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Her Favorite Color

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“In!” Javert pushed Jean Valjean into Montreuil-sur-Mer’s town jail, his voice as rough as the hand that sent the former mayor stumbling forward several steps. Valjean did not resist.

A thrill of triumph rushed through Javert. He’d dreamed of this moment for years, to see a false magistrate exposed for the depraved imposter he really was. And today—he allowed his eyes to stay on the slumped back a moment longer, imagining the defeat that must be etched on Valjean’s face—he could claim today as the reason why he had devoted so many years to serving justice, remaining faithful in his admittedly dull existence in Montreuil-sur-Mer: a renegade from the law had been apprehended, and it wouldn’t have been possible without him.

Javert was by all accounts not a particularly prideful man. There was no glory in the meticulous police work that he had had to perform on a daily basis. Mundane trivialities such as wagon theft and the curiously self-shifting stone that never sat still between M. LeBlanc’s property boundary line and his neighbor’s yielded neither excitement nor honor. Worse, being diligent and excellent in his work had made Inspector Javert the recipient of one too many “I didn’t do it!” and “I’m afraid I must be on my way… urgent matter, you see,” that is to say, law and order were welcome by the town’s citizens only when the wielder of justice wasn’t seen, heard, or felt.

And so Javert took immeasurable delight in refusing Valjean time to stay by the deceased whore’s bedside, in twisting the fake mayor’s arms behind his back, in hearing the satisfying click of his manacles over those wrists, and in processing him from the town’s hospital to the jail. This time, the fearful glances weren’t directed at him. This time, Inspector Javert was seen as performing the highest duty to protect Montreuil-sur-Mer’s safety.

Already, whispers began to spread among the gossipmongers and idlers. Javert was, for once, thankful for these good-for-nothings. By tomorrow, the hypocrisy of Jean Valjean would be known by all.

He slammed the cell door shut. The town jail was dark and smelled of something dead and rotten, but Javert could only taste the sweetness of vindication, of having his suspicions finally proved right. He chose not to remember the shameful incident when he begged a false magistrate—a criminal!—for dismissal. No, the Prefecture’s letter had muddled his mind on that day. He should have taken pause to consider the incongruity of the Paris police’s conjectures, of how farfetched some of the claims were regarding the hapless Champmathieu. He should have acted on his instinct. He had learned his lesson; he would never mistrust his intuition again.

But it no longer mattered. For some inexplicable reason, Madeleine had chosen to reveal his real identity and now Jean Valjean was apprehended. He sent a final sneer toward Valjean’s back before reaching through the bars and tugging the convict’s hands forcefully toward him. A turn of his key and the cuffs clicked open, revealing the white scars on Valjean’s wrists. Javert imagined thicker, heavier irons clasping those wrists in just a few days’ time. Convicts bound to chains. It was as natural as summer would surely follow spring. The world had regained its proper order at last.

“Inspector.” Jean Valjean’s voice brought him back to their present surrounding.

Javert returned his cuffs into his pocket without sparing the convict a glance. Valjean could plead all he wanted. Not a word would penetrate his heart of stone.

“Javert, please.”

“Quiet, convict!”

And just like that, Valjean had tricked him into looking up, into acknowledging him.

Valjean was facing him now. The dim moonlight cast a shadow over his face, so that all Javert could see were eyes glinting with a strange emotion, dark orbs set inside a dark form. The irony was not lost on him: it was in this most hidden state that Jean Valjean was fully known. In his three years of working with an imposter saint who seemed to emanate light from his very core, Javert wasn’t able to peel back even a layer of Madeleine’s pretense. Maybe he was wrong. Valjean wasn’t a serpent whose skin needed to be ripped from the creature. He was more like the troll of legends—impenetrable stone under sunlight, but enshroud him in darkness, and the blackest fiend would emerge.

The dark form was pleading, like the troll king still trying to lure innocent children to stray from the forest’s path into the bowels of hell despite the threat of the dawning day.

“Do one thing for me, please. Even you can’t deny that I have done right by you at least once over the years.”

A terrible shriek pierced through the chilled air, the sound of incredulity. The shriek was his. It reminded him of the cawing of the crow, completely mirthless and no less grating.

He did not miss the hardening of Valjean’s eyes.

Javert snarled—a primal, guttural sound. If hell had its hound, then justice ought to demand a wolf that was no less ferocious. The wolf spat, “Says a hypocrite pretending to be an angel of light. No, Valjean, you hold no favor over me. Enough. I have nothing to do with you any longer.”

He turned on his heels. The moonlight had fallen on the jailhouse door. It led back to the station house. This way to freedom, it whispered, not to the prisoner confined behind bars (abandon hope, all ye who enter here) but to the jailer (come unto me, and I will give you rest). About ten paces separated him from the door. Click, click, click. In the silence, Javert’s footfalls clipped like the heavy ticking of a clock. Regular, sure, and soon to reach a new threshold where Jean Valjean would be left forever behind him.

“If you do not consider my request, I will escape.”

He stilled his steps.

“You know I can.”

…liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound…

He didn’t know how he’d turned around or how his hands had clenched into fists, and certainly not how his legs had moved on their own to once again thrust him into sudden closeness with Valjean. He only knew that, mere heartbeats later, his face was inches from the convict’s. Valjean regarded Javert levelly. In the darkness, those eyes were indistinguishable between Jean Valjean and Madeleine.

“I know you will not believe the words of a criminal. But my word you shall have. Do this one thing for me, and I won’t attempt to escape, here or in Toulon. In the name of God, I promise you this.” He paused. “Fantine left behind a daughter at the inn of Montfermeil.”

“That is of no concern of mine.”

“I have promised her to fetch Cosette and raise her as my own.”

The final deceptive act of M. Madeleine. Javert wasn’t moved. “Shall I call in the parish priest so you may confess your failure? Or are you no longer pious now that you don’t need to pretend?”

The growl reached Javert’s ears first, a deep-throated sound that he would never thought M. Madeleine capable of making, but one that was perfectly fitting for a beast like Valjean. The hands followed, gripping the iron bars to pull Valjean’s entire body forward, though all Javert could see were eyes that seemed to have darken a hue, thrust up against his face. In the closeness, Javert could see how those eyes were slightly narrowed, could see the quiet fury eating away at what self-control the former mayor still possessed.

In this face-off between the hell hound and the heavenly wolf, the wolf took a step back.

“Mock me all you want, but do not mock my faith. I was bought for God, both Madeleine and Jean Valjean. If I weren’t, I would have resisted arrest and done unspeakable things to you. Do not pretend you don’t know I’m fully capable of it. You stand unharmed only by the mercy of God. Are we clear?”

Valjean was caged; Valjean posed no danger. Javert should not feel threatened.

Javert gulped. And nodded.

“Now, Cosette. Will you go fetch her? I only ask that you ensure she is safe. After that, you may make what arrangement you see fit as long as it guarantees her continued well being.” Valjean’s voice softened. “In exchange, I will consider my life forfeit in your hands. I will submit willingly to the law and endure my punishment. Just this one favor, Javert… please.”

Perhaps Valjean had played the mayor for too long and had forgotten that he was in no position to bargain. Convicts had nothing to offer.

“It wasn’t I who made a rash promise to the whore, convict.”

The surprise that flitted through Valjean’s countenance was satisfying, as was the pained expression that followed.

“So it is a no, then?”

Javert drew himself to his full height. “It is a no.”

The hardness that shuttered all other emotions in Valjean’s eyes was not nearly enough of a warning. A hand reached through the iron bars and grabbed him by the collar, jerking him forward. Before Javert had the opportunity to choke on his own breath, a fist flew at him and connected forcefully with his left cheekbone. Pain blared. I should have lied was Javert’s last thought before his world turned black.

When he regained consciousness hours later, the iron bars to the cell’s window had been bent and wrenched apart, and Jean Valjean was gone. He struggled to stand, but the slightest movement set every nerve on his head and neck aflame, confining him to a half-sitting, half-slouching position. It didn’t matter. Valjean was most likely long gone. What could more time wasted on composing himself do at this point?

After several minutes, Javert lifted a hand as if in experiment to his neck, his face, his head. There was soreness around where his cravat had chafed just beneath his jaw and a burst of pain where Valjean’s fist had sent him unconscious, but there was none of the expected wetness of blood. In fact, his left cheek aside, Valjean may not have left any other mark on him.

Mercy of God, his conscience pronounced through the ringing of his ears. His head felt too much like being hammered with nails for him to attempt a denial. Nor could he refuse what his lungs told him to be true: he was still breathing and, headache aside, uninjured. He was alive.

But Javert was not deluded. It was God who chose to grant him mercy; Jean Valjean was but a blackened tool that happened to have utilitarian value in the Maker’s hands, like God loosening the tongue of Balaam’s ass to deliver messages in human speech. Yes, it was exactly that, acts of divine intervention that employed beasts and brutes to convey approval to those whom the Lord deemed faithful. This approval seemed to smile upon Javert, promising the eventual tightening of the noose around Jean Valjean’s neck. Javert strengthened his resolve. His hands would be the first upon that noose.

Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Javert stood. Valjean would not escape justice. And Javert knew precisely what he must do to remain true to his merciless Master.