Saturday mornings, Éponine and Gavroche always have a walk in the city. They've got their favorite places (the park, the pet store next to the movie theater so they can wish their apartment allowed pets and then watch a movie on the weeks when she has the spare cash), but this time, they're just wandering the downtown, past all the little shops where they mostly stare in the windows and sometimes stop in if they aren't the kind of place that expects a purchase just for walking through the door.
“Hey, there’s a story hour,” Gavroche says, as they’re passing the library, a big brick building with the requisite lions out front that he used to pretend to ride every time she took him. There are a couple other kids on them today. “Starts in ten minutes.”
Éponine looks at the sign and raises her eyebrows. “Didn’t you tell me two years ago you were too old for little kid stories at the library?” And she’d lost her Saturday morning errand time as a result, but she doesn’t really grudge Gav that, because she likes their walks.
“They’re doing Peter Pan,” says Gav, like she’s being stupid, and grabs her by the hand to drag her in.
The kids’ room of the library is packed with kids like it’s some kind of celebrity gathering, which it definitely never was when she took Gav before, and there’s some cheering when about eight minutes (and a lot more people coming in) later a man who’s pretty much the definition of a hot librarian trots in, smiles around at them all, and puts on a pirate hat.
“Today,” he says in the kind of voice that should be narrating movie trailers and nature documentaries, “we’re going to be hearing about Peter Pan’s daring fight with Captain Hook.” And then he pulls out a fucking sword.
Éponine spends the next half hour as rapt as all the kids (and most of the moms present) while the librarian recites a passage from memory, punctuating it with obviously-expert moments of swordplay. He even asks for a volunteer to play Peter to his Hook, and picks Gavroche when his hand shoots up. He’s breathing hard by the end of story time, but he’s smiling too, and he segues right into teaching the kids how to make origami ships that they can sail in the fountain behind the library.
“That was the best story hour ever,” Gavroche says as they leave, inevitably soaking wet from falling in the fountain (much to the concern of the hot librarian), hanging off her arm. “Can we go back next week?”
Éponine laughs. “Yeah, Gav, we can go back next week.”
The next week, there’s Treasure Island, and there are more swords, and Éponine is the one to suggest that they return the following week.
The third week, the hot librarian does The Princess and the Pea while earnestly wearing a Medieval damsel hat and then tells all the kids to look under their seats and cushions, where there are seed packets, to their delight. “We’re starting a community garden behind the library,” he says. “Anyone who helps to plant or weed can come get the produce later in the summer when it grows.”
Everyone goes out, most of the mothers collecting in the shade and most of the kids getting to work, but Éponine helps Gavroche get his hands dirty, planting peas based off the careful instructions on the packet. She’s surprised when the hot librarian comes to crouch next to them. “Good job,” he says. “You two are fairly new to the library, right? I like to get to know the patrons.”
“We don’t use our library cards as much as we should,” Éponine says with a shrug. “He gets his books from school and I do e-books because they’re cheap and they don’t have a due date.”
“We’re glad to have you no matter how many or few books you take out.” He shakes her hand, apparently not worried about the fact that she’s just had her hands in the dirt. “I’m Combeferre.”
“I’m Éponine, and this is Gavroche. Your story hours are really great, highlight of the week lately.”
“Gavroche made a great Peter Pan.”
Gavroche beams. “You should teach me how to use a sword.”
Combeferre laughs and glances at her over his head. “I think your mother might have a say in that.”
“His sister,” she corrects automatically. “But he does live with me, so I guess that’s just as relevant. And Gav, you can’t be trusted with a sword until you learn to clean your room on a regular basis. And also you shouldn’t ask Mr. Combeferre for favors, he’s busy.”
“Not too busy for swordplay,” he corrects, eyes crinkling with his smile, and she thinks he’s about to say something else before one of the other mothers calls him over to assure her kid that it doesn’t matter what direction the seeds are facing when they get planted.
The next week, Gavroche spends the week swashbuckling his way across their apartment, and on Saturday, Combeferre does Jack and the Beanstalk and then takes them out to weed the garden and show them the little green bean sprouts that have started to come up.
He approaches Éponine and Gavroche just as they’re getting ready to leave. “You really are regulars now,” he says with a smile. “Gavroche, how are you doing with cleaning your room?”
“Not well enough,” Éponine answers before he can, because it’s become a point of contention and nobody else needs to get involved in it. He's already tried to get Grantaire on his side.
“You should do The Three Musketeers,” says Gavroche. “Éponine let me watch a movie and she says it was a book, and there’s swords.”
“It’s not a kids’ book,” she says. “And Mr. Combeferre probably doesn’t want to memorize something that dense. I tried reading it once and it was hard.”
“I get lots of requests for swords, don’t worry, I’ll have one out again sometime soon. Thank you again for coming. There should be some spinach and lettuce to take home next week, as thanks for your help in the garden,” he says, and goes off to deal with another kid.
The Wizard of Oz, The Secret Garden, a bunch of Shel Silverstein poems. Éponine and Gavroche go to the library every Saturday and Combeferre is always there with a kind word and a memorized chapter or two of a story, doing activities and handing out produce from the community garden. Éponine develops a really stupid crush (but no more stupid than the Marius thing, she can pride herself on that, anyway), but she’s at least got the comfort that half the moms there are in the same boat.
One Wednesday night, Gavroche is at an infrequent sleepover (he never, ever admits it, but Éponine knows he doesn't sleep well in unfamiliar places), and Éponine, at loose ends without her brother or a work shift to keep her occupied, goes to the library.
Combeferre is at the front desk, the first time she's seen him there, head bent over a book, and he glances up when she comes in and then looks up properly when he recognizes her, a grin breaking out over his face as he puts a bookmark in his book and puts it face-down on the counter. “Éponine, to what do we owe the honor? Is Gavroche here?”
Éponine blinks, surprised to be singled out and surprised that she's surprised, since she already knows Combeferre knows who she is. The reference librarian, a blond man she vaguely recognizes from when he mans the desk on occasional Saturday mornings, looks up at her like he recognizes her name, which is strange. “No, he's with a friend tonight, and I wanted a walk and ended up here.”
His face lights up even more. “Would you like a book recommendation?”
Éponine almost says no, it isn't worth the trouble, she'll just browse something off the shelves if she wants to leave with a book, but he looks so hopeful that she finds herself saying “Sure, it's been a while since I tried something new.”
Combeferre is out from behind the desk like a flash, shepherding her with a hand just a few inches from her back toward the shelves. “Tell me about the last book you really loved,” he says.
It's half an hour before she ends up with what he declares to be the perfect book in her hands, standing at the checkout counter. “Should I trust your taste?” she asks as he stamps it. “I mean, you're a children's librarian.”
“You'll love it,” he says. “Tell me about it when you finish, and I'll find you something else.”
When he finishes and she doesn't have an excuse to stay anymore, she nods at his book, still face-down on the desk. “What are you reading this Saturday?”
His smile goes more thoughtful, though he still looks happy, and the other librarian snorts when he doesn't answer right away. “You'll have to see,” he finally says, with a chiding glance at his friend. “I'll see you there?”
“I wouldn't miss it for the world,” she says, and finds that it's true.
The story that Saturday turns out to be a story she doesn't recognize from Arthurian legend, one of the ones involving a big tournament, and he of course gets his sword out again to demonstrate, pulling in one of the older boys to be his opponent. “I think I need a lady’s favor,” he says before he begins, looking around the room, and when his eyes land on her she has one breathless second to think this is impossible before he says “Do you have a favor for me, my lady?”
Gavroche elbows her in the side, and Éponine fishes a scrunchy out of her purse, because the Mom Collective is glaring daggers but Combeferre is just watching her patiently, a smile on his face that reminds her of how he looked when she asked what he was reading. “Will this work?”
He executes a flawless bow and salutes her with his sword. “I think it will work perfectly.”
The rest of the story goes as usual, and he returns her scrunchy with a flourish after he’s defeated the good-natured kid and sent everyone outside to work in the garden. She goes out too, and she can’t say she’s really surprised when he comes over a few minutes later and Gavroche moves down the row quickly, skipping at least four feet of weeding. “You made all the moms jealous,” she says quietly, smiling at Combeferre when he blocks the sun out of her face.
“I don’t really care,” he says, unexpectedly frank, and crouches down beside her. “I get off at noon today. I was wondering if you would let me walk you and Gavroche home, or maybe take you out to lunch. You could tell me how you're liking the book I found you.”
Éponine thinks about warning him that she’s busy, that she’s raising a kid and working two jobs and trying to scrape together the money for a degree, that she’s a mess sometimes and Grantaire crashes on her couch more often than not. But, she thinks (she hopes), Combeferre wouldn’t mind that. Combeferre likes Gavroche and fights with swords and was happy to see her outside of story hour and gives them bigger portions of lettuce than he does the other families.
"Just say yes, Éponine," Gavroche hisses, and Éponine finds herself laughing and being the one to reach out for Combeferre this time.
"Lunch sounds great," she says, and his smile is warm and honest and nothing but happy.