The walk home from Marius and Courfeyrac's apartment felt much longer than usual. Éponine kept her arms wrapped around herself as she walked and wept bitterly. She had waited too long. She had brought this on herself. She felt certain she had missed her one chance at love, for if Marius didn't love her, then who ever would? Éponine placed a hand on her stomach as she felt the baby kick. At least she would never be alone, though there was no way she could tell Marius about the baby now. She considered that it was possible he might choose to be with her if she should reveal the baby was his, but it wouldn't really be a choice. He would stay with her out of obligation and would probably constantly wonder what might have been if he had stayed with Cosette. No, Éponine didn't want that. She wasn't that desperate to have him by her side; she would not force his hand. Marius could never know the child was his.
As Éponine turned down an alleyway, she ran into a familiar sight. A man stood over a woman who lay on the ground. He tossed her a couple of coins, then turned and left. He decidedly didn't make eye contact with Éponine as he passed her. Éponine didn't really care and kept moving forward, but stopped dead in her tracks when she caught a good look at the woman on the ground. She fell to her knees next to her.
Azelma slowly sat up. "'Ponine," she said quietly. "What're you doing out this late?"
Époine pulled her into his arms. "Oh, Zel... I'm so sorry... If I'd never left, h-he would've never made you..."
"'Ponine, don't do that," said Azelma firmly. "S'not your fault..."
"I should have protected you from this. You're too young to—"
"Shh... Éponine, stop. Let's not do this here. C'mon, we'll help each other up, okay?"
Éponine slowly nodded and, using each other for support, the two stood up. When they started walking, Azelma winced. Éponine started to fret again, but Azelma hushed her: "I'm fine, 'Ponine. I just stepped on a rock. I should really try an' get shoes."
"'Zelma, I promise you will never have to do this again. You're... You're not gonna go back home. You're gonna stay with me and then both of us will be free from father. I won't let you lose your childhood."
"I already have," she said softly. "I'll stay with you, 'Ponine. I ain't particularly keen on going back to our dad. You know what he's like. Where are you living now?" she asked. "D'you got enough room for me?"
"Well," said Éponine, starting to walk again, Azelma right by her side. "I'm living with a friend," she admitted, "but I'm sure he'll let you stay with us just until we can find a place of our own."
Azelma grinned. "Is it Marius?"
Éponine's demeanour instantly changed, and she stopped walking. "No," she said sharply. "I... I don't think I'll be seeing Marius anymore."
Azelma stopped as well and turned to stare at her. "You're not gonna see him anymore? What d'you mean by that? You're only carrying his kid! Haven't you told him yet? Doesn't he know how you feel?"
"He does now," said Éponine with a bitter laugh, "now that he's gone and promised himself to Cosette. He doesn't know about the baby. How could I tell him that? What good would it do? So now he knows I love him and... and he doesn't feel the same. He... He loves her..." Tears had begun to fall down her cheeks once again, and she knew she couldn't stop them. "I... I'll have to do this alone..."
"No," said Azelma firmly. "You'll not be alone. You've got me. I'll be there to help, 'Ponine. You've got my word."
Éponine threw her arms around her and dissolved into sobs. Azelma gingerly stroked her hair; she wasn't used to outbursts of emotion from Éponine. She held her there for several more moments before Éponine finally released her. Azelma offered her sister a reassuring smile and reached up to wipe away some stray tears.
"It's gonna be all right, 'Ponine. You won't be alone; I promise."
"Anytime. Now, c'mon. It's getting cold."
As expected, Jehan was more than willing to allow Azelma to stay with them. In fact, he seemed overjoyed that he was able to provide some assistance. Azelma took to Jehan instantly. It was just so easy to like him.
While Jehan prepared tea in the kitchen, Éponine was making up a bed for Azelma next to her own makeshift bed in the plant room. Jehan had a lot of extra bedding, so even despite not having a mattress to sleep on, Éponine had been perfectly comfortable. Now, however, she felt quite anxious. She knew that once the tea was ready, Jehan would ask how things had gone with Marius, and then she would have to tell him. It would be like reliving it. She didn't want to feel this grief anymore. She wanted all of the heaviness to vanish so that she could breathe again. She yearned for a taste of happiness.
"The tea is ready!" Jehan called out. Azelma instantly got to her feet and started towards the kitchen, but Éponine hesitated. She took a deep breath and reminded herself that it could not be avoided. She followed Azelma out of the plant room and into the kitchen, where the two sat down at the table as Jehan poured the tea. When he finished, he sat down across from them and looked expectantly at Éponine.
Before she could manage a single word, she broke down once more. Jehan took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.
"Oh, Éponine," he murmured. "I'm so sorry..."
"He loves her..." she whispered. "I waited too long."