The kiss burns on his lips for a year.
He had hoped that being a sophomore would make him too busy to remember it, but it didn’t go away as the months passed. He could taste the panic of it at any moment of any day, and still can, though it has faded a little. He still sees Javert around sometimes, but it’s rare, and they only exchange a word when they can’t avoid passing each other in hallways. There is never any eye contact, and he never responded to that final text.
By the time he’s halfway through junior year, he thinks maybe he’s left it behind. He’s been made President of the Committee for Student Welfare, a society he’d joined after a bunch of students came to work for him one summer. He took such good care of them, and paid them so far above minimum wage, that they persuaded him he could do some good on campus. Six months later, they nominated him for president without checking if he minded, and everyone told him it’d be rude to refuse. He’s older than most students, he has money and influence in the area. He has gravitas apparently, which would be useful when meeting with senior college staff to discuss welfare issues. When they put the arguments like that, he really couldn’t refuse. And if they think he’s great for helping out, he reminds himself that at least a little of the reason he was tempted was because he thought he might make friends. But it hasn’t been like that. Instead of making him one of their peers, he’s only succeeded in setting himself further apart. And worse: above, in their eyes at least. But it’s OK, because the factory is doing better than ever, and he needs to spend more time there. With that, and the increased study workload, and committee duties, he wouldn’t have time for socialising anyway. And being busy stops him tasting that kiss, which he’s grateful for. He doesn’t want to remember the look on Javert’s face as he left that day.
It’s March when things are thrown upside down again. There’s going to be a student protest about the increase in tuition fees at the college, and while it’s perfectly legal, and everyone – the college, security, the police just in case - has been informed in advance, there are still logistical headaches. As President of the Student Welfare Committee, he’s taking the flak for the thing happening at all – it was the society members who forwarded the plan for the march, and voted in favour; he had little to do with it – and of course, he must be present at every meeting that’s planning it.
He enters one of the small lecture theatres on campus, and is faced with the place half-full. One of the college Deans nods him to a seat at the front, and stands up to speak. He gives the usual admonitions about student safety coming first, the desire for a peaceful protest, and warnings about what will happen should it not be peaceful. This last is directed squarely at Valjean, who looks back steadily while resisting the urge to squirm in his seat. He is very aware, always, that taking this post has drawn attention to himself in ways he is not comfortable with. The last thing he wants is for anyone to look into his admission papers, or background . He’s sure the college is bound by confidentiality and data protection acts, but none of his employees knows he used to be in jail, and nor do any of the big companies he deals with. He doesn’t know how they’d react to the news, and he doesn’t want to find out. And on a more personal level, it would be uncomfortable to think that the students he sees most days knew that about him. Maybe they wouldn’t say anything – maybe they wouldn’t care. But it would still be there between them, and he’d know, and he would rather not deal with it.
‘So,’ the Dean is saying. ‘The campus roads will be marked off for the protest route, and we will expect all students and supporters to stay on that route. No trespassing, no damage to any campus buildings or grounds. Mr Valjean, you will see to this?’
He nods, and raises his voice a little to be heard. ‘I’ve stressed it several times to the committee already, and will do so again. We’ve sent out emails, we’ve put up posters, we’ve handed out leaflets. It couldn’t be more clear that we want this to be peaceful. We’ll remind everyone on the day as well. We’re doing all we can.’
The Dean nods, but still looks pensive. ‘You’re due to meet with the security office today, I believe? They have specific concerns to address.’
‘Good. Do forward the minutes of that meeting to me, please. I believe Mr Terry is unavailable due to a minor operation, but I’m sure…yes, he’s sent someone in his stead.’ The Dean nods at someone sitting on the other side of the hall, and moves on. The meeting goes on for another twenty minutes, and he makes a few pages of notes. He’s arranging these when the Dean finishes, and sits with them as people all around start to move out. It takes a moment to realise there’s someone standing over him. When he looks up, his hands go still.
Javert seems taller. His hair is a fraction longer, and he still wears his sideburns prominently. He is dressed in jeans and a light blue shirt, and his shoulders are so square that for a second, Valjean sees the military posture of a guard. He tastes the kiss, and something contracts hard in his belly. ‘…sorry. Hi.’
Javert does not look at him, so he is at least spared the agony of that stare. The man addresses a point slightly above and to the left of his head. ‘I’m Terry’s replacement for this. I volunteer with the security office.’
All around them, chairs are flipping up and people are gathering folders, and papers, and clipping bags shut. The double doors to the lecture theatre open and close with a squeak of the hinges. And Valjean can only sit and stare. ‘Oh,’ he says, eventually. ‘All right.’
Javert says nothing. Valjean is not at all sure it is all right, but what’s he supposed to do? He busies himself with putting his notepad away. ‘Do you want to go and get a coffee, then?’ he asks, when he has no more belongings to stow. ‘Or we could just stay here and discuss it. It’s quiet.’
‘There’s a class booked in five minutes. I checked.’ Javert’s voice is toneless. He could be a statue with moving lips, if it weren’t for the hint of a frown on his brow.
‘Coffee then,’ says Valjean, and if the frown increases a touch, so be it. He’s not going to waste time discussing where they speak, when it’s the speaking that’s important. He leads the way out, heading for the student café down the hallway. It’s a Friday afternoon, and a nice enough day for people to be outside. The place isn’t crowded. Valjean dumps his bag on a chair and goes for drinks; he remembers, it seems, exactly how Javert likes his coffee. Black, no sugar. He’d forgotten he knew that.
Javert is seated by the time he returns, and there’s three dollars on the table in front of Valjean’s seat. When he looks at him, Javert pulls his coffee over and says, ‘I can buy my own drink.’
Fair enough. Valjean just shrugs. There may be a stab of disappointment at the coldness of his tone, but he also doesn’t blame the guy. He behaved atrociously, he knows. To freak out, and then just ignore him? The man has every right to be pissed.
‘Terry’s filled me in on everything the two of you have discussed so far,’ he says, opening a folder in front of him. ‘And frankly, we’re both worried about the amount of people who might show up. Your committee has been actively promoting this march for two months now, and you haven’t confined it to campus. We’ve seen posters and pamphlets through the city, and we heard you’re trying to get radio and news to cover it. And while Terry understands,’ though Javert does not, going by the twist of his mouth, ‘your desire for support, campus security just isn’t equipped for the numbers that might turn up.’
‘I’m sorry I didn’t text you back.’
Javert turns a page. ‘We’ve had to liaise with the police, and they’ve agreed we might need officers. But they’re thinking about charging for their use – and why shouldn’t they? Public funds shouldn’t have to subsidise your protest.’
‘So you might have to meet with one of the precinct liaisons before anything more can be decided. I know a few of them, I’ll give them your number and someone will call.’
‘Javert please, let me talk.’
‘I’d rather not. There’s nothing to say. On the issue of potential damage to the campus grounds-‘
‘There’s not going to be any damage. It’s just a march, no one’s going to tear anything up. Look, I’m really sorry, and I’ve been feeling bad for-‘
‘You don’t think anyone’s going to tear anything up, but you don’t know. And the principal isn’t going to stand for the place being vandalised. So Terry wants written proof, and a signed letter, that proves you’ve counselled every member of your society to behave themselves. It’s as much to cover you as them. That way, when they act out-‘
‘-you can prove you did everything you could to stop it. It’ll make life easier for the police.’
‘For the police?’
Javert’s eyes meet his for the first time. Valjean feels a little ill from the stab of them. ‘If people misbehave, there’ll be arrests. The precinct has been quite clear. No one can afford for this to turn into a riot. So if you can prove that you warned against such behaviour, then those caught will be in clear breach of your instructions as well as the law. The police can prosecute, and there can be no possible delay from listening to excuses of how they didn’t know they were supposed to behave, or were following some other covert direction from above them.’
Valjean blinks at him. ‘You’re implying there may be actual instructions to cause damage?’
Javert shrugs. ‘With proof you’ve openly counselled against it, you protect yourself from any such implication. It’s therefore down to the individuals.’
So the society itself will not suffer, but individual members might. But he does not think it will come to that. He knows of no potential trouble to come – but if it does, then really? The police will prosecute at once? ‘Javert,’ he begins. He does not know how to end. ‘-how long have you been volunteering in the security office?’
‘Terry must trust you, if you’re only a volunteer and yet stand for him when he’s gone.’ Javert just turns another page of his notes. ‘Are you still working for that catering company?’
‘That’s none of your business.’
‘You’re right. Are we done with security stuff now? Are you going to let me apologise?’
‘I’ve told you, there’s nothing to apologise for.’
‘There is though. There really is.’ Valjean leans forward suddenly, and lowers his voice. ‘I’m not homophobic. It wasn’t that, you know.’
Javert’s eyes are instantly wide. ‘I am not a homosexual,’ he hisses, and then looks surprised at having this pulled from him at all. ‘It was a moment of…it doesn’t matter. Just stop talking about it. I don’t care.’ He slams his folder shut, and tries to gulp his coffee down even though it’s still steaming. ‘I apologised, and that is the end of it.’
‘It’s not. Look – oh man, you’re going to burn your mouth. Stop it.’ He puts a hand onto Javert’s arm to stop him drinking again. The man freezes at once, and Valjean pulls back. ‘Even if it was just a spur of the moment thing, I shouldn’t have ignored you after. That was awful of me.’
He’s not going to apologise for the panic attack, because those are not something he can control. But the two years of silence since it happened? Yeah, that he will say sorry for.
Javert drinks another mouthful, then puts his cup down. ‘Are you finished?’ he says, coldly, and slides his folder into his backpack. ‘Terry will be back in a few days. I suggest you talk to the police before then about whether they’re going to provide more cover. And provide evidence that you want this to be peaceful, for the good of everyone.’
He leaves without saying anything else. Valjean thinks the good of everyone does not really cover the people who might be arrested, and who the police think would be abandoned by the committee to suffer their individual fate. But that does not surprise him.
He sighs, and takes a first sip of his own drink. He could not have expected any other reaction from Javert, but it’s still disappointing. Why should it be, though? he thinks later, when he’s opening up the factory’s accounts on his Mac. What was he expecting? That they could start hanging out again? He didn’t enjoy it much the first time, and looking back now in light of that kiss…well, it might explain some of his odd behaviour, but now he’s saying he’s not gay, so what’s he supposed to think? It’s better not to think of it at all. It’s over, and he’s got work to do.
It’s sunny on the day of the protest, and with a warmth to the breeze that suggests Spring is putting in a first, tentative, appearance. Valjean surveys the gathering crowds in the parking lot with some trepidation. He was aware that society members were working hard to make sure people showed up, but he had no idea how hard. He must be looking at a thousand heads right now, and this is only one of six meeting points around campus. If it’s the same elsewhere, then it’s a good job he paid for the extra police presence here today. It has always been planned as a peaceful demonstration, but with this many bodies it could easily get out of control. He’s glad he’s not actually leading these people anywhere – it was suggested he should, given his position, but they didn’t press too hard when he refused. He doesn’t look much like a typical student for one thing – older, bigger, better dressed on many occasions - but he suspects there are other reasons. The fact he’s rich enough to pay whatever tuition fees are asked, for one. For another…he looks at the blond head of a man holding a loudspeaker, his group of friends around him. None of the reasons mean anything against having Enjolras up there as the leader. He’s the best man for the job.
Valjean watches the group rally, and move off to meet up with the others at the front of the main building. No one is looking his way, and he doesn’t feel guilty about stepping back from the road they’re massed on, and disappearing into the rabbit warren of the Humanities department buildings. This is not his fight, and he can admit to himself that it’s only duty to his post that has him here at all. Of course he wants tuition fees to be affordable for all, but they are not that at their current levels either. His focus is on helping the people who can’t afford any fees at all, and that is best served by making sure his factory employs people, and pays them well.
He spends the morning studying in the library. The protest is due to arrive back from its march into the city at midday, where there will be a rally on the football field. As it turns out, there is no need for him to check his watch to see if he should go and meet them – the noise of thousands of people chanting in unison can be heard from quite a distance. He shuts his books, and makes his way out into the sun. It’s not far to the field from here, but the marchers have half a circuit of the campus to make. Valjean sees them turn left as they top the main driveway, and he cuts through the footpaths to take a shortcut. It takes them out of his view…but into the view of something else.
These are boys he hasn’t seen before. They look freshmen age, but he can’t tell if they’re actually students or not. The only thing he can tell is that those are spray cans of paint in their hands, and they’re squaring up to the blank, creamy façade of the Humanities lecture hall. Valjean looks around to see if there’s any sign they’ve broken off from the main pack of protesters, and finds nothing. He is about to speak, when a figure runs out of nowhere and snatches one of the cans from an unguarded hand.
‘What do you think you’re doing!?’
The woman is small, thin, pretty. Her hair is bright blonde, in a pixie cut, and she’s half a foot shorter than the smallest man there. For a second, all they do is stare at her. Then one scoffs, and sprays a thick red line on the wall. ‘No!’ she says, and runs at him. ‘Don’t! They’ll blame the Welfare Committee, and we’ll never be taken seriously again.’
We’ll. Is she on the committee? He can’t remember her face. But he doesn’t go to every meeting.
‘Don’t,’ she yells, pulling at the guy’s arm. He spins to dislodge her, and she falls against the wall. Valjean takes a step forward, but one of the men mutters, ‘shit’, nudges one of his friends and jerks his head at another footpath out of Valjean’s sight. They scowl, and throw their spray cans into their bag.
‘You,’ the biggest one says, pointing down into the girl’s face. ‘Should learn to keep your nose out. This was to back up the demonstration. We’re helping.’
His friends are jogging away. He takes off after them, leaving the woman breathing hard, half-slumped against the wall. Valjean starts walking to her, but only takes two steps before a guy in a safety marshal’s fluorescent vest arrives. It’s Javert, with two people behind him. Valjean falters, and comes to a halt. Javert draws himself up, unaware he’s being watched, and indicates the spray can with his head. One of his team puts on a pair of gloves, and takes it.
‘Did you do this?’ Javert says, to the woman. ‘You’ll have to come with me.’
‘It wasn’t me!’ she says, indignant but a little nervous. ‘I was trying to stop them. It was four guys, they just went that way.’ She points down the path. ‘If you run now, you’ll see them. They were just here. Hey, what’re you doing with that?’
The guy who took the can is putting it in a plastic bag. Valjean knew they were serious about cracking down on vandals, if there were any, but this is ridiculous.
‘We’re going to give it to the police,’ Javert says, with a hint of superiority. ‘We can’t make you come with us, but we can take your details. There’s CCTV to confirm your actions,’ he points up at a camera on the corner of the building, ‘so you might as well just give them to us.’
‘But I didn’t do it!’ she says again, flushing red with anger. ‘I was-‘
‘She’s telling the truth.’ Valjean walks forward, his eyes on Javert. ‘I saw the whole thing. It was four men, and one of them sprayed that line, and then pushed this woman into the wall when she tried to stop him. She is not at fault.’
Javert’s lip curls. It is not a pleasant sight. ‘But they’ve just disappeared? That’s convenient. You would say something like that, Valjean. You wouldn’t want any of your people arrested, right? I would have thought lying was beneath you, though.’
‘Keep thinking that, and you’ll realise I’m telling the truth.’ He catches Javert’s eye, and tries to force him to hold contact by moving with him when he shifts his head a fraction. ‘I promise you, Javert. It was not this woman. If there’s CCTV, it’ll prove it.’ He glances at the girl, who’s staring at him wide-mouthed. ‘And as far as I know, she isn’t one of my ‘people’. I’m not trying to protect one of my own. I’m just telling you what happened.’
The woman snorts under her breath, and shakes her head. ‘Of course you wouldn’t remember. Everyone knows you don’t really want the President’s spot. You’re hardly present at the meetings even when you’re there. You’re-‘
Valjean looks down at his feet as she speaks, and it’s Javert’s voice that cuts her off. It sounds testy, and too harsh for such faint damnation from the woman. ‘Shut up. Anyone who’s worked with the Welfare Committee knows he does a good job. And he-‘
It’s Javert turn to stop abruptly. No one speaks for a long moment, and it’s left to Valjean to clear his throat to break the silence. ‘Thank you, Javert. But it’s all right.’ And to the woman; ‘I’m sorry if you don’t think I’m doing my best. I’ll try harder.’ He shifts his gaze back. ‘You can check the cameras if you like. But you’ll see I’m not lying. It wasn’t her.’
Javert stares at him. Valjean remembers what it’s like to be skewered by those eyes, and his heart thumps nervously in his chest. Judging by the glare, the woman’s in trouble. He begins to re-plan his day around the inevitable trip to the police station he’ll make with her. But then, Javert lowers his head.
‘Fine,’ he mutters. ‘It wasn’t her.’ He glances at the woman. ‘But I’d appreciate your name and course details. I’ll report the vandalism to the police, and they might want to see if you can identify the men who did it.’
Valjean waits for him to add an apology. It feels like the woman’s waiting too. But Javert just stands waiting for her information. Eventually she sighs, and writes it down on a piece of paper handed to her. ‘You’re welcome,’ she adds sarcastically, and takes off. The two guys with Javert head to the security office with their bagged paint can. And then it’s just the two of them.
‘Well,’ Valjean says, after a pause. ‘I’ll let you get back to work.’
Javert looks as though he’s struggling with something again. Valjean recognises the look from the man’s dorm room, from the minute before he kissed him. He can’t guess what the cause is this time though, and so just waits. Eventually, Javert bursts out – somehow louder for the softness of his tone – ‘what did you do that for?’
‘Do you think I should have let you blame her?’
‘Most people wouldn’t care.’
He thinks about this carefully. And then says, in a measured tone, ‘no, Javert. You’re wrong. Most people wouldn’t let anyone get falsely accused.’
Javert looks like he’s been hit in the gut. He exhales air from a loose mouth, like breathing took him by surprise, and has to yank in a sharp breath to compensate. Valjean frowns, confused, but Javert just looks at the ground. He seems oddly defeated, and it takes a second to work out why; the man usually stands so straight, any divergence from that is a shock to the eyes. For the second time since coming to know him, Valjean is struck by how human he looks when he doesn’t mean to. And thinks it’s sad that he has to be embarrassed, or beaten, for it to show.
‘Come on,’ he says, ‘come and have a coffee. Properly this time. I think we should talk.’
‘I don’t want coffee.’ Javert straightens up, but his gaze is still cast down. ‘And I still don’t know what there is to talk about. But if you want to.’
‘I do want to.’
He walks on slowly until Javert falls into step. The football field runs next to the biology labs, and some of them are open for students wanting to prep for practicals over the weekend. He’s not sure how many will be in use two months before finals start, and is a little surprised to see so many full. In the end, he stops at the bottom of the fire door stairwell. There’s no one coming in and out, no one working, and the glass door looks out on to the field. It’s ready for the marchers; there are tables of drinks, and a small stage set up for Enjolras to do his thing. There are police milling about in case anyone’s incensed to violence by whatever’s said. But the people aren’t here yet, and it’s quiet enough.
He turns to Javert, who sits on the third step. His elbows rest on his knees, and he’s looking down again. Not for the first time, Valjean wishes he could tell what he’s thinking. ‘Are you all right?’ he says, tentatively. ‘I hope I didn’t embarrass you in front of your friends.’
‘Embarrass? No. Friends?’ He looks up to meet Valjean’s eyes. ‘No.’
Valjean shifts under the gaze. ‘Good. But then-‘
‘You annoy me, Jean Valjean.’
‘…oh. Well. I’m sorry?’
Javert waves this away, and stares at the wall to his side instead. He scratches at his arm, and Valjean realises that he’s unsure of himself. That’s rare. Javert always knows what he wants to say, and how he will say it. ‘Do you think I was wrong to want that girl’s information? She was standing next to a vandalised wall with a paint can in her hand.’
‘I think you should have listened to what she had to say before accusing her. I think dismissing her version of events without checking them is atrocious.’ A small pause. ‘But I admit it looked suspicious.’
Javert is scratching harder, and Valjean has to resist the urge to pull his fingers away. It continues until he can’t stand it anymore, and opens his mouth – but Javert stands up at that point, his arm red and his face unhappy. ‘I have to go.’
‘I thought you said we could talk.’
‘I said I didn’t want to. Anyway, I have to go back to work. Maybe some other-‘
Valjean waits, but Javert just looks confusedly at his feet. He comes to his rescue when he can’t stand that any more, either. ‘Any other time you like, Javert.’
The man nods, and leaves without looking at him. Valjean sits, and stares straight ahead. He has no idea what’s going on; all that’s clear to him is that something is. Javert spent all that time watching him in freshman year, and then hassling him over the project, and then kissed him…Valjean was annoyed with it at the time, and then disturbed. And now, being thrown back into each other’s path like this, it’s like the intervening two years haven’t happened at all. Javert is almost the same, though perhaps more sure of himself in some ways. And his own desire to see that he’s alright is still there, though his motives for that feel wrong. Does he want to help him because he saw him visiting his father in prison? Does he just feel sorry for him? Or is it - he cannot find a way to make this thought make sense in his head. But it feels as though he almost wants to divert the man from becoming something…he is not sure what. Nothing is clear. But it feels to him that Javert could allow a difficult past to damage him irreparably, or he could be shown something better. What that is…Valjean shakes his head, and curses at himself. Even if this weren’t the most base arrogance – because who is he to decide what other people need? – the fact remains that he, Valjean, is not a good candidate for the job. What does he know about helping scarred young men? He has never known how to help himself.
He forces himself to stand up and move. The sounds of the rally penetrate his thoughts, and he’s surprised to see the field outside is full. How long was he sitting there, thinking? His butt has gone to sleep, and his arm aches from holding his chin up. He blinks at the cacophony of sound and colour on the other side of the glass, the noise muted before it reaches him, but the scene laid out nicely. Enjolras yells through the loudspeaker, the crowd yells back. So much heart and passion. Valjean rests his fingertips on the bar holding the door closed. He doesn’t hear what’s being said, he just takes in the spectacle. He should go and show his face, probably. But they’re all occupied, and no one will notice if he’s not there. He’s not the type to shout in a crowd, or stand on a stage, and he doesn’t want the noise crashing about him.
He turns his back eventually, and goes home. He has a paper to finish, and there’s a big fire inspection at the factory on Monday morning. He’ll have to email the people who organised everything today, and thank them. If he hits the weights as well, that should fill up the rest of the day. Simple things, for an uncomplicated life. He used to dream of that. If it’s not quite living up to his imaginings, it’s his own fault for wanting too much, that’s all.
The doorman buzzes him around seven thirty to tell him he has a visitor. Valjean tells him to let them up without asking who it is, partly because he’s preoccupied with his workout, and partly because he refuses to screen the few people who have ever come here. If it’s someone from the past looking for him, so be it.
It is not someone from the past. It’s Javert, dressed in jeans and the same fluorescent vest he wore at the march. He looks a little shocked when he comes in. Valjean supposes he should have put a shirt on, but he’s halfway through a set of deadlifts and he doesn’t want to stop. ‘Shut the door,’ he says, easing the bar down carefully. It’s at four hundred pounds; he’s had to reinforce the floor in this corner to make sure the weight doesn’t damage the ceiling of the apartment below. ‘You’ll let all the heat out.’
‘It’s like a furnace in here.’
‘I’m working out.’ Obviously. And what would be the point of working out in the cold? Make it hot as you can take, sweat your life out of you for a few hours. ‘Just three more. Have a seat.’
Javert sits at one end of the sofa. Valjean only sees him glance over once, but doesn’t think about it as he lifts the bar. He needs to focus on his form. When it comes down again, he gets the distinct impression there are eyes on him, but when he looks over Javert is watching his own hands. It’s the same on the last two lifts. If the guy’s looking, he’s good at hiding it. It doesn’t matter. Valjean steps away from the bar and towels off, leaving it hanging around his neck. He snags a protein shake from the fridge, and a Coke – this last he sets down in front of Javert, before flopping on to the armchair opposite. ‘Hi.’
Javert looks worried. He’s flicking his fingernails, making them click, and won’t look up. Valjean finishes his ‘shake in silence; if the guy came to talk, it’s up to him to talk. And eventually, there’s a sigh. ‘I said you annoy me,’ he says, as though that conversation only paused a few minutes ago, rather than a month.
‘I remember. And I apologised.’
‘Yeah.’ He lunges for the Coke suddenly, and cracks it open. It’s almost a violent movement. Something must have happened. ‘But it’s not what you think.’
‘What do I think?’
Javert scowls. ‘That it’s what you do. Or what you…look like. It’s not that.’ Valjean blinks, and it’s a good thing Javert doesn’t give him time to talk, because no response comes to mind. ‘You remind me of someone, but I can’t think who. Like I’ve seen your face before. I’ve thought it since I first saw you in Law 101.’ A pause. ‘…maybe it is a bit what you do, as well. All that charity work.’ He gestures with his hand to imply this isn’t relevant right now, but instead of saying what is relevant, just stops talking.
Valjean toys with the lip of his shaker, wiping a drop from the rim as his throat narrows to the size of a straw. His back is sticking to his leather sofa, and Javert’s right, it is too hot in here. He goes to the thermostat to dial it down, and stands for the space of a few deep breaths, looking at the brickwork. It was only a matter of time before Javert placed him. He saw him every week for almost two years, albeit from the other side of an often chaotic room. He looked different then – they both did. Javert was a boy who turned into a young man, more surly and withdrawn by the week. And he himself was…it’s hard to remember, exactly. He had long hair and a beard, even though everyone told him it was stupid to give your enemies something to grab you by. He said it didn’t matter, they grabbed him easily enough anyway. It didn’t matter that he was strong, and tried to make himself stronger in the hope of fighting them off one day; it didn’t matter how much he yelled out and thought a guard would hear, and come and stop them, no one ever did; and then he thought they must be paid off, because there was supposed to be supervision in the communal areas, but he seemed to find himself alone and surrounded often enough-
He spirals back down to the present. Javert’s behind him; he has the impression of a hand hovering uncertainly above his shoulder. His fingers are pressed tightly to the wall, so that the ends are white and the palm stretched. And his chest hurts. It’s tight. Javert is too close.
‘Yeah. It’s alright.’ His voice sounds rough. He grabs the end of the towel, and wipes his face with it. At least the heat will excuse the sweat he can feel pricking out of his neck. It tickles at his hairline, and he scrubs it away. ‘I don’t know what to tell you. I’m not going to stop doing charity work because you want me to.’
‘I didn’t say you should. You don’t owe me anything. I just…you said to come if I ever wanted to talk.’
Valjean turns, propelled by the uncertainty in his tone. He feels a little sick. The edge of panic always makes him reckless; it’s why he shuts himself away when it comes. He doesn’t want to make a mistake here, but sometimes it’s a fight to contain himself, and the guy isn’t making the situation easy. He still doesn’t know what the situation is. ‘Is that why you came, then? To talk?’
‘Yes?’ Javert has gone through uncertain, and back into worried. ‘I wanted to apologise. I’ve suspected you of…I don’t know what, but I think I was wrong. And I do say when I’m wrong.’
He looks pleased with himself for admitting it. Valjean tries to swallow the fear, and doesn’t want to resist the urge to take that smug look off his face. But he does. ‘OK. Thank you.’
Though he doesn’t stop himself appraising Javert in the silence that follows. And Javert, rather than looking abashed or surly, just stands and endures it. His expression is more clear than it usually is, and Valjean realises that it looks as though the guy has put down something heavy his conscience has been dragging around. He looks far more relaxed. Younger. So all that staring when they started college, maybe it wasn’t because he wanted to kiss him. Maybe he, Valjean, dismissed the obvious because of what happened after – maybe it’s simply that Javert has been suspicious of where they’ve seen each other before from the beginning, and the kiss was just an incidental thing that came later.
He resists the urge to step forward too. It would be a stupid decision, and unfair in so many ways. But he doesn’t object when Javert steps forward. He doesn’t do anything at all, except, after a minute of just breathing, ask, ‘why did you kiss me?’
‘I wanted to. Then.’
‘And this is where I’m supposed to ask, and now?’ He shakes his head. ‘Just tell me what you want, Javert.’
‘I want to ask you a question. Two questions, actually.’
‘I want to know why you freaked out. And,’ he points to Valjean’s side. ‘I want to know what those scars are.’
He should have put a shirt on. But the scars don’t tell any specific story. Maybe they’re too symmetrical not to be abuse, but nothing about them says ‘prison’. He doesn’t look at them. ‘You kissed me out of nowhere,’ he says, evenly. ‘I was surprised.’
‘I know what a panic attack looks like.’
‘I was very surprised.’
Javert’s brow creases. The gentle deflection might be annoying for him, but it’s calming Valjean down. It’s even, he thinks guiltily, a little fun. He watches him lick his bottom lip, a nervous swipe of his tongue. ‘What if I did it again?’
‘Well, some warning is better.’ A pause. ‘Why now? What changed? I’ve hardly seen you for two years.’
‘You’re not what I thought. It makes a difference.’
Valjean doesn’t know what that means. And Javert is easing a little closer, and he doesn’t know what to do. ‘I thought you weren’t gay.’
‘I thought I wasn’t anything.’ Javert looks a little hurt at the question, as if it’s a bad time to bring this up.
‘But you assume I am.’
The suggestion of hurt starts melting into mortification. It’s almost painful to see, it happens so fast, and Valjean can’t stand it; he reaches out and grabs Javert’s arm to stop him. ‘Sorry, that was cruel. I’m sorry. You don’t need to worry.’
The relief breaks over the guy like a bucket of water hitting a wall, and Valjean can’t bring himself to follow up the way he should. Like everything else, it’s complicated. And now he’s managed to make Javert think he’s gay, and probably implied he’s into this as well, and they’re standing closer than they should be and he still has hold of Javert’s arm.
He lets it go. ‘This is a bad idea.’
‘Any number of reasons. You’re suspicious of something. You don’t know what you want. We don’t know each other well. And I’m…well, I guess I don’t know what I want either.’ Javert’s looking at the floor. He seems to spend a lot of time with his head bowed. ‘You know,’ he adds, a sudden bubble of amusement rising through him, ‘we saw each other every couple of weeks for four months. In all that time, it didn’t occur to you just to ask me on a date?’
The word feels strange on his tongue. The idea of him going on a date is laughable, and when Javert’s factored in it just becomes ridiculous. But that’s how other people do things, isn’t it? This isn’t so complicated for them. They just ask, and go out and see if they like each other. Valjean can’t think of a reason why he shouldn’t do the same thing, except that every fibre of him wants to laugh at how obviously he can’t. There may be no rules in society that stop him, but he just can’t.
Javert is shaking his head. ‘No. It didn’t occur to me.’
He looks sad. Valjean doesn’t know how to make that better, and he can’t find any words at all. His mind screams say something, but nothing comes to him. He was right; this is a bad idea. For the love of God, he doesn’t even like Javert that much.
But it seems that doesn’t mean anything. He can’t forget about him. He’s not one of the faceless thousands he sees around campus. He’s a connection with the past, and he’s here in his apartment right now, and no matter what he tells himself, he doesn’t want him to go away and not come back.
‘Me either,’ he mumbles, and their eyes catch for just a second. It helps, though. Javert even smiles a bit. Valjean relishes the sight of it, and breathes a little easier. After a moment, he tugs lightly on the front of Javert’s vest. ‘What’s going on on campus?’
‘Open day for new students tomorrow. I’m on traffic detail.’
‘Oh. Well-‘ an idea comes, and it’s so stupid he can’t help but say it. ‘I’m up there for a class at eleven. You want to get together for lunch?’
Not a date, he tells himself. He’d be going for lunch anyway. But it would be nice not to have to eat alone, for once.
Javert’s eyes are flitting over his face, as though searching for a joke. He takes his time about it, so Valjean is careful not to smile. He just waits. And eventually, it seems Javert can’t detect a lie. He nods, slowly. ‘All right. I’ll text when I’m free.’
The ensuing silence is awkward but for once, not really in a bad way. Valjean smiles, and so does Javert. He fiddles with the lid of his shaker, and Javert smooths down the front of his vest. ‘OK. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.’
OK. Yes, OK. Valjean repeats the word to himself long after Javert is gone. Is it, though? Well, it will have to be. It’s only lunch. And it’s not as though either of them have made a move; it seems pretty clear that neither of them even know if they want to. So they can ignore each other again, or just…go and have lunch, and see if they can make sense of whatever this is.
Later, showered and unable to sleep, Valjean is back to staring at his too-distant ceiling. He shouldn’t go. He shouldn’t lead him on. And he tells himself so what? that Javert might recognise him eventually. What does it matter? He didn’t hurt the guy’s family, and while of course it’s his fault he was in prison, he didn’t ask to be locked up with Javert’s dad. It shouldn’t make a difference to anything.
He sighs, and closes his eyes. It shouldn’t make a difference, but he thinks it probably will. So he should just stay away. And he will…after lunch, tomorrow. It’s not a date. It’ll be fine.