It’s two days before Valjean hears what the marshall has done, and a day more before he finds him.
It happens not long after the shootout in the ABC saloon: a two-day standoff that ends in blood, as things out here are wont to do. According to the single witness, who by chance had been conducting a business transaction with a lady of easy virtue by the empty cattle pens on the edge of town that night, the marshall had simply left his hat on the nearest fence post and set out from town in a straight line, dead west, into nothing.
That in itself might not be a fact worth noting, except for the fact that Marshall Javert has never once been seen without his hat. What with things in town having turned out as they did, and all those dead boys in the streets, it doesn’t take much scholarly thinking to puzzle out the marshall's destination. Valjean is in the saddle and riding west before he can even stop to ask himself why he’d want to go do a damn fool thing like saving the man who had promised to have him thrown back on the chain gang. He has a long day’s ride under a forge-fire sun during which to contemplate it, and he doesn’t have an answer, and he doesn't turn back.
A man can disappear into the cracked skin of the desert while making a concentrated effort not to. But Valjean is as skilled a tracker as any could have hoped to find, and his quarry had made no provisions for pursuit. It’s slow work, requiring him to constantly dismount to check the tracks, double back, find the trail again; he stumbles across the marshall’s duster, tossed over a scrub brush already bleaching in the sun. Valjean leaves it where it lies, like an empty skin, scraped clean.
By the time Valjean finds the man himself, Javert is scarcely recognizable. He's stripped to his shirtsleeves and trousers, his hair unbound and matted with dirt, his lips as cracked as the earth under his back, skin blistering under the constant force of the sun. Valjean slaps him around the face in an attempt to rouse him, to no avail; he lies like a man who’s quite made up his mind on the matter. But when Valjean pulls Javert's head into his lap and presses his waterskin to the man's parched lips, allowing a miniscule trickle to slip down his throat—then by reflex alone Javert swallows, and groans, and drinks like a man who has forgotten he wants to die.
For weeks after Valjean bears him back to the lonely homestead far from the town itself, Javert is gripped in the teeth of a fever so hot it feels like the desert itself has baked into his skin. Javert thrashes against the sheets like a man possessed, in rage and agony in equal parts; cursing life, cursing Valjean, cursing the God who had seen fit to create him.
During the worst of it Valjean holds him down, for Javert is no match of his superior strength; during the quieter moments Valjean sits by his bed and prays, or reads aloud from the weathered Bible he has carried with him on the long journey south from St. Louis, the cover as black and cracked as tar. For all Javert's fury against their Lord and Creator, the readings seem to calm him. Valjean coaxes broth and water down his throat, cleans him, cares for him in every way without shame or self-consciousness; and after two weeks the fever breaks, and Javert comes back to himself like a weary pilgrim, staggering home.
On the first day of Javert’s true lucidity, Valjean pads up to his bedside to retrieve the day’s used dishes to find the man’s eyes open and fixed on him, filled with the glint of a terrible light. It held a kind of madness, that look—for Javert had always been the sanest of men, and only a sane man could truly go mad.
"You should have let me die," Javert croaks. Valjean pauses only momentarily, a dirtied plate in hand. He does not raise his head.
"Didn't much see the use in that," he says at last, and Javert's laugh is a snarl.
"Use," he repeats, spitting the word out like it's poison. "There’s no use left in me."
Valjean stands, the tin cups and plates loaded back onto his tray. "We'll see."
The man who returns to the flesh, however, is not the same that left it. At times he snarls at Valjean like a wounded animal the moment the bedroom door opens, refuses all food and drink for days, throws his tin cup of water against the opposite wall and then lies sobbing in his sweat-stained sheets. Not one thing within that creature resembles the iron force of will and control that Javert had only ever embodied before.
Other times he disappears from himself entirely. He might lie still and motionless all day, provide no resistance when Valjean offers him food or water, his eyes dull and empty as a dead man's. Some days Javert reaches an equilibrium between these aspects of passion and dejection, too blunted to refuse the food and water Valjean presses on him but animated enough to feed himself. During those spells Valjean sits quietly at his bedside, and waits for him to eat his fill. He doesn’t read the Bible anymore—Javert will no longer abide it.
Valjean is not patient so much as he is resolute. He made his decision the moment he set off into the desert on the trail of a man who had wished no one to follow. It certainly would have been easier for them both had Valjean simply turned away and allowed him to destroy himself. But that had never truly been an option. Valjean has made his choice, though he does not fully understand it himself. Javert will live; Valjean will see to it.
There comes the day when, in the midst of his morning routine of sitting on his porch and watching the sun make its ponderous way past the horizon, Valjean looks up to see Javert standing silently in the open doorway, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders and his cheeks gaunt beneath his whiskers long in need of a trim. It is the first time Valjean has seen him out of bed in the weeks since he dragged him from the desert. Javert squints not at him but at the rising sun, looking for all the world as if he disapproves of its brightness. Only when the last fiery edge fully clears the edge of the land does Javert turn that scowl on Valjean.
“Is there water?” he says, his voice as dry and cracked as a bone, yet somehow managing petulance.
Valjean watches him for a moment, waiting for the wariness of prey before the predator to recall itself to him; and yet there is nothing left of the hunter in the man leaning haggardly in the doorframe now, and Valjean is not afraid; is not even nervous.
“Inside,” he says, not unkindly; and rises to follow Javert back into the house, and see the man back into bed.
Time passes. Javert's strength returns to him slowly, bolstered by regular meals and Valjean's insistence that he rest. Neither of them stop to question the unlikely roles they’ve fallen into. In truth it’s not so difficult; stripped of his duties, Javert has little choice but to fall into the routines of homestead life which already consume Valjean’s days.
At first he remains in the house while Valjean works the fields and cares for the livestock; then he begins to sit on the porch to watch, the heavy gaze on Valjean's bowed back soon forgotten beneath the relentless hammer of the sun and the necessity of the work before him. Then one day, a shadow falls over him as he kneels among the beds of hard bean plants, and he looks up to see Javert towering over him, an ugly scowl on his face and a spare hoe in his hand.
"I am not familiar with the proper use of this tool," he says; it's not a question, and certainly not an apology.
Valjean does not ask what interest Javert could possibly have in working the earth, for life has become so strange of late that to question it might bring the tenuous new shape of the world crashing down around his ears. So instead Valjean dusts his hands off on his pants, and rises to show Javert how to turn the soil.
Javert tires quickly; working only a quarter of the day before retreating, shamefaced and snapping, to the house; then a quarter of a day becomes a half, and as those days march on Valjean passes much of the day's chores with Javert at his side.
Though the man spends much more time in his company, he does not trouble himself to speak. He has never much been the loquacious type, even in that other life when Valjean was mayor and Javert his deputy; this is different. Javert has retreated within himself, not unlike the desert around them; hiding all its life far beneath the hard and inhospitable surface. Valjean has no intent to dig down beneath it.
It is some two months before Javert accompanies him into town. The first time Valjean feels a flicker of apprehension, leaving the man alone in the house; as a precaution, he hides his knives in the gap beneath the porch steps and takes all the ammunition of his hunting rifle with him, jingling in his knapsack like a false laugh. But there’s only so much he can do, if Javert is determined. Part of him still half-expects to return in the evening to find the bed empty, the door swinging open, and the winds already scattering the errant footprints in the dust. If Javert walked out to seek his death a second time, Valjean knows he would not follow.
But they need bread and cheese and meat, more frequently with two appetites to feed; and so Valjean goes, and when he returns he finds Javert sitting at the kitchen table, glaring at him like a surly child grown pettish after being left too long alone. He is utterly insufferable at dinner that night, finding fault with everything from the food to the hiss of the lamps; and yet he remains at the table even after they both finish their food, and it strikes Valjean that perhaps, after all these years, Javert has discovered the capacity for loneliness.
Yet it is some time after that when Javert first asks to accompany him on his forays into town; and he does it so churlishly that Valjean almost refuses. In the end, when the morning of their planned departure arrives, he ends up saying a few short words to Javert over breakfast about setting out within the hour; and Javert is ready, precisely on time, so they go.
"I can walk," Javert says when Valjean motions for him to climb into the saddle. They only have the one horse, a swayback mare who would travel no faster than a lazy trot even with a rabid lion on her heels.
"No, you cannot," Valjean responds placidly. "Certainly not the distance we need to travel; and before you decide to be stubborn, think of whether you want to ride into town in the saddle, or slung over it after you've collapsed halfway down the road."
Javert's face contorts, a lightning-flash of the old wolf-dog leaping onto his features; but then the expression curdles, and turns inward; he turns away.
"Very well," he said, and there was no more arguing the matter. They set off shortly afterward, Javert bobbing in the saddle and Valjean walking with his hand on the bridle, his hat pulled low over his eyes against the mid-morning sun.
"Why did you bring me back?"
Javert's voice is hoarse from disuse, as it often is these days; without stopping, Valjean cranes his head to squint up at Javert against the sun. He cannot make out the man's expression through the glare, but his question bears the tone of an accusation.
Valjean turns back to the road ahead. "Seemed a shame for a man like you to die a death like that.”
“A man like me.” Javert snorts. The sound is closer to a snarl. "It was the death I chose. You had no right to deny me of it.”
"If that’s how you’re decided to see it," Valjean says, already too wearied by Javert's caustic company to argue. "I’m not of a mind to start offering apologies. You can take up your grievances with God, when you meet Him in your own time.”
"You missed your calling as a preacher."
"Might be I would have followed that path, had I been spared the chain gang," Valjean says, his voice a sharp rebuke. The words seem to crystallize in the air before him like his breath on a Colorado winter; the skin of his hands frozen to the railroad ties, tearing free and leaving his palms bloodied; the bitter cold turning to boiling heat, and his body too hale to do him the courtesy of failing like so many others. It was not Javert that put him there, but there was a time when Javert would have gladly put him back.
It is under the weight of that memory that they walk in silence for the rest of their journey, and sure enough by the time they pass the town boundary Javert sways in the saddle, his neck hanging low with exhaustion from the mere burden of staying upright.
Valjean completes his business quickly, purchasing enough supplies to last them another month. Javert remains outside, his face disappearing into his collar, without even a hat to hide beneath; though somehow Valjean suspects there are none here who would recognize him without his distinctive coat, his sheriff's star gleaming on his lapel and his prodigious whiskers trimmed. Idly, Valjean wonders where the badge might have got to. Flung away in disgust into a scrap of sagebrush on Javert's long walk towards self-annihilation, no doubt. Left to rust, swallowed by the sands.
His final stop is at the post office. This task he reserves for last; and it is certainly true that the gnawing sense of unease which as the hour approached became the bite of true anxiety was assuaged the moment the clerk handed over a neat parcel of letters from Cosette. At once, the thought returned to him—of how simple it would be to buy a ticket, board a train, make the half-day's journey to to call upon his daughter and her new husband.
The impulse is swiftly quashed. In a way, it is a sort of selfishness—he has built this safety for his daughter with the same methodical attitude that he had used to lay railroad track. Cosette's happiness is a thing he has built, and he will not risk its destruction now that the final spike has been hammered into place.
He tucks the letters into his coat. He will make himself wait until reaching the homestead and read them at the kitchen table, where temptation and the train station are at least a few hour's ride away.
Javert is barely on his feet by the time they reach the homestead, but he refuses to be led back to his cot to rest.
"I'll not be put to bed like an ailing child," he snaps, all wounded pride and self-disgust where he leans on the doorframe for support; Valjean relents, but herds Javert away from the cooking hearth and ensures he's fully stationed in a chair at the table before turning back to prepare their meal. He can feel Javert's eyes on him as he sets the beans to cooking with their ration of salted pork and pale onions, a loaf of fresh bread left on the stones near the fire to warm. Valjean does not turn around to meet his gaze, for he knows by now that Javert will speak when he's good and ready, no sooner.
"Why are you here?"
Valjean looks up. Javert is where he left him, slumped low in his chair, his eyes hazy; if he is not sitting ramrod straight then he must truly feel unwell. Valjean stays silent, wiping his hands on a rag, and waits for Javert to elaborate.
"Your daughter is married," Javert says at last. His lip curls. "To that brainless nitwit of a lawyer, but God knows he has enough money to make up for his lack of sense. Enough money to keep you comfortably and near at hand. Hell, you’ve got money of your own—you could build a mansion next door. You can't tell me you don't want that."
Javert's frown darkens. "Everything you could have ever hoped to achieve from raising that girl is within your grasp. Why turn away from it now?"
Anger flares in the pit of Valjean's stomach. He turns away to stir their meal, and reminds himself that the man before him is broken. "If you truly believe that my reasons for adopting Cosette were self-serving, I am not certain what else I can tell you."
Javert snorts; but not in derision. When Valjean glances back over his shoulder the man is glaring at the rough wood of the table top as if its whorls contain the answer to a puzzle he cannot solve. "For years I assumed that your blathering about debts and suffering children were a poor excuse. I suppose I've learned better now."
"Have you?" Valjean asks it from genuine curiosity, though there's a sharp note in his voice he knows Javert will not fail to notice. He doles out a portion for both of them and turns around to set the table. It is not until he has seated himself that he meets Javert's gaze once more.
"I have," Javert says, ignoring the bowl set before him. His eyes are fixed on Valjean with the furious intensity of the old marshall, and yet here in the darkness of Valjean's hovel with none but the low light of fire, there's something far wilder about him. Wilder, and far more brittle. "You are a good man. God damn you for it."
This last is spoken with a grief and a bitterness Valjean does not know how to assuage. So instead he lifts his spoon and nods towards Javert's plate, and says, "You should eat. It will get cold." For a while Javert sits quietly, his eyes lowered, nothing but the crackle of the hearth and the clink of Valjean's silverware in the air between them. After a time, Javert shakes his head and begins to eat.
The season begins to turn.
The sun backs away like a coyote driven from a carcass. The heat only dances in the air at midday, rather than midmorning. The hardy plants of the garden grow, with Valjean’s attentive care and Javert’s blunt-force determination. The trips into town multiply; Javert is never recognized. Somehow, they have found a routine.
In truth, Valjean is waiting for the moment when the man will make his excuses; or more accurately, leave without a word. For surely the worst of the storm has passed, the pull of annihilation slacked during these long, hard days in the sun. Work on the homestead has the quality of hammering a mind blank like tin pounded into a smooth sheet; it is why Valjean welcomes it, and it seems Javert feels the same.
And yet, each time they return to town he expects the shift to happen; for Javert to tell him, abrupt and unapologetic, that this time he will not be returning. Javert is not old; there are more things than hard earth and simple meals, for a man reborn into his second life.
And yet, each time, Valjean finds himself returning to the homestead with fresh supplies and a companion at his side. For Javert has become that, in some strange way; they have been together for so long, swaddled in comfortable, busy silence, that to have remained apathetic to the other man’s presence would be as impossible as remaining indifferent about the presence of food or sunlight or air.
Of course, Valjean requires those things; he does not require Javert. And yet they have become something constant to each other.
What they are is certainly not friends. Valjean does not smile often, and Javert even less so; they tend towards silence in all but the practical, requesting a tool or the waterskin. Occasionally, during the moments when they might both happen to pause and rest at the same time, leaning on their tools and squinting at the sky, Javert might comment on the likelihood of rain.
When they speak in earnest, it is always after dark; when they have eaten their food and remain at the table, mugs of tea in their hands. Their conversations then list almost inevitably towards argument; the hard kernel of bitter resentment that forms Javert's very core draws closer to the surface, and they sit and debate until one or both of them throws up their hands and retreats to their respective bed. In the morning there is no need to speak of it, to pick at the threads of an old disagreement; it is over, they have banished it.
"I am happy to pay you, you know."
Javert looks up at the sound of Valjean's voice, breaking the silence so long between them. This night they have sat long at the table in silence; Valjean’s contemplative, Javert’s of some unknown quality.
"For the work," Valjean clarifies. A vague gesture of his hand. "The duties you have taken on are easily comparable to those I would garner from a hired hand. Yet you have received no compensation. This occurs to me as quite unjust."
"I sleep under your roof. I eat your food." Javert shrugs. "That is payment enough."
"But food and rest are sufficient currency only as long as you are here," Valjean argues. At the way Javert’s eyes narrow, Valjean feels the need to continue. "You are not so old as I. There are other things, other places in the world which could offer you a better life than this.” Than I, he almost says, and thinks the better of it even though it is true.
“Other work.” At once Valjean is at a loss. He hasn’t thought about the particulars of what the world might hold, not in some time at least. When he thinks of the world at large, it is always in the context of his daughter. “You could go into the city. Take up a craft. Take a wife.”
With the sound that escapes Javert’s mouth at the last, Valjean almost thinks his boot has slipped into the fire again. It’s another moment before Valjean realizes that the harsh bark was a laugh. “What use would I have for that?”
“Well, not a wife then. But surely—”
Javert's dark eyes flash. "You are one to speak of other things and other places, for a man in exile here himself," he snaps.
"The situations are different—"
"If you want me gone, Valjean, you need only speak the words."
Valjean knows it is true. He could will Javert away with little more than a gesture, dispelled like a bad dream. And yet. "I wanted you gone, I would say so," he says. "I merely fear that you are trapping yourself here unnecessarily, with no good avenue of escape should the idea ever appeal to you."
Something occurs to him; for he had plucked the man out of the desert as if everything else had been burned away, and on none of the trips into town had he once returned to the sheriff's office. "Javert, do you have any money at all?"
"On a marshall’s salary? Most of my wages went towards my room and board."
"But your severance?"
Javert's lip curls. "I lost the right to it when I resigned."
Valjean lays his palms on the table. He has reached his decision. "You will receive five dollars a day for the work you conduct on this homestead. If you do not wish to receive it," Valjean says, as Javert opens his mouth to argue, "then I suggest you stop working."
Javert's frown simmers on his features for the remainder of the evening, but he does not try to dissuade Valjean's pronouncement. At the end of the month, when Valjean withdraws Javert's wages from the bank and counts them out into his hand, Javert wears the expression of a man behind handed a rattlesnake. And yet, when they make their way back into town weeks later, Javert disappears for a time; Valjean feels a squirming in his breast at the thought that perhaps now, finally, Javert has been handed the key to his own freedom. Valjean is astonished to realize that what he is feeling is anxiety, tinged with regret.
When the man in a long coat stalks up to the hitching post where Valjean has been pretending not to wait, Valjean almost does not recognize him; and then Javert raises his head, the brim of his new hat revealing that familiar sternness , and the relief pierces Valjean like an arrow.
"It looks well on you," Valjean says, and Javert tugs at the lapels with something like self-consciousness, a sharp hmph his only reply. In truth Javert had looked naked without his duster. Some off-kilter thing in the world seems righted now.
On the way to and from Valjean frequently demands they stop, as he usually does: drawn by an herb he must stoop to harvest, or occasionally simply a sight of beauty. There is much of that here too. Javert had borne these digressions in pained silence at first, no doubt thinking them his penance to pay. Now he complains at every turn, though somehow lacking the same vitriol. As his health has improved he and Valjean have taken shifts as to who rides; he grows accustomed to watching the back of Javert's head as he walks beside the horse's bridle, his shoulders squared and his pace even. Guiding, not following. A strange reversal for them both.
Rain clouds pass over the land, dumping water onto dry earth like a hundred buckets upturned at once before the thunderheads move on. At times they skirt the horizon, never making their approach. Other days Valjean can see them coming for miles, climbing towards the homestead on questing tendrils of lighting, a long shadow of rain dragging in their wake.
On one such day he and Javert pause in their work as the first distant roll of thunder tumbles across the plains. An entire half of the horizon has bruised a deep purple, the clouds piling high into the sky and as dark as Hades beneath it.
Valjean turns to Javert, who regards the coming storm with an implacable expression. "We’ll want to be inside before that hits," he says, and the next peal of thunder rushes forward on the end of his sentence, rich and low and coiled with power. Javert does not so much as offer a contrary opinion; he hoists his tools and follows Valjean back towards the house, which stands like an ark against the coming darkness, the grey curtain falling on the desert beyond.
The gale seems to rush forward to meet them as they hurry back, looming behind the house like a tidal wave; the temperate drops so quickly Valjean's sweat chills on his skin, and the ever present wind seems to push them backwards, away from safety. The first few drops have begun to fall as they reach the front porch; Valjean is reaching for the door when Javert seizes his arm.
"The cellar," he says; and something in his face makes Valjean nod, and follow.
The doors open easily: Valjean has kept the hinges oiled. A breath of even colder air wafts up from the darkness below, heavy with the smell of earth. The wind whips their clothing around their bodies as if trying to tear them apart. Valjean glances at the oncoming storm; the first of the raindrops strike his brow, as cold and sudden as divine inspiration. Javert's hand has not left his arm.
“Come on,” Javert says, urgent. The wind has torn his hair loose from its queue at the back of his neck, and the way the dark strands whip in front of his face turn him wild and furious.
Still Valjean hesitates, his eyes traveling towards the door. There is a memory lurking within that darkness and that smell, one which prickles on the back of his neck colder than his cooling sweat. "The window shutters," he says, his voice raised over the howl of the wind and the steadily increasing patter of rain. "We need to—"
"No time," Javert says close in his ear, and it's true; the storm is upon them, a bright flash shattering the sky and the crack of thunder coming so quickly it seems the sun has shattered somewhere beyond the clouds. With one last reluctant glance towards the front door, he allows Javert to tug him down the cellar's creaking steps. Together they reach back to pull the doors shut after them; rain pelts Valjean's face like pellets of ice as the wind curls its fingers around both doors, trying to wrench them open and let the rest of the storm come howling inside.
He can hear Javert's grunt of exertion even over the storm, can feel the solid warmth of his shoulder pushing his own. For a moment Valjean stares up into a vortex of night, swirling with the wrath of God. And then, a break in the wind; with a crack, they yank the doors closed and hastily bolt the lock.
They are in total darkness, then. The cellar door does little to muffle the sounds of the storm; or perhaps the storm itself is still growing louder, clawing at the wood like a wild animal desperate to devour its prey. For a moment he and Javert are frozen there; in the flash of lightning which outlines the edges of the doors, Valjean catches only the glint of his eyes, the profile of his nose, the vague outline of the stairs.
"How far down is it?" Javert speaks softer now, though the storm almost swallows his words. It occurs to Valjean at once that Javert has never been down to this cellar, and is now standing balanced between a dark unknown and the unrelenting violence of nature outside. If he feels a tremor of apprehension, there is no sign of it in his voice.
Groping blindly, Valjean's hand brushes something warm, solid, and damp. It flinches beneath his touch, and yet he follows it; moving from Javert's chest to his shoulder, then down his arm. By the time his questing fingers gently take Javert's hand in his own, the man is as still as stone. His palm is warm; he does not return Valjean's grasp.
"There are seven stairs," he says, and begins to descend. "I will guide you."
Valjean maneuvers them down the steps, slowly as not to fall. It is easy to ignore the rising smell of earth, so like that of decay, when he has a task ahead of him: to guide Javert through the darkness, his other hand held out in front of him like a blind man's. He feels Javert jerk in his grip moments before something dry and papery as the wing of a bat brushes his own face.
"Dried herbs," he says. His hand squeeze's Javert's, the instinct to give comfort more immediate than the constant wariness between them; Javert does not seem to mind, and neither does he pull away. At last Valjean's extended hand bumps something wooden; with a sigh of relief he fumbles at the edges of the shelves until he finds the metal tin. He lets go of Javert's hand without thinking, and immediately hears the sharp intake of his breath.
"A moment," Valjean says, and then he has them; a match flares in the dark. All at once Javert's face is before him, closer than he had imagined it would be. Valjean sucks in a sharp breath, caught off guard. The light catches in his dark eyes; puts a shine on their surface and makes their depths all the more inscrutable. Javert’s brow, as always, is creased with a frown; but with nothing more than their tiny, flickering light, his face is softened.
The wind rattles at the cracks in the door; the flame of the match flickers, gutters, and goes out.
With a curse Valjean hastens for another, but before he can light it a warm hand settles on his own.
"It’d be wise to save them," Javert says, his hand quickly pulling back, and Valjean nods before remember Javert cannot see.
"I suppose there's nothing left to be done but wait in the dark," he says, with his best attempt at lightness. "There are some crates just here, if I remember right, that should be comfortable enough—"
They make their awkward way in the dark, fumbling for the edge of the crates and gingerly lowering themselves until they are seated. The draft which rushes in through every crack is fierce; the wind whistles at the cracks and howls over the roof. Light flashes again and again, outlining of the shuddering doors in cold light. The thunder, when it comes, could be a mountain crashing down on the house above them. A shiver moves down Valjean's spine which has nothing to do with the cold, which in itself is difficult to ignore. His shirt, wet with sweat and rain, sticks to his skin; the air of the cellar is cool even on a hot day, and with the storm outside it feels like winter.
He knows he is not alone in his discomfort. He sits close enough to Javert that, with every breath, the fabric of their shirts brushes as lightly as the twitch of an eyelash. He can feel the tension in the man's body, and for that matter he can feel the tremors. It is some time before he can bring himself to comment, but if there was a time that Valjean found it easy to ignore Javert's suffering, it is not now.
"You are shaking," he says. He speaks low, despite the storm; they are close enough to just barely be heard. In the dark he has no expression to read, no gauge of reaction but the slight shifting of movement beside him.
"I am fine."
In the dark, Javert also cannot see him roll his eyes. "There is no honor lost in admitting you’re cold, Javert. I assure you I won’t think any less of you for exhibiting a human reaction."
To Valjean's surprise, Javert actually snorts. "Fine then. Yes, I am cold—as I imagine you are, too. But I cannot see how discussing it can offer any solace."
For a moment Valjean simply sits there, quiet, debating. Then, when he has come to his decision, he shifts closer; moving until his shoulder bumps Javert's, and then closer still. He settles his hand on Javert's shoulder, feeling the man go rigid beneath his touch.
"If you are agreeable," Valjean says. "This may help."
"I am not that cold," Javert argues, and immediately Valjean withdraws his hand; only to find Javert's fumbling at his sleeve, a huff of aggravation from the darkness before him. "That is not what I—yes, Valjean. I am agreeable."
Valjean hesitates only a moment more before allowing his hand to slide around the back of Javert's shoulders, loose and yet firm. Javert's shoulder and side are pressed to him now; through their damp clothes, it is a surprisingly compromising position. Valjean can feel the heat from his skin, and no doubt Javert can feel his, which is of course the object of all of this to begin with, and yet—and yet something twists in the pit of his stomach, an uncertainty he cannot place.
Still, he does not remove his hand, and Javert does not reach for him in turn.
Above, the storm rages. The house groans; for a fleeting moment Valjean has an image of it being torn loose from its moorings, he and Javert carried up into the sky in a violent rapture. It's an image he quickly dismisses, and yet from above immediately comes the sound of breaking glass.
Valjean sighs, though his body is tense. "I should have closed the shutters."
"If you had tried, you'd be out in this," Javert says tersely.
Valjean chuckles. "Am I mistaken, or is that concern for my safety I detect?"
"Do not flatter yourself," Javert grumbles. "If you had gone blundering around in the storm I would have no choice but to go and retrieve you."
"With your height you'd be blown away."
"Then I suggest you remain where you are."
It is a long time before the shrieking din outside begins to lessen. The thunder moves farther away; the lightning flashes become more irregular, and then cease altogether. The air in the cellar still stirs, but the worst of the wind has died away. Now there is the pounding rain, some of which must be trickling down through the cracks in the cellar door. The smell of wet earth is stronger now. They may as well be sitting in a grave. The ceiling pushes down. It is so very cold. His hands—
"Are you well, Valjean?"
Valjean gives a start. Gooseflesh raises on his arms. "Yes," he manages. Their speech does little to dispel the memories creeping in at the corners of his sightless vision. "Yes. Only—perhaps, some light—"
He disentangles his arm from Javert's shoulder, his body already mourning the lost warmth. The tin is in his other hand; he nearly drops the packet of matches, and snaps two in his haste before he can scrape a tiny flame into being. It flickers out almost instantly. He tries again; the light remains, but weak, trembling. The wind will blow it out in a moment, even as he cups his hand around it.
A second hand joins his own, warm against the backs of his knuckles. Javert cups his long fingers around the flame as well, and after a tremulous moment the air around it seems to settle. Valjean takes a steadying breath. He doesn't look up into Javert's face, though there is light to see him now. He keeps his gaze on the flame, watches it burn its way down the match. They had no matches, in the mountains.
When the flame almost reaches his fingers, he finds Javert ready with a second, passing the fire from one to the next, the air smelling far more strongly of burnt matches than cold, enveloping earth.
That is how they pass the time, in silence that is neither uncomfortable nor at ease, until the worst of the storm is gone. When they both stumble back into the grey, drizzling daylight it is to a world made anew. The ground is pitted where the rain has struck it, stained dark as old blood. The air smells of fresh sage and of life. Valjean is still holding the final match he and Javert burnt; without thinking, he slips it into his pocket, a dried up little nub.
"The window," Javert says, and with a nod Valjean follows to inspect the damage.
Something changes, after that. As if the storm has scoured the air clean, and in its wake something new starts to push its way up through the soil. They board up the broken window until a man can be seen about replacing the glass; Javert complains of stuffy air and Valjean scoffs at him, unperturbed. Some nights when Vajean cannot sleep, he will rise from bed on quiet feet to seek the comfort of open air on the front porch, to find a dark figure standing just under the lee of the roof, hair unbound, head tilted back.
On those nights Valjean settles down on the edge of the porch, a healthy distance away, his bare feet in the dirt and ever-wary of the scuttle of a tarantula over his toes. They do not acknowledge each other; they do not speak. Rather they remain like that: the night breeze rustling Valjean’s hair, Javert’s gaze riveted on the heavens; his neck shockingly bared as it tilts back from his nightshirt, without the protection of its usual collar. He and Javert can stay like that for what feels like hours, as Javert watches the constellations glide over the flatness . Javert had displayed no interest in anything but brute practicalities in so long. Valjean decides that this is a good sign.
They remain like that for what feels like hours; Javert studying the cosmos and Valjean studying him.
It’s a dream, only a dream. Valjean knows that well by now. But for a moment when he awakes to a total blackness so low and heavy it could hang inches from his face, a weight about to crush him the slab on top of a tomb; and for a moment it is thirty years ago and the nightmare is a reality.
He forces his breathing to steady; forces in the long slow breaths through his nose, the smell of cooked pork fat which has permeated the boards of the kitchen, the clean soap on his skin, the sage blowing in on the desert breeze through the window. There was no sage at the winter camp. He knows where he is. It's just that his body hasn't fully realized it yet, and in the meantime all he can do is breathe.
He becomes aware of Javert's presence slowly. Nothing more than an errant block of shadow at first, clumped on the floor near the foot of the bed; his eyes adjust to the darkness and the shadows become a man, moonlight illuminating the outline of familiar features. Valjean did not hear him come in, which means Javert has been in the room for some time, sitting on the floor at the foot of Valjean's bed, his back leaning on the mattress. Valjean only stares, and waits.
"You were having a nightmare," Javert says at last. "I heard you."
Valjean's lips are painfully dry. Licking them is like dragging his tongue over paper. He doesn't ask why Javert cares whether he suffers troubled dreams. "You didn't wake me."
Javert's outline shifts; hunches into itself. "I did not know what would be best."
"Ah." The silence stretches out. Javert does not ask him if he is well; Valjean does not ask why he is here. Perhaps it is his own exhaustion, the muddy fog of his mind, but Javert's presence beside him is not such a hardship.
"It was the winter camp," Valjean says at last, the words surprising even himself. He had not intended to speak of it—in fact, he had sworn he never would. And yet he stares at Javert's shadow through half-lidded eyes, one cheek pressed to the rough pillow, the last of the chill leaving his body and his mouth continuing to betray him. "It comes to me, sometimes. As the nights grow colder."
Javert shifts again. Valjean can make out nothing of his expression; only his profile, outlined in silver.
"You cried out in your sleep."
Valjean closes his eyes. "I am sorry to have disturbed you."
"Do not apologize." Javert's voice is strained. At once Valjean wishes he could see his face. "Not now. Not for this."
And so Valjean says nothing—for there is nothing else for him to say. They sit in silence, in darkness, and neither are companionable.
"You do not speak of it,” Javert says at last, quietly, as if musing aloud.
"Some things are unspeakable. Best to simply forget.”
"Yet it would seem you haven’t.”
“And have you?” The words slip out before Valjean can catch them, though there’s no rebuke in his tone. Javert remains silent, and Valjean can read nothing in that absence. It is difficult to even imagine what Javert is thinking in this moment; though Valjean knows him better than almost certainly any other human being on earth, the man's thoughts are so often walled in by the man's fortified reserve.
"It was decades ago" he says at last. "It ought no longer trouble me.”
"There is no shame in nightmares,” Javert says, carefully.
"I know. I am not. It is only—" Valjean shakes his head, cheek dragging against the pillow. "I have never spoken of it. Not to anyone."
“Do you--? That is to say, if you--you might now, if you wished it. If it might help.” There is a pause, an awful pause, as Valjean struggles to process what Javert is offering. “Forgive me. Of all the world’s miserable wretches, I am the one least deserving of your confidence.”
Valjean is not certain he has ever heard Javert so faltering in his life. Even when his innate sense of certainty cracked straight down the middle Javert had acted without hesitation, confidently striding out into the desert like a man with a set appointment to meet his maker. Here in the dark with nothing but phantoms and memories between them, for the first time in the long course of their association, Javert seems small.
Which is perhaps what makes it easier to speak. “I think,” he says, “that you’re just about the only one I could ever hope to confide in, when you get right down to it.”
Javert makes a sound in the back of his throat that could be a bitten-off, mirthless laugh; Valjean closes his eyes. It would not be so hard to sleep like this, Javert at the foot of his bed like a watchdog. He doubts the dreams would return.
“There’s not much to say,” he says. “They had us in Colorado come wintertime, laying track where they’d blown the mountains open. But the snows packed us in, and they still expected us to work. Company quotas to meet, I suspect.” Sleep feels farther away now. Valjean keeps his eyes closed all the same. “They put us up in these canvas tents. The snow sagged so low we had to crawl in and out of them like animals. Men froze in those tents, still chained, shackled to the living ones. Was days sometimes, before the foreman came around to unshackle the bodies. Sometimes longer.”
He’s shivering again, now. He can still feel the bite of the cold on his wrists where the shackles chewed into his wrists.
“I am sorry.”
The words are intoned in a voice as toneless and desolate as the wind. Valjean opens his eyes to see Javert’s head is bowed.
“You weren’t there that winter,” is all Valjean says.
“I may as well have been. If I had been, no doubt nothing would have changed.” Javert’s head turns away, as if on instinct from some revolting odor.
“We were different men,” Valjean whispers, as much to himself as Javert. “It was a long time ago.” But what could such a sentiment mean, between them? The past is coiled between them like a heavy rope, and they each hold one end of it, one half of its weight.
“The nights will warm again eventually,” Valjean says at last, in what is meant to be a lighter tone.
"Would another blanket help?"
Javert’s question is so unexpected that for a moment Valjean can’t make sense of it; and even when he does, he can hardly guess at the sentiment behind it. "It might," he says guardedly; and to his amazement Javert rises, fumbles across the dark room to the chest of drawers on the opposite side, and after a familiar creak and scrape of wood and the sound of Javert muttering under his breath, he returns a moment later with an additional coverlet in his hands.
He pauses at Valjean's bedside for just a moment, wringing the cloth in his hands like a nervous child; Valjean can only lay still and wonder if he's lapsed back into a bizarre dream where Javert has taken steps to aid him without prompting. But when Javert leans down to spread the blanket over Valjean, the hands which skin over his body are solid, though fleeting.
"Thank you," Valjean says, his words thick with exhaustion. He thinks he sees Javert nod, a terse little bob of the head.
"Next time, I will wake you," he says, and without another word he leaves the room.
Valjean is too tired to lie awake and ponder their conversation for long. But he can’t help but think, as sleep pulls over him like another blanket, that he’s glad Javert is here. It’s a novel thought, and an unlikely one.
But welcome, all the same.
PLEASE check out Vin's absolutely amazing fanart of this chapter, it's so good!!!
Though Javert has taken to accompanying Valjean on his trips back to the town, the less frequent and far more fraught journeys Valjean undertakes by train, and he undertakes them alone.
He knows he is no longer welcome in his daughter's house. Knows also that Marius means well, that it had been Valjean himself to first suggest this course of action. It would have been wise, it would have been right, for him to simply stay away.
And yet, he is weak. The longer he goes without seeing his daughter's face, the deeper the ache in his chest, until at last Javert gives some exclamation along the lines of "For God's sakes Valjean, will you stop your sighing and go see the girl?" And then, Valjean goes.
"You could visit more often, Papa," Cosette always says; and to see her here, so happy and cared for, in the full bloom of her life makes it far too easy for Valjean to say yes; but then his eyes inevitably shift to Marius, at his place by the mantle—looking away. And Valjean forces a smile, and explains to his daughter that the crops required much care in this dry climate of theirs, and he just can’t afford the time.
"You should call on them more often," Javert says one night.
Valjean looks up from the bread he has been mechanically, systematically tearing into bites, laying each chunk on his plate like seeds in a field so he might make one single assault on them. He has had little appetite for some time.
"I am certain the girl asks it of you," Javert says. "It is obvious how she dotes on you."
"You have never so much as seen her," Valjean says, immediately chastened at the petulant note in his own voice. "What sense would you have for her feelings on the matter?"
"How could she not?" The words are spoken so sharply that Valjean barely registers that, in some roundabout way, Javert is paying him a compliment. The comment seems equally ill-thought-out on the other man’s part, for he keeps his gaze on his plate and quickly continues, "You speak of her often enough, I may as well have attended your visits. Yet you spend the weeks before your visits moping like a sick dog, and come back acting like a kicked one.”
“I’m hard-pressed to imagine what would give you that impression.” The observation is not particularly astute—after all, Valjean's routines are so simple that any deviation would be obvious even to a man who hadn't once noted small details for a living—but it still makes Valjean blink, to know that Javert is observing him; to know that the intimacies of his day to day life are revealed to Javert's eye.
He tosses the final scraps of bread onto his place with disinterest and Javert narrows his eyes.
“Aren’t you going to eat?”
Valjean sighs. “I am not hungry.”
Javert's expression deepens into a scowl. "Your crops might live on water and sunlight, but you cannot."
“I ate earlier today, while you were mending the chicken coop.”
Javert throws up his hands. “Ten years I spent as a marshall, and this man still has the gall to think I can’t spot a liar. You are starving yourself.”
Valjean’s ennui is quickly converting to irritation. Maintaining an active interest in his own life may be a challenge now that the main object of its continuance has been removed, but responding to Javert’s needling comes naturally. He crosses his arms--they are losing some of their previous bulk--and meets Javert’s gaze stubbornly, his food yet untouched. "I am perfectly well, Javert."
Javert leans back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest. "If you are well, then you have no excuse to be playing with your food instead of eating it. I won’t tolerate such behavior from a grown and hearty man."
Valjean shoots him a final glare across the table—but, all the same, he raises a piece of bread to his mouth and places it on his tongue. By the time he finishes chewing his stomach has roared back to life, demanding more; and with a vague sense of resentment, he finishes the food on his plate under Javert’s hawkish gaze.
Javert does not comment; merely stands when Valjean has finished, and carries both their plates to the wash basin. It is his turn to clean their dishes, and he does so in silence. Valjean remains in his chair, staring alternatively at the dark corners of the cottage and at the expanse of Javert's back, the waistcoat he still insists on for dinner. It is quiet; nothing but the sound of water through Javert's hands. By the time he has finished with the last of the pots, the worst of Valjean's melancholy has receded beneath the surface once more.
“I will go two days from now,” he decides, and Javert only grunts in reply.
Likely he should have noticed the particular look on Javert's face, that night—the calculating expression Valjean had had ample chance to study when he was mayor. As it is, he is distracted; he notices nothing. And so he s utterly unprepared when he stops by Javert’s doorway the morning of his departure to say his brief goodbyes, to find Javert dressed in his shirt and waistcoat, hair neatly tied back, whiskers trimmed, and overall looking more like his old self than Valjean has yet had opportunity to observe.
“What is this?” Valjean asks, the words slipping out before he can land on something more politic to say.
Javert is adjusting his cravat in the dingy mirror above his washstand. He continues until the knot has satisfied him with its perfection before meeting Valjean's gaze in its beaten surface. "I have been curious for some time about the goings-on in your daughter's household," he says. "It is past high time we were introduced. Properly, that is.”
Valjean is so shocked by this announcement that he cannot immediately find the words to say. "No?" he tries. "That is to say, why—you haven't—” He forces himself to stop, pinching his brow. “Javert, I don’t understand."
“There is nothing to understand. I will accompany you.”
“Allow me to clarify: I do not understand why, after speaking nothing but ill of Marius’s household for months, you would now actively wish to visit it yourself.”
“As I said. I wish to meet your daughter. I suppose I will be required to see the boy as well.” Javert turns around, eyes Valjean critically. “Have you begun preparing breakfast?”
“Then you’d best do so, if we’re to leave on time.”
Javert returns to straightening his immaculate cravat. Valjean can only stare at him in utter bewilderment. In light of everything, it seems a futile exercise to tell him he is not hungry. And yet instead of telling Javert that the idea of putting him in a room with Cosette was frankly terrifying, he finds himself walking to the kitchen and stoking the fire back to life so he and Javert might settle down to their bowls of cooked oats a few moments later. Valjean only picks at his food, but on that matter Javert does not hassle him.
Before long they are heading for town, Javert’s hand on the bridle of Valjean’s horse, hat on his head and expression faintly smug. Valjean cannot help but feel vaguely as if he has lost some bet he had not been aware of participating in, and is not eager to find out what he has wagered.
The trip is only two hours by train, but the time seems intent not to pass at all. This time of day there are few other passengers, and as such he and Javert secure a small compartment of their own. There is one moment, at the first stop, when the door yanks open and a gentleman with a prodigious mustache peered inside in search of a seat; Valjean is too busy schooling his features into a mask of pleasant politeness to glance over at the expression Javert is making, but whatever it might be, the man blanches and backs away with a mumbled apology, closing the door behind him. They are not interrupted again.
For much of the journey Javert sits across from him, his arms crossed over his chest, staring out the window. There is not much to see, and yet his gaze is intent. Valjean glances at the passing scenery on occasion, what little of it there is to observe; scrub and flatness, with the distant shadows of the mesas lifting from the horizon in the distance. More often, his eyes drift to Javert.
The man does not look ill at ease, but neither does he look comfortable; he sits straight-backed, one hand curled into a loose fist where it rests on the sill of the window, the other laid neatly on his thigh. Valjean cannot help but feel tugged into the course of another memory, a night not so long ago though with the air of another lifetime—and in many ways, it had been. He had sat across from Javert in the hired carriage, reeking of the sewers, Marius’s head in his lap, blood seeping out of his bullet wounds onto the seats, the floor, Valjean’s trousers. Javert had not shifted his gaze from Valjean once, as if memorizing his every feature; as if he could sink his eyes like hooks into Valjean’s flesh, holding him fast.
Or that is what Valjean had thought. He could hardly have guessed the true nature of the thoughts turning behind those dark eyes. Had Javert known, in that moment, what he would do? Had he stared not at Valjean, but at the wide expanse of the desert?
Valjean scrutinizes him now with the same intensity Javert had once turned on him. Despite the lack of uniform, he looks very much the marshall of old; as if he has donned some additional piece of equipment beneath the surface of his skin beyond the hat and duster, a set to his shoulders or mouth. It is not a mouth well suited for anything but the downward-turned almost-scowl he wears at the present moment. Valjean has seen him smile; the mere memory is unpleasant to recall. It’s a proud mouth, the lips thin and dark, and Javert uses it mainly to express his disgust; for years it fulfilled its purpose well. Valjean has seen the man so little at rest; in contemplation, as he is now, his grim features acquire a kind of hardened nobility.
It is not until that mouth twists into something resembling cold mirth that Valjean realizes he’s been caught. Javert is watching him in return, one eyebrow cocked.
“Something on your mind?” he says, and in truth there is nothing; Valjean’s mind is devoid of all thought, or at least of any he could reliably convey.
“I am still curious as to your aims in accompanying me,” Valjean invents at last. “I cannot imagine it is for pleasure.”
“Perhaps I merely wish to know your family better. Your son in law shows such promise, after all.”
Valjean laughs before he can help himself, at the sheer ridiculous of it; and it’s to his utter astonishment that he sees the corner of Javert’s lip quirk, the smile curling into itself until it is quickly dispelled. “I do not believe I have ever heard you tell a joke.”
“Is it so very humorous that I might genuinely have an interest in your life?”
“Beyond the application of criminal justice? I rather think it is.”
The quirk of the lip again. Javert turns back to the window, his eyes catching the sunlight. “Well then. Let’s just say that I am here to test a theory.”
That declaration is simultaneously so opaque and so ominous that Valjean does not bother to press him. He settles into his own seat, pointedly not resuming his previous study of Javert’s features. The rocking motion of the train is soothing; even the niggling concerns about what havoc Javert might wreak among his daughter and son-in-law are soon drowned in the warm torpidity of the afternoon. His knees bump Javert’s with the motion of the train as he stops holding his legs consciously still, but Javert doesn’t seem to mind. For a moment, he will close his eyes.
It isn’t until Valjean is jolted awake by a warm hand on his shoulder that he realizes he has fallen asleep; he opens his eyes to Javert’s face. The train has stopped moving. They have arrived.
The journey from the train station to his daughter’s house is conducted in silence. The town is much larger and more bustling by far than the grim little outpost they disembarked from, and Javert retreats back behind his collar and hat as soon as they step onto the swarming platform. There are trees here, watered by the nearby river; Valjean’s eyes latch onto the green as they step up to their hired carriage, breathing in air no longer parched with dust.
Javert sits beside him, which makes it easier for Valjean to keep his troublesome gaze to himself. The carriage rattles into motion, and the closer they draw to his daughter’s marital home, the more Valjean’s stomach squirms. He should not have come—he feels this way each time, and yet now the sensation is almost overpowering. What if they are turned away at the door? What will he say to Javert then—what will he say to Cosette if they are admitted? This is a mistake. His head swims, the heat and terror and skipped meals all turning at once against him. It is not too late to ask the coachman to turn back for the train station. He leans forward—
“What a tasteless waste of water,” Javert comments. Blinking out of the maze his thoughts have become, Valjean follows his gaze out the carriage window and realizes he is speaking of the green-leafed trees which line the city streets.
The observation is so wholly unexpected and yet so simultaneously characteristic of the man who shares the cab that Valjean finds a brief snort escaping him before he can help it. Javert turns to him with a look of consternation. “You know I am right. All that effort and money all for the sake of maintaining something which was never meant to grow here.”
“And yet they grow all the same,” Valjean says, unaware that he is debating the point until he hears his own tone; and from there he spends the rest of the cab ride arguing the finer points of aesthetics versus practicality, the throb of anxiety in his breast dulled but not wholly forgotten.
Cosette appears happy to see him, as she always does; she rises from her chair like a butterfly encased in a gemstone, her dress a blue as pale and pristine as the desert sky, surrounded by jewelled trappings and shining finery as comfortably as if she had lived her life here. The sight plays a high note of happiness in Valjean’s breast, though never without the low accompanying harmony of grief.
“Papa,” Cosette cries, her voice a high peal of happiness--she throws her arms around his neck as she did when she was a child, and for a moment all is well. But Valjean feels her stiffen, and knows she has laid eyes upon Javert. Immediately she disentangles herself, smoothing her hands down her dress; her gaze is wary, though polite.
“I beg your pardon, mister--I didn’t see you there,” she says. “You are a friend of my father’s—?”
Javert hesitates for just long enough. “He is,” Valjean says. “I hope it is not an imposition.”
Cosette’s face brightens instantly. “It is nothing—nothing at all! I have to say, I’m so happy to see you have found company out there on that lonely homestead. You’ll have to accept my apologies in advance for all the questions I’ll have to ask you now: how did you and my father meet?”
Javert’s mouth performs a strange inward twisting. “That is rather a complicated question, I am afraid.” The glance he shares with Valjean is heavy with something—guilt? Uncertainty? But the emotion is whisked away as quickly as Valjean sees it, and Cosette is already hurrying them to take their ease.
The settle on the overstuffed furniture, and Cosette is urging the serving staff to find some suitable food, though it is not long before something can be scraped up: a plate of sandwiches hastily arranged on a platter, looking rather careworn. Valjean politely declines them; he knows that the hospitality he wrings out of Marius’s household will taste only of ash on his tongue.
“So,” Cosette says, beaming between Valjean and Javert with bright-eyed enthusiasm. “I have to admit, Papa, I find it strange you never mentioned Mister Javert once in all this time.”
“For a long while we were not close,” Valjean says, a prickle of guilt rising at the half-lie. “There would not have been much to tell.” Now that is a full lie.
“But you say that you have known each other for three decades!” Cosette turns to Javert. “I have always been frustrated with my father’s refusal to discuss his past. Surely you have some stories to tell?”
Valjean almost physically flinches. But surely, surely Javert would not betray him this way. When he turns to meet the glance Javert shoots him sidelong, though, Valjean is suddenly and terribly uncertain. There is a sort of thoughtful, mischievous gleam in his eyes that Valjean does not like at all.
“Certainly, there are many stories,” Javert says, raising his cup to his lips. The man does have an insufferable flair for the dramatic, and both Valjean and Cosette are hanging on the pause in very different ways.
“There was the incident, for one,” Javert begins, “of the runaway cart…”
In truth Valjean does not relax once while Javert tells his tale; he is listening not to the words but rather for the catch, the error, the innocuous piece of information which his daughter might latch onto and use to unravel everything to the truth. But Javert is careful; he gives no names, no identifying details, and yet all of the facts are true. He states them plainly, unelaborated, as if giving his report to a superior. But even with such a dry accounting, the story has Cosette leaning forward, interjecting with questions and exclamations. Javert seems perplexed by her excitement--clearly no fellow officer of the law had ever shown such engagement with his reports--and yet Valjean can see that the man is shyly, stiffly, enjoying himself.
So they pass the time, hesitantly dipping into those overlaps in their history which Cosette is able to hear, and then branching father; Javert speaks haltingly about his experiences as a marshall, some cases he worked unrelated to Valjean at all; and as the conversation meanders, Valjean finds himself speaking of the desert convent where Cosette was raised, the quiet contemplation and the smell of sage.
Valjean is at last beginning to smile without reservation when at last the door flies open, and a rather dishevelled Marius rushes in, hastily adjusting his cravat.
“My darling, I am terribly sorry, I was quite held up—”
“Why, it’s no trouble at all,” Cosette says, as Marius hurries to her side. His movements are as quick and nervous as if Valjean is a brigand about to accost her. He does not even see Javert until he has hastily settled on the couch beside her; Valjean can see the exact instant when he does. Even in his present state of agitation and shame, Vajean cannot repress the slight flicker of vindicated amusement that springs up at the expression on his face.
“Oh! Pardon me, sir; I did not realize that Mr. Fauchelevent had brought company.”
Javert smiles. Valjean represses a shudder. “Do not trouble yourself at all.”
It takes Marius a moment to recover from the full brunt of Javert’s expression; in the meantime, Cosette has begun the introductions. “Mr. Javert is a friend of Papa’s,” she says. “He has been helping on the homestead, with the new harvest.”
“Is that so?” Marius sounds rather faint, his gaze flicking between Valjean and Javert with uncertainty.
“Not that your father needs it,” Javert says.
“I am certain the conversation does him good,” Cosette says with a smile in Valjean’s direction.
It is truly surreal, sitting here in his daughter’s parlor and watching her converse so brightly with the man who has, for decades, done everything in his power to see him destroyed. He cannot help but notice something of the old marshall in the way Javert’s eyes study Marius; cannot help but avoid them when that same gaze turns his way.
From the moment Marius enters, the room he brings with him that familiar aura of distance. He sits by his wife like a guard dog, her hand clasped in his own as if he is ready at any moment to rise and pull her away, and he will scarcely let Valjean get a word in edgewise before he is diverting the conversation down some other avenue, pressing his new wife for details on the gardening society she has joined, the new lunchroom in the city square that she and him have frequented. Piece by piece of her new life with Marius is laid into place, all the moments of happiness that she and her father no longer share; until that happiness stands between her and Valjean like a wall.
There is no spite, no dismissal in Marius’s eyes. Worse; Valjean swears he catches a flicker of pity crossing his face. Valjean’s fingers clench on his knees. He can hardly bear it. At his side he feels Javert growing steadily more rigid.
“But you absolutely must stay for dinner.” Cosette’s voice shakes him out of his dark reveries, and he looks up to find her smiling at him. It is the same smile she fixed him with in the gardens at the convent, when he brought her the first of the spring’s new flowers; the same smile as when he had bought her a new dress for her birthday, or when he had told her stories as they walked around the park. Valjean could never deny that smile a single thing it asked for.
“I suppose we might manage that,” Valjean begins to say, but Marius raises a hand.
“Your father and his friend have a long journey ahead of them,” Marius says, taking Cosette’s hand. “Surely it would be unkind to ask them to remain for longer, and face that journey so long after dark.”
“Then they could spend the night!” Cosette says, squeezing her husband’s hand; but Valjean feels a much less kindly pressure tightening around his heart.
“No, my dear,” Valjean says, mustering what goodwill he can. “Your husband is correct; I spoke without thinking. Javert and I really ought to be leaving.”
“But you only just arrived,” Cosette says, a frown creasing her brow. “Goodness, Papa, if you leave now you’ll have spent more time traveling than you will have spent here.”
Before Valjean can respond, Javert is leaning forward. There is a look in his eye--Valjean feels the familiar fear rise in him, though he cannot say why.
“Ma’am,” Javert says, his voice as level and cool as the frozen surface of a lake. “Might I have a moment to speak with your husband and father in private?”
Cosette’s jaw shifts. Valjean recognizes that look, has long since learned what it heralds. “I’m not one of Papa’s delicate flowers, sir. Anything you wish to say to the men in the family you can also say to me.”
“Very well.” Javert does not appear particularly perturbed by this. He turns back to Marius, his face still blank. “I am no expert on hospitality, sir. I have not had much instances to receive it and certainly have had none to give it. But I am not so ignorant nor such a fool as to not recognize that the courtesy you show your new bride’s father is so lacking as to be an insult.”
Valjean closes his eyes, his heart sinking in his breast. This was a mistake, a grave and foolish mistake to allow Javert to accompany him here. When he forces his eyes open again Marius is stammering, his eyes blinking too fast.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” he says, at last striking on a note of indignance. “I will not be spoken to in such a way under my own roof—”
“And yet you will treat your father-in-law like an unwelcome houseguest, to send away at the earliest possible convenience and against his daughter’s wishes?” Javert’s lip curls into a sneer, an expression which his mouth is made for. “What, then? You have attained the girl, and see no reason to feign courtesy?”
“My husband did not ‘attain’ me, sir,” Cosette breaks in, her voice sharper than Valjean has often had opportunity to hear it. “I am not a horse, and you are one to speak of courtesy in such a discourteous way.”
“Certainly that is so. And yet seemingly you have remained content to smile through your father’s suffering all these months. At least a horse has a sense of loyalty.” Cosette blanches, though she does not flinch--either at Javert’s accusation or the shocking rudeness with which it is delivered.
“That’s enough,” Valjean says sharply, finding his voice at last. He lays a hand on his companion’s arm and his grip is not gentle. “Cosette, Marius, I am truly sorry. We will see ourselves out.”
Javert turns to Valjean, his eyes cold. “So you will defend her, but not yourself? Will you insist on sitting there in perfect silence as you are sent away from your own daughter’s house like a beggar?”
“Javert, please,” Valjean says, but the man turns away with a snarl of disgust, tugging his arm away.
“Of course. You will merely smile through the insult and then return home in misery. Well, I will not stand for it.”
“You know nothing of it!” Marius cries. His eyes dart between Javert and Valjean, as if begging Valjean to help him explain—yet what could Valjean say, with his daughter before them both? “We agreed--it is all for the greater good.”
“The greater good—?” Cosette says, but Javert has stood up.
“You ungrateful whelp,” he hisses. His eyes are blazing with a fire Valjean has not seen in some time, not even in the worst of their arguments. “Is this how you repay the man to which you owe your life? Some fine lawyer you will make, if this is your idea of justice!”
Valjean feels the blood leave his face. Weakly he staggers to his own feet and raises a hand as if he can swat Javert’s words out of the air: the truth Cosette cannot be permitted to hear, cannot ever know of his shame. For one will lead to another, the good to the bad which waits at the center of him, and always has. But Javert has already seen her expression, and Marius’s. “Javert, you must stop—”
“No, Valjean.” At once his wrist is seized in a grip of iron, one which he could not hope to break even for all his strength. “I have seen you play the martyr in all things. I will not permit it now. I witnessed you dragging this boy’s half-dead body through untold horrors, risked your own life time and time again to ensure that his was preserved--and this is the thanks you see fit to accept?
“Papa?” Cosette’s voice trembles, but her gaze is steady. “What is he talking about?”
“It is nothing—”
“It is not nothing.” Javert rounds on him. His grip around Valjean’s wrist burns like a manacle. Now that fury is trained on him, and where once Valjean could have weathered it he now finds himself consumed by it. “You did not tell them. Good God. I had thought that even you--”
“I don’t understand,” Marius is saying, his young brow creased in confusion. “Mr. Fauchelevant, please—I must demand an explanation. What is Mr. Javert speaking of?”
“I—” Valjean swallows. So this is how it all falls apart; this is how he is destroyed. Cosette is watching him, her eyes wide and hurt--he wants to go to her, to hold her as he did when she was a child, or to send her fleeing from this room where his past is slowly condensing like a cloud of vapor. Choking. Poisonous. Inescapable.
“I do not—” What is he saying? It is too late, far too late. She will know, she will hear all of it, his daughter will see him for the miserable wretch he has always been. I wanted to spare you this , he tries to say, but his mouth is dry and no words will come. Javert is saying his name, but it comes from a great distance. His head is swimming; he needs a moment. A moment of rest. He is simply so very tired, and so very cold, and the manacles are closing around his wrists as if they had never left.
He sees the carpet rushing to meet him, but he does not feel himself fall.
OOF, it's been a minute. Thanks for your patience with my ever-erratic updates.
He recovers quickly, in the immediate aftermath.
To say that he collapses seems far too dramatic; it is simply that one moment he is standing before his daughter, his son-in-law, and the man whose relationship resists all attempts at one-word summation. In the next he is staring up into a blur of color, loud voices in his ears: Marius’s shooting off in rapid-fire sentences, and Cosette’s high with fear.
"I am well," he mumbles. He is not entirely sure that he is well, yet he reaches out a feebly to smooth away his daughter's worries all the same. The hand which meets his blind and fumbling grasp is not Cosette's delicate one, but rather one large and strong.
"You old fool," a familiar voice hisses; the hand squeezes his own fiercely. "Why didn't you say you were ill?"
"I am not ill," Valjean says, out of habit more than anything. The room rotates on an unstable axis and his body feels so light it might be pitched off the spinning floor. The hand with its iron grip on his own is all that keeps him grounded. Surely he has not done anything so dramatic as faint?
"I do not believe I can lift you," Javert says, sounding pained. "Can you walk on your own?"
Valjean's vision remains blurred, but he does manage to give the hand within his own a reassuring squeeze. "I believe so," he says. In practice it requires both Javert and Marius to help him to his feet, their hands gripping his arms as they walk him to the guest room. Nausea roils in the pit of his stomach, but if he keeps his eyes closed and gives himself up to the hands which lead him on, it is not so bad at all.
In truth he is fine, utterly fine, within moments of the incident. And yet Javert and Marius insist on cleaving to him as they walk him—practically force-march him—to the spare bedroom, Cosette fluttering nervously on their heels.
The spare bed is before them; Valjean finds himself unceremoniously deposited on its edge. In an instant Cosette is at his side, feeling his forehead and checking his scalp for bumps from its impact with the floor. He catches her small hand and presses it with a weak smile, his heart beating far too quickly. His head is still swimming.
“It’s nothing, Cosette, truly,” he says, but she has no ears for his reassurances.
“Lie down, Papa,” she says, and Marius is there, nodding frantically in the background; Valjean cannot seem to focus his eyes for too long. Perhaps it might be wise—with a sigh he concedes to his daughter and son-in-law’s insistent hands, and lowers himself onto the pillows.
"I am fine," Valejean says again, lest his concession be taken as otherwise. “It’s only that it was very hot today, and I suppose I didn’t eat enough at breakfast—” The answering snarl of disgust is Javert’s.
"You are most certainly not fine, sir, if you’ll permit me to say so," Marius says, squeezing Valjean's arm in a nervous rhythm which is no doubt meant to be comforting. "You just lie down for a moment, and we’ll get you some—"
"Out." Javert's voice cuts across the room like cold steel, bringing Marius immediately up short. Javert is staring at the boy with an expression that makes Valjean wonder whether he would be able to hold Javert back should he act on the rage in his eyes. Marius takes a step back; but within Valjean's hand, Cosette's fingers tighten.
"This man is my father, sir," she says, her voice hard. "I will not be ordered out of a room in my own house while he sits ill."
"I understand that, ma’am," Javert says. His voice as he addresses Valjean’s daughter has lost some of its bite, but none of its steel. "Nonetheless, your father and I must speak alone."
Cosette opens her mouth to argue—and Valjean knows well that when she sets her mind to it she can argue more fiercely than even the lawyer she married. He squeezes her hand, and immediately her gaze returns to him, concerned.
"You and Marius may go," he says gently. "I am wholly well—it was only a passing thing, and it is true that my friend and I must speak."
Cosette holds his gaze, studying his expression carefully; and then she turns to look at Javert. The man is lingering at the periphery of the room like the uninvited guest that he is, arms crossed over his chest, a glowering shadow. He makes absolutely no attempt to console or reassure her. And yet, when Cosette turns back to Valjean her expression is made up.
"Very well," she says, looking to her husband. "Marius, we must see that some proper food and water is prepared. We will also call for the doctor, and I will hear no argument on that," Cosette says as Valjean opens his mouth once more to proclaim the sound state of his health. In the end he subsides, giving in to the wisdom of his daughter's designs.
Cosette and Marius leave a moment later. The door clicks closed. And at once, Valjean is aware of his circumstances: lying in bed feeling not well at all, and Javert's anger seething from the opposite side of the room like steam from a locomotive about to throw itself forward again.
But Javert does not burst out in a fury. He strides to the bed, pulls a chair across the floor with a grate of wood on wood, and settles down into it rigidly. He sits in silence, his head bowed, eyes hidden. When Valjean opens his mouth to offer some reassurance or rebuke—and he is not certain which it will be—Javert says, "Quiet. Rest. I am thinking of what to say."
And so Valjean does, allowing his eyes to close and finding it helps the room stop spinning. He is aware of the scrape of the window being opened, and the sudden breath of a cool breeze on his face. It is easier to breathe, after that. After some time there is a polite knock on the door; Javert rises again, opens it. Quiet words are spoken; Valjean recognizes Basque’s voice. When Javert returns to him it is with a tray containing a glass of water and a selection of fresh food, the sight of which makes Valjean's stomach roil.
"Drink first," Javert says. When Valjean sits up he immediately finds Javert's hands behind his back, rearranging pillows to prop him up; once the churning in his stomach settles, Valjean accepts the water glass held pointedly within his field of vision, and takes a small sip. He can feel it sliding down his throat and into his stomach like a tendril of ice; for a moment he fears he might vomit. And then, the sensation is gone; he finds himself drinking more.
"You are an idiot in every sense of the word," Javert says.
It seems unsporting to insult him in the process of drinking, yet Valjean does not pause until he is satisfied and set the glass back on the bedside table with a gentle click. "You are correct. I should have eaten more at breakfast."
"That is not what I am referring to, as I am sure you are perfectly aware."
Valjean sighs, weary and weak. "Javert—"
“Why, Valjean?” Javert spat the words like poison. “Why hide all of your good, and present nothing but the bad? Why present a narrative so skewed against yourself that you would inevitably be driven away?”
“I told Marius what he needed to hear in order to keep Cosette safe.”
Javert’s laugh is as sharp as a whip-crack. “You lied. To him, and your daughter.”
“I never lied—”
“It was a lie of omission!” Javert’s fist came down on the bedside table, making the glass jump. Valjean’s heart beat fast in his chest. “A lie designed to turn the people who loved you away, when they would have wanted nothing more than to embrace you wholly—to what end, Valjean? Does your self-sacrifice know no bounds? Is there even a reason for it, or do you simply not know how to do anything else?”
Valjean looks away, pain etched deep into his face. He’s too tired to hide the impact of Javert’s words, to pretend they don’t bite. "It didn’t matter what they wanted—I could not allow them to know the truth. Were my secret to be discovered, it could have destroyed Cosette's happiness—”
“You bought that happiness for them. The boy owes you his life, the girl owes you everything— "
"No." The word escapes him, cutting as a knife. "No, they owe me nothing. I did not save Marius's life as some kind of obligation —so I might creep into their joy and nibble away at it for myself. I did not give Cosette all the love in my heart in the hopes of garnering some future reward." Valjean shakes his head. "And I certainly did not do it in the hopes that one day, when the time was right, I might force them into offering me forgiveness—"
"Good God Valjean, you already are forgiven!” Javert shouts, and then immediately looks away, teeth clenched. “There is none left alive who might be required to forgive you. There was nothing ever to forgive."
Valjean looks away, shamed. "I was not a good man—"
"Neither was I.” Javert’s cheek twitches beneath the swath of his whiskers, a spasm of agitation. “And yet for all the untold harm I did, for all the misery my actions caused to none more than yourself, you decided I was worth saving; you decided I might one day be forgiven.” Javert’s eyes bore into him. “They will accept you, Valjean. And they will accept the risk without question.
Valjean draws in a shaky breath. The room is no longer spinning, and yet if he were to lift the cup to his lips once more he believes he would find himself trembling. "How? How can I tell my daughter that all her life she has lived a lie?"
"Do you love her?"
"Then not one thing that matters has ever been a lie."
Valjean stares at the cup on his bedside, swallowing hard. The fixings of the room are alien to him now; in the course of the past few minutes he has become stranded in an unfamiliar world.
“Look at me, Valjean.”
He does not. To do so would break him utterly.
The hand, when it comes, is gentle. It settles not on his shoulder, not on his arm, but on the back of his hand; tentative. Ready to be yanked away at the earliest necessity, as if he is touching a kettle to determine whether it is scalding. “Look at me, please,” he says, and Valjean hadn’t realized until this moment that Javert was capable of softness. And yet it is the same man, when Valjean at last turns his head; the same Javert, and yet not. His eyes are dark, his face solemn. And yet there is a brightness to him, the afternoon sunlight which filters in through the curtains filtering through him as well.
“I do not believe I have the strength,” Valjean says, his voice hoarse. “The truth is a heavy burden.”
“Then allow me to shoulder it with you.” Javert’s fingers twitch against the back of his hand. “In honor of the debt which I will always owe you, if not for your own good.”
“You are not my debtor, nor I your jailer,” Valjean says. “We are merely—” And here, Valjean hesitates; for he realizes there is no clear word he might use to describe what he and Javert are to each other now. He doubts such a word exists. In its absence: “Friends,” he concludes, with a faint frown.
Javert blinks. Like Valjean, he does not seem to know immediately what to make of that. “Then permit me to help you bear this. As—as a friend.”
Holding Javert’s gaze is an exercise in agony, and yet Valjean finds he cannot look away. “I suppose that would be well enough,” he says at last, and the relief which floods him is unfamiliar, yet welcome.
Javert sits back in his seat, nodding, satisfied. The fingers withdraw from Valjean’s knuckles. He can feel the ghost of their presence like the heat of a burn, a heat which nonetheless travels through every vein, stoked by Javert’s frank and unflinching gaze.
"Very well. Here is how it will happen: You are going to sit there and eat the food on this tray, and I am going to sit here until you are completely done. And once that is completed, if you are feeling well enough, I shall go and fetch Cosette and her idiot of a husband. And together, we will tell her—and all will be well.”
And somehow, for all of Valjean’s misgivings, that is precisely the way that it is.
They remain at the Pontmercy's estate for three nights; by the first morning Valjean knows Javert is itching to leave. And yet Valjean finds he cannot; for the first time he is back in his daughter's life as something more than an unwelcome guest; he is embraced in Coette’s love; he finds her wrapping her arms around him for no reason at all and swiping at her eyes afterward with a smile, thinking, she says, of what might have happened—Valjean can scarcely tear himself away.
Javert is his usual surly self; he seems to grow even sterner as time goes on, and yet sometimes Valjean catches his eye, when he has been smiling at some story of Marius’s, or some old familiar anecdote of his daughter's; he finds Javert's eyes on his, and Valjean's smile lingers longer for it.
On the train back, Valjean feels as if he has exerted all of his strength on some Herculean and impossible task; that he has moved a mountain by throwing boulders, one by one. He wants to lean and rest his head on the window, cooled with the lingering night; and yet his mind is still aflame, and sleep will not find him.
“Did you mean it?”
Javert has been so quiet since they left the estate, falling back into the stern and unapproachable reserve so familiar over the years. Valjean nearly starts at the sound of his voice. When he turns his head, Javert is not even looking at him; him eyes track the moving darkness outside the train window, a night without a moon rushing past as thick as water. Or perhaps he is staring at his own reflection, painted in only what strokes the light touches his face; a dark face clothed in darkness.
“Mean what?” Valjean asks, after raking his mind.
"At your bedside." Javert shifts in his seat and seems to come to a decision. He turns to meet Valjean's eyes with something like a challenge in his own. “Are we truly—friends.”
Valjean holds that frank gaze, studying him in return. There might have been an interrogation table between them, for all that Javert's face and posture reveals. Only the tells Valjean has come to understand over the months of close contact reveal his agitation: the way his hands are consciously relaxed, his shoulders tensed as if against a blow. “Do you wish us to be?”
The silence is taut between them. After a moment, Javert nods; once, and stiffly, his chin barely bobbing at all, and yet it is enough. Valjean reaches across the space between them to squeeze his shoulder, feeling the warmth flood in from the touch like the blush of wine.
“Good,” Valjean says, his voice hearty. “I am glad of it.”
After a moment, Javert's shoulder relaxes beneath his touch.
Things are very fine, in the days before Cosette makes her offer.
Valjean visits the Pontmercys nearly once a week, and each time Javert accompanies him. To have the man, this man, in his daughter’s house, at his daughter’s table, spreading butter on a roll and trying not to make a face at whatever anecdote Marius might be telling at the time—it ought to be strange. It ought to be a fever dream.
It feels completely natural. And if that is merely the nature of the dream then Valjean is not eager to awaken.
Though Javert insists on joining him every time, the trips do not agree with him. He is stiff and awkward with Cosette, stiff and sarcastic with Marius. He seems perpetually ill at ease among the large house’s finery, shifting awkwardly on the couch’s too-soft cushions. Better a horse’s saddle for him, or perhaps the hard planes of Valjean’s handmade kitchen chairs. Valjean has lived in deprivation for long enough that it became comfortable; still, he has never actually missed it.
And he does miss it, as happy as he is; there are times, when he and Javert have stayed for a night or two and might stay for a night or two more, when he sits at his daughter’s glittering dinner table and thinks instead of the quiet crackle of the fire in a rough hearth, the clink of tin knives on tin plates, the weave of Javert’s low voice with the desert wind gasping over the windowpanes. It is a small comfort that Cosette has found them both rooms right next to each other; somehow Valjean sleeps better knowing that Javert is near at hand.
But it is not only the unfamiliarity and the strain of social interaction which troubles Javert’s mind. On their way to the train station in the morning or back to the homestead in the evenings, there is a tension in his shoulders entirely different from that which he carries into the Pontmercy house. His eyes scan the shadows, dart from open window to window, to gaping alleyways, to anything that could be or house a threat. He keeps his hat low and his collar high, lest he be recognized. He is, after all, a dead man.
It is far from paranoia, more than old habits; Javert has told him, when he asked, about the men he has put away and the ones he had not had the chance to. In his line of work the man had made no friends and many enemies, any and all of whom would be happy to make the reports of Javert’s death more accurate.
Still, for all the discomfort and awkwardness and risk, Javert does not miss a single visit.
"It is only an hour by train after all," Valjean reasons, as Javert grouses at the breakfast table about the frequency of their trips.
"And an hour's ride to town, which one of us must walk," Javert says, stabbing at his gruel angrily with his spoon. "And Cosette will no doubt insist we stay for dinner, in a devious ploy to demand we stay the night—"
"Devious!" Valjean repeats with a laugh.
"—Yes, devious , Valjean; surely she had to develop a sense of guile to counteract your lack thereof, and she will use it to entrap us in that house for as long as humanly possible."
"You ought to speak up," Valjean says placidly. "I had no idea you objected to staying."
Javert rolls his eyes, and Valjean cannot hold back his laughter any longer. The silence draws out, stretching from comfortable into something more fraught; when he looks back Javert is frowning at him, as if he has done something wrong.
"I have never heard you laugh so often."
"I am not certain I have ever felt so happy," Valjean admits, and Javert looks away.
It is not long after that when Cosette puts the question to him. In retrospect, Valjean feels a damn fool for failing to anticipate it; and yet he has always been a fool, in truth, and he is so little used to the bounty of happiness before him he feels he could eat of it until it kills him from within.
"You must stay the night, Papa!" Cosette cries, her eyes wide as saucers as she clasps his hand. When Valjean's eyes turn to Javert and sees the man shaking his head in a display of disgust Valjean cannot help but suspect is exaggerated for effect, his smile takes on more the aspect of a grin.
"I'm afraid we can't tonight, my dear," he says, giving her hands a reassuring squeeze. "Javert worries so about the crops while we're away."
"The crops?" Cosette turns to Javert with a single eyebrow raised. "But sir, surely they can bear your absence for a day."
"I believe your father is attempting to have a bit of fun at my expense," Javert says dryly.
Cosette turns back to Valjean and smacks his hands lightly, an expression of impish consternation on her face. "You are cruel to toy with your friend, Papa."
"Ah, but I know he can bear it," Valjean says, and is rewarded with a twitch of Javert’s mouth.
"Very well, then at least stay for dinner," Cosette amends. She glances over her shoulder Marius, who as if on some hidden cue, steps up beside her to lay a hand on her shoulder. She covers it with her own, while her other hand still squeezes her father’s; now they are all connected. "Besides, Papa, we have been meaning to ask: surely it is only a matter of time before you move in with us to stay?"
Valjean blinks. At first he is uncertain he has even heard his daughter correct. "To stay—for a week?"
"Forever!" Cosette cries. "At least, that is our hope—Papa, surely you must know how we want you here? I know what you will say. But there is so much space here; there is even the cottage out on the grounds, which I know I can offer you without causing offense, if you are truly so concerned with not intruding upon Marius and me. We might eat all our meals together, sit by the fire after dinner, and then retire without having to think of a tiring journey home." She squeezes his hand once more. "You could be here to help raise your grandchildren, when they come."
It is as if everything in his life has led to this moment; to the presentation of his ultimate happiness on a platter before him, and he must only reach out to take it. For him to forever be whole and complete in the role of father, grandfather; to live in gentle happiness with his daughter and now his son, the trajectory begun at Fantine's bedside hurling him through anguish and turmoil to land, at last, in joy. Surely he has earned this. Surely he is not so selfish to think of taking it. He looks to Javert, happiness brimming in his eyes—
—And stops. For Javert is not looking at him at all, now; he stands near the fire, though the day is yet warm, and stares into it as if deep in aimless thought. The hard set of his shoulders does not suggest idle musings. He looks like a man braced for the lash.
"I—" Valjean says, uncertain of whether he is talking to Javert or Cosette, uncertain of what he is starting, trying, to say.
The slight dimple of a frown appears on Cosette's brow at his hesitation; then she follows his gaze, and brightens at once. "Oh! And surely this would be a more agreeable situation for Mr. Javert as well? He might remain at the homestead and come to visit at his leisure."
“Of course,” Javert says, before Valjean can even think of answering. His voice is tight. At one he turns. His face is set, his hands clasped behind his back out of sight. “That would naturally be what is most convenient for everyone involved. Your father should not feel obligated to tear himself away on my behalf.”
Javert steps forward, the movement as sudden as the crack of a pistol. “In point of fact, I will not allow my own reticence to interrupt you now. I must return to see to the homestead. Valjean, I will see you when next you see fit to return.”
“Javert, wait,” Valjean says, rising as well; but Javert has already made his bow to Cosette and Marius, little more than a stiff bob—he has marched out of his room, the smack of his boots on the floorboards a sharp tattoo.
Cosette is moving to rise as well, her face stricken. “I did not intend to give offense—”
“You did nothing wrong,” Valjean says, pausing to tighten his grip on his daughter’s hand; but he tears himself away just as quickly, for the sound of Javert’s boots are gone. “I will return in just a moment—”
Valjean hurries past Basque before he can finish closing the front door, an expression on the servant’s face that suggests Javert’s parting words were even less civil than his exit from the parlor. At the top of the stone steps, Valjean can see Javert making his way down the lane from the house; the man’s long stride has already carried him far. For a moment Valjean considers letting him go—surely he only intends to clear his head? He dismisses the notion almost instantly. If Javert says he is returning home, that is where he is going.
The man does not turn. His back is straight, his shoulders tight, each step as had as if he is crushing some unwholesome thing beneath the heel of his boot. With a mildly demeaning exclamation on the stubborn-headedness of ex-marshalls, Valjean breaks into a jog to catch up with him.
By the time he reaches him Javert has finally stopped, alerted to Valjean’s approach by the crunch of the gravel beneath his boots. He meets Valjean’s gaze with a long-suffering expression, as if Valjean is the ridiculous one to have followed.
“Javert,” he repeats as he comes to a stop. “What are you doing?”
“I told you. I am returning home.”
Valjean shakes his head. “I understood you. I’m asking you why.”
Javert has mastered the art of making his face stone. He could have been a statue, carved without emotion nor the capacity to feel it. “I am tired. My patience is at its end. And more to the point, you clearly wish to remain; there will be much to discuss between you and your daughter prior to your moving in.”
“I have not even decided—” Valjean begins, but Javert has already turned away.
“Remain here, Valjean,” he says. At once he sounds very tired, and older than Valjean has ever heard him. “I will make my way back alone.”
“ Javert ,” Valjean says, insistent; but as he steps forward and reaches his hand Javert has already begun once more to walk. This time, Valjean does not follow. He stands very still and watches as Javert recedes down the path, growing smaller and less distinct until he is swallowed by the shadow of the incongruous trees. After a while Valjean’s hand falls back by his side, and he turns back to his house to face the happiness his daughter has offered him.
Things grow cooler. The air ceases to writhe in the noonday heat; they eat their breakfasts in silence that even Valjean’s most cunning attempts at teasing him out cannot break.
"I imagine you will be accepting your daughter’s offer any day now,” Javert says one day at dinner, and the sound of his voice is so unexpected Valjean almost leans forward with his eagerness. There is something—something in the way Javert does not meet his gaze as he says it. Some hidden catch in the man's voice. If Valjean had not lived beside him for the past two seasons, he never would have noticed it.
"I have not yet come to my decision," Valjean says. The hook is shamelessly baited, but Javert is far too wily a fish to bite. He does not ask whether Valjean intends to accept her offer, and Valjean does not press the matter beyond that.
In the coming days, Javert almost becomes his old self. The same irritability, the same constant glower, the same rigidity of thinking mostly applied to insisting that Valjean not do the dishes twice in a row, for it is Javert's turn.
"Would you remain here?" he says over dinner. "Were I to go, and leave the homestead to you."
"I have no interest in entertaining hypotheticals," Javert snaps. "If it is your intent to leave, you may say so; and then I may decide my next course of action from there."
"Surely you have some idea—" Valjean begins, but with a noise of disgust Javert storms out of the kitchen, heading for the fields where there is always work left to be done.
In truth, Valjean is not wholly certain why he hesitates. For to live on the periphery of the perfect happiness Cosette enjoyed—to even, if he dares hope, contribute to it—how could he want for more? And yet there was a hollowness in that possibility, a dull ache that springs up in his chest at the thought of the life he'd be leaving behind.
It is not the homestead itself; this place has been no kinder to him than any other in his life. In the end it had been another safe harbor, one which the long grind of years have taught him he could not hope to occupy forever. Now, he need not ever run again; perhaps that was what twinged at his heart. After a life spent looking over his shoulder, he has never learned what it means to look only forward. And yet somehow none of these explanations sum up the gnawing in the back of his mind.
And of course, there is Javert; who seems intent on returning to his old ways, growing surlier and more snappish by the day. A dog with a thorn in its paw, wandering out to the farthest reaches of the fields to lick whatever wound troubles him. Whenever Valjean tries to assure him that this place was Javert's home as much as his own the other man practically snarls, snapping that there is nothing about this patch of barren earth which might captivate him. And when Valjean asks, bewildered, why he then remained here now—
"I am beginning to ask myself that question," he growls, already stomping toward the door.
"Javert, wait," Valjean calls, halfheartedly by now; as expected Javert brushes off the hand on his arm and strides off towards the cattle pens, where there is always work to be done.
Valjean grows almost accustomed to making his trips into town alone, the rhythmic sway of his horse beneath him and no sound but the crunch of hooves on packed earth. He can almost convince himself that he does not notice the silence, or that there have not been times in the earlier days when he turned in the saddle with a wry aside on his lips only to remember that he is alone.
The train is late that day. Valjean stables his horse and, after a moment spent staring at the uncovered block which serves as a train platform, makes his way to the cafe just across the street. Even as the days grow cooler the sun is no less brutal.
He sips his lukewarm and water-down beer, hat on the table in front of him, and tries not to think of anything at all. Not of Javert, not of Cosette, not of the ache in his bones that tunnels deeper by the day. He has never truly felt so old as he has these past weeks. The beer blooms sour on his tongue.
“This seat taken, friend?”
Valjean looks up. The man with his hand on the back of the other chair fingers the brim of his hat with his spare hand, a broad grin on his face. None of the other tables and chairs on the front porch are occupied.
“Help yourself,” Valjean says mildly enough. He keeps his eyes on the train platform as the stranger takes his seat, crossing his legs and propping his hat on his knee. For a while there’s quiet. Valjean keeps his ear bent on the whistle of the train, but the only sound in the streets is the ragged scrape of the wind and the distant whinny of a horse.
“You’re that fellow what that owns the ranch to the east of here.”
Valjean turns, and finds the man is looking at him, perhaps having been watching him the whole time. “I’d hardly call it a ranch,” Valjean says with a polite smile. “I’ve only the one cow, for milk.”
“Ah, beg pardon, mister. I never did feel that rumor was in the right of things, but you know how the town talks.” The man’s teeth when he grins are a rotted brown ruin.
“I’m not much aware, in point of fact,” Valjean says. He has to repress the urge to drum his fingers nervously on the side of his glass. He hadn’t been aware that the town’s gossip mill had taken notice of a solitary old man at all.
“Oh, all sorts of stories running around the streets these days,” the man is saying, picking his hat up to fan himself. It’s then that Valjean realizes he doesn’t have a drink. “Some folks say you been prospecting out there. Seems the only sensible reason to be out there so far from help.”
There would have been plenty of other ways of emphasizing the distance than that. Valjean sets down his beer and meets the man’s eyes straight. “I like the quiet. I grow whatever will put down roots and that’s the extent of it.”
“Alright, alright mister, I didn’t mean to pry,” the man says raising his hands with another unpleasant smile. “I always told those nattering drunks they ought to no better. You don’t have the looks of a prospector to me, no sir. Except--well, like I said. I don’t mean to pry.”
And then the man shrugged expansively, turning somehow even slyer than before. Valjean forced his fingers on the glass to relax lest he broke it. “I’d rather address whatever rumors you’ve heard.”
“Well, it’s just that man of yours,” his companion continues, eyes glinting. “Haven’t seen him in a while, but he had the look of hired muscle to me. My good friend could have sworn he recognized the man.”
“I wouldn’t know who your friend thought he saw.”
“Well sir, I reckon that’s the truth. My companion is a fair bit hard of seeing.”
At long last the peal of the train whistle sounds in the distance. Valjean nearly leaps to his feet, abandoning his half-empty glass on the table. “Pardon me,” he says, a tad too hastily and kicking himself for it. “I must be off. Thank you for the company.”
“Thank you for the conversation,” the man replies, lifting his hat in farewell. Valjean does not glance back as he makes his way across the street to the platform, though he feels the weight of eyes on his back as powerfully as the beating of the sun. Only as he climbs onto the train does he risked a glance over his shoulder to see the man raise Valjean’s abandoned pint of beer to his lips and take a slow draught, still watching even as the train pulls away.
“I had a strange conversation today,” Valjean says at dinner two nights later, after he has returned once more from his daughter’s hospitality. Javert always wears a tremendous scowl, walking into the house to see Valjean hanging up his coat. Perhaps he wants a clean break; an end to the uncertainty. Yes, that is almost certainty what he wants, and yet Valjean has found himself wholly unable to give it.
Javert grunts noncommittally, but Valjean had been expecting that.
“I think the man might have been an outlaw,” he continues, as idly as if commenting on the weather.
That, of course, gets Javert’s attention. He glances up, sharp-eyed, still chewing his stew. For the first time in a while Valjean has to repress a smile. “What would make you think a thing like that?”
Valjean shrugs, a little recalcitrant. “He seemed overly interested in the idea that I’ve been digging up gold out here.”
“There’s been no gold found for hundreds of miles around here,” Javert says with a snort. “What kind of fool would believe an idea like that?”
“The kind of fool who might come looking for it,” Valjean shot back.
“There’s two of us here, and no cover to speak of. No one would be so stupid.”
“I fear you might be overestimating the intelligence of those who might kill to take what isn’t theirs.”
“I’m familiar enough with thieves,” Javert snaps, and then a moment later, goes still.
Valjean stares at him from across the table, a spoon hovering over his bowl. He waits, a moment, to give Javert a chance to gather himself, to recognize the slip and apologize. But the man merely sits hunched on the other side of the table, not even pretending to eat. It has been so long since either of them has prodded a wound such as that--they have become so very careful of each other--that the pain, freshly ignited, is almost unbearable.
Valjean sets his spoon back in his bowl and pushes it away. “Yes,” he says at last. “I suppose you are.”
He stands, and a shudder moves through Javert’s frame. As he’s turning away he sees Javert’s head rise, a grimace of rigid distress, of shame—but he pours the remainder of his stew back into the pot, and this time it is he who does not pause when Javert calls for him to wait.
Remarkable, how quickly it all falls apart. The domestic patterns Valjean had grown accustomed to without even registering their presence crumble like dry dust in summer. Old tensions long scabbed over now burst open once again. When Valjean rises, Javert is already gone; working on the barn, or in the fields, or simply wandering down the road, out onto the plains, sometimes for hours at a time. Valjean eats his meals alone; if Javert is there, they eat in silence made all the more painful by any stunted attempts at conversation Valjean might try to make.
Once Valjean might have asked him without hesitation where he goes, and why. Now they exchange only what brief words are necessary when they pass each other by. The house feels haunted. Cursed by a presence bound there by some lingering pain or unfinished task, never really there at all—and yet Valjean is uncertain which of them is the ghost.
In the nights he lies awake, listening to the creak of Javert’s feet on the floorboards. If he closes his eyes, he can follow the course of Javert’s pacing; can feel it as if those bare feet trod a path up and down his sternum. From the writing desk to the window; a long pause. The stars are beautiful this far in the country; in his mind’s eye Valjean studies Javert’s face turned upwards to the heavens. It is creased with a slight frown—no, it is set in a scowl. Neither expression seems right, and yet they are all that he can bring to mind. Valjean rolls onto his other side and tries to banish all thought, to ignore the pain which throbs in his chest far deeper even than flesh.
The image of Javert’s face follows him. Now it is smooth; Javert’s smile is a terrible thing, and yet there are times when Valjean has seen a softness in his eyes, a plucking around the corners of his lips like the dry earth cracking beneath the season’s first rain.
Valjean’s breath rattles strangely in his throat; when he raises a hand to his face his fingers come away damp. He stares at the glistening in the moonlight with astonishment. He cannot account for it. He cannot account for any of it.
Is this madness at last? He is grieving without knowing what he grieves for. And yet the pain will not dull; the cord stretching from his heart will not slacken, though he cannot know what it draws him towards. Towards Cosette, surely. Towards living out the rest of his life in comfortable happiness, in tenderness as mild and unbroken as a clear spring day. That future spreads out before him, a flat blue sky. Yet it is barren, empty, and he is bereft.
A clatter from the room beside him; Javert has closed the shutters at last. The footsteps from the other room move away from the window, not to the desk, but to the bed. Valjean listens. The walls are not thin enough that he might hear the rustle of fabric as Javert lies down in bed, and yet Valjean’s mind supplies what his ears cannot. He might have been standing in the room, watching Javert succumb to the soft openness of sleep; the idea gives him a strange sense of shame.
It is only then, with the weight of that darkness pushing down on his soul, that Valjean can close his eyes without seeing the face which has haunted him all his life.
He awakens to his heart lurching into his throat, and a hand on his shoulder that grips him like a talon and yanks him out of the cold.
“You were troubled in your sleep again,” Javert says. Immediately his hand moves away; he is sitting on the bed, Valjean realizes, so close that he can feel the dip of his weight on the thin mattress. Had Javert sat there for a while longer and tried to soothe Valjean’s troubled sleep before waking him? His brow burns as if with a fever or a lingering touch.
It strikes Valjean that he ought to speak; Javert seems ready to get up from the bed, and to Valjean’s relief he remains. His face is turned away, hidden in the darkness.
“Did I make a sound?” Valjean asks. His tongue feels thick in his mouth; when was the last night he slept soundly? Even now on the cusp of sleep, exhaustion still weighs him down.
In the darkness the shake of Javert’s head is almost imperceptible. “I heard you thrashing about.”
Valjean does not ask how awake Javert must have been at this time of night to have perceived such a quiet torment, nor how closely he must have been listening. “Thank you for waking me,” is all he says.
“I said that I would.” Javert shifts; Valjean can feel the movement through the mattress. If Javert were not perched so precariously on the edge of the bed Valjean might even have felt his warmth. “Were you dreaming?”
“I do not remember. I must have been.” Valjean drags a hand over his face. “I am sorry if I woke you.”
Javert says nothing; somehow Valjean’s hand, which he had meant to rest on the coverlet, ends up extending to brush clumsily at Javert’s arm. Just the backs of two knuckles, so light it could have been an accident, the carelessness of sleep. Javert does not shift away. Perhaps this silent language is as close to an apology that either of them can reach; perhaps it is enough. Valjean’s body feels very heavy, his eyelids threatening to close. And yet he must keep them open, for if he closes them Javert will be gone.
“What has happened between us?” Valjean mumbles; it is only when he feels Javert go stiff that he realizes he has spoken the words aloud. And yet, what could he say to retract them when there is nothing to retract? He wants to know, and Javert has not fled.
“It would seem,” Javert says at last, “that we stand at a fork in the ways.”
Valjean blinks, forcing his mind to focus as best as he is able. “It seems to me there is room on either path for two.”
Javert just shakes his head. “I wish that were the case, Valjean.”
Sleep dulls the pain those words should have caused. The backs of Valjean’s knuckles still rest against Javert’s shirtsleeve, and neither of them pull away. He does not understand. And yet, he cannot ask.
“I would request,” he says slowly, “that we might remain friends, at the very least until you feel we must part.”
Javert lets out a hard breath. In the moonlight, and to Valjean’s bleary eyes, he seems surrounded by a pale glow; his dark hair hangs around his face, his whiskers two swaths of shadow crowding in on his jaw. He is not beautiful—far from it. He looks quite terrible, hunched at Valjean’s bedside and facing the shadowed corners of the room as if keeping watch against the darkness; and yet Valjean cannot resist the urge to stroke his sleeve with his knuckles, once, barely more than a flutter. He feels the man shiver though the room is not cold.
“Of course,” Javert says at last. “That was never in question.”
Valjean feels his face break into a smile, the current of sleep uninhibiting him entirely. “Good. Then as a friend, I ask that you come into town with me tomorrow.”
“Pah! So quick to use that as leverage?”
“Perhaps. Will you, all the same?”
Javert shakes his head. “I have no wish to visit with your daughter.”
“Not to Cosette’s—just to buy flour and coffee.” Valjean could not say why he is asking, and yet in this grey-tinged world between wakefulness and sleep he can think of no good reason not to.
Javert stares at his hands, folded in his lap. “I was going to weed the potato patch tomorrow.”
“The weeds can evade your custody for another day.”
Javert snorts; Valjean catches the edge of a smile on the part of his face the moonlight makes visible. “Impossible man. Yes, fine, I will come. But only because we are near out of coffee.”
“I will resist the urge to think it for any other reason,” Valjean says, still smiling. His hand falls away from Javert’s sleeve; for the first time in a long while, he feels at peace. The void he has felt yawning beneath him has closed, if only for a while longer. Still he does not wish to close his eyes; for when he opens them in the morning he knows that gnawing uncertainty will be back. Here, and now, he is not alone; it feels right, exactly right, to have Javert at his side.
And yet, of course, it cannot last.
“Goodnight, Javert,” he mumbles, his lips already clumsy around the words. He is not even aware of having closed his eyes until he feels the brush of something warm against his temple, some time later. He is too tired to raise his head; it must surely be a dream that Javert’s fingers brush a strand of his hair behind his ear, so soft the touch is almost not there at all.
“Goodnight,” Javert says; the pressure on the bed rises, and Valjean sinks into a true and dreamless sleep.
It is selfish, perhaps; but for the next morning Valjean pretends that all is as it was.
He and Javert sit down to breakfast together; Javert complains about the staleness of the bread and Valjean chides him for the barbaric habit of dipping it in his coffee, which in turn sets Javert off on as long an anecdote as he is capable of telling, of all the ways that he and his fellow marshalls made their poor fare more palatable while tracking outlaws in the canyonlands. By the time they are setting off down the road Valjean is smiling to himself like a fool, and trying very hard not to think of how all this will soon be at an end.
“I was wondering,” Javert says.
They have walked at least half the road to town in silence now, each gripping the horse’s reins on either side of the bridle. Javert had insisted Valjean ride, but the restless buoyancy in Valjean’s legs had insisted that he walk; and so they both do, side by side, exasperated and companionable and kicking up dust with every step.
“Wondering?” Valjean prompts, when Javert does not continue. He’s tugging at his whiskers again, with the hand not gripping the reins; the glance he shoots Valjean across the horse’s nose is wary.
“If you were to accept your daughter’s offer,” Javert begins, and Valjean’s breath catches. They have scarcely managed to speak civilly of this, and Valjean can’t help but brace for a blow. “The homestead--perhaps I could buy it off you.”
Valjean is silent a moment, simply for lack of knowing what to say. “I do not have much in the way of assets,” Javert continues, stiff and awkward. “As you know, I had very little to begin with before you insisted on paying me a wage. But if you would entrust me to the property’s upkeep, and allow me to profit from what I might eke from the land, in time I might be able to offer you a fair price.”
Valjean finds himself shaking his head in spite of himself. “Javert, there is no question about it. You are welcome to remain there as long as you please. And besides,” Valjean continues, a little awkwardly now himself. “I still haven’t decided my own course of action one way or another.”
Javert stops, and because Valjean’s hand is on the other side of the horse’s bridle, he stops too. Javert steps forward to fix him with a piercing stare that would have withered the toughest card sharp.
“How could there possibly be more to ponder?” he demands. “The matter is perfectly simple. You love your daughter more than anything, she and her idiot husband have forgiven you all your--”
Javert stumbles, as if uncertain how to qualify Valjean’s past in a way which offends neither of them. In the end he simply waves it off. “What, then? You would spend weeks debating the finer points of living on a beautiful estate with a family that loves you, verses remaining on a dusty old homestead with a disgraced marshall who can’t even keep from insulting you over the course of a single conversation? How can there be any contest at all?”
Valjean strokes the warm velvet of his horse’s nose, whose nostrils flare at the tone in Javert’s voice. “I don’t know,” he says softly, and perhaps it’s the truth of that, voiced at last, which makes him smile. “But there is.”
He looks up to find Javert frowning at him in consternation, the brim of his hat shading his dark eyes.
“Well,” Javert says, in a tone which teeters between affront at Valjean’s irrational behavior and what could almost be the beginnings of a smile. “That makes no sense, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
Valjean stops bothering to quell his smile as they continue walking once more, though he cannot put a name to the feeling in his breast. He feels--lighter, somehow. As if by articulating the source of his confusion, he has managed to free himself from it. The thought of rejecting Cosette’s offer fills him with a sick swell of guilt and fear. When has he denied his daughter anything? But he thinks of that morning at breakfast, Javert tugging at his whiskers as Valjean poured his coffee, Javert pulling his braces over his shoulders as they rose to clear the table; Javert with him and happy and at peace. The thought warms him deeper than the sun.
By the time they make it into town Valjean has to stop himself from whistling. Normally they might separate to complete their tasks more quickly; today Javert accompanies Valjean to the provisioner to purchase more feed for the animals and themselves, and Valjean needles Javert into seeing the local clothier to decide on a price for replacing the stained, tattered lining of his old coat. As they walk side by side, their shoulders brushing as companionably as if there had never been a rift between them of late or over the long years before, Valjean feels overcome with the need to seize the arm beside him; to hold Javert close to him and bask in the new togetherness they have forged.
Has he ever felt such a thing before? Perhaps something similar for Cosette--and yet it is different, so very different, as of course it must be. Javert is no miserable waif in need of care and protection; at his worst he had been more akin to a wild animal, snapping at every kindness. Valjean cannot make sense of this desire to be close to him, to have his arm linked with Javert’s and the solidity of him at his side. Must he understand it? Might he explain to his daughter that he needs more time, to unravel whatever strangeness is knitting itself into his heart?
He gives in to the strange impulse at last, as he and Javert step from the shop, to link the man’s arm; Javert stares down at him as if he’s just burst into a lewd tavern song in the midst of a church service, and yet with something like embarrassed pleasure he submits to the touch without a word.
It is not until they are returning to the blacksmith to collect the new horse shoes Valjean ordered at his previous trip into town, he feels Javert stiffen. He almost releases the man’s arm on instinct, certain that these stolen moments of closeness have come to an end; but then Javert’s grip on him tightens , and when Valjean looks to his face it is hard with a tension that once would have been familiar, had it not been absent for so long.
“What is it?” Valjean asks, quiet.
“Something,” Javert begins, and falls silent again. “I am not certain,” he says at last, his eyes scanning the buildings. There are others strolling the main street, men with the glinting chains of their pocketwatches and their black tailcoats barely dulled by the dust and women strolling on their husbands’ arms with silver on their fingers. Surely if there were thieves about, two careworn travelers with one horse between them would not be an appealing target. And yet Valjean finds his eyes darting from alleyway to alleyway, doorway to doorway, seeking whatever Javert has seen. In the doorway of the saloon he sees a face which sparks a moment of recognition--but he is already turning towards the unlit doorway, and then he has folded himself into the darkness within.
“We should get back,” Javert says tightly, and at last allows Valjean’s arm to drop from his own.
They are halfway back to the homestead when Javert tugs on the reins, just enough so that their old mare slows her pace and Valjean falls back beside the saddle where Javert rides.
“Do not stop or turn around,” Javert says, his voice low and level; at once Valjean feels a finger of ice run down his spine, goosebumps rising under the touch of the sun. “We are being followed.”
Valjean takes a steadying breath, and reaches up to steady himself on the horse’s bridle. “Who? Why?”
“The Minette gang.” Javert is slumped in his seat as if with the weariness of the road, his bowed head keeping their voices low. “I thought I recognized one of them, but I was not certain. It has been so long. Not long enough, it would seem, that they did not recognize me .” He swears under his breath, a low growl. “I was careless. I should have suspected they would follow us.”
“You couldn’t have known,” Valjean says softly. The urge to look behind them is so powerful he almost cannot resist it. Is that the gait of another horse beneath the clip of their own horse’s hooves? How many riders are down the road from them? “If we can make it to the homestead--”
Javert shakes his head. “They will make their move before then, and their horses are surely faster.” He raises his eyes, his head still lowered. “That rock formation ahead, just off the path. We will need cover; no doubt they far outnumber us, but they will be disorganized. If we can catch them unawares and scatter them…” Javert’s jaw is tight. “We will have only the one chance.”
Valjean nods, his heart beating fast. “Do we run?”
“No. You have already stopped to gather herbs before; we will make a ruse of it now.”
To continue at a steady pace with the knowledge of creeping pursuit on their heels is nearly unbearable. Valjean would be wholly incapable of it, would have broken ranks and bolted long before, were it not for Javert. The man is still in the saddle, steady as a rock amidst a swirling maelstrom. At times Valjean’s shoulder bumps Javert’s leg in the stirrup. He wants to reach up and put a hand on the back of the man’s calf, to absorb some of that righteous strength.
“Hold steady,” Javert says, as if through that jostling contact he can feel the brush of Valjean’s panic. No, it is not that--it is merely that the man knows him, just as Valjean has come to know Javert. And for that reason he follows his directives, knowing that if there is any man to guide them out of this, it is the one beside him now.
The rock formation looms closer, a stark outline against the darkening sky. “Veer from the path now,” Javert says softly. “Make it clear what you are doing; when you reach the halfway point, beckon me over as if you have found something. I will follow.”
Valjean nods. He does not wish to leave the aura of Javert’s competency, to walk out into that open space with nothing but a ploy to protect him. He allows his shoulder to brush Javert’s leg one last time; and then Javert is hissing, “Valjean, it must be now,” and he is turning as if his attention has been caught, stepping off the road and onto the cracked red earth beside it.
He bends to pluck at a dead stalk of sage as if it is some precious reagent. He follows an invisible path, picking up twigs, rocks, scrapings of lichen, and hoping that their pursuers are far enough away or ignorant enough about plants not to notice his subterfuge. Is it a trail of dust rising from the road farther behind in the corner of his eye? He turns farther away, moving towards the looming rock formation. The silence in this empty place was beautiful, once; now it is stretched as tight as the skin of a drum, and his heart beats upon it in his ears until he can hear nothing else.
Halfway. He raises his head to the promontory and then turns on an axis opposite from the way they came to gesture Javert over. His movements feel stiff, contrived. Surely their pursuers will realize what is happening, and spur their horses into a gallop to intercept. One stray bullet would be all it took.
He waits with his back to the road, listening to the clop of their horse’s hooves drawing nearer. When at last he hears the hard thud of Javert’s boots hitting the dirt, something in him relaxes.
“They have quickened their pace,” Javert whispers as he leads the horse forward. If they appear to be in whispered conference it will only lead credence to the fiction of some new discovery. “We will make it behind that outcropping, and when they follow we will have surprise, cover, and the higher ground.”
They begin picking their way up the slope, leading the horse behind them. The pillar of red rock looms before them, like a tower from some fable. Valjean thinks of his rifle, leaning in the corner of the kitchen at home. There had seemed no cause to bring it for a routine trip into town. All they have is the single pistol on Javert’s hip, there by grace only of long habit.
Soon they have reached the crumbling mass of rock. There are boulders which have tumbled down from its heights over the millenia; as soon as they are out of sight of the road Javert hustles their horse farther around the rock where it might escape the storm of bullets to come. There is a worm of nausea twisting in the pit of Valjean’s stomach; part of him has yet to fully accept that this is happening. He is meant to continue home, to make a pot of coffee on the hearth and sip it at the table with Javert. They had time yet to savor together.
The realization comes like a bolt of lightning: Valjean does not want to die. He has only ever fought tooth and nail for his survival or the safety of his daughter on mindless instinct alone. There was a time, these past months, where that instinct has finally left him; and were it not for Javert, Valjean does not doubt he would have gladly allowed it to go. Were it not for Javert, he would not feel the fear whipping his heart into a gallop, the sweat breaking cold in his palms.
“Wait here,” Javert hisses as he goes, gesturing to a low ridge of rock, high enough for them to crouch behind and low enough to shoot over. Valjean slides to the earth, heart pounding, and for the first time risks craning his head over it to glance at the road. The pillar of dust is unmistakable now; and it has already veered from the road towards their current position.
Javert is back in an instant, following Valjean’s lead in studying their adversary’s course. His expression when he ducks back behind their cover is one of grim satisfaction.
“Most murderers are cowards. If we catch them unawares and at such an advantage, they may scatter and even flee. That will be our best hope.” He draws his pistol from its holster, checking the cartridge before raising his eyes to Valjean’s. “Do you know how to use this?”
Valjean shrinks away from it as if Javert has pointed it directly at him. “Not nearly as well as you.”
“And if I become unable to use it, will you be able to keep firing?”
Javert’s gaze is hard. Valjean meets it with a desperation that tightens around his throat like a fist. “That won’t happen.”
“It might. Do you or do you not know how to fire a pistol, Valjean?”
“I—” Valjean falters. It seems hopeless to continue arguing. “I do,” he says at last. “But I--I have never shot anyone.”
Javert nods grimly. “Let us hope today will not be the first time.” And then he raises his hand in a gesture for silence; in the terrible void that follows his words, Valjean can hear the trot of horses’ hooves approaching their position.
“Where did they go?” a voice comes in a sharp whisper, wheedling. Another hisses something unintelligible, and the voices fall silent. The clink of spurs; the sharper and more distinct click of a pistol being cocked.
“Five of them,” Javert says, his lips barely moving. Five outlaws, six shots. Valjean’s heart sinks. He thinks again of his hunting rifle, uselessly miles away--when he looks at Javert, he thinks perhaps he would be able to use it. Perhaps God would damn him for it, but he would do anything in this power not to let this man die.
“What can I do?” Valjean hisses, his hands clenching empty and useless at his side.
“Stay down,” Javert says, as the clip of horse’s hooves pauses and the thud of boots hitting the dry earth follows. One final glance. Javert’s eyes are dark, his hat pulled low, his mouth a grim line. It is not a face Valjean has ever had cause to search for softness in. And yet there is something, in his eyes. A kind of misery unrelated to the task before them. He stares at Valjean as if memorizing his face for a wanted poster, committing every line to memory. “I will do what I can.”
“Javert—” But then the man is rising up to level his pistol on the rock, and the shot which echoes over the rock and hard earth reverberates like a stone dropped in water.
At once things happen very quickly. There is a cry of pain from below, followed by a chorus of curses; Javert drops back just as the storm of bullets begins. Pieces of the rock around them explode in clouds of dust, showering them with slivers as sharp as needles. Valjean crouches lower against their cover as if he could sink into the ground itself; somehow, through it all, Javert waits as patiently as the stone, until the first break in the gunfire comes as he is up again with his second bullet, taking a precious half-second to aim before the shot sounds out again. Another howl of agony--and perhaps God will punish him for it, but Valjean has never been so relieved to hear a creature in pain in his life.
“They haven’t scattered,” Javert says, and then, “We have to move, or they’ll pin us down.”
Half-stooped, half-crawling, they hurry farther down the edge of their cover. Their strip of cover is long, though it grows lower the farther it goes. The voices from below are louder now, though Valjean cannot seem to make out what they are saying. His mind is scattered into a shrapnel spray of a dozen razor points of focus; the hard-packed earth beneath his palms, the sound of Javert’s breathing behind him, the position of the rock in relation to his head and any part of it that might be left open to a bullet. By the time they reach their new position Valjean is breathing hard, from stress as much as exertion. It is lower here; they must slump until they are almost lying down in order to avoid being seen.
For a moment there is a pause. In the wake of the gunshots the silence rings in Valjean’s ears. And then, a human voice.
“Good afternoon, marshall,” it calls, filled with a sickening joviality. At the sound of it Javert’s face screws up with a degree of fury Valjean has yet to witness.
“He will attempt to distract us,” Javert mutters, seemingly as much to himself as to Valjean. “Montparnasse,” he calls. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“The surprise is all mine,” the man continues, his wry voice echoing over the stone. “Imagine my disbelief when Babet came to me with rumor that our old friend Javert was not dead after all, but had been holing up in some desolate shed, under our very noses. I scarcely believed him myself, until I saw you in town today.”
“How fortunate,” Javert says. “And how is Babet now?”
A pause. “You will pay dearly for every drop of his blood,” Montparnasses says at last, his tone as polished as a blade. “From the sounds of it, you only have the single gun. How good is your aim, marshall?”
“Good enough.” Even as he speaks Javert’s eyes scan their surroundings, waiting for the moment that Montparnasse’s distraction serves its purpose.
“It will have to be,” Montparnasse is saying. “Because as soon as you run out of bullets, we’re going to come up there and make you watch that old man die so ugly you’ll wish you’d spent your last bullet on him yourself—”
A flicker of motion from the corner of their eye, and Javert is already moving. The shot rings out; the movement darts away. Javert’s face is hard; he does not need to say that he missed.
Valjean’s heart clenches. There is no room for error now, and the gang is closing in. He can hear their voices spreading out--not scattering in panic, but fanning out to come at them from multiple directions. That is how they will end: Javert shooting one way while Valjean can only watch as another outlaw steps out from the other side of their cover, this time with no gunshot to drive him back.
“Three shots left, marshall,” Montparnasse calls out. “Take care how you spend them.”
The sense of helplessness seizes around Valjean with a force that knocks his breath out. His eyes scrape their surroundings, looking for any course of escape; they are very near to a long tumble of stone here, with ample large boulders to provide cover. The gap between their current hideout and the next barrier of stone is but five feet, perhaps a few more.
“Javert,” Valjean says, and waits until the man glances his way. “The other boulder is just there, and there’s more easy cover past it. I could draw their fire, and you could strike when their attention is on me.”
“Out of the question,” Javert snaps, his eyes craning back over the edge of the rock. The sound of a shot, and more chips of stone scatter over them; the bullet had skimmed over the edge of their shelter, missing Javert by scant inches. He shrinks back out of sight with a curse. “It’s too dangerous—”
“They’ll be on us in a moment,” Valjean says desperately. Even now he can hear the crunch of their boots on the cracked earth.
“Javert,” he begins, holding the man’s gaze in earnest now. He wants to touch him, one last time. Instead he simply looks, and thinks he understands the expression in the man’s eyes from moments before. The will to hold every detail inside of himself in case things went the wrong way--in case he could carry it with him, on the long journey that would follow.
Without another word he goes. He is old, and he has starved his body into a fraction of its former self; but the previous months have been better, and he has ever been known for his agility. He has his feet under him and in an instant is lunging forward, the short distance just before him, the last sliver of cover until the void, and then he is diving into it.
No stone to protect him; he feels as if he is falling through those final feet, which seem to telescope outward in front of him into an impossible distance. His legs are weak from having folded them beneath him, and yet his momentum carries him forward, the shadow of the rock’s safety opening up like a cool sheltered doorway on a blazing day, and he falls into it—
The sound is so loud that Valjean can feel its concussion in his chest, feel it ripping through him like a physical thing; and how could a sound hurt so badly? He is on his knees, somehow; his skin feels cold but his chest is warm--is wet. There is shouting. In front of his eyes something dark drips onto the sandy earth. On instinct alone he drags himself forward, into the lee of the rock, though he cannot remember why it was important that he be there in the first place.
A second shot; somewhere very nearby something heavy drops to the dirt beside him. Valjean is distantly aware of more shouting, more gunshots cracking from what seems to be right above his head; the shouts grow farther away and he is afraid if he tries to follow them he'll get farther away too, so instead he simply lies there and feels the pain rise and fall like a saw blade moving back and forth through his chest.
Hands, gripping him. He cries out, but is too weak to struggle as they turn him over, the pain spiking from his chest straight into his skull. He is staring at the sky, behind the overhanging eaves of the rocks above. It is as flat as a painted backdrop, an absurd shade of blue. The sun is in his eyes; and then it is Javert’s face above him.
"You fool," Javert hisses. The sun beats down on the surface of Valjean’s skin, and yet the cold in his body is ice that would not melt. He knows, from the angle of Javert's face, that his arms must be around him; and yet he cannot feel them. His voice comes as sharp as if he is barking orders to a subordinate, except for the crack within them. "Why would you do that? Why?”
Valjean smiles. His face feels strangely numb;the expressions moving across it are as distant as clouds. “Are we safe now?”
Javert’s expression draws further in on itself. Valjean has never seen him in this kind of pain. “Montparnasse is dead. The last two bolted for their horses when he fell.”
Valjean reaches up to grip at Javert’s arm. It’s a pleasant thing, to be held this way. He does not think anyone has ever done so. But the pain is a sick, twisting worm which burrows deeper into him by the moment; he can tell that soon it will be all he has left.
“You can’t ride like this,” Javert is saying, one hand hovering over the wound. “I--I will need to go fetch the doctor.”
“No.” Valjean’s hand tightens on his arm. “Javert. No. Just--stay with me, please. It is not so bad, like this.”
“I will not hear you talk like that,” Javert snarls.
Valjean cannot tell what his face is doing. He hopes he has retained his smile. “I would rather you be here,” he says softly.
“I will not stay here just to watch you die.”
“Would you rather I do so alone?” Javert turns away, his teeth set in a grimace of agony. "You must not blame yourself."
"I blame the fool who dove in front of a bullet.” His voice is hoarse. Perhaps he means that Valjean should save his strength; Valjean does not think so. Javert's thumb strokes his cheek, too fast to be soothing. It is as if he is wiping away tears, but Valjean's face is dry. "I will blame you, Valjean, by God I swear it—if you leave like this I will never forgive you."
There is something in Javert's words. Something which begins to click into place. He does not understand, not fully, not yet, for the cold is slowing his thoughts, making him numb and stupid; but on a level deeper than thought, a spark of warmth appears.
"Ah," he says, his hand rising; he catches a bright flash of red staining his own fingers before Javert meets him halfway, seizing his hand and gripping it as if at any minute Valjean is going to stand up and walk away. There is no danger of that. What he wants, quite badly in fact, is to sleep. He has been tired for so long—has he ever truly slept? Had he slept since the night of the shootout, since he was mayor, since the chain gang? Surely he has earned this now. Surely it is time.
"Do not," Javert snarls, as if reading Valjean's thoughts on his face. "If you close your eyes, so help me God I will slap you.”
"You should have said." Valjean attempts to give the hand in his own a squeeze. He cannot tell whether he succeeds or not.
Javert makes a sound, dredged up from deep inside. It is nothing like a laugh. "What could I have said?"
"Anything. Anything would have done just fine."
Javert swallows, hard. Valjean can scarcely begin to imagine the things knotting themselves around his throat. The doubt and self-hatred. The longing Valjean was himself too blind to recognize, even in himself.
“Jean, I--I am going to go,” Javert says at last. “I am going to get the doctor.”
Valjean closes his eyes, though only for a moment; for the grip Javert tightens on his hand is of iron, and even his numbed digits can feel it. In the end, he was always going to go. It’s simply the sort of man he is.
"I wish we might have had more time," he says, though it seems to him they could not have asked for more—they have had a lifetime, together, one way or another, spent three decades in slow orbit around each other, around the central point they are crashing towards now. Valjean would have liked to see what their lives might look like, in the aftermath. He can scarcely imagine. He wants to.
“Promise me,” Javert says, his voice barely holding together. “Promise me you will be alive when I return. And then I’ll tell you. I’ll tell it all.”
What is the sum of Valjean’s life, if not a series of lies? It would seem a pity to go to his Maker with the taste of one on his lips. And yet he nods, though the motion pains him. “I will be waiting to hear it.”
Javert bends forward then. Valjean feels the scrape of his whiskers against his cheek, the agonized twisting of his brow. Javert’s forehead against his own feels fever-hot. The touch could burn right through him. A trace of moisture touches Valjean’s cheek, and then Javert is laying him as gently as he is able on the hard stone, the pain shooting through him like a living thing struggling to get free. And then, Valjean is alone.
The sun is very bright overhead, but the edges of his vision seem to be turning grey. There is only the sound of his own rasping breaths, which he finds he must focus on in order to continue. In the distance, the sound of hoofbeats moving farther and farther away.
Valjean does not close his eyes; he stares up into the sky as if he might see the face of God taking shape in it above him. The pain is quite terrible; he would not be sorry to escape it. And yet he forces breath after breath into his unwilling lungs, for his work here is not yet done. He thinks of his daughter. Of the homestead, with its familiar comfort. He thinks of Javert, and the grey in his vision rears up like a wave, like the edges of a well he's tumbling down. An endless fall. His lips mumble a prayer, though he is not certain of the words. The darkness, when it closes around him, is absolute, and he gives himself wholly to its care.
Shout-out to everyone still reading this for being so patient with these ridiculously slow and erratic updates. I promise we're in the endzone here <3
They use no whips. The cold is their driver. It sinks into metal and inhabits it, makes it a living thing, like fire, a thing which can burn. Lips cracked first and then hands, faces, each part of them in turn growing hard and splitting like blistered fruit. They are given no gloves, and the manacles sear their wrists black with frostbite, skin which sloughs off red and bloody in the agony of the thaw.
Behind schedule--this length of track should have been finished come October, but it’s late November now and the cold has come stalking down from the higher mountains, that pale sword of Damocles hanging above them, gleaming frost-white in the morning sun, blood on the snow come evening. Suspended by a single horsehair, and now the thread has snapped and the laws of nature are their executioner.
“Cosette,” Valjean croaks, and his throat splits under those meaningless syllables. Words are foreign currency here.
“Father?” A voice which does not belong. But he cannot move, cannot open his eyes; he is trapped, icy cold. Once, after a poorly-planned blast, he saw the side of a mountain come alive and slither towards them like a river. On the chain there was no running. It struck Valjean like a locomotive, crushed beneath it, helpless. He tries to flail but his limbs will not answer him. The pain sinks poisoned fangs into his chest.
Distantly he can hear a voice calling for a doctor, but he can make no sense of that--there is no doctor here, not for a gang of convicts. His limbs are--were?--locked in the snow, and he had to fight through it, fight using the final dregs of his terrible strength, following the chain of his fellows towards what must be the light.
“Father, please, you’re safe,” the voice says, far closer than it should be; someone has seized his hand. Is he safe? Has he made it out? His breath comes in desperate pants, the sweat standing on his brow. When he opens his eyes he will be lying out on the snow, and he will watch as one of the overseers brings an axe down on the chain on his wrist, the length that extends deeper into the snow, cutting short the feeble twitching which traveled up its length like the cord of a womb leading into death.
He had felt nothing then; he weeps now. Hands brush his brow and he flinches away. His chest--it hurts too terribly to contemplate. Even now the weight of the mountain sits on his chest.
“Papa, please open your eyes.” The voice is so close to his ear, its speaker must have pressed their face to the top of his head. Happiness is a shallow pool and the memory the sensation stirs ripples it easily. Cosette. All those years gone by. He is--lost, spun out in a void. He cannot recall where he is or how he got there, only that everything is strange and his life is panes of glass falling, each facet catching the light for only an instant.
“Javert,” Valjean says, a name dredged out of him which creates the man as he speaks it: a lingering shadow, dark deep-set eyes, the growl of a hard voice. More voices in the room, now; for it is a room, and he is in a bed, not locked in a grave of snow. The cool lip of a glass is pressed to his lips; he takes one sip and finds it far bitterer than water, so foul he would spit it out if he had the strength. He does not; the tincture slides down his unresisting throat to bloom hot in his stomach. The small hand stroking his brow is not so hateful to him now. The strange numbing heat creeps from his stomach to his chest, and at last his heart begins to slow.
“...terrible shock,” an unfamiliar voice is saying from a long way away. “You ought to remain with him. Let him hear your voice.”
“Yes, yes of course,” Cosette says, and Valjean recognizes her now; recognizes also the sound of tears snarled in the back of her throat, and the sound of another man thanking the doctor as he leaves. He is calming, now, whether he wills it or not; whatever medicine he has swallowed is seeing to that. Memory churns, spitting up more meaningless fragments. The dust of the road on his face like ashes. Red rock plunging into a expressionless sky. And Javert, staring down at him in anguish.
“Papa, can you hear me?” she murmurs, and Valjean, at last, opens his eyes. At first he sees nothing at all; his vision skates over colors and shapes like fast-moving water over a riverbed, obscuring more than it reveals. There are two shapes at his bedside, one gripping his hand in delicate fingers--his daughter. The other, then, must be Marius. His eyes rove over the room as if in a fever. The dark shadows loom, thrown high by the lamp burning low; and yet none of those shadows contain a familiar figure lingering near the edges of the room.
Valjean licks his dry lips. “Javert. Where is Javert?”
Cosette and Marius exchange a glance. His hand on his daughter's tightens. "Cosette?"
"He will return soon, papa," she says, with a weak smile Valjean can hear but not see. "He sat by your bed and gave you his word while you slept, before swearing the same oath to us."
Valjean lets out a shuddering breath, closing his eyes. The pain in his chest bears down on him, too heavy even to breathe. The sound of gunshots echo in his skull, the pain they drag behind them like bullets through the brain. He remembers. Good god.
"He has gone after them," he whispers.
Cosette hesitates; but of course there is no hiding it without the use of a blatant lie. Her hand wrings his. Valjean feels the trembling of that knowledge down to his very soul, feels it as the pound of Javert’s hoofbeats on the dry desert ground, surging out into the red waste following the same ragged edge of desperation as the outlaws who had escaped him. Doing so on Valjean’s account. If Javert were to not return, the blame would be his, too.
In the darkness behind his eyes he sees Javert’s face, so close to his, eyes gleaming not with conviction but with tears. The sun behind his head not a halo but a brand, and Javert’s face is little more than a shadow. Valjean can feel its heat blistering his skin even now, his lips, which it seems retain some unconscious memory of a touch he was not awake to perceive.
Cosette's grip on his hand becomes one of iron. "Father," she says softly, and like a summoning Valjean must open his eyes. Gone is the vision of Javert, made a dark pillar by the blinding light. His daughter sits before him, and she looks frightened not in the way of a girl, but in that of a woman who understands loss.
"I do not believe there is any man alive who is less likely to break his word,” she says softly. “He promised he would come back to you, and so he will. I know he will."
Cosette's bright eyes shine with conviction. In the end, Valjean can say nothing, though he wishes, as always, to give her comfort. He is too heavy, too tired, he is clay, mute and crumbling. Though he tries desperately to hold his daughter’s gaze, the pain is pulling him in too many directions at once; and like cloth tugged from too many stray threads, he unravels into nothing once more.
Valjean opens his eyes to warmth, and light, and a pressure constricting his left hand like a serpent.
Dry tongue rasps over dry palate, a dusty plow dragged over a salt flat. He remembers there should be pain, but there is something standing between it and him; a swaddling cloud which gums his eyes and numbs his jaw and makes him a stranger within his own skin, his mind is attached to his body by a long and fragile cord; and on the other end of that cord he is aware of a distant pain like the heat of a nearby fire.
The pressure on his hand squeezes and squeezes. Valjean licks his lips, and forces himself to pull himself back down that long cord, a Herculean task which grows only more difficult, his attention and the pain sharpening as one. The edges of the room materialize; shelves lined with bottles, neatly labelled, and rows of books above them. A window spilling what must be morning sunlight into his lap; but isn’t it afternoon? And there, beside his bed, Javert.
His hair unbound and hanging about his face, the normally sharply defined lines of his whiskers grown shaggy from lack of care. It is he who has Valjean’s hand, wrapped in both of his own pressed to his brow, where he squeezes and rubs Valjean’s fingers as he might worry at a string of rosary beads. His attitude is one of prayer; and yet in the silence of that small room and the pain pushing new green shoots from his chest, Valjean hears nothing but the sound of his carefully measured breathing.
The effort of squeezing his hand seems a gargantuan task, and yet Valjean manages it; at once Javert raises his head and looks at him. His eyes are redded from lack of sleep, the lines around his mouth and eyes cut deep as if he has aged a decade.
“You’re awake,” he says. The words are barely a croak. Javert clears his throat, winces as if in pain. “The doctor was not—he could not be sure when you would.”
Doctor. Yes, he recognizes this place now; he had visited the shop when Javert’s fever was at its worse. Slowly the events of his recent memory begin to knit themselves back into shape. “I was shot.”
With the hand not currently arrested in Javert’s grip, he reaches for the blankets pulled over his chest. Fast as a striking rattlesnake one of Javert’s hands shoots forth to catch his fingers, and gently draw them away. “It is not so bad,” Javert says, his voice terrifying in its softness. “But you ought not to look yet.”
Valjean nods. He is too tired to argue, too tired to even feel fear. “Cosette?”
“Here. Sleeping, I believe. Shall I fetch her?”
“Not yet.” Valjean squeezes Javert’s hands again, because he can; because it feels good to do so, and because the deep gash of worry between Javert’s brow seems to grow shallower when he does.
Javert nods. Valjean sees his throat bob with a hard swallow; he tugs Valjean’s hands as if in the aborted gesture of bringing them back to his own brow. “It has been three days,” he begins in a flat voice. “The doctor said you had lost too much blood, that a man of your age—but you survived the night, and there was no sign of infection. Cosette and her dolt of a husband arrived hours after I sent word.”
Valjean licks his lips. “When I woke the first time, you were gone.”
This close, there is nowhere for Javert to hide. Though he is the one gripping Valjean’s hand it seems for an instant that Valjean has him trapped, that without the weight of Valjean’s fingers he might flee. He does not flee. He sits very quietly and holds Valjean’s hand, and it is nice, so nice he might not even need whatever it is the doctor has given him, if Javert were to remain. Likely he would not feel the same once the doctor’s medicines wore off, but it was a pleasant thought.
“I am sorry,” Javert says at last. “You were asleep, the doctor said you would live, but there was--there was nothing I could do, but this. And I had to see it done.”
The pain in Javert’s voice, the regret, awakens something equal in Valjean’s chest. He finds his own breath heaving, his hand gripping Javert’s with all the meager strength his body can summon.
“I understand,” he says. His voice is rough. “And is it--is it done?”
“Yes. The remaining members of the Patron Minette are behind bars in the sheriff’s office not one street over.”
Valjean blinks. “You accomplished this all on your own?”
“What? No.” Javert’s brows draw together. “Surely you did not think I was that foolish. What sorts of idiot notions did that fool Pontmercy put in your head?”
“I may have leapt to certain assumptions,” Valjean says, a tad sheepishly.
“Hmph. Indeed. I assure you, I was nothing but diligent and deliberate in my pursuit of justice. I reported to the sheriff’s office and assisted in drawing together a posse.”
“You spoke with the sheriff?” Valjean’s head is beginning to gently spin; his head seems too shallow a vessel for so much thought. “They will know you to be alive, then.”
For a moment, Javert looks tired. “It would be rather difficult to hide, after Montparnasse’s stunt. It was… a strange conversation. But it served its purpose; the outlaws will not trouble anyone again, and the details of my being alive will resolve themselves one way or another.”
Valjean squeezes his hand. “Good. Please, do not leave me again.”
Valjean had not known he was about to make such a request until it had already passed his lips. Even now, it feels like only the most natural thing in the world to ask. Perhaps he and Javert could pretend that he spoke only of Javert sitting by his bedside; but the marshall has never once indulged in artifice and in that regard Valjean does not sense much capacity for change.
He cannot even bring himself to retract the statement. For the thought that Javert would be with him--with him always, in mind and spirit if not in body, their lives twined together not only by circumstance but by will and declaration, that they should not be parted in any meaningful capacity again: Valjean wants that. And he finds he no longer has the strength to attempt to deny it.
Javert stares at him, at their joined hands. His head is bowed as if in prayer; without his hat to cloak his head and shadow his face, Valjean can see the dull iron in his hair made silver by the filtered sun. It is not kind, this light; it deepens the lines around Javert’s mouth and nose, gathers the crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes, the parallel tracks in his forehead where frowns have run with the regularity of freight trains.
In this light nothing can be hidden. Not the glacial gouges years of cruelty have carved into Javert’s face, a living history which speaks to the passage of some cold and terrible thing which has left him marked, even now; and yet neither does it hide the way those hard features stir to hope, the molten gleam over his eyes. He swallows, hard. And then he nods. But his eyes are on Valjean’s chest, the ruin of it hidden yet.
“I could not have borne it,” he says, and then stops. His voice does not quite remain level at the end of such a sentiment. Those long fingers are tight in Valjean’s hand; tighter still when Valjean raises their joined hands to press a kiss to Javert’s hand. His eyes are lowered, but he hears Javert’s sharp gasp as his lips form chastely around the mountain range of Javert’s knuckles, as soft as a passing cloud. He shifts their intertwined hands so they lay beside his head on the pillow--not over his heart, as he may have liked them, but such a location seems presently unwise. He turns his cheek so that it rests against the back of Javert’s hand. They remain like that for some time.
“Well,” Javert says at last, a chisel-strike of a word, wielded shakily. His fingers slip free of Valjean’s; they glide, for a moment, over his cheeks, the swipe of a long thumb under his eyes--wiping away tears Valjean had not been aware were there. He repeats an action on himself, more furtively; and Valjean cannot help but warm at the thought of their pain and their joy mingled on Javert’s skin.
“I will fetch the doctor, and your daughter,” Javert says. His hand hovers in the air between them, reaching, hesitant; and then it falls. “Rest. I will return in a moment.”
Valjean nods, his eyes drifting closed; the warmth of Javert’s hand disappears, and his boots creak across the floorboards towards the door, beyond which waits his daughter and her husband and a world of difficulties to come. For now, it is peaceful; the pain in his chest remains at bay and he waits, patiently, for his loved ones to return.
Javert attends the hanging—Valjean does not. He can picture Javert perfectly, however; a tall dark figure in the center of the crowd, his face hard and joyless; he would stand witness until the bodies stilled, and no longer than that. Valjean supposes he cannot begrudge him such a task, to see the hunt fulfilled to its inevitable end.
When he returns to the doctor’s house, where Valjean is sitting up and eating his first meal other than broth and soggy bread, Javert’s face is set with grim satisfaction. They do not speak of it--not at first. Not until the hours have waxed near their fullest as they read engage in easy arguments and then sit in a long contemplative silence does Javert speak again. Skimming the shallows of sleep, Valjean starts back to himself at the sound of his given name spoken so softly it should barely have woken him.
He opens his eyes and turns to meet Javert’s gaze; the man is staring at him with an expression reminiscent of the one he wore with far more frequency after Valjean had scraped him out of the desert.
When he speaks, it is quieter even than he had intoned Valjean’s name. “Is it wrong, to believe they did not deserve mercy?”
Valjean reaches for him; months ago, in that other lifetime that is now difficult to imagine, Javert would have swatted at him like a feral cat. Now he hesitates only a moment before leaning closer to allow his hand to be pressed. “Every soul deserves mercy,” Valjean says quietly. “But there must also be justice.”
Javert ducks his head, saying nothing, and Valjean rubs the weathered lines of his hand until the shadow passes once more.
It is another two weeks before Valjean is deemed well enough to travel. When the doctor confirms he is well enough to return home and Valjean announces his intentions to do so, Cosette spends a good parcel of time trying to convince him to return back with her--and when that fails, to hire a carriage to bring him back to the homestead in the greatest ease. To no avail, for as Valjean’s strength returns and his wounds begin to knit he feels the necessary coddling of his doctor and family an increasing discomfort. Only Javert returns to something approximating his usual self, aloof and yet somehow always close at hand, and smiling perhaps more often than was his wont.
And so at last Valjean finds himself in the saddle, having clambered up quite gingerly and with the help of a mounting block and Javert both; Cosette and Marius are nearly ready to walk with them all the way to the homestead, but in the end it is the doctor who gently dissuades them. Valjean promises to visit them, time and time again; and yet now it is home which he longs for—and more than that, though he does not say this, to be alone.
More specifically, to be alone with Javert.
They set off early in the morning after saying a long goodbye; Javert glowers in the background of Cosette’s hugs and Marius’s repeated well-wishes, though it is only when Marius clasps Valjean’s hand for the fifth time that he stomps over and announces that he and Valjean must take their leave. If Javert catches a flicker of the relief which moves across Valjean’s face, he kindly does not gloat over it.
Yet for all that Valjean had wished to be free of the doctor's rooms with their reek of medicine and their lingering aura of pain, they are not long on the road back to the homestead before he begins to think that perhaps another week of rest might not have gone amiss.
The doctor had not been dubious of Valjean's repeated expressions of feeling well enough to ride; he had, however, warned that too much exertion would do poorly for his wound. It had been no question, of course, that Valjean would be the one to ride. Javert walks with his hand on the horse's reins, leading the animal down the road with measured steps. The sun is yet low in the sky, ripe fruit rolling to the horizon. The horse's gait is even, and yet each swaying motion of its steps requires Valjean to sway with it; at first this produces only a twinge in his chest, but by the time the town has disappeared behind them each movement brings a sharp pang of fresh pain shooting up from his wound. At times Javert looks back to Valjean, and yet these glances are purely pragmatic; he does not allow his eyes to linger and Valjean does not try to capture them.
He bites the inside of his cheek and tries to move as little as possible. But the more his wound twinges, the tenser he grows; before long sweat has broken out over his brow and his hands grip the saddle horn like death itself. The thought of what it would feel like if he were to fall and strike the ground is a compelling motivator to keep his seat at all costs. Javert's glances over his shoulder become more frequent, the expression on his face darker. On the last, he brings the horse to a stop with a quiet curse, and steps closer to the saddle to peer into Valjean's face.
"You are not well," he says crossly, as if Valjean had decided on a whim that it should be so.
"I am fine," Valjean says—and is immediately surprised by the weakness in his own voice. Raising a hand to his brow, he wipes at the cool sweat there. "Merely the exertion."
"You are sitting on a walking horse. There is no exertion involved," Javert continues, his scowl deepening. His gaze misses nothing. He crosses his arms. "How long have you been in pain?"
"Truly, Javert, it is nothing—"
Javert curses. "Then it has been the entire time, and you have said nothing. Are you so determined to worsen your condition?"
Valjean frowns back at him. "It is merely a bit of discomfort."
"You have the most infuriating habit of understatement when it comes to your own suffering. You are barely keeping your seat in the saddle." Javert turns to stare back down the road, in the direction from which they came. "We ought to go back to the doctor."
"We are closer now to the homestead than we are to town," Valjean says. "There is nothing the doctor can do for me but tell me to rest, and I can do that far better in my own bed."
Javert stares at him as if he is a suspect offering a shoddy alibi. The look holds no terrors for Valjean now; he returns it with an expression of mild impudence. At last, Javert shakes his head, turning towards the road ahead as if he can glare it into shortening itself.
"Your logic is sound, though I would like to refute it on principle," he says at last. And yet, he remains as he is; turned away, staring ahead, his hands pushing his coat back so they can remain planted on his hips. It seems he is debating with himself, and yet surely the matter is sealed. When he turns around again, Javert's face is written with something Valjean has seen only one notable time before: uncertainty.
"I believe I should ride with you," he says, his voice scrubbed of emotion. "To help keep you steady."
Valjean sits very still, aware only of the dull throb in his chest, the faint breeze which toys at the stray strands of Javert's hair. "That seems a practical notion."
"Good." Javert nods, smooths his hair down, stares at the road ahead and then stares at the horse. "Well. Move forward, then. You can lean against me if necessary.”
Valjean does as he is told, leaning forward and gripping the saddle horn tightly as he removes his left foot from the stirrup. Javert's soon replaces it; with a swift and skilled motion he has mounted, barely even jostling Valjean in the saddle. Valjean holds himself carefully away from the heat and solidity at his back while Javert positions himself. He almost jumps at the pair of hands which slide around his waist—and reach past him for the reins where Valjean has wrapped them around the saddle horn.
"Comfortable?" Javert asks, his voice so close in Valjean's ear. Valjean can only nod. It takes him a moment to understand that the burning in his chest is because he has not drawn breath in some time.
With a click of his tongue and a flick of the reins, Javert nudges their horse into an ambling walk once more. At once the pain in Valjean's chest flares up again, and yet with Javert a steadying presence at his back, he does not have to strain his muscles so hard to avoid jostling it. Javert's arms are around his sides. If he were to tighten them, it would be an embrace.
"You are very tense," Javert says. His voice is low, for the simple reason that they are very close; and yet the intimacy of those tones spoken directly in Valjean's ear is almost enough to raise the hair on the back of his neck.
He forces a laugh. "Yes. I suppose I am." This acknowledgement, of course, requires him to attempt to relax. He allows himself to stop leaning slightly forward, and instead settles his back against Javert's chest. Their legs are pressed so tightly together there is no space between them, and no helping it. After they have been walking a while longer, Javert's arms must begin to get tired; when riding alone he would allow his forearms to rest against his own thighs, but today it is Valjean's legs which Javert's wrists settle against, lightly, ready to pull away in an instant should Valjean object.
Valjean doesn't. By God, he hasn't the strength to.
“Valjean.” A shiver moves through Valjean’s body. He can feel his name move through Javert’s chest, low and deep. “There is something I must say.”
They are close, so close. No space between Valjean’s chest and Javert’s back; no room for anything hidden between them. “You may tell me anything.”
Javert laughs. It is not a pleasant sound. “Yes, I know. You have been nothing but accommodating for me.”
For a while there is only the jingle of tack and the crunch of the horse’s hooves. “I have taken much from you, these past weeks. Please, allow me to finish,” Javert says as Valjean begins to protest. “And for god’s sakes do not try to turn around, Valjean, if I must hold my peace until we return to the homestead and have you safely in bed, I will not hesitate to do so.”
Valjean forces his arguments down; he knows that if Javert does not speak now, it is entirely likely that whatever it is he wishes to say will remain locked in the dark vault of the man’s soul until the earth itself close in to seal it. And even then Javert remains silent for so long that Valjean fears he has doomed them both. But Javert finishes whatever careful inspection of his thoughts he is conducting, turning each one over to inspect it for flaws. Perhaps they are all flawed. For when Javert speaks again his voice lacks the iron certainty that it so often defines it. It is so quiet Valjean has to lean his head back to be sure of hearing it.
“I have taken much,” he begins again, “and I suppose it is significant that I took only what you were willing to give. But you are too willing, Valjean. You give so much of yourself so easily--I have seen it, time and again. And I--I do not wish this to be one more alm, Valjean.” His hands tighten on the reins. “I could not bear to let you give me that.”
“Javert,” Valjean says, and reaches for his hand; the man pulls back as if burned. He cannot see his expression, can only feel the rigid tension in his body, hear the sharpness of his shallow breaths.
“You deserve so much more,” Javert says heavily, “than I would ever be able to offer in return.”
Valjean wants nothing more than to look Javert in the face; to see, and allow himself to be seen. For perhaps if Javert could see the tenderness that blossoms in Valjean’s eyes, he would understand. Instead they look out on the desert together, the wild plain of hard earth and dry-bitten scraggly scrub capped by unmarred blue, the roof to an endless cathedral which witnesses their confession now.
“You are wrong,” Valjean says softly. “What you offer, I would want from no other.”
Javert lets out a ragged breath, and Valjean can feel it, ghosting over the back of his neck. He cannot help himself; he shivers. This close Javert cannot fail to perceive it, and indeed Valjean knows he does not, for his hands on the reins grow white-knuckled. "Valjean," he says again; and then, barely more than a hoarse whisper spoken into the crook of Valjean's neck: "Jean."
Valjean slides his hand over Javert's where it rests on his thigh. His touch is gentle at first, sliding over the backs of Javert's knuckles; he strokes up and down the hard lines of the tendons on the back of Javert's hand, until with a shuddering exhalation Javert transfers the reins to one hand. His face is pressed to Valjean's shoulder, his breath a spot of warmth through his shirt and waistcoat. Valjean can feel how uneven it is as he presses Javert's palm to his thigh and threads his fingers between Javert's.
The arm which holds the reins tightens around Valjean's waist. Valjean rubs his thumb over the back of Javert's hand, marveling at the feeling of his skin; that Valjean might touch it, not for any practical purpose, but for the simple joy of doing so. His fingers slide against the inside of Javert's cuff, and then just beneath it where the warmth is kept close as a secret. Javert's breath is nearly a gasp.
Valjean wishes at once that it were him riding at Javert's back, so he might have the freedom to let his hands wander as they willed. As it is, he can only catalog everything there is to feel of Javert's hand and arm; the pressure of it against his thigh, the roughness of the hairs on his wrist, the soft skin on the other side, lying beside tendon and bone.
It is then that Valjean shifts in the saddle, and becomes immediately aware of the effect his attentions are having. "Oh," he says, feeling heat flood first into his face and then into the pit of his stomach.
"I am sorry," Javert says. His face remains pressed into Valjean's shoulder, his voice utterly wretched. "I did not intend—this is not why I—"
"It's alright," Valjean says, his own voice shaky with the realization. Yes. It is alright. His heart beats in his breast as if trying to find its way out through the hole the bullet tore; it hurts, and he does not attempt to quell it. Javert's condition does not flag as they continue their journey in silence; for they are pressed so closely together, and the rhythm of the horse's gait must be a slow agony if the breaths against Valjean's collar are any indication. He finds that in this case he feels absolutely no desire to ease Javert's suffering. His own breaths feel too short and too hot in his lungs.
A short curse escapes him; Valjean feels Javert give a sort of start in the saddle. It takes him a moment to realize it as the irrepressible jerk of Javert's hips against Valjean's body, stilled but not quickly enough.
"Jean." The grip around his waist tightens. Javert's mouth is a spot of damp wetness against his neck, inadvertent, surely, and yet nonetheless a fuel to powder. Good God, Valjean wants to see him. Wants to see what he looks like, like this. It is almost too much to bear. His fingers dig into Valjean's thigh. "I think I might. Soon."
The words shoot through him like the bullet did, only it is sweet, so very sweet in his veins. Valjean has grown thick and wanting as well, from the sounds of Javert's breaths behind him. The thought, unbidden and incredible, of him guiding the hand on his thigh to settle between his legs; he can barely comprehend the idea, and yet it makes his mouth go dry. He licks his lips. "Is that what you wish?"
Javert's forehead drags against Valjean's shoulder as he shakes his head. "Not like this," he whispers.
"Well then," Valjean says, the valiant effort to keep his tone level and reasonable long since lost. "We are nearly home."
A tiny noise of distress escapes Javert's throat; Valjean had never known of this part of himself which could find the other man's torment so sweet. And yet Javert nods; his fingers slide blindly against Valjean's until their hands are a tangled knot resting on Valjean's thigh.
It seems an eternity before the homestead appears beyond the rise; an eternity of Javert's scarcely controlled breaths against his neck, of their hands becoming slick with sweat and yet neither of them letting go, of the ache between Valjean's legs growing more pronounced and yet with no relief. On multiple occasions he has to resist the urge to dig his heels into their mare's side and urge her into a trot; instead he leans back against Javert until their heartbeats pound against each other, chest to back.
At long last the house rises out of the landscape like a rowboat on the rise of a wave. No, not a boat—a raft. For they are adrift here, and all Valjean has is Javert’s grip around his waist, the feeling of Javert’s nails digging into his palm.
Javert draws the horse to a halt just before the gate. For a moment they remain as they are, breathing, their hands still locked together. It seems unthinkable that this moment could end, that there is a future that leads from here; equally unthinkable that they might not move forward.
“Help me down,” Valjean says, softly; but at once Javert is all action. He releases his hand and slides from the saddle, landing agilely; immediately he turns around and extends Valjean his hand. Valjean does not allow himself to truly inspect the man’s expression until he has been carefully lowered to the ground, the pain in his chest flaring and then settling into a dull ache; only then does he stop. Javert’s lips are parted, his breath coming fast; his eyes are desperate. They are both of them now revealed to each other’s eyes, and there is no hiding, perhaps not ever again.
Valjean does not know what he is going to do until he is doing it; and then his hands are buried in Javert’s lapels and he is pulling him into a kiss, their lips pressed together like children with no knowledge of what to do or how to do it; and Valjean feels so young again, fumbling and uncertain and filled with a wild joy that takes hold of him, makes him shift his lips against Javert’s in a way that makes the other man gasp, and he chases that sound until they have managed to find something which serves. Valjean pushes forward, his hands moving separate of his will, clutching at Javert’s back--and then all at once the noise which tears from Valjean’s throat is far from that of rapture.
Javert halts immediately, pulling back with the drunken sway of a man on the cusp of sleep. His eyes, however, bore into Valjean’s with a sharpness that leaves nothing unseen.
“Your wound is paining you.” Javert says it like an accusation.
“It is nothing,” Valjean insists, leaning forward again; and for another moment Javert’s mouth is his, in full capitulation, and Valjean has never known before now what it might be like to be wanted so keenly that even logic must bend to its current. But Javert was never a man to set aside such things for long, and he pulls back a moment later, his brow dark.
“Wait. Wait , Jean.” The expanse of Javert’s palm settles warm and comforting on his cheek, and in that breath of sanity Valjean realizes that the pain in his chest has indeed moved deeper, his breaths short from more than simple want.
Javert’s brow presses to his and he can feel the sweat of it, the whorl of a stray hair. Javert swallows, and Valjean watches the movement disappear into his stiff collar. “I am going to see to the horse,” he says, as if giving the instructions to himself. “And then we are going to go inside.”
It is only for the promise in Javert’s eyes that Valjean finds he can let him go. Valjean steps back, though it is a small agony, to watch as Javert swiftly loosens the girdle and pulls the bridle from behind his mare’s ears, her sigh of contentment as she releases the bit. The gate opens and she steps inside without urging, leaving Javert with the saddle slung over his shoulder, gripping it by the pommel as he latches the gate and looks for an instant as if he is tempted to simply sling the saddle over the fencepost and leave it there. There are times when Valjean finds Javert’s meticulous attitude endearing, and he is not certain this is one of them. Not when he wants nothing more than for Javert to drop the saddle in the dirt, and let not another moment pass between them which they must spend apart.
But Javert clears his throat, and turns his eyes to the house; which to Valjean’s eyes has never looked anything other than comfortable and inviting. Now his door leads somewhere he has never been before, a place whose language he does not speak and whose customs are strange to him.
“Come,” Javert says in a voice so hoarse it is nearly unrecognizable, and he reaches for Valjean’s hand with his free one, warm and damp in the creases as if with nervous sweat. Valjean is led up the stairs, the familiar creak under both their boots, the musical rattle of the tin cans strung up by the eaves. There is a faint thud as Javert deposits the saddle and tack on the porch chair without so much as releasing Valjean’s hand, and it occurs to him that he has never once seen the man hold so much back, bend so much of his will on gentleness when the instinct beneath it wished for nothing but haste.
Javert guides him through the doorway, into the house. The smell is familiar, of dried herbs and bacon fat and smoke. The hearth is cold and dark, the air inside chilled; Javert does not stop in the kitchen nor kneel before the fireplace. Instead he releases his hand to transfer his arm around Valjean’s lower back, perhaps under the pretense of helping him; Valjean leans against him, under the pretense of needing help. Further, deeper into the house. The single, short hallway; the bedroom.
Valjean is as aware of his own breathing as he is aware of Javert’s, can hear the rasp of their separate inhalations, too ragged and too fast. For a dizzying moment Valjean thinks that Javert is going to stop here; and he is not certain what he would do, if he were led to the threshold and yet not over it. But Javert’s free hand rises to the doorknob, and together they step inside.
They have stood in this room together on countless occasions, have shared words and gazes; in this room Valjean nursed Javert back from the brink of death, ran a damp cloth over his bare and fever-slicked body, had wiped the vomit from his clothes and sheets, had helped him relieve himself. This should not feel like the first time they have truly been here; Javert’s hand gripping his own should not feel like the first intimacy they have ever shared. And yet. And yet.
Javert settles him on the edge of the bed, so slowly it is an agony. He helps Valjean shrug off his coat, his movement still stiff and careful of his injury; this Javert neatly folds and places on the chair by the bed, turned meticulous once more with shyness. Next, the waistcoat; Valjean sits very still as Javert undoes the small buttons, one by one, with fingers that do not tremble. Valjean watches his face, the frown deepening on his brow as his attention narrows onto each little button, that tremendous and terrifying focus which not so long ago Valjean could never have imagined he would actively seek.
He wants it now. He wants Javert to raise his eyes to meet his own, and yet Valjean cannot convey this; can only sit and allow himself to be undressed, lest he risk breaking the spell.
Once Valjean’s waistcoat is removed and folded, Javert returns for his boots. He kneels on the floorboards, his hands easing Valjean’s calves free of the leather, patient and diligent and slow. It is too much; it is not nearly enough. Javert’s hand rests on Valjean’s knee and he covers it with his own; reaches with his other to touch Javert’s face, his palm against the roughness of Javert’s whiskers.
“Javert,” he says. A summoning. A shudder moves through the man. He presses harder to Valjean’s hand, his brow contorting as if in agony. “Is this alright?”
Javert barks a short laugh. His other hand reaches up to cover Valjean’s, as if anticipating he might ever move away. “Yes. By God.” For a moment he only breathes, as if preparing for a plunge from a very high place; and then he turns his head, the scrape of his whiskers on Valjean’s hand, and presses his mouth to the skin with the fervance of a dying man with nothing left to hold back.
“Come here, please,” Valjean gasps, his other hand tightening on Javert’s; and for all the terror in Javert’s eyes as he meets Valjean’s gaze, with a nod he obeys without question.
The bed dips under Javert’s weight as he settles at Valjean’s side, awkwardly transfering Valjean’s hands to his other, uncertain, for a moment, of how to settle himself. Valjean is already reaching for him. With one hand he tugs at the lapel of Javert’s coat, and pushes it over his shoulder; he rescues his other hand to complete the task, and he has none of Javert’s care as he helps Javert shrug out of the coat and then tosses it to the floor.
A flicker of annoyance passes over his face at such an injustice done to his weathered garment; and Valjean is leaning forward to kiss that irritated downward quirk of his lips before he is even aware of what he is doing. Javert’s skin is warm beneath his lips, rough at the brush of his whiskers. He can feel that deep crease of long anger and concern disappear as Javert’s mouth opens with a short hitch of breath. He is shaking. Or perhaps they both are.
Javert turns. They are so close their noses brush. He can feel the light, shallow pants of Javert’s breath on his face, see the stained glass segments of his eyes deepened by the angle of the light. The brush of his lips over Valjean’s is nothing, it is a whisper; but then Valjean is pressing forward and clumsily they are fitting their mouths together as if it is the first time, all shared breath and warm, damp flesh, drunk on the insane intimacy of it, the idea they could be so close. Valjean wants Javert’s hands but they are busy with his own waistcoat, which in a moment joins his coat on the floor.
It is difficult to focus on the novel particulars of kissing while also sliding Javert’s braces off his shoulders, his hands skimming the heat of a body separated from his own by only a layer of cloth so thin he is distracted by the sudden roughness of a scar, the protrusion of a bone.
Meanwhile Javert has been busy giving him the same treatment. His hands roam Valjean’s shoulders back and forth like a colt clumsily pacing its pen on new legs. Valjean could not hope to explain why that fumbling touch warms him so. Javert’s hands rake the coals of him to the air. Javert’s lips taste of the body, of flesh.
“Mind your wounds,” Javert says, the breath pushed half out of him.
“I am fine,” Valjean says. It is not the whole truth; he is shaking, his mind is reeling, his body is a lit fuse and his chest throbs with every heartbeat. Yet even in his weakened state he knows his strength is formidable; knows he could keep Javert here, if he wished it, and he knows Javert knows it too, can see the effect that knowledge has as he shifts, strands of hair tossed across his cheeks like rogue tributaries, dark waters.
“We will stop if you are in pain,” Javert says, managing somehow to inject a degree of sternness into his voice. But his eyes are on his own hand, rubbing gentle circles against Valjean’s clavicle. Mere inches from the neckline of his shirt, and shifting closer. His index finger creeps over the edge of the fabric like a mouse crossing below the perch of a hawk, and then he is touching bare skin. The pads of his fingers are worn; Valjean can feel that callous sliding up the groove of his throat, as if dragging aside the cool blue shadows of afternoon.
Valjean shivers; it is warm, he is freezing, the touch is unbearable and he needs more of it. Slowly he begins to tug his shirt tails from his trousers, and Javert freezes with his fingers shaking on his pulse point. There is something between a laugh and a sob building in the back of Valjean’s throat, and he is afraid what will happen if he lets it out; so instead he pulls his shirt over his head and commits himself to Javert’s mercy.
There is a moment when Valjean cannot look at him, cannot watch Javert inspect an old body at the end of much hard use, his scars which say far too much, the bandages which mercifully cover old wounds as well as new. But then Javert’s mouth settles into the dip of his collar, and he is without a past, young again, shrugged free of the numbing pain of years--fumbling and excited and afraid, knowing nothing, only wanting.
“Jean, will you--would you like to lie down?”
Valjean is already going. Javert’s hand on his back eases him as he lowers himself, and it’s true that he cannot ignore the sharp twinge in his chest that comes just before the bed takes the rest of his weight. He settles himself against a familiar mattress, familiar pillars, made utterly alien by the presence of another in his bed. Javert waits for him to get comfortable, staring at his body as if it is some kind of crime scene whose secrets must be puzzled out from the evidence at hand.
“Come here,” Vajean says again, and with a short huff that could be borne from amusement or nerves, Javert edges closer. In a tremendous burst of courage he swings his leg to straddle Valjean’s lap with painful care, barely touching him, hovering above with a look as if Valjean is about to demand what in God’s name he thinks he is doing. He might be, but then Javert settles himself more firmly against Valjean’s thighs and such an interrogation becomes unnecessary.
Their bodies are very close now. It is evident he has not remained unaffected. Strange to see that crude jutting exclamation of physical desire, abrupt and demanding and so close at hand. Valjean wants to touch it, and the desire strikes him in the stomach like a blow. He reaches out, so slow, and Javert does not seize his wrist nor swat his hand away. His fingertips brush the waistband of Javert’s trousers, the shirt half-rucked out of them. And then it moves lower.
He does not know what he is doing, and yet if the sharp gasp of Javert’s breath is any indication, it is sufficient. He rubs through the straining fabric of Javert’s trousers, watching his face, how his head lolls back, mouth hanging open and eyes half-shut, lost, utterly lost. Then Valjean shifts his grip to Javert’s hip and angles their bodies together, and it is red brightness wrenching through the very center of him, the first true spike of lust. They are not still, then. Absent of the mind, his body knows what to do.
“Oh. Oh, God.”
Valjean arcs his body up harder, he cannot help it. His chest is shooting with pangs now, but they are nothing compared to the pangs of hunger wracking his body. Javert’s brow furrows in a way Valjean has never seen before. The man looks near to crying, or something else. “Valjean. You. I am nearly—”
“Please,” Valjean gasps, his hands grasping Javert’s body wherever he can find purchase. “Please--”
And then Javert is leaning into him with a choked cry, all his care forgotten in the moment, and Valjean feels his weight and heat and helpless little motions and his vision shutters, something inside of him is shaking apart and unfolding into infinity and he is flung out, split apart, raising his arms so Javert can slump into them.
In the aftermath Valjean is loose and pliant and filled with softness, his face pressed into the warmth of Javert’s neck. It strikes him then that after months or even years of being very foolish and very obstinate they have now become very foolish and very hasty; that they did not even manage to shift their clothes, let alone remove them; that they will both now have to change; that everything is perfect and Valjean would do nothing different at all. Javert’s hand rises to his shoulder and lights there like a bird.
“Did I hurt you?”
“No,” Valjean says, and then winces slightly as Javert pulls back to stare at him. “I… may have strained myself while lying down.”
Javert makes a noise of disgust that cannot help but be softened by the fondness in his eyes. “Well, at least now you are where you ought to be,” he says, brushing a strand of hair out of Valjean’s face. The motion is so natural Javert could have been practicing it for years. He glances between Valjean’s trousers and his own, and the color on his face deepens.
“Well then,” he says softly. “I suppose we ought to wash up.”
“In a moment,” Valjean says, tugging gently at Javert’s shirt until the man leans down again, the brush of his loose hair on Valjean’s cheek, the spark of happiness in his eyes. “In just a moment.”
On a night not very long after they both wander sleepless out the front door with a blanket in hand, and walk on the open parts of the earth that the moon paints as flat and blue as the sea, careful of sleeping rattlesnakes and hooked scrubgrass. They find a suitable place and lay the blanket down, and lay themselves down on it. They face the heavens and after a while Javert speaks, one hand outflung towards the stars, dredging up names and stories he had thought long forgotten yet which ebb back to him like particles in a beam of light.
Some things are never truly lost. That is what the stars suggest, in their endless rotations. Chasing each other endlessly across the horizon, and yet always they return. Valjean slips his hand into Javert’s and stares into the vault of heaven, which seems for the moment very near at hand indeed.
A warm shout-out to Emm, for the beta-read and continued encouragement and patience with my whining about this fic; and to Sarah, for bullying me into finishing it. Last but far from least, Vincent: Thank you for the continuous re-reads, the in-depth discussions, the ceaseless passion for this ridiculous, wonderful thing. This fic, and all of other Les Mis fic I've ever written, only exists because of you, but especially the part where they almost fuck on a horse. Happy one year valvert anniversary!