1934. - strength
Monsieur Madeleine wedges himself beneath the cart, huge hands splayed out and sinking into the mud.
The crowd witter and scatter about, mumbling prayers and encouragement. Some of the younger men, spurred on by the mayor’s display, leap forward and clutch of the bottom of the cart and heave up.
The gentleman’s shirt dampened by soil and dust, the muscles writhing beneath the skin greyed with sunspots. Madeleine growls; a deep, throaty howl, and his features coarsen and strengthen beneath the load. The mighty arms tremble.
When the man is free, does the Mayor stagger out and shaking, accept his coat from a kind overseer.
Javert is not far away. His knuckles are blanched white.
1935. - epilogue
The ticking of the clock is the only witness to their strange little tea party.
Javert is so many things; the squeak of leather boots along the galley floor, the glisten of hungry eyes in the dark, the warning tap of the cudgel against the bars if the prisoners dared to get too rowdy. Javert is trepidation; Javert is return to rotting bread and dry, thin grog. Javert is the wrestle of muscle that drags the oars until the sight is feverish and pricked with red. Javert is bone breaking labor beneath a sun so hot it could have been flung up from hell itself.
But this doughy faced man he'd found toying with the manacles in his hands and blustering beneath his breath, looks oddly dejected, powerless beneath the candlelight. His lower lip is quivering; the cup he holds in his hand jerks sporadically, and he keeps clearing his throat.
In the next room, they both hear Cosette comforting Marius in tender tones, who weeps and mumbles the name "Eponine."
Valjean thinks of the droopy eyed girl, the girl with the tired sneer and tumbling curls, the girl who sized him up beneath the upward turn of her lashes. He hadn't realised she was dead.
A clatter of china. Valjean's head snaps up; all impending irritation dissolves at the sight of the tea spoiling the carpet, of the tremble ripping through Javert's body and his voice, that pompous and devious voice he had come to loathe, bumbling out of the ex-guard in pathetic bursts.
"The law." He stares up at Valjean with his saucer eyes. "I've betrayed it."
The implication of it all hits Valjean; the extension of his time with Cosette, the defeated figure of his ex-tormenter, the drag of the night that seemed to never end...! Javert, that Javert, was letting him go.
The wave of relief is like a touch from God. His knees can't hold it; he sinks into the nearest armchair, his face melting into a blissful smile of which feels far too long in coming. No more hunts, no more fear tousled nights, no more pain in separation from his dearest Cosette and her suitor. Heaven is smiling down at him.
And then, with the set of this new stability, the world around him swims once more into cohesion and he becomes aware of the shaking figure opposite him.
Compassion, since he'd arrived at the door with an unconscious Marius slung over his back and a hound of the law at his heels, had seemed sapped and alien. But now, with Javert's crippling discovery of a higher reason beyond the law, it falls on him in gentle strokes and he lifts himself, and so careful, so cautious, he crosses the room and lays a steady hand on Javert's wrist.
Javert flinches as if burnt, but Valjean persists.
"No," He kneels in front of Javert, who quakes and tries to free his hands, but Valjean is adamant. "You have just reached a greater understanding of humanity. This is a miracle, Monsieur Inspector. Do not waste it."
Javert continues to shake his head and bluster, tries to retort, but his words fail into jumbling nonsense and Valjean's grip remains as insistent as ever.
There is no escape from the holy burn of Valjean's eyes, from the solid lock of his smile, and Javert, exhausted with holding back humiliating tears, bows his head forward until it touches the rise of Valjean's knuckles.
There is silence then, and Javert continues to shiver, even as the candlesticks crackle bright and merciless on the mantelpiece, and Valjean's hold on him remains as strong and stalwart as any chain from the galleys that he had once lorded over.
1952. - loopholes
He leads the man back in.
They're both soaked and stinking. Valjean is still exhausted, but his stride is strong and purposeful and beneath Javert's soiled cape, his hand is gripped tight to the officer's wrist, who shadows him in silence.
Marius is awake and encased in Cosette's arms when they re-enter the lounge. The small crowd of spectators part to let him through; Cosette laughs through her tears and buries her head in Valjean's chest. The attendant smiles and the maid clasps her hands together in prayer.
Javert stands apart, his hands hanging by his sides. He considers, for a single moment, the possibility of returning to the dark bank and the dark water that has made the bottoms of his boots sodden and leaking. But the candlesticks on the mantel bloom in soft washes of light that reflects in the inside of Valjean's eyes, which are firmly on Javert and nothing else.
It does not do really. In fact, it does not do at all, but Cosette offers him a small, tearful smile and the maid brings him overly sweetened tea and the attendant Robert, usually so volatile, fixes him with a suspicious but none the less concerned stare.
He's "helped" out of his wet clothes, checked over for any fevers by the departing doctor, and wrapped in a blanket. He sits mutely, watching Marius stir in fevered rest, and his mind churns and grinds and ticks away, for loopholes are something Javert has never even been able to fathom (and the fact that their very existence once had been an insult to his iron principles.) But when midnight strikes, and Valjean, in a quiet and careful voice, offers him a bed for the night, Javert can just plainly not think any more.
1957. - admiration
The broad shoulders of the convict cut out the sun; the boy Javert stands and observes this chained, crude creature, breaking open rock with his burly arms and dullard eyes.
When his father's back is turned, the other prisoners spit and swat at the boy, never close enough to harm (God forbid they face his guardian's wrath) but they threat and warn others that the child is a snitch, and to stay away lest the little hands pull on his father’s cuff and point.
Jean Valjean growls and grunts with each heave and haul of his labour, and sometimes he catches the child's eye, but he never makes a move to approach the boy or beg for more rations (as some of the more deluded and desperate have.) He just continues to dig and burrow and carry, lazily chewing his black bread and gruel, and the other prisoners duck from and hide from his sight. The boy Javert finds himself watching him more than the others.
His father's hand claps down hard on his back.
"See that man?" He gestures to Valjean, who stills for the barest of seconds, the solid muscle on his back suddenly seeming to strain. "He has attempted to escape twice. A wily brute; you are not to trust him. The quiet ones are the ones we trust the least."
And just like that, the boy’s attentions turn brusque and hard and righteous, and Valjean's shoulders slump just a little more.
1964. - charity
He doesn't take much company, minus the papers that build in stacks on his desk and the occasional pinch of snuff he keeps in a copper plated box that sits in his upper pockets. His other constant companion lives in the form of his trusty cigar, held in place between the trembling brackets of his wide, white teeth.
His inferiors staple their gazes to the floor, on his feet; to over his shoulder and onto the opposite wall, need they ever seek counsel from him. It is not a bother to Javert. At times, he even smiles (and yes, he is capable of such a thing) and it is a sight that makes men wilt. No matter; it is a sign of wariness, a form of respect in its own right. And it was the only flavour of respect he is ever going to receive in his own division.
None the less, the law in all its frugal purities is enough company for a man, even if his mind stews and ambles through the frustration of unspoken monologue, of the gnash and drag of solitary evenings spent squinting through tomes that ring his patience in circles and chewing his way through cigars that pile up cinders in his ash tray.
Monsieur Madeleine is a different breed of man; a man of charity, a man who tips his hat to the lowest commoner and his trusted inspector on the same street, a man who is fool enough to fall prey to the mad ramblings of a deranged whore and to humiliate his faithful inspector in front of his own men.
A man whom he, Javert, had falsely accused of being an escaped convict.
His confession unravels from his lips as Madeleine grows increasingly more still. And when he begins, Javert finds he can't stop, and all that is pent and bound and locked within the filing cabinet of his mind is flung loose and clatters in the echo of his loud, selfish dither of a voice, and yet Madeleine sits, his head in his hands, and does not disturb Javert.
Javert does not believe in the concepts of charity, and yet he accepts it none the less.
1972. - doubt
Valjean, older and withered and with hair as white as heaven, brings the knife to the crux of his jaw; careful, diligent, more a barber then a butcher.
The blade, so close to Javert's skin, so close to the pound of blood humming through his neck, misses the flesh and works its way through the rope instead.
Javert, no longer trussed up and tied, feels the warning jab of a gun barrel in his back and hides his smile.
As they near the door, there is a sudden combustion of brick and wood above, and Javert feels the hard, urgent impress of Valjean's fingers as he is yanked sharply out of the way of any incoming rubble.
Valjean's breath is warm and hurried on the back of Javert's neck, and for a moment they just are. But justice is waiting and so Javert is lead out into the alley. The memory of Valjean's grip burns him like a cattle brand and the first beginnings of doubt, a cold niggle at the back of his mind, only manages to combine and consume him as he hisses at Valjean to end it, for his convict, with steady eyes and hair like heaven, is letting him go.
1978. - companion
Cosette is fascinated by Papa's new friend.
Papa rarely had any friends when she was a child, only associates and charity workers and the beggars in whom he was always quick to provide alms for. Her generous and soft faced Papa, of whom she adored, had remained as solitary as a hermit, and now she was no longer around to give him company, the idea of his long and lonely years stung her with guilty fear.
But Papa had recently taken up with a new...lodger? She isn't exactly warm on the details, but lately another figure had been accompanying him for his afternoon walks, a stately and steel backed man in a greatcoat and top hat, grey and grizzled and unsmiling. His retaliations to any kind of humble conversation is one of world weary snark, albeit he is always polite to her (for Papa is always watching) and less so to her new beau (whom her saintly Papa is always slow to correct.)
She isn't sure about the man, for something about him brings to mind a creeping shadow snatching away at the golden edges of her happy childhood with Papa. But whatever it is becomes lost as she notes the brief flashes of fragmented panic in the man's eyes if Papa strays a little too far from his side, or moves too close to suspicious persons in his endless pursuit for fairness and charity.
Whatever it is, it doesn't seem to matter for Papa seems to enjoy his new companion, however offish and awkward he may be, and Cosette is content with that.
1998. - bats
When Fantine touches him for the first time, her hand is small and soft and weak on the curve of his cheek, and the tiny pressure is enough to whip the air from his throat. Tiny attempts at tenderness, barely enough to sooth her pain but it is all it takes to pierce him down to his core. The Bishop, with his kindly face and the candlesticks; pure silver weighted with the pull of his guilt and promises. But Fantine, with her sweetness tinged with sorrow (and her eyes, her eyes on him, fraught with a kind of nervous longing, and he won't pretend he doesn't see it) touches not just the saint, but the man.
The Inspector spreads his shadow across them like the opening wings of a great bat, circling the fragile beginnings of their happiness like a vulture. Valjean focuses on keeping Fantine well (and he prays each night, and tries hard not to hope for the tiny feet of Cosette and the blissful face of Fantine, and the two of them smiling up at him like angels) and shies from Javert and the terrible hatred rooted in a past that claws through the silences that linger between them.
And a heat he sees, a heat he had sensed, both five years prior in the hot hell of dust and agony, in the cruel lines that surround the sneer forever threatening his Inspector's mouth. And there are nights when civilised thought flees him and the glow of the candles can't shimmer away the cold sweat on his flesh when he dreams of that wiry and rigid body, tense and shaking beneath him and the taste of evil salt copper in his mouth. And over his shoulder, Javert turns his head (chestnut hair rumpled and matted and sticking to the crown of his neck) and smirks in triumph.
And when Fantine (pallid and tiny and transparently thin) falls away into the sight of God, Valjean struggles to his feet, limping with the ache in his ribs (where the boot had struck, as if to remind him of what came before and what most certainly might come again) and turns to look into Javert's eyes, he sees nothing but the beetle black of his hate.
And so he binds the man with the iron instruments of the law he loathes (the cuffs, as heavy as any manacle clamped down around a convict's neck) and smashes the spiteful face into the wall (not to kill, just to stun; he is so tempted, but Fantine is still there, suspended in peaceful serenity, and the candlesticks sit in his rucksack, and are heavy enough already) and he takes the Bishop's blessing and the memory of Fantine's smile, and away he runs, leaving the one curse of his existence sprawled out on the floor.
2000. - diversion
He pretends to not hear Valjean's voice beating down on the wind.The carriage bumps over the gravel and he remains seated; aware of a numbness squeezing down his throat, down to his chest, and spreading out into the pit of his lower stomach. Later, he may go for a walk along the Seine as he used to as a young man, to clear his head.
Valjean's yell is stronger now, and he is aware of the driver starting and the horses startling, and Javert blinks once, twice, his brow lightly furrowing.
Two huge hands affix themselves on the back of the carriage, and the cab is almost toppled as the door is nearly left hanging off its hinges.
Valjean, stinking and sweating and stained with moonlight, stands as a panting silhouette in the doorway.
"Valjean," Javert clicks his tongue. "I had no idea you were so keen to be arrested."
"Javert," Valjean peers in the cab, as if expecting the grim reaper to be sitting and leering opposite, scythe outstretched toward his long-time nemesis. Javert is conscious of a twitch beginning to develop in his temple. "This isn't like you."
"Another wondrous deduction," Javert hails for the driver to continue; the cab lurches forward, only for Valjean to yank at the door, nearly snapping off the handle. The horses snort and stamp their hoofs; the driver swears loudly. Javert sighs and rubs the space between his eyes. "What drew you to that conclusion?"
"Javert," Valjean says quickly; he places one large, steading foot in the carriage, as if to hold it there. "Come back with me."
"You're exhausted," The saintly giant gestures with his humungous hands. "You have been through much, as have I. Come back and rest."
The numbness inside Javert's gut begins to subside, to be replaced with a dull ache. It's new and utterly terrifying.
"No, I do not think so."
"I am fearful for you, Javert."
"Fearful? Need I remind you that I hold your life in my hands? I could go back on it easily. You know that."
Valjean's gaze is a flash in the darkness. The moon is too bright tonight, too bare and open and clean.
"I know you won't." Valjean is still there, why on God's earth is he still there? "And you know it too."
Javert curls his lip.
"And I take it you are now an expert in these matters?"
"Javert." If a warning could ever sound compassionate, then Valjean is the only man who can perform that feat. "Come now. We're too old for these games."
Javert is too tired, too weary in his bones for these new developments. There are rope burns on his wrists, the stink of the sewer and the student’s blood a haunt on his clothes. And after all of this, Valjean still stands there, a fearsome and filth ridden angel; strength still pouring through his being, and his inexhaustible stamina, Javert realises, is not just physical.
"If you must."
Valjean smiles and releasing the carriage, shouts out a new order to the driver.
He clamours in, and sinks into the seat opposite.
Javert's nostrils pinch.
Valjean laughs, short and rough.
"I shall bathe later, Inspector Javert."
"One can hope. Consider it another generous donation to humanity, Valjean."
1982. - resolution
He finds his way through the chain gang; the sky is bright and the ground is thick with muck. His hat is missing, and he thinks that it had toppled off in the seine, but the moist and burdensome prison is no longer is a trap on his limbs. None the less, he is propelled forward by a renewed purpose. He is faithful to his duties, as always.
He finds his convict. A shambling man, old and browbeaten by life, pulling the weight of the cross in the shape of a large cart.
The greying head looks up, as Javert looks down. The surrounding blather of the docks dwindles away into white noise.
Valjean's face is unreadable.
"Now," Javert places his hands behind his back, and stands to attention. "You are free."
As everything else fades, their stares remain rooted on the other, and soon there is nothing, as if there has ever been anything more, then merely them.