They had tied him to the table, and at first Javert had been grateful. After spending the night tied to the post, the muscles of his back and his calves were tight knots of pain. It was good to lie down. And what he had feared the most had not come to pass so far. Valjean had not returned to the tap-room. Valjean was outside, with a gun in his hand. Maybe he would be shot. Or maybe he would return to watch Javert's demise at last. It did not matter, in the end.
The wood Javert rested on was hard, but he did not mind. What discomfort there was came from the position he was forced into. The martingale held him securely bound. He had tested the knots a few times by moving under the pretence of shifting into a more comfortable position, but the rope did not give, and every attempt to struggle threatened to cut off his air, or chafed painfully between his legs.
He forced himself to breathe slowly and deeply after his first and only attempt to find freedom from the ligatures that bound him. There was no escape to be found here, and that was as he had expected. Still, his conscience was eased by the knowledge that he had tried to gain his freedom even at the cost of the pain of his tightened bonds.
As his breathing returned to a less laboured rate, he turned his head to look at the corpse laid out on the other table, shrouded beneath black cloth. The commander of these insurgents had been right. This was the hall of the dead. Soon he, Javert, would join this man, and that, too, was no surprise, for he had been aware of that possibility even before he had infiltrated this small rebellion.
Now, though, with the coarse rope tight around his throat and his wrists, pulled so taut that with every move, it chafed painfully against sensitive flesh, he felt reduced to little more than a beast waiting for the butcher. Let them shoot him sooner rather than later then, he thought, his head falling back onto the table once more, biting back a groan at the bite of the rope between his legs. He would die as he had lived, and soon enough, these hours of discomfort would no longer matter.
There was a sound at last, somewhere above him. He looked up with sudden fear until the pull of the noose was no longer bearable. A long silence followed, and only when he relaxed against the table once more with the dignified surrender of the man who does not fear death because he has no reason to fear anything, someone slowly made his way down the stairs.
Javert raised his head with difficulty, taking the bite of the rope as the price to pay for the sight of a dishevelled insurgent in a wine-stained waistcoat who was eyeing him with a bemused smile.
"Are you a corpse?" he asked, and Javert bared his teeth in the terrible smile of the trapped tiger.
"I am," he said in a low voice, for there Enjolras had spoken true, too. This was the hall of the dead, and he felt no fear knowing the fate he faced.
The man looked at him in confusion, but nevertheless came closer. Javert realized that he held a bottle in his hand, and gave off the stench of strong spirits. "How strange for a corpse to address me!" His face was lit by a certain guileless charm, as if there was truly nothing remarkable about conversing with a corpse on the morning of his own death. "I am Grantaire. What is your name, Monsieur corpse?"
"I am Javert," he said, and smiled with haughty satisfaction into the insurgent's gently confused face. "I am of the police. You see how it is. So I am a corpse, although I may yet breathe and speak. The bullet that is needed to render me so is still otherwise needed, yet your leader assured me that I will be shot before all of you fall. Which makes him a corpse as well... and you, Monsieur."
Grantaire was silent for a moment after Javert delivered that last sentence, although he came closer to curiously stare down at Javert's face. Javert found the experience profoundly unsettling. He was used to being observed closely by the filth of the streets, and yet he had never found himself helpless in quite such a way before, exposed to not only eyes, but also to all violence another might choose to do him.
He shifted again, barely able to bite back a sound of discomfort when his sensitive flesh was pinched cruelly between the split lengths of rope that ran between his legs. The man was little more than a schoolboy, dishevelled and confused from drink, like any romantic fool swaying on the streets after a night of drink and song and women. There was no harm to be feared here, and yet, even though he knew that the most he had to fear would be the bullet he had been promised, the many hours he had spent bound and unable to move had made his helplessness a reality he could not escape from. He was not afraid – yet, even so, being at someone's mercy was a sensation new to him and he wanted to strip it off, shuddering like a horse beset by flies, uncomfortably aware of his body as though he were wearing a coat too small for comfort.
The student smiled distractedly at his words and sat down on the table near his head. "You have come to spy on us then? That is well, there was much to spy on, I am sure. Shall I show you the greatest secret of this barricade?"
He leaned closer, as if to whisper into Javert's ear, and Javert, who knew himself a corpse, nevertheless could not help but listen for what secrets this young man might have to spill, even though escape was impossible, and all secrets would die here with him.
Grantaire smiled very slowly. "I found where he hid it," he breathed. "Father Hucheloup's finest brandy! An entire bottle." He raised the bottle in his hand, then placed it on the table next to Javert.
Javert bared his teeth again. "Is this your secret? Where is your gun? Your powder? Your cartridges? Will you hold the barricade with this?"
Grantaire was still smiling. He curled his fingers around the bottle, his touch deceptively gentle, and Javert, when he wanted to lean away from that image with instinctive discomfort, grimaced when the noose around his neck and the taut rope between his legs reminded him of his state once more. He had thought that to spend what hours remained him on the table would at least grant him some comfort, but he had not expected to be bound in such a way. With his slow movements on the table, the rope had tightened and slackened, parting and tightening and gripping again with every motion until it now felt as if the coarse hemp held his prick as if in a pincer, every motion chafing against sensitive, cloth-covered flesh in a way that was both painful and humiliating. He could not raise his head enough from the table to look down at himself without making it even worse, and so he prayed that his situation would not be too obvious to the insurgent who had come to torment him with his presence.
"If you do not mind," he said calmly at last, "I shall return to being a corpse, and you can go and find your leader and await your death with him, if he will even have you like this." He could not quite bite back a grimace at the man's state, though it was to be expected, of course. Who would revolt against authority but those who already revolted against all that was right by their very existence in the gutter of society, and those who should know better but were too drunk on wine and brandy or foolish beliefs? No, it was easy to see where this one in particular fit in, and Javert, who had been glad for the glacier-like calm of the insurgent's leader, would prefer to await the bullet that was to be his fate in silent contemplation of a life that had always followed the letter of the law.
"What do you mean, like this?" Grantaire's smile vanished, and he frowned. "What sort of spy are you that you shy away from the secrets to be found at the bottom of the bottle? Greater men than you have found it an excellent instrument of extracting answers, and indeed it is torture far sweeter to surrender to the grape instead of the knife, I would think."
"Do what you have to do, but do it elsewhere." Javert proudly turned his face away. "This is the hall of the dead, do not dishonour it with crude jests."
Grantaire laughed as he opened the bottle. He left the table for a moment; when he returned, he held a glass. "Ah, but are we not both corpses? You told me so, Monsieur. How can one corpse dishonour another? Come, a toast to death! Or to life, if you so want. It should be one and the same to a corpse."
Javert did not even deign to reward that speech with a response, apart from a haughty gaze, prepared to await the dawn or his death with the same rigid calm. He did not listen when the glass was filled, or when Grantaire tasted the spirit he had found, although he was roused from his determined silence when the rope that kept his body to the table suddenly slackened.
"There, sit up!" Grantaire said, then laughed when Javert slowly followed that command. "What a trick to see a corpse move at my order! A magician I am indeed. I find the old grocer's hidden treasure, more valuable to me than gold, and of more use to a corpse, and I make corpses sit and talk at my command! Now come, good corpse, a drink with me!"
Javert would have denied the drunkard's request once more, had it not been for the way the rope chafed against his aching prick now. He had been able to ignore it for a long time; now, with his flesh trapped and squeezed most cruelly between the twin lengths of coarse hemp, he imagined his skin rubbed raw and red and had to force himself to bite back the sounds of discomfort that arose in his throat when he sat up. The glass touched his lips; he looked up to glare at the student. The glass was tilted; he was sore and in pain, pale with humiliation at the way he could now see the aching length of his prick press against the fabric of his pants that was pulled taut against him by the length of rope that bound him like an animal. When the brandy touched his lips, he swallowed, heat burning its way down his throat so that he had to fight not to cough. Certainly this one indulgence could be allowed a man who was already a corpse, he reasoned with himself. Anything to escape the maddening distraction of his aching flesh and the tormenting, tight rope that scoured his flesh raw and stole his breath when he was not careful.
"There, you see. Corpses can be perfect gentlemen. Another toast to death then, or to our rebirth as corpses."
Javert refused to raise his head when the student poured and drank. His throat and tongue still burned with the strength of whatever spirits the boy had unearthed. It would not do to be found reeking of brandy by the National Guard, once this was over. But also, he thought with furious denial, it would not do to be found like this when they came to shoot him, in discomfort and almost obscenely displayed by the ropes they had used to bind him. To have Valjean see him like this – impossible.
Javert licked his lips, then raised his head despite the pull of the noose when the glass was lifted once more. He wanted to groan at how the motion made the rope pinch the head of his prick, imagining calloused fingers. He drank deeply this time, horrified by his thoughts. Anything to make his body forget such rebellion. All his life he had been irreproachable; it would not do to die like this.
The drink had filled his stomach with a strange heat, while tendrils of pain and shameful need spread out from where his cock lay stretched out beneath the ropes. He scowled fiercely after he had drunk, fidgeting for a more comfortable position, though at last he had to sit unmoving again, flushed with disbelieving anger at the way the discomfort was even more pronounced. The rope gripped him tightly, like cruel fingers clenching around him, and the image that thought conjured up once more made him gasp for breath and turn away from Grantaire to hide the way the flush had crept up his neck.
Valjean was still around, he reminded himself. Valjean, true to who he was, had joined the insurgents for whatever reasons made men like him rise against the law again and again. He could enter the tap-room any moment, and what then?
Again Javert began to struggle. Horror made his hands twitch in their bonds, in turn tightening the noose, the rope once more pulled so taut between his legs that the pressure against his aching prick made him press his thighs together, though that did nothing to assuage his need. He panted, helpless and furious because of it, overwhelmed once more by the thought of hands on him. Large, rough hands to press against where it felt like the rope had rubbed his skin off...
The thought alone was almost his undoing, and he barely managed to swallow a groan. Instead he turned his face against his shoulder, wondering for a short moment if the student was drunk enough that even bound and aching like this, he might be able to escape. Let them shoot him as he ran. Better that than to die like this, with this animal heat burning heavy and coarse between his legs, succumbing to the call of the gutter he had guarded against for so long.
Grantaire's laughter was heavy with the scent of brandy. "Forgive me, Inspector, but you seem to be in a tight spot. Or shall I say – your corpse has certainly risen to life? Have thoughts of a grisette roused your spirits? Or is it the ardent love of patria in whose embrace you will soon rest?" His words turned bitter at the last sentence, and briefly, Javert struggled again, embarrassed by the jests, but more so by the thought of Valjean returning to gloat.
At last, he fell still again, his chest heaving at the fire that made him ache with a strange, heavy need. Maybe even Valjean would be preferable to this madman who would share his drink and mock a man soon to be shot. Valjean was a convict. Valjean had stolen and lied and run – but he could not imagine the man mocking. Maybe not even for this, although Javert knew he deserved it.
The thought of Valjean seeing him like this brought another flush to his cheeks, and he wondered once more if it would not be better to pretend to run and have them shoot him. But even the thought of walking to the door filled him with terror, bound as he was. When Grantaire offered him more of the brandy, he drank again, then slumped forward, curling in on himself to shield his humiliation from the infuriating boy.
There were voices, he realized when a long moment had passed, and the glass had not been pressed to his lips again. Voices, talking loud and fast. He licked his lips, blinking against the tiredness that kept his eyes unfocused so that the light of the candles shone like the halo of angels behind a straight-backed man.
Something was dropped onto the table next to him. When his eyes managed to focus at last, he saw that it was a pistol, and that the angel was the commander of the insurgents, giving the drunk boy a look of chastisement. There was talk, but Javert did not care what this calm, cold man might have to say to his slovenly companion. His eyes lingered on the pistol for a moment. A quick death. Yes, that would suit him. All that remained was to walk out with his executioner. Certainly the prospect of death and the pain of walking in his bonds would be enough to diminish any of the unfortunate arousal that plagued his body. He would be shot, not long before these boys would be shot, and even without him, what was right and just would prevail while he would find rest at last.
He clenched his teeth when Valjean spoke to demand his life in payment of some debt. “That is just,” he said aloud. Let the man claim his death then. There was little time left for the convict to gloat at this turn of fate, and he would have the satisfaction to die as he had lived, firmly on the other side of those who would flee the law and authority. If it was not given to him to see this man returned to justice, at least he would die with the certitude that he had never once faltered in his pursuit.
He turned his head away from the approaching Valjean, laughing silently as he watched Grantaire stumble up the stairs once more. “We shall meet again shortly,” he called out as he watched that magician perform one final trick by turning itself into one of the walking corpses that had gathered in the tap-room. His lips were still twisted into a smile when Valjean appeared before him and gripped the martingale, although he managed to bite down on a groan just in time, despite the fire of raw skin squeezed tightly by rough hemp.
Valjean did not look at him, or speak to him, and that suited him just as well as the bullet would. When he was dragged out onto the street by the martingale, bound and bent and made small until he felt like a beast led to slaughter, he was glad for the pain to distract him. He stumbled once or twice, and swayed when he was forced to scale the small barricade in Mondetour lane, but certainly that could be blamed on being bound to the post for most of the night. There was no need for Valjean to know about the brandy that made it hard to focus on his surroundings, and even less need for him to see the perversity of his body that even now insisted on countering the steady, painful pull of the rope with the obscene ache between his legs. He would keep his dignity until the end, he promised himself. It would not be much longer now.
"Take your revenge," he said, fixing Valjean with a stare when at last he was pushed against a crumbling wall. They were alone. Darkness surrounded them. The street was deserted; somewhere in the distance there was still the sound of trumpets. The brandy made it harder to think. His eyes kept being drawn to small details, lingering there. The whiteness of Valjean's hair in the light of the moon. The gleam of his eyes – was this the look of a man about to kill? The glint of a blade.
Ah, at last. There it was then.
"That suits you better." His lips twisted into a sneer. His bound hands grappled at the wall at his back. It would still be quick, he told himself. Valjean would cut his throat, bleed him like a butcher. That, too, was well. It was still death, and death at the hand of a criminal was not unwelcome. He would die upright and proud, and not long after him, Valjean would die when the barricade fell.
Valjean hesitated for a moment, the knife still in his hand. He leaned closer, and Javert tried to lean back, but could not escape. Valjean was too close, so close that he could feel the heat of his breath on his lips, and when he tried to press himself against the wall in an attempt to escape the unsettling attention, the motion made the rope rub against his aching prick once more so that he exhaled in torment and terrified need.
Do not let me die like this, he prayed, unable to stop squirming against the wall, trapped and helpless at this cruel torture.
"You will not die here, Javert." Valjean eyed him with wariness. The knife still gleamed in his hand, and it was more than just the heat of the brandy that brought a flush to Javert's cheek. Had he spoken aloud? What a torment this man was! Would he never be free of him?
"You reek of drink." Valjean studied him, and now there was a new emotion in his gaze. Where before there had been an almost weary calmness with just the occasional hint of well-tempered anger, now, Javert thought, he saw a sudden interest.
He pressed himself further into the wall in denial. No. No. It was not supposed to end like this. He had never done wrong. He deserved an honourable death! An execution, yes – but not this man, this devil with his words of mercy and his acts of insurgency.
"One of your friends thought it a mercy to share his drink with a man soon to be executed." His voice was a snarl, but Valjean did not flinch back. "It does not matter! Do not drag this out, Valjean! Soon your barricade will fall. Kill me and get it over with! You have waited long for this revenge."
Javert jerked again, then groaned softly at the way the ropes cut into his flesh. He could not bear it. He could not bear any of this, the haziness which smothered thoughts that were usually sharp and straight as a blade, the heat in his limbs that seduced him into such strange relaxation even though here he stood at the precipice of his own death, facing Valjean once more for the last time, bound and rank with the fumes of brandy like that ninny of an insurgent who was probably peacefully asleep now and might even sleep through his own death while he, Javert, was forced to stand here, forced to face Valjean, to know himself vulnerable and betrayed by his body and so sensitized that the mere sensation of Valjean's breath on his face made him want to bow his head in surrender and –
He did not know. He did not know anything. All was lost, nothing was as it should be. The world turned around him in ways it should not, candles burned too brightly, darkness was too black, angles warped in ways they should not.
His pulse throbbed there between his legs, the greatest irritation of it all, so painful, so shameful that it seemed impossible to him to die like this. Certainly, even if Valjean were to slit his throat now, the sheer nature of this unnatural ache would be enough to keep him upright and alive and torment him eternally until–
"Javert?" That was Valjean's voice, and that was his hand against his cheek. Javert wanted to snarl in fury at the touch, but instead he allowed his bowed head to be raised until it rested against the wall behind him once more. There was worry on Valjean's face. He wanted to laugh at that. He heard a strange sound, and it took him a moment to realize that it was his own laughter, hoarse and almost soundless. His lips twisted into a smile. This man and his damned mercy would even cheat him of an honourable death in the end. He should have known it.
"Javert, you are drunk."
He snarled. He thought it was a snarl. Valjean still looked worried, and he did not retreat. This was tiring. He could not bear it anymore, the waiting, the thinking, the ache. The humiliation of having Valjean witness him like this, at the end.
"I am not drunk," he said. The words sounded perfectly sober and indignant. There was no slurring. He knew how drunkards spoke – had he not been forced to deal with such disturbers of the peace for every day of his service? "What are you waiting for?"
Valjean exhaled slowly. Javert looked at his lips, watched them move, studied that white beard. How old the man had grown. And yet his body still felt as strong as he had been in Montreuil. He was so close that Javert could feel the warmth of his body. Any closer and he would be able to feel the strength of those muscles. He could imagine Valjean pressing him against the wall, the way those muscles would tighten and flex, hard as stone, holding him immobile...
He could not hold back a groan this time. His hands jerked again, pulling at the rope between his legs until the burn of it made him tremble. Then Valjean's hands came forward, the knife gleamed against the rope, and he cried "No!" and slumped against Valjean with a groan, closing his eyes as he shook with something that threatened to break him apart. He could feel Valjean's hip press against his groin – the friction against his trapped prick was torturous, was heaven, and it took what little willpower remained to not rut mindlessly against him like an animal. He shuddered, his head bowed against Valjean's shoulder. Now he was Valjean's prisoner in truth, convicted by undeniable testimony. And even now, filled with such shame as he had never known before, he could not bear the thought of Valjean cutting the rope that held him trapped.
He breathed heavily. He held perfectly still, trembling at the precipice of some great fall. He imagined himself standing at a cliff. He could hear the roar of the water in his ears. But at last, the one who fell was not him.
It was the heel of Valjean's hand that pressed against the length of his swollen prick, made him bite back a sound of need that still came out like a whine, and he trembled again, overwhelmed by how that pleasure cut deeper than a knife.