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Love is Not a Victory March

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Freshman Year

 

He tries not to think about the eyes watching him. He doesn’t avoid them, or seek them out; he doesn’t want to dredge up any more memories than he already is. But not thinking about them – that is less about defence, and more about the way they skewer him clean through.

He should move schools, probably, but then he wouldn’t see them at all. Anyway, he was here first. He’ll just have to keep his mind on his work for the next four years, like he always planned. It’s not like he could join in with college life anyway.

‘Valjean.’

He looks up from his desk in the library, and smiles. Javert’s eyes pin him to the back of his chair. Dear God. The guy’s stare brings a whole new meaning to ‘if looks could kill’. Anyone seeing him would believe it.

‘Javert. How’s it going?’

‘Fine.’ He has, Valjean notes, eight criminology textbooks under one arm alone, and the straps on his bag look fit to break from the weight they’re carrying.  ‘We’ve been paired together for the Law 101 presentation. I just saw the email. I expect you’ll tell me to relax because it’s not for four months, but I’d like to get started on prep.’

Valjean shakes his head, slowly. ‘No, that’s fine.’ If it were anyone else, he might. But Javert doesn’t know how to relax; Valjean suspects why, and he’s not going to judge him. ‘I’ve got to finish planning this paper now, but why don’t we get together this evening?’

‘I have work. I could meet you after, but it’d be late.’

He shrugs a shoulder. ‘That’s OK. I don’t have class in the morning. Or we could just meet in the morning, if you like.’

‘No. Tonight. Where? I don’t like noise when I study. No bars, or diners or anything.’ A pause. ‘Please.’

Valjean could point out that he doesn’t go to bars, but instead he just says, ‘my place, then. I’ll email you the address.’

‘I finish at nine. I’ll come straight over.’

He leaves without any form of goodbye. Valjean sits for five minutes, twirling a pen around his fingers. It’ll be an awkward four months, but at least he’s guaranteed an A at the end of it. He’ll probably know the entire legal code inside out by the time they’re finished. Well, good. Education is what he’s here for, after all.

 

*

 

Valjean does not want to be a lawyer. He’s older than most students in this place, and he already has his own business. It’s successful enough that he doesn’t have to be there all the time, which is why he’s turned to education. The money he makes means nothing to him; all he wants is to build a foundation to help people – kids – like him, like he was, like he is now. He dreams of writing cheques for someone’s college tuition, and the first stone placed for a women’s shelter, or a community centre for teenagers from the bad neighbourhoods; he doesn’t want any kid to spend their entire adolescent years in prison, like he did. And then those two years in the big house, which he will do everything he can to forget – he tells himself it’ll all be worth it, when he comes out of college and knows what to do with his money, how best to make it work for the people who need it.

He leans back in his desk chair, and stretches. The clock says nine-fifteen, so Javert will probably be here soon. He wonders where he works. He wonders whether anyone helped him ten years ago, and highly doubts it. A glance at the camera over the video entry phone shows no one there, so he gets back to work.  It’s an hour before it rings, and Valjean is surprised at the time but his head is swimming with numbers, so he doesn’t think much of it. He presses the button by the phone, watches Javert enter the outside gate, and calls down to the doorman to let him up. This apartment building is not lavish, but it’s decent enough that it has security. The neighbourhood isn’t great, but Valjean’s offices are nearby and a lot of his employees live around here. He feels pretty safe, but any potential danger isn’t going to come from the people he knows now. It’ll come from the people he knew then, and those people could be anywhere.

‘Hey,’ he says, only glancing up to wave Javert through the door he’d left open for him. ‘You’re later than I thought.’

‘I said I would be.’

Javert stands in the doorway, looking awkward. He’s too tall for his body; even at nineteen, he looks like he hasn’t stopped growing into himself. The uniform he’s wearing is all white, or would be if it weren’t filthy; Valjean notes that even though it’s dirty, it’s still tucked in and buttoned neatly, and Javert’s hair has been smoothed down from the trip here.

‘That’s OK. You’re a chef?’

‘No. I work in a kitchen.’ He takes a step inside, and closes the door behind him. It’s warm in here, but Valjean sees him shiver; only then does he see that he’s not carrying a hat or gloves, there’s no scarf, and it’s really cold out there, even for it only being September.

‘How’d you get here?’

‘Bike.’

‘…from?’

Javert hesitates. ‘I work for a catering company. We were out at the prison tonight.’

Valjean doesn’t react, except to raise his eyebrows and say, ‘that’s a hell of a long way to bike. You must be freezing.’

Javert just shrugs, and puts his bag down. ‘Can we get started?’

‘No.’

‘What?’

Valjean stands up, and walks through the apartment. The building was once a warehouse; everything here is high-ceilinged and big-windowed, and there’s far too much space for him. He comes back with a towel, and throws it at Javert. ‘You smell like grease, sorry. Go and take a shower. Do you have other clothes?’

He’s embarrassed him, but it can’t be helped. Javert shrugs. ‘Yeah.’ He glances at his bag.

‘Well, then. Bathroom’s down the hall. I’ll pull up the prep sheets.’

He orders pizza too. He tries to find a way to place the chairs at the table so Javert’s eyes won’t kill him too often. He fails, but is pretty sure he always knew he would.

 

*

 

He went to juvie when he was twelve. He stole some food because his sister’s husband drank the welfare cheques, and everyone was starving. No one had seemed that interested in why he did it; it was like they just looked at where he came from, and his sister’s husband’s record, and saw where they lived, and just  knew he wasn’t going to come to anything. There were so many nights when he wondered whether someone had been sitting in an office with a rubber stamp hovered over his name, waiting for him to put a toe out of line. Stupid, of course, but that’s what it felt like. Everything came down on him like a ton of bricks from the moment the handcuffs were slapped on. And he had hated them; by God, he had hated all of them for it. His family, the welfare officers who didn’t care, the lawyers who couldn’t get his name right, the judge who didn’t even look at him. He had tried to explain, but no one listened. He was thrown into jail and forgotten about. He couldn’t even read. He was…not treated well by his peers, not for a long time.

‘Are you listening?’

He blinks, and swims back to the present. Javert’s eyes are the same now as they were the first time he saw them, though the face around them is older. Not a face anyone could forget. ‘Yeah. Well, sort of. Aren’t you tired?’

It’s past midnight. Two pizza boxes sit empty; once he had insisted hard enough, Javert ate enough to sink a battleship. A two litre bottle of Coke lies on its side among protein bar wrappers and a few apple cores, and coffee cups balance on top of each other to make room for the books which have spread across the table. Javert just shrugs at the question, a lock of brown hair falling over his forehead. ‘If we finish the outline tonight, we each know what we have to research. It’ll make things easier next time we meet. You said you didn’t have class in the morning, right?’

He doesn’t, but he does have to go to work. He might go to church too, but he’s not going to explain that. ‘I don’t. I’m just asking because you were in school today, and then you went to work, and then you biked about twenty miles, and now you’re here. Do you ever sleep?’

Another shrug, and Javert looks back down at his legal pad. ‘We’re nearly finished.’

Valjean picks up his pen. ‘All right. Go on.’

 

*

 

It’s after 2am when Javert starts packing his books up. Valjean’s tempted to tell him to crash in the spare bedroom, but that would be weird – for him, if not Javert. Both of them, probably, given that he knows by the weeks of incessant staring that he’s already aroused suspicion in the other guy.

‘We’ll meet again in a couple of weeks?’

Valjean nods, even though he doesn’t know how he’ll get through everything Javert wants them to research in that time – he could understand it if the presentation were in a month, but it isn’t. And it’s only freshman year. There’s no way this much prep is needed. He doesn’t mind; he wants good grades. He’s just curious about this clear desire of Javert’s for the presentation to be perfect. ‘Sure. Come here again, if you like. It’s quiet, there’s space-‘ He breaks off and shrugs, awkward himself. He has no idea where Javert lives. It could be asking him to come miles out of his way. But he gets a nod in return.

‘All right. Two weeks today? If I’m not working, I could come earlier. I didn’t mean to keep you up.’

Later, his head too full of law arguments to sleep straight away, Valjean wonders whether that were strictly true. Javert could have left earlier. He either didn’t care that he might inconvenience him, or was truly oblivious to the possibility. A third option might be that he did it on purpose, but why would he?

He rolls over in bed, and considers masturbating to help him sleep, but dismisses it. His mind wants to take him back to prison and he’s too tired to stop it, though he knows it’ll never make him rest. It’s because of Javert. He should be grateful he was too young to remember him properly, because no one in college knows of his record except the admin people who’ve seen his admission papers. He doesn’t want anyone to know. He doesn’t ever want to think of it again. But Javert makes him remember.

He’d been a month in the adult prison, and in a bad way. His sister came to visit because it was closer than the juvenile detention centre had been, and because he was eighteen then. Even she knew this place would be tougher. Every two weeks she had come and cried at him, and told him how bad things were now Dexter was dead and it was just her and the kids. He thought it should be better, but apparently her husband had left her with a few problems of her own. She’d picked up alcoholism by osmosis, or something. He was almost past caring, because his own problems were more than enough to occupy him.

He’d looked across the visiting area, and found himself staring into a pair of eyes so sharp he was almost afraid of them. When he registered they belonged to a kid, it was even more creepy, because that stare was so much older than the boy it belonged to. The child Javert sat next to a thin woman with flat, greasy hair, who was crying at a much older man. He could only be about thirteen, Valjean had thought. Skinny and pale-faced, with unkempt brown hair, he didn’t look as though anyone took much care of him. But none of that was why Valjean, having noticed him, could not look away. It was the contempt on his face. The sheer, ugly, hatred. Whatever had happened to Javert and his family, he was never going to accept it, that was obvious. Everything about him screamed how much he couldn’t bear being there. He hadn’t even let his mother touch him when she’d tried to put a hand on his arm. He hadn’t spoken a word to his father. Valjean had not been able to help watching then, nor for the next two years. Almost two years. Javert Senior had died not long before he himself was released, and he didn’t see the kid after that.

He rolls onto his back again, and stares at the ceiling. It’s too far away in this apartment. He’s too used to looking up at another bunk, even though he’s been out five years now. Some nights it doesn’t bother him, and some nights it really does. Lights from the street give the room a faint orange glow, and a car alarm is going off a few streets away. Some voices raise somewhere, there’s the occasional bang of a trunk closing. The neighbourhood never gets silent until after 4am. It’s OK. He’s not used to too much quiet either.

His thoughts drift back to Javert. The only thing he knows about him is that he started school a little late. They only share law so far – from what he saw in the library, Criminology is going to be Javert’s focus, and he himself is leaning towards business management. Or maybe he’ll switch to something more pointed at sociology, or community care or something. The business seems to be doing OK, even without him having any kind of degree. But he wants to understand the rules behind constructing municipal buildings, so property law is going to be important-

He pushes the heels of his hands into his eyes, and prays for sleep. He’s a month into his freshman year. There’s plenty of time to figure out a major. He doesn’t have to do it at 3am, on the night before a full work day. Maybe he should follow Javert’s example. Bike everywhere, and never stop working. He bets he isn’t having any trouble sleeping.

 

*

 

Christmas. Valjean doesn’t like it much. He likes the church services and the carols, he likes the extra goodwill and spirit of giving – it all helps, no matter the reason behind it – and if he’s honest, he also likes the feeling he gets when he sees his employees light up at the size of their bonuses. Which is part of the reason he doesn’t like it, because it’s a reminder of his own pride, still, even after everything. He tries to batter it down by spending his free time doing charity work, and he’s looking forward to next week because there’ll be no classes. Term ends tomorrow, and he’ll have a few weeks to devote to less selfish endeavours than his own education. He’s seriously wondering whether he should have just given his tuition fees to a kid who really needs it.

‘Valjean.’

Javert jogs up to hallway towards him. He stands and waits, and remembers the other reason he doesn’t like Christmas. ‘Hey.’

‘Could we meet before the holidays? I just want to make sure we know what we’re doing before vacation starts.’

Valjean stares at him. A football from some rogue jocks goes flying past, close enough to almost brush Javert’s hair, but the guy doesn’t even blink. ‘Really? I mean – sure, we can, but there’s no need. We’ve already done more than enough, and the deadline’s still two months away.’

Javert is already shaking his head. ‘I thought of some adjustments. It shouldn’t take long.’

There’s something weird about this, something obsessive. He wonders if Javert’s like this for every subject he’s taking. They’ve been meeting every two weeks for the last three months – there are kids in the class who haven’t even started yet. This is a 101 course, it’s as basic as it comes. Not for the first time, Valjean actually wonders if there’s something wrong with this kid.

He holds his hands up. ‘Fine, that’s fine. But I’m busy tonight, I’m sorting donations for charity. How about tomorrow?’

‘I can’t. I have work. It really needs to be tonight.’

‘The weekend?’

‘Work.’ A pause. ‘Sorry.’

Valjean never understands if that pause, which always comes before he apologises, is because he’s reminding himself that he has to say sorry, or just because he really doesn’t want to. Either way, it’s annoying. ‘Come and sort donations with me then. The quicker it’s done, the more time I’ll have afterwards.’

Javert looks pained. ‘Do you have any time before you do that? It really won’t take-‘ he stops, apparently from the expression he’s seeing, and shakes his head. ‘Fine, that’s fine,’ he mumbles, a little colour rising on his cheeks. ‘Where?’

Valjean gives him the address of one of his warehouses, and lets him walk on. After a moment, he turns to watch him go. Javert is staring down at the paper in his hand, his shoulders slumped. Valjean lets out a breath, and heads off to class. Really, the whole thing is unnecessary, and Javert can’t expect him to drop everything the moment he needs to adjust a comma or two in their work. He’ll just have to deal.

It’s long been dark by the time he opens the door to his warehouse. The donations don’t fill the entire place, of course, but he did have a line of tables put down one side of it and they’ve been filling up over the past few months. Adult stuff at one end – practical things; clothes, saucepans, homeware, groceries – and at the other, the stuff he’s really excited about. Toys for kids, heaps of them, all ready to be sorted out and put into stockings and boxes for all the children who wouldn’t otherwise get a visit from Santa. Everyone who works in his business has donated something, and they’ve all given up a few hours of their time to sort through the stuff. Everyone has pitched in to collect things, and spread the word that things are needed – and more importantly, have been collecting names of families who really need help. This is what he plans to be doing the next two weeks before Christmas, and he can’t help another flash of pride. There’ll be smiles on the twenty-fifth, and it’ll be because of him.

His heart sinks at his own enjoyment at the thought, and he sighs as he flicks lights on. But there’s no time for analysing it. People will be arriving to help soon, and it’s freezing in here. He gets the heaters going, drags an urn out in the break room so people can help themselves to instant coffee, and opens some tins of cookies so they can snack. As an afterthought, he even sticks on some quiet Christmas tunes and floats them out over the tannoy. There’s no reason to make this a chore. He knows some people will only be coming out of obligation, but maybe they’ll be quicker to volunteer next year if it’s a pleasant experience.

He’s down at the tables, starting to sort toys into age groups, when his phone buzzes. Are you inside? Javert.

He shakes his head. How many times have they had to text each other for class? Does he really think he wouldn’t have saved his number by now? Or would have forgotten his name?

Yeah, come on in. The blue door at the side. Just walk straight through to the back.

He’s holding a pink Barbie in one hand and what appears to be her car in the other, when Javert joins him. ‘Hello,’ he says, and Valjean frowns at the vehicle.

‘How is this supposed to fit?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Look. Her legs are too long, and they don’t bend the right way. How is she supposed to sit down properly in that?’ Or even touch the pedals, though Valjean supposes little girls wouldn’t care much about that.

Javert just looks bewildered. ‘I don’t know.’

‘No. Well, nor do I.’ He makes another attempt, but stops when it looks like the steering wheel is about to carve a lump out of Barbie’s plastic leg. ‘Ah. Maybe I’ll leave that for one of the women.’

‘…yes. All right.’

Valjean puts the things down, and moves on. There’s a box of baby things, rattles and soft books, and giant plastic keys on loops. He smiles as he looks through, then pushes the box towards Javert. ‘Could you put that on the floor beside you? All the baby things can go there. They’ll need to be cleaned before we hand them out anyway.’ Javert takes it, with an expression on his face that suggests it smells bad. Valjean chooses to ignore this. ‘You’re on baby detail, then. Put whatever you can find down there – make sure it’s good quality. And seeing as there’s no one else here yet, I guess we can talk about whatever adjustments you want to make as we go.’

They might as well kill two birds with one stone, and Javert clearly doesn’t relish being here. He doesn’t blame him, quite honestly. He always seems to be at work, so it’s probably  unfair to be asking him to do this at all. But Javert just nods, and gets on with it without complaint. He looks like he’s about to speak, when Valjean notices his hands are shaking and curses his own rudeness. ‘Sorry. Look, there’s coffee and cookies upstairs. Help yourself before we get started.’

‘No, it’s OK. Thanks.’

He hasn’t taken his coat off. Valjean bites back a sharp retort, and seizes a pile of precariously balanced toddler clothes which happily proceed to drop all over the floor. He tuts loudly at himself, and bends to pick them up. ‘Well – sorry – but would you mind grabbing me one while I pick these up? My hands are cold, I keep dropping stuff. And just bring a tin of cookies down, no one’ll mind.’

‘Oh. OK, sure.’

Valjean smiles just a little as he collects the clothes, and makes sure his face is perfectly straight when Javert returns with a mug of cheap, but steaming, coffee for each of them. And cookies. He’s glad he brought them; if past experience is anything to go by, Javert will get through most of them on his own in the next half hour. It doesn’t seem to matter how many pizzas, or subs, or take-outs the guy shovels in, he never seems to fill his clothes properly. It’s become something of a private game, looking to see whether he can make Javert gain a pound.

Half an hour later, they’re starting on the bottom layer of cookies. Valjean’s only had three, and is trying desperately not to grin. Six or seven other people have shown up and are working through the heavier goods at the other end. Their arrival kept interrupting any attempt to talk about class stuff, but it looks like no one else is coming. Valjean flips the levers on a game of Hungry Hippos to check the game works, and slides it back into the box. ‘So, the presentation?’

‘Yeah. Well, you know how you were going to argue the law has a duty to protect the rights of certain citizens, and the government has a duty of care to everyone who doesn’t work? And I was going to argue the opposite, and we were going to use that as a springboard to talk about individual cases where state laws have been superseded by federal?’

‘Yes? I was there when we planned it. I’ve done the research.’

Javert shakes his head, looking down at the bottle steriliser in his hand. ‘I don’t think we can use it. I’d like to pull it.’

Valjean blinks. ‘But that’s the basis for the whole presentation,’ he points out, in what he hopes is a reasonable tone of voice. ‘That’s the topic we chose, and the one that got approved. That’s all the work we’ve done so far.’

‘…yes.’ Javert has the grace to look awkward. ‘But I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t think it’s viable. I mean-‘ he scoffs quietly, without looking up. ‘Can we really make a strong case for, I don’t know, paedophiles being protected by the law when they’re still obviously going to be a danger to society? Can we honestly say that the government should provide welfare for all the people who aren’t willing to work, and just use the money to fund addiction?’

Valjean stands dumb, his mind turning this over. His eyes register, blankly, that Javert’s hands are still shaking a bit, despite the warmth in the space now, and the coffee and cookies. Maybe he should have sandwiches delivered. In the end, he just shakes his head. ‘Javert, the point of the assessment is to provide an argument, present the different sides of it, and use real-world cases to highlight what we’re saying. And at the end, the rest of the class will tell us who’s been more persuasive. The whole point is discussion. It’s not a competition, and we’re going to actively lose marks if we only present one side of the argument. You seriously want to pull it apart now?’

Javert’s eyes are firmly downcast, but his voice is strong enough. ‘Yes, I think so.’

‘Well, I don’t.’ He can’t help the hint of impatience. ‘What’s this about? You’re the one who’s been herding me along for the last three months. You haven’t left this alone. You know perfectly well what the assignment is, and I know you want an A. Why would you want to ruin it?’

Javert glances up, the wire from the steriliser wrapping uneasily around his knuckles. ‘I don’t want to stand up there and say stuff I don’t mean, that’s all.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like…the things I just mentioned.’

‘But you won’t be. That’s my side of the argument. You get to take the harder side – and hey, I did offer, but you wanted it.’

‘I do want it. I don’t want to say I think poor people should be allowed to live off hand-outs.’

Valjean blinks again. He looks down the table, and the piles and piles of willingly given donations. He looks back at Javert, who is flicking at the plug at the end of the wire with his thumb. ‘Then be happy,’ he says, coldly. ‘You don’t have to. You get to say you think everyone – poor, old, infirm, sick, disabled – should be made to work for every penny they need to live on.’

‘Well, they should.’ There’s a hint of defiance in Javert’s tone, but it feels a little too strong for the quiet conversation they’ve been having, as though he’s shoving it in.

‘You’re being ridiculous. What’s wrong?’

‘There’s nothing wrong. I just think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. I think,’ there’s the barest hesitation, which is rare enough to make it obvious. Javert doesn’t usually have any problem with speaking his mind outright. ‘-it’s obvious everyone will agree with you, but maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe they don’t know anything. We’ll be perpetrating something that’s wrong, and I don’t want to.’

This makes no sense at all. Javert looks a little white, and his eyes are evasive. He’s swallowing too much. ‘Javert, we’ve done so much work on this. You get that it’s a 101 class, yeah? We could stand up right this minute, read what we’ve got, and we’ll get an A. We don’t need to make it-‘

‘-but I want to,’ Javert says, too loudly. ‘I don’t want to hear you say you think criminals should have their crimes erased when they’re parolled-‘

‘I’ve never said that-‘

‘-and I don’t think you should say that rehabilitation in some cases is-‘

Valjean reaches out, and closes his hand over Javert’s. The kid stops talking at once, and his eyes widen. Valjean isn’t sure of that reaction, or even why he’s touched him, but he thinks he knows what this is about. ‘Look…we can adjust the wording if you like. We can tinker with it so it’s not offensive to you. But we can’t overhaul the entire thing now. We won’t be allowed, and anyway, I’ve put more research into this than any other class this term. Because you wanted me to. There’s no need to ruin it.’

Javert yanks his hand away, and starts uncoiling the wire. He says nothing for a moment, though his cheeks are red. Then words are spilling out, far too fast for his normal detached manner. ‘You think I just want to win. I don’t. It’s not about that. We’ve picked the wrong cases to illustrate the points, and I think our research is undermining what we should be saying. I just want to work it through, and make sure we’re not getting it wrong. I mean, look around you.’ He gestures, and Valjean does indeed look, unsure what he’s supposed to be seeing. ‘Look at all this stuff! You’re going to stand up and say that poor people deserve to be given piles of clothes, and pans, and food, and gifts…these poor kids are probably going to end up with more than the kids whose parents work. And for doing what? Just because people feel sorry for them, and the guy who owns this place wants to feel good about himself. What, do you work for him? I bet this is the only time of year he does anything for poor people. It’s bullshit. All of its bullshit. It’s not helping anybody at all. They’ll all sit around on their backsides, drinking or whatever, because they know that some magic fairy’s going to show up on Christmas with food, and gifts for their kids, and they won’t have had to lift a finger. You think we should be arguing a whole government should do that? No, it’s bullshit.’

Everything is very quiet when he’s finished. The music is in a gap between songs, and people are looking their way. Valjean still has a Hungry Hippos box in his hands, and Javert is still flicking at the plug. But faster now, too fast.

Eventually, another tune kicks in and people look away. Valjean clears his throat. ‘Yes,’ he says, and it comes out more calmly than he feels. ‘Yes, that’s what I’m going to argue. To a degree. And you know why, because you’ve read the cases as well as I have.’

Javert doesn’t move, except for a muscle twitching in his jaw. Valjean, despite his anger, is suddenly horribly, desperately sorry for him. He puts the box down. ‘Look, I’m sorry you feel this way. But it really is just a 101 class, Javert. And seeing as I’m really not prepared to rewrite the whole thing now, we’re just going to have to go with it. I’m sorry.’

There’s no hesitation before he says it. Javert looks down. His neck is red at the sides, over the muscle and tendon running up to his ear. Valjean glances at it, then away. Then back. Javert lets the wire drop from his hand, and the clatter from it is louder than it should be. ‘They shouldn’t give away electrical stuff,’ he mutters. ‘It might not be safe. It could short out, and burn a house down.’

‘You’re right, probably. I’ll see if we can get it tested.’

They both just stand for a minute, not looking at each other. Valjean is the first to break. ‘Come over to my place. We can talk it through. I can come back here tomorrow to do this, it’s OK.’

‘No.’ Javert’s shake of the head is abrupt, and final. ‘No, there’s no need. You’re right. It’s too late to change it all now. I’ll go.’

He picks his bag up. Valjean wonders whether he just hates Christmas too, and this is why it all came out now. Maybe he’s like him, hating the holidays because they only show how alone he is, and remind him of all the terrible ones that have gone before. Or maybe he’s been having second thoughts for months. It’s impossible to tell. ‘Hey, Javert?’

Javert turns back. Valjean tosses a small, wrapped present to him. ‘Merry Christmas.’

The look of horror is almost comical. Javert’s obviously about to object, but Valjean sticks his hands up to ward it off. ‘Save it. It’s a gift, and it’d be rude to say no. Go ahead, open it.’

The horror turns to reluctance. An almost childish reluctance in fact, and for a moment he seems to be struggling with words. Then he picks open one corner of the tape, slides a nail under the flap of paper, and neatly pulls one edge up. He upends the package, and a pair of fur-lined leather gloves fall on to his palm. Javert just stares at them, and Valjean scratches at the back of his own head.

‘For when you’re on the bike, you know. It’s cold out.’

‘I know.’ Javert’s voice is mechanical. He carefully folds the wrapping paper, and puts it in his pocket. ‘Thank you.’

‘You’re welcome.’

Neither move. Then Javert hoists his bag up his shoulder, pulls the gloves on and nods at him. ‘I’ll see you in January.’

‘See you in January, Javert.’

 

*

 

There’s still a thick blanket of snow around in the third week of February, and Javert’s breath clouds around his head as Valjean approaches. ‘You could have waited inside,’ he tells him. ‘I would have texted to say I was here.’ But Javert just shrugs, and opens the door to his building. The hallway  smells musty, like campus accommodation always does, and the floor is rough and wet with melted snow, and grit brought in on the soles of boots. The place only gets warmer as they head up the stairs to the next floor, and then up again. It’s only on the third floor that Valjean realises the elevator’s broken from a sign propped against it. Javert leads the way down a long corridor, past closed doors with sounds of laughter behind them, and music, and definitely one where there are people having sex. There’s a vague smell of pot, though no discernible source, as well as coffee and  damp laundry, and the inevitable reek that’s just people living crowded together like this.

Javert opens a door halfway along, and stands aside to let him enter. ‘Smaller than your place,’ he says, though his tone isn’t apologetic. He’s just stating a fact.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Valjean says, and puts his bag down on the floor. Javert takes the seat at the desk, and gestures vaguely towards the bed, so Valjean sits on it and looks around. It’s not a student room like he was expecting. There are no posters on the wall, or heaps of clothes, and candy wrappers, and pizza boxes. There’s hardly anything in it at all. The bedcovers are plain, the walls are bare, and the laptop on the desk looks so old he’s surprised to think it still works. There are textbooks on the two shelves above the desk, and that’s it. No mess, and no possessions. Valjean is forcibly reminded of his prison cell.

‘OK,’ he says, too loudly in an attempt to cover the memory. ‘You wanted to run through it one more time. You’ve got the printouts, right? And the slides are all good to go on my iPad. I’ve set it up to connect with the college network in the auditorium – do you want me to reconfigure it for your laptop now?’

Javert checks his watch. ‘No, there’s not enough time. I’ll just bring the slides up and we can read over them.’

Valjean nods, even though they’ve done this so often he’s pretty sure he knows every word by heart. The presentation has to be twenty minutes long, and they have to take questions at the end. They could talk for triple that time, at least, with everything they’ve got – and still Javert has been worrying they’re not prepared enough. And it’s weird, because they’ve sat through four of their classmate’s presentations already, and none of them managed to talk for more than ten minutes. No one so far has got a fraction of the depth that they have in theirs, and the professor hasn’t seemed to mind. But Javert refuses to relax, and Valjean has – against his will – found himself getting more and more curious about this man as time has gone on. He’s been different since Christmas. He’s agreed to a lot more Valjean has said, or at least has chosen not to argue. Maybe he saw that he couldn’t be walked over when they had that discussion, so he decided to back off a bit. But being humble doesn’t really suit Javert, and Valjean can’t work out how he can be both acquiescent and mercurial at the same time. It’s weird.

It doesn’t take long to run through everything. Valjean stands up, and when he reaches for his bag Javert shakes his head. ‘Why don’t you leave it? Come back and get it after. You’ll have to carry the printouts, because I’ve got the flip chart. There’s no time to make two trips.’ 

It’s no big deal, so he agrees. The auditorium isn’t far from Javert’s room, so it’ll be easy enough to come back. They grab everything and start to manoeuvre the stairs, and Valjean wonders, as he watches Javert’s back move down in front of him, whether he might actually miss these meetings a little. Yeah, they’re kind of a pain because Javert is kind of a pain. But he’s also the closest thing to a friend he has, either in college or out, and when this presentation is done he’ll be back to only showing up on campus for class. He had always resigned himself to never being able to have a typical college experience, but hanging out with a classmate is almost like having part of that. And while Javert’s focus is unnerving - and his views on the law and welfare are actually disturbing, at times – he’s not an unamusing guy. There’s wit in there somewhere, and a kind of cold, dry humour. It’s not really OK to laugh at cutting retorts when they’re directed at other people, but they do prove that Javert’s mind is sharp about things other than the law.

He’s pulled out of his musing by the bite of the February air, and redirects his thoughts towards work. In an hour’s time, they’ll both be able to go back to solitude. The thought might depress him a little, but he’s pretty sure Javert is OK with it.

 

*

 

At the end of their presentation, there’s only silence. Valjean glances around at their classmate’s faces, and sees disbelief, and some resentment, and some looking impressed. It’s just as he thought; they’ve massively over prepared, and he feels guilty for having shown the previous presentations up. But Javert looks satisfied, and their tutor starts the applause.

‘Well!’ the guy says, and grins, and turns to face the class. ‘I don’t know if there can be many questions, you covered so much. But does anyone want to ask anything?’

There’s silence. Valjean isn’t sure if that’s a good thing or not, but it’s hardly in his control. He reminds himself that he’s not here to make friends, and as long as the grades are good, then he doesn’t care about being liked. He’s older than all of these people anyway, and he doesn’t live on campus. He’ll never see most of them again when this class is done.

Still, it’s a bit discouraging to stick out so far. He glances across at Javert, who doesn’t seem at all bothered by people looking at him like he’s weird. And that’s weird, because who can so completely disregard the opinion of others like that? He knows he kind of does when it comes to what people think of him personally, but he had to learn to do that. He still cares whether they think he’s helping enough, or whether he’s a good employer. Their opinions don’t drive him, but he does take them into account.

There’s a hand in the air. Valjean schools his face to polite enquiry, and nods at the guy who’s slouched up at the back, a baseball cap sitting crooked on his head. He’s looking at Javert, and when the tutor points to him, says, ‘dude, what’s with the sideburns?’

A ripple of laughter runs through some sections of the audience. Valjean feels his lips thin. Javert just looks at the guy, the edge of his mouth curling in…is it contempt? It doesn’t look like the expression he used to pull in the prison visiting room. It’s almost amusement, like he wasn’t expecting anything else, and the people in front of him are simply living up to his expectations.

The tutor claps his hands together. ‘Anyone else?’ Another hand goes up. It’s another guy, sitting two down from the first, and this time he’s looking at Valjean.

‘Hey. My mom works for you, and she’s always talking about how great you are. Can I give her your number?’

More laughter, and it’s a bit more than a ripple this time. Valjean just smiles calmly, and puts his iPad down. The tutor rounds on the audience, but Valjean doesn’t hear him. He’s watching Javert, who’s watching him, a look of confusion on his face. And something else. Anger? Resentment? It’s kind of hard to tell, because every thought he has about Javert is clouded by the circumstances of the past.

‘Well,’ says the tutor, ‘I have a serious question.’ They both look at him. ‘It’s clear you know what you’re talking about, and you’ve set us all a fine example of the standard of work that’ll be expected from everyone as the course goes on. But content aside, I wondered if you could talk a little about why you chose this particular area of law to look at.’

It’s a generic question; the sort of thing that gets asked when an audience is silent and unresponsive. Valjean knows this, but can’t ignore the sudden knot of tension it brings. He’s framing an answer when Javert speaks.

‘It’s something I’ve thought about, and this is an opportunity to research it further, that’s all. Valjean was happy enough to provide a counter.’

He nods, because it’s true. But the tutor looks a little startled, and there’s a murmur or two from the audience. A hand goes up at the front, and a girl says, ‘…wait. You’re saying you meant all that? It wasn’t just providing the opposing view?’

Javert raises his head, and Valjean’s heart sinks. If the guy ever wanted to make friends on this course, he’s about to ruin the chance forever. ‘Of course,’ he says, calmly. ‘I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t.’

Silence greets this. Valjean wishes Javert hadn’t insisted on putting forward the example of how sick people can provide themselves with an income, if they’re willing to work in jobs that don’t require much movement. He wishes he understood why the guy feels the need to present himself as an asshole all the time. He’s not always like that. Valjean’s seen him being perfectly pleasant on a few occasions now…but he’s also seen him as a surly child, and when he’s freezing and starving after work, and when he refused to speak to his father or accept a touch from his mother. It feels wrong to know such things about him, and to realise that his demeanour is probably a defence he’s built up for a long time now.

‘OK, then,’ the tutor says, with that finalising note that means this is over. ‘Thanks very much, fellas. Excellent job. You lot watching – you’ve seen what can be done now, so have a think about that before your own!’

They’re already standing, and talking, picking bags up and not listening. Valjean starts putting their materials away, and the tutor comes to join them. ‘Excellent work,’ he says, and he sounds genuine. ‘I haven’t seen a freshman presentation like that for years. Grades won’t be out for a month, of course, but you two have nothing to worry about.’ He tips them a wink, and leaves them to it. Valjean continues in silence, and doesn’t look up until he’s done. Javert’s just standing, watching him, the strange look still on his face. Valjean shifts from one leg to the other. Then eye contact breaks, and Javert looks at the floor. ‘We can leave the stuff in my room when you get your bag. I’ll return the materials we borrowed.’

He nods, and follows him out. So, this is over. It’s probably for the best.

 

*

 

Javert doesn’t speak until they’re in his room again, and he’s propped the flip chart against the bare wall. Valjean puts down the nearly-empty box of hand-outs, and thinks they shouldn’t have printed off so many. A lot of them had been left behind by the audience. It’s a waste of paper; they should have just put it up online, where it could be ignored in a way that’s kinder to the environment.

‘The factory,’ Javert blurts, out of nowhere. ‘That warehouse we were in. Do you own that?’

He can’t deny it, and doesn’t want to. ‘Yeah.’

‘Why didn’t you say so?’

‘Why would I? It’s not relevant to whether I can research stuff for a law presentation.’ Javert looks to be having trouble with something. His jaw works, and his eyes flit around the room, anywhere but at Valjean. After a moment of it, he adds, ‘There’s a lot of stuff you haven’t told me, Javert, and I don’t ask because it’s none of my business.’

‘So if I had guessed, or asked, you would have told me to butt out?’

‘…no? Why would I? I’m just saying I don’t expect you to spill your guts about everything to me, and I don’t know why you’re upset I didn’t tell you I own a business.’

‘I’m not upset.’

‘You look upset.’

‘I’m not.’

Valjean stifles the urge to roll his eyes, and sits down on the bed so he can put his iPad away. ‘OK, Javert. Whatever.’

‘I’m not. I just-‘

‘Just what?’

‘I wouldn’t have said that thing at Christmas if I’d known. About how you only do stuff for people once a year. I know that’s not true.’

How does he know that? Valjean keeps his face blank, but it’s becoming clear that Javert might not be as tunnel-visioned as he thought. Though in this case, that’s not necessarily a good thing. 

He shrugs, and looks up to catch his eye. ‘You know, if you want a job…I mean, you probably don’t, but it’s closer to campus and you wouldn’t have to bike about forty miles a day to get to work and back…’

Javert’s looking at him like he’s an alien, and Valjean feels the words crumble to dust in his mouth. Is that rude, offering a job out of nowhere? But it’s all right, isn’t it? He’d pay him well, and he wouldn’t have to spend so much time travelling. It is in his best interests, it isn’t for Valjean’s own benefit. He could employ anyone, but Javert needs-

Javert is getting closer. Valjean realises it with a blink. He was thinking, and Javert was moving, and now his face is travelling down to where he sits on the bed. It seems almost like he might kiss him, but that’s ridiculous…and even as he knows it’s ridiculous, time seems to halt…and then stretch, and everything is suddenly happening at the end of a long tunnel through which he watches, detached and yet starting to push out at the walls closing in on him. Javert he hears himself say, a blank sound with no warning in it, because all the warning is happening in his head, and it’s like his mouth, and eyes, and ears have been stuffed with cotton wool, and he can’t push the right emotions out through it. No, he wants to say. Don’t. But he says nothing, his heart thumping against his ribs, and even though it’s ridiculous, it’s completely stupid and definitely happening to someone else, Javert’s mouth is suddenly on his.

It’s warm, and dry. He registers that much, even frozen in place as he is. And then large hands are curling around his biceps, and half of the palms are on his white T shirt, and half are warm on his skin, and his heart leaps up into his throat and decides it’s best if he just stops breathing. And then he’s being pushed back on to the bed, and Javert is still kissing him, and someone is screaming in his head and it occurs to him, maybe, probably, it might just be his own voice he’s hearing, but he can’t be sure and doesn’t want to know.

He turns his head. He stares at the wall, and tries to breathe. He knows his eyes are wide, and staring, and is aware of Javert half-crouched over him because there’s weight on his arms, and against the side of one leg. There’s breath on his cheek and it’s fast, but nowhere near as fast as his own. He has to say something, but he can’t make his throat work. He just lies there, and tries to think past the fog of dull fear. And he’s afraid of that too, because under dull fear is blind panic, and the consequences of that are never fun for anyone.

‘Valjean?’

He licks his lips. They’re dry, despite Javert’s mouth having just been on them. ‘Get off me,’ he says, as carefully as he can manage. There’s a pause, and half a second later, he’s free.

He doesn’t move for a while. And then he does, a fast roll up to his feet, his bag caught in his hand as he rises. Javert’s standing, his eyes downcast and a hand over his mouth, and Valjean can’t help but think that in the few months he’s known him here, this is the most human he’s ever seen him look.

‘I have to go,’ he says, tonelessly, and doesn’t wait for an answer. He thinks there might be a nod, but he has to get out of this room. He just slams through the door and takes off down the corridor, ignoring the strange looks he gets off the people he’s pushing past.

The fresh air helps. It burns some of his dulled senses away so that by the time he’s back at his car, the panic is thumping in his throat hard enough to make his chest hurt with the effort of breathing. It was nothing, he tells himself, over and over. Just a kiss. He didn’t know. I’m not being fair. But it doesn’t help, and he drives for his apartment as quickly as is safe, desperate to shut the world away.

 

When he checks his phone a few hours later – and where did those hours go? – there’s just one text. It’s from Javert, and all it says is, I’m really sorry.

He tosses the phone away from him, and goes back to pacing in circles. His whole body is covered with sweat, but that’s all right, he can burn this out of him. An apology is more than he’s ever got before. That’s something, right?

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Junior Year

 

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.

 

*

 

March

 

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.’

‘I am.’

‘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.’

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.

‘Look, Javert-‘

‘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.’

‘Javert-‘

‘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-‘

If.’

‘-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?’

‘A year.’

‘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.

 

*

April

 

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.

 

*

May

 

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.’

‘Hello.’

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-

‘Valjean?’

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.’

‘Then do.’

‘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.’

‘Why?’

‘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.’

‘OK.’

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.’

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.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Finals

 

Lunch is just that; lunch. They get burgers, they talk a little about upcoming finals, and their senior year classes. Javert doesn’t linger when he’s finished his food. He says he has to get back to work, and doesn’t mention meeting up again. Valjean is left more confused than ever, and unsure whether the feeling inside is disappointment, or relief. He sits at their table for another half hour, pushing ice around his glass with a straw. But when it’s all melted, there’s nothing to do but get up, and carry on.

It doesn’t feel like a very good day.

 

*

 

His phone vibrates in his pocket two days later, when he’s in the library trying to stuff econ theories into his brain.

Thanks for lunch. Javert.

Is this a polite brush off? Or a text to remind him he still exists? Or is he just saying thanks, even though he already said it at lunch. And that despite the fact they bought their own burgers; it’s not like it was a date Valjean paid for. His thumb hovers over the reply button, but in the end he just sticks the phone back in his pocket. He has to get through another two chapters of revision before heading off to the factory, and then there’s a committee meeting this evening. It doesn’t take long for the text to slip out of his head, and he doesn’t remember it until he collapses into bed that night and plugs his phone in to charge.

Thanks for lunch. It must mean he was glad they met up, at least. He’s never known Javert to lie, so if he didn’t mean it then he wouldn’t have said it. And it’s weird to him that he’d take time to text at all, given that he’s only ever been brusque during phone communication. He doesn’t text just to say hi, or shoot the breeze. So Valjean can buy he was glad they had lunch; what he isn’t sure is whether that means they should do it again. If Javert wanted to, wouldn’t he have just said that? He’s hardly shy. Valjean has no idea how someone manages to be both withdrawn and brimming with self-assurance, and he thinks he’s kind of curious to find out.

He pulls his phone over, and doesn’t give himself time to think.

Want to do it again?

There’s no reply. He’s probably working. Valjean puts it back on the nightstand, and deliberately rolls away from it. He needs to go to sleep; tomorrow is insanely busy, and exams start the day after that. He’s not going to ruin his hard work this year by staying up for a text. He puts it from his head, and counts backwards from one hundred to fall asleep.

Sometime in the night, his eyes flicker open. It’s dark, it’s hot, he feels sticky all over. He pushes the sheets down to his waist, and then remembers. And then tells himself to go back to sleep. And then picks his phone up.

Yes. After your econ final?

The day after tomorrow. Valjean smiles sleepily, and presses the screen. Yes. Ill text. Nihgt.

It’s much easier to drop off this time.

 

*

 

‘How was it?’

‘OK, I think.’ He puts his bag on a chair, and collapses into another with some relief. ‘When’s your first one? Tomorrow morning?’

‘Yeah.’

Javert looks tired. His skin has a greyish tinge, and there are deep shadows under his eyes. Valjean wonders if he’s been ill in the four days since he last saw him, but a wide yawn puts paid to that. Valjean fetches coffee – an extra shot in Javert’s – and tries to consider how best to employ tactful concern over his health.

‘Have you got time off work over finals?’ Javert just looks at him. Valjean winces inside. Zero tact, obviously. Moving on. ‘Are you still living on campus? I guess they make you move out after the first year.’

‘Usually. They said I could stay, though. So yes, I’m still on campus.’ He picks up one of his onion rings, and regards it tiredly before putting it in his mouth. Valjean wonders why they would make an exception for him – it’s not a large campus, and as far as he knows, the college has never committed to providing housing through four years of a degree. But it would be prying to ask, and he doesn’t want to put Javert in a position where he feels he has to reveal something out of politeness.

‘Is it OK studying here? I’ve never lived in, but I bet it’s pretty loud. Especially if you’ve got freshmen on your floor.’

Javert just shrugs, which Valjean takes to mean that yes, it’s noisy and no, the guy isn’t going to complain about it. He pauses long enough to give himself time to think it over, but there’s nothing really to think about. ‘You know, if you want somewhere quiet, you can come to mine. I’m at the factory a lot, and the apartment’s just sitting there. There’s a big table to study on, food, TV if you want a break, stereo…’ he trails off, because Javert’s staring at him again. Those eyes haven’t lost any of their power. He’s starting not to mind the jolt they give him, but is aware that it’s less discomfort now, and edging very close to arousal. And there are so many reasons why that’s a bad thing. But it’s not like Javert can help his eyes, so what can he say? Ask him not to look at him? ‘Sorry,’ he mutters, not able to look away. ‘You’ve been there before. But you can come if you want.’

‘You don’t think that’ll be distracting?’

‘For me? I don’t know. Why-‘

‘No, for me.’

Valjean pauses again. ‘I…don’t think I can answer that? You’d know, wouldn’t you?’

Javert sighs, and pushes his fries away. He hasn’t touched them, which is weird because Javert tends to clean up once he gets going. ‘I think – thank you. It’s a nice offer. I don’t know, though.’

‘I said I’d be at the factory a lot. You don’t have to worry about me making noise, or anything.’

Again, Javert just looks at him. There’s an expression of mingled disbelief and are you serious? on his face, and Valjean can’t figure out what he’s getting at. The guy gets up, stretches, and reaches for his bag. ‘OK,’ he says. ‘Thanks. Could I come this afternoon?’

‘Sure. I’ll be out until at least eight. Stay as long as you want. I’m going there now to pick some papers up, you want a ride?’

‘No, I have my last class.’

‘OK.’ Valjean stands up too. ‘I’ll leave a key at the desk, just pick it up when  you get there. Help yourself to whatever you want in the fridge. I’ll...see you later, then.’

‘Yeah.’

Neither of them move. It’s all a bit familiar, like they’re a couple arranging what time the other’s going to be home for dinner. It’s weird, and he tells himself, no. It’s not like that at all. 

Except it really is, no matter how much he tries to deny it.

 

*

 

The committee meeting was the last of the year, and it was exhausting. Valjean walks away from it glad there’ll be elections at the start of senior year, because he’s ready to hand this baton on. They told him he could do some good, but he seems to spend his time wrangling the members who border on militant about student rights, and those who don’t show up at all. It’s hard to get anything done; some people come only for something to put on their C.V., and it’s a constant struggle to even get their opinions heard at a higher level. He’s thoroughly drained when he gets home, and he hopes Javert isn’t in a combative mood. He knows he hasn’t left, because the guy at the desk told him so. He’s a little irritated by how glad that makes him, but mostly he just wants to unwind for an hour or two – with or without company – and then go to sleep.

Any irritation is forgotten when he opens the door. Javert’s sitting at the dining table, books and notes covering the whole thing. The setting sun throws bright rays through the arched windows, and lights up the scene; the way the pen in his hand is drooping down towards the notepad, and his chin resting on his other palm, and – Valjean smiles, and doesn’t bother trying to hide it, because there’s no way Javert’s awake enough to complain. His eyelids are drooping as much as the pen, and he’s obviously losing the battle against sleep. It’s, for want of a better word, cute.

 Valjean checks his watch as he walks over. Nine forty. Javert’s gone enough that he doesn’t notice him approach, and only forces his eyes back open when Valjean leans against the table next to him, and looks down.

‘Hi.’

‘’lo.’

He stifles his smile this time. ‘You need to crash. You can take the spare room.’

‘No, I-‘

‘Don’t bother. It’s getting late, and you’re not going to learn anything else tonight. Come on, bed.’

Javert looks up at him, blinking against the sunlight. His face is…Valjean swallows, and has to push down the desire to put a hand on his cheek. Without his frown, he looks so much younger than twenty-one. ‘Come on,’ he says again, quietly, and stands up. Javert follows, and tries to stack some books up, but Valjean puts a hand on his arm. ‘In the morning.’ And for once, Javert doesn’t argue.

There are two spare bedrooms in the apartment. Valjean takes him to the one with an en suite, trying to ignore the sense of anticipation stirring in his gut. Javert is silent, and just looks around when they enter. It’s a decent size, with the top of one of the huge arched windows taking up much of the far wall. There’s a double bed, and all the usual bedroom furniture. The rug over the polished floorboards is thick, dark green, and there’s a nightstand with a lamp. Valjean rubs his palms together, and glances over; Javert’s face holds no expression, but he’s a bit more awake. ‘Bathroom’s through there,’ Valjean mutters, pointing. ‘There’ll be towels, and there’s spare toothbrushes, and paste, and shower gel, and – everything. I’ll make up the bed.’

He never has guests, so nothing’s ready. He uses the cupboard in there to store all his spare bathroom supplies, that’s all. He has a second of worry about whether he even has spare bed linen, but he seems to remember buying some with this bed. It’s never been slept in. He recalls the fit of optimism that was on him when he furnished this room, and how he mostly forgets he has it now. He’s turned the other spare into an office.

Javert emerges from the bathroom as Valjean is folding a blanket and sheets into hospital corners at the edges of the mattress. His stomach lurches as the man passes behind him; he turns so that he’s working without his back exposed, and is done a few seconds later. He straightens up in silence. With the drapes closed, and the lamp on the nightstand throwing out a muted yellow glow, the room seems a lot smaller. Javert is leaning on the wall between the bed and the door; he still looks sleepy, and there’s still no sign of the frown that ages him. His sideburns are damp. Valjean sees that he must have taken his shirt off to wash, because the skin at his throat is shining with remnants of water. He smells of toothpaste, and soap. And leaning on the wall like that, he’s not imposing. His shoulders are relaxed, shirt untucked, hands in his pockets, hair falling over his forehead; if he didn’t look so innocent, he’d be louche. Valjean is very aware of his own breathing. And a corner of Javert’s mouth turns up, so he’s not the only one. ‘Were you in the military?’

‘Excuse me?’ Javert tilts his head towards the bed, which is made up as tightly as any soldier’s. Nerves grip Valjean’s throat, and he shakes his head. ‘No.’

Javert doesn’t push it. He seems to be waiting, or maybe just enjoying the peace. Except it’s not really peaceful to Valjean; he can practically hear the question in the air. It sits, alert, just as they are. Valjean doesn’t move. And eventually; ‘I’d come to you,’ Javert says, and it’s quiet but not without confidence. ‘But I don’t think that’d work.’

‘No.’ No, he’s right. And Valjean’s not sure any way will work, but in this second, he really wants to try. He swallows again, and walks over. He doesn’t stop until he’s close enough that their clothes almost brush, and doesn’t look up to Javert’s face because he doesn’t want any distraction from the effort of propping up his resolve. The smell of mint is distraction enough; Valjean closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, and is so glad that Javert doesn’t move. When he opens his eyes, he focuses on the crinkled edge of the man’s untucked shirt front, hanging over his jeans and belt. And then each button, clear plastic on light blue cotton, neatly fastened; he counts them one by one, and still Javert just breathes in and out, and lets him look, and doesn’t move. He rakes over the exposed v of skin where the shirt opens out, and sees clear planes of muscle falling away from the ridge of prominent collar bones, with water still glistening in the indent of skin where they meet. And then up his strong neck, where he can see the pulse throbbing at one side, and without any thought at all he’s moved closer, and only knows he’s done it when a small noise comes from Javert’s mouth; he sees it in his throat rather than hears it, and realises that he’s half a centimetre away from kissing the fluttering patch of skin. Javert’s breath is on his cheek, and a cold stab of fear tells him that he’s angling his head, but it’s not enough to stop this now…Valjean looks up, is trapped in Javert’s awful, beautiful, stare, and kisses him.

It’s very soft. It’s very gentle. It’s almost chaste, except for the flood of arousal that washes through him as soon as the warmth of his lips registers. Javert doesn’t grab him, and he himself only puts his fingertips on Javert’s side. He thinks it might be over quickly, but he doesn’t know for sure. He doesn’t pull back far when it is. They both just stand and breathe. Valjean can hear it pulling in Javert’s chest, and the thrum of his own blood in his ears, and then their noses brush and he kisses him again. It’s longer this time, but just as soft. He loses time, and can’t stand it, and pulls back with a gasp. Javert swallows this time, and Valjean has to move now; they’re too close, and he wants this too much.

He steps back. Javert watches him go, and doesn’t try to stop him. Valjean knows he’ll be grateful for that later, but for now just pulls a deep breath in, fills his lungs, tries to calm himself down. It was only a moment, but it’s a lot for him to take. ‘You’ve got an exam tomorrow.’

Javert nods. ‘Yeah.’

And they’re both exhausted anyway. Valjean nods too. ‘OK. Well. There’s an alarm clock there. There’s cereal in the cupboard, or bacon, or whatever. Help yourself to breakfast and coffee if I’m not up. I should be. I’m usually-‘ He stops, because Javert looks amused. Fair enough. He laughs at himself shortly, and shakes his head. ‘Night, Javert.’

‘Night, Valjean.’

It’s not the sort of unwinding he’d had in mind for this evening. He tries to watch TV for a bit, but nothing interests him. He tries to talk his brain into letting him jerk off, but fails to convince it. In the end he hits the weights, and lifts until his muscles give out. It’s definitely not the evening he had planned, and his head is reminding him of all the ways this is, and could be, terrible. But then he thinks of Javert leaning against the wall, and the consideration he showed by not moving, and somehow, he can’t bring himself to mind.

 

*

 

It’s another hot night. Summer is on its way, and already promising to be a blazer. Valjean wakes often, sheets tangled around his legs, disturbed by painful dreams that fail to lessen his arousal. It’s only when the light in the room begins to turn grey that he feels secure enough to sleep deeply, and he’s groggy when he stretches to hit the ‘off’ button on his alarm at 6am. His hand falls away from it, and he’s asleep again before he realises he heard it.

He’s next roused by a knock on his door, which is alien enough to jerk him awake properly. He shoots to a sitting position, hands alert in defence…and then he remembers, and drops his palms back to the mattress to support his weight. ‘Yeah?’ His voice is thick with sleep, and he blinks to keep his eyelids up. The door cracks open just a couple of inches.

‘I made coffee.’

‘Oh. Thanks.’

‘Are you – sorry, I heard your alarm, so I thought you were up.’

‘Yeah, I am. Awake.’ He scrubs his hand over his face, and then lets it drop back as Javert enters the room. He manages a bleary smile at the sight of the guy with a mug in his hand, then frowns as Javert stops dead in his tracks. ‘What?’

He follows Javert’s stare, disconcerted by the look of…it looks like fear?...on his face. But then he realises the eyes are firmly on his torso, which is naked – as he is all over – and the sheets have fallen to lie loose across his lap. By the look of it, Javert was either expecting him to wear clothes in bed, or hadn’t given it any thought and is now regretting his lack of foresight. Valjean jerks his eyebrows up. ‘Should I put on a robe?’

‘No. Don’t.’

Maybe not regretting it, then. Valjean smiles again as he stretches a hand out for the coffee. ‘Thank you. Are you taking off?’

‘In a minute. I have to stop by the security office before my exam.’

‘You’re going to volunteer there all summer?’

‘When they need me, yeah.’

Javert talks without once looking at his face. It’s a little uncomfortable, but it’s also kind of nice to see him distracted this way. He obviously doesn’t realise he’s doing it, and the night’s hunger is still close enough that Valjean can deal. It would be bad if he knew he wasn’t interested in Javert, but last night proved that he is, so it won’t do either of them much good to pull away from this now. He lets him look. Judging by his expression, he’s not the only one who passed an uncomfortable night…and the thought of Javert suffering the way he did, maybe giving in and touching himself, maybe having to shower the evidence away in the morning – it hits him like a brick in the gut, and his cock twitches against the sheet covering it. He only has time to think shit and hope it’s not obvious, before he sees Javert’s eyes go wide, and knows that it is.

He sips his coffee. It’s too hot, so he puts it down, and tries to look as though nothing’s happening. He doesn’t dare adjust the sheet, because that would only draw more attention. And now he’s blushing, and Javert finally manages to drag his gaze away. He stares at the wall instead, and there’s definite colour on his cheeks too. Valjean closes his eyes, and prays for control. ‘Are you coming back later?’ he says, and looks up in time to see Javert shake his head. That’s regret on his face, he’s sure.

‘Working until midnight.’

‘You need to revise tomorrow?’

‘I don’t have any days off until the weekend. I was going to hit the books on Saturday. My next exam’s on Monday.’

‘Come Saturday, then. I’ll be at the warehouse until the afternoon so you can have the place to yourself, and we can study together when I get back.’

‘…OK.’

They will have to study, he tells himself. It’s quite clear Javert is telling himself the same thing. But if concentration might be difficult, at least there’s the potential for relief as well. Maybe. If it goes OK.

Javert is hesitating. Valjean sips his coffee again, and puts the cup down. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘I was wondering if I could kiss you, but maybe that’s-‘

He shrugs. Valjean bites his bottom lip, then shifts over a bit. ‘Sit down.’

He couldn’t bear him leaning over him, he’s pretty sure of that. He doesn’t want any of this marred by fear. Some of it is going to be inevitable, but as long as he doesn’t trigger himself in situations where it can be controlled, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be OK. He can try, anyway.

Javert sits down gingerly. Valjean doesn’t hesitate this time; he leans in, and feels a thrill of excitement when Javert moves half an inch to meet him. It’s another soft kiss, another one that lingers. He doesn’t want to break it off, but the alternative is deepening it, and there’s no time for where that might lead. Keeping it simple is the best option. But he doesn’t object when Javert only retreats far enough to catch a breath, and then kisses him again. He doesn’t pull away. He tries to tell himself to calm down, but he can’t remember ever being kissed like this before – sweet, easy, no violence, and he’s happy to let it last. Which it does, until there’s a sudden, unfamiliar touch, and he jerks his eyes open, and pulls his head back and says, ‘ah,’ because it’s the only sound that comes to mind.

Javert’s fingertips rest lightly on the protruding muscles of his abdomen. He looks down at them as if he can’t believe what he’s seeing, let alone feeling. He expects something much worse than the heat which immediately runs south from the touch, but it doesn’t come. There’s no hint of danger in it. Javert’s not grabbing him, not feeling him, not doing anything but resting the very tips on his skin. ‘Sorry,’ he mutters, but he doesn’t take them away. Valjean is aware of his breathing again, and sees Javert’s hand rise and fall rapidly with the pull of his chest. ‘I’ve wanted to since I saw you lifting. Do you want me to stop?’

Javert won’t catch his eye. Valjean licks dry lips, and tries to think past the sensation. Javert looks ashamed to have to admit to wanting anything, and that’s not right. And if he says no now, the guy might never ask again…he thinks it, then mentally rolls his eyes at himself. As if that’s going to be the reason he says no at this point.

‘You don’t have to stop.’

He watches the guy breathe out, and feels it warm against his shoulder. They’re both just sitting there, watching Javert being afraid to touch. ‘Go on,’ he says, though his throat is dry. ‘I won’t break.’

He hears Javert swallow. Then he starts to trace the line down the centre of his abs with one finger, and Valjean’s skin immediately feels tight. His muscles flex in response to the touch – he doesn’t mean to but he’s not used to the sensation, and Javert sucks in a breath hard as they become even more pronounced. He runs his fingers over the raised bumps, and Valjean bites his lip again; his bent knees pull up a fraction in an unwieldy jerk, and there’s no stopping the steady fill of his cock. Javert doesn’t seem inclined to touch any lower, he simply traces each line, each curve of his eight-pack, and Valjean lets him without a word. His chest pulls harder as the sheet begins to tent, and Javert lets out a tiny noise and presses his lips to his shoulder. It goes straight to Valjean’s groin, carried by electric tendrils of pleasure all rushing south and gathering between his legs; he can see that nothing is left to the imagination, his length and girth is clearly displayed by the cloth getting tighter, and he’d be horrified but Javert’s breath is wet and warm, and blooming fast on his skin. He turns his head and Javert kisses him, open-mouthed this time, deep and a little desperate until he moans and pulls back, because Javert’s palm is flat on his stomach, rubbing up and down, all soft heat and appreciation, and the pleasure is starting to throb but there’s no time for this, and he did just tell himself he was going to go slow. He pulls in a deep breath, and puts his hand over Javert’s to still his touch.

They just sit again, almost mouth to mouth, letting it calm. Javert doesn’t take his hand away, and he doesn’t make him. His erection doesn’t lessen, but he can ignore it for now. And eventually, Javert sits straight. He trails his hand away with obvious reluctance. ‘I have to go. I’m going to be late.’

‘Yeah. OK.’

They look at each other a moment longer. Then Javert turns his head, breathes out, and runs a hand through his hair. Valjean notices his red cheeks, and the heat on his neck. Well, at least it’s not just him. ‘Saturday?’ he ventures, just to make sure.

‘Saturday.’

One more kiss, back to chaste. Then Javert stands up, adjusts his trousers, and nods at him. Valjean is still as he was when he entered the room; leaning on his palms, arms straight, legs bent. The only difference is his obvious boner, and Javert doesn’t hide his appraisal of it. Then he smiles once, nods again, and is gone.

Valjean waits until he hears the front door click shut. ‘God in Heaven,’ he mutters to himself, abandons all thought, and pushes the sheet away. His cock is flushed red, leaking at the tip, and he grips hard, almost raising his ass off the bed as he thrusts into his fist. ‘Oh God…God….’ It takes no time at all. His climax boils up his length and erupts all over his stomach, the skin still fizzing from Javert’s touch. He groans, then cries out, his whole body in spasm as he comes hard; it’s been so long, and he can rarely manage this but right now he can’t remember why, it feels so good.

And when it’s over, he’s as wrung out as a used dishrag. The relief is indescribable. Warmth slides through him, and takes away his ability to think. ‘God in Heaven,’ he says again, and flops down on to his back. ‘Javert.’

 

*

 

The world seems a little off-kilter as he gets ready for work, eats something – bread, he thinks, or a cold pancake; something, anyway – and gets in his car. He rationalises this by saying off course it’s going to be surprising, and feel different. How long has it been since anyone’s touched him? Seven years now, and no touch was ever that gentle. He gets hot just thinking about it. So he can be excused, he thinks, for feeling that the sun’s a bit brighter today, and the breeze more playful, and that the stoplights are turning green just to compliment his mood. The world isn’t just off-kilter, it’s downright friendly. It’s an unfamiliar sensation, and he can’t collect his thoughts long enough to decide if he really objects, or if it’s just uncomfortable because it’s weird. And it’s not uncomfortable in a bad way. Not at all. He only has to think of Javert’s breath on his shoulder to know that.

He sits in his office at the factory, and stares out the window over the shop floor. There are people, and machines are going, and it’s noisy. The heat of the place adds to the already warm temperature, and rises up to settle in his office, turning it into an oven. He barely notices, and just…stares, mostly at nothing. He tells himself over and over that he needs to snap out of it, and start thinking properly; reminds himself that being attracted to Javert is not the same as liking him, and he doesn’t know him well enough to make any sort of decision. But the good sense drifts away, replaced by those sweet kisses, and that single deep one in which he forgot his name; rationality melts in the fire of Javert’s hand stroking his stomach, the electricity of nails pulling over his skin. And when he thinks of the way he had leaned against the wall, all broad shoulders, and lean waist, and untucked shirt, he has to close his eyes and swallow it away. Or, he tries. All too often, the image melts to Javert lying underneath him, his trousers down his thighs, and-

The phone rings. Valjean scrubs a hand over his face, and tells himself to get a grip. The world doesn’t stop just because he might get laid, and it’s still only a might. He can’t forget that he knows things about Javert that Javert won’t want him to know; he can’t forget that this all started because of the guy’s suspicion about where he’s seen his face before. When he knows the truth, there’s a good chance it’ll all be over. This begs an obvious question: is it immoral, then, to carry on without telling him where they’ve seen each other before? If he thought it would make no difference, then he’d tell him. But he knows Javert a little, and knows it would make a difference. He can’t unknow that.

He puts the phone back down, and rebuts his own argument; that Javert might dismiss the possibility of them working simply because of the past, and is that fair to either of them? For the sake of potential happiness, wouldn’t it be better to let it run a little and see what happens? If they like each other – and that’s another if, because they don’t know each other well enough to say – then perhaps the past will matter less.

Or perhaps it will make the betrayal worse. How’s he supposed to know?

Valjean swings side to side in his chair, looking out over the factory floor. His eyes rake over a knot of young men at the coffee machine, and another in a corner. Is there a third alternative? He can’t think of one. Tell him, or don’t tell him. Pick the right time to tell him. Maybe ask that they don’t engage in any more physical intimacy until they see whether they’re interested in each other on a deeper level. Perhaps that’d be best. If he doesn’t touch Javert, it can’t be said he did anything underhanded. Then he thinks of this morning, and this choice doesn’t seem so good. The fact remains that if Javert turns him away now, there is literally no one else who will touch him like that. Or look at him like that. He’ll have to return to endless days of having no one show any interest in him at all, and while that was fine before this, he’s starting to think it would be a painful contrast now. That being lonely isn’t terrible until something happens to show you just how lonely you are. Then it bites, like a steel trap snapping into your chest and sticking there; he wouldn’t get free without pulling his heart out with it. And he doesn’t want to lose his heart now. He’s twenty seven, there must still be time for some use to be made of it.

He sighs, swivels his seat and throws a pencil down on to the desk. The world’s glow has dimmed a bit, and reality presses back in. He has to draw up the payroll, send it to the accountant’s office, and then speak with suppliers. He has to check the shipments leaving, and arrange a meeting with the council to talk about a joint building venture. He has paperwork to check over before he buys the twenty acres of commercial space he’s had his eye on for a while, and he wants to look over the specs of some farmland just outside the city which might make a good retreat. For kids maybe, or battered women. A teaching farm that schools can use to bring classes to? There are many possibilities, and every single one of them is more important than his sex life. He needs to get his head back in the game. He can think about it when he sees Javert on Saturday.

 

*

 

It’s a good thing, Valjean muses, that his next exam is one he’s pretty confident of. Sharing study space with Javert has turned out not to be for the faint of heart. There are long periods of absolute silence, yes, but they tend to get punctuated by sudden explosive snorts, a slam of a book and a snatch at a pen, followed by a lot of frantic scribbling. He invariably scowls through all of it. Valjean doesn’t mind the noise, but the spectacle has proven very distracting. He thinks he’s wasted at least a third of the last few hours just watching the man across the room. He let him keep the dining table, as his books were again spread all over it when he came home from work, and he’s taken the large sofa and coffee table for himself. When he manages to focus, he finds his notes are more than extensive enough, and all he really has to do is read. But his eyes keep pulling up over the top of his pages, and zooming in on Javert. It seems there are two in front of him; the one scowling and making ill-tempered notes, and the one whose expression cleared, and touched him so gently, and wouldn’t move in case he scared him.

He puts his notes down around nine o clock, when the sun is low enough to cast orange beams across the floor and cause him to shield his eyes from its glare. It’s been another cloudless day, with no breeze to shift the air. The heat lays over the place like a thick woollen blanket, and mixes with his long work day to make his brain sluggish. He stretches, and makes himself get up for a drink. If he were alone he’d strip his shirt off, but he doesn’t think Javert would appreciate that right now. Not when he’s busy.

‘You want anything?’

There’s no answer. He’s not sure Javert even heard him; he’s glaring at his book as though it has personally offended him, his pen circling in and out of his fingers. Valjean takes a Coke over anyway, sets it down next to him and takes a seat. ‘You need a break.’

‘In a minute.’

Valjean waits a minute, sipping from a bottle of iced water. Javert doesn’t move, except his eyes which flick along line after line, page after page. Ten minutes later, Valjean pushes the Coke forward half an inch. ‘Javert.’

‘In a minute.’

Another ten minutes, and Valjean sighs and goes back to the sofa. He’d turn the TV on, but he doesn’t want to disturb him and he doesn’t like it much anyway. He only usually puts it on when the silence gets too loud. For the sake of something to do, he picks up his notes again but Javert chooses that moment to speak. ‘Would you mind testing me? After you’re done reading.’

‘I’m done now. I’ll test you if you come over here, and have a drink. And have a break afterwards.’

He hears a chair push backwards, and smiles a little to himself. Javert presents him with prompt cards, stretches his arms above his head, then flops down on the other end of the sofa. ‘OK, ready.’

Valjean reads some of the prompts, and glances up. ‘What class is this?’

‘It’s the theoretical psychology paper for criminology. It’s just theories, case studies, the major names in the area, that sort of thing.’

‘You looked so angry, I thought you were rewriting criminal law.’

Javert just shrugs, and cracks open his Coke. ‘I don’t agree with a lot of it. it doesn’t matter, I just have to know it and be able to talk about it.’

Valjean frowns ever so slightly. ‘Do you think about it, though? Consider the possibilities of what other people think?’

There’s a pause while Javert struggles with either the cold or the fizziness of his drink. Then he half-nods, half-shrugs again. ‘I can think about them without them changing my mind, can’t I?’

Valjean has thoughts on this, but perhaps now isn’t the time. ‘OK then, ready?’

He pulls a card at random, and starts. He’s unsurprised to find that Javert can recite verbatim what’s written on the back of each test card; names, dates, major contributions to the subject matter, beliefs, theory classification. If that’s all the information he needs, he’ll ace the final no problem. But exams are rarely like that, and halfway through the cards, Valjean switches things up. He chooses two cards at random, and invents his own question, posing a hypothetical scenario that needs input from both cards to create a rounded answer. Javert frowns at him. ‘What are you doing?’

‘Exam prep. You know all these facts, let’s see you apply them to actual problems. You know that’s the sort of thing you’re likely to be asked.’

The frown isn’t going away. ‘I can do that in the exam, though. As long as I know the stuff, I can apply it.’

‘It never hurts to practice.’

‘I’m tired.’

‘So, just do a couple.’ Javert’s face is turning mulish, and Valjean can’t help but wonder why. Maybe he is just tired; Lord knows he’s been staring at books long enough. But practical application of knowledge is always worth more than parroting facts verbatim.

‘…Valjean-‘

‘Go on.’ He half-smiles, raises an eyebrow, and nudges him with his foot. ‘I’ll kiss you if you do.’

He hadn’t meant to offer any such thing, given the way his thoughts have taken him the last few days. Thoughts of resistance, not indulgence. But this, he thinks, is important. Javert will be devastated if he doesn’t pass his exams with good grades, and more than that, Valjean will always champion the power of interrogative thought.

‘…fine. More than once, though.’

‘Deal.’

It’s slower going. As Valjean suspected, Javert hasn’t thought any deeper than learning what he needs to parrot a response. He has to stop and consider now, and his answers are disjointed. But Valjean keeps probing – it helps that he took a psych class in freshman year – and is also not surprised to find that with a little effort, Javert’s arguments become well-reasoned, and sharp like a scalpel. The man seems to have the uncanny ability to cut through extenuating circumstances, and head straight for the crux of any matter. It’s quite something to behold, the way he completely disregards anything he considers unnecessary to the problem. Efficient, to be sure, but it’s also a little disconcerting. What if they were talking about real people in a real, messy, human drama? What would get disregarded then? It occurs to him that he doesn’t actually know what Javert plans to do with his life after college, but the question trips on his tongue and never makes it past his lips. For tonight at least, he doesn’t want to ask. This is too nice. It’s warm, they’re sprawled on a sofa, there are promised kisses ahead. Javert is obviously tired again, and lies loose-limbed against the cushions. This time, the moisture at his throat is a faint sheen of sweat and Valjean can’t help but wonder what it would taste like.

‘Valjean?’

‘Mm?’ He glances up. Javert is staring at him, his lips curled up at the corners.

‘You haven’t spoken for about two minutes.’

‘Sorry.’ He’s not sorry. He’s remembering three days ago, and trying to remember all his arguments against doing what he wants to do. But he can’t grasp them tight enough, and anyway, he made a deal.

Javert reaches forward, and plucks the cards from his hand. ‘I did it.’

‘You did.’

‘So.’

‘So.’

They look at each other. As before, Javert doesn’t move, and just as before, Valjean is seized by intense gratitude. It means there’s no tension in him as he rolls up from his comfortable slouch, first to sitting and then forward on to his hands, leaning over Javert. They regard each other from close quarters for a long few seconds; Valjean is very aware of Javert’s eyes moving over every square inch of his face, and there’s a thrill of anticipation in his belly. Or is it fear? Is he still expecting some sudden recognition to show? It matters very much…but not tonight. Valjean lets it go, leans closer and brings their mouths together.

It starts off soft, as before. But he’s clearly not the only one who’s been dwelling on that one moment the other morning where they gave in to themselves. It’s Javert who parts his lips first; Valjean tastes sugar on them from the Coke, and presses forward, sliding his tongue gently into his mouth. Javert makes a small sound and responds in kind, and Valjean can almost pinpoint the second where his brain shuts everything else out, and allows him to sink into the kiss. It’s the second when he feels Javert’s hands running up his biceps and over his shoulders, or maybe when one travels across his back and slides up into his hair. Valjean breaks the kiss to breathe, but goes straight in for another just to see if he can make Javert moan again. He can. He does. It is impossibly good, and Valjean slows down but pushes deeper. Their tongues meet in a slow tangle, and Javert’s hands tighten in his hair, and on his back, and after a dim second hazed by desire, Valjean realises that Javert is trying to pull him down on to him. He lets it happen, and then it’s his turn to let out a sound; Javert’s thigh, hard from walking and cycling, fits perfectly between his legs. He breaks off, hissing through his teeth as he rubs against it – or is Javert pushing up into him, he can’t tell, and it doesn’t matter because Javert’s mouth is chasing his, and his hands are pulling his hips down and Valjean is aware that his own leg is between Javert’s too, pressed hard up into his groin. The thin material of his basketball shorts is no protection against the pressure of Javert’s thigh, and he rubs his own leg into the crux of Javert’s and gets a choked-out moan as a reward. He pulls his head back only long enough to be sure it’s OK, that Javert’s happy, and he sees at once that it’s fine; the man is panting softly, his eyes closed and cheeks red, his lips wet and open as he curls his ankle around Valjean’s calf, and starts to thrust his hips in rhythm.

‘Javert. Are you sure?’

The only reply is another hard kiss. Valjean doesn’t close his eyes this time, and doesn’t let himself go. He watches the pleasure taking over Javert’s features, instead; the jerk of his cheek muscles when he pushes up and takes his pleasure, the frown getting deeper as his hips work, the way his breath rasps out of his throat and over his wet lips; Valjean kisses him then, softly; he catches the bottom lip between his own and sucks, and then nips at the top, and then the bottom again, and Javert starts to moan in rhythm. Valjean holds steady, his own cock hard and aching between his legs, and reaches down and pulls Javert’s T-shirt up, then his own, so their stomachs can touch. Javert’s eyes fly open at once. He stares into Valjean’s, and his mouth stretches wider as if he might say oh, but no sound comes; he only pushes up, and Valjean feels the heat of them sliding together and the lightning bolt striking between his thighs; he calls out, and Javert heaves up, and his chest contracts; Valjean gasps a breath, and watches pain flit across his face. He looks down, and sees him grasping his own erection, and a dark stain seeping through the material of his shorts, spreading out under the clutched fingers. Javert lets out a tiny moan, and Valjean feels as though he’s been clubbed in the chest, arousal hits him so hard. He covers Javert’s hand with his own, squeezes firmly and watches him writhe, drinks in his cry of pleasure. The stain widens, and all he can think of is the cock confined underneath, emptying itself in the dark. ‘Oh, God,’ he says, quietly, and then Javert’s mouth is on his, desperate and grasping with his lips, and his own hands are pulling at his shorts. ‘Javert, please.’

He lifts his hips, and they slide down an inch. Javert grabs and yanks; they both watch his cock bob free, and stand there straining. Their breath mingles hot and damp, and Valjean’s throat is wet from it, and he watches as Javert lets go of his stained crotch and wraps his hand around the shaft so obviously begging for it. His chest is so tight it aches, but all he can do is hold still as Javert yanks, clumsy and hard, and good enough to make him want to yell; he pushes into his hand, Javert speeds up, and they both groan as it spills without warning, shooting ribbons of white come all over Javert’s wet, heaving belly.

He drops his forehead down to his shoulder when it’s over. Javert doesn’t let go of his cock; he can’t seem to stop touching it. Valjean lets him fondle and stroke, gentling him back down to semi-erect, and then soft, and still he just holds himself over him, and enjoys the solid feel of his body under his forehead. His blood thunders in his ears for a long time, even when the afterglow of pleasure has begun to seep away. He thinks Javert’s touch should get annoying, or over-sensitize him, but it doesn’t. It’s nice.

They can’t stay here all night. Valjean moves eventually, but only his head, and only to kiss him. Javert slides his arms around his back and eases his hips back down, so they’re pressed together. It’s only then, sliding through the cooled mess on his stomach, that the rest of the room comes into focus. The light from the sun has dimmed but it’s still so hot, and everything is silent except for the quiet rustle of their clothes as they move together. They smell of sex, and sweat. His mind flits to other, less safe, situations, and he starts to tense, but then Javert mumbles pleasure into his neck, and he relaxes again.

Sometime later, he pulls himself away. Javert remains lying, and looks up at him with a faint expression of embarrassment. Valjean flicks on a lamp, pulls his shorts back up, and contemplates the mess on his belly before yanking his shirt off and using it to wipe some of it away. Then he turns, and uses it on Javert, mopping at him without comment. Javert just watches his face, then says, quietly, ‘sorry.’

‘Sorry?’

‘For-‘ he gestures at the state of his shorts. ‘I guess I’m not very good at this.’

Valjean pauses, incredulous, and shakes his head. ‘Are you kidding? What are you apologising for? That was the hottest thing I’ve seen in years.’ He moves in and kisses him hard, wanting desperately for that embarrassment to disappear, and never come back. Javert makes a small, surprised sound, but slides his hands over his back anyway. When Valjean breaks it off, the gorgeous stare is hazed with lust.

‘Are we going to bed?’ he murmurs, and it’s so clear that he wants to that Valjean is floored. He never expected this from Javert. He’s usually so withdrawn, he never would have thought he’d be so open about wanting this. He looks over his face, searching for clues. There’s no frown. No suspicion. No evidence of deep thought. He looks, Valjean realises, with a sinking heart, like he trusts him.

He kisses him again, very soft, very slow, and sits up. ‘Not yet, I think.’

‘Why not?’

Good question. Valjean pulls his hand over his face. ‘Have you ever done it before?’ Javert just shakes his head, and Valjean puts a hand on his leg. ‘That’s why. You shouldn’t give that away without being sure, and probably not to me. It’s too soon.’

Javert leans up on his elbows. It highlights the muscles in his arms, and his own abs; he’s a lot leaner than Valjean, but clearly in good shape. Valjean wishes he didn’t like that, and wishes he didn’t look so good like this. He’s covered in come, half dressed, stained shorts, mussed hair – if things were different, if he were different, he can well imagine taking him to bed and having him all night, seeing just how messy he can make him…but that’s how other people behave, and it’s not what he does, and he is not that person. He’s not going to ruin this man’s trust in other people just because he’s selfish. And what does he know about it anyway? He’s rarely been allowed to take anyone. He’s always been the one getting ruined.

‘I want to,’ Javert says, simply. Valjean shakes his head.

‘No. Not yet.’

‘But you’re not saying never.’

He hesitates. He wishes he could, but he’s a weak man, isn’t he? Tonight proves that. ‘No, I’m not saying never.’

Javert regards him for a minute. Then he nods, and sits up properly. ‘OK. I should go, then.’

‘You don’t have to. You can take the spare.’

‘Wouldn’t that be weird?’

He shrugs. ‘Not for me.’

It’ll definitely be weird. But he knows he can trust himself not to go wandering in the night, and if Javert does, he’ll just have to resist temptation. He stands up, and stretches. His legs feel rubbery, and once again, he’s wrung out. He badly needs a shower, and again, if things were different, he might ask Javert to come with him. It seems wrong – rude, even – to just walk away and leave him to himself out here. It seems like a betrayal of intimacy, even though their intimacy has been brief, and only ever physical. But what else can he do?

Javert’s still just looking at him, a frown back on his face. Valjean wishes it weren’t there. He offers a hand down to help him up instead, and hopes that’ll make it go away. Javert takes it, but seems to understand that there’ll be no more touching tonight. He doesn’t try to kiss him again, or hold onto his arm. He just takes his own shirt off too, for the same reason Valjean removed his, and slings it over his shoulder.

‘Night, then.’

‘Night, Javert.’

He watches him go. He stands still until after the door to the spare bedroom is closed, and then presses his hands to eyes, and lets out a long lungful of air. This was stupid. He only said he’d kiss him. Now they’re practically fucking, and he has to stop it, and isn’t sure he can.

Damn it all. He’ll go to church in the morning, and let that clear his head. There’s a solution out there somewhere, he just has to find it.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Sunday is the only day Valjean doesn’t set an alarm, and for once he sleeps late. Javert’s gone when he wakes up. He realises he’d forgotten to ask whether he was working today or not, so maybe he is, or maybe he just wanted some space from what happened yesterday. Either way, the apartment is quiet.

He makes coffee, and drinks it in his underwear, leaning against the kitchen counter and looking out the window. It’s too late for church, and there are no demands on his time. The sun streams over the floor, and lends warmth that promises soon to be hot. He idly contemplates switching on the ceiling fans, but it seems like a waste of electricity so the place remains still. Too still, so he wanders, stretching his neck from side to side. Dining table, sofa, coffee table, TV. He turns it on, catches a headline about a police shooting downtown, and flicks it off again. The sudden blare dies out, and leaves the silence louder than ever. He walks over to the weights in the corner, and nudges the barbell with his toe. Yes? No. He doesn’t have the motivation this morning.  

He walks back, and down the short hallway to the bedrooms. He had meant to get dressed, but finds himself hesitating outside the door of the spare room instead. There’s the insane desire to knock. He goes so far as to raise his hand, then catches himself and just pushes it open instead.

What was he expecting? Some evidence that Javert belongs here after all? As if his stuff being here would bypass everything that has to be said? There’s no stuff here. Javert’s made the bed as perfectly as he himself did it. There’s no mess, no clothes, not a wrinkle out of place. The bathroom is pristine, except a slight dampness to the towels Javert has left folded next to the sink. The toothbrush he borrowed sits in a cup, lined up next to a new tube of toothpaste. There’s a single drop of water on the porcelain, next to the soap dispenser. Javert’s cleaned everything else; there’s a faint smell of bleach, the trash can is empty, there’s not a hair in the shower. It could be a hotel bathroom waiting for a new guest. Valjean sighs, and leaves. He has no idea what he wanted to feel, but there’s nothing to illicit emotion here.

It’s too warm to dress. He pours another coffee, and sits in the swivel armchair by the main window. These apartments aren’t too high, but there’s nothing taller to obstruct his view over the neighbourhood. It’s one of the reasons he chose this place; there’s a tangible distance from the world up here, and it feels more of an escape than one lower would be. The windows let him see, but he doesn’t have to touch. He chooses to, at work, at college, any time he leaves this apartment, but he doesn’t deny himself the relief when he closes the door and shuts it all away, either.

He lets his eyes roam over the roofs and streets, over this edge of the city and up to the campus above it on the hill; as they roam, so do his thoughts. Inevitably, back to Javert. There’s a safety in distance there too; the problem lies in not being able to find a barrier to keep the man away. No, that’s not right. There is a barrier, it’s just that he’s the only one who can see it. The only way to clear it is to let Javert see it too, and then they can step over it together…or perhaps it’s already too big to clear, and will grow into a wall that can never be breached. There’s no way to know.

Valjean sips at his coffee. There is, of course, another option. He could simply say nothing. If Javert never finds out they’ve seen each other before, then it never has to be a problem. It might not even be a problem now, he reminds himself, and allows his mind to slip into a dream wherein he tells everything to Javert, who shrugs, and says, ‘so?’ This really could be that simple. He may be suspecting Javert of being far more rigid than he is – and he has already found himself to be very bad at reading the man’s thoughts and intentions thus far. How can he presume to know what Javert thinks? He barely knows him.

Valjean lets out a long breath, and passes his hand over his forehead. Yes, he hardly knows him, because they skipped over the whole ‘getting to know you’ process. Months of planning one presentation, where they never spoke about their personal lives, does not constitute dating. But how is he supposed to date? The whole idea is alien to him; he might understand the theory, but the reality seems entirely incongruous. He learned other things instead, growing up where he did. He learned how to fight. He can decipher danger; a fleeting look from one man to another across a room, a corner of a mouth lifted in a sneer - that means he’s in for a bad night. Was in for a bad night, he corrects himself. But to just like the look of someone, ask them out, and sit and talk? It doesn’t seem possible. For a start, what would he say? He has no family anymore, and a past he can’t bring up in casual conversation. He has little he cares to discuss of himself, and the idea of trusting any of it to a faceless stranger terrifies him. His formative years were spent in defence, and anger. It took years after his release to let go of some of it, and then only with help. What he is now is…no use to anyone, he concludes, staring into the dregs at the bottom of his mug. Beyond repair, probably. Father Charles would tell him to try therapy again, but being made to revisit the worst of those years just makes him feel sick. Therapy might break him to put him back together stronger, but to him, that’s scarily similar to things whispered in his ear in the dark places of his youth. Getting broken, for whatever reason, still leaves you in pieces.

Another long breath. He’s aware of his heartbeat racing, and tension in his neck. He stretches it from side to side again, and reminds himself where he is; this room, in his own apartment, with no one else around. He is safe. It’s warm, the sun’s shining, and he has complete freedom today. No one can make him do anything he doesn’t want to. He tells himself, over and over, until he’s calm again. Nothing he doesn’t want to.

His thoughts return to Javert, eventually. Dating, then. Maybe it’s the answer – go out with him. Don’t touch him. Don’t tell him anything. Because that’s the other consideration, isn’t it? Should he have to?  He had to disclose his prison years to the college when he applied, and he still suspects they only took him because he has his own business, and can pay his own fees. He had to have a special interview where they asked him about his youth; they said it was to check his prison-gained high school diploma was enough preparation for a degree, but the words ‘history of violent behaviour’ had come up once or twice. They justified saying it, and he had let them and nodded as they scrutinised him, and looked at the ground, and if Father Charles hadn’t spoken for him-

-he tries not to continue down this line of thought. It only ever leads into a spiral of questions and annoyance that quickly escalates to anger. But why shouldn’t the college ask him to explain himself? He was going to be in close contact with staff and students for a long time. It was their right, and they haven’t mentioned it since. But disclosing his past to an institution is one thing. Does he have to tell every person he meets? A stab of anger twists through him out of nowhere. Really, does he? How’s he ever supposed to move past it? Maybe it makes a difference because he saw Javert there years ago, but it was years ago, and hasn’t he proved himself to be changed? If he never tells Javert he knows his father was in prison, then the man will have no reason to hate him. He doesn’t seem to suspect anymore, because if he did, surely he wouldn’t be asking to go to bed with him?

He rubs his forehead again, harder this time, scratching his nails across his skin. So, it’s going to be one of those mornings. Sitting here is only going to make it worse. He has to get out of his own head before he’s dragged into the maelstrom, and distraction is the only thing that’ll do it. He stands abruptly, dumps his cup in the dishwasher and goes to get dressed. He’ll go for a run, and then do a full workout. He can break his body to make it stronger. Sometimes he’d like to break his body beyond repair, considering what it’s done to him. But it’s saved him too, and…he shakes his head, almost sharp enough to hurt. Enough of this.

 

*

 

Twelve miles later, and back in front of his own building, his phone buzzes. He has to wipe sweat off his fingers so they’re able to register on the touch screen.

Can I come over, please? Javert.

His thumb hovers over the ‘reply’ space. His head feels a lot clearer than it was ninety minutes ago, but he doesn’t want to be pulled back into a downward spiral. On the other hand, maybe the guy only wants the study space. He’s not going to deny him that. And he could ask him what he thinks about dating.

Of course. Key’s at the front desk, just come on up.

The doorman calls the elevator for him, and he nods his thanks as he steps inside. If Javert’s cycling from campus, he’s still got time to hit the weights. He heads straight for the fridge when he gets in, takes a protein shake, throws his soaked shirt into the washer, and cranks up the volume on his iPhone. He picks the most gruelling exercises he knows. He puts his heaviest weights on all the bars, adds another twenty pounds and plans an extra set of everything. No matter how bad things get, a tough workout makes a day feel productive. He’s got an exam tomorrow, but all he has to do is read through the stuff he was looking at yesterday. It can wait until later.

He squats until his legs scream, and start to shake under him. He tries press-ups afterwards, but his thighs won’t hold him without a rest. No problem; he takes to the bench, works his back, and shoulder presses until the world is agony and he considers he might throw up. Sit-ups, then. Crunches. Crunches on the ball, with dumbbells. He deadlifts until his arms are like spaghetti, and he has to down his protein shake to stave off the light-headedness. He returns to the bench. A prickle of cooler air across his shoulders makes him wonder if he’s gone too far – if everything goes cold, it tends to mean imminent blackout – but it’s just a flash, and then it’s gone. Biceps, triceps. He curls until his arms spasm. A minute or so of stretching, and then it’s only his chest to go. His mind feels quietened by pain. He considers, dimly, as he lowers the barbell and presses it back up, that that’s sick. Is pain the only thing left?

The final sets are a hurdle he’s not sure he can overcome, but he’s in the sweet spot now, where the effort to lift even once takes every fibre of his body pulling together to have any hope of success. He breathes hard, and fills his lungs as deeply as he can. The bass in his ears pulses even louder than his heart, which is a full red throb under every part of his skin. There’s no thought left. There’s only the sweat under his gloves, and the metal under his curling fingers, and the knowledge that it’s nearly over and when it is, there’ll be peace. The rest of the day will be calm. All he has to do is get through three sets of eight, that’s all. Twenty-four becomes sixteen, becomes twelve and then ten, and he has to roar through the last two to get to his break. Only eight more. Eight. His arms shake as he reaches for the bar again, and his back is slippery on the padded bench underneath him. It takes effort to swallow the spit collecting at the back of his mouth, and his head aches a little. Only eight more. Only-

-one of his earbuds is pulled out. Just as he registers it, there’s a shape, and panic slams its fist into his throat so hard he chokes. He tries to jerk sideways but his body is too spent to respond. He freezes instead, eyes wide and…

…and it’s Javert, standing with a fresh Coke in one hand and holding a new protein shake out in the other. ‘Stop,’ he says, and the relief is more overwhelming than any exercise could be. He’s helpless in the face of it, completely undone. All he can do is stare.

Javert doesn’t move. But he says it again; ‘stop.’

‘…what?’

‘You’re going to hurt yourself.’

‘Javert-‘

The terror loosens its grip just a fraction, and he manages to fill his lungs. His fingers quake as they pull his phone from his pocket, and turn the music off. Silence washes over him like a cool wave, calms his thumping heart as it settles on his body. And Javert doesn’t move, which might be the only thing that lets him find words.

‘…please don’t stand over me.’

His voice is higher than it should be. Tighter. Javert nods, and sits on the floor exactly where he is. He sips his Coke, and he’s still holding out the ‘shake. Valjean breathes, once, twice, and takes it. His phone slips from his fingers. He wants to yell what the hell are you doing? and any number of other clichés along the lines of how’d you get in here? But he told him to come, didn’t he? He told him to use the key he left downstairs. It’s his own fault he didn’t hear, or see. He had his music on loud, and the bench faces the window, not the door. The backwash of annoyance is just adrenaline. Reminding himself of that helps him conquer it.

‘Are you all right?’

‘Huh?’

Javert raises his eyebrows, and puts his can down. ‘Are you all right?’ His tone is patient. Not soothing, but Valjean finds himself calmed by it anyway. ‘You look like you’re trying to kill yourself.’

‘I’m fine.’

Javert does not have the grace not to look disbelieving. Valjean avoids his eyes, and sets the ‘shake on the floor. The bench is tacky under his shoulders, sweat starting to cool. It prickles uncomfortably, and he eases his hands back up to the bar. Javert shakes his head. ‘Seriously, stop.’

‘I’ve only got eight more.’

He watches the guy abandon hope of convincing him; it’s there on his face long before he holds his hands up. ‘Fine. If you have a heart attack, I promise I’ll call 911.’

Valjean manages half a smile, but then has to focus. His arms are shaking, and he feels like there’s nothing left in him. But that’s why he does it. Eight more reps should exorcise the fear of Javert’s sudden appearance, and any lingering threads of this morning’s thoughts. He closes his eyes, and lifts; he’ll get the maximum benefit because he has no choice but to go slow. Lowering the bar is OK, but lifting it is long, drawn-out agony, and he can feel the weight shifting from side to side as his arms wobble under the strain. It’s not safe, he tells himself. Very much not safe, because if he drops this much poundage on his torso he’s in serious trouble. But he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t contemplate stopping. He just grits his teeth - and blanks out the feel of Javert watching him, the way he saw him flinch when the bar seemed to be going out of control – and keeps going. It’s effort that he hasn’t pushed himself to make for a couple of years, and when he finally sets the weight down, his mind is clear of everything except the good kind of pain, the kind that burns all the poison away.

He hears the soft clink of tin against floorboards through the blood roaring in his ears, and imagines Javert drinking, watching him. As he floats through the pleasure that comes simply from being able to rest, he remembers yesterday. Sitting on his bed, Javert’s hand on his stomach. His fingers trailing over his muscles.

He turns his head to the side. Javert’s eyes snap to meet his, guilty in their speed. Valjean glances at his own heaving chest, his shifting abs, and would laugh if he had the energy. ‘If you’d come half an hour ago, you could have watched the crunches,’ he says, too tired for inflection. Javert looks a little embarrassed, but only a little.

‘I’d suggest you do another set, but even I’m not that cold.’ He picks up the protein shake, and holds it out again. ‘Drink this.’

‘In a minute.’ He can’t sit up just yet. He watches Javert’s eyes shift back down his body. He thinks they’ll go where they obviously enjoy being, but they don’t. Valjean’s expectations flicker as a faint line appears between Javert’s eyebrows. He follows his gaze, and then immediately looks away. He shouldn’t be surprised. The scars are right in front of where the guy’s sitting. He can’t blame him for noticing them, and this is the first time he’ll have been able to see them close-up. Valjean had forgotten about them , as he’s getting better at doing. But if he’s not going to tell Javert anything about the past, and try to go forward with this, there’s probably a lot of things he’ll have to get used to remembering and then concealing. This isn’t easy, though. His ribs are about six inches from Javert’s eyes, so there’ll be no hiding their cause.

He has to look back when he sees movement. Javert has raised his hand, and there’s a question written on his face. ‘May I?’ he says, and Valjean’s instinct is to say no. But he doesn’t.

‘If you like.’

Being with someone means giving part of yourself, as he understands it. He’s not with Javert, and still isn’t sure he wants to be. Or how to be. But he’ll never rest easy if he knows he didn’t try, and trying means not withholding the little things. So, the guy wants to touch his side. Big deal. He can’t deny him that.

‘I thought these were gunshot scars when I first saw them,’ Javert says, with a hint of confession to his tone. His fingers are gentle, resting above the patch of him that will always be wasteland. ‘I wondered if you were in a gang.’

Valjean watches his face, not wanting to see what’s happening. He feels a fingertip trace down to the first of the three holes, none of which are large enough for a full finger-pad to rest in. He can pinpoint the moment he’s allowing the most intimate touch of his adult life, because he can’t feel a thing. The skin is dead. He only has Javert’s face to tell him the finger is still there.

‘They’re not bullets though. They’re burns, aren’t they?’ His voice is calm. There’s no undue emotion, and it helps. If he heard pity, he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to stand it.

‘Yeah.’

Javert nods. Valjean glances down. His index finger is running a slow circle around the puckered hole, and for a second he imagines…not the burn, that became indistinct a long time ago…but the hands holding him down. He hears the laughter. He sees the tip of the cigarette touch his skin and it comes back to him in slow motion, the way it had parted under the heat and then burned away as the smoke pushed deeper, spinning slowly between careful fingers, searing through the layers of his body into the soft parts that should never feel such heat-

Valjean swallows the sickness, and forces himself not to look away. Javert is not the one who did it. He’s not hurting him. He can’t feel the touch, but he can see it’s gentle. It comes away from the first hole and runs down the pink, featureless, melted-wax landscape of his ribs until he gets to the second. Melted wax, he thinks. Melted skin is what it is. There’s no need for a euphemism; they’ve never helped him feel OK about what happened. Javert touches the next hole, and then rests his finger on it, and one on the first, and another on the third, as though measuring the distance with his hand span. Like a pianist checking three keys can be comfortably reached, or someone stretching for three letters on a keyboard at the same time. Maybe he thinks someone did this with a touch, or that there was an accident with some kind of machine. He can’t tell what he’s thinking. There’s no expression on his face.

He suspects the same can’t be said for him. He marshals his remaining strength, and does the only thing he can think of to distract the guy. He puts his hand on the side of Javert’s neck, where the heat of the day is making his skin damp. He lets it rest there, and runs his thumb over the soft hair in front of his ear. Javert glances up, sees his face, and immediately lifts his hand away. ‘Sorry,’ he mutters, and Valjean would shrug if he had the energy.

‘It’s alright,’ he says, though his tongue is thick in his mouth, and the tendons in his neck are pulled tight. Javert doesn’t look like he believes him, and shakes his head, though not hard enough to dislodge the hand. Valjean isn’t prepared for the relief at knowing he won’t try again; it hits him hard, and then sparks into heat as Javert puts his hand on his stomach instead. It sits there, not moving, and Valjean has to battle surprise down before he realises that the guy’s waiting.

‘Valjean?’

‘Yeah.’

The hand makes a slow circle. Anticipation slides south, lighting up his nerves as it goes. The morning seems an age ago. Did he come to a conclusion about what to do, or did he just run away and abandon it? No, he thinks. He decided he didn’t have to wear his past on his sleeve, didn’t he? Even with this man. Yes. So. He can do this. They can try, and it’ll probably fall apart pretty soon, because neither of them know what they’re doing. They can go their separate ways, and Javert never needs to know.

It’s logical. But he still has to force himself to nod – yes, alright – and the pleasure that starts to burn as Javert’s hand moves is tinged with regret. He tries not to focus on the stroking, or the erection he can’t hope to control, and instead wonders whether there’d be this quandary at all if this weren’t Javert. If some random guy – girl? – showed interest, he’d have no trouble keeping his mouth shut, would he? It’d be none of their business. And it shouldn’t be any of Javert’s either.

He’s forced to pay attention when the guy comes to his knees. He looks at his face, not at the nails drawing faint lines over his muscles, turning his insides to water. Flat out on a bench like this, there’s no hiding the bulge in his shorts, and he doesn’t want to look at that either. Nor does Javert, it seems. His eyes are trained on his face, the line back between his eyebrows. ‘Are you sure?’ he says, and Valjean wonders where this consideration comes from. Most guys their age just fuck, don’t they? They don’t question every expression of interest.

‘Are you?’ he says back, and Javert nods. No hesitation. Valjean wants to rest on his elbows to see his face better – and not be spread out like a piece of meat to be pounded – but his body hurts too much. His muscles feel like they’ve been grated, and stuffed back under his skin in pieces.

‘I don’t know why you’d let me,’ Javert mutters, and his fingers slide underneath the waistband of Valjean’s shorts for the first time. They rest on the sensitive skin at the base of his abdomen, not moving, just there; Valjean feels his cock jerk hard, and has to swallow the sudden spike in desire.

‘Why wouldn’t I?’

Javert shrugs. ‘You’re you. I don’t get why you’re doing any of this with me.’

He can’t think of a response, and Javert doesn’t seem to need one. He lowers his head, and draws his tongue over the tight muscles of Valjean’s stomach, licking a soft line down the centre. Valjean pulls a breath over his teeth, and tries to think. But then Javert gives a small groan, and sucks a kiss onto one protruding ridge, and Valjean feels comprehension slip away. And maybe that’s good. Maybe this just is, and he needs to stop thinking about it. His head tips back, and his hand comes up Javert’s shoulder, over the nape of his neck and into his hair. He won’t lie to himself; part of it is potential defence, so he can yank his head away if he needs to. But there’s also the fact it feels nice. It’s definitely making Javert breathe heavier; he can feel it coming fast on his skin, and hear it rasping in his throat. It occurs to him that he’s drenched in sweat, which isn’t very considerate. ‘I should go shower,’ he says, but Javert shakes his head, and kisses lower, skirting under his navel for the first time. His lips are very warm, and just the right amount of wet. Valjean has no idea what to do.

‘Don’t. It’s OK.’

He nods, and tries to keep his mind clear by focusing only on Javert’s mouth, and the exposed throb of pressure between his legs. The tongue licking at him is shy, and Javert isn’t looking up at him. But he’s not afraid to kiss, and he’s definitely getting lower; every touch is a little more sensitive, and fizzing more excitedly under his lips. Maybe he’s working up his courage. Maybe he’s trying to make it good. Valjean can’t tell because he can’t look at him. The only part of him that knows what to do is his cock, heavy and stiff between his legs, and coming ever closer to Javert’s mouth.

He puts his hands over his eyes when Javert finally starts to peel his shorts down. He doesn’t help him, but doesn’t stop him either. The air is cooler where he’s exposed, and his mind skips to the times he’s been made to watch this exact thing; he reminds himself that he’s allowing this, and that Javert is too nervous to be rough, and that none of this is happening against his will. It’s only when the question comes, is it against Javert’s will? that his eyes snap open and he looks down, meaning to stop him, only to see Javert’s face as he presses the first kiss to the swollen head of his prick; the man’s eyes are almost closed, his cheeks are red, his lips are wet and slick, parted willingly. His breath is hot and fast, and he moans at whatever he’s tasting, whatever he’s thinking in his head. It’s clear he wants to do this. He might not know everything, and he isn’t going to, but he’s sucking cock because he wants it, and that should be good enough.

Valjean’s head falls back again. How many years has it been? Eight? He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to feel. Javert’s lack of experience is obvious, but his cock doesn’t seem to care. Pleasure pulses down the nerves of his inner thighs, up to his belly, spreads through his centre. It hasn’t reached his head yet though, and he knows there’s still time to stop it. If Javert will let him. He’d lay even money on the guy losing it in his pants again, by the look of him.

‘Am I doing it wrong?’

‘What?’ He glances down. Javert lips rest against the thick vein on the underside, and he looks better than Valjean’s ever seen him. The words fucking whore ring in his head, but it’s not his voice saying them. ‘No, you’re not doing it wrong.’

‘I don’t know how-‘

‘You’re doing fine. But you don’t have to. I mean it. Not if you don’t want to.’

Javert looks pained. And young. Sex knocks years off him, probably because he stops thinking like an asshole. He might be nice if he got laid more.

Valjean wants to laugh at his own thoughts, but he’s not sure they’re his, and feels sick instead. He swallows, and would pull away, but Javert says, ‘I Googled how to do it.’

‘-what?’

‘So tell me if it’s wrong.’

He wants to laugh for different reasons. Jesus. ‘It’s not wrong. But…you know, there’s always porn, if you want to know-‘

Javert’s shaking his head. Everything about this is weird. Valjean can’t decide if he has to stop this now, or if he has to hold this kid down and fuck him until he screams.

…no, not until he screams. Christ. This is bad, and his chest constricts, and Javert chooses this moment to moan and sink his mouth down his length, start to suck and scratch his fingers over his abs as he does it. Valjean bucks without meaning to, and Javert’s eyes fly open, he moans again, and even though it’s out of sight, the way he grabs his own crotch is unmistakable. Valjean’s pleasure burns through him and he grits his teeth, pulls his hips back and sees his own hands on Javert’s head, guiding him down as he slides back in. Javert sucks harder, the back of his tongue arches up and brushes the head of Valjean’s cock. He chokes quietly, jerks back, jerks forward, and suddenly they’re in a rhythm and his muscles tense and relax, push and pull, and Javert moans with spit and pre-come on his lips, then his chin, and Valjean hears his own groans from a long way away and he slowly, deeply, thoroughly takes this guy’s mouth. He says ‘there, there, suck that…lick there…’ and he’s someone else, and somewhere else and it’s years and years ago; he can taste what Javert tastes, and he knows what it’s like to be coached like this, the humiliation and degradation and sickness of it. He wants to throw up but he moans, and thrusts, and comes instead, his hand gentle on the back of Javert’s neck, the man’s nose buried in his groin, his back of his throat closing around his cock as it empties deep inside.

He lets him go at once. The room crashes back in on him. Javert pulls back to breathe, his fingers curled tight into Valjean’s hip. His nails hurt, Valjean registers that. Then he’s shoving the guy back and Javert lands on his ass, mouth open, legs sprawled, and so obviously turned on that it’s almost disgusting to look at. Valjean is disgusted; sick and livid. He sits up fast, and Javert rubs his own bulging shorts.

‘Stop it.’

‘Why?’

It’s obscene. Javert has spunk on his chin. Valjean tries to calm the sudden fury eating him up, and finds himself on his knees instead, pushing Javert flat down on the floor. He doesn’t resist; he lands on his back so fast, anyone would think he wanted it. ‘What are you doing here?’ Valjean says, and that look of confusion can’t mean Javert doesn’t understand him, does it? What is he doing here? Is he trying to find the answer to why he was suspicious two years ago? Is this some sick game? ‘I mean it, Javert. Why did you ask to come over?’

Javert shakes his head. He puts his hands on Valjean’s naked hips, and pulls him down; it’s a few seconds before Valjean realises their legs are twined, and the man’s pushing up against him. ‘For this.’

‘You came to get-‘ Valjean shakes his head. Some part of him is a long way away, and he can’t think straight. His chest hurts. Javert’s hands on his skin make him want to scream, but he can’t pull away. There’s desperation in the man under him, he can feel it in the rough way he shoves against him. Javert wants this very badly, it’s obvious, but it…he thinks it’s not normal, but then it hits him that he doesn’t know what normal is, and maybe this is what people do when they just want to have sex. And Javert is looking mulish at his shaking head, and presses them harder together.

‘Other people do it. Aren’t I allowed?’

‘Of course you’re allowed, you just-‘

This is completely out of hand. He pushes down hard all of a sudden, so hard Javert can’t thrust up. He doesn’t want to pin him – God knows, it’s the last thing he wants to do – but he has to think, and he can’t. Everything’s crowding in, and now Javert’s hands are on his sides, and then shoulders, and then his mouth is at his neck, and he really could just have him, he really could, there’d be no harm in it. He allows one brief moment, a shining picture of himself buried between Javert’s legs, the guy writhing in pleasure and calling out, and losing control and it really would be easy, he knows how to make someone do that. He could pleasure this guy until he’s out of his mind, he could take his virginity so thoroughly that he’d measure everyone else against it forever.

But he can’t. This is sick. It’s all wrong. And Javert is practically whimpering now – shit, he’s actually getting off on being held down – and Valjean feels the anger come again. Who gets off on that? Who wants control taken away? He thrusts against him in fury, and Javert arches up, his hands scrabble between his legs to get his shorts open. Valjean lets him, and endures the hand on his dead side, and presses down on the thick cock his finds rubbing against his belly. ‘This is what you want?’ he says, and his voice sounds savage in his ears, and he could cry but he doesn’t, and Javert doesn’t notice because when he thrusts once more, the guy is coming all over his stomach. He comes so much, he grips with so much need. Valjean watches, horrified with himself, and has to fight the urge to punch him when Javert’s nails leave bloody trails on his shoulder.

He falls away as soon as Javert lets him go. He covers his face with his hands, numb to all thought and feeling. It’s not him that takes them away; he allows it when Javert pulls at them, and doesn’t object when he kisses him. His lips taste like spunk. His stomach rolls.

‘Valjean.’ Javert kisses him again. Valjean opens his eyes long enough to see him smiling, his whole expression hazed with pleasure. ‘Please tell me you’ll fuck me.’

He won’t stop kissing him. Valjean can’t make himself move. ‘I have to shower,’ he mumbles, and finally, finally, Javert falls away.

‘Yeah,’ he says ruefully, looking down at his own stomach. Valjean risks a glance. Javert’s dick would serve him well in prison. There’d be plenty willing to service that.

…Jesus. He rolls to his feet, and walks away. ‘I’ll be back.’

 

It’s been a long time since he contemplated suicide. He’s not serious now, he knows that even as he turns it over in his head. Still, the thought is there. It’s an option. He scrubs himself again, more soap, always more, and thinks that Father Charles would murder him if he tried.

What would be worse? Telling Javert he sucked off an ex-con, or telling Javert he let himself get pleasured by an ex-con? Is it worse to give in this case, or to have been taken? Which is going to ruin the guy more? Valjean grabs his toothbrush to scrub the taste of vomit away, and wishes he could cry. He would love to cry. But he can’t, and he can’t say sorry, and he can’t say anything, and now he’s violated the man, hasn’t he? Is there any other way to look at it? Javert might be practically begging to be fucked, but it’s only because he doesn’t know the truth. He’s made him happy, and that’s so much worse. So very, very much worse.

 

*

 

Javert comes out of the guest shower with a towel around his waist. Valjean is dressed in clean clothes, with scrubbed-pink skin, and not a hair out of place. He sips coffee in the kitchen, and  watches relaxation on Javert’s face turn to concern as he comes closer. He hesitates on the threshold of the kitchen space, a hand on the marble worktop. Valjean can feel the defence he’s giving off, and can’t do a thing to change it. Even with his body posture open, he doesn’t want Javert anywhere near him. It’s costing him something to look this welcoming, and he knows it’s not fooling anyone.

Javert looks down at the bench. He takes a pinch of salt from the bowl sitting at the edge, and rubs it between his fingers. The silence is heavy, and Valjean can’t think of anything to fill it. Anything he says will be a disaster at this point.

Eventually, Javert says, ‘I’ve got this wrong, haven’t I? You don’t want it at all.’

Valjean holds his tongue. Javert looks out of the window. Seconds tick on. He can see him thinking, the line deepening between his eyebrows.

‘It’s always been me coming to you. You never made a move. I guess I didn’t care as long as you didn’t say no.’

Javert turns away from him. Valjean looks at the floor, the cup in his hand burning into his palm. There’s something he can say to this, so he says it. ‘If I wasn’t interested, I wouldn’t have let it get this far.’

‘Then what’s the problem?’

Valjean looks up. If he had words, they’d stick in his throat.

He’s never seen Javert with no shirt on before, and if he’d thought about it, he wouldn’t have expected-

…Javert looks back at him, and frowns, and then seems to realise what might be amiss. He affects a glance down his own back, then catches Valjean’s eye, and shrugs. ‘So what?’

As scars go, it’s ugly. A jagged line that follows the contour of his shoulder blade, and splits off below like a fork of lightning. It’s almost entirely white too, so it’s been there a while. Maybe it looks so stretched because it’s grown with him. Valjean’s stomach sinks further. It doesn’t explain anything, but it hints.

‘Did your dad do it?’

His tone is not curious, or incredulous. It’s resigned, and Javert goes very still. Valjean realises almost at once he’s made a mistake, and potentially a bad one, because the expression he sees goes from shock, to hurt, to anger, to…suspicion, all in the space of two seconds. Valjean sets his cup down, and attempts to look as though it was an innocent question. He doesn’t know if he pulls it off. Javert’s eyes skewer him to the counter.

‘Did your dad do yours?’

It’s a challenge. And it gives him an out, which he already knows he won’t take. Valjean shakes his head, slowly. ‘No.’

Javert stares at him a moment more. Valjean watches his chest rise and fall, faster than it was a minute ago. He tries to think of a lie that wouldn’t be so bad, but all he can think of is the truth. He keeps his mouth shut. Javert, eventually, looks away.

‘I have to go,’ he says, to the floor. ‘I’ve got an exam tomorrow.’

‘Me too.’

‘Yeah.’

Valjean picks his cup up again, features schooled back to neutral. Javert opens his mouth, but frowns instead of speaking, and shuts it again. He walks away, and Valjean doesn’t move. When he’s alone, he flicks through the iPad on the counter, seeing nothing, reading nothing, aware of nothing but the fear and disgust pounding in his head. When Javert comes back, fully dressed, he doesn’t look up at once. He pretends to read the rest of some news article, while trying to control the rising dread.

‘See you,’ Javert says, when he abandons his pretence.

‘Javert-‘

God, why bother? The worse thing he could do would be to try and keep him now.

‘-see you.’

Javert doesn’t look upset when he leaves. He looks wary. Valjean closes his eyes when the elevator shuts, and listens to the silence of the room. The rays of the setting sun blaze through the window, paint fire on the floor and blind him with their light. He’d love to be able to think that’s that, and move on. But he behaved disgracefully today, and now he’s got to face the facts; he’s no better than the people he grew up with. No amount of charity matters when he can’t treat a single person well, and if today proves anything…it’s that he hasn’t changed at all.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

He enters the church as soon as the last parishioner leaves the path up to the door. The space welcomes him with cool air and cavernous silence, though he imagines lingering traces of the service to be echoing around the arches high above. The organist is somewhere in the depths, collecting music and shutting the grill over the keyboard. There's a smell of incense, but in his agitation he can't tell if it's old or new. Is it High Mass on Mondays? He doubts it. 

He slides into a pew, and then to his knees. The morning's exam disappeared as soon as he left the hall, and he should be at work, but the sickness of yesterday led to a sleepless night and it's only worse now. He has to try and clear his head, and this is the only place he can come. He can't contemplate being in his own apartment right now, and the thought that he might have poisoned his own home only makes him more sick. He has to put this right. 

A door bangs somewhere, and he knows he's alone. He prays, or tries to, because how can he beg forgiveness when he knew he was wrong before yesterday even happened, and yet allowed it to go ahead? He needs to tell Javert he's sorry first, but when he tried to text this morning he couldn't bring himself to do it. He tried to call, but speaking was impossible. He keeps seeing him, first loose and undone on the floor of his apartment, and then in his kitchen, half-naked, suspicion creeping back over his face. His heart plummets every time. Most of him just wants to explain and apologise, but there's a small part that hopes Javert still hasn't made the connection. Only because it'll be easier to come clean if the guy isn't waiting for him to say it. There's no way he won't tell him - if their paths cross. What if he never sees him again? Should he just leave it? 

He hears another door opening, and this one is familiar. Valjean pushes himself off his knees, and waits in the pew, head bowed. The vestry closes, and a minute later he forces his head up to meet the gaze of Father Charles. He watches the smile fade off the old man's face, to be replaced by sorrow. 'Ah, Jean,' he says, in resigned sympathy. 'C’mon. We'll have tea.' 

 

*

 

The rectory was once much larger, but local legend has it that Father Charles took one look at the place when he arrived, declared it stupid to waste so much space on an old duffer like him, and promptly gave most of the rooms over to the orphanage next door. He kept only four for himself, and though they were once all large, they've shrunk as his bookshelves expanded. The place is cozy, smells of paper and dust, and every time Valjean comes here he feels closeted in such warmth, he gets tempted to shut himself away forever. What if he walled himself up with books, and never ventured out? He has the money to do it. But it would be the act of a coward. Father Charles is hardly ever here in his sanctuary; he conducts services, of course, and visits the hospitals and the elderly, the sick, the dying, the local kids; women's shelters, homeless shelters, charity fundraisers, schools, the prison...the man must be nearing eighty, and he has more energy than most guys half his age. Grey, twinkling, smiling, with an Irish accent that hasn’t weakened after years in America, Father Charles is the only reason Valjean is still alive. He has no doubt of that. They work together a lot now, as Valjean organises three large charity drives a year through his factory, but that's not why he's so important. He was the one who set Valjean right when he came out of prison; without him, he'd either be back in there, or would have killed himself. It's a simple truth, one Valjean has no need to examine any further than that. 

He sits in his living room now, listening to tea being made, and biscuits neither will eat being put on a plate. If he can’t honestly say he feels better, at least he doesn’t feel so adrift. Father Charles is a rock he anchored himself to years ago, and being in his house is the difference between feeling the man holding the other end of a chain, and clinging to the stone in stormy weather. 

The priest emerges from his kitchen carrying a tea tray. With this wrinkled black trousers and shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he could be any kind of man. Valjean attempts a smile, but looks at his hands when he fails. Father Charles sets the tray down, pours tea in silence, and pushes a cup over. Only then does he sit back, and fold his hands in his lap. ‘Tell me.’ 

Once again, words stick in his throat. For a start, he’s never talked about sexuality with anyone, let alone a priest. But mostly it’s shame that keeps him dumb. After a moment’s struggle, he puts his face in his hands. He can’t cry – hasn’t been able since he was a kid – but it doesn’t stop him wanting to, just like yesterday. He hears Father Charles shift to sit by him on the sofa, and feels his hand on his shoulder. ‘It won’t be as bad as you think, Jean. Start with the easiest bit, and we’ll go from there.’ 

What’s the easiest bit? He tries to unlock the pressure strangling his larynx. His throat hurts, both from tiredness and tension. ‘I met someone,’ he forces out eventually, his voice garbled and high.

And he can feel the man’s surprise in the way his grip stills, and in the lack of immediate response.

‘All right. But that’s good, isn’t it?’ Indeed, he does sound delighted. ‘It’s wonderful, in your case.’ 

Valjean shakes his head hard, and wipes a hand across his eyes even though they’re dry as bone. He can’t look at Father Charles; he can feel his smile, and that’s bad enough. ‘It’s a guy.’ 

‘…OK?’ Delight is sinking under puzzlement. ‘And that’s a problem because…oh, I see.’ Valjean doesn’t look at him. ‘Sorry, is this my cue to remind you what the Catholic church says about that, and read you the riot act about what you’re doing to your soul, et cetera?’

He does glance over now. Father Charles is grinning, and shrugs. ‘Sorry, no can do. Good for you, son. Is that what’s worrying you?’

Valjean pauses, then shakes his head again. There’s a lot that worries him about being attracted to men – mainly that he’s never tested if it’s genuine, or is just what he was forced to get used to – but none of that is relevant to this. He knows he’s attracted to Javert; he can’t explain why, which is actually enough to tell him it’s real. And he’s had the physical proof already. ‘I think I…’ He feels sickness rising, and shuts his eyes to will it away. Father Charles’ hand stays firm on his shoulder, and he mentally clings to the heat and presence of it. As long as it doesn’t go away, he can get through this. ‘I think I did to him what was done to me.’ 

Father Charles is still again. His rooms are always so quiet, and in this moment, Valjean can just about hear the dust floating in the light pouring through the window. He counts silently, his eyes running up and down the spines of books stacked on the floor; theology, science, Tom Sawyer, the Bible in Latin. Stephen Hawking next to the Dali Lama. He reaches ten, and the grip on his shoulder tightens. ‘I don’t believe you,’ Father Charles says, his voice gentle as a brick wrapped in velvet. ‘You would never do that.’ Valjean looks at him. Father Charles looks back, steadfast. ‘C’mon. Tell me.’ 

He tells him. He explains seeing Javert in Freshman year, and working with him, and knowing where he’d seen him before. He tells him the guy’s weird views on charity and poor people, and his almost OCD need to be perfect. And then the kiss, and his own reaction; then running into him again three months ago – is that all it’s been? – and everything that’s happened since. Father Charles listens in silence, frowning but not moving away. Valjean falters when he gets to the day before, and is glad when the priest waves a hand. ‘I don’t need the intimate details. I’ll just ask one thing, if that’s all right with you?’ 

‘Yeah.’ 

‘Did you have sex with him?’

‘No. Not…fully.’ His cheeks are red, and he doesn’t even try to meet his gaze. ‘I wanted to, for a minute.'

Father Charles sighs, and reaches for his teacup. It’s long gone cold but he drinks anyway, with the air of one not noticing. ‘But you didn’t. And that’s why you’re not – and never will be – one of the people you knew when you were young.’

Valjean had not expected to feel better for admitting all this out loud, so isn’t surprised that he  doesn’t. But he’s grateful to hear that, anyway. Father Charles sets his cup down. ‘You said his name’s Javert?’

Valjean nods, watching the man’s face. After a moment’s thought, it’s clear he’s placed the name. But he doesn’t offer any details, and Valjean would never ask – he’s not sure why he didn’t remember that the priest must surely know Javert’s father too, as they all have the prison in common, but it doesn’t matter. Some things are sacred, and what any man tells a priest is one of them. If Father Charles knew Javert as a boy as well, or his mother, Valjean will not press for details.

The man sighs again, and is thoughtful for a full two minutes. Valjean drains his own cold tea. At least his throat has loosened up a bit. There’s relief in being able to stop talking, and the room is very warm. Fatigue hits him like a fist in the gut, and it’s suddenly hard to keep his eyes from closing.

‘Did you come here for me to tell you how bad you are, Jean?’ Father Charles shakes his head. ‘You’re a young man, who’s been through more bad shit than most people would even know exists.  A guy showed interest in you, and you felt the same.’ He leans in, so their shoulders nudge. ‘Despite what the Vatican says about gay people, it’s not a crime against God to enjoy sex, you know. I recommend you enjoy it as much as you’re able to, lad. With him, though-‘ he sucks a breath in over his teeth, and lets it out slow, ‘I don’t think you need me to tell you what to do there. Maybe you came because you want to hear it, but you already know.’

‘I have to not see him again.’

‘…what? No.’ For the first time, Father Charles sounds genuinely shocked, and a little exasperated. ‘That’s the bloody worst thing to do – and if you want the truth, it’d be what a coward would do. And you’re not one of those.’

‘I didn’t mean just…not see him without talking to him first.’ Valjean rubs his palms together, and stares at the floor. The thought of that conversation leaves him cold with fear. ‘I know I have to do that.’

‘Exactly. Which is why you don’t need me to tell you. But I think you do need me to tell you not to throw yourself on your sword at the same time.’

Valjean looks at him. Father Charles is smiling again – always a good sight – but there’s concern in his eyes. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘I mean…give him the chance to say yes, as well as to say no.’

Valjean stares. Then huffs an incredulous laugh, one devoid of any actual humour. ‘Father, he’s not going to want to see me again.’

‘There you go, just as I’m saying. Not giving him the choice of saying yes.’

‘Father-‘ He raises his voice a little, to combat the man’s shaking head. ‘Father, you haven’t seen him. He’s-‘ he breaks off, helpless. ‘I don’t know. He’s not like other people.’

‘So you don’t know what he’ll do.’

‘I know he’ll be angry.’

‘And I expect he has the right to be. But people can be angry, and still give others a chance. Particularly if they really like them. So promise me…promise me, Jean. If you like him as you seem to, then talk to him and listen to what he says, rather than to what you think he should think about you. OK? Promise me.’

Valjean’s sluggish brain takes a few moments to decipher this. He’s not sure he gets it right, but he’s always trusted Father Charles before. So he nods slowly, the heat of the day pulling at his eyes again. He sees the priest’s expression turn from keen understanding to his usual default benevolence. ‘Did you sleep last night?’ Valjean shakes his head, and gets a sigh in return. ‘Come on. You can nap here – no, no arguments, I’m not having you driving in this state. It’s a wonder you didn’t crash on the way over. I have to go out for a few hours, and I’ll wake you when I get back. We’ll have dinner. I need to talk to you about the summer collections for the Harvest festival anyway. OK?’

He’s too tired to refuse this generosity. Not that he, or anyone else, ever manages to withstand the force of it. Father Charles is like that, a pure whirlwind of kindness and grace. Valjean isn’t sure what he’s ever done to deserve the patronage of such a man, but he’s helpless to turn from it. How could he? To do so would be a gross betrayal of everything offered. He tried to refuse it once, and thanks God every day his soul was whole enough to keep him from walking away.

He walks now, but only in the wake of the man leading him to his guest room. It’s a tiny box of a place, but the bed is comfortable and clean, and the open window lets in the smell of cut grass from the garden. He sits down, and looks up; for some reason, he never fears when Father Charles stands over him. The man smiles now, and nods at the pillow. Valjean lies back, and feels tiredness weigh him down at once, sinking his limbs into the bed’s soft embrace. His eyes drag shut, but he hears the words murmured down to him. ‘God loves you, Jean.’ And he feels the hand that rests on his forehead too, a soothing touch of Heaven. ‘And you’ll always be my brother.’

 

*

 

He ate the dinner prepared for him, even though Father Charles made burgers with full-fat minced meat, and he wasn’t particularly hungry. It would have been rude to refuse, and he does feel better now he’s had some sleep and food. He lingers in his car, undecided. Go home? Go to the factory to catch up on today’s missed work? Or go and try to resolve his problem? His fingernails tap a nervous rhythm on the steering wheel. Then he starts the engine, puts thought behind him, and drives in the direction of campus.

It’s dark when he arrives, though the temperature hasn’t let up. His skin is clammy from sleeping in the heat, and there’s no breeze to help him out. The air is thick and wet, and clings like damp cotton. It’s like breathing in a sauna. There’s a distant thump thump thump of heavy bass,  an unseen pulse that makes the world alive. He fantasises about a cool shower as he walks the pathway to Javert’s building, because it’s better than thinking about what might be waiting for him, and also stops him texting to make sure he’s there. He doesn’t want to lose his nerve, or be given an excuse to leave. Walking away isn’t an option because this is something that has to be faced, as so many things have had to be before. If he runs from it he’ll feel this bad forever, and he doesn’t need more reasons to feel bad. He has to come clean, be honest, and accept the consequences.

He reaches Javert’s building, and finds he won’t have to wait for someone to open the door so he can get in. The bass is explained; the whole place seems to be rocking on its foundations. Music blares from open windows on each landing, there are people everywhere; on the fire escape, spilling out of the main doors, standing on the balconies of the expensive rooms with good views. A haze of cigarette smoke rises from the crowds around the doors, and the air buzzes with voices shouting above the music, laughter splitting the din, and the occasional break-out squeals and tussles of people chasing each other around. He can see a keg in one window two floors up, and there are red and blue plastic cups dangling from every hand, as well as all over the ground. The smell of weed mixes with normal tobacco, stronger in places as he makes his way through the mass of bodies. A joint is shoved in his face at one point, with a shout of, ‘it’s Valjean! Have some, man!’ and he’s forced to demur, and try to slip through faster. It’s not unusual for his face to be known, given his position on the Student Welfare Committee and his business presence in the city, but he doesn’t want to deal with any of that tonight.

The stairs are packed with people, and he balks at the idea of squeezing through. The lights on the stairwell don’t seem to be working, or else someone’s kept them off on purpose so kids can play in the dark, but he can’t bring himself to face the dangers of an unlit, enclosed space with lots of people in it. He slips into the corridors of the building instead, hoping an internal staircase will be less busy. But it’s almost as bad inside. Every door seems to be open, and kids are everywhere – laughing, smoking, sprawled on beds and in doorways. They sit in lines against the hallway walls, passing bottles along, mixing Jack and Coke in cheap red cups. There’s a keg dumped at the base of the internal stairs, and a long line waiting down the corridor to fill up from it. Hastily scrawled posters on the wall declare, ‘END OF EXAMS KEGGER TONITE!!!’ with details on how each floor could donate to make it a building-wide event. Valjean pushes past as many kids as he can without touching them, starting to sweat now; the swarming bodies and noise keep his nerves awake to every jolt and brush against him. He keeps going to the staircase at the back, hoping most people will want to use the fire escape for some semblance of fresh air. And it is a little quieter, but probably for different reasons. As he makes his way up in the darkness, he has to pick his way through kids making out in the corners, on the steps, one pair on the floor in front of the door. The girl snarls at him as he waits for her to move off her boyfriend’s lap to let him past, and the guy shoots him a baleful, ‘bro, why?’ look as he passes. Valjean’s losing the will do this the higher he climbs; he can’t imagine Javert at a party of any kind, let alone a kegger, and he’s probably doing anything he can to avoid it. He could be at work, or at the security office, or studying in the library. He’s pretty sure the guy still has more exams – he knows he does – so even if he wanted to party, he wouldn’t. Javert’s not that irresponsible.

He pulls open the door leading to the last set of stairs, and tries to block his ears to the heavy breathing of the couple wrestling with each other’s clothes against the wall. At the turn, two women pause to stare at him, hands under each other’s shirts, and in the fire extinguisher alcove halfway up, one guy is getting his belt yanked open by a particularly eager girl. The look on his face is half-desire, half that he can’t believe his luck, and Valjean can’t bear to see it. He’s not one for self-pity; he actively refuses to allow it of himself most of the time. But it’s hard not to feel it, surrounded by this. All these kids with no other thought in their head but having fun, and freedom from studying for the summer. They have alcohol, and cigarettes, boyfriends, girlfriends, casual hook-ups. They smoke weed, and laugh, and chase each other around; talk with friends, play music, kiss who they want. No, he’s not one for self-pity, but his heart is pounding with regret tonight. In another life, he could be one of them. If he was different, he’d be free. If he could let go and learn how to do this, maybe he’d be happy like them.

But he doesn’t have another life. He’s not different, and he’s not free. He doesn’t know how to learn this. The truth throbs like grief, winding through his ribs. He would give a lot to be them. He’d like to be that happy.

He almost doesn’t knock on Javert’s door. He didn’t bet on being surrounded by these kids and their terrible youth, and to think he might ruin someone else’s makes his hand heavy as lead. But he’s not a coward. Father Charles told him so – and this has to be done.

He knocks. He hears Javert’s voice say, ‘come in’. He pushes the door open before he can think any more about it.

Javert is clearly surprised at the sight of him. He blinks, frowns, and then…he’s not sure. The man’s face just shuts down. He falters in the doorway, his hand stuck on the handle. Javert’s wearing shorts and a loose polo top, his skin wet with the heat of the night. His hair flops down over his forehead; he puts Valjean in mind of a rangy dog exhausted after a long run, all sleek body and long limbs, trying to fold onto a bed too small for it. He’s filled out a bit since Freshman year, Valjean realises out of nowhere, and can’t understand why he didn’t notice that when he was underneath him, or half-naked in his kitchen. He’s not a skinny kid any more. Seeing him in a teenager’s dorm room throws into sharp relief how much he doesn’t belong in it.

‘It’s you,’ he says, and Valjean nods.

‘Yeah.’

Javert has a small stack of papers in his lap. His fingers twitch at the side of it. Valjean licks his dry bottom lip. ‘We need to have a conversation.’

He struggles with the urge to break eye contact when Javert surveys him with that killer stare. ‘Oh?’ is all he says, and Valjean swallows, but attempts to make sure his own face is neutral in return. He shuts the door behind him; the room is immediately claustrophobic, but at least the music is reduced to throbbing through the walls and floor rather than blasting right against his ear drums. He puts his hands behind his back, and keeps straight.

‘I want to apologise for yesterday.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I acted strangely, I think. You must have wondered why I was…different. After. And maybe during, I don’t know.’

He doesn’t know where to start, and he can’t tell what Javert’s thinking at all. But the way he’s acting is also different to how he’s been, so he did notice something was wrong. Yesterday, Javert was direct and friendly, not afraid to come to him. Tonight, he isn’t any of that, and Valjean can feel his nerves mounting as a physical pressure inside him. He tries to breathe deeply without making it obvious, but Javert’s eyes don’t shift from him for a second, and it’s like being X-Rayed by a nuclear explosion.

Eventually, Javert looks down to the paper in his lap. He flips a few sheets over, but doesn’t seem to be reading. Valjean’s eyes dart around the room. It’s much as he remembers. All dorm rooms are pretty small, but Javert’s kept his as spacious as possible simply because there’s not much in it. The desk in front of the door holds the same ancient laptop, and there are textbooks up on the two shelves provided, as well as a small stack on the desk itself. Pens and pencils in a pot next to a new notebook. A revision calendar on the wall, colour-coded to exam dates and subject. There’s a cycle helmet on top of the wardrobe, and two hi-vis vests on a hanger perched on the edge. One for biking, one for security work. And there’s a sheet of paper tacked to the cupboard door – a form, half filled in, with Post-it notes around the edge saying things like, Thurs 19th: confirm application reference with Professor Henry, FINAL; and request September physical. The large words in bold at the top tell him that it’s an application to join the police force.

He swivels his head around to look at him again. Javert, a cop? Well…

…he wishes he could say it didn’t make sense. But it does, given the views he’s expressed before. This must be why he’s been volunteering with campus security. They’ll give him a reference, and it shows the sort of work he’s willing to do. And the police is...well, it’s a respectable profession, no matter his own experience with individual law enforcers. But, Javert? That has to be dangerous. He could find almost any other job that might temper the unkindness of his views; the police will only encourage it, surely, and what’ll become of him then? Valjean’s mind reels with this new possibility, to the degree that the reason he’s here is pushed from his mind. It only comes back when Javert, apparently oblivious to this sudden turmoil, looks up. There’s a sheet of paper in his hand, which he holds at the corner as though it’s covered with something distasteful.

‘Your mugshot doesn’t do you justice.’

Valjean’s stomach drops through a chasm at his feet. The beat of the music disappears to nothing, and white noise fills his ears. His own eighteen-year-old face glares at him accusingly, a poor black-and-white photocopy on stark white background; he stares back, punched into feelings he wasn’t ready for, and sickened by the face held up to him.

Next to this unexpected mirror, Javert’s face, not much older and just as devoid of feeling. Valjean tries to open his mouth, but can’t. Javert’s cold, damning, eyes stab him clean through, and he puts the paper down on the stack without moving them away. They simply look at each other. Valjean has the unpleasant sensation of falling, though he doesn’t move an inch.

Eventually, Javert pulls another piece of paper free. This one, he reads. His tone borders on conversational when he says, ‘I’ve emailed the local newspaper and told them what you are. Your employees have a right to know who they’re working for. Also the people on the committee you preside over here, who’s email addresses I know. No doubt they’ll spread it to the others.’ He offers the paper out. ‘You can read it if you like. You have that right.’

Valjean takes it dumbly, not feeling it between his fingers. I’ve emailed the local newspaper.

The music booms back through the walls. It vibrates up his legs as the room slams back into full, colour-soaked reality. Javert just sits, calm as a glacier lake. Valjean stares, too choked with dawning horror to think. ‘Javert-‘

Javert shakes his head. ‘Save it.’

‘But-‘

‘Not interested.’

Valjean looks at the floor. He wets his lips again, and tries to read what Javert wrote about him but the words blur at once. Enough that they’re out there, he doesn’t need them in his head as well. ‘But why?’ he hears himself say, and balks at the note of betrayal he hears, as clear as if the voice belonged to someone else. Javert laughs in response, a cold, rough sound he’s never heard before.

‘That you have to ask says a lot.’

‘No, I…’ Oh God. Breathe. It’s just a business, it’s only money. Money for other people though, not himself. Money, and jobs. And he can’t lie…it makes him respectable. It allows him the façade of normality. Oh God. ‘I understand why you’re angry. But that’s between us. Why-‘

Maybe Javert’s right though. If he treats everyone the way he treated him, they probably do have a right to know, so they can choose to work for him or not. But telling himself this doesn’t help the feeling that it’s an unfair thing to do. But he hasn’t been fair, either. So it’s just, isn’t it? Fitting revenge.

Javert’s icy demeanour has melted to contempt. He looks at the curl of his lip, and just wants to explain, because if he understands then maybe he won’t be so angry. Valjean sets the paper down, and tries to find the right words. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says.

Javert’s fingers twitch so hard they crumple the edges of his paper. ‘Stop it,’ he says, but it’s not calm now; it comes out with venom, and Valjean absorbs it as best he can though it burns the ends of his fraying nerves. It’s like a physical attack.

‘No. I am sorry. I didn’t intend any of it.’

‘So it’s my fault?’

‘No, I didn’t say that.’ He doesn’t know what he’s trying to say. ‘I didn’t…I was going to say I didn’t know how you’d react, but I suppose I did or I would have told you. Yes, I know-‘ he holds his hands up to stave off a comment, and Javert’s eyes harden further, which shouldn’t be possible but happens anyway. ‘-I know, OK? You said yourself I never made a move. How could I? But I just…’ shit, this is lame even to his own ears. ‘I didn’t know how to resist.’

Javert opens his mouth, but seems stuck for words. One of his hands is balling to a fist though, and red fury is creeping up his neck. ‘You didn’t know how…oh, of course you didn’t! Why would you be able to? It’s all here, isn’t it?’ He holds up the paper in his fist, making it bend as his fingers clutch. ‘No impulse control. Lashes out. Uncontrollable temper, bursts of violence. Part of a gang.’

His voice breaks in anger on the last word. Valjean is helpless. Maybe not anger. Maybe it’s hurt. He knows he’s thinking of yesterday, Javert’s fingers so gentle on his ribs. I thought these were gunshot wounds… ‘No, you don’t understand.’

‘Don’t I!?’ Javert gets to his feet. He’s always been taller, of course, but Valjean’s never felt like he’s towered over him before. His throat goes dry at once. This room is too small, and the walls are thumping and the air is too hot. A chill prickles at his neck. He can’t make his legs step back. ‘Don’t I, Valjean?’

His father. Shit. Valjean tries again to clear his head. ‘OK sorry, I didn’t think. Maybe you do. But,’ he casts around desperately. Javert’s leaning in in his anger, and though he’s completely controlled, the waves of his fury radiate out and slam against Valjean’s weakening defences. ‘-if you know what it’s like in there, can’t you understand? I only joined a gang because if you were on your own-‘

The words dry up in the blaze of Javert’s eyes, and Valjean closes his to try and get away from them. No, he’s not going to go into the details, not here and not like this. He would think it’s self-explanatory, anyway. Javert’s seen the scars. ‘Please step back,’ he says quietly. He can’t believe how calm it sounds. Invisible claws are digging into his skull behind his ears, and it feels like he’s breathing through gravel. There’s a weight building in his chest. He’d give a lot for the music to stop.

Javert does not step back. There’s nowhere for him to step back to. He does straighten up, so a few more inches of sticky air open between them. It’s not enough, but it’s something. ‘You had no right not to tell me,’ he says. For all his voice is calm, there’s levels of betrayal under those tones that go so deep, Valjean knows he doesn’t understand half of this guy’s problem. ‘I told you I knew I’d seen you before. You could have told me two years ago.’

‘I know. I could have.’ He tries to move back, to get some distance. His shoulder blades touch the door, and the dimensions of the room are a sudden, physical, thing; a box drawn out from the point his body touches. His throat tightens. When did Javert get so tall? ‘But I didn’t know you were going to kiss me. And then I didn’t see you. Was I supposed to come find you, just to tell you that? I didn’t know we’d meet again.’

‘I was in your house. For months. I thought we were-‘

Javert slams his lips shut, a thin line against the word friends that Valjean can see hanging in the air between them. For an awful second, he thinks he might laugh. What does Javert think friends are?  Just people you spend time with because you have to? But he doesn’t laugh, because none of this is funny. He feels pity instead, and hates it, and can’t breathe. The sweat at his hairline is colder than it should be.

‘We are friends. Now. Can’t you see this has been difficult since day one? I’ve tried because I like having you around, but-‘

The sentence withers in the contempt of Javert’s expression. ‘You’ve tried, but you’re a thief, Valjean. Did you think I would keep hanging out with you if you told me the truth? You can’t have, because then you would have, you said it yourself. You kept your mouth shut, which says everything I need to know about you.’

How can he deny any of this? It’s exactly the argument he’s been having with himself for months. He looks down, then snaps his head back up when Javert is suddenly a lot closer. He’s leaned in again, and Valjean finds his own head back against the door and fear crawling up his skin once more. ‘Javert-‘

‘What did you come here for?’

‘To tell you.’

‘Liar.’

‘I’m not lying.’ He shakes his head, mouth dry. ‘I’m not. And I’m sorry. I like you, and I wanted-‘ Javert looking at him like he’s scum is worse than he thought it would be. He can take it from other people. Maybe it’s only worse because this time, it’s so true. ‘I know I shouldn’t have let you.’

Javert’s hands are trembling. No, not his hands, all of him. He steps closer, and Valjean is forced to register the fury making every part of him shake. He tries to press himself back, but he’s starting to see other rooms now, other people, and the hair on his neck is sticking up and goose bumps are breaking out all over. ‘I sucked your cock,’ Javert hisses, the words almost lost to the bass shuddering the room. ‘And you showed me how.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Shut up. Shut up.’ Javert’s hands press to the door either side of him, and he ignores Valjean’s convulsive attempt to writhe away. ‘So I know what you want. That’s why you’re here. Because I asked you to fuck me, didn’t I? You just show up the day after, no warning, and expect me to believe it’s because you wanted to tell me the truth? Bullshit.’

‘Javert, stop it-‘

‘No!’ He slams his palm against the wood, and Valjean’s skin tries to leap back through the door. Javert’s breath is on his face, and all of a sudden his cheek twitches, and Valjean feels a large hand grip his damaged side. He loses his breath at once, chokes in shock, and goes very still. ‘So, why not? I found the truth on my own. It’s in the open now, so come on Valjean, aren’t you going to take what you came for?’ His fingertips dig into the living skin at the back of his ribs; the heel of his hand must be grinding the scar, but he can’t feel it. He can feel the sweat freezing on his face though, and the panic chewing his gut to water. ‘That’s what you do. All of you. You don’t give a damn about anyone, and you don’t tell the truth, and you don’t care who you damage. So, come on. I’m not asking you to care. Take what you want.’

There’s a hand on his stomach…when did he put it under his shirt? Fingers grip the waist of his shorts, twisting hair painfully in their grasp. He gasps, sick and helpless, and Javert hits the door again. All he can say is, ‘I changed. I’m not that. Let go.’

But he doesn’t know if he can be heard over the music, and the shrieks of laughter he can hear just inches away on the other side of the door. It sounds like a lot of people moving, and there’s a cheer from somewhere far away; he can imagine he’s out there if he tries, taking that joint he was offered and maybe getting a beer, out there where there’s air, and no one’s touching him and there’s no breath on his neck…

There’s no breath on his neck. No hands on him. His own arms are up, in a parody of protecting his head from blows that never come. Javert is still only a foot away, but his hands are at his sides.

‘You are that, Valjean. See? I won’t do it because I’m not you. I can control myself.’

The worst of it is, he’s right. Even if he were capable of speaking, he wouldn’t be able to refute that. But this isn’t what he wanted; he wanted to be able to explain, and make it clear that he only let it go on because he was attracted, and because he was lonely. It wasn’t to punish, or to laugh at him, or to take advantage. It was only because he liked him, but in this circumstance, it’s obviously not allowed. He knew that, and he did it anyway. Javert’s right.

‘If you’re going to throw up, bathroom’s two doors down,’ Javert says dismissively, and goes back to his seat on the bed.

The space between them helps. He might throw up, but not just yet, he thinks. He puts his hands on his knees, and focuses on breathing. He can feel Javert’s hands on him, and reminds himself that he didn’t really hurt. There’s no reason to be scared, because the man was just making a point. Javert’s not lying, he obviously has self-control, so it’s fine. It’s still safe.

‘You didn’t need to do that,’ he says, wiping a cold forearm over his mouth. The heat of the day, this room, all seems a long distance off. It’s freezing inside his skin.

‘Didn’t I?’ Javert smooths his papers out, and flips a sheet over. ‘Go away.’

‘I came to say sorry, that’s all. I came to tell you the truth. I couldn’t touch you without you knowing.’

‘You touched me yesterday.’ Javert’s voice is flat, smooth as polished stone. Everything seems to slide off it. ‘You’ve touched me plenty.’

‘Not the way you wanted. Or I wanted. I just-‘

‘Stop trying to justify it. You should have told the truth, and accepted that I wouldn’t come near you again. There’s nothing more to say. Do you think I’d choose to spend my days around criminals? You saw my father. You know I wouldn’t.’

‘You’re giving me credit for noticing too much.’ He straightens up, legs weak under him. But he doesn’t want to lean on the door for support. ‘I was busy looking after myself back then. Anyway, aren’t you going to do just that?’

He points at the application form on the door. Javert glances at it, then curls his lip. ‘That’s different. That’s giving them what they deserve.’

He almost laughs. ‘They deserve you? Pinning them to doors, feeling them up? Trying to force a panic attack?’ He shakes his head, which seems to be clearing. ‘That’s revenge, not justice. Fine, I’ll take it. I deserve worse, probably.’ He remembers that Javert’s already done worse, and is hopeless all over again. But there’s no retrieving this situation, and they’re not going to do each other any good by him staying. He turns, and puts his hand on the doorknob. ‘I really did just come to tell the truth. I’ve enjoyed your company, even when you’ve been a total asshole. Yeah, I’m an ex-con, and I’ve done some really bad things. I don’t deny it. I’ve tried to change, and obviously failed. I’m sorry.’

‘Stop. Apologising.’ Javert grinds it out through gritted teeth. ‘I’m not interested in your fake sorrow, and saying you’ve tried to change just shows how much you haven’t. Just leave me alone. I don’t want anything to do with you, Valjean.’

Javert is too big for this room. He looks like a man stuffed into a boy’s life. But his tone, his words, are to Valjean’s ears, pure youth. Just leave me alone. He’s a petulant brat, pouting away his own bad behaviour, justifying it as due punishment.

And if he could leave that thought there, he could walk away from this and write it off, perhaps. But his brain is helpful, and so is the voice of Father Charles, offering him the wisdom of his own past. Because didn’t he used to say similar things? It’s the most basic form of defence, the one guaranteed to test if the person will walk away at the first hurdle. So he hesitates, hand tight on the door. He doesn’t want to stay. He’s inclined to run as far as he can. He’s definitely got a lot of other shit flying his way from Javert’s helpful sharing of information with the press. But still. He treated him terribly, and it would be wrong to just leave him behind to deal with it.

‘I’m going to call you tomorrow.’

‘Don’t.’

‘I’m going to. You need to understand.’

‘You’re just trying to make me think you were right. Forget it. And if you don’t leave, I’ll report you to campus security. Given what’s going public about you tomorrow, do you really want another black mark against your name?’

He doesn’t. And he’s exhausted, and scared, and doesn’t know what to think. Coming here was a disaster. He remembers Father Charles telling him to give Javert a chance to say yes. That conversation was only hours ago, and it feels like years.

‘See you, Javert.’

‘No.’ The eyes skewer him for what he assumes will be the last time. Javert’s face is impassive, granite, impenetrable. ‘No, Valjean. You won’t.’

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The neighbourhood gets still after 4am. He sits in his chair, sick from hours on the weights, shaking and sweaty, dazed and unable to move. He was only waiting for the night to get quiet. He only wanted his brain to shut up. Now he’s paralyzed by the strain, and his eyes droop and his head hurts, and the water in his hand is too far from his mouth. And still, he can’t hear the silence. You are that, Valjean. Go away.

His phone weighs his pocket down. It’s tomorrow, technically. He meant it when he said he was going to text him. He has to…but he doesn’t want to. Touching what happened last night is too big for him. If he just sits here and doesn’t move, he won’t disturb the mountain of it; it won’t rain rocks down on his head.

Go away. Go away go away go away.

He’d been numb in the car. He’d only choked when he got home, and closed the door behind him, and found he couldn’t breathe. It’s been a long time since panic took him like that, and he doesn’t know if it’s because he can still feel Javert’s hand grabbing his side, or because the morning is a brick wall beyond which he can’t see. He should have phoned a lawyer. There’s probably some kind of injunction he can take out to get any potential story blocked. But he couldn’t, and can’t; he can only stand still and let justice hit him. It’s only fair. And he’ll take it, but it doesn’t stop him being scared.

Go away.

Working out was the only way to free himself for a time. But he’s done that now, and there’s still that voice in his head. Javert’s a jerk, but even jerks don’t deserve what he did to him. And he wasn’t a jerk all the time, but he will be now and that’s his fault. He’s reinforced every bad thought the guy ever had about people like him, and he can’t fix it because he won’t see him again. He can’t fix any of this.

He forces his arm to work, and picks up his phone. I meant it. I’m sorry. Can we talk about it?

God, he doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s four-thirty in the morning. He wants to sleep for the next ten years. He wants to sit in this chair, and never move. He wants everything to just stop, and let him be. But the world doesn’t care; it spins on toward morning, and Valjean spins with it, a speck of dust soon to disappear from the sunbeam.

His phone lights up. Text me again, I’ll file a police report for harassment. Delete my number. Javert.

He puts it down, hollow inside. The sky is grey in the early midsummer dawn. The morning’s newspapers will already be printed and bound in stacks; in vans, outside stores, in a warehouse somewhere. Maybe he’ll get lucky but maybe he won’t, and all he can do is wait.

Go away.

No. All he can do is wait.

 

*

 

His phone doesn’t ring a lot, because he doesn’t have any friends. Sometimes they need to reach him from the factory, but he has good managers that he pays well, and they’re capable of dealing with most things. They’re so good, he tells himself he doesn’t need to come into work today at all. But he says it while sitting in his car outside the place, his eyes turned up to his office windows. It’s then that the phone rings, and he answers before giving himself time to not.

‘Jean.’

‘Hello, Father.’

‘It didn’t go well, then?’

He closes his eyes. He doesn’t read newspapers, as a rule. But there was a targeted ad on the New York Times website; it’s almost funny, being asked to buy a subscription with your own face staring at you from the screen. ‘He’d already done it before I got there.’

‘So this is where you tell me you talked sense into him, and now he wishes he hadn’t done something so bloody stupid?’

Valjean laughs drily, but only in his head. ‘This is where I tell you he threatened me with the police if I ever contact him again.’

‘…oh.’

‘Yeah.’

The silence is broken by four or five people walking through the service entrance, heading for the shop floor. He wonders if they’re talking about him. The way one glances towards his car and then nudges another, says yes.

‘Jean, come ‘round tonight.’

‘I can’t, Father. I’ve got exams Thursday and Friday. I have to study.’ And sleep, he hopes. Exhaustion is burning his eyes from the back.

‘Then come around on Friday when you’re done. I mean it.’

He expects Father Charles knows how obvious it is, giving him an appointment he has to keep; it was a ploy used on him a lot eight years ago. He wants to tell him not to worry, that he’s not going to do anything stupid. But he doesn’t have the energy, and just nods, even though it can’t be seen. ‘All right. Thanks, Father.’

The silence that follows means the priest doesn’t want to leave him on his own with this, and he appreciates it. But Father Charles has a life, and his work, and Valjean’s a grown-up who made his own mess. He can’t clean it up, but he can live with it.

‘Have you actually read it, Jean?’

‘No.’

‘Read it. It might help.’

‘…maybe. Thanks for calling, Father. I have to go to work now.’

A chuckle from the other end, but all the priest says is, ‘of course, son. I’ll see you Friday.’

‘See you.’

He has to go in now he’s said that. But he lingers a moment more. It’s always struck him as odd, that he never realised what an impact getting arrested would have. He never gave it a thought when he was twelve, either before or after he stole that food. He was so ignorant. He wasn’t the only kid who got arrested, so maybe it just seemed normal. He can hardly remember. What sticks out most in his mind is how sullen he’d been, what an annoying little jerk he must have seemed. Not answering even simple questions, and sassing those few who made a passing effort to help him. No wonder he got the shit kicked out of him within two days of sentence being passed. It’s only when he got older that the realisation of what all this meant became clear; that even from the moment of arrest, there was a cloud hanging over him that wouldn’t easily go away. But people write off the mistakes of a child, don’t they? He’d been too stupid to realise that. He’d fought back too much, and got caught for it too much, and three years turned to four, and then seven, and then eight, and by the time he realised that he’d have to declare his crimes to the world forever, it was too late to try and make them right. He was exactly what his file said he was, and always will be.

He thinks sometimes, like now, that if he’d known – if time had paused when he stood in the courtroom the first time, and someone had put their hand on his shoulder and looked into his eyes, and said, ‘son, just apologise. Two little words. ‘I’m sorry’. They’ll go easier on you, and you won’t wear this day inside you forever’, then even he might have listened. Or would he? Would he have spat in that kindly eye? It’s just as possible, and makes the whole thought pointless.

But still. He likes to think he would have listened.

 

*

 

It’s a conscious decision to walk through the doors, and that helps. Knowing he is not going to run away, or hide; proving to himself that he is going to face what he’s done, gives him the resolve to keep his head up, and his back straight. He has done his time, and he has paid in blood. What other people think of him is not so important; it’s uncomfortable, and the worst part of this is how naked he feels when all eyes on the shop floor turn to him. But he can harden himself to it, because none of them know him really. No, his biggest concern is whether it will all be lost, and with it his ability to make amends through helping others. The foundation he wants to build feels as though it’s crumbling to sand, making ready to slide through his fingers.

Someone clears their throat. He realises he’s been standing still in the doorway, preoccupied while everyone stares at him. He does a slow sweep with his eyes; most faces show nothing, or are dubious, waiting for him to react. One or two look angry, one or two nod at him, and there’s a single smile, which he can’t respond to but is grateful for all the same.

‘Mr. Valjean.’

Mrs Victor, his line manager, bustles forward. Her air of neutral efficiency is exaggerated to the extreme; she all but pumps his hand. He appreciates the effort, but she might as well scream no one talk about it. ‘I have last week’s delivery notes, and next week’s orders-‘

He holds a hand up. ‘Just a moment, please.’

One angry face has a newspaper rolled up at his station. He walks over quietly, and smiles at the man. ‘May I borrow that, please?’ The guy looks mutinous. Valjean waits, then adds, ‘I promise I won’t steal it.’

There are clearly things the man would like to say. But he nods instead of saying them, and Valjean murmurs, ‘thank you,’ and takes the newspaper. The rest of the floor seems to let out a collective breath, and mutters break out as he mounts the stairs to his office, Mrs Victor in tow. She starts talking as he sits, but he only half-listens. The unrolled paper has his face on the front page – a large photograph from when he presented a cheque to the kid’s wing of the hospital right next to a slightly smaller one – his mugshot again, eighteen years old and angry.

He wonders if Javert emailed the picture, or let them find it on their own. He bet he emailed. He would want to support his findings, give evidence, exonerate himself by being perfectly truthful. Valjean stares at his face until it’s all there is in the world, and then breaks off to push it away. Mrs Victor is quiet, nervous. He tries to smile, but grimaces instead. ‘Sorry, what were you saying?’

‘It doesn’t matter.’ Her tone is unusually calm. ‘Are you all right, Jean?’

He’s only ever ‘Jean’ outside of work, if she’s volunteered her help for charity work outside of shift hours, or at the Christmas dinner he lays on. He can’t decide if this is kindness, or a remark on his status in her eyes. ‘I’m fine,’ he says, automatically. And then, at her expression, tilts his head to one side, then the other. ‘I’ve had better days. Have there been calls about it?’

‘Yes.’

‘A lot?’

‘…yes.’

He looks at his hands briefly, then forces his face up, and smiles. ‘I’ll get the messages, and make some calls.’

She nods, and he wonders whether he should give her the option to voice her opinion. He does trust her judgement – he has to, because his managers run this place. But he doesn’t know if asking for censure is the best way forward. Does he ask for trouble? Or just sit quietly, and wait for it to come to him?

‘…Mrs Victor. Please let it be known that if any of the staff want to leave, they’ll be given a full severance package, as per their contracts. No questions asked. I’m not going to bind people to paper they signed before this was known. That goes for you too, and for anyone else at management level. I’ll send an email out, so every shift knows to pass it on. And as far as it’s in your – or my – power to influence, I want no repercussions on the people who decide to go. All right?’

Her face is red. He can’t tell if she’s upset, or angry, or embarrassed; he’s never seen her like this before. After a moment of just looking at him, she sets her clipboard down on the desk. ‘Mr Valjean. I’m a little insulted.’

‘Oh?’

‘And I can’t promise everyone will be, but at least some would if they heard you say that. You pay more than any other factory in the area, and you take care of people who work for you. If anyone wants to walk away because of some newspaper article, then they should be shamed.’

She’s so full of anger on his behalf, she might fly through the air like a released balloon if given a push. ‘But,’ he says, making sure his tone is reasonable, ‘we don’t know the reasons for such decisions, if they come at all. I mean it. Let them be.’

A pause, then, and he has insulted her now. ‘I appreciate the sentiment, of course,’ he says, and watches her shoulders relax a little. ‘If everyone thinks like you, I’ll have no problem.’

 

Alone, holding a small stack of yellow message slips, he wonders how much hope there is of support like hers being widespread. His stomach dips every time he glances at the newspaper. Morning break is coming up, and he has to return it. It takes a little while longer, but eventually he pulls it over to him.

 

 

A FOUNDATION OF LIES?

LOCAL BUSINESSMAN CRIMINAL YOUTH EXPOSED

 

 

EXCLUSIVE: The Times reveals that prominent local businessman, Jean Valjean (27),

of Digne Manufacturing Inc., has been hiding a criminal past.

Mr Valjean is one of the city’s largest employers, and is well known for philanthropic endeavours.

However, it has come to light that…

 

 

He scans on, not needing the reminder of his crimes and not wanting his dread to spread any further. He sees enough to realise the reporters must have done some digging on their own. Unless Javert had more detailed information than he showed him yesterday. The article moves on to donations and public image, which he drifts over, but he slows at information he didn’t realise was public knowledge.

 

 

His refusal to run for city council last year, despite public favor and endorsements from

well-placed business owners, becomes clear in light of these revelations. One recognised

council member, who wishes to remain anonymous, commented this morning that, “it

shows Valjean has sense. The city needs leaders of integrity.” His comment met with

furious rebuttal through this newspaper this morning, with many others claiming Mr

Valjean’s integrity cannot be questioned in light of his work for the community.

MORE: pgs 2, 4, 5 and 7. OP-ed, pg. 3.

 

 

 

It must be a slow news day, he thinks. The newspaper – Javert – isn’t actually accusing him of anything. They’re just exposing him.

He turns to the op-ed piece, which is written by someone he’s never heard of.

 

 

Few can argue with the efforts of Jean Valjean, CEO of Digne Manufacturing, and

something of a young philanthropist. At twenty-seven years old, Valjean has

shown remarkable community spirit since his arrival in the city. The public outcry

over his hidden past – sure to grow – can be left to the headline makers and public

hangmen, though of course any evidence of his business being built from illegality

should be thoroughly investigated. But there is a larger question to be asked. That is,

shouldn’t someone argue for the man’s right to be allowed a life? At this – admittedly

early – stage of the story, there seems a marked lack of voices speaking up with faith

in the American system of rehabilitation. Isn’t it what we say prison is there to do? A

cursory glance at Mr Valjean’s background provides unassailable truth:

he was incarcerated for almost eight years, from the age of twelve until release at twenty.

His records – supplied by an outside source, but since verified - do not make easy reading.

But if anyone were asked yesterday for their opinion of Mr Valjean,

I venture we would be hard-pressed to find a dissenting voice among the many singing his praises.

Are we to think it’s all an elaborate disguise? Perhaps it is simply less interesting – that a

youth received education within this country’s prison system, was parolled, and used

that education for good. Only the man himself can know for sure – and Mr Valjean has been unavailable for comment so far –

but this tax-paying citizen, for one, intends to forgo judgement in this case, at least until evidence of

further wrongdoing is uncovered. I invite others to do the same. Because if you live in the Latin Quarter,

you’ll know – if you’ve found yourself in need of a job, Digne Manufacturing has been the place to go.

The company has a frankly remarkable hiring rate, and is famed for its benefits and internal education packages.

Have your teenagers needed a summer job? My son has, and he earned more in Mr Valjean’s warehouses

last year than he would have anywhere else in the city. If your child has been in hospital, consider the equipment

bought with donations organised by Digne Manufacturing’s well-known fundraising efforts.

For a business owned solely by Mr Valjean – there is no board to take credit for the company’s direction, and ethics –

surely then, credit must go to Valjean himself?

No one should be naïve enough to suppose he will be spared trial by public scrutiny after

this breaking news. But this writer hopes his voice will not be the only one calling for a

measured approach rather than a lynch mob; a considered weighing of past crimes versus

present actions. We live in the twenty-first century, and must surely hope that a potential

success story like this could be the norm, rather than an exception.


 

 

Valjean sets the paper down. He’s been holding his breath, and lets it out now. After a pause, he thumbs through the stack of messages. At least half are from the press in some form or other.

He hadn’t considered their interest. He had expected all the notes to be from angry customers, cancelling orders. Or employees resigning, or simply ordinary people phoning to voice their disgust. With the requests for comments and interviews filed safely in the trash, the pile is much smaller.

He sits back in his chair. He’s not sure what to feel. Maybe he’s just too tired to feel anything. But today has not been – so far – the outright condemnation he was expecting, so that’s something. He can’t tell if this article is asking people to put their faith in prison education, or to simply trust that he is proving a good example of how bad youths can be reformed. He is certainly not going to endorse the former, and as for reformation…Javert’s fury burns his face again, and he realises that no, he can’t claim that either. He fiddles with a pen on the desk, but no coherent thoughts form. There’s vague gratitude at this unknown person, publicly refusing to condemn him; after some thought, he makes a note of the name. Perhaps he’ll email him his thanks.

He’s a little concerned that if this piece is correct in its assumption, he can expect some kind of investigation into the way he managed to start the company at all – they’d be right in assuming no bank would touch him when he asked for loans – so he’ll have to deal with that. But if he gets that behind him…well, who knows? The only way to find out is to deal with people, and see.

He picks up the phone on his desk, and the first message slip. Then he puts them both down, closes the newspaper and stands up. He did promise he’d return it, and this is not the time to be breaking promises. Facing the trial by public scrutiny can wait a few minutes longer.

 

*

 

By the end of the day, he can barely see through the exhaustion. His head is ringing with every voice he has had to deal with. He wasn’t wrong about all of them. At least three big distributors have pulled their business, ‘pending further developments’, which tells him there are a fair number of people out there who think he built this place on stolen money. After the second such conversation, he called his accountant’s office, and requested they start preparing his books for the audit which seems inevitable. After the third, he called his lawyer. Apparently, without evidence of criminal activity the police will find it hard to justify investigating him. But if there’s enough grounds for suspicion, they might find a way. Valjean was not surprised to hear it, and thinking about it now, later, it strikes him as unfair all over again. Because he has no doubt they’ll show up in a few days. His experiences with the police have not been positive over the years, he’s not expecting them to change now. He told his lawyer to be ready for another call by the end of the week. If he’s learned anything, it’s that he’s not going to take the system on alone. But the thought of the inevitable interview, and possibly having to go to the precinct – where there will be press, he’s sure; there’s press now, waiting down by his car – the idea makes him sick. He thought he was done with all of that.

He swings an inch to the side and back in his chair, a rhythm to sooth the agitation threatening all over again. He can’t stop his own voice raising above the others in his head, clamouring to be heard. Are you happy now? it says. Snarls. Javert, are you? Is this what you wanted?

He lets it shout for a minute, maybe two. But then he tells it, enough. Because Javert had a right to his anger, and this is what he chose to do with it. A nasty revenge, but a just one. If the man has to live with what he did while the truth was concealed from him, the acts he performed - then he, Valjean, can live with his privacy being violated all over again. He’s lived through it before, he knows how to survive it. He’s well acquainted with the fear of discovery, and the terror of an unknown knock at the door. And worse, the times when there is no knock at all.

He shakes that thought away, and looks at the phone again. The lines have only just started to quieten down, now the day shift has finished. The machines clatter on below, and he can see the shift change is taking longer than usual because people are stopping to talk. Well, let them. They cannot be expected not to gossip. He ignores the faces he sees glancing upwards, and has avoided the windows for most of the day. His phone beeps reminders at him: Exam, Thursday, 9am. Exam, Friday, 9am. He removes the alerts, because he knows he has to study and knows he doesn’t have time, or the energy. He doesn’t put the phone down.

If there really is going to be an investigation, he needs advice. But there’s no way to ask for it without seeming to ask for something else too, something he would never request. He’s not about to put Father Charles in a position where he has to perjure himself. He stares at the man’s name in his contacts list, even though he knows the number by heart. His thumb hovers over it. And then he puts the phone on the desk, and stands up. No. He won’t call him. He can’t.

The voices of the reporters outside float up to him, and he looks down as the photographers raise their cameras. He thinks he manages to turn away in time, but isn’t sure. He hears his name being called, and drops the blinds on them. They can take all the pictures they want when he goes out to his car; Mrs Hooper already offered him a ride home, knowing he could leave through the yard and not be seen at all. She’s a gem for suggesting it, but he’s not going to hide. It’ll only make him look worse.

He sighs, and loads up with keys, phone, files, messages still to be returned. He’ll make more calls from home, where at least there’s security to keep people away. Maybe he’ll be able to work from the apartment tomorrow too, and perhaps hit the books for a while before Thursday. That’d be good. If Javert was aiming to ruin his education with this, he’s not going to let him. That’s something he doesn’t get to touch.

 

*

 

Friday

 

Father Charles welcomes him with his usual smile. And this time, with a hug as well. Valjean wishes he could say he doesn’t need it, but the way he melts into it would call him a liar. As ever, there’s no pretence around Father Charles; even if he could manage it, he wouldn’t out of respect for the man.

‘There, it’s been a tough one,’ the priest murmurs, close to his ear. ‘Come and eat, you’ll feel better.’

He feels better just being in this house, but all he does is nod and follow. Father Charles sits him down in the comfortable armchair in the living room – literally sits him down, hands on his shoulders – and bustles off to the kitchen. He returns a moment later with a cold beer in one hand, and his phone in the other.

‘Now, I know you’re going to say something to me about calories and exercise,’ he says, holding the bottle out to him. ‘But I’m ordering curry. Partly because you need something filling, and partly because you know you don’t want to eat my cooking. Do you like spicy, or mild?’

He’s at a loss, but takes the drink anyway. He rarely touches alcohol, but Father Charles does sometimes. And this is the safest place he knows. ‘Mild, please,’ he says, with a touch of amused resignation, and gets a nod for his lack of argument.

‘Korma it is. Naan bread and chapattis and everything. I tell you, I don’t miss much about years living in England, but a decent curry is one of them.’

Valjean’s never been to England, but he knows a bit about Father Charles’s antipathy from conversations held years before. They stick with him, because the man so rarely holds aversion to anything. But there seems to have been something about the guerrilla war between the IRA and the British that really got to him – unsurprising, given the basis in religion - and Valjean will never forget the time he spoke of going to visit a man who should have been an enemy, and finding him to be just a man. Just a dying man, as they all will be some day. He’s thought of it over the last few days, even. When he gets angry, it helps to remember that Javert will be one of them eventually. And so will he.

‘Did you bring me flowers, Jean?’

He’s pulled out of his reverie, and looks down at the package at his feet. ‘Oh…yeah, kind of.’ He has to smile at the cheeky grin spreading over Father Charles’s face. ‘Well, for the church. And there’s some chocolates for you, or your sister if you like.’ He hesitates only a moment, before adding, ‘they were left with my doorman.’

‘There, now! Didn’t I tell you there’d be people who’d stand up for you?’ Father Charles looks so happy at this news, Valjean doesn’t tell him that someone poured paint stripper on his car while he was in his exam this morning, and there’s been half a sack of hate mail delivered to his office. Scum like him shouldn’t be allowed to mingle with normal people, apparently. His factory is a mob front. He only employs a lot of people so he can launder more cash. It’s always been obvious there was something wrong with him. He employs teenagers because he wants to abuse them. He’s going back to prison where he belongs, et cetera.

‘There’s been a lot of kindness.’ There really has, and he’s grateful for all of it. ‘I told everyone at the factory, all the support staff, everyone, that they could leave with a full severance package if they liked. Only about ten people took it up, and three of those said it was only because they were having to leave anyway, and it was a better deal to go now with those terms than just do another few weeks.’ He shrugs, and drinks some beer. It’s crisp on his tongue. Father Charles looks disapproving.

‘You’re letting them take advantage of you. People will think you’re guilty.’

‘It’s only money. And they’ll think that anyway, if they’re inclined.’

The two of them share a look. ‘Aye, you’re right.’ Father Charles sighs, and holds out his hands for the flowers. ‘Here, I’ll put them in water and order the food.’

He disappears again, and Valjean just sits while he’s gone. He can hear the musical tones of his voice even through the wall; it’s comforting, and he lets himself drift. The relief at being done with exams is muted by the realisation that now he only has work to focus on, and that’s hardly a joy at the moment. The city newspaper has run stories on him every day this week, with a triumphant declaration this morning that the police are, apparently, going to look into the origins of his wealth. It left him wondering what exactly Javert found out, and passed on – perhaps he should have read that piece of paper after all, but it’s too late now. There’s been no contact from the precinct so far, and his lawyer seems confident he’ll be fine. It’s unsettling all the same. And more than that, just exhausting. He’ll do everything he has to do, he’ll address every issue and talk to every person. He’ll defend himself, should the need arise. But he feels detached from the whole process, as though observing his own actions from somewhere deep and silent inside his chest. Everything is muted. He’s been running miles every day on his treadmill, simply trying to feel connected with his body again; it’s been years since there was such distance between his mind and reality. He’s been urging himself to stay present, but it’s so much easier, so much safer, to just retreat.

‘…twenty, they said,’ he hears, and looks up to see Father Charles looking down at him. Valjean blinks, and builds the statement from back to front.

‘OK,’ he says. ‘No rush.’

Father Charles just watches him. Then he sighs, and sits, and opens his bottle of stout. He gets the real stuff sent from Ireland. Valjean tried it once, and nearly threw up. ‘Have you seen him?’

‘Seen…? Oh.’ He shakes his head. ‘No.’

‘Have you tried?’

‘I texted him Tuesday morning, like I said. He told me to delete the number, and he’d file a report if I tried again.’

‘You believe him?’

‘I do.’

Father Charles nods, and bites his bottom lip. ‘Yeah. OK. Well – do you want to get rid of the elephant in the room?’

Valjean’s insides clench, and he looks at the label on his beer, half-scratched off by his thumb. ‘I wasn’t going to ask.’

‘I know you weren’t. But you bloody should. It’s what anyone else would do.’

Valjean can’t respond to that.

‘So of course it’s not what you’d do, but really Jean, there are times when letting yourself get run over isn’t the best course. Not for you, or anyone.’

‘But it doesn’t just concern me.’

‘No, it concerns me. And I think we should clear it up before dinner gets here, so we can eat without getting indigestion. It won’t take long.’

Valjean is helpless in the face of this man. He wasn’t going to ask because he already knows what the answer will be, and doesn’t want to make the man say it. He doesn’t want him put in an awkward position on his behalf, and certainly not a criminal one.

‘Go on, son. Ask.’

He can hear the smile without looking up. He has to muster his strength, all his energy, to bring himself to speak; everything in his mind screams don’t, and even after he’s opened his mouth, the words don’t want to come. He has to close it and try again, push hard against the instinct to stay quiet.

‘…are you going to tell them I stole from you?’

‘No. Next question.’

‘Why?’

‘Stupid question. Move on.’

‘No. No, I can’t.’ He puts his bottle on the table, eyes lowered, and wipes his palms on his jeans. Then for want of anything to do with his hands, he picks it up again, and drinks, and picks furiously at the label with his thumb nail. ‘You can’t lie for me again, Father. They won’t believe you, and you’ll be arrested.’

‘They can’t prove it. They’ll have to take me at my word. And come on, Jean-‘ he hears the smile again, and does glance up this time, ‘I’m an old man, and I’m a priest. Are they going to call me a liar? They can’t decide you took my stuff when I say you didn’t. If they try and argue, I’ll point out that the money you used to set up the factory was a lot more than a TV and some jewellery. Or…OK no, I won’t say that, because it’ll look worse. I’ll tell them the truth. It was a gift, and it remains a gift, and I’ll hear no more about it.’

He never knows what to say when they get near this subject, which is why they never, ever talk of it. What would they say, anyway? It was all done with nearly eight years ago. And what are you going to buy when you sell it? He didn’t have a buyer. He just took because it was there. Sit down with me, brother. Tell me what you’d like to do… And he’d done nothing but snarl, and told him to call the cops…but he didn’t, and they talked in the end, and by the end of the day, he had enough money to start a business he’d barely voiced a desire for to himself, let alone anyone else. It was a dream he knew he couldn’t touch. Except when night fell that day, the reality of it was in his hand, a neat stack of brand-new hundreds that could have been used for anything. Drugs, women, liquor. A false passport and a plane ticket. Freedom in his hand, and he’d only had to steal to get it. It was so easy, he’d thought. This is what crime gets you.

And then he’d looked into the kindly, smiling eyes of Father Charles, and those thoughts just vanished. No one had ever trusted him before. Very few did for years after, until he earned it. But he did nothing to earn it with Father Charles; it was given to him, just as easily as the money was. Somehow, it made it harder to throw it away. It’s not fair, what I’ve done, the man had said. Fulfilling a dream is harder than running away from it. But it’s up to you. It’s your choice.

He knows he chose well. But it could still be taken away. Even if Father Charles lies for him, and says he didn’t steal anything, it won’t mean anything if they have proof to the contrary. He remembers his parole officer asking him about it at the time, because the police had filed a report. They’ll still have the record of it. There’s enough suspicion there – so maybe he should just admit it, and let them do what they want with him. There’s a kind of freedom in that thought.

‘Don’t.’

He looks up. Father Charles’s expression is unusually sharp.

‘You’ll serve no one by going back to jail. You’ll fail all the people you’ve given hope to.’

‘I haven’t-‘

‘You have. Do you know-,’ he breaks off and stands, needing to move as he speaks, alive with frustration, ‘-there are kids I see every day, when I go and visit their parents, or speak at the rehab clinic, or anywhere in this neighbourhood. When I ask them want they want, most say they want to be pop stars, or boxers. A lot just want to leave, and go to New York, or Boston. But some, some of them, the ones who want honest jobs – they say they want a job with you, Jean. Because you pay well. You send kids to college. You give training, and let people work their way up the chain. They get skills, they get some self-respect. These kids have seen their parents get better lives because you help them, and they want that for themselves. So don’t tell me you haven’t given anyone hope.’

His tone is harsher than Valjean’s ever heard it, and despite that, it’s still kind. He doesn’t know how to respond. He never knew there were people who felt like that. ‘But now,’ he says, feebly, and Father Charles cuts him off.

‘It’s no different. You think those kids care about working for someone who used to be in jail? Most of their parents are in jail. Brothers, sisters, cousins. It’s not taboo for them. They don’t care, Jean, they just want a chance to get something better. And you can give it to them. You just have to not give up on yourself.’

Valjean’s floundering. Father Charles passes the table between them, and puts a hand on his shoulder. ‘Just don’t give up on yourself,’ he repeats, quietly. ‘I’m not.’

He looks up, and meets his eyes. To refuse such trust, such belief…how could anyone with any semblance of a heart turn away from it? It would kill him to break the man’s faith in him.

Father Charles shakes his shoulder a little, and laughs. ‘You see, Jean. I’ve enough faith in you for both of us. So-‘ He releases his hold, and the doorbell rings somewhere below. ‘That’s settled, then. I’ll go and get dinner, and then we can talk about how you can get your man back. OK? Nice and awkward for you, excellent fun for me.’

Valjean can’t help a laugh. ‘Neither of us are miracle workers, Father.’

‘Well, you can tell me about him anyway. Did I ever tell you I was married once? Oh aye, I promise you won’t make me blush – don’t look so surprised. If I can just find my wallet for the fella – ah, there it is. Right, I’ll be back in a sec. I’ll tell you all about it.’

He winks at Valjean, and leaves him sitting there, astounded. No, he did not know he was married once. But the surprise of it melts away under the weight of gratitude. He’s not sure what he ever did to deserve such a man as this on his side. He doesn’t want to lie anymore; he’d rather just expose it all, so that nothing can ambush him from the dark again. But that would be selfish, wouldn’t it? Going back to jail for a theft that became a gift, and cutting off the chances of so many who have come to rely on him…that would be just as wrong, yes?

He sits in silence, drinking his beer. He hears Father Charles laughing with the delivery man at the front door, finding happiness with every stranger the way he has a knack of doing. He hears Javert’s voice saying go away, and spitting fury in his face; his hand grabbing his side and scratching under his shirt…why listen to that man over the one walking up the stairs, to him instead of away from him?

He raises his head when the priest comes back in. ‘Thank you, Father,’ he starts, but is already being waved away.

‘Now now, it’s done. C’mon, help me plate up. There’s more beer in the fridge, and I know a garage that’ll take care of that mess of your car. You shouldn’t have parked out front if you didn’t want to tell me. And if you’re really good, we’ll watch the football…sorry, soccer…and I’ll try and teach you the offside rule again, OK?’

What can he do? He holds his hands up, and feels a weight falling away, if only for tonight. ‘You win, Father. Except on the offside rule, that’ll never make sense.’

‘Ahhh, you Yanks. Hopeless. C’mon, I’m hungry.’

He disappears into the kitchen. Valjean shakes his head, puts his beer down, and follows. For tonight, this’ll do.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Summer melts over the city, a lava heat that pours into every crack, smothers all air. The wind refuses to blow. Looking out of a window, or even at the sidewalk, means blindness for a few minutes, eyes forced to adjust to white glare off every light surface. Dogs are too exhausted to bark, and schools make children stay indoors during the hottest part of the day. When summer break starts, the parks sit quiet. Parents can’t endure the sun, and aren’t going to risk exposing their kids to it. The news is full of heatstroke deaths, and urges people to check elderly neighbours to make sure they’re OK. Every store sells out of bottled water by lunchtime, over and over again. They run out of ice, and ice cream. A wet Spring means there’s no drought, so there are sprinklers permanently running on some lawns, scattering patches of green amongst the bleached-bare ground of dried out streets. Tar melts on the roads. People live in their swimming pools. No one has the energy to move, or think. The city sits dormant, sluggish, waiting for something to break.

For Valjean, it’s a blessing and a curse. His story, not fed by himself or any fresh revelations, is swallowed up by the weather, and the world is too dulled by the relentless heat to bother him much. The expected audit from the tax office comes and goes. He’s always been scrupulous in his accounts – always knew he would have to be – so they can’t find anything amiss, even when he’s pretty sure they checked twice. His inspection was mentioned in the paper, but nothing was printed when it turned out to be fruitless, something he was not surprised about. He continues to go into work every day, and the curious looks die down soon enough. He notices one or two other looks from women on the shop floor, but isn’t sure what they mean or why they would start now. It doesn’t matter. He has other things on his mind.

Soon after their dinner, he’d suggested to Father Charles that maybe the factory should stay out of this summer’s donation drive; this one for the church’s Harvest celebration. There’s a lot of farmland surrounding the city, and he’s spent hours every year driving out with a truck or two, picking up donations of produce that will last until Fall. The year before they were given so much flour he organised a weekend bakery fair, and gave up one of his warehouses for two days so that kids and families could come and bake their own bread. They took classes in how to make cakes and cookies, learning something alongside having fun. They’d got a small funfair in the grounds, and prizes for the children, and everyone got to take home what they made. The memory burns bright for him; all those kids playing and running around, abandoning their projects for their parents to finish so they could go and play with the clowns, eating cotton candy and then running back to ice their cookies. There’d been a band, and a big raffle. Everyone had said what a great weekend it was.

There’s no way he can do that this year. Even if the world hadn’t turned hot enough to drive a man crazy, he couldn’t. Father Charles has told him he won’t accept him disappearing from the collection altogether – that there’s no need, that his presence isn’t going to damage anything. He won’t disappoint him, of course, but he can see guilt on the horizon when people refuse to donate to the project of a convicted criminal. The farmers around here tend towards the conservative. It’s not going to be like last year. Add to that the way the weather is not doing the land any favours, and prospects don’t look good. He thinks his mood, his general outlook on life, should probably not be so tied into the success of his projects – or rather, he hears his old therapist saying it – but what else is there? Without something to channel himself into, there really is no point to him at all.

He turns away from the windows behind his desk, and tosses a pen down. A fan labours in the corner, pushing burning air from one place to another. His polo shirt clings to his back, and even though his shorts are loose they feel constrictive. All the factory doors and windows are wide open, with people on their break trying to fit into the shaded areas of the parking lot while they smoke, and try to rest. He’s provided extra water coolers for the duration of summer, two extra ice machines in the break room, free bottles of water and sweet fruit for energy. There’s a freezer full of ice cream for people to help themselves to, fridges full of soda. He can’t air condition the factory floor, because the doors need to be open most of the time, but he does what he can. People still faint every day, and a couple have been sent to the ER with heatstroke. He’s seriously considering closing down until September, because he’s not having anyone die. But it’s probably not bad enough yet – and he has to admit, the idea of having nothing to do until college starts again fills him with horror. Facing the world through his job is the only way to feel he’s putting the revelations of his past behind him.

He walks down the stairs to check everyone’s OK, droplets of sweat jerked into a thin rivulet that drips down the side of his nose. It has to be a hundred and ten in here, easy. Probably more; even walking down stairs feels like an effort, and he’s in good shape. He makes for the double doors to the parking lot, then pauses. There’s a noise from the far corner of the factory, like a box being dragged and thumped against the wall. He goes to help, because no one should be dragging things around in this heat.

But when he rounds a bank of machinery, he stops short. There’s a group of young men collected around a stacked pallet, talking in low voices. Two of them are sitting, heads bent towards the others. He recognises them at once. It’s Enjolras, and his group of friends; they’re all on the committee at college, and seem to have picked up a few more he’s not so sure of the names of. The ones he knows have been working here the last three summers, and most of them he collaborates with at college. At least one is a full-time employee.

‘You guys OK?’ he says, without thinking much of it.

As one, they turn their heads toward him. He finds himself pinioned by nine sets of eyes at once; a distinctly uncomfortable feeling that almost makes him step back. He shouldn’t have interrupted, he thinks at once. He knows better than to speak when outnumbered.

‘We’re fine,’ Enjolras says. His tone is cool, and not friendly. Not that it ever really is; Enjolras is a guy he’s never quite known how to get along with, and he senses the feeling is mutual. But he thought there was some mutual respect for each other’s work ethic, and ideals. It seems he was wrong…but of course, they haven’t talked since the newspaper article. He should have known things might have changed.

‘OK. Make sure you drink water,’ he says back, calmly. They continue to stare at him, so he nods and goes away. Sweat prickles ever more strongly at his hairline, and under his polo shirt. He’d give a lot for a cold shower right now, but he’ll settle for just being away from that gang. He doesn’t know if they’re just hanging out, or what, but whatever it is, it’s not his business. Not when they look at him like that.

 

Evenings are the worst, perhaps. Nights are terrible, but at least he knows what he’s supposed to be doing then, even if he can’t. But evenings seem to last forever. He tries to work, but there’s not much he can do when the deliveries are out, and orders are fulfilled. The factory runs a night shift – even busier in summer, because it pays more and kids always work hard if they’re given the chance. It’s overstaffed this year because it’s cooler at night, so there’s no need for him to be there to oversee it. Overall, the business is running at a slight loss, due to too many workers and the decline of business following Javert’s little stunt, but it’s not enough to alarm him even if his accountant won’t shut up about needing to lay people off. The shift managers all know he has too many people, so they’re careful to make sure no one slacks, including themselves – they don’t want to give him an excuse to fire anyone, even if they’ve never seen him lay a person off in his life. The upshot is that everything ticks over fine without him around, so he leaves at five thirty like any normal working man, and goes home. And then, what is there to do? He doesn’t watch much TV and particularly not now, with the news stories about him so fresh. He tries to read for his upcoming senior classes, but the reading lists haven’t been sent out yet, so he can only guess what might be useful. He works out for a couple of hours, even in this heat, then showers, and eats cold chicken and salad with a litre of water. The light lasts too long with his big windows, and he can’t block it out; night after night, he finds himself sitting in silence, watching the sun go down over the city. There’s a peculiar feeling to a summer sunset; it used to hold satisfaction, because the day is longer and gives more time to accomplish things. But this last month, he feels none. There’s little satisfaction at the output of the factory, and the way it’s hampered by not enough orders. He has no more exams to work for, no assignments to absorb him. It’s too early to start driving out to farms. What do other people do on summer evenings? Go to the movies? Eat in restaurant gardens, and laugh over wine and fancy French salads. Barbeque around pools at each other’s houses. What else? He’s drawing a blank. He just knows that he has nothing to do, and no way to fill the hours, and when he goes to bed, he won’t be able to sleep.

He thinks of Javert. He’s given up trying not to. He wonders whether he ever regrets what he did, or if he even thinks about it. He tries to imagine whether an apology would work any better now, a month on. Sometimes he thinks yes, and his daydreams skitter over some kind of reconciliation. On one occasion, he manages to dream as far as a kiss, but it’s ripped away almost at once, his mind stepping in to point out that he’s being stupid. Anyway, why would he want to kiss him? The guy tried to ruin his life.

He sighs, stares at nothing, and wipes his brow. His night-time troubles don’t care about what he should think about Javert, and they certainly don’t think he tried to ruin his life. How could anyone ruin him now? He’s been blaming it all on the heat – heat is definitely a problem in so many ways – but that’s not all of it. He’s back to feeling like there’s something lodged in his chest at all times, which he hasn’t had for years. There’s a big difference between feeling it occasionally, and enduring endless days of it. His mind is acting out, following the movements of his hands and watching them pick things up, touch pens, paper, a glass of water. He’ll think of a comment that hasn’t been made, in a tone of voice people don’t use on him anymore, and finds himself having arguments with the ghosts in his head, justifying actions, decisions, behaviour; falling into a spiral that started fifteen years ago, and seems to have no end. He doesn’t know who he’s fighting, most of the time. There’s a vague notion that if he had something to do with his time, he wouldn’t fall victim to it – and it’s probably true, but he also feels that he should be able to calm himself anyway, without external distraction. To not manage it is a failure. He used to be better at pulling himself away from the maelstrom that’s always waiting, but when he thinks about what he did and why he had to; the situations that caused it in the first place…the whole cycle starts again.

It all causes his breath to labour out of his chest. He actively pushes his thoughts away, and tries to focus on the pull of his muscles when he stretches his neck from side to side. It’s a slow movement, measured; he envisions the tendons coming up under his skin as his head lowers to one shoulder, then disappearing as he lifts it back up. He repeats it the other way, slower now, listening to air fall from between his teeth. There’s moisture on his top lip, and sticking to the round neck of his T shirt. Sweat is making hair curl at his nape – he needs a haircut, he thinks, and just like that he’s in the world again, imagining the look on the barber’s face as he walks in to his shop, wondering if he’s read the newspapers. He should probably just get clippers and do it himself, but is he not going to let himself go out to get a haircut now? Jesus, where does this stop?

He stands in frustration, and paces around for a while. It’s too early to go to bed. He can’t do another workout; there’s a point where they get detrimental rather than bring improvement. Maybe he’ll go for a run instead. It’s still too hot, but he can’t sit with himself anymore. The world feels like it’s waiting for him to act, but he hasn’t learned his lines, doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do.

 

*

 

It’s still not quite dark the first time he wakes, sheets tight around his legs. He kicks them away in panic, chest heaving, imagining the weight of something holding him down. It takes minutes to force his eyes to see his own bedroom, and he has to get up to shut the door he left open in the hope of getting some air. He has to resist the urge to put a chair in front of it. He has to calm down.

It’s pitch black the second time he wakes, his hands desperate, frantic, seeking something to cover himself with. He can’t sleep with no sheet, but clothes don’t do him any favours. Exposure is as bad as being caught up tight. He wishes the men in the dreams were faceless, but it would be a lie. They start off as people he knew, once. They always end up as Javert.

 

*

 

The one thing he will say for summer is that at least the dark ends early. The dawn brings some semblance of security, and the ability to sleep for a couple of hours. He still rises at six, showers away the night, and sits in his chair with coffee. This morning feels different. He doesn’t know why, but he’s long since listened to his instinct in these things. Silence can mean peace, but it can also mean danger, and his gut understands what’s in the air long before his brain is alive to the problem. It feels like something’s going to be different.

If he tries to deduce what, the sensation slips under the overpowering blanket of logic. If he lets it go, and just sits, it bobs back to the surface. He can feel anticipation in his stomach, the light fizz of adrenaline working through his muscles. Every sound is magnified. He licks his lips carefully, fatigue from bad sleep burning away as his nerves heighten. Is this the good kind of surprise, or the bad? No way to tell. And everything is quiet, the neighbourhood only just getting going down below. It’s already hot enough to make a guy sweat from sitting still.

He gets dressed, and locks up. He could stay home, but he doesn’t want to be in his apartment more than he has to. Whatever’s coming can find him just as well at the factory. He drives carefully; the early morning traffic is enough to subdue any humming instincts for a while, though waiting at lights always makes him feel boxed away from the people beeping their horns, and talking on phones, and cussing at pedestrians taking too long. It feels like he’s the only one who just sits, and waits his turn. Today, he can barely hear the horns. His ears feel like they’re tuned towards something else, but he has to wait for it to arrive.

It finds him just after nine, when the place is full. He’s on the phone when he hears the normal noise of machinery and people change. There’s a few raised voices and then all die away, leaving only clattering mechanics to accompany the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs.

‘I apologise,’ he says, distantly, to the person on the phone. ‘I’m going to have to call you back.’

He’s putting the receiver down when the door opens, and the police walk in. The feeling of anticipation dies away, sated. It’s replaced by resignation, and no surprise at all.

‘Hello,’ he says, politely. The one in plain clothes nods, the two in uniform flanked behind. Valjean’s left wondering what they expect him to do. Fight his way out? Pull a gun?

‘Mr Valjean, I’m Detective David Terry. I wonder if you might spare a few minutes?’

He’s perfectly polite. Too perfectly polite, and Valjean feels his guard start to rise. Maybe any police officer would illicit the same response; he’s not around them often enough to know, anymore. But it’s a familiar feeling, and an unwelcome one. He breathes it out as best he can, and smiles. ‘In regard to?’

‘A theft, Mr Valjean. Against the person of Father Charles Francois Myriel, eight years ago.’

He’s careful to keep his face neutral. ‘There’s a statute of limitations on theft,’ he points out, calmly. ‘And it’s not eight years.’

‘Are you admitting to a crime?’ Terry smiles too, but there’s nothing neutral about it.

‘No. I’m not.’ This might be a record for relations with the police going downhill. ‘I’m just pointing out that there must be more to your being here. Would you like a coffee? Something cold?’

He gestures towards the chairs on the other side of the desk, but Terry ignores this completely. His smile widens  a touch. ‘I’d prefer it if we spoke at the precinct, Mr Valjean. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.’

The words that doesn’t mean I don’t have to worry about it are queueing up in his larynx, ready to march over his tongue. He smiles instead, but the cold look in Terry’s eyes is, he knows, mirrored in his own. ‘Should I call my lawyer?’

‘That’s up to you. If you think you need one, then by all means-‘

Terry stands aside, and motions towards the exit. Valjean feels his feet cemented to the floor. He doesn’t have to go, they’re not arresting him. And he’s sure even parole violation wouldn’t stand after this long – but then, it wouldn’t be his first offence. It’s not petty theft if you’ve got a prison record longer than a teenager’s arm. And if they really think he funded this whole operation with criminal earnings…they’d only be partly right.

He picks up his cellphone, and forces himself to move. ‘Do I get to drive myself?’

‘Oh, that’s all right,’ says Terry, closing the door behind them. ‘We’ll give you a ride.’

 

*

 

They’ve been planning this. There were photographers outside so someone tipped off the press, and now they have what they’ve wanted since the beginning – a picture of him being escorted into a police station, flanked by cops. Whoever’s been investigating him really wants to make something stick. He says it to his lawyer on the phone, and she tells him not to be stupid. That this is how they treat everyone, and it’s all intimidation, and not to say anything until she gets there. He tells her that if he has nothing to worry about, why not just talk now? She makes an exasperated sound and rings off, which he thinks proves his point well enough.

Everything is blue. He gets to examine the different shades of it as he waits. Deep blue carpet tiles – thin and removable, for easy cleaning no doubt – and light blue walls. A one-way window, which he tries not to look at, because the thought of being watched without being able to see in return makes him tighten up. At least the building is air-conditioned, and this room isn’t too small. The light overhead is too bright, but the window in the door seems to be tinted blue as well. Maybe it’s just reflecting the paintwork. He’s not sure. He’s too busy being grateful he’s not handcuffed.

The door opens abruptly, crashing into his thoughts. He looks up, expecting Lafitte, his lawyer…and falters, and blinks, and is momentarily blank. There’s a woman, right enough, bringing a plastic cup of water. And behind her, in a pristine shirt and plain tie…Javert.

It doesn’t seem real. A hundred possibilities fly across his mind, each more ridiculous than the last. He’s been taken on as a cop already, because he tipped them off about Valjean. He’s been through the academy in the last month, and already made detective. He’s been a cop all along, and…this one makes Valjean pause, but he dismisses it because Javert’s simply not old enough.

‘Your lawyer just arrived,’ the woman says, but he can’t look at her. Javert moves to stand against the wall facing him, out of the way in the corner. He doesn’t look at Valjean, just straight forward at the blank wall behind.

‘Thanks,’ he says, absently. Javert looks…bad. Or at least, not as he remembers him just a few weeks ago, vital, and hungry, and strong. He’s thinner, and his eyes look tired. He’s shaved off most of his sideburns and his hair is longer, but carefully combed back. He looks tidy, and professional…and young, like a kid playing dress-up. The shirt he wears is cheap and generic, as is the dull blue tie he’s knotted in a careful half-Windsor. He can just imagine him dressing with the best clothes he has, and probably knowing that he’d still look like this; a poor kid trying to pass as someone who belongs with everyone else. Valjean is aware he should be angry, but instead he just feels horribly, desperately sorry for him.

The female officer is heading back to the door, but Javert doesn’t move. ‘Who’s this?’ he asks her back, and she turns to glance between them.

‘Oh, I’m sorry. Mr Javert is interning for the summer. He’ll be sitting in, unless you object. He’s signed a confidentiality agreement, so you don’t need to worry about that.’

Is he worried about that? Does he object? He’s honestly not sure. ‘I see,’ he says, drily. Javert still hasn’t moved, or looked at him. ‘Does Mr Javert have a first name?’

He wants to laugh, struck by the realisation that he’s never asked. Javert is just Javert, as his father was the very few times their paths crossed. They’ve been so careful not to pry at each other, he never even thought to ask. But he does ask him now, not the officer, so he can ignore the question if he chooses. He’s not going to take advantage of the situation to find things out about him.

Javert glances at him. ‘It’s hardly relevant,’ he says, his tone cool. ‘But it’s John-Michael.’

The officer looks between them, a little perplexed. The atmosphere in the room is notably charged – or maybe it only feels that way to him, but she clearly feels something. ‘Ms Lafitte will be along shortly,’ she says to him, withdrawing. ‘She’s just going through security. Mr Javert will wait with you until she arrives.’

‘He doesn’t have to. I’m not a suicide risk, and I’m not about to steal the carpet tiles. I haven’t been read my rights, so you can’t keep me here if I want to leave.’

He tries to keep his voice neutral, and thinks he manages it. But he remembers how he used to speak to cops, and it’s not too far under the surface.

The officer hesitates, then shrugs. ‘If you prefer to be left alone, that’s fine.’

Javert runs his gaze across his face, and starts to move. Valjean makes a snap decision. ‘No, it’s alright. He can stay.’

Javert settles back, his mouth a tight line. They’re left alone. Only the hum of the air being blown into the room disturbs the quiet; that, and the adrenaline burning in his ears. Valjean touches his fingertips together one at a time, and makes no bones about staring. He thinks he’s earned that right, given where they are.

He should keep his mouth shut. Javert had a right to do what he did; he accepted that at the time, and he accepts it now. This isn’t, actually, the guy’s fault. It’s the cops who have decided to make something out of old suspicions, and are trying to jerk him around. It’s probably for the sake of PR, so they can say they tried. If they happen to get anything, so much the better for them. And if they can prove anything, he already knows he won’t fight it.

‘Do they know we know each other?’ he says, for the sake of breaking the silence. Javert shakes his head, an abrupt jerk from side to side. Valjean raises his eyebrows. ‘You don’t think they should?’

‘This isn’t a formal interview. I wouldn’t be allowed into that.’

Valjean looks sideways at the glass. ‘But you could watch. They don’t ask permission over who gets to see.’

‘Well, you’d know.’

He thinks of yesterday, the idle thought over whether Javert’s attitude might have changed in the last month. Obviously not. ‘Yeah,’ he says, and lapses into silence. The brief desire – hope –  that they could have a conversation, flickers out, and takes with it the need to speak at all. So what if Javert listens in? It doesn’t make any difference. Maybe he’ll learn something that’ll reinforce his thoughts, but they seem entrenched anyway. And does he really want to change his mind? He can’t. He is what Javert thinks he is.

‘I didn’t-‘ Valjean raises his head. Javert’s still not looking at him, but he can’t pretend he didn’t speak. ‘…engineer this.’

‘What? That you’d be here today, or that I’m here today?’

A shadow passes over the man’s face. ‘Both.’

Valjean looks back at his hands. ‘I didn’t think you did.’

He wonders if Javert gave any thought to his actions when he emailed the newspaper. He doubts that, had he predicted this scenario, it would have stopped him. But it does help that Javert’s not gloating, and smug. It’s hard to tell what he is. There’s no expression on his face at all, save tiredness. ‘I do wonder what you thought would happen. What you hoped to gain from it other than revenge.’

‘It wasn’t…revenge.’ Javert’s face twists into anger, and incredulity. ‘It was justice. Why should you get away with hiding where you came from?’

‘It was revenge,’ he says back, quietly. ‘And I don’t blame you for it. But you didn’t answer my question.’

Javert looks like he’s holding in a great many words, and is pleased with himself for doing so. Now he looks smug. ‘You wouldn’t understand, and I don’t have to tell you.’

‘No, you don’t.’ He can’t argue with that. He lapses back to silence. Javert visibly forces himself back to neutral. There are voices at the end of the corridor outside, and Valjean recognises the rich tones of Claire Lafitte among them.

‘I didn’t expect they’d find anything criminal.’

It comes from nowhere, and Valjean doesn’t have time to indulge in surprise. ‘They haven’t.’

‘But they’re going to, or you wouldn’t be here.’

He wants to laugh. He wants to say, are you stupid or just naïve? He wants to shake his head and disabuse this child of his notions, because he’ll do better in the world if he realises the police are not the white knights of the city; they are not the guardian angels he evidently expects them to be. Has no one told Javert that cops sometimes get things wrong? ‘If you say so.’

Let him have his dreams. He’s taken enough innocence off him already. The thought is enough to bring images back to mind; the floor of his apartment, the touch of a hand on his stomach, the heat on Javert’s cheeks as he rutted against him. Valjean swallows hard, and concentrates on the metal chair rubbing against his leg where his shorts have ridden up at the back.

‘I’ll leave if you want,’ Javert says, stiffly. ‘I have no right, or desire, to be here. But-‘

He struggles, and then falls silent. Valjean sighs. ‘Don’t worry. I won’t tell them we know each other. I won’t tell them you’ve had my dick in your mouth.’

Javert’s cheek jerks. The door opens before he can respond, and Valjean refuses to acknowledge the flare of satisfaction at making the guy look uncomfortable. A petty revenge in return, and one that’s beneath him; he can see Father Charles shaking his head, disappointed…but it’s still important to let Javert know his secret’s safe. Cops don’t like fags, as he recalls, hearing the word spat at him all over again. Cops don’t like anyone, much.

Lafitte sits next to him, and pulls a legal pad from her bag. ‘You haven’t said anything, Jean?’ she says, in business-like tones. He shakes his head, watching Javert leave the room. He wonders whether he’ll take up a place behind the window. He bets he will. And it’s not so bad, imagining him being there. What more can he do to him? His life is already an unpacked box, contents strewn for everyone to paw through. Javert probably doesn’t deserve to know any truths, but Valjean still finds he doesn’t mind so much if he does.

 

*

 

It’s three hours before he’s allowed to walk, with assurances that this isn’t over ringing in his ears. They don’t offer him a ride back to the factory, and won’t let him leave the back way, so he has to brace himself to face the reporters waiting out front. There aren’t too many, but the photographers are still there, and he’s got Claire at his side because she offered a lift. So now they have him going in alone, flanked by cops, and coming out with a lawyer. He can only imagine what the story’s going to be tomorrow.

He looks around while Claire does her thing, white heat bouncing up at him from the flag stones, wrapping itself around his body. She’s making it clear that there has been no arrest, and this was simply a conversation to clear up some loose ends, but he only half listens. Javert isn’t out here, and he doesn’t know why he thought he might be. He checks his phone. Nothing except a text from Mrs Victor, asking if he’s OK and if there’s anyone she should call. He sends a quick reply, and then hovers over the ‘new message’ icon.

He never deleted his number. He should have, but he didn’t.

Meet me for a drink.

He should put his name, but he can’t believe Javert won’t know who it’s from. Claire touches his arm, and they move down the street towards the parking lot, chased by shouted questions. ‘You should think about giving an interview,’ she says, hooking her keys out of her purse with a perfectly manicured nail. ‘Set the record straight.’

‘No,’ he says, not needing to think about it. His phone screen is not lighting up. He keeps it in his hand as he gets into the car, and immediately burns his leg on the overheated leather. He bites his tongue, and tries not to touch anything. The phone does not light up.

‘Who were you looking for?’ she asks, starting the car and turning the air con up to Max.

‘No one.’ The phone does not light up. He chews lightly on his thumbnail as they drive away, scans the precinct as they pass. ‘No one at all.’

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Senior Year

September

 

Valjean has spent most of the first week back trying to be invisible. He’s actually grateful, for once, that a lot of college kids are more preoccupied with themselves and their own lives than getting involved in the wider community. Also that a lot of them live elsewhere, and haven’t seen any news from the city. He feels guilty for wanting to hide; he hasn’t done anything the police can legitimately prosecute him for – his lawyer seems sure of it, anyway – and he can say honestly to anyone that asks that he served his time when he was a kid. He would rather they didn’t ask…and no one does. On the first day, he thought it was because no one cared, and dared hope he could relax. By the fourth, it seems clear that no one dares; he’s been enduring stares from all quarters, and a peculiar embarrassed reserve from professors. They seem to hesitate before calling on him in class, as if not sure he really wants attention drawn his way, and not sure they want to deal with it. As fate would have it, he has a criminal law class this semester. Whether it will affect his grade or not, he does not offer opinions in it.

Thursday afternoon finds him sitting outside, alone, battling trepidation. It’s still too hot to bear; the weather has not broken since the heatwave started. Campus provides some relief in the form of trees next to a small lake, and some grass to sit on, but few are taking advantage this afternoon. It’s quiet, the air heavy, even the flies over the water too sluggish to be annoying. Valjean leans his back against a thick tree trunk, and closes his eyes. He’s so tired. He still can’t sleep. He tells himself it’s the weather, but in truth he thinks it probably won’t improve until the police leave him alone for good. And he can imagine a day where that might be true, somewhere ahead of him, which he supposes is good. A kind of progress, even. At least it’ll be behind him then. But he’ll still be dealing with everyone knowing what he is – and worse, far worse, dealing with the knowledge of what he did to Javert.

He lets the thoughts slip across his mind, as they have a thousand times before. If he tries to deny them, they get worse. So he whips himself with the truth, accepts that the shame of it is entirely deserved, waits until it decides to leave him alone. Only then can his brain move on to other things.

Today, there is a ready-made distraction. The first Student Welfare committee meeting of the year starts in half an hour, and it’s the reason he’s out here at all. He knows how it’ll go and he knows it’ll be full; partly because the Freshmen who signed up a few days ago will be there, and partly because he sent an email out on Monday, requesting the presence of all members, old and new. If they all show, there could be around two hundred people. It’s usual for him to address them all at the start of a new year, but he’s never emailed out a specific request for attendance before, and he imagines there’ll be no secret as to why things are different this time. The students still working at his warehouse, Enjolras and Courfeyrac chief among them, have been talking in corners again, and more than once he’s seen them glancing up at his office. They know what he has to do, and their friends will agree.

So his plan for this evening is something of a pre-emptive move. He tells himself he doesn’t care; elections commence in October anyway, and he had no real intention of running for the President’s spot again. Enjolras will do a better job,  and be in a position to be more involved; the guy has an impeccable background, he’s smart, and devoted to friends and acquaintances alike; he speaks well and is a great figurehead for the committee. Valjean knows it’s for the best, and is not even really sorry. The trepidation comes only from having to stand up in front of so many people, and confirm what the newspapers have reported. Standing behind a lectern, people raised up in front of him – it makes him think of being at the bottom of a pit, an animal trapped for people to throw things at. Imagining it makes him sweat.

He moves his head slowly from side to side, stretching his neck, breathing in through his nose. The air smells of heat, and dried grass. There’s an unpleasant undertone of stagnant water, and mud gone hard from the weeks of unrelenting sun. Insects buzz in the reeds at the edge of the lake; he’ll get bitten all over from sitting here, probably. But he doesn’t move, not until his phone vibrates with his ten-minute notification for the meeting.

His mind is calm as he rises, dulled by nerves. He didn’t bother to write anything down because he’s not intending some long speech. He rehearses a few sentences in his head now, but can’t get past, ‘it is with regret…’ because of the vision of all those people looking at him. Last night, he had had the clichéd dream about turning up at school naked, only it had warped into something far worse than the usual humiliation. He tells himself exposure is normal at this point; he forces himself to say it over and over as he slides into the coolness of the politics faculty building, and heads for the auditorium. Most of the kids will already know everything, so he won’t be educating many on the situation. There won’t be any surprise. And they’ll be glad he’s resigning, so it will only be a few minutes of embarrassment. For God’s sake, he’s endured worse than that in the past. It only bites because he was stupid enough to believe such things behind him; well, now he’s learned there’s no such thing as leaving your past behind, and he’ll make sure to remember it. He just needs to get through this, and then he can devote the rest of the year to finishing his degree, and building the company back up. He’s been thinking about appointing a manager for the more nervous of his clients to deal with. That’ll help. He can withdraw, and just work behind the scenes. He’ll have more time to develop his ideas for practical ways to help people get on their feet. It’s for the best.

He’s pulled from his thoughts by the kids heading into the auditorium. They only use a room this size at a few points in the year, because those are the only times everyone shows up. He slows as he sees the door opening, closing, being held open and locked there, as people pour in. His shoulders are jostled as people walk by him; he can see small groups walking from the other direction. His stomach twists, and he sucks in a deep breath. At least they came when requested. At least they care enough about the committee to be here for the big stuff.

He walks on, not allowing himself to glance back at the eyes that land on him as he moves. When he heads down the steps between the rows of seats, most people are too busy talking and finding a space to notice him. But the ones that do nudge their friends, and some fall silent and then whisper when he’s past. He sets his back straight, and ignores it. He focuses on the small raised platform at the bottom instead; there’s a single lectern off to one side, and Courfeyrac is busy setting a couple of tables in the middle, pulling chairs up for the committee to sit at during the meeting. Valjean eyes the one in the centre, the one he’s going to have to take. But not for long, he tells himself, nerves twisting up through his chest into his throat, halting there in a lump he can’t swallow away. Not for long.

He steps up on to the platform, and puts his backpack on the table. Courfeyrac dumps the last of the chairs in place, pushes his curls out of his eyes, and grins. ‘Hey, Boss.’

He always calls him that, even at work. He calls Enjolras ‘Chief’, and it’s probably said with less irony. Valjean nods, can’t manage a smile, and focuses on getting some things out of his bag. There isn’t much, just a few papers from their last meeting the year before, where they discussed the issues they’d likely want to deal with this year. He’ll leave them for Enjolras. He can hear the room filling up behind him, and that’s enough to make him sweat on its own. He can’t bear unknown people at his back, but in this case, turning to face them might be worse. He rubs his forearm across his forehead, and sees it come away wet. The air conditioning isn’t working against this many people, and the fire escape doors have been opened to either side of the stage. It makes it worse; he can feel the heat from outside slinking in from either side, coming to sit heavy at the bottom of the room. It’s like being in an arena, the mob raised up in front and above, and he can’t shake the sensation that the doors are about to slam shut, and he won’t be able to get out.

He takes his bottle of water from the side of his bag, and forces some down his throat. It helps a little. And Enjolras comes over to take his seat at that moment; his group follow, and the room starts to quiet. Courfeyrac is Secretary. Combeferre, a med student, is Treasurer. They nod at him as they sit, and he has no choice but to put his bag down, and take his seat also.

There are still people coming in. Valjean turns his head to Enjolras. ‘Just give them a minute to sit down.’

Enjolras narrows his eyes. ‘Jean, are you alright?’

‘I’m fine. It’s just hot.’

He looks like he’s about to respond, but the doors above, into the corridor, do shut at that point. Apart from the rustling of clothes and a few coughs, the room is settled. Valjean takes another deep breath, and stands, and heads for the lectern.

‘Thanks for coming, everyone. I’ll keep this brief.’

Even the rustling has stopped now. He wishes he had brought notes after all, or even just a blank sheet of paper that he could pretend to look at. But there’s nothing, so he just lets his hands hang at his sides, and turns his face up to be seen. He opens his mouth, and – the door opens one more time. His eyes are drawn to the movement, and then his breath catches in his chest. Javert, again. Javert, closing the door quietly behind him. Javert, who does not move to find a seat, or sit on the steps, but just leans against the wall right where he is, in plain sight, his arms crossed, his eyes boring down towards the stage.

Valjean clears his throat, and drops his gaze. His mind is blank, and his heart thuds against his ribs. What’s he doing here? He’s never been part of the society. He’s never shown the slightest interest in the working of student welfare; he’s only ever interacted with them from the side of the security office. He wasn’t even on the recipient list of the email Valjean sent out on Monday. How did he know this was going on?

A few people are shifting in their seats. He tries to pull his thoughts back to the topic at hand, and resolutely refuses to look at that particular doorway. ‘Welcome to the new year. I hope you all had a good summer. A special welcome to all the Freshmen who are joining us for the first time – I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of you in the coming months and years.’

 His throat is so dry, his words are coming out flat. He doesn’t sound welcoming, he sounds scared. He wasn’t expecting it to show so badly, because he’s always been quite good at maintaining a public face. But they’re all staring, just like he knew they would, and Javert hasn’t moved a muscle, and he can feel himself start to tense all over. They’re all looking at him and seeing the mugshot in the newspaper, he knows. They’re probably thinking about the words history of violent behaviour and remembering the front page story about him being questioned by the police.

He wipes sweat from his forehead, and walks back to the table to get his water. Enjolras and Courfeyrac look worried. Combeferre leans forward, and murmurs, ‘you don’t look well, Jean. Shall one of us-?’

He shakes his head, mutters a ‘thanks’, and walks back. Just a couple more minutes. He can do this. He’s faced worse. So he squares his shoulders, and grips the side of the lectern hard. He looks up again so that his voice will carry. Javert has still not moved.

‘Before we get on to the business of this year’s agenda, I have a few words. First, an apology. I expect some of you, having read the newspapers this summer or seen the news, might feel let down by what you’ve learned about me. You have every right to feel that way, because I have let you down. If any of the work we’ve done together has been jeopardised by the stories – which are true – then I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have agreed to take this position, in case this happened. I was selfish.

And so, secondly – I hereby publicly tender my resignation as President of the committee. I wouldn’t have run next month in light of this, and now everyone has time to decide whether they want to put themselves forward, or think about who they’d like to nominate. In the meantime, I will hand temporary control to our Vice-President, Enjolras, who most of you-‘

He stops. Eyes are turning away from him. He follows them, to see Enjolras on his feet, his head held high.

‘Sorry, Jean, but I need to stop you there.’

Valjean blinks. Enjolras glances at him, then turns his attention back to the room. ‘As Vice-President, I would like it known that I do not condone this course of action.’

A murmur ripples out through the room. Courfeyrac and Combeferre, looking solemn, both nod. Valjean eyes all three, one hand falling away from the lectern as he turns to them. None of them look his way. He looks at the audience, and sees all eyes on Enjolras. Except Javert’s, whose gaze he meets, and is stabbed through by all over again, even from this distance.

Enjolras steps out from behind the table. ‘We are a society created to care for the welfare of students. All students, including the ones who are elected to run it. I’m sure many of us have indeed read what the newspapers have said this summer – but how many of us know Jean personally? How many of us have been given jobs in his factory, and done well by it? How many of our parents have been given opportunities, or help, by this man?’

It seems a hypothetical question, except that Enjolras stares so hard into the audience that people begin to look left and right. Behind him, Courfeyrac and Combeferre raise their hands. And as they do, others lift from the crowd in front. The entire front row, Valjean realises, are Enjolras’ crowd of friends, the ones who have been talking in whispers at the factory for months. He sees Joly and Jehan, both grinning widely. Bahorel winks at him. He has to look at the floor, and his fingers tighten hard on the lectern to keep him steady.

‘If we let him walk away because he thinks he’s let us down, we’ll be doing him – and this society – a great injustice.’ Enjolras’ voice is getting closer, but Valjean can’t look up. ‘I’ve worked with him on this committee for two years now, and he’s been my employer for three. I’ve never seen anyone treat people with more respect, and with their welfare in mind. So not only do I refuse to accept an instant resignation, I would like to suggest – and encourage him – to put his name forward for consideration in October. Because if he does, I’ll vote for him.’

Valjean feels a clasp on his shoulder, and a hand pushed into his. He looks up into Enjolras’ open blue eyes, the boy’s face radiating sincerity. He can do nothing but shake the hand back. Enjolras smiles, and leans in to his ear. ‘You didn’t really think we’d permit it, did you?’

He did. He thought it was what they wanted. He doesn’t know what to say.

Enjolras turns to the audience. ‘Everyone gets a say, of course. Even Valjean – he can vote against himself if he likes, or choose to leave anyway. But I propose a show of hands. All those who would like him to stay on, until October at the least?’

Every hand goes up. Except, he sees, Javert’s. Which is only right, because the man isn’t a member anyway. It’s the only thought that can make itself known through the overwhelming surprise, and the sheer, painful, gratitude coursing through him. Enjolras looks at him, his face solemn but eyebrows raised. Valjean hesitates, and looks from him to the audience still with their hands in the air, and back again. Courfeyrac’s grin is wide over Enjolras’ shoulder, and Combeferre looks expectant. And then, the front row starts to clap.

He doesn’t see who starts it. But there is one, two, single sounds of hands being brought together, then another joins on the third, and five or six more on the next, and then it’s the whole room, thundering with its hands and stamping it’s feet; people whistle and call out, and he can’t understand a word, or a thought, and simply reels in the face of it. And then, eventually, he holds his hands up, but they don’t stop and so he just smiles and shakes his head, helpless, and leans in to the microphone.

‘Yes,’ he says, unable to say anything else. ‘ All right. I’ll stay. Thank you.’

Applause turns to cheers. Valjean just stands, part of him screaming to run away from the scrutiny, because this is no less exposing than it was before. But the rest of him stays firm, and allows what is unmistakably…respect, if not affection – maybe some affection? – reach him, wash over him, and even touch him, a little. His eyes are dry, but there’s a pressure in his throat and behind his eyes, the sort that usually precedes tears. It makes it difficult to think of talking more, but he holds his hands up anyway, until the noise calms. Only when it’s quiet does he realise that he has no idea what to say.

‘I…OK, well. I’m not prepared now, because I thought I wouldn’t be here for the rest of this meeting.’ There’s a ripple of laughter, and Enjolras grips his shoulder again. ‘Enjolras, have you-?’

The man nods, and steps in. ‘I can take it from here.’

Relief takes him as he says, ‘thank you, all of you,’ one more time into the microphone, and retreats. He picks his water up with shaking hands, and knows that at least half the room are still looking at him. He paints a smile on, and raises his face – there are smiles back, and nods, and…and Javert is gone.

His fingers press hard into the plastic, making it crack. Combeferre turns to look, and then up at his face. ‘Do you need a minute?’ he murmurs, kindly, and Valjean nods with relief.

‘Thank you,’ he says back, and walks towards one of the open fire doors to the side. He holds a finger up to the people still looking at him, indicating that he’ll just be a moment. And then he has to hold back the urge to run to the open air and fling himself into it; he walks calmly, drinking his water, trying not to let what just happened take him over. At least, not in sight of everyone.

Outside is perfection, despite heat coating him the second he steps into air. Simply not being watched is the most unimaginable relief, as though a gaze has actual weight that could be measured, as if the body is some sort of scale made to weigh the attention thrust upon it. If that’s so, he is pounds lighter; he could float simply because he is not seen. He walks around the corner of the auditorium, his heart full, his head chastising him for ever thinking so little of Enjolras that he could believe the man would permit injustice under his nose. Because maybe it would have been unjust to allow newspaper stories to hound him out of life, and maybe it would have been unjust for him to walk away from the possibility of doing good. Is it not what Father Charles said this summer, when he wanted to absent himself from charity work? That that would be selfish of him, to hide and not help? That not acting would be worse so much worse than staying involved? He was right. If Valjean were the sort of man who could forgive himself, then it would be fine to walk away. But he would torture himself with guilt, he is aware of this about himself, and so it is best for the sanity of everyone that he continue trying to do his best.

It is not easy. It’s not comfortable. And he is still angry, often, that he is forced to behave this way; that mistakes made years ago condemn him to this life of reservation, and examination, and discomfort. Sometimes he dreams of acting without thinking of the consequences – not even consequences outside himself, a lot of the time. If he could act without his body reminding him of things, or his brain freezing in terror; if he could wake up every morning not checking to see if entering a crowd will make him sick today. He would do a lot for that kind of freedom.

He turns another corner of the building to reach the back, where the brick façade faces the grass and lake. He’d like to just rest a few moments, calm down, drink water, readjust his mind towards this changed outlook and plan for the year. After that show of support, he thinks maybe he can’t not run in October. He thinks-

-Javert is ahead of him, leaning on the wall. His face is turned his way. Valjean stops at once, caught in his gaze.

He hasn’t seen him since the police station. The man never replied to that last text he sent. Despite the way he enters his dreams most nights, Valjean had started to resign himself to rarely, if ever, seeing him again. And now here he is, just standing there.

‘Hi.’

Javert says nothing. His eyes flit the other way, as if he’s about to bolt. Valjean stays still so as not to spook him.

‘What are you doing here?’

Half a shrug, which could mean anything. Valjean feels some of his relieved euphoria drain away. No matter what, it seems Javert is always there to bring him back down to earth, to remind him what he’s done. Which, he tells himself, he’s right to. He can’t complain about it.

So he forces half a smile, and puts his hands in his pockets. When he walks a little closer, Javert looks even more uncomfortable. Once again, Valjean is forced to notice how he looks – still more lean than a month ago; his cheekbones are more prominent than he’s seen them before, and his collarbones protrude in the open V of his polo shirt. The muscles stand out on his arms though, and there’s a poise in his slump against the wall that suggests strength. Valjean’s mind flits back to the night in his room, and the Post-it next to the application form on the door. Ask for September physical. So. He can imagine Javert would approach an upcoming physical exam with the same single-minded determination with which he approaches everything else. It explains a lot.

‘You take your test yet? For the police?’

Surprise flicks over Javert’s face, then suspicion. ‘It’s on Monday.’

Valjean shrugs this time. ‘Good luck.’

‘Why would you say that?’

‘…what?’

Javert turns to face him, keeping a shoulder on the wall. He looks angry; agitated. ‘Why would you wish me luck for that?’

‘It’s what you want, isn’t it?’ Javert’s confusion is weird. ‘It’s what you’ve been working for.’

‘Yeah, but – you hate the police.’

He blinks again. ‘…no? I don’t hate anybody.’ And Javert just looks disbelieving, so then he’s forced to think about it. ‘Look, you saw – I’m assuming you saw – the interview. I don’t hate cops. I get frustrated by the attitude of some of them, that’s all. I answered everything I was supposed to, I didn’t get mad. Why would you think I hated them?’

It’s kept him awake nights, thinking that Javert might know of some of the things that happened to him. The interviewer had not spared details when they were necessary to try and establish connections with people inside, people they seem to suspect might have a secret interest in his business. He’d had to explain that no, being hospitalized by a gang member does not make it likely that they’d become partners in the outside world. The cop had grinned suggestively at the word ‘partners’, and…yes, all right, Valjean had momentarily dreamed about hitting him. But he had not, and would not, and he doesn’t hate him.

But Javert just shrugs. If he overheard it all, there’s no sign of it. ‘You all hate the police.’

Valjean sighs, and lets the peace sit for a moment. Birds are singing as evening comes on. There’s even a hint of breeze for once. ‘Fine, we all hate the police. What are you doing here?’

Again, Javert is silent. His heel taps incessantly against the brick, and his shoulders are tense. Valjean’s eyes narrow. ‘Because either you’re here to see what I’d do – whether I’d resign, or try to keep my place. Or-‘

One of Javert’s eyebrows raise. ‘Or?’

‘Or-‘ he bites the suspicion off his tongue. There’s absolutely no proof for it. ‘Or you joined up. Maybe you’re interested in student welfare now. You’re very welcome if you are.’

Javert’s gaze is level, unyielding. When Valjean meets it, he’s struck yet again by the eyes; it’s ridiculous how clear they are, how angry in colour even when the man is smiling. What would they look like if Javert was ever truly happy? The closest he’s come is seeing them dazed in lust, but that didn’t last, and isn’t the same thing. It’s still something. There’s a twist in his gut at the memory. Not happiness, but something.

‘I didn’t join the committee.’

‘So you came to see me.’

‘-see you? No. I-‘ He stops, evidently disgusted by Valjean’s little smile. ‘Stop that. I just wanted to know if you’d be man enough to walk away.’

The smile fades. ‘Well, now you know.’

‘You shouldn’t have let them do that.’

‘What was I supposed to do, throw their trust back in their faces? How would that be any more decent?’

‘It’d be right.’

‘Would it? How?’

Javert’s mulish expression proves this is not going anywhere. ‘They might lose the influence your profile brings – but look at your profile now. How’s that going to be any use to them?’

‘If you’re not part of the committee, why do you care? What’s it got to do with you?’

He’s right though. But Valjean has to hope he can do good in other ways. If he has to spend the last year of his college life – and the rest of his actual life – proving he’s changed, then he will.

Javert shakes his head, and shoulders himself off the wall. Close up, both standing, Valjean is reminded how tall he is. Tall, and strong, and lean, and…being attracted to him is one thing, but the thought of him as a cop is still genuinely frightening. He could do so much damage, and doesn’t seem to see it. He doesn’t seem to care. He doesn’t seem to understand, at all, that people can change; the concept of compassion seems lost on him. It’s scary. And it’s sad. Valjean thinks of the scar on his back, and his father, and wonders again how it all relates.

But he’ll never find out. The look on Javert’s face remains faintly contemptuous, and he knows there can never be trust between them again.

‘You should quit. It’d be for the best.’

‘I’m not going to quit.’

Javert watches him for a long moment. There’s something like anger on his face, and something hidden; the way his jaw works at the corner suggests there’s more he’d like to say. But nothing comes out, not until he’s turned and taken a few steps. Then he stops.

‘I didn’t watch the interview.’

Valjean, shocked to silence, almost just lets him go.

‘Javert?’

He half-turns back.

‘Because you weren’t allowed, or you chose not to?’

Their eyes meet. Through the gratitude at hearing this, and the thought that maybe he was wrong just now; maybe Javert does understand compassion, there comes a pull of something else. A physical pull, a memory of his bedroom at dawn, a warm hand…he pushes it away, and breaks eye contact. There’s something wrong with him, he’s sure. If there’s anyone in the world he should hate, it’s…no, he can’t even finish the thought with conviction. He has no reason at all to hate Javert. All the same, he’s sure he shouldn’t still want to be inside him.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he mutters, to the ground. ‘I have to get back in there.’

He finds he’s still expecting an answer, simply because it’s rude to leave a question hanging. But Javert just swivels on his heel, and walks away. He doesn’t even say goodbye. And that, Valjean reasons, as he makes his way back into the meeting, is probably answer enough in its own right.

 

*

 

November

 

The letter comes on the fifth of the month, two weeks after his re-election as President of the Committee for Student Welfare, three weeks after the weather finally broke and allowed the world to breathe again, a month after a successful Harvest donation drive that helped a lot of people get stocked up for winter. It maybe wasn’t as successful as every year has been, but it still did a lot of good. Given the circumstances, he’ll take it.

The envelope is thin, and cheap, the kind with a flimsy plastic window on the front. Not a bill, though; those all go through the business address. He frowns at it, coffee in hand, and then slits it open with his thumbnail.

 

Dear Mr Valjean

Further to our investigation, and interview of August 3rd, we are writing to inform you that no charges will be brought and all enquiries have ceased…

 

He drops the letter first, then the coffee. He presses the heels of his hands into his eyes, hard enough to cause light explosions behind his lids.

It’s over. He’s free.

 

*

 

December

 

Valjean surveys the tables set up for this year’s Christmas donation drive. They’re doing pretty well for it only being the middle of the second week, and he’s got a long weekend of concerted effort ahead of him. Once again, he’s looking forward to winter break starting in a few days, because then it’s all about this for the rest of the month. The factory is back in the black, for the first time since the story on him broke. His managers run it just fine, and the furore has died down to the extent that he can walk through campus with barely a single suspicious glance. He might get the odd one or two in the city, but he can handle those. He did employ someone just to deal with clients who were wavering over his reputation, but made it clear he was at their disposal for queries, or to give a final word. And it’s worked, to the extent that he rarely has to deal with day-to-day problems anymore. He’s kept informed, he keeps on top of what’s going on. But he’s able to focus on other things. His final year of college, for one. Building a relationship with city council for another. That’s a nervy one; a lot of people don’t like him for his background, and still more are nervous of philanthropists in any form. But he’s trying to get through to them that he’s not about to run for office; he’s not trying to take power off them. He could run any number of private charitable schemes – and he will – but he’d really like to some of it to be in collaboration with city officials. Because it could reach more people, have more publicity and funding, do more good. It’s a process, but one he’s determined to run through. At the least, he can see how it goes and learn from being refused. He hasn’t come through this summer in order to melt away. He has to believe he can achieve something.

He runs his fingers down the trestle tables, eyeing the gifts and groceries stacking up. He has to go soon; there’s one last meeting of this term, and then a party he has to put in an appearance at. The September meeting, and his landslide victory in October – of course, landslide because no one would go up against him – seems to have sparked a renewed enthusiasm in the work. Attendance is high, speeches are made, the university governors are left in no doubt as to what the will of the people is. Membership has grown too. And Valjean has stopped looking for Javert’s presence at any more meetings, though his imagination has supplied his presence more than once. He still doesn’t know what the guy was doing at the first one.

‘Jean. There you are.’

His head snaps up, and his heart sinks. ‘Oh. Valerie, you surprised me. Hi.’

Valerie is somewhat of a problem. He takes his hand off the table, and almost steps back. It wouldn’t do any good. She’s the type that follows what she wants, she’s made that clear.

‘No one else here, huh?’ She sashays towards him – he can never work out if it’s for his benefit, or she always walks like that – and comes to a halt right up in his space, a hand on the hip that’s thrust towards him.

‘No one else here.’ He smiles politely. She’s beautiful, he knows. She’s got a smart mouth, Latina fire by the ton, and a body he’s heard a lot of the other guys around here talk about. But she’s also about nineteen. And despite his ruminations over what he’d do if a woman came on to him, he’s finding the fact she’s female is just terrifying.

‘I came to help out, you know? Like you said, guapo.’

He steps back to avoid her hand touching him. ‘I have to go. I have a meeting on campus.’

He almost adds that there’s a party too, but she’ll probably want to come. Actually, he should take her. She’d meet a lot of nice guys there.

She just pouts. ‘What’s the matter? I got guys all over me, you’re the only one who says no. I’m not good enough for you because I’m from the neighbourhood?’

He sighs. This has really gone on long enough. When it first started, he thought she was kidding. It soon became clear she wasn’t. ‘No. It’s for two reasons. And one is that you think I’m a…what was it? Bad boy. Right?’

She shrugs, and scores a painted fingernail lightly down his forearm. ‘So what?’

He takes his arm away. ‘So, I’m not a bad boy. Not anymore. I’m also too old for you. And…you know what, screw it.’ Javert’s face flits across his mind, as it often does. ‘I’m too gay for you as well.’

Her jaw drops about a foot. ‘…no. You’re not! A guy built like…ohhhh.’

He nods as she appears to get it, even though being gay is not the reason he lifts the way he does. He nods again as she starts to laugh, great peals of it that bounce off the walls around them.

‘I never saw that. How come you don’t got a man around? You hiding one somewhere? Best bring him to the Christmas party, or I’m goin’ to think you’re lying to me.’

‘Not lying. No guy, though.’

She shakes her head at him, and he shrugs. ‘OK, I really have to go,’ he says, and then blinks when she grabs his shoulder, and kisses his cheek.

‘It’s a damn shame. You’re beautiful.’ It’s a seductive murmur in his ear, and he’s suddenly worried that she’s going to keep chasing, and try to change his mind. ‘You look me up if you wanna try it the right way, OK?’

‘…sure.’ Anything to extricate himself. She’s still laughing as he leaves, and he imagines the news of it will be all over the factory by tomorrow. He’s not concerned. Being gay is better than being criminal, right?

 

It’s a good meeting. Everyone’s relaxed, and looking forward to either going home from the holidays or just taking a break from classes. There’s been groups of committee members out in the city all day, half shaking tins at grocery stores, collecting for a fund they’ve set up to help disadvantaged students with the cost of books. And half handing out leaflets about another demonstration planned for the new year, asking for benefits for student workers in non-campus jobs. Valjean’s expecting to catch some heat for that one, because it’s him that’s setting the standard; he has a basic package for everyone who works for him, even students who just come in for the summer. While employed at his factory, everyone gets medical as a right. The more hours worked, the more benefits increase; he puts the scale against effort put in, not years accumulated. And volunteering for the charity work goes towards it too, which ensures there’s always enough people willing to help.

It works for him, but he’s ready to acknowledge that’s because profit is not his main aim. Now it’s being used as a model for others, but is not proving one anyone else is – yet – willing to live up to. So the committee, under the banner of promoting student welfare for those needing work experience in other industries, have planned a demonstration, an information exchange, a huge leaflet drop; a full weekend of promotion followed by a roll-out of sustained advertising and campaigning through Spring. Valjean has tried to point out that they all have to study at some point too, and finals will be approaching; he’s voiced his opinion that they can’t force other businesses to follow his lead. But he can’t deny there’s been interest from outside quarters too, and of course, the press love any opportunity to try and get an interview with him these days.

‘I just think we need to think about it more,’ he says later, a cheat day allowing him to drink a couple of beers for once. They’ve retired from the classroom to the party. Enjolras has that fire in his eyes, but Combeferre looks thoughtful. ‘You know I think it’s good for people, but I’ve got a healthy profit margin and I don’t have any board members to answer to. If you want government companies to extend the same rights, it’s going to be a hell of a lot harder. You’re talking about getting enough people – students, mostly – to make enough noise for actual government policy to change, and I have to say…there’s always a chance, but it’s going to take a lot more than a few months next year, before we stop so we can actually pass finals and graduate.’

Combeferre cracks a smile. ‘Unless you’re studying another two or three years.’

‘It’s a little different for med students though.’

‘Is it? Not really. We have bigger loans than practically anyone – if we could get sponsorship of the kind you offer, we wouldn’t have to cripple ourselves with debt before we even see a patient.’

‘I know. OK, it’s true, but I’m just saying it’s going to be a lot more work and take a lot more time than we have.’

Someone cranks the stereo up in the corner, and a cheer goes up. Valjean’s hired the back room of a restaurant for the night, food laid on, wine and beer on demand. Some kids have already gone home for the vacation, but there’s about a hundred here and more pouring in. He sees Joly slide in, pulling a woollen hat off his tight Afro, grinning in their direction. He bounces over, takes the wine Bossuet offers out without a thought, and says, ‘we ambushed a group of businessmen drunk at a lunch party. I think we got about three hundred bucks off them alone!’

‘We’re still waiting on a couple more groups, were they with you?’

‘No, just us. But there were quite a few holiday markets around, and a lot of mulled wine. They’re probably just taking the long way back.’

Bossuet laughs, and kisses his temple. Enjolras nods with a smile, and Valjean looks around. The room is full, and everyone looks happy. This group of friends allow him to latch on every now and again, and it’s nice. The feeling of release since that letter in November has not gone away; scarcely an hour passes when he doesn’t relish the thought that he doesn’t have to worry about a knock on his door anymore. The factory is doing well again, and he can cope well enough with the level of suspicion levelled in his direction.

He squeezes Joly’s shoulder, and heads to the bathroom. The only black spot is, of course, Javert. But that’s one he’s just going to have to live with. In truth, he doesn’t know if he thinks about Javert because there’s part of him that still wants the guy, or because he simply wants to not let him become what it always seems he’s threatening to be. When he thinks about him, it’s mostly to pray that he doesn’t become a cop like the ones he used to know…and if he’s honest, he’s hard pressed to see how it can be avoided.

He washes his hands, and returns to the party. Half the room is bouncing up and down to some old track from the nineties that he doesn’t know, and the other half is standing in groups, laughing and talking, and eating and…it’s good. It’s really good. There’s a Christmas tree, and fairy lights. Bossuet and Joly are kissing under mistletoe, and even the guys he doesn’t know – that one’s called Feuilly, and he’s not a student but he helps out anyway. And there’s Grantaire, who is a student but not a member of the committee. They both look to be having a good time. Girls dance with boys, and girls, and boys with boys, and…yeah. It’s good.

He leans against a wall with one last beer. He’ll leave in a few minutes. Even crowds that feel safe are a little uncomfortable, and he knows these guys will probably party into the small hours. As for him, he thinks he’ll just go home and get an early night. He’s been sleeping better since November, but still not great. The beer might knock him out for a bit longer.

He finishes the bottle and puts it down. And then someone knocks his shoulder, and a voice raises nearby. His head snaps up, immediately alert…but no one’s coming for him. People are rushing in through the door to his right; the colder air hits him, and knocks him out of the immediate freeze his body goes into at being touched unexpectedly.

Someone yells, ‘watch it!’ as people push in, and there’s a sound of breaking glass. The laughter stops, and it looks like there’s about to be a scuffle between a guy on the dancefloor and another man who’s just barged in. But still people are being knocked aside, and Valjean slips along the wall to see what’s going on. He meets Enjolras near the corner, though the man barely notices he’s there.

There’s a kid. Valjean pulls his head back. ‘There shouldn’t be-‘

‘It’s Eponine’s brother. He-‘ Enjolras’ face goes from intent to something far darker in a split second. ‘He was out collecting with…’

Valjean watches as Enjolras leaps on to the nearest table to see. And then the music is gone, and someone’s yelling for quiet. All eyes turn to the boy by the stereo who is, incongruously, turning a red and green bobble hat in his hands. There’s tinsel around his neck. There’s snow on his cheeks, melting to water. When he speaks, his voice is very small, very high, but absorbed by everyone.

‘Jehan’s been shot.’

The room gasps. Valjean snaps his head up. Enjolras’ gaze could blast the wall away. ‘Is he all right?’ he demands, and the boy looks up to him at once, and shakes his head, slow and deliberate with fear.

‘He’s dead.’

Everything is very still. But the boy is not finished.

‘And it was the police that killed him.’        

 

 

Chapter Text


 

The room explodes into uproar. Valjean retreats until his back is safely against the wall. Enjolras jumps down off the table and pushes his way through to the boy. From the corner of his eye, Valjean sees his friends rush over: Combeferre, Courfeyrac, Bossuet, Joly...all of them streaming to the lad who stands with his Christmas hat scrunched in his hand. And others too, crowding around but shouting questions too loudly to let the boy be heard. 

Valjean circles around the long buffet table, and approaches the group from the other end. The music is switched off, and Enjolras tells everyone to be quiet. 

'What happened?' 

Silence falls. The boy's voice is thin and high. 

'Jehan was on the street for hours, and no one said anything. I saw him earlier, and he was fine. When I came back from the park, he said he needed to find a bathroom. I offered to stand there with his tin, but he said he wouldn't let me be out there on my own. Bahorel had gone for coffee. So I waited for him to come back. He just went into a gas station bathroom - we were down at the corner of Main, next to the Korean market.' 

Valjean scuffs his boot on the corner of the table, but no one looks at him. He can picture the street. Main is the dividing line between what most people would call the 'nice' area of town - decent stores, middle-class families - and the start of their own neighbourhood, the one a certain type of people tend to avoid. Valjean's lived here for years and never had trouble, but he's rarely managed to convince others it's safe. 

'I heard a noise.' The boy's voice is higher, shaking. Anger, rather than fear. 'Someone was shouting. This big fat guy was yelling about stealing, and the cops. I heard Jehan say that he was just collecting - it was a charity thing. But the guy hit him - he fell out of the gas station door. He had blood all over his face. I was a block away, but I ran and saw him fall. The guy wouldn't stop yelling. He stood over him. And then Jehan tried to get up, but he hit him again and I heard sirens-' 

Enjolras puts his hand on the boy's shoulder. 'Why did they shoot him?' 

'I don't know!' Now the boy sounds upset. Valjean remembers flicking the TV on a few months ago, and catching a headline about a police shooting downtown. Would they really not have learned? 

'There was this car, and two white cops. Jehan said he was unarmed, he just had this tin. He said he was allowed! He went to get his permit out of his pocket, and then I...' The boy breaks off, and scrubs fiercely at his eye. 'They just shot him. One of them. Right in the chest.' 

Silence falls again. Valjean counts his breaths, focuses on keeping them deep, and even. He makes it to two, and then the room blows up again. 

He steps back to the wall, his ears pounded by the noise. The rage around him is sharp enough to cut, a razor-edge they walk with only one way to fall. His pulse throbs in his neck. He can’t make out a single word in the melee, but he can see Courfeyrac and Combeferre talking very seriously to Enjolras, very quietly, and all their friends listening hard. 

He glances to the door. He can feel hair rising at his nape, and trepidation turning in his stomach. He’s been in a room like this once before, and it did not end well for anyone. But how can he leave? He knew Jehan. A dreamy sort who smiled a lot, always with a book. He didn’t say much, but when he did it was startlingly to the point. A small guy, black, clever.

He supposes it’s only the ‘black’ part that mattered to those cops. But as soon as he thinks it, he shakes his head. He can’t make that judgement. He wasn’t there.

Enjolras is moving. His friends follow, and the rest of the room start to rally around. Valjean wants to just let him speak, but finds himself reaching out instead, catching his arm almost against his own will.

‘Enjolras.’

The man looks at him, tears blazing in his eyes. ‘You don’t have to come,’ he says, and Valjean tightens his grip, just a bit.

‘You don’t have to go.’

Courfeyrac makes an angry sound, but Valjean ignores it.

‘I do. We all do.’

‘…yeah.’ He holds on a moment longer, then lets his hand drop. He can’t find the right way to frame the words. And then it’s too late; Enjolras jumps onto a table and begins to talk, and there’s no turning back after that.

 

*

 

He stands outside, and breathes. It’s freezing out here, frost on car windows already and the threat of snow in the air. It’s calm in the parking lot, but the raised voices in the back room float out to him, and it’s too easy to imagine himself in there, in that heat and anger, with the smell of liquor spilled out on the floor like blood. Enjolras had not talked for long, but he didn’t have to. Valjean left when someone kicked the Christmas tree over.

He turns his head without lifting it from the brick. Behind the voices, he can hear sirens. Maybe half a mile away, smoke rises over the city. There’s the occasional soft pop pop pop, a sound he knows is only soft because he’s this distance away. Close up, guns are loud.

He turns his head back, and looks at his car. He measures the distance in his mind. Twenty paces, perhaps. He could be inside it in seconds, home in ten minutes, watching this unfold on TV right after that. He could work out, and then eat something. Sit on the couch in his robe, sipping a coffee, wondering about these boys. He could do that.

The side door opens. Shouts rush down the stairs and out into the street. (‘We can’t!’ ‘…they deserve it!’…) Valjean nods at Combeferre, who nods back and walks over. The door swings shut, and locks the argument behind it. They stand shoulder to shoulder, staring at nothing.

Eventually, Combeferre says, ‘just go.’

Valjean blinks slowly. He is still so tired. And he is stupid. He made the mistake of thinking everything was alright. ‘I don’t know if I can.’

Combeferre shakes his head, and pulls a cigarette out of his pocket. ‘Don’t tell the hospital, OK?’ he says as he lights it, and lets his head drop back.

Valjean quirks half a smile. The smell of tobacco takes him back to cells full of it. He tries to hold his breath, but it’s too late. ‘What are they saying in there?’

‘You don’t want to know.’

He probably doesn’t. He lets the silence run. Combeferre smokes half the cigarette, then drops the butt and grinds it out. ‘We’re moving in about ten minutes. You really don’t need to come.’

Valjean looks at him. ‘I knew him too.’

‘But you weren’t friends. And you don’t need more trouble with the cops. Everyone understands that. Or will, when they think about it later.’

A police car speeds past, lights and siren screaming in the night. Valjean winces at the assault, and sticks his hands in his pockets. ‘What are you going to do?’

‘Protest. March. Let them know they can’t shoot every black kid they don’t like the look of.’

Combeferre loses his doctorly air when he’s angry. His jaw sets, and the mild-mannered young man hardens into something far more rigid. Valjean can’t look away.

‘Can you do it peacefully? If you start a fight, you know what the cops’ll do.’

Combeferre gestures towards the smoke. ‘The fight’s already started. This is the second time this year this has happened. Did you miss the last one?’

He had. It was when he was stuck in the problem of what to tell Javert. ‘Did you protest then?’

‘Yeah. That was supposed to be peaceful, and look what happened.’

There’d been a riot. He remembers that much. Combeferre shakes his head, tight with anger, and stares toward downtown. ‘Anyway, Bahorel’s still out there. He never came back. We need to find him.’

Valjean just watches his face. An ambulance flashes over the intersection down the block. Pop pop pop. His stomach turns over, and he mentally backs away.

‘Then I hope he’s OK.’

He stands straight. It takes more effort than it should. Combeferre looks at him sharply, then extends a hand. ‘See you after, Jean.’

Valjean shakes it. It’s firm, and solid. He feels sick. ‘Stay safe. All of you.’

He stands until the door has shut after the young doctor, then lets his head hang back so he’s staring at the sky. There are no clouds overhead, and the stars flicker back at him. He envies their distance. People would be so small to anything that far away. Invisible. Unimportant.

He digs for keys and walks to his car, his mind carefully blank. He’s at the driver’s side door when his phone rings. A frown at the caller ID, and he swipes to answer.

‘Father?’

‘Jean! Have you seen Javert?’

‘…what?’

‘Have you-‘

There’s a loud crash from the other end of the line. Valjean’s blood turns to ice, and he freezes on the spot.

‘Father? Are you OK?’

‘I’m fine, I’m fine! It’s nothing. Did you see what-?’

‘-yeah, it was a guy I knew. I was…what about Javert?’

There’s a pause, and voices at the other end of the line. From what he can hear, they sound scared. Or busy. It’s hard to tell. His free hand clutches at his wing mirror. ‘Father?’

‘Yeah, I – sorry, we’re setting up a first aid centre in the hall. A bunch of people got hurt already. Javert was here, but I lost him. Did he call you?’

‘No. Was he hurt?’

‘No, he’s fine! But – listen, I have to go. If he calls you, send him back to me. OK? Promise me. I’ll explain after.’

‘…yeah, OK. But why would he-?’

‘I’m sorry Jean, I gotta go. You go home, OK? I’ll call you later.’

He’s left with a dead line. He stares at the phone, fear crawling up his frozen nerves. He’s never heard Father Charles sound worried like that, never heard him with that note of fear. For Javert, or just the situation? And does he know Javert?

He’s in the car before the thought is finished, tosses his phone down and slams the door shut. The windshield wipers of his SUV make short work of the frost, and he pulls out without fastening his seatbelt. If nothing else, he can go and help at the church. It’s better than sitting at home.

The thought lasts half a block. By the time he’s at the intersection, another has taken over. What was Javert doing there, and why’s he out tonight? If he was at the church, he’s not working. If he’s fine, why does Father Charles want him back?

He sits at the intersection even though the light is green. His fingers clutch hard at the wheel. A car beeps behind him, then swerves past, a silent yell sent his way from the other driver. He ignores it, and peers up towards the sky. Smoke to his left. To his right, home. Straight ahead, the church.

Two of the routes hold safety. The third will probably be fine, but he can’t say for certain. Without any conscious thought, he grabs his phone and dials Javert’s number. It goes straight to voicemail, and he throws it back on the seat without any surprise, or frustration. It’s what he expected.

He looks right. He thinks about what Javert’s put him through these last months. For a second, he remembers the feeling of contentment at the start of the party, when everything was OK.

He turns the wheel left, and hits the gas. In the end, it’s the only option he can take.

 

*

 

The city is a world of fire and smoke. He drives with wide eyes and his heart throbbing in his throat, easing down roads filled with people all running the same way. It looks like the entire neighbourhood has poured out; he watches the ebb and flow of groups walking down the middle of the road, crossing from one sidewalk to another, meeting other people and pulling them in, growing in number every few steps. The windows of the stores are intact here; not so on the road before, where gangs of kids were throwing parking meters through every window they could find.

A shout goes up somewhere ahead, and people are scattering in front of his eyes. Valjean hits the brake, then mutters, ‘shit!’ and yanks the wheel hard to the side. An ambulance flies up the road toward him, its siren slicing through the raised voices of the people. They let it pass, and then just as quickly close ranks again. He can’t see why, until a gap between bodies opens up and a blue light winks at him. He waits, uncertain, people running past his windows on both sides. His breath fogs the window.  And then a voice rings out, tinny and robotic.

‘Police! Clear the way. Move out of the road.’

It’s answered by jeers. Valjean sees three or four guys run along the sidewalk, carrying something in their hands. When he realises they’re bricks, he opens the door without thinking, meaning to say no! But it’s too late. He can only watch as they let them fly, bodies arching in perfect unison as they send their missiles raining down on the cops.

Glass shatters. A siren flares out, then stops. A cheer goes up from all those marching, and the pace increases; they start to run, and Valjean sees that nearly all of them have something in their hands, that there’s about three hundred people about to converge on one lone cop car. He slams his door shut and starts to run as well, knowing there’s nothing he can do but unable to just sit and watch it happen. Bottles smash on the concrete around him, and he’s relieved to smell only beer and liquor, no gasoline. The freezing air bites at his throat, but he feels no cold.

The crowd brays again. He can’t see far ahead, but there’s the unmistakable squeal of tyres on the road and a few seconds later, a smell of burnt rubber. A volley of stones, bottles, bricks fills the air, and comes down where the car was just seconds before. Valjean runs up on to the sidewalk, and tries to see. The car is a block away, reversing at speed. Relief breaks through him as he watches it execute a tight spin at the intersection, and head off the other way. Even with a smashed windshield, they should be fine.

He pulls up next to a woman bent double, panting, her hands on her knees.

‘Where’s everyone headed?’ he asks her. She doesn’t look up.

‘City Hall. That’s where the cop is.’

‘The one who killed the kid?’

‘Yeah. We want him. See how he likes it.’ She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, and straightens up.

‘They’ll never hand him over,’ he points out, blankly.

She glares at him, and then spits on the ground. ‘Then we’ll go in and get him. We don’t, we’ll barely even find out his name. They’ll have him cleared and back on duty in a week.’

He wishes he could tell her she’s wrong. He can’t, so he moves on. City Hall isn’t far from here. And surely if that’s where it’s all coming to a head, that’s where Javert will be? It’d be pointless to go anywhere else.

As he walks, people sprint past him. They’re mostly black or Hispanic, and some of them seem familiar from the factory. But it’s hard to see, and what does it matter? It occurs to him that he has a warehouse close by, and the main plant is less than half a mile away. He’s unlikely to escape damage…but even as the thought comes, he lets it go. He thinks of Father Charles instead, and prays he’s OK. And Javert. What’s he doing?

The crowd surges onto the next street, one block away from Main. City Hall is six blocks down and two over, in the ‘good’ side of town. Valjean tries not to think of what might be going on there; it’s bad enough here, where moving helps calm some of the nerves that come with being in a crowd. He distracts himself by ticking off places as he walks. Mrs Weng’s herbal store, where he buys tea that helps him sleep. The front glass is shattered, but it seems otherwise intact. The tiny specialist running place three doors up, where he buys sneakers every six months and fends off attempts to get him to run the city marathon. He can see Alex, the owner, stacking boxes in front of the window and front door, probably afraid he’ll get looted. Valjean looks around. No one seems about to start breaking more stuff; they face forward, their faces set, striding towards where they feel they need to be. It’s like they have no choice, that they’re following some invisible thread leading them all towards…who knows?

He feels like he knows. The faint dread that’s been inside since the restaurant is growing into a living thing, trapped inside but fighting its way out along his nerves. Stopping is impossible, but he has no idea what to do. Even if he finds Javert, the guy’s not going to tell him anything. The best he can hope for is to make sure he’s all right, and try to persuade him to go back to Father Charles. He’ll go with him, and help out at the church. He pushes down the questions that want to overwhelm him, because they’re not helpful. But he wants to know what Javert was doing at the church tonight. Most of all, he wants to know whether Father Charles has known Javert all along.

They turn onto Main. Valjean pauses, and looks left. The gas station where Jehan was shot is clearly in sight, its sign still lit up. More obvious is the police blockade; a solid wall of cop cars with their lights flashing through the mob gathered in front of them. He catches a glimpse of cops in riot gear lined up, before the people surging past his shoulders bump him, and force him to move on.

It’s a wide street, the central artery for traffic into and through the city. Valjean sees people break off the main group and lay into the huge stores lining the roads; a Costco looks like it’s getting ransacked, and the few cars in the parking lot have all been smashed in. Wendy’s and MacDonald’s are filled to bursting – he can’t tell if they’re getting ruined, or people are just hungry. Trash cans have been set alight, and he sees about ten kids coming out of a DVD store, their arms full. It’s not just people from his neighbourhood, there’s too many now. Just as always happens, people are taking the unrest as a chance to steal what they can. Valjean wants to feel bad about it, but it’s hard to hold onto anything but the trepidation coursing through him. This is not his fight, except it’s everyone’s fight. Or it should be. An innocent kid got killed tonight, so who can blame people for being angry? He thinks he should be mad about people taking the opportunity to wreck the livelihood of others, but there’s nothing but resignation in him. It says something about him, probably. He knows, with no doubt at all, that if this happened when he was a teenager, he would have been out looting with the rest.

 

*

 

City Hall is a huge building, squat and grey, flags waving proudly from its nineteenth-century brickwork. It looms over a plaza that, in better days, is a place to come and rest during a day’s shopping; where people can sit in the shade of trees and eat ice cream, or get sprayed from the ornate water jets and fountains dotted between grass and paved areas. In the summer, they put in a temporary beach volleyball court, and it’s a haven for rollerbladers and street performers. The Thanksgiving parade starts and ends here every year. At night, skateboarders make use of the steps and rails – though they’re not supposed to – and there’s a staged area, where local bands sometimes come and play.

When Valjean steps into it tonight, it is silent. After the energy on the street, it’s disconcerting. It feels like walking into a soundproof room, and his brain has to catch up with his ears.

The entire square is full of people, with more pouring in from each side. But while they talk, and their shoes make a noise, the people already here – facing forward as one, still as statues – do not speak a word. For a second, he thinks reason has prevailed; that they’ve taken up peaceful protest, and a silent vigil. But even as he thinks it, hairs start rising on his neck and a cold sweat breaks on his forehead. There’s nothing peaceful about this. He can practically breathe the venom in the air. It’s not a crowd standing to make a point, it’s a crowd waiting. The tension crawls up his skin into his mouth and eyes, and his stomach closes in on itself. He has to move to the side at once; it’s a reflex action, because he can’t be caught in the middle of it, he can’t take it. And when he moves, he can see more of what’s happening,

The steps of City Hall are a solid block of police officers in riot gear. Metal gates have been spread the length of the building, and around the side, cordoning the building off. But they’re only waist height, and will offer no impediment at all when the tension breaks. And it will break; it’s inevitable. Valjean feels sick with it. It crackles over their heads, through their bodies. When he pulls his focus to the people at the front of the crowd, they have one thing in common; their bodies are tensed, their eyes wide and ready. Hands grip the top of the metal cordon. No one’s focus moves from the police for one second.

Valjean sweeps his gaze over the square. People, more people. White, black, Hispanic, Asian. Kids in gang colours stand next to people dressed head to foot in college prep; he spots more than one familiar face from campus. They fill the stage, stand at the edges of the empty fountains, circle around the base of the giant Christmas tree. The only movement is from more coming to join them, and they stop still when they see what he’s seeing, and join in the silent waiting. But there’s a limit. There’s too many bodies. They’ll be packing the surrounding streets soon, and when it kicks off – it’s going to kick off, it can’t not – he can’t see anything but carnage.

He backs away to the nearest wall, and tries to force a deep breath. He shouldn’t have come. There’s no way to find Javert in this, there was never any hope of it. He should leave. Go to the church. They’ll need help. But it’s too late, and he’d have to push his way out. The thought of it alone takes too much effort. He spreads his palms over the brick behind him, rubs his fingertips over the rough stone until they graze, and waits like all the rest. Jesus. He shouldn’t have come. Trepidation twists into fear, and his chest starts to pull harder. A woman being carried past catches his eye, and looks him up and down. He thinks she says something, but she’s pulled away and the words are lost. He shuts his eyes, then opens them when it’s worse not being able to see. Someone pushes at his shoulder, and then again on the other side. He’s boxed in, and there’s no way to get out. He shouldn’t have come.

The touching is too much. He moves suddenly, thinking he might make it to the nearest exit. But he can’t get anywhere, it’s too full. A man swears in his face and pushes him back, which forces people behind to shove him forward again. Heads turn, and he hears murmurs. He keeps going, his heart thudding in his throat. Sound melts away, taken over by the pulse of blood in his ears. His stomach is trying to escape up his windpipe, but his chest is closing over, tightening up and refusing to let him breathe. Sweat prickles behind his ears; his fingers bunch into the shirt of a guy in front, and he pulls him bodily out of the way.

‘What the fuck, man!’

‘Sorry,’ he mutters, and pushes on. A helicopter whips its blades overhead, shining a light down on the crowd. Press, or police? He can’t bring himself to look up and see. And just when he can go no further, when the bodies in front are a solid wall he’ll never squeeze through, shouts start rippling out through the mob. A rattle of the metal cordon. The ground begins to vibrate; it takes Valjean a few seconds to realise people are stamping their feet. And the reason why is soon obvious; the huge wooden doors of City Hall open, and the voice of the Chief of Police echoes out over a tannoy.

‘Disperse at once. The police officers involved in tonight’s shooting are not being held here. They’re elsewhere, in a location that will not be divulged. We can assure you that a full and thorough investigation will take place-‘

The rest of his words are drowned in a roar, a living, breathing scream of rage that bites through the air. Valjean shuts his eyes as the crowd surges as one; he is vaguely aware of the crash of metal, and the beating of batons on reinforced plastic. And then he is free. The people in front shove forward as the barriers collapse, and the entire mob launches itself at the police blockading the steps. In a matter of seconds, the world descends into one huge brawl. The cops hold their line for a minute, but the sheer weight of numbers breaks them apart. Valjean stands still, his fingernails digging into his palms. The twenty foot Christmas tree rocks backwards and forwards as a hundred people try to push it over. Strings of lights get ripped out of the trees. Bricks and bottles shatter on the paving stones, on riot shields, on reinforced helmets. Screams of pain, shouts of rage. And a minute later, a thud and then another, and then the crowd is scattering under the onslaught of rubber bullets.

Valjean cannot move. But then someone goes down in front of him, and he’s jerked into action. A teenage boy chokes from the impact of rubber into his chest, and Valjean crouches to see if he’s all right.

‘Just breathe. Don’t panic.’

The guy grips his arm, eyes wide in fright. Valjean pulls his shirt open. No blood, but a nasty mark from the force of the shot. He presses it, tries to rub the shock away.

 ‘It’s OK, it’s OK. Nothing broken,’ he says, but the boy won’t relax. Valjean hooks his hands under his arms, and starts to drag him to the side. He can hear the wail of ambulances approaching, and there are other people falling to the walls, blood on their faces and arms. He leaves the boy with a woman helping someone else, and looks around wildly. A few seconds later, he drags a cop away from beating a guy on the floor, and wrests his nightstick out of his hand. Before he can say anything, three men jump on the cop and start hitting him; he tries to pull them away too, but the beaten man groans, blood pouring from a cut on his temple. Valjean grabs him, and drags him clear. More cops appear to help their colleague, and these ones still have their sticks. He hears a bone crack when a girl tries to take a gun from one of their belts, and her shriek rises above the melee. Valjean pulls her away too, and then finds himself on the ground, his shoulder ringing from a strike. Hands grab him and yank him away from the cop advancing on him, but suddenly they’re all getting hit and he can’t see from where, all he can do is try to shield his head from the worst of the blows. Someone lands next to him, half on his legs. He tries to get up, and takes a blow to the hand which then thuds into his cheek. His head hits stone, and he blinks as his vision swims. There’s a figure standing over him, a giant all in black, hand raised high over his head. He can’t make his arms come up to defend himself, though his dazed mind yells at him to move. He can’t. He just watches as the stick descends, and then curls up when it lands in his ribs. Pain bursts in his side, and he chokes as breath is driven out of his mouth. His chest clenches and for an awful few seconds, he can’t force his lungs open. Reflex pushes him on to his hands and knees, which frees the pressure – but then a boot lands on his other side, and he’s flat out on the stone again. His fingertips pull over the cold slab underneath him, the world tilting side to side. There’s bound to be another strike, but he can’t brace himself. It takes all his effort to keep his eyes open and, a few seconds later, to turn his head. The cop is still there, poised to strike again…but then someone blindsides the guy out of nowhere and crashes him to the ground. Valjean hears his name as if it’s being called from a long way away, and then hands pull at his jacket.

‘C’mon,’ he hears, but he can’t make his legs work. ‘Jean, get up.’

Combeferre. It’s Combeferre. He turns his head, and sees that the doctor has one of his arms, and Bossuet the other. Bahorel wrestles with the cop on the ground, and Valjean watches as he lands an elbow across the man’s jaw strongly enough to knock him out. He’s being pulled away, but not before he notices Bahorel take the cop’s gun and nightstick.

‘Put them back,’ he says, but they can’t hear him. And then the din is receding, and he’s dragged to the edge of the square, and around the corner into a wide alley between two tall buildings. Is it getting quieter? Or darker? Everything seems to be going away, hiding behind flickering purple spots.

It’s his last thought for a while. Purple becomes black, and he’s out.

 

*

 

Enjolras is there, and Bossuet, and Courfeyrac. Seeing their faces is somehow not reassuring, but he can’t pull his thoughts together enough to figure out why. There’s about thirty more behind them, including the boy from the restaurant. Valjean has time to think he shouldn’t be here, and then Combeferre is clicking his fingers in front of his face, demanding attention.

‘Jean, follow my finger. Focus, come on.’

He tries. It’s quieter where they are, which helps. But the sound of the fight is not far away, and not going anywhere. His head hurts, and his hand aches. His side is bad enough to make him feel like throwing up.

Combeferre nods, and peels his eyelids back in turn. He tells him to look up, then lets go of his face and opens his jacket. Valjean tenses up at once, which brings some clarity back.

‘Don’t.’

‘I’m just checking your ribs.’

‘No-‘

But he can’t make his arms lift fast enough to stop him. Combeferre slips a hand under his shirt, and a few seconds later, frowns. Valjean feels all his energy drain away; he just sits, mind wandering away, and lets it happen. It’s too late to do anything. He catches the man’s eye when he turns a questioning gaze on him, and assumes he must still be touching. But he can’t feel it. It’s his dead side.

Combeferre clears his throat, and takes his hand away. Valjean’s face is hot, and he doesn’t look up.

‘I don’t think you’ve got concussion, but your head’s going to hurt for a while. You need to go to hospital to check your ribs, I don’t have time to do a full exam here.’

Valjean tucks his shirt back in roughly, and nods, still looking down. ‘Later.’

‘Jean-‘

‘No. Later.’ He looks up, and meets Enjolras’ eyes. ‘How long was I out?’

‘Not too long. Long enough.’

Unhelpful. ‘What are you doing in here?’

It’s only now he realises that they all have signs of injury. Blood on shirts and fists, torn coats, a rising black eye or two. All except Enjolras, who would look as perfect as ever if it weren’t for his dishevelled hair and dirt on his coat. The man crouches down now, his face grim.

‘We’re protesting.’

‘Attacking cops?’

Enjolras snorts. ‘Better. Come and see.’

He offers a hand. Valjean is about to take it when sounds of a scuffle reach his ears. Heads turn, but he can make nothing out in the darkness further along the alley. Just bodies, and then the sound of fists striking something solid. Courfeyrac mutters a curse, says, ‘be right back,’ and disappears. Valjean inches his back up the wall, holding in a gasp from the sudden pain from his side. Enjolras frowns, but just motions with his head to the mouth of the alley.

They’ve blocked it up with whatever they could grab, by the looks of it. Valjean sees some of the metal gates, a broken bicycle, some bollards and tape obviously snatched from a road repair crew. Boxes, and a few half-shattered crates. It’s not solid, but just enough to cause impediment to anyone trying to come through. Unless they come in force, he thinks. It won’t last three seconds if the cops gang up.

Enjolras taps the shoulder of someone standing beside it. They move aside, and Valjean recognises Joly, who gives him a bright grin. ‘Hi, Jean!’

He nods back, wary. Enjolras nods at Joly’s hands. He’s holding a smartphone.

‘We’re recording.’

‘Recording.’ It takes a moment to penetrate. The air smells of smoke and burnt rubber. He can taste blood in his mouth.

Enjolras nods. ‘Every bit of police violence is on camera. When they try to tell us they were justified tomorrow, or the day after, we’ll be able to prove them wrong. We’ll hold a mirror up, and dare them to tell us we’re wrong.’

He says it with such fervour. Such anger. Valjean has to admit it’s a good idea. Tapes always emerge after things like this, but they’re usually confused or inconclusive. Still, he has to ask.

‘Did you record the looting too? The people who broke windows and set stores on fire? Because I don’t know if you saw it, but I sure did.’

Enjolras turns his head towards him. For a second – just a second – Valjean feels stupid for having asked. But he meets the gaze squarely, and is not about to back down from the question.

‘Of course we did.’ The man’s voice is calm, with only an edge of scorn. ‘People destroying their own neighbourhoods because they want to steal – that’s stupid. They should face justice too.’

Valjean nods. He would say more, but voices raise behind them again, and he turns. His head throbs in time with his heart. ‘Where does this alley let out?’

‘First Avenue. We’ve been circling around to get better footage. There’s more of us on the other side of the square.’

‘Why does everyone look beat up?’

Enjolras makes a derisive noise. ‘Because anytime a cop realises he’s being filmed, they try to shoot us. We fight back.’

None of it’s hard to believe, and he can’t bring himself to argue. And he doesn’t have to, because Courfeyrac emerges, scowling, from the people grouped behind. Enjolras jerks him over with his head. ‘What’s he saying?’

‘Nothing.’

Valjean frowns too. ‘What’s this?’

Enjolras and Courfeyrac exchange a glance. Courfeyrac says, ‘you should go see an EMT, Jean.’

There’s something in his voice. Valjean shakes his head, even though it makes it hurt more. ‘What’s going on?’

Courfeyrac shrugs. Enjolras watches him for a second, then gestures him to walk with him.

People part before them. Valjean recognises almost every face from the committee on campus, and a vague feeling of horror cuts through the pain. How is this so organised? Have they been planning for something like this? Or is it simply that they came together when they heard about Jehan, and were all of one mind? Maybe. But some of these kids are in a bad state, and not just boys either. He  passes a girl with a fat lip and a nightstick in her hand. She looks fiercer than any of them.

The thought melts away when they stop. Everything melts away. Enjolras touches the boy from the restaurant to make him step aside, and when he does, Valjean’s blood turns to ice for the second time that night.

at least I found him, is the first thought that comes, at some point, as he stares. But Javert is very definitely not all right.

Valjean turns to Enjolras, and his voice comes out harsh. ‘What have you done?’

Enjolras’ is cool in return. ‘Nothing. I stopped the worst of it.’

Valjean rotates his head back. It seems to take a very long time.

Javert is on his knees, face turned up to them. Valjean thinks he’s dazed, because his arms are so limp and his hands rest on the ground. His fingers are dirty. It’s what registers most strongly. More than the blood on his face, or the way his skin is so white as to almost shine in the light of camera phones turned on him. More than the way he is thin, far too thin, and wearing clothes that hang off his shoulders. He recognises the shirt from their first year at college. He wore it in Valjean’s apartment, but it fit then. And his hair is much shorter, almost shorn. His cheekbones protrude. And his fingers are dirty. They’re resting in dirt. Javert hates having dirty hands.

‘Jesus,’ Valjean murmurs, and Javert’s mouth opens. He starts to laugh, a terrible sound, and Valjean’s heart twists so hard it hurts. Jesus.

He spins, and grabs Enjolras’ arm. Too tight probably, but he doesn’t care.

‘What happened?

Surprise flickers across Enjolras’ face, but he makes no move to reclaim his arm.

‘He was here with us before this started. He said he was going across the plaza to film. Some of us went with him. When we came back, he'd disappeared.’

‘I was there!’

It’s the boy. Valjean swivels his gaze to look down. The kid grins back, brazen.

‘I followed him, ‘cause he went without saying anything. And he wasn’t filming anything then. I saw him go and talk to the cops. That’s when they came for us the first time.’

Valjean looks to Enjolras, who nods. ‘They attacked us. Bahorel took a rubber bullet in the shoulder. Most of the damage here came from that. They’ve been trying to get at us ever since, so don’t look at me like that, Jean. We’re defending ourselves. We’re not going out there to attack.’

Valjean releases his arm. The sounds of the fight come back. It seems to come from both sides, so maybe it’s spilled out onto First. Maybe the crowd has exploded on Main. Maybe he just can’t tell what he’s hearing any more.

Enjolras takes a step, so they’re shoulder to shoulder, both looking at Javert who has, mercifully, stopped laughing.

‘Do you know him? He came to meetings sometimes.’

Did he? Valjean hadn’t noticed.

‘I know him.’ He takes a step, and crouches in front of Javert. Their eyes meet. And that’s one thing that hasn’t changed, that stare, but it’s muted now. From pain? Something else? There’s something about this that feels wrong.

He looks behind him, at Enjolras watching the two of them. ‘He’s the one who leaked my story to the press.’

Courfeyrac swears again, quietly. People murmur. Enjolras frowns. ‘Oh.’

‘Yeah.’

He looks back at Javert. No reaction at all. He’d expect something. But he’s distracted by voices behind them, and someone yelling, ‘they’re coming again, Enjolras!’

Valjean makes up his mind. He stands, grabs Javert’s shirt and ushers him up to his feet. ‘I’m taking him.’

‘What?’

Brick breaks over their heads, showering them with flakes of stone and mortar. Someone yells to get down, and something about shooting, but Valjean doesn’t move. He just stares Enjolras down.

‘We’ve got unfinished business. I’m taking him.’

Someone yells in pain. Another voice yells, ‘Joly!’ and Enjolras whips around to see. It’s impossible to ignore the aggressive shouts from the other end of the alley, and it’s obvious the police are trying to break in to get at them. Valjean seizes the moment, and pushes Javert ahead of him.

‘Move.’

Javert moves. Slowly, and with a limp. Valjean catches his shirt at the back this time, and propels him along. People squeeze past, going to help against the cops. Glass smashes behind them, and Valjean pushes harder.

‘What did you do? What are you doing here? Father Charles called me – he told me to tell you to go back to him. What’s going on, Javert?’

But Javert just shakes his head, and says nothing. There’s no time to ask more. Valjean pushes him faster, not stopping until they reach First Avenue. It’s quieter. There are people running past, but the police activity is to the left and right, on the side streets that lead into the plaza. This is where the press vans have parked, a long row of trucks with antenna on their roofs, and people yanking cords and cameras out of them. Valjean keeps walking, mutters, ‘keep your head down,’ and crosses the street. There’s another alley cutting between First and Main, mercifully empty. He doesn’t let him go until they’re sheltered by it. It’s a relief to have his hand back. His ribs are killing him, and his head feels as though it’s going to burst.

‘Why were you at the church earlier?’

Javert faces him, back against the wall. He seems to be having trouble keeping himself up. ‘None of your business.’

His voice is hoarse. Valjean is struck again by just how awful he looks. It’s like he hasn’t had a square meal in months. The muscle of his forearms are wiry and tough, and far, far too obvious. He can’t stop himself asking.

‘What’s happened to you?’

Javert shakes his head again. And says, ‘go on then.’

‘What?’

‘You want revenge, right? Perfect time for it. Go on.’

Valjean screws his face up in disgust. ‘I don’t want…I was getting you out of there! Did they do this?’

Javert’s eyes half-close. The silence is filled with words that don’t come.

Eventually; ‘…no.’

And then; ‘what are you saying?’

‘I’m saying, let’s get out of here. I’m taking you to Father Charles. He sounded worried about you.’

Javert just looks at him. His breath seems to be rasping out of his chest.

‘My car’s a few blo…shit, more than a few blocks. Can you walk half a mile?’

Stupid question. He obviously can’t. Or won’t. There’s something oddly hopeless about him, but Valjean can’t figure out what it’s about. There’s no time. He just wants to get out of here.

‘Ambulance then,’ he says, and Javert recoils.

‘No. I’m fine.’

‘You’re not fine.’

‘I don’t need a hospital. They’re full of people getting shot, anyway.’ He laughs again, high pitched. ‘Have you seen what a rubber bullet can do? I have.’

Valjean blinks. Cop cars flash past on Main, visible through the far-off end of the alley. Javert seems to slump a little down the wall, and Valjean reaches out to catch him on reflex. He stops when the man tenses, and lets his hands drop.

‘OK. OK, fine. Then I’ll go get my car. Father Charles was setting up first aid. I’ll take you there, and you’ll get checked out. If they say hospital, I’m taking you to a hospital.’

Another small laugh, and Javert waves his hand. Valjean watches him slide down the wall until he’s sitting.

‘I’ll be ten minutes. Don’t move.’

There’s no response. Valjean waits, torn. But Javert’s in no state to move, and he’s not arguing. It’s probably the closest to a ‘yes’ he can expect.

He crouches down to look him in the eye. ‘Don’t. Move. OK?’

Javert looks back from under half-closed lids. For a second, sound disappears.

‘Why do you care?’

Valjean half-smiles, though there’s no humour in him. ‘I honestly don’t know.’

He leaves at a run, though every step hurts like a bitch. His body screams at him to stop, but he doesn’t. His car’s half a mile away. He can be back in less than ten minutes, as long as he just keeps moving.

 

*

 

All the windows of the SUV are smashed, but so what? He throws his jacket onto the seat, sits on it, and prays the thing will start. It does. He can’t drive fast, because the street is a mess of broken wood and stones, but at least there aren’t any people. Most of the neighbourhood is out fighting, and no one’s going to be wandering around for fun. He picks his way through the debris, and takes side streets to try and avoid getting stopped. It makes no sense to have not cordoned off a radius by now, but maybe there’s not enough manpower. He doesn’t see a single cop around here – again, he supposes they’re all busy elsewhere. Most of the trouble seems to have moved to the other side of town. Maybe people started thinking like Enjolras, and realised trashing their own neighbourhood was counterproductive. They’re probably trashing the middle-class world now.

He pulls up on First, and runs into the alley.

It’s empty.

‘Shit!’

For a moment, he can’t think. His head pounds, and his side feels like it’s splitting open on every breath. Where the hell would Javert go? He has no idea. Home? Possibly. But campus is too far to walk with him in that condition. Maybe he’ll get picked up by an ambulance on the way.

Valjean gets back in his car, and tries to reason. If Javert’s against hospital, he won’t go there. Would he go to the church under his own steam? It’s a mile away. He’s no more likely to make it there than anywhere else. Knowing it’s hopeless, he yanks his phone out and dials his number. Voicemail. Valjean curses again, then hits Father Charles’s icon.

‘Jean! Are you OK? Are you at home?’

‘No. I’m fine. I’m not at home. Look-‘

‘-where are you?’

‘I’m on First. I went to look for Javert. Listen-‘

‘Jean, I told you to go home!’

It sounds like there are a lot of people around Father Charles. He feels bad for calling; the guy’s obviously busy. But he doesn’t know what else to do.

‘Well, I didn’t go. Listen, I found him, but I lost him again. He’s hurt pretty bad. I was going to bring him to you, but he disappeared. I’m coming over now, but if he shows up...’

‘Yeah, OK. But don’t come. There’s no room, we’re packed in. I was going to call you. Can we use one of your-‘

‘Yes!’ He can’t believe he didn’t think of it before. ‘Shit, yes, of course. I should’ve thought about it. The factory warehouse is closest to you. I’ll get someone to open it up, do whatever you want with it. Any of the others too.’

‘Ah, you’re a Godsend, son. I’ll see you over there?’

‘No. I’ve got to find Javert. He can’t have gone far.’

He moves off as he speaks, backing up to avoid the edge of the plaza. He’ll have to cross Main and circle around from the other side. Something tells him Javert will stay close to where the cops are.

‘Jean, seriously. Be careful.’

‘Yeah. Hey, Father?’

‘Yeah?’

‘You’re going to tell me what’s going on, right? After this.’

There’s a long hesitation. And then Father Charles says, ‘just find him, Jean. We’ll talk later.’

He rings off. Valjean stares at the phone. Whatever’s going on, it doesn’t sound like he’s going to get answers any time soon.

 

*

 

By 4am, things seem to be calming down, if only by dint of running out of people to fight. Valjean hunches over the wheel of his car, fighting the urge to simply pull over, and sleep. His head is one long throb, and aspirin isn’t touching it. He can’t sit straight because the muscles in his side have gone into spasm around his injury. Blood keeps flaking off his face – he hadn’t realised he was cut until he noticed the red bits cracking onto his shirt. A glimpse in the mirror shows a gash on his forehead, and his eyebrow caked thick and red. There’s dirt smeared on his cheeks, and his clothes are disgusting. And it’s freezing. The heater is no match for having no glass in the windows, even cranked up to maximum.

The police had finally stopped all traffic coming near City Hall around two-thirty, and he’s been searching side streets ever since. His phone rings occasionally – people asking where things are in the warehouse, and asking if they can open up the others. St. Peter’s wanted permission to set up a field hospital in one, and send real doctors over for the less serious injuries that were blocking up the ER. He let them have whatever they wanted. He just wants to find Javert. He even drove up to campus, but Security wouldn’t let him in. He asked them to check Javert’s room, and waited when they said yes. They came back with nothing.

He tries to stop for gas at four thirty, but a sign tells him the cops have made them close the pumps so no one can fill cans. It’s probably sensible, given the circumstances, but he can’t stay out much longer without the stuff. He sits behind the wheel, shivering and in pain, and makes a decision. He’ll go to the warehouse. It’ll be more productive than doing this, because Javert clearly doesn’t want to be found. He’ll get warm, and find some decent painkillers. He’ll find Father Charles. He’ll see if he can help.

Halfway there, and his phone rings.

‘Jean.’

‘Father. Have you seen him?’

He tries to stifle a yawn, because it hurts too much to stretch his face. It feels like he has grit in his eyes. Nothing seems real.

‘Yeah. Yeah, I’m looking at him.’

His eyes snap open, fatigue gone in a flash. ‘What?’

‘…are you anywhere near the hospital?’

‘Which…why?’

Fear grabs him, and won’t let go. The priest’s voice is soft, worn thin.

‘St. Peter’s. Just come.’

‘Father…’

He doesn’t know the questions to ask. But he knows that tone of voice.

‘I’m in the ER. Just come.’

Valjean rings off, tosses the phone down and wheel spins out of the gas station. Ten minutes to the hospital. He can do it in less.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The riot slips away as he stares down at Javert. Emotions war for dominance. Disbelief at what he’s seeing. Pain. Fatigue. The urge to cry that never gets fulfilled. Impotence at being unable to do anything, or say anything, or fix anything. Horror. Anger. And sorrow, most of all. His heart could break for what he sees, his chest could crack and pour all the tears he can’t cry out on to this bed.

His fingers have, at some point, curled tightly around the metal bars at the end of the frame. Javert looks so young. His face is almost as white as the sheets he lies on; almost as white as the bandage around his neck. The only colour is the deep, angry purple of the bruise creeping out from the edges of soft cotton. Valjean leans in. He can only see signs of breathing when he gets close. Too close. Close enough to kiss. The skin at the edge of Javert’s lips is blue.  

‘Are you alright, Jean?’

He pulls back slowly, and leans on the frame. He thinks his legs might give out, but they don’t. They carry him as he breaks for it, and bursts into the nearest bathroom; they fold neatly under him as he skids to the toilet and dry heaves over the bowl. He hasn’t eaten anything so he can’t do more, but the action splits his head in two. He can’t stop, no matter how much it hurts. Because Javert tried to kill himself. Javert tried to kill himself, and nothing could hurt as much as that.

He feels Father Charles’s hand on his shoulder. His body releases him, and his weight sags onto his arm. His ribs cut like a knife. Exhaustion is turning the world fuzzy at the edges of eyesight, but his mind runs at a thousand pointless miles an hour.

‘Where was he? How did you know?’

Father Charles gives a short, humourless laugh. Valjean spits bile, flushes the toilet and drags himself up to sit on the lid. His stomach contracts, and he’s shaky. The room tilts from side to side.

‘He did it in one of the old mills down by the river. No one would have found him on a normal night, but there were some kids hiding out with stuff they stole. They heard him come in. Thought he was a cop. When he didn’t come for them, they found him and cut him down.’

‘And-?’

‘…and the police called me, because I was the only personal number in his phone.’

Valjean shuts his eyes. Everything drains out of him like someone pulled a plug. From feeling too much, he can’t feel anything at all. But then he sees Father Charles’ head go down, and he stands to grasp his shoulder. He’s never seen him like this. Less than whole.

‘I knew he wasn’t all right, but I never saw this coming.’

What can he say? He didn’t know Javert wasn’t all right. He knew nothing. And now all he has is the image of Javert’s gaunt body hanging from a beam somewhere, swinging in the darkness. What if he hadn’t been found? He might have hung there for days. No one would have known.

Father Charles straightens up, his eyes damp. ‘Come on.’

He follows. Javert might disappear if there’s no one looking. They walk out and find chairs, sit staring at a body barely alive. Valjean feels he might never move again.

‘Why isn’t he waking up?’ he asks, eventually.

‘He’s sedated. They said he fought the EMT’s from the moment he opened his eyes. Tried to grab a scalpel when he got here to finish the job. They think he’s…ah, I don’t know what they call it these days. Having a manic episode? Bipolar? Someone said schizophrenic, even. This is all before talking to him, mind.’

‘He’s not any of those things.’

Father Charles nods. They fall to exhausted silence. Valjean wants to roar at the sky, but he hasn’t got the energy. He just watches the blanket rise and fall, though the effort makes his eyes ache. Rise and fall. Rise and fall. Javert could be dead now. Not just lost; alive out there somewhere, but out of touch. He could be gone. It feels like a hole opening up inside him; like he’s standing at the edge of an abyss. If Javert had died, he would not have been able to tell himself it was nothing to do with him, and he’s not going to try it because the attempt failed. He did so much wrong, and look what happened.

His eyes run over the body before him. Look what happened.

Time passes. A nurse looks through the curtain, and goes away. Father Charles grips his hand. Another nurse comes a little while later, and then a doctor appears and writes something on the clipboard at the end of the bed. It’s easy to believe they’re invisible. He feels like he’s floating, like reality detached a long time ago. Javert tried to kill himself. Javert, of all people. The most together guy he’s met in his life. The one most sure of everything he does, and feels, and knows. He left the promise of medical help and safety, took a rope, walked to an abandoned building and strung himself up like a pig for slaughter. He can’t get past it, though he thinks he should be trying to figure out why. But all he can think of is him swinging. His stomach turns over again.

And then there’s a hand waving in front of his face. He looks up.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Jean Valjean.’

The doctor looks down at his face, and stretches out to the cut on his forehead. Valjean jerks away on reflex, but winces at the sudden movement. The hand stops, and the doctor frowns.

‘Are you injured?’

Father Charles looks around. ‘Jean?’

‘I took a few hits. Nothing serious.’

‘Isn’t it?’ The doctor’s tone edges on amused, and he bends to examine the cut close-up.  ‘Let me be the judge of that. Did you hit your head?’

‘Yeah, but-‘

‘But nothing. Come on, you need a proper work-up. Do you have insurance?’

Father Charles’s expression tells him not to try arguing, and he won’t add to the man’s worries. He stands up gingerly. ‘You’ll stay-?’

‘Of course I’ll stay. G’on, get fixed up.’

‘Yes, I have insurance,’ he says to the doctor, and follows behind, looking back at Javert sleeping as he goes.

He can’t believe he tried to kill himself. It’s madness.

 

*

 

The doctor is painfully thorough with his head, and Valjean has to talk him out of giving him a scan. He only manages when he tells him Combeferre checked him right after it happened. He tries to avoid showing his side, but this man’s no fool. There’s no comment about the scars; Valjean lies still and bites his tongue to keep silent as his ribs grind in ways he doesn’t think they should. He’s whipped off to X-Ray, and proclaimed to have two cracks soon after that. He shrugs, and thinks about Javert. Does he have insurance? Did they bother to scan him?

He returns to Father Charles with two fingers splinted, a prescription for some strong painkillers and a list of things to look out for regarding his head injury. He had managed to look politely engaged, while all the time wrestling with the knowledge that Javert tried to kill himself. It’s like a fifty ounce steak someone’s dumped in front of him, and told him he has to eat in one bite. He doesn’t know where to start. It won’t fit. And he doesn’t understand why he has to do it at all; there’s just no way to process it.

Javert hasn’t moved. Father Charles looks Valjean up and down.

‘You need to sleep.’

‘So do you. And – all due respect – you’re a lot older than I am.’

‘Cheeky bastard.’ The priest rubs his palms together. ‘Older people need less. Go on home for a bit, son. They say someone should be with him he wakes up, and as much as possible after.’ They catch each other’s eye. ‘It’s just you and me.’

For the first time, Valjean wonders about Javert’s mother. But then his mind moves on, and provides another image that depletes him. Of Javert opening his eyes, and seeing an empty room. No, he can’t let that happen. The revulsion is hot, and fierce; thick in his throat. No, that won’t happen.

‘Don’t they need you back at the church?’

‘They’ll manage. I’ve got my phone. And have you ever tried to tell a nun how to organise anything? I did once, in 1983. I’m never doing it again.’

Valjean smiles despite himself, and Father Charles settles back in the hard-backed armchair. ‘Go on. I’ll nap a bit, they reckon he’ll be out for a while. Go and take a shower. None of those weights, mind. Leave the factory alone. Just sleep, Jean, I mean it.’

‘Don’t think I could do anything else.’ He doesn’t think he’ll be able to at all. And he doesn’t want to go. He takes a step, and stops. Javert doesn’t move. Father Charles glares.

Go. You’ll be no use if you keep awake any longer. And mind you get your pills, too.’

He does as he’s told. And in truth, it feels easier when he’s not looking at Javert. It doesn’t seem real when the evidence isn’t before his eyes. But at home half an hour later, he calls the factory and gets an update on the damage and finds his mind is back at the hospital. In the shower, he sees Javert’s sleeping face. In bed, he sees him dangling, lifeless, lit by a single beam of moonlight in the darkness. Frost on his eyelashes. Hanging there for days and days, frozen in the winter air while people shop and buy Christmas gifts a hundred yards away. He tries to block it out, but it won’t leave. He tells himself it didn’t happen that way. Javert’s alive. But it might have happened. It might, and there’s a good chance it’s his fault. Why the hell didn’t he just hold on to him in the alley? He could have carried him if he had to. What was he thinking?

Maybe it’s not easier when he’s not there. Maybe it’s worse, because imagination kicks in. His body takes over eventually, and somewhere between one recrimination and the next he falls asleep. He sees Javert’s face in his dreams, but at least it doesn’t hang. It breaks to pieces instead, over and over again, and Valjean can’t stop it no matter how hard he holds his head in his hands. Harder and harder to keep him safe. As hard as he has to. If Javert would only stop shattering between his fingers, they’d be fine.

 

*

 

He drives back at noon, drifting between people crowding around the burnt-out remains of their shops and houses. Roads are still closed. Camera crews block sidewalks. The air stinks of smoke, and what he thinks might be tear gas. Just a hint of it. But it’s all a dream; the only reality he has space for is at the hospital. He’ll do what he can out here, of course, but that’s for later. All he wants at the moment is to look into Javert’s open eyes, and see that he’s OK. When he asks himself if that’s because he cares, or just to assuage his own guilt, he doesn’t know. Everything’s all balled up together, and he’s afraid to tug at the threads.

There’s no sign of Javert in the ER, which causes a minor heart attack until he’s told they’ve just moved him up to a ward. He leans against the wall of the elevator, tilted to one side because of the stiffness of the muscles around his ribs. A few hours’ sleep took the edge off the fatigue, but lost him the advantage of adrenaline. He’s stiff as a plank of wood, and the painkillers aren’t helping much.

He steps out onto a quiet landing with a nurse’s station. There’s a TV tuned to the news, with a newscaster talking about the damage from last night. Over two hundred arrests apparently, with more to come once recordings have been examined and faces identified. No word yet on the cost to the city. Valjean spares a thought for Enjolras, and Combeferre, and all of them, but he can’t focus on it. Last night seems a hundred years away. He can barely remember stopping for the bagels in the bag he’s carrying. Events of the last few days floats as separate affairs, nothing connected except by the knowledge that Javert tried to kill himself.

‘Who are you here for?’

‘John-Michael Javert.’

The full name feels alien in his mouth, but the nurse just nods. He’s escorted down a long corridor, with small rooms containing six or eight beds leading off the sides. Everyone seems to be sedated to the point of coma. He wants to ask if this is the psych ward, but can’t bring himself to hear the word ‘yes’. He can’t think of Javert in one of those. And there’s no bars or locks, so it probably isn’t.

‘Doctor Pierce is talking to your friend. I don’t think she’ll mind if you hear.’

Valjean nods at the nurse as the curtain is drawn back. His eyes go automatically to the bed, even as his mouth says, ‘hi’, and then chokes into silence.

Someone’s taken the bandage off Javert’s neck. It hits him like a brick between the eyes, making it real like nothing else could.

The purple bruising is livid and awful, a wine splash of colour on white. There’s a deep line where the rope pulled tightest – it sliced in, he realises. The skin’s cut in places. The bruise flares out from it, spreading up to the skin under his jaw. Valjean drags in a deep breath, and tries to hold onto to his churning stomach.

‘Jean, this is Doctor P…are you OK?’

He wrenches his head around, and fixates on the doctor instead. She looks concerned, but shakes his hand when he offers it. She says something, but he doesn’t hear.  His heart thuds in his chest. Jesus Christ.

‘…Jean?’

He sits down, his knees weak. ‘Sorry. Yeah. I’m OK.’ He holds the bag out. ‘Brought you a bagel, Father.’

The priest takes it without looking, his expression concerned. Doctor Pierce puts a hand to his forehead, which he tilts away as politely as he can. ‘I’m fine. Sorry. You were talking, carry on.’

He watches Javert as their words float to him. Only the machines prove he’s alive.

‘…committed, if he’s got no family. There’s no option. He can’t be allowed to fend for himself, not when it was a serious attempt. Unless there’s another…’

Valjean fades it out, his mind turning up the volume on the image he’s been trying to keep away since this morning. Another time, another room, a completely different sort of hospital. A pain so great it was unbearable; so great he was sure it was his lowest ebb.

‘…tomorrow probably, but if you want…’

It wasn’t. His lowest ebb was a week later, and he physically recoils from having to remember, closing his eyes and jerking his head away. His hand grips the arm of the chair. Javert will never go through that. Never. Jesus, why did he have to do this?

Someone’s holding his wrist. He blinks at it, then looks up into Father Charles’s concerned face. It says you OK? without needing words. He nods dumbly, feels a squeeze, and the conversation above him carries on. He wipes his forearm across his brow, and tries to loosen the knot of tension in his sternum. His eyes ache again, pressured by the tears that never find their way out. It should be peaceful here, surrounded by people sleeping, but it isn’t. It’s more like being back in the plaza, waiting for everyone to wake up, or die, or go crazy, or whatever it is they’re here to do. But no one here is going to stand up and start yelling. The tension is a different beast, and he can’t put his finger on it. It worms its way under his skin and curls up there, resting but ready to bite. He shifts in the chair. Javert can’t stay in here. He’d go crazy.

Father Charles is looking down at him. It takes a long moment to realise they’re alone.

‘You zoned out. You alright, son?’

He nods. The priest comes to sit next to him and, just as before, they fall to watching the bed. Eventually, Valjean hears, ‘they said we could go home later. They’re gonna sedate him overnight to make sure he sleeps. But he should wake up pretty soon now, and they want one of us to be here with him.’

‘I’ll stay. You need to sleep.’

‘OK.’

Another long silence. Valjean knows it’s not comfortable, but can’t muster the will to ask the questions he so desperately wanted the answers to yesterday. They’ll come in their own time. For now, there’s the blood dried on Javert’s throat. He wanted to kiss that throat once. The memory prickles up his skin, leaving him cold.

Father Charles takes a deep breath. Valjean tries to focus.

‘There’s nothing dodgy, you know. Nothing I’d be ashamed of telling you.’

He blinks, slowly. ‘I didn’t think there would be.’ And it’s true, because he trusts Father Charles. ‘But you’ve known him longer than you’ve told me, haven’t you?’

‘Yeah, I have.’

A pause.

‘I met you in prison. I met his father in prison, for exactly the same reason. Only-‘ a short, dry, laugh with no humour in it. ‘-you listened, and he didn’t. He was an awful man.’

Valjean turns his head in surprise. Father Charles never describes people like that, and certainly not with that much venom in his voice.

‘He was violent, and a drunk who gave it up only because he couldn’t get whiskey in jail. He didn’t care about anything. He killed a cop in a drunken brawl when Javert was ten.’ He waves a hand, emotion sliding away. ‘I can’t say much, it’s up to him what he tells you.’

‘You went looking for him again?’

‘No. I can’t do that. The church is there for people who want to come.’ He sighs and slumps in his chair. ‘He turned up one day in September. I recognised him. We’d talked a bit when he was a kid, but he was never one to say much. I couldn’t tell you that before either, but he said he didn’t care if you knew. He’s been coming by most weeks since.’

‘What for? What’s wrong with him?’

‘C’mon, Jean. You know I can’t say. The last thing he needs is anyone betraying his trust.’

Of course. But the chances of him hearing if from the man himself are low, and Valjean finds he really wants the truth. What happened in September that would cause such a change? He’d seen Javert at the meeting. He looked OK. He looked good. He was a few days away from his police physical, and he certainly didn’t look like he was about to start wasting away. It doesn’t make sense.

But he just nods, and runs hands down the front of his clean jeans. They’re shaking a bit. ‘Go and sleep, Father. I’ll stay with him. I’ll call a cab to come get you.’

‘I’ve got my car.’

‘Yeah, but I’m not letting you drive it.’

The priest scowls at him, but it breaks into a smile a second later. Valjean answers it briefly, but then both fade, and they look at Javert. Silence reigns for a while. Father Charles nudges their shoulders together.

‘He’ll be OK.’

‘Yeah.’

Maybe. Maybe his OK-ness depends entirely on the people around him being able to give him what he needs. But there’s only him and Father Charles, and he won’t speak for the priest, but he knows he doesn’t have a clue what that is.

 

*

 

When Javert wakes up, a single look at Valjean’s face starts him thrashing. Valjean stares in shock until he realises, with a stab of disgust, that he’s restrained under the blanket. He’s been sitting here all afternoon next to a guy tied to his bed. The knowledge is a twisting knife in his guts; even more so because he has the power to release him, and doesn’t. He hits the ‘call’ button on the machine instead, and stands watching him, too scared to touch.

A nurse comes, followed quickly by Doctor Pierce. Valjean leaves because it’s too loud, too raw. When he comes back five minutes later, Javert is still. There’s colour in his cheeks for the first time, but the nurse has to bend to hear him speak. Valjean can’t make out the rasped whisper, and wants to kick the bed in frustration. Javert looks at him, though. His stare is muted once again, this time by drugs, but Valjean fancies there’s betrayal in it. He has no idea what he’s supposed to feel about that, and the vague anxiety he always lives with mutates into the first hint of panic. What did he do? He must have caused this, or Javert wouldn’t react to him in such a way. But he can’t figure it out, and his brain is too stressed to separate thought from emotion.

‘Mr Valjean, can I talk to you?’

‘Huh?’

His head jerks up in surprise, and Pierce raises her eyebrows. ‘Outside?’

‘…oh. Yeah.’ Javert’s eyes follow him out. He feels like a traitor. But he still asks, ‘how is he? What can I do? Is he going to be OK?’

‘Physically, he should be fine. He’s slightly malnourished, but we can fix that. Mentally-‘ she shrugs, resigned. ‘Now he’s awake, we’ll get someone from psych in to see him. It all depends on that. Father Charles said he had no family, so he’ll probably be committed to the ward for a while, unless he’s rational about his reasons, or…well.’ Something about his face seems to be stopping her. ‘I’m not a psychiatrist. That’s their area. The best thing you can do for him is not leave him alone. Don’t try and make him talk – it won’t help, might actually hurt, and he shouldn’t say much anyway because he’s damaged his throat. Not permanently.’ She adds this last as he feels his face blanch.

‘Anyway, I wanted to make sure you know what to do, if you’re going to be coming to see him. Don’t pressure him. Even when he looks fine, he isn’t.’

He keeps his expression even this time. ‘I know. I have some experience.’ But it helps to be reminded. He focuses on hearing her words, not the memories that crowd in, demanding attention. It helps dissipate his annoyance at her too; annoyance that perhaps isn’t fair. But how can anyone be rational about the reasons for a suicide attempt right after doing it? Jesus, that’s the stupidest thing he’s ever heard.

Doctor Pierce’s eyes are narrow. She nods. ‘Fine, then. Please go and sit with him, but ask the staff any questions you need to. It’s a delicate process. He’ll be assigned a therapist when he’s well enough to leave here, and his friends will have to make sure he’s coming to the appointments. It’s not spying on him, it’s ensuring his wellbeing. So please, keep an eye on him.’

‘I will.’

He will. Pierce nods again, squeezes his arm briefly, and leaves them alone. Valjean steps back inside the curtains, and pulls them closed. Javert blinks at him…then very deliberately turns his face away, and shuts his eyes.

Valjean hovers awkwardly. His hands feel too big. The hospital is warm, and it’s a cloying heat that seems to stick the smell of the place to his skin.

‘Javert?’

Don’t try and make him talk.

He moves, oddly embarrassed. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. How is he, of all people, supposed to help? He settles into the armchair by the bed, determined not to dwell on negative thoughts. He’ll sit here and be careful. He’ll learn the right things to say. If he has to sit here all day and stare at that bruise, he’ll do it. He will. He’s not leaving Javert alone.

 

*

Two Days Later

 

Valjean wakes to the sound of his phone ringing. He can’t remember where he left the thing, and has to scrabble through his sheets to find it.

‘Sryfather, di’I-?’

He coughs quietly, and tries again. His eyes won’t open fully. ‘Father. Sorry, did I oversleep? I’ll be there in twenty-‘

Father Charles is laughing quietly. Valjean eases himself back down to the pillows. His side feels like it’s about to crack open, as it always does in the morning.

‘You didn’t oversleep. I just wanted to check you were there. I’m coming over.’

‘But Javert-‘

‘Taken care of.’

Valjean hears hesitation, but his brain is only just catching up so he has no time to say anything.

‘You’re going to be mad at me, Jean. I want to apologise in advance for something, but I can’t say what.’

‘…I don’t know what you want me to say to that.’

A sigh at the other end. ‘Yeah. I know. Sorry, I’m tired.’

‘I know. It’s OK.’

It’s quiet for a moment. Valjean tries to force his eyes all the way open. His head throbs.

‘Anyway. I’ll be there in about an hour.’

‘OK. I promise I won’t be mad.’

A snort of laughter then. ‘Don’t make promises you don’t know you can keep, son. Just trust me when I say I’ve got good reason for what I’ve done.’

Valjean comes to his elbows slowly, ignore the grinding ache of it. ‘Father. You haven’t…’

‘What?’

They discussed this yesterday. In some depth, and with some actual heat. ‘You haven’t committed him?’

Silence. Then the priest says, carefully, ‘He’d have to be under my care for me to have that authority, you know that.’

‘And you know you could get it, given the circumstances. Father-‘ He sits up straight, horror creeping through him. ‘Tell me you haven’t.’

Another hesitation. ‘It’s complicated. I’ll see you in an hour, Jean.’

He hangs up before Valjean can say anything more. He stares at the wall, the phone still raised to his ear.

Javert can’t live on a psych ward. He’d never be the same. And more importantly – the basis for his whole objection yesterday – they don’t allow visitors at the start. No one could go and see him. Valjean knows, without any shadow of doubt, that that’s the worst thing anyone could do to Javert just now. He needs to know someone cares. Anyone. Father Charles was never in a position to see it, but hewas. He remembers Javert’s hunger, and his desire for touch. He remembers how he relaxed, and got bold when he got used to his company. He can still remember him initiating everything they did, from the first kiss to the blowjob that ruined everything…it was all Javert. He wanted to be with him, and to hang out with him, and to be cared for by him. His isolation is self-imposed, not a natural state. To lock him away from people now, when he needs them most – what the hell is Father Charles thinking?

Valjean climbs out of bed, and starts pacing up and down. Is there any way to get it reversed? Or persuade them to let him see Javert before he goes in, or while he’s there? He calls the hospital as soon as he thinks it, but they tell him they don’t have their own psych unit at St. Peter’s. Patients are transferred to a specialised facility. They give him a number, which he calls, but they won’t tell him anything. Javert’s not there, and they won’t confirm that he’s going there. Patient confidentiality. Valjean swears, and dials the priest back. Voicemail. He swears again, and calls the hospital. They won’t tell him anything, because he’s not family or a legal guardian. But while he’s on the line, can he confirm his details for the bill? He bites his tongue, and listens to his name, address, workplace, card details, bill total, etc etc ad nauseam being repeated at him. It’s a ridiculous figure, but that’s what happens when people don’t have a job with benefits. He doesn’t care.

He showers angrily. Dresses in the first clean things he can find, shorts and a tight sweater. If he’s not leaving the house to go to the hospital today, what does it matter? He can’t sit. He paces and paces, trying to find a way to get around it, but no answer presents itself. A treacherous voice points out that maybe it’s for the best. It’s not like Javert has spoken to him in the last two days. Partly because he can only barely make a noise, and partly – he’s made it obvious – because he doesn’t want to. He’s muttered the odd word to others, but only looks away when Valjean comes near. It hurts more than it should, probably.

Security calls to tell him he has a visitor. He resists the urge to yell let him up, then goes and opens the door. Then resumes pacing. Then stops. Then starts again. It’s unnatural, being mad at Father Charles. He doesn’t know how to handle it. He spins when he hears a knock, and glares at the old man looking sheepishly at him.

‘Where’d they send him?’

Father Charles spreads his hands. ‘He was released to my care, Jean. What was I supposed to do?’

‘I don’t know, but…’ he scrubs angrily at his face. ‘You don’t know what it’s like. He doesn’t need strangers, he needs friends. He needs…what?’

The man’s smiling. Valjean glares at him. ‘What’s funny?’

‘Nothing. I’ve just never heard you talk like that about anyone. Oh, and also…’ Father Charles takes a step backwards, and pulls the door open again. He gestures, there’s a pause, and footsteps, and Javert appears on the threshold.

Valjean gapes. Javert looks at him. Valjean looks back. Then Javert shrugs one shoulder, just like he used to, and goes to sit on the couch. Just like he used to. Valjean watches him all the way, tall and far too thin, scrunched up in a thrift store coat three sizes too big for him.

‘…Father?’

‘Come talk to me, Jean.’

It doesn’t occur to him to disobey. He detours to the kitchen though, takes a Coke out and offers it over. Javert takes it without looking at him, or trying to say thanks. His eyes are firmly fixed on the floor. Valjean watches him, nonplussed, and goes to the priest.

‘What’s going on?’

The man runs his hand through his hair. ‘I said you’d be mad at me. And I’m sorry, but this is best for everyone.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘He was released to my care. And now – unofficially - I’m releasing him to yours.’

‘…what?’

What? He just…what? Valjean blinks at him, an ice cube dropping slowly through his centre and spreading in his midriff . Father Charles draws him to the short hallway where the bedrooms are. He doesn’t resist.

‘He needs to go therapy, twice a week to start off with. The hospital have set it up. You’ll have to take him, I’m sorry. Other than that…’ an open gesture with his hands that could mean anything, ‘he’s all yours.’

What?

‘Jean…’ The priest looks old, tired. ‘If you really don’t want to, or can’t, of course he can come home with me. It might do him good even, because he’ll have to help out at the church. I can’t sit in the house all day. But what’ll do him most good is being here with you.’

Valjean can think of nothing to say. He can’t even think.

‘It’s just the truth. And it’ll do you good too. I think. I might be wrong – if I am, call me and I’ll come get him. Don’t torture yourself. But I think it will.’

‘Father-‘

‘Don’t. I’ve thought of all your arguments. And they’re bullshit.’ Valjean feels hands on his shoulders through the shock. ‘Jean Valjean, helping people is what you do. And with him…call me an idiot, but I think he can help you as well. You know more about each other than I ever will, and you don’t even know it yet. You’ve been through what he’s going through. You know what to do. You might not know it, but that’s the truth, and I’m not sorry for saying it.’

Valjean is numb. He looks into the old priest’s blue eyes, and finds himself helpless against the faith in them. He always has been.

‘He won’t want to. Making him do anything he doesn’t want to would be the worst right now.’

Father Charles’s smile returns, and he shakes his head. ‘You think he’d be here without me asking first?’

‘He said yes?’

‘He didn’t say no, which he would have done if he didn’t want to. He said no to the psych hospital. He didn’t say no when I asked if he’d let me take responsibility for him. I think he doesn’t much care what happens to him, but he can still speak up against stuff he doesn’t want.’

Valjean looks over to the couch. The sports news has come on the TV. Javert always used to switch over because he’s not into team sports, but now he just stares at it without moving. Valjean’s heart squeezes. He knows that feeling, that utter lack of energy. That passivity which means anyone can do anything, and you’ll just let it happen because it’s easier, and who cares anyway?

He turns back to Father Charles. In the end, it’s not such a hard decision.

‘All right. All right. I’ll do what I can.’

‘Good man.’ Father Charles grins, and claps his arm. ‘I’ll come over and see him, of course. I’ll keep him occupied when you have work you can’t miss. But just…do what you do, and he’ll be fine.’

The man’s so sure he can do this. Valjean tries to look confident, but inside he withers with fear. It’s all so close to the bone. He thought the passing years would give distance that would make it easier. Now he’s going to have to go back, because that’s the only way he knows how to help. He’ll have to draw from experience – and Father Charles doesn’t know the worst things, not by far. He doesn’t know what he’s asking.

But Valjean smiles, and pushes the uncertainty away. He’s being asked to step up, and there’s no way to refuse.

 

*

 

He sits next to Javert while Father Charles speaks to them. Technically, Javert shouldn’t be here, so they’ll have to be careful in what they say regarding his temporary address. If they catch him outside the priest’s care, the state will sign him into the psychiatric hospital against his will. He has to take his antidepressant meds, though the doctor would prefer he take the sleeping pills only if desperate. Therapy twice a week to begin with. Exercise is recommended. Stay away from stressful situations. And – Valjean is surprised to hear this said out loud, in front of Javert – everything sharp, poisonous, dangerous, or otherwise potentially harmful has to be locked away before bedtime tonight. Valjean glances at Javert. His face doesn’t move. He’s not a hundred per cent sure he’s hearing any of this.

‘OK, that’s my pep talk. I’ll leave you boys to it. No, it’s OK Jean, I’ll see myself out.’

He puts his hand on Javert’s shoulder as he passes, and bends to kiss his head. ‘You’ll be alright, lad. Call me if you need to. I’ll see you soon.’

Javert looks at the floor, and says nothing. It’s a little uncomfortable for Valjean; it feels like a personal moment, and one he shouldn’t have seen. But Father Charles is unabashed, and tips him a wink before heading for the door. A bag is brought in from the hallway, and left inside. The door shuts. A moment later, the elevator pings, and descends. They’re alone.

Valjean keeps his eyes forward as the room settles. The window behind the TV shows a pale sky, with clouds that hold the possibility of snow. Javert puts a fingertip to the zipper on his coat, and flicks over the little metal puller. It clinks in the silence. He stops, and sits still. Valjean attempts a weak smile, but he doesn’t look at Javert so it’s probably wasted.

‘I feel like a kid hauled up in front of the principal.’

No response. He can’t think of anything to say. Javert doesn’t move.

‘…I’ll go get your room set up.’

It’s a relief to get away from him already. Valjean looks back from the doorway to the guest room. Javert still hasn’t moved, and isn’t watching the muted figures on TV. He’s just sitting there.

Valjean heart clenches again. Not just fear for Javert, but fear for himself. He doesn’t know how to break into that, or even if he should. He doesn’t like what might come out. As he makes up the spare bed, he thinks over what little Father Charles has told him. So the man’s known Javert since he was a kid – it’s fair enough, the circumstances explain why he didn’t say anything. But maybe he could have told him he’s seen him these last few months. He would have made an effort to reach out again, if he’d known he wasn’t doing OK. But then, he thinks, as he shoves a pillow into a fresh blue case, maybe that would have made it worse. He has literally no idea what Javert’s problem is, so he can’t get mad at Father Charles for not letting him try and fix it.

He sticks his head out of the door. Javert’s still sitting there. He hasn’t made a lunge for the kitchen knives, though it’s playing on Valjean’s mind how much they need to be gotten rid of.

He checks the bathroom has clean towels, and brings the bag in from the hall. Two pairs of brand-new jeans, three T-shirts, one button down. Two thin sweaters, and a pair of sneakers. New packs of socks and shorts. Toothpaste, and a brush still in its packet. A plastic bag with fresh shower supplies, minus a razor. They obviously stopped by a store, but it’s confusing – why didn’t they go and get his stuff off campus? It might be better to get him things he’s familiar with, stuff he can relate to from before the suicide attempt. Not that he thinks Javert ever cared much about his clothes or toothbrush, as long as they did the job – but the guy’s already in a whole new world. Everything being new isn’t helpful, just as slipping straight back into the old routine wouldn’t be.

He hangs all the clothes up anyway, and organises an underwear drawer. He makes sure the bathroom has everything, but empties all his spare razors out of the cupboard. Does he need to take the cord out of the shower fitting? Probably not. It wouldn’t hold Javert’s weight anyway. Should he take his shoelaces away? He draws in a breath that’s almost a laugh. This isn’t prison.

But still. Maybe he should.

Back in the kitchen, he starts removing knives. ‘You want coffee?’ he says, in the vague direction of the couch. Javert shrugs one shoulder. His Coke sits on the table, barely touched. Valjean makes enough for two anyway, and continues to scour through drawers. When that’s done, there’s a pile of potentially harmful things. He realises Javert is looking over at it, an odd expression on his face.

‘What?’

‘Cheese grater?’

Valjean blinks at the pile. Javert’s voice wheezes like an old man with bronchitis.

‘Not going to grate my veins open.’

‘…yeah. Sorry.’

He puts the grater back, red-faced, and starts going through the rest of the rooms, tossing everything into a box. Scissors, the stapler, the sharp-edged measuring stick he uses for occasional designs. Bleach from under the sink. A paper knife in his office. Should he take the wires from the computer? They’re stronger than cord; someone could definitely use those. He does, just in case. He’ll just have to fetch them when he wants to use the computer again.

It takes a long time to be sure he’s got everything. When he’s done, he realises that life is going to be a little awkward with most useful things locked away. Also, that now he’s run out of reasons not to be in the sitting room.

He shoves the box under his bed, and closes the door. The whole apartment is still as the grave. A sudden fear takes him, and he hurries back to the living area – but Javert’s still just sitting there. Valjean hovers again, just as awkward as at the hospital. There’s no indication as to what he should do, so he sits down in the armchair to one side of the sofa. Javert looks at the floor. A clock ticks.

‘Are you hungry?’

A shake of the head.

‘Anything you need?’

Another shake. Valjean’s fingers curl up, and press into his palm. He’s never good with feeling uncomfortable in his own home.

‘You can put on whatever you want, doesn’t have to be the news.’

He looks right, to his weights area. He supposes Javert could potentially crush himself under a four hundred pound barbell, but he’d have to lift it first. It should be safe for now.

Javert stares blankly at the TV. Silent pictures of the riot flash up all over it. Valjean’s sick of the coverage. He fetches a book instead, and stares blankly at the page, turning one occasionally to avoid suspicion.

It’s how they spend the morning, and then the afternoon. Javert curls his legs up eventually, and dozes off. He wouldn’t eat lunch. He drank a meal carton the hospital have given him, stuff like an energy drink or meal replacement only designed to rebuild the malnourished. Valjean ate chicken salad and watched him sip. The effort seemed to be too much, hence the eventual nap. And still, he says nothing. Because he can’t, or just won’t? Valjean’s too afraid to ask, and too relieved not to have to engage.

He calls the factory when Javert’s sleeping. Mrs Victor sounds run ragged.

‘I’m really sorry, I know I should be there. But my friend got hurt, and I have to take care of him.’

‘It’s alright, we’ll cope. But half the staff have been arrested, or just haven’t come back. At least one’s dead. The students, I don’t know about. Do you want the charity donations put aside, or-?’

‘No! Give them out. We’d only collected a bit, but people need it now. Just hold the presents back, we’ll save them for Christmas.’

He should be out there sorting this out. There’s so much to do, and he can’t do any it. Frustration at Father Charles rears its head, and he pushes it away.

‘I’m going to let the city use the downtown warehouses as temporary homeless shelters. Anyone who lost their home can go there. Can you get flyers printed off asking for donations? Bedding, household stuff, you know the drill. I’ll call local TV and press, and see if they’ll put it on the next bulletin and their websites. I don’t know if many houses were damaged, but people will show up anyway. You’ll need to send the drivers down to clear them out before we open them up.’

‘Yes, I can do that. Most people are just standing around anyway, though I suppose we should be grateful they showed up at all.’

‘Yeah. How’s the repairs coming?’

‘It’ll be a few days.’

The factory did not escape unscathed. He didn’t think it would, and can’t find it in him to care too much. It’s annoying, because it only just got back in the black, but there are more important things to occupy his mind.

He hears the toilet flush in the room next door, and slides his chair over to open the office door. Javert pads past in his socks, and heads back out to the couch.

‘Mrs Victor, I’ve got to go. Let me know how you’re getting on, please. And I really appreciate all you’re doing, I want you to know that.’

‘It’s my job, Mr Valjean.’

She’s as business-like as ever, and rings off without saying goodbye. Sometimes he thinks she despairs of the way he throws money away, but she puts up with it so can’t hate him that much.

He sits on the couch again. Javert rolls his head to the side, and looks at him. Valjean immediately wishes he wouldn’t. The bruise shows up over the white edge of his T-shirt, and the rim of the collar has turned red from rubbing against the wound. He swallows hard, aware that he’s being watched and unable to hide his discomfort. He can’t shake the feeling there’s a corpse walking around his house.

‘If you need to work, go ahead.’

He shakes his head. Javert’s damaged voice grates through him. ‘I don’t.’

‘Liar.’

He swivels his head back. Valjean says nothing. Javert says nothing. The rest of the day passes in silence.

 

*

 

If things were unreal when Javert was in the hospital, they’re even worse now. Valjean loses hours to simply wondering what he might try to say next, or whether the apartment’s too warm, or whether to buy extra food considering Javert still won’t eat anything solid. He won’t speak either. He won’t sleep. The only thing he does with regularity is shower every morning at eight, after another sleepless night. He dozes on the sofa at times. The TV is always on, always muted. At least he got it switched from the news; it’s stuck on National Geographic or something now.

After three days of it, Valjean retreats to his chair by the window and sits to watch it snow. It’s already dark, but he can see it falling past the street lamps that still work. It gives a peaceful background to troubled thoughts - he’s been trying to text Enjolras and Combeferre for two days, and received no answers. He’s sent an email to the committee in general, asking everyone to check in and let people know they’re OK. Replies have come, but nothing from people he knows. It’s a niggling problem that digs into him under the bigger issue, sitting over there on the couch.

Javert has his head back, and his eyes closed. The bruise on his throat is turning yellow at the edges, and almost pink in the middle. Valjean’s thankful it’s no longer so red, but the line where the rope rubbed is only more obvious. The skin has scabbed over, and he’s seen Javert scratch it once or twice. Valjean finds himself wanting to touch it, to see if it might go away. He has to stop himself. It would be a bad idea.

Hours pass. Valjean is restless, cooped-up and going crazy. He walks to the treadmill, and looks at it. Maybe it won’t hurt if he only walks.

‘Don’t.’

He turns. Javert isn’t looking at him.

‘What?’

‘You’ve got cracked ribs. You’ll hurt yourself.’

His voice is much better. Valjean looks at the floor, then the treadmill, then walks to the couch. He tries to take advantage of the times Javert volunteers to speak.

‘Can I watch the news?’

‘It’s your TV.’

Javert doesn’t move as he sits next to him. The headlines aren’t due on for five minutes, so he just switches the channel and leaves it on mute. He watches Javert instead, and the guy doesn’t make him stop.

The lack of sleep is so obvious, this close. It looks awful on his gaunt face. The rings under his eyes are almost black, and all the bones are too prominent. His skin is drawn tight, tight enough that it looks like it’ll split over his cheekbones. And the exhaustion affects more than his appearance. There’s no tension in his body, probably because that would require energy. He’s utterly helpless like this, and he doesn’t seem to give a damn.

It hurts, because it’s so familiar. And it shouldn’t be, because all that was so long ago. Still, he has to swallow to clear the tightness in his throat.

‘Why’d you cut your hair?’

‘Don’t know. Easier.’

‘Javert-‘

Where to start?

‘News is on.’

He looks away from him. He’s right. He turns the volume up, and sits through a five minute dissection of the clean-up of the riot. One of his warehouses is shown, full to bursting with people taking shelter there. VT of blankets and water being handed out, a voiceover of the cost to the city. Footage from the night itself, showing four cops bringing their batons down on a curled-up body on the ground. Tear gas in a street somewhere. A girl taking pepper spray full in the face, while sitting peacefully on the ground – and a guy jumping on the cop to stop him, and getting beaten down by two more armour-clad police officers.

Valjean glances at Javert. And suddenly scrambles for the remote, switches channel and mutes it at the same time.

‘Javert? What’s wrong?’

He’s curled up on himself, knees to his chest and head hanging down. His features are pinched, his breath hard, his fingers kneading anxiety into the legs of his pants. Valjean puts a hand over one of his on instinct, and it jerks away like it’s electrified.

‘Sorry. I’m sorry. Are you OK?’

Javert nods. But if there were going to be any more words tonight, the chance is gone. Javert says nothing more, not even when Valjean tries to persuade him to lie down in bed. ‘It’ll help, even if you don’t sleep,’ he says, and gets no response at all. He’s starting to think he should break up a sleeping pill and put it in his protein drink. He’s starting to think he needs to be in a psych ward. This isn’t helping him, and he doesn’t know what else to do.

 

*

 

He replays the scene as he stares at the ceiling of the room he’s used to now. Its dimensions no longer seem too big. It is what it is. But he can’t sleep either. What happened that night? Something with the cops. What happened in September? He doesn’t know.

There’s a flickering white light at the end of the hallway, and the occasional sound of movement. Javert, watching TV. Not watching. Sitting in front of.

If it’s a comfort, he should let him carry on. But not sleeping is dangerous, and it makes every thought so much worse. He knows this. The world is an easier place to deal with when your brain is rested. Javert won’t get better until he lets his body recharge.

Valjean breathes in deeply, and out again. He saw agitation tonight, when the news was on. He saw concern over the treadmill. The old Javert is in there somewhere, he knows it.

In, and out. And again. And again.

What helped him, when he was in prison? It wasn’t the same for him, for many reasons. He didn’t have the luxury of a couch to go catatonic on. But that was sort of the problem, wasn’t it?

His hands are clenching under the duvet. He unbends his fingers one by one, and lays them flat on the sheet. In, and out. It’s warm under his palms. He can feel the thread rub against his skin. Clean, smooth cotton. He’s in his own bed. He’s fine.

What was the worst thing for him, in all his time in prison? He knows what, and he’s not touching that. What was the second worst thing? He knows that too, and he has to touch it if he’s going to help Javert at all. But he can’t let himself think about it.

He swings his legs out of bed, and shoves himself upwards without paying attention to the pain that stabs him through. He stops only to pull on a pair of sweats, and then follows the light down the hall, silent on bare feet. He pauses as the room opens out. Javert is still on the couch. He has his comforter around him, but his shoulders look to be dressed. And he’s still awake, because Valjean can see him blinking. His eyes must be killing him by now. It begs the question – what’s Javert so afraid of? What haunts him so badly, he’ll drive himself crazy to avoid being alone with it?

Valjean walks over, suddenly wishing he’d put a shirt on. Javert jerks in surprise when he arrives in his eye line, but then just looks at him. His face first, and then his body. His expression seems to stay neutral, but maybe it looks a bit resigned too. Maybe it’s a trick of the flickering TV light.

‘Come on.’

Javert blinks slowly at him, like a cat in the sun but without any of the satisfaction. More like a dazed cow, perhaps. Then he huffs out a breath in lieu of a laugh.

‘I see.’

A pause.

‘I thought so.’

Valjean steps back as Javert gets up. The comforter slips to the floor, but they both ignore it. ‘Where?’ says Javert, and Valjean nods at the guest bedroom.

‘Go and brush your teeth.’

He follows him, and waits in the doorway. Javert scrubs without looking at himself in the mirror, and relieves himself without any hint of embarrassment at Valjean watching. He washes his hands, and dries them. He stands, and waits to be told what to do. It breaks Valjean’s heart, but he’s thankful as well. Wasn’t he exactly this way, once? Sort of. He should have remembered sooner.

‘My room.’

The look Javert gives him is dark, but he also doesn’t hesitate, or resist, or say anything at all. He just walks. Valjean flicks off lights, finally turns off the TV, and picks up pills and two glasses of water from the kitchen before following. When he gets into his bedroom, Javert is standing by his bed. His shirt is in his hands, and his jeans hang over the back of the chair. Valjean sets the water down.

‘Lie down.’

Javert stares at the balled-up T-shirt in his hands. He turns it a couple of times, then pulls air hard through his nose and lets the shirt drop to the floor from limp fingers. He kicks his underwear off, and away, and does as he’s told. Valjean shakes his head.

‘On your side. Face the wall.’

He could cry for how easily he exposes himself, and follows orders. He’s putty, a blob of warm wax. Anyone could do anything to him. He’s also covered in bruises, and while they’re a question for another day, they tell a story of their own. A piece of the puzzle aligns itself, but there are a few ways it could fit. Valjean leaves it alone for now. First things first.

He turns a lamp on, and faces it at the wall so the glow is muted. Then he takes the sweatpants off, picks a clean T-shirt from a drawer and puts it on. He slips into bed behind Javert, and looks down at him briefly; the man rests his head on a bent arm, his eyes wide and unblinking, his body tense. He flinches when Valjean touches his hip.

‘Relax.’

He does not relax, but what could anyone expect? It obvious what he expects.

Valjean slips an arm under Javert’s pillow, and eases his chest up to his back. It’s weird for him too, but he can cope as long as he’s covered. He sees Javert frown when he realises he’s wearing clothes, but he doesn’t stop. He’s deliberate in every movement, slow enough to foreshadow. He presses against him gently, and folds the arm underneath him up across his chest. He bends his legs so the front of his thighs press against the back of Javert’s, and they’re spooned shoulder to knee. And last, he draws the duvet up to their shoulders, and folds his other arm around his middle. He can feel confusion radiating off him, but that’s good. It’ll teach him about expectations.

A small, chaste kiss to his shoulder.

‘Go to sleep.’

It’s very still. It’s almost dark with the lamp turned to the wall, but just light enough so his own demons won’t rise up and eat him alive. And it’s nice, at least for him. He’s never done it before, but he’s imagined it, and not just recently. Not just since being freed. How many times did he lie crying, wishing he could have friendly arms around him? Far more than a teenage boy would ever admit. It’s something he refuses to think about, because it was always a red-raw pain. There’s the kind of touch he was used to, and the kind of touch he wanted, and never got.

But it’s not the only reason he thought of this tonight. There’s a more specific cause, because he remembers waking up in a hospital dorm, and there being no one there. He remembers curling up with his arms around himself, knowing he’d give anything, do anything, to have someone wrap him up and care that he was still alive. Care that he’d tried to die. The second most painful memory from jail is simply that; being a kid, lying in the dark and trying to cry in silence, wishing anyone gave enough of a fuck to just give him a hug.

He never got it, but he can do it for Javert. If he’s scared of the dark, and scared of his dreams, it’ll surely help to know he’s protected in the night.

They lie for a long time. Valjean makes his breathing even and steady, and loosens his grip a little to make it seem as though he’s dropped off. But he’s waiting, and will not sleep yet. Javert remains tense in his arms. Valjean rests his face lightly against the nape of his neck, and breathes warmth on to his skin.

And little by little, he feels him relax. Shoulders come down first, followed by a slow collapse of his back into the curve of Valjean’s body. He smiles as they meld together. Javert’s arms sink past his hands, and come to rest on the bed. His legs stop lying stacked neatly on top of each other, and sprawl a little. Still, Valjean waits. Javert’s neck is stiff. His head is rigid on the pillow. And…

…there it is. Relief breaks in Valjean as he hears a sniff. Javert’s shoulders and back shake just a little, and then a little more. He gathers him closer as the sniff turns to a sob, and buries his nose in his hair when Javert’s hand clutches his, and doesn’t let go.

He doesn’t say, ‘sshh’, or ‘it’ll be alright.’ He can’t promise the latter, and he doesn’t want him to be quiet. He just lies there with him, and strokes his hair, and lets him cry in peace. It’s dark enough that he can’t see any of it, light enough to remind him that he’s at home, and safe. Javert turns limp with pain and exhaustion in his arms, and that’s good, it’s just right. He holds him until he’s cried himself out, and keeps holding him when his body takes over and puts him finally, thankfully, out.

Valjean stays awake a long time. He’s never shared a bed like this. He never would have thought to under these circumstances. But planned or not, it’s good. It reminds him of the worst, but it doesn’t feel bad. Javert is warm, and solid, and needs this as much as he ever did. So, there. He’s done something useful, and he allows the satisfaction to linger. It’ll be awkward in the morning, but for now, it’s exactly what Javert needs…and maybe now, things can be different. Maybe now, they’ll actually be able to talk.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 


Javert’s fingers are curled over his side. Two of them have fallen between T-shirt and underwear, and rest warm on his skin. Valjean lies still, stares at the ceiling, listens as his heart throbs in his ears. He doesn’t know at what point Javert turned in the night and glued himself to his chest, but this is how he woke and now he can’t move. He can’t even look down because Javert’s head is under his chin, but that’s OK, he doesn’t want to. His nerves sing to the point of pain because he can hardly bear being pinned, and because those fingers move every time either one of them breathes. But mainly because it’s disturbing that Javert moved so much, and he didn’t wake up. Being vulnerable makes him sick. What if Javert woke as he turned over, and looked at him sleeping? His stomach clenches. But he tells himself it’s alright, even as the darker parts of his mind, those that guard his past from all attempts at exorcism, laugh and say, how can it be alright? This is Javert. This is the man who exposed him to the world.

The clock ticks over to 10am. He woke at six, as he always does, and these hours have lasted an eternity. He itches to move but forces himself to lie still, because Javert needs to sleep and he’s not going to disturb him until he has to. But they do have to go out today, and the thought of leaving the apartment makes him want to leap out of bed and go. They need some real light and fresh air. Valjean wants to put on his sneakers and run until he can’t anymore, and knowing he can’t is a physical ache. Just being out of this place will have to do.

Javert jerks in his sleep, shudders, and pushes closer against him. His fingers tighten briefly, press into his waist, and Valjean holds his breath. He has no choice but to have an arm around his back, because it’s too uncomfortable to keep it lying flat for so long. The muscles under his palm are tense, hot, slick from a night’s mingled body heat. And Javert’s hard against his thigh, but it means nothing; this tension isn’t arousal. It’s fear, and his grip tightens a little as a choked sound falls out on to his chest. It’s instinct to raise his hand and stroke the back of Javert’s neck, and the satisfaction of last night comes back when he seems to quieten under his touch. A few minutes later, he’s calm again. Everything relaxes, and Valjean breathes easy once more. When his hand stills, Javert moves his head, then lets out a small snort and turns onto his other side.

Valjean pulls his arm free before it’s trapped again, wincing as blood starts to flow freely. His hand knocks against something hard under the pillow, and Javert’s phone slips out. Valjean flexes his arm, and sits up, not caring about the pain in his ribs because the sensation of being able to move is just too good. He pushes the phone back where it came from, and looks down at Javert, still dead to the world.

There’s a line between his eyebrows, aging him even as he sleeps. But even with almost a week’s worth of stubble - by now almost a short beard - it’s incongruous how young he looks with his hair cut that short. It’s like there are two versions of him, one behind the other, boy and man. They switch every time he blinks. But one thing does not change, and that’s the purple splash over his throat. Valjean’s heart sinks as he looks at it. It’s never in his mental picture of Javert. When he can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Every reminder is a punch in the gut, delivered over and over again through every day.

He turns away and slides out of bed. He can’t be still any more, and walks to the bathroom on silent feet. There’s a small damp patch on his T-shirt from Javert’s breath, and he’s glad to peel everything off and get in a cool shower. It never occurred to him that sharing a bed would be so sticky, and he makes a mental note to turn the thermostat down this evening.

The thought makes him check himself. He doesn’t know if it will happen again tonight. It’s up to Javert. There’s no way he can suggest it, and he’s not sure he wants a repeat, for so many reasons.

Valjean lets his head hang down, easing his neck muscles out as water cascades on to them. He didn’t sleep long, because it was strange, and too close, and too warm. But when he did, it was good sleep. Deep, dreamless, and he feels more rested than he has in a while. That isn’t a good reason to want it again. He turns the water off, and pushes his hair back. It’s up to Javert.

His phone buzzes a double reminder when he’s out in the kitchen, making coffee and mixing pancake batter. He flicks the stove on, fills a glass of water, grabs a box and heads back to the bedroom. The light is strange today, sunlight reflecting off thick snow on roofs just below, bouncing it up into the apartment. It’s bright, but a strange kind of grey, like the room is lit by dull silver. The air is heavy though, thick with sleep. And Javert hasn’t moved since he left, sprawled untidily on his side, the duvet pulled up to his chin where Valjean placed it.

He sits on the edge, and shakes his shoulder gently. ‘Hey. Javert.’

Nothing. He tries again, a little louder. Javert’s eyes fly open and his whole body jerks; his legs kick under the covers, and nearly propel him to sitting. Valjean almost laughs at the shock on his face, and the dazed blinking, and the crease on his cheek that can only have come from sleeping against his T-shirt for so long.

‘Morning.’

Javert blinks at him, uncomprehending, and then his eyelids droop.

‘You have to take your meds.’

He offers the glass of water. Javert stares at it, already mostly asleep again. Valjean doesn’t suppress a smile this time – it’s cute; it shouldn’t be, but it is – and nudges his shoulder once more. ‘And we have to go out. Sorry, but you’ve got to get up.’

Not strictly true. He could sleep another hour, but Valjean knows it’ll be better for him to establish a proper sleep cycle. It’ll take a couple of days because he went so long without, but he’ll feel better for it in the end.

Javert takes the glass, and holds out a hand for the pills. Valjean drops two into his palm, and tries to make it look like he’s not watching to make sure he swallows them. Javert drains the glass, and flops back to the pillow. ‘Want to check under my tongue?’

‘No. No need.’

Valjean stands up, and takes the glass away. ‘Go shower. I’m making breakfast.’

‘Time is it?’

‘Eleven.’

Javert nods, and closes his eyes. Valjean waits, and counts in his head. By the time he hits ten, the man’s asleep. He smiles again, and shakes him awake.

‘Come on. We really have stuff to do today. How’re you feeling?’

‘Tired.’

‘I know. It’ll be better after breakfast.’

It occurs to him that Javert is naked, so he retreats to the bathroom to grab a towel. When he comes back, the man’s sitting on the edge of the bed, blanket across his lap, sleepily scratching his whiskers. Valjean tosses the towel down next to him.

‘You can use my shower if you like. Or yours. Whichever.’

A small snort. ‘If I use yours, won’t you have to take the razors out of there?’

Valjean keeps his tone even. ‘Yeah, I will. But it’s no problem.’

Javert stands, once more unconcerned with his nudity. He picks the towel up, but there’s no haste in the way he wraps it around his hips. It’s probably nothing, because it’s not like Valjean hasn’t seen him naked before. Still, his lack of care is a wrong note in the simple conversation they’re playing out.

Valjean watches him head into the guest bedroom, and retreats to the kitchen. Fifteen minutes later, a clean-scrubbed and far more awake Javert slopes in to join him. He hesitates at the entrance to the kitchen space, then seems about to head for the couch. Valjean puts a mug of coffee down, and gestures to the counter. ‘Sit there. I’m making pancakes. You want syrup, or butter, or both?’

Javert hesitates again, then sits. His hands wrap around the mug, but he doesn’t drink. ‘No, thanks.’

‘Yeah, that wasn’t one of the options.’

Valjean smiles at him, hoping it doesn’t look forced. In truth, he probably shouldn’t try to make him. But the guy needs to start eating proper food, and fast. If last night proved anything, it was he looks even more wasted with no clothes on. No one that tall should be so thin.

‘Come on, give them a try. I promise they’re OK. I can put chocolate in if you like.’

Javert shakes his head at the offer, but doesn’t refuse when a pancake is placed in front of him. Valjean hovers the syrup over, a silent question, and earns a shrugged shoulder. He pours a fair amount, because he knows Javert likes sugar and anyway, it’ll give him some energy, at least for a short time. He turns back to the pan to make one for himself, mostly so it won’t seem like he’s going to stand there and force the guy to eat.

‘Sorry about last night.’

His hand freezes, batter dripping from the jug. He glances back. Javert’s eyes are fixed on his plate, but at least he’s taken a bite.

‘For what?’

Another shrug. ‘Everything. Mostly suggesting you were going to…you know.’

Valjean looks away. ‘It’s OK. You feel better?’

‘Not really. A little.’

Understandable. The first day catching up with sleep is usually miserable. He thinks the circles under Javert’s eyes aren’t quite so dark, but otherwise he looks as bad as he did yesterday.

He turns back with his own plate, and takes a seat opposite. No syrup for him, just a thin smear of butter. If he can’t work out, he can’t eat junk. ‘They OK?’

‘Yeah.’

But in the silence that follows, it’s pretty obvious he’s having trouble. The pancakes are light, but Javert makes hard work of chewing them. Valjean realises he never considered the possibility that eating was difficult because of his throat, and immediately feels bad for suggesting this. But he can’t take them back now. All he can do is offer more syrup to make it easier. Javert rolls his eyes.

‘Relax, dad.’

Valjean half-smiles, until his brain provides the connotations of the remark. He looks down at his plate. It shouldn’t feel like a blow; it was probably an innocuous comment. But the silence stretches, and a glance up shows Javert also staring at his plate, a flush on his cheeks. Valjean wants to ease it away, but his mind races and he can’t think of anything that won’t be a clunky attempt to move past it.

He eats his pancake. Javert chews. The clock ticks on the side. It’s Javert who makes the attempt to move on, though the awkwardness is impossible to ignore.

‘Where are we going?’

‘You have therapy.’

‘Oh.’

More silence, broken only by Javert accidentally knocking his fork against the plate. Valjean glances at him, and finds his face turned down. Then Javert puts his cutlery down, lines it up, and pushes the plate away.

‘I can’t eat this.’

‘OK.’ Valjean gets up, and takes one of his protein drinks out of the fridge. Javert lifts it without a word, slinks off his stool and sits on the couch. Valjean pulls in a deep breath through his mouth, and lets it out through his nose. OK.

 

*

 

The roads are full with Christmas shoppers trying to get downtown to buy gifts, but having to traverse a city in pieces, and now covered in snow. Some streets are still closed off entirely, including Main in two places – near City Hall, and around the gas station Jehan was killed at. Valjean takes all the side routes he knows to get to the hospital, but it’s close enough to the shopping district that it still takes longer than it should. Javert doesn’t say a word the whole time. He sits huddled in his too-large coat, his chin on his chest, the furred collar pulled up around his ears. Valjean lent him a hat because it’s freezing out, and a scarf covers his damaged throat. He’s shaking a bit despite the heater being on; he needs some warmer clothes, but Valjean has no idea whether buying them for him would make things worse or not. On one hand, Javert obviously doesn’t give a damn about anything. On the other, he was always so proudly self-sufficient. He doesn’t want to do something now that, when he’s better, the guy will hate himself for accepting.

They walk into the hospital, Javert at his heels. He tries to slow his pace so he’ll walk alongside, but he doesn’t step up. In the waiting room he draws his phone from his pocket, and sinks back into his coat. They’re a little early despite the slow drive in, and there’s no one else with them. Maybe everyone cancelled because they couldn’t get here. Valjean sits as easily as his ribs will allow, idly reading the titles of various pamphlets in the rack on the opposite wall. Depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders, gender crises, self-harm. There’s help for everything, apparently. Unless you’re in prison, he muses, and starts turning over the possibility of funding therapists to speak to people recently released from jail. He’d never get permission to send them into actual prisons; not for specific problems that weren’t caused by the prisoner’s situation, or drug abuse. But when they come out-

‘Have you ever done this?’

He’s jerked from his thoughts. It takes a second to parse the question.

‘Therapy? Yeah.’

He really doesn’t want to get into why, but prepares himself for the obvious follow-up. But Javert surprises him.

‘What’s it like?’

‘Well…’

It could take all day to answer that properly. They have three minutes.

‘It’s OK. There’ll be no pressure. You’ll just be invited to talk about stuff.’

‘I don’t want to.’

‘I know. But it’ll help. It probably won’t feel like it today, but eventually.’

Javert looks at him, only his eyes visible above his coat collar. ‘I don’t want to.’

Valjean tries a reassuring smile. ‘Listen – it’s your first session. And you’ve only been out of hospital a few days. They won’t be expecting much. And if you really don’t want to say anything, no one’ll force you.’

Javert looks like he’s going to say something now, but a door opens to their right and a smartly dressed woman comes out.

‘John-Michael Javert?’

She only glances at Valjean, but smiles at Javert. It’s fairly obvious who the patient is. He just glares though, and Valjean feels a twinge of second-hand embarrassment.

‘It’s just Javert,’ he says coldly, and unfolds himself from his seat. He walks into the office without looking at either of them. The woman raises her eyebrows, but the look on her face says she’s not intimidated. Valjean has the impression she’s dealt with a lot worse.

He stands too, and offers his hand. ‘Jean Valjean. I’m his ride. Could you please tell him I’ll be right here in an hour?’

She shakes firmly. ‘I will. I won’t let him wander off without you being here, don’t worry. Excuse me.’

He would have liked her name, but she’s gone. It’s probably better that Javert isn’t left to his own devices for any length of time. Valjean waits until the door shuts, and lets his shoulders relax. He has plans for this hour, but he wasn’t expecting the sheer relief  at having some time on his own. It feels like a weight gone from the back of his neck. The pleasure of it is followed immediately by guilt, but he still has to acknowledge he felt it.

He heads out into the winter air, and lets the bite of it on his face remind him how great it is to just be outside. It brings a small smile, and there’s a spring to his step as he leaves his car in the parking lot, and walks down the street to the mall. He calls Father Charles as he goes, and leaves a message on his voicemail to let him know how things are going. It’s mostly honest. A little censored, perhaps. He has no intention of spilling every moment of Javert’s life out on to the phone, and knows Father Charles wouldn’t want him to anyway.

There’s a Christmas market outside the mall, wafting the smell of roasting chestnuts into the air; German sausage, onions, sauerkraut; apple doughnuts and cinnamon. It’s only small, a few striped tents, nothing on what would have been in the plaza at City Hall if things were different. Half the sidewalk is taken up with a couple of guys selling Christmas trees. Valjean chats with them for a moment, then buys a hot cider and some chocolates, which he tucks into his coat. Javert likes candy, and this is the good stuff. He sips as he heads inside, warming his hands on the paper cup, giddy with snatched freedom. Qualms be hanged, he buys a couple of thick sweaters, and  some soft, long-sleeved T’s. A hat too, and a woollen scarf. He’d get some decent boots, because sneakers are no good in snow, but he doesn’t know Javert’s shoe size. That done, he heads off to buy some stuff he’s never looked at before, and emerges back into fresh air thirty minutes later, laden with bags. He has no idea if he’s done the right thing, but supposes he’ll find out this afternoon.

He’s almost back at the parking lot when someone calls his name from behind. He turns, blinks, then smiles as he recognises Bahorel.

‘Hey. How’s it going?’

As soon as he’s said it, it seems a stupid question. Bahorel, a guy who lives with a brash grin on his face; Bahorel, bearded and barrel-chested, well-groomed and gregarious…looks bad. Tired, and one of his arms is in a cast. His hair - usually parted neatly, and slicked with wax – is unkempt and dull.

‘Been better. Just came from the precinct.’

He always speaks like he’s continuing an old conversation, even if he hasn’t seen the person in months. Valjean’s used to it, but his nerves tighten all the same. ‘Oh? Everything OK?’

‘Everything…how can everything be OK?’

He gets a strange look, and Valjean has the impression he’s missed something. ‘You’re right,’ he says. ‘Jehan’s not-’

‘I’m not talking about Jehan. Though yeah, that’s shit, and will always be shit, and-‘ Bahorel cuts off, and stares across the road at nothing. Valjean gives him a minute, but nothing comes so he’s forced to guess.

‘Wait – have you been there since the riot? Were you arrested?’

‘What? No. I mean, yeah, of course I was.’ He holds up his cast, as though the explanation for that should be obvious. ‘I haven’t been there all this time, I was bailed. Jean, have you not heard? How could you not have heard?’

‘…sorry?’

There’s probably a lot of things he hasn’t heard. Javert took over the TV for three days, and most of the news he’s seen was from while the thing was still going on. ‘What happened?’

Bahorel fixes him with an incredulous eye. He’s got a hard stare, black and piercing. But Valjean’s immune to intimidation, and anyway, he’s used to Javert’s by now.

‘A cop died, Jean.’

‘Oh. No, I didn’t know.’

‘Then you don’t know Enjolras has been charged with his murder. And Combeferre and Courfeyrac with second-degree.’

What?

Bahorel nods. ‘Yeah.’

For a few seconds, surprise robs him of all comprehension. He can only stare.

But then that night kicks in with full force, and he remembers the way they pulled him out from under a descending nightstick; how it was this man, Bahorel, who knocked his attacker out of the way, and saved him from taking more damage. It’s a blast of sound in his head, and he shakes it to clear the noise.

‘When? I mean – I was with you guys, and-‘

‘Yeah, it was around then. I don’t know. I don’t think the cops know. Just before, from what they’re saying, but it’s such bullshit. All of it’s bullshit. They’re just taking it out on Enjolras because he’s visible, and they want to be able to say they were justified in the all the people they beat up.’

‘But if it was before, then…wait a minute, you were all recording everything. Can’t you prove-‘

‘Maybe. Except the cops took their phones, and they’re evidence so only police can see them at the moment. The lawyers will eventually, but for now, no one knows. I don’t know, it’s all screwed. I’ve just seen the three of them. They don’t know what’s going on.’

‘They let you in?’

It’s all he can ask. He’s reeling. And he’s aware he has to meet Javert in less than ten minutes. Bahorel grins like a shark, all the worse for the fury behind it.

‘Told them I was their attorney. I could be, I’ve repeated law school enough times to know what I’m talking about. Whatever. They’re screwed until they can figure out exactly what happened. They were there when the guy got shot, but they didn’t do it. I was trying to get Joly’s phone released, but no luck.’

‘Joly’s…phone?’

Coldness spreads through him even as he asks. Bahorel squints at him, puzzled.

‘You didn’t know that either? We lost Joly. He took a rubber bullet to the head. It put him in a coma. He died two days ago.’

The scene in the alley comes back to him with a sickening thud to his stomach. Him crouching next to Javert, looking up at Enjolras. Someone shouting they’re coming, and then calling Joly’s name.

‘I didn’t know. I’m really sorry. How’s Bossuet?’

‘Devastated.’

Bahorel’s gaze doesn’t move from his face.

‘How come you haven’t heard any of this? Where’ve you been?’

‘Oh.’ He shifts the bags in his arms. ‘A friend of mine got hurt. He’s staying with me. I haven’t seen the news.’

‘Right.’

Bahorel moves suddenly, transferring his phone from one hand to the other, and then putting it in his pocket. ‘I have to go. I have to speak to their actual lawyers. Take it easy, Jean.’

‘Let me know if there’s anything I can do.’

‘Yeah. Thanks.’

Valjean watches him stride on, but something’s nagging and he raises his voice to stop him. ‘Bahorel!’

When he looks back, Valjean walks to him. ‘Was it just the three of them there?’

The man’s lip quirks. ‘Why?’

‘Because you were all filming. Are you sure no one else got anything? And all three of them were with me – and so were you. If you say it was supposed to be around that time…’

Bahorel’s eyes narrow. ‘So?’

‘So I should talk to the cops, right? At least part of the-‘

‘Don’t you dare.’

‘…what?’

Bahorel looks at the bags he’s carrying, and then over to the parking lot. He makes the obvious assumption, and jerks to head to indicate they should walk. Valjean has to lean in a little to hear him when he starts speaking.

‘Enjolras doesn’t want that. So don’t. For one thing, if you go to the cops then you’ll place yourself right in the middle of it. It’s already all over the news that the CCTV cameras were destroyed around City Hall that night, so there’s no point incriminating yourself. If your face wasn’t caught on someone’s phone or on TV, you’re in the clear.’

‘That’s not the point.’

‘It should be, for you. But it’s not, you’re right – the point is, they’re not going to fight it yet, so don’t get in the way.’

‘Bahorel-‘

They’re at his car. Valjean puts his bags down and as soon as he straightens, Bahorel grabs his arm and swivels him so they’re face to face. Valjean locks up under the touch at once, and so can’t do anything to stop the way the man gets too close when he speaks.

‘Enjolras was afraid of this, so I was going to call you tomorrow anyway. They’ll plead not guilty, but it won’t matter. The cops will do what they always do. And after the trial, and sentencing, some evidence might just surface that proves how they were set up to act as scapegoats for the violent behaviour of the police. So. Don’t get in the way.’

Valjean can’t breathe. He pulls his arm free, and just stares at the man. Bahorel has his grin back, at least.

‘It’s insane,’ he says at last, his voice barely more than a whisper. ‘They don’t know what they’re doing. They can’t. You have to stop them, it’s-‘

‘It’s already done.’

Valjean’s phone rings. He swears and grabs it – the therapist’s office. He’s late.

‘Shit, I have to go. Shit.’

He yanks the trunk open, and starts throwing bags inside even as he answers the phone to tell them he’ll be right up. He watches Bahorel the whole time in case he runs away. He doesn’t. He just holds his hands up when the phone call’s done.

‘Look, it’s a process. And it may not come to anything – someone else might show up with evidence of what really happened to the cop. In the meantime, they don’t want anyone to intervene, OK? That’s what they’ve asked me to tell everyone. It’s what they want.’

‘It’s not going to achieve anything! They don’t know what it’s like; they’ll-‘

He cuts himself off, his throat tight. Bahorel eyes him again, and he can only assume the wariness is because he’s just remembered Valjean’s own history. But he’s resolute, and shakes his head.

‘It’s their choice. And it’s the only way to expose the cops for what they are. So please, don’t do anything. You’ll only get yourself in trouble if you do. If the police haven’t come for you already, you’re probably home free.’

Valjean looks at the phone in his hand. Javert’s waiting. He had promised himself he wouldn’t be late to fetch him. And Bahorel seems to be done, because he claps him on the shoulder and laughs.

‘You have to go. I’ll call you in a couple of days, if you like. I gotta go too. See you, Jean.’

Just as suddenly as he appeared, he’s gone. Valjean’s left behind, stunned to the core.

It’s madness. They don’t know what they’re doing. But he does…and there’s no way to tell them. There’s no way to see them. There’s no way to make them see sense.

 

*

 

He doesn’t mind Javert’s silence on the way home. It gives him space to think. A quiet how’d it go? had been met with a shrug, and even if he wasn’t trying to digest this news, he wouldn’t have pushed further. He’d never pry into a therapy session. His apology for being late was likewise ignored, and that was that.

The silence continues up the elevator, though Javert does take some bags off him as they get in. He doesn’t look inside, or ask what’s in them. Valjean uses the brief ride to pull his thoughts back to the present. He’ll sift through the problem, but he can’t do it while trying to talk to Javert at the same time. The man deserves his undivided attention. It can wait until later – and anyway, he has a plan for this afternoon. He reasons with himself that even if he walked into the precinct and provided an alibi for the three boys right this minute, they still wouldn’t be released for days. Maybe not at all. He doesn’t know enough of the details to be sure he can help; the cop might have died before he got there, or after he left the alley. In which case, he really would be incriminating himself for nothing.

He pushes it away as the doors ping open. He’ll call Bahorel later. For now; one suicidal young man, staring around the apartment like he’s never seen it before.

‘I got soup for lunch.’

Javert looks at the couch. But he doesn’t head straight for it, which is a first . Not enough to be counted as progress, probably, but Valjean will take what he can get at the moment.

‘You can leave the bags there. I just have to heat it up and cut bread. Sorry it’s ready-made, I don’t know how to make soup from scratch. I meant to learn and never got ‘round to it.’

He puts his own bags down, except for the one holding groceries. Javert looks like he doesn’t know why he’s being told this stuff, but at least he doesn’t openly sneer. He just blinks at nothing, scratches his beard, then shrugs his coat off and hangs it up. The warmth of the apartment is nice after having been outside, not claustrophobic like it was this morning. Valjean forces a cheerful expression as he heads to the kitchen. After a hesitation, Javert follows and perches on the counter stool.

‘Could you butter the bread? There’s a board right there, and…hang on.’

Valjean fetches the bread knife from the box under the bed. Javert’s face is a touch darker when he returns, but he says nothing, just tightens his lips to a line and waits to be handed slices as they’re cut. Valjean notes that his hand is shaking a little. Still cold? Nerves? Exhaustion? He’ll be better for food, but in the meantime, he pushes over another protein drink.

‘Have that first, and it’ll be ready by the time you’re finished.’

For a second, he thinks Javert’s about to argue. He wills him to do it. But after an intent look, and opening his mouth…he closes it again, nods, and tears the corner off. He drinks half, then puts it down to butter bread. Valjean pretends not to watch as he stirs the soup in the pan, but when he turns to let it simmer, he can’t stand the silence any more.

‘I thought maybe tomorrow we could go up to campus, get you some of your things.’

Javert’s face shuts down further. He shakes his head once, brief and sharp. ‘I don’t want to go there.’

‘Why?’

‘I just don’t.’

OK. Valjean tries a different tack. ‘Would you object if I went sometime? I’d just pick up some clothes. Books? iPod? Something for you to do.’

Javert pokes at the bread, lining the edges up with the rim of the board.

‘Whatever.’

Valjean nods. Good enough. He has no idea where this aversion is coming from, but he can’t decide which things are safe to poke at. Javert hating his dorm room seems innocuous, but what if he asks more questions and it turns out something happened there which set all this off? He wishes Father Charles were here. The priest just talks, and no one’s immune to his warmth. Valjean knows he wasn’t. He also knows he doesn’t have the same gift; he doesn’t know how to talk to anybody, not properly, so how’s he supposed to do this?

He suppresses a sigh, turns back to the soup and takes it up for pouring. It’s plain tomato, nothing fancy. Maybe he should have got pizza. But Javert doesn’t object to the bowl put in front of him, and even nods once in thanks.

They eat in silence. Valjean counts the ticks of the clock. Every touch of spoon to bowl seems too loud, and grates in his ears. The only difference to the morning is that Javert is eating, and without any obvious reluctance. It’s something of a relief. Liquid food seems to be the way to go, because he doesn’t touch the bread. And when he finishes he just sits there. Valjean eyes him warily. Javert watches his empty dish, his fingers pulling at non-existent loose threads on his cuff. Valjean gets the impression that if he allowed it, he might sit there for the next hour and stare at nothing.

He clears his throat quietly. The shorn head jerks up; grey eyes blink. So Javert had gone somewhere in those moments, he wasn’t just sitting. Valjean can’t help but wonder where, but he can’t ask. He looks away, and starts to stack the bowls and board instead. Javert slips off his stool.

‘I’ll wash them.’

It’s Valjean’s turn to blink. ‘Oh? Alright. Thanks.’

He hopes his tone doesn’t give away his shock. But Javert looks at him anyway, as if he’s guessed. He picks the bread knife up by the handle with exaggerated slowness, and offers it over to Valjean. ‘You can wash that first. We wouldn’t want me stabbing myself over the sink.’

Not funny. He takes the knife. ‘Sarcasm’s fine, but you can’t pretend we don’t have reason for concern.’

The faintly mocking expression on Javert’s face slides away, leaving nothing behind. ‘Sorry,’ he mutters, and comes around the counter. Valjean can’t help it; remorse makes him put a hand on his arm. It’s not lost on him that there was a time Javert could barely apologise for anything at all.

‘No, I’m sorry.’

Javert just shrugs. Apart from that, he’s still under the touch. He doesn’t try to move until Valjean lets go, and then he carries on as if nothing were said. Valjean puts the knife down, and hoists himself up onto the counter so they can talk if Javert wants.

It appears he does not. It’s up to Valjean to ask, ‘where’d this come from? I don’t mind doing it.’

Javert watches the water pouring into the sink. ‘Homework.’

‘Home-? Oh.’

A pause. He gets the concept, but not the details.

‘Doing the dishes?’

‘No. She asked what I felt about people helping me out. And then said I should try showing it.’

Valjean doesn’t want to push him, so tries to work this backwards for himself.  Javert’s trying to be helpful, so is this like a tit-for-tat thing? It would fit his character. On the other hand, he cannot imagine any conversation in the world that would lead to Javert admitting he liked being helped, particularly one with a therapist he just met.

He reminds himself he does not know Javert that well. Rather; the fact is presented to him.

‘OK,’ he says, slowly. ‘But don’t make yourself help with stuff if you don’t feel you can. I’m serious. It’ll make it worse.’

Javert shrugs again. His shoulders talk more than his mouth does. ‘I’m OK.’

Maybe proper food is doing its thing. That, and sleep. He doesn’t look much better, but maybe he feels it.

They sit in silence for a little while. There aren’t many dishes, but Javert takes his time, cleaning each bowl and pot with slow, thorough strokes of the sponge. He seems to relish the warmth and texture of the water, holding each item under the tap to rinse off for longer than is strictly necessary, soap bubbles sliding off his hands and wrists. Valjean watches the tendons work in the back of his hand – too obvious, too stark – but there’s something about the appearance of a shining knuckle through foam, strong fingers running over the base of a pan. It takes a little while, but he recognises a shift, a lowering of his shoulders, a slight softening of his stance. So. Relaxed by water. Good to know.

Valjean’s sorry when the internal phone rings, and he has to move to pick it up.

‘Mr Valjean? Your delivery’s here.’

‘Thanks, George. Send it on up.’

Javert’s leaning against the sink, drying his hands on a towel. There’s soap in his beard where he’s scratched it. Valjean smiles, and gets a puzzled look in return.

‘Delivery?’

The elevator pings in the hallway. Valjean pulls his wallet out, extracts a twenty and says, ‘homework.’

He can feel eyes on his back as he goes to the door, and doubt starts to creep through him. But there’s nothing he can do about that now, so he just opens up, tips the delivery guy, and steps backwards through the door. He turns, smiles, and holds up a large Christmas tree in one hand.

Javert stares at him in clear disbelief. Or at the tree. Both of them. ‘You’re kidding.’

‘Nope. Come on.’

He props it against the wall, and propels the base in through the door with his foot. Javert steps over with what’s probably reluctance, but he’s not going to stop to analyse it. If he does, he’ll lose his nerve. He gestures at the bags instead.

‘Dig in.’

Five minutes later, the floor space around the front door is awash with boxes of lights, baubles, tinsel, a wreath, mistletoe, sprigs of fresh holly, ornaments, and a fat Santa that lights up and yells ‘ho ho ho’ when a button is pressed. Javert turns this last around his hands, his face a picture of horror – mock horror, Valjean hopes, though he’s not sure Javert has that in him right now – and then turns the expression his way.

‘You’re kidding,’ he says again, and once more, Valjean shakes his head.

‘It’s Christmas.  We have to decorate the place.’

‘…right.’

They stand, lost among everything that twinkles. Javert seems to be waiting for him to start, and when he doesn’t, asks; ‘you have done this before?’

‘Sure.’

‘And that’s why everything’s brand new?’

‘…I donate the old stuff.’

‘Every year?’

‘Why not?’

Indeed, why not? Javert’s gaze is sharp, but it seems he can find no argument.

Half an hour later, Valjean sighs, sitting on the floor surrounded by ten feet of fairy lights and a box of spare bulbs, painstakingly searching for the one broken one that seems to be stopping the whole string working. The Christmas tree lies on its side by the door, shedding needles on to the floorboards. Javert sits cross-legged with a wrench, trying to loosen the bolts on the base so they can actually fit the thing in and stand it up. The strings for the baubles are in knots, because they turned out to be ridiculously fiddly, and Valjean’s fingers are too thick to tie them easily.

Javert manages to turn a bolt half an inch, and glances across at him. Valjean meets it guiltily.

‘Fine, I’ve never done it before.’

Javert nods with a hint of vindication. Valjean looks back to his job, but not without allowing a small smile. Mainly because he saw the ghost of one on Javert’s lips, and that’s something he hasn’t seen for a long, long time.

 

*

 

The apartment looks like Santa’s Grotto. It hadn’t seemed so bad when it was still light out, and the effect of the blinking fairy lights was muted. Now it’s dark, they’re overpowering.

Each of the huge arched windows has a string over the top, and there’s another line along the kitchen counter. The tree flashes like a Las Vegas casino, a frenetic rhythm that can’t seem to match the steady on-off of the window lights. He stands back by the door to take in the effect, and keeps trying to make them beat in time, but they never do. It makes him a little seasick, but he supposes he’ll get used to it. Javert dutifully hammered little hooks into the bricks above the windows, balancing on a stepladder to reach because Valjean’s ribs won’t let him stretch. He’s not about to waste his effort by taking them down. Still, the effect is not exactly what he expected.

Javert leans on the wall next to him, arms crossed. Red and green flashes across his face, throwing him into shadow and then lighting him up in turn. He looks exhausted. Valjean has the sneaking suspicion this was a really bad idea – but if the finished article is rough, the afternoon spent getting there was quite fun. It was good to do something with his hands, and not have to think all that much about it. More importantly, Javert had engaged. Unwillingly perhaps, at first. But he’d done it.

‘You’ve really never decorated your place before?’

‘No.’ They watch the tree; silver, then green, then red, then gold. Then all at once. ‘You seemed to know what you were doing.’

He feels rather than sees the shrug. ‘More experienced than you, obviously.’

‘You did this with your mom?’

A tiny snort.

‘Foster homes.’

Valjean frowns at the tree. ‘I didn’t know you were fostered out.’

‘Why would you?’

True enough. He lets the silence be, until Javert adds, abruptly, ‘where’s your mom?’

‘Died when I was a baby. Father too.’

Silver, then green, then red, then gold. Then all at once. He melts his back into the wall, feeling the reassuring solidity of brick grating against his shirt. The lights vie with each other on an endless loop. He closes his eyes to block them out.

Javert stands straight, and brushes his T-shirt off. Valjean’s glad he doesn’t ask anything else. All of a sudden, he doesn’t have the energy to go there.

‘I’ll clean up the boxes,’ is what he says, but when he turns he looks a little unsteady. Maybe it’s the light, but Valjean puts a hand on his arm anyway.

‘I’ll do it. Why don’t you go have a nap?’

‘That’s allowed?’

‘I’m not your jailer. You look like you need it. I’ll wake you up for dinner.’

Javert studies him for a moment, and then looks down at the hand. Valjean removes it casually, careful not to jerk it away.

‘All right. I’ll clean up after.’

His tone is strangely neutral. Valjean just nods, and waits there as he walks to the guest room. When the door is pushed to, he walks across the room, and switches the window lights off. There’s palpable relief when the fight stops, and the effect is a lot better with only the tree flashing . Not such an assault on the senses. Valjean takes a deep breath, and fills his nose with the scent of fresh pine. OK. Yeah. Better.

He cleans up the boxes quietly, and puts the bags with Javert’s new clothes in next to the guest room door. He’d vacuum the stray pine needles, but obviously can’t right now. It can wait until later. So, what next?

His eyes fall on his phone. He glances to the bedroom door.

He hasn’t thought of this morning’s conversation with Bahorel since they got home. He’s always been pretty good at compartmentalizing. But there’s nothing stopping it now, and it floods back over him, washing away the satisfaction of having found something for Javert to do. He collapses onto a chair at the dining table, phone in his hand. He told himself he’d call Bahorel, but now the time’s come, he’s not sure he can. Not sure there’s any point. The man’s obviously on board with the madness Enjolras has cooked up, and he’s not going to change any of their minds.

So. He should call the police. But the words come back to him: if the police haven’t come for you already, you’re probably home free. If that’s true, it’s the second time in a month he’ll have evaded their clutches. He really, passionately, doesn’t want to throw himself into their hands if he doesn’t have to. And does he have to? He could call, and say ‘hey, I was with Enjolras, and Combeferre, and Courfeyrac that night, and I didn’t see them kill anyone’. And the police might say what time was this? And if it isn’t the time the cop was killed, then he’s just given himself up for nothing.

He has to ask himself if it would actually do any good. But the answer – possibly not – is ruined by another obvious truth. That is; unless they know the exact time the cop died, exact to the minute, then being able to place the three guys somewhere else is absolutely important. Say the cop died somewhere between eleven and midnight, and he can say he was with them for at least half of that time, and none of them had a gun, and none of them was splattered in blood, and none of them were acting out of character? Crucial evidence. It could clear them in minutes.

He turns the phone over in his fingers. The metal is warm to his touch, the edges scraped a little rough from the times he’s dropped it, from use, from rattling around his pockets full of loose coins. It’s startlingly real all of a sudden. It’s just a phone. But it’s his phone, and he uses it every day, and he’s a person who pays a bill for it every month, because he’s free to do so. He didn’t own a cellphone until he was twenty-one. He didn’t have a home, or a Christmas tree, or sickness-inducing fairy lights. He didn’t have anything, and now he does, and he doesn’t want to give it up.

His heart is running too fast, and he takes a breath. He’s being stupid. Even if he’s booked for participating in the riot, he wouldn’t go back to prison. Unless they decided he was part of the killing, which he can’t see as likely. So, what’s the problem?  He turns the phone over again, lights reflecting off the screen. He’s free to call who he likes. Enjolras can no longer say the same thing. And he’s a kid, who doesn’t know what he’s about to throw away. Sure, he can say he’s doing it for any number of lofty reasons. He can say he’s doing it to expose corruption and the weakness of the justice system. He can bring the world’s media to bear on how the police are a law unto themselves. And he’ll probably do a lot of good.

But he doesn’t, yet, understand the price of it. He doesn’t know that in twenty years, when they finally let him out, he might find himself sitting alone at a table with his pulse hammering through his veins, musing on the simple pleasure of being free to touch a phone, of all things. He’s a kid that wants to make the world better, and doesn’t get that he’ll have to destroy himself utterly to do it. That in the end, the system will rumble on and he’ll be a chewed up body by the side of the road, unable to meet another person’s eye out of fear they’ll take offence, and kill him for it. Unable to accept a touch, or show his back to a room, or live inside his own skin without it making him crazy. No, Enjolras does not understand these things.

He runs a hand over his face. He doesn’t know if his past is a good enough reason to ruin another man’s dream. And who knows, maybe Enjolras is stronger than he was. Maybe Courfeyrac’s charm and cheer will earn him protectors, instead of predators. Maybe Combeferre’s medical training will keep him safe, because he’ll be able to help when the hospital wing won’t. He’ll never get to be a real doctor, but his skills might keep him alive and whole, at least for a while. They’ll be worth something.

He wishes he could believe any of these things might be true. But he knows too much for that. The reality is, all three of them will have the ideology beaten out of them; by time, by degradation; by fists, and feet, and teeth. They’ll have it ground out of them. They’ll have it raped out of them.

Valjean swallows the lump in his throat, and wipes cold sweat off his brow. He’s breathing hard when he picks the phone up again, and hits the only number on speed dial.

‘Father? Can you talk?’

‘…can I leave Javert with you tomorrow? I have to go to the police.’

 

*

 

He wakes with a jerk, a noise in his nightmare too loud to let him rest. He’s alone. The sheets are tangled around his legs, his chest is covered in sweat, his side hurts on every breath. It’s dark, and his head reverberates with the echo of a choke. A retch, a sob, a scream? All of them, maybe. He can’t remember. Too loud, too much. He can’t close his eyes because he’s too scared.

He counts backwards from one hundred. The silence of the room settles on him like dust. Time unlocks his muscles, one by one.

The clock says 4am. And when everything’s still once more, he becomes aware of another light in the room. It comes from under the door; silver, then green, then red, then gold. Then…grey, a steady grey, then it flashes off. And crucially, another sound. A choke.

He sits up too fast, and has to twist to unlock the sudden agony in his side. As it recedes, he realises TV, and relaxes a little. It’s just Javert staying up too late again. He usually watches with it on mute, but maybe he hit the wrong button on the remote.

4:02am. The guy needs to sleep. They both do; tomorrow’s going to be a long day. Valjean pushes his fear away, and gets up. The floorboards are tacky under his too-warm feet, and the air in the place prickles over his skin, bringing up goose bumps. He turned the thermostat down earlier, just in case.

He walks slowly, his legs sluggish. Another choke, and his heart stops. Then skips.

The TV light didn’t change. It’s muted, but there’s still sound.

His brain kicks his system, adrenaline hits and he’s running. One thought slams through him. The breadknife. He didn’t put the breadknife away.

A skid round the corner. His eyes flash to the kitchen, expecting blood, expecting a body jerking on the floor…

…but Javert’s on the couch. Relief punches just as hard. Except, as he strides over, he sees there’s no reason for relief. Javert’s legs are curled up to his chest, his comforter drifting to the floor. And he’s choking, shaking, unable to catch his breath; the flashing Christmas lights gleam off sweat; his hair is soaked at his temple, at his nape, around the rim of his T-shirt’s collar. His phone is clutched in one hand, knuckles showing white against black glass.

‘Jesus. Javert.’

The TV flashes up three familiar faces. Valjean’s stomach flops over, but there’s no time for that. He sits on the couch, puts his arm around Javert and pulls him in close.

‘Sssh. Ssshh, it’s OK. It’s OK. Breathe.’

Javert’s legs uncurl, and slide bonelessly to the floor. He moulds against him like warm candle wax, trying to suck air in through a throat fighting him all the way. Valjean slides back against the cushions on the armrest, reclining so Javert can lie against him. He strokes his back with one hand, his head with another, and mutters soothing nonsense against his hair.

‘Breathe. Breathe, you’re OK. I got you, just breathe.’

Javert turns his face up, and Valjean’s blood thickens in fear for him. He’s so white in the TV’s glow, the rings under his eyes so dark. He’d been OK at dinner. What happened?

‘I can feel it,’ he whispers, and Valjean sees there’s blood on his lips. ‘Can’t breathe.’

‘You can. You can. Relax.’

He moves him to the side, so he can rub his chest to relax the tension. Javert’s helpless and unresisting, tears on his cheeks. ‘Can’t-‘

‘Sshhh. Sssh.’

Another minute of this, and he’s calling 911. He has to force himself to move through his own rising panic, but he can do it, he’s seen this before. He’s been this before.

‘Can feel it-‘

‘What? I’ll get rid of it. What is it?’

Javert’s eyes are terrible. They’d skewer anyone, but now they’re turned inward. In the flashing lights and darkness, the air full of fear, and pine, and sweat, they’re two black holes in a face ghostly white, a skeleton mask on a skeleton body, twitching in his arms. And his voice, thin and high, gasping for air. Valjean shudders despite himself, and makes himself keep stroking. Javert does not break their gaze.

‘The rope,’ he says, and chokes off at once. ‘The rope.’

Valjean’s hands come to a halt.

The rope. The sheet, in his case.

He remembers that.

He swallows hard, and fills his lungs as full as he can, as if willing Javert to breathe with him. But he’s only staving off his own terror, already close to the surface from the nightmare.

‘I know,’ he says, eventually. ‘I know. But it’s gone now.’

It’s a lie. Those moments of squeezing horror, the unnatural weight on your neck, too slender, too weak to hold you, ready to snap; the thrashing legs you can’t control, the wet warmth of piss…it’s never gone.

He brings his fingers up, and touches the fading bruise at Javert’s throat. The guy jerks, moans in fear, but he doesn’t take them away. One fingertip is all, a gentle stroke to the hardened line where the rope ground skin away.

‘It’s gone. There’s nothing here. Relax.’

Javert’s Adam’s apple bobs under his touch. He strokes the base of it, around it, up to his stubble.

‘Breathe. Please. Please, Javert. You’re fine, you’re safe. I promise.’

The skin is hard and broken all the way round to his ears. The line probably goes up into his hair at the back where the noose drew up.  He’s lost to the horror of it, to the images that come; not of an abandoned building, and a dirty beam on some frozen night. An overheated cell that smelled of bodies and sex, a twisted sheet off a broken heating vent-

Javert’s fingers clutch his shoulders, and bring him back. He’s never been more grateful for pain. Perhaps it’s that which makes him lean in, and kiss the broken skin.

‘You’re OK,’ he says again, salt on his lips, sweat too cold to be natural. ‘You’re OK.’

His hand rubs up Javert’s chest, and stills over his heart. It’s racing fit to burst, slamming against his ribs. Valjean stays calm, breathes deep and easy, grounds himself with his cheek against Javert’s wet skin. Little by little, he breathes slower…and little by little, Javert comes free against him. His heart begins to calm. His chest eases, stops snatching at air, and begins to rise and fall in time with his own. Valjean presses one more soft kiss to his throat, and then moves to lie back, bringing Javert with him so he can wrap his arms around him.

They’re silent for a long time. Peace has never been so loud.

In the end, he’s too exhausted, too spent, to think what he should do. The barriers are down, and he can’t bring them back up. He strokes his hand down the back of Javert’s head.

‘You terrify me.’

Javert says nothing. But his fingers tighten on his hip.

‘Why’d you do it, Javert?’

The silence stretches on, and on. He counts the green lights flashing on the ceiling. Then the red. Then the gold.

Eventually, a whisper in the dark.

‘Because you didn’t listen to me. I said you should quit. I said it’d be for the best.’

Valjean is still, frozen. He daren’t move in case he breaks the spell. One word comes to him: September.

‘I let you down.’

Tension in his back again. Valjean strokes it away.

‘And because…’

The TV picture changes. Enjolras, Courfeyrac and Combeferre stare down at them, brave and defiant.

‘…because I know what happened to that cop.’

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

‘Javert?’

The man shakes his head. His beard bristles across Valjean’s chest and he’s tense, threatening to break again. Valjean strokes the back of his head, silent until he feels him begin to ease. He’s very conscious that he must be careful, because a comment delivered in the wrong tone, or a badly-weighed question could close him up entirely.

‘You don’t have to tell me,’ he murmurs, directing the comment up at the ceiling. ‘You don’t have to do anything right now. Relax.’

Valjean keeps his touch gentle, his breathing steady, his body at ease even though Javert’s pressing up against his cracked ribs, and they’re complaining about it. But his mind races as it tries to decipher this. Not only could Javert be sitting on information that will free Enjolras, Courfeyrac and Combeferre, it might also shed light on why he decided to try and kill himself. Because I told you to quit and I let you down aren’t providing much help at the moment.

He forces himself to stay calm and think it through. Javert doesn’t seem inclined to move, so he lets him rest. He can’t force him to say anything; he can’t pressure, or cajole, or reason too hard. Part of him thinks Javert has to speak, because how can anyone let three people sit in jail if they have the power to free them? But most of him remembers how he felt when it was him in this position. How people talked at him, and he would have done anything to make them stop. How he couldn’t sort through his own thoughts, and emotions, and self-loathing, and guilt, and it turned him into something  that makes him sick to this day. He won’t put Javert in that position. It’s not a decision he has to come to, it’s a fact. He just won’t.

There’s something digging into his side. He feels for it, and discovers something hard in Javert’s hand, pushing into his skin. It’s slipping from limp fingers; Valjean’s heart skips a beat, but he realises a second later that Javert’s just falling asleep. He catches the thing and holds it up to the TV light. His phone, hot from his palm. Valjean frowns at it. This was under his pillow this morning.

He presses the power button. Nothing. Not even enough juice to display the ‘charge battery’ symbol on the home screen. Now he thinks about it, Javert hasn’t charged it since he’s been here, and definitely not at the hospital.

He turns it over in his fingers. Javert stirs against him. Feeling a little guilty, Valjean slips the phone into the waistband of his underwear.

‘I’m tired.’

He feels it more than hears it. A whisper against his skin, warm and worn out. He squeezes Javert’s arm. ‘Let’s go to bed.’

There’s no question of leaving him alone out here, or alone in the guest bed. If Javert showed the slightest sign of not wanting to share, he wouldn’t, but he’d still sit there in the room with him and make sure he’s OK. But there’s no sign. Javert just nods, and Valjean sits up still holding him. For a moment, before letting him rise, he can’t resist keeping him close in a hug. He shouldn’t, but he doesn’t know how to say I know what you’re feeling. And Javert doesn’t seem to mind; he sits with his arms around Valjean like a child not wanting to let go of comfort. Valjean has to resist the temptation to kiss his head, and when he feels he might fail, he draws back carefully. Javert’s hand slides along his back as he lets them part. A shiver spreads through his nerves. He should have put a shirt on. He should start sleeping in clothes, even though he hates it.

‘C’mon.’

Javert rises like a robot, and stands with his head down. It looks like emotion, but after watching for a few seconds, Valjean sees he’s nearly asleep on his feet. He shouldn’t have pushed him today. Therapy was enough to do; he shouldn’t have made him decorate, he shouldn’t have let him wash dishes, or got him up after only sleeping an hour this afternoon. If he let him be, he might not have had to go through this. But then he might not have heard what he just heard. Hard as this obviously is, Valjean can’t feel bad about that.

In the bedroom, Javert pulls his shirt off without invitation and drops it on a chair, then collapses ungracefully onto the edge of the bed. Valjean leaves him only long enough to put the phone on his dresser, and fetch a T-shirt. He comes back shaking it out of its folds.

‘Don’t.’

He pauses, one arm through the hole, ready to pull it over his head.

‘What?’

‘Please.’

Javert’s tone is mechanical in its weariness, but his eyes are open as he looks up at him. Valjean watches back, frozen in the request. He should say no. He should. But how can he? Denying him even a small thing might make him think he’s rejected, and retreat. He can’t let him get isolated in his head.

The shadows under Javert’s eyes are thrown into sharp relief by the orange hue of streetlight glowing up into the room, and it’s clear when they fall shut. Clear when his head tilts forward; slowly, so slowly, as inevitable as a tree in a slow fall. Valjean needs no light to know the gentle pressure of his forehead leaning against his abdomen.

His mind races off in an entirely different direction. Javert’s breath is warm, his lips too close to skin. Valjean’s thankful the waistband of his shorts keep most of the heat away, but-

He swallows hard, and realises he’s holding his breath. When he lets it out, Javert’s shoulders move, and his fingers twitch on the blanket. Valjean’s arms drop, and the T-shirt falls to the floor.

‘OK.’

Javert doesn’t move. He’s not asleep. Valjean raises his hand and, a little against his better judgement, strokes his hand down the back of his head once more. As soon as he does, he wishes he hadn’t. It’s too intimate in this position. Far too much like the last time Javert was bent over him, and neither of them need to remember that now because it’ll do more harm than good. There are dark thoughts lurking down this path, things Valjean will do anything not to go near. Not yet. Not until he has to, and he might not have to, because Javert is a different man who will, hopefully, not follow the path he did. Neither of them could stand that.

He lets his hand fall gently to the side of his neck, and rubs a thumb over the soft patch between ear and whiskers. Somehow, it’s worse.

‘Lie down.’

Javert looks up, but doesn’t move back. His lips are too close to the muscles he once stroked on this very bed. Valjean shoves the thought away. This is not the time. It may never be the time. Things are different now, and attraction is a danger they have to avoid. Sharing a bed is probably stupid, but he doesn’t know how else to help.

He leans down, exerting a little pressure on Javert’s shoulder. The man gives, and lets the moment break; he rolls sleepily to his side, leaving room behind. Valjean hesitates before pressing up close to his back; he hadn’t planned on doing this with no shirt on, and it’s a different thing, and…and it’s too late to do anything about it. Javert melts into him without hesitation, solid and warm.

He smells so real, nothing like the scentless memory of the guy who used to come here. His hair is still damp from the panic attack, and his skin is heated, tacky against his chest. He smells warm; a living, breathing, broken man, and it’s a stupid thought, he knows, and probably inappropriate – but Valjean is struck hard by the sheer reality of him, so solid, all angles and bones. He rests his cheek against the back of his head, and feels the prickle and itch of hair against his skin; Javert breathes long and slow, already drowsing into full sleep, shifting his legs to get comfortable. This is not what he planned. Even before Javert knew the truth, any connection between them in his head did not contain this sort of intimacy. Sex, yes. Not…this. Not the stark truth of scent, and jutting elbows, and the undeniable heat that comes from skin pressing against skin.

He can’t relax, even after Javert’s asleep.  It’s been a long time since he’s been this close to anyone, and never like this. It’s nice, like last night. It’s too nice. It’s terrifying. It promises all kinds of agony, bad and good, and Valjean’s pretty sure he isn’t equipped to handle any of it. All he can do is hope Javert doesn’t suffer when he fails him.

 

*

 

He dreams of searching for a ringing alarm clock, and when he finds it, it won’t switch off. He slams the snooze button, and nothing happens. It rings on, and on, and his frustration mounts to the point of throwing it into the wall. It smashes to pieces, and still rings on. He swears at it, stamps on it, and it won’t shut up.

‘Valjean.’

‘…uh?’

‘Phone.’

Javert. Valjean blinks, and gets a glimpse of a head on the edge of his pillow. Everything’s sticky, and it’s too hot. A body too close, nestled in the curve of his legs and torso, pressing-

‘Shit!’

He slams himself upright, and grabs for the nightstand. The phone falls onto the floor, and he scrabbles for it, feeling the heat of embarrassment flush through him. But Javert’s already dozing again, and doesn’t seem to care about anything untoward.

‘Father. Hi.’

‘Did I wake you?’

‘Uh. Yeah. I mean – sorry, I meant to call, I guess I jus-‘

He hears chuckling, and cuts off, trying to right himself.

‘It’s all right, Jean. I just thought you wanted to leave Javert with me this morning.’

‘I did. What time is it?’

‘Nine thirty. Are you boys OK?’

‘Yeah.’ Wait. ‘No. Sorry Father, I meant to call earlier. Something happened.’

Father Charles’ voice goes from jovial to serious in one second flat. ‘What?’

‘I’m not sure.’ He looks down at Javert, sleeping next to him with all the appearance of peace. ‘I can’t go to the cops today. Or not until later, I don’t know.’

He slides out of bed, and walks quietly out of the room, pulling the door behind him. ‘Father, can you come for lunch? There’s…I don’t know what to do, but it’s important and I don’t want to mess it up.’

He can’t help the feeling that Father Charles should be the one fixing Javert. Not because he doesn’t want him on his hands, just because the man will do a better job. He fixed him, as much as anyone can, so he’s qualified.

‘Yeah, I can come for lunch. You going to be alright until then? Don’t be a hero, Jean – I’ve got a service at ten, but I might be able to get cover if you think he’s-‘

‘No, no. It’s OK, it’s not – we’ll be fine for a few hours. You’ll-‘ there’s a sound from the bedroom, and Valjean’s head whips around. ‘I have to go, Father. I’ll see you later.’

‘Later.’

He hangs up, and walks back into the bedroom. Javert’s sitting, pushing through the covers, pillows on the floor. He looks up, fury and something like fear all over him.

‘Where’s my phone?’

Valjean blinks, and points at the dresser. ‘Right there.’

‘…oh.’ Javert stares at it, frozen. Then the tension seems to leave him in a rush, and his face falls flat. Valjean watches him for a moment but he doesn’t move, so he walks over and picks the pillows up. Javert takes them and puts them back, not making eye contact.

‘You need to shower. Do you want to shave? You’ve been scratching your beard.’

Javert’s turn to blink. ‘You trust me with a razor now?’

He shrugs lightly. ‘As long as I’m in the room.’

He doesn’t want to make a big deal of it, but there’s also no way he’s leaving him alone with anything sharp after last night.

‘You want to watch while I shower too?’

There’s a small lurch in his stomach. He shakes his head. ‘There’s nothing sharp in the stall.’

Javert’s face is unreadable. Valjean wonders whether he should bring up what he said. He can’t get away from the knowledge that every minute that passes is one more those three boys shouldn’t have to endure in jail. But Javert just woke up, and he immediately stressed out, and Valjean has a feeling today is going to be hard enough.

He watches the man head for the guest bathroom, and then jumps in the shower himself. He makes sure to dress completely afterwards, even though he’s aware he’s protecting himself in clothes while denying Javert the same right. But he has to keep barriers up in the daylight. Sleeping skin to skin is one thing, something Javert seems to need in the dark. It can’t bleed over. He knows it, but it’s still a little awkward for him when Javert opens his bathroom door, dressed only in a towel.

‘I use a straight razor, but I have disposables. I’ll pick you up a decent one next time we’re out, or get yours from your room.’

Javert says nothing, expresses nothing on his features, shows nothing. He just holds his hand out, and Valjean deposits the cheap razor and a bottle of foam into it, feeling like a jerk. He puts the lid of the toilet down and sits, staring at the floor while Javert lathers his face up at the sink. Under the harsh bathroom light, the fading bruises on the man’s torso stand out in yellow and green. The air smells of steam, and the heavy tang of men’s antiperspirant.

‘You don’t have clippers?’

‘No. I don’t use them.’

‘No electric razor?’

‘No. Why?’

He glances up to see Javert shrug, and start on his cheek. He should have thought of clippers. This will take ages with a cheap throwaway; he should have thought about letting him shave before, and he should have not let him sit and stew on what he knows. Enjolras could be free by now, and helping with the clean-up. Combeferre could be back at the hospital, and Courfeyrac back at work, earning beer money and lighting up the break room the way he does. There’s a stab of frustration in his chest, followed by the realisation that he could be out there, helping with the clean-up. All those families who lost their businesses, and some their homes, and he’s sitting around his apartment putting up Christmas decorations and thinking about the way Javert feels in his arms. It’s sick.

‘What’s the matter?’

He’s still staring, though he hadn’t realised it. He shakes his head clear, and looks away. ‘Nothing.’

‘Liar.’

‘What do you want me to say? There’s a lot going on. I’m worried about you. And you said something that-‘

‘I know what I said.’

Javert’s shoulders are down, the razor paused on his cheek. Their eyes meet in the mirror, and this time it’s not Valjean who looks away. It’s quiet for a moment, then Javert rinses the blade off in the sink and the splashing water breaks the frisson of tension. At least the thing’s been broached. Valjean crosses his arms.

‘You want to tell me about it?’

‘Do I have a choice?’

The blade scrapes at hair and skin, loud in the silence. Valjean counts the strokes, weighing up the balance of his words and tone.

‘Of course you have a choice. But it’s a choice with consequences, obviously.’

‘Like, you’ll kick me out if I don’t do what you think is right?’

It’s said with defiance, but there’s resignation underneath. Valjean’s instant reaction is still a touch of anger, and a silent shout over what is right, not just what he thinks is right. He waits until it passes, and watches Javert fight with his beard. He’s so patient at it, unconcerned that he doesn’t seem to be making progress.

‘I’m not going to kick you out, no matter what you decide. Even if I did, you’d have to stay with Father Charles. Unless you’d prefer the psych unit?’

Javert’s face crumbles minutely; not any one thing you could identify as a fall, more a subtle shift. Forced calm to unbearable vulnerability. Valjean feels even more of a jerk.

‘No one’s putting you in a psych unit. You can stay here for as long as you like – longer than you like probably, because you’re getting better before you go anywhere.  And it takes longer to get better than you think. Feeling you’re OK doesn’t mean much, so…look forget all that. You’ve got a place here. But you can’t keep putting yourself through nights like last night. You’ll never make it like that.’

He says it gently, but with enough firmness to make it clear. No one’s abandoning Javert, whether he wants them to or not. He has to make sure he knows that, because he’ll never heal if thinks he’s about to be thrown out for the choices he makes.

‘How do you know?’

‘What?’

‘That it takes longer to get better than you think.’

Valjean scratches his arm, and looks at the wall. After a minute, he glances up at Javert, and tries to say it casually.

‘Because I tried to kill myself in jail.’

He’s been expecting the question, or something like it. Something intrusive. In his mind, the reaction has always been a laugh, or disbelief, or scorn. But Javert barely reacts at all. He just continues trying to shave, though perhaps his eyes move to meet his a little more often. Rinse, flick, scrape. Over and over. It’s too warm in here, condensation on the walls and dripping down the mirror where it was wiped to make a space for him to see. Rinse, flick, scrape. The rhythm is like nails on a chalkboard.

‘Oh.’

Valjean shrugs at nothing. Javert shakes out his hand, and runs a finger down the patch he’s made on his cheek. There’s foam on his knuckles. A thin rivulet of water runs down the outside of his arm, and drips water onto the tiles.

Eventually, a sigh. Javert starts along his jaw. His hair is thick, dark brown, and pokes through the lather starting to melt away in the heat. Valjean remembers it was soft on his chest last night. It’s something he shouldn’t know, and the sensation the thought brings is more fear than anything. The answer to the question not yet asked is thick in his mouth, swelling through him. The thought of hearing it out loud is horrific, makes his stomach churn, but he’ll have to speak now he’s started this.

Rinse, flick, scrape. Valjean shuts his eyes. Javert’s waiting for him there, dangling from a beam in the dark. His throat feels tight, closed over, and he has to move, so he stands up and pushes the door open to let some cooler air in. He’s sticky again; he wants another shower. And he wants more than anything to hit the weights, because he’s starting to forget the ache of muscle fatigue and he doesn’t feel real without it.

‘Relax. I’m not going to ask why.’

Their eyes meet again. Valjean scratches his arm once more, then pinches the imaginary itch away.

‘If you did, I’d tell you.’

‘Which is why I’m not.’

Is this relief? It’s an uncomfortable sensation, bursting with words you can’t say, like a kid with its hand in the air, begging to be called for the answer before the teacher asks someone else. Does Javert not want to know? Not care? Too scared to ask?

He rubs the back of his head. Hair’s too long. He needs to see a barber. And in the mirror, he sees Javert lift his chin. He opens his mouth to say something – he doesn’t know what – but then everything dries up in his mouth.

The bruise flashes at both of them, yellow at the edges, deep pink in that line through the centre. His heart leaps into his throat and sticks there; he watches Javert freeze solid, and then everything’s stopped, everything’s awful. The fear he sees turns him cold. He can see him staring at his own neck in the reflection, and the realisation comes that this might be the first time he’s looked at it. Properly looked at it, and been forced to touch it. Last night comes back – not even last night; this morning, only a few hours ago. I can feel it. Can’t breathe.

He steps forward, and grasps his wrist. It’s suspended in the air, water dripping from the blade.

‘Wait.’

What were they talking about? Doesn’t matter.

‘I-‘

‘It’s OK.’

He takes the razor away, and drops it in the bin. Javert isn’t moving; he stares at himself, but Valjean suspects he’s seeing something completely different. He doesn’t want to know what. He never wants to feel the way Javert’s feeling right now, never again.

Javert blinks, and for a few seconds, Valjean feels the weight of his back leaning into his chest. He has to stop himself putting his arms around his waist to hold him there.

‘Sit down.’

From seeming normal a minute ago, Javert slumps on to the toilet with alarming speed. Valjean remembers these moments too. It takes a lot of effort to pretend you can function, to hold a simple conversation, sometimes just to be in the same room as anyone else. He can, at least, help with that.

‘I’ll be right back. OK?’

‘OK.’

It’s cooler out of the steam. A little of the tension releases as he strides to his bathroom, but his head is still buzzing when he picks up his razor. What the hell is he doing? Getting up in his own head is not going to help Javert. He’s got to stay objective, not wallow in his own shit. This isn’t about him, and he’s not going to be any use to anyone if he can’t stop being self-centred. He has to think about those boys in jail, and make sure he finds out what happened in a way that won’t break Javert. Nothing else matters right now.

The reminder helps, but he still has to take a deep breath before re-entering the bathroom. He has to collect himself to stop everything swirling around. He has to remember Father Charles’s faith that he can do this at all.

Javert hasn’t moved. Valjean puts some clean, warm water into a mug, and kneels down in front of him. There’s no reaction when he rubs the rest of the lather around a little to spread it out, but Javert does close his eyes when he runs his fingers into his hair to keep his head steady.

‘Stay still.’

The razor glints in the light as he presses it gently to Javert’s cheek. It runs through the foam like a warm knife through soft wax, cutting through strands like they aren’t there, leaving smooth, clean skin. Valjean leans in to make sure there’s no danger of nicking him; he’s proficient on his own face, but he’s never done this for anyone else before. Javert’s breath tickles over his neck, and he has to concentrate to keep his focus on the lather building up against the metal, flecked with hair and loose with water.

‘You alright?’

‘Yeah.’

He doesn’t sound alright. He doesn’t sound alive. That monotone can’t be normal. Valjean’s insides twist with nerves for him, but he can’t force him to sound like a person again. Not for his benefit.

It’s silent for long minutes. There’s only the sound of the razor, and softly rasping breath. Until, eventually;

‘Valjean?’

‘Yeah?’

‘Did you know my father?’

He doesn’t let the blade pause. He doesn’t let himself react. This is what the guy’s thinking about?

‘Not really. By sight, yeah. We might have spoken in the yard a couple of times. I mostly kept to myself.’

When he was allowed. He frowns at a small stubborn patch of hair on Javert’s chin, and at least there can be no speaking while he edges along his thin lower lip. But when he rinses the blade off, he can’t resist asking; ‘why?’

‘Just wondered.’

He nods. The corner of the razor eases through the indentation between Javert’s nose and top lip. The man’s absolutely still, and Valjean can’t decide if it’s unnatural, or if he’s simply one of those people who can control themselves completely. Maybe some of both. He would have – will? – make a good cop. In some respects.

‘You know, even if I had spoken to him a lot, I probably still wouldn’t know him.’

Javert’s eyes move to his.

‘Unless there are people you really trust – which doesn’t happen often, y’know? – then guys in prison don’t talk that much about personal stuff. You have to keep a front up. People don’t talk about their families in case it makes them vulnerable.’

He’s not sure if Javert was really asking, did he talk about me? But just in case.

He sits back on his heels, and drops the razor into the mug. Javert looks down at him, his face clean to the jaw. Foam drips from under his chin on to the towel he wears, the floor, his arms. He just sits there.

‘I left some sideburns.’

‘Why?’

A shrug. ‘They suit you.’

Javert raises his eyebrows, just a touch. Valjean quirks half a smile, then picks up the foam and lathers his hands. ‘OK. You ready? Lift up.’

He raises his chin. Valjean doesn’t let himself think about it, or look at it. He covers a little more skin than strictly necessary, hiding most of the bruise under a thick layer of white. Javert’s throat feels small under his hands, exposed, too thin. How could he ever have thought it would hold his weight? Well, he didn’t. Of course. But it’s still so hard to understand; that Javert, of all people, would do this. It’s easier to believe he was trying to test his own body, and expected it to survive. If anyone would think their neck impervious to a rope, it’s Javert.

He knows he’s being ridiculous. He knows Javert expected no such thing; the man’s probably never had a flight of fancy in his life, and he most certainly knows the effects of stringing a person up. Still.

He kneels up, and tilts Javert’s head a little to the side. He lets him, his face blank. Valjean can’t help but be aware of the way his hand has curled around the edge of the toilet seat. He wants to say something to make it easier, but no words come. He tries to breathe easy instead, and stay relaxed so he doesn’t heighten the nerves in the room, but it’s harder than it should be. He touches the blade to his throat, and drags it carefully upwards, knowing he’s holding his breath and unable to let it out. They’re too close, it’s too warm, and Javert’s chest rises too fast. Metal scrapes quietly over roughened skin…and the air is heavy, spiced with deodorant and two bodies heated from the steam; tension from the blade pulling over bruised skin that throbs in time with Javert’s raised heartbeat, and Valjean is very aware of the damp hair between his fingers, and the forbidden curl of anticipation in his belly. The last time their faces were this close, they were kissing. He kissed his throat last night. They spent the night pressed together, and he woke up hard against his ass.

He lets go of his head, and sinks back on to his heels. He can feel Javert’s eyes on him as he rinses the blade, as well as the heat on his cheeks. There’s a tiny throb somewhere there shouldn’t be, and he rails at himself in his head. Sick, it’s sick. It’s not the time. He’s doing this all wrong.

‘Are your ribs OK?’

He looks up without meaning to. Javert’s straightened his head, but otherwise not moved.

‘Yeah, why?’

‘Kneeling like that must hurt.’

He’s reminded of the consideration Javert showed when he first came here. It’s still in there, then, despite everything. For the first time since the riot, he considers that he hasn’t once thought about that scene in Javert’s room. It’s like it happened in a different life.

‘They’re alright.’

He puts his finger on Javert’s chin, and raises it. The man allows it without argument, passive to a fault. Valjean takes a breath, tells his mind to shut up; that none of this is what’s most important today. Attraction isn’t important at all, nor Javert’s consideration for him. It wouldn’t happen if he had slept well, or if this damn room weren’t so warm.

The razor clears a path through the lather, bringing mottled skin back to the light. Javert’s holding his breath now. Valjean draws carefully up over the worst of it, still the darkest part of the bruise, a deep red under the bulge of his Adam’s apple. The rope would have pulled hard under his ears, but the pressure caught hardest here, where it would kill him. Laid bare, it looks so innocuous. Just a battered lump, voice box and windpipe, only the things he needs to breathe and speak. Valjean is seized by the urge to touch it, to make sure it still works. But Javert swallows then, and he forces himself on. A few more smooth swipes, and the job’s done.

He won’t pretend he’s not relieved. Javert clearly is. He sags a little, but stays still while Valjean brings a towel up, and starts to wipe the last few stray lines of foam away. He’s gentle, and makes sure there’s no pressure. But he has to stay kneeled up to reach, and they’re still too close. Javert still smells good, and his hair is still damp. The towel is very soft, very white. Javert looks like he’s supposed to now he can see his face. He looks up into his eyes…and is struck by a realisation he’s  never had before.

These eyes have killed him with suspicion, with contempt; skewered him through, made his heart jump in fear; he’s seen them hazed over with lust, wide with need – but he hasn’t seen them close up like this before, simply open to be read, no barriers, no emotion colouring the gaze. And they’re beautiful like this. Dark blue swirled with grey, ringed by something paler that throws the depths into relief, and focuses them into that piercing stare.

Something lurches hard in him. He wants to pull back, and can’t. And then there’s a touch, rippling heat out under it like a finger touched to still water. Javert’s hand on his bicep.

He tears his gaze away, and looks down. He can tell himself it’s just a touch for balance, but it’s made a lie the second a finger strokes down over the hard plain, down to the soft skin at his elbow joint. His breath catches in his throat. His skin tingles under the touch, and burrows down through his body. He can’t move. He only watches as fingertips quest gently under the rim of his T-shirt, and run over the swell and bulge of muscle. He opens his mouth, but makes no sound except the escaping of air. The touch is so tentative, he can’t break it. He can’t crush it; he can’t reject it - he doesn’t want to, but he couldn’t even if he did, because Javert’s reaching out and how can he tell him no? He wants to tell him no. He has to. It doesn’t matter that it feels like someone’s flipped a light switch under his skin, and long-dead nerves are fizzing to life. It doesn’t matter that he’s getting hard. He has to tell him to stop.

The fingertips emerge from under his sleeve, and wander slowly to the thin white skin of his inner arm. They trace a thick vein raised under the surface, and Valjean’s blood sings, rushes to his face and between his legs. He barely holds back a choke. He gets the impression Javert’s smiling, but can’t look. He’s closed his eyes. He has to stop him. He has to stop him before he kisses him. If he kisses him, he’ll never be able to help him.

And there are three boys sitting in jail while he’s kneeling in front of a man, with his cock full in his jeans.

The thought is a douse of iced water. His eyes jerk open. Javert’s fingers pause. Before he can speak, they spread; he feels the circling warmth of a hand around hard muscle, and it’s good, it’s reassuring, it helps.

He looks up into Javert’s eyes. Javert looks back, unreadable. He wets his lips, and sinks back onto his heels.

‘What’s on your phone, Javert?’

The hand tightens for just a second. And then it falls away, slowly, almost sadly, and Valjean can’t help the sorrow for its loss.

But it had to go. He can’t allow it. He won’t let Javert become what he was, and that’s that.

 

*

 

Lunch would have been an awkward affair if it weren’t for Father Charles being there, and being himself. No one would think he’d been told something had happened the night before. He had whirled in around midday, pretended to have a heart attack at the sight of decorations, and if he’d noticed anything weird in the silence between the two of them, it didn’t show.

Now, plates pushed aside, he locks his fingers together on the table and looks between them.

‘Right then. Let’s have it.’

Valjean glances at Javert, but he just stares down at the table and makes no move to show he’s about to speak. It’s not a surprise, so Valjean’s ready. He’s not going to mention the panic attack, or anything the guy might be embarrassed by when he’s feeling better. And there’s only one thing that’s important.

‘Javert says he knows what happened to the cop.’

Father Charles purses his lips, and thinks that over.

‘The one who died?’

He nods. The priest looks to Javert, who doesn’t move - but he does decide to speak, seemingly to the room at large.

‘Why were you going to go to the cops today?’

Valjean blinks. He had thought Javert was asleep when he said that.

‘Because if I tell them I was with Enjolras and everybody, they might have to be placed elsewhere when the cop died. It might clear them.’

Javert shakes his head. For a minute, he says nothing, and Valjean doesn’t have to look to the Father to know neither of them are going to break it. Javert looks very alone, even though he made the effort to sit next to him so it wouldn’t feel like he was being interrogated.

‘You won’t clear them. They were there.’

Now he glances at the priest. Father Charles just shakes his head minutely. Javert looks up, and flicks his gaze between the two of them. It’s not a neutral look. Valjean has the distinct impression he’s weighing them up. Or maybe he’s just resigned to having to speak now, and wishes he’d never said anything in the first place.

Whatever it is, he sighs and stands up. His phone has been charging in the kitchen for the last two hours, and he retrieves it without comment. They both watch as he switches it on, flicks through a page or two, presses a button and brings the thing back to them. He gives it to Father Charles, and then walks away and sits on the couch, his back to the dining table.

Valjean watches him after he’s sat down. They both do. Then he looks back at the phone, and to Father Charles. He’s got his glasses out of his pocket, and jerks his head to indicate Valjean should come sit next to him.

The video is dark, and confused at first. The sound is tinny on the old phone, but clear enough. Lots of shouting, lots of jostling. Crashes echo out of a black screen for a while, some swearing and, Valjean’s sure, Joly’s high laugh. Then the picture swings into view, wobbles a bit, and stays steady.

Javert was obviously at the opposite side of the square to where Valjean had ended up, and around the edge of the steps leading up to City Hall. That particular spot is more like an alcove, with a thin passageway leading off it that takes pedestrians out onto Sixth. There’s a big tree, and a few deep doorways set into the office building on that side of the plaza. Javert seems to have been in one of them. Directly in front of him, there’s about twenty feet of space before the steps up to City Hall, and the cops trying to maintain a line to keep the people out. They’re about two deep up there, but the two lines that had been in front of their colleagues have already broken and come down to try and subdue the fight.

‘Courfeyrac! Leave it!’

‘…dropped the-‘

Leave it – COURFEYRAC!

There’s a crunch from somewhere off-screen, and the camera lurches up to Enjolras’ face. Combeferre is next to him, and there’s less blood on him than when Valjean saw him, so it must have been before he arrived. Maybe he’s in there even now, picking people up and dragging them to the side. And he can’t have been knocked out for too long. This must have happened, then they crossed the plaza and met up with him. Which means they must have brought Javert with them, surely?

The picture swings back to the action in front. There’s a cop laying into Courfeyrac with his nightstick, not holding back at all. Blood splatters down his shirt, lit up an awful red by the spotlight roaming the riot from the news chopper above. Valjean watches with mounting horror as Combeferre launches himself at the guy, and brings him down. Then everything goes black, and he thinks the picture is gone, but it’s only people blocking the view. The camera moves, and Valjean wonders if Javert was filming this to maintain his lie to the committee, that he was helping them, or if he was planning on handing it to the police to show how these boys fought them.

There’s only sound for almost thirty seconds, but when the picture comes back, it’s more clear. He’s in a doorway further along, with an unimpeded view for the moment. The bottom of the steps are visible in the top of the frame. Valjean clearly sees Enjolras dart forward, and pull the cop’s gun from his belt.

He’s pretty sure Combeferre says, ‘no!’. Courfeyrac’s dragging himself up off the ground, wiping blood from his nose. The security light from the office building has somehow not been broken, and provides a steady backlight to the scene, making it clear who’s involved. He can see everyone. Including the cop, whose helmet has been knocked off in the ruckus.

He kneels on the paving slabs, bleeding from a cut over his eye. His hands are up, because Enjolras is pointing the gun at his face. Combeferre stands behind the kneeling figure, a little off-centre, and Courfeyrac off to Enjolras’ left.

Valjean puts his hand over his mouth. If he’s wrong, and Bahorel’s wrong, and Enjolras did pull that trigger…

…but he doesn’t. His arm lowers. Not just a little bit; all the way to his side. He’s saying something, but the microphone can’t pick it up over the din of fighting and the helicopter. Valjean’s stomach unclenches. Even if this doesn’t show the killing, at least he can prove-

The cop collapses forward. It takes a second to parse the sudden drop, the explosion of red and the way half his face seems to disappear. The camera jerks up, as though Javert had looked up in surprise. And it shows, quite clearly, another cop. One standing on the lowest steps, slightly elevated. Valjean blinks in shock, and Father Charles hisses next to him. It’s impossible to see who they are with their helmet on, and there are no outward distinguishing features. But there’s a gun in their hand, and then suddenly some strangers in the crowd launch into view, and the shooter is gone. The camera comes back to the corpse. Combeferre is checking for signs of life, Courfeyrac is bent with his hands on his knees. And then Enjolras’ furious face, staring directly down the lens.

‘Did you get that!?’

And the picture goes black.

Valjean sits without moving, his thoughts on fire. Father Charles lets out a long, slow breath. It’s quiet for a long time, until the priest breaks it.

‘Well. There it is.’

He nods, slowly. There it is.

‘I guess the shooter got rid of their gun. All they’d have to do is drop it, and say it was taken.’

He nods again, and finds his voice.

‘They were getting taken a lot.’

Bahorel took one right in front of him. He presumes no one would be stupid enough to keep a stolen police-issue weapon, so any cop could claim they’d had theirs wrested away and then discarded after committing murder with it. But the relief is indescribable. He never believed those three would have killed like that, but it’s still good to have proof. He has more questions than he can bear, but at least some of them will have to wait until later.

He looks over at Javert. He sits sideways on the couch with his knees drawn up to his chest, his head resting on the back cushion. After a moment of thinking, he gets up and goes to him. He expects Father Charles to follow, but he doesn’t. He just smiles a little when Valjean throws an enquiring glance his way.

‘Javert? You OK?’

‘You’ve got what you want. Go away.’

‘Can’t. Sorry.’ He sits on the wooden coffee table, and runs his palms down the legs of his jeans. ‘What do you want to do?’

Javert frowns at him. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Just what I say.’

Silence. Javert looks genuinely confused. It’s Father Charles’s lilt that breaks it, carrying soft from the table.

‘He means, son, that it has to be your decision.’

The effect is awful to see, and somehow worse because there’s so little of it. Javert doesn’t move much, but the façade of normality he’s maintained through lunch vanishes in a blink. His face falls, his head bobs forward on his neck. His knees jerk to the side, as if tension is lost from his legs.

His head shakes, once.

‘I can’t.’

His voice cracks even on two short words. So. This is the problem. This is what led to an abandoned warehouse, and a rope.

‘Why not?’ he asks, as gently as he can. ‘They’re inno-‘

‘They’re not. They’re not! They’re not fucking innocent, Valjean, he was pointing a gun at his face. Cops are allowed to shoot when there’s a gun! Don’t tell me they’re innocent.’

The fury is so out of the blue, Valjean’s head rocks back. Even Father Charles shoots to his feet; they look at each other, while Javert’s face glares an instant, livid, red. His eyes storm, his hands are fists. Silent rage slams into Valjean’s body with no warning at all, and rips words clean out of his throat. Instinct roars at him to back away, but he’s too shocked to move.

‘It was an accident! They meant to shoot Enjolras. He had a gun! It was just…bad luck, bad light, I don’t …you can’t point a gun at a cop, and expect to not get shot, that’s not how it works, and they didn’t mean…they could have thought Combeferre had one, and – if you point a gun at a cop, what do you expect!? They’re not innocent, they were fighting, they’re-‘

Any more words are lost. Father Charles sits down on the edge of the sofa and pulls Javert into him. Valjean stands, his ears ringing. Is he serious? Really?

The gun goes off in his head, blood explodes through his mind. The awful, unnatural slump of the dead, the broken head slapping into stone. Enjolras’ face. Javert justifying it.

He hears the priest murmuring calming words, and sees Javert slump into him, his hands gripping the Father’s black jacket. He recognises such a burst of emotion; the thought comes to him dimly, as he backs away. The guy’s obviously been sitting on that since it happened, and he probably didn’t mean any of it – or he did, once, and now he’s trying to convince himself. That’s what it smacks of. But Valjean can’t help a small flare of disgust. Accident or not – impossible to tell from that video – the cops are trying to cover up a mistake by blaming students. Or rather, using it to actively incriminate them. There should be no doubt over what to do. It shouldn’t have been allowed to get this far.

He’s drifted back to the phone without thinking. He picks it up, and hesitates, glances over to the sofa…but no, he won’t pretend this isn’t an active decision. He won’t pretend he’s done it in a daze. He’s not sure what’s going to happen, but whatever does, there’s now a copy sitting in his email account. If this gets deleted somehow, there’s still options.

Father Charles is watching him, Javert’s head cradled on his shoulder. He hears the words, I can’t! muffled against cloth, and thinks to himself, you have to.

The priest shakes his head at him. Fine, they can leave it for now. It’s last night all over again, and Valjean can’t hold a breakdown against the guy. It’s amazing he held himself together for a week, if he’s been sitting on this. And Javert…well, Javert really wanted to be a cop. There was never any doubt about that. Having your life’s dream pulled away from you in such a way…fuck, it’s not even that, is it? Valjean looks down at the phone, the arrow inviting him to hit ‘play’ again. Javert hates criminals. It’s been clear since he was a kid, when he only saw him across a crowded visiting room. There’s probably a large part of him that really wants Enjolras to get the death penalty for this, because he still rioted, he still pointed a gun at an officer.

But he’s innocent. The police made a mistake, and now they’re acting unlawfully. They’re not perfect. Maybe that really is enough for Javert to break like this.

He stares at the screen. No, he doesn’t want to see it again. Not yet. He swipes it to the side to leave it for later…and then he’s staring for an entirely different reason.

The previous entry is not a video, it’s a photo. A photo of him, at one of the committee meetings. He’s talking to Enjolras and Bahorel. From the room they’re in – a classroom, not a lecture hall – this is from November.

He swipes again. Him and Courfeyrac. Him and Joly, with Bossuet in the background. Late September? Combeferre taking notes. Him and Grantaire in the campus parking lot, from a day they were carrying boxes to his car. Leaflets for the campaign they’ve been planning, for equal benefits…

His thoughts stop dead. His head snaps around to the sofa. Father Charles has a look of enquiry on his face, as he lets Javert pull back. Valjean ignores the look, because the room is closing in. What did Javert say? I told you to quit. I let you down. And in that alley, when he was on his knees in the mud, what did Enjolras say? He came to meetings sometimes.

He’s been spying on him. For months. Since…shit, he wants to laugh. It’s so obvious. It’s so obvious. Since the police station. Javert would have admitted he knew him. And they used him. The police used him.

‘What’s going on, Jean?’

For once, the priest’s tone is serious. He can’t imagine what his face must look like to have warranted it, but finds he doesn’t really care. He holds the phone up, a picture of himself clear on the screen.

‘Javert, you want to tell him?’

Javert is white, with two red spots high on his cheeks the only remnant of his anger. He stares with clear horror at the picture, the colour draining away. Then he shakes his head, and can’t seem to stop, not until he puts his hands to his temples and grabs what little hair he has. It looks like he’s trying to pull it out, and Valjean just watches, furious and sick, full of resigned pity. It’s Father Charles who grabs him again, eases his hands away, and tries to calm him down. And then he looks up at him, blue eyes at ease as they always are.

‘He doesn’t have to tell me, Jean. If you mean what I think you mean, I already know.’

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 


 

The floor seems to fall away. His stomach turns over, and the energy drains out of his limbs. He can’t be serious. Not Father Charles.

‘Jean-‘

He shakes his head, blood pounding in his ears. Javert’s been seeing the priest for a few months. He knew that. God, he’s so stupid! All of this has been right there, and he didn’t see any of it.

‘He’s been spying on me.’

‘I know.’

‘And you didn’t think you should…no, because you can’t, right? You can’t say anything. You just let him carry on.’

And look what happened.

He straightens his shoulders, pushes it away. It doesn’t matter. It can wait. It’s done. If it hurts, so what? He looks at Javert instead, sitting with his head down and shoulders loose, a picture of dejection. It’s not hard to feel pity, but compassion is harder to come by.

‘Are you going to tell the police?’

‘I don’t know.’

It’s a whisper. Pity curdles into anger.

‘Jean, try to understand-‘

Valjean looks away. Javert probably doesn’t know what he’s doing, not really. He doesn’t understand the fate he’s consigning those boys to. He should have an inkling because he saw his own father in jail, but a visiting room is not like being inside, and no father wouldn’t impart the details of what goes on.

He takes a deep breath. More worrying is that he’s not sure Javert cares about those three, but that’s not the issue either. He doesn’t have to care. He just has to do the right thing.

When he looks back, Javert is halfway to standing. When he’s upright he won’t meet anyone’s eyes, and despite himself, some of Valjean’s anger slips away. Whatever decisions the guy made, he’s paying for them now.

‘Tell him anything you want,’ he mutters, in the direction of Father Charles. ‘I’m going to-‘

He gestures in the direction of the guest room, already moving off. His gaze is fixed ahead, as if he can pretend the world doesn’t exist if he refuses to acknowledge it. Valjean’s heart sinks a touch. He knows that way of thinking. It’s a way of keeping yourself isolated, and therefore safe.

‘Javert-‘

No reply. But Valjean can’t stop himself, and puts a hand on his arm as he passes. Javert halts under the touch, staring straight ahead.

‘It’ll be OK.’

The arm jerks away. Valjean drops his hand to his side. He stares helplessly after him as he walks into the guest room, and closes the door. Valjean is left with Father Charles, in a silence so loud it buzzes.

‘There’s nothing in there he could hurt himself with, is there?’

‘No.’

He turns to face the priest. Father Charles sighs, and flops down on to the couch. He rubs his palms over his face, and then locks his fingers together and let them drop into his lap.

‘Alright, Jean. When did you last see him, before all this crap?’

‘Beginning of September.’

‘Right, well - you going to sit down?’

Valjean shakes his head. His ribs hurt less when he stands, and there’s too much energy in him to sit. He walks away a little, both so he can look out the window at the falling snow, and so he’s not standing over the man.

‘What’s going on, Father?’

‘It’s complicated. And not, I guess. It’s just-‘

Valjean has the impression of a gesture, but doesn’t look around at once. Not until he’s watched a woman walk along the street below, pulling groceries in a wheeled cart behind her; not until he’s counted snowflakes settling on the black railing of the fire escape to the side. One, two, ten, twenty. There’s no sign of it letting up any time soon.

He turns, hands in his pockets, and waits.

‘He didn’t tell me until November.’

Father Charles’ voice is quiet. And not exactly ashamed, though there’s the suggestion of it. More sorrowful, perhaps.

‘I hadn’t seen him for years. I wasn’t even sure he was the same guy you’d told me about, because Lord knows his parents might have a few more kids between them. I never knew much about him – like I told you before, his father wasn’t exactly open to conversation in prison.’

‘But he must have remembered you.’

‘Apparently.’ Father Charles tilts his head to the side and back. ‘Or he didn’t, but saw you come to the church. He knew my name though, and asked if I remembered him. I did, because – well, you know. He’s not the type of guy you forget, even if it’s been a few years. ‘

Valjean feels a completely ridiculous swell of pride at these words. It’s stupid, but he likes that it’s not just him who thinks Javert’s memorable. He’s never met anyone with that kind of intensity.

‘It was weird seeing him grown up, and he turned out a lot better than he could have, I’ll tell you that, son. I was glad to see it, because he had a pretty bad time of it when his dad was put away. Ah, that’s up to him to tell you if he wants, but he could have gone another way if he decided to. I know he’s…kinda odd now, but it could have been worse.’

It’s easy enough to believe. Javert applying himself to criminality would be scary.

‘What did he want?’

‘The first time, I’m not sure. He looked healthy enough, not like now. He wasn’t withdrawn, or rude, or anything. We just chatted a bit about what he’d been up to. I asked about his parents, told him I was sorry about his dad. He asked if he could come back the week after, so I assumed he actually wanted to talk about something but had to build himself up to it.’

Or, Valjean thinks, he was going to start digging for information. The notion makes his stomach clench. The police investigating him is one thing. Javert doing it feels like a violation.

‘So he came back, and-?’

‘And it was the same for a few weeks. But by the end of October, he didn’t look so good. He didn’t talk as much, and he was thinner. I had him do a few little jobs around the church, just because he looked like he couldn’t sit still. He was trying to say something, but couldn’t get it out. So I just waited, like I did with you.’

‘Come on, Father.’

A sigh, and a short pause. ‘It was a Thursday night, first week of November. He turned up late, and looked like shit. I took him back to the apartment and shovelled some food into him. He was all over the place; it only took asking what was up for the whole thing to come out.’

Father Charles looks up at him from his seat on the couch. Just like in the hospital, Valjean’s struck by how old he looks. But unlike Javert who shows his age when he’s frail, Charles Myriel wears his with strength. He sits calmly; a little sheepish, perhaps, but with the peace of one telling the truth, and able to bear the judgement for it.

‘He didn’t lie to you in the police station, Jean. He hadn’t told them he knew you. But that Detective – Terry, is it? – he was behind the glass when you were waiting for your lawyer. He heard you two talking-‘

Valjean’s eyes shut, dread sweeping through him as he remembers what he said.

‘-and figured out you knew each other. For whatever reason, he wanted eyes kept on you – you know he was looking for dirt. Javert said he’d do it.’

The priest falls silent. Valjean turns his eyes to the bedroom’s closed door. Fuck.

‘You OK, Jean?’

He pulls his eyes back.

‘Yeah. Go on.’

‘The police couldn’t turn anything up. But you were still on the welfare committee, and it was still being vocal about a lot of stuff. Javert was passing information back to the cops about things you were planning – this demand for equal benefits campaign, that’s got some people rattled, by the sound of it.’

‘So if he’d volunteered for this, why was he in a mess?’

Father Charles’ gaze is almost pitying. Valjean meets it, puzzled, desperate to cut to the heart of the matter. This still doesn’t make sense.

‘Jean. Why do you think?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘…no, you probably don’t.’ Another small sigh. ‘Jean – he expected you to be one way, OK? I think he wouldn’t have been surprised to find you really were still in contact with guys you were in prison with. He was so angry with you, he-‘

Valjean waits. Father Charles is clearly recalling something, but whatever it is, he shakes his head and drops it.

‘-but you never got angry at him for calling the press. And he never saw you do anything criminal. That seemed to be what he expected, and he was furious at being wrong. No, not…not just furious. He was like-‘

The clock ticks. Valjean wonders if Javert’s listening to this at the door. He’s willing to bet no.

‘-like he couldn’t understand it, you know? But not just confused. Really, really agitated about it.’

Valjean lets out a breath, and moves over the sofa. He can’t hold himself apart from this. He sits on the coffee table facing the priest, who tries to smile but is clearly not enjoying the scene he’s recalling.

‘I tried to calm him down. He asked me about you. I wouldn’t tell him anything, and that seemed to make it worse.’

‘He got mad at you?’

‘No. Mad at you. Like he was pissed that anyone would protect you, and couldn’t get why you make me want to.’

Valjean blinks. But Father Charles doesn’t give him time to dwell on it.

‘He told me he’d told you to quit the committee back in September, and you were too arrogant to listen. So you deserved it. The police couldn’t investigate any more, but Terry had asked him to carry on, and he would. I think they’re worried about the committee because with you in charge of it, Enjolras and his mates have money behind them, and a good example of how other employers should act. They’re stirring shit up, and you’re the president. You’ve got a criminal record, and you’re the best employer in the city. You’re dangerous to them.’

‘I’m not dangerous to anyone.’

‘No, you’re not. But they don’t get you. And you could be, you know, if you were the type of guy to push things. They’ll never get you though. They don’t understand forgiveness.’

‘Some of them do. They have to. Cops are people as well.’

Father Charles snorts a laugh. ‘There you go. You’d send anyone over the edge, son.’

The priest waves off his look, and lets his hand drop.

‘He kept coming back. He calmed down, and didn’t ask about you anymore, I guess because he knew I wouldn’t say anything. But he was different. He looked more like shit every time, and I never saw him eat anything. He seemed worried about failing his assignments, and he’s still working for that catering company. I thought he was overworked, as well as the obvious thing, so I didn’t bring up him helping the cops again. I guessed he was still at it, but I just hoped-‘

His assurance seems to waver, just for a few seconds. Valjean hates to see it – it’s not normal on him; it doesn’t suit – but says nothing. He has the right to wobble, just like everyone else.

‘…I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you, Jean. I just hoped that once he saw that you were a good guy, he’d come to his own conclusions, you know? Let it drop, let go of that anger at you, let himself feel what he really wanted to. But I guess it just made it worse. I don’t know, maybe he has to have the evidence shoved down his throat before he buys it. He couldn’t seem to accept you weren’t what he thought.’

Father Charles falls silent. Valjean watches him. He can’t help but wonder at all the things that aren’t being said – the details of conversation, the exact nature of Javert’s anger. The words he used, the things he revealed. Did he pace about, and shout? Did he – God forbid – trap Father Charles up against the wall, as he once did with him? Was he withdrawn, and sullen? And what did he say about his parents?

He can’t ask any of it. He wouldn’t get any answers, and rightly so. The details are personal, and his curiousity isn’t enough to violate that trust. Even with words like feel what he really wanted.

He sits back, and takes a deep breath. ‘So the police used him to get information on the committee. He spied on me in case I did anything criminal. Then he came to you the night Jehan died, he went to the plaza, was presumably recording stuff to hand to the police while pretending to do the opposite…saw the cop being killed…’

He trails off. There’s a gap.

‘What did he do after that?’

Father Charles looks at him, puzzled. ‘Wasn’t he in the alley with you?’

‘Yeah. And that wasn’t long after. But when I saw him, he was on his knees and it looked like he’d already given up. Why did he go back with them? He could have just handed the video to Terry, and stayed away from Enjolras. They knew he’d recorded it. There was no reason to stay with the committee.’

‘I don’t know, Jean. Why don’t you ask him?’

Valjean glances again at the bedroom door. It’s a question that needs to be asked, and he will, because this isn’t sitting quite right. But he’s not looking forward to it.

‘Why did he come to see you after Jehan got shot?’

A soft reply. ‘Because he wanted to know if I’d seen you. Oh, he was in a right old state that night.’

He doesn’t know what to do with that. For a second, it brings warmth. But then cold truth comes, and he realises he was probably just checking to see if he was going to go out rioting with everyone else. Criminal behaviour. He’d have what he wanted for his police friends.

Father Charles cuts gently into his thoughts.

‘What about after? Are you still going to be able to have him here?’

‘Of course, if that’s what you think’s best.’

‘…OK. Tell you what, why don’t you have another go, only thinking about the question this time?’

Valjean cuts a glance at him. Father Charles spreads his hands.

‘No one would blame you for not wanting him here. Doing it because you think I want you to isn’t going to be good for either of you.’

Valjean looks down. The anger at seeing his own face on Javert’s phone has melted away, and he’s left with nothing but resignation. And he still doesn’t get it. Javert obviously had some problem with what the police asked him to do, but it can’t simply be that he didn’t get the answers he expected. That’s crazy.

He thinks of this morning, Javert touching his arm and how hard it made him. In bed, holding him close and enjoying it. Shame curls through his belly – he doesn’t want to let go of that, but that’s not a good reason for insisting Javert stay either. It’s a terrible reason. Possibly the worst, for both of them.

‘He should stay if that’s what’s best for him. But I don’t know if it is.’

Father Charles’ gaze is very calm, but very deep. Uncomfortably so, and Valjean has to resist the urge to shift under its weight.

‘I just…Father, he might be better with you. I don’t think I can give him what he needs.’

The priest’s eyebrows raise. ‘And what’s that?’

He shrugs a shoulder, simply to break the feel of the eyes on him. ‘Neutrality. A space that’s just for getting better.’

Silence. And then Father Charles chortles, the tension breaks, and he leans forward to slap the side of Valjean’s knee. ‘For God’s sake! Jean. Son. That’s not it. And one thing I’m pretty damn sure of is that I can’t give him what he needs. And yeah, he needs space to get better – but removing him from the problem might mean he disconnects with it, and ends up exactly where he started off. You see what I mean?’

He doesn’t. Not exactly. Complete disconnection would be bad – and Javert is definitely the type that might do it – but he doesn’t know what Father Charles thinks he needs to get better. He looks into the man’s smiling face, and can’t think of a response. He gets an amused smile back, and the priest stands up.

‘I’ll take him if you really want that. But it’ll have to be later, or tomorrow. I’m out at the hospital, and then the prison all day. And the two of you need to talk about this first, OK? You can call me later and let me know what you decide.’

‘…OK.’

He sits still as Father Charles puts a hand to his temple. Then he bends, and  kisses his head, just like he did to Javert the first day he left him here. For a second, Valjean thinks he might move to grip the man’s jacket, just to keep him close. Father Charles doesn’t have to say words and draw crosses in the air to make him feel blessed, he just has to be near. But he can’t hang on to him. There are so many others who need him. He’s grateful he gets him as much as he does.

‘I’m sorry I was mad.’

The hand stays a second longer, and then rubs through his hair. ‘I’d be more worried if you weren’t, son.’

The touch drops away. Valjean looks up, and smiles, and gets one back.

‘I’ll go and say goodbye to him. I won’t tell him he might be coming to mine, you don’t want him on edge all day about it. Just promise me you’ll think hard about it, yeah?’

‘I will. Promise.’

He sits still until Father Charles has closed the guest room door behind him, and then stands to ease his aching side. He tries a stretch up, and pain stabs through him like a blade in his ribs. He’d give a lot to be able to work out right now. He’d give everything. The trapped energy in his muscles screams to get out, and he feels like every limb is stuffed with sand and straw, as clogged and useless as his head. He needs to clear it out, but there’s nothing he can do. It’ll be at least another ten days before he can exercise even lightly, and maybe not even then.

He walks the length of the apartment twice, up and then back, trying to stretch his neck out as he goes. He avoids the passageway with the bedrooms off it; there are murmured voices, but he’s not going to listen. He makes two mugs of coffee instead, and starts clearing the table from lunch. Only one of the plates is empty, and he can’t help the guilt as he scrapes salad and buttered bread into the trash. It’s a waste. And it’s a week before Christmas, and some people don’t have anything since the riot. And he’s here, and… and maybe that’s a good enough reason to send Javert off with Father Charles. He can go to the factory, and put some of It right.

The bedroom door opens. Father Charles leaves it ajar, and winks at Valjean as he makes to leave. ‘I’ll talk to you later. And you’re still coming for Christmas?’

He’d forgotten all about it. ‘Yeah, of course.’

He glances at the door. Father Charles follows his gaze, and just raises his eyebrows. ‘See you, Jean.’

‘Thanks for coming, Father.’

He waits until the door is closed, and he hears the elevator doors shut. Then he takes a deep breath, picks up the coffee and doesn’t let himself think. There’s too much confusion, too much desire to call the police and put this right, too much need to do something. And he doesn’t want to dwell on Javert’s camera pointing at him, being watched without knowing it, concealed eyes following him on days he thought he was free. His skin clenches tight when he thinks about it. It’s not helpful.

‘Javert?’

He pushes the door open with his foot. Javert sits at the small desk in front of the window, his back to the door. A glance is enough to show his state of mind. He’s slumped, and loose, and passive, just as he has been since he got here. Valjean sets the coffee down gently, and retreats to sit on the edge of the bed.

…maybe he should have let himself think. He has no idea what to say. And there’s no indication from Javert he even knows he’s in the room, so for a few long moments, Valjean just sips from his mug and tries to figure out where to start. But eventually Javert sighs, and looks down at his hands. Then he stretches for the coffee, and mutters, ‘thanks.’

‘Welcome.’

Valjean waits for more, but there’s nothing.

‘Javert, are you OK?’

He watches the cup rise to his lips, and then all the way back down. Javert turns his head.

‘Why are you asking me that? Why would you ask me that?’

‘Sorry. Stupid question.’

‘No, I mean-‘

Javert turns in a heartbeat, unnaturally fast.

‘-why are you asking me if I’m OK?’

‘Because you don’t look it. And I want you to be.’

‘You shouldn’t care.’

‘Well, I do.’

He’s starting to think he shouldn’t either, but he can’t help himself. With the anger gone, and the creeping horror ignored, he’s left only with worry. He has no idea at what point he genuinely couldn’t imagine Javert not being part of his life, but there it is.

He leans forward, holding his gaze.

‘Whether you want me to or not, I do. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t spy on me anymore, but even if you do, I’m still going to care about you. You might hate it, but I can’t change it. So deal.’

Javert stares at him. Valjean retreats, a touch of embarrassed at how earnest he sounds. But it’s the truth, and should he feel bad for speaking it?

They’re both looking at their cups. Javert passes a hand over his face. His voice is low, pained.

‘Ask me what you want, then. But the answer about the video is still the same.’

Anger blooms again, hot and red, and Valjean feels his mouth set to a line. Something in him knows he’s failing; that if he could just find the words to explain how bad it is in jail; if he could cut himself open and let it tumble out, then anyone, even Javert, would understand why those three boys have to be set free. It’s one thing to lock up people who’ve done wrong. It’s base cruelty to do it to the innocent.

‘Alright.’ His tone is measured, bordering on cold. ‘After you saw a cop killing another cop. What’d you do?’

Javert’s eyes flick to him. Valjean gets the impression they’d look surprised if they had the energy for it.

That’s what you want to ask?’

‘Yeah, it is. Because that’s the bit I don’t know, and I can’t figure it out. You had the video, and Enjolras knew you had it. You could have just run, found Terry – I guess he was around somewhere – handed it in, and no one would be able to say Enjolras didn’t pull the trigger. But you didn’t, so either you came back to that alley of your own accord, or they dragged you there and beat the shit out of you. I heard you take a couple of hits. Who did the rest? Enjolras said he stopped ‘the worst of it’ – how bad did it get, and why didn’t you just give them the phone? Did you really, genuinely, want the wrong people accused of this?’

His tone is harder than he wants it to be. He stops to breathe it calm. Javert’s hands are trembling around his cup. His eyes are blank, and still manage to be scared, and Valjean curses himself out as soon as he sees it. He was right. This isn’t what Javert needs. He isn’t.

‘What do you want me to say, Valjean? It doesn’t matter who hit me. They both did. Who cares? I didn’t give the phone to anyone. I tried, but…look, I didn’t know what to do. I knew what I should do, and I couldn’t…or I could, and I tried, but it went wrong, and-‘

He puts the cup down before it spills. Valjean scoots up the bed, and makes himself put his hand on his arm. He doesn’t flinch away this time. For a second, it looks like he’s going to come and sit next to him, and there’s a picture in Valjean’s mind; Javert leaning against him, being pulled into an embrace, being able to speak in the safety of his arms. But his arms aren’t that safe, and this isn’t a romance novel. Javert is no damsel in distress. He’s condemning three men to a lifetime of pain right this minute, and neither of them can lose sight of that.

Still, he makes sure his tone is soft. ‘Who’s ‘both’?’

‘Your friends, when I wouldn’t give them the phone. And-‘

Javert’s so pale. Valjean’s grip squeezes gently, trying to help him get the words out. He’d make eye contact if he could, but the guy has his head down, swallowing hard.

‘I told Terry what I saw. I’d left as soon as the video stopped. I knew where he was. It was me that told them about the alley they were holed up in. But I told him they didn’t kill the cop. I didn’t tell him I’d recorded it. And he said-‘

It looks like he might lose it again, but Valjean daren’t move. He can’t break this in case it doesn’t come back.

‘…doesn’t matter what he said. He just-‘

‘It does matter. Tell me.’

Javert visibly steels himself.

‘…he said that no one listens to fags, and no one would believe me.’

Once again, the wave of dread. Why had he said that in the police station? This is what petty revenge gets you. A casual comment intended to hurt, and now this.

‘He said I’d better keep my mouth shut until they figured out what to do. I told him it was obvious what they had to do. I couldn’t believe it. They’re cops, they’re not supposed to break the law. But he grabbed me, and-‘

A vague gesture towards himself, enough to let Valjean get it. A few friendly reminders from your friendly neighbourhood policemen. He feels sick.

‘I came out of City Hall. They had the guy there, you know, the one who killed your friend. All that stuff about him being processed in a station somewhere, that was a lie. Whatever. A couple of committee guys grabbed me, and brought me back to that alley. They wanted the phone, but I just…’

He trails off, head bowed.  He doesn’t have to say any more, Valjean knows the rest, and he lets him sit for a while, his head spinning. So the police definitely know these murder charges are bullshit, and that makes the next move more difficult. Who to give the evidence to? Who to trust?

But something else is more important.

‘You told him it was obvious what they had to do? So you do know what needs to happen now, Javert.’

Javert closes his eyes, and seems to be trying to pull the pieces of himself back together. Valjean lets him, watches him clench his hands into fists then stretch his fingers out, slowly, one by one, as if following a slow ten-count in his head. He has good hands. Long fingers that look clever, broad palms that would be strong. But the knuckles and tendons stand out too clearly and once again, Valjean feels a swell of protective need, a desire to make them better.

‘If I give the phone to Terry, he’ll destroy it. I don’t know who wouldn’t. Who else is there? And if I do-‘

His voice is thick, struggling. His chin lurches once, and Valjean can’t help it this time, he reaches for his hand, and wraps his own around it. It lies passive against his palm, and he thinks he’s got it wrong…but then fingers curl up, grasp hard, and Javert draws a shuddering breath.

‘If I do, they’ll never let me a cop.’

Valjean wants to pull on his hand, draw him in to him. He thinks of the photos on the phone until it passes.

‘Do you still want to be?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘Because if you do – the city should welcome someone who’s done the right thing. And if they don’t, they’re not worthy of you anyway.’

Javert looks at him, beautiful blue eyes shining too bright, and Valjean makes himself remember the guy who thinks welfare is harmful, and poor people are lazy. Head has to win over heart. Neither of them can get this wrong.

‘It’s all I ever wanted to do.’

‘You still can. But you have decide what sort of cop you’d want to be, Javert. You want to be like Terry? Or you want to be the sort who helps people when they need it, and cares about what’s right?’

Javert looks down at his lap. ‘Never thought much about helping people.’

‘I know. But punishing those who deserve it does help the ones they’ve hurt. And you can do a lot of good in that job, but you’d be going against a lot of people you’ll work with. It’d be tough.’

‘They know I’m gay.’

‘…yeah. And I think that’s my fault. I’m sorry.’

Javert shakes his head and with clear reluctance, pulls his hand back. ‘Doesn’t matter.’

‘It does. But it shouldn’t. That’s not the point. The point is that if you still want it, you can have it. It’ll just be difficult – but you like difficult. That’s not what’s stopping you.’

He has an inkling of what is. If he’s right, he can relate to it, because he felt the same thing when he got out of prison. Freedom, he thought. Now I can live. Now I can do whatever I want. But it’s not like that at all. The thing you enshrine in your mind can’t possibly live up to expectation, and it’s hard when you realise it. For him, it was coming to know that with a diploma earned in jail, and little practical experience of anything, there was a good chance he’d be scrubbing toilets or bagging groceries for the rest of his life. He couldn’t bear the idea of that being the sum total of freedom. Better to try and steal a new life, even from a man who had helped him before. Better to rot in jail, hating everything and blaming the system for his wasted existence. If Father Charles wasn’t the way he is, that’s where he’d be now.

‘I never thought they’d do something like this.’

‘I know.’

‘I thought the law was good. It got my parents…’

He shudders to another halt. Valjean’s not going to push this silence. He wonders again what Father Charles wouldn’t say, but it’s not his business to pry.

‘…if it’s not good, how can I work for it?’

‘Javert…you know, there are good cops as well. A lot of shitty ones, but not all of them. And the thing about wanting things to be better, is that you have to get involved. I’m not saying you have to sign up if you don’t want to any more. I’m saying don’t not sign up for that reason. You can improve it, if you’re the type of guy who wants to.’

Javert looks like an exhausted kid. He’s back under control, but he’s still not strong enough to make decisions about the rest of his life. Valjean squeezes his arm once more, and sits back.

‘You don’t have to figure it out now, there’s plenty of time. The thing we do have to figure out is the video.’

‘You have it. Do what you want with it.’

‘No. I can’t.’

Javert raises his head, pained, with a hint of mulish anger. ‘Valjean-‘

‘Father Charles was right. You have to decide. If you don’t, you’ll end up telling yourself the decision was taken away, and we didn’t do what you wanted.’

‘I already said I thought the police are wrong. Isn’t that enough?’

‘No. This needs action.’

Javert’s mouth draws down. ‘But I don’t know who to give it to! What do you want, Valjean? We’re not all you. I don’t know what’s right but you do, so just fucking do it and leave me alone, OK?’

It’s a small, desperate outburst. Valjean lets it pass over him, and shakes his head. ‘You do know what’s right. You’ve already said it. As for who to give the phone to…I think you’re dead-on, we’ve no idea which cops will do the right thing. But it occurs to me there’s a few people we know will be all over it – and in a happy coincidence, you’ve got form with them.’

‘-what?’

Valjean stands up. ‘Get your coat. We’re going for a walk.’

 

*

 

The air bites as soon as they step into it. The snow that had been falling softly through lunch is heavier now, driven by a breeze that tears into any exposed skin. Javert hunches over in his too-big coat, his chin buried in a borrowed scarf, his old hat pulled down over his ears. His sneakers are soaked before they’ve gone half a block, and Valjean reminds himself again that they need to go and buy him boots.

‘We’re not going far.’

There’s no response from Javert, who keeps his head down against the wind. Valjean stands straight and lets the cold do its worst. Simply moving is the best feeling in the world, and knowing that they’re about to put this right – he hopes – fills him with new energy. If they can do this, and it works, then things will be better. Javert won’t be fixed, but surely losing the burden of indecision will help? And they’ll have to let Enjolras, and Combeferre, and Courfeyrac go. From what Bahorel said, the three might not thank them for it, but he doesn’t care about that. They’ll be free, and cleared, and will be able to get on with their lives. They can fight corruption from the outside.

And he and Javert? He doesn’t know. His mind skitters back to the photographs on the phone, and immediately pulls away from what he doesn’t want to think about. He can still feel Javert’s hand gripping his in the bedroom, and the weight of his gaze when he shaved him this morning. Those fingers on his arm, the touch that was so gentle and wandering. It’s a warm memory, gently heating his skin when he thinks about it – but he can’t dwell on it. If things are anything like they were for him, this is a dangerous time. He pushes it away, and walks on.

The street that holds Valjean’s apartment block is mostly residential, with only a small grocery store on the corner. But the cross street has coffee shops and bars, a big store selling sneakers, a few sandwich chain outlets. They pass a DVD rental place, a boarded-up bookstore, a tapas bar with a big board covering a broken window, though there’s a handwritten sign saying ‘still open!’ in Spanish. Javert doesn’t look up even once, and Valjean has to touch his arm to get him to stop when they arrive at the place he wants.

It’s warm inside. It smells of coffee, and the dry air blown out of computer fans. Javert looks around dully, and Valjean pulls off his hat.

‘Want a drink?’

‘No, thanks.’

He’s visibly shivering. Valjean has no idea if it’s cold, or nerves, or what, but there’s no point in drawing attention to it. He nods, and walks to the counter to get a card, then gestures Javert over to the computer they’ve been assigned. He comes without comment, and slumps on to the chair in front of the keyboard. He doesn’t move as Valjean logs on, leaning over him a little as he brings up the café’s homepage, and then opens up his email account. A glance shows an inbox full of business queries, and there’s a tangible second of dismay at all the work he’s obviously been neglecting. It’ll have to wait.

He opens another tab, and Google searches temporary email addresses. The first hit looks good enough, and he creates an address that’ll expire within minutes. Javert is blinking at the screen, a small line between his eyebrows. Valjean goes back to his email account, scrolls down, and opens the single one that hasn’t come from the factory, or university.

‘You emailed yourself the video?’

‘Yeah. Just in case.’

He’s aware of Javert looking up at him, but takes a moment to meet his gaze.

‘You thought I’d delete it?’

‘I didn’t want to take the risk.’

He sends it to the temporary address. When it pings into the inbox he straightens up, and lines the keyboard up square with the table edge.

‘All yours.’

‘What am I supposed to do with it?’

Valjean looks at the timer. ‘Seven minutes left.’

Javert stares up at him. Valjean looks back. He’s very aware of the seconds ticking away, and prays to God he hasn’t pushed this too fast. Javert doesn’t move. He’s so pale. Valjean resists the urge to push the beanie back off his head, and touch him the way Father Charles did to him.

‘I don’t get it.’

‘Do what you did to me, Javert.’

Another moment of silence. Then recognition dawns, and relief breaks through him because Javert doesn’t recoil. He understands, and the reaction is not to push it away, but a visible expression of oh.

But he does say, ‘it’s not the same as standing up and doing it openly.’

‘It’ll reach the same end. And you might not be saying that if they trace it back to us. You know they’ll try. But it’ll stop a travesty of justice, and that’s what matters.’

Javert still doesn’t move. Valjean sees the counter hit six minutes, and drop lower. His mind is starting to yell, hurry up, but he’s not going to force anything. It has to come from him.

Five minutes, thirty seconds. Javert heaves in a deep breath, sits straight and adjusts the keyboard. Valjean watches as he pulls up the website of the city newspaper, finds the ‘contact us’ page, and whispers, thank you God in his mind.

It’s a short email, typed in typically brusque fashion.

Enjolras, Courfeyrac and Combeferre did not kill that police officer. Proof attached. The officer was shot by a colleague.

‘Send it to the TV station as well. Might as well.’

Javert nods. The cursor hovers over the ‘send’ icon. Four minutes. Valjean’s in the process of willing him to get on with it when he crashes his finger down, and there it is. Gone.

The relief only gets stronger, and he can’t help a grin. Javert doesn’t look up to see it. His face is set in determination as he searches for the TV station website, and repeats the process. By the time one minute flashes up, it’s over.

He sits very still when it’s done. Valjean watches him. Once again, the urge to touch is almost too strong to resist. But he does, and just leans over again to shut the email address down. He’s closing down his own account when he feels a weight against his arm.

He looks down. Javert’s leaning his head against it, eyes wide and unseeing, staring at the screen. Valjean can’t resist this time. He brings his hand up, and strokes it down the side of Javert’s face and then leaves it there, gentle and, he hopes, reassuring.

‘You did the right thing.’

Javert blinks slowly.

‘Can we go now?’

‘Yeah. We’re done.’

Still, they remain a moment longer. It’s nice. Far too nice, and a faint tinge of regret curls through Valjean’s belly. It’s too soon for this, and it’s going to have to stop. But maybe not this second.

 

*

 

They walk back down the street, close enough that Javert’s arm brushes his on every step. Valjean feels peaceful, ten times lighter. If he thinks about it too much, he knows he’ll come up with a dozen ways this could be dangerous – he has no idea how secure temporary email addresses are, or if they’ll trace it back to that computer at that café, and if they do, will they search around to see what’s nearby? The newspaper knows where he lives, so he probably should have gone further afield. But he’s finding it really hard to care. They’ve already said the worst they can about him. The police have more intimate details, and they can be leaked. But they’d have to prove he was behind it, and he has eyewitnesses that’ll place him on the other side of the plaza at the time of the shooting. He couldn’t have held the camera.

They’re walking past a bar when Valjean’s thoughts falter to a stop. He halts and Javert walks on, then looks around when he realises he’s pulling ahead. Valjean stares through the window, making sure he’s seeing what he thinks he is.

‘Hold up.’

‘I don’t want a beer, Valjean.’

‘Me either. Come on.’

It’s warm in here too. He holds the door open, ignoring Javert’s obvious reluctance except to murmur, ‘won’t take long’ as he squeezes by.  When he gets a questioning look in return, he nods at the end of the bar. Javert turns his head, then freezes.

‘I don’t want to talk to him.’

‘Was he there?’

‘Not at the shooting.’

‘Then it doesn’t matter. Come on. Look at him.’

Grantaire is slumped on a stool, his head resting precariously on a wobbling hand. There’s a large notebook open in front of him, and a bottle of wine as well as several as-yet-untouched shot glasses. His eyes are half-closed, his hair more dishevelled than normal, and his clothes definitely look as if they’ve seen better days. Javert takes him in with an ugly twist of his lips, nothing but disdain, which Valjean chooses to ignore. He leads the way, crunching peanut shells under his boots as they go.

‘Hi, Grantaire.’

The man squints blearily, not bothering to raise his head from his hand. It takes a minute before anything close to recognition dawns.

‘Ah. The good man of business. And…’

It takes a moment longer, and then the eyes do open, in a mocking parody of shock.

‘And the man everyone’s cursing! I should be honoured, I expect. Forgive me if I can’t bring myself to it.’

He raises a shot at both of them – a clear liquid that smells like fruit –and tosses it down his throat. The jukebox kicks into a slow country song, and Valjean perches on a stool at the corner. Javert remains standing a little behind, hands jammed into the pockets of his jeans. Valjean can see him in the mirror of the bar. Everything about his body language says he doesn’t want to be here.

‘How’re you doing?’

‘Wonderfully, as you can see. My life is a succession of wine, women and song.’ He gestures with the empty glass, around a room that doesn’t hold a single female. Valjean smiles benignly as Grantaire sets the thing back down, and adds, ‘and I hope you are here to join me. It’s Christmas! I’m told this is a time for revelry but if I’m being as honest - as I always am, I hope you know - I see little difference to any other time of the year. It’s more twinkly, maybe.’

He reaches for another glass. Valjean considers pushing it away from him, but refrains. It’s his business how he spends his time.

‘Grantaire, have you seen Enjolras?’

A snort.

 ‘No.’

Well, that explains the mood. He hasn’t seen him this bad before, though it’s no secret that he spends most of his days drinking. Valjean glances down at the notebook, and meets Enjolras’ cool blue eyes staring up at him from the page.

‘Did you try?’

The shot dangles from loose artist’s fingers, and Grantaire’s bloodshot eyes fail to focus entirely on his face.

‘Ah, questions. My least favourite form of procrastination. It’s vacation! Give me some time away from them, I promise the answers will satisfy neither of us.’

There’s a small noise from behind. Valjean glances to the mirror rather than turns, and still catches Javert’s derision quite clearly. When Grantaire looks to him as well, he says, ‘why do you talk like that?’

‘And yet more questions!’ An ugly laugh, and the drink goes the way of the first. The first they saw, at any rate. ‘My turn. Why are you here, and together? Mr Javert, don’t you know my friends have been looking for you for days? Should I call them?’

He tries to focus back on Valjean. ‘Can I borrow your cell?’

Valjean shakes his head, amused despite himself. ‘If they’re looking, tell them he’s staying with me. But there should be no need for it soon.’

Grantaire pulls a face. ‘If you came to give me messages to pass on, bad idea. I doubt I’ll remember it in the morning, I never do. So you might as well tell me what you mean, though I can’t promise to listen.’

He’s not sure why he came in, in truth. He just couldn’t see him like this, and pass on by. His eyes drop to the picture again. For all Grantaire claims to never go to class, and be the worst student of them all, Enjolras is depicted perfectly. Too perfectly even; there’s not a blemish to be seen, and Valjean’s heart aches a little for him. He doesn’t know what it must be like to see someone that way, absolutely flawless. Could anyone live up to such a view?

He glances up to the mirror again. Javert is scowling, and still looks exhausted. If he’s concerned about the committee looking for him, it doesn’t show.

‘You like it? You can have it if you want.’

Grantaire snorts again, and if he’s trying for humourous dismissal, fails miserably. The sound is reminiscent of a sob, and once it’s out there he can’t pull it back. He knocks a cigarette from his soft pack instead, and twirls it gently between his fingers.

‘I’ve got a lot.’

Valjean shakes his head, and stands up.

‘You keep it.’

Grantaire’s head lowers. He couldn’t slump further if he wanted to, but Valjean has the impression he’s trying. He puts a hand on his shoulder.

‘Check the news later, OK?’

All he gets is a slow blink, and a smile that’s more terrible the further it spreads over his face.

‘It’s Christmas! I stay away from reality at Christmas.’

There’s nothing he can say to that. He lets his hand fall, and just watches for a moment. Grantaire doesn’t seem to care who looks at him, or what they think. He just drinks. It takes Javert stepping forward to break his gaze.

‘Come on, Valjean. You can’t help him.’

Valjean looks at the picture again. Enjolras radiates off the page. Beautiful, untouchable, marble.

‘See you, Grantaire.’

Back on the street, it’s snowing harder than ever. There are no people in the closing dark, just a few cars crawling by with their headlights on full, turning the flakes gold. Christmas trees in windows throw red and green at their feet, and fairy lights flash a rainbow into the air. Valjean keeps his head down, his euphoria of a few minutes ago melted away, and they say nothing until they turn onto his road.

‘Why’d you stop for him?’

He shrugs, even though Javert won’t see it.

‘He thinks Enjolras is gone forever. You don’t think he needs help?’

No answer. Valjean looks over. The expression on Javert’s face makes another question shrivel up in his mouth. A second later, his own head snaps around to the front, and he concentrates on the snow at their feet. They walk on, and it’s only when they turn to Valjean’s front door does Javert speak.

‘People go away. He’d get over it.’

Valjean slots his key into the lock, and steps into the dark. He wants to say that not everybody just gets over things, that some people leave a hole, that some situations change a person forever. But his mind slips back to a prison cell, an infirmary bed, a feeling that never leaves. All he does is nod, and lead the way to the elevator without touching the lights.

 

*

 

The noise of the television comes to him from a long way away, a dull rumble drifting from the main room. Valjean stares at his ceiling, floating between here and there, Javert’s words ringing through his ears. It was not what he expected when they left the internet café. How long had that happiness lasted? He tries to hold on to it, because it’s important to hold onto happiness when it comes. But then he slips into a doze, and he sees Grantaire broken over his drinks, and Enjolras’ face glaring up at him from pristine white paper, golden and perfect. He bets he’s not perfect now. He bets he’s just as broken, but in other ways.

He turns to his side, and squeezes his eyes shut. Fatigue had come quickly for both of them when they got in, though it wasn’t late. The early evenings of winter, the heavy snow, lull a person into thinking the day’s over, and he was ready to sleep hours ago. He made Javert a sandwich, and let the silence sit. There was a movie on, and he tried to watch but his mind kept flicking to the news. Have they shown it yet? Are the guys free? But Javert showed no sign of caring, or wanting to know, so he let it lie. He could have checked his computer, or phone. But he didn’t, because what if it hasn’t worked? He can’t see how it wouldn’t, but who knows where corruption strikes, and how high it goes?

He went to bed. And Javert had looked up at him with those eyes, and he had made himself mutter, ‘see you in the morning,’ and shut his bedroom door decisively behind him. And now there’s just this; Grantaire’s face, and his own bold statement. He thinks Enjolras is gone forever. And Javert. He’d get over it.

Would he have got over Javert? Probably, in one way. Time would pass, and the whole thing would have to be relegated to, ‘a guy I nearly had sex with once’, because it couldn’t count as a relationship when you didn’t even know if you liked the guy you were trying to sleep with. Before you betrayed him, and he set the press on you, and then nearly killed himself after someone got shot. And yet. He thought Javert was gone forever, in the moments Father Charles called him to the hospital. And it’s only a few hours since he admitted to himself he couldn’t imagine life without Javert, even though he doesn’t know why. Only a few hours since he shaved him in the bathroom, and thought about the last time they kissed.

So no, he wouldn’t have just got over Javert. But he can’t help remembering that night in the infirmary, years ago now, when he knew there was no one who’d be left to get over him, if he’d succeeded. And thinking of that leads to what came next, and what came next is the reason he can’t let Javert sleep in his bed any more.

He rolls to his back, pinches the bridge of his nose. He wonders if Javert would get over it if he lets him go with Father Charles tomorrow, and knows the answer before he finishes the question. Of course he would. It’s Javert. He might not get over his suicide attempt, but he’d get over that. People leave, after all. It’s what he’s expecting. And Valjean hates himself for knowing it’s an easy way out of keeping him here. He can’t tell him the real reason; he can’t tell him he’s afraid of what might happen. He’s sick of telling himself that Javert’s a different guy, and might not do what he did after he tried to string himself up, because all the signs are there. They were there on the first night, when the guy took his clothes off and lay on these sheets, and expected to get fucked.

The clock ticks over to midnight. Valjean shuts his eyes again.  The weight on his arm is Javert’s head, leaning against it at the internet café. The warmth on his bicep is the trail of his fingers that morning, setting his nerves alight and making him hard. Goddamn it. He should never have let it happen. He shouldn’t ever have touched him. Thinking about it makes heat spread under his skin, and it can’t happen. Javert has to go.

He rests his hand on his stomach to feel himself breathe. In, and out. Deep and slow. In, and out. He’s right here, in his own bed, and it’s warm, and comfortable, and safe. Everything else is outside the door, or in his head. The only reality is here, his breathing, his hand; in this moment, he has everything he needs to live, and everything else is just detail. He’s alive, he’s not threatened, he’s alone.

It usually helps. Sometimes, grounding himself is the only way to get through a difficult moment. But tonight the hand reminds him of Javert. His own abdomen reminds him of a stroking touch, a gentle tension, a time when this wasn’t the mess it is now. He’s getting hard without wanting it, and in the end has to take his hand away.

He lies in the dark, listening to the murmur of the television. And then it’s gone. He hears movement, and quiet footsteps coming closer. His mind flicks to any number of movies where people linger outside each other’s doors. Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t. He waits, dreading both options.

But it’s neither. There’s no lingering. Javert simply walks to his room, and closes the door. Valjean stares at the ceiling, listening to nothing, as the apartment settles into silence.

 

*

 

‘Valjean. Jesus Christ. Valjean.’

He jerks upwards from drowning, gasping for air through a throat that refuses to open. There’s someone in his bed, and he slams backwards in shock and horror, crashing the headboard into the wall. They’ve got his arm, and it’s dark except for the orange light, orange jumpsuits, black shadows in the night, grabbing him from sleep with a laugh, hot breath, fingers digging into his skin.

‘It’s me. Calm down.’

His head swims. He knows the voice, but there’s another behind it (calm down boy, you asked for this) echoing in the dream that wants him back where he belongs. The grip on his arm is too light, doesn’t twist enough, and he’s in lockdown and shaking under cold sweat, burning skin, can’t equate the gentle hold with any reality he knows.

Valjean.’

He knows the voice. He blinks hard, squeezes down as if holding back imaginary tears, and the room clicks into place. His room. His bed, his apartment. And Javert.

Recognition releases his lungs enough to let him suck some air and stop his head spinning. The touch on his arm moves to his chest. It rubs awkwardly, embarrassed. He tries to pull back but there’s nowhere to go, and the movement makes his damaged ribs sing. The pain focuses the room, and forces the nightmare to take a step back. Still too close. Tiled rooms and blood, and his head held under water. Melting skin and laughter. Dreams aren’t supposed to hurt, but whoever said that is a fucking liar.

‘You were yelling.’

He licks dry lips.

‘Sorry.’

The silence feels like derision, but he doesn’t care. Energy drains out of him now he’s in this illusion of safety, and his eyelids want to droop. But he knows what’s waiting. His bedroom isn’t real either, so why not? This life he’s invented rarely feels real at night. The dream is so much more vivid when the lights go out.

The mattress moves next to him. Sweat has glued his underwear to his legs, twisted them up in a painful bunch under his thigh. He tries to blink himself awake, at least long enough to run from the arms around his back and chest. Something’s warm, and…no, it’s skin, no. He jerks away, pain explodes in his side, and his breath catches painfully in his throat.

‘It’s just me. Calm down.’

Javert. It’s just Javert, and he wants to laugh at how ridiculous that is.  But then there are arms around him again, and the solidity of another body is not as frightening as it should be. He sinks back, and shifts down the bed at the ushering of a gentle touch. He tries to say no, but sleep is pulling, and pulling, and he’s too heavy to make his mouth work. His strength is useless against it, and he can’t keep his eyes open any more.

 

There’s a man behind him, pressed into his back. He scrambles away so fast, he almost falls from his bunk. But the arms let him go, and they never do that. He hears them fall limp to the mattress, and stay there. Breathing stays regular. He’s swarmed by relief that he’s escaped it for tonight, but he can’t sleep again or he won’t be so lucky next time. He tries to climb down a ladder that isn’t there, and it’s only then does he realise that he’s jumped in time, forward into a future he doesn’t understand. Some room somewhere, with a man sleeping next to him. Did he become normal? How did that happen?

 

His eyes jerk open. He doesn’t know where he is until Javert moves, and reality presses in. His first thought is that he’s more tired than when he lay down.

The clock says 4am. Javert is awake next to him. Valjean is sinking but fully aware of it, some calculating part of him saying sleep, and another saying no. He remembers he wasn’t going to allow the guy in here anymore, and the decisions he made a few hours ago trip slowly across his mind. They were made on the other side of dreams, and they don’t feel real either. There’s only the darkness, and this bed, with Javert in it.

‘You had nightmares.’

‘Yeah.’

His throat is scratchy and dry. He swallows, aware it aches like something’s been pounding the back of it. Javert’s facing him, watching. Not good, but doesn’t have the energy to tell him.

‘You OK?’

‘Mmm.’

The guy sounds drowsy, and falls quiet. Maybe he’s gone back to sleep. Valjean tries to pull up the reasons this is bad but in truth, there’s nothing but relief in him. The crushing loneliness of that closing door comes back, and is sleepily dismissed.

‘Do you hurt?’

‘…what?’

Javert sounds hesitant. Valjean wakes a little, to recoil from a question that seems too personal to bear. But then he feels a hand spread out over his ribs. Words stop in his mouth, and his pulse kicks up a notch. It’s a strange thing to feel the presence of his heart, the clench of it reminding him it’s a real thing, impossible to ignore.

‘Here.’

‘It’s OK.’

‘I didn’t know it was so bad. You’re still bruised up.’

‘Doesn’t matter.’

The hand should go away. It doesn’t. It sits, the fingers on the smooth skin at the edge of his abs, the heel and palm lost in the no-man’s-land of his scars. All he feels are fingertips shifting gently, and it’s like his brain is still dozing, because he can’t pull together any reaction at all.

 ‘It does.’

Javert’s voice sounds different in the dark. Less sullen, less prickly, less full of bitter anger at himself and everyone else. He could sink into the low calm of it, simply for the few minutes of respite from tension it would give. If he would speak like that all the time, things would be different. Dangerous.

He’s drifting off again, and he can’t do that. The touch at his side moves slowly onto his stomach, creeping along as if it expects to be told to get off at any second. Valjean tries to bring the word to mind, but the nightmare’s claws are still twisting into the back of his eyes, and the fear is too much to swallow all at once. He can ground himself against a resting hand. And it is resting, a solid weight just under his solar plexus.

‘You should have said it was bad.’

His head is too heavy to shake. It’s as languid as the fingertips touching the first ridge of muscle, fondling gently over the bump that curves down to the valley of the centre. Valjean licks his dry lips, and prepares to say no. He doesn’t. Javert finds the middle line, and pulls a fingernail down it slowly, the barest of touches, and Valjean opens his mouth as his nerves spring to life in its wake.

‘Javert-‘

The touch stills. But Valjean doesn’t know what to say. No, that’s a lie – he knows exactly what he needs to say. But explaining why is going to be hard, and he’s barely got the energy to move his head. The thought of this fight, after those dreams, is unbearable.

Javert spreads his palm flat once more, and rubs lightly up over his abs. Valjean closes his eyes, and speaks only to distract from the stirring between his legs.

‘We’ve been here before.’

‘I want to go there again.’

‘Javert, we-‘

Lips press to his shoulder. It’s such a warm touch, he almost gasps. He wants to laugh – he’s literally having his belly rubbed like he’s an eager puppy on his back, legs splayed, begging for attention. Well, he’s been called a bitch before.

The dark shape of Javert’s head comes into view. Lips against the side of his chest, and then along the pronounced line of his pectoral. He holds his breath, but his cock jumps when they brush his nipple, and he can’t stop his stomach contracting. Javert was moving on, but pauses, then comes back to do it again. Valjean squeezes his eyes shut; repeats in his head, say no say no say no. This is what he’s been trying to avoid, and he should have known tonight would be likely, because for fuck’s sake, he shaved  him this morning, and knelt there with his hard-on practically bursting out of his jeans, and then they got rid of the video, and…and he swears in his head as Javert slides up next to him, and rises on one elbow to lean over him.

He can’t find the words. He knows he’s being watched, and it should be better because at least he’s doing it openly this time. But his chest is starting to constrict because of the looming shadow, and Javert’s hand won’t stay still.

‘Did you jerk off when I left that day?’

He nods, dully. There’s no room for anything but the truth.

‘You were barely out of the apartment. Couldn’t help it.’

He can hear the way Javert’s breathing changes, and feel the way his fingers clench. Sparks burn into his layers of skin, and fizz all the way south. Javert runs a line along the thin skin at the base of his abdomen, and everything starts to feel tight. He’s close enough that breath is warm on his cheek.

‘Did you want me to do it? I wanted to.’

There’s no chance to answer. Javert’s lips touch his. It’s so soft, so tentative, that he can’t bear to turn his head away. He feels the light brush of a nose against his; Javert’s tilting so they can lock together properly, and he can’t resist kissing him back. It’s only a soft press, but it’s so gentle he can fool himself it’s safe, even with all that warmth precariously close to the waistband of his shorts. He thinks no, but doesn’t have time to say it before the hand slides up again, away from danger, and he once again hears Javert’s breath hitch as he fingers his way up the lines of his stomach.

‘This isn’t-‘

Javert kisses him again. Valjean wants to moan, but he was trained a long time ago not to make a sound. It sticks in his throat along with all the words that have to find a way out, and will, just as soon as Javert stops kissing him. Lips nudge his open, take advantage of his need for air to suckle gently on the bottom one before pushing at the top, easing them into the kind of kiss he hasn’t had since the last time Javert was touching him. He presses his head up into it, and his stomach contracts again as their tongues touch, slide against each other, making every thought of no a lie. He’s never done this before; never lain next to someone in bed and just made out, feeling close to safe about it, overwhelmed by quiet intimacy. They’re in his own bed. He’s never in his life done this in his own bed.

Javert moans quietly into his mouth, and Valjean sinks into him so deeply it takes a minute, maybe more, to notice the gentle rub over the bulge in his shorts. It’s a quiet fondle, easing soft cotton over his cock, touching down the shaft as if trying to remember what it feels like. As soon as he realises, he gets harder and the hint of throbbing blood starts up in his ears. He breaks the kiss and lies panting, praying to God for strength.

‘Javert, you’ve got to-‘

‘What?’

He sounds amused. Something twists in his belly, but he still can’t push his hand away. The palm is flat against the ridge of him now, rubbing firmly up and down, and a thick, cloying, pleasure starts to thrum in time with his heart.

‘Please don’t lean over me.’

Javert lowers himself at once, but stays against his side. His chest feels hard on his arm, almost like solid bone if it weren’t for the heat of his skin giving it humanity.  Valjean lies still as Javert’s mouth presses to the side of his neck, and then licks gently behind his ear.

‘Lean over me then. Come on.’

‘-can’t.’

‘You can. I want you to.’

His voice is low, hot against the curve of his ear. Valjean stutters a breath as it feels like his shorts might be opened, and his cock brought out – but Javert kisses his cheek instead, and then his lips, and murmurs, ‘unless you want me to suck it. I want to do that too.’

Valjean’s need cools a little. He can’t think about that, not after what happened. It doesn’t matter that Javert doesn’t seem to care…or maybe it does matter. Maybe that’s the biggest reminder that this is wrong.

He pushes up to his elbows. Javert says, ‘yeah, that’s it,’ and stops playing with his dick long enough to grasp his hip, and try and usher him over. Valjean’s eyes have adjusted to the dark and the streetlight’s haze, enough to see the outline of his face and the stark white of his body. Thank God he kept his underwear on.

‘Javert, I really-‘

‘Please. Valjean, please, I can’t stand it.’

He looks at him then, because the quiet need is so raw.

‘You can.’

‘I don’t want to.’

Shadows play tricks in the hollows of the man’s gaunt face, and maybe he’s really as desperate as his voice suggests, or maybe it’s something else. It’s so easy to make him a predator, and Valjean can’t pinpoint what he feels as he turns onto his side, and when Javert immediately slides a leg between his. Desire, yeah, there’s plenty of that. Nerves, and trepidation. And disgust at himself, pushed back just far enough under a flair of stubborn anger, because what if Javert’s doing this for some reason other than just satisfying himself? The voices of the nightmare still spit in his head, they’re never far away, and now it’s dark, and quiet, and taking pleasure off someone who hurt him is a fitting revenge.

Javert tugs at his hip, and leans up to kiss his throat. Valjean allows it but doesn’t move, and shuts his eyes when long fingers stroke down his swollen cock. He stops breathing when cloth is pushed aside, and he’s drawn out to rest in Javert’s warm palm. Pleasure boots him in the gut, and he gasps, which makes Javert moan and try to push his way underneath him.

‘C’mon. C’mon, Valjean.’

It’s a slow fall, guided down by a man who seems to know exactly what he wants. Valjean holds back his moan as he slides over him, and allows a hard thigh to press up between his legs. He’s locked against the hollow of his hip when Javert kisses him again, a desperate push of his mouth as his hands curl around Valjean’s waist and urge him to move. He stops himself, but doesn’t complain when Javert arches up into him, groaning as his cock rubs hard against his stomach. His insides curl up and flop over, because he’s never known it be like this before and it feels really good, too good; close, and tight, and quiet. For a moment, he gives himself to the sensation of hot skin pressed against his, and Javert seems to sense his weakness because his hands slide up over his biceps. A slow, appreciative, touch, and they don’t stop there; they travel over his shoulders, thumbs tracing his collarbone and splayed fingers drawing goose bumps as they pass over the curves of muscle. Valjean holds still as they meet at the back of his neck and slip down, the fingertips running the curve of his spine as palms caress the plains and hollows of his back. Javert pants audibly, his breath wet on Valjean’s neck, and the touch slows as it reaches the narrow dip above his ass, caresses the skin that hasn’t been touched in years.

‘I’ve been waiting to do that.’

‘Thought you hated me.’

‘I did.’

He says it the same way he might say I do. Valjean licks his lips, stuck in a haze of base lust and indecision, a slave to the flex of Javert’s leg against his weeping cock. But he did hate him. There’s a reason why, and it’s this.

‘Javert-‘

His shorts are being pushed over his ass. He stops, shocked though he’s not sure why, and almost moans when Javert lunges at his neck and sucks a kiss to it, his large hands grasping his butt and pulling them closer together.

‘C’mon.’

Valjean still hasn’t moved. His mind is detaching, he can feel it, because the more intimate this is, the less it feels real. But his body knows what it wants, because the ache between his legs responds to every rough push of Javert’s hands. He tries to speak, but pleasure washes the words away as fast as it strengthens the bad feeling in his chest. They’ve been here before. It’s no different, and that’s the problem, because Javert doesn’t seem to care.

He knew this was coming. He knew it, and he tried to avoid it, and here he is anyway. Helpless to the first soft touch. It’s pathetic.

‘Javert, wait.’

‘Don’t want to. C’mon, Valjean.’

He’s shaking his head. Valjean realises his stomach is damp, but Javert’s still wearing shorts so they must be wet through already. He’s let this go too far.

Stop.’

Fingers clench into the meat of his buttocks. But they stop pulling, and Javert relaxes the arch into him. He’s still panting, his chest rising so fast he might hyperventilate. Valjean tries to ignore the throbbing in his groin, and the voice that tells him it’s OK, Javert wants it, he’s always wanted it.

‘I can’t, OK?’

‘You can. I said so.’

Lips touch his throat, under his chin, his mouth. He forces himself not to respond, though they burn like drops of hot wax. They feel so good, he almost misses the words muttered into his shoulder.

‘Fuck me.’

He shakes his head. Javert pushes his thigh up, and grinds them together.

‘Fuck me. It’s alright. I want you to.’

‘No.’

‘I always wanted it. Even when I thought I hated you. Hated you, and still had to jerk it for you. C’mon, Valjean. It’s not like before.’

It’s worse than before. Valjean feels his ardour cool, then drain away like water in the sink. Shit. Shit, he’s done it again.

‘It is. Stop now.’

No.’

The voice that was so cool, the voice of reassurance and calm, is too harsh now. Desperate, as it senses the loss of what it’s been working for. It’s so clear, and Valjean just wants to get away. He tries to move off him, but Javert hooks a leg around his and keeps him close.

‘I said it’s OK. I know the truth now, you’re not lying any more. You can have me – Jesus Christ, do what you want to me, I don’t mind. Come on, Valjean. You were hard this morning, I saw it, I know you want to. You can. It’s OK.’

Everything is spoken against his skin, and Javert’s holding far too tight. Valjean feels his muscles tighten up in groups, one by one, and the nightmare comes back to curdle his blood in his veins.

‘Javert, get off me.’

No. Fuck that, Valjean, this is what you wanted. It’s what I want, so why can’t we just-‘

He cuts off, his voice too loud, a hard pull of his hands finishing the sentence for him. Valjean hears his groan, and the twitch of his cock against the base of his abdomen. He’s just something for Javert to rut against at the moment, and his stomach lurches in cold horror.

Enough. He reaches behind, making his ribs creak with the effort of twisting. Javert cries out, and writhes at the extra weight on him; for a second, Valjean thinks he’s come, because it’s all too wet and slippery between them, cloth sticking to his skin. But it seems not, so it’s not too late. He takes Javert’s wrists, trying not to hear the voices in his head. The only way to block them out is to fight against them, and the only way to do that is with anger. It’s only ever a temporary fix, but it’s all the respite he gets. He remembers himself, saying words just like Javert is; he remembers the chill of the lino floor under his knees when he crawled. It’s ironic that after all these years, the person he’s most disgusted at is himself.

He pins Javert’s wrists up by his head.

‘Stop this.’

But Javert’s still panting, writhing up against him, locking him down with the leg curled around his knee. It stops him bending it to get the leverage to push up. He wonders if the police taught him that.

‘Listen to me. You just want to feel better. You just want to feel different. I’ve been there, alright? You only feel real when someone’s touching – will you listen!?’

He pushes his wrists down harder. Javert arches again; Valjean sees his mouth fall open, and fights to break the hold on him before it’s too late.

‘Javert, stop.’

It’s nearly a shout, and it gets through. Javert stops.  The rise and fall of his chest is too fast, his skin too hot, and Valjean silently wills him to calm as he spreads his knees, and forces himself up off his body. It pushes his wrists harder into the sheets, and Javert’s breath gutters out of him, rough and raw. Valjean feels the same curl of disgust that he did all those months ago. Why does he get off on this? The guy has no clue about anything.

‘For God’s sake, focus. Javert.’

His eyes are black holes in a white face, but they turn his way. Valjean is horribly aware of his own cock, now dangling uselessly out of his shorts between them.

‘You’re not well. If I do this, it’s as good as rape. You understand? I can’t do this.’

Maybe his tone hits home. Maybe it’s that word. Javert goes still, and seems to stop enjoying himself in his grip. The silence stretches on, punctuated only by softening gasps. But when he speaks, Javert’s tone is still tight, though there’s something hollow about it, a return to the monotone he’s used since he ended up in hospital.

‘I wanted you before. It’s not different.’

‘It is. You just can’t see it, because you’re ill.’

‘I’m n-‘

‘You’re ill.’

He releases his wrists, and sits back. Javert lowers his arms slowly. Valjean tidies himself away with his head down, all the unused energy still trapped inside with nowhere to go. He doesn’t look up, because he’s not going to watch Javert finish himself off. Bad enough he can hear it; worse knowing he’s only doing it to be a defiant little bastard.

It takes seconds, that’s all. The wet rub turns into a strained grunt that he tries not to listen to, and then it’s over. Javert breathes heavy for a few seconds, then sits up quickly, puts his back against the headboard and pulls his knees up to his chest. Valjean draws his hand over his forehead, and tries to think. His body aches all over, his ribs beat a rhythm of pain in his side. There’s nothing but that in him. There’s nothing left to give. He’s done.

‘Why didn’t you just do it?’

It sounds like an accusation. He closes his eyes, and lets fatigue spread through him.

‘You’ll know why when you’re better.’

‘I’m well enough. I’m not broken. I wanted you before, I want you now. I don’t care if you know it. I’m not going to lie, and say I don’t.’

It’s sick that even now, those brand-new words feel good to hear. Valjean bows his head, because it’s too heavy to hold up.

‘You’re vulnerable. I’m not taking advantage of it.’

‘Stop talking to me like a kid. I’m-‘

‘You are a kid!’

The words blaze out of him. He wouldn’t take them back if he could. Anger is sometimes the only defence.

‘You always think you know what’s best, Javert. And you’ve been wrong, haven’t you? Didn’t we figure that out today? You haven’t had a clue what to do this last week, and that’s why you’re doing this, because it’s not complicated, and because you don’t have to think about that video any more. Feels good, doesn’t it, not having to think?’

He leans forward, sick with memory, sick with himself for allowing this mess.

‘I’m not going to be party to it. I can handle you hating me, but you can’t handle hating yourself.’

Javert is very still in the dim orange glow of the room. For once, Valjean doesn’t care that he’s being watched. What does it matter now? Let him have it all, and do what he wants with it.

‘I only came in here because you were shouting.’

‘Maybe.’

‘Valjean-‘

‘Enough.’

He starts to move, intending to go shower this whole night away. But the next words hit like a sledgehammer in the chest, stopping him dead; a question out of the blue, burst out like a bullet.

‘Were you raped in prison?’

It’s almost casual. Almost. There’s an edge underneath, too subtle for his frozen brain to decipher. Time stops, the edges of the room fade away. His heart forgets to beat.

He shouldn’t have to answer that. No one should ever ask it. He never thought anyone would, and he’s not prepared.

But maybe it’s for the best. Let him have it all, and then he might understand. The effort of holding it in is simply too much, and the feeling of giving another part of himself away to unsafe hands hardly matters. It seems stupid to quibble over one direct question. They’ve seen each other naked. Nearly had each other. What’s one question after that?

He nods, once, slowly.

There’s a slow outlay of breath from Javert. But it’s not enough that he leaves it there, because one answer isn’t enough to make him see.

He moves to the edge of the bed, and sits with his back to him. The floor is cold under his feet.

‘It wasn’t the worst thing that happened.’

‘What?’

A nervous response. So what? He asked.

‘The worst thing was the week after I tried to hang myself. After they patched me up, and organised visits with a therapist. And then put me back in my cell, with promises of extra checks.’

‘Valjean…’

‘And it wasn’t rape after that, because I couldn’t fight any more. I couldn’t stomach it. I let him do what he wanted, because I’d had enough of the pain. And I didn’t want to think any more. It was easier just to give in.’

Knowing no one cared if he lived or died was only the second worst thing to happen to him in prison.

He stands up, and can’t look around. Nothing feels real, and perhaps that’s a good thing.

‘Father Charles is going to pick you up in the morning. You can sleep here.’

He walks out without looking back. He’s been trying not to think about it for years, but there’s only so much a person can take. In the end, it’s always easier to just give in.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

If he thought he’d be relieved when Javert left, he was wrong.

When the door closes, the man’s last words hang by his ear, and it’s only seconds before the emptiness inside gives way to guilt. Guilt so strong it’s a living thing, writhing in his chest, spreading frost through his limbs, leaving him rooted to the spot but alive with the strength of it. The silence of the room crushes in, buzzes in his ears, and tells him that he’s failed; that he gave up, that he wasn’t strong enough to do what was needed of him. Father Charles’s look of pity turns to one of disappointment when he plays it back, sees again the way the man’s eyes had slid to the red mark on his neck, burned onto his skin by desperate lips the night before.

And his own words uttered in the dark, the ones he would give anything to pull back, the ones that should never have been aired in anyone else’s hearing. They were a part of him, and he gave them away, and he’s the lesser for it. Lesser because they were a burden no one else should have to deal with, especially a man who just tried to kill himself. Lesser because they were a kind of revenge, and he gave them up because he didn’t have the strength to keep them inside. Lesser because now they’re out there, no longer embedded in him alone, he doesn’t know what he’ll turn into. Javert might tell people. If he does, he might as well tattoo the words on his face. He’ll never be able to look at anyone without wondering if they know, and the thought turns his stomach, makes ice creep up onto his cheeks and prick at his skin. He always told himself he’d never run away, but if Javert tells people then he will. He knows it. He’ll find a place he doesn’t know anyone, and never leave. He’ll still be the bitch who crawled on all fours, and spread his knees, and didn’t make a noise when he was told to behave. He’ll always be that, but he can’t see it in other people’s eyes because he’ll spend his life reading their thoughts, and deciding what they think, and he knows what they’ll think because that’s the way people are, and when he pisses anyone off they’ll tell him he deserved it, and that he loved it, and he’ll think of those times after he stopped fighting and they let him enjoy it, and then no one will be wrong, and he’ll have to say, yeah, I liked it even though he always wanted to rip his skin off afterwards, become a new person, and-

-and, stop it.

He forces a breath in. Listens to it shudder into his throat, and get stuck on the lump in his airway. He can’t feel his fingers until he pushes them to move. His neck feels hot but the air is too cold, and his jaw aches at the corners where his teeth grind together. He’s being a pussy. If someone held up a mirror, he’d look completely normal. That’s how it goes; there’s all this stuff inside, but none of it shows, and no one takes it seriously because unless someone’s bleeding, or hanging from a rope – not even then, sometimes – then it’s just stuff that happened a long time ago, and it doesn’t count, and you should be able to move on.

All in my head, he thinks, and tries to bring himself back. But what’s here? An empty room, in an empty apartment, and even this place is no longer a sanctuary. He can tell himself he gave his body away to save himself pain, but he can’t say the same about last night. He didn’t give those words away for any other reason than he let the moment beat him, and now they’re gone, and they’re never coming back.

Another breath. His chest hurts. His eyes ache like they’ve been crying, but remain dry. It’s just lack of sleep. All of this would go away if he could sleep.

His legs take him to the bedroom. They must do, because he finds himself there though he can’t remember the trip. Javert didn’t make the bed. The room smells like him, and it’s warm, and the sheets are tangled up in a heap. They don’t cover the tell-tale white mark of semen, and there’s an indent at the side of the mattress where he sat on it last night. Valjean can’t breathe through the thudding pulse in his throat. It throbs right where the air needs to go down, and somehow flutters at the side as well, and bangs too hard against his ribs and when he tries to force himself open, everything screams to just get smaller, close down, never let anyone touch again.

He’s on his knees, fingers twisting in the bedsheets and at the shirt over his heart. If he went to all fours, his lungs would let go. He knows it. His brain knows it. It’s telling him. But he can’t, he can’t, he can never do that again, he’d rather die here on the floor, and he can’t even bring himself to wish it wouldn’t happen. At least this would be over.

He’s on his back, the room spinning, his heart feeble and sore. Let go, let go, let go, and he does, to  the sight of Father Charles’s disapproving face, and Javert’s mouth close to his ear. He’d leaned in before he left so the words wouldn’t carry, his face surly, unable to look him in the eye.

If you did it because you had to, it’s still rape.

He’s wrong. He’s wrong, it’s not. Not if you do what he did. But worse than this careless lie was the sight of Javert as he left, slouched over, head down, like he’d been beaten too. There’s no winners in this, there was never going to be any good outcome. It’s all based on shit, just like everything in his life. Even Father Charles never knew it. He’s never been able to tell him the real truth – that he doesn’t deserve the life that was handed to him after jail, not just because he tried to steal it, but because he did steal it. Because if he’d told the truth; if he’d ever had the courage to say you think I was abused, but you’re wrong, I let them have it in the end, then no one would have thought him a victim. But he let everyone think – him, he let him, he let Father Charles of all people, the best man in the world, think he deserved sympathy, and now…

The truth doesn’t hurt. The truth makes him laugh, and it’s that which frees his chest and allows him to breathe. And now, he’s got what he deserves. He’s got nothing at all. He can’t get away from it, and he can’t help Javert, and he can’t ever tell anyone again. He’ll keep it inside forever, the decision he made years ago that everything now comes from, tainting everything he touches, and looks at, and thinks. And that’s what he deserves, because that’s what weakness gets you, and if there’s no one to care that it hurts then, well, he deserves that too.

 

*

 

He wakes on the floor. From sleep, or maybe he passed out, or maybe his mind just took him somewhere that wasn’t here, for a while. It’s happened before.

The floorboards are hard under his shoulder blades, and his scalp hurts a little where it rests. He doesn’t have to move to know he’s going to ache; his body already has the wrung-out feeling that usually comes after he’s shredded himself on the weights. It’s almost a relief, almost catharsis, if it weren’t for the fact he knows the cause hasn’t gone away. He’s tired, and limp on the floor, but his brain is already starting its slow wind. The panic and loathing has receded to a distance where he can no longer taste it on his tongue, but now he just feels hopeless, and sad, and he knows it’s a tide that’ll roll in again soon enough. That’s the way it goes, and he wants to just close his eyes and sleep through it; to wake when he’s well again, and can pretend it was just a fit of aberration that means nothing on the days when he’s fine. When he feels good, it’s easy enough to pretend this anguish is a minor fad of his brain chemistry. When he feels bad, he can’t remember what good is like, so it doesn’t matter.

There’s a noise from below the window. Quite a lot of noise, now he notices. He lets it drift up and over him, voices and honking horns, bursts of cheering. It’s Christmas, so maybe it’s a party or a parade. His eyes fall closed, and he tries to tell himself it’s important to move. But it doesn’t feel important, so he stays where he is.

At some point, his phone rings from the kitchen. It’s probably work, asking if he’s ever coming back in. For a few lazy minutes, he goes back to his thought of just driving away and leaving it all, because there’s no reason why he shouldn’t, or can’t, except for the knowledge that the next place would be exactly the same as this. A different city won’t change what’s inside him. The only thing that would be better is that people wouldn’t know so much about him, and he’d know to keep it that way. Even the thought of leaving Father Charles isn’t so bad, not now he’s seen that look on his face. Was it disappointment, or disapproval? It had been fine when his eyes were on his face, but then he saw the mark on his neck, and…his stomach wakes up enough to twist into a loose knot. He’s not sure what the expression meant, but he knows what it feels like, and it wouldn’t be so bad to get away from that.

But he told himself he’d never run away. He could have hidden that hickey under a collar, and he didn’t. Let the priest see the sort of guy he’s been protecting.

His phone stops buzzing, and immediately starts again. He brings hands to his face slowly, on arms that feel like they weigh a hundred pounds. He doesn’t want to move. It seems impossible. It’s obvious he can’t lie down here forever, but there’s a measure of peace to it. No stimulus, bar the shouting from the street. It’s fallen into some kind of chant, and it’s hypnotic. He can’t make out what it says, and doesn’t try. He closes his eyes again, and drifts away.

He’s stiff when he wakes this time, though he can’t have slept for long. Cold too, cold enough that he almost reaches up for the bedsheets to pull down on him. His hand has lifted before he remembers, and it lowers at once when he does. The movement sends a chill up and down his skin, the kind that comes when blood moves again; a minute or two of deep cold while warmth is generated by the extra pumping of his heart, before being rolled out in his veins. Valjean sits up without consulting his brain on whether he really wants to, because he could stay there all day debating it otherwise. Once sitting, he has to make the conscious decision to go further in case the urge to lie down again comes on him; no, he says, and ignores the why not? and then feels a swell of helpless anger for actually feeling accomplished at managing to get to his feet.

The room is fuzzy for a second as his balance readjusts. But it is only a second, and then he has to decide what to do next. Resume life, he supposes. The idea makes him tired all over.

He looks down at his bed, and – maybe because he’s so exhausted he could collapse - the idea of touching it is repulsive. It’s stupid. It’s only a bed. But there it is. He bends to pull the sheets, moving slowly so as not to jar any memories free, and only half succeeding. The come stain glares at him, accusing him of everything he’s ever wanted.

He strips it down to the mattress, and makes a ball from the linen. The noise from below is further away, and he moves to the window to see. It’s a march, but not like – God, was it only ten days ago? He tries to shake the perception of time back into his head, and fails. He focuses on the street instead, fingertips pressing against the glass so hard they go flat, and white.

The riot had been unruly as it moved towards the boiling point in front of City Hall. Groups of people, and hundreds of individuals and couples, lots of running and stopping to throw things; a feral bunch only connected by the force of their anger. The crowd he’s watching now is orderly, people walking in lines, perhaps even with linked arms. There are banners, and someone has a drum. Lots of people have signs, and placards, and they push them up to the air as though seeking a touch from God. Valjean watches, impassive, until he realises the buzzing he hears is not in his imagination, is not some relic of the panic attack back to haunt him. It’s his phone again. Again, he ignores it. He watches the people move away with the vague feeling that he’s floating above them; that it’s not them moving but him, being pulled back, and up, and away from anything that’s real. He tries to tether himself to Javert’s words, but they float with him even when his stomach turns over and he wants to cut them loose. It’s still rape. Liar. Liar. Liar.

He swallows hard, and has to force the spit to go down. His neck is rigid, his throat unyielding, and he realises that his shoulders and back are burning with a deep ache. He tries to breathe them loose, and can’t. He twists gently from side to side, and his ribs flare so badly he almost heaves. Even this small movement leaves him exhausted, and he gives up, and just stands. What is there to do? Everything. And can he? Of course not. He can’t even control his own thoughts.

Javert will have to go where Father Charles goes now. He’ll have to visit the hospitals, and the prison, and people’s homes. Maybe he’ll sit in the car, but only sometimes, because it’s too cold to be outside and he shouldn’t be left on his own anyway. If he rediscovers some fight, maybe he’ll try to run away. Father Charles would have to report it to the police. They’d find him, and put him into treatment against his will. He might open his veins with a knife stolen from the hospital kitchen, or he might hang himself with sheets or shoelaces. He might really be gone forever, and that’s his fault because he could have let him stay. Javert didn’t ask to be told the details – yeah, he asked the question, but they both knew the answer to it. He didn’t ask for the rest of it, and now he, Valjean, is punishing him for knowing, isn’t he? Even though he didn’t want to know. Forced knowledge has pushed him away from safety, and if something happens to Javert now, it’ll be his fault.

He turns from the window, head spinning. It will be his fault. And he wants to collapse on the spot and never move again, because…because, he can’t feel anything. He isn’t sure he cares. He isn’t sure he doesn’t care, because he can’t pick one single emotion out of the noise in his head.  Everything is blaring at once, every problem he has, and has ever had, and ever will have, all screaming at him at once. He can’t run them away. He can’t lift them away. If he tries to wash them away,  – no, he can’t even think about it. He showered with his eyes shut when he left this room last night, drowning his face in the dark. His body is too much to deal with. The only reason he isn’t praying for it to go away is because it’d be a waste of breath. But he thinks it anyway.

His phone, again. This time he moves; anything to distract from the noise. He grabs the sheets in an aggressive fist as he passes, and shoves them into the washer so hard, the door bounces back off the side and jams the plastic catch into the soft skin joining his thumb and forefinger. He sets the machine to as hot as it can go, and stares at it as the drum starts to turn. Round, and around, and around; flashes of blue and black, battered and boiled, and eventually, cleaned. He thinks of putting the sheets back on the bed, and wants to curl up tight again. And still, his phone won’t stop buzzing.

He snatches it, heart thudding in his throat and blood roaring in his ears. He can’t press the green button. Talking to other people is incongruous, crazy, insane. He hits the red one instead, and when the screen clears, text messages start popping up.

You did it!

Call me. – Bahorel

Are you home? – Bahorel

Jean, this is Enjolras. Are you free?

You have new voice messages. Call 123 to retrieve them, or…

He puts the phone down. It starts to vibrate almost at once, and Bahorel’s name flashes up on screen. Valjean watches it inch its way across the counter, and makes no move to catch it when it falls. It bounces with a loud thud, protected by its case, and comes to a stop near the fridge. He watches it until it goes silent. He contemplates stepping on it.

So. They’re out. It worked. His brain puts together the evidence – calls, texts, people marching down the street. Javert did that. He did too. And Father Charles. And perhaps it’s not quite accurate to say he feels nothing, but he can’t identify the emotion he does feel. It’s not relief. It’s not much of anything. The right outcome has occurred, but in a version of life that doesn’t properly exist.

He tells himself he’s disassociating. He reminds himself why. Knowing it’s happening does not help him find a way back, and for the first time in years, he wonders if he might have to call the therapist’s number in his wallet. It hasn’t been touched for a little over four years, and the call anytime, day or night thing probably hadn’t been genuinely meant in the first place. Why had he even started seeing that guy? He can’t remember; he can never remember individual triggers after the event, because the outcome is always the same, and takes over everything else. He does know why he quit. He was never going to agree to take antipsychotics, no matter how much he was told he needed them.

He’s in the living room area, by the TV. The news flicks up when he hits the power button, but only the word ‘police’ sounds out before he gets it mute. Noise is like sandpaper on a raw nerve and even with it off, the picture flicking to different faces, throwing colours and movement, makes him want to itch, and jerk away. He breathes deep and makes himself watch, more for a distraction than anything. There’s a mob on-screen, and security people – and lawyers? – surrounding Enjolras, Courfeyrac and Combeferre as they’re hustled into a car. Camera lights flash, people are shouting, and the silent energy is too much to take. His blood pumps through his ears, and he watches just long enough to read the ticker at the bottom that says three men accused of murdering city police officer freed. New evidence uncovered.

The black screen brings pure relief. He tosses the remote down, and simply stands, waiting for something else to present itself. Instead, he hears his phone buzzing from the kitchen floor. The TV screen clicks gently as it cools back down. The chant of the crowd outside is a distant rumble,  followed by a car idling through the snow. There’s nothing to stop Javert’s words coming back, and when he closes his eyes, his own voice spilling his guts in the dark. And behind last night, every other night that made it what it was. 

Another deep breath. This is how it goes. He knows this routine. His gaze slides to the weights in the corner. His own personal form of therapy, closed off to him for another few weeks. His fingers grip the front of his T-shirt, and then slip underneath, seeking out the source of his impediment while his eyes remain on the barbell, the dumbbell rack, the bench, the treadmill. Pain nips towards his fingertips as he touches, toothless at the edges, sharp as he presses further in. The skin is dead the further he travels, but if he pushes down, uses his strength to get under the skin where even that cigarette never reached, then the pain is enough to grab his throat and rip his breath from it. He closes his eyes again, and squeezes until he wants to moan. He does not, of course. He never does. But the hot, tense backwash of agony and adrenaline is almost like a release. For a second, anyway. He’s left panting quietly, sweat standing out on his forehead. Heat blooms out, and then settles back as an ache in his bones, his muscles quivering gently at his side. Not enough, no. But the noise in his head is quieter, his nerves preoccupied with something other than his own mind. It’s better than nothing, and he has a few moments where the cycle is broken. Enough, perhaps, for him to start off down another route.

He heads to his office, and fires up his computer. It only takes a few minutes to scroll through an online shop, and buy a new bed. Half his brain tells him he’s being illogical, and stupid, and weak, but the rest is too relieved at not having to face getting back into anything associated with last night. He’s aware this will seem ridiculous when this has passed, but if he doesn’t do it he’ll be nagged by his own neuroses for days. Better to just give in, and allow the freedom from the problem.

That done, he grabs his keys and leaves. He’s put off work for long enough, and there’s nothing to stop him throwing himself back into it now. He stops at the front desk though, even though the simple act of talking to someone else is repellent.

‘Mr. Valjean. Good morning.’

‘Hi, Paul. Could you do me a favour?’

‘Of course, sir.’

‘I’ll be sending a truck to remove some furniture in an hour or two. Main bedroom. Could you show them up, and-‘

The guy’s already nodding. ‘Of course, sir. Consider it done.’

He nods back, slips a twenty across the desk, and says, ‘appreciate it.’

‘Mr Valjean?’

He looks back, already having taken a step towards the elevator.

‘There are messages for you. Father Myriel has called five times. He says he can’t reach you upstairs. Is there a problem with your phone, sir? If so, I can call maintenance to see to it.’

He shakes his head. ‘The ringer’s off, that’s all. I didn’t hear. If he calls again, tell him I’m OK and that I’m out for the rest of the day without my cell.’

If the guy finds this odd, there’s no sign. Valjean slips him another ten, and leaves for the basement garage where his car’s parked. There’s no guilt at dodging Father Charles, for once. He probably only wants to talk about the thing with the police. Unless something’s happened to Javert. The sudden notion hits him hard enough to freeze his legs as the doors open to let him out. What if something has happened to Javert? Wasn’t he thinking, just a few minutes – hours? – ago, that Javert might go and do something stupid now? His blood chills, and his limbs feel sluggish as he forces them to move him to his car. As he climbs behind the wheel, his brain supplies him with scene after scene; Javert getting out of Father Charles’ car at the church, and running straight into traffic. Javert climbing the bell tower, and stepping off it. Javert in the priest’s kitchen, pulling a forgotten knife from the drawer and slashing his wrist open with it. What would Father Charles be able to do to stop him?

On the other hand, what would anyone be able to do, if Javert really meant it? The question brings no comfort, just a return to the hollow feeling inside. Despite his numbness, his mind won’t stop escalating the scenario – himself ignoring the calls, and not finding out until after the funeral. Father Charles’ inevitable anger at him, and shunning him afterwards. The words you could have stopped this, and his own knowledge that yes, he could, if he could just be bothered to pick up the phone when it rang.

He knows it’s stupid. He also knows that every one of these nightmare fantasies are more real than this minute he sits in, where he’s a guy in a car, fingers white on the wheel. No matter how many times he snaps himself back, and reminds himself that there’s snow on the road out there, and he has to be mindful for the sake of other people, nothing is as real as the words in his head, telling him all the ways he’s failed. Has failed, and will fail.

‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself,’ he mutters out loud. ‘Snap out of it. You’re fine.’

And he is fine. He’s mostly healthy, ribs aside. He’s a college student, and a business owner. He has his own apartment, and a decent car. He has more money than he can spend. He has every privilege. Of course he’s fine.

It’s still five minutes before he can bring himself to turn the key, and get moving. Just tired, he thinks. I’m fine.

 

*

 

‘Mr Valjean. I wasn’t expecting you today.’

‘Thought it was about time I put in an appearance, Mrs Victor.’

But he doesn’t understand. People are working away at the machines. The warehouse next door appears to be operating as just that, a warehouse. There’s no sign that anything has been different here. He can’t process it for a few minutes, and in the end has to ask.

‘What happened to the people from the riot? The donations?’

A puzzled look crosses Mrs Victor’s face. ‘Everyone’s gone, Mr Valjean. It was nearly two weeks ago – either their homes have been repaired, or the city has housed them in temporary accommodation.’

Nearly two weeks? Ten days, it’s been. Valjean frowns.

‘It was quicker than I thought. To put it right.’

‘Oh. Well – there might still be a few people in the warehouse down by the river. But we thought…the managers I mean, we’ve been having regular meetings…that it would be wise to get operations running again as quickly as possible. We have orders to meet before Christmas, and-‘

He waves it off gently. He had been expecting scenes of despair, people still living in what they’d managed to salvage, camp beds and emergency supplies. Instead, everything is ticking over as it always is. He wouldn’t know anything had been different just from looking.

‘Very efficient, Mrs Victor.’

She inflates ever so slightly.

‘Thank you, Mr Valjean.’

‘And everything’s gone that we collected for the Christmas donation drive?’

‘Everything except the toys. That was what you instructed, wasn’t it? All the household wares and clothes have been given out, of course. Almost all of the food, though we kept some back to ensure there’d be Christmas dinner for anyone who needed it. Other than that, it’s all gone.’

It’s a good thing, he reminds himself. The things were there for people who needed them, and people did need them, so it’s good that they’re gone.

It’s just that he was counting on there being a lot to do here, so he wouldn’t have to go home.

‘Mr Valjean? Did you want to see the orders?’

Her voice is surprisingly gentle. He turns the question over, and shakes his head.

‘Show me the toys, please.’

The pile is disappointingly small. It huddles in a far corner of the warehouse, stacked up on an old pallet. Valjean surveys it and his stomach sinks. He can’t allow this to be all of it. How is this going to help anyone? There are so many children out there who aren’t going to get any gifts on Christmas Day, and this’ll be the first year since this place opened that he’s doing nothing about it.

He turns away. Mrs Victor has gone from puzzled to what appears to be concern.

‘Jean, are you all right?’

He nods, though the world feels heavier with each moment that passes today, and it doesn’t feel like he’ll be able to walk by the time night falls.

‘I’ll be in my office. Good work, Mrs Victor.’

 

*

 

He browses, and clicks. Browses, and clicks. Increase quantity. Shipping options: one day rush. The delivery address is burned into his fingers. His back aches, and his eyes hurt. Basket holds 1793 items. It’s getting dark outside, and the phone rings, and sometimes Mrs Victor looks through his office window. He’s aware of it vaguely, just like he’s aware of the way his mouth is dry and his stomach is tight with hunger.

If Javert’s dead, Father Charles would have sent a cop by now. Or he would have come himself, or sent someone from the church. Maybe the hospital has been trying, only they wouldn’t be able to get him either – but they’d call here too, and Mrs Victor would come and tell him. So Javert’s probably not dead, or ill. And yet, the conversation has been going on for hours; the one where Father Charles says you shouldn’t have sent him away, and he frantically tries to defend his actions by saying he couldn’t help it, he couldn’t function last night, and he doesn’t know how to be around Javert anymore. Because if he’s going to get ill whenever the man comes near him, how is that going to help? But Father Charles calls him a liar, and says he’s not actually ill; all this is in his head, and Valjean has to acknowledge that yes, that’s true, it’s literally in his head and he needs to get a grip. And he does for up to a minute, but then another scenario pops up. Javert’s talking in this one, telling everyone about what he was told – Valjean does not know who ‘everyone’ might be, but it doesn’t matter – and then he’s back at college, and people are looking at him with disgust, and there are snide remarks about how he fucked himself to straight A’s last year because that’s how he does things. And he tries to explain, over and over, that he didn’t have a choice – do they want to see the scars he bears, in places there shouldn’t ever be scars, to prove how much of a choice he didn’t have? His fist balls on the desk, and he clicks, and scrolls, and clicks, and scrolls, his eyes unseeing and his head one long ache. What would you have done? he asks these nameless, faceless people. Fought it all the way, and ended up ruined? You’d have your pride, but you might not be able to walk at the end of it. You could hold your head up, but there probably wouldn’t be any teeth left in your mouth.

He’s being melodramatic. Stop it, he tells himself, in his head and then out loud. Stop it. No one asked. You don’t have to justify it. Javert might not tell anyone.

But it won’t stop, and he can’t make it, even when he tries to remember that technique he was taught in therapy once. Put the voices in jars, and then turn the volume down on them. Wasn’t that it? Imagine them getting quieter, and quieter, and then they’ll be gone and you can relax. He wants to laugh, but it hurts to so much as breathe. His fingers dig into his side, and make pain do the work instead. Turn the volume down? If that worked, he’d use it on his own voice. That’s the only one that’s talking to him. It’s all in his head. All of it. His eyes flicker shut, and he tells himself again: you’re in your office, in the factory you own. You’re rich, and educated, and you have a home and food, and shut up. Things were bad, but they’re not any more. It was a bad night. It’ll pass.

It will, too. It always does. He can hang on to that, no matter how bad it feels now. But he usually has Father Charles to talk to, or at least sit with. Sometimes that’s all he needs; to just be in a room with a man full of that much peace. He can’t do that now, because Javert’s there, and he kicked him out against everything he was taught. If he can’t show the mercy he was once shown, he hasn’t learned anything at all. And Father Charles never knew the truth. He never knew that it wasn’t the abuse he supposed it was. That changes things, doesn’t it?

If you did it because you had to, it’s still rape.

He could hit Javert for those words. What does he know about it? He should pray he never finds out.

‘Jean?’

He blinks. He fell asleep. Did he? It seems darker. The white of the computer monitor is so bright, he can’t see anything else. He’s been here for hours. Click and scroll, click and scroll. Delivery options, increase quantity…

‘Jean, what are you doing?’

Mrs Victor is at his shoulder. There’s coffee on the desk. The smell of it thumps into his nose, and suddenly he’s freezing and his mouth is full of spit. He grabs for the mug, and the first sip, the heat, sends a shiver through him so hard he almost spills it from his grasp.

‘It’s nearly eight. The night shift are coming on…what are you doing?’

There’s an edge in her tone. He can tell she’s staring at the screen, 27 inches of it showing her what he’s doing. Items in basket, 1799. 1803. 1815.

‘Shopping.’

‘For toys?’

‘Yeah.’

There’s a pause. He adds twenty super-soaker water guns, and an antique doll’s house, complete with…everything, by the look of it.

‘Have you been doing this all afternoon?’

‘Yeah.’

There’s an intake of breath from above. The coffee is suddenly too strong, and she’s standing too close. His stomach turns over, and he puts the cup down…and her hand lands on his wrist.

‘Jean, stop. How much did you spend? …you’re freezing. Are you alright?’

The answer might actually be ‘no’. Now she asks, he does not feel well at all. Her face appears in his eyeline, blocking out the glare from the monitor. It’s a sudden, shocking shift from white to dark, and his head rears back. Her hand presses to his forehead, and she hisses.

‘You’re sweating. Jean, what are you doing? You can’t…you can’t buy toys for every child in the city Jean, you’ll bankrupt yourself. Is that what you’re doing?’

He shakes his head. Then nods it. He can’t fill his lungs.

‘All the stuff’s gone.’

‘We gave it away. That’s what it was for, giving away. It just went earlier, that’s all. Jean, come away from the computer. I’m going to call someone.’

‘No.’

Oh God, if Father Charles comes now, he’ll break. He just wants to sleep. A thought occurs.

‘Did the truck go to my place?’

‘Yes, just as you asked. Look-‘

‘Don’t call anyone. I’m fine.’

‘You’re not. You look terrible.’

He huffs a breath, and drops his hand away from the trackpad. He can’t seem to find the energy to lift it again.

‘Have you eaten today?’

She has the phone at her ear. He really wants to take it off her, but he’s not that rude. Anyway, it’s an easy enough question. He shakes his head again, and takes advantage of the distraction she’s brought to fool himself into getting up. The sofa is only a few paces away, and he sinks into it with a wince of pain from strained muscles. It’s an old, worn thing, with bobbly material and a shiny patch on one back cushion where heads have worn away the cloth. It’s comfortable though, even with his side objecting to every breath he takes.

‘I’m fine. Look, I’m taking a break. Don’t call anyone.’

She hesitates, clearly torn. Valjean watches her until she sighs, and ends the call. He vaguely wonders who she was trying to get, and decides it doesn’t matter. Who else would it be? Anyway, Father Charles is probably in church. If it’s a service day…now he comes to think of it, he’s not sure what day it is.

‘Are you going to sleep here?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe.’

He has a sofa at home, but what’s the point of going home? Home is silent, and has stupid flashy Christmas lights on a tree he put up with Javert, and home makes him sick now, and he can’t even sleep in his own bed. He can’t sleep in the spare bed, because that’s Javert’s now even if he hardly spent a night in there. Jesus, why did he invite him into his room? Because he was trying to help. OK, but why did he let him stay? Because it felt good. It felt so fucking good to have him in his arms, even when it was weird, and too sticky, and he kept getting hard against him. If he hadn’t kept holding him though, he would have left him alone last night. None of it would have happened, and he wouldn’t have said anything, and everything would be as it was. He huffs a silent laugh, and a shiver runs up his arms.

‘Jean?’

She’s kneeling, peering up at his face. Her voice has that tone which suggests it’s not the first time she said his name.

‘Who’s the night manager?’

She blinks. ‘Oh. It’s Danny this week.’

‘How many people work the shift?’

‘…about two hundred through the company. Seventy five in this building. Why-?’

Seventy-five people who keep themselves away from their families, because even though he pays well in the day, he pays even better at night. Should he pay more, and let everyone stay home? But then he’d have to expand to get everything done in the day shift, and probably have to fire some people…there’s no way to keep everyone happy, and still keep the place going. He runs his hands up his face, and grips his hair. He would a lot – everything – for his brain to shut the hell up.

‘Jean, I think you need a doctor.’

‘No. No, I don’t need a doctor. What I need is…what I need is a list of everyone working tonight.’

‘Why?’

‘I want to see it. I want to know who’s in the building, and who’s out on deliveries, and where they live. It’s nearly Christmas, we should be finished up and getting ready for the holiday shut-down.’

‘We are…it’s all scheduled. You don’t need-‘

‘I do! Please. I’ll find it myself if you don’t-‘

‘No. No, I’ll get it. You sit there.’

She straightens up, and he makes sure not to look at her face. He doesn’t want to see the concern he knows will be there. He can’t blame her for it; he’s acting like a crazy person. She turns to the computer and – he wants to laugh again, and also cry, and most of all sleep, because he sees her delete the content of the shopping cart before she shuts that page down. She had no right to do that. It’s his profit he’d be spending, and he already bought…he doesn’t know. A lot. But he can’t muster the will to voice an objection, and just nods when she says, ‘I’ll get it from the printer.’

She’s gone ages. He stares at the floor, and tries to compare this episode to any that have gone before. He’s never ended up in hospital yet. There was one time when he was medicated for a while, because Father Charles insisted he try and get better, rather than just ride it out when it gets bad. He has been, he thinks. Getting better. It’s different this time because there’s another person involved – he doesn’t have to be in his right mind to know that.

‘Jean? Here.’

He takes the list. Names, addresses, time with the company. The letters swim before his eyes. Mrs Victor puts a sandwich down next to him, and then an apple, and a candy bar, and a big bottle of water.

‘You’ll feel better if you eat something.’

He can’t work off the calories, so he doubts that. The sandwich smells like PB and J, and his stomach roils again.

‘Thanks.’

She hesitates. He looks up.

‘I’ll eat it. I’m OK. You don’t have to stay. I’m going out in a few minutes, so don’t worry.’

Maybe she wasn’t planning on worrying. Why would she? It’s Christmas, and she has a family.

‘…I’m going to call you later. If that’s OK. To make sure.’

He looks down, and mutters, ‘I don’t have my cell with me. I won’t be home.’

The idea that flitted across his mind has come back, and taken root. It’s just after eight. There’s time, isn’t there?

‘Jean-‘

He forces a smile.

‘Mrs Victor, I’m fine. I’m just tired, and hungry. I’ll be OK. Go on home.’

There’s an edge in his voice he hates, but it seems to do the trick. He’s still her boss, and she knows it, and while she  knows he’d never fire her there’s still a fine line between respect and rudeness. He’ll shift it if he has to, to make her go.

‘All right. Will we see you before Christmas?’

‘I don’t know. Probably. Yes. Yeah, I’ll be in. Goodnight.’

He listens to her footsteps all the way down the stairs, and then counts to twenty to give her time to get into the parking lot. He even takes a bite of the sandwich, but it’s like cardboard in his mouth and his jaw creaks with tension when he tries to chew. He drinks the bottle of water though, all of it, and does feel a little better. He gets up, sucks air in hard through his nose, and tosses the bottle into the recycling.

‘OK. OK, it’s fine. You’re fine.’

A quiet murmur to himself,  and he almost believes it this time. He walks to the far window that overlooks the shop floor, and loses a few minutes to watching the people down there. He sees more brown skin than white. More men than women. He sees sleepy eyes, and the effort it takes to lift, and push, and trudge up the stairs to the break room. All these people, working for what he pays – doesn’t matter how much it is – to feed families they can’t be with at night. And why, ultimately? To make him money. Doesn’t matter what he does with it. It doesn’t give them their time with their kids back.

A voice says fixating in his head, and he shakes it away. He looks down at the list in his hand. Well. It’s almost Christmas, and he doesn’t want to go home. Let’s see, he thinks, as he snatches his keys up from the desk. Let’s see what can be done.

  

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Money drops into envelopes, which drop into boxes in apartment building lobbies, and boxes at gates which hang off their hinges, and through doors, and a couple of windows which he’d had to open using skills he had prayed he’d never have cause to remember. He drives through snow, and wind that’s beginning to pick up, and can’t find one good reason for what he’s doing barring that he has to do something and because this, if nothing else, lets him catch a glimpse of the man he used to imagine being. A game he’s good at playing; a favourite pastime of cons he thought he’d left behind too, the old ‘what’re you gonna do when you get out?’ game that he’d changed to ‘what’re you gonna be?’ after Father Charles saved his sorry ass – and hadn’t he asked Javert something like that just a couple of days ago? – and Valjean hits the steering wheel with the flat of his palm to keep back the wave of memory, and the twist of anger in his chest, and the thoughts that just won’t stop coming. ‘What are you going to be?’ he says out loud, and then chokes a laugh because he knows there was once a vision of this guy who smiled a lot, and laughed, and gave out bonuses to people who brought their well-fed, well-educated kids to the company picnic; college programs and scholarships, a foundation for the sick and injured, jobs and training, a new wing in the neighbourhood hospital, named after Father Charles, and that guy was content, and didn’t live like his guts were about to crawl out of his mouth and strangle him. That guy didn’t look back, or think about prison, or have bad dreams, or flinch when someone put their hand on him. That guy was alone, and OK with it. He looked calm and dressed well, and Valjean’s leg jerks in a spasm of hate, and fury because why isn’t he him already, what happened, where’d he go? He’s damn sure it wasn’t too long ago that he could almost shake that guy’s hand, and take his place and almost, almost, pass for someone happy.

…the SUV skids sideways around a corner. He loses the back end before he knows it’s started. He can’t steer into it quick enough, his arms too heavy, too sluggish, and so he gets to watch the perfect arc of slush that flies into the air and hangs in a split-second of calm that seems to stretch forever, where the white light of his headlamps sparkle off the ice like a diamond stab in the eye and he’s out there with it, floating weightless in the black and frozen night, the only still thing in a world spinning round and around his body; he watches a breath of frozen air creep onto the windshield like fingers spreading over skin, a prickle of fear behind his ears….and the side of the car staves in with the soft crumple of folded metal, the hydrant bends, his ribs scream, and the slush drops in exact half-second increments, a wet splat that snaps with the sound of small bones in careless hands.

For a long time, everything is quiet. Eventually, Valjean lowers his forehead to the wheel and tries to slow his thrashing heart. The adrenaline spike doesn’t register, but his hands are shaking. Maybe they were before. It’s really cold. He doesn’t know what time it is.

What happened to that guy? He was a reformer’s impossible dream, fake as a jailbird’s fantasy. If any con was asked what he’d do when he got out, it was always the same. ‘Get rich, man. All the women I want, a Ferrari, penthouse apartment. A box at the ballgame, caviar and champagne…’ None of them ever said how they’d get it but they all believed it’d happen. He used to pretend the same but in his mind, he would imagine a mother. Decent food. A private room. Later, it was open sky and no other people. A house of his own, and a full week with no blood. Going to bed with someone who didn’t hurt him. And after the transfer, just anywhere that wasn’t there. That cell, that floor, that body.

He turns the key in a sudden jerk of stiff fingers and sickness. The dream changed later but stayed just as unrealistic, because who comes out of prison and makes things better for anyone? He’s kidding himself, then and now, but he can’t just sit here because he has to get rid of the rest of this money. It’s all he could get his hands on and it doesn’t matter that he can’t remember why it was so important to give it out. Something about not paying people enough. Like he could ever pay people enough, and the car won’t start; he turns it over a couple of times, then shoves the door open and steps into a deep gutter full of wet snow and water that closes over his boot, soaking through the lace holes. The back end of the passenger side is a mess of cracked glass and blown out tyre, it’ll need a new wing and the axel’s probably bent and he feels nothing, and just stares at it like it’s a thing he’s discovered rather than a mess he’s created.

‘Are you OK?’

It takes a moment to realise that he’s not asking himself, there is actually someone else there. He turns his head to see a young black guy who looks worried, and a bit confused, carrying a book. Valjean makes his tongue work and finds it thick and sore, bitten at the back edge. There’s blood in his mouth.

‘Yeah.’

They both look at the car. The snow is heavier now, muting a church bell that chimes three times.

‘It’ll probably be OK. If you get it towed.’

Valjean looks at him, then tosses the keys over. The boy fumbles the catch, and they land in water.

‘You fix it, it’s yours. There’s money on the seat.’

He walks on, one foot freezing and wet. The guy calls after him, ‘is it stolen?’ so he yells back, ‘no’. He hears ‘but it’s worth-‘ and then a turn at the end of the block removes it from sight, and mind. He aims himself towards home –his penthouse apartment! -  because there’s nowhere else to go, and because his mind won’t stop stabbing Javert’s words into him, and now he’s not driving he can’t stop feeling the way he’d trapped him with his legs last night and how he’d felt against him, the tight clutch of pleasure and the sickness at how wrong it was and then those words he’d said, Jesus, why didn’t he just keep his mouth shut? He’d still be going through this, but at least he wouldn’t know that anyone else knew; he’s used to putting up with his own mind trying to ruin him, but the fact he told Javert means there’s a whole new thing to deal with, and he can’t, he can’t think clearly about Javert, his brain’s never been anything but a mess when it comes to him. He’s too tired for this, and can’t stop raging and his throat hurts and he’s spitting blood because swallowing makes him gag. One leg is cold, the other warm, the wind bites his nose but his cheeks feel hot. Fixing one thing would make something else worse, and it’s like turning on the spot, dizzy and not moving while everything else walks on by. He leans on a wall, his face to the brick, and finds himself in a prison bathroom with hands holding his wrists and his head slammed into tile, and then…he’d throw up if there was anything in him, but there isn’t so he stumbles on, eyes screwed up against memory, head bowed and shoulders slumping because home will be no better than this, home is no longer a sanctuary, home is violated because he was vain enough to believe he could help anyone at all.

His apartment building happens. He blinks at it from across the street, loses a few seconds trying to work out how long it took to get here, then drops it because it doesn’t matter. He thinks of Javert sitting on the sofa, and how warm he’d been in bed, and the time they’d had soup and Javert washed the bowls to show he was grateful, and the roughness of the wall when he’d leant on it and said his parents were dead. And when they’d studied, before any of this got so awful, when Javert would read his books with concentration that bordered on ferocity. He’d study all day, then put a shift in at work, then come here and read and plan that fucking presentation until two in the morning, and barely yawn once. He ate so much food. It was fascinating to watch, wondering where he put it all. He liked Coke, and his hair was longer, and he was just a kid and now he’s…Valjean doesn’t know what he is. His eyes feel like they’re rolling in sand, and the elevator rises in slow motion, but its final ping seems so loud it could burst his ear drums. But he’s inside, and not dead so that’s probably something.

His hallway is silent, the door is closed. When he sees a shadow move on the other side, he can’t muster any surprise. If it’s Javert, he’ll…he’s not sure. For a second, he imagines taking him into his arms and not saying anything, refusing to care about what’s happened, walking with him to the spare room so they can go to sleep. It’s a nice dream, for the second it lasts. The cold reality of it comes next, where he’d see him and feel his hands on him again, and think of being trapped, and his skin is already trying to crawl off his bones at the prospect. He swallows a mouthful of spit, shifts from foot to foot, and has to force himself through his own front door. Fear has the advantage of waking him up a little, the last of his strength brought to bear so he can deal with whatever this is.

But it’s not Javert. It’s Father Charles, pacing through the uneven flashes of the fucking Christmas lights. Valjean stops on the threshold, surprised and not sure why. The door falls closed behind him and he tries to drag reality back into focus, but only half manages. Things slip away when he tries to take hold of them.

‘Where’ve you been, Jean? We’ve all been worried sick.’

Who’s all?

‘Out.  Sorry, Father.’

The pacing stops. ‘Mrs Victor called me. She said you were acting weird, and looked sick. We called all the hospitals. She called the cops.’

The man’s voice is a lesson in studied calm. Valjean can feel the tension hidden behind it, undoubtedly driven by anger, but so well concealed. His fingers clench and unclench at his side. He remembers the look on the man’s face, the distaste when he saw the mark on his neck. The lights flash on his face; red, then green, then gold, then nothing, a moment where it all goes black.

‘Where’s Javert?’

‘Out looking for you.’

‘On his own?’

‘Yeah.’ A pause. ‘We talked. I trust him.’

Javert can’t be trusted. Not with secrets, or words, or his own life. Valjean considers going out to get him, but he can’t move. The pain in his ribs is acute, and he can’t face going outside again. He just can’t.

‘Bahorel came by. He had Enjolras with him.’

‘I don’t want to see them.’

‘You don’t have to.’ Father Charles steps forward. Valjean catches his face, bathed in two beats of steady red from the lights, and recoils from the brutish fury he sees there before the whole mess starts again, a crazed and off-beat flicker that makes his heart jerk to look at. ‘Jean, where have you been?

‘Out. I said, out. I was at the factory, and then I went out. I’m allowed to-‘

‘Of course you are. But I left messages this morning, and the front desk said they told you. It’s not like you to disappear.’

‘Maybe it should be.’

He hadn’t meant to say that. He sees the priest’s head pull back in surprise. When he speaks, his tone his cautious. ‘What does that mean?’

‘…I don’t know. Nothing. It doesn’t mean anything.’

Father Charles takes another step. ‘You’re not thinking of leaving, are you? No one wants you to do that. And you don’t have to.’

Is he saying it to make him go?  Valjean glances from side to side, before realising the door is behind him. He shifts from one foot to the other.

‘I don’t know. I don’t think so.’

‘Jean?’

‘What?’

‘Calm down.’

‘I am calm. I’m fine.’

He swallows, and forces his fingers to spread out at his side, stretching his palm and making tendons pull at his inside wrist. Father Charles is still, one hand held up a little like he’s trying to reassure a wild dog. The kind of open-handed trust that comes right before a leash lands around the neck, and pulls tight.

‘Take a breath. A deep one. Go on, you ca-‘

‘I’m breathing just fine. What are you doing here?’

‘To find you. We’ve all been worried. No one’s seen you for hours, you left your cell, you weren’t picking up here, you weren’t at the factory.’

‘I was at the factory. Mrs Victor saw me.’

The priest smiles. ‘Yes, I know. But that was nearly five hours ago. We were worried.’

Disappointed, more like. Valjean can see it in shadows of the Father’s face, the black dips at the corner of mouth and eyes that drag truth from his features; the smile can’t beat them, the soft tone can’t mask his frustration at being here in the middle of the night, and why the hell would he let Javert out on his own? Valjean takes a step one way and then back the other, finishing up where he started and unable to take his eyes from Father Charles’s shadowed face.

‘Don’t know what you want me to say.’

‘You don’t have to say…Jean, I think you’re bleeding.’

He steps forward. Valjean steps back on reflex, and his breath catches when his shoulders hit the door. He’s suddenly very aware that there’s something solid behind him, the room is dark and flashing, and there’s a man closing in.

‘Don’t. I’m not. I’m all right.’

‘Jean…

…all right. OK. No worries.’

The figure stops outside the sphere of the colours. He’s just a shape in the darkness now, and blood roars in Valjean’s ears, an adrenaline surge he was not expecting. Heat runs up his arms and explodes in his chest, and his fingers jerk and curl into balls as instinct kicks in.

‘Back off.’

‘All right. All right, you’re OK. Jean….Jean, listen to me, OK son?’

‘I don’t-‘

‘You don’t have to do anything. Just listen to my voice, OK? Calm down. Take a big breath for me. You’re sweating and you’re all white, and there’s blood on the side of your face. You look like you’re in shock. Did something happen?’

‘No.’

Did it? Yes. There was something, and this guy…it’s Father Charles, he does know that, but the name isn’t attaching to anything specific and he can’t see his face in the dark, and he hasn’t heard footsteps but it looks like he’s getting closer anyway, and he pushes back against the door until his shoulder blades protest and his head hurts against the wood.

‘The car crashed,’ he says, because he’s just remembered.

 ‘…OK. I’m going to call 911. You just stay there, and-‘

‘No! I’m all right. I’m….don’t call anyone, I don’t want any doctors, I don’t want…I just want everyone to fuck off, alright? I don’t want anyone. Just go away, I’m fine.’

There’s a movement that could be someone putting a phone away. But he’s already had the mental image of paramedics storming up the stairs and bursting through the door behind him, and the space on the other side of the wall opens up like there’s nothing to protect him from anyone that might appear at his back, but he can’t turn because then the guy in front will get him. He looks from side to side, and there’s space but if he goes away from the door then the only other way out is the fire escape, and he doesn’t know if he can make it there without someone reaching him first.

‘Jean, do you know who you’re talking to?’

‘’course. You’re Father…Father Charles, and you – where’s Javert?’

‘Did you hit your head when the car crashed?’

‘No. Where is he?’

‘He’s looking for you. He’s fine. He told me what happened last night.’

Last night? Valjean screws his eyes up to try and focus his thoughts, and push them away at the same time. Last night. It’s not rape if you meant it. No, that wasn’t it. It’s not rape if…it’s rape if… Valjean bites down on a knuckle and hears a moan that comes straight out of a cell eight years ago, his shoulders jerk and his temple hits the doorframe.

‘He told me what you said, and what he did. And he…Jean, Jesus Christ, breathe, you’re OK it’s only me…’

There’s a grip on his bicep, and he lashes out without thought. His hand connects with something soft, and satisfaction swells at the grunt of pain that follows. But he can still feel the touch on his arm, and he thinks of his bathroom in the steam, and hands sliding over his chest, and fingers digging into his tendons to hold him down, and twisting into nerves to keep him still, and the smell of a sweaty palm clamped over his mouth as his face was pushed into the floor, or a pillow, or the wall…he pulls away and pushes at the same time, and then he’s free and he slides back, keeping the solid wood behind him and licking blood off his knuckle as he moves.

‘Jean? You gotta come back. We can fix it.’

‘Can’t. You don’t understand. You don’t know anything. I didn’t tell you anything.’

His throat feels like it’s been grated. It’s hard to push the words over the lump. But this is his apartment, isn’t it? Jesus, why’s it so cold? His chest hurts too much, and there’s definitely blood now, definitely his and maybe…no, is it his?

‘I didn’t tell you...I didn’t…you wouldn’t-‘

‘Javert told me. You need to know it’s-‘

‘Stop it!’

He draws back along the wall, shaking his head, eyes closed against the flashing lights while he tries to put things in order. But he might have just hit Father Charles, and blood is throbbing in his ears and he can’t face the thought of what Javert has said to other people about last night. The words he could have said – had to have said, because they’re the truth – you think he was abused, but it’s a lie. He loved it. They made him love it, and he’s been lying to you for years. You should have sent him back to jail when you caught him stealing. He can see Javert’s face as he says it, how blank it’s become these days, how dead his eyes are, and with that ugly red line around his throat that will never let him forget what Jean Valjean pushed him to.

‘Jean. Jean, snap out of it…’

Hands on his shoulders. The flashing lights have stopped, and he can’t open his eyes because everything’s too bright. He can’t catch a breath. There’s no room in his throat for air. If you’d sent him back to jail, he wouldn’t have come after me. If he didn’t want Javert, he wouldn’t have tried to kill himself. He wouldn’t have been used by the police. Joly wouldn’t be dead. Valjean screws his eyes up tighter and turns his face away to escape the hand on his cheek. He presses fingers to his eyes and he tries to breathe, and thinks blood when they come up wet, and doesn’t care if the rest of his life leaks out of his body.

‘You’re OK, son. It’ll be alright.’

‘You don’t get it.’

‘I do.’

‘No-‘

‘-yes.’

The hand on his cheek turns firm, grips his jaw and gives a shake. Valjean opens his eyes from the shock of touch, and sees Father Charles with pain all through him, no sign of anger, nothing but hurt, and something breaks softly inside his mind. When he breathes, it shudders into his lungs.

‘He told me what he did and what you had to say to him, to get him to understand. And Jean…’ Father Charles’s face crumples a little, close to defeated for the first time in memory. His tone is soft.

 ‘…why would you ever think I’d judge you for that? What reason have I ever given you to think I wouldn’t understand? For God’s sake, you never needed to carry that alone. Don’t you get it? You could have-‘

He breaks off, and Valjean has no defences left; the man’s anguish hits like a truck flattening a rabbit, and the shudder comes out as a sob and he realises the liquid on his fingers is not blood, but tears. ‘Thought you’d go away,’ he says, in a voice too thick to be his own, and his chest snatches in and out as Father Charles shakes his head, hands on his shoulders, water in his eyes. ‘I didn’t deserve what you did, and if you knew…’

And in the end, just like always, he can do nothing but beg. His fingertips curl into the cloth of Father Charles’s jacket, lock there and can’t let go. ‘I didn’t mean to give in. Promise I didn’t. I just…’ Couldn’t do it anymore. Couldn’t fight back. Could stand the pain of being forced, and the humiliation of losing. It was easier to tell himself he was doing it by choice, like he wanted it, like he enjoyed what he was offering. ‘…didn’t mean to lie. M’sorry, I’m really sorry…’

Words fail, lost to a sob, and his body spasms under the next one, and the next, all rushing up in a line to get out. Father Charles draws him in and lets him put his head on his shoulder, and murmurs, ‘You didn’t lie. You didn’t,’ and it’s like he doesn’t realise that he’s been duped all these years, or he doesn’t care, and Valjean can’t work out which. ‘You did what you could, it’s OK,’ and it’s not OK, but Father Charles just holds him tight and lets him cry, and it doesn’t seem to matter that he can’t talk any more after that.

 

*

 

He wakes in the dark, with the knowledge that Father Charles is watching over him. For once, there is no fear in sleep. The Christmas lights have been switched off, and the room is lit by a muted lamp in the corner. The sofa under him is firm but comfortable, the blanket over his chest light enough to give no pressure but warm enough to ward off discomfort. He can turn his head and see the priest in the armchair, guarding against nightmares. His body feels heavy and slow, and he couldn’t move his legs if he tried. But there’s no need to try. He’s warm, floating, the seams of mind and emotion teased apart to hang without connection; his eyelids fall, and darkness, for once, is welcome.

He wakes at the hour of dawn, grey light reflecting into the room off drooping cloud and layers of snow. There’s an ache behind his eyelids, and he can’t move his head. Father Charles dozes in the armchair, his head fallen to one side, his wrinkled hands wilting off the end of the arms. He is all in black, his hair white like a halo, his face old, and worn, and peaceful. Valjean watches with the sudden knowledge that one day, maybe even one day soon, he is going to have to negotiate this world without the man to guide him. It’s an unbearable thought and there are more tears then, leaking silently from the corner of his eyes. They dribble down his temple and into his ear, and he can’t lift a hand to wipe them away. The desolation for what has not yet happened is another reminder that he has been a liar all this time. He told himself he was standing on his own two feet, building a life on a secure foundation. It isn’t true. He’s been leaning on someone else, and he’s pretty sure he won’t be able to manage when he’s gone.

 

*

 

He wakes to the smell of coffee, and a black shape looming. His eyes fly open and his arms jerk as if from a dream of falling, but it’s only Father Charles sitting on the coffee table next to him.

‘Morning.’

Valjean blinks, still too tired to move. But he does notice that the age, so obvious when the man sleeps, is now hidden behind his smile. It would be easy to forget the night’s fear, if he let himself.

‘Morning,’ he says. His throat aches. He’s badly dehydrated, but it doesn’t matter. Father Charles holds up a bottle of water anyway, gives it a shake and sets it on the floor next to him.

‘You awake?’

‘Yeah.’

‘OK.’ The man drinks from his mug, then turns it in his hands. ‘I don’t want you making any decisions today, Jean. I’d like you to come home with me.’

‘You’ve got work.‘

‘I’ve got nothing. And you’ve no bed here, I see. I know why, it’s OK. But you can’t sleep on your sofa, and I don’t want you being on your own.’

‘Javert’s at your place.’

‘He can come here.’

He says it with such certainty. Words from a few hours ago float back to him, I trust him and we’ve talked, and he wonders why, and what was said. ‘He can’t be on his own, Father.’

‘He can. I promise you, he can.’ The man takes a deep breath, and his cheeks balloon out as he releases it. ‘We don’t need to go into the details now, and I think you’ll work them out for yourself pretty soon anyway. But he knows he went too far last night, and I think he’s sorry. I think it’s…I won’t go as far as ‘changed him’, but woken him up a bit, maybe.’

Valjean doesn’t know what that means, and can’t apply himself to guessing. If he had the choice, he’d just lie here all day. He’s just the right temperature, it’s comfortable, and there’s no pressure to do anything, or be anything, or hide anything, or want anything. He could just lie, and that would be all right.

‘Your place. OK.’

It’s easier to agree. Father Charles nods. ‘And I don’t want you to give me an answer on this now, or even think about it properly – but in the next couple of days, when you’ve got your sleep back and eaten something, I’d like you to consider calling your therapist.’

Valjean’s heart sinks a little. He’s not sure what he expected. He cannot, in good conscience, say ‘no need, I’m fine,’ because nothing about the last forty-eight hours has been fine. They’re already a curtain separating him from this moment here, now, and everything in his life before.

‘I thought about it myself.’

‘But you didn’t?’

‘No.’

It takes more than people think, picking up a phone. It’s not asking for help that’s the issue, it’s believing that anyone will say yes. And even when you pay someone to do it, the effort required simply to be content seems impossible. Happiness is out of the question.

Father Charles just nods again. ‘I’ll pack up a few clothes for you. Razor, shampoo, all that stuff. We’ll have breakfast at mine – I’ll warn you now son, it’s gonna be a full fry-up, and no complaints from you about fat and calories or whatever. OK?’

He grins suddenly, and stands. Valjean notices the effort it takes him, the way he’s careful with his back, and knows that’s his fault. The man shouldn’t be sleeping in chairs at his age. But still he can’t move, and all he wants to do is close his eyes.

‘Father?’

He forces them up to meet Father Charles’s steady blue gaze.

‘When you picked him up, were you angry?’

‘Angry?’ There’s a moment of incomprehension, and then a shadow passes across his face. ‘Aye, son. I was furious.’

Valjean looks away. He’s not sure if it’s better to have it confirmed, or not.

‘But it’s OK. We talked about it, and worked it out.’

‘…what?’

‘Me and Javert. We had a long conversation last night. It’s dealt with.’

They stare at each other. Valjean tries to get the what are you talking about to leave his mouth, but his brain is too busy wrestling with it.

‘…you thought I was angry with you?

Father Charles huffs a laugh that has nothing to do with humour, more with despair, and runs a hand across his forehead as though he’s getting a headache. ‘Why would you think that?’

‘I saw your face when you noticed the mark on my neck. I thought you-‘

The man is shaking his head. ‘Of course I noticed it, it’s not exactly subtle. It set the alarm bells going, because I couldn’t work out why you hadn’t covered it. Like, if you were ashamed of it maybe you would have, but you didn’t. But I couldn’t imagine you wanting to show it off.’

He sits down again. Valjean tries to follow his train of thought for a brief second, then gives up.

‘After I talked to Javert and got the story, I guessed. But one day Jean, you might need to ask for help using actual words, you know? Other people might not know you well enough to figure it out.’

‘It wasn’t asking for help. It was…I don’t know.’

‘Showing me what you think you are? Making me think you’re not decent? Like I’d ever believe you’d take advantage of Javert right after he’d tried to kill himself. What kind of person do you think I think you are?’

There’s a note of irritation in the man’s voice now, and Valjean forces himself to sit up and guard against it, though his ribs jag pain through him the moment he moves. Father Charles watches with obvious concern, then hands him the coffee that’s turning lukewarm.

‘But you don’t know what sort of person I am, Father. I’ve lied-‘

‘You have not lied. Jesus, did we not cover this a few hours ago? Doing what you have to do to stay alive and in one piece does not make it consensual. Why would you ever think I’d hold that against you?’

He sounds hurt. Valjean bows his head, and then drinks some coffee, and once more feels his throat thicken and his eyelids ache. How many years has it been since he’s cried? Maybe he’ll never stop now.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘You don’t have to apologise to me, Jean. You only ever did one thing against me, and that was only money. Since then, you’ve been…’ Father Charles’s voice cracks out of nowhere, turns reedy, pulled tight with unexpected emotion. ‘…Jean, if my own son had lived, I would have wanted him - - if he grew to be half the man you are, I’d have been the proudest man alive.  That God’s blessed me with you-‘

He breaks off. Valjean can’t look at him. He watches tears drip onto the blanket pulled over his knees, and doesn’t flinch when Father Charles puts his hand to his hair. It’s quiet for a time, until one of them sniffs, the brief touch turns to a gentle pat, and the old man stands up.

‘I’ll get your things. You can shower at mine.’

He nods without looking up. It’s a relief to be on his own again. There’s nothing in him, no tangible thoughts, no definable emotion, nothing but exhaustion and a deep, deep sadness. He feels like he’s been pounded with non-stop noise for two days, and now someone’s turned the dial to zero. It’ll build again but for now it’s silent, and it’s all about whether he can steel himself for the volume to rise. Except it’s not, because he can’t, there’s not a chance he can go through this again. The glass shattered this time, and you can’t glue glass back together, you have to melt it down and start over, only it’ll never be the same even if it looks it, it’ll always be a remake of a flawed original, and-

‘Jean? You need help getting up?’

His eyes are closed. His heart pushes blood through him, and it throbs in his ears. He can hear his breath, and the tide of his thoughts, and left alone he’ll never be able to stop them rising up and drowning him. Sink, or swim? One’s easier than the other.

‘I can do it.’

It takes a while because everything aches, and he’s dizzy, and slamming into the car door might have cracked his ribs again. But standing on his own two feet is something he’s going to have to get used to, even if it’s only to walk towards an offer of sanctuary, the promise of food, a bed, and someone to talk to when he wakes up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

It’s been more than four years, and Andy’s office hasn’t changed a bit. The kids in the photo frames look older, and his wife’s hairstyle is a little different. That’s all. Familiarity should be reassuring, but Valjean finds his heart sinking instead. Full circle. Right back where he started.

They step through the usual courtesies, and he’s aware the man is allowing him to adjust to the situation. But they’re on the clock, so it’s only a few minutes before Valjean feels a pause grow expectant, and casts around for words to start this off. Andy holds up a hand though, and he remembers why he used to like him.

‘Take your time.’

It’s not time he needs, as much as the ability to get the words out. He’s been wrestling with this for forty eight hours now, and is no closer to an answer. He’s tried telling himself ‘just say it’, but it’s not as easy as that.

‘Things haven’t been good,’ he says instead, and feels the heat of embarrassment at being so inane, because obviously they haven’t been good or he wouldn’t be here. But Andy just nods, and adjusts the notebook on his knee.

‘For how long, would you say?’

‘I guess since the spring. Seven, eight months or so.’

‘They’d been OK before then? Bearable, at least?’

‘Yeah.’

‘So what changed? Do you think you can tell me?’

Valjean shrugs, and looks at his hands. ‘I met someone.’

‘I see.’

A pen scratches over paper. Valjean remembers an old sensation, his life as a series of shorthand notes on other people’s paperwork: charged with breaking and entering;  sentenced to… destruction of detention hall property….escape attempt…hospitalized, attack of a sexual nature…suicide attempt, query depression?...

‘Jean? Are you OK?’

He nods, eyes closed. His stomach refuses to unclench.

‘Do you want to tell me who you met?’

‘What do you want to know?’

‘Whatever you want to tell me. Start easy. Are they a woman? Man?’ Valjean looks at him. Andy smiles again. ‘I do remember our previous sessions, and I’ve reviewed my notes.  As we discussed last time, preference can be informed by experience. And sometimes it isn’t. There’s no way to know, and neither is wrong.’

It’s something he doesn’t want to touch on. He’s always wondered whether he’d be gay if it weren’t for prison. It doesn’t matter in one sense; he’s not bothered about the stigma some people attach, or any morality bullshit. But choice matters, and he used to lose sleep over whether this is another one that’s been taken away.

‘A guy. I was in prison with his father.’

‘…I see.’

Another note. He can’t imagine what this one says. He blows his cheeks out instead, and pushes his palms down the length of his thighs.

‘We were assigned a project together freshman year of college. He didn’t know we’d seen each other before. When the thing was done, he kissed me. I freaked out, and we didn’t speak again until we were juniors. And then-‘

Where to start? It feels too big. It’s such a mess. He thinks again just say it, because the crux of the matter is not Javert, it’s what happened in prison and the choices he made, he knows that. So if he just says, ‘I’m not sure I told the truth about the abuse…’ then they can cut to the heart of the issue, and save everyone a lot of time and effort.

He opens his mouth. It would be a lie to say the words stick in his throat. They don’t make any attempt to appear; they don’t even form as a possibility. He finds himself blank, thinking and feeling nothing at all while Andy just watches him.

‘Let’s leave that for now. Why don’t you tell me about him?’

‘…OK.’

Yes, he can do that. Relief makes it easy.

‘His name’s Javert. He’s taller than me. Too thin at the moment. He wants to be a cop, and he’s kind of intense. Doesn’t say much unless something goes wrong, works harder than any student I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t have any family, or money, so he’s had two jobs for as long as I’ve known him. He volunteers at the security office on campus, and-‘

He breaks off for a moment. He’s glad there’s no prompting.

‘He tried to kill himself the night of the riot. Partly because of me.’

By the end of the sentence, his throat is tight. There’s a long stretch of silence, and no sound of a pen. Valjean stares at his shoes.

‘Are you dating?’

‘No. We’d barely spoken since spring.’

‘Since things started going wrong?’

‘He found out we’d seen each other at the prison. He was angry because I’d let him suck me off, so he dug up my backstory and gave it to the press. You must have seen it.’

‘I did. That was him?’

‘Yeah.’

More silence. This time there is a note. Valjean feels his cheeks flush red. If he lives to be a hundred – and please God, don’t let that happen – he’ll never stop being ashamed of letting Javert touch him that day.

‘Do you think you deserved that, Jean?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Has he ever apologised, or expressed regret about it?’

‘…yeah. I think. I don’t know, I can’t remember.’

It’s been two days since Father Charles took him to his place, and he’s still out of sorts. Sleeping is strange and fractured, and his schedule is messed up, days becoming nights. He’s been doing a lot of nothing. Thinking about things makes his nerves stretch out and shiver, waiting for the boot to come down and grind them raw. He can’t eat without feeling ill. Details of conversations elude him.

‘Let’s step back. Would you like some water?’

‘Thanks.’

The pour of water against glass feels too loud. He tries to close his ears, but it doesn’t last for long and taking a sip does calm the rising fear. Andy was always good at recognising tension, and diffusing it. It’s the reason he kept at therapy so long before.

‘Tell me something else about him. Something you like.’

He showed interest, he thinks, but can’t say. What sort of person does it make him, liking someone because they thought they liked him?

‘I like his focus. I like his drive.’

‘What else?’

He thinks about Javert sitting at his table, scowling in silence at his books as they studied. He thinks of him plucking test cards out of his hand, and saying  I did it and expecting a kiss as reward. He thinks of how gentle his hand was on his stomach.

‘I like his smile. It’s rare. I like his hands.’

‘What else?’

‘His eyes. He has beautiful eyes, even when they’re terrifying.’

He likes the way he was so full of himself, but considerate enough not to scare him at the beginning. How he was so into touching, and embarrassed about whether his inexperience showed. I Googled how to do it – and he looked so young, he has always looked so young, but dear God he’s got a man’s body. The contrasts, Valjean realises. They’re what he likes. The way he’s arrogant and an asshole, but more vulnerable than anyone he’s ever known. So full of fury, and so unsure about things.

But that was all before, wasn’t it? Javert’s broken now, and it’s his fault. The fire’s gone out…except Valjean’s mind takes him to a few nights ago, and the bed, and the way the guy wouldn’t stop pushing. He wasn’t so broken then, and the good stuff he remembers is washed away as the bad floods in, and Andy doesn’t comment as Valjean gets to his feet and starts pacing up and down, unable to sit with the emotion twitching under his skin.

‘It’s complicated,’ he says, eventually. ‘I like more about him than just what he looks like.’

‘But you do like how he looks?’

‘Yeah.’

He’s embarrassed to admit it. But when their eyes catch, Andy just smiles. ‘It’s OK to want someone, Jean. Even if it’s just physical. There’s nothing wrong with that.’

Yeah. Well. Hadn’t he tried to tell himself that before this went wrong? He’s sure he remembers justifying to himself all the reasons he didn’t have to tell Javert the truth. And look what happened.

‘I have to go.’

‘OK. Same time next week, alright?’

‘You’re working over Christmas?’

‘A little, yeah. I’ll see you then.’

 

*

 

He stares out of the window as Father Charles drives, the man swerving between a steady flow of easy chatter, and random swearing at people who don’t know how to drive in bad weather. The whole city seems to have gone mad with Christmas fervour this year. There are decorations everywhere, like they can hide the damage from the riot if they just stick enough tinsel on things. Snatches of holiday tunes drift from open storefronts as they crawl down the main shopping strip, and the smell of Christmas trees slides into car even with the window closed. Snow is piled into heaps by the gutters, and some of them have been decorated by last night’s drinkers: a carrot nose and balled-newspaper eyes on that one, arms made out of Starbucks cups on the next, an ice dick and skewed top hat across the street. The square in front of City Hall is usually turned into an ice rink through December, but it’s still cordoned off - weather reports say the river will probably freeze in the next couple of days, though they recommend no one skates on it. People will anyway. They always do.

‘You OK, Jean?’

‘Yeah.’

It’s only an hour later, back at Father Charles’s apartment, that he considers Andy might be seeing him next week just because he thinks he needs it. Therapists don’t usually keep their offices open at Christmas. He mulls this over for a while, but lets it slip away as he sits on the bed and eyes Javert’s bag, which has been lying in the corner since he got here. The guy never came back for it, so what’s he doing for clothes? Maybe he’s using his. Valjean has an image of Javert trying to pull a belt tight enough to keep a pair of his jeans up, and smiles. He probably just went shopping, but it’s an amusing image.

He gets up and wanders around the four rooms of the apartment, stopping every now and again to stretch his side out as best he can, and ease the twitching in his legs. He needs to move, because stillness is driving him insane. Mental lethargy is one thing, physical is something else. He’s not used to sitting on his ass, but the doctor he saw yesterday confirmed more damage to his ribs so it’s going to be a while before he can work out again. All he can do is walk, but there’s nowhere to go.

‘I think I’d better go home, Father,’ he says that evening, his heels bouncing on the carpet as the priest reads a book, the radio spilling a flow of Christmas hymns.

‘What’s the rush? It’s Christmas in three days, and you’ll be here for that anyway, won’t you?’

‘Yeah, of course.’

He’d rather stay away from celebrations altogether this year, but if he does that then Father Charles will be eating dinner alone. His sister’s away on an aid mission in Syria, and Javert – well, maybe Javert will come, but that might be reason enough to stay home. Except it isn’t, because he wants to see him. He thinks. Maybe.

Father Charles puts his book down, and takes his glasses off. ‘It’s up to you, of course. But I hope you’ll stay tonight at least. I’ll have to call Javert and tell him to come back, and it’s pretty late.’

‘Tonight, sure.’

He’s aware he’s being watched, but he doesn’t know what to say. It’s good, being here. It’s quiet, and there’s no pressure. But he has to do things; he has to apologise to Mrs Victor for melting down in front of her, and he has to make sure the factory’s squared away before the Christmas close-down, and-

‘It’s Joly’s funeral tomorrow.’

…and he has to go to Joly’s funeral.

‘I didn’t know.’

Father Charles crosses his fingers in his lap. ‘Why should you? I only know because Father Joseph called me. It’s at Saint Bernadettes, at four.’

‘I’ll be there.’

‘I thought so. Do you want me to come with you?’

‘No, it’s OK. You’ve put off enough stuff for me this last week – no, don’t, I know you have. I’ll come back on Christmas morning and cook dinner, OK?’

The priest snorts, and picks his spectacles up again. ‘You will not. You’ll give me health gravy or something, and steam all the veg instead of roasting it like God intended. I know you, Jean Valjean. I want a Christmas lunch that clangs my arteries shut just by looking at it, alright son?’

Valjean wishes he were kidding, but can’t help a dry grin in return. ‘Your house, your rules.’

‘S’right.’

They exchange a look, and Valjean sits down as Father Charles opens his book. There’s a moment of peace, and then- ‘You know Javert’s going to be here too? I won’t be sending him off to live in his dorm again.’

‘I know. It’s OK.’

‘You sure?’

‘Yeah.’

He can’t  be sure, but he thinks it’ll be all right. Now he’s had some sleep and a bit of distance from it, he can see that Javert’s coercion wasn’t that bad. He’s a hungry guy, always has been. And he let him into his bed, so what did he expect, really? OK, he wishes the man hadn’t tried to hold him down, and he probably needs to learn that ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘try harder’…but no one died, right? People suffer through worse than that every day. His reaction was too much, at least as far as Javert’s concerned. The flashbacks to prison – well, he can’t deny he’s been fighting them for years now, and no one seems to be telling him to just get over them, so maybe it’s OK to think they’re bad. The point is, they’re not Javert’s fault. Seeing him shouldn’t make anything worse. It’ll be fine.

‘What’re you going to do at home?’

‘I’m not sure. Put the new bed together. Clean up.’

‘Javert won’t have left a mess. He was cleaning when I saw him this morning.’

‘You saw him?’

Father Charles looks over the top of his glasses. ‘I see him every day. Just to check in.’

Valjean hesitates, but has to ask. ‘Is he OK?’

‘Aye, I think so. It’ll do him good though, seeing you.’

In bed, Valjean wonders what that means. He and Javert seeing each other hasn’t done either of them any favours so far, so it seems like an odd thing to say. He thinks about what he told Andy about him, and all the things he didn’t say – that waking up with his arms around another person was so weird, and so good; that putting up Christmas decorations, even just days after Javert got out of hospital, is a memory that sits in his mind as a moment of peace amongst madness, a warm time-out he can wrap around himself like a blanket. He felt like he did some good that day, like there was a connection that didn’t care about why they’d fallen apart all those months before, and didn’t look at the mark around Javert’s throat, and didn’t ask questions about his own actions in prison. It was just there, and…Valjean doesn’t know if it’s been broken, but he really hopes not.

He turns on to his side, and pulls the duvet up around his ears. This bed is too small for him really, but if he curls up the world can be kept at bay easily enough. He sinks under the weight of goose down and woollen blanket, and feels sleep push him deeper, away from all the things he can’t yet put in order. Because he shouldn’t hope that connection hasn’t been broken; he should be praying that it has, and he and Javert can be free of each other.

But what would either of them do with freedom? If these last months have proved anything, it’s that they’ve both been locked up in their heads for years.

 

*

 

The wind bites at his cheeks as he steps out of the cab, pushing bills back into his jeans pocket. The factory always looks dead from the front, just a brick façade and neutral customer reception. All the activity takes place in the back, where the trucks deliver and pick up, and the machines go twenty-four seven, and the staff hang outside on their breaks. Valjean sucks an icy mouthful of air, bends into the pain in his ribs, and looks up at the windows of his office. Sometimes he thinks it might be time to pass this place on to someone more stable, who can make it reach its full potential. But then he wonders who would carry on the ethos of making money only to give most of it away. Not enough of it away. Maybe he’ll sell his apartment.

‘Mr. Valjean?’

He blinks and  looks lower, and sees Mrs Victor standing at the reception door with a clipboard tucked into the crease of her elbow. His heart lowers but he plasters on a smile, and makes his way over.

‘Danny said you wouldn’t be in today, but I told him you would when the truck showed up.’

She steps back to let him into the warmth, and so probably misses the confusion on his face. He schools it away before turning, and nods to hide the furious working of his mind. What truck? What did he do that he doesn’t remember?

‘I thought I’d better come and make myself useful, Mrs Victor.’

‘Oh, but there’s no need. Some volunteers came up from the warehouse by the river, so it’s all taken care of. Do you want to come and check?’

‘Sure. Thanks. Not that you won’t have it in order, but I’d like to see.’

They walk in silence, and Valjean forces his mind away from the confusion by facing what he actually came here to say.

‘Mrs Victor, I’m sorry about the other night. I had no right to act the way I did, and make you deal with it. Father Charles told me you were worried and called the cops, and I want to say thank you. And it won’t happen again.’

She doesn’t say anything, and he can’t bring himself to look at her face to check her expression. It’s only when he holds a door open to let her pass in front, does he see that she’s frowning. She steps through then turns in the doorway, leaving him unable to move on, or avoid her.

‘Mr Valjean, I’ve worked for you for a long time. It’s no secret that you have times where you aren’t very well. But I wish you wouldn’t keep apologising for it – you don’t inconvenience anyone, and do you think I mind feeling concerned for you sometimes? I just wanted to make sure you were all right, that’s all.’

Her sincerity is obvious, and embarrassing. He flushes red and looks down, with the vague thought that this might be what it’s like to have a mother.

‘Sorry,’ he mutters. ‘I just didn’t want to pretend like it didn’t happen.’

‘Mr Valjean, you might be my boss but you’re still a person. And we’re all aware – unfortunately, I know – that you’ve had difficulties in the past. There’s no need to act like you’re immune to everything.’

Truth be told, he isn’t sure what to make of that, and is relieved when she walks on and allows him to release the door. Is it pity, now everyone knows he used to be in prison? If that hadn’t been revealed for the world to read, would she be less sympathetic to his fragile mental health? He doesn’t want pity. He doesn’t want to be treated like he’s weak. He doesn’t want any of it acknowledged at all. But ‘thank you,’ is all he says, as he stands next to her at the large window overlooking the main delivery bay.

‘Besides,’ she says, nodding down at the parked truck, with its back doors open and a chain of people unloading pallets. ‘How can anyone not admire you when you do things like this? I know I told you to stop, but when you actually see the things, and know how happy they’re going to make the children…’

They’re toys, he realises. All the toys he ordered that day, before she came in and found him, and deleted all the other things he was going to buy. Looking at the immense pile of boxes coming off the delivery, he has to admit that perhaps she did the right thing. He has no idea how much of the company’s yearly profit he spent, but suspects it might be all of it.

‘Also –‘ She sounds hesitant for the first time. ‘I’ve been hearing things from the night staff. Um…money? At their houses? Nearly everyone…’

She trails off when he looks at her. There’s an awkward pause during which they both turn their eyes to the front again. He’s not sure why he’s so embarrassed about it, and he would move right past it if it weren’t for one thing.

‘Nearly-?’

‘Well, I think there were about ten that didn’t that - - that I know about…in the interests of fairness, I took it upon myself to-‘

She cuts off again at his small nod. Again, silence, and he thanks God he has someone in charge here who doesn’t need every detail spelled out, and knows when to take over and finish what he clearly can’t.

He’s trying to find words to say that in a subtle way, when he sees a figure down at the truck. He steps forward at once, his fingers pressed to the glass, his nose almost touching.

‘Who’re the people down there?’ he says; almost demands. He can hear the surprised blink she gives in the brief silence before she answers.

‘They’re volunteers, Mr Valjean, as I said. We moved the foodbank down to the river warehouse because that’s where we put all the people who lost their homes in the riot. When the truck came in, there were fifteen or so helping out there, and they agreed to come and-‘

He’s walking away, almost jogging, and tosses a quick, ‘thank you!’ back over his shoulder at her. He does not stop to think, or analyse what to do. He walks downstairs as fast as his side will allow him to move, and the breath he heaves at the bottom tells him he’s been holding it, but he doesn’t stop until he’s out past the main floor and standing to the side of the delivery bay, letting the air flow in and freeze him to the spot as he watches Javert carrying boxes into the warehouse.

He looks well. He looks clean, and alert, and upright. He walks with purpose, and strength in his arms – and for a second, Valjean feels their phantom weight around his shoulders, the palms sliding down his back – and his face is set in concentration just like it used to be, before all this happened.

Valjean does not move. He waits until Javert has disappeared behind the weighted plastic doorway, and counts under his breath the amount of steps it will take to carry something over to the wall where the donations always live. A few seconds to put the box down, turn, and start back, and…there he is, a little early, because Valjean hadn’t taken into account the length of his legs, and the way they eat up the ground.

Not just now, though. Now they’re still as he and Javert look at each other. Even from a distance of twenty feet or so, Valjean can’t help but look into his eyes and be struck by them all over again. He would move, he thinks, except Javert isn’t smiling or looking anything other than stern, and it’s suddenly easy to remember his last words to him before Father Charles took him away, and that question he asked in the dark, when the bed still smelled of coercion and lust.

He swallows hard. His hands feel cold in his pockets, and tension fingers its way up to his shoulders. But he doesn’t move away when Javert galvanises himself, and covers the distance between them in seconds.

‘Could I please talk to you?’

Valjean is once again stuck for words. The man looks so forbidding, but his tone is low, and – for Javert – excessively polite. Humble, even.

‘Of course. Do you want to come up to the office?’

 ‘Sure. I’ve got a break in ten minutes, is that OK?’

‘…yeah. It’s fine.’

His own voice makes it seem as though nothing untoward has ever happened, friendly but neutral, like two almost-friends about to catch up after a week apart. And Javert could just come upstairs now, no one would object if he took his break ten minutes early. Valjean is reminded of what he’s like about work, and is left to stare at his retreating back as he heads back to the truck without so much as a ‘see you in a bit’. It almost makes him smile, until he starts wondering what he’s doing here and whether Father Charles knows about it, and what he might want to talk about. When he gets up to his office he paces the floor, trying not to let the bleeps from the re-routing phone get on his nerves, his fingers pressing over the permanent ache in his ribs because holding it gives the illusion of compressing the pain. Javert looks like he used to. How could that have happened in the three days since he last saw him? If it weren’t for the closed collar of his shirt that hid the worst of the bruising, you might never know he was practically catatonic less than a week ago. And it’s good, of course, if he’s getting better – well, he’s clearly getting better, he’s here and mobile, and talking like a normal person again. But Valjean doesn’t have much experience with recovery, and that it could be that fast seems odd; unnatural, and disconcerting.

He turns when there’s a knock on the door, and says, ‘come in,’ half expecting it to be Mrs Victor because ten minutes feels like an hour. But it’s Javert, tall, and neat, and unrumpled despite the manual labour. To have him here in this office is incongruous, a collision of worlds he was not expecting to have to deal with today.

‘Hi,’ he says, and Javert nods. He does not, Valjean notices, take his gaze off him for even a second.

‘I didn’t mean to disturb you. I wasn’t expecting you to be here.’

He shrugs loosely. ‘The factory closes for the holidays today. There’s work to do.’

‘Yeah, but I thought-‘

The silence becomes awkward in the space of a heartbeat. Javert blinks and his mouth closes to a line. Valjean puts his hands in his pockets.

‘You thought I wasn’t up to it. Yeah, well, here I am.’

‘Yeah.’

A beat, then Javert breaks out with, ‘it’s good, though. I was worried. Are you coming for Christmas?’

‘Yeah. I always do.’

‘Right.’

It’s weird to see Javert awkward. He’s rarely that. He’s good at making other people awkward when he doesn’t bother to fill silences, or just waits for a response to questions that no one expected to give an answer to. Even when he wasn’t well, he wasn’t embarrassed about his reticence and withdrawal; those things were just what he was, and everyone else had to deal with it.

But not today. He’s clearly ill at ease, and Valjean realises that it would manifest as anger or annoyance, only Javert is trying very hard to come across as…nice. He isn’t scowling, or looking away in any kind of impatience, and there is no surly curl to his lip. It’s not right, and it’s so unexpected that he can’t think of anything that might make it go away.

‘So, I wanted to-‘

‘...what?’

Javert looks left and right now, and Valjean’s sees his throat move up and down.

‘It made me realise what a jerk I’ve been.’

He breaks off immediately, shakes his head and stares down at the carpet.

‘A lot more than a jerk, a real asshole. Like, a real…I don’t even know what the word is. Because I already knew the answer when I asked that question. Of course I did, and I knew I knew it, and I was just being an asshole because you wouldn’t give me what I wanted. Even before I knew anything about you being in prison, it was obvious something was wrong. You had a panic attack the first time I kissed you, and I’m not as stupid as I look, I got that there was an issue and I wasn’t going to ask. You remember I didn’t-‘

‘You don’t have to justify every action. I remember. I was there. You were really good about it.’

He was too. Considerate, and patient. He hadn’t pressed for details or explanations. But Javert runs a hand over his too-short hair, and tries to find enough of it to tug on but fails. His fingernails scratch down his jaw instead.

‘Yeah, right? So why did I do it? I was – it was so wrong, and I’m just – you should have hit me, you know, I would’ve been all right with that. I deserved that. I really…’

‘There’s no need for this.’

‘There is though, isn’t there? You went away; I mean fucking hell Valjean, even I know how bad it must be for you to get rid of me, you’ve got more patience than anyone ever should, and I’ve-‘ Javert’s pacing now, his words starting to tumble out, and Valjean wants to tell him to calm down because his nerves are mounting, but there’s no way to get a word in. And Javert probably needs this.

‘Why didn’t you just hate me after I pulled that shit with the press? Why did you just put up with it, and then let me stay after I - you know what after, after the riot, and I don’t know why Father Charles thought I should be anywhere near you after that, and he did anyway, and you just let it happen.’

‘So it’s down to me? I get that, OK? I did a lot of things wrong.’

‘No. No, what are you talking about!?’

Javert’s stare pins him to the wall. But the frisson it brings – it always brings – just leaves him tired today. He’s not up to being a sounding board for the guy’s confusion, but he doesn’t know how to make him stop.

‘You didn’t do anything wrong, except to bother in the first place. I’ve been a jerk, and that’s what I wanted to come and tell you. I get it. I was wrong. I was really, really, wrong, and I’m sorry.’

He’s a little closer than he was when he first entered the room. Valjean notes this dispassionately, just as he takes in the concentrated anger Javert is directing inwards; sees it with a detached clarity that will freak him out later. It’s like a poisoned stream flowing into a mountain. You can watch the contamination go in, but you’ll never be able to get it all out again.

‘OK. You’re sorry. I’m sorry too.’

‘That’s not what…I didn’t come here for you to apologise to me, Valjean.’

‘Then why? I don’t need you to say sorry to me.’

‘What do you need?’

Valjean smiles politely, but it fades when Javert’s gaze doesn’t leave his face. He’s waiting, Valjean realises. It’s not a rhetorical question, and he doesn’t have an answer.

‘…I don’t know. Why?’

‘Because whatever it is, I’ll give it to you. Even if it’s to go away and never see you again.’

The silence gets loud. In the distance, Valjean can hear some of the delivery drivers singing along with carols that must be coming from a radio, and there are various muted clangs, and shouts from behind the machines and people moving stuff around. But in the office the silence is so thick it hums, and in the end he has to sit down and pick up a pencil just so he has something to move around in his fingers.

‘Is that what you want?’ he says, eventually. ‘For me to tell you to go away?’

‘No. I don’t want to leave. But I will, and I want you to tell me the truth.’

‘I’m not going to ask you to get out. You know that, and I don’t want it anyway.’

‘You should.’

‘Well, I don’t.’

Ironic that Javert claims to be intent on doing right by him, but doesn’t mind telling him what he should do, or want, either. It’s almost funny.

‘Javert, I’m honestly not in the mood for an interrogation. I don’t want you to go anywhere. I just want you to be OK.’

The man looks down finally. It’s a relief.

‘And I want you to be OK.’

‘Then we’ll both try and be OK. Yes?’

‘Yeah.’

Neither of them know how to do that, and they both understand it as fact.

‘Look, that’s not all I wanted to say.’

‘Then say the rest.’

Javert looks around with a hint of desperation, then makes a grab at the chair on the other side of the desk, and sits on it.

‘I want you to know that I’m sorry. And I want you to really know, really understand-‘ he leans forward in his chair, and lowers his voice, ‘I’ll never touch you again. I promise.’

Valjean blinks. He was not prepared for that. More, he was not prepared for the simultaneous wash of surprised gratitude, and intense disappointment.

‘Javert-‘

‘I mean it. Never. Unless you ask me to.’

There’s a hint of a smile there, but it’s nervous and gone as quickly as it came. Valjean stares at Javert’s face, at a loss, taking in the expression that seems to be willing him to understand, or forgive, or accept, or all three of these things.

But understanding has never been the issue, at least not these last few days. Forgiving is not hard, and of course he will accept that Javert should keep his hands to himself unless asked. Valjean licks his bottom lip, which is unaccountably dry, and slides his chair back an inch.

‘All right. I appreciate that. But you don’t need to worry so much. All I did was tell you something; you weren’t responsible for any of it happening. I don’t hold it against you. I should never have given you the…what I mean is, if I’d left clear boundaries to begin with, there wouldn’t have been the opportunity. It’s not your fault.’

Javert sits back in his seat. For a long, long moment he just looks, and Valjean endures his stare with mounting unease. In the end, Javert shakes his head.

‘You’re unbelievable. You took me in to let me sleep. You never took advantage, even though I would have let you. And now you say it’s your fault for inviting what happened?’

He stands up too suddenly. Valjean tries not to jerk back in surprise and defence, and almost makes it. Javert steps back, away from the desk.

‘It is my fault. It absolutely is. You were doing a good thing, and I abused it. I didn’t think that was in question. You disappeared and no one knew where you were and anything could have happened, you could have done anything.’

His voice thins out, then stops abruptly.

‘…so, I’m sorry. And it’ll never happen again. Ever.’

He seems to want a response. Or a dismissal; there’s an air of submission mixed with humble defiance, as if he won’t leave until ordered, like he’s a dog that’s been too well trained to run away from punishment he knows is coming. Valjean stands up too, and takes a breath.

‘Are you saying you want us to stop being friends?’

Javert cuts a glance that implies they’ve never been friends, which is probably true. But what he says is, ‘no. I don’t want to stop seeing you, even if it’s only sometimes. I’m just saying I’ll never pull any shit like I did the other night again. And if I make you uncomfortable, I want you to tell me so I can stop.’

Again with the warm swell of gratitude. Valjean can’t help a smile.

‘I don’t want to stop seeing you either.’

‘…OK then.’

‘OK.’

They share a look. He can’t tell what Javert feels, but he knows he’s got a certain level of relief going on.  They both nod, and the tension in the room shimmers to nothing.

‘I better get back to work.’

‘Yeah, about that – what are you even doing here? Since when do you volunteer for the poor?’

Javert has his hand on the doorknob, and looks back over his shoulder.

‘I’ve sat around feeling sorry for myself for long enough. This is important to you. I want you to see that I can do better.’

He doesn’t leave any time for a response. He closes the door behind him, and Valjean is left puzzled all over again, and more specifically, wondering what the hell Father Charles said to him in that conversation they had. He can’t object to Javert helping out around here no matter the reasons he’s doing it, and it’s good to see him focused again. Still, it’s new. He’ll have to keep an eye on it, and make sure it’s not overtaxing him. Javert’s not built for internal conflicts, and he’s professed a lot of anti-welfare sentiments in the past.

After a couple of minutes, he picks his phone up and texts Father Charles.

Did you know Javert’s started volunteering for us?

The screen lights up half a minute later.

Of course.

He can practically see the man’s smile as he pokes out the letters with his forefinger. He types back considerably faster.

What did you say to him anyway?

Another minute. And then,  Micah 6:8. ;)

Valjean, bemused, hits up Google search.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

He lets out a small huff of laughter, and shakes his head. If he knows Father Charles at all, he will have said a fair bit more than that. But if that’s what got through, then it’s all that matters. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen now, but he suspects Javert’s going to be OK. It’s such a relief he has to sit down again, and his phone drops from his fingers. Such a relief that he can hear the blood running through his ears, hissing like sand; such a relief that his lungs don’t want to fill with air.

He hasn’t messed up so badly it can’t be fixed. Kicking Javert out of the apartment hasn’t ruined his life. The guy has stood on his own two feet and faced it down, and he’s all right. Thank God.

 

*

 

By the time his fingers are fumbling the knot of his only black tie, the relief has gone away. In it’s place, a sense of dull trepidation, a low-key sickness that comes from having to do something he’d do anything to avoid. He gives in to a burst of frustration and yanks the tie loose to start again, takes a few deep breaths and counts slow numbers to calm himself down. The air smells of fresh wood from the next room, where the frame of the new bed has been unpacked but not yet assembled. The TV is pushing choir-sung carols down the hall at him, the rich tones of the city cathedral’s Christmas broadcast turned tinny and thin from the distance of fifty feet. He hums under his breath to distract himself, but O Come All Ye Faithful is hollow against the sensation of cold sweat on his forehead. He is all too aware of his phone, still out there on the kitchen floor where he left it days ago. The battery’s almost certainly dead, but he can feel the malevolence of the messages it must hold. It would be sensible to listen to them before he leaves the house, but once again it’s a hill too high. Better to face it fresh, uncoloured by the fury he knows is going to be levelled at him. And still he tells himself he did the right thing, and still he believes it. Justifying it will be harder, even though it’s madness that he should have to at all.

The building phone rings from the living space. He shakes his thoughts away and knots his tie as he walks to pick it up. Security informs him that his cab has arrived, so he grabs his keys and leaves the apartment before he can think any more about it. No matter how bad this is going to be, he would never dream of avoiding it.

 

*

 

He shivers in his coat. Even free of the chill of the chapel – and how was it so cold, with that many people in it; how was it so unbearably empty when they were packed in shoulder to shoulder, standing room only – even under layers of black suit and heavy overcoat, with the weight of grief a blanket for them all…how is it so cold?

Joly’s family have not stopped anyone coming to the graveside to watch the final lowering of the coffin. Perhaps they wanted to, and even now would prefer it was only his parents, a brother and sister, his friends and Bossuet, good God, Bossuet, in floods of silent tears throughout the whole ordeal. But the country’s media is here too, because Joly is not just a bright young boy that died in exceptional circumstances, this is a political football getting tossed from the police, to the governor, to the federal court, to the media and back again. As one of five that died that night, including Jehan – and that funeral will be even worse, so bad Valjean cannot bring himself to think about it at all – the newspapers and TV stations all want to be here to show the thousands of mourners, and the silent protest happening at the gates with their placards painted red as blood, and endless pictures of guns with a fat, final, line through them. End police brutality. Fix the Second Amendment. Black lives matter.

Valjean stands in a crowd of people he doesn’t know. A distance away, next to the grave, Enjolras’s face is white against a grey sky. Only grief can make him look older, and he looks a grown man now. Combeferre’s face cannot be seen, lowered as it is. Courfeyrac stares forward, no light shining from him, one half of his face a rainbow bruise. The priest’s voice rings out clear over the silent crowd, and not even the biting wind can take away the last prayer; it carries the words to every last person in the graveyard. As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

Bahorel turns his head. Their eyes catch. Valjean will not look away, and perhaps there is no call to. There is no anger on the man’s face, just a deep, blank, pain that’s somehow worse. For the first time since they met Bahorel seems without life in him, there is none of that garrulous energy that fuels him. No fury at circumstances, no desire to grab the world and shake it, and then shape it to his desires. Valjean blinks slowly, a nod without moving his head. Bahorel looks away.

It’s Joly’s mother that drops the first handful of dirt. Stoic throughout, her sob slices the air. Valjean watches her husband’s shoulders fall for the first time, and his heart twists as he takes her in his arms and pulls her face to his shoulder. Her black hair fans out and hides her face, but nothing can cover the grief in her shaking body, not even the hands of her two other children reaching for her, touching her arms to let her know that they share her pain, they will hold her up and they are still here.

Enjolras puts his hand on the back of Bossuet’s neck. It’s the most tender gesture Valjean has ever seen, and the space behind his eyes starts to ache. With his family around him, Joly’s father nods, and it’s Bossuet that drops the second, the last, handful of dirt on the coffin. Heads go down as it falls. Valjean does not look away, and does not wipe the tears burning a path down his cheeks. They sting like cuts of a knife, driving invisible scars to the bone of him. He couldn’t clean them off if he wanted to.

 

*

 

Journalists talk into cameras at the edge of the graveyard. The flat black shapes of the cameras stick out against the white of their news vans, covering the station monikers emblazoned on the side of each. Phones flash and red lights blink as the crowd records other people, themselves, the reporters, ready to plaster the scenes all over social media. Everyone files out towards the cars waiting to take the family to the wake, and transport the city officials - who’ve made a public-relations fuelled appearance to try and calm the tension in the neighbourhood - back to their offices. Valjean is aware there have been fears this funeral will kick off another round of violence. He silently agrees it seems likely, but cannot muster an emotion on it so far.

Nor can he move. He’s brushed by many hands and coats and shoulders as people walk by, and some even recognise him, and try to engage him in conversation. But he can’t take his eyes from the small cluster of people by the graveside, and he’s soon left alone. It’s so cold he feels rooted to the spot, heavy in all his limbs like he might sink into the earth and solidify here, never be able to leave. His ribs throb in time with the slow beat of his heart, and he finds himself counting with it, longer and longer beats between numbers until he’s sure he must be flatlining, life becoming one drawn-out ache from which he’ll never free himself.

And then, Enjolras turns. It’s as if he’s been waiting too, as if they all knew this moment was coming but none knew when it would be right. Now, it’s right. Valjean watches, unmoving, as they come towards him; Enjolras in the lead, flanked half a step behind by Combeferre and Courfeyrac, Bahorel holding Bossuet up with an arm around his shoulders, Feuilly with his pinched-white face almost lost under the hair falling over it, Grantaire unable to stop watching Enjolras as he brings up the rear. It occurs to Valjean at the last second that there are probably a lot of people watching this, but the thought falls away as something so unimportant should.

They stop. Valjean regards them as a whole, and they take him in in turn. It’s impossible to find any overriding sensation from them; grief masks all, but if pushed, he might be able to call Enjolras furious, and Bahorel murderous.

‘It could have had meaning.’

Enjolras’s words are clipped, colder than the ice in the air. Valjean, finally, looks down.

But only for a second. Then he raises his head, and meets the clear, blue gaze.

‘It still has meaning, Enjolras.’

There is a flash of something like agony. Those perfect lips thin to a line. In the corner of perception, Bossuet sags against Bahorel.

‘You know what I mean.’

He is freed from constraint at last. Valjean half-turns, and gestures towards the media. Cameras and faces are pointed their way.

‘They’re all talking about it. They all know you were wrongfully imprisoned. The conduct of the police is going to be investigated – externally, even, so there shouldn’t be a cover up. The end result will be the same.’

Enjolras looks like he’s struggling. Valjean knows why. The man was so ready to martyr himself, and maybe he’s right, maybe it would have more impact if they’d got as far as a trial or sentencing, and then exposed the corruption in the police. But these three have no understanding of what it would cost them. Some things are worth suffering for, yes, but Valjean knows with a certainty he feels about nothing else in life, that he could not stand by and let them do it. And it helps to know it. If faced with the same choice again, he would do nothing different.

Bossuet is walking away, not towards the exit but back towards the grave. Bahorel walks with him, then pulls him into a hug. Valjean notes it with the same dispassion he watched Javert with that morning; that, and the way Courfeyrac watches them go.

‘It wasn’t your choice to make, Valjean.’

‘It was. Simply because I found out about it. Doing nothing would also have been a choice. And it didn’t just affect you.’

Enjolras’s struggle turns dry, and angry. ‘Oh yes. Javert. We didn’t know he was a friend of yours. Where is he?’

‘Why? What do you want him for?’

‘He should answer for what he did.’

‘Answer for it how?’

He watches Enjolras twitch, something he’s never seen before. It’s clear he knows he shouldn’t say what he’s about to say, and he probably doesn’t mean it. But pain makes people crazy. Valjean knows this.

‘He should be dead. It should be him. He’s the reason Joly died.’

Valjean thinks about this. He allows half a beat to recognise the numbness within himself, as if this conversation were happening to someone else. Then he nods.

‘Yeah, he probably is. But he knows it, and that’s punishment enough. If it helps, I’ll tell you that he did almost die.’

He’s met with a wall of blank stares. He shrugs lightly.

‘And you’re not going to kill him, even if you want to. All of you are good men. We’re past the days of vigilante justice and taking the law into our own hands. But I’m still not going to tell you where he is.’

Even before he’s finished he knows his words have got through, as well they might. They’re nothing but simple truth, and all of these young men are too decent to let rage overcome justice. If Javert had been there after Joly died, maybe a gun would have been fired in anger, he can’t deny it’s possible. But too much time has passed now.

Enjolras shakes his head. ‘Why are you standing up for him? He betrayed us, and someone got killed because of it. If you’d let us see it through, no one would be able to say the police didn’t frame us. You let them off the hook. There’ll be more kids like Jehan, getting shot for being black and in the wrong place.’

‘Maybe there will.’ And he’s sorry about that, truly. ‘But there won’t be three kids in prison, having their lives destroyed a day at a time.’

And still, after all this, Enjolras doesn’t understand. His eyes are steady, measured, stoic to the end.

‘It would have been worth it.’

Valjean doesn’t move as the man walks past him. He can’t feel his fingers at his side, and his feet ache with cold. Grantaire catches his eye as he follows Enjolras, and there is undeniable gratitude in the glance. Combeferre does not look up, or speak. Courfeyrac though…he takes a step, and then hesitates, and then-

‘He’s right, you know. It would have been worth it.’

Valjean wants to say no, no it would not have been. But then he looks at Courfeyrac’s bruised face, and their eyes meet, and something dark, and solid, and awful lurches in his gut.

‘But I’m not sorry you got us out.’

There’s a weak hint of a smile, and the man’s gone. Valjean closes his eyes. Somewhere in the depths of his mind, a cell door slams and he tastes the memory of blood in his mouth.

And then, two left. And then, one, because Bossuet says something to Bahorel and he walks away without ever looking in Valjean’s direction. Maybe that’s a bill that will have to be settled later, and that’s fine, he can live with that. He’s not sure he can live with the pure agony coming off Bossuet, but he’ll have to, there’s no avoiding it. In truth, he’s not sure what they have to say to each other. Surely condolences, even as truly meant as they would be, would be in bad taste here? He can’t and won’t, deny that he will protect Javert from retribution if he has to, just as he can’t, and won’t, deny that Javert is the most obvious culprit for Joly’s death. Anyone can argue that he didn’t start the riot, that the police did all this by shooting Jehan. But Javert pointed them at the alleyway and bullets were fired, and now there’s a grave, and this man racked with grief, tall and thin and in the sort of pain only love can inflict. He expects. He wouldn’t know.

‘Bossuet. I’m-‘

He stops as a hand is held up. He waits until it falls, and then comes back up to pull over a head already mostly bald. Bossuet takes a breath and gathers himself; it’s like watching a man sucking all the energy in from around his body to hold it there for just the few minutes he needs. It’s hard to imagine how he’ll be able to stay in one piece afterwards.

‘I don’t care what Enjolras said. Or what he was going to do. None of that matters.’

His voice is rough, close to breaking. There is none of the usual dry wit and amused sarcasm. Valjean just nods once, slowly, and waits to see where this is going. Bossuet stares off into the distance for a moment, then turns to watch his friends. Valjean glances over too. They’re waiting for Bahorel to catch up to them, and when he does they all just stand there, out of earshot but watching the conversation.

‘I spoke to Javert once at one of the meetings. He didn’t say much, only that he was there because of you. I didn’t think anything of it. It was only a few days ago I remembered, and then I thought it was strange because, do you know, I don’t think you were even at that meeting.’

He peals out a strange wail of a laugh, and passes his hand over his eyes.

‘So then I thought he meant you were setting a good example. And then – bear in mind I’ve been thinking about this a lot these last couple of weeks – I realised that I’m stupid, and we’re all stupid, and also cruel in the most basic of ways. Oh, it’s not Enjolras’s fault, you must know he’s oblivious to all of it. Just look at Grantaire. He told me, you know, that you two went into that bar and talked to him and told him to watch the news. That was good of you. He listened. Thanks for that.’

Valjean doesn’t understand, but he can’t interrupt. Bossuet’s eyes range around the place and don’t seem to see any of it; they skirt over the crowds milling about, and his friends, and he seems impervious to the cold. But his gaze always draws back to the grave, the pile of rich brown earth and the sea of flowers ready to cover it, just as soon as his heart is buried forever.

‘You came and found him. He was beaten up, and we had him, and you took him away. And now you won’t say where he is and OK, maybe you’re just a good guy, but maybe it’s not just that at all.’

Bossuet steps in suddenly, and his voice drops. It’s not as if he’s letting on he knows a shameful secret, more that he doesn’t seem to have the energy to speak aloud any more. And still, his eyes turn to the grave. Two men are standing near it, smoking cigarettes. They have shovels.

‘You know what I think, Valjean?’

‘No.’

‘I think the police are corrupt and vicious, and perpetrators of state-mandated murder. I think the system is rotten, and there needs to be a full and thorough overhaul of the entire thing. I think there is not enough gun control, and cops are a law unto themselves, and that it’s wrong and needs to be changed.’

Bossuet takes a breath. Valjean does not.

‘And I think Joly is dead and nothing’s going to change that, just like him being dead doesn’t change the fact that I love him. He’s not here, but I feel the same. If they all went to prison to make a point-‘ he gestures in the direction of his friends, ‘-then I wouldn’t have any friends, and Joly would still be dead. You see what I mean?’

He does, and doesn’t, but the man requires no answer.

‘But I still have them because of you. And you still have Javert, even though he’s an asshole that doesn’t deserve to be alive, probably. The thing is…see, I think…’

Valjean has to curb the urge to pull him into a hug, just to stop him talking, just to tell him he doesn’t have to put himself through this. It’d be OK if he just didn’t talk to anyone if he didn’t want to, or didn’t think about this. But maybe he needs to. It’s impossible to say.

‘The love’s what matters, isn’t it?’

His eyes are so full of pain. Valjean could drown in their agony. He nods instead.

‘So, y’know…I just wanted to say that fuck it, it doesn’t matter if I hate him, or if any of us hate him, or even if he’s a dick, or any of that. If he’s what…I don’t even know if I’m right, you probably think I’m crazy and I don’t care if you do, or if I’m embarrassing myself here, but if I am right-‘

Valjean flinches at the sudden grab at his wrist, as fingers clench around and dig into muscle through the layers of coat, and jacket, and shirt.

‘Then don’t give it up. Enjolras would never understand, but the others would. Not that that matters, because the only thing that matters is what two people understand. I’m saying…I’m saying – Joly was good at love. He’d want there to be more of it. You know?’

Maybe he does know. At least what Bossuet’s trying to get at. It’s not the time to point out that it’s complicated, that it’s not like that – probably – or that there’s a whole lot of assumptions in this conversation. And if he did it would be a lie anyway, wouldn’t it?

‘I know,’ is what he says, and Bossuet nods.

‘It’s all that matters.’

They’re four words said softly, ending in tears. Valjean feels his heart lurch, and he closes his eyes as he draws Bossuet in, and feels him dissolve gently against his chest. It’s all that matters, at least here and now. Maybe grief shows love in its purest form, when the people are torn apart and the emotion is all that’s left, when there’s no way to show it, or touch it, or speak it to the one who’s gone. The only thing left is to feel it – but to get that purity, the rest must come first. The confusion, the mess, the words, the touch…and is it worth it, to feel this?

He thinks that Bossuet would say yes. To live it, to know it, to feel it; you have to do it. And there’s joy in having done it, no matter that it hurts in the end. Even when it hurts this much. Even then.

 

*

 

Valjean spends the next day thinking about the funeral, and Bossuet.  The words that had such immediacy being formed in, and coming out of, agony have not faded overnight, but now there’s room for other thoughts too. Yesterday it was easy to think, yes, love is everything. Today, he remembers that Javert does not love him, and he is fairly sure he does not love Javert, and even if that were different neither of them would be able to tell. And anyway, if he were to attempt a relationship with the man, he’d have to confront sex. Lying in his new bed, staring at the ceiling, it’s impossible. The thought of anyone touching him makes his stomach roll.

He gets up. He picks his phone up off the kitchen floor, and sets it down on the counter. He drinks a protein shake for breakfast, takes a shower and calls a cab. When he arrives at the college offices they’re barely open, and he has to wait for the administrator to boot her computer up before he can tell her that he’d like to take a semester off.  And while he’s here, can he get the deferral forms emailed to him to print off for a friend, just in case? And pay outstanding fees. Also, accommodation. His friend might want his room even while deferred.

It takes a while and a bit of convincing, because if you’re not studying they won’t usually let you keep your room. He explains that a doctor can provide evidence of a medical reason why the security might be important. It’s half way through the year and there’s space because others have dropped out, so it turns out to be possible. It helps that he smiles, and offers to pay everything up front. 

He walks after that, long after his ribs tell him that he needs to stop. The city is swimming in grey slush below, blanketed with untouched snow on roofs above, and the sky  droops low to promise more. He stays away from the crowds of shoppers, and puts his hands in his jacket pockets to keep out the wind. There’s a quick stop to buy a cup of soup off a roadside vendor. He sips it and thinks of how Bahorel had come to peel Bossuet off his shoulder and lead him away, and the silence of the graveyard when he’d stood in it alone, with only the distant thud of earth landing on Joly’s coffin to break the air. The love’s what matters, isn’t it? More than anger, or the memories of the past, or fear for what might happen in the future. In the here and now, love should be what matters.

 

 

On Christmas Eve, he goes to the factory and supervises the loading of toys into delivery trucks. They’ve all been packed into boxes sorted by age, and every toy comes with candy and a warm hat, and gloves. They’ll be taken to community centres and children’s homes, and the hospitals. When the last truck is getting ready to pull out, Mrs Victor comes and touches his shoulder.

‘Why don’t you go with them? See the kids get their gifts?’

He just smiles, and shakes his head. None of this comes from him. It’s usually donations; he just redistributes what other people give. OK, so this year he paid for most of it, but where did he get the money from? Off the labour of the people who work for him. He didn’t get his own hands dirty, so all this stuff really comes from them.

Mrs Victor looks resigned, and a little fond, and presses a small package into his hand.

‘Merry Christmas, Jean.’

He opens it later, at home. It contains a small St. Christopher on a plain silver chain. The note on the card makes the back of his eyes ache, and his fingers shake as he fastens the clasp at the back of his neck.

 

*

 

‘There you are! I thought you weren’t coming. C’mon, c’mon, the turkey’s about ready for basting, and if I don’t get the veg chopped right we’ll be eating parsnip chips with our meat. Ah, thanks lad, that’s grand.’

Father Charles’s face is one big grin, and he manages to divest Valjean of his coat along with the bottles of wine and brandy, the bag containing gifts, usher him in, thank him and shut the door in one long, fluid movement.

‘Go on through, we’ll be needing another pair of hands.’

‘Thanks, Father. It was a beautiful service this morning.’

‘Kind of you to say so. On your way, son. I’ll see to your things.’

Father Charles, always a whirl of energy when the situation calls for it, turns into a dervish in the face of Christmas dinner. Valjean’s witnessed it a bunch of times now, and never fails to be amused. His sister is usually here with them, and it’s the only time he’s ever heard her speak to him with anything less than patience: apparently, in Ireland, families are more likely to split over the correct preparation of gravy than anything else.

He walks into the kitchen with a smile that’s only a little forced, and says, ‘hi’ when Javert looks up and catches his eye. He gets a nod back, and that’s all. In the silence that follows, he notes that Javert is proficient at peeling potatoes, and also that the entire room is filled to the rafters with sharp implements, and ways to hurt oneself.

‘Can I help?’

‘Sure. But you might want to check with the Father what he wants doing. I tried to peel a carrot and was nearly impaled with it. Taking the skin off something we’re going to roast is a mortal sin, apparently.’

They share a smile then, and if the ice isn’t exactly broken Valjean thinks he detects a crack. For his own part, he’s filled with the peace of a beautiful church service, and the knowledge that it’s Christmas Day; there is nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do, and while problems don’t magically disappear on one day of the year, what would he do about them anyway? There’s no other distraction, and no way to fret about whether or not to avoid Javert. He just has to live through this in the moment, and try to make it peaceful.

He’s saved from thinking any further by their host arriving into the room, and thrusting an apron at him.

‘Sprouts, Jean. You know how to do them right by now. Mind your back Javert, I need to get at the oven.’

Javert dutifully shuffles to his left, which brings him close to the sprout section of the kitchen. There really isn’t enough room in here for three of them, but Valjean bites back the urge to ask if he can take the bowl into the living room. It might look like he’s trying to avoid sharing space with Javert, and the last thing he wants is to create an impression of distance.

But Javert’s arm doesn’t brush his even once. After a few moments – and while Father Charles extols the virtue of a good basting – Valjean realises it’s because Javert is making a conscious effort not to touch him even by accident. He’s filled with a swell of gratitude, but also deflates a little inside. As if an impression of distance would make a difference now. There is distance, and it’s probably not going to change.

‘Did I ever tell you two about the first year I was in charge of cooking on Christmas? I was fifteen, and my ma had to work at the last minute. Da was useless in the kitchen, completely hopeless, so I said I’d do.  Fast forward an hour, I’d burnt through the bottom of three pans and set fire to a tea towel. Ma nearly throttled me with her pinny as soon as she walked back in. Threw the whole lot out and started again! We didn’t eat ‘til nine at night.’

Valjean grins as Father Charles breaks off into a delighted chortle at the memory, and even Javert cracks another smile. And so the rest of the morning goes; a steady flow of anecdotes and laughter from the man who has as much reason to hate this time of year as either he or Javert, because Valjean knows it was December when he lost his wife and son. It could be age that brings the ability to see past yourself, and concentrate on joy; or experience, perhaps, in knowing that dwelling on misery only brings more of it. Whatever it is, Valjean thinks again the love’s what matters, isn’t it? and thanks God for letting him have this old man in his life.

They sit down to dinner in the apartment’s small dining area. Father Charles doesn’t believe in extravagant table displays, and wouldn’t have time to put one together anyway, but he does bring out his set of silver candlesticks and light them before they sit down. The table is so full of food there’s barely room to fit everything on, and Valjean knows why – the three of them will hardly make a dent in it, but there’ll be a fair few more homeless people with a good meal inside them tonight. He thinks about that while Father Charles says grace, and prays that Javert will go with the man and help give the food out, that he might see what it means to people. And then prays for forgiveness for wanting Javert to be better. Who is he to ask for such a thing? He should accept him as he is, and he does, but there’s always this doubt isn’t there? That the guy he met as a freshman will show up again, and throw charity and aid back in the faces of people. That the guy in the catatonic state on his couch will come back, and step back towards blindness and ignorance.

And then he prays for more forgiveness, because Javert has turned up to volunteer every day this week and hasn’t been anything other than punctual, courteous, and hard-working. He’d checked, and felt guilty for it. He’d done it out of concern to make sure the guy was OK, but if he’s honest with himself – and he has no energy to be anything but, at present – there was also a hint of disbelief in what Javert was doing. But the only time he’d been away was for a couple of hours two days ago, when he’d gone to therapy.

He watches him through the meal. Father Charles carries the conversational ball; they chat about the church, and some sports – the gentle row about football has been ongoing between them since Valjean was in jail, and made the mistake of referring to the game as ‘soccer’ in the man’s earshot – and there’s an endless fund of anecdotes from the man’s long life to enjoy. Valjean contributes a little, and Javert says almost nothing at all. And yet, he’s still engaged. They’re sitting opposite each other, so it’s impossible to miss. Javert could sink in his seat and just concentrate on eating, and look left out of this long and comfortable friendship; instead, he sits upright and follows the back-and-forth with his eyes, obviously listening because he smiles in all the right places, nods when he agrees with something, and there’s no hint that any of it’s faked. Valjean finds his gaze pulled back to him time and again, because it’s been a while since he’s seen any hint of the old Javert like this. And as the meal goes on, and they slow down as they get more full, he realises it’s more than that; this is not the old Javert at all. Back when they were working on that presentation together, Javert would sit and let him speak, and then respond with the views he’d already decided for himself. Just like when he’d tested him for his exam and he’d learnt the theory by heart, but hadn’t considered applying it to different situations, adapting his thoughts to fit different scenarios. Valjean idles this over as they move on to dessert, spinning a wine glass full of water with his finger and thumb on the stem. Javert appears to be thinking about what’s said, and not just waiting for the chance to rebut with his own opinions.  He appears well-functioning, and rational, and smart, and there’s only the yellowing bruise around his throat that might serve as reminder that if he is those things, they’re lessons hard-learned.

Handsome too, Valjean thinks. That’s another way he appears. He takes a drink to hide his face in case the thought shows, but even as he drains his glass he knows it’s unnecessary. The thought is not followed by a frisson of excitement or anticipation, but no emotion at all until a sharp curl of dismay makes itself known in his stomach. Is all desire gone, then? Can he now look at Javert in an entirely platonic way? Despite everything, he hopes not. He has the idea that if he’s lost the ability to feel attraction now, it may never come back again.

He hears Andy in his mind, saying give it time. And he will, because he has no choice.  He can’t force it to return, and if it has gone then at least a complication is removed. Javert will be removed too, in one sense…and how can that not be a relief, after everything?

It’s not a relief, though. He doesn’t know what it is, and is happy to let it slip away as Father Charles gets up to fetch the Christmas pudding. He shouldn’t think about any of this today, or tomorrow, or many days after that. He’ll just wait and see. In the meantime, there’s dinner and good company to enjoy, and that’s a lot more than some people have.

 

*

 

By early evening, Father Charles has slipped into a doze by the fire. The TV plays quietly in the background, where they’d been making a half-hearted attempt to watch a movie. Valjean smiles at the old man, who’s really held today together, and leans forward to take the glass of whiskey from his fingers before it falls to the carpet.

Javert, at the other end of the sofa, runs his hands down his pants legs. The quiet becomes awkward at once. Valjean tries to think of something that would ease it, but he hasn’t got the energy either. It’s warm in here, and he’s stuffed full of food. If there’s ever a time they should be most relaxed, this should be it, but they’re not.

‘I’m going to go do the dishes.’

Javert stands up. Valjean nods and drains his water, and gets up too. ‘I’ll help.’

‘You don’t have to.’

‘I know, but I’m going to.’

Perhaps Javert only offered because he wanted out of the room, but that’s no reason to saddle him with the carnage that is the kitchen. Father Charles might be a good cook, but he’s not a tidy one. They stand at the door together, and Valjean doesn’t know what Javert’s thinking, but he knows he’s in awe at the sheer scale of the mess.

‘You wash, and I’ll dry?’

‘OK.’

They both take a breath, and dive in. It’s good to have something to do, and it means they don’t have to speak while they stack dishes and box up the leftovers to be taken out later. Only when it comes down to the actual application of soap and water does it become necessary to fill the silence, because standing side by side without speaking will become uncomfortable.

‘You think he’s ever considered getting a dishwasher?’

‘No. Look around, this kitchen hasn’t been touched since the sixties. And it’s usually just him and his sister.’

Javert nods, and hands over a serving dish.

‘What’s she like?’

‘She’s…like him. Only quieter, and not as outgoing. She spends her life looking after other people, and him when he lets her.’

‘Her name?’

‘Margaret. Maggie, he calls her.’

Small talk dries up. Under the harsh light of the bare lightbulb, he can see that Javert’s tired. There are shadows under his eyes, and he reflects that not only has he been working too much, today must have been a strain on him.

‘What do you normally do for Christmas?’

‘Nothing. Study.’

‘On your own?’

‘Yeah.’

Maybe that was a question he didn’t need to ask. He knew that. He sets the dish down in its cupboard, and starts drying the cutlery.

‘Have you had nice holidays before, though? I mean…foster homes must have had other kids in them, so was it-?’

He cuts off because Javert’s face is setting hard, and swears at himself. He’d only asked because he’s been wondering about the guy’s history quite a lot, recently. It came to him yesterday that he knows the broad strokes of it, but very few details.

‘I didn’t get on well with other kids.’

‘But even wh-‘

‘I don’t really want to talk about this, Valjean.’

Even chastised, he can’t help a flash of triumph. That note of annoyance, of self-defence, that’s pure old-school Javert, unwilling to take any shit he doesn’t have time for. After the last few weeks, it’s good to see.

‘Sorry. You’re right, it’s none of my business.’

‘I didn’t say that. I just said I didn’t want to talk about it.’

‘Fair enough.’

Again, silence. He thinks of Joly’s funeral, and Bossuet.

‘I went up to the college a couple of days ago. I’m skipping next semester.’

Javert’s hands still.

‘Why?’

‘I’m not up to it. I don’t want to throw away the whole four years by flunking now. Better to take a break and finish strong.’

He starts placing forks neatly in their drawer, one by one. Javert stands without moving, his hands sunk into soapy water.

‘You’ll still complete, though? You’re not going to quit?’

‘No, I’m not going to quit.’

He hopes not, anyway. At this point in time, it’s tempting. Javert pushes himself back into action and scrubs furiously at one point on a single plate. Valjean almost tells him to stop, but what good would that do? He pulls himself up to sit on the counter instead, and dries knives with slow and thorough strokes, watching Javert’s face the whole time. The scrubbing halts after a while, and the kid straightens his shoulders, drops his head back and lets out a breath towards the ceiling.

‘What is it?’ Valjean says, in as gentle a tone as he can manage.

‘You wouldn’t have to if it weren’t for me.’

He shrugs one shoulder, easy and smooth. ‘True. But I don’t blame you for anything. I c-‘

‘You should blame me.’

‘Why? You’re about to do it for both of us, I think.’

He puts a knife down next to him.

‘It doesn’t matter when I finish, Javert. I’m not trying to get a degree to get a career. I already have a job. It doesn’t matter a bit.’

‘It does.’

‘No. And it concerns me, so I get final say. Beating yourself up won’t change a thing.’

Javert looks back at the water. Valjean watches him. After a moment, he rinses the plate off and puts it on the rack. It doesn’t look like he’s about to say any more, so Valjean asks, ‘have you thought about what you’re going to do? You could defer as well.’

‘I haven’t thought. I doubt they’ll let me.’

‘Decide for yourself what’s best, then worry about that.’

‘My scholarship might not let me skip a semester.’

‘And if it doesn’t, there’ll be a way around it. Put yourself first for once. There’s no point going right back to college if you’re not up to it, just like it might be a good thing and give you something to focus on. Only you can decide.’

‘You’re not going to tell me what you think’s best?’

‘No.’

He looks like he wants him to. Valjean has no such intention. Javert needs to put some thought into what he does, and what he wants, and why he wants it. There’s a small twist of guilt at once more trying to manipulate him into being better, but only a small one.

They work in silence for a few minutes. Valjean wonders vaguely what Javert’s thinking, but can’t force himself to try and figure it out. It’s not the same detachment as a few days ago, when he felt he could stretch out a hand and grab the world around him, crumple it in his fingers as though it were a bad painting. Everything was stage scenery. Today, he feels it exists and he’s a part of it, but he’s still only resting on the surface of reality.

‘I was thinking about what I said to you the other day in the office.’

Valjean raises his eyebrows, but Javert doesn’t turn his head to see it, so he says, ‘oh?’

‘I think I wasn’t clear on something.’

‘OK.’

‘I said I’d never touch you again, unless you asked me to. I just wanted to…in case it weren’t obvious, you know – that I do still want to. That hasn’t changed.’

‘…right.’

Even sitting, even with softened words – though he might as well just have said ‘fuck me’ all over again – Valjean is left unsettled. He concentrates on the wet tea towel in his fingers, and the way the heat of the water is already turning cold, and the material limp.

‘But I’m not going to try anything, ever. It’s up to you.’

‘You said.’

‘I wanted to be clear.’

It is, in a way, a neat way of conferring all responsibility onto his shoulders. But he can’t feel annoyed about that, only grateful. It’s obvious that Javert’s put some thought into it, and it’s a decision made for all the right reasons. He might wish it hadn’t taken what it had to get him to that realisation, but he’s there now and that’s the important thing.

‘What will you do if I don’t ask you to touch me?’

Javert shrugs, staring into the water as he rinses a pan.

‘Wait longer.’

Wait forever, maybe. So if he never comes around to the idea, he’s consigning Javert to permanent isolation? But that can’t be true, because the guy has to meet someone else eventually, and it won’t be so hard to give up the vigil then. He tells himself he can’t obsess about stuff that might or might not happen a year or three in the future, and lets it go. It’s Christmas. He can just leave it alone until after.

Except he can’t. Minutes pass, and he sighs and lowers himself gingerly back to the floor. Sitting too long makes his ribs hurt beyond bearing.

‘Do you get why I couldn’t give you what you wanted the other night, Javert?’

It takes a while, but Javert’s head turns eventually. Locked in his gaze, Valjean watches him shake his head.

‘Right. So this is what I’ll say – I won’t touch you until you’re clear on that. And I’m not going to tell you the answer.’

Javert’s expression doesn’t change, but the air is full of his disappointment. Resignation, maybe. Valjean feels like he’s let him down all over again, and tries a smile to soften it.

‘You’re a smart guy. You’ll figure it out pretty quick.’

‘I’m not that smart. I’ve fucked everything up.’

‘No. I did, when I didn’t tell you the truth. And all the other stuff, none of that’s you. That all happened way before.’

Talking about it weakens his calm. He looks at the floor.

‘You shouldn’t have to deal with it. It really would be better if you just found someone else. You’d be happier.’

There’s a snort, and it’s pure scorn. For the first time since they came in here, Javert doesn’t sound hesitant.

‘What a bunch of shit. What’s happy got to do with anything? I didn’t choose to get interested in you in the first place, Valjean. Do you think I wanted to? I didn’t even know I was queer. It happened on its own, and I can’t just decide to make it un-happen. I’ve tried, you remember?’

Yeah. Well. Maybe that didn’t go so well.

‘You know why I won’t just look for someone else? – which by the way, I did also try a couple of times.’

He wants to ask about that, but just shakes his head instead. Javert’s angry, and beautiful.

‘Because everyone leaves, Valjean. Everyone just disappears when I get to be too much trouble. Except-‘ he points at the door with the sponge still in his hand, dripping water onto the tiles, ‘him. And you. And he has to put up with me, he’s a priest, it’s his job. But you don’t. Do you think I don’t get how bad you must have felt to give in and kick me out? And you’re still here, and talking about us being friends or whatever, and you know what? I really do think I fucking hate you.’

Valjean opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. Javert glares, and then whirls back to the sink and starts scrubbing at the roasting pan. The tendons in his forearms stand out like bunched wire from the elbow to his wrist, and then along the back of his hand into long and clever fingers, clutching the tin so hard they’ve turned white. 

Valjean can’t help himself. He reaches out and puts his hand on Javert’s bicep, closing gently around the sinew of him, wrapped in soft white cotton. Javert turns to stone and Valjean steps in, chest to shoulder, so close he can see the jumping pulse in his neck.

‘…thought you weren’t going to touch me.’

He lets his hand slip away, but doesn’t step back.

‘We’re not friends.’

‘I know.’

‘Hate me if you want. But you’ll never be too much trouble.’

He doesn’t know much right now, and he’s never had a relationship, and he has no idea what they’re doing. But he can no more let Javert go than he can forget all the things that shaped his life, and brought them to where they are today. Maybe that’s the way to deal with them. The thought comes to him in a gentle flash, a match-flare of an idea that could go out if you breathe wrong in its direction. Maybe it’s the key. Instead of fighting his mind over why he went through all that pain, and how to forget it, just remember that without it he might not be any good at all. He might not care about helping others. He might not be standing in this kitchen with Javert, a man he probably doesn’t love, but certainly doesn’t hate. 

‘Valjean-‘

He steps back. Javert’s face looks ready to crumple. Valjean smiles, and it’s no effort this time.

‘Come on, let’s get this finished. There’s a movie the Father always make me watch with him tonight. I think you’ll appreciate it.’

They work in silence then. There isn’t much more to do, and there’s nothing left to say. Time is the only thing that’s going to work all this out, and forcing it will do more harm than good. Valjean thinks of how this started; an unexpected kiss followed by a long, long silence. He can’t imagine how it’ll end. But maybe they’re just at the intermission, a break to gather themselves before pushing on through. Maybe they’ll never start again. The way he feels right now, it’s possible.

Javert places the last pan, puts the sponge down and pulls the plug. Valjean hands him the tea towel to dry his hands.

‘What’s the movie?’

Valjean thinks of Joly’s funeral, and Bossuet.

Or maybe they’ll never end.

He smiles, and hangs the towel on the oven door to dry.

It’s a Wonderful Life.’

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

‘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.