A/N: Now for the final chapter of "The Benefactress"! Thanks to everyone who has read this little foray back into the massive 1830s AU.
The 12th of December that year finally saw the lamps being lit at 15 Rue Simon Le Franc, to welcome the first pupils attending the workshops. "It's a big house and you'll fill it up soon enough with all the classes," Therese Perrot said proudly when she dropped by for a visit early in the day. "Citizenness Fontenay was more than just generous."
"It wasn't just her. Some of her friends also decided to help when they heard about what she said at the meeting," Eponine explained as she wiped her hands, having just finished setting up benches in one of the larger rooms on the ground floor.
Therese plopped down on a rickety stool and smoothed out the long pelisse that helped disguise the swell of her belly. "Will you be teaching any classes?"
"If someone wants to learn about book stitching or filing up numbers, then I could. I haven't been translating long enough to teach it well," Eponine replied, carefully stepping out of the way of two girls who were scampering to fetch supplies from a cabinet. She glanced to where Laure was still dozing in a basket set up in a corner. "I'd like to see you teaching too, maybe after your own little one is born."
Therese laughed and shook her head. "Not if this one turns out like Damien. I won't have the time or the energy left after running about all day!"
"I s'pose he should do his own bit of running too," Eponine quipped.
"Speaking of running about, there's been such a fuss about Justine and Stendhal's engagement ball tonight!" Therese said. "I have sewn seven gowns and helped trim a dozen others, and I hear that Chetta and the other dressmakers have been busy too for this party alone. Madame Fontenay must have invited nearly every bourgeois living in her neighbourhood and the Marais."
"While Stendhal and Justine have invited most of the Latin Quartier!" Eponine said mischievously.
Therese sighed. "I hope the Stendhals' neighbours behave themselves."
"They are my sister's neighbours too. They won't," Eponine quipped before stepping into the house's foyer. At that moment she caught sight of a sombrely clad woman standing near the door, silently looking about the room. It took Eponine a moment to recognize this newcomer, perhaps owing to the sudden starkness of the latter's attire. "Madame Fontenay!"
"I was wondering if you were on the premises," Madame Fontenay greeted. A slight smile played on her lips a she looked around the room. "This place is almost fit to be a proper school."
"I should like to see it match one someday soon," Eponine replied.
Madame Fontenay nodded knowingly. "Naturally you would say so. I commend you though for having accomplished a great deal in just a month."
"It was only because there were so many people willing to help," Eponine pointed out.
"According to my niece you had no shortage of support," the older woman said as she dusted off her shawl. "I should thank you as well for your taking her into your home even for a short time, for propriety's sake. It would not do for any of my kin to be thought of as living in scandal."
"If she had to stay with the Stendhals prior to her marriage, I don't think it would really be anything worse than how some people carry on when they are already respectable," Eponine answered.
"Clearly you enjoy defying convention instead of waiting for the day you will be free of it," Madame Fontenay huffed.
'Like what she is hoping to do?' Eponine wondered silently. "Madame, there are rules too in a convent," she finally said.
"Rules that are apart from the things of this world," Madame Fontenay said, folding her hands. "I have no use for them, now that I have settled my properties and kept only what will be needed for my entry into the cloister of the Visitation Sisters tomorrow."
"It would be quite the surprise for some of tonight's guests," Eponine remarked.
"It is none of their concern," Madame Fontenay said as she got to her feet. "We'll be expecting you and your family at the ball tonight."
Eponine smiled and nodded. "Of course, Madame." All the same she could not help but heave a sigh of relief when Madame Fontenay finally took her leave. "She's polite, but I don't think I could get totally used to her," she said when she saw Therese emerge from the next room, carrying Laure.
"I don't know how anyone does," Therese said flatly. "It is just the way she is. Cosette is as fine a bourgeois, but she is far more likeable than that."
"I think it's just the way she's become, or she's acting the same as she always did but now seems so different since it's the rest of the world that's changed," Eponine mused as she picked up her still slumbering daughter. 'Will we turn that way too when we are older?' she wondered even as she and Therese left for their respective workplaces. Yet there was no time to dwell on this thought, for there was much to do at the Rue des Macons that day, owing to Emile and Odette being busy preparing for the evening's festivities.
It was about half past four in the afternoon when Eponine finally could leave to fetch her brothers at the schoolhouse and hurry home in order to also make ready for the party. "We're not going to stay for everything since you all have to get some rest, especially Laure," she assured Gavroche, Neville, and Jacques. "You just need to keep your things clean enough for then."
"There'll be a lot of good feed for the chickens," Gavroche remarked. "They can have that, as long as they leave the cakes for us."
"I can't stop you-but your stomachs will if you eat too much," Eponine admonished. "And please, I don't want to catch you sneaking any treats in your clothes just to bring home; it's not polite and it's difficult to get the stains out."
"There, you heard her," Neville whispered to Jacques. "No hiding biscuits in your cravat like what you did at Combeferre's wedding!"
"Chetta said I could bring them home, she didn't say how to!" Jacques argued.
"You could have told me or Antoine, so we could have helped you wrap them up properly," Eponine pointed out even as she began helping her brothers lay out the clothes they would wear to the party, and then hurried to feed Laure and get her into a clean dress. Only then she could see to her own preparations. She smiled as she brought out a green dress from her closet; it was one of her favourite gowns from the trousseau that her friends had put together as a wedding gift. She always liked how this particular shade of green brought out the rich reddish brown of her hair and set off her complexion well. For a few moments she feared that the dress would no longer fit, but much to her relief the garment flowed almost as smoothly over the curves of her chest and her hips.
'Let's drink for the lovely Fanchon, Let's sing something for her,' she sang as she searched for a hairpin on the bedside table. She paused at the sound of a knock on the door and smiled when she saw Enjolras walk in and nod to her as he set down some things before going to see Laure.
'Ye oh, how sweet is her company, how much merit and glory she deserves,' Eponine continued to sing, but now she heard a low, rich humming mingling with the tune. She turned around to look at Enjolras, who was now rummaging through the closet. "Won't you sing it instead, Antoine?"
"Not here," he deadpanned as he found a clean cravat and a maroon waistcoat. "I have not heard such a spirited rendition of it though since the first time we were both at the Cafe du Foy."
Eponine burst out laughing, realizing now what he was referring to. It had been nearly two years since the day they had both argued themselves out of being detained on false charges, and ended up helping apprehend one of the real perpetrators hiding in plain sight at this famed cafe. "If I had the slightest inkling that you would have been there that night, I would t have asked you to dance with me."
A smile tugged at his lips. "That would have been quite the diversion."
"It would have been fun," she said as she began to pin back her hair. "There, you're almost laughing just from my talking about it."
He smirked as he began putting on his waistcoat. "How were the lessons today?"
"Very well, at least that's what I saw in the morning. They were going so well that we had to open up more of the rooms to fit in the students."
"That is quite more than you expected, Eponine."
Eponine smiled at this compliment. "Madame Fontenay visited for a little while. I think she liked what she saw, at least enough to say that it was almost a proper school," she added as she began buttoning up his waistcoat.
"It serves the same aim; the opportunities it will open up for the students are more uplifting than any edifice," Enjolras remarked as he clasped her hands.
'How could he always see those things so readily?' she wondered silently. "I s'pose some people would say it is worse than unpaving hell for a barricade. It's difficult to make someone unlearn something."
"No true upheaval proceeds without meeting some opposition," he pointed out.
"You know what people have been saying about this, and for a bit I was worried what you might think too, especially with all the trouble and rumors that have come up," she admitted. She wrapped the fingers of her good hand around his knuckles as she met his questioning eyes. "I heard what you said to your colleagues, that other night at the Cafe du Foy. Do you really say such things about me every day?"
Enjolras nodded before he kissed her lips. "I mean them."
There were no words Eponine could find to match his sincerity, so she simply kissed him back, revelling in the warmth of his hand running up her back and pulling her closer. Yet just as he deepened the kiss, they both heard the boys running through the hall. "We do have a party to go to," she whispered with undisguised frustration as she pulled away.
"Later though?" Enjolras offered, pulling a stray stand of hair out of her face.
She nodded before giving him a kiss on the cheek and getting up to fetch Laure, who gurgled and squealed on being picked up. "I wonder what is going to be the first word you'll say; you hear so many things since your Papa and I bring you everywhere," she said to the little girl. "Maybe you'll end up surprising us."
"Most likely she will," Enjolras remarked as he helped Eponine wrap her up in a warm cape. "I know you don't like that, petit, but it's better than having you get a cold," he said when Laure scowled at him.
"She won't mind so much after a bit," Eponine reassured him as they went out to meet Gavroche, Neville, and Jacques.
Within an hour they arrived at the Fontenay residence on the Rue de'lOratorie. This house had undergone an even more startling transformation than the school on the Rue Simon Le Franc; the heavy dark drapes had been banished from the windows, gas lights bedecked the terrace and the lawn, and the great doors of the front hall were thrown wide open to admit a throng of well-wishers and revellers. "It's even lovelier than the last time we were here, Laure," Eponine told her daughter, who now seemed entranced at all this new light and colour.
"Does everyone here know each other?" Neville asked Enjolras as they were ushered into the ballroom.
"After a fashion," Enjolras replied, keeping one hand firmly on Jacques' shoulder to prevent him from scampering off towards a table of pastries.
Gavroche sniffled and soon sneezed into a handkerchief. "Someone has worn stale summer flowers," he said, making a show of holding his nose.
"You do that all night, your nose will stay that way," Eponine quipped. It was a lively though incongruous party; there were a number of elderly men and women listening with sour looks on their faces to a young musician's rendition of a selection from 'Hernani', while some of the Latin Quartier's journalists and artists tried to catch the interest of some prospective patrons. Madame Fontenay and her own coterie of widows and dowagers reigned over a side sitting room, while Azelma, Jehan, and a number of their colleagues were the center of a large crowd near a terrace. Odette Stendhal was also entertaining a group of friends who were loudly competing with each other for the best story. Yet the strains of music still rose above all this commotion, signalling the beginning of the first dance of the evening.
"There you are Ponine!" Cosette greeted as she walked up to her friend. "Glad to see you gentlemen here too," she added, nodding to the Thenardier boys and Enjolras.
Enjolras nodded amiably to her. "Is Pontmercy with you?"
"Yes, and Papa as well," Cosette said, gesturing to where Marius and Jean Valjean were conversing with some attorneys. "Everyone has been talking of the success of the first day of lessons. You should be proud," she added more gleefully.
"I'm rather terrified to be honest," Eponine laughed. "I was thinking just now that maybe a few of your usual guests at the Rue de l'Ouest refuge would be interested."
Cosette grinned approvingly as she picked up Laure, who immediately cooed by way of greeting. "I'll try to persuade them. It would be a sounder and more permanent situation than any home I could create."
In the meantime Enjolras nodded to someone who had just entered the party. "How have you been faring, Rossi?"
"Better," Rossi replied, managing a smile and standing up straight when he saw his colleague. "Though I am not so blessed to have such merry company," he added, looking to Eponine and Cosette, and then the youngsters
"Stendhal is over there, and so are the Prouvaires," Cosette said. "My father is also here and he would like to speak with you."
Rossi nodded slightly. "After I've paid my compliments to the bride-to-be. She is after all an old friend."
It was all that Eponine could do to keep a straight face at the rueful tone in Rossi's voice. "She'll be around here shortly," she said, seeing that Justine was still talking to some other guests.
Enjolras clasped Rossi's shoulder. "In the meantime there are some other friends here, particularly from the Ecole Polytechnique."
"Really now?" Rossi asked even as he followed his friend, stopping only to allow little Jacques dangle from his arm.
"Poor man! He's clearly ailing, but what of?" Cosette trailed off concernedly.
"He'll heal, I s'pose," Eponine said. 'He should, since he deserves better than to lose his heart that way, to Cerise of all people,' she thought.
Cosette sighed as she looked to the middle of the ballroom, where Justine and Emile, as well as some other couples were dancing a waltz. "I never would have thought before that they would meet, but here they are now, so happy."
'It is just like a scene from Cendrillon,' Eponine thought as she squeezed her friend's arm. Indeed the ballroom was a veritable show of everything splendid and glorious, owing to the movements of the dancers and their glittering attire. Yet this was also a transformation, for she had never seen Emile look so tall and confident before. As for Justine, she was graceful in a flowing blue dress, but it was the sheer bliss on her face that made her appear so radiant. "It's only the beginning. I mean, Justine is as young as we are, and Stendhal not much older. I should like to see what they'd be like in a few years, especially when they have children of their own," she said as she carried Laure again.
"Odette will be the happiest about that," Cosette said. She happened to glance towards the doorway and she tapped Eponine's wrist. "I didn't think that Justine's mother and her sister would actually come," she whispered.
Eponine felt her gut clench at the sight of the Lafontaine women, particularly since Justine's brother was not with them. 'Trust the one sensible person there to be away,' she thought as she took a step towards where the older Lafontaines were now approaching the dance floor.
"What is the meaning of this?" Citizenness Lafontaine demanded as she hurried up to her younger daughter and seized her arms. "An engagement, to such a man-"
"It seems, dear sister, that you are no longer abreast of the news," Madame Fontenay cut in coldly. Although she was still garbed entirely in black, she wore intricately carved jet pendants and a sweeping sable mantle that only added to the impression of being formidable as she strode up to Citizenness Lafontaine, forcing the other woman to let go of Justine. "Come with me and I will explain this matter clearly. Alone," she said, directing this last word curtly to Cerise.
Citizenness Lafontaine drew herself up to her full height. "How could you do this? I am her mother."
"This is why I too demand an explanation," Madame Fontenay said more harshly before heading back to the sitting room.
Cerise gaped at the sight of her mother following her aunt, but after a moment she looked back at her own sibling. "What are you waiting for? Aren't you going to dance?" she said to Justine and Emile. "Your guests would love the sight of it," she said, giving a pointed look to the Prouvaires as well as Eponine.
"We'll dance, but I think you should find a partner," Emile said quickly.
"Why I think I shall for the next dance," Cerise said, bowing mockingly to Emile before backing away from the dance floor.
Eponine felt Cosette's arm close around her wrist. "She's going to make a fool of herself or embarrass Antoine, I know it!" she hissed. "It's that or she'll say something horrid to my sister."
"She wouldn't dare," Cosette remarked. "I've heard all the rumors as well as you have. You think anyone would risk anything for her now?"
Before Eponine could answer this, she looked to see Cerise talking to a group of young men and women, clearly neighbours of hers, but in short order they all drifted to the dance floor and left her alone with a glass of wine. 'There will be no help from her brother's colleagues either,' she realized, seeing that all the members of the diplomatic corps present at the gathering had now chosen other partners or were engrossed in conversation.
At length Cerise sauntered up to where Enjolras and Rossi were still conversing. "Would you care to dance, Citizen Enjolras?" she asked.
He looked at her coldly. "As a rule, I do not."
"What will you do all evening now since your wife is so occupied?" Cerise cajoled, even as she glanced scornfully at Eponine. "You are here to celebrate-"
"For your sister and my friend," Enjolras said before quitting the place on the pretext of following Gavroche and Neville to search for Jacques.
Cerise clucked her tongue as she looked at Rossi. "Eugene, please convince him."
"I would rather have a word with you," Rossi said gravely.
Cerise's eyes widened with interest. "Then will you dance with me?"
"I will not, since you have made it clear who you prefer to be with. I refuse to be taken simply as a substitute and a fool, Citizenness Lafontaine," Rossi replied clearly. "Not anymore."
The girl stared at him in shock. "How could you say such a thing and still be a gentleman?"
"I would, as a consequence of your doings for your sister and even for me," the young man replied. "It's a gentleman's doing to be plain in these matters instead of indulging in intrigues, as you are fond of."
Cerise paled visibly and looked down. "You love me."
"I would have loved you, had you permitted it," Rossi said bitterly. "I doubt you shall inspire any sentiment of that sort again, from me or from anyone."
It seemed as if in that moment Cerise's eyes were glistening. "Then you will leave me alone?"
"Only because you wished it," Rossi said. "Goodbye, Citizenness Lafontaine."
Eponine swallowed hard as she saw Rossi walk away from Cerise, who stood in stunned silence for a moment before turning to flee the ballroom. For a moment she wondered if anyone would reach out to Cerise to stop her, but the revelers danced on and the conversation still flowed. She looked to Cosette, who now wore a pensive expression. "Now her, I worry about."
"Maybe someday it'll turn around," Cosette murmured.
Eponine shrugged even as she saw Azelma now talking to Justine, while Emile had drawn his mother aside to explain the situation to her. "I'm sorry that your sister showed up like this. I hope it doesn't ruin the rest of the evening," she said to Justine.
Justine sighed deeply. "I think she meant to confront my aunt about her decision-which wouldn't have been necessary seeing how everything is turning out."
"What do you mean?" Cosette asked.
"All the suitors, gone for now," Justine said, wincing when she heard her mother's outraged yell from where she and Madame Fontenay had been talking. "At least till my family gets back from Orleans, where they'll probably be staying all winter. We usually only go there for Christmas."
Eponine winced at the idea of the Lafontaines scurrying away their reversal in this far smaller city. "Does that really solve anything?"
"Ask my aunt about that," Justine said a little mischievously. "Why else do you think she's so eager to hide in a convent?"
Eponine's jaw dropped in shock as she glanced from her friends to Madame Fontenay, who had a knowing look on her face. 'Now there is someone who understood after all,' she decided even as the music began to play once more.