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Wild Tigers I Have Known

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            It always began with the fullness of the dark settling over him, just like the first time. The door would shut behind him and leave him in the safest shadows. Glowing afternoon sunlight was robbed from his wide, sea green eyes, and sparks would swell before them in the velvety blackness of his vision. Without bothering to wait, he would carry himself up the stairway and into the jungle of abandoned and forgotten junk. He would pick his way down the familiar path, and poised between a standing lamp and a stack of boxes labelled “VHS tapes” and “dance costumes - 2001”, he would whistle their tune in lieu of knocking and wait.
            Today, as ever, he listened for the whispery, gap-toothed final notes, and proceeded onwards into the golden clearing that Cosette and Angèle called their bedroom.
            On this particular day, he found Angèle pulling shredded pink fabric over the rafter beams. Grantaire ran a hand through his inky curls and smiled his crooked smile. “Is Rapunzel planning an escape from her tower?” Angèle flinched at his voice breaking the silence, though she knew he was there, and tied off the tangle of poly-cotton in her hands. Grantaire noted the way it was cut and torn at odd angles, bits hanging off in nonsensical directions. It was scrap fabric, some pattern having been taken from it already. It was stained in places and chewed in others.
            Angèle turned and looked at him. It had been a little more than a year, and still, when she looked at him he could feel those summer heat eyes like lasers on his dark skin, and he shivered.
            “Don’t know that one? That’s alright, I’ll tell you sometime. Then we can discuss why the witch deemed a baby to be currency equal in value to garden vegetables - that is to say, clearly just about worthless, considering that she just left the baby in a tower and didn’t even eat her like any witch worth her salt ought’ve. Really, it’s a major plot hole.”
            Angèle just stared. After a moment she tipped her head, raised an eyebrow and pinched the tip of her tongue between her teeth - it was a blatant copy of Grantaire’s own “incredulous” expression. When they first had met she hadn’t been doing much in the way of facial expressions at all, and he had chalked it up to a stoic personality. But over time as he watched Angèle slowly adopt his mannerisms - a facial quirk here, a hand gesture there - he realized it had merely been a product of isolation, and having never had enough communication with other people to learn that sort of social vocabulary. The realization had been tragic and a tad disturbing at first. The Thénardiers truly did not seem to understand how deep their ignorance of Angèle ran. It had somewhere crossed the border from leaving a willful child to her own devices into neglecting her to an almost feral state, and the lot of them were clueless. All Grantaire could do was keep showing up here in the attic, and help Cosette make sure her sister didn’t stray into a total wilderness of the mind. But her searing stare was still animal, and deep within him, Grantaire hoped it always would be.

            “So, what’ve you got going on there? It looks, aah… decorative!”
            Angèle looked back to her work, stroking one hanging piece gently. “Streamers,” she said, almost too quiet to hear.
            “Ooh,” Grantaire said, “I see.” He stepped forward to look more closely and nodded appraisingly. “Streamers, like party streamers? Very festive. Are we celebrating something?”
            Always, she paused before replying. “It’s Cosette’s birthday.”
            “Well!” Grantaire placed a hand on her shoulder jovially. She flinched, and might once have jerked away, but now just pressed into the touch after recovering from the anxious spasm. “That would make it your birthday too, wouldn’t it?”, he asked in a low and teasing voice. Angèle shrugged noncommittally. Grantaire decided not to press it.  He had gotten quite good at recognizing paths of conversation that impended sudden flight. Generally anything that got too close to focusing on her was a good bet.
            “Where did you get these, anyway?”
            “In the alley with all the loud dogs. It’s… Cosette likes pink.”
            Grantaire hummed and nodded. He considered suggesting that he buy them some real streamers, ones that hadn’t come from a trash can and didn’t look like they’d been pissed on, but this was all Angèle had to offer Cosette, and he wouldn’t dare take that from her.
            “Well, then I’d like to get Cosette something too,” he said thoughtfully. “I just got my paycheck from the dance studio. We could go to that toy store and you could help me pick something out. We could give it to her together!” As predicted, Madame Thénardier had not offered to pay for Grantaire to dance, but in a stroke of luck he had struck a deal with the owner’s son, a handsome young fellow who taught classes and had noticed the way Grantaire looked on with a pining expression while he waited for Éponine to finish. Now he was a maintenance assistant; he cleaned the studio and helped sew costumes and did minor tech for shows and generally did things nobody else wanted to do, and in exchange he got a small paycheck and the privilege of sitting in on classes and practicing when the studio was empty.
            Angèle’s eyes, still focused on the “streamers”, widened, and she tightened her fist around the rag.
            “We don’t have to. Don’t be scared, it’s alright.”
            Angèle’s gaze darted around uncomfortably. “I know something she wants there,” she said softly.
            “Perfect! You can show me!”
            She looked at him, head tipping again. “Grantaire…” He understood, but this was something he’d been working towards for a while. Angèle avoided being looked at. Ever. Even in her own private home - though calling it “her own” was a bit of a stretch - she ghosted from place to place, staying as hidden and silent as possible. Going to a public place like the toy store was a bit of an unrealistic first step, and maybe it was too much… But the opportunity had sat itself down in his lap, and he improvised a plan on the spot. He gripped the bottom of his dark gray hoodie and pulled it roughly over his head, and then tugged it down to dress the  girl.
            It was a bit comical, he thought - the way the hood drooped down over her eyes, the hem fell almost to her knees, the arms covered her hands entirely, and her thin little body was lost in a cavern of fabric. But more than comical, it was painfully cute.
            “This hoodie is special, Angèle. It’s armor. It’s an invisibility cloak. I use it to sneak around all the time. Nobody can see you inside there, nobody will look. You’re totally safe in there, I promise.”
            She looked at him with deploring eyes, bit her lip and considered. “...Okay,” she whispered at last. “For Cosette.”
            Grantaire grinned. Progress.


            They made it without incident or encounter through the sleepy, hazy town of Montfermeil to the square near the church where Leclair’s Toy Shop sat bright and inviting. Angèle knew all the backroads, and at her behest they took them. However, as they approached the boulevard, the girl grew shyer. It was not a busy afternoon for commerce and the people on the streets were few, but “few” was more than Angèle typically suffered. “You are a brave and fearsome thing, dear. And you’re safe inside your invisibility cloak. Come on. We’ll do it together.” He wrapped an arm around her frail shoulders and she clutched her ribs through the hoodie, and they went forward together.
            Crossing the street in front of all the pedestrians felt like it took years; he could feel in himself Angèle’s wild heartbeat, and the sickness and anxiety he could imagine choking her as he half-carried her across, but at last they made it to the storefront. Before they could enter the shop, Angèle stopped. He prodded with his arm around her, but she dug her heels into the ground. “There,” he heard her mutter.
            “Hm?” She gestured with a floppy sleeve, and he followed her gaze to the window.
            “The lady,” she said.
            Mounted in the window was a tall porcelain doll, with pretty glass eyes and perfectly flushed cheeks. Her brown hair was long and smooth and curled in tumbling corkscrews, and her dress was exorbitant and victorian-esque and very, very pink. Grantaire paled. There’s no doubt that she’d be fucking expensive. But he’d gotten Angèle all the way here to this scary public place and he wasn’t going to take back his promise now.
            “She took me here at night once,” Angèle whispered. “She says you’d have to be a queen to own that doll. Or a princess maybe. Is that true?” She looked up at Grantaire innocently.
            “Oh yes. Absolutely. It’s a good thing that you and Cosette are princesses, right? Let’s go in.” She entered the small shop with him warily, eyes darting around as though searching for threats. Fortunately it was empty, save for the clerk behind the counter. “Why don’t you look around? Look how cool it is in here. There’s board games, and barbies, and trains… Look, there’s transformers over there! Those are like, robots that turn into cars. But they’re aliens too. I don’t really get it. Go check ‘em out!” He gave her a soft little shove, and she disappeared into an aisle. He made his way over to the counter, where the teenaged clerk was snapping gum and reading Teen Vogue.
            “How much for the doll in the window?”, he asked. She regarded him first, her eyebrows pinched, scanning him up and down (oh, how Grantaire knew that look) before glancing over at the display.
            “70 euros.”
            “Fuck, shit, tits. Wow. Uh… Well, fuck. Okay.” That was almost his entire paycheck. But for Angèle and Cosette, he would live until the next one. “Yep. I’ll take her. And…” He glanced over the rest of the shop, searching out Angèle. He spotted her near the back, reaching up to lightly touch a stuffed bird on a shelf with a kind of awed reverence. “Angèle! You like that?” Her eyes snapped to him and her hand flew to her side, as though she was afraid she had been caught in the act. But slowly, he saw her nod and look back to the bird. “I’ll take that thing too,” he said to the cashier. “Bring it over here, Angèle!” She stood on her toes to gingerly bring it down from the shelf, like she was afraid it would break, or as though she was amazed that she was allowed to touch it.
            “Your total is 101,66€. Do you want me to box the doll?”
            Grantaire swore under his breath, but pulled his chipper grin back on for the clerk. “Yeah, please! Can you put like, a bow on it?”
            “Sure.”
            While she lay the doll down in a long, dark blue box, swaddled in tissue paper, Angèle tiptoed up to stand beside Grantaire and watch. Her eyes were wide as Grantaire had ever seen them, and she was clutching the bird to herself. “Wouldn’t you have preferred a tiger or a dog or something? What is that, a chicken?”
            Angèle looked down at it. He recognized the look on her face then: total and under disbelief. Wonderment like dreaming. The slightest shade of fear, as though if she accepted it as real, it might disappear from her hands. “It’s a rooster,” she said under her breath, too low for the clerk to hear. “I like roosters.”
            “Well, good.” He smiled. “Happy birthday.” She looked up at him.
            “I get to keep this?”
            “Yep. All yours. Bought and paid for. Wanna see the receipt?” He held it out.
            “This means it’s mine?”
            “Yep! It’s all there. All that jargon and numbers and ‘thank you for your patronage, take our online survey’ shit. Proof that you are the sole owner of this fine, feathery, gallinaceous friend.” Unexpectedly, she reached out and took the receipt in her small hand, holding it close to herself. He shrugged and let her have it.
            When it was all wrapped with a silk ribbon (pink, at Grantaire’s insistence) he took the box and they started home.
            In the window it had been hard to tell how big it really was - it took both Grantaire’s arms to carry, and when she was stood up on her tiny china feet she’d probably come all the way up to Cosette’s belly button. It was more than a little excessive, honestly, but Grantaire decided that he was making up for all the nice or even decent things Cosette had never had.
            Angèle walked beside him, cradling the rooster to her chest and burying her face in its feathers. She brought her head up to push the hood away from over her eyes and revealed that she was grinning sheepishly from ear to ear and her cheeks were flushed deep red. Grantaire felt his stomach flip at the sight.
            “You really like your rooster, eh?”, he asked.
            She nodded. “I like it. But… the doll… I can’t wait.”
            “Cosette will love it. It’ll be her best birthday ever, I’m glad you showed it to me.”
            “It’s my best birthday too,” she whispered into the rooster. Grantaire could have wept.
            “I’ve never had a present before,” Angèle said softly after a moment.
            “Yeah, well.” Grantaire sighed. “That isn’t your fault. Nobody gives a shit about kids that aren’t their own blood. In general, people do as little as they can get away with where it concerns those not on their own approved personhood list.”
            The last of Angèle’s smile faded, and she buried her face in the rooster again. “What about the people who aren’t on anybody’s list?”, she questioned through the fluff.   
            Grantaire shrugged. He didn’t want to bullshit her. She’d been through too much to be fed promises and placations now. But to say that they spend their lives under the pressure of an unbearably great weight of loneliness and then die in their misery, vagabonds and victims and forgotten orphans, was too much to foist onto a child. “Who knows? Nobody remembers.” It was true, if not as explicitly ugly as the whole truth. His hand left the box for a moment to brush her arm reassuringly. “You’re on my list, though. And Cosette’s.” Her expression didn’t change.
            “When you were little, did you think about being big? Do you think about being a grown-up?”, she asked.
            Grantaire pondered the odd non-sequitur. “I suppose I did, yeah. I thought about being like my dad. Sometimes I still think about travelling around the whole world when I’m grown.”
            Angèle knit her brows together thoughtfully. “Will I be a grown-up?”
            “I sure hope so. Almost everyone is, eventually. Why?”
            “I can’t picture it. I can’t.”
            “I think that being in survival mode all the time, like you are, does funny things to your brain. Between your depression and anxiety and ongoing trauma - not to get all medical on you, but let’s be real - your perception of time and reality is fucked. But, and maybe this is hard to grasp because you’re just a kid, the world outside of you is different than the way you see it in your head. You can’t see a future for yourself, and that’s absolutely fine, because time doesn’t need your permission to march on.”
            Angèle seemed to contemplate this. Though she was a child, a ten-year-old as of today and in many ways an underdeveloped one at that, so often she presented him with evidence of such a clarity and intelligence hiding in her mental jungle that he had faith that she understood.
            He gazed down at Angèle, and out at the dusty road before them, and contemplated his next words. “You know, Angèle, we are alike in a way,” he began. “We are bastard children, you and I, with impure bastard blood. Born liegeless whoresons to mothers who could find no love in themselves for unwanted babes like us, the sickly crop they had never meant to sew; mothers we would never know, who never wished to know us. Yours was called Fantine, you have said; well, mine was called Romania. And we both were handed roughly off to ample-bosomed foster mothers, flowing with milk and pride and love, but whose breasts turned stone for our unclean mouths. Yours, the madame Thenardier, and mine, France. Is it our place to blame them? They have natural children to feed, and we are trespassers; ‘not on their lists’, as I have said, for it is the right of man to own his body and all within it, and the right of man to share as he sees fit. It is the will of man to withhold. The longer we false children stood before our false mothers and demanded her milk, the more inevitable the heel of her boot became, grinding us into the dirt. And so, wisely, you and I have chosen to wear the skin of the beast, and wander the backroads by moonlight and live within and yet apart from the jurisdiction of our mothers and all men. And I say, to all of this: to my motherland, fuck you, and to my foster mother, fuck you, and to the absence of God, who has left us in such sadistic disarray, fuck you, and to myself, to my miserable existence, fuck you most of all. My limp-tongued curse is all I have against the world. This is the way that things are, and there is no one to blame, because there is no law or order in the universe, and not all men are destined for happiness. We cannot claim foul play when we do not receive it. There is no justice when there is no law.”
            Angèle had a look of great concentration. For all of that, he might have expected sadness or despair, but no; in her face he saw contemplation, and even a slightest shade of ire in the wrought line of her mouth. He stopped and reached out to place his hand on her head. She looked at his chest and then forced her eyes upwards to meet his for just a moment before looking down at the ground.
            “Then I met you.” Her eyes instantly flew up to his again. “I believed that greed and hatred was the base state of all men. But I believe in love as well, and I suppose the logical rationalization would be that hatred is printed on our slate and love is scrawled on top of it, that hate is something that we are born with and love is something that we learn.”
            Grantaire put the doll box aside and descended to his knees on the road, dropping his hands in his lap, and met Angèle’s uncertain eyes. “John the Evangelist said that we love because God first loved us. But if there is a God, he is loveless, and no one ever taught you,  Angèle, how to love. Love is not something you have ever been given or ever witnessed. Not in that household of the damned. And yet… you are full of it. Somehow it was born in you, and flourished in you, and spills out of you. Your love for Cosette, her love for you… What are you, the pair of you seraphs? Are you separate from all of us? A glitch in the cosmos, that love was scripted into you from birth? It is too much to believe that you are exemplary of all men. It is too much to imagine that love is printed on our slate, and that hatred is the afterthought scrawled across its face. If this is true, then I am forced to imagine that it could be erased, and overwhelmed with the terror of that knowledge - because how can one know this, know that all men are born with love and corrupted with hatred, and not feel in themselves a desperate obligation to uncorrupt the world? You interrupt my ignorant, vengeful bliss with a terrible hope.”
            He searched her eyes for understanding, but wondered if it even mattered whether she did. He’d written his existential crisis onto the face of a bruised little girl, and suddenly he felt small in the universe. Gods worth believing in were so scarce that he was on his knees before a ten-year-old and her stuffed chicken. He felt a bubbling of shame and remorse. But then, she spoke, voice trembling.
            “S-sometimes, I like to lie down on the floor in the sun from the window by our bed. It feels warmer than a blanket, and cozier, and softer. It’s like sleepiness without being tired, and like dreaming without being afraid.” He held his breath, amazed. Angèle never spoke like this, never in anything but short, stilted sentences. With a tingle of pride, he considered where she’d learned it from. “Sometimes I lie there for so long that I’m buried in all the sunshine, and it feels like touching fire, this burning feeling like the color red on my skin. And that’s… that’s how I feel about Cosette. She makes me feel like lying in the sun. And when I hear Madame yelling at her or she tells me all the things she had to do today, I still feel the sun, but I feel the hot red feeling too. Like they are part of the same feeling.”
            The two of them looked at one another, breathing steadily. Grantaire nodded slowly. She continued. “I want to do something. So badly, Grantaire. I feel the heat and I want to do something. I let them hurt her because I can’t do anything!” She bit her tongue, grimacing and beginning to shake. Grantaire reached out and took her hands in his.
            “You’re just a little child, Angèle, in a fucked up abusive household. Nobody can stand up to the Thénardiers -”
            “I want to uncorrupt the world!”, she shouted, her hands suddenly gripping Grantaire’s wrists, and Grantaire was shocked into silence. “You said that if I love Cosette even though nobody ever loved me, it means that everyone must be born with love! Even Madame and Monsieur, even ‘Ponine, even ‘Parnasse, that’s what you said, right?” Her cry was fevered and Grantaire didn’t know what to say. “And you are too. You hate everything because everything hates you. But you were born with love. That’s what you said.” Grantaire could feel shivers running through his body, and though moments before he had felt small in the universe, he could feel it folding and unfolding, and the vastness was not suffocating anymore: just impossibly open. He wondered if this was what people felt when they claimed to feel the Holy Spirit. “You said that knowing this makes you feel like you have to change it. That’s what you said. But you’re afraid of that. You said your ignorance was bliss and the hope was terrible. You were scared because I made you think that the world could change, but you don’t want to try and change it.” She looked at him intensely, searching for confirmation that she had understood. He opened his mouth and closed it, and nodded. “Well I am not afraid.” She spoke with such clear conviction, such fire, and as it left her mouth, uncertainty returned to her expression. He could tell that she was thinking of herself, too anxious to walk through the kitchen if someone was in there already. Quickly he cut her train of thought.
            “I believe in you,” he said firmly. “I do.” The hard, burning edge returned to her eyes, and she fell forwards into him, wrapping her bony arms around his neck. He returned the hug fiercely. “You might just be a little kid now, but you have me. I’m not sure what more I can do, but I promise you, I’ll do it.” She nodded into his shoulder and he clutched her tight.
            “I believe in you too,” she whispered back.

 

--- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---

 

            The three of them sat cross-legged on the attic floor together, sharing a handful of cookies that Grantaire had snagged from the jar downstairs while Angèle had crept up with the presents. As the sun was getting low, leaving the attic all purple with twilight, they lit the half-melted candles scattered here and there to see by, and only then did Cosette appear, having finished all her chores for the day. When she arrived, Grantaire burst out eagerly into Happy Birthday, and Angèle joined in weakly with a smile on her face. Cosette hugged them both and showered their faces with kisses. As she sat down beside them Grantaire pulled the box out from behind him and set it before her.
            “Here, this is for you. From us both.”
            Cosette looked at him with confusion. She looked down on the box, and back at Grantaire, and down again. “Go on, open it.”
            He wasn’t sure what he had expected. Excitement, disbelief, the same wonder and reverence that Angèle had felt upon clutching her rooster perhaps. When Cosette unlidded the box, however, she had gasped - a small gasp, the breath leaving her lungs as though she had been struck, and nothing else.
            She looked at Grantaire, and he recognized pure fear, fear of punishment, fear of humiliation. “It’s yours,” he urged. “Really, it’s all yours. I bought it for you with my paycheck from the dance studio. Look, I bought Angèle this chicken too.” He playfully reached out to stroke it, and Angèle smiled.
            Cosette looked down again, her eyes flooding with tears. Her hands - they shook almost violently - hovered just above the doll. “You can touch it, dear. It’s yours.”
            “Is it true? Is it true, is the lady for me?”, she whispered, never taking her eyes from it. Grantaire nodded, afraid to speak for fear of his voice choking up. Angèle leaned forward towards Cosette and took the doll’s small, porcelain hand, her little fingers sculpted together and gently curved, and placed it in Cosette’s hand.  She retracted quickly as though burned, and looked down at the floor. And then, all at once, she seized the doll eagerly. “I will call her Catharine,” she declared. Grantaire grinned so widely he felt he might break. Angèle crawled forward on her knees and hugged her sister and the doll together in her arms, and tears rolled down Cosette’s smiling face.
            “What did you call your rooster, Angèle?”, Cosette asked, wiping her tears roughly away with the back of her hand, and Angèle shrugged.
            “I didn’t think to name it.”
            “You must call it something! How will we play with Catharine and her pet rooster if you haven’t called it anything?” Angèle shrugged again, smiling wider.
            “You name it. You are good at naming things.”’
            “Fine. His name is Jean-Luc.”
            Angèle brought the toy into her lap and examined it. “Yes. He looks like a Jean-Luc.” Cosette hummed, satisfied.
            “They live in a castle together. A lady like Catharine must live in a very big castle. It doesn’t make any sense for her to have a rooster pet, but that is what you got, so that will have to do. Maybe her prince was turned into a rooster by an evil witch.”
            “Or maybe she just likes roosters, like I do,” Angèle said. “That’s why I got one…” They giggled together.
            Grantaire loved these moments. Getting to watch the two of them interact as though he wasn’t even there. Though he wouldn’t say that they ever looked truly happy, when they were with each other, they looked as though they felt truly safe, and free to be themselves. It was a privilege to be near. It was a privilege that they would let their solid and severe guards down before him.
            “Hey!” Cosette exclaimed brightly. “There’s chocolate milk downstairs! Madame just bought it today! D’you want some to drink with our cookies? I’ll go get some!”
            Angèle deflated like an old balloon, shrinking in on herself and wringing her hands together. “Won’t the madame be mad?”
            “She’s at the studio with Azelma!” Without waiting a moment longer, Cosette jumped up and skipped away, hauling Catharine along with her.
            Angèle craned her neck looking on after her even when she was gone. She crumpled beside Grantaire. The girl looked as tense as ever as she drew her knees up to her chin and cradled the newly christened Jean-Luc to her chest. Grantaire watched her, heaving out a sigh. There was nothing to be said. All Angèle’s fears were terribly real.
            Looking for a distraction, Grantaire pawed around on the bed behind them. He found what he was looking for underneath his discarded hoodie. “It’s been three days. It’s time. C’mere.”
            Angèle looked between Grantaire’s solemn face and the plastic hairbrush he brandished. She huffed heavily, looking indignant.
            “Quit that, pissy baby. Get over here.” Grantaire grinned. Angèle’s hair had never looked better before he had arrived - her teeth either, or her charcoal-black feet, which were now a healthy brownish pink, thank you very much. He had only managed to get her to shower a handful of times (after day-long struggles, and only on the condition that Cosette sat outside the tub and he guarded the bathroom door) but he and Cosette were together waging war on the feral child’s abysmal self-neglect.
            Reluctantly Angèle crawled over and settled herself between Grantaire’s knees with enough space between them that he could comfortably maneuver the brush. Fortunately her pale hair was blessedly thin, but it hung all the way to her tailbone and got greasy so quickly. Grantaire had contemplated investing in some dry shampoo if she couldn’t be persuaded to take a bath more often than every 5 or 6 weeks. He started from the bottom, using the brush to detangle the thick mats and gripping a section in his fist so as not to pull on her scalp. It was rhythmic and relaxing.
            The warm silence was shattered by a shriek from below. Grantaire jerked wildly and Angèle threw herself forward, her hands flying up to cover her head. “I got it,” Grantaire barked and jumped to his feet. He skittered through the attic dodging boxes gracefully and took the first and second flight of stairs three at a time, making straight for the kitchen where he knew Cosette would be.
            He heard the sharp, jarring clap he had become all too familiar with in this house just before he burst into the room to find Cosette on her knees on the ground, clutching her face, and Éponine above her with her arm thrown in a curve across her chest, the trailing end of a swinging smack. With her other hand Éponine clutched Catharine by the brown curls.
            Éponine looked straight at Grantaire. Rage and disgust were written across her face. “This little fucking thief stole this doll! She stole it from the toy shop by the church!”
            “Are you serious Ép? You think this frightened little ten-year-old fucking shoplifted a giant doll from the front window? How the fuck does that work you moron?! I -”
            “Grantaire bought it!” Grantaire jumped in surprise. He looked down at Cosette on the ground, but she was looking with wide, watery eyes over her shoulder to a spot just past Grantaire. He turned his head slowly.
            Angèle was standing in the shadows of the hall on the balls of her feet, knees slightly bent and body hovering low like she was about to pounce. She was wearing his hoodie again, and there was something stuffed in her tiny balled fist.
            “Angèle…”, Grantaire whispered in awe.
            The girl swallowed and tip-toed forward, coming up beside him. “Look,” she shouted, thrusting her fist forward into the light of the kitchen. He could see it now: the receipt.
            “Look,” she exclaimed again staring Éponine straight in the eye, “this is proof! He bought it with his own money! I saw him!”
            Cosette stared at her sister. Her lips were parted just so, but it was more than shock. She was enraptured. She would have looked with no less wonder and reverence if her own mother had appeared at the door with open arms, beckoning for her daughters. “You’re in the kitchen,” she breathed, and if had not been in such shock Grantaire would have laughed. In the kitchen indeed.
            “She’s right, Éponine. It’s her birthday. I bought the doll for her just this evening.”
            Éponine tore her eyes from Angèle. Her face twisted from shock to anger again. “What? This? How much did this fucking thing cost? 50 euros? 100? You spent that on her?”
            “Why shouldn’t I have?”, Grantaire challenged. “You got a new phone for your birthday. What was that, 200 euros?”
            Éponine stepped back, looking lost. She stood up straight, her shoulders slumping, and dropped the doll. It hit the tile in a flump of fabric and small clatter of her porcelain face. Cosette scrambled forward to recover her and check for injuries. She clutched her to her chest as though she was afraid that Éponine would snatch her away again.
            “You’re fucking insane, Grantaire,” Éponine said flatly. “You’re stupid for these brats. But I don’t fucking care. Spend your whole paycheck on bullshit to spoil them. That cunt there doesn’t even fucking work or do anything.” She gestured at Angèle, who had crept a few steps backwards. “But go the fuck ahead. Why should I give a shit?” She threw up her hands, looking with exasperation at the ceiling.
            “You’re a real fucking bitch, Éponine,” Grantaire snarled.
            Éponine shrugged, making a high-pitched keening noise and flailing her hands around some more in careless gestures. She turned around and marched off into another room.
            Grantaire scrambled forward and scooped Cosette and the doll up in his arms. She nuzzled into his chest, shoulders trembling. When he had her secure against him he turned to regard Angèle.
            Every muscle in the girl’s little body was wired. She was buzzing with electricity, and he knew the adrenalin rush must be overpowering her. “Angèle,” he said to her, “I am so fucking proud of you. You’re incredible, you know that?” She shrugged and disappeared into the shadows.
            Grantaire carried Cosette up the steps. “I’ll tell everyone I bought you the doll, Cosette. They won’t try and take it from you again.” She nodded.
            “She hates the kitchen,” Cosette whispered. Grantaire smiled. “She hates Éponine. She… she never talks around them. They think she can’t talk.”
            “She’s afraid of all those things. But she overcame that fear to defend you.” Cosette didn’t respond to that. She just smiled a little to herself and clutched Grantaire.
            Upstairs Angèle was sitting at the head of her bed. Grantaire released Cosette and she placed Catharine carefully down and scrambled across the mattress to pull her sister into a tight embrace. “I love you,” she murmured.
            “I love you too,” Angèle squeaked back, pressing the words into Cosette’s shoulder.
            Grantaire hung back to let them have a moment together. When Cosette pulled away he cleared his throat. “Hey, uh, can I finish with your hair?” He thought it might help to calm her down.
            This time Angèle came without protest. She settled on the edge of the bed with Grantaire cross-legged behind her. The bed frame creaked under his weight as he dragged the brush through her hair.
            They were quiet for most of it, letting their heart rates settle, sinking into the easy silence of this closeness. After a few minutes, Angèle spoke again, and Grantaire felt a lump in his throat and a wet stinging in his eyes at her words.
            “I want to help people that don’t have anyone to help them. Just like you, Grantaire.”