Éponine recognized the girl in an instant, right as she crashed into her.
"Forgive me, Mademoiselle, I didn't see you there," Éponine said, quickly bending to help her retrieve the food spilling out of her basket.
"Oh, it's quite alright, it was just an accident," said the girl, with a smile.
Their hands touched when reaching for the same apple and Éponine felt a jolt of electricity travelling up her arm. When their eyes met for the first time, the girl's widened in surprise and her brows furrowed. "Have we met before?" she asked.
Éponine shook her head, mesmerized. It couldn't be right. "No, I don't think so," she lied. She handed her the newly filled basket as they stood. The girl kept staring. "Here," Éponine said.
"Are you sure?" the girl - Cosette, although it couldn't be Cosette, surely - asked again.
Before Éponine could say anything, a man showed up behind Cosette. He put an hand on her shoulder and gave Éponine a small nod. "Come, child."
Éponine took the opportunity and ran in the opposite direction. She found refuge behind a corner, her heart racing.
Taking a peek, she could see Cosette handing some coins to a beggar, although her gaze went back in Éponine's direction a few times.
She saw Cosette again several times in the following weeks, although Cosette didn't see her. Éponine took good care of it.
She came with the man - the same stranger who had taken her all those years ago, likely - to St. Michel often, handing out alms, food and a comforting word. She was quite good with the latter.
Éponine watched often, hidden in shadows. Cosette was refined, elegant, while Éponine wore a torn, old dress. Funny how life could turn - Cosette used to be a small, scared bird, while Éponine was the one in pretty dresses and new bonnets.
Except there was nothing funny about this. Éponine was draw to Cosette in a way she couldn't explain. It wasn't just their old connection, she wanted to see her, be close to her, speak to her. And say what? Apologize?
Her helpless musings were suddenly interrupted by her father, always an unwelcome presence.
"Éponine! Come here, girl." He sound exasperated, which was nothing new.
"Where have you been hiding?" asked Montparnasse. His interest was also unwelcome and Éponine ignored him.
Her father grabbed her by the arm to get her attention. "Do something useful and go stand guard." She brushed him off and went to the corner he had pointed, keeping an eye out on the streets while her mind wandered to more pleasant places. Everything was going fine until she finally noticed who the marks were: Cosette and the old man. She had to do something, anything, to warn them.
"The police! Run for it! It's Javert," she yelled.
And, oh, wouldn't you know it, it was indeed Javert, stomping down the street. Éponine would recognize that dark coat anywhere. He quickly broke the starting brawl and cowered the would be thieves, and was surprised to find the would be victims gone.
As was Éponine. She watched as the man dragged Cosette right in Éponine's direction. She locked eyes with Cosette for a brief instant as they passed her corner.
Not knowing what else to do, she followed them.
Cosette's house seemed like something out of a fairytale - an overgrow garden protecting the castle and the princess inside.
Éponine stuck around until evening, finding a doorstep to hide this time. She wanted to see Cosette, to talk to her. She just didn't know what she wanted to say to her.
As night fell, she saw light appear in the house, in the window surrounded by hanging flowers. Éponine hesitated, but only for a moment. She approached the gate, peaking inside the garden, trying to figure out a way to get in. It was stupid, that probably wasn't Cosette's window anyway.
And then she appeared at the window and saw Éponine waiting for her.
Moments later, the door opened and Cosette, clad in white, entered the garden. The white dress made Cosette look luminous in the dark. She was smiling as she approached Éponine.
"Oh, I'm so glad to see you. It was you, wasn't it, today? Calling the police?" She talked quickly and with enthusiasm. When she touched Éponine's hand, warm spread all over her body. "You were so brave."
Éponine shook her head. "No, I'm not. I didn't want to see any harm done to you."
Cosette looked away for a moment, a faint colour spreading to her cheeks. "Do you mean that?"
"Of course." Éponine squeezed Cosette's hand, hoping that sensation of comfort went both ways.
"Do you want to come in?" Cosette asked, with a playful smile. "We could sit and talk."
"Sure." What else was she going to say? "How do you open the gate?"
"Wait here, I'll fetch the key." With that, Cosette was gone.
Éponine waited, quieting the voice inside her telling her it was a trap. Of course it wasn't a trap! Cosette was to innocent for that.
It seemed to take forever for Cosette to return. She opened the gate carefully, so it wouldn't make a sound, and lead Éponine by the hand to a secluded corner in the garden, where a stone bench was hidden by ivy.
They sat together and talked about nothing of importance that Éponine could remember lately. She felt like she was lost in a dream, and continued in that state as she returned the following nights.
"Don't you get tired of always being cooped up in here?" Éponine asked one night, lying with Cosette in the grass.
"I'm not always cooped up," she said, with just a hint of indignation. After a pause, she turned to Éponine with a glint of mischief in her eyes. "You know, Papa will be going in one of his trips next week."
"Do you want me to take you out?" Éponine asked, a smile spreading through her lips.
Cosette nodded. "Somewhere fun. With lots of people to talk to."
"Talk? Wouldn't you prefer dancing?"
"Dancing!" An exalted look appeared in her face. "We should do it too. Where do you go dancing?"
Éponine laughed with surprise. "No where."
"And to meet people?"
"Anywhere?" Éponine hoped she wasn't showing her bafflement too much. "Look, I'll take you to a cafe and then we'll see if there's someone able to take you dancing."
"It'll be amazing," Cosette said, beaming, a dreamy look in her face.
Éponine didn't want to burst Cosette's fantasies, but she wanted Cosette to have a good evening, so she started planning instead. "You'll need to wear something else."
"What's wrong with my clothes?"
"Nothing. But if you want to blend, you should wear something more appropriate for a working girl."
Cosette clearly didn't see the problem with attracting attention - and maybe some of Éponine's habits were too unnecessarily ingrained - but she extended her hand out. "It's a deal?"
Éponine shook her hand. "It's a deal."
It was only in later reflection that Éponine decided she could also do with a change of clothes. Easier said than done, since she could barely afford to eat in the best of times.
She did know someone who always put on the best fashion. And, although, Montparnasse wouldn't do her any favours out of the goodness of his heart, he could always be bargained with.
Cosette didn't recognise her at first, which unexpectedly flattered Éponine. The way her eyes widened was rather satisfying.
"Éponine, you look like-" she couldn't finish.
"Hopefully, like a dashing and handsome gentleman, ready to take his lady out?"
"I suppose." She couldn't hide her bafflement. "Do I look dashing enough to be your company?"
"You look perfect." Cosette had chosen a very proper grisette dress - grey and simple - making up for it by using a few colourful ribbons in her hair. She still looked like the prettiest grisette Éponine had ever seen.
Éponine played the perfect gentleman the entire way to the cafe, leading Cosette by the arm. She was so excited - it was endearing to see.
The ambience in the Musain blew Cosette away. Éponine tried to led her to a more quiet corner, not that it made much of a difference. There were lots of people around and a political meeting going on upstairs, more than enough to keep Cosette entertained for a couple of hours.
Cosette started to look around the room. "Should we go talk to other people?" she asked, in a whisper.
"If you want," Éponine answered, amused. She thought Cosette would stand there and just keep looking, but she went and wandered the room. She watched from afar as Cosette was stopped by a rather fancy man, who dared to kiss her hand and make her giggle. He offered Cosette a glass of wine and Éponine seriously considered running across the room, knock the glass out of Cosette's hand and drag her away.
But no. She knew the man - he was a friend of Marius. He liked to flirt, but there wasn't anything malicious about him. And Éponine didn't want to ruin Cosette's night, so she waited a few minutes before casually joining them.
Cosette was laughing, the man was smiling and Éponine suddenly felt very out of place.
"Oh, there you are," Cosette said, turning to Éponine. "I thought you'd gotten lost."
Éponine scoffed. "Not likely." She nodded at the man and took a seat next to Cosette.
"Good evening. Forgive me, mademoiselle, I didn't realise you already had company," he said, turning to Cosette.
"Nothing to forgive. This is M. Courfeyrac. This is my friend-" She trailed off, realising she didn't know what name to use.
"Jean," Éponine introduced herself with a shrug. "Are you having an interesting conversation?" she asked Cosette.
"Oh, yes. M. Courfeyrac was explaining the ruckus upstairs."
"Planning to overthrow the government?"
"I don't think so."
"Always," interjected Courfeyrac.
The conversation really got interesting after that, with Courfeyrac giving Cosette a rundown of the current political situation and Éponine adding helpful commentary. The evening finished with Éponine no longer worrying about rescuing Cosette from the clutches of some dandy, although she hoped she wouldn't be dragging her away from some barricade in the future.
It was late when they finally left the Musain. Éponine wanted to make sure Cosette arrived home safe and unnoticed. Cosette didn't share her concern.
"I told you, Papa isn't home and Touissant sleeps like a stone. No one will notice anything amiss."
She was holding Éponine's arm again, which made her feel rather pleased.
"It was a nice evening, wasn't it? We have to do it again."
"Are you hoping to see Courfeyrac again? Maybe he'll take you dancing," teased Éponine.
Cosette giggled like a schoolgirl. "That would be wonderful, but I don't know. He seemed more interested in other topics."
"Nah, he liked you. I bet he would gladly take you anywhere you asked." The look of delight in Cosette's face made Éponine's chest feel tighter, but she brushed it aside. "Do you want to back tomorrow?"
"I would love that."
They arrived at Cosette's house. She said goodbye by the gate, leaving a kiss on Éponine's cheek. "Thank you, Éponine. That was the best evening I had in a long time."
Éponine saw Cosette safely inside, her cheek burning from Cosette's kiss.