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almost in separate stars

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Éponine keeps the letters stored in an old wooden box off to the side of her coffee table. It’s a nice box - still smells like the cigars that came in it, a little yellow clasp on the front - and the letters fit inside perfectly, each rumpled page folding into the next. There are ink blotches on most of them; There didn’t use to be so many, but she thinks war has made Marius’ hands shakier and his writing messy. The words she loves, though, those are still the same.

When Éponine goes to drop off her own letters, her boots, tightly tied, crunch through the ice and snow all the way. She’s just recently bought a winter coat, the first proper one she’s had in ages; It sways and bobs and her skirt shifts underneath it, the rough wool catching flakes in its fibers.

The streets always feel lonely when she stands in front of the post box, in the glow from the street lights. The snow floats down and the world is silent, save for the drop of eggshell colored parchment onto the rest of the letters below.

***

Her life is comfortable, she thinks, despite everything. She has a job as a secretary; it’s boring but it’s not hard work and it pays the bills. The office is warm and she’s friendly with some of the other women who work there. She has an apartment, too, just big enough for a kitchen and a bedroom. She hasn’t got enough room for her books, so she stows them under things: the couch, the coffee table, the bed. A few in her cupboards that she doesn’t have enough plates and pans to fill anyway. Vanilla candles on the counter, dried lavender on the windowsills, enough woolen quilts for the winter.

It is a very solitary existence, but it’s hers. When she comes home from work, she gets her mail and heads upstairs. She puts a record on, listens to some old crooner telling her things she already knows. If there is a letter from Marius, she takes one of her quilts and wraps it around her shoulders, and then perches on the couch, cradles the letter in her hands like it’s precious. They come so slowly these days, though, she thinks it’s warranted.

The letters are mostly the same. Marius wishes he was with her. He loves her. He wants to share the same apartment when the war is over; he misses having her in the same bed. He misses, he says, the way she holds onto him by his waist when she wants to be closer, and how she runs her thumb around his lips just after they’ve kissed. He’s too shy to say outright what he wants, but Éponine knows him well enough. This time, though, after his shy descriptions, there’s an extra line:

I’ll be home soon.

Then there’s a date. And another one.

Love, Marius, it says at the bottom, as it always does, and gently, Éponine folds the letter back up. She gets him for a whole week.

***

Éponine cleans the apartment obsessively. There are too many marks of life, too many reminders that whatever happens anywhere else, the world keeps on turning. That they’ve both lost moments together that they’ll never get back.

Her romantic records make a reappearance from the bottom of the cardboard box where she keeps them. She tries not to listen to them, some left over act of keeping expectations low, but self-preservation gets thrown to the wind in times like these. She and Marius decide that he’ll stay with her, that he might as well; He gave up his own apartment when he went away and they’ve spent nights together often enough. She has a box of his clothing, passed from Courfeyrac’s empty apartment to her, that she pulls out from the back of her closet. She almost starts reading romance novels, but the part of her soul that is so superstitious keeps her from it. Still, she cannot help herself from being tentatively hopeful.

***

The morning of the day he’s meant to arrive, she wakes up before the sun. The train doesn’t get in till that evening, but she’s restless. She paces her floor, and only notices the time passing when her room lights up in that milky yellow that belongs to the feather-light days of December alone. She dresses in her work clothes and eats breakfast, trying to stick to her routine but being too anxious to keep at anything for more than a few minutes. The whole day she’s too smiley; She fidgets at her desk and can’t quite focus on anything.

When she gets home, she changes clothes, pulls on a blouse and a nicer skirt. She tries to pull her hair back into something nice, but it’s too uncooperative, and she gives up shortly. When she walks out of her building, she has to fight against giddiness to keep her pace steady, lest she slip. The stars are out, the sky is velvety blue. It feels a little like the universe is paying her back for some past wrong, a little like she’s dreaming.

She makes it to the station earlier than she meant to. As she waits at the platform, she can’t help but notice how she looks compared to the other girls. They’ve all got their hair curled and pinned back, bright coats with cinched waists and pink lipstick. And then there’s Éponine, off to the side, grey coat, brown skirt, and chapstick.

The train is a little late. The minutes that pass after 6:40 make her heart beat faster, just a bit nervous. Even when it does pull in, ten minutes late, Marius isn’t one of the first ones out and it makes her wonder if maybe that letter was old, maybe something has happened that she hasn’t heard news of yet, maybe he’s not coming home after all. Then, he ducks out of the train car and onto the platform, and Éponine realizes that, of course, he’d sooner let everyone else get off the train first than cut someone off. He’s always been like that. It’s something she likes about him.

He doesn’t catch her eye right away. But when he does, he runs towards her, a little like a child, and reaches for her. She crumbles into his arms. Her own fold against his chest, and he presses his lips to the top of her head. They stand there like that for a moment.

“I missed you,” Marius says, head bent against her own.

“I missed you too,” Éponine says back. She feels a little like crying. She thinks the situation would warrant it. But the tears don’t come, anyway, so instead she breathes him in. He doesn’t quite smell the same, where there once was parchment there’s now oil and wool. But he still holds her the same, and Éponine thinks that might be all that matters.

Eventually, they let go. Marius grabs her hand, as though he can’t bear not touching her. She asks him if he’s hungry, or tired, or if he wants to do something his first night back. He just shakes his head and says that he’d just like to get some rest, preferably, with her. So, together they walk back to Éponine’s apartment.

She’s missed this, the way he holds her against his side, how they half-hug even while walking. She sees the mailbox on their way back and smiles at it, buried her face a little further into the scratchy wool of Marius’ uniform at its sight.

The apartment, strangely, looks lonely when they get back. It’s too cold, like the air has been sucked out of the room. Cast all in shades of blue, even with the overhead lights, it looks gloomy. Like there’s been a death.

“Can I..?” Marius asks, and raises his bag.

“Yes!” Éponine says with too much enthusiasm. He goes into the bedroom and leaves the door cracked open behind him. Éponine busies herself with trying to make the radiator hum to life. It gives way to a hiss and Éponine goes into the bedroom. She finds Marius lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling. She lies down beside him. He turns his head to look at her.

“I love you,” he says, his voice low, and kisses her for a long moment. He pulls away, and Éponine thinks his eyes look a little wild, glinting in the dark. She strokes his cheek and pulls his shoulder so that he’s on his side. He moves forward like he’s going to kiss her again, and Éponine cradles his face and beats him to it.

They make love that night, slowly, as though the other is made of glass. He makes soft noises, coos to her in foreign languages with half his breath. She forgets to be worried, if only for a moment.

They stay awake after, Marius curled into her side.

”It’s different, now,” Marius says, rubbing out patterns on Éponine’s chest with his fingers.

“I know,” she says, “you knew it would be.”

“It doesn’t hurt as badly as it used to.”

Éponine doesn’t say anything.

“But that scares me. I feel like I can’t feel anything, anymore.” His eyes aren’t so wild now. He seems resigned, almost, content to let his feelings slip away. Éponine is not sure she can begrudge him that.

She stares at the ceiling and hopes that these are the ravings of a tired man, that nothing has really changed at all.

***

When Éponine wakes up, Marius is gone. Her first thought is that the whole thing has been some dream, that he is not here, perhaps he never was. She stays in bed with her head under the covers until the humidity becomes too much. She makes a hole for her to breathe from, and, unwittingly, falls back to sleep.

The next time she wakes up, she gets out of bed. The floor is cold and scarred under her feet. It’s strangely surreal. She takes a moment to take account of things. Her earlier thoughts feel distant; inconsequential and false. She stands and walks to the kitchen.

On the coffee table, there’s a bouquet of yellow tulips and another of white roses. Marius is making tea at the stove. She reaches for his hand and he wraps an arm around her, kisses her temple. “Good morning,” he says, soft. He smells like snow.

She squeezes his hand and shrugs his arm off. She gets a vase, an old one, made of frosted glass, and puts the tulips in it. She plucks off the browning petals and tries to ignore the roses just out of sight.

Breakfast is quiet, although Marius asks her about work and the books she’s reading, details that have slipped between the cracks in their letters. Éponine tries to pry without prying, to see if he has any new acquaintances, to see how he is fairing. The answers come back the way she thought they would, there is no one new, it’s just him and the letters she’s written him, and whatever ghosts choose to follow him around.

***

Going to the cemetery is always an all day affair. The graves are spread out, and it’s an old fashioned place, one where there’s acres of land with headstones scattered across. The snow makes it worse, there aren’t many visitors in such weather and so she and Marius have to forge their own paths. She isn’t dressed warmly enough, she never is, and her fingers hardly last five minutes before they start to go numb around the flowers she’s holding.

There are only seven graves. They never found Jehan’s body and they don’t know what happened to Grantaire. The rest, though, they found enough to send back, and Éponine dutifully went to all the funerals, crying less every time. She visits the cemetery, too, when she can. She came more during the summer and fall, when it was warmer, when it wasn’t so horrible to think about the frozen earth and the dead beneath. Guilt pulls at her.

Nearest to the road is Feuilly, then a few rows behind him are Joly and Bossuet, where there are already two dying red roses. From there they go to Combeferre, where they don’t brush off the stone, because he would have rather the earth take him back, stone and all. Enjolras sits at the back, with the grandest headstone, the kind that his family insisted on and that he would have hated. Then, they loop back around, towards Bahorel and Courfeyrac.

She doesn’t pray. She hardly thought it was worth it to begin with and she certainly doesn’t think it’s worth anything now. Marius mutters under his breath, sometimes, she catches bits of it, the lilt of his French or a line of English poetry. She tries not to listen, it seems too private. She thinks that so many letters and thoughts and confidences have brought them closer than when he was at home, but that the dead are something different. They are something to confront on one's own. When they make it to Courfeyrac’s grave, Éponine wanders off and lets Marius talk to him alone.

The sun is starting to set by the time they begin the walk home. Éponine feels cold to her bones, and her boots are leaking. Marius stands away from her, his eyes distant. She doesn’t know if she should touch him or not. She walks a little closer to him anyway, and wraps a hand around his arm. He turns his head and smiles but still looks through her.

***

Marius lies down in bed as soon as they get back to the apartment. Éponine puts her boots by the radiator to dry and drinks the rest of her cold tea from the morning. She thinks Marius is asleep, and so she tries to be quiet walking into her bedroom, but he rolls over anyway, stares into the light from the doorway.

“Are you alright?” Éponine asks. She already knows the answer.

He shakes his head. Éponine closes the door and changes into a nightgown, lies down with him even though it’s too early to be sleeping. She strokes his hair and he doesn’t say anything, just looks at the ceiling. She hopes that things will be better in the morning.

She doesn’t sleep much that night. Her mind runs in circles while her fingers keep untying the knots in Marius’ hair. Éponine drifts off sometime around midnight, her face dry but her chest feeling like it’s been carved out and rubbed with salt.

It’s snowing when she wakes up. There’s frost on the windows. Marius still sleeps next to her, clinging to her arm through whatever dreams he’s having. She doesn’t move, just looks at him. She had thought his freckles disappeared, but no, they’re still there. His hair still curls about his ears, his eyelashes still seem too dark for the rest of his complexion. He looks younger in sleep. But there’s a crease between his eyebrows that wasn’t there before, a way his lips turn down that’s unfamiliar.

She stays in bed until he wakes. Once he does, they make breakfast together. It’s wildly domestic, considering the circumstances. Marius talks about how he misses a bookstore a few streets over, and when Éponine asks if he’d like to go later, he looks pleased. He seems like he’s trying to put yesterday from his mind, and Éponine thinks that she’ll follow suit.

That day is almost the way things used to be. A little like the spring before they all left, where he and Éponine were tripping around their feelings for each other. They pick out books for each other, an old thing they used to do after work some nights. There’s a silhouette of a girl on the cover of the one he gives her, and vines on the one that she gives him. When they get back to the apartment, they sit together on the couch and read to themselves, the settled silence of people who are comfortable.

The day turns to night, and Éponine is timidly, tremendously happy.

***

“What is it like?” Éponine asks when they should be sleeping, when she can’t help herself anymore.

Marius is silent a long time. “Sometimes,” he starts, and Éponine can already hear the tremble in his voice that means he is trying and failing to speak steadily, “I feel like they’re still there. I think I’m going to die, or else lose my mind.” He thinks for a while, and when he speaks again, it’s in a lower voice. “I can remember what my parents’ bedroom looked like. I think it’s the earliest thing I can remember. It was warm in there, and grand, almost. When the shelling gets loud, I think of that.”

“Why that?” Éponine asks. She knows what she’d think of. She’s a romantic at heart.

“Because,” she hears him swallow, “it’s what I want. Something a little inordinary but otherwise plain. A stable life. I hope that I’m walking into it.”

After a while, Éponine lays her head on his chest. She thinks she’d like the same thing. She knows what a lack of stability brings. A warm bedroom and a small family sounds nice. Even as she thinks it, she knows that it’s impossible.

***

When the workweek comes, things are a little better. She can’t fret so much if she has a job to do. The time apart does them well, she thinks. Marius seems to have better handle on himself when she comes home Monday evening, seems more like the boy who left a year ago, albeit a little older. His face is not so lined with stress, and she can feel herself breathe a little lighter.

She’s hardly home a moment before Marius is tugging her by her hand, right back out the door again. They go out to dinner that night, something that they don’t really have enough money for. The only other time they’ve gone out like that was in the beginning, when they were both trying to play their parts before they realized that everything would be better if they didn’t. It’s sweet, a little, even though it’s so unlike them. On the way home, they tell the stories of different constellations to each other; Between the two of them, they know almost all the myths.

The next night, they go ice skating. Éponine still knows how to from when she was young, and Marius is still too tall to be properly good at it, but they have fun all the same. The night is cold, and they blow the fog from their breath into each other’s faces. At the apartment, they curl up together on the couch, quilts and mugs of tea to keep them warm.

The last full day that Marius is home, the world thaws in the way it does in places where the weather can never decide what it wants to be. Tiny streams of water run down the street, and though it is by no means warm, Éponine feels enough spring in the air to wear short sleeves. The clouds hang low and blue, like a summer storm. It makes her veins thrum, a little like last stand.

“Do you want to go for a walk?” Marius asks sometime in the late afternoon, once she’s home from work. Éponine says yes, and she pulls on her coat even though she doesn’t want to wear it. Marius takes an umbrella.

They walk across town to the place where the houses get a bit farther apart, where there’s more grass than cobblestone. The path goes up a hill and turns muddy. The snow is a bit thicker here, a bit more icy. They reach the crest of the hill and even though the snow will soak through their clothing, they sit down. Éponine notices that they’re holding hands, but she doesn’t know when it started. It’s a little childish, she thinks, but they could use that.

The wind brushes at her cheek. It doesn’t smell like spring, there’s a cold stab to it that makes her think that it’ll start snowing any moment. But when the air is still, it’s temperate, and the day would be perfectly brilliant if only the sun would come out.

Marius looks at her a long while, then at his lap. “Do you wish things had gone differently?” he asks.

“Of course I do,” she says, before she can think of how mean it sounds. “Which parts are you talking about?”

He squeezes her hand while he thinks. “I shouldn’t have left.”

Éponine bites her tongue and doesn’t say anything at all.

***

If Éponine were without Marius on such a windy, half-winter day, she’d walk down to the river and mourn. But he’s here, and she still feels like she’s mourning.

They fuck that evening. There has to be something to remember, after all. Then, Marius gets dressed and makes dinner for both of them. Éponine follows him out of the bedroom soon after and reads aloud to him while he cooks. It’s the type of thing he adores, that he told her, once, reminded him that there are people who care for him. She doesn’t know if it works the same, anymore, if the words are even reaching him.

While they’re eating, Marius suddenly asks, “Do you think you might want to get married someday?”

Éponine’s taken aback. It’d be a lie to say she’d never thought about it before, yet she doesn’t have an answer ready, or at least, isn’t particularly willing to say it.

“Yes,” she says anyway, “When you’re back here for good.” There’s something unsaid after it, about not wanting to be a widow so young, about not wanting to join the ranks of others who have lost their lovers. They acknowledge it with a beat of silence. “When I know you’re really mine again.”

“Like some field nurse could take me away from you,” he says, and sounds like he’s reading it off a greeting card, like the words don’t quite fit in his mouth. She smiles anyway and leans across the counter to kiss his cheek.

“Of course not.”

***

“Do you think we’ll make it through?” Marius asks in the middle of the night, when they’re both pretending to be asleep.

“I don’t know,” Éponine says, and it’s the truest thing she’s said all week.

***

Éponine says goodbye to Marius while they’re still at the apartment. She fears that if she went with him to the train station it would only make for a poor memory to hold onto.

The world turned frigid overnight and the windows are covered in thin ice at the bottom. She crosses her arms and shivers in the air. Marius wraps his arms around her; He’s always been the warmer one.

“I love you,” she says, finally, a quiet crescendo.

“I love you, too,” he says, and Éponine can hear the longing in his voice. Part of her wants to scream, demand why he even went off in the first place, damn him and his friends for ever leaving her alone. Part of her cannot even muster the strength to think it.

She silently pulls herself back together. “You’ll write?”

“Always,” he says, muffled against her hair. “I don’t want to go.”

She doesn’t say anything to that. She doesn’t want to, not now.

Marius kisses her once more, and then he starts to leave. It is a forced action, like ice has sunk into his bones and made it hard to move. He murmurs something, French or Latin or German, that Éponine doesn’t understand.

And then, there he goes. Marching off again.