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Force Another Lock, Turn Another Key

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The fact that Valjean is no longer running from much of anything these days makes him very infuriating to pursue. This is in particular the case since Javert is growing decidedly too old to spend his afternoons loitering on street corners and ducking behind carts full of coal. His shoulders are growing ever more cramped by the minute, but Valjean appears content enough to stop every few steps to regard something or other with utmost curiosity, or to allow the odd sou to fall into the waiting palms of some indubitably desolate creature.

Even now that most of his savings have been handed to the girl and her husband, coins have retained an infuriating habit around Valjean which they first acquired in Montreuil; they seem to find their way into the pockets of his coat faster than he can throw them away.

Javert is not fool enough to doubt the origin of the alms Valjean gives so freely. He suspects Valjean earns a small amount of money by doing odd repairs in the neighbourhood, and by selling fruit and vegetables from the small garden they do not exactly own. Their landlord has proven himself to be surprisingly accommodating in exchange for a generous helping of strawberries and melons. Too generous if Javert is any judge, but Valjean does not seem troubled as long as he is able to scratch his hands and dirty his knees.

These past few months they have found themselves sharing the single room above a candlemaker’s workshop, not out of any inherent desire for one another’s company, but rather based on a mutual understanding that they may as well admit defeat after failing to avoid each other for neigh on twenty years.

Besides, Javert thinks solemnly as he watches Valjean pat the head of a grubby, dark haired girl, cohabitation will likely prove healthier in the long term. They do not speak much of the barricade and less of the river, and the weeks that followed, but it is not so easy to forget a meal when the table has already been set modestly for two. Both of them have to make concessions.

Their truce was a surrender for Javert. It came much too late and remains tinged with bitterness, even now that he takes clumsy steps to rebuild the image he has of Valjean from an ever more brittle foundation. The admission strikes him as vaguely hypocritical when he considers that he has spent the better part of the afternoon watching Valjean from a distance of thirty or more paces.

Javert does not mean to be suspicious, he truly does not, but their shared histories provide ample soil for mistrust to sprout like weeds between them. He knows better than to suspect any truly nefarious intent from Valjean, but the old man has come to their home dirtied and slightly breathless at some ungodly hour one too many times for Javert to ignore. He tells himself that it is curiosity more than anything that made him pick up his hat and walking stick today of all days.

(In truth, he is still unaccustomed to having anyone’s trust to break and is not the kind who can shake a habit over night. He does not attempt to feign concern for Valjean just to appease himself.)

Regardless, Javert finds himself regretting his endeavour, more than ever now that the hour is growing late and even the children have scattered towards their homes (or, he thinks privately, to pursue a quieter kind of mischief) with the advancing darkness. He is very nearly ready to declare the evening wasted, decry himself a fool and approach Valjean directly to join him on his way home, when he suddenly finds himself quite, quite alone within the narrow, badly lit alley they have been traversing together.

For a long moment he just stills and casts his eyes about in confusion, but instinct and experience are two more things which cannot so easily be culled through mere mundane retirement. It does not take him long to find the loose bar in a decrepit piece of cast iron fencing , and his brows draw together in quiet consternation. Behind the fence lies the kind of pale-ochre two-storey house that might have been handsome some seventy years and several haphazard repairs ago. As it is, the building vaguely puts him in mind of his mercifully short tenure in a small apartment which he acquired, fittingly enough, in pursuit of Jean Valjean several years prior.

Javert half thinks to make for the gate like an upstanding citizen, or better yet to turn away entirely when he, almost by chance, catches a glimpse of Valjean’s trouser leg equipped with a well-worn boot just as it disappears through a window, partially obscured from view by a wild growth of an unfamiliar hedge.

A familiar, indignant bile is threatening to claw its way up his throat and Javert can feel his nails digging into his palm as he yanks the iron bar free with a single, decisive pull. His coat snags on the fence as he inelegantly forces himself through the ensuing gap. The sound of tearing fabric makes him curse, and he does not stop cursing until he almost reaches the window which is held open by a long, thin wedge.

He stops then, briefly, attempting to bite back his initial anger and think clearly even as his knuckles turn white against the aged wood of the window frame.

Jean Valjean is a better man than most.

That is a simple fact. Javert may well also point out that summer follows spring while he is about it, but the thought steadies his breath and clears his mind all the same. He ducks into the dark little chamber then, mindful not to make any more of a racket than he did during his forceful track through the garden just now. It is a very minor miracle that Valjean has not heard him regardless, for Valjean has only made it to the adjacent kitchen in the meantime. There he stands now, plainly visible by the cold hearth, unashamed and with his back to the door.

Jean Valjean is a better man than most, Javert reminds himself again. But Jean Valjean does foolish things if he thinks them necessary.

Javert stops himself on the threshold; his temper has not been quieted entirely, but it is somehow buried beneath a tired kind of exasperation that he cannot quite explain. He steadies himself against the doorframe and watches in silence as Valjean scrabbles through the many pockets of the bulky thing he likes to think of as a coat. It is not the same coat that used to carry his daughter’s fortune, this Javert knows. No seamstress or tailor in Paris could have saved that one by the end. And still, as if prompted by the thought, Valjean produces a single piece of paper from somewhere within its depths.

Javert very nearly begins to laugh.

You fool, Javert thinks, you utter madman, but he is hardly even surprised when Valjean places the banknote, neatly folded and unidentifiable in the dim light, beneath an empty jar, simple to find for whoever will enter the room on the morrow.

There is a sudden explosion of pain behind his eyes. Something has hit the back of his head with a sound he might, under different circumstances, regard as a most satisfying thunk.

The remainder of the evening is easiest surmised as regrettable and best forgotten soon.

Valjean almost jumped out of his skin at the sudden noise and resulting confusion. The frightened and more than slightly disgruntled occupants were initially rather sceptical of his hurried and disjointed explanation. However, the promise of a second note (and a brief glance at the police identification Javert still carries) had them soon convinced that they ought not alert the gendarmerie after all.

It is nearly morning now, and Valjean and he sit together in their little chamber, a heavy silence between them that is not nearly as comfortable as they have grown accustomed to. Valjean cannot quite hide his displeasure at what had been Javert’s intrusion, but he still has the grace to carefully examine the sizable bump at the back of Javert’s head by the flickering light of a lone candle.

“You were lucky, “ Valjean says after a while, “considering the circumstance.”

Javert is aware. Bedpans are heavy.

For a few more moments, their silence falls again, but it is worse now by several measures. Javert knows not whether to scold Valjean or to apologize to him, though he cannot shake the feeling that it truly should be the latter. He is not accustomed to asking forgiveness, has done it but a handful of times in moments far darker than this, with a heavier heart and an artless tongue.

Valjean, as always, is more merciful than is required. He spares Javert the trouble by way of a quiet, almost rueful explanation.

“... it grants a sense of privacy. Not everyone is eager to accept support when it is offered publicly.”

Or to give support publicly, Javert adds in private, and decides not to call attention to the fact that breaking into someone’s house remains fiendishly illegal all the same, all charitable intentions aside. Though he may no longer be surprised by him, he believes that Valjean will never cease to astound him.

What a strange creature you are, with all your misplaced shy saintliness towards the deserving and undeserving alike.

It frustrates him still, but he regrets his earlier anger. He ought to have known better.

It must show in his face somewhere, for the corners of Valjean’s mouth turn to form the beginning of a rare smile, and Javert feels all the more foolish for it. He also grows increasingly and uncomfortably aware that Valjean’s hand still lightly cradles the back of his head. The moment, like all between them, is more fragile than they realize and it breaks as soon as they catch each other’s eye. Valjean removes himself, not too quick but not hesitatingly, and Javert once again finds himself confronted with a future of possibilities that he does not understand.

He feels now that he knows Valjean both better and not at all.