It was evening. Cosette had finished her studies and now sat at the table, drawing pictures on her slate as Valjean prepared dinner. While their meals (outside of desserts) were humble – potatoes and meat and rice – he always went to extremes by making the dish look as inviting and pretty as possible. For instance, he would chop parsley and sprinkle the potatoes with it, as he did now.
He divided the meal onto two plates and carried them to the table. “That is a lovely drawing, dear,” Valjean commented as he sat down, “but put it away now while we eat dinner.”
“Yes, Papa,” she answered, automatically and immediately. She gathered her box of chalk and slate, tucking it under the settee before returning to the table. She took a bite of potatoes and looked up. “They are delicious, Papa.”
Valjean chuckled. “Thank you, my darling. And don’t forget that there is a little something for dessert.”
Cosette clapped her hands together. “Chocolate religieuse!”
“That is right.”
They were silent for several minutes, until Cosette spoke. “Papa?”
She looked up. “Papa, when is your birthday?” she asked him.
The question took Valjean completely by surprise. Of all things, he had not expected her to ask him this. It was such an odd thing, and yet, perfectly like her. He cleared his throat and answered honestly, “March the twenty-third.”
Cosette gasped. “Papa! That’s only eleven days from now! Not even two weeks.” She shot to her feet and hurried around the table. She took a very confused Valjean’s hands in hers and looked him straight in the eye. “Why, pray tell, did you not mention it sooner? Whatever shall we do to celebrate?”
Valjean pulled one hand free and tucked a stray lock of blond hair behind her ear. “Cosette, darling, we needn’t celebrate my birthday. I’m far too old for something so frivolous - ”
She pouted. “But Papa. It’s a birthday. How could you not want to celebrate your own birthday?”
“Do you wish to celebrate yours?” Valjean challenged her, which he immediately realized was foolish because he knew what the answer would be. What child didn’t want to celebrate their birthday.
As he imagined, Cosette stared at him in shock. “Of course I do, Papa! Although…” she trailed off, “I don’t believe I’ve ever celebrated my birthday before. What is it like?”
Valjean, who had not celebrated his birthday in twenty-seven years shook his head. “Cosette, my child. When you are nine years old in November, we shall have the loveliest celebration you could possibly imagine. But I am an old man. I do not need to celebrate my birthday.”
She scrutinized him from behind narrowed eyes. “You don’t seem to be very old to me.”
“I will be fifty-five.”
“That isn’t old.” Cosette returned to her side of the table. Valjean hoped this would mean she had given up, but still she persisted. On the other hand, this was the very first time he had seen her putting up a fight about anything. It was good for her. It meant she was recovering. Cosette went on, “I’ve known people older than fifty-five in my lifetime. There were many old men who stopped by Monsieur’s inn. And besides. Isn’t a birthday a birthday? Does being old matter?”
Valjean closed his eyes and sighed heavily, trying to think back to a time when a birthday was the very best thing imaginable. He vaguely recalled the last one he’d celebrated the year before he was sent to prison, but he and Jeanne had been so poor all it had involved was Jeanne and the children singing to him. Perhaps I could allow myself a small celebration, a selfish little part of him said, but he shoved it down.
“No, Cosette,” he said, gentle but firm. “We will not celebrate my birthday, all right?”
“…and I suppose we’ll take a loaf of the dark baguette as well.”
The baker’s wife gave him an odd look but she took a small loaf of the dark bread and tucked it neatly into the paper bag. “It doesn’t sell very well, m’sieur. Mostly my husband and I give it to the poor out of charity at the end of the day.”
“Just one loaf, please,” Valjean said gently.
He could sense Cosette staring at him rather oddly. He didn’t know why he was buying that brown bread. Perhaps it was to make a point. He did not believe in spoiling himself and he wanted to show this to his daughter. She hadn’t mentioned his birthday since that first night, but it was due tomorrow and he didn’t want her to start bringing it up again now.
“Would you like a chocolate for dessert tonight, ma petite Cosette?” Valjean asked her, ruffling her hair.
She shook her head. “No, thank you, Papa. Not today.” She pressed her nose against the glass panel in front of the pastries. “Oh! You sell sugared daisies, Madame?”
The baker’s wife smiled fondly. “Why, yes, we do, child. Would you like some?” She looked up at Valjean. “If it’s quite all right with your Papa, of course.”
“No, thank you,” Cosette said politely, pulling back. Then, to Valjean, “I’ll get the bread, Papa.” She tucked one of the bags under her arm and the pair turned to go. Valjean noticed the way she stopped and set down the bread to stare at the sugared daisies a while longer before hurrying to catch up with her Papa.
“Cosette, my darling, would it be quite all right with you if we stopped in at the butcher’s before returning home for your studies?”
Valjean was surprised when Cosette froze at his side and looked at him, eyes wide. “The butcher’s, Papa?”
“Yes. I’m afraid we need to buy some meat.”
Cosette whimpered and burrowed herself into his chest. “Papa, I don’t like it there.”
Valjean was taken aback. “Whatever do you mean?”
“The smell of blood. It frightens me.” She bowed her head and let out a faint, “Might I - ” before cutting herself off and looking away.
“Might you what, my Pet?” Valjean encouraged her.
Cosette bit her lip and eyes him nervously. “Might I wait for you at the baker’s?” she whispered. She sounded so terrified of asking this it was all he could do not to sweep her into a hug here in the middle of the road. And most likely be run over by a carriage, too. Valjean stepped aside.
“Cosette…” he began gently. He had no desire to leave his daughter alone at the baker’s.
“Please, Papa?” she begged. “You know the baker and his wife. They’re so very kind, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind terribly.”
Valjean sighed. He couldn’t leave Cosette alone. But he understood her discomfort at entering the butcher’s. The past several times they’d been there, she always squirmed and waited by the door. He knew she didn’t like it, and he didn’t want to force her. Heavens, he wasn’t all that fond of it himself. He sighed again. He hadn’t imagined raising a child would be so difficult. “Very well, Cosette. If the baker and his wife allow it, you may wait there.”
Valjean returned for his daughter only ten minutes later. He found her sitting patiently at one of the table in the small baker’s shop. The bread sat in her lap. She beamed when she saw him and hopped up. “Hello, Papa!”
Valjean chuckled and ruffled her hair. “I trust the baker allowed you to stay, then, my Pet?”
Cosette nodded. “Yes, Papa. He and his wife were very kind to me when I asked to stay.” She turned to the baker, who was slicing some new bread and gave him a little nod of gratitude. “Thank you, monsieur.”
There were many ways Valjean had woken before in his life. He’d been gently shaken as a child. He was familiar with the crow of a rooster. In Toulon, it was the angry shouts of the officers and prison guards, the rattling of bars at the cell. And In Montreuil-sur-Mer he had grown used to being woken by the sunlight streaming in through his window. Here in Paris, it was the same thing.
Today, his fifty-fifth birthday, marked the day he was woken by a child jumping on his bed.
“Papa! Papa, wake up! Oh, do wake, Papa! It is your birthday today! Wake up, Papa!”
Valjean groaned and cracked open one eye. Cosette was laughing, still jumping up and down. When she saw he was somewhat awake, she bounced off the bed with the mastered agility and grace of a child and took to poking him. “Please, Papa. It’s your birthday today.”
“Cosette,” Valjean said. “Cosette, my child, we’ve discussed this before - ”
“Don’t be silly, Papa. You must celebrate your birthday.”
Valjean chuckled, dejected, and sat up in bed. “Very well, Cosette. But how, pray tell, will we celebrate?”
Cosette rocked back and forth on her heels. “You’ll see, Papa. It’s a great surprise, you see, and you shall be so very happy when you see it.”
“You planned a surprise for me by yourself?” he asked, stunned. He had not meant to say it aloud, but Cosette turned and shook her head.
“Of course not. How could I do it by myself?”
He nearly leapt out of bed. “You had help? Who? Who helped you? Who have you been speaking to?”The questions tumbled out of his mouth, images of Javert already forming in his mind.
Cosette flinched and shrank back at his risen voice, and it took a bit of coaxing for her to relax again. “Catherine helped me,” she whispered. “I … I’m sorry, Papa. I’m sorry I couldn’t do it myself.”
Valjean relaxed. “No, Cosette. It’s fine. You’ve no idea how grateful I am that you even considered doing something for me. I was only worried you spoke to strangers, that’s all, darling.”
“I didn’t speak to any strangers,” Cosette answered. She shook her head. “But I asked Catherine and she had the loveliest ideas.” She took his hands in hers and rested her head in his lap. Barely above a murmur, she whispered, “Papa, let’s go to the baker’s. Then we can begin my studies.”
Valjean chuckled. “Very well. Although if you desire, you needn’t do any work at all today, if it’s as special as you insist.”
“Of course it’s a special day, Papa,” Cosette clucked. She rose and straightened her skirts; it took Valjean a moment to realize she was nearly dressed. He shook his head and waved her off to her room to put on her stockings and comb her hair as he dressed. And of course Cosette scuttled off to do as he bid her.
In her room, as she pulled on her stockings, Cosette turned to Catherine, resting against the pillows. “Catherine,” she said to the doll, “Catherine, do you think Papa will like the surprise we planned for him? I feel very guilty about lying to him when he asked me about getting help. Do you suppose he’ll be angry with me?”
When of course there was no answer, she stood and dragged the brush through her hair. “Well, we’ll just have to see.”
A minute or so later, Papa was knocking on the door and Cosette opened the door. She looked up at him, trying not to look as nonchalant as possible. She was not a very good liar, for she hadn’t had very much practice. The few times she’d lied to Madame Thénardier she’d been beaten, and since then the prospect of telling a lie of any kind had terrified her.
But she imagined she must have been doing a good job if it now, (not that she intended to lie at all after this), for Papa smiled and took her hand as he always did. She was quiet on the walk to the bakery, terrified of letting anything slip. And when they were at the baker’s, she was sure to distract her Papa as best she could when the baker slipped a small brown box into the bag of bread without his noticing. The baker winked at Cosette, and she smiled.
When Papa was given the bill, Cosette feared he might put forward a complaint – it was higher than it normally was, an entire five sous higher,but Papa said nothing. He paid the price. Cosette carried the bread and as they walked home together, she hummed so he would not ask her if she was all right, why she was being so very quiet.
What Cosette did not realize, was that Valjean had noticed his daughter’s odd behavior. She seemed a bit too quiet, sometimes a bit too chipper. He thought nothing of it, decided not to mention it. But he did open his mouth when Cosette offered to put the bread away and ran into the kitchen, the bag clutched a bit too tightly to her chest.
He heard her rummaging through the cupboard and he called, “Cosette? You aren’t cutting the bread, are you, my love? I’ll do that, I don’t want you to cut yourself…”
“I’m not, Papa! Don’t come in!”
And when she emerged with a small cake on a dish, his heart burst. She carried it into the sitting room, laying it down on the table, and sang out, “Happy birthday, Papa!”
He stared at the cake before him. Cosette smiled broadly and launched herself into his arms. She said, her small voice muffled by his shirt, “I asked the baker to make it. When you were at the butcher’s. It was a surprise.” Then, pulling away, she whispered, “I did lie to you, though, Papa. I’m sorry.”
“Yes. I told you I only had help from Catherine, but it was a lie. I asked the baker. I’m sorry.” Ashamed, she bowed her head. “I was hoping you might like it.”
Valjean took her chin in his hands and raised so that they met eye to eye. “Cosette,” he whispered. “No. I’m so very grateful. Thank you.” He found he was tearing up, and he wiped at his eyes with his sleeve. “Thank you, my dear.”
Cosette smiled and repeated herself, “Happy birthday, Papa.”
A.N.: this is written for this Valentines Day challenge. So… yeah. It might suck. So, fair warning. I’m used to violence and drama. Welcome to the Roaring Twenties. I use a lot of slang. So sorry not sorry.
Disclaimer: I'm not Hugo.
Dead soldiers and Flat Tires
Saxophones and trumpets bring this hazy room to life with jazzy sounds. Drums create beats that wake the room. The girl on stage brings the sassy tone that harmonizes everything.
I'm Éponine, and I am that girl. I work at this speakeasy in the middle of New York City. It's a poor excuse for one, I'll tell you that. The liquor here is poor, the roof leaks when it rains, and the smell of lit tobacco stains all my dresses. Of course the people are lit up too. But the only thing that keeps the money flowing is the entertainment. No, not me. I'm only pretty when I get all dressed up and my voice is mediocre at best.
Our pianist brings the people. His name is Marius. He is attractive, young, and dreamy with his short cut brown hair, chocolate brown eyes, and face full of freckles. He's really cute with his fedora tucked over the back of his head and crooked black bow tie. But he's not sexy. No. Just really attractive.
"Hey Éponine," Marius smiles at me after the evening show, "I want you to know you sounded amazing tonight."
"Thank you, Marius," I give him a genuine smile in return. He tells me this every night, "You always sound great."
He blushes and struggles with his jacket. His hands shake when he is nervous which made it hard for him to perform even the simplest of tasks. The only thing that puts his tremor at bay is his music. Nothing else. I walk over and help him with the sleeve his arm struggled to find. He nods his thanks and pops his collar to protect his neck from Jack Frost. I smile again before disappearing into my dressing room.
It's pathetic. It is a modified restroom. The sink has a layer of plywood on it for my cheap makeup and flimsy head pieces. The toilet was ripped out and a loose legged stool was bolted to the floor in its place.
I would quit in a heartbeat, but I rather be here than on the streets around people like my father. I pick the lesser of two evils.
A hard knock on the door snaps me out of my thoughts and the handle shakes violently.
"Éponine!" the voice of my boss booms into the room, "Quit hiding in there. Your shift isn't over!"
I groan and change into my tender uniform. I work double every night. I have to pay the rent some how.
"I'm coming, I'm coming," I call back as I fix the loose door handle, "You need to fix this door or your show girl will never work!"
I open the door and my eyes meet his. We stare each other down, but I am not strong as him and my stare falters. I look down and brushed by his large form to reach the bar.
There I meet by a friendly sight. Two boys with equally curly hair sit at the bar sharing a serious conversation. Or at least one party did. The other held his, at least, third whiskey shot in his hand. I walk right up to them and fill their glasses.
"Evening boys," I chirp and grin when their faces brighten.
"Hey baby," the shaggy drunk quickly soberes up, "nice show tonight."
"Really?" I shrug off the compliment, "I was off my game. I almost forgot the lyrics."
"The key word is almost," the drunk tips the burning liquid down his throat.
"The amount you take in ceases to amaze me, R," I shake my head, "Evening, Enjolras."
The blond nods and stares at the full shot glass. He touches it with the tips of his fingers, fearing it will burn his fingers too.
"I'm guessing school was bad," I rub the counter with a damp rag. He nods and took the shot. The student's face tenses at the pain of the liquid touching his troat.
"Be a man, Enjolras," R laughs and claps the boy on the back.
"You tell 'im," I gesture with my hand to punctuate my approval.
"Hey," Enjolras's face reddens, "it's not as easy as it looks."
I had to agree with him. I don't drink for that very reason. It wasn't my thing. I leave it to the boys and men who actually need it. Like R. It's his nickname around here. His real name is Grantaire, but it's too formal for his taste. R is short for Romeo. I don't know the origin of the nickname, but it's not my business to pry. Éponine was only my stage name. My real name is Catherine, but it is too boring for my boss's taste. So I got this exotic, French name to use while I'm here. Some people actually believe my name was Éponine. And by some people, I mean one person. Marius. Only one person from this pathetic gin mill knows my real name.
This quick tempered, egotistical, biased social worker knows my real name.
It happened on a Valentines day. The one four days ago to be specific.
He sat alone at the bar with a glass of sour beer in his hands. He stared at the light brown liquid as he took a long drag from his burning cigarette. His mind was wrapped up in something and I suspected it was the fact he was the only single guy in this group of friends. So I ignored him for a spell and focused on my job. The night went on and soon the speakeasy was empty.
"I have to close up, Enj," I looked up from cleaning the glasses. He didn't move and inch. "Which translates to 'You have to leave.'"
"I know," he answered in a lazy tone as he shoved his cigarette in the ash tray before him.
"So scram," I gestured to the hidden door in the corner. It came out harsher than I meant, but his expression didn't change.
"Why do you work here?" Enjolras asked and the conversation changed direction to an uncomfortable subject.
"A girl's gotta eat," I answered carefully as I draped my thin sweater over my shoulders.
"There are better jobs," the student continued, "You know."
"I do," I nodded and took his half empty glass, "But the chances of me getting a job are slim. I get enough if I work the bar after the show."
He nodded slowly, "Why not go to school?"
I didn't expect this question and didn't have an answer.
"You are a bright girl," Enjolras commented, "I'm sure you'll do great."
"I don't have the money, Enjolras," I sighed and put the cleaned glass away, "Or the time."
"Say if you did…"
"I can't afford contemplating 'What if's," I turned to face him, “I’m not a child.”
“I never said you were,” Enjolras slouched in his chair, “Just asked you a question. Don’t get all balled up.” He pulled out another cig and searched for a light. I pull out a lighter from behind the bar and offer it to him. Enjolras lit it and took a long drag.
“That’s better,” he sighed.
“Smoking and drinking doesn’t solve all your problems,” I internally slap myself because all I want to do is close up shop.
“I know,” Enjolras stood, “But it’s working in the short term.”
“What about long term?”
“I want to go into law and end to prohibition,” he shrugged as he put off his gasper. I crinkled my nose.
“Why are you here?” I press.
“Because I don’t got a date,” Enjolras put on his jacket.
“Do you want a date?” I bit my lip.
“I guess,” he held out his arm.
“I’m not ritzy like you people from the university,” I didn’t expect him to say yes.
“So?” Enjolras gave me a strange look, “If I wanted a ritzy gal from school, I wouldn’t be here.”
“What’s the real reason you are here,” I look between him and his outstretched arm.
“You are the only girl I know why doesn’t bother me,” Enjolras admitted, “Sadly, I don’t know your name. Mind telling me? I don’t want to call you by your show name outside.”
I hesitated, and he noticed. He instantly deflated and dropped his arm. He began his walk of shame to the door.
“Wait!” I touch his arm, “Catherine.” I calmly answer his question. “My name is Catherine.”
“Nice to meet you, Catherine,” Enjolras smiled at where I touched his arm with a bright smile.
“Where are we off to?” I questioned.
“Not far,” the student pushed the tables out of the way to have a clear space. He held out his hand, “please tell me you’re no heeler.”
“What if I said yes?” I rested my hand in his. He wanted a dance. A boy wanted to dance with me. This is exhilarating moment. One I never thought would come.
“I’d still dance with you,” the blond winked and began to hung a peppy tune.
It’s awkward at first, but he was just as bad as me. After a while of watching our feet and laughing, I looked up at the boy who kept moving closer and closer to me. He stopped humming and I look into his bright blue eyes. They shined in the weak light in the juice joint.
“Cash or check?” he whispered. I look down at his lips then back in his eyes.
“Cash,” I smirk and our lips met in a sloppy kiss.
It was a fun night and I do have to say I’ll never say ‘check’ to him because his cash is amazing. I might get another one tonight if I’m good. Or maybe I’ll give him one if he behaves. Depends on the mood.
R is falling asleep and that meant Enjolras and I will have to part with nothing in hand.
“I better take this one back if there is any hope for us not running into some fuzz,” Enjolras nudges R awake and helps him out. No cash for me. Oh Well.
“Éponine,” my boss calls me over to a back table, most likely to berate me on some random thing.
“What is it,” I ask as I make my way.
“What’s this?” He points at a few broken glasses.
"I don't know nothin'," I shrug and began to pick it up, "It seems someone got mad."
"You think?" he knelt down and helped. I look at him for a second. My boss is the type who would kick the glass into someones face.
"I've watched how well you take care of the bar,” my eyes tune to every word, “You do a good job socializing.”
I nod slowly and gather all the pieces, “Thank you, sir.”
“You can work there full time,” he clears his throat, “I mean, Marius is doing a good job. I just need a friendly face to greet people.”
My face falls, “Sir, I came here to sing. I work at the bar to pay for the food and rent,” I get to my feet, “I’m going to turn that down.”
“Okay,” he walks away.
I frown and sit back against the wall. People move around around me. I’m a cancelled stamp. After a long spell, someone sits next to me against the wall. He clears his throat and rests his hand over mine. I smile and hold his hand.
“You seem lonely,” Marius comments and I can feel his body shake.
“A bit,” I nod and smile, “but not as much anymore.”
Marius’s blush warms my heart. He really cares about me and I the same for him. I know it’s not in the same way. He’s one of best friends and he’s crushing over me. I get to my feet and pull him up with me.
“C’mon, kid,” I pull on my jacket, “Let’s go dancing.”
He blushes like mad as I lead him out the the speakeasy. He’s my friend and I just want to show him a good time. Our journey be fleeting, just like mine with Enjolras. But it will mean the world to this boy who means a lot to me.
“Do I have a choice?”
“Okay,” Marius grins and we head out on the town.
slang (no particular order)
Cash: Kiss or "can we kiss now"
Check: Do we kiss later?
Juice joint: Speakeasy
Gin mill: a place that sells/makes illigal beverages (alcohol)