There is no flash of lightning. The moon does not suddenly turn red like blood. Neither do all windows shatter, nor all dogs start to howl, nor the earth shudder beneath their feet.
But something has happened, and he knows it. A shift has occurred, and the awareness is within him like the distant tolling of bells, the faint scent of gunpowder.
He could call it a premonition of the death to come, for he knows that this barricade cannot hold. He could call it a subconscious awareness of how his fate has turned for what he assumes is the last and final time when the leader of the students delivers the spy – Javert – into his hands, for what can he do but free the man, and what can Javert do but flee and come to find him once this is all over? No, in that moment he knows what has happened at last. Something has irrevocably shifted. The shadow he has run from all of his life has finally covered the sun. No longer will he walk in the light. All too soon he will return to the galleys – but until then, there is still a task to be done.
“Come,” he says, and grips the coarse rope that binds the man like a beast. Javert follows without protest, and maybe that should be the first hint that something is not completely right. And yet Valjean knows the martingale, and he knows the pain Javert experiences, and he is sorry that he has to be rough although he does not want to give his intentions away as long as they can still be seen. There is a small part of him that still remembers Toulon, but even that part does not feel pleasure at the thought of causing this man pain. It is little more than a strange sense of confusion to see their positions reversed at last. It feels familiar, and yet wrong, like the dreams of faceless women that would sometimes haunt his sleep when he was young. He wonders if at one time he dreamed of this on his plank in the cold cell, and he looks at his hand gripping the martingale, the hemp coarse against his calloused skin, and feels relieved at how there is nothing but regret and impatience.
Javert is breathing heavily when they stop. His head is bowed, his shoulders slumped. There is defiance in him yet, and to see him taunt death with his words is almost enough to make Valjean enjoy this moment of power. He wonders if Javert would still be so eager to invite death after nineteen years in Toulon, nineteen years in chains. What does a man like him know of revenge?
“You are free,” Valjean says after he cuts the rope that binds the man. Javert does not move. His lips part, and he gapes, still eager to reject mercy, and suddenly Valjean feels weary, too weary almost to do what he has come to do.
"Have a care." There is something of the tiger in Javert's snarl, and that, at least, is something that is familiar too. It is a promise of the hunt to come, and for a moment, the rest that might be found at the end of it almost appears peaceful.
“Go,” Valjean says, and a shudder runs through Javert, his lips parting for an retort, but he takes a step back, and then another, and then turns with another snarl of despair, as if forced by a power he cannot resist. Valjean is relieved to see him go without protest, although there is something unsettling in the way he walks, muscles tense and the motion jerky like a man forced to leave at gunpoint, rather than freed and saved from certain death.
After a few steps, he turns, his face pale and his jaw clenched. "You annoy me. Kill me, rather." He hurls the words like a gauntlet. His body trembles, legs jerking as if they want to carry him away as Valjean had commanded.
When Valjean studies the man once more, taking in the pallor of his face and the sheen of sweat, he realizes that Javert has ceased to address him as "thou." For a moment he wonders if he was wounded when the students took him prisoner – but there is no sign of blood. “What is it?” he asks curtly. He is armed, Javert is not. He will not let the man end this here; neither will he be talked into harming him. There will be enough death to come. If Javert insists, there is enough rope left to bind him to a post out of the way. “What do you want?” He is losing his patience now.
“For you to tie me again.”
Valjean stares for a long moment. Javert looks shell-shocked. He opens his mouth, then presses his lips together, first flushing with unhealthy colour, then deathly pale again.
They speak at the same time, and Javert turns his face away, swallows rapidly. He turns to leave, takes a first step, and at Valjean's “Wait!” he stops, frozen, as if an unseen force had grasped him.
Valjean pales as slowly, the pieces fall together in his mind. “Come here,” he says, and watches as Javert returns like a well-trained dog, eyes wide with disbelief and insetting panic. It is almost enough to make him feel compassion, but still, this is ludicrous, this cannot be happening, this is not–
“Why do you want me to tie you again?”
And now the man will snarl again and spit into his face and tell him to take out his knife and stab him like the convict he is, and–
“It felt good, to be at your mercy.” Shock paints Javert's face white at the words that leave his mouth. There is rage in his eyes, and Valjean feels sick, as if the earth had just twisted beneath his feet and changed its course.
"What have you done to me?" Javert asks slowly, and Valjean hears his voice tremble. Javert reaches out, and Valjean takes a step back. All he can think of is how wrong this is, and then he tells Javert to stop, and the sickness in him rises to an even higher level at how the man obeys immediately. Maybe once upon a time, this would have been enjoyable, he thinks numbly. Now all he can see is the disbelief and the sharp pain of humiliation in the eyes of a man who once, even at his lowest, when he came to ask for his dismissal, had been filled with a quiet dignity. Valjean knows that this time, it is his doing, and for a moment he wants to close his eyes and run, abandon the man and abandon Cosette's student at the realisation that unlike the martingale, this is not a bond he can cut with any knife.
"Release me," Javert says with breathless horror, eyes intent on his face, and he realises that this is as close to begging as the other man has ever come, who but a moment ago was calm and dignified in the face of his own death.
He shakes his head with speechless dismay. He cannot find words for this. To give words to this... thing is to acknowledge it is reality, when even now, even after the stories of strange moons and signs drawn with blood on doors and the return of whispered horrors out of fairy tales that fill the journals and drawing-rooms it is still easier to believe them thoughts fuelled by absinthe, or the words of poets driven mad by love or loss.
He swallows painfully. “Javert,” he says, then falters at the sound of approaching steps. When he turns, he sees that it is the leader of this revolt, all marble and calm mercilessness, and, a few steps behind, a stumbling student that bears a wine bottle for his weapon.
"Is this how you deal with the spy?" Enjolras asks, and his eyes rest on Javert with implacable coldness. Valjean has seen that look before. It is the look of the judge who has sentenced a man to death, and from that moment on can no longer see that man as one of the living.
Valjean raises a hand. "Javert, be silent!" The order comes quickly, instinctive, and he flinches when he realises that already, he takes this for granted. He does not dare to turn and look, but he imagines the look on Javert's face. Shame and apologies are heavy on his tongue, but he swallows them resolutely in the face of the young man, this angel of judgement who shines like a blade.
He takes a deep breath. Enjolras is watching him. He has a weapon, and suddenly Valjean fears what this judge might do if the executioner fails to do his duty.
"Kneel." His voice is soft, but sharp. There is much of Madeleine in it, but he knows that this is not why Javert falls to his knees, and that thought comes with a surprising hint of sadness. He does not look down. He is too afraid what it might reveal about him. Instead, he keeps his eyes on Enjolras' face.
"You see. I cannot possibly do it now. It would not be right."
The drunk student suddenly starts laughing as understanding comes to him. "You killed that man, remember. They say there is power in blood, now, that everything is changed." He comes closer, gestures towards Javert with his wine bottle, Javert who is still kneeling, and still Valjean cannot make himself look, because to look is to acknowledge a reality that cannot be. “You gave the spy to him.”
There is a soft sound. From any other man it would have been anguish. Valjean cannot bear to think about what it might be from Javert, but his voice his soft and tense when he speaks at last, as if he forces out the words from behind clenched teeth. The plea, Valjean corrects himself, for that is what it is. It is cruel not to acknowledge that, for that is all Javert is capable of, with everything else taken from him. Reduced to pleading. "Kill me. Kill me now. End this here. I will be grateful, Monsieur. And you will have peace."
Valjean pales once more at the respectful address, even after this, wonders if this is as low as this man can fall. It is strangely painful. He had wanted freedom from this man's shadow, but never his humiliation. Never... this.
He takes a deep breath, then faces Enjolras. "You gave this man to me. His life is in my hands, and there it will remain."
"The people have decided the spy's fate," Enjolras says, and Valjean shakes his head impatiently.
"He is not a spy anymore. You know it as well as I." He hesitates a long moment, then, "Javert. Answer our questions." What is one more sin to ask forgiveness for when it saves a life? He meets Enjolras' eyes again. "Ask him what you will, then I will take him from here. You say you fight for freedom? That man is not free, and I will not see him die like this."
The drunk student is faster once more, and maybe Valjean should have anticipated this. It is hard, he finds, to make himself remember that every word counts. That meaning now may decide over life and death.
"Questions? Is this the right time for games? For amusement?" He laughs and turns his bottle over; it is empty. Drops of wine splash onto the stone like the first drops of the blood that will soon be spilled. Valjean feels a coldness in his bones, wonders if this is a premonition, wonders if there is power in this, too. "I think it is. For your treachery, spy, tell us your most shameful secret."
Javert, still on his knees, straightens with a sudden tension, jaw clenched tightly. Valjean realises too late what he has done, and when he opens his mouth, horrified, ready to take back the order, to undo anything he might have said, Javert is speaking, unmoving on his knees like a loyal watch dog while he shudders at the words that are dragged from him.
Valjean shudders to hear them, too.
After Javert has finished, they stare at each other. Javert is silent, though his breathing is laboured. He does not beg for death again, and Valjean almost wishes he would.
"Enough," Valjean forces out at last, his cheeks flushed. "Enough. What you did to him is punishment enough, certainly. You must see that he is no danger to you, like this." Enjolras looks at him, and Valjean cannot bear it, not with Javert on his knees at his feet. He thinks suddenly that he should order the man to stand, but he cannot bring himself to address him. "Enough. You will go back, and he will leave."
They are left alone at last, and he does not allow himself to wonder if Enjolras left because of Javert's words. Does that student think him depraved enough to take advantage of one who is–
Valjean punishes the thought away, shuddering once more at the disgust that makes his skin crawl at the same time as another flush heats his face. No. Not now, not here. Never. And there is no time for this.
He forces calmness into his voice when he turns and addresses Javert, pretending not to see the bowed head, the shaking shoulders, the strands of hair escaping the orderly queue. He has seen such men before. Javert looks like he might choose to hide from his secrets in the dark waters of the cold Seine, and despite everything, that thought fills Valjean with even greater unrest.
"Stand," he says (and Javert obeys immediately, good God, not the slightest hesitancy, what else would he do, what else could I ask with him like this, what would he not do–), and then he turns to take his shoulders, forces Javert to meet his eyes, wonders if he looks as shaken and lost as this man. His man, he thinks with something bordering on hysterics. This man belongs to you.
"Go. Keep yourself safe. Wait for me – Rue de l'Homme Armé Number 7."
Javert nods jerkily, but does not speak. His eyes are dark like the water of the Seine, and Valjean shudders again. "Make certain that you come to no harm. Stay away from all conflict until I return. I will come, do you understand me?"
There is no hate in Javert's voice, just a weary despair, as if all meaning is lost with the secret that had been wrung from him. "As you say, Monsieur."
What else is there to say? Valjean does not know what he will say to him when he returns. Can he order him to be free? He does not dare to now, not when there will be so much death soon, not when there is still another life he hopes to save.
He stops once when he reaches the stones that have been painted red by spilled wine. For a moment, he sees the streets run red with blood. He shudders, then wonders if the student leader's death will break the curse. He is weary. Maybe God will demand his own life in exchange for Cosette's boy, and then Javert will be free. That thought, too, does not please him. He does not think Javert has ever been free. He does not think he knows how to be.