To my right, across the room, Enjolras stood. He seemed to be assigning orders to those around him, those who were also flushed with their first victory. The mood was optimistic and almost joyful, but still there was no arguing that everyone here still knew that they might die. For how many of them was this a lark? How many truly understood so well as Grantaire or Enjolras that none would leave here alive?
As if he felt my gaze upon him, Enjolras looked up, and his face went white at the sight of me. The intensity of his scrutiny made me want to hide, but there was no hiding anymore. With death so near, how could any of use hold on to pretense and imagine any part of our souls would not be open, raw, exposed to the world? Why bother with charades and falsities when there was so little time?
Even for me, there was no hiding. I was used to being a little mouse, to being slippery and elusive, to making my way through every place and time. But I'd read the letter and I knew now that he was right- he'd always seen me, even when I hadn't noticed. He'd been watching the whole time, so what could I do but let myself be caught?
He crossed the room in two strides and was on me quicker than I'd been able to track. He grabbed me by the arms, and I thought he meant to embrace me. Instead, he shook me.
"What are you doing here? Don't you realize that everyone here is going to die? Why have you put yourself in harm's way? I saw you, you left- you were safely away. You are not meant to die with us this night, Eponine!"
I shook him off, defiance rising within me.
"And what of you, my lord? Did you not think that your words would call me back? That I could hear the call of your love and not respond? If you thought I'd stay away when I could be here, you have truly seen nothing of me. You do not know me as well as you profess if you thought I would be from your side."
"Foolish girl. You think we tilt at windmills that won't fight back? Those are real soldiers beyond our barricades, and we've already had two deaths, many more injured, despite successfully repelling their advance. What place have you here? Do you think to go to Marius and beg him to leave?"
"I've no thought of him, you are all." I held up the hand that still grasped his letter. "If you meant these words, then you know why I am here."
He looked at the letter and groaned. "Folly. The folly of a man who had one last gasp, one last regret as he faced his own death. It has passed."
"You would disown your words? Your own heart? Because you can disclaim them all that you want, but I know the truth when I see it, and I see it in your face even now. I see as clearly as you do, monsieur, and I know that your are correct: all here will die. Your words cast the scales from my eyes, and I see all. Would you send from your side one who loves you? Marius is still here, and Grantaire; all these people are here because they love you, because they would be lead by none other. I am now one of them. Will you force us all to leave?"
"No. The ones you name are here by choice, because they believe in the cause for which we all fight. They have chosen, knowing what the outcome will be."
"Truly? How many do you believe truly understand? These are children, playing at soldiers, not fighters who know they may die. I know what will happen. I know for all of us. And still I came, because this is where you are. Why scorn me?"
"You are not meant to die this night! Myself, I care nothing for my own life. But yours is too great a sacrifice and I will not make it."
"And perchance I will not sacrifice yours, Enjolras. If you have the right to decide if I stay or go, why do I not have the same? You love me, you say; will you not grant me the right to decide for myself?"
There was a pause then, as we stood facing each other, each defiant and refusing to give quarter. A burst of laughter erupted from a nearby table, the loudest contributor being Grantaire. Enjolras turned his head toward the sound, and when he turned back to me, it was as if something was gone. Somehow, in that moment, it was like he let go of the last bit of his strength, of his fight. The face he turned to me was resigned, exhausted, and deflated. He lowered his head and exhaled, running a hand through his hair. When he raised his head, I saw the grief written across his face. I spied the tears in his eyes, and heard the catch in his breath. Knowing that his men should not see their leader in a moment of weakness, I took his hand and pulled him into the darkest corner.
"Breathe, Enjolras. And keep breathing."
"Do you think I am blind to what these people are giving up? To the fact that half of them have no idea what they're doing? Look at them, children, as you say. Do children understand that they may die? For them, it is an abstract notion, death. Do you think I don't bear the weight of this responsibility, of having their lives in my hands; these hands, which are already blooded this night?
"But our cause is just, and our fight is necessary. We cannot win, true enough. But we will awaken the people to the need for change. The commoners will see our sacrifice and it will awaken their voices, their outrage. They will fight for themselves in light of the example we set here. If there were any other way, don't you think I'd choose that? But there is none. It takes blood for people to see truth.
"I have always known that I would not live out a long life. I have always known that the burden of leadership has been mine and that it would strike me young. But you... Eponine... I need for you to live. If you care for me, if you respect me, then walk away from this all. Then, at least, the part of you that remembers me will hold me, and part of me will live. If you live, and live well; if you are happy, that is all I could wish in this world."
"Don't you see? If you see me so clearly, how can you not also see what my life is? Drudgery. Despair. Acceptance of the unacceptable. I scrounge, I slink, I fight, I earn money by lying on my back as my father promises each man anew that this is the first for me, so he can charge them more before they discover the truth. And do you think he's still around when that knowledge comes to them? He is long gone with their coins, and I am the one who remains, close enough to beat and make bleed. So it goes.
"I do not tell you because I want your pity; I've no use for it. The life I lead would have broken anyone less strong than I am. So it has been, so it will continue to be- for what is going to change for me? What hope is there that I can escape from my father and find a different way to live, to earn money?
"If I die here tonight, by your side, will there be a loss? No. You are the only one who would mourn my death because you think my life may be worthwhile. You alone. But you will not be there to mourn for me, because you will be dead as well. Now, you, sir- there will be mourning for you. But me... there is nothing. There will be nothing."
He looked horrified by what I said, and made a move to comfort me, but I pushed him away, giving over to anger. It was so much easier and less dangerous than letting myself actually be comforted.
"You, though, sir. You! Were you to live, what could you not accomplish? What dream would you not see achieved? The world for you is this open space, this realm where you can take hold of anything and make it your own. But you would surrender all of it, give it all up so you can die here for your ideals. Because you think it will somehow help more than you could help if you were to live and continue the fight.
"Which of us is wrong, sir? Which of us goes to death with no reason? Which of us is going to die and leave a hole in the world, leave emptiness where there should be a light, fighting to make itself brighter and to share the light with others? Which of us, sir?!"
I shoved him against the nearby wall, defiant and incensed. But his look said so much. There was a helplessness behind his eyes, a glow extinguishing.
"What other road is there, Eponine? This was the only one left, and this is the only end to that road. No other choices, no other possibilities. This was always how this was going to end. Do you not think I tried to see a way around, to another bend, a way to take us all somewhere, to any other outcome? They all trust me, they follow me- dammit, they love me and what else can I do? Do I send them all away, and have this cause laughed out of existence? We do not fight for ourselves, we fight for the people.
"If you have no choices (and I do not say you are right in that assessment), think of the thousands of other girls in Paris right now who are in similar positions. Why do none of you have choices, no way to better your lot in life? Because the people who are in a position of power make it so that you are poor and have no hand to pull you up to a different place. But that doesn't have to be the truth of the matter. In a republic, everyone should help everyone else alongside themselves. Government should be for the people, not an instrument used against them! We do what we do to remind the people that they have the power, they have the choice to demand that their rights and futures be considered by those who control them. Is that not a worthy cause? People have died for far less in this world. A cause... it's something, is it not?"
"Aye, sir. It is something."
I leaned toward him, resting my forehead against his chin. He lowered his face until his forehead rested upon my shoulder, and I clung to him, my arms holding onto him, wrapped around him, as if trying to imbue him with any strength I might have. Surely I did not need it so much as he did. He wrapped his arms around my waist and clung to me, pressing me so tightly to him that it nearly hurt. The embrace seemed interminable, but I was certainly not going to break it.
"If we were not here, now; if no one was here. If the barricade didn't need to exist... just imagine for a moment. If none of this happened like this, in some different world. If you didn't need to help people and save them... and we somehow met... would you still love me? Or am I just another cause you know is doomed but can't help yourself from trying to help?"
"What? Why do you say that?"
He drew back and I missed the pressure, the warmth, of our closeness. I wanted him back, pressed to me, arms flung helplessly about me; but I had to ask the question. God only knows why- because part of me never believed in things being given for free without some sort of pity behind them. Or, if not pity, some sort of angle, some in, some trap that made everything worse than if help were never offered.
"Eponine, I swear to you. For what it's worth, I believe I would love you no matter what. I believe that I love you, yourself- I don't look at you and see some pitiable wretch, it is not sympathy, it's love. I see a woman who is stronger than those around her. A woman with such determination and intelligence, with a fighting spirit that won't brook refusal or suffer fools. A woman who has carved a place in this world, defiant to all who would do her harm, or would pity her, or would expect her to be a bowed, broken thing.
"Were everything different, I would still see that. The perfection you own with or without any extenuating circumstances would still be yours. It is your soul, it is your fire, and I don't think that would ever change, and so my love would not."
"Oh, sir..." Before I could pause, part of me decided what to do next. It was like part of me watched what happened while part of me drew back and was agog that such a thing had transpired. Which was this: I pressed him against the wall, I pushed until he could go nowhere else, and then I kissed him.
Author's Note: Sorry to interrupt. I just wanted to thank everyone who is reading this story and enjoying it enough to follow and/or review. I sincerely hope that I don't let anyone down with the continuing adventures of our star-crossed lovers. As for the fact that I rated this story M for later chapters, I'm not entirely certain that that will still happen. It might, but it's not moving to what I'd once thought was its inevitable conclusion. I'm figuring it out as I write it, and I just wanted to warn anyone who's in this for the dirty bits that they might not turn up. I'm keeping the rating as it is, just in case, but I thought I should be as honest as possible.