A/N: Another epic begins! I began working on this idea years ago in the unfinished fic "Her Mother's Daughter", but I decided to rework and finish the tale.
The basic premise: What if Fantine chose to raise Cosette herself, instead of asking the Thenardiers to take her in?
DISCLAIMER: I do not own Victor Hugo's characters, or anything that was originally in the novel "Les Miserables". Nor do I own any of the historical personages who make necessary cameos. However I do own some of the minor original characters who appear here, such as some revolutionaries, grisettes, and people on the street. No profit is intended in the writing of this historical-literary experiment.
This fic will involve a close but more or less platonic relationship with Jean Valjean and Fantine, as well as Marius/Cosette, Joly/Musichetta/Bossuet, and Enjolras/Eponine.
DEMETER AT ELEUSIS
Chapter 1: A Woman Standing Instead of Sitting
The woman was standing, and not sitting near the door of the "Seargent of Waterloo". Not only did she serve to make the inn a little less inconspicuous, but her attitude was a warning in itself even for an inexperienced traveler like Fantine. For a moment Fantine stood and watched, unseen by the colossus and her two little girls, unsure whether to go her own way or take a few more moments to rest. The tender picture of a mother tending to a pair of little ones on a swing would have been reassuring, were it not made a little unsettling and grotesque by the fact that the swing was made of a rusty iron chain, and that the mother was in bearing more of a tigress than a Madonna. However the weight of the carpetbag on Fantine's back as well as that of the dozing little girl in her arms soon won out, and so she took a brave step forward. She took a deep breath before standing up straight and saying by way of greeting, "You have two beautiful children there, Madame."
The redheaded woman looked up abruptly from where she'd been watching her daughters on their makeshift swing. "Thank you, Mademoiselle." She stopped as if taking stock of this blonde, grave newcomer and her precious charge. "Why don't you sit down for a moment here?' she asked, gesturing to a bench.
"Thank you, Madame," Fantine said, eagerly taking the seat offered to her before setting down the carpetbag. As hospitable as this matron seemed, Fantine did not dare get too close, if only for the fact that her hostess' arms were larger than cudgels and her frame stouter than a wagon. 'There's a woman who doesn't need to fear prowlers,' she couldn't help thinking as she watched this woman as well as the two pretty children in the swing.
The matron looked keenly at Fantine. "My name is Madame Thenardier. We keep this inn."
"Yes, I see," Fantine said. "I'm Fantine. Only Fantine, there's no other name to it."
"Well then," Madame Thenardier said gruffly. "Where are you headed to?"
"My hometown," Fantine replied. She glanced down at her daughter, who was still fast asleep; how long would it be till she would have to tell her child some version of this story? "I had work in Paris till not too long ago. That failed, and with my husband just dead, what could I do? I left this morning" she said to Mme. Thenardier.
The matron sniffed. "You mean to walk all the way?"
"Naturally, no. I was able to meet the coach headed for Villemomble. From there I walked, and now I'm here," Fantine replied. She stroked her daughter's dark hair affectionately and kissed her cheek. "I tried to let my little girl walk some of the way, but you can see that she is so young and could not manage it so far."
The plump little girl in Fantine's arms stirred and opened her eyes, which were an alluring shade of deep blue. For a moment she yawned drowsily before looking at her mother and giggling. She squirmed her way out of Fantine's grip and toddled over to the two other little girls in the swing. She gave them an impish smile by way of greeting, which was returned by a quizzical but gay look from the older girl and a rather more cautious one from the younger.
Mme. Thenardier lumbered over to her daughters and undid the large ugly scarf that held them to the iron chain. "Play together all three of you," she said, helping them to the ground.
Fantine watched this tender scene cautiously, marvelling silently at the contrast of the children and this big, rude plaything. While she could not say that her childhood had been much better; after all she had been an urchin, there was still something decidedly unsettling about this disparity. She smiled when she saw her own child digging a hole in the ground, using both a piece of her wood and her fingertips. 'Never mind the dress for now,' she thought, seeing how flecks of dirt were now all over the fine lace trimming and ribbons of her daughter's dress.
Mme. Thenardier observed her own children for a little longer before looking to Fantine again. "What is your daughter's name?"
"Cosette," Fantine replied. 'The name Euphrasie is too fine for most days,' she reminded herself. It had been the name of the first woman who'd taken her in for a brief spell back in Montreuil-sur-mer. That had been long ago, and Fantine knew better than to hope that this benefactor would still be around. She looked to Mme. Thenardier. "What about your two daughters?"
"This one is Eponine, and the second is Azelma," Mme. Thenardier said, gesturing first to the elder, who was a rosy blonde, and then the younger, whose hair was a mousy shade of brown. "How old is yours?"
It took Fantine a moment to work out the months. "Almost three."
"The same age as my eldest," Mme. Thenardier said. She let out a rather simpering sigh at the sight of the three girls crouched together, watching a worm emerging from the ground. "Look at those children! One would almost swear they were sisters!"
Fantine was entranced at this sight, and for a moment some inexplicable happiness welled up in her person. Before she could voice this out, a harsh voice cut through the idyll. "Wife! Who is there?" a man's voice called from within the house.
"That is my husband," the Thenardier woman told Fantine. "Only a passerby," she called to her spouse.
"Well leave her be for a minute, there is something I need to speak with you about," the master of the house barked.
"I'll watch them for a minute," Fantine said impetuously, seeing the worried gaze that Mme. Thenardier threw towards the girls.
Mme. Thenardier nodded quickly. "He'd better not keep me long," she said under her breath before marching into the house to speak to her husband.
For a moment Fantine's eyes lingered on the three girls, making sure that they were in no danger of coming to grief thanks to something in the dirt or the looming presence of the wagon nearby. However the increasingly raised voices from within the inn soon drew her attention and it was not long till she gave in to her usual imprudence and pressed her ear to the keyhole.
A chair scraped against the floor and creaked dangerously as if someone had sat down heavily. "What am I supposed to do then? You spend too much on bread when you know the bailiff is on his way—" M. Thenardier groused.
"The old gent wouldn't leave till he had his breakfast," his wife said, her voice both ingratiating but just on the edge of seething. "I know you want to run a good business, my man, and we cannot have our guests too angry."
"It would be easier if the brats didn't have to eat so much! If only children did not have to grow!" Thenardier said. "Never mind, we'll have to find a way to make up the fifty francs by tomorrow morning is that traveller alone?"
Fantine drew back at this mention of money; she had already perfected the art of recognizing a debt from the mere mention of it. 'How will they do it, if no one else passes here?' she wondered. She felt a stab of pity on seeing the two little girls playing with Cosette; these ones were too young to know of their parents' troubles. She made sure to situate herself a respectable distance from the doorway before Mme. Thenardier returned, now completely red in the face.
"My husband wishes to know if you will be taking your evening meal here, or spending the night," Mme. Thenardier announced.
Fantine shook her head, almost without knowing it. "Thank you, but I think I should catch the next coach as soon as I can."
"It might not be till morning."
"I'll walk and meet it again."
Mme. Thenardier nodded heavily, but whether it was to conceal relief or disappointment, Fantine could not tell. "Well then be on your way. It will be dark soon."
"Thank you Madame," Fantine said hastily as she shouldered her carpetbag. She walked to where Cosette was still playing with the Thenardier girls. "Come, Cosette. We have to go now."
The child looked up with big, protesting eyes. "Maman, play!" she cajoled, looking from her mother to her companions.
"We have a long way to go, Cosette," Fantine said firmly, holding out her hand.
Cosette looked down for a moment before giving her new playmates a grave look. "Bye bye," she whispered, giving them a feeble wave before scooting towards Fantine.
"You two be good for your Maman, please? It was nice to meet you two," Fantine said to the Thenardier girls. She looked up to give Mme. Thenardier a cordial smile. "Thank you for your time Madame."
Mme. Thenardier only nodded again before calling to her girls. Fantine quickly scooped up Cosette and headed down the road, hastening to put as much space between them and the Thenardiers' inn in the shortest possible time. 'I could not leave Cosette to such a debt again,' she decided, remembering what they had left behind in Paris. Somehow, the privations of the road seemed much friendlier and even more welcoming than the now ominous house.