Prosperity and the ever-present vigilance of the police force had made Montreuil-sur-Mer a town where even at night, a gentleman did not have to feel overly careful about traversing shadowed streets. At least that held true for the parts of the town that were properly paved and lit by lamps even when the moon hid behind clouds.
Just this night, Inspector Javert was once more determined to make certain that the wolves that even now still prowled through the shadows of his town would be reminded once more that there was no place in Montreuil for thieves and robbers and all the vermin that thrived in the darkness. There had been three recent robberies, and he straightened instinctively as he remembered the deep unhappiness of having to report to the mayor three days in succession that the law was being thwarted in Montreuil while he, Javert, had been unable to do anything but arrive at the site of crime after the criminal had already vanished. The mayor, of course, had not reproached him, yet looked at him with such sadness that Javert had to force himself to not curl his fingers into fists.
Crime should not be met with sadness. Determination. Duty. Remorse at his repeated failings. Those were emotions suitable in such a situation. But of course, the mayor was a good man, a religious man, and a magistrate. Javert had no right to judge the mayor's unfailing kindness, though when he left the mayor's office at last, he could not help but wish that for once, the mayor would speak sharp words, chastise him for his failings. Javert certainly deserved it for the three days that had passed without the culprit caught, and the proper response to failure would feel less unsettling than the inexhaustible kindness of the mayor.
But now, at last, he stood well-conceiled in the shadows, waiting before a broken window. He had waited long, but finally one of his informers had been able to give him the news he had been waiting for. The criminal had grown more bold – as any wolf who had devoured lambs unheeded for too long was wont to do, and greed and gluttony had led him to abandon his earlier mode of attack.
Javert did not gloat. He would have denied it to anyone who would think to accuse him of it, and indeed he looked sombre and attentive as he waited there, still and silent like a shadow at the scene of the crime. But inside him, a warmth had spread when the criminal had appeared from a dark corner at last, once the moon was well-hidden behind the clouds, and broken the window of the house he had been seen to observe earlier. Javert was aflush with excitement and the specific type of pleasure that the hunter derives from feeling his prey so close that all it takes is one shot, the watch-dog mere seconds from clenching strong jaws around the limbs of a fleeing fox. This time, there would be no escape. He had brought reinforcements. His men were posted in the three surrounding streets, so even if the suspect should surprise him and run, or choose to leave by a different door or window, this time the wolf would not slink back into the underbelly of the town with his muzzle wet with blood.
There was a sound, almost like the tinkling of a bell, and a crunch as someone stepped over crushed glass. Javert tightened his fingers around his cudgel. And there the suspect was, climbing through the broken window again with a heavy bag in his hand – stolen goods, no doubt, Javert noted with a bone-deep satisfaction as he raised the cudgel.
He would relive the moment that was to follow all through the night and the next day as he was writing his report in terse words, but even so, he was not able to name what exactly had gone wrong. Maybe it was that the thief had the advantage of the weight of his stolen goods, or the fact that Javert had waited just a heartbeat too long to make certain that he would get a good hit. Maybe the thief had been stronger than he had looked, or faster than he should have been, encumbered as he was by his heavy load.
Yet no matter what exactly went wrong, the result of it was that the thief was only dealt a glancing blow, that he slipped from the window and crashed into Javert, whose head in turn hit the faded stone of the wall next to him with enough force to make him slide down the stone as his knees gave in, and that the thief escaped.
Javert winced at the sudden pain as he rested against the wall, blinking against the darkness that seemed to have even swallowed what sparse moonlight had been there before, and when he managed to force his eyes open again what seemed to him a heartbeat later, he could still hear the sound of boots on cobblestones in the distance.
He raised a hand to his aching head, frowning uncertainly when he did not encounter his hat, but a warm wetness. For a second, he was not quite certain what had happened. Then there was the sound of fast steps again, a touch to his arm while a lamp was hastily lit, and he blinked confusedly into the light as he found himself staring into the pale, concerned face of the mayor.
"My God, Javert! You are bleeding!" the mayor exclaimed, fingers reaching out to brush against his hair, and Javert recoiled in horror. He remembered now – the criminal had escaped. Escaped, and wounded him, too, so that he had come to rest here against the decrepit house like an invalid, worse, like an incompetent who had not been able to hold his own against a single, unarmed man. What must the mayor be thinking?
"Monsieur le Maire," he said, paling further at the roughness of his voice. Hastily, he tried to move into an upright position, ignoring his throbbing head. "It is nothing, I assure you. A simple robbery. We have men patrolling the streets. He will be apprehended in mere minutes."
"You are hurt!" The face of the mayor above him was pale like the moon, and for a moment something inside Javert wanted to recoil as the mayor reached out his hand again, strong, calloused fingers wet with blood at the tips.
Javert turned his head to the side, shaken and unhappy as he felt Monsieur Madeleine's hand gently brush his hair aside. This was all wrong. A magistrate should not concern himself with such things. It was for the mayor to hear his report tomorrow, seated behind his desk in his office while Javert would stand straight and still as he recounted the full immensity of his inefficiency.
An official reprimand was the very least he deserved, and he would accept any sharp word of criticism the mayor might utter. That was just. But what was decidedly not right was for the mayor of Montreuil to be compromised by his mistake. He clenched his teeth as he forced himself to hold still as the mayor's fingers once more brushed his hair away from his forehead. The light of the lantern was so bright that he closed his eyes for a moment as the mayor lifted it for a better view, and then it was placed on the ground, and the mayor's hand came to rest on his arm.
“Just a small wound,” he said softly, and Javert felt heat rush to his face with humiliation at being spoken to with such gentleness. He stood abruptly, or tried to – he found it was harder to stand straight than it should have been, darkness still lingering at the edges of his vision while the mayor's concerned face swam in and out of focus.
“Monsieur le Maire,” he murmured, blinking, then raising a hand to his brow. “I apologize.”
“Javert, you have nothing to apologize for.” There was still a sadness in the mayor's eyes as he looked at the blood that stained his fingertips. “It is a small wound, from what I can see. Are there other injuries?”
Javert forced his aching, strangely weak body to stand at attention, enjoying the dull ache of bruised muscle with a distracted pleasure. It was right that it should hurt, for it seemed just to him that his body should pay penance in such a way for his earlier lack of focus.
“The thief knocked my head against the wall when he tried to escape,” he said curtly. “I assure you, you will have a full report tomorrow morning, Monsieur le Maire.” Somewhere in the distance he could hear shouts, and the sound of running. He allowed himself a very small, grim smile. The thief had not escaped the law, despite his own failings.
“Please excuse me now. I have a suspect to interrogate.”
Monsieur Madeleine did not step away to allow him to leave, and Javert hesitated uncomfortably, his eyes respectfully lowered although he felt a strange urgency to escape the mayor's almost inappropriate kindness. There was nothing strictly wrong with the mayor's behaviour. He was known to be a religious man, after all, and known to be unfailingly kind to everyone he spoke to, and yet a part of Javert chafed at the thought of receiving kindness like alms. Kindness was not his due. To do his duty was privilege enough.
“A moment, Javert.” The mayor's hand tightened on his shoulder, and then gently turned him around. Javert was too surprised by the touch to resist, and in any case, he could hardly brush off the mayor's hands as though he were one of the harlots down at the quays.
He paled when he realized the very inappropriateness of that comparison, but there was no room for further thought when the mayor moved even closer, both of his hands resting on his shoulders for a moment. Javert's lips parted with something that was almost shock when the mayor's fingers took hold of the ribbon that had tied his hair back in an orderly queue, and now hung haphazardly over his shoulder.
“I can hardly let you walk through the streets like this, Inspector,” he said, and though the mayor's voice was perfectly firm, and though Javert knew that his words made perfect sense, a part of him shivered and wanted to recoil at the way Madeleine's breath was strangely warm against his ear.
He should have denied the attention. The mayor's time was precious after all – what was he doing in this part of Montreuil after darkness, in any case? – but then Madeleine pulled the ribbon free, so that he felt the weight of his hair released to spread over his shoulders, and he froze. The mayor's hands were gentle in his hair. How strange that such a strong, impressive man could be so careful! Stranger still that he should do such a thing. A magistrate was no servant, and Javert was not so wounded that he could not have simply retied the ribbon himself, even without the help of a mirror to make sure his exacting standards were met.
“The bleeding seems to have stopped,” the mayor continued kindly, though Javert found it hard to concentrate on his words when those strong, calloused fingers slowly gathered back his hair. He barely was able to suppress a flinch when without warning, the mayor's fingers brushed against the rim of his ear as he gathered back a few stray strands. “But perhaps you should nevertheless pay a visit to the hospital after you apprehend–”
“No,” Javert said quickly, then forced himself to relax his clenched hands, mortified at the impropriety of his protest. He lowered his head, staring at the ruined plaster of the wall in front of him. “My apologies, Monsieur le Maire. But that will not be necessary. It is just a small cut. I will clean it myself.”
“As you wish, Inspector.” Madeleine's hands were still in his hair, and Javert felt strangely restless at the way they slowly combed through the mess the thief's attack must have made of it. It did not hurt, not even with the wound, or maybe it was simply that the strange familiarity of the touch left no room for other sensation. He found himself grateful for that. It was bad enough the mayor had to see him like this, twice a fool for letting a thief get the better of him, and flustered almost to the point of impoliteness towards a magistrate.
Madeleine's fingertips brushed his skin once more as the mayor gathered his hair in one hand, and Javert stood still as stone, a soldier at attention as he stared straight at the wall in front of him, barely even able to breathe as the silk of his ribbon teased against his neck. The sound of Madeleine's breathing was loud in his ear, but louder still was the sound of his own heartbeat. It was not proper, he told himself again as his eyes followed a moth fluttering against the wall. It was only right that he should feel uncomfortable. No matter the mayor's kindness towards any soul, deserving or undeserving, he should not lower himself so far as to do such a task for a mere police spy.
Madeleine worked slowly, but methodically, wrapping the ribbon tightly around the gathered hair before he tied the queue with a bow. Javert realized that he had been holding his breath and exhaled slowly. When the mayor's hands came to rest on his shoulders for a moment, he shifted uncomfortably, then froze with mortification when he felt the wool of his trousers chafe against where his body had succumbed to weakness and started to stir with–
His mouth was dry. He stared fixedly at the cracked plaster in front of him as shame consumed him like fire at the sudden realisation of his body's inexplicable treachery.
He had hit his head, he told himself while his body shuddered at the innocent weight of the mayor's hands on his shoulders. What would the mayor think of him? To not only fail to apprehend a criminal, but to have his body betray him with sudden, incomprehensible baseness, as if he were no more than a boy – the chase did this to some men, he reminded himself, and it was true that he had been excited to be present for the crime itself, after three days of failure. And certainly any doctor would agree that these were common occurrences all men might suffer from who were participants in a fight, an attack. And yet, with Monsieur Madeleine's hands still resting on his shoulders, head bent close to inspect the ribbon his own hands had tied, it felt like a terrible treachery, and he shuddered with the need to get away lest his body's baseness sully a magistrate from the contact alone.
“There. Now you shall not upset the citizens of Montreuil, Inspector,” the mayor said softly, then released Javert at last. Javert breathed freely, as if along with the warmth of the mayor's breath against his nape, some terrible danger had vanished. He hesitated as long as he could, but this too was not proper, and so he turned then, his eyes still respectfully lowered, studying the mayor's waistcoat in the dim light of the lantern rather than meeting his eyes as he prayed that the darkness and shadows would veil his body's shame.
“I must beg your pardon again, Monsieur le Maire. I assure you, the fault was all mine, the thief never should have made his escape had I not hesitated for too long. You will receive a full report tomorrow, Monsieur. I regret that the unpleasantness of my error had to inconvenience you tonight.”
He bowed, deeper than propriety would have demanded, and longer than was necessary, but he felt that the mayor deserved his apologies for the way he had been forced to assist his inspector of the police with something so inconsequential as the fastening of his hair. No, there was much he was at fault for, and he determined anew not to spare himself in the report he would make to the mayor on the morrow.
The mayor hesitated for a long moment, but Javert did not dare to raise his eyes to his – not after the blunder he had already made, not with the discomfort of his body's strange stirrings which he was even now trying to deny.
“Very well, Javert,” Madeleine said at last. “We shall discuss today's events when you give me your report. But please, do not forget to dress that wound. It is not large, but it must be painful.”
Javert was too tired and unsettled to argue with this, and neither was it his place to question the mayor's kindness, misplaced though it might be.
“Monsieur,” he murmured and bowed anew, then took up his hat from where it still rested on the ground and strode towards where he could faintly hear his men's triumphant voices, clenching his jaw and trying to concentrate on the faint, painful throb of the wound in the hope that it would wash away the lingering memory of calloused fingers winding the ribbon of silk around his hair.