A CHRISTMAS TALE by Sandi

 

It was early in December, on a day when the first falls of snow were frosting the streets of Paris, that Cosette, Baroness Pontmercy, at last turned her thoughts towards Christmas.

There had been many Christmases at the house on the Rue Plumet over the years, but they had always been solitary, frugal affairs, shared only by Cosette and her father, Jean Valjean. Circumstances had forced them to live very private lives under the name of Fauchelevent, and for the greater part of the year they were content to do so. Cosette never complained, yet as the years progressed it had become increasingly difficult for her to watch from the window as the other children went off to parties, and later to dances, or to see them come home again, laughing and chattering about the games they had played, the dances they had danced, the charming young men who had been so attentive.

Her husband, Marius, had also found little to celebrate since leaving the home of his grandfather. For several years he had lived alone, with no income of which to speak, dependent upon the charity for friends and fellow students. Now, reconciled to his grandfather, he had at last been able to take up his inheritance and his title, to take Cosette as his wife and establish his own household in the Rue Plumet, and for the first time in years had both the means and the desire to celebrate the Festive Season.

There was a fourth member of their unusual family, her father's companion, Javert, once an Inspector of Police and a former adjutant of the prison at Toulon. For thirty years Javert's life had been bound up in that of Valjean, at times to the exclusion of all else, until Fate had intervened and brought them together in friendship. A lonely man, whose past had been unswervingly devoted to upholding the Law, Cosette was certain that for him 'Christmas' had been no more than a date on a calendar, an unnecessary and unwelcome disruption to the daily routine. But the love of her father had brought light into Javert's darkness and taught him to view his life with a little kindness these days. Perhaps, together, they could also teach him how to laugh, and what better time for that than Christmas.

Beyond the adults, there were the children to consider. Since the day Javert had rescued Martine and her brother, Philippe, from the clutches of Thernardier, four more children had been brought to live in the rambling old house and it seemed as though Marius' dreams of founding an orphanage there were finally to bear fruit. There was certainly no shortage of space for them, nor neglected children on the streets of Paris with which to fill it.

So it was that, with all these thoughts in mind, Cosette ventured to raise the subject at dinner that very evening...

 

Marius greeted the proposal with an enthusiasm that was in itself childlike, born as it was of years of loneliness. There would have to be a party, of course, of the kind that he had known as a boy, when his parents were still alive. A party, with games and toys for the children, and dancing and Christmas songs. They would make the lonely old house ring with music and laughter, and perhaps they would at last drive away the lingering shadows of the summer which had brought so much pain and anguish into their lives.

Cosette glanced across the table at Valjean, who met her gaze with a look of compassion. Since the ill-fated 'Lamarque Riots', where so many of his friends had lost their lives, Marius had withdrawn into himself, plagued as much by guilt at his own survival as by the nightmare of their deaths. He needed something to being purpose to his life again, a cause for which to fight that might in turn justify their sacrifice in some small way. The orphanage held promise, but it was a lengthy task which would not be completed for many months. Christmas, on the other hand, was only a few weeks away.

"We should fill the house with children," Marius suggested.

Cosette smiled indulgently. "Oh? And what do you propose, my love? Should we send Papa and Monsieur Javert with a carriage, to trawl them like herring?"

"Hardly practical," agreed Valjean, attempting valiantly - and failing miserably - to ignore the look of consternation which crossed Javert's face. "But perhaps - Could we not ask the good sisters at the convent for their assistance?"

"Of course!" Marius beamed. "They will surely know of some children who have need of our help. Yes, an excellent notion. But - who will ask them? We do not wish our intentions to be misinterpreted."

Valjean smiled to himself, remembering when a similar accusation had been levelled at him by Thernardier, over Cosette. "I think perhaps - Cosette," he proposed.

But Marius shook his head. "No. It would not be safe in her condition."

The inference, that she was a delicate flower that might wither at the first breath of winter, made Cosette bristle. Had she not survived ten years on the run with Valjean, pursued relentlessly by Javert? What was a short carriage ride to the convent when compared with all that they had endured?

"Nonsense!" she countered. "Marius, you know full well that I shall be perfectly safe."

"At the convent, perhaps, but what of the journey? Only last week two gentlewomen were accosted in their carriage in broad daylight. At knife-point. I will not take such a risk with you or our child."

Seated at the fourth side of the table, Javert had been listening intently to their conversation. Now, with a glance to Valjean for support, he said quietly "Perhaps M. Marius would permit me to accompany Mme. la Baronne."

Three pairs of eyes fixed on him at once: Marius' in somewhat surprised gratitude, Cosette's in delight, while Valjean's held a look of utter contentment as he acknowledged how far Javert had progressed since the day he had first come to the Rue Plumet, Exactly six months ago this very night, he recalled fondly, making a mental note to remind Javert of that fact when next they were alone.

"Then it's settled," Cosette declared with a finality which allowed no room for argument. "We shall go first thing tomorrow morning, if M. Javert has no other plans?" Javert shook his head mutely. "Good. Now, we shall need to furnish rooms for them. The attic, I think..."

Javert said no more, his gaze fixed upon the remains of his meal. A minute passed, then another. Suddenly he rose from the table, excused himself and left the room. Marius and Cosette were too engrossed in their plans to notice, but Valjean watched his departure with concern. As the discussions over dinner had turned to reminiscences, so the mood of his friend had changed. it could never be said that Javert was a great conversationalist, having had little practice at that art until recently, but he was always content to sit and listen, adding comments here and there where he felt confident enough to do so. Yet tonight it was as if the old Javert, the isolated and insecure soul who had first come looking for Valjean, had returned, his face shuttered, his gaze haunted. It worried Valjean who, after a moment, made his own excuses and followed him from the room.

 

He ran Javert to ground in the room which served the couple as study, library and daytime refuge. It had a large window overlooking the garden and it was there that Javert stood, watching the snowflakes dance their way to earth. For a man who was known and recognised by his physical stature alone, who held himself erect and formal in all company - save Valjean's - there was tonight a slump to the broad back, an almost forlorn tilt to his head. Instinctively, Valjean reached a comforting hand towards him, then changed his mind and allowed it to fall again to his side.

"Javert?" He spoke the name softly, compassion for his companion lending a soft lilt to his voice. Immediately the shoulders straightened, the grey head lifted in proud defiance.

"Valjean," he acknowledged, the strain in his voice only serving to emphasise his uncertainty. "I did not mean to take you away from your family."

"It's not important." Valjean dismissed the apology quickly. He wanted to add that it was Javert's family too, now, but this was not the time. "You are my only concern at this moment. You looked so distracted at dinner. So - lost."

"Lost?" Javert echoed, half turning. "Yes. That is precisely how I feel," he admitted candidly.

"But - why?"

"Can you not guess?"

"I could try," Valjean agreed, "but I would prefer that you tell me. We promised to hold nothing from each other, Javert, however painful. Do you still find it so difficult to trust me?"

A sad smile crossed the handsome face and his fingers lifted briefly to the weathered cheek. "I trust you with all that I am, Valjean, and more. You know that. You hold my life and my heart in your hands."

It was such an honest, open declaration that for a moment Valjean could not speak and he wondered again what he had ever done to deserve such love, from one to whom love was such a new emotion. "Then - will you not share this with me?" he said at last. "It hurts me to see you suffer so."

Deep in thought, Javert returned to his vigil, tipping back his head to watch the stars as they slid from behind the slowly drifting clouds. When next he spoke, the vibrant baritone voice seemed to shrink in the stillness of the room.

"I am fifty two years old, Valjean. I was born, as you know, in the prison at Toulon, and spent the first forty years of my life in that - that place. The rest I have devoted to the Law..." His voice faltered around the torrent of memories, and this time Valjean did allow his hand to rest on the strong arm in gentle encouragement. "And in all those fifty-two years... I have not once had cause for celebration. Not one birthday or one Christmas. So you will understand why I felt so - overwhelmed - by the conversation at dinner. It is - beyond the realms of my experience. I know nothing of dancing or games, or Christmas revelry - "

Valjean waited for the confession to reach its natural conclusion. His own mind drifted back over the years, past Christmases with Cosette, past the years at the convent, past the nightmare of Toulon, to his boyhood. There had been little to spare, even in those days, and not much reason to make merry, yet the years could not dull the memory of sitting at his father's feet before the fire, listening to his mother and sister sing the old songs as they worked at their sewing. His father would gather apples and nuts in the forest and always there was a pair of gloves or a scarf that his grandmother had knitted during the year. Simple pleasures, but pleasures nonetheless, fond memories on which he had drawn for his life with Cosette. It had not occurred to him until this moment that it had been any less for Javert, although knowing it now answered so many questions.

"Come," he said, catching him by the arm and leading him to his chair at the hearth. "You must forgive my thoughtlessness, my friend."

"There is nothing to forgive. You could not have known."

"I remember how bleak were the winters at Toulon and the meagre comforts of Christmas... But surely, before Toulon..."

"There was nothing before Toulon," he whispered. Again the tender smile, so full of pain, stripping away their facade of etiquette. "There was nothing before you, my dear Valjean. My life began on the day that I walked into this room for the first time, at the moment when you offered me your hand - and dared to kiss mine."

Burned by the intensity of Javert's emotion, Valjean took his hand again and folded it between his own. "Then for the sake of our nineteen lost years at Toulon, and for all those empty years before and since, I promise you that I will do everything in my power to make this Christmas a time of joy for you."

Yet still Javert seemed uncertain. "You have your family, I do not wish to intrude. Perhaps it would be better if I - went away until the festivities are over."

"No! I absolutely forbid it, Javert." An edge of naked anger crept into his voice and was immediately softened by a murmur of laughter. "My dear man, would you leave me to Cosette and Marius and the rabble of children they are intent on inflicting upon us?" Drawing the large hand to his lips, he kissed the fingers. "You cannot intrude upon something of which you are so important a part, Javert. And I give you my word, we will not force you to do anything which you do not wish to do. All I ask is that you allow yourself to enjoy the day. Will you do that for me, my dear?"

He knew how much he was asking, yet he asked it all the same, knowing also that there was so much more to gain that the mere pleasure of seeing Javert's face on Christmas morning.

Javert, his eyes wide and bright and still touched by fear, inclined his head in assent. "I do not know if I can," he murmured with sincerity, "but I give you my word that I shall try."

 

Christmas Eve found the house transformed, with enough food in the kitchens to feed half of Paris, a surfeit of wine and ale, while beneath a garlanded tree great mountains of gifts awaited eager hands.

Cosette's visit to the orphanage had won over the hearts of the sister and four more children had come to share in their festivities. Marius would have his wish, the house would be filled with music and laughter and God willing, when Christmas was over, the children would stay to become part of their growing family.

"I do believe we are ready," Cosette declared. Standing in the middle of the room, her hands on her thickening waist, she nodded satisfaction as she turned full circle.

Marius laughed. The afternoon had been passed in decorating the room, a feat requiring much climbing up and down of ladders as Cosette directed the placing of each ornament, and his face now was flushed from the exertion. "I do hope so, most sincerely," he declared "since there does not appear to be room for anything more. Do you not agree, M. Jean?"

Valjean did not answer. His attention was directed elsewhere and his face, on such a joyous occasion, was closed to the point of appearing sullen. The cause was obvious to all: five days earlier Javert had left the Rue Plumet. He had taken only one small bag, telling no-one where he was going or for what purpose, promising only that he would return before Christmas day. But that was now only hours away, and Javert had not returned.

The first two days had passed in relative calm as the household completed their preparations, but when the third day, and then the fourth, passed with no word, Valjean's concern began to grow and fears for his safety tortured his imagination. Had there been an accident? Had some member of the criminal community recognised him and seized upon the opportunity for revenge? Was Javert, even now, laying wounded - or worse - in a ditch outside the city? He was sure that he would sense were Javert injured and yet... and yet...

"Papa?" her hand on his arm drew him back from the brink of as yet unfounded despair. "I'm sure he is safe. The weather has been severe these last few days, perhaps he has been delayed along the way..."

"Perhaps," he said, though his agreement lacked conviction.

"Is there nothing we can do, M'sieur?" This from Marius, his own concern evident.

Valjean sighed. "Wait," he said, "and pray. I cannot believe that after the pains He went through to bring us together, God would take him from me now. I will not give up hope until I know for certain - however bad the news may be."

"Nor would we expect you to," Marius assured him. "And I am sure all is well. He will be here by morning, M'sieur, you will see. Meanwhile - dinner has been announced and I, for one, am ravenous. Your daughter is a hard taskmaster, M. Jean."

Valjean would have refused the meal, but Cosette would hear none of it. Pining for Javert he may be, but she would not allow him to starve himself into the bargain. Even so, he showed no enthusiasm for the meal, pushing the food around his plate until it became cold as thoughts of Javert's plight distracted him, eating only when he became aware of Cosette watching him. No sooner had the plates been cleared away than he excused himself to return to their study and await Javert in solitary contemplation.

 

The evening wore on, and still no news came, and Valjean's anxiety grew with each minute. There was a nagging doubt also. Once before, while Valjean was recovering from the fever which had threatened his life, Javert had left him, unable to content with the maelstrom of emotions which the changes in his relationship with Valjean had brought about. Had Christmas so overwhelmed him that he had, as he had suggested, gone away until the festivities were over? And, if so, would he ever return? The thought of life without Javert, now that their lives had become so intertwined, terrified him. To be separated by death was one thing, for he knew he would not be long to follow, but for Javert to leave him, and without a word of farewell...

In an effort to distract himself, he took a book from the shelf and tried to read but his concentration wavered with every few lines. He tried to sleep, sleep having evaded him since Javert's departure, but each tiny sound in the house would rouse him no sooner than his eyes had closed.

Cosette came first to bid him goodnight, then Marius an hour later, the prospect of a busy day ahead calling them early to their beds, and with their retiring the house at last grew still. Silence folded around him as he sat cradled in Javert's chair beside the fire, and finally sleep took pity on him, wrapping him in a deep and mercifully dreamless slumber.

The slamming of the front door was as loud as cannon fire in the stillness, bringing him at once awake. Disorientated, confused, he watched the door, his hands clenched around the carved arms of the chair. Was it Javert? Or had some messenger come to tell him -- No, he would not think of that. Not yet. Not until all other doors were closed to him.

Another moment of silence, then voices, one pitched high - the maid? - the other achingly familiar, drawing him from the chair into the centre of the room. His heart pounded with mingled feelings of joy and apprehension as he waited, not daring to go out into the hall. Hardly daring even to breathe.

And then Javert was there, filling the doorway with his presence, his face flushed with cold, his eyes chips of blue ice which thawed in an instant as they came to rest on the older man's face. He brought winter into the room, his hat and coat crusted with snow that fell unheeded to the floor as he shed both and tossed them carelessly over a chair.

But there was summer in his embrace as, with a smile and a cry of "Valjean!", he crossed the room in two great strides of his long legs, gathered Valjean into his arms without preamble and and bent to take his mouth in a fear-fed kiss that left both of them reeling from its honesty. His smile, as they parted, was both benediction and healing balm to Valjean's tortured heart.

"I thought I'd lost you," Valjean whispered, only now able to admit the true depth of his anxiety. "Dear God, I thought --"

"Hush. I'm safe." His fingertips grazed through the salt and pepper beard, slid to cradle Valjean's head and draw him to another kiss. "The road from ... The road home was impassable and I was forced to come by a much longer route. I knew you would worry but there was no way in which to get word to you. Am I forgiven?"

"Of course," Valjean assured without hesitation. "But - where have you been?"

Holding him loosely now, yet refusing to break contact entirely, Javert sighed, the once more impassive expression belied by the sparkle of devilment in his gaze. Valjean could not believe the evidence of his own eyes - Javert was teasing him. This man, who could strike fear into the most stalwart heart with one look, was actually playing games with him and, what was more, enjoying every moment of this newly-discovered power over Valjean.

"For that," Javert replied "I regret, you must wait until morning. I promise you, you will know everything then. Please, Valjean - indulge me?"

Whatever doubts lingered in Valjean's heart melted away in the warmth of Javert's arms and the sunlight of his smile. In the few weeks that they had shared thus far he believed that he had seen every possible aspect of Javert's transformation. Now, as he witnessed the childlike excitement which blossomed in the smoky depths, he knew he had been wrong. That traces of the old Javert would remain, to emerge when the situation might dictate, he did not doubt. No man can entirely divorce himself from his past, however well intentioned, and Javert was a creature of instinct. But the armour had been breached beyond repair and at last Javert himself was coming to realise the true nature of what lay beneath.

"I shall have the patience of Job, now that you're home - but only if you also promise that you will never again leave me alone for so long."

"Never," vowed Javert. "My word on it." Taking Valjean's hand he pressed a kiss to its palm. Only then did Valjean become aware of how cold were his hands and face. No doubt the rest of him was equally chilled.

"Come," he urged. "Warm yourself while I ring for some food. I believe the cook has left some stew warming in the kitchen...."

Barely had the echo of the bell died away than the maid appeared with a tray of hot food, bread and cheese and a jug of spiced wine. Most of the Rue Plumet servants still viewed Javert with a measure of caution, cowed by his reputation and his awesome presence. It was therefore not unexpected that the maid glanced warily at him as she set the tray before him. Javert inclined his head formally, but the sweetest of smiles danced over his lips, flooding the girl's face with colour.

His fascination growing with each passing minute, Valjean settled back in his chair to watch as Javert devoured the simple meal with an avidity bordering on the obscene, until he was moved to enquire when his friend had last eaten.

Javert considered, then replied casually, "Supper - the night before last."

"The night before -? Good lord! And sleep?"

"People do not sleep on coaches, Valjean, certainly not on country roads in the middle of winter!"

"You travelled by night? Could you not have put up at an inn?"

"I could - but it would have kept me even longer from your side. I considered a few aching joints a small price to pay."

Pushing the tray to one side, he returned to the fire. But he did not take his usual seat at the hearth. Instead, he knelt beside Valjean's chair and covered his lips with a kiss that tasted of cinnamon and ginger.

"It is good to be home," he confessed. "I had forgotten how lonely life is without you."

Content at last, Valjean reached to stroke his cheek. "Lonely beyond endurance," he agreed shyly. "I had forgotten how vast and empty our bed seems without you beside me." He wound a strand of silvered hair around his fingers, facinated still by the softness. "Javert -- Do you truly think of this as your home?"

"Until a week ago I was not certain. Now? Being apart from you helped me to understand my feelings: since this is your home, and my home is with you, then I would be nowhere else." His smile, as he gazed at Valjean, was dazzling, stealing away the older man's breath and setting his heart racing once more.

"It's almost midnight," Valjean whispered, not wanting to break the mood, yet yearning for the sanctuary of their room beneath the eaves, where their reunion might be completed. "Are you warmer now?"

"Warm enough. The rest - I leave to you ..."

It took a moment for Valjean's weary mind to unravel the vagaries of that particular statement and when at last he did, he found himself staring at Javert in astonishment at his uncharacteristic frankness.

"Then - perhaps," he said, his will incinerated by the inferno blazing in the hungry eyes, "we had better retire so that I may - tend to your needs...."

 

Valjean awoke next morning to the softest of kisses and the tickling of silky hair as it brushed across his face. Javert was seated on the edge of the bed, wrapped in a dressing gown that was threadbare and a size too small (something which will be rectified before the day is over, Valjean thought smugly) his long silver mane loose about his shoulders, looking like some not wholly benign guardian angel.

"Good morning," the apparition greeted "and - Merry Christmas, Valjean." He said it shyly, as one might when unused to speaking in a foreign tongue, and Valjean understood. It was, no doubt, the first time those words had ever passed his lips.

"Oh Javert --" he sighed, reaching to draw him close. "The very merriest of Christmases to you also, my dear, and may this be the first of many we will share."

"What time is it?" he asked several minutes later, when at last Javert gave his arms and mouth back to him.

"Dawn."

Valjean groaned. "Too early! Come back to bed..."

"And miss the day entirely?" Javert countered sweetly, once more challenging Valjean's reason. "The rest of the house is already awake, it would seem. They have even brought us breakfast."

"After what you ate last night I'm surprised you've got room," Valjean grumbled, rolling over and burying his face in the pillow.

"Then is it not your duty to save me from the sin of gluttony? Valjean?"

Valjean responded by grunting and pulling the covers to the tips of his ears. Which was, given Javert's present mood, a mistake. A moment later a hand slid beneath the blankets and two cold, wet fingers dribbled a trail of icy droplets from the back of his neck to his waist.

"JAVERT!" he bellowed, surging upwards. Startled beyond all hope of returning to sleep, he sat in the middle of their bed and glowered at the man. "That was unfair."

"But no less effective, you will agree," Javert pronounced sagely, and at once Valjean's look of mock-ferociousness softened to one of utter adoration.

"My dearest Javert," he laughed "What am I to do with you? No, don't answer, or we shall neither of us take any further part in the day's proceedings. My dressing gown, if you please."

They ate while they dressed, listening to the sounds of the house coming to life. The children were awake, chattering and giggling in their attic rooms, their footsteps echoing on the stairs as they hurried down to the kitchen for breakfast. And above it all, the sound of Marius' laughter as he approached their quarters.

"M. Jean!" he greeted, his round face flushed with the exertion of the climb and the excitement of the day to come. "Merry Christmas, M'sieur."

"And Merry Christmas to you, my dear Marius," Valjean returned in fond familiarity. "From the noise our young guests have been making it promises to be a very merry one indeed."

Marius was at once concerned. "They did not wake you?"

"Oh no." A shy glance at Javert. "We have been awake for - some time." He turned away hastily to retrieve his jacket, and to hide his grin at the look of consternation on Javert's face. Revenge, in some cases, could be very sweet and he considered it no less than the man deserved in retribution for such a rude awakening.

Marius, too, had turned his attention to Javert, holding out his hand to him. "The servants told me that you had returned, M'sieur. I trust your journey was a success."

"Very much so, M'sieur, thank you."

But Valjean had seen the look of secrecy which passed between them and, his suspicions aroused, said, "One moment... Marius, are you telling me that you knew where Javert had gone, and for what purpose?"

A quick motion of Javert's head cautioning Marius to keep silent was met with a helpless shrug from the younger man. "I'm sorry, Javert..." he apologised, and to Valjean replied "Yes, M'sieur, I did. It was - necessary, as I am sure you will understand in due course."

"Which is a polite way of telling me to mind my own business!" Valjean retorted bluntly. Not that he felt inclined to press for answers. Javert had promised that he would know all before the day was over, and Javert had never broken a promise to him, not in thirty years. "Very well, since you are both set on it, I shall wait... a little longer."

"So much for the patience of Job..." Javert was heard to tease, eyes bright with affection and all of it directed at Valjean, who once again found himself unable to reply, asking instead if Cosette was awake.

"Awake and dressed, and downstairs with the children," Marius said with a sigh of resignation. Cosette, her own child due in the spring, seemed determined to immerse herself in family life as soon as possible. But then, the true nature of family life had been a rarity during her years with the Thenardiers and, as much as Valjean had loved her, being on the run from Javert had of necessity governed their lifestyle.

"Then I shall come down and bid her good morning. Javert?"

Javert tugged on a strand of his grey hair which still hung loose about his shoulders. "I shall follow directly."

However, when fifteen minutes had passed and he had still not come down, Valjean returned to the bedchamber in search of him.

He found him seated by the fire, a ribbon and brush in his hands, staring into the dying embers with that same air of distraction that had surrounded him on the night when Cosette had first set out her plans for the celebration. Valjean could imagine the many days and nights that had been spent in just such a way, alone and, in his own way, afraid. Fear of failure in the eyes of his peers: it had been his constant curse and although his trust in, and love for, Valjean had given him the strength to change, there were moments when it was easier to rebuild the protective barriers around himself than to deal with a situation beyond his control.

"Javert?" he said gently, and was rewarded with wide, frightened blue eyes which turned to him in mute entreaty. Understanding how insecure his companion must feel at the prospect of the day ahead, he made no reference to it, simply taking the worn ribbon and denuded brush from acquiescent fingers.

"I have a gift for you," he said. Crossing to the chest, he opened a drawer and took out a small parcel.

"But I thought - are we not to exchange gifts when we are all together?"

"Yes. But this is - between us. A personal matter." So saying, he set the package in Javert's hands and stepped back to watch as, with visibly trembling fingers, the wrappings were eased away. Something else that's new to you, Valjean realised. Had there ever been a gift for Javert which did not carry with it some darker implication, some trinket given or service offered which did not expect something in return?

The gift was an unpretentious one, a modest silver-backed brush, not unlike Valjean's own, and a few lengths of black ribbon.

"Valjean --" The name quavered on Javert's lips, the rest trapped behind the surge of emotion which battered his already frail composure.

"Hush --" Valjean soothed. Taking the brush, he said softly, "If you will permit..."

Without waiting for answer he began to smooth the long, silky strands, marvelling again at their softness and lingering shamelessly over the task.

"When Cosette was a child, before she went into the convent, I would do this for her." His voice was hushed, his words unconsciously adopting the rhythm of his hands. "Each evening, as we sat by the fire, I would brush her hair. One hundred strokes, and with each one a dream for our future."

A sigh slipped from Javert's lips. "I envy you, Valjean. She has grown into a beautiful young woman. She is - her father's daughter," he added, and both knew that he was not referring to the man who had bedded her mother, Fantine.

Valjean's hands faltered. "For a time," he breathed, "she was all that was good in my life. Without Cosette to teach me how to love the world again, I do not believe that you and I would have ever been brought together in this way."

Javert's voice reached its deepest register in reply. "Then I thank God that Fantine gave her into your care, for in doing so she saved us all."

A great chasm opened up before Jean Valjean, across which paraded the course of his life as it might have run, had it not been for the intervention of Fantine and Bishop Myriel. And of course, Javert. Always Javert. Then, now... Forever. "Amen to that," he whispered.

Returning to his task, he carefully gathered Javert's hair and bound it with one of the lengths of velvet ribbon. As he worked he tried not to dwell on how rich and dark had been the hair of the young adjutant at the prison in Toulon, like polished chestnuts gleaming in the torchlight. Such thoughts brought only bitter memories of all the years when they had been so close together, and yet so very far apart.

Javert's voice, light and affectionate, called him back from the darkness. "Do you think," he asked, "that such attention might tame this unruly mane of mine? Not every night, of course but - occasionally?

Valjean's heart soared, all ill thoughts forgotten. Despite the intimacies of their bedchamber, Javert often found it difficult to vocalise his more physical needs. "Whenever you wish it, my dear. You have only to ask. Whatever you need of me I am more than ready to give." And bowing low, he pressed a kiss to the top of Javert's head.

They might have stayed thus for the remainder of the morning, had not Marius' voice called to them from below, beseeching them to hurry. Reluctantly, Valjean began to move away; but Javert caught his hand and drew him close again - close enough for him to wrap his arms around Valjean's waist and lay his head against the older man's chest.

Oh Javert! Valjean thought. How did you survive for so long without love? And then; How did I survive so long without you?

When at last he withdrew slightly from the embrace, it was to lean down and touch his lips to Javert's in a fleeting kiss before urging him to his feet.

"We must go down, or Cosette will no doubt send the children to fetch us. Can you face them now?"

The insecure Javert had gone. Head held high, the massive shoulders squared against an invisible foe, Javert nodded. "With you at my side, Jean Valjean, I believe I could face anything," he confessed.

 

Marius was waiting for them at the foot of the stairs, the smile of greeting on his lips in contrast to the concern in his eyes. Is something wrong? they asked, to which Valjean responded with a smile of his own and the faintest shake of his head.

"Forgive us, Marius," he said aloud. "A small matter which nevertheless required prompt attention..." His gaze drifted to the child standing at Marius' side, her hands folded demurely in front of her, dark eyes fixed widely on - Javert. "Good morning, Martine," Valjean said.

She bobbed a curtsy. "Good morning, Messieurs. Merry Christmas," she replied solemnly. Now ten years old, she was the eldest of the Rue Plumet children and, as such, bore her responsibilities towards the younger ones with a gravity far exceeding her youth, reminding Valjean of Cosette as he had first known her, with that same determination, that same maturity of spirit which had helped ensure their safety through the years.

"Cosette and the maid have taken the children into the garden," Marius informed them. "Something about working off their excess energy before they open the presents. I'll fetch them..."

"Why don't we all go?" Valjean suggested. "A breath of fresh air on this fine morning is just the thing to clear our heads for the day to come." And before anyone could offer argument, he helped Martine into her coat and opened the door.

The children were indeed working off their seemingly boundless energy, the younger ones running around the garden while the older ones piled snow upon snow in the form of an as yet rather misshapen man. Only Philippe, Martine's little brother, was excluded from their games. Born blind and condemned to a world of darkness, he clung to Cosette's hand, his little head turning this way and that to follow the others' squeals of delight to which his own laughter joined.

"He is such a happy child," Marius observed. "If only there was something that could be done to help him."

"You have already done so much, Marius. He is safe, he is well and happy - console yourself with that, my friend."

"Even so, for the sake of his father's memory...." His voice drifted away, his gaze moving to watch the other children play, and for a time both were silent. Neither had noticed Javert slip away from the shelter of the doorway, until Cosette directed their attention towards the far end of the garden.

"Good Lord!" Marius exclaimed, astonishment overwhelming his habitual formality. "Jean - Look..."

But Valjean was already looking, and the sight that greeted him made his eyes sting and his throat fill with renewed love for his companion. Javert, ankle-deep in snow, had lifted the tiny child in his strong arms and was holding him aloft so that he too could help pile up the snow, which Martine in turn was handing up to him in great clumps. The three looked so right together, so perfectly comfortable with each other, that a feeling of utter completeness washed over Valjean. Since their arrival in the last days of the summer he had often wondered what it was about these two children in particular that had drawn Javert to them, now he understood. It was because it was meant to be, just as he and Cosette had been brought together all those years before. Other children would come and go, there would be a grandchild of their own in the spring, but for Javert these two would always remain special. A family of his own.

The snowball fight was the inevitable conclusion to the mayhem, and this time Javert made certain that Philippe took part, although he himself sought shelter behind the half-finished snowman. Even Marius and the maid joined in, while Valjean and Cosette called encouragement from the porch.

Battle was fully engaged when Cosette said suddenly "Oh dear... Do you think we should stop her, Papa?"

Valjean followed her gaze, in time to see Martine creep around side of the snowman, carrying with her a ball of soft snow larger than a man's head. Her intention was obvious, but before either of them could call a warning Javert turned--

-- and caught the full force of the snowball in his startled face. So unaware did it take him that he was knocked backwards, to land on his back in the snow in an undignified sprawl.

Instinctively, Valjean caught at Cosette's hand, waiting for the storm that would bring an end to the good humour of the day. Javert, it was known, did not suffer fools gladly and to have his dignity stripped from him in such a public way, for any passer-by to see, would be unbearable. The others, too, had stopped and were watching Marius cautiously closing the space between them, ready to mediate should it become necessary.

Yet no outburst came. At least, not one of anger.

Struggling to sit up, Javert began to brush the snow from his face and clothes, his features set into such stern lines that Martine herself fell back a pace, her laughter fading quickly away.

"By the stars, child, look what you've done to me!" he bellowed, gazing first at himself, then at her. "Well the very least you could do, Mlle. Martine, is help me to my feet."

And then he laughed. Not a smirk, not even a chuckle, this was a laugh as rich and deep and full of mirth as any Valjean had ever heard, and it was coming from the lips of Javert, a man who in the past had given the impression that he might consider laughter to be no more than a waste of breath. For Valjean it was the most treasured gift the season could bring, a true miracle.

"I think that, like Androcles, you have tamed your lion, Papa," Cosette teased.

Horrified at the notion, Valjean shook his head. "Dear Lord, I hope not!" he said, "He would not then be the Javert I have come to - to care for."

"Only to care for, Papa?" she challenged, then quickly changed the subject as she caught sight of his expression. "I think perhaps Martine may need your assistance."

Indeed, the snow had been so compacted by the pounding feet of so many children that it took both Valjean and Marius to pull Javert upright once more on the slippery surface.

"Are you hurt, M'sieur?" Marius enquired.

"No more than bruised pride, thank you M'sieur," Javert replied ruefully, brushing away the last of the snow from the afflicted area.

"I think it's time you all came inside," Cosette called to them, "or the presents will have to wait until after luncheon."

Between them they gathered the children and ushered them inside. Martine held back, watching Javert, as if still waiting for some further reaction. Marius took a step towards her, but Javert caught at his arm.

"Please, Marius - allow me..."

Shocked at such rare familiarity, Marius moved away, to stand with Valjean and watch as Javert knelt before the child.

"Martine? Will you not come and join us?"

"You are not - angry with me?" Her voice, so small and fearful, was lost in the vastness of the hallway.

"Angry? Should I be?"

The tiny shoulders sketched a shrug. "People say you do not like children."

"People?" He glanced at Valjean, who nodded discreet encouragement. "Do you mean - the other children?" She nodded. "What else do they say about me?"

"That you - beat people and send them to prison if they make you angry."

Javert closed his eyes as her gentle words struck home and a single tear slipped unheeded from beneath his lashes. Valjean wanted to intervene, but his compassion for his lover was outweighed by the knowledge that this was one step forward that Javert must take alone, if he was once and for all to conquer the bitter memories of his past.

"Oh Martine," Javert sighed, reaching to tuck a strand of wayward hair beneath her bonnet "I wish I could tell you that it is all a lie, but I cannot. In the past I did send people to be judged and some of them were sent to prison - not because they made me angry, but because they broke the law. Do you understand the difference?"

"Yes, M'sieur. Papa had to fight the students because they broke the law, even though he said they were only trying to help people who couldn't help themselves. He said it was his duty as a dragoon."

"As it was mine, as a policeman, to seek judgement on those who broke the law. But those days are gone. My duty now is to Baron Pontmercy and his wife, and to you and Philippe."

"And to Uncle Valjean?" she asked, with wisdom beyond her years.

"Most certainly, and I give you my word that I shall never do anything to hurt any of you. Do you trust me, Martine?"

Her dark eyes lifted to Valjean's face, asking silently for his reassurance which he gave in an instant by the simple expediency of stepping forward and laying his hand on Javert's shoulder.

"Yes, Uncle Javert."

Valjean felt the sudden unconscious movement of Javert's shoulders at the unexpected form of address, and tightened his hold.

"Uncle?" he repeated. "I don't understand...

It was Marius who replied. "The children wanted to know how they should address you both. Cosette suggested 'Uncle' Valjean and it therefore seemed only appropriate that the familiarity should be extended to you, M'sieur. If you would prefer..."

"No. I confess it will take a while to get used to, but..."

Whatever else he had intended to say was lost as Martine threw her arms around his neck and hugged him, so fiercely that she almost toppled him once again. Javert, caught completely off guard, could respond in no other way but to fold his arms around her and hold her close, the two riding out the emotional storm together, until at last Cosette returned to lead the child away to join her friends.

When she had gone, Marius turned to the older men. "Well, Messieurs... A somewhat eventful morning I think."

"In more ways than you know," Valjean replied softly. Javert, his eyes downcast, said nothing, nor would he, Valjean knew, until he had had time to compose himself. "Marius, please make our apologies to Cosette and tell her not to delay opening the presents any longer. Javert must - "

" - change out of those wet clothes?" Marius offered.

"Precisely. A chill at this time..."

"Of course. Would you like me to send a servant with some brandy?"

"That will not be necessary. We shall be but a few minutes."

Waiting until Marius had withdrawn, Valjean ushered his bemused lover not upstairs but into their study, closing the door firmly against the rest of the world.

"Dear God in heaven..." Javert whispered, breaking the silence at last. "What is happening to me, Valjean?"

"Nothing which should not have happened a long time ago my dear."

"I feel -- " He cast around him, searching in vain for the right words. "I don't know what I feel."

"Happiness, perhaps?"

"More than that. Much more. The snow... And Martine... This entire day... Help me, Valjean..."

Valjean went to him, taking his hands and leading him to a chair, all the time murmuring soothing words to still the turbulence within him. "I give you my word, there is nothing to fear. Don't look for explanations, Javert, just accept it for what it is - a part of your new life here. Perhaps the best part."

"No. The best --" A great stillness suddenly came over him and he reached to gather Valjean to him, holding him so tightly that Valjean could feel the thunderous beating of his heart. "The best is here, in your arms... my love."

My love? Valjean almost choked on the surge of joy which swept through him at the endearment, for never before had Javert spoken thus. Is that truly how you think of me?

"Valjean?" Chilled fingers brushed across his cheek, spreading wetness he had not known was there.

"It's nothing... I just... I still cannot get used to this new Javert. Each time I believe I know you, I discover I hardly know you at all."

Javert's laughter this time was shy and filled with affection. "If it is difficult for you, imagine how it is for me. I never thought to know love in my life, Valjean, yet here you are. I have a home, a family... and now Martine... I am almost afraid that I will wake and find myself back behind the barricade, waiting to die."

"Well you are not," Valjean assured. "You are here, and it is Christmas morning. So come, let us rejoin our rather odd family. You have not even seen the tree yet, and Marius worked so hard to decorate it."

"Marius?"

"With a few directions from Cosette, of course," he elaborated, leaning to kiss Javert lightly before standing.

Javert's eyes sparkled with a knowing look. "Of course."

 

Later that day, when the meal was over and the exhausted children had been entrusted to the maids for an afternoon nap, came the time for the adults to exchange gifts. By mutual consent the most had been lavished on those who had the least, the children, while amongst themselves things were to be simple - lace for Cosette, gloves for Valjean and, of course, the new dressing gown for Javert. When all was seemingly done, Valjean rose to ring for wine with which to toast the day.

Marius cleared his throat. "A moment if you please, M. Jean. There is one thing more, I think," he said, with a meaningful look towards Javert. "Do you wish Cosette and I to withdraw, M. Javert?"

"Thank you, but that will not be necessary. This affects - all of us, not only Valjean." Leaving his chair, he came to sit beside Valjean and from his pocket withdrew a sealed document. "As you know, this season and all that it brings has never before held any meaning for me. I had no notion of how to set about choosing a gift for you, and so I turned to M. Marius for advice. He suggested that I might find something that only I was able to give you. I could not imagine what that might be - until one day my presence was required at Place du Chatelet."

"I recall the day," Valjean nodded. "You were so subdued when you returned."

"With good reason. While there I happened upon the information that there remains in force a warrant for the arrest of one Jean Valjean, for breaking parole."

Valjean closed his eyes at the memory. "Dear God... Am I never to be free of this?"

In an endearingly open gesture, Javert reached for his hand. "Please, dear Valjean, let me finish my tale. I promise, you will not be disappointed... I told the prefect of police, M. Gisquet, that there must be an error, but he informed me that it was not a matter for him and that I should take it up with the authorities at Toulon."

A look of amazed relief crossed Valjean's face. "So that was where you went!"

"Yes - and I have to say that they were unexpectedly sympathetic. There have been certain changes at the prison, and within the judiciary, since our time there and sentences such as yours are now... considered to have been... excessive." His voice failed, his face flaming at the memory.

"Those were harsh times," Valjean soothed. But the eloquent eyes turned away, hiding their shame, causing Valjean to lose patience. "In God's name, Javert! How many times must I tell you that I do not hold you accountable for the things that happened at Toulon? We were, both of us, victims of a merciless system, nothing more." Then, taking pity on him, he pushed the anger aside and said more gently. "So please, go on with your story, my friend."

"There is little more to tell," Javert murmured. "I merely explained that the warrant for Jean Valjean must be in error, since for these past seventeen years - " he paused and moistened his lips nervously, with a look to Marius for support, " - I have always known where he is and what he has been doing. Therefore he could not possibly be considered to have broken his parole."

"You - lied for me?" murmured Valjean.

It was Marius who answered. "Not a lie, M. Jean. More - a circumnavigation of the truth, well intentioned."

Javert had once told him of the gift of sight inherited from his mother and how it had enabled him to foresee his future with Valjean. Remembering that now, was it so impossible that Javert had, in some vague, ethereal way, known where he was? There was at least room for doubt.

"In addition I took with me a letter from Baron Pontmercy, detailing your part in helping to found an orphanage here, and another from M. Gillenormand explaining how you had saved his grandson from the riots. Hardly the actions of a criminal. And then I waited. Three days ago I was given this document, to pass to you. It is not a pardon - they do not have that authority - but it is an assurance that... the case of Jean Valjean is now to be considered closed."

"Closed?" Valjean's voice fell to a whisper. "I don't understand..."

"It's over, Valjean. No more hiding behind false identities, no more living in fear of the midnight knock at the door. It's over - for all of us."

At his words, the blood drained from Valjean's face and tears stung at his eyes. "Sweet Jesus --" he breathed. "Over? Can it be true, after so many years? Cosette --?"

She took the hand outstretched towards her, her own tears glistening on her cheeks. "It's true, Papa. Javert would not lie to you."

No, Javert would not lie - about anything, but especially about this. "I don't know what to say," he told Javert. "How to thank you... You've given me back my life, Javert."

"Only as you gave me mine. I need no thanks for this, Valjean."

But Valjean could not allow something so momentous pass in such an understated way and so, leaning closer, he kissed Javert on his startled lips. It was a chaste kiss, but it was also the first time that he had ever dared display so openly his feelings for the man who had come to share his life.

Cosette and Marius might have left the room, but instead they stayed, their continued presence a final endorsement of the relationship. Now that the gift had been given and the waiting was over, Marius rang for wine with which to celebrate.

"Over," Valjean repeated. "I had never dared to hope. Javert..."

Sensing yet another declaration of gratitude, Javert motioned him to silence. Placing his lips close to Valjean's ear, he whispered, "Later for that, my dear, and - for other things..?"

It was enough - for the present. Gathering his scattered thoughts, Valjean accepted the glass Marius held out to him. "Well," he said, "since I am no longer in hiding, perhaps one of you would care to suggest what I might do with this new-found freedom I have. Though I would ask you to have a care for these old bones of mine. Nothing too strenuous, I beg of you."

Marius laughed. "So says the man who carried me on his back through the sewers of Paris, like a sack of potatoes!" He raised his glass in salutation. "My friends, a toast: to Jean Valjean. May he find in the future the peace and joy that he has been so long denied."

"An easy wish," Valjean responded "for I have found both already. I have my family around me, I have someone who brings love to my old age -" grasping Javert's hand, he raised it to his lips, determined once and for all that there should be no more doubt, " - and now I am told that the nightmare which has haunted me for the past thirty years is over. What more could I want? No, I give you another toast, this one for all of us: may our future be bright, our love strong and may our children inherit a world of peace and prosperity."

"Amen to that," agreed Javert.

 

Midnight. The day had drawn to a peaceful close, the house once more silent and still.

Lying in his customary place beside Javert, Valjean rested his crossed arms on the broad chest and met the loving gaze with sated adoration. "So, my dear... Your first Christmas Day. Was it everything you'd hoped for?"

Lazy fingers carded through Valjean's hair and a contented sigh slipped from Javert's lips. "Everything - and more."

"For me, also. Does this mean that you will never again fear the day?"

"Not so long as I have you to share it with me."

Moved beyond words, Valjean bowed his head to press a kiss to Javert's heart. It had been a day of powerful emotions but now, as it reached the end, he felt only serenity and a fierce love for the man whose arms reached to enfold him and draw him closer.

"I love you, Valjean."

"Do you think I don't know that? Oh Javert, if ever I had cause to doubt your love, it no longer exists. What you have done..."

"...is no more than you deserve. I only wish... that we could turn back the clock. There is so much I would change."

"Would you? Truly? Do you not think that perhaps - we needed to first come through the flames? That, had we not known the pain we would not appreciate the love we now share."

"But to have loved then, when we had a lifetime ahead of us..."

Valjean touched the troubled face, traced the down-turned line of the lips. "Would our love have been any the stronger for that?"

"No," Javert confessed. "I could not love you more than I do at this moment."

"Nor I you. So let's have no more talk of what might have been. Tomorrow, when the children have returned to the orphanage, we shall lay Ultime Fauchelevant to rest and introduce the world to Jean Valjean. Will you help me?"

Javert rolled over, cradling him easily in his strong arms. "Dearest Valjean - " he breathed against the open mouth " - it would be a pleasure."

 

* * *