Everyone goes to the art show for moral support, because events at which families are expected can be tough for Grantaire, but today he doesn't seem to notice that he doesn't have one. He's luminous, beaming, playing the good host and refilling everyone's glasses with a white wine much nicer than he usually drinks. Cosette goes around wearing a little red and white sundress with her hair in long coils down her back chit chatting with artists and parents and professors. Every time she talks about him, her eyes find Grantaire and she smiles so deeply that joy shoots out of her eyelashes.
Eponine wants to stab her in the face.
There are other students with pieces in the exhibition, but the star of the night is the life-sized portrait of Cosette that gets an entire wall to itself. It's Grantaire's first completed painting in months, and it's won some prize at the school. He has already done four more Cosette portraits (miniatures this time, each focusing on one aspect—an eye, her hands in her lap, one wisp of wavy hair loose by her temple, her bare feet with chipped silver polish on the nails) and has plans for a dozen more. Cosette's adventurous spirit is a good match for his creative eye, and they make a good team.
Grantaire slips an arm around Cosette's shoulders while he tells this to the strangers who are suddenly interested in his work.
Eponine knows she should be happy for him—his art is wonderful, he's always deserved this attention and he's worked very hard for it, and even if he hadn't he's supposed to be her best friend, so where is this hostility coming from?
Grantaire sees her standing in front of the Cosette wall and comes over to her. "She's beautiful, isn't she?"
It isn't immediately clear whether he's personifying his painting or referring to its subject. Either way, Eponine has to agree. This, like so much of her life, makes her angry.
In the painting, Cosette sits in a field of poppies, hair tied loosely with a green ribbon. She's wearing jeans but is nude from the waist up. Her back is to the viewer, but she's looking over her left shoulder to reveal her profile and one eye the color of the sky. The use of light is amazing, dark shadows caressing the curve of her neck and the fall of the sun bringing out the gold in her skin and her hair. She looks like a masterpiece, soft but strong and too lovely not to want to touch.
"You've outdone yourself," Courfeyrac says. "It's stunning."
"It really captures the eye," Combeferre adds. "There's something visually interesting about the colors."
"Sensuous," Courfeyrac supplies.
Eponine forces a smile. "It's really great," she says, wishing it didn't feel like a lie.
Grantaire grins and claps her on the shoulder, but leaves almost immediately when Cosette motions to him from across the room. "Excuse me," he says, and dashes over to lay his hand on the small of Cosette's back and make nice.
Eponine bets Cosette picked that dress specifically to coordinate with the painting. She walks out of the gallery and calls Montparnasse. "Come over," she says.
She and Montparnasse get along because they only see the worst of each other—there's no pretense. Neither of them pretends to love the other, and no one is disappointed to be asked to leave after the sex. Montparnasse doesn't even ask about her day. She tells herself it's refreshing.
It's the same story at the Musain. While Enjolras waxes eloquent about some human rights violation or another—it's tough for Eponine to keep up with what's upset Enjolras this week when she just doesn't care at all—Grantaire and Cosette giggle at the back of the room while he shows her concept sketches.
"No, but what if—" Cosette whispers, and then ducks behind Grantaire's sketchbook and takes the pencil from his hand.
From her seat on his other side, Eponine can't get a look at what they're doing. She has never seen the inside of the sketchbook except by accident, and she has never even heard of him letting anyone write in it. She's never had to sit through one of these meetings without Grantaire's running commentary in her ear, either, and she doesn't much like this shift in his focus.
She finishes her glass of wine and then steals his. She knows the situation is dire because it takes him ten minutes to notice.
This calls for shots. She goes to the bar for a round before Enjolras is finished talking—he glares, but the complete lack of fucks she gives means it bounces right off her.
At bars she isn't in every other night, bartenders often give her looks that say there is no way this girl is twenty-one. Eponine has been twenty-one since she was fifteen, but now that she's really twenty-one she's started to get a thrill when she hands over her ID. In the Musain, of course, no one bothers; everyone knows her there.
When she brings the tray with one for everyone—even Cosette, because Eponine is a giving person—she is rewarded with a huge grin from Grantaire that almost makes it worth it. Courfeyrac says "you're a good man, Eponine." Marius declines his shot and doesn't even say thank you for the offer, but she knows she can't win them all. She slips Bahorel the extra shot and he kisses her on the forehead.
So it's okay until Courfeyrac starts with the jukebox.
He does this sometimes, once the meeting has broken up and they've switched to party mode. He'll put on "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" or "Call Me Maybe" and everyone will laugh and dance while Combeferre and Enjolras quietly slip out the back because neither of them would know what to do with fun unless it came in a box with written instructions in four languages. Tonight, Courfeyrac picks "I Love Rock 'N' Roll," which Eponine has several very fond memories of.
She turns to cajole Grantaire into taking her for a spin, but he's already being pulled onto the floor by Cosette. Eponine watches in wordless horror as Grantaire twirls and dips Cosette while laughing and singing along, as though he actually likes to dance.
Enjolras drops into the chair next to her. "Still have any shots?" he asks, picking one up from the tray.
She can't even stop staring at Grantaire and Cosette long enough to register surprise that Enjolras, who has never taken a shot in her company, knocks one back and slams the empty glass on the tray.
"This day," he groans, and then says "thanks, Eponine," and lopes off.
Grantaire is licking lime juice off Cosette's neck.
Marius looks as appalled as Eponine feels.
Everything is horrible. She takes the hand Courfeyrac holds out to her and makes a good show of enjoying herself, but no one seems to notice.
It isn't that she hates Cosette. There isn't a lot to hate about Cosette, which is maybe what makes the idea of hating her so appealing. It isn't fair. Cosette has swooped in and stolen Eponine's entire life, and she's living it better than Eponine ever could.
The only thing that makes Cosette almost bearable is that she's given up on Marius. Marius is too petrified of how much he likes her to form complete sentences, which any sane person would interpret as disinterest. Cosette hasn't heard any of his wailing speeches about her perfection and how stupid he is for messing it up, so she has no way of knowing that while she's been trying to get Marius's attention, she's had it all along.
Eponine, who's heard all Marius's monologues and patted his back awkwardly when even Combeferre gets impatient with him, is all too familiar with this fact.
She excuses herself from Courfeyrac when her phone vibrates in her pocket. Most of her friends don't pick up calls from unidentified numbers, but Eponine is not like most of her friends. She's learned that when her phone displays an unnamed number she should goddamn well answer it.
Tonight it's the police station; they aren't pressing charges but someone has to come get Azelma. She stumbles back into the bar to grab her purse, waves off Courfeyrac's worried face.
"They need me at work," she tells him, "I have to go." She wills her eyes to shine with something other than tears. She's glad her friends hate the club where she hostesses. "I'll see you later."
Courfeyrac doesn't look reassured, but he lets her go. No one else even looks up as she exits.
Eponine does her best to nod understandingly as the cops lecture her about the track Azelma is on, but her focus is keeping her rage contained. Nothing will be solved if they both end up in jail. Azelma is the picture of teenage stupidity, eyes rolling and mouth in a sulky twist. Eponine barely keeps herself from smacking her.
They walk to the car in silence. Azelma slumps in the passenger seat and defiantly doesn't look at her.
"Seatbelt," Eponine says.
"Fuck you, Ponine," Azelma says, but she buckles her seatbelt.
"Have you lost your fucking mind?" Eponine asks, hating the tears that threaten to spill from her eyes. "You're not a kid anymore, Azelma, and once you're eighteen—"
"Like you're so much better?" Azelma snaps. "You don't get to preach to me." Her sister is like her in all the wrong ways.
Eponine's fists clench so hard her palms will have nail marks on them for days. "I don't steal," she says through gritted teeth. "I don't get arrested."
Azelma stares at her resentfully from eyes with too much cheap eyeliner.
Eponine sighs. "Please, Zel. Try."
"You're not my real mom." It's a peace offering; they smile weakly at one another. Eponine is the closest thing Azelma and Gavroche have to a real mom, someone who loves them and makes sure they have lunch money. They're a team, the Thenardier kids. They take care of each other. No one else is going to look after them.
Eponine hands Azelma a towel and a pillow when they get back to her apartment. She replies to Montparnasse's ? with not 2night and curls up in bed.
She doesn't fall asleep until she hears Azelma settle on the couch after her shower.
A few days later, Grantaire texts to invite Eponine to his place for dinner. He does that sometimes, picks a recipe and tries to pretend he knows how to cook. He isn't terrible, but their friends have trouble believing it, so Eponine tastes everything he makes before anyone else is brave enough.
She doesn't know why she's surprised when Cosette meets her at the door. At this point, she should know to expect Cosette wherever Grantaire is.
Cosette doesn't seem to notice this is awkward. "Hey," she smiles, hugging Eponine. "I'm glad you made it!"
Eponine shoves the bottle of red into Cosette's hands and totters off to the kitchen. Grantaire grins at her over a steaming pot of pasta sauce.
"I didn't know Cosette was coming," she says, as calmly as she can manage.
"Oh! Yeah, I thought she'd like it. Do you mind?"
She laughs. "Why would I mind?" Even if she did, it's too late now.
Eponine and Grantaire have been friends since before they knew any of the others. They met at a freshman orientation event, and they chatted over free pizza for close to an hour before they revealed that neither of them were students there. Eponine was still in high school, and Grantaire was just starting at the art school. Eponine was out drinking with Grantaire when he first saw Enjolras, and she was the one who said "well, if you aren't going to talk to him, I will," and she was the first to experience Enjolras's deft way of turning a come-on into an invitation to join a political demonstration.
And now all that laughter they shared and all those tears they shed and the countless times one of them sat with the other while too much alcohol made one of them sick—now none of that means anything because he's replaced her with a better model.
Dinner is tense. Cosette makes a brave attempt at conversation as she toys with the food on her plate, but even her good cheer flags after a while. Eponine gives one-word responses and steadily drains the bottle of wine with less help than she'd expect from Grantaire. Grantaire darts glances between the women and his mouth forms a hard line. He seems to be on the verge of saying something (probably Eponine what the fuck is wrong with you) when the door busts open.
Feuilly and Grantaire never lock their front door, because "what have we got that's worth stealing?" This blind optimism should bother her, but tonight it's not a robber throwing open the door but Gavroche, and he has a swollen bruise on one cheek.
She's out of her seat in less than a second, his face in her hands as she cries "oh baby, who did this to you?"
Gavroche squirms out of her grip. "Nobody."
"Well, Nobody's going to be dead when I get my hands on him," she hisses.
Grantaire takes Gavroche to the kitchen, where Cosette is already wrapping an ice pack in a towel.
"We'll take care of this," she says, laying the ice pack on his face. "You hungry? We have eggplant macaroni."
"Gross," Gavroche says. Eponine starts to cry because you little shit, but Cosette laughs.
"I think there's probably a hot dog or something around here too, if you want."
"Pancakes," Gavroche announces, with the boldness only a little kid could muster.
"Coming up," Grantaire promises, and gets to work mixing some batter.
Eponine needs some fresh air after that, so she slips outside to sit on the steps as Cosette and Grantaire are bickering over what shapes the pancakes should be. A few minutes later, Cosette follows with two Stellas.
"Here," Cosette says, handing her one. "You look like you could use this."
It's a ballsy move, given Cosette's age, but it's also a considerate one. Cosette even brought Eponine's preferred beer.
Eponine wants to scream at her for being so perfect, but she's too tired for a fight. Instead, she sighs. "Thanks."
Cosette drops down next to her on the steps with a blatant disregard for her cream-colored skirt.
"I appreciate what you did for my brother," she says. "I'm not always good at staying calm."
"He's a tough kid," Cosette shrugs. "I like him." There's something in that. Eponine thinks about all the nights Cosette must have spent over here, about how attached Gavroche is to Grantaire. This isn't the first time Cosette and Gavroche have met. Eponine almost cries again.
Eponine doesn't want to like Cosette. She doesn't want to help her. But it's hard not to when Cosette has given her the next move. "Look, I know I've been a bitch to you," she says, "and I'm sorry. It's not you." It isn't. It isn't Cosette's fault Eponine can't sit still enough to be painted. It isn't Cosette's fault Marius doesn't like Eponine. It isn't Cosette's fault Eponine's family is a mess. It isn't Cosette's fault everyone likes her. Cosette isn't her enemy, and maybe she hasn't ever been. "I shouldn't have been like that."
"You're really important to Grantaire, you know?" Cosette asks, tucking her hair behind her ear. "What you think matters a lot. I know you don't like me. It's fine," she says, shaking her head. "You don't have to."
"I don't not like you," Eponine lies. "It's just… it's complicated."
Cosette nods like anything in her life has prepared her for Eponine levels of complicated.
She exhales slowly. "I want a clean slate with you. Do you think that would be okay?" She takes a swig of her beer. "Actually, fuck a clean slate. Can we be friends? I watched you stare down Enjolras. You're fierce. I could use a fierce friend." It makes more sense to be friends with Cosette than not to. If you can't beat them…
Cosette smiles at her. Not a full smile, just a hint out of the corner of her eye. "You're pretty fierce yourself," she says. "Chetta's wonderful, but I know you're the one who's been keeping these boys in line. I can't even imagine."
"I could tell you horror stories," Eponine giggles. "In fact, I think I will." They clink the necks of their bottles together.
Eponine might get used to having Cosette around.