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Dear Beast Unbeastly

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Once upon a time, there was a monster.

“It found us on the road,” said a farmer. “I ran with my wife. It savaged the wagon. There was nothing left of the horse.”

“It steals the sheep,” said a shepherd boy. “It eats some and spreads the rest on the hills, blood like paint.”

“It lives in the woods?” said the hunter Javert.

“Yes,” said the farmer. “We hear it howling at night.”

“Yes,” said the shepherd boy. “The sheep won’t go near the trees. Are you a knight?”

“No,” said the hunter. “I am a hunter.”

He went into the woods.

 


 

Javert had a little charm that he had taken from the house of a witch. In it an iron coin spun on a chain inside a small twig box, and he followed the path it traced through the woods toward the creature’s den, gathering wood as he went.

The witch who made it was, of course, dead. Javert had not killed her, but he had given her to the nearest village. Her own fault for being a witch.

The noise the creature made was almost, but not quite, like howling. The sun was not yet down when the sound came through the trees, and he knew he was close.

The thing, when he saw it, was almost, but not really, like an ox. It had great horns on its head and a massive barrel of a body, but its mouth was full of long, sharp teeth, and its paws bore cruel claws. There were stains on its jowls, and its eyes were yellow like a low-hanging moon.

“A great hulking brute, aren’t you?” said the hunter, and snorted, satisfied.

The thing stood in the mouth of its den and snarled, but dared go no further. Javert reached up with a tough hide glove, and tapped the spiked silver starburst hanging from a cord around his neck. The point of it was long and dangerously sharp, and it nearly hummed with forbidding magic.

“You can look, but you can’t taste,” he taunted. “Look your fill, then. I’ll have you dispatched soon enough, monster.”

The monster made that sound that wasn’t enough like howling, but stayed in its den. The hunter lay down his burden and built a fire.

Dusk fell, and Javert struck a flint into the kindling.

“Light for the eyes,” he said, as the fire caught. He sat beside it. The fire burned strong and steady, and all night the hunter and the monster stared at each other across the orange flames. Javert ate hard cheese and slices of apple off the blade of a hunting knife, and the beast breathed heavily, and its fangs shone.

Dawn came just as the fire burned out.

“I will see you again tonight, monster,” said Javert.

 


 

You could never be too careful with monsters, Javert believed. As long as they had their fangs and their claws, they couldn’t be trusted.

“Give me a loaf of bread with a stone baked inside,” Javert told the baker in the village.

She gave it to him, warm and crusty and heavy as an oath. He put it in his rucksack and headed back out into the woods as the sun began to sink.

The monster came out to the mouth of its den again as Javert entered the clearing.

“Bread for the stomach,” the hunter said, and heaved the loaf of bread at the beast.

It snapped the bread out of the air, and as its great sharp teeth closed around the bread there was a terrible crunch of the beast’s sharp fangs splintering against the stone. It roared, full of agony and anger.

“No more than you deserve, monster,” sneered Javert. The monster snarled, and fixed Javert with a yellow eye.

“My name is not monster,” it rumbled, in a voice dark and awful.

The hunter laughed.

“Ah, it has remembered speech,” he said. “Tell me. If your name is not monster,” he challenged, “What do you say it is?”

The beast replied only with sullen silence and a baleful glare, and Javert laughed again, short and cold.

“You are monster to me,” he said.

The monster gave a low, furious growl, and rubbed its muzzle on the moon-silvered grass, leaving it shining with blood from its lips.

“Cruel,” said the monster.

“Just,” said the hunter.

“I do not know of justice,” said the monster. “But I know of cruelty.”

“That is why you are a monster,” agreed Javert, sitting and settling his back against a tree. The monster bared its stained and broken fangs, but the hunter still bore the sharp silver symbol around his neck, and the beast could not touch him, no matter its fury.

All night, they watched each other again, now without even the fire between them -- nothing but the dark clearing, full of moonlight.

After a long time, the sun rose pale again, and Javert rose too.

“I will see you again tonight, monster,” he said, and went from the woods.

 


 

“Have you seen the creature?” said the farmer. “Is it not strong and terrible?”

“It is strong,” Javert said. “But not stronger than the hand of justice.”

“Have you seen the beast?” said the shepherd boy. “Is it not ugly and fierce?”

“It is fierce,” Javert said. “But not more fierce than a hunter.”

When the sun started descending on the third night, Javert took his sack and headed into the woods again. Again he halted by the edge of the monster’s clearing, just as the light of evening went blue.

“What have you brought me now, hunter?” said the creature, its lip curling. The blood in its shattered teeth had gone brown, almost black in the quickly disappearing light of day.

The hunter sat under a tree, reached into his sack, and pulled out a wooden box with a crank on the side.

“Music for the ear,” he said. He turned the crank, and the box made a sound that was only music because it was nothing else. The notes were thin as a knife’s edge, plucked from tin prongs within the box and hung in the chilling air, pale and wavering.

Neither of them spoke for a little while as Javert cranked, and the unhappy song strung itself between them like a wire.

“I remembered my name,” said the monster. “My name is Valjean.”

“I am Javert,” said the hunter. “But you will only ever be monster to me.”

“Why do you do this?” Valjean growled.

“Why do you devour carriage horses?” Javert said. “You are a beast, and I am a hunter.”

“I eat because I am hungry,” Valjean answered. “I suppose hunters are never hungry.”

“Not for carriage horses,” Javert snorted.

Javert put the box away again in his rucksack. He retrieved an apple from the sack and leaned back against the tree, and the two sat and looked at each other as they had before.

“You may not eat horses,” said Valjean, “but to my nose you smell of blood. I think we are not as different as you say.”

The hunter scoffed and ate his apple, and the hungry creature in the mouth of the cave watched.

In the morning, Javert rose.

“I will see you again tomorrow, monster,” said Javert, and departed.

 


 

Before he left the next evening, Javert paid the inn’s stable-keep a few copper coins for an old horse blanket.

“Whatever you don’t need,” he said. “Don’t bother to fetch me better in hopes I’ll pay more.”

“Is it... to kill the monster?” frowned the young man.

“You can’t kill a monster,” Javert scoffed. “Not one like this. But you can turn a monster into something else that can be killed.”

“What are you turning it into with a horse blanket?” asked the stable keep, but Javert sneered and did not answer.

The woods were quiet of howling as Javert headed into them with his muddy, frayed blanket. The monster, three nights kept from the hunt, was hollow-eyed and vicious. It made a low, threatening noise as Javert entered the clearing, and Javert smirked. He opened the blanket with one quick shake and held it out tauntingly.

“Well, monster?” he jeered to the creature before him, flicking the blanket at it. “Don’t you tire of my attentions? You are content to glare at me from over there?”

Valjean stood at the mouth of his cave on two legs now, but he scraped a paw through the dirt and snarled. Still he was kept from acting on its fury just as he had been, and Javert laughed. He crossed the clearing and slung the blanket over Valjean’s broad shoulders.

“A cloak for the back,” Javert said. Valjean hunched under the cloak and bared his teeth, but clutched almost unconsciously at the ratty blanket.

“You call me monster, but every day I feel more like a man,” said Valjean. Indeed, his features were changed, less rough but more strange for it, and his limbs hung differently as he crouched in the shadows of the cave. “And I do not know how I know what being a man is like, unless I have been one before. Have you done this to me?”

“What does anyone need to feel human?” Javert said. “Light for the eyes, music for the ears, bread for the stomach, a cloak for the back. You may think you are a man, but you are a monster yet. Monsters never change.”

“And hunters?”

“They do not change either,” Javert said, his eyes glinting like flint. But it seemed as though his form was distorted in the dark, that his teeth were sharper as he smiled, and the angles of his shoulders and his face were something different than they had been.

 


 

There was one piece of preparation yet before could complete his work with the monster. He could not risk walking into the last step of this hunt with any glaring vulnerabilities; indeed, it was surprising he had gotten this far in his career with something as messy as a heart to deal with.

It turned out to be a simple business, ridding himself of it. He obtained a solution from an apothecary in the village, and took the little glass bottle back to his room at the inn. He drank it down, cold and bitter, and gritted his teeth silently through the wracking pain.

When the potion had finally burned through him, he coughed up a dark wet mass, throbbing on the floor. He wiped his sweating brow and cleaned it up. The heart left in him now was wooden, solid and serviceable, and without all the distracting beating. He held a hand against his chest, and felt nothing but a dull satisfaction.

Valjean was waiting for him that night when Javert reached the clearing. He stood up and stared at him -- nearly a man, but not nearly enough -- and stared at him as though he could guess that the hunter, now, had come for his trophy.

“What have you for me tonight?” he asked. “Another gift? But your hands are empty, hunter.”

Javert reached up and closed his hand around the pointed silver symbol hanging from his neck.

“Silver for the heart,” he snarled. He yanked the pendant from its cord and held it in his hand with the long, sharp point out, like a weapon.

With the snap of the cord, the protective magic of the symbol was broken. The woods were silent and still for a long moment, as the monster and the hunter watched each other.

Valjean roared, and leapt.

Javert smiled, quick and dangerous, and met the monster in a grapple. Valjean’s jaw snapped, but his broken fangs closed on Javert’s hide glove and could not pierce it. His sharp claws sunk into Javert’s chest, but met only the block of wood, and not a drop of blood fell from his absent heart. Javert fought to pierce Valjean’s heart with the long point of his silver pendant, but every time Valjean managed to turn away his strike.

They struggled through the night, and, as they fought, it seemed the difference between the two grew less and less. The starlight reflected off coarse fur and shining fangs that did not belong to Valjean, and off bristled jaw and stony fist that did not belong to Javert.

“They were not your sheep,” Valjean gritted out, “nor your horses. Why should you care of monsters in woods you’ve never seen?”

“To hate one monster is to hate them all,” Javert returned, holding talons away from his face. “To know a tree is to know a wood.”

“What know you of woods?” said Valjean. “What know you of trees? I worked in an orchard, long ago. I was a man like you and yet you bring silver for my heart. Is this justice?”

“Yes,” growled Javert.

The sky was graying at last when the battle turned. Valjean’s human shoulders, though broad, could not hold back the monstrous bulk of Javert as he had all night, but the claws Javert now bore could also not grip his sharp silver symbol the way his fingers had.

The silver starburst fell to the grass and Javert howled with an animal rage. Valjean laid his hand over it, and the beast before him snarled and ran into the woods.

Valjean stood. His eyes were pale and wild, his ruined teeth still yellowed and inhuman, and there was yet something in him that would frighten sheep, that smelled of blood. But he was, if not yet a man, no longer entirely a monster.

He closed his fingers around the silver symbol, and fled.

 


 

Valjean traveled far before he rested. From a clothesline outside a cabin, he took clothes enough to cover him, a hooded cloak to hide the horns protruding from his white hair, and from their farm a chicken, and kept moving.

He kept clear of the roads and the towns, with the instinct of a wild animal. It was harder to feed himself with raw and bloody wildlife than it had once been, so he stole, and poached, and eked out a living from farm to farm, keeping to the darkness and the shadows of forests. To come near other people raised hackles he no longer had, and he bared his splintered fangs at them on instinct, and they screamed and chased him into the trees with weapons.

No, better to stay in the woods. Woods were where monsters belonged.

Woods, unfortunately, were where hunters belonged, too.

It was only a few weeks before he blundered into a hunter’s trap, half-hidden in the leaves.

He howled, with a throat no longer meant for howling, as the teeth of the trap bit into his leg and blood soaked his stolen trousers. He scrabbled at the trap with his claws, his mind a blank and feral frenzy, but nothing he did could prize the trap open again.

Valjean bayed alone in the shadowy woods, and bled, and forgot what little humanity he still remembered.

In time, after Valjean had exhausted himself with pulling and howling and loss of blood, a figure approached between the trees.

Hunter, thought Valjean, and tried to leap to his feet. His injured leg collapsed under him instead, and he crouched over it, growling, as the human approached.

The human was dressed in the long, rough robes of a priest, with a rope belt and a small bag at his waist. He held his empty hands placatingly in front of him.

“Please, sir,” said the priest. “You are hurt. Allow me to help you.”

Valjean’s hood had fallen in his struggles, and he knew well the terrible visage the priest faced. No human would ever look at the monster he was and offer to help; it was a trick, meant to catch him off guard before the killing blow, a trap as certain as the one closed around his leg. When the priest reached for the trap, Valjean lunged and swiped sharp claws down the priest’s extended arm, shredding his robes and leaving bleeding scratches in his skin.

The priest hissed in pain and recoiled, but only held out his hand again.

“I only wish to free you,” he insisted. He reached into the bag at his belt, and retrieved a slice of brown bread, which he held out to Valjean with his uninjured arm. “No creature deserves such cruelty as this.”

“I draw your blood,” Valjean gnarled, “and you offer me your food?”

The priest gave a kindly smile to hear him speak.

“You have been treated harshly, I think,” said the priest. “I will not add to it. To act with gentleness toward all beings is the privilege of humanity, and not one to be wasted.”

Valjean watched warily as the priest approached again, and this time allowed him to wrench the trap open with a fallen branch. Valjean retreated from both trap and priest, and huddled in the brush, nursing his leg.

“Come with me,” said the priest, “and I will tend to your wound, and feed you better than a crust of bread can do. My home is not far.”

There was little else Valjean could do, and, even injured, he knew he was still a greater threat than the priest could be. So, limping, he allowed the priest to lead him through the woods and to his modest home. There, the priest salved and bandaged his leg, and fed him bread and salted meat.

“You are beast enough to need an Androcles,” the priest said, smiling, when Valjean had finished. “But man enough, I think, to need coin. Here, I have some savings laid by; I have all I need, and you have so little.”

He went to a chest in the corner and retrieved a clinking bag, which he laid in Valjean’s hand.

Valjean untied the bag and ran his fingers through the cold, smooth coins inside. But as he did so, a strange feeling shivered through his bones, and he drew his hand out, startled.

It was truly a hand again, like that of a man, the nails round and blunt, the knuckles browned by weather and not by fur.

Valjean lifted the hand to his head, to feel for the horns that were no longer there. He looked up in wonder at the priest, who watched him, smiling.

“I am not sure what I’ve done,” the priest admitted. “But if I’ve helped, I’m glad to do so.”

Valjean tightened his hand around the little sack of money, and swallowed. Silver for the heart.

“Thank you,” he said.

 


 

He left the home of the priest, fed and rested, and returned to the road. He could not remember where he had left his sister, or her children, or the orchard he had once worked. He could not even remember how he had come to dwell, monstrous, in his den in the woods. After this long, perhaps it did not matter.

Learning how to be a man now was nearly as difficult as remembering how he had been a man then. Valjean ventured carefully into a town, but nobody screamed or chased him away. So he stayed, and spent a small portion of the priest’s silver on food and board, and relearned how to speak to humans.

“No orchards ‘round here,” said a grocer. “Some barley fields. Turnips, too.”

“That’s enough tip for another meal, love,” said a barmaid. “Are you sure you...? Well! You’re sweet. Let me get you a drink on the house.”

“Don’t have many strangers coming through this part of the world,” said a smith. “Don’t think we’ve had one since the hunter, in fact.”

Valjean blinked at him, startled.

“The hunter?” he asked.

“Last year, sometime,” said the smith. “Rid us of a monster -- a giant, down by the river. It killed the family that ran the mill the previous spring, left blood in the water for three days.”

“The hunter,” Valjean said. “What was his name?”

“Something with a J,” the smith said. “Odd, dour sort.”

Valjean followed the stories of Javert from village to village, hardly knowing why he did. He asked after every story of slain monsters, though it made him sick to contemplate. It was impossible to say how many were witless beasts, how many had been once men. How many monsters like Valjean were there in the world? How many had Javert slain?

How many lives had he saved? Valjean’s days as a beast were largely a dim haze, but he felt he had not done worse than horses. If he had, maybe he would have welcomed a hunter's knife.

“Yes, the hunter Javert was here not long back,” said a woman in one village. “But he slew no monsters.”

Valjean did not have time to sigh in either disappointment or relief before the woman spoke again.

“But he gave us the witch who lived in the woods.”

The house of the witch was not far into the trees -- certainly much less far than Valjean’s own cave had been. He expected to find it burned, as the witch had been (there was black in the town square, where wood had been piled and scorched earth had never really washed away). But when he found it the cottage stood whole, lonely and still.

Maybe something of the beast remained about his ears and his nose, for Valjean turned before he knew there had been a sound. A small girl stood cowering behind a tree, clutching a bucket of water.

“You are far from the village, little girl,” he said. “Someone will be missing you.”

“No one misses me,” said the girl. “And I do not live in the village.”

He had not noticed another home nearby.

“Where do you live?” he asked.

The little girl pointed at the cottage of the witch.

“My name is Cosette,” she said. “I lived here with my mother, before she went away.”

Valjean did not revisit the village with the scorched dirt in the square. He took the girl Cosette and moved on, along the road that the hunter had travelled.

He drew closer, every day, to familiar woods.


 

When he reached the village, the people did not recognize him. They did not see the monster he had been in his eyes, and he was glad for this. He should have been glad. They did not see his sister in him either, or her children, if they had once lived here, but he did not know how long he had worn the skin of a beast, did not even know if it had been in this village or another. It had been a different world, he thought, a different life. He would not recognize himself either.

“Don’t let your daughter near the woods,” said a farmer he met in the market. “There’s a monster there.”

“Did you hear the howling on the road?” a shepherd boy asked Cosette. “It’s worse than ever lately.”

“A monster?” Valjean said. “In the woods?”

“Yes,” said the farmer. “It does not come out as often as it used to, but we hear it.”

“Yes,” said the shepherd boy. “It makes a sound like a nightmare.”

Valjean touched the silver symbol that hung around his neck, and knew what he must do.

 


 

A gentle gardener in the village put them up, refusing Valjean’s coin.

“You mean to go into the woods?” he said. “The monster you hunt has taken another hunter already, and he was younger than you. You do not even have a weapon.”

“I do not hunt anything,” says Valjean. “Watch her, and I will return in the morning.”

From the gardener he borrowed a single candle, and a candlestick, and a match. As the sun began to sink into the tops of the trees, Valjean walked into the woods.

The beast was waiting in the clearing when Valjean reached it, in the blue light of dusk.

“Hello, Javert,” he said.

The creature growled, and its fangs dripped.

Valjean sat in the grass on the other side of the clearing and lit his candle.

“Light for the eyes,” he said.

 

The long night wore on, and Valjean’s candle burned slowly down. It felt different than it had to watch Javert with monster’s eyes across the blazing fire. Without the crackle of wood, the forest was near silent, and he could hear the panting of the thing in the mouth of the cave. The creature looked at him and longed to eat, but Javert’s silver symbol still hung around Valjean’s neck, and there was nothing it could do.

The sun rose. Valjean blew out his candle.

“I will see you tonight,” said Valjean, and he turned back toward the village.

 


 

“If you please, a loaf of bread,” said Valjean to the village baker.

“You’re the one here about the monster,” she observed. “With a stone baked inside?”

“No, thank you,” he said, teeth aching. “Just the bread.”

That night, he met Javert in the clearing again. He crossed it slowly, carefully, until he was halfway to the cave.

“Bread for the stomach,” he said, and tossed the loaf of bread toward the creature.

Hungry jaws tore the bread to pieces in moments. When it was gone, the beast, hunched before its cave, turned its cruel eyes to Valjean.

“Fool, to leave me my teeth,” it said. “I will taste your blood, monster.”

“My name is not monster,” said Valjean. “And neither is yours.” Javert curled its lip in threat, but Valjean shook his head. “Do you remember your name?” he asked.

“Hunter,” the monster growled.

“No,” said Valjean. He lowered himself to the grass and did not look away from the terrible creature before him. “I saw many villages where you had once hunted,” he said. “What you tried to do, you have surely done well.”

“You yet live,” sneered Javert. “In this, at least, I have failed.”

“You have rid the world of a monster,” says Valjean. “Is this not enough?”

“No,” said Javert, and did not speak again before the sun rose, and Valjean departed.

 


 

“Where do you go at night?” Cosette asked.

“There is someone in the woods who needs my help,” Valjean answered her, and the girl frowned.

“The people say there is a monster in the woods,” she said. “Does the monster have them?”

“Yes,” said Valjean. “But there are many kinds of monsters. Some of them are beasts, and some are hunters, and some are men, and it can be hard to tell from looking. That is why we should always act with gentleness toward all beings.”

“Will you save them?” said Cosette.

“I will try,” he replied.

That night, Valjean went into the woods empty handed. The monster was waiting in its cave, its head laid on its forelegs, but its eyes alert and threatening.

 


 

Valjean drew closer even than the night before, half again as near to the cave, before he sat down in the cool grass. Javert flashed sharp teeth threateningly, and a growl rumbled deep in its throat.

“Music for the ear,” said Valjean, and he sang.

He sang a song that the workers in the orchards used to sing as they went from tree to tree, about sunshine and sweet fruit and the sweeter lips of a lover. It did not feel a part of the dark woods around them and the watching moon, and a burden seemed to lift from Valjean’s aged shoulders as he sang.

“A young man’s song,” sneered Javert.

“I do not deny it,” said Valjean. “It seems I grew old with hide and horns and came back to a different world than I left. What do old men sing of?”

Javert did not answer for a long moment.

“Tall ships,” the creature said finally. “And orange fires. And memories of those absent.”

“I think I know a song like that,” said Valjean. And he sang that song too.

“What do you mean by coming here?” Javert demanded when Valjean was done. “Is it revenge? Do you hunt me?”

“No,” said Valjean. “It is recompense. I have come to break your curse as you broke mine.”

“The same thing,” the monster spat. “When you bring silver for my heart, I will tear your throat out.”

Valjean sang another song, one about moonlight and soft voices saying farewell. When the sky began to lighten and Valjean rose, the monster spoke again.

“My name was Javert,” he said.

“It still is,” said Valjean. “I will see you again tonight, Javert.”

 


 

On the fourth night, Valjean went into the woods empty handed again.

“Have you not brought me a gift tonight?” the monster mocked, standing in its cave as Valjean crossed the clearing. “Or have you given up? You would be wise to do so.”

“Not yet,” said Valjean. He drew within only a pace of Javert this time, and stopped. He unclasped the cloak around his own shoulders, and swung it over the creature.

“A cloak for the back,” he said.

Javert made a sound, sudden and fierce like a cornered animal, as though the cloak were a threat that it could not meet. It arched its back under the cloak but did not, or maybe could not, throw it off.

“I will kill you,” Javert snarled. “I will eat your heart. It does not matter if you have lost your fangs and claws; monsters are always monsters. I began a hunt for a monster and I will end the same. If you come tomorrow night, you come to your death.”

Valjean touched the protective symbol with fingertips.

“So be it,” said Valjean. He sat on the grass in front of the cave, and Javert backed up, growling, into the shadows.

“I found a little girl, in my travels,” said Valjean. “She came with me, and she calls me Papa.”

“Am I meant to spare you for this?” sneered the creature.

“No,” said Valjean. “But I think of her often, as I think of her now. Her name is Cosette. When she smiles, it is more good than I thought I yet could do in this world.”

Javert growled, and said nothing.

“Your hunting,” said Valjean. “Has it repaid you for what it took? Is there some joy that made it worth your sacrifices?”

“That is not why I did it,” said Javert.

“No,” Valjean said. “I suppose that is not why I did it either.”

They sat in the darkness, close enough to hear one another breathing, as the stars wheeled overhead.

“Say goodbye to your lost child,” said Javert as Valjean rose with the sun. “When you return, monster, I will finish what I began.”

“I will see you tonight, Javert,” said Valjean.


 

Valjean went to the smith in the village, and gave to her Javert’s silver symbol, which Valjean had worn since he had first left the woods.

“I am not accustomed to working something so delicate,” she said, when he told her what he wanted. “But I will try. It will help you rid us of the monster in the woods?”

“I hope so,” said Valjean. “I will do my best.”

He went to his friend the gardener, and gave the rest of the silver coins that the priest had given him.

“I will try to return,” he said. “But if I do not, watch over Cosette.”

The sun began to sink, and Valjean kissed Cosette on the top of her golden head.

“Be good,” he said. “Be good even when it is most difficult to be good. We are not to blame for the world giving us cruelty, my child, but we choose whether or not to give it back.”

He took what the smith had made for him, and went into the woods with it held in his hand, no cloak and no weapon, as dark fell over the forest.

Javert stood in the middle of the clearing, watching for him. He was much transformed, but not entirely; he stood like a man, but the monster remained in his face and his profile, and the beast stared out of his eyes.

“You do not bear any mark of the beast you were,” Javert said. “Yet I know I never finished the last task to make you mortal. How can this be?”

“There are many ways to pierce a heart,” said Valjean. He came and stood before the creature, and met his gaze.

“You do not wear the symbol of protection I lost,” Javert growled. “I could break your neck now.”

“You could,” Valjean agreed.

“You do not fight?” Javert snapped, his sharp teeth a handbreadth from Valjean’s face. “Why did you come back tonight? Why did you come back at all? Are you turned hunter, then?”

“There does not need to be always a monster in the woods,” said Valjean quietly. “There does not need to be always a hunter. I wonder if we could not be merely men awhile?"

“I did not take this curse for your benefit,” Javert snarled, “and there is no saving me. I do not have a heart you can pierce; I made quite sure of that.”

“There is more than one way,” Vajean said again.

He reached out and took Javert’s hand in his. Javert flinched, and made a threatening sound in his throat, but did not pull away.

“Silver,” said Valjean, “for the heart,” and slid a silver ring past his talon and onto his finger.

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A line of fire traced up Javert’s arm and lodged in the heart he shouldn’t have had. He gasped as it throbbed, once, twice, and settled into an even, impossible beating.

Valjean hooked gentle fingertips in Javert’s, and waited until Javert resumed his unsteady breathing. The claws were gone -- the muzzle was gone. No antlers weighed down his bewildered head. But the heart went on beating, hard and fast, so that he thought it would free itself from his chest.

“What have you done?” Javert breathed.

Valjean smiled, and in his eyes was more peace than should be found in woods or hunts.

“Restored us both,” he said.

“Then better than I could manage,” Javert frowned, but his hand closed around Valjean’s, as though of its own accord. “If my quarry has caught me instead, I think I can no longer call myself a hunter. What now then, if you know so much?”

“A meal, for you,” said Valjean. “Sleep, for me. And then, perhaps, we find out together.”

To that, Javert could make no argument. The two men turned toward the last rays of twilight, neither releasing the other, and walked as one toward the village.

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