After a year and a half of writing this behemoth, please enjoy the conclusion of my heart lies buried, just in time for the anniversary of Javert's derailment. Thank you for your patience, and I hope you enjoy the story!
Thanks go out to a few people: first and foremost, my amazing beta ailelie, without whom this story would not have been half as good. She kept me on the right track, endured my constant whining of, "but I want the story to be done, and helped me every step of the way.
Secondly, to my miseres friends, who offered encouragement, historical fact-checking, and advice on characterization and certain lines, and who are just overall great people. Everyone's been helpful at some point, but my brain is terrible and I've forgotten half of the contributions individuals have made. Still, you guys are amazing. Thanks so much for your support and friendship.
And now without further ado, enjoy the final chapter!
Javert dipped his pen into the inkwell, and found the inkwell dry. He blinked in surprise, and then fought back the exhaustion which weighed down his eyelids and made them want to remain shut. He examined the inkwell, frowning. Hadn't it been full when he had begun to write his report on the Bissette case?
Raising his head, he glanced towards the window and realized that it was mid-afternoon. It had been only two hours past dawn when he had sat down at his desk to write his final report of the case, carefully omitting all references to the Pontmercy family and focusing on how the search for the fugitive Thénardier had led the police to Bissette's washhouse where Thénardier's daughter worked, and that Bissette's suspicious behavior during that investigation had brought him to the police's attention.
At least the report would be almost the opposite of his final report on Thénardier, he thought with some satisfaction. Bissette and his fellow smugglers had nearly unanimously surrendered once they'd realized they were caught. Two had attempted to run, but Dubois had caught the first with an enthusiastic lunge and a sharp-eyed officer by the name of Thibault had captured the second with a quick sweep of his cane. There had been no major injuries; even Thibault's smuggler had only suffered a bruise or two.
Javert shook out his hand, which had cramped upon his realization of how long he had been writing. Then he considered the report. The greater part of it was done, but he had yet to write his suggestions for commendations. Dubois and Thibault had each earned one, certainly, but even at his most irritating Laurent had proved diligent and useful. And no money had been mislaid this time, Javert thought with a twist of his lips. Also, there was the matter of Azelma. She should receive something for her aid, especially since her efforts had possibly cost her position, with the washhouse likely to close.
He frowned at the thought. Perhaps he would rest just a moment before he fetched more ink. Javert started to stretch and then stopped, wincing, at the loud creaking protest from his spine. He reached for the pitcher of water instead, intending to pour himself a glass.
Javert sighed. He let his hand drop from the pitcher's handle. "Yes, Laurent," he said. He did not bother to disguise his exhausted irritation but as was his want, Laurent seemed not to notice Javert's temper, smiling at him. In fact, Laurent seemed almost overcome with good humor, all but bouncing on his heels as he came to stand before Javert's desk.
"I just heard the good news, monsieur!"
"The good news?"
"The news of Bissette's washhouse, of course," Laurent said, and then smiled that idiotic grin of his once more.
Javert stared. He wished he had gotten to drink some water before Laurent had come in. Perhaps that might have cleared some of the weary fog from his mind. He could not understand Laurent and his nonsense at all.
He said, slowly, "The news of Bissette's washhouse? Laurent, you were there when we arrested the man. Did you take a blow to your head while I was working on the report and forget?"
"No, no, monsieur, the purchase of the washhouse!"
Javert gave in to the temptation to rub at his forehead, which had begun to ache. "Laurent, I have heard nothing of the purchase of the washhouse," he said. Then the words actually sank in and he straightened, something like hope fluttering in his stomach. "Wait. Do you mean to tell me that someone has bought it and intends to keep it open?"
Laurent's enthusiasm had given way to confusion as Javert spoke. He answered cautiously. "Well, yes, monsieur, but did he not discuss the purchase with you? I thought you and Monsieur Pontmercy were friends."
Javert stared. "What has Monsieur Pontmercy...?" he began and then stopped. Suspicion turned his hands into fists where they rested upon the desk. "Did Monsieur Pontmercy-"
"He purchased the washhouse this morning, monsieur," said Laurent. He blinked, something like astonishment in his eyes. "Did you not suggest it to him?"
"No," Javert said. The word came out flat. He did not know what look was on his face, but whatever was in his expression made Laurent lean away from the desk and stammer out an, "I am sorry, monsieur, I assumed-"
"And that is why you are still a sergeant and not yet an inspector, Laurent. You assume too much and leap to conclusions too easily," Javert snapped. "Now, if you are quite finished, I need to complete the Bissette report and give it to Monsieur le Prefect."
"Yes, monsieur," Laurent said, drooping a little, his smile completely fled. He slunk to the door and closed it behind him with a click that somehow managed to sound apologetic.
Javert stared at the door for a long moment. His thoughts moved almost sluggishly, his mounting frustration making it difficult to think. So Valjean had used Pontmercy's name to purchase the washhouse. He had not mentioned that plan to Javert. If he had, Javert would have- he would have-
"So he will buy the washhouse and absolve me of my guilt," he said into the silence. He smiled without humor. "I wonder what he will do the next time I have to arrest someone. Open up his house to their family, I suppose."
Anger soured the words on his tongue. He drank some water, but it did no good. The bitterness remained in his mouth through his completion of the report, his meal that a groveling Laurent brought to him, and his verbal report to Gisquet. The taste lingered even as he hailed a cab and directed the driver to the Rue des Filles-du Calvaire.
"Monsieur Javert," Yount said at the gate. His expression was a mixture of puzzlement and mild alarm before it smoothed into a polite, albeit somewhat baffled look. He opened the gate, adding, "I am sorry, monsieur. M. Fauchelevent did not say to expect you. Dinner has just been served, shall I-"
"I need to speak with Monsieur Fauchelevent privately." The words came out harsher than he'd intended, and Javert grimaced as Yount's expression turned wooden. He cleared his throat, said with effort to keep his tone polite, "Excuse me. I assure you that the conversation will be brief and then he can return to his meal."
Yount's expression remained stiff. He said only, "Yes, monsieur. If you will step inside so that I can close the gate, I will speak to Monsieur Fauchelevent."
Javert clasped his hands behind his back; he did not pace, though he was tempted. Instead he swallowed down the sour taste still in his mouth and tried to prepare something to say to Valjean that would not be as harsh as he had just been with Yount. He had only just begun to compose something when Yount returned with Valjean.
"Javert," Valjean said. He wore a half-pleased, half-hesitant smile, one which dimmed when Javert turned towards him. Valjean stopped a few feet away, and looked back at him for a few seconds. His gaze moved up and down Javert's frame, apparently taking in his lack of injury as well as his ill-humor. Then Valjean said, "Thank you, Yount." His tone was kind but firm, a gentle dismissal.
Once Yount had entered the house and was out of earshot, Javert cleared his throat.
"Javert," Valjean said, raising a supplicating hand. "Obviously you have heard about Marius purchasing the washhouse. If you will let me explain-"
"Let you explain what, precisely? That you apparently bought the washhouse to absolve me of guilt?" Javert snapped, but Valjean did not flinch at the accusation, only frowned and shook his head.
"That was not anyone's intention. I mentioned to Cosette your concern that the washhouse would close and the workers lose their jobs. She-"
"Do not tell me that it was yourdaughter's idea to buy the washhouse!" Javert said, and only realized that he had shouted when the words rang through the courtyard. Quieter, but no less fiercely, he said, "What does your daughter know of business? This has the mark of-" He stopped before he could say Madeleine, clenched his teeth until the urge had passed. Instead he asked sourly, "And does your daughter imagine herself a businesswoman, then?"
"Not at all, inspector! I am afraid my convent education did not teach me much of business. A little of history and music, something of geography and art, but very little else. Perhaps some of the housekeeping and mathematics I learned will prove useful but not much else! Still, with Papa's assistance, I thought I might try my hand at it. Why should I not spend my and Marius's money to help Mademoiselle Thénardier and the other women keep their positions?"
Javert had not heard Cosette approach, and found his view of Valjean suddenly impeded by her figure. She wore a smile, though it did not reach her eyes. She said, the light tone belying the warning glint in her eyes, "Marius shall have his law practice, and I shall have my washhouse."
Javert's frustration ebbed, replaced by uncertainty and the creeping suspicion that he had made a misstep. He looked between Cosette and Valjean, who both smiled at him, though Cosette's still did not reach her eyes. Javert tried to take some comfort in the fact that Valjean's smile seemed genuine and contained no trace of hurt. Belatedly, he tipped his hat to Cosette, muttered, "Excuse me, madame. I had thought-"
"You thought it was my father's idea. Yes, I heard as much. I suspect the entire household did," Cosette said. She planted her hands on her hips and smiled all the more fiercely at him. "But I assure you, it was my idea."
"I asked her to wait and let me speak with you first," Valjean said mildly.
"But I was too impatient," Cosette said with no trace of apology in her voice. "If you must scold anyone, monsieur, scold me. Papa told me to wait and ask your opinion on the matter, for he felt you might have some objection. It seems that he was right about this upsetting you, though I cannot think why!"
Javert cleared his throat. "I thought-" He paused and recalled his earlier rebuke of Laurent for leaping to conclusions too quickly; he repressed a rueful grimace at his own hypocrisy. He forced away the embarrassed warmth that wanted to heat his face and cleared his throat once more. "I had assumed the purchase of the washhouse was for other reasons, madame, but I see that I was wrong." He bowed, stiffly, and did not quite dare look at Valjean as he muttered, "I am sorry."
He straightened and then froze in astonishment as Cosette patted his arm and then took his elbow with light, firm fingers. Her smile was warm now, her gaze almost teasing as she said, "I am certain Papa has already forgiven you, and so I shall forgive you as well, inspector." Softer, in a voice only Javert could hear, she murmured, "Although I will take it badly if you speak to him in such a way again." Before he could respond or mutter another apology, she said at a more natural volume, "Now, monsieur, I have had some thoughts regarding the washhouse. I remembered those awful men leering at the women, and wondered if we might install some guards there to afford the good women some privacy. Come, let us discuss the matter inside over dinner! I am certain you must be hungry after such an eventful day."
"I, ah." As Cosette tugged at his arm, attempting to lead him towards the house, Javert looked helplessly towards Valjean. The other man was no help, the corners of his eyes crinkled in poorly hidden amusement. Javert shook his head. "Madame, I had some supper at the station-house, I do not think-"
"Then at least sit with me and discuss the idea of the guards, inspector," said Cosette, speaking over him as though he had made no objections. She wrinkled her nose, added, "I confess, I do not know where to start looking. I suppose policemen work too many long hours to wish for a second position."
Javert found himself led gently but firmly towards the house. He could hear Valjean's quiet footfalls behind them and suspected that Valjean was following closely behind and smiling at their backs. He cleared his throat a third time. "Well, as for guards, madame, I do have a thought on that. Many policemen upon retirement find that the pension that the government provides is not enough to live upon comfortably. I thought-"
He paused, for there was a small crease in Cosette's forehead that had not been there a minute before, one that reminded him of Valjean's worried looks. After a puzzled second, he thought he knew her concern. He waved his free hand. "I will be fine myself, for I have had no family to support and so have managed to save a decent amount of my pay, but I have heard of others struggling. If you wish, I shall speak to Monsieur Chabouillet. Before he retired, he was secretary to several Prefects of Police. He should have recommendations of decent men who would suit your purpose. I shall call upon him tomorrow, if you like."
"Thank you, inspector," Cosette said. She laughed, a clear, ringing sound. "See, Papa? I told thee that Monsieur Javert would know exactly what to do about the guards!" At last her hand slipped from Javert's arm, as though now that she was reassured he would come and stay a while she felt no need to haul him inside.
Javert slowed his pace until he and Valjean walked side by side, shoulders not quite touching. As Cosette mused aloud on whether Monsieur Chabouillet might know what a decent wage would be for the guards, Javert studied Valjean from the corner of his eye.
Valjean did not seem to have taken Javert's foolish scolding to heart, wearing a small, easy smile and walking with an unburdened step, his expression fond as he watched Cosette speak.
Still, Javert wetted his lips and muttered, "I was an ass. I am sorry."
Valjean turned a little towards him at that. "I am sorry you heard the news from someone else. I had intended to tell you myself tomorrow. I had not thought news would travel so quickly." He hesitated, and then added slowly, "However, even if we had spoken before Cosette bought the washhouse, I would have argued for the purchase. I think it will be a good thing."
Javert managed a snort. "Well, so long as she does not insist upon purchasing every business I must shut down," he said, but his words did not have the bitterness of before.
"Do not worry, monsieur inspector, the washhouse will keep me busy enough!" Cosette said, turning to smile at them. A thoughtful look crossed her face. "Although...Papa told me how he created three schools before- well, I thought perhaps we might do the same. To think, Papa created a school for infants. I am certain many of the washerwomen would appreciate such a thing!"
Javert listened to Cosette's words with a growing sense of incredulous amusement and something else, some warmer sentiment he could not name. Would she turn the street upon which Bisette's washhouse stood into a second, smaller Montreuil-sur-Mer? Javert barked out a quiet laugh.
"Careful, madame," he said. "You will earn your husband a place as a député at this rate."
Cosette only smiled and ushered them both into the house.
Javert ran a hand down his coat, feeling absurdly self-conscious without his usual coat as he waited for Yount to announce his arrival to the birthday celebration. He rolled his shoulders against the unfamiliar tight stricture of his evening coat, missing the more familiar weight.
Instead he wore a wool coat five years out of fashion. The clothing-seller had claimed the blue shade suited him, though when he had studied himself in her mirror he had detected no change in his appearance. It had only been the understanding that he must have something to wear and the looming date of the party that had convinced him to hand over his money for the coat, waistcoat, and trousers the woman had pressed upon him.
He glanced down at his waistcoat, frowning. She had called the shade oxblood. Admittedly he had never seen an ox's blood, but he did not think it would be this particular red shade.
"Monsieur Javert," announced Yount as he opened the doors to the ballroom. Somehow, despite the music and laughter that immediately washed over Javert, the man's voice rose over the tumult without seeming to shout.
Javert's hand dropped away from his coat and he stepped past Yount into the room. He was suddenly aware of how much lower this collar was than the one upon his greatcoat or even his summer coat, how exposed his features and therefore his expression was to onlookers. He fixed a polite smile upon his face and endured the curious looks. He did not see Valjean anywhere in the crowd of strangers.
"Monsieur Javert! We had been wondering when you would arrive!"
Cosette swept over to him in a rustle of fabric, the crowd wordlessly parting for her. She certainly had not gone to a clothing-seller, Javert thought at the sight of the delicate gold flowers stitched into her pale blue dress.
He bowed over her outstretched hand, feeling vaguely ridiculous as he did so. And yet it was strange not to be posted as a guard outside the party but rather greeted as a close friend of the family; the experience felt even odder to him than his new coat. "Good evening, madame."
"Good evening, inspector! I am sorry Marius is not here to greet you, but he insisted on droning on about law. I have exiled him to the music room until he becomes interesting again," Cosette announced with a laugh. Her eyes twinkled with merriment, a happy flush coloring her face. She placed one hand upon her waist and pursed her lips. "Will you coax Papa from his hiding place? He danced me once around the room and then retreated to a corner."
"I doubt I will be much assistance in that regard, madame," Javert said, somewhat dryly. "I had intended to do something similar, once I had expressed my congratulations to your husband." Still, Javert found his gaze seeking out the corners of the room, searching for Valjean.
At last he spotted a familiar figure seated in the far corner, holding what appeared to be a plate of food. Even as Javert watched, Valjean rose to his feet, set the plate down, and began to make his way through the crowd. It too parted for him, though more slowly than it had for Cosette.
"Javert," Valjean said, emerging at last from the crowd. He wore a welcoming smile, bright and pleased.
Javert's breath caught a little in his throat. A few weeks earlier, Valjean had mentioned diffidently that Cosette had forced him to go to a tailor and be fitted for evening wear. Javert had not given it much thought, except perhaps to snort at the idea of Valjean looking as the dandies did with their corsets, padded shoulders, and curled hair.
He had not considered that Valjean would look like this, elegant in a way that even Madeleine had failed to achieve. The green coat was cut in the latest fashion, though without padded shoulders and chest, for with Valjean's frame there was no need for such frivolities. Indeed, the coat accentuated the strength of his arms, the broad span of his shoulders, the breadth of his chest. The gold vest, decorated with a paler gold stitch of flowers that seemed similar to the ones upon Cosette's dress, lent a certain warmth and softness to Valjean's face.
Looking at him, Javert marveled how different Valjean seemed than the ill and wasted man Javert had found that June morning in the antechamber of Rue de l'Homme Arme No. 7. Had it really been such a short time ago?
"Well, Monsieur Javert! It seems you have coaxed Papa from his corner after all," Cosette said, her pleased laugh loud and merry in his ears.
Belatedly, Javert realized he had not returned Valjean's greeting and had instead gaped at him like a ninny. He snapped his mouth shut, his face warming. He wished again for the high collars of his other coats, certain that his face was flushed. He attempted to greet Valjean, but it seemed wrong to address the other man as Monsieur Fauchelevent when he looked so; the false name would not come to his lips.
"So it seems," he managed at last. "However, with your pardon, madame, I think I shall retreat with him back to his corner," he added, and was briefly distracted by the creases at the corners of Valjean's eyes that deepened as Valjean smiled.
"Oh no, monsieur!" Cosette said. Javert drew his gaze away from Valjean long enough to watch the young woman pout. "You will do no such thing." She clapped her hands together. "Dance with me, monsieur, while Papa brings Marius out of exile. We shall discuss how well your guards are faring at the washhouse."
Javert blinked. He couldn't decide which misconception to address first, that he wished to dance or that the men were his. He shook his head even as Valjean looked amused. "Ah, they are not my guards. Each man was suggested by Monsieur Chabouillet. And I do not know much of dancing-"
"Monsieur Chabouillet would not have made the suggestions if you had not sought him out. And surely you can be no worse at dancing than Papa, and he did not stomp upon my feet," Cosette said, as though that settled matters. She smiled at Valjean, her expression managing to be at once both teasing and hopeful. "Papa, will thou please fetch Marius from the music room?"
"Of course, my dear," Valjean said, smiling back. He looked charmed rather than offended by her remark on his lack of dancing skills.
And so somehow Javert found himself in the middle of the dance floor, one of Cosette's gloved hands in his and her cheerful voice in his ears. He glanced down, but it seemed at least Cosette had taken his words to heart and was keeping her feet well out of stomping range.
"...and then Monsieur Allard threw the man into the street and threatened to call the law upon him!" Cosette said, and Javert forced his attention away from their feet. "The women were quite impressed."
"I, ah, am glad Monsieur Allard is proving suitable." Nevertheless, Javert frowned. "Has there been much trouble? I had hoped that the gawkers would have given up by now."
"Only that one man proved particularly troublesome," Cosette assured him. "Monsieur Firmin says he has noticed a crowd of men who walk by each morning but do not linger. He suspects they hope that I will tire of paying guards to preserve the women's modesty and will eventually dismiss the men."
"They will be disappointed," Javert muttered.
He had meant it only as acknowledgment of her strong will, but Cosette laughed and looked delighted, as though he had offered her a compliment. "Well, they will have to learn to live with their disappointment, monsieur."
The song's tempo changed, suddenly, and for a few seconds Javert concentrated on not tripping over his own feet. When he looked back up from the floor, he found Cosette's expression had changed, become tentative, as though she was unsure of what to say.
"Is something the matter, madame?" he asked when she continued to look at him rather than speak.
She shook her head at that, her expression clearing. One corner of her mouth creased, as Valjean's did when he was trying not to laugh. "Not at all, monsieur. I was simply thinking how glad I am you are here to keep Papa company." The remark was said lightly, and yet she looked at him half-searchingly, as though there was some hidden meaning to her words.
"I," Javert said, his mouth dry, uncertain of how to answer her and of what she wanted from him. He looked up as a loud voice hailed him.
"Monsieur Javert!" Gillenormand, still clad in his incroyable clothing, waved at him from a cushioned chair as they passed. The old man was beaming; next to him, her hands folded in her lap, Mademoiselle Gillenormand smiled a vague, polite smile at Javert. "It is good to see you!"
"And you as well, monsieur," Javert said automatically. Then they were stepping back into the crowd of dancers and Gillenormand was lost to sight. He blinked, returning his focus to Cosette. He had not thought of how to answer even when the moment's delay. He hesitated, finding it was his turn to dither.
"I am...glad to be here, madame," he said. He thought of Valjean in his green and gold, the healthy color in Valjean's face, and added, haltingly, "Your father looks very well today."
"The tailor and I told him the gold and green suited him," Cosette said, her expression now one of quiet satisfaction. "He did not believe us, but you can see that it is true."
"Yes," Javert said, relaxing a little, for it seemed he had responded correctly. Still, he was grateful when the music began to slow. He looked up, realizing that a few of the dancers were moving off the dance floor. "Ah, the dance is ending."
"And you have not stepped on a single toe." Cosette dimpled at him. "You and Papa are too critical of yourselves." She glanced over his shoulder. Her expression warmed in a way that meant she had caught sight of her husband. "Oh, if you will, monsieur, there are Papa and Marius. Shall we?"
Pontmercy smiled at Cosette as they approached. "I will speak no more of law tonight," he said at once, tone apologetic. He pressed a hand to his heart as Cosette raised an eyebrow and looked gently disbelieving. "Or at least I shall promise not to speak of it within your hearing."
"Very well," Cosette said graciously, and took her husband's arm. "Now, I believe Monsieur Javert wished to say something to you."
It took Javert a few seconds to realize what she meant. "Ah, yes. Happy birthday, monsieur."
Pontmercy looked absurdly pleased by Javert's words. "Thank you, monsieur! Cosette and I are so happy you could come." He chuckled, suddenly. "As Father is, I'm certain."
Before Javert could react to that particular remark, Cosette's eyes suddenly widened. Surprise and then satisfaction flashed across her face. "Oh good," she said, smiling past Javert. "It seems that Monsieur Moreau and Mademoiselle Thénardier have arrived. He had said that he had the doctor's permission, but I had worried his side might still be troubling him too much to attend…."
Surely Javert had misheard, he thought, even as Yount's voice rang out over the crowd, announcing Monsieur Moreau and Mademoiselle Thénardier to the party.
"You...invited Moreau and Mademoiselle Thénardier, madame?" he said slowly. He did not quite dare to turn and watch Moreau and Azelma approach.
"Well, yes," Cosette said, tilting her head at him. "Did I not mention that Mademoiselle Thénardier is now my assistant at the washhouse? She keeps me apprised of the needs of the women as an ambassador of sorts. I admit she had some misgivings about attending the party, but once she learned that I had invited Monsieur Moreau as well, she agreed-" Cosette paused and called, raising her hand in greeting, "Monsieur Moreau! Mademoiselle Thénardier!"
"Madame Pontmercy, Monsieur Pontmercy," answered Moreau's familiar voice. "Happy birthday, monsieur." There was a momentary pause, and then Moreau coughed and said, embarrassment creeping into his voice and replacing some of the politeness, "Ah, Monsieur Javert…."
"Monsieur Moreau, Mademoiselle Thénardier," Javert said, keeping his tone carefully noncommittal as he turned to face the sergeant.
Moreau wore a sheepish smile, color high upon his cheeks as he met Javert's gaze. "I had meant to inform you of Madame Pontmercy's invitation, inspector," he said. "But it never seemed the time, especially when I needed to catch up on paperwork…." He trailed off, flushing still more scarlet, and seemed to waver between leaning more heavily upon his cane or upon Azelma's arm.
Azelma, for her part, looked half-defiant in her dress, with her hair pulled into loops and knots. "Good evening, messieurs, madame," she said, lifting her chin a little as she did so. She spoke carefully; Javert recognized an effort to sound more refined when he heard one. Her gaze passed over Valjean without pausing, and then settled briefly upon Javert and seemed to dare him to comment at her and Moreau's presence. When Javert said nothing, she nodded towards Pontmercy, her expression softening a little. "Happy birthday, monsieur. Thank you for inviting me and Gérard."
Javert opened his mouth to ask who Gérard was before he realized she meant Moreau. He closed it as Pontmercy said cheerfully, apparently feeling more kindly disposed to Moreau when the sergeant had a girl on his arm, "Thank you both for coming. I am glad your injury is healing so quickly, monsieur."
The musicians began to play a light, airy tune. Both Cosette and Azelma glanced towards the musicians, Azelma's expression guarded but something wistful in her eyes, Cosette's delighted.
"Marius, you must dance this with me," Cosette declared, tugging at her husband's arm. "We have not danced in ages!"
Judging by Valjean's amused smile, ages meant a mere half-hour or so, Javert thought even as Marius smiled and said, "You are right. Shall we?"
"And perhaps Mademoiselle Thénardier would like to dance as well," Cosette said, apparently having noticed Azelma's reaction. Then she frowned in dismay. "Although perhaps your injury prevents you, monsieur?"
Moreau's face fell. "The doctor did say I was not to dance and overstrain myself," he admitted slowly. He glanced sidelong at Azelma. "But perhaps one dance will not-"
"No, no, monsieur, we will not have you disobeying the doctor," Cosette said briskly. "Papa or Monsieur Javert will dance with Mademoiselle Thénardier."
"Ah, my dear, I do not think-"
"Cosette, perhaps you should ask-"
"Madame Pontmercy, I don't need-"
"I think one dance will be-"
Valjean, Pontmercy, Azelma, and Moreau all stopped mid-sentence as Cosette laughed at them.
Javert, meanwhile, had watched how heavily Moreau leaned on his cane. He recalled Moreau's earnestness upon his hospital bed, insisting that he and Azelma were friends. One corner of Javert's mouth twitched, something like laughter catching in his throat; he smoothed his expression into a polite look as he offered Azelma a half-bow. "Shall we dance, mademoiselle?"
Even as Moreau stared at him in wide-eyed astonishment, Azelma's eyes narrowed in suspicion. She gave him an appraising look. "Very well, monsieur," she said, offering him her hand.
With Moreau's faint protest trailing off behind them, Javert found himself on the dance floor for a second time. He was certain he'd never heard this tune in his life; he moved his feet awkwardly, not so much dancing as avoiding Azelma's feet.
Azelma, he noted without surprise, did not seem to know the dance either, surreptitiously studying Cosette and Pontmercy as they went by and then attempting to mimic Cosette's movements.
"Well, mademoiselle," he said. Her gaze darted back towards him. "I did not realize you and Sergeant Moreau had kept up your, ah, acquaintanceship."
It was rather impressive how much belligerence could be conveyed in a single word, Javert mused as he and Azelma moved in a slow turn. He was regretting his momentary fit of devilry. If it had been strange to dance with Valjean's daughter, it was stranger still to dance with Thénardier's.
For a moment, he only studied her. She had spent some of Pontmercy's thousand francs upon food, it seemed. Her face had lost much of its gauntness, her dark hair beginning to have a healthy shine.
"I hear congratulations are in order," Javert said. He realized that perhaps he should have worded it better when Azelma flushed and looked furious. "That is to say, congratulations on your promotion at the washhouse."
"Oh," said Azelma. The color in her face was slower to leave than it was to appear, leaving pale pink splotches upon her cheeks. She studied his expression as though to gauge his sincerity. "Thank you."
They danced in silence for a few seconds, and then Azelma asked suddenly, a trace of the old defiance in her voice, "What will you say to Gérard about me?"
Javert frowned, puzzled. "Mademoiselle, I do not understand the question. What can I tell him that he does not already know? He did help to arrest you and your family at the Gorbeau House, after all." This last sentence was said slowly. He hesitated to mention the Gorbeau House, though by now it was apparent she would keep her promise to keep silent about 'Monsieur Fauchelevent.'
Azelma astonished him by laughing, a loud, rough sound that had heads turning to see what was so amusing. "No, no, inspector. Did you forget? Gérard arrested me himself," she said, and looked almost pretty as she smiled.
"I see. So the first time you met, he arrested you; the second time, your father stabbed him," Javert said. He found his mouth twitching a little at the absurdity. "I would call it a strange relationship, but..." He paused, found himself looking across the crowd and searching for a familiar white head. "...I have seen stranger," he concluded.
A gleam of curiosity lit Azelma's eyes at that, but when he did not elaborate, she did not press for details.
They danced the rest of the piece together, both trying hard not to step on the other's feet or knock into any of the other dancers. When the music began to slow, Javert maneuvered them back the way they had come.
During the dance, Valjean had apparently found Moreau a chair; the young man sat there stiffly, his cane resting against its legs. As the final note trailed off into silence, Javert set Azelma before Moreau, and then offered her another half-bow.
"Javert," Valjean said. Javert turned to find that the corner of Valjean's mouth was turned up in amusement. Still, there was a look in his eyes that unsettled Javert. "The sergeant has been telling me about your sudden transformation."
"My sudden transformation," Javert said blankly. "And what transformation would that be, precisely?"
Moreau winced. "Ah, well, monsieur, I happened to mention how you are the inspector we sergeants go to for advice. When Monsieur Fauchelevent seemed struck by this, I told him how you changed after the insurrection-" Javert's expression must have shifted then, for Moreau winced again.
"Javert," Valjean said. When Javert dared to look at him, he wished he hadn't, for the look in Valjean's eyes, his warm regard, was even more flustering now that Javert knew the reason for it. "Do not fault the good sergeant for answering my questions."
"I am sorry if I spoke out of turn, monsieur," Moreau said.
"Never mind, Moreau," Javert said dryly, wishing Valjean would stop looking at him so. It was distracting. He waved a dismissive hand. "It is only that Monsieur Fauchelevent insists on thinking the best of me. Your words will only strengthen his delusions." He ignored Moreau and Azelma's puzzled looks as Cosette laughed.
"He is teasing you, Monsieur Moreau," Cosette said.
If anything, Moreau looked even more baffled, as though Javert making a joke that was not at a criminal's expense was an impossible concept to grasp. "Ah, I see."
"I'll get you some food, Gérard," Azelma said abruptly. Moreau blinked at her. "You like…" She paused, and then actually glanced in the direction of the food tables. Her eyes widened a little, and whatever else she had been about to say turned into a surprised little sound.
Javert had not looked towards the food tables, but, remembering the breakfast and dinner he had eaten at the Rue des Filles-Calvaire, he was certain the abundance and variety was overwhelming.
"There is an entire table devoted to sweets," Pontmercy said cheerfully as Azelma stared towards the tables. "You cannot go wrong with dessert."
"There are some apple tarts you might enjoy," Cosette suggested with a smile. She reached out and patted Valjean's arm. "Papa, it was so kind of thee to talk with Monsieur Moreau while the rest of us danced. Thou may retreat to thy corner with Monsieur Javert now." This last sentence was said as magnanimously as when she had allowed Pontmercy back into her presence.
"Very well, my dear," Valjean said, smiling back. "Perhaps Monsieur Javert and I will visit the food tables ourselves." He nodded politely towards Moreau and Azelma. "Monsieur Moreau, Mademoiselle Thénardier."
"Monsieur Fauchelevent," Moreau said with an answering nod.
Javert and Valjean had taken about a half-dozen steps towards the food tables before Javert muttered, "Stop."
"Stop what?" Valjean asked, feigning innocence.
"Stop smiling as though you are imagining me playing mentor to the sergeants at the station-house."
Valjean's throat-clearing sounded suspiciously like a smothered laugh. "How could I not? Monsieur Moreau was quite detailed in his description-" He stopped when Javert half-scowled at him, though his small smile didn't fade.
A servant was winding his way through the crowd bearing a champagne tray. Javert noted automatically that he was unfamiliar; the man must have been hired for the party. He took two glasses and passed one to Valjean.
"Thank you," Valjean said. He lifted the glass to his lips.
Javert turned his gaze away before he could grow distracted by how Valjean swallowed the champagne. He took a quick sip of his own drink. It was sweet and bubbly upon his tongue, an unfamiliar but pleasant sensation.
The food tables were filled with such a variety that Javert found himself at a loss. He glanced at Valjean and noticed Valjean too seemed daunted by all the choices, frowning in mild consternation at the tables.
"Well. I am told that one cannot go wrong with dessert," Javert said facetiously. "Though perhaps we should not start our meal with it."
"Perhaps," Valjean agreed. "I sampled some of the appetizers earlier, but I believe that table holds the entrées." He gestured carefully with his champagne glass.
A few minutes later found Javert and Valjean both seated in the far corner of the room, attempting to balance their plates upon their knees and not drop their glasses. Silence fell, but it was not, Javert thought, an uncomfortable one. One might have called it companionable. He sipped more of his champagne and then looked over as Valjean spoke.
"Cosette spoke with you about the guards. Did she mention the plans for the school?"
Javert shook his head. "No. She mentioned the possibility of a school when she first purchased the washhouse, but then said nothing more about it."
"Ah, well," Valjean said, and smiled. "It seems there is a building near the washhouse that has been empty for years. I have had a look at it, and I think it will make an excellent school. Cosette plans to purchase it. After we have cleaned it up and found one or two teachers, the women will be able to leave their younger children there."
Valjean leaned forward, his expression alight with enthusiasm, one hand rising to excitedly trace the shape of the building in the air. "It is a small building with only three rooms, but that will be fine. We have already done a survey of the washerwomen, and need enough space for thirty infants, fifty if Cosette wishes to hire more workers. I had thought to use the largest room for the classroom, and another for-"
"Careful," Javert said, and reached out to steady Valjean's plate. His hand pressed against the side of Valjean's knee; even though the fabric of the trousers, Javert could feel the heat from Valjean's skin. He fought down a flush as Valjean stilled beneath his hand.
"Ah, your plate was about to spill," he explained. Then, assured that the plate was steady once more, he took his hand away and seized his champagne. He downed one swallow to compose himself, then a second, and then, as he made to gulp down a third, realized that he had finished his drink. He looked up from the empty glass to find Valjean watching him.
Valjean's enthusiasm had been muted by embarrassment. His mouth twisted, his smile turning crooked. "I'm sorry. I am perhaps too excited about the school," he said with a self-deprecating laugh. "We can talk of something else- did I tell you the beets are almost ready for harvest?"
Javert wished that the corner was somewhat more private, that people did not walk within earshot every few seconds, and that he did not have to watch his words so carefully. He thought almost longingly of the relative privacy of the garden as he cleared his throat. "You do not need to apologize or change the subject. I am...happy to hear about the school." He cleared his throat again, and wished for more champagne to wet his tight throat and dry lips. "It is...good to see you so excited about the project. I remember-" He lowered his voice as two women, laughing arm in arm, swept by. "I remember that you built two schools and improved the third, before." The final word was awkward on his tongue, heavy with the weight of years of history.
"Yes," Valjean said slowly. "I did. Ignorance breeds misery, and education is the surest way to instill knowledge and banish ignorance. But we do not need to discuss this-"
"Please." The request scratched at his throat and earned him a half-wondering look from Valjean. "It is- that is to say-" He stopped, frustrated with himself and at his inability to say that Valjean deserved this measure of happiness and satisfaction, that perhaps this project might put the ghost of Montreuil-sur-Mer somewhat to rest, without the words sounding absurdly sentimental.
Javert's fumble for words nevertheless had an unexpected effect upon Valjean; Valjean smiled. It was a small, tentative twist of his lips, but it warmed Javert nonetheless, eased some of his frustration.
"Very well," Valjean said quietly, the smile slowly reaching his eyes. "In M- before, when we had a school for infants, we found…." As he spoke, his voice regained its previous enthusiasm. He began to sketch out the plans for the school in the air once more, his movements now more careful but no less keen.
Javert listened, though he was more engrossed by the unfeigned excitement playing across Valjean's features, the openness of his movements and gestures, than in the actual details of the school. There was none of the reservation of Madeleine in Valjean's face now, nor any of the diffidence Valjean might have worn even two months ago.
Javert took the wine a servant offered with a muttered thank-you, unable to look away from Valjean. When Valjean's speech finally slowed and then stopped, Javert blinked, belatedly noticing the way his eyes ached from staring too long and fixedly. He ducked his face back behind his wine glass, made to take a sip and realized that he must have been drinking the wine absently, for there was only a mouthful left.
"How will you find a teacher?" he asked.
"I had thought to ask the priest of Saint-Jacquesdu-Haut-Pas. He and I are in agreement on the importance of universal education, and I thought he might know of a willing and suitable teacher."
"Perhaps you should have a library for them as well," Javert suggested. "You have found a purpose for two of the three rooms, you said, so why not a library? So long as you do not include The Botanic Garden-" He stopped, flushing at his own words and wondering when he had grown so loose tongued. He looked reproachfully at his empty wine glass.
"Ah, yes, perhaps not that book," Valjean said quietly, but when Javert dared to look at him, he was doing that faint half-smile that meant he was trying not to laugh, his cheeks pink. "But a library is a good thought."
"Well," Javert muttered, and fidgeted instead with his plate of food. Obviously the alcohol had gone to his head- he did not drink more than a glass of wine from time to time with his evening meals, and it seemed having wine on top of champagne set his tongue to wagging like a fool.
He had just decided to forgo more alcohol for the rest of the night when a servant approached with another champagne tray. "Monsieur Gillenormand is about to toast," the man said, offering them a fresh glass.
Javert resisted the urge to sigh, exasperated. He couldn't very well refuse to toast Pontmercy, he supposed. He reluctantly accepted a glass. He would simply have to be more careful with this one.
"To Marius's health and happiness!" Gillenormand called out over the crowd. Javert could not see him, but he imagined Gillenormand on his feet, holding his champagne glass aloft and beaming in Pontmercy and Cosette's direction.
After nearly everyone had cheered, Javert not adding his voice to the tumult but raising his glass and taking a small sip, Gillenormand continued, his toast turning into an impromptu speech. As Gillenormand spoke, Javert leaned over and whispered, "I suppose, having made you dance, your daughter is merciful enough to not expect a toast from you as well."
Valjean blinked, looking as though the thought that he might be expected to make a toast to his son-in-law had never occurred to him. For a moment, he looked alarmed. Then his expression cleared and his shook his head. "No. Surely she would have warned me if I was meant to make a toast."
"Besides," Javert concluded dryly as Gillenormand's voice washed over them, "I think Monsieur Gillenormand will speak enough for the both of you."
Valjean's lips twitched and he took a sip of his champagne. "And Cosette did mention she would be performing a piece of music tonight. Have I mentioned she plays the organ and sings?"
The obvious pride in Valjean's voice kept Javert from asking, even in jest, if she had any talent. For one thing, he knew Valjean would believe her a genius even if she were tone-deaf; for another, Javert suspected that Cosette's determination would have made her practice until she was at the very least proficient. "You have not mentioned it before. Did the sisters at the convent teach her?"
"Yes. Cosette even played the harmonium at Mass a handful of times when Sister Isabella's hands bothered her too much to play."
Javert half-smiled at the image of Cosette, who must have been at the oldest thirteen, seated before a large church organ and playing for the nuns of Petit-Picpus. "I hope she is planning something a trifle less somber for her husband's celebration," he remarked.
Valjean chuckled. "She mentioned the name of the piece, but I know little of music, and she banished us all from the music-room while she practiced. Still, from what little I overheard, it seems a lively tune."
Javert remembered his plate of food, still mostly untouched, and belatedly began to eat. "She is a woman of many talents," he offered after a minute, both out of honesty and to keep the pleased look upon Valjean's face for a little while longer. "Not only does she run a successful business and prepare a well-organized party, but she is a talented musician as well."
Valjean said nothing, but his smile was answer enough.
When at last Gillenormand's speech ended, Cosette's cheerful voice rang through the hall. "Now that my husband's virtues have been spoken of at such great length and with such eloquence, I shall not try to add anything more. Instead I will perform a musical piece in Marius's honor."
The tune was not one Javert had heard before, but between Cosette's clear, bright singing voice and the high, crashing chords of the harmonium, it was pleasant enough. He leaned back in his chair, letting the sounds sweep over him, aware that beside him, Valjean was smiling broadly in Cosette's direction and attempting to tap out the beat on his chair.
After that, the rest of the evening seemed to blur together, with seemingly endless music and food and speeches, for every half-hour or so Gillenormand would remember something else he wanted to say about his grandson and burst into another five-minute speech.
Valjean murmured, his voice sounding far away, "Javert."
Javert opened his eyes, though it took some effort, for they were inclined to remain closed. He focused upon Valjean, who had at some point risen and was now half-bent over Javert's chair. He blinked, squinting in surprise past Valjean's shoulder to the mostly empty ballroom. Surely half of the party-goers had not left in one rush. Had he fallen asleep?
Javert blinked again. He pressed his palms to his eyes, tried to convince the fog to clear from his head. "I take it that the party is over."
"Yes. Monsieur Moreau and Mademoiselle Thénardier said to tell you goodnight." Valjean paused. When Javert looked at him, there was hesitance in his face, similar to the expression Cosette had worn as she and Javert had danced. Valjean cleared his throat. "It is very late. Cosette asked me to remind you that there are spare bedrooms if you wish to sleep here."
"No, I should not impose on your daughter's hospitality so," Javert said with a slow shake of his head. He scrubbed his hand roughly over his face in another vain attempt to wake up, the better to make sense of Valjean's strange hesitance. "I can take a cab-" He was interrupted by a yawn that made his jaw ache.
"And how will the driver take you falling asleep in his cab, I wonder," Valjean murmured, the corners of his eyes crinkling once more. Then seriousness replaced the amusement. "At least let me see you safely home."
Javert opened his mouth to argue that he could see himself to his apartment, and then paused, struck by Valjean's request. It was so rare for Valjean to ask something of anyone. His lips twisted a little, imagining Valjean's reaction to his small, cramped quarters, as different from the spacious rooms in the Rue des Filles-Calvaire and the Rue de l'Homme Arme houses as night and day- although surely that sharp-eyed servant had told Valjean all about it when she had delivered Javert's note.
"Very well," he said. Despite his misgivings, he was nevertheless warmed by Valjean's pleased smile. He started to leverage himself upright, ignoring both the way his heavy body wanted to sink back onto the chair and how Valjean's hand fluttered uncertainly at his side as though he wanted to steady him. He peered around, frowning. "Where are your daughter and son-in-law? I should pay my respects before we go."
"Oh. They have already retired for the evening." When Javert stared at him, Valjean studied the ceiling rather than meet his astonished gaze. "Marius said to thank you for coming, and that he hoped you enjoyed the party."
"They retired for the evening? Valjean, how long ago did they go to bed?" Javert demanded in a quiet whisper, some of his drowsiness replaced by exasperation as Valjean still did not meet his eyes. "Do not tell me I have been- been snoring away for a good half-hour like a ninny!"
Valjean kept silent, and Javert huffed out an exasperated breath.
"I am surprised you did not fetch a blanket and tuck me into my chair," he muttered.
"Ah, well," Valjean said. He rubbed at the back of his neck, a sheepish smile upon his face. "Monsieur Moreau happened to mention you had been working quite hard these past few days, and I thought-"
"Moreau. I should have known." He would have to have a word with the sergeant, Javert thought sourly. Moreau spoke a bit too freely when he was in Valjean's company. What else would they discuss if they met again? He shook his head, dismissing the thought for the time being. "Never mind. Let us see if I can find a cab."
Valjean smiled a little. "I believe Yount is already seeing to that."
It was a warm night at least, and late enough that most of the houses they passed were dark and silent. The jostling of the cab as it passed quickly over the cobblestone should not have been soporific, and yet Javert found himself having to shift in his seat constantly lest the movement of the carriage lull him back to sleep. Drowsiness muddled his thoughts once more; he was grateful that Valjean was quiet beside him, his gaze turned out towards the silent houses, for he did not think he could manage sensible speech.
His thoughts turned to Moreau and Azelma. He found himself mostly amused, remembering how Moreau had leaned upon Azelma's arm and Azelma's fierce, defiant look that had dared Javert to object. Still, he wondered what Moreau had told his family of Azelma, and did not realize he had spoken aloud until Valjean stirred and said, "Did you say something?"
"I was only thinking about Moreau and Mademoiselle Thénardier. A strange pair, for all that Moreau once insisted to me that they were only friends, and a strange beginning, besides."
Javert caught Valjean's frown from the corner of his eye. "A strange beginning? What do you mean?"
"Well, they first met when he arrested her."
There was silence. Consternation crowded out some of the drowsiness as Javert realized what he had said and how Valjean might take it. He straightened a little in his seat and turned towards Valjean, whose expression was unreadable in the carriage's shadows.
"Ah, Moreau was with me at the Gorbeau House," he explained. He cleared his throat, and when Valjean still said nothing, felt even more uneasy. He inwardly grimaced. It seemed he was always going to say the wrong thing, no matter how long he spent in Valjean's company.
"I see," said Valjean.
If Javert had thought Valjean ending his silence would be a relief, he was wrong, for Valjean's tone gave him no more indication to his thoughts than his shadowed expression had. "Valjean," he said, and then stopped. He was glad, suddenly, for the dark, which hid his flushed face. He recalled his own words to Azelma, I would call it a strange relationship, but I have seen stranger, the way he had searched instinctively for Valjean. "I meant…." He faltered again, groping for the right words and finding nothing.
"Do you think their first meeting insurmountable?" Valjean's voice was somehow too soft and too loud all at once. Before Javert could gather his breath to speak and fumble for an answer, Valjean said, "I find many relationships begin strangely. We need only look to the Bible for examples. Hosea and Gomer, Ruth and Boaz…."
You and I, rose to Javert's lips, but he did not dare to voice it alongside Valjean's examples of unusual marriages. Something that was not quite laughter caught in his throat. He coughed and said, "Perhaps some strangeness is necessary. Although it does not seem that your daughter met her husband in so unusual a manner."
Valjean made a sound suspiciously like a snort, the reaction so unexpected that Javert blinked at him. "You did not see how he watched us in the Luxembourg Gardens every day for months, all without uttering a word," Valjean remarked, dry humor in his voice.
"But that is not strange," Javert found himself protesting. "I do not claim to know your son-in-law well, but I suspect he was trying and failing to gather enough courage to approach you both."
Valjean did not make that strange sound again, but his tone was one of polite disbelief. "You may be right." He paused. "And doubtless I discouraged him as well."
"You did not approve of him?"
There was another pause. "I thought him a booby."
Javert laughed before he could stifle it, a sharp sound of mirth that made Valjean jump a little in his seat. "I am sorry," he said. "But I admit I also thought him a booby at our first meeting. In fact, your son-in-law will probably not say so, but I was intolerably rude to him."
It was Javert's turn to snort. "I do not know how you fooled me for so long when you are a terrible actor," he said. He might have cursed his loose tongue once more, except that Valjean said, so softly it might have not have been meant for his ears at all, "Ah, but we did not know each other then."
Javert hesitated, uncertain of if and how he should reply to the quiet remark. He thought of Valjean hiding behind the insurmountable barriers of Madeleine's vague smile and steadfast placidity, and then of Valjean tonight, unmasked, as he had smiled and gestured excitedly about the school.
"No, we did not," he said at last. He glanced towards Valjean to see his reaction and found Valjean looking back at him.
The clouds must have cleared, for Valjean's face was no longer in shadow. He watched Javert steadily. Valjean's lips parted, as though to speak, but in the next instant the carriage jostled to an abrupt stop, shaking the breath from Javert's lungs and perhaps Valjean's as well.
"Oh, we are here," Valjean said, and looked away from Javert and towards the carriage window. It was obviously not what he had intended to say, the words muttered.
Javert sank back a little in his seat, blinking and ducking his head a little to hide his consternated frown. He wished a trifle crossly that his apartment had been a little further away and that the moment had not ended so abruptly. He had his hand on the door and a reluctant farewell on the tip of his tongue when Valjean said, quickly, "Should I- ah, that is, I can walk you to your door. If you wish."
The flustered edge to Valjean's voice made Javert hesitate. He thought again of his small, cramped room, the desk covered with paperwork, and his small cupboard bare of anything but bread. Then he imagined Valjean escorting him to his door, and the porter's curious look at Javert having a guest so late in the evening, and flushed.
"I," he said, and stopped. He cleared his throat. "I would like that, but...I would, that is, it is late and I do not even have tea to offer you if you came inside. Perhaps another time when I can be a better host?" He had intended it as a suggestion, but it came out as a question instead. He bit back a grimace.
"Another time, then," said Valjean. He was, to Javert's surprise, smiling. "Goodnight."
"It is not the responsibility of knights errant to discover whether the afflicted, the enchained and the oppressed whom they encounter on the road are reduced to these circumstances and suffer this distress for their vices, or for their virtues: the knight's sole responsibility is to succor them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings, not for their misdeeds."
Javert lowered the volume to his lap and studied the by-now familiar set of Valjean's shoulders. Amusement made his lips twitch before he forced his expression into neutrality. "Don Quixote has more to say, but you seem as though you wish to interject."
Valjean, who had paused in his weeding, turned and looked somewhat sheepish. Reading Don Quixote was proving even more slow-going than Rousseau's Reveries, impeded by continuous, mild debates generally started by one of Valjean's philosophical remarks.
"I had not planned to interrupt this time, I swear," Valjean said. He held up a supplicating hand. "I was only thinking that for a madman, Don Quixote is very often wise."
"And perhaps that policemen have similar responsibilities to a knight-errant when keeping the peace?" Javert said, not quite dryly. Valjean's small smile somewhat lessened the remorseful sting at the thought of the decades Javert had ignored those moral responsibilities.
"Perhaps. That is, I think-" Valjean paused, taking a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping at his forehead. Then he glanced upwards, squinting a little despite the protection of his hat. His smile turned rueful as he tucked the handkerchief away once more. "I think I shall have to start working in the garden earlier. Now that it is nearly August, even the mornings are somewhat warm."
Javert, who even safely ensconced in the shade had discarded his coat and hat and rolled up his shirt-sleeves in deference to the heat, thought Valjean's last remark an understatement. He frowned, studying the flush upon Valjean's face he had not seen when Valjean had been turned away from him. Earlier, he had been pleased by Valjean following suit, folding his workman's coat and rolling up his shirtsleeves, and that there had no longer been any hesitation in the gesture.
He picked up the water jug from the bench, intending to offer Valjean a drink, and was dismayed to find it empty. He would have to go and fetch more water. He lowered the jug back on to the bench, looking once more at Valjean. "How early do you intend to work in the garden?" he asked. The thought of Valjean rising before dawn made his frown deepen. "You should not lose sleep when-"
He hesitated, and something in his expression kept Valjean silent and Javert's question yet unanswered. It was not the summer heat that warmed his face in the next moment, but the memory of the weeding lesson, Valjean's hand still beneath his fingers, Valjean's quiet, unsteady breath at his touch. Javert had kept to his reading and work anecdotes since then, regulated to the bench by an unspoken agreement.
How would Valjean take the suggestion, he wondered, should he offer to help weed once more? Unbidden, he remembered their quiet exchange in the carriage, the way moonlight had softened Valjean's features, the moment that had come and gone and which had not yet repeated in the intervening days since. He cleared his throat and attempted a matter-of-fact tone. "I can come a little earlier and help you with the weeding as I did before. Don Quixote can keep for a few days, surely." At the half-cautious turn of Valjean's lips, Javert added, quickly, "Though I admit I do not understand how you can remove every single weed from the patch one day and yet there will be another dozen in their place the following morning. How do more sprout each day despite all your efforts? It seems maddening."
"They are determined to survive. I cannot fault them for that," Valjean said with another half-smile, his voice quiet. It was his turn to hesitate. His hands rose once more, this time to fiddle with the ribbon knotted under his chin. There was something nervous in the movements of his hands now, and Javert kept silent, watching as Valjean untied and then re-knotted the ribbon. "Your help with the weeding would be, ah, that is, I would be glad for it. And that reminds me that I had meant to- the beets will be ready for harvest in a few days. I had thought- that is, if you wished-" He paused once more, one corner of his mouth turning up in self-deprecation at his own fumble for words. Then he said slowly, "Since you have helped with the planting and weeding, I thought you might like to help with the harvest as well."
Javert took a moment to answer, for Valjean had not made the suggestion as though it were an obvious conclusion to Javert purchasing the seeds on Valjean's behalf and that Javert should finish what he had begun, but tentatively, as though there was some undertone to the suggestion that Javert had missed. He thought, as he had when Valjean had asked to escort him to his apartment, how rare it was for Valjean to ask something of him. He cleared his throat.
"Will it take longer than our usual mornings? My next day off is Saturday, if we need the full day."
"It might," said Valjean. One of his sudden smiles darted across his face. There was a pleased warmth in his eyes as he said, "Yes, Saturday is suitable."
"Good," Javert said briskly, and rose. He took up the water jug and held it for Valjean's perusal when the other man looked puzzled. "Let me fetch some more water and then I will help you with today's weeding."
Valjean opened his mouth as though to protest that he could fetch the water himself, and then smiled instead. "Thank you."
Javert, uncomfortable with the quietly voiced gratitude, muttered, "You're welcome." He did not bother to put on his coat and hat for the brief walk it would take to get to the water pump.
When he reached the pump, however, Cosette was already there, filling up a watering can. "Madame," he said, and she straightened with a bright smile.
"Good morning, monsieur! I was just watering Papa's roses." Before he could offer his assistance, Cosette nodded to herself and added, "But you have good timing, for the roses have finally bloomed. I thought Papa might like one, but I did not wish to disturb you both."
The last sentence was said with a small, tentative smile and half-teasing look that seemed to invite Javert in on a joke. Javert, suddenly aware that he was practically undressed, with his bare head and hands and his shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows, attempted a smile in return, though it felt more like a grimace. "You would not have-" he began, and then stopped, for his words felt like a lie. What would Valjean have done in the middle of his fidgeting with his hat if Cosette had come to the vegetable patch with the rose? Would he still have asked for Javert's assistance with the harvest? Or would he have turned the conversation to roses and let the request remain unspoken? "That is, I can pass along the rose to your father, madame. Just let me fill the water jug first."
"Of course. It is so warm today!"
The rose that Cosette pressed upon him a minute later was a pale pink flower that Javert supposed was pretty enough, though he still did not see the purpose of roses. "Madame," he said, and bowed.
"Monsieur," Cosette said with a merry laugh and then turned back to the pump, her laughter shifting to a half-hummed melody under her breath.
As Javert walked back towards the vegetable patch, he held the rose gingerly, mindful of thorns. It was not until Valjean glanced up at his approach and stared at the rose that Javert considered how queer he must look, a rose in one hand and the water jug in the other. His face heated for a second time that morning. "Your daughter," he muttered as his explanation, and then all but thrust the rose into Valjean's face.
Valjean blinked once, then twice, and then smiled and took the rose from him with equal care for the thorns. "I will have to thank Cosette later. I had not thought the roses would bloom today." He held the flower up to his nose and breathed in, his eyes closing.
Javert let himself look his full at the pleasure in Valjean's expression, the slight fluttering of his lashes. Perhaps roses were not so useless after all, he thought, if they could bring such a look to Valjean's face. It was only when Valjean sighed and opened his eyes, looking almost dreamy-eyed, that Javert dared to break the silence.
"Does it smell so sweet then?"
Valjean looked surprised. "Did you not smell it?" At Javert's shake of the head, Valjean raised the flower.
Javert blinked, and then awkwardly bent over Valjean's hand, feeling slightly foolish as he breathed in the scent. Then his eyebrows rose in surprise. "Lemon? But how-" He stopped at Valjean's amused smile and pursed his lips. "I still do not think roses especially useful."
Valjean continued to smile even as he placed the rose upon his vest, his fingers stroking over the soft petals before he picked up his trowel. "Vegetables provide sustenance, but roses provide pleasure," he said. "Doesn't a man need both to live a contented life?"
Javert thought of the pleasure to be found in inciting Valjean's smiles and laughter, and busied himself for a moment with placing the water jug on the ground within Valjean's reach. "Perhaps so," he admitted after a moment, once he had gotten his expression under control. He darted another glance at Valjean's smiling profile, and added, the honesty heavy on his tongue, "But I think I will find my pleasure in things besides a rose's scent."
Valjean's hands stilled for a moment, and then carefully resumed their work of wresting a weed from the earth. "So long as you find it somewhere," he said softly.
Had Valjean taken his words as a rebuke of some sort? Javert knelt next to Valjean, for the moment uncaring of the dirt certain to stain his knees. He studied Valjean from the corner of his eye but could not tell whether it was discouragement or concentration that bowed the other man's head so. He reached for the second trowel, and then cleared his throat. He found his words slowly. "That is to say, roses may have an agreeable scent and look, I will grant you that, but they do not last. Nor can you eat them. A rose is a short-lived pleasure, whereas the pleasure of, of..." His mouth was dry; he ran his tongue over his lips and swallowed before he concluded, "...conversation and good company lasts far longer. I prefer the latter."
When Valjean did not immediately answer him, Javert could not bring himself to look over and decipher the effect of his speech. Instead he stabbed the trowel into the dirt with a bit more force than was probably necessary; he frowned when the weed determinedly remained in place. He tried to mimic Valjean's movements of prying a weed from the earth, to no avail. He was scowling in frustration when light fingers brushed the back of his hand. He looked up, startled, to meet Valjean's slight smile.
If Valjean had been discouraged before, there was nothing of it in his expression now. His smile was small but full of good humor, and there was a soft crinkling at the corners of his eyes and a red flush upon his cheeks that could not be entirely explained by the heat. Javert was abruptly, absurdly glad that he had struggled to explain himself.
"The trowel is not deep enough. You will not get the weed that way," Valjean said quietly. He nodded towards the trowel, his fingers tensing lightly against Javert's hand. "May I...?"
Javert did not know what he was asking, too distracted by Valjean's gentle touch and the sensation of gritty earth still clinging to Valjean's fingers to think clearly. Despite this, a muttered "yes" escaped his lips.
Valjean's hand closed lightly around Javert's wrist and slowly maneuvered his hand so that it held the trowel at a different position. He leaned in close, his breath tickling Javert's neck. "You must get it at this angle," he explained, the words said almost in a rush, "and put your whole weight behind the trowel to get it deep enough in the earth. Otherwise you will not get the entirety of the weed. Any severed roots left behind will grow again."
"I suppose one must admire them for their persistence," Javert remarked, for it was the first response that leaped to his mind and Valjean had paused as though awaiting a response. He earned a low laugh. Studying the angle of his wrist, he was still preoccupied by the sight of Valjean's dirt-stained hand wrapped around his wrist and the feel of Valjean's other hand as it settled tentatively upon Javert's shoulder. He licked his lips once more. "Well, let us try."
Together they dug into the earth, Valjean's hands steady upon Javert's wrist and shoulder as Javert bore his full weight upon the trowel. This time the weed was wrested from the ground. "See?" Valjean said, sounding pleased.
Javert was disappointed when Valjean released him. Even the warm summer air felt cooler against his wrist in the absence of Valjean's touch; he missed the particular warmth immediately. He resisted the urge to press his fingers to his wrist or to his shoulder, for surely Valjean would spot the telling gesture. He nudged the water jug towards Valjean instead and said, "Drink some water."
The corner of Valjean's mouth twitched. "Yes, monsieur," he said in a deceptively mild tone and drank even as Javert pursed his lips at him and attempted to hide his own amusement.
Javert's gaze dropped briefly to the rose, the pink almost startling against the dull brown of Valjean's workman's vest. He remembered how Valjean had stroked the petals, the slow sweep of his fingers; he did not, for the moment, let himself imagine Valjean touching him so.
He said, straining for lightness even as he forced the trowel back into the earth to root out the next weed, "I have been thinking also, that roses are useless companions. One would be even worse at weeding than I."
"You are not so bad."
When he looked over, Valjean smiled at him, one of his bright, sudden smiles that was always a blow to Javert's chest. He smiled half-helplessly back and had to take a breath before he could respond. "Yes, well, you are a patient instructor." He took another breath. "Speaking of teachers, what news of a potential teacher for the school? Are the interviews finished?"
Valjean's expression brightened further. "Cosette and I have one more interview tomorrow afternoon, but I believe we have already found a suitable teacher. He is Monsieur Reinchard of Chartres-" His words washed over Javert.
As before Javert drank in the enthusiasm in Valjean's face, committed the curve of his mouth to memory. The happiness in his voice was a sweeter sound than the melodies the musicians had played at Pontmercy's party.
"...and then there is the library," Valjean said, and Javert was jerked abruptly from his thoughts. "Monsieur Gillenormand has offered to give some of his collection, the books that would be, ah, suitable for children, to the library. And after the interview tomorrow, Cosette and I are going to a bookstore and see what else we might find."
Javert's face warmed. He could not banish this particular heat though he knew his face was red. Still, he had not thought Valjean would take his suggestion to heart. "I would offer some of my books, but I am afraid the children are somewhat young for tracts on law," he muttered, fidgeting with the trowel and knocking some dirt loose.
"Perhaps when they are older," Valjean said, a smile in his voice.
"Perhaps," Javert said, and once more bent to the task of weeding.
Javert had not expected Cosette to greet him at the gate the morning of the harvest, but he found her waiting there with a welcoming smile upon her face and Yount nowhere to be seen.
"Good morning, madame," he said, bowing and trying not to openly stare, for Cosette had somehow found a large straw hat similar to Valjean's.
He must have been staring despite his efforts, because Cosette laughed gaily and wrinkled her nose at him as she unlocked the gate. "Good morning to you, monsieur. How do you like my hat? I found it at the market the other day and thought that I should match Papa." She pursed her lips and raised her eyes towards the brim of her hat, her expression pensive. "I do not know if it suits me, but it certainly helps with the sun while I am in the garden."
Javert, who had no polite answer for her for in truth she looked only slightly less ridiculous than Valjean in such a hat, said instead, "The sun is indeed warm this morning. I will be glad for autumn and the cooler weather. Are you tending to the roses today? Or, ah, are you helping with the beets?" Something like disappointment twisted sharp and sudden in his chest at the idea of Cosette assisting with the harvest; he quelled a frown at his own foolishness, for Cosette's company was pleasant and Valjean would be glad of her presence. And yet the disquiet remained, an uncomfortable tightness in his chest. With a start, he realized that she was answering him.
"-not very helpful, I am afraid, inspector! Marius and I will assist with the harvest just long enough to gather a basket for a foundling hospital we have been visiting these past few weeks." The good humor ebbed from her face, and a slightly pinched look replaced it. "They are pitiable places, foundling hospitals, and no fit place for children to be raised."
Javert cleared his throat. An equally foolish surge of relief had replaced the disappointment, but the sentiment was temporary, for the obvious unhappiness in Cosette's expression at the children's plight banished that unworthy emotion. He tried to make his voice soft, though he was certain the words came out brusque. "I am certain the children will appreciate the food, madame."
"It was Azelma's idea. She said-" Here Cosette paused, her voice and posture changing. She raised her chin in a half-defiant way. She was, Javert realized after a puzzled second, attempting to mimic Azelma's careful speech and posture as well as her tone, which had apparently been one of polite but stubborn cynicism. "-'Giving money is a good thought, but most of it goes straight to the pockets of the people in charge. Better give food to the place so the children will see some of it.'" She relaxed then, resuming her more familiar stance, one corner of her mouth turning upwards. "I have more faith in Madame Bouchard, the woman in charge of the funds at this particular hospital, but I do not think giving food directly will do any harm."
First the washhouse, then the school, and now it seemed Cosette would turn her attention to this foundling hospital as well. Javert recalled his jest a few weeks earlier that Pontmercy would become a député through Cosette's efforts. Perhaps his attempt at humor had had more merit than he'd believed. He ran a hand across his jaw, trying to quell the amused twitch of his lips. "I will trust your judgment, madame, on both Madame Bouchard's nature and the food. But come, I am distracting you and wasting time. Let us go and gather some beets for the hospital."
Cosette smiled. "You are right, of course."
Somehow Javert was not surprised to find that Cosette had procured a straw hat for her husband as well. Pontmercy wore it with evident pleasure, touching his fingers to the brim in greeting and smiling broadly as Cosette and Javert neared the vegetable patch. "Good morning, monsieur! I was just telling Father that I was certain you would be along any minute now. Has Cosette told you about the foundling hospital?"
"Good morning, monsieur. And yes, she has. I am certain they will appreciate the vegetables." Still, even the sight of the ridiculous hat upon Pontmercy's head was only a momentary distraction, Javert looking instinctively to Valjean, who had paused in the middle of uprooting a beet at his and Cosette's approach. He noticed Valjean's rolled-up shirtsleeves at once, and felt his polite smile warm into something more genuine. He did not know if Cosette had had to encourage Valjean to make himself comfortable or if he had discarded his coat and rolled up his sleeves without prompting, but either way, Javert was glad for it. "Good morning," he said again.
Valjean smiled back. "Good morning, Javert."
Javert stepped to the bench. He hesitated for a moment, but Cosette had already seen him in his shirtsleeves, and both Valjean and Pontmercy had already discarded their coats. Surely no one would be bothered if he followed suit. He removed his coat and folded it carefully, setting it upon the bench and placing his hat and gloves upon it. When he turned, it was to spot a thoughtful look upon Cosette's face as she studied him. He quelled the urge to tug at his whiskers or smooth down his shirtsleeves. He cleared his throat. "Is something the matter, madame?"
Cosette blinked, and then looked unapologetic at being caught scrutinizing him. "Oh no, monsieur. Nothing is wrong. I was only thinking about the spare straw hat that I bought," she said, smiling. "I had thought to give it to Papa, but he insists on wearing his own." Her expression brightened. "Perhaps it will suit you better! I can fetch it if you like."
Javert imagined himself wearing the same absurd hat and grimaced, horrified. In the next second he had regained control of his expression, rearranging his features into what he hoped was a politely noncommittal look. He was fumbling for a way to refuse without hurting her feelings when a loud bark of laughter made him turn and stare, startled, at Valjean instead.
Valjean ducked his head as Pontmercy and Cosette also looked at him in surprise, a flush spreading across his cheeks. Despite his embarrassment, there was still a thread of suppressed laughter in his voice as he muttered, "I am sorry, Javert, it is only your expression was-" He stopped, his lips twitching again. He coughed. "Well. You made your feelings quite plain."
Pontmercy chuckled. "It was quite a look, monsieur. One might have thought Cosette offered you a live snake instead of a hat!" From the corner of his eye, Javert saw Pontmercy touch the brim of his hat once more, squinting up at it much as Cosette had earlier. He added with another good-natured laugh, "Perhaps they are unfashionable, but I like them nevertheless."
Javert did not quite twitch when Cosette patted his arm and smiled at him. At least she had not taken offense, looking amused. "Well, I will not force the hat upon you, monsieur, but please tell me if you change your mind."
"Thank you, I will keep that in mind," Javert said, though he knew he would not take her up on the offer. Judging by the silent laughter in her eyes, she knew it as well. He was relieved when she walked carefully through the vegetable patch to her husband's side and adjusted his hat, which had gone lopsided as Pontmercy had fiddled with it. When she moved to kiss her husband's cheek, Javert quickly turned his gaze back to Valjean, who still looked amused. He cleared his throat, hunting for another subject to discuss, but his thoughts were still scattered. At last he coughed and asked, "Well, ah, is there a special trick to getting the beets from the ground?"
It was a weak attempt to change the subject, but Valjean smiled and said, "It can be a little difficult at first. Come, let me show you."
It seemed that multiple plants came from one seed, which Valjean had handled earlier in the season by trimming away the surplus plants. Valjean explained further that beets only flowered and produced seeds in their second year, so he would keep a few of the beets to replant in the spring. "We will not need all the seeds ourselves, of course, and in fact we will only have seeds if there are no surprise frosts in the spring, but we can-" Valjean began. He paused when Javert held up a hand.
Javert had recognized that now-familiar enthusiasm in Valjean's eyes. He allowed one corner of his mouth to turn up in a small smile as he said, "Please, let me guess what you plan to do with the excess seeds." He pretended to consider the matter carefully, weighing his options as amusement softened Valjean's expression. "I suppose you will give them to this foundling hospital of yours so that they can have their own garden."
Pontmercy laughed, delighted. He clapped his hands, scattering dirt onto his trousers with the gesture. "Yes, that is exactly what we were considering, monsieur!"
"Why so surprised, darling?" Cosette said, looking fondly at her husband. "Monsieur Javert is an inspector after all. He can recognize a pattern when he sees one. If we are so set on feeding the hospital today, will we not be equally determined to do so a year from now?"
"Oh, I suppose we are predictable," Pontmercy agreed cheerfully. He looked towards Javert, earnestness stamped upon his face. "But you must agree that since we have the means to help this foundling hospital, then we should, monsieur. After all, no child should go hungry."
"I am certain Monsieur Javert agrees, dear," said Cosette before Javert could speak. She placed a gentle hand upon Pontmercy's arm and smiled at him. "But here we are distracting poor Monsieur Javert with talk of something that will not happen for a year! And meanwhile the beets wait patiently in their beds to be harvested." She turned her smile upon Valjean. "Papa, wilt thou please demonstrate how to dig out the beets?"
"Certainly, my dear," Valjean said, the corners of his eyes crinkling in a small smile of his own. He turned towards Javert. After a moment he inclined his head and said mildly, seeming almost amused once more, "You might wish to be closer to observe."
With a start Javert realized that he was still standing on the path, watching them all like a ninny. Now he gave himself a mental shake and stepped onto the black soil, feeling it shift under his boots. He knelt next to Valjean. The movements felt awkward in a way they had not since he had first begun to work in the garden with Valjean; he was acutely aware of Pontmercy and Cosette's presence. The distance he had placed between Valjean and himself seemed at once both too far and too near.
He hoped his sudden nerves did not show on his face. Apparently they did not, or at least Valjean pretended not to notice them, for Valjean smiled and picked up his trowel. Javert kept his gaze fixed upon Valjean's hands, did not let it trace its way up Valjean's arms or even flicker towards Valjean's face; Pontmercy and Cosette's silent observation of the lesson was like a hand upon the back of his neck, keeping him motionless. It was only once the demonstration was over and Valjean had placed the beet in a nearby basket that Javert allowed himself to move, shaking his head and frowning. "I had not realized that this would be so complicated."
"Did you think we would need only to grip the tops of the vegetables and pull them from the earth?" Valjean asked with another amused smile. When Javert pursed his lips at him and said nothing, having not considered at all how one harvested vegetables, Valjean chuckled. "Ah, well, you are not wrong. Many gardeners do simply pull the beets from the ground, but I prefer this method. I find that it preserves the greens better, you see. And we watered the garden last night, so that should make the digging somewhat easier."
"And do not worry if you accidentally cut into a beet, monsieur!" Pontmercy interjected. When Javert glanced over, Pontmercy and Cosette wore matching looks of encouragement. "Father assures me it will do no harm to the taste, though they will have to be used sooner. We shall keep those for ourselves!"
Javert wondered how many of the beets were in pieces from Pontmercy's lesson. Then he caught the flicker of a look upon Valjean's face. His lips twitched and betrayed his amusement as a suspicion formed in the back of his mind. "And sooner means today or the beets will spoil, I suppose," he muttered under his breath, and was answered by a rueful gleam in Valjean's eyes. Javert inclined his head towards Pontmercy and said, louder, "Thank you, monsieur. That is good to know. We would not wish to give the hospital beets unfit to eat."
"Do you wish to try?" Valjean asked, offering the trowel to him.
Javert took it, but despite his care their fingers still brushed and sent a spark of heat up Javert's arm. He did not wrench his hand away from Valjean's, though his breath caught in his throat and he had to fight back a flush. Once more he wished Cosette and Pontmercy were further away, that every movement he made was not so closely observed. He distracted himself by turning the trowel over in his hands and remarking, striving for lightness, "Well, I suppose if I did not harm the beets during the planting and the weeding, I will not do so now."
He bent to the task, gripping the nearest beet where the leaves met the root. He began to dig around the beet, carefully shifting the dirt away. He mimicked Valjean's movements exactly, and did not think of their previous lesson, Valjean's hands gentle and sure upon his wrist and shoulder. At last he uncovered enough of the beet to get his hands around it and lift it from the earth. When he turned, Valjean was there with his basket.
Javert placed the beet with the others as Cosette remarked cheerfully, "Why, you are a quick study, monsieur!"
"I have a good teacher," said Javert, unthinking, and then flushed hot beneath his collar at Valjean's half-bemused, half-pleased smile.
"Oh, but you are already too warm from the sun, monsieur! Your face is quite red." There was a frown in Pontmercy's voice as he stepped over a row of vegetables and drew closer to Valjean and Javert. He peered at Javert with surprising concern in his eyes. "Will you not change your mind and wear the hat? I can fetch it at once. Or if you need some water, I shall-"
"I am fine," Javert said hastily. He took in a breath, and then another, and banished the embarrassed heat from his face. He rose to his feet and moved over to where the next beet protruded from the earth; he did not quite dare to look at Valjean. He cleared his throat. "Though I thank you for your concern, monsieur."
"If you are certain," Pontmercy said, though he looked unconvinced, continuing to frown. He opened his mouth to say something more, and then paused at the sound of his wife's voice.
"Marius, dear, I need assistance. It seems that this beet refuses to be harvested."
Pontmercy and Javert both turned to find Cosette with her lips pursed in a small frown, staring at a half-extracted beet as though it had insulted her. She apparently had little concern for her clothing, for she was down in the dirt as though she wore trousers instead of a dress.
"Of course, dearest," Pontmercy said. He returned to her side and then knelt. It was his turn to frown at the beet, tilting his head to the side and staring in silence for a few seconds. "Perhaps, together...?" he suggested. Both Pontmercy and Cosette cupped one side of the beet and then tugged at the vegetable. Pontmercy laughed triumphantly as the beet came free. "There!"
Javert dared to look at Valjean. He found Valjean watching him, the earlier surprised smile replaced by a thoughtful look. Javert coughed and fidgeted with the trowel. He tapped it sharply against the ground, knocking free some dirt. Once more he hunted for something that would divert Valjean. "Speaking of teachers, did you decide upon Monsieur Reinchard?"
He had spoken louder than he intended, it seemed, for it was Cosette who answered him. "We did! And Papa and I have found a few books for the library as well. We should have everything ready for September."
"You must come and see the school, monsieur," Pontmercy added. "After all, Father told us that you suggested the library."
It was Javert's turn to be startled and stare at Valjean, who flushed faintly but looked steadily back at him. "It was your idea," Valjean said.
"Yes, but-" Javert stopped and huffed out an exasperated breath. He supposed that Valjean had seen it as taking credit if he kept silent regarding Javert's contribution. He shook his head. "Having an idea is all well and good, but you are the ones putting thought to action."
"Well, if you wish to help, monsieur, you can accompany us during our next trip to a bookstore," Cosette said. When Javert looked to gauge her sincerity, there was a mischievous smile upon her lips.
Beside him, Valjean was wearing his half-smile that meant he was trying not to laugh. Javert pursed his lips at them both, amused in spite of himself. "If you need someone to carry the books, then I am at your service, madame," he said, and watched her smile widen. "If you expect me to offer some suggestions as to what a child would read, however, I have no earthly idea."
"That is quite all right. Monsieur Reinchard gave us a list of recommendations."
"Oh!" Pontmercy peered into the basket he and Cosette had been filling. A pleased smile spread across his face. "I think it is full. What do you think, dear?"
"I think if we fill it any further, we shall not be able to carry it," Cosette decided after her own examination. She stood with her husband's assistance, smiling in satisfaction and brushing most of the dirt from her dress and gloves.
"Surely Yount could assist you if you wished to bring more beets, madame?" Javert suggested as Pontmercy hefted the basket into his arms and grunted at the weight.
"Yount is not here," Cosette said. At his puzzled look, she tilted her head. "Did I forget to mention it when I greeted you at the gate? All the servants have the day off."
"All?" Javert said, blinking. He glanced towards the house. "Surely not all, madame. Wouldn't Monsieur and Mademoiselle Gillenormand want at least one servant here?" He tried and failed to imagine Monsieur Gillenormand surviving even a morning without a servant.
"They are not here either," Pontmercy said cheerfully, albeit a bit breathlessly, as though he strained under the basket's weight. "Grandfather enjoyed having company over for my birthday so much that he's decided to return to society. He is spending the day at a salon he used to frequent. And my aunt is off visiting her friend Madame Bauchene."
Javert was struck dumb by the realization that with Cosette and Pontmercy departing for the foundling hospital, soon he and Valjean would be alone, entirely alone in a way they had not been since that night upon the parapet. After that day there had always been the portress or porter at their respective lodgings as unknowing chaperones, or the rest of the household at No. 6 constantly within shouting distance.
Heat rushed back into his face, impossible to force away; he turned away hastily before Pontmercy could spot the flush and grow concerned again. He studied a nearby bean plant, touching the edge of one of its leaves. "I see," he said, and wondered if it was only in his own ears that his voice sounded strange.
Perhaps not, because a second later a gentle hand rested upon his elbow. Startled, he looked up into Cosette's smiling countenance. There was a slight color to her cheeks that could be explained by the summer heat, but Javert, remembering an earlier blush when she had misunderstood his request for privacy in the garden, couldn't discount an entirely different reason.
"I charge you to watch over Papa today, monsieur," she said, at once both teasing and entirely in earnest, her lips wearing the same mischievous smile of before but her eyes serious. Her gloved hand rested lightly on his arm, lingering far beyond what was surely proper. He wondered that Pontmercy made no objection, that Valjean wasn't saying a word. He found that he couldn't look away from Cosette's solemn eyes, wasn't certain he wished to look over and see Valjean's expression. "Please make certain he doesn't overwork himself trying to harvest the beets all in one day. They will surely keep for a day or two."
Javert's lips were dry, but he didn't dare to wet them with his tongue, not with Cosette's steady gaze upon him, observing his every gesture. He remembered that first visit in the garden. What had he told Valjean then? It took him a moment to recall his remark, that day seeming like another lifetime ago.
Your daughter and son-in-law shall force happiness upon you whether you will it or not, and I will be their accomplice.
Javert had not imagined then how he himself might offer Valjean some measure of happiness as well, had only thought to supplement Cosette and Pontmercy's efforts. What a difference even a few months could make, he thought, marveling a little. Again heat warmed his face.
He had been quiet for too long, or perhaps the mounting color in his face had suggested displeasure; Cosette's gloved hand left his arm, her fingers fluttering uncertainly against his sleeve, some of the mischief in her smile replaced by caution, as though she feared she'd overstepped. He did not stop her, acutely aware of his bare hands, his gloves discarded on the bench.
He attempted a smile. "As before, madame, I am your accomplice in his welfare. I will see that he rests." He paused, a thought striking him. Mild consternation furrowed his brow. "And that we eat a decent meal, though I hope the cook at least left something for us, for I am no cook…."
"Madame Deniau did not, but I thought we might use some of the beets for a salad," came Valjean's quiet answer. When Javert looked over, Valjean had found a spare trowel somewhere, for he was placing a beet in his basket with careful attention. Valjean straightened and started to gesture but caught himself, as though he had meant to run a hand through his beard before he remembered the dirt. His lips twitched into a faint, crooked smile as he looked up at Cosette and Javert. His voice when he spoke sounded vaguely apologetic. "I am afraid I have not ventured often into the kitchen myself, but surely making a salad won't be too difficult."
"Yes, Father, you and Monsieur Javert should enjoy the fruits of your labors," Pontmercy said. Then he shook his head, looking suddenly pleased with himself, but also strangely wistful. His odd expression was partially explained a second later as he said, "Or perhaps I should say the vegetables of your labor."
Cosette, perhaps seeing the queer wistfulness in her husband's face or hoping to prevent further attempts at jokes, returned to his side. She patted his arm, which had begun to shake a little from the effort of holding the basket. Then she turned back to Javert and directed a sharp-eyed smile at him. "I will hold you to that, monsieur," she said.
Then she hesitated, her gaze darting between Valjean and Javert. She opened her mouth to say something and then shut it, frowning and hesitant. There was a sudden crease in her brow. Then her cheeks pinked and she said, all in a rush, "Have a good day, Papa, Monsieur Javert." Javert had a second to blink at her sudden transformation into a flustered girl before she whirled and marched with a flare of her dress to the path.
"Come along, dear," she said briskly, her head very high, her back very straight. She snatched the straw hat off her head and tucked it under her arm, revealing her cap trimmed with blue ribbon and the back of her neck still an embarrassed pink. "Let's leave Papa and the inspector to their- ah, to the harvest."
"Yes, dearest," Pontmercy said, although he looked puzzled by Cosette's sudden departure. "Good day. We'll see you after dinner, Father." He nodded towards Javert and Valjean, offering them a brief but sincere smile before he followed his wife, still struggling with the basket's weight.
Javert could not answer, could only stare after Cosette, for there had been the same hesitance in the way she'd tripped over her final sentence as when she'd faltered in describing him as her father's friend. He thought of all her careful, curious glances over the past few months and wondered, a half-amused, half-uncomfortable laugh choking him, if that had been Cosette's idea of giving them her blessing.
Valjean looked as bemused as Pontmercy, his expression searching as he watched Cosette stride up the path towards the house. He turned towards Javert as the strangled laugh escaped. "Give my regards to Madame Bouchard and everyone at the hospital," he called after Pontmercy, belatedly, though he sounded distracted, now looking at Javert with a silent question in his eyes.
This time Javert managed not to flush, though it was a near thing as he fiddled with the trowel. "Well," he said. He pretended not to notice Valjean's inquiring look, for he was certainly not about to explain why he had laughed. "We should get back to work-"
"Javert," Valjean said. Something in his voice drew Javert's gaze back to his grave face, which wore a vague smile, a pale imitation of his earlier smiles.
It was an expression that unsettled Javert. After a second's consideration, he realized why. It reminded him too much of Madeleine's looks when he was trying to escape unwanted conversation or company.
Valjean cleared his throat and said carefully, "You have contributed to the planting and the weeding. And you have even helped with the harvest. Please don't let Cosette's words make you feel obligated to-"
"Obligated!" Javert could not restrain an incredulous snort. At the sound, some of the solemnity fled Valjean's face, replaced by something approaching sheepishness. Still the graveness lingered, along with a new flicker of uncertainty that both exasperated and stung Javert. He tapped the trowel against his thigh, repressed a frown. Did Valjean truly think that Javert might be here only because of some promise to Cosette? He remembered one of Valjean's rare outbursts, that he was no task for Javert to complete. But surely Valjean knew that wasn't the case. He shook his head. "Valjean, your daughter may have you and your son-in-law wrapped around her finger, but she does not have such control over me."
When skepticism crept into Valjean's expression, Javert recalled his failed efforts to avoid Pontmercy's birthday. He amended with a brief twitch of his lips, "Very well, I find it somewhat difficult to refuse her, but I-" He paused, searching for the right words. He said slowly, willing Valjean to believe him, for the last of the uncertainty upon his face to clear, "Valjean. I am not here out of any obligation to your daughter. I am here because I want to be."
Valjean was silent for a long moment. His gaze seemed to probe Javert; Javert kept still and met his eyes, trying to show his sincerity. At last Valjean's smile warmed and reached his eyes. "Good. And I am- I am glad for your company."
It was ridiculous, Javert thought, that he should be exasperated at Valjean's uncertainty that Javert enjoyed his company and then a moment later be surprised and stupidly touched when Valjean expressed a similar sentiment. Had it only been minutes ago that Cosette had mentioned Javert's ability as an inspector to spot a pattern? And yet the conclusion to this particular pattern seemed obvious only now, that Valjean both enjoyed and welcomed their time together. Javert tugged at his whiskers and smiled back as he muttered, "Yes, well. I intend to remain in your company for as long as you wish."
In the quiet of the garden, the remark sounded like a confession, earning him a wondering look from Valjean. Javert resisted the urge to flush again, all too aware that Cosette and Pontmercy were doubtless still in the house, for surely Cosette would change into a clean dress before they left for the foundling house. He tapped his trowel more forcefully against his thigh, trying to distract himself from the pleased crinkling at the corners of Valjean's eyes.
"Well," he muttered again, and inwardly winced at the inanity. He moved to the next beet, kneeling in front of it and eyeing it with more attention than was probably necessary. "Let's see how many beets we can harvest."
Valjean said nothing, but his hand rested, warm and lingering, on Javert's shoulder as he knelt. They worked in silence for a few minutes before Valjean said, "I hope you don't mind a simple meal." He paused and added, as though just struck by the possibility, "But do you actually like beets, or did you buy them because I mentioned them? I did not think to ask your preference for summer vegetables, or if you even eat midday meals-"
Javert couldn't help but snort once more, cutting short Valjean's dismayed speech. He met Valjean's sheepish smile with a half-amused one of his own. "For midday meals, well, you learn to eat whenever you can as an inspector if you wish to eat at all. I have often had supper at midnight and breakfast at dawn. I say we eat whenever we are hungry." He paused, looking at the lingering sheepishness on Valjean's face. "And what would you have done if I said that I hate beets?" he asked, curious. "Gone to the market to buy something else and saved your son-in-law's beets for dinner?"
This earned him a rueful laugh, the concern gone from Valjean's face. He smiled a little as he shook his head and said, "No. I suppose I would have offered you all the bread and cheese in the kitchen. But do you dislike beets?"
"I have no particular preference for or against beets," Javert said honestly. He hesitated a moment, thinking of Cosette and Pontmercy, most likely still in the house but nowhere near the garden and unlikely to return. Giving in to an impulse, he nudged lightly at Valjean with his shoulder. "But I agree that between the two of us we can surely manage a salad."
One of Valjean's rare unmuted smiles flashed like a burst of sudden sunlight, there and gone again in a moment before it settled into a small smile. "Yes," he said, and leaned a little into Javert, a reassuring, welcome pressure for a few seconds before Valjean shifted his weight and reached out to wrest a beet from the earth.
They worked in relative quiet, the sun warm but not unpleasantly so above them, the silence marked by occasional birdsong and easy, soft-voiced discussion about the school and the station-house. Valjean spoke on his impression of Monsieur Reinchard and further plans for the library; Javert, of several interesting open cases and Moreau's return to desk duty at the station-house.
"I think we will need another basket at this rate," Valjean remarked with a satisfied smile, placing another beet into the basket. "I shall-" He started to rise and then stumbled.
Javert scrambled upright, grasping Valjean's shoulder and steadying him. He was alarmed by Valjean's sudden pinched look, the way he'd caught his breath as though in pain. "Valjean, are you-"
Valjean flushed and said hurriedly, "I am fine. My knee sometimes gets stiff. I didn't realize it, that's all." He straightened, leaning a little into Javert's grasp as he bent and unbent his leg with care. Then he offered Javert a small smile of self-conscious reassurance. "You see? It is nothing."
Javert pursed his lips, studying Valjean, but the pained look had been replaced by an embarrassed air. He didn't seem to be concealing any lingering discomfort. Still, Javert was reluctant to withdraw his hand, his heart still beating quickly in his ears. Valjean's stumble reminded him too much of their time at the Rue de l'Homme Arme, when Valjean had labored to walk from his bed to the door.
"Well, even so," he said, still watching Valjean carefully for any signs of pain. "Perhaps we should rest."
Valjean was still beneath his touch, his apologetic smile almost as crooked as his hat, which had come askew when he'd tripped. The knot under Valjean's chin had half-unraveled and seemed likely to come entirely undone, but Valjean didn't seem to notice, smiling ruefully at him. "If you wish, we can. But, Javert, I assure you that my knee feels fine."
"Resting a little won't do any harm, surely. As your daughter said, the beets will keep for another day or two. A half-hour respite won't hurt them."
"Very well," said Valjean with another small smile and shake of his head, which only served to tilt his hat further awry. Another careless movement, and the hat was certain to fall off.
"We could take the first basket to the kitchen, get out of the sun," Javert suggested, reaching out to straighten Valjean's hat. His fingertips had just gripped the brim when he paused, made suddenly uncertain by the change in Valjean's expression and the way Valjean's arm tensed in his grip.
For another second Javert hesitated. He was aware in a way he had not been only a moment ago that he had stepped close to Valjean when Valjean had stumbled, that his one hand had now rested longer upon Valjean's arm than was surely necessary to steady him. He gripped the brim of the hat, frozen in indecision.
But just as quickly as Valjean's arm had tensed, it relaxed, and Valjean did not pull away. Color rose in his face, spread across his cheeks and turned even the tips of his ears pink, but the corners of his mouth turned slightly upwards, a silent encouragement, or at least not an outright dismissal.
The smile gave Javert confidence despite his sudden nerves and the dryness of his mouth. He didn't speak, a silly foolish thought in the back of his mind that any sound would break up the moment, as his own breathless Valjean? had when Valjean had moved to wipe his brow free of dirt all those weeks ago. He carefully adjusted the hat until it rested straight upon Valjean's head.
Then his hand dropped to the ribbon beneath Valjean's chin, the other hand reluctantly releasing Valjean's arm in order to pick apart the half-unraveled knot. He could feel Valjean's breath catch at the touch, felt against his fingertips the rapid fluttering of Valjean's heartbeat. As though in answer, his heart pounded unsteadily in his ears, and he knew his face must also be flushed.
His hands turned clumsy; Javert caught his lower lip between his teeth in frustrated concentration as he fumbled with the knot. At last he managed to untie and then retie it, knotting it with careful precision despite the way his hands wanted to shake. He ran his thumb carefully under the knot, testing that it was loose enough for Valjean to breathe and speak easily, Valjean's beard soft and distracting against his skin.
Even more distracting, however, was the heat in Valjean's gaze that warmed Javert through, and the way he wetted his lips with his tongue, as though his mouth was as dry as Javert's. Valjean opened his mouth to speak and Javert held his breath, anticipation tightening his chest. He did not quite lean forward, but it was a very near thing; rather, his ears strained to catch even the minute catch of Valjean's breath.
But instead of Valjean's quiet voice, a queer rumbling sound filled the air instead. As Javert blinked, caught off-guard, Valjean flushed even more scarlet. He gave an embarrassed jerk of his chin that bumped against Javert's fingers, laughing awkwardly, and said in a flustered mumble, "I'm sorry. I'm a little hungry, it seems…."
It had been Valjean's stomach, Javert realized. He found himself torn between amusement and something like frustration, for it seemed that these moments would always be broken by minor things: the sudden jerk of the carriage coming to a stop before Javert's apartment or, now, the sudden complaint of Valjean's empty stomach.
His hands still rested lightly against the underside of Valjean's jaw, one thumb brushing the knotted ribbon. He forced his hands to his sides, quelling the urge to try to recapture the moment and cup Valjean's face, uncaring of the dirt that would doubtless catch in Valjean's beard, and coax whatever Valjean had been about to say past his lips.
He huffed out a breath, still feeling that mixture of frustrated amusement. "Well, we certainly have enough beets for a meal," he said, somewhat dryly, earning a still-embarrassed smile from Valjean. He shook his head. "Come, I'll carry the basket to the kitchen."
"Oh, I can-" Valjean said, trailing off as Javert stepped away. His hands twitched a little at his sides and then went still. "Very well."
Javert wondered if Valjean too was repressing the desire to reach out to him, his hunger deemed inconsequential. The thought was gratifying; Javert ducked his head hastily over the basket to hide the pleased smile that turned up his lips and doubtless made him look a fool. "Where are we having the meal?" he asked as he lifted the basket carefully, testing the weight. The beets, not very burdensome as individuals, proved heavier in a collection than he'd anticipated, and he had to repress a grunt as he hefted the basket into his arms. "The kitchen seems the most obvious place. I suppose we could eat in the dining room, though it is somewhat large for two. And then there's the garden, but you may wish to escape the heat-" He stopped, catching more inanity between his teeth and inwardly grimacing. Instead of smiling like an idiot at Valjean, it seemed he would babble at him instead.
Valjean was quiet. When Javert turned, slowly, the basket weighing him down, he found Valjean wearing a half-abashed smile, as though Javert had caught him in something. As he watched, Valjean wetted his lips with his tongue and said quietly, "Actually, I had thought we might take our meal in my rooms."
Javert was caught off-guard by the suggestion. He had never seen Valjean's rooms at the Rue des Filles-Calvaire. He did not, he realized, even know where Valjean's rooms were, only that they existed. He tried to imagine these newer rooms, but could only picture something very similar to the ones Valjean had kept at the Rue de l'Homme Arme: spartan except for the few knickknacks that presumably had been purchased for or by Cosette.
Javert hesitated, studying the way Valjean did not quite meet his eyes. It was queerly intimate, this idea of Valjean's, or perhaps Javert just wished it so, his own desires making him misinterpret the gesture. And yet Valjean had not extended such an invitation before, when there had been others around, and Javert could not help but think, or rather hope, that Valjean's timing meant something more than simply that the rooms would be more comfortable than the kitchen.
As with Cosette, he had waited too long to answer; his prolonged silence had been taken as disagreement. Valjean flushed and said quickly, "The kitchen will work just as well, of course. I just thought that it might-"
"No. No, we should eat in your rooms," Javert said. The words stuck in his throat and yet somehow came out even and unaffected by the sudden nervous twisting of his stomach.
Valjean blinked, a surprised but pleased smile flitting briefly across his face. "Oh, good." Then he paused; there was a strange, almost hopeful look upon his face for a few seconds. Before Javert could begin to guess at what he anticipated, however, Valjean glanced at the basket Javert held. One corner of his mouth turned upwards, as though he was repressing a laugh at himself. Then he reached for the knot Javert had just tied, untying it quickly and then tucking the hat under his arm.
Had he wanted Javert to untie the knot, for Javert to set the beets down and touch him again? Javert inwardly scowled, irritated with himself at the missed opportunity. His fingers twitched against the basket's rough weave, remembering the softer feel of Valjean's beard. He adjusted the basket in his arms, shifting the weight as he said briskly, "Well, the sooner we get these to the kitchen and washed, the sooner we can eat."
"I can carry…." Valjean stopped with a quiet, unsurprised laugh when Javert pursed his lips.
"I am fine. The basket is not so heavy."
Valjean led him to the kitchen, explaining over his shoulder, "We will have to get some water from the pump, but then we need only wash the beets and cut the ones we want for the salad into smaller pieces." He paused, his steps slowing minutely. "And add some herbs, I believe. Did Madame Deniau say parsley, or was it tarragon…?" He hesitated again, frowning in thought, and added, "Of course we will have bread and cheese as well, in case the salad is, ah..."
"A failed experiment," Javert suggested, attempting diplomacy.
Valjean's lips twitched in amusement. "Yes. A failed experiment."
The kitchen was not as large as Javert might have expected if he had considered it before this moment. The room did not seem large enough to produce enough food to feed a household of nearly ten, including the servants, but Javert welcomed the limited space. It meant he had a good excuse to stand close to Valjean as they washed and cut the beets, to be able to watch from the corner of his eye the flex of Valjean's arms and to feel the occasional brush of Valjean's elbow against his as they worked.
Each light touch sent a pulse of warmth through Javert and caught at his chest until he was almost dizzy. Surely his face must be flushed for seemingly no reason, with the kitchen's windows open for the breeze and the room dark and cooler than outside.
And yet Valjean did not seem to notice, cutting the beets into long, thin pieces and placing them into two small bowls. Javert was glad when at last Valjean straightened and said cheerfully, "And now we just need to mix them with some herbs and we shall have our salad." He squinted at the cabinet. "I still cannot remember if Madame Deniau said parsley or tarragon, or parsley and tarragon," he muttered, frowning.
Javert shrugged. "Try a little of both?"
Valjean took down two containers and sprinkled both herbs in small pinches over the beets. His hands, scrubbed clean of dirt before they had begun to wash the beets in earnest, now had pieces of herbs caught under their nails.
Javert repressed a laugh as Valjean frowned in consternation. "Here," he said. He handed Valjean a spoon and watched Valjean thoroughly stir the salads, spreading as much as of the herbs as possible upon the beets.
Valjean's stirring paused, and then he used the spoon to dig out a beet piece from among the others. Javert found himself almost hypnotized as Valjean took a careful bite of the beet, the vegetable a startlingly reddish-purple contrast against the paleness of his beard and the healthy tan of his skin. Valjean's lips closed around the beet in a way that could not have meant to be suggestive but made Javert flush hotly all the same.
Javert busied himself with studying one of the herb containers with an intensity it did not deserve, embarrassed by his reaction to Valjean's innocent eating of a vegetable. When he finally stole a glance in Valjean's direction, he caught Valjean making a face. He raised an eyebrow. "Is it terrible then?"
"It is not terrible, but it is a little…." Valjean trailed off, hunting and failing to think of the right word. His tongue ran over his lips, as though still chasing after the taste and trying to name it.
"Let me try it," Javert said. He hesitated, tearing his gaze away from Valjean's mouth and looking at the half-eaten piece still on the spoon. Unbidden, he remembered how Valjean's lips had looked as he'd swallowed the beet. Greatly daring, or perhaps simply looking ridiculous, he took the beet between his thumb and first finger. There was a surprised puff of air against his skin as Valjean let out a quiet breath. Javert brought the beet quickly to his lips. He ate it, grimacing a little at the taste. "It's a little too sweet, I think."
Valjean said nothing for a few seconds, and then in a low mutter, half to himself, said, "Oh! I think Madame Deniau did say something about adding vinegar." He fumbled in the cabinet, pulling the vinegar out after a hurried search and pouring a little into each bowl. This time he stirred more forcefully, his lower lip caught between his teeth, a flush in his cheeks. "Here," he said at last, and offered a fresh spoonful of the salad to Javert with a small, half uncertain smile. "How is it now?"
Javert found himself hesitating yet again, studying Valjean's smile and how close Valjean stood. The awareness that they were entirely alone threatened to overwhelm him. His heart pounded unsteadily in his ears, his throat tight as numerous possibilities filled his mind, dizzying him.
He reached out and caught hold of Valjean's hand, curled his fingers lightly around Valjean's wrist. There was the same startled flutter beneath his fingertips as when he'd tied Valjean's ribbon earlier. The spoon shook for a second in Valjean's grip and then steadied. When Javert studied Valjean's expression, it was to find Valjean watching him with the hopeful look he'd worn in the garden, his face pink but his eyes steady and warm upon Javert.
Emboldened by Valjean's encouraging gaze, Javert bent over their hands and lowered his mouth to the spoon. The sharp sting of the vinegar counteracted the cloying sweetness and gave the salad a pleasing flavor, but Javert was more intrigued by how Valjean's shoulders inclined towards him and the bitten-back sigh that escaped Valjean as Javert's lips closed around the spoon.
Javert did not immediately straighten. Instead he tugged the spoon from Valjean's unresisting fingers. He was determined that there would be no interruptions this time, and filled with a sudden conviction that only a careless word could spoil this moment. He swallowed down even the urge to say Valjean's name and fumbled with the spoon, blindly setting it upon the table. Then he focused all his attention upon Valjean's hand, which now rested palm up in Javert's.
His hand was as Javert remembered it from the weeding lesson, albeit cleaner, still callused and warm, the lines and small scars of his palm like a miniature map upon his skin, years of history and memories in each callus and small scar. Before, Javert had traced one of the deeper lines with his finger, the gesture unconscious. Now he touched Valjean with careful deliberation.
The kiss he pressed to Valjean's palm was soft, a question answered by Valjean's wondering sigh. He closed his eyes at the feel of Valjean's hand upon his hair, overwhelmed by the tenderness that welled up in him at the touch and by the affection in the slow sweep of Valjean's thumb across his brow. He knew without looking that the corners of Valjean's eyes were creased and he was smiling one of his rare bright smiles. He wished that they could stay like this for an hour or two, but already his neck ached, his back protesting the awkward position. In another minute the discomfort would turn to pain. And there was also the fact that Valjean still needed to eat, his pained look a too recent memory to ignore.
Javert pressed a second kiss into Valjean's palm and then brushed a third upon Valjean's fingertips. He started to straighten, Valjean's hand shifting to clasp his shoulder, and then froze as he met Valjean's gaze, ensnared by the sight. He had known that Valjean would be smiling, had thought himself prepared, and yet this look was unlike any of Valjean's past smiles. The others had come and gone like sudden sunbursts peeking out from behind a cloud, blindingly radiant and breathtaking for an instant and then swiftly muted to small, pleased looks. This one warmed his entire face and did not fade, in fact only strengthened and grew brighter still as Javert looked at him. It was a look tinged with wonder and wholehearted happiness.
For a second Javert's mind emptied, all thoughts banished by the force of Valjean's smile. He smiled helplessly back, the upward turn of his lips easy and natural, his own happiness surely reflected in his face. He drank in Valjean's expression greedily, struggling to commit it to memory, though he knew, the certainty a warm, pleasurable weight in his stomach, that Valjean had many other such smiles in him, ones which Javert would be privileged to incite and witness in the future.
He was still holding Valjean's wrist, he realized, but he found he could not bear to let go. Perhaps that sentiment reflected in his face, for Valjean's hand moved carefully in his and became a clasping of hands. His other hand lingered on Javert's shoulder.
It was then that the smell of vinegar tickled Javert's nose, and he remembered with a small start that they had been in the middle of making a meal and that Valjean had not yet eaten. Still trying to collect his scattered thoughts, the words tumbled awkwardly off his tongue as Javert muttered, "Well. I think that, ah, I think that will suit us both."
For a second Valjean looked puzzled, and then understanding lit his eyes as he glanced at the table. "Yes," he agreed, and his smile, impossibly, widened. He looked down at their hands. He was as unwilling as Javert to let go, it seemed, for he paused and then said slowly, "If you will carry the salads and the cutlery, I shall bring the rest."
"Very well." Javert released Valjean's hand with reluctance; Valjean's hand upon his shoulder lifted a second later. And yet Valjean's warm touch seemed to linger, as though the light press of his hand had left imprints upon Javert's skin. Javert busied himself with gathering up the cutlery and the salad bowls, though his gaze kept straying to Valjean.
Once Valjean had taken up the plates, the bread, and a wedge of cheese, he led the way towards his room. Javert followed close on his heels, the hallway too narrow for them to walk comfortably side by side. He took the opportunity to once more appreciate Valjean's broad shoulders, his back, his legs, the vitality of him, so different from the near-corpse Javert had encountered that first morning at the Rue de l'Homme Arme. He wondered if Valjean knew he was looking, if he could feel Javert's gaze like a minute pressure upon his skin. His hands ached, wanting to touch everywhere his eyes lingered.
Happiness and wondering anticipation welled up in his chest once more, so overwhelming that he had to pause a second and take in a slow breath before he could continue up the stairs. Valjean's quarters were spacious, larger even than his old antechamber, far larger than Javert's room, and nearly as sparse as Javert had imagined. Curiosity pricked at him. He studied the room while Valjean set out the plates and the bread and cheese upon a small table. There in the far corner was the little valise Cosette had made so much of when moving Valjean's belongings; there, a desk where Valjean perhaps had written the note that had sent Victoire to Javert's apartment; there, two chairs at the small table where Javert and Valjean would sit and eat; there, the neatly made bed where Valjean had slept only a few hours ago.
Javert's gaze lingered on the last for a heartbeat and then away, his throat hot beneath his collar, his mind teasing him with all manner of half-formed ideas. He hastily placed the salad and cutlery upon the table, his face warming further as his elbow brushed Valjean's. He stepped to the window, which was closed. He fumbled with the latch, but at last it obeyed his shaky hand. When he opened the window and blinked out at the tall hedges that encircled the garden, closer than he had thought they would be, a cool breeze touched his face.
He closed his eyes and breathed in the fresh air, trying to regain some semblance of control over himself. The light scent of lemons both surprised and steadied him. When he opened his eyes, he realized he had overlooked the small vase of roses upon the windowsill. They were Cosette's addition to the room, no doubt, the flowers bright and startlingly pink against the otherwise pale whites and lighter pastels of the room. He touched one of the roses, the blossom smooth like silk. He remembered how Valjean had tucked one of the first blooms of the summer into his vest pocket, the stroke of his fingers upon petals, both like and unlike the way Valjean had touched Javert's brow earlier.
On impulse, Javert took up the vase and moved it to the middle of the table. He set it down harder than he'd intended, earning both a dull thud and a startled look from Valjean. Embarrassed, he ducked his head and muttered, "I can move it back, I only thought-"
"No," Valjean said. The overwhelmingly brilliant smile returned to his face. He reached out and brushed one of the roses with gentle fingers. Javert wondered if he was thinking of that first rose as well, or if he just appreciated the gesture. "No," Valjean said again, flushed and pleased. "It is- it is good there. Please, sit down."
Though it was a suggestion, Javert obeyed as though it was an order, folding himself awkwardly into the chair and discovering that the table was a bit too low to the ground to be entirely comfortable. He stretched out his legs, not entirely displeased when his ankle touched Valjean's.
Valjean had procured wine and two cups from somewhere while Javert had struggled with the window. At the sudden press of their ankles, he flushed and fumbled with the bottle, spilling a little upon his hand and arm. His shirtsleeve, still rolled up to his elbow, just escaped staining. "Oh," he said with a rueful twitch of his lips, and took a handkerchief from his pocket before Javert could react.
Their ankles remained pressed together. Desire once more heated Javert's stomach, but it was not an overwhelmingly urgent warmth as he watched Valjean dab at the wine. He found himself paradoxically both impatient and not, wanting this peaceful moment to linger and yet wishing the meal over with so that he could put these half-formed desires to action. He breathed in, and the lemon scent tickled at his senses once more.
Apparently satisfied that he had wiped away all trace of the spill, Valjean tucked his handkerchief away. He poured the wine with almost exaggerated care, smiling at Javert as though to invite him in on the jest. Then he set the bottle aside and bowed his head over his plate. His eyes closed. A second later, his lips began to move in silent prayer.
Javert belatedly lowered his head and clasped his hands together, though he kept his eyes open, watching Valjean. He did not pray. In truth, he still struggled to reconcile the idea of a just and merciful god with one who had allowed Valjean to suffer for so long. Javert had prayed by rote for the first fifty years of his life, as though making a report to a distant superior who doubtless had more important matters to attend to; now his prayers felt more like hesitant conversations, awkward and stilted, still feeling one-sided more often than not.
But if he struggled in his faith and still doubted the existence of his soul, he found comfort in Valjean's steadfast belief and the way praying lent a serenity to the other man's expression. And though Valjean may not have not bought Javert's soul that night upon the parapet, he had certainly awoken Javert's conscience, which seemed a more useful and valuable thing.
Valjean finished his prayer and straightened. Opening his eyes, he caught Javert watching him. A faint flush colored his cheeks once more, but he did not look away. "Well," he said, and then stopped. He sat a little straighter, smiling almost nervously as he took up his glass of wine.
For a second, Javert did not understand what Valjean intended, for Valjean held the glass but didn't immediately drink. Then he realized Valjean meant to make a toast. He reached for his own glass, waiting to see what Valjean would say. All manner of absurd suggestions formed in his mind, from the ridiculously sentimental to more lewd ones that made him shift a little in his chair. His ankle knocked against Valjean's. He ducked behind the glass to hide the twitch of his lips.
Apparently Valjean was not certain how to toast the meal, for he hesitated a moment, turning the glass around in his hands and looking thoughtful. Then he raised his glass. "To the harvest," he said. The toast was deceptively simple and yet behind it was the history of these past few months, all the hours spent learning to understand each other and enjoy each other's company.
"To the harvest," Javert said. The wine was sweet without being cloying, but he barely tasted it, distracted by the way the corners of Valjean's eyes crinkled in pleasure at the flavor. He took a second sip and then set the wine aside.
"Did you want some bread along with the salad?" Valjean asked, watching Javert gather a forkful of beets. As he reached for the bread knife, his knee lightly nudged Javert's.
There was no hint of discomfort in Valjean's face, but the memory of his leg giving way beneath him was too fresh for Javert not to reach out and touch Valjean's knee. Valjean shivered beneath his hand at the unexpected contract, his lips parting in a soft, surprised look. Javert's face warmed, but he did not move his hand, and if there was surprise in Valjean's expression, there was also something of his earlier anticipation, his eyes fixed upon Javert.
Javert cleared his throat. Valjean's knee was very warm and still against his palm. He resisted the urge to run his thumb along the side of it to see if Valjean would shiver again, for then they would never finish the meal. He cleared his throat again. "Your knee. Does it still bother you?"
"No," Valjean said after a second. Perhaps his throat felt tight as well, for the answer came out hoarse, a low, rough note that made Javert repress a shiver of his own. "No, it is-" It was Javert's turn to startle as Valjean rested his hand upon Javert's, keeping it there. "It does not pain me."
"Good," Javert said, rather foolishly, but Valjean seemed unbothered by Javert's lack of eloquence.
Valjean did not move his hand, but took up his fork with his other hand and began to eat in slow, careful bites, his warm gaze moving often between Javert and his plate. If it made navigating the meal somewhat awkward, Javert found he did not care.
They ate in relative silence, exchanging smiles across the table. Javert found all the hours spent planting and weeding the vegetables well worth the effort as Valjean smiled at every bite of his salad. Their conversation turned once more to the school and its library, and Valjean's soft laughter was warm and easy.
Before, Javert had been satisfied with the performance of his duty and content in his righteousness. Those moments of ignorant certainty were lost to him, forever banished by a superior understanding of justice and mercy. Instead he found satisfaction in watching Valjean eat the beets they had grown together and contentment in Valjean's unfeigned pleasure. Valjean's happiness was more potent than the wine they shared, so sweet and strong that Javert grew lightheaded on Valjean's smile. His chest ached, too full of this strange, untempered joy, and yet he could not look away or reign in his own smile, not when Valjean seemed to feel the same way, often pausing mid-sentence to favor Javert with a soft, wondering look.
When they had eaten their fill, Valjean made to rise; his hand pressed Javert's once more before he settled back in his chair and reached for their bowls. "Well," he said as he stacked the dishes, his voice nearly lost amid the clatter. "Between the two of us, I think we managed the meal quite nicely. Cosette will be impressed. And I shall have to thank Madame Deniau for her recipe. Oh, perhaps I should pass along the recipe to the foundling hospital-" He fumbled with one of the spoons and dropped it.
Javert knelt instinctively, reaching for the spoon which had fallen under Valjean's chair. When he looked up from tapping the spoon against the chair's leg to dispel any dirt, he found Valjean wearing a half-smile of repressed laughter. Javert paused, wondering at Valjean's amusement but also caught by the warm affection in his gaze.
He remembered suddenly that they had done this before, that first morning when he had glowered at Valjean until Valjean had grudgingly eaten Madame Mercier's broth. When Valjean had dropped his spoon, Javert had knelt to retrieve it. But how different Valjean had seemed then, more of a corpse than a man; his features had been gaunt, his eyes sunken, his breathing labored, his hands unsteady. And yet even that terrible memory of Valjean's frailness could not hurt either of them now, Javert thought, not when Valjean stood before him, his strength restored, his face flushed with health and happiness, his hands now steady where they rested upon the table.
He was still kneeling, he realized, bent before Valjean like some penitent sinner seeking absolution. He dismissed the irreverent thought with a small shake of his head, earning a slightly puzzled look from Valjean. If Valjean was a saint, he was one of the soil, an ordinary man performing extraordinary acts of kindness and charity.
He wondered what Valjean would say if he voiced his thoughts; doubtless Valjean would flush and protest against being likened to a saint, even one who performed no miracle but stretched out his hand to help others.
Javert gripped the edge of the table, intending to leverage himself upright. He paused when Valjean smiled and shifted in his chair, reaching out a hand to Javert's elbow and helping him upright. Once Javert was steady on his feet, Valjean's hand slipped from his elbow to his hand, turning once more into a clasping of hands; as in the kitchen, neither let go. Javert set the spoon aside and looked down at their interlaced fingers, studying the dusting of white hair upon the back of Valjean's hand. When he had chosen this path, when he had chosen Valjean and all that entailed, he had not known where his decision would lead them. He had moved forward blindly, hoping that he would not lose his way and trusting that Valjean would steer him back to the right course should he make another mistake. So often during this past year he had felt as though he were stumbling around in the dark, so often he had spent sleepless nights second-guessing the smallest of decisions, and yet in this moment it seemed the simplest thing in the world to take one more step closer, to tighten up his grip upon Valjean's hand and draw him up from the chair.
They stood face to face now, close enough that he could feel the hitch in Valjean's breath as he leaned in, could watch anticipation and desire banish the lingering curiosity from Valjean's expression. And there was still no doubt, no second-guessing, only perhaps a touch of wonder that this felt so easy, to take this final step and kiss him.
Valjean's hand tightened around his own. Javert's chest ached again, too full. He ran his free hand across Valjean's broad shoulder and delighted in the banked strength in the muscles there. Breaking the kiss, he breathed rough against the corner of Valjean's mouth. The summer breeze ruffled their hair, bringing with it the lemon fragrance of the roses that mixed with the headier scents of soap and sweat.
Javert had closed his eyes at some point, but he did not dare open them yet, for fear Valjean's expression would undo him entirely. He moved blindly, turning his head a little to recapture Valjean's mouth, tasting the lingering sweetness of the wine and beets alongside the fainter hint of the vinegar.
Valjean's hand upon his back was sudden but welcome; Javert relaxed into the touch, obeyed the light pressure until Valjean had pulled him even closer and they were pressed together, stomach to stomach. He caught Valjean's sigh against his lips, let his hand trace up Valjean's shoulder and his collar, until he touched Valjean's neck. He could still feel the sun's warmth upon Valjean's skin, the eager fluttering of Valjean's heart against his fingertips.
He felt like a tinderbox in that moment, the warmth of Valjean's skin a spark ready to light him aflame and consume him. He pulled away a little, his cravat too tight; he pressed another quick kiss against Valjean's lips and stepped back, taking in another deep breath. Valjean's hand slipped slowly from Javert's back and slid down his forearm as Javert lowered his own hand; Valjean caught hold of his hand, interlacing their fingers.
They stood now, facing each other. When Javert at last opened his eyes, he looked down at their hands, both linked. He huffed a laugh at the picture they made. Valjean answered with a half-smile, but it was a small turn of his lips, his expression soft with wonder and happiness. Javert started to speak, and then realized he had no idea what to say. Language seemed wholly inadequate; nothing seemed sufficient to describe how he felt as he looked at Valjean's smile.
Perhaps that reflected in his face, or Valjean felt the same way, for neither immediately spoke. Instead Valjean brought Javert's hands to his lips, brushed a gentle kiss across his knuckles. This time the sound that rose to Javert's lips was not a laugh but a sigh, one that made Valjean's ears turn pink.
The quiet words tickled Javert's skin as Valjean murmured, "Ah, after we wash the dishes, we could go back to the garden and harvest more beets, or we could read further in Don Quixote or...well, whatever is your preference."
Javert looked at Valjean's still-pink ears and felt affection threaten to overwhelm him once more. Then he thought of the effect Valjean's sun-soothed expression had had on him in the past; it was his turn to flush a little. He cleared his throat and then lightly squeezed Valjean's hands. "I would not mind reading more of Don Quixote's adventures. Although if we spend the entire afternoon reading we may finish it." He considered the library and its stupefying number of books, how he and Valjean together had haphazardly searched the shelves to find Don Quixote, and suggested, "Perhaps we should begin to explore the library in full today and make up a list of suitable books for the future. Then we would not have to rummage through the shelves every time we finish a volume."
He was not expecting sudden humor to light Valjean's eyes or for him to say with a small smile, "That's a good thought. Perhaps next we should try a book of poetry. Monsieur Gillenormand still has The Botanic Garden, I believe." Javert barked out a startled laugh, and Valjean's smile widened, pleased by Javert's reaction.
"That poem would require some privacy, I think," Javert said dryly. "Imagine reading such things in the garden-" He paused, and flushed again, remembering how in the privacy of his own room he had imagined Valjean's reaction at a reading of the poem. Now, with their hands still clasped and the memory of Valjean's mouth warm and willing against his still fresh in his memory, it was easy to picture the way Valjean's ears would pink and his gaze would warm, the hitch in his breath as Javert read to him.
Javert cleared his throat. Desire tightened his chest. It was another second before he could gather enough breath to mutter, "Well, perhaps, ah, we should compose two lists. One for the garden and one for, ah, the privacy of your room…."
Valjean's hands tightened upon Javert's. "Oh," he said, his lips parting in surprise. The low, rough word made Javert shiver. For another second Valjean only looked at him, half-wonderingly, as if he too marveled at their good fortune; then he smiled that radiant smile from before, the one that put all others to shame. "I do not know if Monsieur Gillenormand has much literature that would suit the latter list, but, it will surely do no harm to look…."
"No harm at all," Javert agreed. The impulse to lean forward and breathe the opening stanza of The Botanic Garden into Valjean's ear rose in him and was quelled with effort. Instead he brought their hands to his lips and answered Valjean's kiss with one of his own. "Shall we?"
At Valjean's small nod, he pressed another kiss to Valjean's hand and then released him. It was perhaps sentimental, and foolish besides, that his hands should feel empty without Valjean's warm, callused hands clasping them. He gathered up the bowls and cutlery, busying his hands even as Valjean took up the dishes and the remains of the bread.
It was only after he had gathered up the last spoon that Javert remembered the window, still open from when he had fumbled with the latch and let the fresh air temper his desire. He wondered if he should shut the window. Dropping the cutlery into the stacked bowls, he left them on the table for the moment. He stepped again to the sill and then paused, his hands resting upon the frame.
He looked down at the tall hedges that encircled the garden, closer to the window than he had anticipated, although too far away to touch. The patch of garden Valjean called his own could not be seen, and yet Javert could picture it like a painting in his mind, had over the past few months grown to know it almost as well as Valjean's face. If they returned to the vegetable garden now, Javert suspected he could point out where he had planted his first seed while balanced awkwardly on the balls of his feet, where Valjean had almost brushed the dirt from his brow, where not so very long ago Javert had reached out and tied Valjean's hat.
It was Valjean's garden, Javert thought, but it was also his a little, much as Pontmercy had credited the school's library to him when its creation really belonged to them both. He wondered what else they could accomplish, especially with Cosette and Pontmercy's assistance.
"Javert." Valjean's voice was quiet, but still Javert startled, drawn abruptly from his thoughts.
Javert closed the window and turned to Valjean, a smile coming easily to his mouth at Valjean's soft look. His chest tightened once more; then he felt a queer sense of relief, the way that a man who has walked an uncertain, toilsome road might feel when he has reached his destination. He took up the bowls and cutlery again. "Coming, Valjean," he said. The name felt new on his lips.
Valjean's smile grew, smoothing away some of the lines in his face and bringing out new ones at the corners of his eyes; he crossed to the door without glancing back.
For a moment Javert stood and watched him go, affection and happiness warming him once more; then, dishes in hand, he followed Valjean.
"The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
Of obvious death, where I, who thought to sink,
Was caught up into love, and taught the whole
Of life in a new rhythm."
- "VII" from Sonnets of the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning