I tried to make this story mostly canon to the Brick, and AU only to the chapters covering Valjean and Cosette's convent years.
My image for this story is a rare still of Frederic March as Valjean, and Marilyn Knowlden as young Cosette, in the 1935 film Les Miserables. Aren't they so cute?
(For my own reference: 59th fanfiction, 6th story for Les Miserables, 4th story about Valjean and Cosette.)
I never told Cosette. She'd had enough of tears.
– Lyrics from an early version of "Valjean's Confession." Over time, these lines were omitted from the song.
"Please, Papa?" Cosette begged for the third time that morning. "Please can't I stay here with you and M'sieur Fauchelevent today?"
Valjean sighed. It was early morning; he and Cosette had just finished breakfast in their tiny cottage in the garden, and he was trying, unsuccessfully, to take her to school. "Cosette..." he began.
"But I can help you work in the garden," she interrupted, her voice high and anxious. "Really, I can! I could help you dig holes and chop wood and haul water."
Valjean's heart ached as he looked at Cosette – wearing her new school uniform and shoes, her face freshly washed, her hair combed and neatly tied back – and remembered the filthy, barefoot child he had found hauling water in the woods outside Montfermeil last winter. He imagined her life as it must've been then, the long days full of hard labor. Of course she felt more comfortable working in the garden than going to school. She had never been to school before in her life.
Valjean sat down at the small table and lifted Cosette into his lap. She immediately snuggled in against his chest, and he closed his eyes briefly, savoring the light, familiar weight of her head over his heart. "Darling, listen," he said, stroking her hair. "I know you want to help me, but little girls aren't supposed to work like that. Little girls are supposed to go to school, and their papas are supposed to work."
He knew it wasn't starting school that frightened her. She was terrified at the thought of being separated from him, and he couldn't blame her. Cosette had barely even left his sight since he had taken her from the Thénardiers' inn months ago. Valjean was close to tears himself at the thought of relinquishing her to these nuns, even just for the school day.
Cosette was his, he thought possessively. She belonged to him. Fantine had entrusted her to his care as she lay dying. As they left the cottage and walked hand-in-hand across the garden, it took all his willpower not to tell her that she didn't have to go to school, that she could stay out here with him and Fauchelevent. She was clinging so tightly to his hand.
When they reached the monastery doors, Valjean knelt down to her eye-level and put his hands on her shoulders. "Cosette, you know how much Papa loves you, don't you?" he asked, and she nodded but still looked so scared. "I'll be waiting right here for you when school is over, and you can tell me everything you've learned today." He kissed her forehead, then both cheeks. "I'll be right here, sweetness, I promise." He couldn't keep his voice from trembling, but when he smiled at her, she blinked her tears away and smiled bravely back at him.
"That's my girl," Valjean whispered.
She's still yours. Of course she's still yours, Valjean told himself over and over, as he worked and sweated in the garden alongside Fauchelevent. She's still going to call you Papa. He spent most of that day on the verge of tears. For nineteen long years, he'd been chained up and forced to work as a slave, but somehow, watching that tiny child walk away from him to go to school was the hardest thing he'd ever done.
That afternoon and every afternoon, he was waiting right outside the monastery doors when school ended, and every afternoon, Cosette was the first little girl out of that building. She ran and lept into Valjean's arms, and he caught her and covered her face with kisses. At first, she screamed, "Papa, Papa, Papa!" as she ran to him, until Sister Marie-Josephine told her that there was no shouting allowed in the convent, even outdoors in the garden. After that, Cosette made sure to run to him quietly, but as he long as he was there waiting for her every afternoon, nothing could diminish her joy at seeing him. And Valjean was always equally happy to see her and hear about what she had learned in school. Many days passed in this way, and as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, their new life settled into a pleasant enough pattern.
Their situation in the convent was an unusual one. They had appeared there literally overnight, after Valjean scaled the high garden wall with Cosette tied to his back to escape Javert. He couldn't tell her the truth when she asked who was chasing them, so he said it was Monsieur Thénardier. The lie had been effective in keeping her quiet while they ran from Javert, but it had also frightened her so much that Valjean felt terrible about it later. He was sure it was one reason why Cosette was still having nightmares.
The nuns of the convent had agreed easily enough to hire Valjean as their second gardener – they'd needed another one – and to take Cosette on as a student. But Valjean had faced a challenge in convincing them to let Cosette live with him and Fauchelevent in the garden shack, instead of in the boarding rooms with the other girls. He'd made up a heart-wrenching lie on the spot, telling the sisters that Cosette was all he had left of his beloved wife, who'd died giving birth to her. He'd quoted from the Bible with tears in his eyes, "The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." The sisters were so moved by this story that when he begged them to let Cosette live with him, they relented.
Their little shack in the garden was not very different from the room where they'd lived at the boarding house, except that they shared it with Fauchelevent. There was not room enough for three beds, so Cosette slept in Valjean's bed with him, which suited both of them. They needed each other close. Cosette had nightmares. She had abandonment issues. She was underweight and frightened of strangers. Often Valjean lay awake at night, with her small body curled up beside him, and wondered if he would ever be able to undone all of the damage that the Thénardiers had done to her.
He hoped that living here in the quiet convent, with classes to distract her from the memories, would help Cosette to heal. It did seem to. Because she started school so late, she was behind the other girls her age, but she was smart and catching up with them quickly. She loved learning. When she ran to meet Valjean in the garden after school, the first words out of her mouth were often, Papa, did you know...
"Papa, did you know we live in Paris, and it's the capital city of France?"
"Papa, did you know our hearts keep on beating even when we're asleep?"
"Papa, did you know the world is round, and it spins like a ball, and that's what makes day and night?"
One day, Cosette came running out of the monastery after school with a sheet of paper, which she presented to Valjean. There were two stick-figures drawn on it, one half the size of the other. They were both smiling, and Valjean could tell from how the lines of their arms met that they were supposed to be holding hands. The smaller figure had scribbles drawn around its head to indicate long hair.
"That's me, Papa," Cosette told him, pointing, giddy with pride and excitement, "and that's you, see? And look what I wrote on it." Across the bottom of the page were the words I love you Papa. Her writing was large and crooked, clearly that of a beginner, but looking at those childish words, Valjean felt that his heart might burst.
It wasn't until he and Cosette had been there for some time that Valjean felt himself chafing against life in the convent. He tried to focus on the positives – he and Cosette were together, they were safe, and she was getting a proper education – but it became harder. The sisters weren't unkind, but very strict, and their lifestyle was so austere. Cosette and the other little girls couldn't make daisy-chain necklaces from the flowers in the garden because, Sister Marie-Agathe said, "Adornments lead to vanity, and vanity is a sin." Valjean couldn't hang a swing from a tree branch for the girls to swing on – he and Fauchelevent had just enough spare wood and rope to make one – because "frivolity leads to sin," the Mother Superior told him when he asked her about it.
There were so many things that he wanted Cosette to have and experience that she couldn't here. Valjean would've dearly loved to see her with a chain of daisies crowning her golden hair, or with her lips and fingers all smeared brown from chocolate. She didn't look like a starving waif anymore, as she had when he had first taken her from the inn, but she was still so thin. While she always got enough to eat in the convent, the sisters' diet was very plain, and Valjean longed to feed her rich, fatty foods and put a few more pounds on her.
It was difficult, but what could he do? They couldn't possibly leave the convent. Valjean was certain that as soon as he set foot outside its walls, Javert would be there, waiting to arrest him. He would be hauled back to prison and, even worse, never see Cosette again. No, they must stay here and make the best of it.
Then one afternoon, Cosette didn't come running out of the monastery and jump into his arms. She walked into the garden slowly, her eyes downcast, and when she raised them to meet his, Valjean saw that they were full of tears. He wanted to ask her a half-dozen questions – What happened? Why are you crying? Are you hurt? Are you sick? – but the look on her face stopped him. He said simply, "Oh, my poor girl," kissed her cheek, and took her in his arms. Cosette buried her face against his shoulder and burst into tears, and Valjean could sense that she'd been holding them back for some time.
Valjean carried her to a secluded corner of the garden and walked back and forth with her, stroking her hair and whispering sweet nothings into her ear, while she cried. He was burning to know what had happened to make her cry, but he waited until she was ready. Finally, when her sobs died down and she seemed calmer, he sat down on a bench in the shade, wiped her face with his handkerchief, and said gently, "Cosette, tell Papa what's wrong, darling."
Her words came slowly between the sniffles. She was in catechism class, she told him, when she caught a glimpse of him and Fauchelevent through the window, tending the vegetable beds. She'd fidgeted in her seat, wanting a better view of him, and then Sister Marie-Thérèse asked her a question about the lesson, and she didn't know the answer. Even worse, she hadn't even heard what the question was. So Sister Marie-Thérèse had picked up her ruler and told Cosette to hold out her hand...
She didn't finish, but she didn't have to. Valjean gently pried her small hands loose from his neck and studied them closely. There were no marks or redness, so Sister Marie-Thérèse couldn't have hit her very hard. Likely most of the little girls in her class wouldn't have been so upset by it. But his Cosette wasn't most girls. She had already endured a lifetime worth of blows from the Thénardiers, and Valjean understood that Sister Marie-Thérèse's ruler had stirred up all those painful memories and ripped open all those old wounds. He gently drew her hands to his mouth and kissed them and promised that everything would seem better in the morning. He didn't tell her that by tomorrow, they would be gone from here, that he was already planning to sneak them out of the convent tonight.
It rained hard that night, and Valjean was grateful for that. It muffled his the sound of his movements. He put Cosette to bed early, and later, once he was sure that Fauchelevent was asleep too, he quietly got up and began packing in the dark. He knew that Javert might still be patrolling the streets around the convent, but that was a chance he had to take. He was already in debt to to the sisters for letting him stay here, and letting Cosette stay with him; he had no right to tell them how to manage their school or discipline their students.
So they had to leave the convent. Valjean could never stay in a place where he couldn't keep Cosette from being hit. He could no more do that than he could breathe underwater. She had known enough of hitting. She had known enough of tears. The nuns had all taken vows when they entered the convent, but Valjean had made his vows of his own, twice – once to Fantine as she lay dying, and once to himself, after he found Cosette at the inn and saw what a sad state she was in. He vowed that she would never have any reason to cry again, that she would never be cold or hungry again, that no one but him would ever put their hands on her.
Besides, in just a few more years, Cosette would be a young lady. Valjean hated to think about that – sometimes she seemed to be growing up quicker than he could bear – but it was true. She would be a young lady, and then she couldn't live in a one-room garden cottage with two grown men, or share a bed with her father. He and Cosette needed a proper home of their own. It was time to close another door and begin another story. He had done this all before, most recently when they left the boarding house.
He had started packing in the middle of the night then, too. He had scooped Cosette out of bed and run through the dark streets of Paris with her in his arms – sleepy and scared and confused, wearing only her nightgown – and Javert in pursuit. When they reached the garden wall, he used a length of rope to tie her to his back so that he could climb over and escape. He never meant to hurt her, of course, but he had tied her tightly against him, not wanting her to fall, and the next time he gave her a bath, he found faint red lines on her body from the rope.
A wave of guilt suddenly overtook him. Wandering from place to place was fine for a vagabond like him, but what kind of life was it for a little girl? What kind of a father was he?
"Papa?" Valjean startled when Cosette's voice came softly through the dark. He looked at their bed; in the flickering candlelight, her eyes were wide and staring at him. "Why are you packing? Are we moving again?"
Valjean sighed and considered lying to her, but what good would that do? "Yes, darling. We're leaving in the morning." This time, he wouldn't drag Cosette out of bed and sneak out in the night like a common criminal. This time, he would wait until morning. He would say goodbye to the sisters and thank them for everything, and then he would leave this convent like a decent man.
"Papa?" Cosette whispered again.
"Where will we go?"
"We're going to a place where it'll be just you and me." She smiled at that, and Valjean's confidence rushed back to him. He was a good father, and he and Cosette would be all right. They would find a new home, and he would enroll her in a new school – one where teachers only used their rulers to measure things, and students read books besides the Bible.
"Why–" Cosette started to ask, but Valjean interrupted her. "That's enough questions for now, Cosette," he said firmly. "Go back to sleep, love." She closed her eyes obediently, but he could tell that she was only pretending to sleep.
Valjean stopped packing and crossed the floor to their bed. He had the rest of his life to pack, but how much longer would Cosette be this young, this innocent? How many more nights would he get to hold her in his arms as they slept? That was the bittersweet thing about tucking her in every night – she always woke up a day older.
When he climbed into bed beside her, Cosette immediately snuggled up against him, clinging to him in a desperate way that concerned him. He hoped that she wouldn't wake up crying tonight.
"Papa," she whispered into his neck in a small voice, "you won't... you wouldn't leave without me, would you?"
Valjean pulled back from her to look at her face. The fear in her eyes made his heart ache. "Cosette," he said firmly, "I would never, ever leave without you. I'm your papa. I would never leave you behind, I promise. Do you understand that?" She nodded, reassured, and he drew her close again, wrapping his arms around her and kissing the crown of her head. The rain fell peacefully on the roof above, and within a few minutes, they were both fast asleep.