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Love is Not a Victory March

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‘Here. Drink this.’

The glass of water hovers at a safe distance, held at arm’s length in Javert’s large hand. It takes Valjean a long few moments to let go of his knees, pulled up to his chest as they are, a defence against what days like this become. The ache in his ribs loses its edge as he uncurls and extends shaking fingers to touch the glass, the pain becoming a healing injury once more, and not a cigarette melting his skin away.

Sweat trickles down his neck. His hair is glued to his nape, and his shirt clings to him all over. Voices and laughter echo in his head, even as he looks up to Javert’s face and tries to centre himself back in the here and now. He nods, and sips. Javert nods back, and sits on the floor where he is.

‘Anything I can do?’

Valjean shakes his head. The water helps, cold on his dry throat. His eyeballs ache and he would just topple over and sleep here on the sofa, if he could. But it’s dark, and he needs to put the light on. He needs to go to bed to convince himself that life is OK now, and teach himself to sleep properly all over again.

‘Valjean…is this helping at all? Putting yourself through this?’

He’d shrug if he had the energy.

‘Andy thinks so.’

‘He doesn’t see you like this.’

He has though, years ago. Attacks like this never used to be limited to night time. It got worse than this in therapy once, which is how he ended up in hospital, sedated.

‘I’ll be OK.’

He tries to put down the empty glass on the cushion next to him, but his fingers slip and it starts to fall. Javert lunges forward to catch it and Valjean finds his heart in his mouth, his legs pushing him away and up the back of the sofa, a reflex flight from attack.

‘Shit. I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Valjean, it’s just me. It’s OK. I’m not touching you.’

His voice helps. It’s just him. It’s OK. He nods, and pulls his knees back up to his chest.

 

This is the first month. This is what he’s been avoiding all this time. It was hard enough talking about the abuse in therapy before, which is why he convinced himself he was as well as he was ever going to get, and stopped going. But this – going back and admitting he left a lot of stuff out, opening himself anew to the shame of it – is worse. He can manage on the days he doesn’t have to talk about it. But at least once a week, there’s no getting away. Andy tells him over and over that it’ll help, it’ll improve once he gets it all out, he won’t have to carry it with him if he can just speak about what happened and the choices he made. So he does, one painful, halting word at a time, and then he goes home and lives it all again until he passes out from exhaustion, or throws up, or sits up all night with his fists clenched over his eyes, trying not to remember how much it hurt.

Father Charles came the first day. He brought Javert with him, and it was too many people all at once. He didn’t want to subject the old man to the sight, and he didn’t want to admit all the things he’d done in front of him. So now it’s just Javert, every Tuesday, and he sits with him and talks to him and brings him water, and never, ever touches him. It’s impossible to say whether it helps or not, but he’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t want to find out what it’d be like on his own, on days like this.

 

*

 

January slips into February, weeks unmarked by anything but the black hole of Tuesdays. He has no studying to do, and can’t focus on the church. He tries to go to the factory but they don’t need him there anymore. He signs what Mrs Victor emails over, sends it back, and spends most of his days sitting in silence. Depression is a black veil he’s always held off by exercise, but he can’t do much of that and no longer has the energy to care. Some days he has to go out for groceries or speak to the building manager, and it’s an effort to force words out of his mouth. He’s muddled, lost, and the only thing that keeps him sinking is knowing that Javert will be coming over. He doesn’t have to be coherent to see him, the man doesn’t care if he can’t speak. But knowing he’s there gives some vague shape to the week, and he hangs the rest of his life off it for a while.

One day, a doctor tells him he can start light exercise again. He doesn’t do any, he just goes home and sleeps. The next day is a Tuesday. He wakes up the day after with no will to live, and doesn’t even sit up when Javert knocks on his door, and opens it a crack.

‘Can I come in?’

He stares at the ceiling, and mentally checks that he’s dressed. Shorts and T shirt, yes, so he nods. Javert puts a mug of coffee on his nightstand, and sits down on the chair by the dresser. He doesn’t remember whether he stayed last night or not, but he must have. It’s still early. He barely slept. He doesn’t want to think about the evening before, and work out at what point he said he could sleep over.

‘Drink that, and get dressed. We’re going for a walk.’

He shakes his head.

‘It wasn’t a question. Come on Valjean, you need to get out of the house.’

He probably does. It just seems like a whole lot of effort, and there’ll be people outside. His skin tightens at the thought of them.

‘I thought we could drive out somewhere. The sea’s not that far away. Or up the river, or anywhere you like.’

Valjean turns his head to look at him. He’s in a dark green button-down, tucked into his jeans with a neatly buckled belt. Boots, too. He’s serious.

‘You going to drive?’

Javert looks pained. ‘I can’t, I don’t know how. I’ll navigate. Or we could take the train.’

No chance of public transport. Valjean thinks of his truck, which was returned to him two weeks ago by a black kid who looked embarrassed at every word of explanation he wasn’t asked for. It had taken a while to place him, because it had been dark and snowy the night he crashed, and he hadn’t paid much attention to the boy he threw the keys at. His name was Marius, it seemed. He had taken the cash left on the seat, used it to pay for repairs, and brought it back. Valjean’s address was on his driver’s licence, which was in the glove compartment. It had been an unexpected act of kindness, and made that day, a Friday, unexpectedly bright. He had forced the kid to take a hundred bucks in thanks, and hasn’t looked at the car since.

Valjean’s fingers touch the ache in his side, hidden under the scars that burn him every day.

‘OK,’ he says, because it’s something Javert has asked for. He owes him some effort, if only for today.

 

He takes the shortest route he can out of the city, and the interstate’s quiet. It’s good to be outside again, even if his limbs feel like lead and the heater in the car makes his eyelids heavy. Javert never fills silence, and he doesn’t put the radio on. The peace is soothing, and by the time he takes the exit and heads north towards the forest, he’s feeling a bit more alive. He used to come up here to run sometimes, before the business really took off and ate most of his life. He likes trees. They’re always quiet, and he likes that they tower over him but still let him feel safe.

‘I’ve never been up here before.’

‘Do you ever leave the city?’

‘Not much.’

He draws to a stop. Javert opens the door, and lets a blast of February air into the car. It hasn’t snowed at home for weeks, but there’s a fresh half-foot around the sides of the parking lot up here, and as Valjean gets out to join him a load dumps itself off one of the conifers nearby. They watch it until it settles, and then walk in silence. He concentrates on his feet, and the way his tracks kick small blizzards away from his boots every time he takes a step. There’s no one else in sight, and no other footprints. He shoves his hands in his pockets, thinking he should have brought some gloves. Javert pulls a hat out of his coat and when Valjean shakes a head at the offer of it, pulls it down on to his own head.

He makes a lot of little gestures like that. Valjean wants to feel something at them, but he still can’t feel much of anything. He wants to feel guilty that he doesn’t appreciate him enough, or tell him that he does at all, but words are such a problem. Logic tells him there will be a time when he’ll be well enough to speak properly again, and Javert doesn’t seem hurt by not getting thanked very often. It doesn’t help much right now, but he has to hold on to the hope that things will get better in the end. Without that, what’s the point? His chest goes tight and his breathing pulls a bit, and maybe it’s the sudden exercise but maybe it’s not, maybe it’s just that horrific weight that falls when he thinks, what would death be like? and the thought comes back, relief.

He shoves it away. He focuses on leaning into the slope, and trying to lift his feet above the drifts, pushing back against the weight of his own thoughts bearing him down. The path is uneven beneath the snow, rocky and potholed, and by the time half a mile has passed, he’s feeling it in his legs. The track lifts in a gentle curve, but even with that and the snow, such a short distance shouldn’t make him ache. It was only a couple of months ago that he’d run twelve miles as a warm-up, and now he can’t even do this? Hopelessness starts to boil up through his chest, his head goes down and his pace slows. He wants to go back to the car, go home and forget about trying. The breeze nips the top of his ears and a bird sings too loudly, beating its wings against a bush. His heart thuds and everything pushes down and all of a sudden, being outside isn’t making him feel better.

‘Valjean?’

‘Think I’m done.’

‘We only just got here.’

He shrugs and stops, his arms hanging at his sides. He hates being this useless, but he’s been here before. There’s nothing to do but ride it out. He just wishes Javert weren’t around to witness it, and he can’t look at him.

‘Valjean. Come on, we can go a bit-‘

‘I said no!’

He regrets the words as soon as they’re out, and stares at his feet. They swim in his vision, and the word no echoes through his mind, jumping him back to the all the times he’s said it before, and had it ignored. When Javert steps closer he wants to pull away, but can’t make himself move. He hates this. He hates all of this. He really just wants it to be over.

And then, there’s a touch on his hand. Javert’s fingers are worn, rough and warm, and they hesitate across his palm, ready to jerk away at any second. Valjean’s frozen, unsure of what to do or what he feels, stuck between wanting to run and having no reaction at all.

‘There’s a seat up there. Let’s make it that far.’

‘Snow.’

‘We’ll clear it off.’

Javert’s palm presses to his, and his fingers close gently around his hand. Something shifts in Valjean’s chest, and the hopeless feeling breaks into pain. He can feel what’s coming the second before it happens; his face creases and he wilts, and Javert steps in to catch him, lets him lean against his chest and puts his arms around him to hold him up. The need to cry disappears as soon as he grasps the solid body against his. He can breathe again, grounded in the simple presence and reality of someone standing with him.

‘Don’t give up.’

It’s a rough, desperate whisper into his hair. 

‘Don’t give up. If you do, I will.’

He doesn’t know what that means. But it’s enough to hear it, and know that someone wants him to make it. It’s pressure too, hearing that Javert wants him to be around, but maybe it’s a good kind. It doesn’t ask much of him. Just to keep going.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says, muffled into the fake-fur of Javert’s collar. He feels him shake his head, and tighten the grip of his arms just a little.

‘It’ll get better. That’s what you told me.’

He did. And he believed it when he said it, because things had got better for him even if they were never quite right. But he hadn’t expected to be thrown this far down again; he’d forgotten what it felt like to be in a pit, with no sign to the way out. He’d forgotten how much it takes to drag yourself back to the light.

Javert lets go of him eventually. He doesn’t want him to, even as distance brings repulsion at the thought of touch. Thinking it is worse than doing it, but he pushes that away because that was nice, and he doesn’t want to spoil it by letting it make him sick. After a few seconds, he realises Javert’s taken hold of his hand again.

‘Is this OK?’

He thinks about it. No strong feeling presents itself either way, so he nods.

‘Walk a bit further?’

He nods again. The ache in his legs has gone, and he feels less as though he’s dragging limbs full of sand. He can go a bit longer.

 

*

 

Back at home, he takes his time in the shower. When he gets out, Javert’s in the kitchen, smelling of fresh air and with rain spots on his coat. Valjean sits sideways at one end of the sofa, and pulls his knees to his chest. Javert puts a mug of thick hot chocolate into his hands, and he’s too tired to protest.

‘Did you make this?’

‘Ran down the street for it.’

Valjean sips. It’s good, thick and full of cream, though with none on top. No marshmallows either. He tries to imagine Javert asking for some, and wants to find the will to laugh.

‘Your jeans are wet. Why don’t you change?’

‘I don’t have any clothes here.’

‘There’s sweats in the wardrobe, socks in the dresser. Help yourself.’

Maybe Javert knows already. Did he go through his stuff when he was here alone before Christmas? He thinks, probably not. It doesn’t seem his style, and it doesn’t matter anyway. There’s nothing to hide in his cupboards. He sips again, and his eyelids droop. It’s warm, and his legs ache, and he’s been outside. He could sleep.

‘Don’t. Wait until you go to bed.’

‘I’ll try.’

Javert sits on the other end of the sofa, facing him. The borrowed pants are too short, but thick socks bunched at the ankle cover the gap. He took a hoodie too, his own jumper drying on a chair by the door. Valjean watches the red line around his throat slip over the edge of his T-shirt when he swallows, and then sink back down again. The tendons in his hands stand out as they wrap around his own mug. He is still far too thin.

‘You feel better for getting out?’

‘Yeah. Thanks.’

Javert nods, takes a drink, watches him. He watches him back. He’s not sure when the awkwardness that followed them around since Christmas went away, and it became all right to sit in the same room together, not talking. There’s just been too much other stuff in his head – and he’s not worried about it. He’s not about to make any slips in that direction, he’s not about to get too close again. He wouldn’t be capable if he wanted to.

‘How’re you?’ he says, because he doesn’t ask enough. ‘How’s your therapy?’

‘Fine.’

Javert’s face is a study in impassive calm.

‘You know. I go in. She asks questions. I talk about stuff when I feel like it.’

‘Do you feel like it?’

 ‘Sometimes.’

There’s a pause. Eventually Valjean smiles tiredly, and says, ‘don’t worry, I’m not going to ask.’

‘I’d tell you if you did.’

‘I know.’

He shouldn’t tell him if he did ask. He shouldn’t feel like he has to give anything up if he doesn’t want to. He shouldn’t feel like he owes explanations for the way he feels, or the things he’s done. But he sits there, no mask, nothing hidden, just waiting for Valjean to take whatever he wants. It should feel like trust, but it doesn’t. It feels like submission.

Valjean closes his eyes, and rests his head on the back of the sofa. When Javert says, ‘don’t sleep here,’ he nods, soft leather smoothing over his unshaven cheek.

‘Don’t wait for me, Javert.’

‘What?’

‘It might take years. It might never happen at all.’

He imagines disappointment on his face. Or anger, or scorn, at his presumption. But it’s not presumption, because he knows very well these visits aren’t just about being a friendly face when he needs it. He doesn’t often think about this when Javert’s sitting a few feet away, because he’s usually preoccupied with something else. But it’s easier this time, and it has to be said.

When he opens his eyes, Javert is just looking at him. After a minute, he drinks some more of his chocolate. There’s no visible tension at all.

‘I mean it.’

‘I know. It’s OK.’

‘Is it?’

‘Sure.’

Again, their eyes meet. Something twists inside Valjean at the power of that stare, as it always does. But Javert just watches him, calm as a glacier lake.

‘You won’t mind if I’m never OK enough? What’ll you do?’

A corner of Javert’s mouth curls up.

‘Wait longer.’

He’s heard that before. The guy really seems to mean it. Eventually he makes a small sound, and looks down.

‘You shouldn’t. You’re young, you’re free. You should go enjoy yourself.’

‘Yeah.’ He nods. ‘I could, I guess. I could leave here and hit up a gay bar, and see if someone’ll pick me up and give me a good time, right?’

‘…yeah. I guess.’

‘Except it wouldn’t be a good time. It wouldn’t be you.’

‘Javert-‘

Javert leans forward, and takes the half-empty mug he hadn’t realised was slipping from his fingers. He lets him have it, and feels too heavy to move.

‘I’ll wait.’

It should feel like trust. It doesn’t. But he’s grateful anyway, and for the briefest second he imagines toppling forward and letting Javert catch him on his chest. They could sleep like that, and he wouldn’t have to try and get up.

‘Come on. I’ll walk you to your bedroom.’

‘You don’t have-‘

‘-I know.  Come on.’

 

*

 

March brings tiny flowers with delicate petals, dew drops balancing on them in the early morning sunlight. Valjean looks at them as he passes, walking, and walking, and walking, and feeling better for it. He sleeps early to avoid the evenings, and wakes before dawn even now the days are getting longer. He sees the neighbourhood when it’s just waking up, when newspapers are laid in piles at shop doors and vendor carts; when trucks full of fresh meat, and fish packed in ice, and crates and crates of vegetables are driven around the stores and unloaded into warehouses, and back rooms, and kitchens. He’ll buy a coffee somewhere and walk along with it keeping his hand warm, and by the time he can feel the sun on his face, he’s remembered that life is full of things that aren’t dark, and painful, and awful, and there are people out there who smile and say ‘good morning,’ just because he’s walking by. He stops to help them, lending a hand to a heavy load, or pushing a truck that won’t start, or lifting newspapers out of the way of people who need to get past. And they say ‘thank you’ when he does, and never understand that hearing it makes gratitude burst in his chest to the point it almost overwhelms. A frown or black look can ruin his mood, but someone being nice for even a second is like oil on the sea, lotion on dry skin, water on a hot day. He never stops being thankful when people are not the worst they can be.

In the middle of the month, he stops going out in jeans and puts shorts on instead. A week later he ties his sneakers for the first time in months, and runs three miles without stopping. It’s easier than he thought it would be, and when he comes in he looks at the weights gathering dust in the corner. Maybe he wouldn’t fail if he picked one up. Maybe it’s not impossible to get back to where he was.

‘Try them.’

Javert leans against the kitchen counter, coffee in hand. He smells of shampoo and warm water, and his hair is sticking up all over. His blue T-shirt fits for once, and Valjean smiles and tugs on the hem of it as he passes to the fridge.

‘Tomorrow, maybe.’

‘OK. You want breakfast?’

He picks a pack of his protein mix out of the cupboard, and holds it up as he gets cold water. Javert raises his eyebrows.

‘You ran?’

‘Yeah.’

After a short pause, he says, ‘good,’ and Valjean appreciates that he’s trying not to sound too pleased. He still backs away from pressure of any kind, and Javert knows that. He knows a lot, these days.

‘What’re you doing today?’ he asks, as Javert turns to rinse his mug, and put it in the dishwasher.

‘Therapy. The warehouse. And then college.’

Valjean looks up from pouring powder into his shaker. ‘College? You’re – are you going back?’

Javert looks a little embarrassed. ‘I don’t know. They sent a letter with a few options. If I go back now I can make up this quarter in the summer. And they’ll re-start my scholarship because of what the doctor told them, so you won’t get billed for anything but the accommodation you paid for.’

He looks carefully neutral as he says it, something else Valjean is grateful for. He knows Javert was pissed that he did that, but the man’s never said anything. And he should, if he’s mad, but he also doesn’t want any arguments.

‘Don’t go back because of the money. You know I can afford it, you know I don’t mind paying. And I know you hate that, but it’s more important that you get better.’

‘I’m not as bad as you think I am, Valjean. And, y’know, it might help. If I finish in the summer, I can still go to the police academy in September.’

‘If they take you. You know you’ll have to do their psych tests again.’

‘I know.’

Valjean watches powder soak into the water, turning brown and sludgy in the bottle. The euphoria from the run is seeping away as real life presses back in. But he has no right to feel stressed about this equilibrium being disturbed. Javert has to do his thing, he can’t stagnate here because of this situation they’ve fallen into. It’s a comfortable place; chaste, and warm, and safe, but the guy has to move on even if he himself can’t.

‘I’m not saying I’m going to, Valjean. I’m just going to go and talk to them.’

‘Yeah, of course. You should. If you feel like you’re ready, it’ll be good for you. Just…don’t worry about the money, OK?’

‘OK.’

Valjean knows that eventually, Javert will insist on paying him back every penny he’s given him. He’s never said so, but it’ll happen because he can’t stand debt. And that’s fine if it makes him feel better, though these days he finds he doesn’t mind the idea of sharing stuff with Javert. The mistrust, and tension, and everything in the past – it’s still there, but he has to go looking to feel any of it. He still knows he did wrong by the guy, and still feels guilt over it. But there’s this new thing now, where they hang out and watch movies together, and go for walks, and get coffee and cook dinner. Javert hasn’t moved back in, but he comes over a few evenings in the week and usually a day at the weekend. Valjean can’t imagine him not being around now. The place feels empty without him.

He drinks his protein shake. Javert leans against the counter watching him. He puts the bottle down, thinks for a moment, and touches his arm.

‘If you want to stop volunteering, you should.’

Javert shakes his head. ‘I don’t want to.’

‘I mean, we can turn it into a job. I know you didn’t want it before, but-‘

‘I don’t want it now. I don’t want to work for you.’

‘But you’re doing the work anyway. I don’t-‘

‘-Valjean. You-‘

There’s a sigh. Javert runs a hand through his damp hair, and looks away for a moment. Then back, and angles his body a little way toward him.

‘I don’t want to be paid for it. I want to give something back to you.’

‘You already are, not just at the warehouse. You’re here, aren’t you? You’ve been here through all this shit, and-‘

‘I caused this shit.’

His tone is so quiet, suddenly pained, and Valjean is brought up short.

‘You wouldn’t be going through all this if it weren’t for me. And I’m not…I’m not here to pay you back, but I’m not going to abandon you either. And you know I want you to be better, and not just because…well, you know.’

It’s always there, even when he doesn’t think about it. Which he doesn’t, very often. It’s a non-entity for him, but he knows it’s not for Javert. He knows Javert thinks about it a lot.

‘I’m getting something out of it too. I want to be better than I was, and I want you to see it. Even if you’d told me to go away and never seen me again, I’d still do it. You have to know I want to be better.’

‘I do.’

But he wants him to do it for himself. He wants him to understand that he’s worthy of the work he does, because he is worthy, and he doesn’t have to be sorry for the rest of his life. He can’t say that though, because he’s never got the hang of getting over things and Javert knows that too.

‘Just don’t beat yourself up forever. Don’t be like me. And you’ve worked for free long enough.’

‘It’s not for free. Father Charles has been putting me up for months. I tried to give him some of my savings, and he wouldn’t take it. It’s for him too.’

He can’t argue with that. All of this is complex, and tiring, and it’s starting to press down again. He shuts his eyes, and doesn’t flinch when he feels Javert’s hand cover his wrist.

‘Is this OK?’

He nods silently. They stand like that for a while, until he feels the small knot of tension in his chest start to melt to nothing.

‘I’m just going to talk to them, Valjean. I don’t have to decide anything today.’

‘OK. Good. Come over tonight? I’ll cook.’

He feels rather than sees the nod.

‘Sure. We can get takeout if you like.’

‘No. I’ll cook.’

He spends the day alternating between finding something for them to eat, preparing it, and staring out of the window over the city. It feels like something’s happening, like Spring is forcing both of them to step into the sun again. Javert’s obviously ready, because if he weren’t he wouldn’t even think of going to speak to the college today. Valjean knows that if he received the same letter, he’d send one back saying no. Not yet. He’s getting better, but he’s not there yet. What’s strange to him is that Javert seems to have recovered on his own, behind some veil that Valjean didn’t even try to pull aside. He was lost in his own darkness, and just left the guy to get on with it. Has Father Charles fixed him? Therapy? Did he really just come back from a suicide attempt on his own? He feels like he’s missed a huge step here, abandoned the guy and wasn’t even able to care he was doing it. And now Javert can go forward on his own, and the important thing is that he doesn’t hold him back.

He chops vegetables, dices chicken, goes to the store for some soy sauce. He’s in the kitchen when Javert comes in, and puts his key on the hook by the door.

‘Hi,’ is all he says, and opens the fridge for a Coke. Valjean resists the urge to ask how it went, and smiles at him instead, before looking back at the food.

‘Can I help?’

‘Sure. You want yams? There’s some to peel.’

‘OK.’

They work side by side, in silence. Javert’s arm brushes his more than once, and he doesn’t flinch. Once, when Valjean steps away to get a clean knife, he puts his hand on Javert’s waist and just leaves it there. He feels the lean into the touch, but nothing is said. It’s not the first time they’ve touched, even though they both said they never would. Vows like that fell away under the pressure of what’s been happening, when he sometimes needed a hand on his shoulder to remind him that he wasn’t being pinned up against a wall somewhere. Everything’s been chaste, with a view to helping. He wonders – has wondered, today – whether Javert will leave him behind if that doesn’t change soon.

He watches him over dinner. It’s so obviously been a good day for him. The guy never smiles much, but there are times like now, when his movements are precise and his eyes are responsive, and he seems filled with penned energy that lights him up from the inside. He looks neat, collected, but full of life. The muscles of his arms are obvious, and when he turns to reach for a clean napkin off the counter behind the table, his T-shirt rides up at the side to reveal a hard line down the side of his abdomen, cutting a V down into the belt of his jeans. Valjean recalls the last time he saw him without a shirt, in his bed before Christmas, when he lay flat and his skin fell away from his bottom rib into a deep curve. That wouldn’t happen now. There’s no fat on him, but his shoulders are wide and his shirt stretches over his chest. His stomach will be flat with muscle, honed from manual labour in Valjean’s warehouses. He’s been running a bit too, and he still has to bike everywhere. He looks healthy, he looks better. Valjean doesn’t know whether the thickness in his throat is pride, or envy.

‘You OK? You haven’t eaten much.’

‘Yeah, I’m fine.’

He rouses himself to fork some stir fry, and says, ‘so how’d it go?’

‘Good. They were OK about everything. They – well, they say if they can get an updated report from my shrink, they’ll have no problem putting me back into classes.’

‘That’s what you want?’

Javert looks unsure for the first time that evening, and Valjean kicks himself for causing it. ‘I think so. I don’t think holding off any longer will do me any good. I might as well just go for it.’

It’s a highly unusual show of optimism from someone who isn’t prone to it. Valjean makes sure his surprise doesn’t show, and gives him a smile. Javert’s unease disappears at once; he smiles back, and Valjean realises that he doesn’t recognise this expression, because it’s happy. Has he ever seen Javert happy before? He can’t recall, and hates himself for the envy that’s now clear to him.

‘That’s great. You’ll do great. I’m happy for you.’

‘You know, you could-‘

‘No.’

Anyone else might be offended at the curtness of that word, but Javert just accepts it and nods.

‘Are you going to move back onto campus?’

‘I don’t know. I expect so. Father Charles is probably sick of me, and he deserves his space back.’

‘You know he won’t see it like that. Anyway, they’ll have to do another evaluation or something. You’re still technically in his care.’

‘I know.’

Valjean pushes food around his plate, forces a few more bites down and then gives up. But he makes sure that none of his distress shows, because this is a good thing for Javert, and he’s not going to ruin it. He’s genuinely pleased the guy’s making progress. It’s just hard when it shows how much he isn’t.

‘You want dessert? I only have yoghurt.’

‘Sure. I’ll get it. You want me to go after, or watch a movie or something?’

‘You can stay. If you like.’

Javert rolls his eyes, and gets up with their plates. ‘You pick.’

There’s some superhero thing on pay-per-view. He chooses it because it’ll be mindless, and the good guys will win. Javert sprawls on the sofa next to him, and as the room gets darker Valjean finds his eyes drawn more to him than the screen. He’s caught looking once, and Javert raises his eyebrows so he looks away, unsure whether it’ll be taken as something it shouldn’t be, or just because things have changed today. Either way, there’s no sign of tension because of it, and Valjean looks at his hands instead, trying not to let his spirits sink too low. He’s being selfish, or half-selfish, because he really is pleased that Javert is doing well. But the thought comes that he’ll be even more busy now, he’ll have to study a lot to catch up, and if he’s serious about not giving up volunteering then he won’t be around as much. A knot forms in his stomach at the thought of all the evenings he’ll have to spend alone, and it’s almost too much to hide. It hits him hard in the chest, and he has to take a lot of long, studied breaths to keep it under control. He can’t ask Javert to jeopardise his degree because he doesn’t want to be on his own, especially because he still can’t give him the kind of together he wants. He can’t even get it up any more; there’s no chance of a relationship. And turning to sex to please someone is exactly the sort of behaviour he’s got to stay away from.

The picture on the screen goes still, freezing on a naked guy lying on the floor after falling out of the sky.

‘Are you OK?’

‘I’m fine.’

‘You don-‘

‘I’m fine.’

There’s a long pause. He studies his hands. The movie starts up again, but after a few minutes it’s clear that Javert’s not paying attention. There’s tension now, and he didn’t want that. So he sucks in another breath, puts out his hand and runs it down the back of Javert’s head. A silent invitation that’s been offered a couple of times before, and Javert responds now as he did then, moving over so Valjean can lie lower, and then resting side by side, leaning his head on his chest.

He shouldn’t do this. He shouldn’t encourage it, shouldn’t touch him, shouldn’t give him hope. The only reason he lets himself is because Javert never seems to take any hope from it. He just allows him what he thinks he needs, and never pushes for more. It’s so different from how things were, and it’s so good, and he doesn’t want to give it up. But he will if he has to. The guy has to be set free.

‘Javert?’

‘Mmm?’

‘Do you get why I said I wouldn’t touch you again? You know, when-‘

‘-I remember.’

They watch the guy on screen deciding whether to run away, or join his group and save New York from the aliens. Javert’s head is a heavy, warm weight on his heart.

‘I get it. You were trying to protect me from myself.’

He says nothing. Javert’s neck twists under his hand until they’re looking into each other’s eyes, and he’s sinking into that terrifying, beautiful blue gaze.

‘You were right to do it, but wrong about something else. It doesn’t matter.’

‘Why not?’

Javert smiles, and turns back to his comfortable lean. His shoulders tense when Valjean’s fingers touch the scar of twisted skin hidden behind his ear, but melt down again when he leaves it alone and strokes his hair instead.

‘Because that was then.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘I know. Watch the movie, Valjean. I’ll explain it some other time.’

He doesn’t know when Javert got a lot more clever than he is, or what happened to him, or how this came about. But it’s a warm evening in March, the rules they made for each other have sunk away, and this is what they’re left with. It’ll have to change, and it might disappear forever. For today, it’s what they have and it’ll just have to be enough.