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Tall Shadow Chasing After Me

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Madeleine knows what mistakes he has made. He knows there is blood on his hands from faces he cannot remember, innocent blood. He knows that the only true absolution for his sins lies with God—man could never, and would never, forgive him. Among the mistakes he knows he has made, there are those things that lie in a gray tenuous place, which he prays forgiveness for but cannot wholly regret or mourn. When one of those tenuous half-mistakes makes his appearance at Montreuil sur Mer as Inspector, Madeleine supposes that it is a test from God.

Life has been unnaturally easy, lately.

He maintains a safe distance from Inspector Javert, and if his dreams are troubled, they are only dreams. His body, which has been dormant for many years, stirs again in Javert's presence, but he has mastered the art of a neutral presentation. It is fine. All is well. Madeleine almost begins to believe this, and he matches Javert's stiff respect with fluid cordiality. He accepts Javert's suspicions with grace, though it is admittedly much easier to behave gracefully when the man does not have the temerity to voice said suspicions.

If Madeleine ever knew love, he has long forgotten it—but he cannot forget Toulon.

*

It started with a cane. Or, no, perhaps the true start was before that, when Valjean discovered that the new adjutant-guard did not object to being stared at and instead found it an excellent excuse to exercise his willpower against the convicts. He was young, very young, though Valjean never discovered his exact age, having never cared to ask; he had the eager step and quick reflexes of a young man and the stern speech of an old one, and though he did not spare any man punishment when it had been earned, he also did not attack convicts at whim. When the wind blew in rough, his face flushed and he resembled an overgrown boy with a roughened veteran's soul—cheeks red, lips full, and a steely expression that could not be bribed or teased or frightened away.

Valjean did not care much about him—any guard was an enemy to him, a mere tool of the state that had wronged him—until he discovered, to his great surprise, that Javert was in the habit of staring every convict down but Valjean. Oh, he tried, certainly, but if Valjean met and held his gaze, Javert would inevitably break away first. Javert took up the inelegant art of excusing himself, finding some convict to correct or some order to snap or remembering some meaningless thing to say to one of his fellow guards—in this way, he tried to hide what Valjean knew, which was that he was, inexplicably, cowed by Valjean. Yet he did not stop watching Valjean. Why? What moved him to constantly attempt to meet the challenge of Valjean, and more importantly, what caused him to fail when he could challenge every green-capped prisoner in Toulon and never quiver?

Valjean would not know the answer for many months. The answer came by dint of the cane.

"Do you know why you are being punished?"

There were two rooms in Toulon reserved for punishment—one with a rack, and one with a table, two chairs, and a display of canes and whips. The table was adorned with metal rings so a convict could be secured to it, and Valjean was currently spread there, with Javert standing within his line of sight. He held the cane in both hands, turning it in a way that might be methodical. Most punishments in Toulon were quick, public affairs or prolonged ones, depending on the severity—but Valjean had landed himself in the unfortunate middle area, where his offense was too large for a quick slap of the cudgel and too small to make a messy example of him in public.

"Theft."

Javert rolled his eyes. "24601, you are being punished for plotting an escape, as evidenced by this." He reached into a pocket and extracted a ragged piece of paper. Valjean knew what was on it, but Javert still tucked the cane under his arm, unfolded the paper, and held it within his line of sight. There was a hand-drawn map of the prison on one side, and on the other, several scrawled notes about guards' habits. "On one hand, I feel that we should congratulate you for showing us our weak spots. On the other, this is clearly something deserving of punishment." He paused, as if expecting a reply, but Valjean did not speak. "So. You are to suffer five strokes. Do you understand why?"

Valjean stared at him sullenly and did not reply. Javert waited, waited, and then—there, his eyes flickered down, under the pretense of refolding the map and tucking it back into his coat. He took the cane in hand and laid it across Valjean's face, gently, almost a caress.

"I asked you if you understood, 24601."

"Yes, sir."

"Good." Javert walked around the table, out of sight, his boots clicking against the stone floor. "Let's make this quick." With no further preamble, he brought the cane down on Valjean, a quick snap that made pain lance through him. Valjean's body jerked with it and he groaned. Up until now he had known Javert's cudgel, but not his cane—some guards were brutal with it and some had a lighter hand. Javert wielded it expertly, so the pain was intense but not overwhelming at the first strike. Valjean clenched his fists and braced himself for the next blow. It came after a short pause, the pain like lightning, and he did not have time for the pain to ebb before the third strike came down on his thighs. Valjean cried out and instinctively tried to jerk away; his chains rattled; he could not move. He had begun to pant without realizing it. His breath was loud and laced with moans of pain as he waited tremulously for the next cut.

The fourth stroke came down, and he gritted his teeth against it. Sweat broke out on his face and neck, and his body was hot from pain, shivering slightly. Just one more. But no final blow came; the anticipation and instinctive fear in him mixed with a slow-burning anger. The roaring noise in his ears began to fade as the pain in his buttocks and thighs ebbed into a deep ache, and still he waited.

He was not the only one panting.

Surely that wasn't true; surely his own breaths were echoing in his ears. He swallowed and held his breath for a moment, forcing his body into silence—but no, he could still hear the ragged breaths in the air, and they were coming from behind him. They were coming from Javert. For several seconds, neither man moved.

Then: "How many was that?"

If Valjean did not know that they were the only men in the room, he would have never believed it was Javert; his voice was breathless and shaky, too high-pitched. How could he have possibly lost count? "Five," Valjean lied, before he could consider the possible repercussions.

"Our friars have taught you well," Javert said. He cleared his throat and paced away. Valjean remained perfectly still. "So—" He cleared his throat again. "So, 24601, have you learned your lesson?"

Valjean nodded.

"Then that will be all." Javert dropped the cane back onto its shelf and paced back to Valjean; he fumbled with the chains. When he was forced to return to Valjean's line of sight, it was clear that his face was flushed, and his eyes were dark. Valjean recoiled when his fingers brushed at his wrist, but he was not anxious, anymore. His disgust and anger were cleansing; he was comforted to finally know the manner of his power over Javert. It seemed such a ludicrous thing, too human to be part of Javert.

As Javert hauled him to his feet, Valjean let out a quiet groan, watching Javert's face as he did. The flush crept down his neck, and Javert released him as if he were a hot poker. Valjean staggered forward, slumping against Javert—and before he could push him off, Valjean gripped between his legs, and found a hardness there, and for a moment neither of them moved.

Then, Javert's erection twitched against his hand, and his mouth opened, and he was undone. Valjean drank in his vulnerability as if it were a sweet nectar. For the first time since he had seen Javert, the man looked afraid; in the panting seconds after, he gazed at Valjean with the wide-eyed fear of trapped game.

Valjean removed his hand. Javert's face closed, and the fear was replaced with a guarded wariness. The smell of sweat was strong between them, and Valjean still throbbed with pain. Javert moved as if to speak, stopped, lifted his hand as if to touch Valjean's shoulder, then took a long step back.

"You'll return to the trenches," he said, and his voice did not quaver.

Valjean inclined his head. "Yes, sir." He quit the room; Javert did not accompany him.

For many nights afterward, Valjean contemplated the pain with ambivalence and watched Javert submit to his presence. When he approached Javert two weeks later and pressed him into a corner, he did not shy away.

It was in this way that he sought recompense from the men who governed his life.

*

Javert, for his part, is nearly unchanged since Toulon. He has finally grown into the age of his soul, and he cuts an intimidating figure in his billowing greatcoat and hat, but his scowl is the same as it ever was. Madeleine is sure that Javert is making inquiries behind his back, but that is hardly a crime, and he has been careful enough that he does not think anything substantial will come of it. Between their chaste, formal interactions and the time that has changed them both, Madeleine tries to remain confident that both his good fortune and Javert's doubts will keep the law at bay for many years.

Then, Fauchelevent's cart breaks—and Madeleine cannot let the man die, not when he knows he has borne heavier loads than this as a younger man. Resigned to his fate, he saves the man. He spends the day shaking in spells and in a strange, half-conscious state that is too elevated to be suffering and too human to be a trance; when he retires to his bed, he lies awake for hours with a single candle flickering on his bedside table. A part of him believes that his door will burst open at any moment and Javert will thunder in with all of God's fury. When a cat yowls outside his window, he startles so badly that the candle is nearly knocked off the table. At some point between midnight and dawn, he sleeps, and it is enough that he wakes calm and self-possessed once more.

Let judgment come.

A week passes, and twice Javert gives a report in Madeleine's office without showing any sign that anything is amiss. Another week passes, and Madeleine's fears simmer in the back of his mind, becoming less potent as time goes on. Perhaps, he thinks, nothing will come of the incident. Surely Javert does not think 24601 was the strongest man on Earth; perhaps he has decided that there are at least two men strong enough to stand in as jacks in France, and that it was just circumstance which brought him to both of them. Perhaps.

In the third week after the incident, Javert is once again in Madeleine's office, straight-backed and composed as he delivers his report. When he is finished, Madeleine thanks him and dismisses him.

Javert does not move. "Monsieur," he says, bowing his head, "if I may speak candidly, please."

Madeleine's heart skips a beat, but his face remains perfectly composed. He nods and gestures. "Of course."

"It is only about the incident several weeks ago, regarding M. Fauchelevent." Javert straightens his back and begins to address the wall above Madeleine's head; the hand on his cane tightens. "At the time I did not say anything, and since then I have kept quiet, but as time passes I find it more difficult to remain so. Monsieur, forgive me; I said at the time that only a man I knew from a bagne could replace a jack. I see now that the world is remarkable, and that is not so." His gaze slides down from the wall and meets Madeleine; it is cold, so that Madeleine would shudder if he were not keeping such a close hold on his reactions. "The strength that made that man terrible makes you admirable, Monsieur le Maire. I hesitate to say it—but I also will not lie to you, Monsieur, and so I must admit that I have thought about it quite often."

Madeleine's mouth has gone dry.

Javert plows on, saving Madeleine from the Herculean task of deciding on a reply. "I am pleased to be in your service, Monsieur, and I hope to witness your strength again." He pauses, scrutinizing Madeleine. When he next speaks, the words are slower, as if he's turned each over in his mind before turning them over on his tongue. "If I can be of service to you in any capacity, Monsieur, do not hesitate to call on me."

Madeleine nods, at a loss for words. "Thank you," he says.

"Do not thank me," Javert says, "until I have properly serviced you." He pauses. "That is all, Monsieur."

"I—" Madeleine clears his throat. "I will keep that in mind, Javert. Thank you. You may return to your post."

Javert bows once more, turns, and exits the room with long, sure strides. He cannot believe that just happened—Javert cannot be serious. Madeleine has had many people in Montreuil sur Mer approach him with coy propositions, and he knows that his generosity lends people to assume he will be generous in that aspect as well, but he's never had someone be so—blatant about it. And for Javert to do it is inexplicable, but—

—it's because he knows. Of course. He knows he is Valjean and means to prove it by being intimate with him, means to scour any remaining doubts from his mind by finding familiar scars and using the tactile truth of them against Madeleine.

It should not matter. It should be meaningless, a one-man joke, perhaps a shiver of fear.

It is not. Madeleine is half-hard, and something strange is stirring in his stomach, and he wants, very much, to follow Javert onto the street and then to somewhere secret, where he can take him by the hair and paint fresh bruises on him.

He doubted for many years that his time with Javert was a mistake—but as he palms himself through his trousers and shudders with desire, he knows without question that it was.