Cold water. Darkness and cold water and a million dazzling tiny stars exploding behind his eyelids.
“Shh,” Valjean murmurs. “Shh.”
He is in a bed. How he reached the bed blurs together; water and shouting, the horrible clamor and shouting and the hands dragging him from the icy waters, he feeling like so much weight of soaked clothes, fouled laundry, not Javert but Javert's dirty clothes, dirty and sodden and smelling of the river. The river smelt of death.
He tells himself that his soul made the leap from the bridge and vanished somewhere beneath him in the water. Away and down. He is damned, all right.
What circle? Pride, he supposes, pride of course.
(The awful hands drag him up onto the riverbank, push damp hair from his face, there comes a shudder of recognition. Revulsion. He is alone again.)
Gluttony? Never. Greed? Sloth? Hardly. Wrath? Professional necessity. Envy? A brief twinge of something, on the edge of his stomach, hot and curling along his ribcage. Valjean had the luxury to choose his own law.
“Sleep, my friend,” Valjean murmurs.
He is in Hell. From Hell one could drag oneself, slowly, painfully, wincing at the change. But it was possible yet. Could climb up and drag the innocent down.
And Valjean was no innocent. Those who called him a saint did not know him, not as Javert did. He would prove this. He would show what lurked within the man of mercy. He could at least do that --
What would he not give to the cause? The incorruptible part of himself was gone when he’d leapt from the bridge. All that remained was bestial.
Yes. To this cause – he would dedicate the remains of Javert.
Where was Valjean's vice? He was patient, he was kind. The man was unmoved among prostitutes. Perhaps he had yet to find the right prostitutes. Or perhaps.
The thought rushes up at him, like drowning in water. Valjean’s eyes watching him. Valjean's breath at the back of his neck, untying the cords. “I want nothing from you.”
The touch itself belied the words.
Valjean is sitting near the bed and his face is a mask of concern. He reaches a hand towards Javert's brow. Javert raises a hand– damned, double-damned, what does it matter? – captures it.
“I know,” he says. Then he is sitting up in the bed, still rigid in spite of himself. The posture is the shell. The shell is always the last to rot away when the slimy quick thing inside it perishes.
Find the weakness and let us at least be damned together. Follow him down to hell, as you have followed him everywhere else.
He catches Valjean by the back of the head and brings their mouths crashing together.
It is not a kiss. It is shock and an avalanche of questions. This is what you want is this what you want? take it if it's what you want take it and be damned for a thief.
“No,” Valjean says. They surface together in the gasping air. “Javert.”
Javert pulls free with relief. His breath is going fast.
"You don't have to—" Valjean starts, and Javert hears it, the roughness in his voice, and a small part of Javert sparks to life again at the discovery, because this he knows, this he understands, running Valjean to ground, and that familiar satisfaction burns bright in him. "I have not asked this thanks –" Valjean stammers, and if Javert had not been listening for the tremor he would have missed it.
"This is not thanks," he says. The words tumble awkwardly from his lips. He cannot shake off his manner, play the supple, truckling – He is not sure what. All the words that spring to mind are vile. "This is not –"
Valjean's eyes are sad and dark. He had not noticed those eyes. Years chasing the memory of the back of a man's head spared no time to notice such things. He had memorized the outline of the face, the improbable strength – the lines in that brow burned into his memory, but the eyes in his mind's glass were shrewd, not sorrowful. Perhaps the man has changed.
"Javert," he says. "Please."
Javert for once is not sure what he is asking. All those years it had been – more time. This woman is ill. More time. This boy needs a hospital. More time. This child needs a father.
He tries to slouch.
"Javert," Valjean says again, and then the convict's finger traces the line of his cheek. He tries not to shudder at the touch, although it makes every fiber in him cry out. He can feel how Valjean intends it – chaste, a benediction – but he can feel, too, the trembling heat in those fingers. He has been wrong about Valjean. But not now. Not in this. Valjean is strength and restraint in equal measures. So far restraint has prevailed. But he can feel the struggle.
"Javert," Valjean says, letting the finger fall. "This – I do not understand. You are one who will break rather than bend."
Yes, Javert thinks. He averts his eyes. The damp mess of his uniform is in a puddle on the floor. "You have broken me," he says. It is a stratagem, he tells himself, but the blunt truth of the words bruises his tongue.
"I did not do this," Valjean says, standing up. "You are feverish, and I am sorry. I ask only that you rest here, at least til you are well."
Javert stares at him, defiant again. "I have no cause to run," he says. He means the words to cut. But Valjean chuckles.
"No," he says. "None in the world."
Javert slips into delirium again. Clammy hands fix him to an anchor to drag him to the bottom of the sea. He slips deeper and deeper with a strange relief. But then there is a rope around his wrists, pulling him up, and when he surfaces he sees the rope in Valjean's hands.
"I wish you had let me drown," Javert spits.
But Valjean tugs him up, up, out of the water, closer, ever closer, and Javert sees that the rope binds Valjean's wrists as well.
"I did not wish to drown myself," Valjean says. The rope takes on a life of its own as they stand in the shallows. It snakes around them both, binding them. They are a beast with two backs, they are too close, much too close, and if they remain like this any longer Javert does not know what he will do.
"You have damned me," he tells Valjean.
Valjean's finger traces along his cheek again, and he forces himself awake.
"Thank God," Valjean says. Valjean is at his bedside, hands clasped in prayer.
"Have you nowhere else to be?" Javert asks, weakly.
Valjean chuckles again. "Where would you wish me?"
Javert shuts his eyes. Where could he wish this man? Valjean is engraved behind his eyelids.
"I think," Valjean says, "I would not like to hear the answer to that question."
Javert shakes his head. "I am no fit judge," he says. "I would not consign you there."
"Sleep," he says.
Javert prays for dreamless sleep. But the dreams come. In them, Valjean is judge and jury, and Javert begs and begs for punishment.
"You said," Valjean muses, handing him a tray of breakfast, "that we both came from the gutter."
Javert shuts his eyes and tries to will him away. Valjean seems to find this amusing. "Why must you torment me?" he asks.
"Am I such torment?" Valjean asks. "I thought – you spent so many years seeking me, you would not fly from my company so soon."
Javert does not chuckle. "If you seek to punish me," he says, then stops. He can feel Valjean's eyes on him. "Punish me as you see fit."
"You have merited no punishment," Valjean says, measuredly.
"I have," Javert says. "I misjudged you. You have changed."
"You admit it?" Valjean asks. "Then you have changed yourself."
"Men like me can never change," Javert says.
Valjean looks at him as though the words mean something else.
"The man of mercy," Javert says, watching Valjean stoop at the doorway with a tray of breakfast. His voice curls unpleasantly around the word.
"You have no love of mercy, Javert?" Valjean says.
Javert shakes his head. He glowers at the tray. "You ought to punish me," he says. "This kindness of yours humiliates me."
Valjean looks – hurt cannot be the word. But the eyes spark. "That is hardly my intent," Valjean says.
"I must suffer for my sin," Javert says. The words come tumbling out like a sewer spilling. "I have failed the law. I have failed God's law. You have saved me twice. You have even saved my soul, such as it is." He frowns. "The ledger is impossibly full. I am accustomed to paying my debts. And yet you will not let me pay. You prevent me, you allow me to damn myself--"
"What are you asking, Javert?" Valjean asks, and his voice is harsh. "You don't know what you're asking. Punishment? What do you want, to be flung in irons and put to toil under the lash? That I should beat you, curse you, use you like a dog?"
Javert swallows. "That is your right," he says.
Valjean's eyes widen. Javert feels the thing kindling between them that he has felt before, staring the convict down. Before it had tasted like hate. "I cannot," Valjean says.
"Can't you?" Javert spits. "You are mistaken if you think this is mercy. This is cowardice."
"You're a fool, Javert," Valjean says. His eyes are angry.
"The convict thinks himself a holy man. He will not sully his hand with striking the likes of scum like me."
Valjean hits him.
Javert smiles. "That's better, 24601. Men like you do not change."
Valjean hits him again.
Javert laughs. He sees the struggle in Valjean's eyes. He is amazed to see the restraint win over.
"Javert," Valjean murmurs, pulling back. "I'm sorry. I am a better man than this."
"Perhaps you are," Javert says. There is blood on his lip. He tastes it with grim satisfaction. Valjean reaches to wipe the blood with his thumb at the same moment; Javert's tongue finds his finger. At the instant they touch their eyes snap together. Javert wants to smirk, wants to let Valjean see that he knows at least what this means, that he may be a fool, but not in this. But then he is kissing Valjean. His mouth tastes of blood. Valjean tries to pull free but he fists a hand in Valjean's lapel, and the kiss grows harsh. Valjean kisses him the way he imagines Valjean might fuck, thorough and hungry and sure, and when he thought of this stratagem this is not how he hoped it would go, his mouth did not yield like this, a brushfire did not begin in the pit of his chest, and when he tries to shove Valjean away to catch himself Valjean half-laughs into the kiss, a bitter laugh, and Valjean's hand reaches between his legs, traces knowingly over the hardness there, and then there are no secrets between them.
"You," Valjean says.
"I deserve to be punished," Javert says, and Valjean is good enough to pretend he does not hear the desperate whine of arousal in his tone.
"Do you?" Valjean looks levelly at him.
"We come from the same gutter," Javert says. "I saw a riot, once. I saw the inmates fall upon a guard. I saw what they did to him." He sits down on the bed and glances up.
Valjean pales. "Inspector."
"They said," Javert says, and this part is a lie, and he cannot meet Valjean's eyes, "they said he did not see them, that he saw the crime only and not the man, that he deserved far worse, that he must be made to feel what he could not see—"
"I merit no less," Javert says. There is a brief instant when Valjean's eyes flicker to meet his and he sees restraint coming down like an iron gate.
"No," Valjean says, but Javert knows that he has planted the possibility – Valjean shoving aside the bedclothes and rucking up his nightshirt and the grim slap of flesh on flesh and those hard convict's eyes boring into the back of his neck, Valjean's breath on the back of his neck again, and –
The rush of blood southward catches him almost by surprise. He hopes Valjean does not notice the change in his eyes, the startled swallow. He always hopes too much. To see where he stands Valjean need only glance at the bedclothes.
This, Javert thinks, the thoughts leaden in his stomach. This, this, this is what becomes of you without the prop of your law. This is where your thoughts slink – vile and filthy, back to the gutter, this is the slimy rind that's left of you –
"Javert," Valjean says. Javert does not want to look at him.
"I'm a damned man," Javert mutters.
"No," Valjean says, kneeling over him, and the convict's fingers are lifting his chin, and when Javert shoves their mouths together again it is half so he can close his eyes. He does not understand why Valjean kisses back.
"I didn't know," Valjean mutters, of course this man would mistake it for love, of course it would not occur to him that Javert is plummeting and grabbing blind.
"There isn't anything to know," he hisses, and his own voice sounds alien. He kisses Valjean again to drown out the sound of it. He tries to pull Valjean down with him. Valjean comes too willingly – he could resist, Javert knows, could uproot the bed if he wished, but doesn't. "This is more of your vaunted mercy," he is stammering. "You think you’re being merciful now."
"Javert," Valjean gasps, and the raggedness of his voice startles them both, "I am a man, too. Like you."
"Why will you not punish me and let me go?" Javert hears himself saying.
"You wish this punishment?" Valjean sounds startled.
"It is no matter what I wish."
"It matters a great deal to me."
And Javert chokes, "I wish it," in the hollow of Valjean's throat.
He tries not to want it, when it happens. Valjean has that strange faculty of turning law to dust, crime to holiness, justice into a mouthful of ashes. Valjean has broken him, he thinks – it is right that he should bend him, too. What a little thing to be bent by him. But it is no little thing. When Valjean does what he tries to tell himself he never asked for, never dreamed of, it feels like a benediction. The convict's breath is hot on the back of his neck. When it is over Javert allows himself to kiss the brand on the convict's wrist, and prays God does not see.
"You're still here," Valjean says. There is wonder in his tone.
"I am not gone yet," Javert says. He is out of bed, gazing out the window.
"You look well," Valjean says.
Javert can think of nothing to say. He feels naked without the uniform, like a hermit crab forced from its shell.
"Would you stay," Valjean says, and neither of them are looking at each other, "if I asked?"
"For how long?"
"It seems I am always asking you for more time," Valjean says.
"How much this time?" Javert asks.
"If I knew how long—"
"What use can you have for me?"
Their eyes meet suddenly, like hands brushing in darkness.
"I live alone now," Valjean says.
"What became of the girl?"
"She married the boy you met in the sewers."
"Do you not see them?"
"It was better not. I am a tainted man, whatever I pray God may say to the contrary."
Javert meets his gaze. "If I am what keeps you from them," he murmurs, "you need fear me no longer."
Valjean sighs. "The law has many arms."
That night Valjean does not come and Javert very nearly climbs out of bed and wanders the house to find him and ask him again.
All right, he thinks, as the moon scuttles behind a cloud. All right, I'm damned, I'm disgraced, I can sink no lower, and once fallen it is not so hard a thing to fall again, to keep falling.
Sleep blurs into his thoughts. Perhaps my life has only been a long falling towards him, he thinks. Not down, not up, but always towards, as the moon falls forever towards the earth. Perhaps I have always been chasing him not knowing what I wanted or why, perhaps the answer came last night in his arms, perhaps I have always been damned without knowing it. And just as insistently the thought swam up, against the dark current, I want him again, I would pant beneath no other man, if I am to be damned I want him again.
In the middle of the night he thinks he hears footsteps, footfalls more swift, less steady, but as familiar as his own. He looks into the shadows, but if Valjean stands there he does not come in.
"Valjean?" he asks.
The darkness sighs, halts.
"I am sorry," it says.
"Valjean," Javert says again, and then the darkness spits out the familiar shadow and he feels the bed sink with Valjean's weight. He is startled how little is required to stoke the fire in him; he burns from the nearness.
"I thought," Valjean begins.
Javert reaches for him. He is startled how quickly Valjean responds, how mutual is this flame. Valjean presses him back on the mattress.
"You have me," Valjean says, and the moon chooses this moment to return, he catches sight of Valjean's face above his, the softness in those dark eyes, Valjean's hands pinioning his to the bed, and he knows that Valjean can feel what this does to him. Javert bridges the gap between their mouths, and – Valjean tonight kisses like a man famished, thirsty, his whole mouth yields itself to Javert's plundering, the moon disappears again before Javert remembers that there is a moon.
"You hated me," Valjean says.
"I didn't," Javert says.
Valjean sets out a card game in front of them.
"I hated you," Valjean says. "More than any man alive."
"You had cause," Javert says.
"Did you hate me?"
"I –" Javert stops. "No. I never hated you."
"Mm," Valjean says, and Javert watches his face in wonder, can scarcely believe that a face can teach itself gentleness, but that is what the thousand lines in Valjean's visage spell.
"I found you uniquely disappointing," Javert says. He stares bewildered at the cards. "This is wasted on me. I don't know how to play."
"It's simple enough," Valjean says. "Uniquely disappointing?"
He wants to snap, don't smile.
He tries not to notice how long he has been staying. When he does notice he tries to convince himself that it is the desire for humiliation that holds him there, not the desire for Valjean.
He does not succeed.
They are growing familiar with one another's bodies, and it frightens him. Valjean's fingers work inside him and he gasps and shifts against him. Valjean chuckles against his shoulderblade.
One night he plants a kiss in Valjean's palm and the way Valjean's whole body responds, stirs, arches in reply sends a furtive thrill careening through his veins.
"Let me," he murmurs, another night, nosing his way down Valjean's broad back, trying not to think, I am kissing him, I am kissing him here and here and here, I have found him, and this is what I am doing with him– and Valjean looks a little perplexed.
"I thought," Valjean says. Then Javert's mouth slides lower and Valjean stiffens. "That's filthy," Valjean breathes, but Javert hears the roughness in his tone that spells surrender.
"That's why I want to," Javert says. "Because it's filthy."
"Oh," Valjean murmurs, and then Javert is kissing him, there, trying to feel himself degraded and unredeemed, but Jean is making such sounds – such helpless little delighted noises, that a curious triumph snakes through his belly. Jean babbles his name, interspersed with "please" and "yes" and a curt command in two syllables that Javert has not heard before. Javert has never asked for this yielding. But he wants it, with a want sudden and insistent as the offer itself. He does not mean to call him Jean, not like this, not here, not buried hilt-deep in him, their sweat mingling, he does not mean to kiss and kiss and kiss him afterwards and enfold him in his arms until morning.
"It never made sense without you," Javert says, half-muffled in Valjean's hair. "I do not know, still, what it is we do together. But – you were at the end of everything, I was always trying to show you. I wanted you to see me and know what you were and what I was and --"
Valjean kisses him.
He is damned, Valjean is damned, he tries to tamp the other thought down and button it away but it won't stay where he puts it, he finds himself choking out endearments he has not heard since childhood. They all sound wrong and clumsy on his lips.
Sometimes Valjean reaches for him without asking. He tries to feel used and cursed and disgusted but he knows that his body is growing accustomed to being wanted, even if his knee protests whenever they attempt certain things and his arm pains him in the mornings. Sometimes he reaches for Valjean, and Valjean seems only too glad to let himself be caught.
Without the girl, Javert discovers, Valjean is a man of Spartan habits. They are well-suited to each other in this, at least. Valjean prays more frequently and with greater fervor than Javert has seen in most of his fellow men. He has seen this sort of histrionics before from cons and chalked it up to pleasing the court. But here there is no court. Javert has difficulty with his own prayers; you cannot simply say a rosary in the same house as Valjean, it feels too perfunctory. He tries. He fails.
He watches Valjean when he prays. He tries to study the prayer and not the man.
"May I pray with you?" he asks, one morning, and he wishes Valjean would not smile like that.
"You are still, I think, afraid of something," Valjean says. They are kneeling together.
"I am terrified of not being damned," Javert says. "When I thought I surely was, there was –" He swallows. "I permitted myself great license."
Valjean's hand finds his and they do not let go of each other.
"I will not see you despair," Valjean says.
"You are strong," Javert says, "but I do not believe even you have the strength to drag me up."
Much wine is an indulgence neither of them has permitted himself. But the anniversary of the barricade cannot come without some recognition.
"It was – never good, but – strangely impressive to see you, always at your post," Valjean says, from the depths of the second bottle. "Always steady on, like clockwork."
"Steady," Javert says, as though tasting the word. "I looked steady?"
"We were always so close," Valjean says. "Does that not strike you, now?"
"Guard and prisoner are two backs of the same coin," Javert spits. "God might almost miss the difference in His rounding."
"Not you," Valjean says.
"No," Javert says. "I suppose not."
"We made ourselves to suit our clothes." Valjean's fingers toy with the tablecloth. "Does that not strike you? You your uniform. I my convict's clothes."
Javert takes another swallow. "Your mayor's chain."
"You were so much more devoted than you needed to be," Valjean says.
Javert finishes the bottle, a little careless. "I was so much surer then," Javert says. "Of everything."
Valjean finishes his. "Do you have people left, there?"
Javert looks at him. "None I would miss."
Valjean nods. "Scum," he supplies.
"If I'd looked down for a moment, I could as easily have been beside you tugging at the chain," Javert says. "It would have been the easiest thing."
Valjean nods. "You should be proud."
Javert's mouth twitches. "That is an instruction I have seldom received." He twists it into a frown. "I would not have lasted long, I think," he says. "I have not your strength."
Valjean smiles. "I think you have."
"Perhaps you would have lent me yours." Javert tilts the bottle again.
"You've got –" Valjean touches his own lip. Javert looks bewildered; Valjean reaches for him, thumbs the crease of his lip.
"Will you come to bed," Javert says, bold suddenly, leaning nearer to kiss him, the words a little careless, and the kiss is a mess of tongues and grasping hands.
"I thought of one thing we have always had in common," Valjean says, laughter in his eyes.
"What?" Javert asks.
"The Thenardiers," Valjean says. "We always hated them."
"I wonder what became of them."
"That sort of scum never sinks too low," Javert murmurs, running his hands up Valjean's sides. He has always marveled at Valjean's strength.
They stumble upstairs together. "You always wanted me like this," Valjean says, catching him in the corner of the stairwell.
"Hardly," Javert says, tugging at his shirt. They stumble up five steps. Valjean shoves him back against the paneling and parts his legs, and Javert is embarrassed by the sound he makes. "Perhaps in dreams," he mutters, his voice rough. "But what man can help his dreams?" Valjean bites his neck and he cries out; Valjean's tongue teases along the ridge of his ear; Valjean lifts him against the wall, and he had never dreamed of this, if there is no Valjean in heaven he does not wish to go. "But you did not want me."
"I wanted to break you," Valjean admits, undoing buttons. "I wanted to cure you of forever looking down at me."
"And have you not?"
"You are taller," Valjean says, mock-grave, and when a corner of Javert's mouth twitches upwards in response he kisses it.
Javert tugs him down onto the bed and kisses him again, more decorous. "Tell me what you wanted then," he murmurs.
Valjean does. The man's sure hands divest him of the remnant of his clothes and Valjean takes him and does not spare him. "You like this," Jean says, wonderingly, against his shoulder. "You like taking me."
Javert shudders, nods, close to the brink. "Command me anything," he gasps.
In answer Jean pulls free of him, pushes him on his back, shoves his legs open with a grunt. "I want you to watch."
Javert bites his lip. Javert tries to escape the eyes. Valjean does not move.
"Look up," Valjean says.
"You would not tease me now?" Javert gasps, and at Valjean's strangled chuckle he has to look up, and when their gazes meet Valjean takes him again, a groan dragged from both their lips.
"All this time," Javert gasps. "Please, Jean."
"I've taught you my name at least," Valjean says, and Javert cants his hips up towards him.
"I've always known your name."
Valjean grins, brow furrowed, his thrusts growing less controlled. "I know," he says.
Javert is not sure how Cosette finds the house, with Marius stumbling behind her stammering excuses.
"Inspector?" she asks. She is with child. He knows he must look startling.
"Retired," he says.
As Valjean talks to the girl –no, woman, she is a woman now – Javert tries to think of plausible explanations for them, for how on earth he might wind up here. He can think of none that are not shameful. Men like him, men like Valjean – what do they make, together?
Marius seems to wonder as much. But if he does he says nothing.
Cosette seems satisfied enough by Valjean's vague explanations. She has the look of a child weaned on vague explanations. She kisses Valjean's hand.
"You are a good father," Javert tells him, later. Valjean looks worried.
"I worry," he says. "Have I been?"
"It is objectively clear," Javert says.
Valjean reaches over and presses his hand.
"You will be a good grandfather," Javert says.
He has grown habituated to their coupling. He has always been locked in struggle with Valjean and sex is a form of struggle, there is a hidden logic to it, there is a reason all the verbs sound like cities being destroyed and citadels flung down. He understands taking and being taken, he has tried Valjean's strength before. Their kisses are long arguments.
What puzzles him is not the moments in the depths of Valjean's bed with the mattress straining – they are not young men by any means, but abstemious years have given them strange vigor to jounce a bed – but the other ones. He stands by the window gazing out into the night and Valjean comes to stand beside him. One morning he polishes all the silver and Valjean pulls his chair close at the table where Javert leans over this work and presses his hand. There is something of such inexpressible sweetness in the gesture, like Valjean has sighted someone he thought lost coming home through a dark wood. Javert kisses him.
The next week he tries to mend a chair. It goes less well. He curses himself. Valjean laughs. Javert kisses him to shut him up. They are making love on a protesting chair when Javert notices that this is what they are doing, wonders when it became making love and not – bestial dark fumblings, sudden surrenders. Probably it has been for some time.
Valjean is the first of them who dares to say it.
"No you don't," Javert says.
"Of course I do," Valjean says. "Give me so much credit at least for knowing my own mind."
"How could you?" Javert says, feeling a little more and less than everything. "I would hardly describe myself as loveable."
Valjean presses a kiss to his knuckles. Valjean has a knack for such eloquent gestures.
"Are we damned?" Javert asks.
"I do not think the Lord will punish us for loving. But I have never been as sure as you. And perhaps you do not--"
Javert catches the hand, brings it to his own lips. Catching the smile in Valjean's eyes is like falling upward into the sky.
"I have belonged to you all this time," he mutters. It is admission enough.