He tries not to think about the eyes watching him. He doesn’t avoid them, or seek them out; he doesn’t want to dredge up any more memories than he already is. But not thinking about them – that is less about defence, and more about the way they skewer him clean through.
He should move schools, probably, but then he wouldn’t see them at all. Anyway, he was here first. He’ll just have to keep his mind on his work for the next four years, like he always planned. It’s not like he could join in with college life anyway.
He looks up from his desk in the library, and smiles. Javert’s eyes pin him to the back of his chair. Dear God. The guy’s stare brings a whole new meaning to ‘if looks could kill’. Anyone seeing him would believe it.
‘Javert. How’s it going?’
‘Fine.’ He has, Valjean notes, eight criminology textbooks under one arm alone, and the straps on his bag look fit to break from the weight they’re carrying. ‘We’ve been paired together for the Law 101 presentation. I just saw the email. I expect you’ll tell me to relax because it’s not for four months, but I’d like to get started on prep.’
Valjean shakes his head, slowly. ‘No, that’s fine.’ If it were anyone else, he might. But Javert doesn’t know how to relax; Valjean suspects why, and he’s not going to judge him. ‘I’ve got to finish planning this paper now, but why don’t we get together this evening?’
‘I have work. I could meet you after, but it’d be late.’
He shrugs a shoulder. ‘That’s OK. I don’t have class in the morning. Or we could just meet in the morning, if you like.’
‘No. Tonight. Where? I don’t like noise when I study. No bars, or diners or anything.’ A pause. ‘Please.’
Valjean could point out that he doesn’t go to bars, but instead he just says, ‘my place, then. I’ll email you the address.’
‘I finish at nine. I’ll come straight over.’
He leaves without any form of goodbye. Valjean sits for five minutes, twirling a pen around his fingers. It’ll be an awkward four months, but at least he’s guaranteed an A at the end of it. He’ll probably know the entire legal code inside out by the time they’re finished. Well, good. Education is what he’s here for, after all.
Valjean does not want to be a lawyer. He’s older than most students in this place, and he already has his own business. It’s successful enough that he doesn’t have to be there all the time, which is why he’s turned to education. The money he makes means nothing to him; all he wants is to build a foundation to help people – kids – like him, like he was, like he is now. He dreams of writing cheques for someone’s college tuition, and the first stone placed for a women’s shelter, or a community centre for teenagers from the bad neighbourhoods; he doesn’t want any kid to spend their entire adolescent years in prison, like he did. And then those two years in the big house, which he will do everything he can to forget – he tells himself it’ll all be worth it, when he comes out of college and knows what to do with his money, how best to make it work for the people who need it.
He leans back in his desk chair, and stretches. The clock says nine-fifteen, so Javert will probably be here soon. He wonders where he works. He wonders whether anyone helped him ten years ago, and highly doubts it. A glance at the camera over the video entry phone shows no one there, so he gets back to work. It’s an hour before it rings, and Valjean is surprised at the time but his head is swimming with numbers, so he doesn’t think much of it. He presses the button by the phone, watches Javert enter the outside gate, and calls down to the doorman to let him up. This apartment building is not lavish, but it’s decent enough that it has security. The neighbourhood isn’t great, but Valjean’s offices are nearby and a lot of his employees live around here. He feels pretty safe, but any potential danger isn’t going to come from the people he knows now. It’ll come from the people he knew then, and those people could be anywhere.
‘Hey,’ he says, only glancing up to wave Javert through the door he’d left open for him. ‘You’re later than I thought.’
‘I said I would be.’
Javert stands in the doorway, looking awkward. He’s too tall for his body; even at nineteen, he looks like he hasn’t stopped growing into himself. The uniform he’s wearing is all white, or would be if it weren’t filthy; Valjean notes that even though it’s dirty, it’s still tucked in and buttoned neatly, and Javert’s hair has been smoothed down from the trip here.
‘That’s OK. You’re a chef?’
‘No. I work in a kitchen.’ He takes a step inside, and closes the door behind him. It’s warm in here, but Valjean sees him shiver; only then does he see that he’s not carrying a hat or gloves, there’s no scarf, and it’s really cold out there, even for it only being September.
‘How’d you get here?’
Javert hesitates. ‘I work for a catering company. We were out at the prison tonight.’
Valjean doesn’t react, except to raise his eyebrows and say, ‘that’s a hell of a long way to bike. You must be freezing.’
Javert just shrugs, and puts his bag down. ‘Can we get started?’
Valjean stands up, and walks through the apartment. The building was once a warehouse; everything here is high-ceilinged and big-windowed, and there’s far too much space for him. He comes back with a towel, and throws it at Javert. ‘You smell like grease, sorry. Go and take a shower. Do you have other clothes?’
He’s embarrassed him, but it can’t be helped. Javert shrugs. ‘Yeah.’ He glances at his bag.
‘Well, then. Bathroom’s down the hall. I’ll pull up the prep sheets.’
He orders pizza too. He tries to find a way to place the chairs at the table so Javert’s eyes won’t kill him too often. He fails, but is pretty sure he always knew he would.
He went to juvie when he was twelve. He stole some food because his sister’s husband drank the welfare cheques, and everyone was starving. No one had seemed that interested in why he did it; it was like they just looked at where he came from, and his sister’s husband’s record, and saw where they lived, and just knew he wasn’t going to come to anything. There were so many nights when he wondered whether someone had been sitting in an office with a rubber stamp hovered over his name, waiting for him to put a toe out of line. Stupid, of course, but that’s what it felt like. Everything came down on him like a ton of bricks from the moment the handcuffs were slapped on. And he had hated them; by God, he had hated all of them for it. His family, the welfare officers who didn’t care, the lawyers who couldn’t get his name right, the judge who didn’t even look at him. He had tried to explain, but no one listened. He was thrown into jail and forgotten about. He couldn’t even read. He was…not treated well by his peers, not for a long time.
‘Are you listening?’
He blinks, and swims back to the present. Javert’s eyes are the same now as they were the first time he saw them, though the face around them is older. Not a face anyone could forget. ‘Yeah. Well, sort of. Aren’t you tired?’
It’s past midnight. Two pizza boxes sit empty; once he had insisted hard enough, Javert ate enough to sink a battleship. A two litre bottle of Coke lies on its side among protein bar wrappers and a few apple cores, and coffee cups balance on top of each other to make room for the books which have spread across the table. Javert just shrugs at the question, a lock of brown hair falling over his forehead. ‘If we finish the outline tonight, we each know what we have to research. It’ll make things easier next time we meet. You said you didn’t have class in the morning, right?’
He doesn’t, but he does have to go to work. He might go to church too, but he’s not going to explain that. ‘I don’t. I’m just asking because you were in school today, and then you went to work, and then you biked about twenty miles, and now you’re here. Do you ever sleep?’
Another shrug, and Javert looks back down at his legal pad. ‘We’re nearly finished.’
Valjean picks up his pen. ‘All right. Go on.’
It’s after 2am when Javert starts packing his books up. Valjean’s tempted to tell him to crash in the spare bedroom, but that would be weird – for him, if not Javert. Both of them, probably, given that he knows by the weeks of incessant staring that he’s already aroused suspicion in the other guy.
‘We’ll meet again in a couple of weeks?’
Valjean nods, even though he doesn’t know how he’ll get through everything Javert wants them to research in that time – he could understand it if the presentation were in a month, but it isn’t. And it’s only freshman year. There’s no way this much prep is needed. He doesn’t mind; he wants good grades. He’s just curious about this clear desire of Javert’s for the presentation to be perfect. ‘Sure. Come here again, if you like. It’s quiet, there’s space-‘ He breaks off and shrugs, awkward himself. He has no idea where Javert lives. It could be asking him to come miles out of his way. But he gets a nod in return.
‘All right. Two weeks today? If I’m not working, I could come earlier. I didn’t mean to keep you up.’
Later, his head too full of law arguments to sleep straight away, Valjean wonders whether that were strictly true. Javert could have left earlier. He either didn’t care that he might inconvenience him, or was truly oblivious to the possibility. A third option might be that he did it on purpose, but why would he?
He rolls over in bed, and considers masturbating to help him sleep, but dismisses it. His mind wants to take him back to prison and he’s too tired to stop it, though he knows it’ll never make him rest. It’s because of Javert. He should be grateful he was too young to remember him properly, because no one in college knows of his record except the admin people who’ve seen his admission papers. He doesn’t want anyone to know. He doesn’t ever want to think of it again. But Javert makes him remember.
He’d been a month in the adult prison, and in a bad way. His sister came to visit because it was closer than the juvenile detention centre had been, and because he was eighteen then. Even she knew this place would be tougher. Every two weeks she had come and cried at him, and told him how bad things were now Dexter was dead and it was just her and the kids. He thought it should be better, but apparently her husband had left her with a few problems of her own. She’d picked up alcoholism by osmosis, or something. He was almost past caring, because his own problems were more than enough to occupy him.
He’d looked across the visiting area, and found himself staring into a pair of eyes so sharp he was almost afraid of them. When he registered they belonged to a kid, it was even more creepy, because that stare was so much older than the boy it belonged to. The child Javert sat next to a thin woman with flat, greasy hair, who was crying at a much older man. He could only be about thirteen, Valjean had thought. Skinny and pale-faced, with unkempt brown hair, he didn’t look as though anyone took much care of him. But none of that was why Valjean, having noticed him, could not look away. It was the contempt on his face. The sheer, ugly, hatred. Whatever had happened to Javert and his family, he was never going to accept it, that was obvious. Everything about him screamed how much he couldn’t bear being there. He hadn’t even let his mother touch him when she’d tried to put a hand on his arm. He hadn’t spoken a word to his father. Valjean had not been able to help watching then, nor for the next two years. Almost two years. Javert Senior had died not long before he himself was released, and he didn’t see the kid after that.
He rolls onto his back again, and stares at the ceiling. It’s too far away in this apartment. He’s too used to looking up at another bunk, even though he’s been out five years now. Some nights it doesn’t bother him, and some nights it really does. Lights from the street give the room a faint orange glow, and a car alarm is going off a few streets away. Some voices raise somewhere, there’s the occasional bang of a trunk closing. The neighbourhood never gets silent until after 4am. It’s OK. He’s not used to too much quiet either.
His thoughts drift back to Javert. The only thing he knows about him is that he started school a little late. They only share law so far – from what he saw in the library, Criminology is going to be Javert’s focus, and he himself is leaning towards business management. Or maybe he’ll switch to something more pointed at sociology, or community care or something. The business seems to be doing OK, even without him having any kind of degree. But he wants to understand the rules behind constructing municipal buildings, so property law is going to be important-
He pushes the heels of his hands into his eyes, and prays for sleep. He’s a month into his freshman year. There’s plenty of time to figure out a major. He doesn’t have to do it at 3am, on the night before a full work day. Maybe he should follow Javert’s example. Bike everywhere, and never stop working. He bets he isn’t having any trouble sleeping.
Christmas. Valjean doesn’t like it much. He likes the church services and the carols, he likes the extra goodwill and spirit of giving – it all helps, no matter the reason behind it – and if he’s honest, he also likes the feeling he gets when he sees his employees light up at the size of their bonuses. Which is part of the reason he doesn’t like it, because it’s a reminder of his own pride, still, even after everything. He tries to batter it down by spending his free time doing charity work, and he’s looking forward to next week because there’ll be no classes. Term ends tomorrow, and he’ll have a few weeks to devote to less selfish endeavours than his own education. He’s seriously wondering whether he should have just given his tuition fees to a kid who really needs it.
Javert jogs up to hallway towards him. He stands and waits, and remembers the other reason he doesn’t like Christmas. ‘Hey.’
‘Could we meet before the holidays? I just want to make sure we know what we’re doing before vacation starts.’
Valjean stares at him. A football from some rogue jocks goes flying past, close enough to almost brush Javert’s hair, but the guy doesn’t even blink. ‘Really? I mean – sure, we can, but there’s no need. We’ve already done more than enough, and the deadline’s still two months away.’
Javert is already shaking his head. ‘I thought of some adjustments. It shouldn’t take long.’
There’s something weird about this, something obsessive. He wonders if Javert’s like this for every subject he’s taking. They’ve been meeting every two weeks for the last three months – there are kids in the class who haven’t even started yet. This is a 101 course, it’s as basic as it comes. Not for the first time, Valjean actually wonders if there’s something wrong with this kid.
He holds his hands up. ‘Fine, that’s fine. But I’m busy tonight, I’m sorting donations for charity. How about tomorrow?’
‘I can’t. I have work. It really needs to be tonight.’
‘Work.’ A pause. ‘Sorry.’
Valjean never understands if that pause, which always comes before he apologises, is because he’s reminding himself that he has to say sorry, or just because he really doesn’t want to. Either way, it’s annoying. ‘Come and sort donations with me then. The quicker it’s done, the more time I’ll have afterwards.’
Javert looks pained. ‘Do you have any time before you do that? It really won’t take-‘ he stops, apparently from the expression he’s seeing, and shakes his head. ‘Fine, that’s fine,’ he mumbles, a little colour rising on his cheeks. ‘Where?’
Valjean gives him the address of one of his warehouses, and lets him walk on. After a moment, he turns to watch him go. Javert is staring down at the paper in his hand, his shoulders slumped. Valjean lets out a breath, and heads off to class. Really, the whole thing is unnecessary, and Javert can’t expect him to drop everything the moment he needs to adjust a comma or two in their work. He’ll just have to deal.
It’s long been dark by the time he opens the door to his warehouse. The donations don’t fill the entire place, of course, but he did have a line of tables put down one side of it and they’ve been filling up over the past few months. Adult stuff at one end – practical things; clothes, saucepans, homeware, groceries – and at the other, the stuff he’s really excited about. Toys for kids, heaps of them, all ready to be sorted out and put into stockings and boxes for all the children who wouldn’t otherwise get a visit from Santa. Everyone who works in his business has donated something, and they’ve all given up a few hours of their time to sort through the stuff. Everyone has pitched in to collect things, and spread the word that things are needed – and more importantly, have been collecting names of families who really need help. This is what he plans to be doing the next two weeks before Christmas, and he can’t help another flash of pride. There’ll be smiles on the twenty-fifth, and it’ll be because of him.
His heart sinks at his own enjoyment at the thought, and he sighs as he flicks lights on. But there’s no time for analysing it. People will be arriving to help soon, and it’s freezing in here. He gets the heaters going, drags an urn out in the break room so people can help themselves to instant coffee, and opens some tins of cookies so they can snack. As an afterthought, he even sticks on some quiet Christmas tunes and floats them out over the tannoy. There’s no reason to make this a chore. He knows some people will only be coming out of obligation, but maybe they’ll be quicker to volunteer next year if it’s a pleasant experience.
He’s down at the tables, starting to sort toys into age groups, when his phone buzzes. Are you inside? Javert.
He shakes his head. How many times have they had to text each other for class? Does he really think he wouldn’t have saved his number by now? Or would have forgotten his name?
Yeah, come on in. The blue door at the side. Just walk straight through to the back.
He’s holding a pink Barbie in one hand and what appears to be her car in the other, when Javert joins him. ‘Hello,’ he says, and Valjean frowns at the vehicle.
‘How is this supposed to fit?’
‘Look. Her legs are too long, and they don’t bend the right way. How is she supposed to sit down properly in that?’ Or even touch the pedals, though Valjean supposes little girls wouldn’t care much about that.
Javert just looks bewildered. ‘I don’t know.’
‘No. Well, nor do I.’ He makes another attempt, but stops when it looks like the steering wheel is about to carve a lump out of Barbie’s plastic leg. ‘Ah. Maybe I’ll leave that for one of the women.’
‘…yes. All right.’
Valjean puts the things down, and moves on. There’s a box of baby things, rattles and soft books, and giant plastic keys on loops. He smiles as he looks through, then pushes the box towards Javert. ‘Could you put that on the floor beside you? All the baby things can go there. They’ll need to be cleaned before we hand them out anyway.’ Javert takes it, with an expression on his face that suggests it smells bad. Valjean chooses to ignore this. ‘You’re on baby detail, then. Put whatever you can find down there – make sure it’s good quality. And seeing as there’s no one else here yet, I guess we can talk about whatever adjustments you want to make as we go.’
They might as well kill two birds with one stone, and Javert clearly doesn’t relish being here. He doesn’t blame him, quite honestly. He always seems to be at work, so it’s probably unfair to be asking him to do this at all. But Javert just nods, and gets on with it without complaint. He looks like he’s about to speak, when Valjean notices his hands are shaking and curses his own rudeness. ‘Sorry. Look, there’s coffee and cookies upstairs. Help yourself before we get started.’
‘No, it’s OK. Thanks.’
He hasn’t taken his coat off. Valjean bites back a sharp retort, and seizes a pile of precariously balanced toddler clothes which happily proceed to drop all over the floor. He tuts loudly at himself, and bends to pick them up. ‘Well – sorry – but would you mind grabbing me one while I pick these up? My hands are cold, I keep dropping stuff. And just bring a tin of cookies down, no one’ll mind.’
‘Oh. OK, sure.’
Valjean smiles just a little as he collects the clothes, and makes sure his face is perfectly straight when Javert returns with a mug of cheap, but steaming, coffee for each of them. And cookies. He’s glad he brought them; if past experience is anything to go by, Javert will get through most of them on his own in the next half hour. It doesn’t seem to matter how many pizzas, or subs, or take-outs the guy shovels in, he never seems to fill his clothes properly. It’s become something of a private game, looking to see whether he can make Javert gain a pound.
Half an hour later, they’re starting on the bottom layer of cookies. Valjean’s only had three, and is trying desperately not to grin. Six or seven other people have shown up and are working through the heavier goods at the other end. Their arrival kept interrupting any attempt to talk about class stuff, but it looks like no one else is coming. Valjean flips the levers on a game of Hungry Hippos to check the game works, and slides it back into the box. ‘So, the presentation?’
‘Yeah. Well, you know how you were going to argue the law has a duty to protect the rights of certain citizens, and the government has a duty of care to everyone who doesn’t work? And I was going to argue the opposite, and we were going to use that as a springboard to talk about individual cases where state laws have been superseded by federal?’
‘Yes? I was there when we planned it. I’ve done the research.’
Javert shakes his head, looking down at the bottle steriliser in his hand. ‘I don’t think we can use it. I’d like to pull it.’
Valjean blinks. ‘But that’s the basis for the whole presentation,’ he points out, in what he hopes is a reasonable tone of voice. ‘That’s the topic we chose, and the one that got approved. That’s all the work we’ve done so far.’
‘…yes.’ Javert has the grace to look awkward. ‘But I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t think it’s viable. I mean-‘ he scoffs quietly, without looking up. ‘Can we really make a strong case for, I don’t know, paedophiles being protected by the law when they’re still obviously going to be a danger to society? Can we honestly say that the government should provide welfare for all the people who aren’t willing to work, and just use the money to fund addiction?’
Valjean stands dumb, his mind turning this over. His eyes register, blankly, that Javert’s hands are still shaking a bit, despite the warmth in the space now, and the coffee and cookies. Maybe he should have sandwiches delivered. In the end, he just shakes his head. ‘Javert, the point of the assessment is to provide an argument, present the different sides of it, and use real-world cases to highlight what we’re saying. And at the end, the rest of the class will tell us who’s been more persuasive. The whole point is discussion. It’s not a competition, and we’re going to actively lose marks if we only present one side of the argument. You seriously want to pull it apart now?’
Javert’s eyes are firmly downcast, but his voice is strong enough. ‘Yes, I think so.’
‘Well, I don’t.’ He can’t help the hint of impatience. ‘What’s this about? You’re the one who’s been herding me along for the last three months. You haven’t left this alone. You know perfectly well what the assignment is, and I know you want an A. Why would you want to ruin it?’
Javert glances up, the wire from the steriliser wrapping uneasily around his knuckles. ‘I don’t want to stand up there and say stuff I don’t mean, that’s all.’
‘Like…the things I just mentioned.’
‘But you won’t be. That’s my side of the argument. You get to take the harder side – and hey, I did offer, but you wanted it.’
‘I do want it. I don’t want to say I think poor people should be allowed to live off hand-outs.’
Valjean blinks again. He looks down the table, and the piles and piles of willingly given donations. He looks back at Javert, who is flicking at the plug at the end of the wire with his thumb. ‘Then be happy,’ he says, coldly. ‘You don’t have to. You get to say you think everyone – poor, old, infirm, sick, disabled – should be made to work for every penny they need to live on.’
‘Well, they should.’ There’s a hint of defiance in Javert’s tone, but it feels a little too strong for the quiet conversation they’ve been having, as though he’s shoving it in.
‘You’re being ridiculous. What’s wrong?’
‘There’s nothing wrong. I just think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. I think,’ there’s the barest hesitation, which is rare enough to make it obvious. Javert doesn’t usually have any problem with speaking his mind outright. ‘-it’s obvious everyone will agree with you, but maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe they don’t know anything. We’ll be perpetrating something that’s wrong, and I don’t want to.’
This makes no sense at all. Javert looks a little white, and his eyes are evasive. He’s swallowing too much. ‘Javert, we’ve done so much work on this. You get that it’s a 101 class, yeah? We could stand up right this minute, read what we’ve got, and we’ll get an A. We don’t need to make it-‘
‘-but I want to,’ Javert says, too loudly. ‘I don’t want to hear you say you think criminals should have their crimes erased when they’re parolled-‘
‘I’ve never said that-‘
‘-and I don’t think you should say that rehabilitation in some cases is-‘
Valjean reaches out, and closes his hand over Javert’s. The kid stops talking at once, and his eyes widen. Valjean isn’t sure of that reaction, or even why he’s touched him, but he thinks he knows what this is about. ‘Look…we can adjust the wording if you like. We can tinker with it so it’s not offensive to you. But we can’t overhaul the entire thing now. We won’t be allowed, and anyway, I’ve put more research into this than any other class this term. Because you wanted me to. There’s no need to ruin it.’
Javert yanks his hand away, and starts uncoiling the wire. He says nothing for a moment, though his cheeks are red. Then words are spilling out, far too fast for his normal detached manner. ‘You think I just want to win. I don’t. It’s not about that. We’ve picked the wrong cases to illustrate the points, and I think our research is undermining what we should be saying. I just want to work it through, and make sure we’re not getting it wrong. I mean, look around you.’ He gestures, and Valjean does indeed look, unsure what he’s supposed to be seeing. ‘Look at all this stuff! You’re going to stand up and say that poor people deserve to be given piles of clothes, and pans, and food, and gifts…these poor kids are probably going to end up with more than the kids whose parents work. And for doing what? Just because people feel sorry for them, and the guy who owns this place wants to feel good about himself. What, do you work for him? I bet this is the only time of year he does anything for poor people. It’s bullshit. All of its bullshit. It’s not helping anybody at all. They’ll all sit around on their backsides, drinking or whatever, because they know that some magic fairy’s going to show up on Christmas with food, and gifts for their kids, and they won’t have had to lift a finger. You think we should be arguing a whole government should do that? No, it’s bullshit.’
Everything is very quiet when he’s finished. The music is in a gap between songs, and people are looking their way. Valjean still has a Hungry Hippos box in his hands, and Javert is still flicking at the plug. But faster now, too fast.
Eventually, another tune kicks in and people look away. Valjean clears his throat. ‘Yes,’ he says, and it comes out more calmly than he feels. ‘Yes, that’s what I’m going to argue. To a degree. And you know why, because you’ve read the cases as well as I have.’
Javert doesn’t move, except for a muscle twitching in his jaw. Valjean, despite his anger, is suddenly horribly, desperately sorry for him. He puts the box down. ‘Look, I’m sorry you feel this way. But it really is just a 101 class, Javert. And seeing as I’m really not prepared to rewrite the whole thing now, we’re just going to have to go with it. I’m sorry.’
There’s no hesitation before he says it. Javert looks down. His neck is red at the sides, over the muscle and tendon running up to his ear. Valjean glances at it, then away. Then back. Javert lets the wire drop from his hand, and the clatter from it is louder than it should be. ‘They shouldn’t give away electrical stuff,’ he mutters. ‘It might not be safe. It could short out, and burn a house down.’
‘You’re right, probably. I’ll see if we can get it tested.’
They both just stand for a minute, not looking at each other. Valjean is the first to break. ‘Come over to my place. We can talk it through. I can come back here tomorrow to do this, it’s OK.’
‘No.’ Javert’s shake of the head is abrupt, and final. ‘No, there’s no need. You’re right. It’s too late to change it all now. I’ll go.’
He picks his bag up. Valjean wonders whether he just hates Christmas too, and this is why it all came out now. Maybe he’s like him, hating the holidays because they only show how alone he is, and remind him of all the terrible ones that have gone before. Or maybe he’s been having second thoughts for months. It’s impossible to tell. ‘Hey, Javert?’
Javert turns back. Valjean tosses a small, wrapped present to him. ‘Merry Christmas.’
The look of horror is almost comical. Javert’s obviously about to object, but Valjean sticks his hands up to ward it off. ‘Save it. It’s a gift, and it’d be rude to say no. Go ahead, open it.’
The horror turns to reluctance. An almost childish reluctance in fact, and for a moment he seems to be struggling with words. Then he picks open one corner of the tape, slides a nail under the flap of paper, and neatly pulls one edge up. He upends the package, and a pair of fur-lined leather gloves fall on to his palm. Javert just stares at them, and Valjean scratches at the back of his own head.
‘For when you’re on the bike, you know. It’s cold out.’
‘I know.’ Javert’s voice is mechanical. He carefully folds the wrapping paper, and puts it in his pocket. ‘Thank you.’
Neither move. Then Javert hoists his bag up his shoulder, pulls the gloves on and nods at him. ‘I’ll see you in January.’
‘See you in January, Javert.’
There’s still a thick blanket of snow around in the third week of February, and Javert’s breath clouds around his head as Valjean approaches. ‘You could have waited inside,’ he tells him. ‘I would have texted to say I was here.’ But Javert just shrugs, and opens the door to his building. The hallway smells musty, like campus accommodation always does, and the floor is rough and wet with melted snow, and grit brought in on the soles of boots. The place only gets warmer as they head up the stairs to the next floor, and then up again. It’s only on the third floor that Valjean realises the elevator’s broken from a sign propped against it. Javert leads the way down a long corridor, past closed doors with sounds of laughter behind them, and music, and definitely one where there are people having sex. There’s a vague smell of pot, though no discernible source, as well as coffee and damp laundry, and the inevitable reek that’s just people living crowded together like this.
Javert opens a door halfway along, and stands aside to let him enter. ‘Smaller than your place,’ he says, though his tone isn’t apologetic. He’s just stating a fact.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Valjean says, and puts his bag down on the floor. Javert takes the seat at the desk, and gestures vaguely towards the bed, so Valjean sits on it and looks around. It’s not a student room like he was expecting. There are no posters on the wall, or heaps of clothes, and candy wrappers, and pizza boxes. There’s hardly anything in it at all. The bedcovers are plain, the walls are bare, and the laptop on the desk looks so old he’s surprised to think it still works. There are textbooks on the two shelves above the desk, and that’s it. No mess, and no possessions. Valjean is forcibly reminded of his prison cell.
‘OK,’ he says, too loudly in an attempt to cover the memory. ‘You wanted to run through it one more time. You’ve got the printouts, right? And the slides are all good to go on my iPad. I’ve set it up to connect with the college network in the auditorium – do you want me to reconfigure it for your laptop now?’
Javert checks his watch. ‘No, there’s not enough time. I’ll just bring the slides up and we can read over them.’
Valjean nods, even though they’ve done this so often he’s pretty sure he knows every word by heart. The presentation has to be twenty minutes long, and they have to take questions at the end. They could talk for triple that time, at least, with everything they’ve got – and still Javert has been worrying they’re not prepared enough. And it’s weird, because they’ve sat through four of their classmate’s presentations already, and none of them managed to talk for more than ten minutes. No one so far has got a fraction of the depth that they have in theirs, and the professor hasn’t seemed to mind. But Javert refuses to relax, and Valjean has – against his will – found himself getting more and more curious about this man as time has gone on. He’s been different since Christmas. He’s agreed to a lot more Valjean has said, or at least has chosen not to argue. Maybe he saw that he couldn’t be walked over when they had that discussion, so he decided to back off a bit. But being humble doesn’t really suit Javert, and Valjean can’t work out how he can be both acquiescent and mercurial at the same time. It’s weird.
It doesn’t take long to run through everything. Valjean stands up, and when he reaches for his bag Javert shakes his head. ‘Why don’t you leave it? Come back and get it after. You’ll have to carry the printouts, because I’ve got the flip chart. There’s no time to make two trips.’
It’s no big deal, so he agrees. The auditorium isn’t far from Javert’s room, so it’ll be easy enough to come back. They grab everything and start to manoeuvre the stairs, and Valjean wonders, as he watches Javert’s back move down in front of him, whether he might actually miss these meetings a little. Yeah, they’re kind of a pain because Javert is kind of a pain. But he’s also the closest thing to a friend he has, either in college or out, and when this presentation is done he’ll be back to only showing up on campus for class. He had always resigned himself to never being able to have a typical college experience, but hanging out with a classmate is almost like having part of that. And while Javert’s focus is unnerving - and his views on the law and welfare are actually disturbing, at times – he’s not an unamusing guy. There’s wit in there somewhere, and a kind of cold, dry humour. It’s not really OK to laugh at cutting retorts when they’re directed at other people, but they do prove that Javert’s mind is sharp about things other than the law.
He’s pulled out of his musing by the bite of the February air, and redirects his thoughts towards work. In an hour’s time, they’ll both be able to go back to solitude. The thought might depress him a little, but he’s pretty sure Javert is OK with it.
At the end of their presentation, there’s only silence. Valjean glances around at their classmate’s faces, and sees disbelief, and some resentment, and some looking impressed. It’s just as he thought; they’ve massively over prepared, and he feels guilty for having shown the previous presentations up. But Javert looks satisfied, and their tutor starts the applause.
‘Well!’ the guy says, and grins, and turns to face the class. ‘I don’t know if there can be many questions, you covered so much. But does anyone want to ask anything?’
There’s silence. Valjean isn’t sure if that’s a good thing or not, but it’s hardly in his control. He reminds himself that he’s not here to make friends, and as long as the grades are good, then he doesn’t care about being liked. He’s older than all of these people anyway, and he doesn’t live on campus. He’ll never see most of them again when this class is done.
Still, it’s a bit discouraging to stick out so far. He glances across at Javert, who doesn’t seem at all bothered by people looking at him like he’s weird. And that’s weird, because who can so completely disregard the opinion of others like that? He knows he kind of does when it comes to what people think of him personally, but he had to learn to do that. He still cares whether they think he’s helping enough, or whether he’s a good employer. Their opinions don’t drive him, but he does take them into account.
There’s a hand in the air. Valjean schools his face to polite enquiry, and nods at the guy who’s slouched up at the back, a baseball cap sitting crooked on his head. He’s looking at Javert, and when the tutor points to him, says, ‘dude, what’s with the sideburns?’
A ripple of laughter runs through some sections of the audience. Valjean feels his lips thin. Javert just looks at the guy, the edge of his mouth curling in…is it contempt? It doesn’t look like the expression he used to pull in the prison visiting room. It’s almost amusement, like he wasn’t expecting anything else, and the people in front of him are simply living up to his expectations.
The tutor claps his hands together. ‘Anyone else?’ Another hand goes up. It’s another guy, sitting two down from the first, and this time he’s looking at Valjean.
‘Hey. My mom works for you, and she’s always talking about how great you are. Can I give her your number?’
More laughter, and it’s a bit more than a ripple this time. Valjean just smiles calmly, and puts his iPad down. The tutor rounds on the audience, but Valjean doesn’t hear him. He’s watching Javert, who’s watching him, a look of confusion on his face. And something else. Anger? Resentment? It’s kind of hard to tell, because every thought he has about Javert is clouded by the circumstances of the past.
‘Well,’ says the tutor, ‘I have a serious question.’ They both look at him. ‘It’s clear you know what you’re talking about, and you’ve set us all a fine example of the standard of work that’ll be expected from everyone as the course goes on. But content aside, I wondered if you could talk a little about why you chose this particular area of law to look at.’
It’s a generic question; the sort of thing that gets asked when an audience is silent and unresponsive. Valjean knows this, but can’t ignore the sudden knot of tension it brings. He’s framing an answer when Javert speaks.
‘It’s something I’ve thought about, and this is an opportunity to research it further, that’s all. Valjean was happy enough to provide a counter.’
He nods, because it’s true. But the tutor looks a little startled, and there’s a murmur or two from the audience. A hand goes up at the front, and a girl says, ‘…wait. You’re saying you meant all that? It wasn’t just providing the opposing view?’
Javert raises his head, and Valjean’s heart sinks. If the guy ever wanted to make friends on this course, he’s about to ruin the chance forever. ‘Of course,’ he says, calmly. ‘I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t.’
Silence greets this. Valjean wishes Javert hadn’t insisted on putting forward the example of how sick people can provide themselves with an income, if they’re willing to work in jobs that don’t require much movement. He wishes he understood why the guy feels the need to present himself as an asshole all the time. He’s not always like that. Valjean’s seen him being perfectly pleasant on a few occasions now…but he’s also seen him as a surly child, and when he’s freezing and starving after work, and when he refused to speak to his father or accept a touch from his mother. It feels wrong to know such things about him, and to realise that his demeanour is probably a defence he’s built up for a long time now.
‘OK, then,’ the tutor says, with that finalising note that means this is over. ‘Thanks very much, fellas. Excellent job. You lot watching – you’ve seen what can be done now, so have a think about that before your own!’
They’re already standing, and talking, picking bags up and not listening. Valjean starts putting their materials away, and the tutor comes to join them. ‘Excellent work,’ he says, and he sounds genuine. ‘I haven’t seen a freshman presentation like that for years. Grades won’t be out for a month, of course, but you two have nothing to worry about.’ He tips them a wink, and leaves them to it. Valjean continues in silence, and doesn’t look up until he’s done. Javert’s just standing, watching him, the strange look still on his face. Valjean shifts from one leg to the other. Then eye contact breaks, and Javert looks at the floor. ‘We can leave the stuff in my room when you get your bag. I’ll return the materials we borrowed.’
He nods, and follows him out. So, this is over. It’s probably for the best.
Javert doesn’t speak until they’re in his room again, and he’s propped the flip chart against the bare wall. Valjean puts down the nearly-empty box of hand-outs, and thinks they shouldn’t have printed off so many. A lot of them had been left behind by the audience. It’s a waste of paper; they should have just put it up online, where it could be ignored in a way that’s kinder to the environment.
‘The factory,’ Javert blurts, out of nowhere. ‘That warehouse we were in. Do you own that?’
He can’t deny it, and doesn’t want to. ‘Yeah.’
‘Why didn’t you say so?’
‘Why would I? It’s not relevant to whether I can research stuff for a law presentation.’ Javert looks to be having trouble with something. His jaw works, and his eyes flit around the room, anywhere but at Valjean. After a moment of it, he adds, ‘There’s a lot of stuff you haven’t told me, Javert, and I don’t ask because it’s none of my business.’
‘So if I had guessed, or asked, you would have told me to butt out?’
‘…no? Why would I? I’m just saying I don’t expect you to spill your guts about everything to me, and I don’t know why you’re upset I didn’t tell you I own a business.’
‘I’m not upset.’
‘You look upset.’
Valjean stifles the urge to roll his eyes, and sits down on the bed so he can put his iPad away. ‘OK, Javert. Whatever.’
‘I’m not. I just-‘
‘I wouldn’t have said that thing at Christmas if I’d known. About how you only do stuff for people once a year. I know that’s not true.’
How does he know that? Valjean keeps his face blank, but it’s becoming clear that Javert might not be as tunnel-visioned as he thought. Though in this case, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
He shrugs, and looks up to catch his eye. ‘You know, if you want a job…I mean, you probably don’t, but it’s closer to campus and you wouldn’t have to bike about forty miles a day to get to work and back…’
Javert’s looking at him like he’s an alien, and Valjean feels the words crumble to dust in his mouth. Is that rude, offering a job out of nowhere? But it’s all right, isn’t it? He’d pay him well, and he wouldn’t have to spend so much time travelling. It is in his best interests, it isn’t for Valjean’s own benefit. He could employ anyone, but Javert needs-
Javert is getting closer. Valjean realises it with a blink. He was thinking, and Javert was moving, and now his face is travelling down to where he sits on the bed. It seems almost like he might kiss him, but that’s ridiculous…and even as he knows it’s ridiculous, time seems to halt…and then stretch, and everything is suddenly happening at the end of a long tunnel through which he watches, detached and yet starting to push out at the walls closing in on him. Javert he hears himself say, a blank sound with no warning in it, because all the warning is happening in his head, and it’s like his mouth, and eyes, and ears have been stuffed with cotton wool, and he can’t push the right emotions out through it. No, he wants to say. Don’t. But he says nothing, his heart thumping against his ribs, and even though it’s ridiculous, it’s completely stupid and definitely happening to someone else, Javert’s mouth is suddenly on his.
It’s warm, and dry. He registers that much, even frozen in place as he is. And then large hands are curling around his biceps, and half of the palms are on his white T shirt, and half are warm on his skin, and his heart leaps up into his throat and decides it’s best if he just stops breathing. And then he’s being pushed back on to the bed, and Javert is still kissing him, and someone is screaming in his head and it occurs to him, maybe, probably, it might just be his own voice he’s hearing, but he can’t be sure and doesn’t want to know.
He turns his head. He stares at the wall, and tries to breathe. He knows his eyes are wide, and staring, and is aware of Javert half-crouched over him because there’s weight on his arms, and against the side of one leg. There’s breath on his cheek and it’s fast, but nowhere near as fast as his own. He has to say something, but he can’t make his throat work. He just lies there, and tries to think past the fog of dull fear. And he’s afraid of that too, because under dull fear is blind panic, and the consequences of that are never fun for anyone.
He licks his lips. They’re dry, despite Javert’s mouth having just been on them. ‘Get off me,’ he says, as carefully as he can manage. There’s a pause, and half a second later, he’s free.
He doesn’t move for a while. And then he does, a fast roll up to his feet, his bag caught in his hand as he rises. Javert’s standing, his eyes downcast and a hand over his mouth, and Valjean can’t help but think that in the few months he’s known him here, this is the most human he’s ever seen him look.
‘I have to go,’ he says, tonelessly, and doesn’t wait for an answer. He thinks there might be a nod, but he has to get out of this room. He just slams through the door and takes off down the corridor, ignoring the strange looks he gets off the people he’s pushing past.
The fresh air helps. It burns some of his dulled senses away so that by the time he’s back at his car, the panic is thumping in his throat hard enough to make his chest hurt with the effort of breathing. It was nothing, he tells himself, over and over. Just a kiss. He didn’t know. I’m not being fair. But it doesn’t help, and he drives for his apartment as quickly as is safe, desperate to shut the world away.
When he checks his phone a few hours later – and where did those hours go? – there’s just one text. It’s from Javert, and all it says is, I’m really sorry.
He tosses the phone away from him, and goes back to pacing in circles. His whole body is covered with sweat, but that’s all right, he can burn this out of him. An apology is more than he’s ever got before. That’s something, right?