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A Remission Before God

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Valjean summoned a fiacre from along the Quai de Gesvres and lifted Javert into it. The driver exclaimed about the blood on Javert's clothes and the likely stains on the Utrecht velvet of his carriage and Valjean promised there would be additional napoleons for the man's trouble.

Javert had the distinct sense of being transported back in time to the terrible night of the insurgency. Once more there were the bloody clothes, the fiacre, the sense of the foundations of his world being pulled down brick by brick and he being unable to stop it.

He kept revisiting the events of the day in his mind. What could he have done differently? Should he in fact have taken the risk of trying to get the gun away from Nouvel when they first left the Bureau? Or ought he to have suggested they go into deep hiding, as he had at first considered before deciding to take Nouvel to the Notre-Dame, paying for a covert room in some unlicensed establishment, so that he could have taken the time to persuade the young prisoner to give himself up? Had Javert’s eagerness to remain in the public sphere, his impatience for his own rescue, his own mis-step regarding Nouvel’s propensity to sudden rages, all worked together to condemn Nouvel irretrievably?

Nouvel's death had unmoored something within him — he felt helpless, cast adrift in the open sea. If he, Javert, could not put right this mortal error, could not save one lost soul, how could he see himself redeemed from everything he had done?

He might have left the banks of the Seine behind, but its unquiet currents had not left him.

"Can you walk?" Valjean asked gently when they reached Rue de l’Homme-Armé. The answer to this was yes, of course, although Valjean nevertheless was required to support most of his weight as Javert's cramped muscles buckled under the strain of the long day.

Toussaint had left soup for them, but Javert could barely look at the food, even though he had not had a proper meal since the morning. Valjean too had other priorities. "Let us get you clean," he said, helping Javert over to the couch.

Valjean set about lighting the fire, then he brought the large basin of water and washcloths and a nightshirt from Javert's room and set them by the hearthside. He unclasped and removed Javert's greatcoat. Nouvel's blood had soaked through to the waistcoat and trousers underneath. Gently but efficiently, he drew off Javert's boots and outer garments; they discovered that Javert's shirt and small clothes were also marked with blood now so dark it was almost black.

"Permit me," Valjean said, and in his exhaustion Javert allowed his friend to draw off the rest of his clothing until he was naked before the fire.

It transpired that the blood had soaked through the fabric of Javert's clothes to mark his skin. There were streaks of blood on Javert's forearms, on his knees where he had fallen to the cobblestones, on his thighs and hands where he had cradled the dying man in his lap and prayed in vain that he might live.

Valjean knelt beside the basin, immersed a washcloth in the water and began to cleanse the blood from Javert's flesh. His touch was gentle, almost reverent. Despite himself Javert had the blasphemous thought of Christ on his knees washing the disciples' feet, although he could not imagine Christ might look thus, all brawny masculinity and strength. After all, his friend was a mortal man, not some image of saintly perfection.

Valjean had loosened his collar and folded his shirt-sleeves heedlessly up his arms, the secrets of his past displayed on his broad body for anyone with eyes to see them. The firelight made his skin ruddy, the corded muscles working as he washed the crusted blood away in long, soothing strokes. Again Javert could not help but be moved by the sight of this powerful man, built for brutality and violence, instead tending to him with infinite care.

Valjean sponged the skin and the thick hair on the backs of Javert's forearms and his hands until the blood was gone. Javert had somehow managed to bruise his knee and gash the palms of his hands on the cobblestones, and Valjean swabbed the hurts clean and fetched a salve and bandage for the worst scrapes.

After he had done this, he cupped Javert’s face in his hands, mapping the bones very gently with his fingers. His thumb brushed across a place on Javert’s brow that made him flinch, and another along his cheekbone.

“Do these hurt?”

“Barely,” Javert said, between his teeth.

Without further comment, Valjean took up another clean washcloth and pressed it to the bruises; he applied a small amount of salve, and then carefully wiped the rest of Javert’s brow and whiskers until Javert’s face was clean.

When he was done, with another washcloth he began to cleanse the rest of the sweat and grime from Javert's body. It took some time: Valjean was thorough as well as tender, washing Javert's back, the nape of his neck, his arms and chest and belly, his legs, with the customary care he adopted in all things.

When it came to the place between Javert's thighs, Valjean hesitated. It could not be the first time he was looking at another man's unclothed genitals, not after nineteen years in Toulon, but the mixture of awkwardness and awe in his sidelong gaze made it seem that he had never set eyes on Javert's before, at least not since everything had changed between them.

Javert felt his heartbeat begin to speed up. Slowly, despite his turmoil of spirit, under Valjean's shy regard, his flesh began to rouse after all.

"Is this all right?" Valjean asked, tentatively.

"Yes, if it is all right with you," Javert said. The old fears seemed suddenly far away, compared with the very real terrors this day had brought.

Valjean wiped carefully between Javert's thighs, the thick organ and the unruly mat of hair, neither avoiding or lingering, and that was indeed all right, more than all right, even. Valjean's willingness to touch Javert's bare body, his acceptance of Javert's arousal, was unaccountably moving. Javert closed his eyes, leaned back against the couch, and committed himself into Valjean's hands.

"Lift your feet," Valjean said. He placed Javert's feet into the basin and scooped water onto Javert's sore toes.

Javert looked down; the water in the basin had turned the colour of blood. He barely suppressed a shudder.

"Are you cold?" Valjean asked, frowning, towelling off Javert's feet. "Let us put your nightshirt on."

"I am not cold," Javert said, as Valjean pulled the cotton over his head. "Just ... I did not realise how much blood there would be."

"There was a lot of blood," Valjean agreed. He smoothed the nightshirt across Javert’s collarbones, and then looked up into Javert's eyes. "I was at first so afraid some of it was yours."

Javert cupped his hand around Valjean's wrist, unable to hold Valjean's gaze nor to speak for a long moment.

"I was afraid too," he confessed finally. "I was careless, Nouvel flew into one of his rages, and I feared for my own life. And because of it the man is dead."

"You are not to blame yourself," Valjean whispered. "It is a terrible thing that poor boy was killed. But you did everything you could today, for the colleagues whom he endangered, and for him."

"That is the point," Javert said. He was filled with self-loathing as turbulent as the Seine at night. "It was I who condemned Nouvel in the first place, I who endangered those colleagues. And even though I tried to make amends for it, though I tried to convince him of his worth and of God's love, I condemned him yet again. If I could not put right this wrong, how can I expect a remission from God for the rest of my sins?"

Valjean put the bloodied basin to one side; he rose from his knees and seated himself on the couch beside Javert.

"You have been living for God's higher purposes since He saved you from the river," he told Javert. "You have kept the sacraments, you have made contrition and confession, you have tried to walk in mercy. God and his priests will not stint from extending an indulgence for your sins."

"You see," Javert said, bitterly, "I do not know what might be sufficient contrition. If I truly walked in mercy, as you say, I ought to have been able to save Nouvel."

He struggled for composure. "That angry boy was as you might have been, Jean, had you not encountered the Bishop. I thought... I thought if I could show him the same love and compassion as you were shown, I might have been able to help him change his life as you changed yours." He swallowed roughly. "Instead, I failed. It may be that I am always doomed to fail, to require punishment rather than deserve forgiveness."

"You did not fail," Valjean said. "You saved your colleagues by sacrificing yourself. And I saw how Nouvel forgave you, how he sought forgiveness at the last."

Javert shook his head, gripped by his sense of distress and failure. "He died!" he said furiously."He died because I was afraid, because I was stupid and thought only of myself, because I could not show him enough love. He died because I did not help him months ago, because I could not save him today. I could not save him, Jean! How can I myself deserve salvation?"

His bandaged hands had formed themselves into fists; trembling with effort, he made himself unclench them.

"My dear." Valjean took Javert’s hands in his, running his thumbs over the bony ridges of knuckle, the rough gauze, the paper-thin skin. "Jacques Nouvel may have been doomed to die, and neither you nor anyone else could have saved his life. But you may have saved his immortal soul from condemnation, as the Bishop saved mine, and beyond question you are redeemed from what you think you failed to do for me, as well."

Javert wrestled with this for a long moment. "Would that that were true," he murmured finally. "Is there so much mercy in the world, that I could be granted a remission for all this sin?"

"God's mercy is all around us," Valjean said steadily. "It is here, in this house where He has drawn us both together after so many years of fear. This life we have made would only have been possible by God's grace, by His infinite mercy."

Javert felt himself swayed by the force of Valjean's words, the simple comfort of his friend's broad shoulder. A wave of dizziness swept over him, exhaustion and hurt from his injuries settling into his bones and finally overtaking him.

"You do really believe God would forgive my cowardice?" he ventured.

"You are one of the bravest men I know," Valjean told him. He kissed Javert gently on the mouth. "Come, you need to get to bed before you fall over."

Javert struggled to his feet. The spiralling currents of the Seine reached for him, beckoning and fatal. Sleep would have seemed a terrifying prospect were it not for Valjean's presence at his side, a steady anchor against which he could ride out the storm.

Catching himself by surprise, he asked his friend, "Will you stay with me tonight?"

"Gladly," Valjean said, and took his hand.