Valjean does not ask, for he knows what Javert’s answer will be. Neither does he inform Javert of his intent, for it requires no leap of imagination to imagine the man’s reaction: his wild words, perhaps an attempt to throw something. And so it is that, when Valjean steps into the room with a heavy basin of steaming water held in his hands—he had asked his housekeeper to heat it, and yet knowing the nature of Javert’s complaints, had insisted on bearing it up himself—Javert raises his head from the sweat-stained pillows which have become his prison these past weeks, curls his lip in distaste, and says, “You presume too much.”
Valjean sets the heavy basin down on the wash stand, out of Javert’s reach in case the man should decide, in a fit of pique, to try and upturn it. “You have not had the opportunity to wash since the river. Nor since your illness,” Valjean says, keeping his voice level and reasonable.
Still Javert’s face twists in a grimace at the memory of both indignities; his plunge into the Seine, which he still refuses to discuss, and then the week of fever, of chills, of shivering and vomit. Though the doctor had ordered Javert’s worn and sodden uniform cut away and replaced with one of Valjean’s nightshirts, the fabric of that garment was now yellowed with dried sweat and stained in places with bile. The skin beneath it could scarcely be faring better.
“You must be very uncomfortable,” Valjean continues, laying out the neatly folded set of fresh clothing beside the wash bin. “And it may be you will be here for some time yet.”
“I am quite miserable,” Javert says through his teeth, and Valjean looks up in surprise at the suggestion that perhaps this ordeal is to be easier than he might have imagined. “I am trapped in this dim little cell, in a great deal of pain, with a self-righteous loathsome man who insists on acting as my unwanted nursemaid—”
This goes on for a time, as it is wont to. Valjean settles down in his chair and waits for Javert to run out of breath, sinking back on the pillows with his brow freshly slicked with sweat and his chest heaving beneath the bedcovers. Valjean laces his fingers in his lap and fixes Javert with a stare. He waits until Javert returns it, burning with rage and shame, before he speaks. “If you will permit me,” he says, “I would like to help make you more comfortable.”
“If you will permit me,” Javert mimics with a sneer. “You have not been dissuaded from nannying me thus far. Why should my protestations matter now?”
Valjean shrugs. Lord, but it is difficult to keep his patience with this bitter wretch of a man. “I am not going to strip you and hold you down,” Valjean says, and something in Javert’s expression flickers at the suggestion—horror at the thought of such a humiliation, no doubt. “If you truly are content, I will take the basin back down the stairs and speak of it no more.”
Javert glares at him a long time. Even unable to push himself up from his sickbed, the man’s expression is fearsome. “I can do it myself,” he says at last, and holds out a hand which begins trembling the moment he lifts it. “Dampen the cloth for me.”
Repressing a sigh, Valjean does as instructed. The water is warm as he wrings it from the cloth and passes it over to Javert. Weak fingers close around it; Valjean sits back down and pretends not to watch as Javert mops at his face and throat, pressing the cloth to his collar with a hand which shakes more violently by the moment. More than once he pauses, breathing hard, before resuming the assault; by the time he has managed to slick his skin, he has also soaked his collar and his hand has become useless.
“Damn you,” Javert growls at last, though whether the sentiment is directed at Valjean or his own weakened body it is not clear. Javert’s eyes are shut, his teeth clenched. “I will permit it,” he says at last, and Valjean feels no satisfaction as he gently removes the washcloth from beneath Javert’s slack fingers. It has grown cold; Valjean plunges it back into the heat of the water while he carefully folds a towel.
“Can you lift your head?” Valjean asks. He knows Javert likely cannot, not for any length of time, but to permit Javert to openly suggest that would court disaster; Valjean is careful not to let any trace of anything Javert might interpret as pity color his voice.
Javert glares suspiciously at the towel in Valjean's hands. "Why?"
"So you will not be lying on a sopping pillow afterward," Valjean says mildly. "Lift your head."
The order grates, Valjean can see; but still, with his jaw tightening Javert does as he is asked. His body immediately trembles from the effort; before he can collapse once more Valjean slides his hand to support the back of Javert's head; Javert immediately flinches away with a snarl, his head jerking away, his eyes wild.
"If you do not plan to let me touch you, this will likely be impossible," Valjean says. Javert looks ready to argue, until, perhaps, he realizes there is no argument to be made.
The next time Javert lifts his head, he permits Valjean to cup his head at the base of his skull. Javert's hair is a greasy tangle, the long black strands damp with the sweat of exertion. Valjean works quickly, pulling the pillow away and replacing it with a towel. It has not occurred to Valjean how wholly the man is in his power until this moment; but of course, surely such a thing is all Javert is capable of thinking of.
He gently settles Javert's head back onto the folded towel. Javert's face has adopted an unfamiliar expression. A sort of miserable grimace untempered by the anger which Javert throws out around him like a shield of knives. He does not meet Valjean's eye even after his hand slides away; he stares at one corner of the room, the crease in his brow more of pain than of the that ever-present disapproval.
Valjean lifts the cloth from the basin. It is warm once again. He presses it to Javert's brow gently, dabbing at the new sweat which has sprung up there. Javert closes his eyes, though there is nothing of relaxation in his face; if he submits to this, it is out of necessity alone. Valjean rubs the cloth down his whiskers, his beard; normally Javert keeps his hair so neatly trimmed that to have gone weeks without a shave has transformed him. Now he looks out from a mass of bristled dark hair shot with grey, like a stormcloud, looking not so different from the wretches to which Valjean has given alms. He looks wild, and dangerous in a way that even the Inspector with his power to destroy everything that Valjean held dear never did.
When next Valjean dampens the cloth he does not wring it out so thoroughly. Now he presses it to the crown of Javert's head, getting the strands thoroughly wet.
Javert's breath hisses through his teeth. "You ought to leave off that," he says, but it lacks the bark of his previous statements. When Valjean looks at him askance, Javert's mouth twists a little. "There's no hope for it. Surely I will have to have it all hacked off."
"We shall see about that," Valjean says, and continues to run the wet cloth over his hair. He swears that something of the Seine is trapped in the strands, for the river-smell which had hung heavily on Javert's person when Valjean had first borne him here seems to awaken like a bad memory. The bar of soap which Cosette had given him some time ago proves useful. Before long there is nothing but the faint lavender smell of the soa as Valjean gently scours the strands.
"A gift from my daughter," Valjean says in half-apology, noticing Javert's nose wrinkle. "If you find it too cloying—"
"It is fine," Javert snaps. In the silence, as Valjean works his way down the hair strands against the steadily dampening pillow, Javert's eyes remain fixed on the ceiling. Valjean’s fingers work through his hair, rubbing his scalp and slowly picking apart the tangles. "It is pleasant enough," he says, and for a moment Valjean isn't certain what he speaks of—but it is the soap, of course.
"She is fond of such frivolities, in truth," Valjean admits. "After the childhood she had, and growing up in Petit Picpus, I suppose they are all novelties to her."
"Petit Picpus!" Javert scoffs. "So that is where you hid away. I find it difficult to believe that an old convict like you did not burst into flame the moment you crossed onto holy ground."
"We have very different ideas of God's treatment of sinners," Valjean says, though there's a laugh trapped somewhere in the back of his throat, for he can see on Javert's face that he was not truly serious.
At last Valjean finishes with his hair, washing out the last of the soap and gently wringing it in a towel. He slides his hand beneath Javert’s head one last time to support it as he replaces a fresh pillow beneath him. "There," he says, and his satisfaction is not at all feigned; "We didn’t have to hack it off after all."
Javert makes a dubious noise in the back of his throat. By now Valjean has realized that if Javert does not immediately break into a tirade of denunciation at something he says, it probably means he agrees. He turns to retrieve the washcloth from the basin once more, and when he looks back Javert is glaring at him once more.
"What are you smirking about?" he demands, and Valjean, who had not realized he was smiling, blinks. In the moment he does not have the wherewithal to lie.
"It is just that you are very strange," he says, and presses the warm cloth to Javert's neck. Something flickers across Javert’s face the moment Valjean’s touch meets the delicate skin of his throat; he blinks, shifting in the bed and then wincing at the twinge it causes his injuries.
"You are the strange one," Javert argues. "You spare the life of a man who has hunted you all your life, you give him your address when he promises to arrest you; and when he comes to the decision to hand in his resignation to God, you insist on plucking me out of the Seine and bearing me back to your little den of iniquity, on paying for my doctor, on sitting at my bedside forcing broth and gruel down my throat, and now insist on washing me like an honored relative turned invalid rather than letting me fester in my own filth, as is my right." Javert frowns at him. "I am beginning to think you want to be arrested."
"Perhaps I miss the old thrill of escaping," Valjean says, and feels Javert's body jerk beneath him with the suddenness of the other man's laugh.
"Yes, you will have to tell me all about that," Javert says. "I may as well interrogate you while we remain trapped here together, for I'm certain there's much the police could learn from an interview with the infamous Jean Valjean."
“Infamous?” Valjean scoffs. “Surely not.”
“Well, infamous to me.”
They fall into silence then. Valjean runs the cloth up and down Javert’s neck; there is something meditative in the motion, almost like prayer.
"Is that truly how you see it?" Valjean says softly. At Javert's blank look, a sad smile tugs at one side of Valjean's face. "Handing in your resignation to God."
Javert makes a dismissive noise. “It was my life. No matter how entitled to it you felt at the time.”
"It was not your life to forfeit. Nor mine to save," Valjean says gently.
"If you intend to give me a sermon I might just expire right here," Javert growls, and Valjean recognizes his tone well enough to know when to stop pushing.
There is only a short line of buttons at the top of Javert’s nightshirt, so the collar might be opened further to the air; Valjean replaces the washcloth back in the basin to re-warm as he sets his fingers to the first.
Immediately Javert goes rigid. “What are you doing?”
Valjean holds his gaze. “Would you prefer I attempt to wash you over your clothes?”
Javert, as he always does, looks ready to argue; but then something in his expression changes. A long, aggravated breath escapes through his nose, but when it dredges the bottoms of his lungs, his face is set in an expression of calm.
“Very well,” he says, and Valjean returns to the buttons.
Javert is not and has never been a man of small stature; his height is greater than Valjean’s, his shoulders broad. When Valjean pulled Javert from the Seine his body had been weighted down, soaked; the greatcoat Valjean had stripped from him in the water lest it drag them to the bottom like an anchor. But here, dry and wrung out by his illness, Javert has shrunken in on himself. Valjean can trace the spearhead of his sternum with the washcloth, can see where the stark ribs all arc to join it.
It crosses Valjean’s mind that he had never seen this much of Javert's skin before; that he can feel the heat from inside of him, faint yet powerful, like a furnace buried beneath the earth.
Valjean pauses, the cloth pressed to Javert’s sternum. Javert is frowning at him with an expression of true disbelief.
“You are not even enjoying this,” Javert says, as if unable to put such a ridiculous notion to words. “You ought to be. Seeing me like this.”
Valjean doesn’t ask him why; that would be a foolish question, and Javert would mercilessly inform him as such. Instead he says, “I am not,” softly, as he might calm a skittish horse. Javert falls silent; perhaps the idea that a dangerous convict could do anything but gloat over his misfortune is simply lost in the rigid maze of his mind, that warren of sharp corners. Weaker notions have starved to death within it.
Valjean tries to work quickly, dabbing at Javert's collarbones which stick out from beneath his skin while Javert's gaze remains resolutely fixed on the ceiling. He does not grimace or make faces now; his expression is curiously blank. Valjean's hand follows the ridges of Javert's ribs farther, until his hand must dip beneath his shirt to clean beneath his arms; as his hand slides into the warmth there he hears Javert's breath catch.
At once Valjean needs to fill this strange silence between them, that vast plain which hides nothing and reveals all. But what is there to speak of? They are worse than two strangers; the weight of their past shackles them yet, and for that matter Valjean cannot not imagine Javert taking up any sort of hobby they might discuss. His image of the man in the years of Montreuil sur Mer had been of those eyes like the open barrels of two pistols pointing at him from across his desk, ready to fire should Madeleine make the slightest misstep; and then in Petit Picpus he had woken in the night not with an image but with a feeling, of hot breath on the back of his neck like that of a wild beast, of the weight and cold of shackles clapped around his wrists, of Javert's hands not stronger than his fastening them tight.
And Toulon—in Toulon Javert had been a mere facet of a faceless entity, but notable at first glance for his youth. Not like the other young ones who made their start in the prison, their cruelty in its first blush, looking only for a chance to exercise it; Javert had looked on the horrors of Toulon with an expression not of glee or even disgust (and it was the disgusted ones, in the end, who were the cruellest of all) but rather a total and uncompromising impartiality. Javert had been like the sea, for either was as unlikely to grant the prisoners any measure of mercy, or any particularly doled-out cruelty; and for that Valjean had not hated him the way hate had festered in his heart for some of the others.
Even then Javert was not a man to him: he was a lash, a cold voice, and those same burning eyes which lost none of their flame in the room with him now, but rather had drawn it deeper inside. And even now as Valjean’s hands map Javert’s individual parts, rib by rib, there is something more to him now. Javer is a man, no more or less; and always has been.
Eventually there is no more of Javert’s chest for Valjean to wash without simply removing the nightshirt. Unbidden, his eyes move to Javert’s legs, still hidden beneath the sheets. There lies the worst of Javert’s injuries, the broken leg still healing. It is a strange dance between modesty and practicality they circle in now, a slow waltz to which neither of them know the steps. Valjean is no doctor, no nurse; he possesses none of the crisp emotional distance such a profession might require in handling a man’s more intimate areas. And yet, Javert will not cease to be dirty simply due to Valjean’s social squeamishness. Should he—or perhaps, more pertinently, does he dare—?
He imagines, then, the thought of it; of gently folding the sheets back until there is nothing but the long nightshirt between Valjean and the rest of Javert’s skin. He would start at the feet, feel the rigid curve of Javert’s ankles, so hard and yet so delicate, exposed; drag the cloth up the ridge of his shins, over his knobbly knees; skirt the edge of the nightshirt where its hem brushed his thighs.
Valjean’s mouth is dry. His eyes wrench away from Javert’s legs, which remain hidden beneath the sheets, unexplored; and he damns himself, then, by looking directly into Javert’s gaze. It would be too much of a mercy for Javert to be staring at the ceiling, for of course his eyes are fixed on Valjean’s face with all the scrutiny of the old inspector, and Valjean cannot know what thoughts his face betrays to those keen and searching eyes.
But there is something there new and unfamiliar; a slight haze in his eyes, a slackness to his jaw. Is there a flush in his cheeks? The dimness of the room and the cast of Javert’s complexion make it difficult to say for a certainty. Valjean licks his lips; he almost glances to Javert’s legs again.
He places the wash cloth on the edge of the basin with hands that tremble only slightly. “I hope that feels better,” he says, his tone as level as he can manage. This is a strange feeling which has come over him, as sudden as a summer storm or the fall of a hawk on a vole. He does not understand himself, does not understand Javert’s silence, thick as a blanket thrown over them both, obscuring all and drawing them closer.
“Well.” Valjean stands because it seems the safest thing to do. There is an unfamiliar heat in his own face as he gathers up the towels and lifts the basin. For all the hasty exits he has made from this room, this is the first time he feels he is fleeing. Without another word he heads for the door. Air. Air will do him a world of good.
Pausing in the open doorway, he turns. Javert is glaring at him from the depths of his bed, his eyes already growing heavy-lidded. As Valjean meets his gaze his expression twists. “I’m not going to thank you,” he says sharply, but offers nothing further; then he frowns, not at Valjean now but at himself, as if wondering what he does intend to say, if not that. And in that absence, the negative space which Javert’s words have carved out, the thanks appear, unsaid.
Valjean smiles in spite of himself, even as it makes Javert’s frown darken. “Good. For there is no need.” He leaves Javert then, to empty out the water and deposit the soiled towels in the hamper.
When he walks past the room afterward Javert is asleep, his face turned toward the door. It is smooth. Valjean has traced that troubled brow, now; dimpled even in sleep, he can imagine its contour beneath the thin layer of the washcloth; how it had seemed to him like tracing the dark-polished wood of a lightning struck tree, twisted in the aftermath of the cataclysm, still warm.