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Those Who Follow the Path of the Righteous

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There was an odd sort of relief when Javert guarded the prisoners. There were some guards who bound the prisoners too tight, whipped them along, tripped them as they went and laughed when they fell. There were others that held the leash slack, who looked the other way when men paused to rest, who tipped a little extra gruel into their bowls. Javert did neither. His prisoners suffered to the exact amount the state had decreed they should, and were granted reprieves as the state allowed. He offered neither cruelty or hope, both capricious in the same way. Jean Valjean had never feared the lash. He had feared not knowing how hard it might land. Javert was not a man, in those days. He was brick. He was mortar. He was Toulon.

Today Javert rolls away from the morning sun that has come through the bedroom window and hides his face in the crook of Valjean's neck. Valjean, who has been drifting on and off for hours now, teetering somewhere between true rest and consciousness on the tightrope of anxiety that he fears he'll die with, buries his face in his former captor's hair. Javert is not the system he upheld; Javert is nothing but the system he upheld. It's hard to remember which in the early morning, with the aches of Toulon still upon him and Javert warm and pliant against him. The miracle of creation never ceased: out of carved wood sturdy as stone came this living man, lightly snoring. In his sleep, Javert's arm encircles Valjean's waist. A sweeter captivity than Valjean has ever known. Still, the sun is up and Cosette has invited him to breakfast. Valjean kisses Javert's forehead and slips free. As he leaves the bed, Javert's arms, grasping nothing now, reach for the pillow where Valjean's head had rested and pulls that to him in Valjean's stead. Valjean smiles with the old thrill of a successful escape, with the new pleasure that the guard may enjoy his slumber a while longer.

 

 

 

The day has been beautiful. After the rain of the previous week, it is a simple joy to walk outside unrushed, to meander and pause the way that Valjean's body increasingly demands. Cosette refuses to believe him when he says that he's getting older; Javert calls him an old fool and waits for him to catch up. He's slower these days. He had planned to die and then he didn't and while he does not regret that, his modest resurrection has taken from him. Not as much as it has given, of course--he thinks of Cosette as she had been at breakfast, glowing and growing, mere weeks from delivering. He thinks of Marius, his son by marriage and by love, for how could Valjean not love someone who so loved his daughter? And he thinks of Javert, curled in their shared bed. A strange blessing to count. No less of a blessing for its strangeness.

"I'm glad you have made a friend," Cosette said cautiously this morning, her hand resting on the swell of her belly. "But he is a very stern man."

"He is," Valjean agreed.

"And so fierce looking. Like a wolf, almost, except that the wolf pays no heed to laws and customs." Cosette stirred her tea, the delicate china ringing like a bell. "But Papa, what a snarl for a man to always wear. Fierce and rigid."

Valjean chuckled. "Also true." Cosette’s silence had an expectant air. It occurred to him that she was waiting for him to defend Javert. It also occurred to Valjean that the things she had listed were not, in fact, compliments.

"You are neither fierce nor rigid," Cosette said quietly, questioningly.

He thought of the snarling convict she had never met, no man and every bit a beast. He was treated like a beast and had become one until treated him like a man. "That is why we make such good company for each other," Valjean had said, and had tasted the lie of omission on his tongue.

My darling Cosette, he thought. You love a papa you do not know.

He wanders in thought down by the shops, his pocket empty of alms, but his eyes searching for a gift for a babe not yet born. Instead, his gaze alights upon a different sight. Two young inspectors emerge on the street ahead of him, their gleaming truncheons tucked under their arms. Valjean busies himself studying a shop window until they pass. They do not glance his way. Why would they? He is a respectable looking man, for all he is suddenly breathing too heavily and beading sweat upon his brow. It is as Cosette said: he is not the fearsome wolf but the aged sheep: too meek and mild to mean anything to anyone. The only man in the world who seems to remember him as he was sleeps in Valjean's bed.

Might still, in fact, be sleeping. Javert had reacted poorly to the loss of his job, and Valjean knew that the firing would be a torment forever. But he has taken well keeping his own schedule, going to bed early and sleeping late. It is the only indulgence he has gained after the Seine—then the finger-shaped bruises on Valjean's hips twinge, and Valjean blushes and corrects himself. Sleeping is one of two new indulgences. Thinking of Javert in his bed, his hands on Valjean, his mouth on Valjean, gives his heart a reason to beat. It's been pounding since he saw the police, faceless men of order with voices like whip cracks and skin the color of a ticket-of-leave. Valjean closes his eyes and lets the memories encircle him. Javert's hands on his face, his chest, entwined in his own, Javert's hand on his legs, between his legs, grasping and holding and stroking and pulling until Valjean is drowning in something sweeter than honey. Improper thoughts for the public street. But they turn his racing heart and sweating hands into something tender.

Suddenly, beautiful day or not, he has no further desire to be outside. He aches and follows that ache home.

 

 

 

Javert is not still sleeping. But he can be convinced to return to bed, though he shutters the windows first and will not allow a candle. It is always thus. Valjean has learned his lover's body by touch. Today, and this is not unusual at all, Javert does not even fully undress before he is upon Valjean, who bunches his hands in the soft linen of his shirt as they kiss. Javert breaks away long enough to say, "You are eager this afternoon," against Valjean's lips, the words rough. The words are nearly always rough. He may not be a creature of granite, but there is very little softness in him. But it may be coaxed out of him. Valjean kisses him harder, and treasures the gasp against his lips. They fall together onto the bed, Javert using his lanky height to encage Valjean's body with his own. He scrapes kisses with teeth against Valjean's jaw.

"I missed you," Valjean tries to explain. The words come out in fits and gasps as Javert's thigh presses between Valjean's legs. "I thought of you--"

"Hush," Javert commands, his hands reaching into what space there is between them to ruck up Valjean's shirt. Valjean's stomach drops in the most delightful of ways.

"You should join us for breakfast next time," he says, as Javert lavishes his throat.

Javert pauses to snort. "Is this when you wish to discuss your daughter?" He has a point. But Valjean persists.

"I would like you and her to meet."

"We have met."

"You've hardly conversed."

Javert props himself up on his elbow to fix him with a look while he cups Valjean at the same time. The touch strangles conversation.

"You both--oh God," Valjean cuts himself off with a prayer as Javert begins to stroke. "You both matter to me."

Javert's hand stutters a moment before it resumes its pace and then some. Javert has avoided conversation before, Valjean thinks through glorious ache his touch provokes, but rarely in such a pleasurable way. "Quiet," he growls in Valjean's ear. God but the sound is rich and good. But it is not the word that Valjean wants right now.

Valjean is pleasantly surprised to find that it is no effort at all to flip Javert, to press his back against the bed and straddle him while Javert blinks upwards, his face slackened with surprise. He reaches for Valjean and Valjean finds it equally effortless to grab his wrists and press them back against the bed. His intention is to stop Javert from distracting him. But the look on Javert's face distracts him as much as any touch. His eyes widen, his mouth slackens. It is something like horror upon Javert's face, and Valjean thinks, starts to panic, I have gone too far, when he registers the sound coming from Javert's lips. It is a desperate keen that strangles itself. Javert clamps his lips shut.

They say nothing for a moment.

Valjean holds Javert's wrists without squeezing, yet he knows this is enough force to hold the man fast. The man clearly knows it as well. He looks everywhere but at Valjean as his fists clench and unclench. Javert's eyes are always dark--Javert has says that they are his mother's eyes and that is nearly all either of them knows of the woman--but now they are black. His lips are pressed so tight that the line of them threatens to disappear. His nostrils flare. With his hair down and loose as a mane in the wind, he looks like a wild horse.

Valjean wants to tell him how beautiful he looks, but Javert shares other qualities with wild horses. One moment he may eat from your hand, the next he skitters away. And the next, should you approach him wrong, he rears to kick you flat.

Valjean says instead, "Come to dinner with us this week."

Javert takes a shuddering breath like the need to breathe sneaked upon him. "Very well," he says and pulls his arms. Valjean cannot help but let him go. Javert rubs his wrist with something like fear in his eyes. Valjean does not think it is fear. He cannot bear to look any longer though.

This time when Valjean leans down to kiss him, Javert returns his affection almost shyly, nibbling where he had a moment ago bitten. Then, as Valjean begins to draw back, Javert surges forward, and the strange moment that passed is, if not forgotten, put on a high shelf somewhere to be considered in private moments, when pressing matters stop pressing against him like that, just like that, oh mercy Javert yes yes just like that.

 

 

 

Two night later they come home from a stilted yet hopeful dinner with Cosette and Marius. Javert retreats to the parlor to recover from the effort of company. Valjean gives him his space to rest. It had been a good night, he decides. Javert had seemed no less fierce and rigid, he's sure, but when he'd spoken of his time on the force, the strange humor that Valjean had grown to love raced through his conversation like a seam of gold. Valjean was not sure anyone else had noticed it was there, but Cosette had seen him smiling and so had smiled herself. Marius had smiled as well, but with far more caution and a wary eye on Javert at the same time. Valjean considers that if he wishes his daughter and Javert to become closer, he may need to exclude his son-in-law from the effort. It is difficult to think of two men less naturally inclined to like each other than Marius Pontmercy and Inspector Javert. One might say the same about Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, he thinks with his own strange humor.

Although he hopes that Javert and Marius grow to form a different relation than Valjean currently enjoys.

When the time had come this afternoon to leave for the dinner, Javert had risen without being asked and dressed not as a gentleman might but as Javert would, which was stolid and stately in its own way. He had not protested, he had not made excuses. Valjean should not be surprised by that--if all men were as true to their words as Javert, there would be no use for lawyers or contracts and all houses could go unlocked--and yet he was. Javert did not renege but neither did he acquiesce. In all the long months of this coupling and the strange friendship that preceded it, Javert had never consented to dine with Fantine's daughter. 

And now he had. He finds Javert sitting in the darkened parlor, no candles lit, his head tilted against the back of the chaise, his hand over his eyes. When Valjean had risked grasping that hand under the dinner table--Cosette and Marius temporarily absorbed in each other--his hand had been clammy and cold. It had flinched from Valjean's touch and retreated to the top of the table, where there may was no discretion for secret touches. Have you ever dined with a lover's family, Valjean thinks to ask. He knows the answer, of course. They are each other's first and only. Still, he wants to ask, just to hear Javert's reply.

"Did you have a good time?" he asks instead, also knowing the answer. From the darkness, Javert glares at him. Valjean sits beside him. Javert does not move as he might have once, to shift his leg away or else surrender the chaise entirely. Now, they sit side by side in dimness, light by distant candles in another room.

"Your child is tolerable," Javert says, and Valjean preens at the praise. "The boy is a fool."

Valjean smiles and, rather than deny it, says, "Love makes fools of us."

Javert snorts. "I suspect he was like that before love got to him."

"Then you believe love makes us wise?"

"He's not that either."

"So love comes without leaving a mark?"

"I don't know that." Javert still mouths those words like they taste bitter. He was not built to admit ignorance. "I only tell you that he was previously a fool and continues to be one."

Javert's thigh is warm and solid against him. Valjean is stronger than him. Valjean could lift Javert over his shoulder and carry him from one end of Paris to the other if he had to, though there might be nothing left of Valjean by the time he was done. But Javert is made of some denser matter than flesh. He is solidity itself, in spirit if not body.

He remembers Toulon. He remembers Javert's shifts as guard: he had looked upon that young man and thought the entire prison could have been placed upon his shoulders. He was a foundation. In Montreuil-sur-Mer, without ever trusting Javert, Valjean had relied upon him. He would practice to the extent of the law and no further and no less, which was his sin. He had been a man without doubt and therefore a man without judgement, and the attainment of that doubt and judgement had nearly killed him, but from that certitude came a man of iron. Valjean thanks God every day that Javert did not perish in the Seine. But he understands increasingly what drove him to jump, and therefore the miracle of his survival. Iron does not float. He needed to become something else to swim up from the bottom of the Seine.

"It does not teach," Javert says quietly, as if to himself. Valjean, torn from his revere by the subject in question, collected himself.

"Pardon?"

"Love. That is why your son-in-law remains a fool." Javert stops there. Or rather, he pauses. And they sit together in the dark. Valjean reaches again for Javert's hand. This time, Javert lets him take it. "Perhaps," Javert says uncertainly, the word itself an admission of uncertainty, "it makes one more amenable to learning."

You have learned so much, Valjean thinks of saying, but he remembers again the image of the wild horse, startled, running away, and says instead, "Then perhaps we ought to go to our bed," Valjean says, "and explore what we've learned together."

This startles a laugh out of Javert, sharp as a dog bark. Valjean stands and, without waiting for Javert to follow, pulls Javert to his feet. Javert stops laughing. The parlor feels as Paris has all this week before--like lightning hangs in the air.

"Then take me there," Javert says with either a challenge or a petition in his voice. Valjean is not sure if there is a difference between the two, and scoops Javert into his arms, Javert who makes a noise this time that is very much not a laugh, and carries Javert to the bedroom as a groom might carry his bride.

 

 

 

The lightning hangs between them for a fortnight before the storm breaks. Neither are hasty men--Valjean has learned patience by necessity, Javert has patience baked into his bones--and neither are experienced travelers of the land in which they now found themselves living. Valjean is busy with the good works that are his due and the good work that is his pleasure: his daughter, with the child his child will soon have. Meanwhile, Javert has found himself work in his old line that suits his new ethics, although the reformists, progressives, and idealists that he now shares his workplace with cause no shortage of complaints when he comes home. Most nights they fall asleep chaste as monks, though Valjean imagines monks never found themselves being rolled over in the middle of the night by their bed partner complaining that he snored when he lay on his back, as if the bed partner did not snore no matter what position he was in.

("Then there is nothing I can do," Javert says when Valjean points that out. "You meanwhile may merely change position."

"You could learn to accept it," Valjean says, settling on his back nonetheless. "You've accepted my greater sins."

"Living with this," Javert says dryly, "is beyond my capacity to change. It is beyond the saints."

"You should hear yourself, you know."

"I never will."

So Valjean slept more often on his side. When Javert slept curled around him, or Valjean slept curled around him, it was at least partially in the name of midnight civility.)

It is, as always, Javert who breaks first. He is still a man who struggles with bending. Valjean can adapt, and has adapted, to nearly everything. Javert, unyielding save for his monumental yielding, adapts to nothing.

Javert leaves Valjean at dinner one night and returns with a bottle of wine and a pair of handcuffs. He places both on the table the way a man might handle a loaded gun. Valjean stares at both and then reaches for the wine.

They must be Javert’s handcuffs. They must have gone into the river with him. Plenty of things Javert had had to leave at the bottom of the Seine that he might swim back to the top—his hat, his coat, his truncheon—but the handcuffs, it seemed, had survived. They were black iron and ugly. They were built for a singular purpose, to ensnare one’s fellow man and deprive him of his liberty. They matched the scars around Valjean’s wrists. He has worn the cuffs when they’d arrested him for burglary, and though the cuffs became manacles and the weight of the chain gang, it was that terrible first pair that Valjean remembered most. The horrible finality of its weight. The clunk of the lock with which one life ended.

“I had thought,” Javert says, and swallows. Poor man, Valjean thinks. “That is to say, I have been thinking. I found these, you see. Some weeks back. I thought to throw them into the Seine. But I did not. They are--that is—these remain with me still.”

“That I can see.”

Javert flushes. His face hides nothing and never has. Every thought passes over it. The wrinkles of his forehead mark shame; the tremble of his lip marks hope; the heat in his cheeks marks something far more base than shame or hope and yet heightened, almost agonizingly so, by their presence. Javert had looked exactly like this the moment before Valjean kissed him for the first time.

“I had thought you could use them perhaps,” Javert says. He is looking at the table when he says this and so cannot see Valjean go white. The awful weight on his wrists. That dreadful clunk. But Javert has such awful hope in his lips—

Then Javert touches his own wrist, and his face grows redder, and then, after a moment, Valjean’s does as well.

“Oh,” Valjean says, and Javert forces himself to look up. “Use them on you.”

“On—yes, Jean, yes. The wrinkles of his forehead deepen. “I would not ask that of you.”

That is such a wonderfully romantic sentiment that it sets Valjean in reverie. He is nearly too slow to stop Javert as he reaches for the handcuffs, the man muttering, “A stupid thought, forgive me, forget this.” Valjean grabs his wrist and hold him fast. Javert’s fingers twitch. Javert tries to move his arm. Valjean holds him firm.

It is with an indecent amount of self-satisfaction that Valjean watches the shiver that passes through Javert’s body. Valjean’s wonder at the sight—Javert, so stoic, this effected by a touch, by judicious restraint?—makes him hard. “Very well,” Valjean says.

They do not finish dinner.

 

 

Javert lies naked underneath him, his arms stretched up above his head. From one wrist to the other stretches the iron links of that dread bracelet. The chain goes through the bars of the headboard. Valjean, who has just fastened the cuff around Javert’s left wrist, sits back on his ankles and regards the sight before him. Two pairs of handcuffs, he thinks, and then next time he might fasten Javert spread eagle.

Valjean says nothing as he arises from the bed to fetch some light. Javert says nothing as Valjean returns and sets to lighting the candles. He only shivers. He holds his arms terrible tense, for he cannot stop trembling and his trembling rattles the chain which rattles the bed. Holding it back is all the worse, though. Javert must know that, and yet he tries to hold himself still nonetheless.

When the bedroom is fully lit, Valjean returns to Javert and sits on the edge of the bed. Javert looks up at him with those marvelously black eyes. Valjean suddenly wants nothing more than to kiss him, and since the man can hardly stop him now, Valjean does so. Javert’s mouth falls open at the first brush of lips. The chain rattles, and Valjean smiles. He kisses as he pleases, his fingers ghosting over Javert’s cheeks, jaw, neck. When he draws back, Javert tries to follow him. He cannot, but while he tries, Valjean combs his fingers through Javert’s hair and undoes the ribbon of his queue. He had braided Cosette’s hair when she was young. Someday, next time, he’ll braid Javert’s and make sure to tell him how beautiful he looks.

Cosette would not call Javert stern and fierce if she could see him now, could see the flutter of Javert’s eyes as Valjean cradles his head in his hand, the slackening of his fact as he tries once more to move as if reassuring himself that he cannot. But this is not a sight for her. This is for Valjean and for God. He offers prayer in thanks, and brushes his fingers against Javert’s hip. Javert tenses, like a man expecting the lash.

It is not the whip that is fearsome. It is the wait before you know how hard it will land.

“I have a few letters to finish. I will return when I am done,” Valjean says softly. Javert’s eyes burst open. He is hard, so hard, barely touched and already leaking, and Valjean knows he must be the same. Standing is the most difficult thing Valjean can imagine. “If you need me, if you must be released, you need only call my name.” Javert stares at him. The man is ravenous.

Valjean does not know how to say if this is not what you want, I will not do it, without breaking the spell between them, the implicit promise of the handcuffs, the explicit promise to the prisoner. What you want no longer matters. You are told and obey. Valjean cannot do that. He hopes Javert would not ask that. But he remembers the man who said he had done wrong and begged to be fired lest he become what people said he was, and Valjean steels himself. He gives Javert time to call out. Javert does not. Every muscle of the man’s body is tense. Valjean knows how he will ache later, and therefore knows that tomorrow morning Valjean will rub the ache away.

Valjean leaves the bedroom door open. There is no one in the house but them, but the brazen display on the bed, the thought of someone walking in and seeing—it fills Valjean with a horror indistinguishable from arousal. How must Javert feel? He goes downstairs and for the first time in his occupancy locks all the doors. Then he pours himself a glass of wine, once his hands stop trembling, and opens his watch.

One minute. Two minutes. Three minutes. They last an eternity. His mouth is so dry but he forces himself only to sip. He cannot lose his head to drink tonight, not when there is already so much making him drunk. Four minutes. Five minutes. Six. Is Javert calling for him? Can Valjean simply not hear him? Javert who abhors being on display, nudity, his own body, the evidence of his own desire, a man who indulgences and who prays for forgiveness for the weakness of indulging. Seven minutes. Valjean closes his eyes and presses the heel of his hand against his hardness, just enough to answer the cry of his flesh, not enough to satisfy. Ten minutes. The glass of wine is empty, but Valjean keeps bringing it to his lips for something to do. Fifteen minutes. He tries to make plans for what he will do when he returns to the bedroom, something worthy of the anticipation, but he can hear the clinking of the chain against the bedrails and all he can think of is Javert writhing in the bedsheets. He has no plans. He never has. He is an old man who put sex far out of his mind until he fell into bed with an old man who’d done the same.

At eighteen minutes, Valjean cannot stand it anymore. He reties his cravat—he has been strangling it for the last five minutes. He can hardly walk. Outside the bedroom, in a small alcove, he pauses and breathes as though he has run the span of the city. Authority does not pant, he knows that, and suddenly that is very important. He knows that Javert thinks that important.

There is some Madeleine in his walk as he enters. That is the only thing that keeps Valjean upright. Javert’s legs are tangled in the sheets, his back arched off the mattress. If he was hard before, now he is turgid, a violent purple dribbling fluid that pools in the hollow of his tremulous belly. Valjean approaches on silent feet. In his agony, his eyes squeezed shut, Javert appears to not have heard him approach. His wrists are red, chafed, and raw, and it is all Valjean can do to stop himself from falling upon them, breaking them free, pressing kisses and balms against them. Next time, some distant part of him thinks behind the pulsing that drowns out all other thought, next time he’ll wrap Javert’s wrists in silk and his ankles in silk, and Javert could pull all night without hurting himself.

Javert does not startle away from Valjean’s touch, his fingers brushing against Javert’s cheek. Instead, Javert gasps, those eloquent lips parting in the most exquisite way as he nuzzles into Valjean’s palm like some wild animal tamed and abandoned and found again. A tear rolls from the corner of his eyes, and Valjean swoops down, presses his lips against it, sweeps away what’s left of its track with his thumb, and says, “No need for that, my dear, you’ve done so well, so good.” That only brings more tears to Javert’s eyes, and Valjean kisses those as well as he reaches down blindly to grasp Javert.

Valjean himself finishes without a touch and almost as an afterthought. His ecstasy is in Javert’s, who shakes and spills over Valjean’s hand while moaning, “Jean, Jean, Monsieur, thank you, please.”

“Of course, of course. I am so proud of you,” Valjean says hoarsely. Javert’s face at that—the open hunger, the want, the shame wiped away and the hope rewarded—nearly hardens Valjean anew. But he is, as he said, an old man now, and wise enough to appreciate the beauty that already exists before him as he strokes Javert through the final throes.

When Javert whimpers, Valjean pulls his hand away, though he remains pressed against Javert’s side. He knows Javert would not let him pull away, suspects Javert would break his own wrists to reach and bring him back. Valjean wipes his hand on the sheets and rests it on Javert’s heart. Javert looks up at Valjean, such vulnerability in his black eyes, and then closes them as if he cannot bear to see. Valjean strokes his hair. He tries to recall in which pocket he put the keys.

When Javert’s breathing has calmed, his muscles slackened, his face rearranged itself into that sternness that Valjean wakes up to each morning, Valjean says softly, “You’ll join Cosette and I for breakfast tomorrow.”

Javert looks at him and laughs incredulously. “How quickly you become a tyrant!”

Valjean unearths the keys and unlocks Javert’s wrists. Javert winces as he lowers his arms. Valjean says, “Sit up, I’ll rub your shoulders.”

“Hardly necessary,” Javert says as he sits up. Valjean rubs his shoulders. “Where shall we dine? Not at her home, I hope. There is no perversion we may commit that will make me sit across from the Baron twice in one week and you’ve already promised us for dinner on Friday.”

“You may pick the site,” Valjean says.

“Where I eat is not suitable for your daughter in her condition.” Javert’s shoulders are knotted beneath Valjean’s hands, more tension from more years than Valjean could ever smooth away. But they have relaxed under his touch and are relaxing still more, and Javert’s head dips in the way that means sleep will come soon. One indulgence, giving way to another.

If Valjean feels sometimes that he cannot recognize Javert, how must Javert feel? Happy, one hopes. After all, the Jean Valjean of twenty years or forty years or fifty years would not recognize the Jean Valjean in bed today, and this Jean Valjean is happy. Valjean tells Javert so, and Javert rolls against him, presses behind him, holds him fast to him, and tells him to sleep on his side like this or else he’ll snore.