Actions

Work Header

Invitation

Work Text:

Now, where could it possibly be?

He thought he had an idea. But he didn’t look there quite yet. He allowed the lamplight to fall over the objects closest to the front of the shed: Some gardening tools, a wheelbarrow; a few disused bottles that had once held wine, then flowers, and presently contained only dust.

It must be in the back. With the other household supplies.

There was no reason why Jean Valjean, of all the members of his little family, should have been the one to be out in the shed of the garden at Rue Plumet, searching for extra reserves of lye soap. This was the sort of task he rightfully should have passed over to Toussaint, or else to one of the spry young lovebirds that could often be found flitting about the house.

Lord, I never should have—

But Jean had wanted to take this task. He hoped to distract and to cleanse himself of the miasma of thoughts that sought to utterly sour his mood. It wasn’t working especially well, but it was a change that kept him from sitting in his chair by the hearth and brooding until Cosette called him away to feigned cheer and smiles again.

So, he searched the shelves with a lethargic eye, taking inventory of each item the family possessed: Shears in all sorts of sizes. A collection of stones, sacks filled with soil for planting new flowers. Some tin containers, some glass ones—

Jean startled at a sound behind him.

It was the door closing suddenly, loudly, and without his touch. He threw himself around, waving his lantern broadly in his hand, and came closer to the door by a step to see who had joined him.

It was he. The very subject of Jean’s perturbation. He stood there looking very much like always, all stern, solid lines, impeccable hair and clothes and pinning pale eyes.

“Javert,” Jean said, a wary half-whisper of a word. He wasn’t sure if what he was seeing, as he watched that face for a few moments more, was right. He couldn’t figure how it was that the disquiet he felt deep within himself seemed to have manifested in the form of Javert, there, unannounced and unexpected.

“Valjean.” The word Javert returned was expected. What wasn’t was the voice in which he gave it, one that was not quite so solid and terse as was its wont. “Good afternoon.”

They remained thus for a long moment. The warm summer space within them, smelling of earth and wood and rust, failed to make a sound. Neither of them spoke. Javert’s gaze went on keeping Jean in place until it faltered and fell. The silence bred thought, and think Jean did... about the missive.

“You... can’t have sought me out here simply to wish me a ‘good afternoon,’” he said, and placed his lantern down on the nearby work bench. “I sent you a message yesterday morning. I was told that it was given to you directly.” Javert’s expression, determined before, furrowed itself into frustration.

“Yes. I received it,” he returned laconically. Laconically enough that Valjean let out a short, mirthless laugh in reply.

“Well, then, forgive me for saying so, Javert, but I wonder why you’re here now. Your silence and your failure to appear last evening gave me a certain impression.”

There was another space of silence. A curious one. In his moments of communication with Javert—barring those of late—the man had always been ready to say something. It was as if he spoke on instinct. Now, having been presented with a moment of awkwardness, the man didn’t speak at all, not even in his defense.

“I... believe that I may understand, Valjean,” Javert started lowly, and finally moved in past the threshold of the little wooden structure. “You think, perhaps, that because I didn’t respond to your request to dine because I had no wish to see you.”

“Something of the sort,” Jean responded. Plain and calm though he wished to be, Jean was inclined towards expressing his soreness with Javert. Had they not spent so much time together since that night in June? For what reason would the man suddenly deny him? Simply because he had recovered sufficiently to be entirely on his own again?

“Yes.” Javert took a few more steps inside, and, instead of standing before Jean and conversing with him properly, he began to pace a few steps. “But that is not the case. There is a great deal more to understand about the matter. I received your message before I had to attend to my duties that morning. There was a great deal on my mind before I received it, and afterwards, I did not know what I should do. I had work to be done in a disreputable district; I was thinking of it as I was thinking of you. When the evening came, I found that I had not responded, and I could not think that you wished to have a response from me by that hour. I had taken too much time. I had thought, once any suitable hour for an evening meal had passed, that I might send you a message in response, but I could find no-one to deliver a message at the hour by which I was considering the measure. Had I had more time in which to consider the situation, had I been given a day, perhaps, I would surely have done well by you and replied at the very least. The complications of—”

“Javert,” Jean interrupted in a whisper, “you didn’t... allow the door to shut behind you, did you?”

In a sight familiar to Jean only in recent weeks, Javert seemed to require time to gather his thoughts. His eyes widened, and his brow knit, and he closed his mouth resolutely as he seemed to register that it hung agape.

“I... did, yes.” Javert’s gaze sought Jean’s. “Why?”

“It’s simply that... that door is broken,” he explained. “It’s... quite difficult to reopen it once it has been shut all the way.”

Both of them turned to look at the door. It appeared innocuous enough. A simple wooden door, simply closed. Javert stared as if the thing offered a challenge.

“It can’t... it can’t be absolutely broken, can it?” Javert asked, close to concerned. He took to the door and tried its handle. As Jean had promised, it failed to open. Moving swiftly to the next logical step, Javert shook the handle belligerently until it creaked and groaned but still did not give way under his hand.

“How is this possible?” A distinctly disgruntled voice groused out of Javert. “Surely you must have a method of escape, if you are aware that this happens—a key, at the very least—” Jean smiled, each line in his face more abashed as it radiated from around his eyes and lips.

“I... do usually keep a key about me when I come here, yes,” he admitted, “but I neglected to pick it up for this visit.” Javert let out a groaning sound of indignation. “Can you truly fault me for that? I planned to be here for only a moment.”

“You were out here long enough for me to find you here, Valjean—and what if the door had closed behind you while you were here alone? You might have died in this place.” Jean shook his head.

“It wouldn’t come to that. Cosette would have realized that I was missing,” he said bracingly. It was true that Jean had established a precedent of mysterious absence from the family home, so, truthfully, it was possible that she might not think to go searching for a little time. But she would eventually.

Javert, evidently anxious to be free, paced again, brushing hair from his face in a convulsive motion. He then stopped at the door, rattled its handle again, and, after a silent moment of choice, he threw his weight against it. This being relatively insubstantial for a man of his height, the door only rocked slightly on its hinges. Javert turned and cast his gaze back towards Valjean, looking at him up and down with a disconcerting hint of appraisal in his eyes.

“You try it,” he bid peremptorily, and took a step back from the recalcitrant door.

Now, it was undeniably true that Jean Valjean was possessed of a great deal in the way of physical strength. It was true that he would likely have had more success than Javert possibly could if he used the whole of it, and it was equally true that, if he did so, he would tear the door from his hinges in the process. There came the question: Did he wish to display such strength before Javert? Did he really wish for the brutish, beastly part of him to come forth since a clearly fragile tie had been forged between the pair of them? Perhaps Javert would be glad to be free when Jean succeeded, but he would be inevitably reminded of the man Jean used to be... the man he had pursued in hatred for so many years.

So, when Jean shrugged his shoulders and approached the door, he grasped the handle carefully enough to be sure that the door did not break. He feigned shaking the thing with all his might; indeed, the wood-and-metal sound it made as it rattled and shook gave the impression that a man’s full strength was being employed in the effort to open it. But it was not. Thus, the door did not open, and Javert groaned aloud once again.

“There’s no need to be cross,” Jean said softly as he turned around. He was careful to be sure that there was nothing reproving in his voice, only a practiced equanimity. “We shall be found soon enough. We can... speak while we await the opening of the door.”

In a straightforward movement, Jean moved behind Javert, took up a bag of soil as if it were a bag of down, set it on top of a sturdy crate and sat. He looked up at his companion. Javert would neither look nor sit. Although he didn’t frequently find himself in a mirthful mood, Javert’s choice very nearly drew a laugh from Jean. This stubborn refusal paired with the man’s face and attitude—arms crossed across his chest; face absolutely set—they seemed to Jean to suggest that Javert believed a refusal to accept the present circumstances would release him from them.

“We shall be out soon enough... please,” Jean said in placating tones, knowing full well that any man who thought to placate Javert with words could know no more about the man than his name. He would only be mollified, Jean knew, when his desire had been fulfilled, and at present, it would not be. Jean patted the crate beside him. “Sit down. There is nothing to be done here while we wait. Why not relax for a moment?”

“I shall ‘relax’ when we are free of this... wretched place,” Javert shot, and tightened the cross of his arms over his chest.

“But that is up to the will of God, as you can see.” Jean’s words remained steady and gentle, soft as if he were convincing the man to put down a gun. It was a voice he’d practiced a great deal over the past month or so. “We can do no more than wait now. Why spend this necessary wait in making yourself miserable?”

He couldn’t be sure if Javert saw the sense he was making. All Jean did know was that, with that, the man relented the barest bit: His shoulders softened from their perfect plane, and his eyes fell to the floor, and these things brought a touch of a smile to Jean’s face.

“We only have to wait for a time.” As Jean spoke, Javert finally moved and took a seat on the crate some inches away from him. “All will be well soon.”

They were quiet for some minutes, then. The soft patter of raindrops began to sound on the roof above them, but no water seeped inside. With time, words began to pass between the pair. They spoke delicately of the recent past and tentatively of the present, much too cowed for men that had been bold in the face of death. Each gained his assurance from each; the conversation, like the rain, grew steady and sure—comforting, even.

So Jean was inclined to feel. However, with yet more time, there came to be a certain... shift. Javert, after an hour or so, began to seem impatient again. He stared hatefully at the door, and his limbs grew restless, and Jean, too, was forced to consider how long it had been. He checked his pocket watch: It had, indeed, been about an hour and a half since he had come to this place. And Cosette wasn’t due back....

Jean wracked his brains. When was Cosette due back? Had he not asked her? He always asked her. It couldn’t be—he couldn’t have been so neglectful of his daughter, the light of his life; he couldn’t possibly have allowed her to go with such ease and been so careless that he knew not when to expect, her, nor if he and Javert would be released within the reasonable time he had promised. He had been a fool, and had given himself and his friend immediately over to a sort of punishment because of it. It was all so... awful to contemplate.

Such contemplation had its effects. In the average man, these may have been a slight increase in respiration or beating of the heart, or else a heightened temperature and more pronounced perspiration. However, Jean Valjean was fundamentally different from the average man. Jean knew this thing of himself. He had only come to recognize it later in life, when he had been traipsing around Paris with Cosette, and, since then, he’d sought to prevent it whenever it happened upon him. But once the process had begun, it could scarcely be paused.

When Jean Valjean suffered a state of disconcert, when he was unable to keep a certain fear or anxiety from seizing his body, these fears cooled, condensed; pooled from the air into what empty space there was within him, until suddenly, horrifyingly, the need to physically expel these fears from within crushed him low in his frame.

Just then, considering the path the day was to take, considering how he would escape this situation, considering whatever would become of himself and Javert—it began. The feeling moved through him, sickening and sharp, drawing tension into his muscles and an awful touch of disquiet into his stomach. Before he could calm himself, the sensation had found its way down to his stomach, lower—

“It’s all right... everything’s all right,” Jean said out loud, and let his warm voice utterly belie the tempest roiling within. “It can’t be long now.”

“It can,” Javert countered, and, as if to counter Jean’s words further, stood and began to move restively once more. The calming influence that Jean had exerted over him seemed to have run its course. “If your daughter should fail to return tonight... if she should fail to pass through the garden, even—”

“Hush, now.” Still mild and gentle, Jean’s tone took on the barest edge of command. It took barely a moment for this to catch Javert and momentarily stem the tide of catastrophe that had begun to pour out; he stopped speaking, and, eyes and head low, he sat down again. “Let us wait a while longer before going on in that manner. There’s no need to be worried.”

Yet, of course, there was. Perhaps not for the reason that Javert feared so, but there was—and it fed so horribly upon itself. The shock of realizing the twisting, writhing depth of need only made the unease greater, which made the need greater, thus setting all into a despicable cycle moving relentlessly inside him.

There was simply nothing to be done for it. He would have to wait. What were the chances, he wondered, that Cosette would fail to return and seek him out within the next hour? Surely, surely they were not great. He had given her no indication that he was to go away soon, and she was a dutiful child. This, and closing his eyes, and the pleasant monotony of the heartbeats he could sense within and without, all allowed Jean to relax again for a moment.


Peace had never been simple for Jean Valjean to sustain. He could bring about a faraway, mindless state, a state forged out of necessity during his time in the galleys—necessary because, otherwise, every exertion, every horror and every minute detail of the pain experienced there on a daily basis would have driven him mad. This thing that he brought about within himself, then, was not ‘peaceful.’ To be peaceful meant to be present, and, while he suffered that afternoon, Jean, soon, was no longer present.

His arms were limp at his sides and his eyes were softly, barely open, but his mind was a cloud, an intangible thing. It drifted through a void, at once dark and bright and wholly unfeeling. The bodily heat and the heartbeats faded; thought existed in fleeting flashes of color and language. This was the very edge of consciousness, not sleeping, yet unaware, unable to fall on any single, solid presence. Time did not pass. There was, simply, nothing.

There remained nothing until a sound penetrated Jean’s awareness. It was formless as everything else, at first; amorphous, a thing composed in equal measures of beauty and fondness, touched with a modicum of terror, all colored in the shades of an autumn sunset. But as the sound repeated, it grew clearer. Even as it grew softer, it came to Jean more noticeably; real and insistent. It, combined with a resounding pressure in his middle that had not left him during his escape from the world, restored Jean’s understanding as it voiced over and over again.

“Valjean,” it said, one last time, it seemed, for after it was spoken, the form beside him began to move away.

Should he open his eyes and state his wakefulness? Certainly. But Jean found a certain strain of curiosity pulling at the back of his brain when Javert moved, clearly convinced that the man he shared this shed with was unconscious of his actions, and this held Jean still even as his body protested against its stillness. What did the man who did no wrong do when no-one observed him? Jean watched, vaguely, though his nearly-closed eyes.

No immediate wrong was committed, of course. Javert was merely looking around the place, peering at objects up very close in the dim light. He picked up a flowerpot and looked down it, raised it up to the light such that it shone through the whole in the bottom of the ceramic, then set it down again. He picked up a water skin, looked at it very closely (what was the state of Javert’s eyes, Jean wondered?) and discarded it the same way. He came close to one of the corners and knelt, touching the earth; he looked up and down and sighed sharply. Muscles were working constantly in the man’s legs, shifting them when he stood still; he left the corner he’d been considering and gave a shudder and hid one of his massive hands in his trouser pocket.

And that was when Jean realized: That predicament that was his own, that made him move and stretch and reveal his wakefulness even before he was truly prepared to, was Javert’s as well. The moment he realized it, he knew that his charade was over, and it was time for plain, painful speaking.

“Javert,” he said softly. The man jumped back into a square-shouldered, upright posture with hands folded behind his back, exactly in the attitude of one who had been caught doing wrong. “There’s no need to fret. I understand.”

Although they had gained a great deal of experience with one another since that fateful evening the month before, an expression which Jean did not recognize passed across Javert’s face. There was confusion in it, yes, but so too was there a kind of guardedness that he’d never known in him.

“What precisely do you think you ‘understand,’ Valjean?’” Javert shot, with perhaps more venom than he meant, for his voice softened as he continued. “There is nothing more to understand than that we are trapped here. That is all.”

The voice and the face together made Jean pause before he spoke again. As did a twinge in his abdomen that pressed his legs together for him. “That isn’t exactly all, though... is it?”

Javert made a noise of surprise in lieu of speech, and the both of them were quiet. (Or, rather, neither of them spoke, though both continued on making faint noises as their bodies moved subtly beneath their clothes.) Jean expected that Javert would say the thing for the both of them. He was a consistently forthright man. What reason had he to fail to be forthright in this matter?

“It... isn’t,” Javert said, at great length. “But I am hardly prepared to speak on anything else. If you wish to find out if your thoughts are confirmed, you must tell me what they are, Valjean.”

Both Javert’s voice and the flush of dark color to his cheeks told Valjean that he had been wrong. Easily as this man could speak of sin and prison sentences, death and justice, it seemed that he was just as vulnerable to personal discomfort as Jean was. This hardly helped either one of them. The thing still hadn’t been said, and, for Jean’s part, the matter was quickly becoming close to unbearable. The pressure, the ache—these could not be stood for much longer.

“Well,” Jean started, steeling himself as each word passed his lips, “we’ve been trapped inside this place, and it’s already been—” here he consulted his pocket watch, and raised his eyebrows at the time he found inside, “—close to four hours... and, well... it’s only natural that one should feel the urge to... to....”

“To what?”

“To... have a private moment,” he settled on at last. Javert stared, cool eyes glittering by the light of the lantern. Jean could tell from the hardening of the man’s face that he had hit the mark. But how to elaborate without humiliating them both? A shiver passed down Jean’s back, and he took in an audible breath through his teeth. “And—both of us could use one, clearly. But we are here, and we may be trapped for some hours yet, so we had best consider our options.”

Javert had given a minute cry at the word “hours” and pressed a hand over his eyes. The other held his elbow, and his long legs tellingly crossed at the knee. Jean’s had just the same, and, much as he wished to stop and wait patiently for Javert’s answer, he found that staying still while the sound of the rain flowing down the wooden roof above them was absolutely intolerable. He moved the short space between Javert and the crate, and then, finding this not enough of a relief, he walked across the room, to the place he had been leisurely ‘searching’ those hours before.

“Valjean, I—” Javert’s words seemed to choke within him, for he did not continue speaking and hid his eyes again. Jean moved to the other side of the room, and, with an agonized groan, bent at the waist to look under the work bench, and there he saw them. By the time Javert had opened his eyes again, Jean was approaching him with a large green bottle in each of his hands. “What—?”

“No ‘privacy,’ perhaps,” Jean said briskly, for his breaths were coming faster with the effort of restraint, “but they will serve. Don’t worry. They weren’t to be drunk from again.” Javert looked blankly between Jean and the bottle that had found its way into his grip. He paused, and made a failed attempt at speech, but Jean hadn’t any time for such luxuries. “Just—go to the other side. We shan’t see each other, and it’ll all be over in a moment.”

He turned his back on Javert, then, and made his way for the corner he’d chosen. Had he to put what he did into words, the only words that could have come out would have been coarse, vile; humiliating. But, if he wished to keep himself sane, as well as comfortable and dry, it was what was necessary.

Jean held the bottle between his knees while he wrestled with the buttons on his trousers. These were mistakes. The bottle was a mistake, for its placement prevented him from crossing his legs, and the trousers, for this particular pair had an especially tricky bottom button. But, eventually, he managed it; he held the bottle in one hand and his manhood in the other, and let out a hard, held breath as he found relief ringing inside the glass. The pained trembles down his back eased and were replaced with blissful ones, and his knees felt as if they might shake from beneath him. He leaned back against the wall and breathed in the gorgeous scent of rain-filled air and felt the anxieties of the afternoon flow out of him. It was good, deliriously so, and, for a moment, Jean managed to forget all the mortification of the sordid act.

Javert, it seemed, had no such lapses of memory, if Jean were to measure by the spectacle that met him after he finished, placed his bottle down and returned to the man’s side. If Javert’s face had been flushed before, it had gone absolutely red since Jean had been gone, and, obviously, he had made no move to make the same use of the bottle that Jean had done. The emerald glass was still sitting, prettily unstained, between Javert’s hands.

“Why haven’t you—?”

“Papa?”

Jean and Javert’s heads, both, snapped in the direction of a light, feminine voice coming from somewhere, somewhere far beyond the door.

“Papa, where are you?”

Javert shut his eyes tight as Jean looked back at him, and Jean sighed and hit the flat of his palm against the door a few times.

“I’m here, Cosette! I seem to have forgotten my key. Could you let me out? It’s been some time.”

There was a sound of warm filial duty from outside, and Jean was sure that Cosette was heading back into the house to fetch the shed key. Jean turned to Javert with a wry smile.

“I suppose you’re safe. You can just find the privy before you leave.”

“No,” Javert said, a harsh grind of a word. Jean’s return was sudden and sharp.

“What do you mean, ‘no’? You were only just protesting using that—”

“I... cannot. I shall not—” the man shuddered hard and gasped— “arrive there... in time enough.”

“But—!”

“Papa, I’m here!”

There was the scrape of a lock in the door, and the sound of feet scraping behind Jean’s back, and then the door was open to the outside. The rain was falling only lightly, and Cosette was looking endearingly up at her father with those eyes the color of sapphires by candlelight. Jean exited in what was no doubt a curious manner, sliding himself through the doorway and closing it behind him to keep Cosette from seeing inside. He didn’t intend to hide Javert, precisely... but he wondered what his daughter should think of him if she knew that he’d spent so many hours in a confined space with the man. She would have been mistaken, but the concern remained.

“I’m so sorry I didn’t think to look earlier,” she said somberly. Jean leaned forward a trifle and kissed his daughter on her forehead.

“Think nothing of it, my dear,” he said. “I won’t be a moment. I seem to have forgotten the soap I came here to find in the first place.”

“All right, Papa... but do keep the door open this time,” Cosette replied, smiling now, and kissed her father back on the cheek before turning and flitting, birdlike, back across the lawn to the house. Jean turned, too, and opened the door to the shed. He didn’t see Javert at first, and thought as far as to call his name before the man manifested in the shadow by the door, still red and trembling. Jean sighed and spoke in a quick undertone.

“Look, Javert, if you need help to reach the privy—”

“I... do not.” Jean looked at the man again. Tremulous and flustered though he seemed to be, the man was not putting his hands in his pockets or crossing his legs any longer. Jean glanced behind him to catch a glimpse of the discarded half-filled bottle standing benignly in the corner. Jean let out a single note of laughter and shook his head.

“Well... I’m glad.” Unsure how to follow up this somewhat bizarre sentiment, Jean said, “Perhaps you could stay for dinner, now that it’s so late. Toussaint shall be serving us a fondue.” Javert seemed to waver, and Jean continued, “I’ll deal with everything later. I shall say that you accepted my invitation a day late. You needn’t lie to my family.”

Javert bowed his head in what Jean would have been shocked to call a pensive manner. Then he nodded once, then a second time, then he raised his head once more, looking, Jean thought, gladder than was his usual wont.

“All right. Lead the way, Valjean.”