Grantaire took Éponine back to his place.
They left the lights off, except for one dim lamp beside the couch and the kitchen lights above the counter, which Grantaire illuminated before rooting through their fridge for beer to share. The living space was prettier dim, he and Jehan agreed, and so they often left it this way. In the glow of yellow lamps it looked nicely cozy and bohemian, with the walls draped in brocade upholstery fabric and renaissance fair tapestries and the carpet scattered with pillows and a great brown bear rug. “Like the inside of a gypsy caravan,” Jehan had said airily of it before Grantaire had stared them hard in the face, eyebrow quirked, and Jehan had cowered in remorse and apologies for their thoughtlessness. (Jehan’s fetishization of their fantasy version of Grantaire’s life was something they had had to work on together. They’d really gotten much better since then.)
When Grantaire returned with two beers, Éponine was kneeling on the bearskin rug and poking at logs in the fireplace. She’d struck up a warm little glow already. It seemed like a good night for it. Grantaire handed her a bottle and sank into the pillow pile arranged against the back of the couch, leaning back and uncapping his own bottle. Baudelaire came wandering over to demand petting, and Grantaire could never refuse Jehan’s sweet, kittenish bengal when he wanted to socialize. Jehan’s pets - darling baby Baudelaire and their equally kittenish, chubby ball python Ophelia - were so much friendlier than Grantaire’s contentious companion, a “witty, cranky, and argumentative gossip who considers herself unduly old and wise” that came and went from open windows as she pleased. Her name was Dog and Grantaire had rescued her as a sooty kitten from an alley trash can during his first winter break at university after the dorms had closed. They’d spent those four weeks on the streets together, and Grantaire had of course snuck her into his dorm when they had opened again for the spring semester. Likely the cheeky puss was out hunting tonight. When Éponine was satisfied with the fire, she sat back beside Grantaire, and he deposited the rumbly purr-baby in her lap. Clearly she needed Baudelaire’s love more than he did tonight.
“So. You want to talk about it?”
“I don’t know what to say. I don’t know where to begin.”
“Well… You seem to know Combeferre?”
“I… yes. He’s from Montfermeil. Or near it, anyway. Somewhere considerably less shit.”
“Are you afraid of him?”
Éponine hesitated, staring blankly at her bottle and clutching Baudelaire, her lips a tight line. “I’m not afraid of him. He’s sweet, and gentle and good and I… fucked up. I fucked up so badly, R…” As her hands began to tremble and her eyes screwed shut, Grantaire gently took the drink away before it could slip from her shaking fingers and Éponine’s whole body shuddered as she gasped in a breath and willed herself not to cry. “Okay, okay, I’m fine. I’m good.” She forced her breathing to steady, sitting up straight and pushing her hair away from her face, but her eyes remained gently closed. Baudelaire peered up at her, amber eyes wrought with kitty concern. “God, R, I don’t know why this has me so fucked up, I swear. He was just some guy a long time ago, it was stupid teenage shit R, I’m fine.” Grantaire remained silent for a time, and did not call attention to how much more it seemed like an attempt to convince herself than him.
“Éponine… I’m not judging you.” Grantaire’s silver tongue could weave intricate, exquisite tapestries of bullshit, but sincerity came so much harder. “Your teenage shit is your real life, you don’t have to apologize for it. I know who you are, Éponine. The fact that you aren’t yet twenty and have real feelings like a human being is no shock to me.”
Éponine looked at him, and Grantaire recalled the way that Jehan had looked at him in the classroom before finally breaking open to him: Searching for safety in his face, and Grantaire tried to put it there.
“I cheated on him with Montparnasse. He was perfect and he loved me and I fucked ‘Parnasse anyway.” It shot from her mouth harsh like a knife, sharpened to wound, but not to wound Grantaire, he knew. It swooped to bury in her own breast.
Grantaire nodded seriously. “Well,” he said, “that’s understandable. Montparnasse’s dick is the solution to every earthy problem, probably even the cure for cancer.” Hey, he had resisted laughing at the meme shirts. He couldn’t choose the wise path all the time.
To his relief, Éponine laughed. A small and bitter laugh, to be sure, but a genuine one all the same. “I’d believe that was a quote from ‘Parnasse himself.”
“Oh, definitely. To the mirror, I’d bet.”
Éponine’s laugh was even brighter this time. “I guess you don’t hate me for being a cheating whore, then.”
“Oh no, you read me wrong. I’m really bent up about it, I’m not sure I can look at you again. Not now that I know you’ve got the Montparnasty all over you.” He stuck out his tongue and curled his lip in feigned disgust.
Though she still smiled, Éponine sighed. “He was with Jehan at the time too… We’re both cheating whores, and I pray to god our cuckolds don’t become bosom buddies and figure it out…”
“You know Jehan, they flutter from flirt to fling and move on. We’ll never hear about that Combefellow again.”
“I hope you’re right.” Éponine took a long gulp from her bottle.
“And what’s more, you’re hardly the only one Montparnasse stuck it in while he was ‘with’ Jehan - ”
“The only one they know though, the only one who is their best friend - ”
“ - and Jehan might understand. Jehan’s slept with people in relationships, though they aren’t proud of it. I think the composition on the bathroom wall by the showerhead implies that they’ve even been had by someone’s husband… They won’t hate you, Éponine. I promise.”
“I’ll hold you to that, R. If it all goes to hell in a handbasket I’ll name you personally responsible for fixing it all.”
Grantaire reached out and took her hand. “That’s fair,” he said with enough cold solemnity to have Éponine chuckling again.
“I don’t want to go home, Grantaire.” The laugh still dying on her lips, she locked eyes with Grantaire sadly.
“You’re already here. Make yourself comfy. Mi refrigerador es su refrigerador.”
“I’ll hold you to that too. You’ll have an empty fridge in the morning R; completely devoid of all seven beers and that entire pack of processed cheese slices. Jehan’s jams as well.”
“Not completely empty then, unless you’re going to drink the spicy mustard, mayonnaise, and all three bottles of tabasco sauce too.”
“We’ll see how hungry I get. ...Is it selfish to ask to be alone when you’re in someone else’s house?”
“Not at all.” Grantaire rose from the couch, placed a tender kiss on Éponine’s forehead, and started towards the hall. “I’ll be in the studio for a while, I think.” Éponine nodded, her lips around the bottle once more.
After living in cramped, sterile dorm rooms during school and catching naps in sleezy bars and on park benches and on the couches of temporary friends during holidays, moving in to Jehan’s apartment was being raised straight from pauperdom to princehood. Jehan owned their own rooms in an elegant building - they had even converted a spare bedroom into a closet and dressing room, a whole room just for their expansive, expensive wardrobe, complete with three-panel floor length mirror and damn near professional lighting for selfies of the highest quality. Though they avoided being patronizing with their wealth, they were certainly generous: When Grantaire elected to turn the room Jehan had offered them into a studio, preferring to bed with Jehan, he had made a passing lament on the poor lighting from small, high-up windows. He’d come home a few days later to a construction crew walking in and out of the kitchen covered in plaster dust and brick rubble.
"What's the good of owning your own apartment if you can't knock out a wall to suit your needs?", Jehan had said casually from the couch.
"Wh - but... How much - "
"What's the good of Daddy's money if you can't knock out a wall to suit your needs?"
And that had been that. Grantaire might still have protested if he hadn't understood and endorsed his roommate's life-long crusade of passive aggressive antagonism of their father, to be exacted upon his bank account.
After the construction, the wall had been all lovely tinted glass, making the formerly tall but tiny room seem open and spacious, cool but bright, at any time of day. It was spectacularly lovely at night, looking out on the Parisian lights fading into the black velvet canopy of dark with faint stars crowding the ceiling. The room was unusually arranged, having its floor on the first floor of the apartment and its high ceiling over the second, with one door leading to the kitchen and a staircase winding up the wall to a door on the upper floor as well. On many a night, Jehan would come upon him as the moon fell low in the sky to beg the man to bed: they would pass through the upper door unnoticed and watch for a moment from the top of the stairs as the artist, shivering from the caffeine and unbalanced from the alcohol, carried out his sacred privilege with a brush or pen, lost to Jehan and to the world, lost in a terrible reverie, lost to the only moments in his life when he could feel the universe against his skin, when he could feel his veins strung to the nighttime, when he could feel, and feel meaningful.
Tonight in his studio Grantaire was of singular mind. Through his attendance to Éponine it had remained, impressed upon the back of his eyelids, the weight that had come over him and settled like ash - that stroke of gold in the dark, blinking slowly beneath those cinders like the eyes of a phantom bird, newborn, reborn. Sudden as a spark, that passing moment on the bleachers had kindled embers in him long cold, the dead remains of an inferno that had once ravaged his insides charred and hollow, and with shame and remorse he felt again for the first time in years the echo of that painful heat. He had painted this - her - ten thousand times it seemed, and with every brushstroke she had became more and more a ghost, features blurred, voice growing stale, movements stilled, leaving only that heat, no body and no face and no voice but the heat inside of her that she had ignited inside of him too. But there on the bleachers, out of nowhere like a bruising kiss from the cosmos the heat had come again, and with it - Grantaire paused, hands fumbling on tubes of paint. With it had come the vivid vision of her face. Her avenging angel’s face, the young martyress. Grantaire felt such longing and such fever as he had not known since the last time he’d watched her go, and he wondered what his eyes had seen on the bleachers that they were withholding from his fragile mind. Knotting his hair up, he selected his paints and smeared them out on a palette - vermillion, yellow, and lily white, and the smallest smudge of blue; blue for eyes so unlike Jehan’s rosy, hazy hues, which were soft and inviting and hypnotizing - no, blue for eyes that scarred, that burned.
--- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
“Here we are, Dmitry. Will you need help with your bags?”
“Fuck you.” The curse was limp, tired. The fury of it had vanished days ago and it was only a matter of principle now. It was the only response he would offer this woman, this perky social worker in her tailored blazer with the legal endorsement of his abduction in a manilla folder in the front side passenger seat; he had insisted on sitting in the back.
She didn’t even bother to sigh anymore. The car rolled to a stop in front of a rustic old home with peeling red paint - a wilted, sunbleached sort of red, like dead dahlias, Grantaire thought - and he peeled himself off of the seat and clambered out into the August swelter, pulling a backpack and a stained duffel along with him.
Thénardier. This the name of the household. Proprietors of a motel and three other foster children, in addition to three blood daughters. Situated on the outskirts of a shit hamlet called Montfermeil. His entire knowledge of his new universe in three lines.
Une petite Thénardiess was already waiting for him, or perhaps merely lounging on the front steps without agenda, planted comfortably in the center of the sagging planks concentrated on a Nintendo DS and chewing gum. Her skin was nearly as brown as his and her hair was wild, and if he had to guess, he’d have thought her only a little younger than himself, ten or so. For a skinny little scrape-kneed ten-year-old she was fucking built, the muscles of her thighs and abs (revealed by a neon sports bra/denim cutoffs combo) taught and defined. Grantaire recalled instantly the forms of the young classmates he had once danced with, when his family had lived in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for two and a half years - the longest Grantaire had ever lived in one area. Though he was reluctant to make any judgements about his “new home” that weren’t bitter and scathing, if the girl was a dancer, it did bode well for him. Perhaps the family would allow him to take it up again. He quickly cursed himself for imagining his future here as anything but brief and hellish.
At the sound of the car door slamming the girl looked up, and he became instantly self-conscious of how he must look to her. A chubby, greasy-haired gitan, pockmarked face bloodless and grey from three sleepless nights, twelve years old and closely resembling, in his own opinion, a large, brown, upright big toe wearing a black hoodie. How very disappointing to her as new temporary brothers went. I am not your brother, he said to her silently. He embedded the words in his glare. Just your captive. For now.
She glared right back for a moment, and then dropped her gaze again to the DS as though he wasn’t even worth a greeting. He wasn’t, he supposed.
At that moment the door behind her swung open and something akin to an “amicable, matronly shriek” announced the arrival of La Grande Thérnardiess. His observations were whip fast: plump waistline, €3,800 bosom, spray tan on white skin, botoxed magenta lips, hot pink wedge heels inappropriate for her age and terribly, terribly blonde. She teetered quickly down the steps looking straight at the approaching social worker as she wrapped her arms around Grantaire. “We’re so excited to have you here, Dmitry!”, the harpy squealed.
“You can call me Grantaire,” he muttered into her breasts.
“Grand R? That’s a stupid nickname. Your name doesn’t even start with R.” LaThérnardiette spoke up from the stoop without even raising her eyes from her game.
“It’s my last name, not a nickname, b -” It took everything in Grantaire to end the sentence there rather than finishing the insult. Calling his new guardian’s little daughter a bitch as his second ever sentence in her presence could not possibly go well for him. The girl’s eyes did raise knowingly to meet his for only an instant, and she blew a pale bubble with her gum and smirked.
“Come in, come in, I’ll put on tea. Éponine dear, why don’t you show him around while the grown ups chat?” The woman ushered the three of them inside, Éponine snapping her DS shut and clambering to her feet gracefully even with her long and awkward limbs. She then remained standing with Grantaire in the cluttered pine foyer while Mlle. Thérnardier took his caseworker towards the parlor.
Grantaire nudged off his shoes and added them to a pile of ten or more raggedy sneakers and such scattered around a filthy rug. His eye caught on a pair of hightops with spiked studs around the heel and some floral knock off doc martins.
“So what’s your deal?” Éponine snapped her gum, looking ever so characteristic of the preteen princess in that moment - hips cocked, arms folded, eyebrow raised.
“You know,” she groaned as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “The twins’ mom is a prostitute, she couldn’t take care of them so she surrendered them. Montparnasse was adopted from Japan as a baby by some bougie white family but he’s all fucked up in the brain so they said fuck it and gave him up. What’s your deal?”
Grantaire wasn’t sure whether to be irritated or impressed with the callousness of this fearless idiot. For a moment, he entertained the thought of telling her; but as his reality began to surface in his mouth he was overcome with tightness in his chest and a burning behind his eyes. “I’m a gypsy,” he said shortly instead, the slur acidic on his tongue, and left the foyer swinging the strap of his dufflebag over his shoulder.
“Fine, be that way. I’ll figure it out. That’s the foyer, congratulations. There’s the parlor on the left, kitchen’s down that way.” She pointed down the hall towards orange and white tile and a rubbery, burning odor. “TV room is through there, there’s a bathroom off it. I’ll show you your bedroom.”
The whole house was walled with wood panelling and ugly green 1970s-esque wallpaper and although there were many bookshelves, none of them contained books - rather he spotted DVDs, gossip magazines, and a lot (a lot) of knickknacks. The vibe of the place was that of the odd line between poverty and wealth which is not properly middle class but rather seemed to borrow traits from the boastful rich and the trashy poor, and though he had only just met the mother and the daughter moments ago, he imagined that the family in complete review would confirm his assessment. The stairwell was lined with photos of ancestors in black and white, and all of them seemed complimentary - here an Oxford graduating class, there a veteran of the second world war. He wondered if this was a hobby of the wealthy-pretending poor: purchasing themselves a family history at their local antique shop.
The landing at the top of the stairs split off several ways. “You’re rooming with ‘Parnasse, down this way - Hold on just a moment.” Éponine had glanced towards a bathroom on the right with the door open and caught sight of some hubbub there. She went to investigate with Grantaire leaning over her shoulder clutching his bags to himself.
On her knees on the bath mat a little girl of eight or nine leaned over the toilet with her impossibly thin arm nearly all the way down it, scrubbing furiously. She was frail as a bird, Grantaire observed, with limp wheat-colored hair tangled in a confused and knotty braid hanging all the way down to her tailbone. Her head was covered by a grey bandana. The soles of her feet were black as coal from heel to toe and thickly callused. When she stopped her task to look imploringly at Éponine, her big glassy eyes seemed empty, and Grantaire felt a chill run to the ends of his fingertips. Was this his fate? Was this what fosterhood in this family looked like? Like hell it would be his lot.
“Cosette! What the fuck are you up to?” She stormed forth and yanked the girl’s small (baby Jesus, tiny) wrist up from the toilet - her fingers were clenched around a frayed toothbrush, the bristles stained blue from toilet cleaner. Cosette did not meet the girl’s eyes. Though Grantaire guessed that they were more or less of an age with one another, Éponine and the little bird regarded one another as though Éponine were the master and Cosette the… well.
Cosette murmured something Grantaire could not hear, and Éponine rolled her eyes and snatched the toothbrush away. “It was a joke, Cosette, Jesus. Maman was just fucking with you, okay? God, you’re so stupid. Learn to take a joke. Get out, go play or something.” She prodded Cosette along with her foot as the girl scrambled out of the bathroom.
“She’s ruined a perfectly good toothbrush, too. What the fuck. Well anyway, that was Cosette. She’s got a twin around here somewhere. We try to color code them but sometimes you just have to guess. Angèle doesn’t really talk at all, so that’s one way to tell. And if it’s crying, it’s Cosette.”
Grantaire regarded her silently as she examined the toothbrush and casually flicked it into the trash bin.
“Is this the new recruit?” A voice like a smug serpent had learned to vocalize with venom slithered alarmingly close to Grantaire’s ear, and he jumped to the side, crashing into the linen cabinet.
“And there’s the other one. Grantaire - Montparnasse. ‘Parnasse, Grantaire.”
Huffing, Grantaire pulled his rumpled hoodie back on straight and appraised the fellow. A little taller than himself, face round but body slender to the point of malnourishment with pale, sallow skin and narrow, dark, dark eyes, hair like an oil slick and the gentle, playful smile of a fucking serial killer. His own age, perhaps, thirteen years at most. He was a lovely figure, silver screen handsome but deeply unsettling, and reminded Grantaire of one of those creepy porcelain dolls in horror movies.
The boy extended a small, soft hand to Grantaire, who shook it apprehensively. “There’s a bed all made for you in my room. I’ll show you.” The subtle smile seemed permanent upon his face and it drained all his words of warmth and good intentions. A hesitant, affirmative grunt was the best response Grantaire could manage.
Éponine announced that she would leave them to it and strode off down the stairs, and with a dramatic sweep of his hand Montparnasse invited Grantaire to follow him down the hall.
“What awful circumstance has robbed you of the idyllic, nuclearly inclined, white picket fence childhood you have surely enjoyed, my dear?” Montparnasse cast a glance over his shoulder, black eyes catching Grantaire’s murky ones sharply like a fishhook snagging. If Éponine’s demand was a blunt punch, phrased this way by this faunlet child it felt more like tentacles winding closer, gentle caresses poised to grip and devour, and certainly a harder snare to slip out of. But his answer would not waver.
“It is the dream of our good nation of France that one day, the institutionalized and machinized erasure of the ‘gypsy’ will leave all Roma children motherless, that they may nurse upon the teat of la mère patrie until their culture has dried up within them and left them nicely, thoroughly French. They will be raised by gadje and marry gadje and bear gadje babies.” It was more words than Grantaire had spoken in the last several days combined, but it felt good to properly articulate after that period of silent treatment. And moreover, it was suitably clever enough to woo this would-be-gentleman and still evasive enough to obscure the truth.
Montparnasse turned with a hand on a door, presumably to their bedroom, with his eyebrow raised and his dimples deep. “Well-spoken, darling.” Beneath his expression of delight the words seemed poisonous, as Grantaire wondered that they always would. Perhaps he was worried that his crown as local Prince Pretentious was under threat of coup. Grantaire hoped that in defense he would start pulling out the thesaurus - that was a challenge he would love to rise to.
Montparnasse pushed open the door to reveal the bedroom they would share. It was claustrophobic and the dark spring green paint was peeling. The hardwood floor was dented and scuffed and waterstained at the edges. There was only one window, set in a splintered frame above a radiator and without curtains. A painting hung on either side, just drab motel-kitsch flower vases, but the glass had been shattered in both, the spiderwebs of cracks emanating from the same spot in each as though intentionally broken. The twin beds - one beside the radiator and the other in a cranny beneath the slope that the stairs on the other side of the wall made - were well-dressed at least, with clean white linens, lush quilts and striped pillows. Beneath each he could see the knobs of drawers. A tall, full length mirror in a bronze frame surveyed the room from the corner on the other side of the radiator, and this too had been smashed near the top, but most of its face was still useful. Either Montparnasse had very few possessions or they were squirrelled away elsewhere, because the room was all but barren save for these furnishings.
Grantaire was inclined to ask about the broken glass, but he bit his tongue on the thought, wondering if it was better to leave it unacknowledged. If it had been done knowingly by the room’s resident, perhaps it was wiser not to know. ‘All fucked up in the brain’, Éponine had said of him.
“Your bed is there by the window,” Montparnasse indicated, and Grantaire set down his bags at the footboard.
“What about you,” he inquired. He expected Montparnasse to assume he meant regarding the beds, though the answer to that was quite obvious. However, to his pleasure, Montparnasse was quicker than that.
“Me? Oh, I myself had my picket fence. And a little red wagon, and a scrappy dog too. Obnoxious little thing, used to piss on my rug, tear up my underwear and keep me up all night with howling. And I, well, I had enough! I marched up to daddy dearest and sweet maman, and I said, either the dog goes, or I do! Now Fido still sits between them when they watch the ten o'clock news, and I am where I am, see.” Montparnasse leaned against the door, examining his nails (lacquered with a clear varnish, Grantaire could tell by the glossy way they shimmered) and smirking harder than ever. He looked suddenly up at Grantaire, the glint in his eye positively dangerous. “We have fun stories, at least. Fun enough to hide. Ask Cosette about her mother, she’ll tell it to you clear as this looking glass. ‘I don’t know’, she’d whimper pitifully, and she tells it true. But the rest of us do. We know. What came out of her mother’s cunt mattered about as much to her as what went in.”
“Just Cosette? Would Angèle tell it differently?”
“Angèle wouldn’t look you in the eye and she wouldn’t say a word. She’s a fucking nutter, that girl. She’s one already dead.”
At that moment, the doorbell rang five times in a row. Montparnasse rolled his eyes. “That’s the dinner call.” He opened the door behind himself and slipped out, leaving Grantaire to follow.
Dinner was a noisy, messy affair. Grantaire met the rest of the family - the infant Gavrielle, spitting up mashed peas all over herself from her plastic highchair; 6-year-old Azelma with skin fairer than her sisters, golden and freckled, but plush lips and deep brown doe eyes and a sweet little lisp; and finally, the master of the house, Mr. Thénardier himself, a tall, thin black man who spoke rapidly but as smoothly as Montparnasse, and emanated the same serpentine wiles without as much of the glossy charisma. Grantaire couldn’t help but notice the absence of the twins. Upon inquiry, he was told that Angèle rarely heeded the dinner bell, and that more often than not Cosette would take her plate and disappear to go find her.
“They’re lost causes, that pair. Idiots. Most like, they’ll end up in a nuthouse or on the streets. Don’t trouble yourself over them, Grantaire. You seem like a smart fellow. The hard-working get their reward from God and the crafty take their reward from the hard-working,” Mr. Thénardier assured him with a gap-toothed smile.
After dinner Montparnasse invited him out to the yard waving a crumpled pack of Gauloises Blondes. Grantaire accepted gladly and they went out to stand on the sidewalk by the fence at a distance from the porch. It wasn’t quite a habit yet, he thought as he gripped the cigarette between his lips for Montparnasse to light, but he had enjoyed doing this with his father once upon a time and it would be a comfort now. He expected Montparnasse to simply use the lighter but he was quickly learning that in any given situation the boy would choose the most unsettling play available; he came close with his own cigarette in his lips, allowing one tip to light the other while he stared unblinkingly at Grantaire with clever bedroom eyes.
“Would you have preferred Gitanes?”, he quipped and pulled away.
“Would you have preferred Sakuras?”, Grantaire sneered.
“Ooh, burn. Listen, ‘Grand aire’. We are fellows of an age. This is the height of our sacred boyhood! We should be undertaking weekend odysseys through our rural landscapes to see Ray Bower’s metaphor-rich body, should we not? I mean to say, we should be friends, you and I. We are in a house full of women, save for the monsieur, and we must stick together, don’t you think?”
“Lonely, are you?” Grantaire scoffed.
“Of course I am. Aren’t you?”
The honesty caught Grantaire off guard. He looked at Montparnasse, and there was nothing exposed in his expression. It was the same smug mask as before. Grantaire wondered what game the boy played - or whether it was even cleverer than that, that he could protect his vulnerability by slipping sincerity in among the jests.
Grantaire was poised to say something harsh to shut down that idea quickly. He would not be here for long. His mother would recover, she would be well again any day now, their father would be released too, and they would go to court for their Dmitry and little Flourica. He would not be building friendships in this place. But before he could speak, out of the corner of his eye he saw movement and he turned to look.
The latticing below the back porch was guarded by overgrown tangles of ivy but it was broken in one place, exposing the crawlspace underneath. In the darkness of this space, Grantaire could make out a moving shape, and he felt his heart jump into his throat.
From between the broken and jagged lines of wood a child emerged, clawing away the ivy and picking her way forth into the blue twilight air. The porchlight behind her illuminated a radiant halo of yellow hair and the sharp edges of collarbones ending in bony shoulders. Grantaire would have thought her Cosette, her long hair and emaciated form and even her features quite the same, but he could sense a difference instantly in the storm upon her brow. Where Cosette had been stooped and sad-eyed, beaten like iron by the Thénardiers to be warped into something useful and easy to manipulate, Grantaire knew instantly that this one was different.
Up to that point, she had been mentioned several times as mute, a lost cause, dead already. Grantaire had imagined her a shivering and broken corpse.
But this girl before him had eyes like mercury and a halo of lightning and she looked like something feral, and Grantaire instantly recalled a time as a child when he had strayed from home into the woods and seen a wolf watching him between the trees. He remembered the terror and the awe of that ethereal moment as he looked upon this girl who was both lovely and terrible to behold. He knew plainly why the Thénardiers all looked upon her with such disdain - Cosette was a lark successfully caged, but this was a girl they surely had failed to capture.
Sudden as a dream dissipates upon waking, the girl was gone.
“Well,” said Montparnasse. “There goes Angèle.”
--- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
Grantaire stepped back and stared in frustration at the painting.
Every time he painted her, she looked less and less like her. Just the wear and tear of age on memories, he knew, but it pained him so much. Someday she would just be electric waves and blue eyes. Words in his head desperately trying to be adequate substitutes for images. Images failing to capture feelings and revelations and the sensation of certainty in goodness and hope like knowing God. It had been some six years since he had seen Angèle for the last time and every successive painting was less a real little girl and more an idol, more a dream. She would be seventeen now, and he imagined she was an absolute glory of a woman, the second coming of Jeanne D’Arc, Artemis running wild and shooting hearts, that somewhere she was setting the world on fire. (It was more realistic and more likely, his cynical self reproached, that she had grown to be terribly ordinary, just a plain schoolgirl reading light novels and boozing on the weekends. But no. Angèle was the last bit of faith in the stars that Grantaire would allow himself. Angèle was the last altar he would pray at. Angèle was the last golden glimmer of light in the world.)
And so, wholly disappointed in the night’s work, Grantaire shook out his hair from where he’d knotted it, running his oil-stained fingers through the greasy mess and going out to have one last beer and clean his brushes before going to sleep.
In the living room Grantaire found Éponine lying spread-eagled on her back on the carpet. There were two empty beer bottles on the coffee table and another tipped over on the floor. A last half-empty bottle sat by her hand.
Grantaire smiled sadly and went to crouch down near her head. She opened her eyes and met his with a sigh.
"That bad, eh?", Grantaire grinned sympathetically.
"I've been worse."
"Sit up, kiddo. Tell me with your liquor-looser tongue what ails the lass."
Éponine did as she was told, readjusting to lean against the coffee table. Grantaire lay flat on his belly, ankles crossed and chin in his hands like an eager child at storytime. Éponine smiled weakly but again she sighed.
"What do you want me to say, R? I just don't know what to do."
"You haven't been sitting here for the last... Jesus fucking Christ, two hours, where does the time go... anyway, you haven't spent it just sitting here on the floor meditating on the best course of action. You can tell me honestly, Éponine. What's eating at you?"
The girl pulled her knees up close to her chest and took another swig from the bottle.
"You're going to laugh at me."
"I've never laughed in my life! When have you ever known so much as a chortle to pass these wine-soaked lips?"
"Oh, shut up. Honestly."
"Okay, Éponine. I swear. I'll be grave as a widow at mass. Please, love."
And there were those eyes again, imploring and searching and open. She licked her lips and studied the carpet for a moment before she spoke again.
"I am eighteen years old."
"Meaningless. Sorry, continue."
"I lost my virginity when I was fifteen. I lost it to Montparnasse. He fucked me and then the next day he went on a date with Jehan, spraypainting under the north bridge. Jehan painted their initials and they are still there. I didn't tell you because... Well, it was Montparnasse. How could I explain myself? How could I explain that choice?"
"Éponine, you didn't have to. I would never judge you. You're my best friend."
"So is Jehan!"
"Yeah, well... Okay. I don't know what I would have done if I'd known at the time. But I wouldn't have judged you and I wouldn't have been angry."
Éponine's shoulders slumped. "It's hard to believe you."
"Your sex life doesn't change who you are as a person, Ép."
"How can you say that? It's just not true, it does, it matters, how can you say that it doesn't? Montparnasse was an asshole and a loser. But I just kept fucking him all the way until he left. In the three years between ‘making my sexual debut’ and now, I have had sex with more guys than I can remember, and every single one of them was a loser."
"But Ép, nothing about that makes you a loser - "
"You don't even believe that! You don't fucking believe that R, I know you don't! I know the way you talk about your one night stands; you love to tell those bawdy stories, you love to make them out to be these sexy conquests to Feuilly and Bahorel, don't you! But I know you know the truth, R. I know the way you really feel, and you don't think they were victories. Every single one of those fuckers, you leave their bedroom first, right? And you tell people it's because you're not the type that stays the night but that's a lie. You do it because you fuck mean losers, and you do it and then you leave, because if you fucked someone you actually liked, then you would be the loser they were fucking and leaving, right? Right?!"
There was a fury in her eyes now and a tenseness in her body. He tried to tell himself that she wasn't trying to hurt him, that she was trying to hurt herself, but the consequence was the same either way. She barrelled on.
"And I know that you know that you're the kind of person who has one night stands with losers who rake your thighs and call you slut and leave bruises, and they don't do it because you like it, they do it because they like it. And I know that you look at the bruises in the morning and you think, here goes R, punching bag cumslut for the scum of humanity. So don't fucking tell me that I'm not a loser, Grantaire, because you wouldn't say that to yourself, and we are exactly the same. But..."
Grantaire watched the tension pool out of her body as she slumped back against the coffee table and carded her hands through her loose hair.
"This is just our lot in life, Grantaire. We're clever but we aren't pretty. We are rude assholes. We hurt people and we work at a corner store and a ghetto piercing parlor. We fuck C-listers we meet in bars but we don't talk to them. It's gritty and fun, it's neon lights in liquor store windows at midnight, it's your whole back stuck to the plastic back seat of their shitty car, it's cool-kid ennui, it's love in the new millennium, and we're supposed to act like it's better than the pretentious deluded bourgeois hollywood concepts of romance that the beautiful people eat up all the way to their catty white-people divorces.
"But don't you ever... don't you ever want to give in? Don't you ever just wish on a fucking star for something as deluded as that? Something that fucking innocent? Do you ever just want to hold someone's hand and get butterflies when you kiss? Do you ever just want to wear a sundress and walk through the park with him..."
"Well I can't say I've ever had that specific fantasy..."
"Fuck you, what happened to being a widow at mass? You know what I mean. All of those guys, R. They picked me up and threw me around and I ate it up. They joked that I was their side hoe, and I let them. They took me to keggers, they took me cowtipping, and I was down for that shit. They were all dirt. All except for one. One idiotic, naive rich kid. This homeschooled country-living bug-obsessed mathlete internet geek with a blog, this giraffe-ass weenie who was afraid of the woods at night but wasn't afraid of me. He bought me banana milkshakes, he bought me pearl earrings, he told me I looked 'radiant', he looked at me like I was the moon in the dark sky... Like I was good..." On the last word, Éponine's voice cracked pitifully and she buried her face in her hands, and the tears came like the clouds breaking open. Grantaire moved quickly to her side and took her in his arms.
"You are good," he muttered into her hair. "You are so good. You are so incredibly strong and brave and brilliant. You're only eighteen and already a hero to your little sisters, and to us all. Nobody could do what you've done, Éponine. You are good, whether any fuckboy tells you you are or not. But they'd all be crazy not to love you if you let them."
"But I'm so fucked up," she whispered angrily into his shirt.
"You're not, Éponine. You're not ruined, not by any of those things. Those things are just shit that happened, and... I mean, yeah. You cheated on a sweet guy and... that wasn't great. And our love-lives to date have been killed in the cradle by our fucking shit self esteems. But you don't need to pin a scarlet letter to your breast as a punishment for that. You're eighteen for god's sake. Your life won't be this way forever. You're not always going to work at a corner store. You're not going to date shitty boys for the rest of your life. Please believe that, Éponine. You're going to have better because you deserve it."
Éponine huffed softly. "If we all got what we deserved, you and I would be in jail and Montparnasse would be in hell. But... thanks anyway. Really." She pulled herself closer into his chest and he tightened his grip around her shoulders.
"Of course, Ép. Do you want to call it a night?"
"...Yeah. Can I sleep in your bed?"
"Duh, of course."
Ten minutes later they lay side by side in the darkness, tangled in Jehan’s sheets, hoping they’d struck up with their angel and wouldn’t be coming home. As the gentle sounds of traffic and blurry images of his own angel stole him into dreaming, Grantaire only barely registered the "thank you" mouthed gently into his bicep.
"Always," he whispered back.