, now hung about her face, only enhancing the impression of her pallor. Thin trickles of blood had run along her arms.
Joly reacted first, thoroughly shaken by her appearance.
"Good God", he exclaimed. "What happened?"
She seemed to be looking for an explanation of the state she was in, blinking hectically a few times, but Joly never let her get as far as that. Leaving the pistol where it was he got up and stepped towards her, carefully taking her arm.
"Mademoiselle, come. You should sit down."
She flinched slightly at his touch, a circumstance that Joly noted for further reference but ignored for now, as he steered her towards one of the benches where he bade her sit.
She followed without resistance which – given the few things he knew about her – came rather as a surprise and only spoke of her exhaustion all the more. Joly sent Lesgles to bring some water for her to drink, and some more to clean her up, and while his friend was doing so, he assessed the damage.
On first glance, it was not quite so bad. She was pale and shivering, a slight sheen of sweat over cool skin. Her arms had been cut in various places, like the almost tender kiss of a very sharp knife that had left its traces on her biceps and forearms, in shapes and patterns that Joly did not even try to decipher. She was sporting a slight lump at the side of her head, where something had hit her against the temple.
On the same side, a broad strand of hair was cut to chin length and stood out amongst the rest that was significantly longer, falling deeply into her back.
Frowning, Joly tried to make sense of what he saw. He went back to the lessons he had had.
Asking the patient is important, Ashbel Smith had said, when he had taken Joly with him on his visits to the sickbeds. But always form your own opinion first. A patient's memory is often unreliable in its panic and worry.
He assessed the damage on the arms. The wounds were not deep but rather widespread, and from some areas blood was still trickling in small drops. However, they would probably heal without difficulty. Some cleaning might help, but at a first glance none of the cuts were truly dangerous. There might even be no or only very few scars.
Now her general condition was something more difficult to place. The pallor and weakness could point towards a number of causes from concussion over shock up towards several diseases such as influenza or even more severe ailings.
Given her overall state Joly concluded that a common illness was less probable than an aftereffect of some sort of rough handling. Her clothing alone was a clear sign that she originated from the lower classes, and his visits to the poorer quarter of Paris had told him quite a few things on the dangers beyond mere illness that one might encounter there.
Joly had had his share of tight situations.
"Mademoiselle", he began, and she focused on him with difficulty, as he raised a finger before her eyes. "Continue to watch this, please, without moving your head." He slowly moved his finger to her left, then to her right.
She followed, wincing slightly, but fulfilling the task, only a slightly quickened blinking showed that she was having any difficulty with it.
"Does it call forth nausea?" Joly asked.
"Some", Éponine admitted. "Though not as bad as before. I threw up twice."
That might point towards concussion, although that was notoriously difficult to diagnose accurately.
She focused her gaze on him again – it was a good sign that she was able to, Joly decided – and he realized that the pupils were small, significantly smaller than he would have expected given the light in the back room of the Musain. He frowned at the odd sign, searching his memory for possible explanations, finding only very few.
One suspicion, however, remained persistent.
"Breathe on me, will you?" he asked, and as she complied he recognized between the sour remnants of an upset stomach a slightly sweeter note that confirmed his suspicion in an instant.
"Did you drink tea recently?" he asked, and Éponine frowned, obviously thinking his question odd.
"No", she said, then hesitated. "Well. I don't know."
Joly pondered this for a moment.
"So there is a time you do not remember?" he asked and something quickly flashed through her eyes, difficult to place but distinctly unpleasant.
"Sort of", she admitted reluctantly. Joly suspected that the only reason why they were even having this conversation in such a calm manner was that something had indeed shaken the gamine. She had been very sure of herself and efficient the evening before, when Courfeyrac had recruited her as help in organizing the assembly.
"There is a remnant of poppy seed on your breath", Joly explained. "Which is why I suspect what you are currently experiencing is the aftermath of being given a dose of opium." He removed his spectacles to clean them absent-mindedly while he continued to explain. "Opium is being derived from the seeds of the poppy plant, and has become quite popular of late."
"I know that", Éponine snapped with a remnant of her former spirit and Joly concluded that indeed maybe she did. One would, if one roamed the streets as she probably did.
"Very well", he said, deciding not to be offended by her behavior. He had seen worse in the faubourgs and could even somewhat understand her impatience. Waiting on a diagnosis was a terrible thing.
"I thought it's smoked." Her words were slightly more gentle now, although the frown had certainly not left her face.
"Mostly, yes", Joly admitted. "Although recently, tea made from the seeds has come into fashion as well. It is less popular than the pipe, of course, but I have seen it before."
"Easier to make you drink it when you're unconscious", Éponine mumbled disgruntledly, and Joly not for the first time wondered what had happened. The fact that she was obviously oblivious did not quite suggest that she had taken the opium herself. However, he had not concluded his assessment on her condition.
"I guess so", he confirmed, though. "I am deeply sorry for hearing that, Mademoiselle…"
She snorted, and he decided to continue on the medical facts for the moment, before he tried to find out what was going on.
"The mixtures that are sold on the streets are sometimes not very clean, and I am of the impression that this is the main reason for the aftereffect you are experiencing. The aftereffects of one-time opium consumption are usually not very severe, but what you have explained and what I can tell seems to point towards a fabrication and preparation process that was not quite as thorough as it should be. It…"
"What you're telling me is I will be okay", Éponine interrupted, voice slightly rough. Joly was taken aback by her bluntness, but he nodded slowly in response.
"Yes", he said. "That's what I suppose I was trying to say."
She pondered this for a moment, thoughtfully chewing on the insides of her cheek before she nodded.
"All right then", she answered, and tried to push herself up, but Joly did not let her get that far.
Placing his hands on her shoulders – again she flinched and Joly wondered what had happened to her; but he did not dare to ask yet – he softly pushed her back to her seat.
"I don't think so", he said. "What I would recommend is something to drink", he fished for the glass that Bossuet brought and placed it before her, "and something light to eat that will settle your stomach. And rest."
"I'm no doll", she snarled. "And not your pet."
Joly was slightly taken aback and not quite sure where this fierceness had come from. She had reacted in a similar manner, though not that strongly, when they had first invited her into the back room, wounded in a different battle and a different manner.
"I did not want to imply this in the least. In fact…"
Joly hesitated and searched for words for a moment, but he was interrupted before he could finish his sentence by the arrival of several of their comrades from the main entrance of the café. Éponine raised her head with him, looking towards the entrance of the room.
"Great", she said. "News after all."
Eponine was glad that Joly's attention moved from her to his entering friends, so that she had the possibility to sit back, take a sip of water, lean against the wall and collect her thoughts.
She had not thought of opium when she had worried what was wrong with her, but of all the options that her slightly upset mind had supplied, this was certainly one of the less threatening. Éponine had steered clear of the places where the sweet smell of smokes were telltale signs of the herbs that were being consumed. That did not mean, however, she knew nothing about it.
Relieved of this worry of hers, she tried not to ponder the myriad others, that were battering at her mind. Such as the fact that she had no concrete idea what had actually happened to her. Now, with rest and some calm and time passing, her mind seemed less foggy, less affected by whatever she had been given by the man who had held her in his custody, but with a certain disquiet she had to admit that her memories remained hazy.
She had no idea what he had done to her, and that was a very disquieting thought.
"Good lord, Éponine, what happened?"
The voice found its way into her thoughts and Éponine raised her head to look at Courfeyrac, who had entered the room with Bahorel, Grantaire and Enjolras in tow. He had immediately spotted her in her place sitting against the wall and gave a clear picture of concern. The others, following behind, found their places in the room and around the corner she was sitting in with practiced ease – Joly at her side, Bossuet next to him; Enjolras and Bahorel across the table and Grantaire at an angle, tipping back his chair in a study of nonchalance and almost-amusement.
Éponine, however, had seen enough false ambivalence to last her a lifetime and neither did she believe him, nor Courfeyrac's studied calm as he leaned against one of the pillars, still watching her.
Looking at the latter, she realized that he was probably expecting an answer.
After a moment's hesitation, she opted for honesty.
"He caught me", she said, as simply as she could, and that was indeed what it all came down to.
Nonetheless, there was a world in that statement, and she tried to fend off the images that it brought with it. She was fairly certain that Montparnasse had saved her life by rescuing her from the clutches of that man. She was also fairly certain that it would not have been an easy death.
But these thoughts were leading her nowhere, and fortunately, both Courfeyrac's exclamation of "what?!" and Enjolras' subtle tensing as he bowed slightly towards her tore her out of this unproductive line of thought.
"You are talking about the man who attacked us at the market, I presume?" Enjolras asked. Outwardly, he was calm, one arm placed on the table as he watched her, but Éponine, trained in the finer art of body language, saw the subtle tension there. She nodded.
"Yes." And stopped talking.
Courfeyrac shook his head and took to pacing.
"Why would he do that?" he wondered aloud, and this earned him a disdainful snort from Grantaire, who already had a new bottle in hand and took a deep gulp.
"Stupid question", he snarled. "That man's out for blood. Bastard got none of it two days ago, and so of course he's getting it another way."
"It's worse than that, actually", Bahorel added. He seemed relatively calm given his normal exuberant behavior, but his focus was now directed to Courfeyrac. "We all know what he is. That's a next step of escalation actually."
"Yes it is." Éponine had no idea what they were talking about, but obviously Courfeyrac did. "I assume he took you captive instead of going for a quick kill?" He did not even wait for her answer but shook his head once more, continuing his rambling without a second thought. "This is bad, it's exactly what has happened before. Yes, he must have been after you personally, there's no other explanation."
"Actually there would be", Bahorel contradicted. "She's crossed him. And his friends. Some don't take that that easily." His grin was almost wolfish and made Éponine shiver slightly. "But I agree that your theory is somewhat more probable."
"I don't even want to imagine the things he could have done, the things he probably has done", Courfeyrac continued, but this was when Éponine intervened, being thoroughly fed up with both situation and discussion.
"I'm right here", she reminded them angrily. "What the hell is going on?"
"We have received an anonymous letter this morning." Enjolras' cool voice cut through the excitement with the clarity of a cloth soaked with cold water on a hot summer day. "More to the point Marius Pontmercy has received an anonymous letter sometime between the attacks and today. It contained a set of information on the man that has tried to kill us at the market two days ago."
Éponine turned to look at him, as he recalled the contents of the letter, and although what he was saying was gruesome, the cruel neutrality of his words made it almost bearable. She let the words sink in, and had to admit that it was easy to reconcile the picture Enjolras was painting with the voice in the darkness, with the disquieting touch, the fetters and the whispers.
"Would you share with us what has happened today?" Joly's voice was gentle and careful, almost in the manner of someone speaking to a spooked animal, and it put her immediately on the edge. Weakness was not something that came easily to her, or something that she ever indulged in. The more she was unsettled, the less she was inclined to that sort of treatment.
And unsettled – if she was honest with herself – she was. Deeply so.
She turned her gaze to the young medic and took a deep breath, trying not to be unfair. He had already helped her, and even though now she saw a glow of hated pity in his eyes, his manner of treating her injuries had been agreeable on the whole. Ungratefulness was not befitting. There was little enough selflessness in the world.
And yet his voice and gaze called back the abyss that she had just left and Éponine took a deep breath to banish the specters into the darkest, deepest recesses of her mind.
Her voice was cool and steady as she told them what had happened.
It was little enough that she could rationalize. She remembered being taken and caught, getting a glimpse at the face she had seen several times before and that she probably would never forget again. The first part of her captivity stood clear in her memory, but after her attempt at escaping, everything was hazy. She dimly remembered drinking something, remembered touches and whispers, disjointed moments and flashes in time, but she did not delve into the details of them.
That was an abyss she did not want to face yet.
When she finished, there was silence.
It was, without surprise, Courfeyrac who found his voice first.
"How did you escape?"
She let out a wolfish grin which felt like the only facial expression she was still capable of.
"I do have some friends."
"Without doubt", Bossuet confirmed. "And I am very glad to hear it. These friends of yours have done a very courageous deed, all things considered."
"How did they know how to find you?"
Courfeyrac had taken up his position at the pillar again, arms crossed, a looking at her, the frown still plastered on his face.
That, Éponine had to admit, was a good question.
While she had to face the fact that Montparnasse knew quite a bit more about this band of assassins than was beneficial for her peace of mind, it was also clear that he had saved her life today. Whatever his dealings with their attackers were, he had taken sides this afternoon, and in the clearest and most unambiguous way.
Éponine had preciously few people she could trust. And while the bond between her and Montparnasse was nowhere near where it had been at a different time, she did not intend to betray her one time friend. They still were associates, and she was now deeper in his debt than ever before.
Yet Marius' friends were expecting an answer of sorts, and she fled into a noncommittal statement, all too similar to many she had done before.
"We are children of the streets", she said. "We know our way around."
Courfeyrac raised his brows and nonverbally made it clear that he recognized her statement for the aversion that it was, but he did not press. His lips twitched slightly, and there was concern in his eyes that Éponine would have liked to ignore.
"I see…" Joly said, finally. "After this tale…" A clinking sound made Éponine turn and she saw that the young doctor was fiddling with his cane again; a habit of his that even Éponine had already realized due to the fact that he was doing it so often. He was not looking at her, his fingers uncertain and fumbling while he was groping for words. "Pardon me, Mademoiselle… I hope the hurts we have dealt with are… all…"
Éponine understood immediately what he was aiming at and cut him off with a snarl.
"Yes, they were all", she gave back bitingly. "Nothing more happened. End of discussion."
She did not even begin to think of might-have-beens.
Joly raised a hand in defense, the despicable pity clear in his eyes.
"Of course, Mademoiselle", he retreated, and Éponine almost wished he would have pressed, because that would have given her something to unleash her fury against, but he was not offering and she kept herself well in check.
"Is there anything we can do for you?" The lesson that Joly had learned quickly had obviously not sunk in on Courfeyrac yet. 'Leave me alone' Éponine was tempted to say, but on the other hand she did not exactly feel like going home yet.
It was tempting, easily tempting to stay here, where at least she could lick her wounds in peace.
If they would let her…
"It raises the question on how we proceed." Again, Enjolras' words were slightly at odds with the overall subdued mood, but he relieved her of the necessity of an answer. If he had sensed her hurt or the dismay of his comrades, he did not react to it. "There are a number of actions to be taken." He placed his fingers against one another in a thoughtful gesture.
"This second attack only emphasizes the need of finding out the nature and dealings of our attackers. It is also, as far as I can tell, the only time that a second attack has been issued, which rightfully points to the fact that the reason for this attack was a different one."
"You mean he acted on his own accord?" Bahorel intercepted, frowning. "And not… say… in harmonization with the others?"
"It remains to be confirmed", Enjolras admitted. "But neither we at Picpus nor Courfeyrac and Grantaire at the Barrière have heard of a second attack, as far as I can judge. We should of course wait for confirmation from Feuilly, who is probably still in Saint Antoine, but as a general impression it does not seem as if we were facing a second wave of attacks."
Secretly, Éponine thought that his words made sense. Her captivity had felt incredibly, disquietingly personal. And she half remembered parts of the conversation that she had had with him.
"I think you're right", she said, and the attention turned back to her. She kept her eyes fixed on Enjolras – hoping, that at least in his face she would find no pity. He raised a blonde brow and slightly bowed forward in interest, his blue gaze holding her dark one mercilessly. She was not disappointed.
"How so?" he asked.
"Some of the things he said. Like – I was trying to explain to him that I was not a very valuable target for him, seeing as I'm not…", she broke off as she realized what she wanted to say; realizing likewise that it was not true. She had become part of them. Enjolras blinked and waited, while she fumbled for another wording.
"… well not as crucial to the whole organization."
"Given the fact that you have saved four lives in the process and that you have held up yourself splendidly yesterday, I beg to differ." Courfeyrac obviously reacted on instinct, and still, Éponine had no real response to that statement. She forced herself to keep looking at Enjolras, who at least displayed a calm that was lacking in the rest of the room.
"That's nice", she answered, not sure whether she meant it. "Thank you. But still. I haven't spent so much time with you. So I'm probably not the most obvious target."
"What did he say to this?" Enjolras brought her back on the track of her tale effortlessly.
"Well. He said that would matter to his associates, but not to him. Or something like that."
He nodded curtly.
"Indeed, that confirms it then." He thoughtfully placed his chin onto his fingers. "Which can probably play into our advantage. If they are not acting in unison, there may be the possibility to divide them. Maybe even distract them from their common goal." He threw a quick glance into the round of his friends, who had fallen silent at his musings. "Perhaps we can devise some plan for this. We certainly should try to find witnesses and derive as much information from this incident as we can. Together with the letter it may even be useful to alert our friends of Le Globe. They might be able to issue an overall warning with respect to this man. After all, if Pierre Berat is true to his word, we should have the drawings of the assassins by tomorrow."
"Enjolras!" There was some exasperation in Courfeyrac's voice, and as Éponine turned towards him, she could see that he had stepped away from the pillar and was now looking at his friend with a frown on his face. The attention of Joly had shifted towards their leader as well, and although his own displeasure was less pronounced, it was him who continued to speak.
"That is hardly the most important thing to think of right now."
Enjolras shook his head.
"I disagree, my friends. It is one of the most important things we should address right away. Up until now we have always been caught at a serious disadvantage and it is high time that this changed. The opportunity has presented itself, and although I mourn the price at which it has come, this does not belittle the fact that it is there and meant to be used."
"She's just been freed from what must have been a horrendous captivity", Courfeyrac insisted more heatedly. "Shouldn't she first recover a bit before we unleash the full force of our planning on her?"
"Enjolras, I appreciate you wanting to do something, and soon", Joly supported. "But we have to consider that Mademoiselle Éponine has been through quite a lot. She will need some time to heal."
"I'm right here!" Éponine had watched the discussion, not quite certain whether to feel aggravated or amused, but enough was enough and she intercepted in sharp tones. "And to be honest, I'm fine, thank you. If you ask me, I'd rather see that sick man dead yesterday than today, so whatever it takes to bring that about – count me in. I'm not playing the bait, though", she prompted, just for clarity's sake, and this earned her an almost reprimanding gaze from the blonde leader of the ABCs, who shook his head.
"Bringing you into that kind of danger is certainly out of the question", he confirmed. "Yet descriptions on where you have been will be most welcome, and if you would join us in seeking out the place where he held you captive, that would be much appreciated." Courfeyrac, still standing, arms crossed before his chest and shuffled, but kept his peace.
"That's something I can do", she agreed carefully. "If someone knows where I was."
"That complicates things", Enjolras admitted. "But can you not ask this friend of yours? He should know, should he not? Has he searched the lair of that man?"
"I am not sure", Éponine answered, mulling his question over for a moment. "I guess if there's been any valuables, they are gone by now. As to other things… papers and the like, I'm not sure he would have taken that. And yes. He should know where I was." Although it would be easier, she secretly reasoned, to ask Azelma about it.
"Ah." The response was fairly dry and accompanied by a slight twitch of a brow. "A true gentleman then."
"They can't be all as gallant as your friends, Enjolras", she prompted in the same manner, shooting a glaring dagger at Courfeyrac that she knew was slightly unjust. She acknowledged that he was trying to be kind, for all the good that it did her.
The twitch reached Enjolras' lips, for just the fraction of a second, and Éponine saw a flash of amusement wandering through the blue eyes.
"Indeed", he replied, before he leaned back in the chair more comfortably again and turned back effortlessly to the issue at hand. "So we should as quickly as possible try and find the place where this man held you captive. Perhaps it has something to tell us. In addition, it might be interesting to ask around at the market – although it might be quite too late for that now. Do you have any idea close to which stands you were taken and where we could reach the corresponding merchants?"
Unfortunately, Éponine did not know where the tinker that she had last haggled with had placed his shop and therefore she shook her head in slight dismay.
"Don't think so", she said, but again Enjolras took it in his stride and moved to the next point.
"So we have publication of faces and incidents, and the increase of pressure on your captor. Both should be able to improve our situation. In parallel, we should try and start retracing the steps of the man called Alfonse Rébucy. Somewhere between his trial in the north and today he must have become part of this group of assassins that we are dealing with. Maybe here we can also ask our journalist friends. It is possible that Le Globe has connections that could help us there. An incident like the ones the letter mentioned should at least have been covered in the local papers. We should remember to ask Combeferre, Marius or Feuilly once they are back."
Almost absent-mindedly, Éponine realized that after a few days in the company of Marius' friends, the quick jumping of thoughts and plans became much easier to follow than it had been two days ago, when she had first found herself in this back room and in much the same company.
It was quite an exhilarating revelation.
"As a third step", Enjolras continued, "we should of course also ensure that a repetition of the incident is out of the question." His gaze, animated while he had spoken before, fixed on Éponine again as he addressed her more directly, and more intensely as well.
"Éponine", he began again, "far be it from me that I try to inflict fetters of any kind on something freeborn. But I would ask you to reconsider your roaming alone through the streets. I am aware that you are much more familiar with them than any of us, and far be it from me to question this. However time has proven that this provides no protection. My offer still stands. You have aligned your cause with ours and hence you now share the same danger. You have accurately pointed out that our strength is in numbers, and in us watching out for one another. The same is valid also for you."
Éponine had expected this and mulled over the thought for a moment.
In principle, it was unacceptable – there was the matter of her father and Azelma to consider. But there was also the thought of a moment of safety. Indeed, she did not want to be caught by the assassin again, and the memory of his whispers alone sent a cold shiver down her spine.
However, as so often, Éponine was not the master of her own dealings.
"I can't", she said, softly. "And you know why."
Enjolras frowned for a moment, but then she saw remembrance dawning in his eyes.
"Ah yes", he said. "That. We should speak on this, I think."
She would have almost asked him what he meant by this, but steps heralded the arrival of more members of the group, and his attention shifted from her.
Knowing him, however, the issue was pushed aside.