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Earthquake of the Soul

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The morning after returning from Arras, Javert rose at dawn as usual. The round trip had been tiring and had left him with neither time nor energy to get any work done upon his return. Of course it had been his duty to testify before the court, but that didn’t acquit him of the other duties which he had been forced to neglect because of it. In short, he’d have more than enough to do today.

After a quick wash and a close shave, he put on a clean shirt and the breeches of his uniform. The thick woolen fabric felt comfortable again, a far cry from the alienation he had felt two days ago, when he had resigned himself to being dismissed from that same uniform. It had not been an idle gesture to ask for his dismissal, but nevertheless he was glad it hadn’t come to that.

Such an odd week it had been, he reflected. An odd week to end two months that had been extremely agonizing. Two months in which he had been convinced that Monsieur le Maire was not the benevolent man that Javert had thought him to be. If he were a romantic and a dreamer, he might called these months the most painful of his life, but being melodramatic wasn’t in his nature any more than it was in his nature to be kind.

Yet this morning, for the first time in his life, Javert dared to dream. And dream of kindness, no less. He caught himself smiling at the thought. Yet another thing that was not normally in his nature. It felt strangely refreshing, as did the unusual warmth in his chest, right there where his heart was.

Javert was well aware of the washer women’s gossip about him. When he had first arrived in Montreuil, he had soon earned the reputation of being heartless. That irked him for the simple fact that it was untrue. As time progressed and he did his duty, the consensus became that he did indeed have a heart, but that it was made of stone.

That notion had held firmly until that incident with the street jade, now two months ago. Rumors of this had spread like the plague, and again the consensus changed. A heart of stone would have cracked out of compassion, people said, and Javert had shown none. As such, it was now believed that the town’s chief of police had a heart of wood.

This, Javert noted as he sat down for a simple breakfast, had actually proven to be quite accurate as far as metaphors went: his heart of wood did not crack or crumble, but it could catch fire. And it had.

In truth it was small flame, but it was as resilient as he was. Even the horrendous insults he and M. Madeleine had exchanged lately had not managed to douse that tiny fire.

The most surprising, however, was that it was there at all. Javert had never loved anyone in his life. Oh, professional respect was common enough, but actual love? Born to parents such as his, he had little enough understanding of the concept to begin with. In his youth he had fumbled with women as young men are wont to do, but while he had bared his body to them, his heart remained his own.

So when a man had broken that defense so easily and lit that tiny flame, Javert hadn’t known what to think or feel. Even less so since this man was also the one person he had fought hardest since being assigned to this town.

Javert chuckled under his breath, appreciating the irony. He had mistrusted M. Madeleine from the start. Yet somehow this man’s infinite patience, kindness, mercy and pleasant countenance had worn away at Javert’s resistance. Mistrust had become respect, respect had become trust, and trust had become—

— something he hesitated to put a name to, especially after the last few days. He had made a grievous mistake out of spite. Madeleine had refused to punish him for it, but whether that meant that he was truly forgiven, he didn’t dare to assume.

Javert fretted with his knife. To think he might have lost that intimacy they had shared weighed unbearably heavy on his mind. Never before in his life had he longed for another’s touch. All his life he had contented himself to be alone. Yet now he couldn’t stand the thought of having to do without Madeleine’s lips gracing his.

He tapped the handle of the knife on the table and continued eating. He would go to Madeleine after his shift today. To apologize, not as Montreuil’s police inspector having done wrong by the mayor, but as a man having wronged a friend. Then perhaps he could find out if Madeleine’s heart was indeed as big as people said it was, and if he could find it in that heart to forgive Javert his petty act of vengeance. If not… Javert was a proud man, but he knew very well that he’d resort to begging Madeleine for forgiveness if he had to.

Heavy footsteps on the creaking stairs outside his apartment alerted him to the visitor before the actual knock on his door. The rap was curt and professional, ruling out his landlady as possibility. That left precious little other options. Javert rose quickly from his chair to answer. His men were not in the habit of disturbing him in his rare time off-duty, so whatever this was about, it was urgent.

The door opened to a man in the uniform of a gendarme, but the face didn't match any of his own men. He frowned. What was this then?

“Well?” he demanded irritably.

“Inspector Javert?” the man said, saluting without awaiting reply. “Message from the prosecutor in Arras, monsieur.”

Wordlessly, Javert accepted the folded letter that the man held out to him. It was small, but the folded edges were sealed. Court orders. He didn’t get many of those in a quiet little town as this.

He stared at the seal. His stomach tightened involuntarily. “Arras, you say?”

The gendarme nodded. “The mayor of Montreuil arrived in court yesterday, to testify in a case. He said the defendant was innocent and should be set free.”

“Ha! He would,” Javert scoffed, relieved it was nothing more. “It wouldn’t be the first time he did that, either. What case?”

“The Champmathieu case, monsieur.”

Now Javert blanched. “What? Why?!” he croaked, throat suddenly dry as parchment.

“To convince the court that he is the ex-convict that they took Champmathieu for, apparently.”

His heart jumped with a painful jolt. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be! “And?” he finally managed.

“And apparently he was very convincing, because that,” the gendarme pointed at the letter, “is the warrant for his arrest.”

“What?!” Javert frantically broke the seal. Just as the folds of the letter ripped open under his fingers, so the earth opened beneath his feet when read the single sentence detailing his orders:

 

‘Inspector Javert will seize the body of Sieur Madeleine, Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, who has this day been identified in court as the discharged convict Jean Valjean.’

 

“Jean Va—?”

A shock shot through him as if countless hammers struck every inch of his body at once. He fought the reflex to bend double at the force of it. If he had gone pale before, now all blood drained from his face entirely. He staggered a step, hand scrambling for purchase on the doorpost to keep standing.

“Monsieur l’Inspecteur?” he heard the far-away voice of the courier. “Monsieur, are you all right?”

Javert didn’t trust himself to look at the man. Eyes transfixed on the letter in his hand, he struggled to reply, but the words hitched in his throat, making it hard to breathe.

“…fine,” he managed with great difficulty. He didn’t sound it. “Just… surprised,” he added when he felt for a moment that he could.

“I can imagine, monsieur.” The gendarme saluted, a commiserate look on his face that Javert completely failed to notice. “Good luck with that.”

Javert ignored him. The rush of blood drumming in his ears was loud enough to drown out everything else. His heart pounded so fast he feared it would shatter and cold sweat soaked the palms of his hands. He kept staring at the offending words, but they didn't change, didn't disappear. He hadn't read them wrong. These were his orders.

His mind ran like mad to make sense of the situation, but failed miserably to grasp the full enormity of it all. When he slammed the door behind him, it was not because he had noticed that the courier had gone.

Back pressed against the wall for some sorely needed support, he fought for air with rapid, shallow gasps. This wasn't happening. This was not happening! Madeleine could never be that convict! The Prefecture had even called him crazy for suggesting it, and rightfully so! He had seen this fellow Champmathieu last week; he had confirmed and testified under oath that he was Jean Valjean. By simple logical deduction, this meant that Madeleine could not be him!

Except that he could, couldn't he?

Javert's stomach plummeted like a ton of bricks. Invisible ropes tightened around his chest with so much force that every gasp of breath was painfully constricted. His body shaking, he raised a trembling hand to his face.

He had seen it, hadn’t he? He had seen something about Monsieur le Maire that reminded him of the prisoners in the chaingangs. If he, who always strived to be beyond reproach, could make such a hideous mistake, then surely others could as well. And based on what? Circumstantial evidence at best! Little things that could just as easily be explained otherwise – and should have! The only reason he hadn’t seen reason was because of that sorry little scene in his office!

He raked a hand over his face and through his hair. Was this his fault? Was it because of that stupid, petty letter to the Prefecture? He would never have send that if he had known Madeleine would have come by his house the next day to apologize. Apologize! A mayor apologizing to his subordinate? That alone had left Javert perplexed, never mind how Madeleine had expressed his apology. With such conviction…

Lightheaded and panting, he closed his eyes. Madeleine had kissed him before. Small, tentative brushes at first. Javert, stricken, had allowed them to happen without knowing why. Entirely too fixed on the man’s body language rather than his actions, he never noticed in time when Madeleine came close enough to touch. Every week when he came to the mairie to give his report, those kisses grew longer. Deeper, too, but never more than Javert would allow. Although the man’s own desire was evident, Madeleine was invariably too considerate to take what he wanted against Javert’s wishes.

He didn’t steal what he wanted. Not the way a convict would, the way Valjean would. Madeleine was no thief! The idea alone was preposterous. Convicts didn’t know tenderness or patience or compassion, much less show it! Javert had never pretended that he himself had any of those virtues, but then he wasn’t a gentleman. Madeleine was. A gentleman and a gentle man, both. And incredibly enticing. After a year of ending their weekly meetings on such a note, Javert invariably left with his body on fire and his heart racing in his chest, much as it did now.

Except those times his heart hadn’t hurt so much that he feared it would give out. His hands and brow were wet, his face flushed and invisible knives stabbed him repeatedly in the chest. The shot of pain spread, immobilized his arms.

A heart attack. It had to be! A man’s heart could give out for sheer stress. He knew that. He’d seen it happen to older convicts. He remembered the redness of their faces, their pain. The throbbing veins at their temples, faster and faster until it destroyed them.

Primal fear rose inside him like a monster. He was going to die here!

Even without his cravat the confines of his shirt collar were far too tight. His head ached, pounding as his heart did. He had seen men die this way, he realized in terror. He could be naked and still he’d fight for air until his heart burst and failed. And the heat, the insufferable heat!

His shaking fingers failed him when he tried to undo his shirt buttons. Chest heaving violently, desperate for room to breathe, he grabbed the seams and tore it open. Several buttons skittered over the floorboards. He tried to inhale deeply, but his chest wouldn’t let him. Short gasps were all he could manage, nowhere near enough to relieve his body’s torment.

His knees buckled and he sagged down the wall, onto the floor. He swallowed hard despite his bone-dry mouth. His throat felt like it was shredded. In horror, Javert realized that his vision was throbbing to the insanely fast beat of his heart. His head reeled madly and his ribcage felt like it was being crushed by a cart.

The cart... Each time Madeleine’s lips had touched his, Javert had wished he’d never witnessed the man lifting that impossible weight. It was true that Valjean had been the only man known to him who possessed such strength. But every time Madeleine’s tongue gently explored his mouth, Javert kept telling himself that there had to be others that strong and evidently the mayor was one of them. That had to be the true reason, whatever other discrepancies Javert had noted.

Involuntarily, his derailed mind began to dredge up each rehashed argument, every one of them punctuated by a sharp, shallow gasp.

Yes, the man’s hands were rough and calloused. He wouldn’t be the first to work his way up from a humble start. Javert was in no position to argue that this couldn’t be done. Yes, the man had a limp, but accidents happen and a broken bone set badly will never heal properly. Yes, the man had given no evidence of his past, but again Javert loathed to reveal his own just as much.

All that meant nothing! So circumstantial it wouldn’t even be admissible as evidence! When he denounced Madeleine as an ex-convict regardless, he had been blind with rage. What excuse did the court have for such a heinous fault?

His breath stopped entirely as the words of the courier rolled back to him: ‘to convince the court that he is the ex-convict that they took Champmathieu for, apparently.’

“NghNO…!” Javert cried at the top of his strained lungs. His voice barely sounded human anymore. A sudden burst of strength shot through his body, forcing him to his feet without wanting to. Turning, he raised the fist that still held the crumpled court order and rammed it against the wall. The wood bend without breaking, but the whole thing shook violently.

“NO!”

There had to be a reasonable explanation for such idiocy! Madeleine was always and forever claiming the innocence of blatant criminals, that much Javert was too well aware of. Had he taken Javert’s confession wrong? Had he assumed that because Javert had mistaken him for that Valjean, this other fellow had to be someone else, too? Javert didn’t put it beyond the man. Madeleine had always been too trusting and too generous for his own good. He was a virtuous man in every way that he, Javert, wasn’t! And God knew that was exactly why he loved that man so much!

He froze. The silence of his apartment was only broken by the blood in his ears and his ragged panting. Fury dissipated as quickly as it had come and Javert felt himself falter. He fell forward, barely putting his hands against the wall in time to catch himself. The letter he had held clasped in his hand drifted to the floor.

Yes, he loved Madeleine, more so than he could begin to comprehend.

Hot, alien tears began to streak his face. What clear thought was left in his mind was shocked by this, but he was as powerless to stop them as he was to deny the truth about himself. That he, who had never loved another in all his life, had fallen in love with Monsieur Madeleine.

But the paper that glared up at him from the floor said there was no Monsieur Madeleine. Never had been. There had only ever been Jean Valjean, Jean Le Cric. The convict.

The number…

Javert gagged violently. The memories of kisses that had felt so good and so safe only moments ago were now foul and depraved. He had taken such care to treat the mayor correctly, no matter how bewilderingly incorrect their intimacy had been. If it pleased his superior to bestow such affections on a subordinate, it wasn’t Javert’s place to object, nor had he wanted to.

And that was the worst of it! Because now he saw it all for what it was: Madeleine’s gentleness and affection had been nothing but a ruse to throw the police hound off his trail. And Javert had bowed his head to that man! A policeman submitting to a con!

Blind with tears, deaf for the rushing of his own blood, his constricted throat leaving him mute and breathless, Javert was helpless against the pressure that slowly ripped him apart at the seams. 

His love for Madeleine had made a mockery of everything he stood for, everything he was. How far he had fallen! And how much further he was falling still… For no matter how much he hated himself for allowing this weakness to humiliate him so, he could not bring himself to hate the man that had kindled at tiny flame.

For the depravity of that alone, he might as well die here and now.

But he didn’t. Time ticked away as he stood there, motionless, leaning against the wall with his head hanging lower than ever before. His heart hammered still, but it did not stop and it did not explode. His head ached fiercely, but he did not lose consciousness. Erratic and labored as his breath was, he tasted the air as he inhaled again and again.

And all the while, he cried. The tears ran down his cheeks and fell. Some spattered onto the court order, which was as motionless as he.

With silent relentlessness, it reminded Javert of his sworn duty and the infallibility of justice. Justice that had to be executed. Those who confessed to committing a crime had to be punished. That was his anchor, his guiding star that saw him through the treacherous waters of life.

Those who fall must pay for their transgressions. It was only just.

Eventually, Javert drew a long, shaky breath that filled his lungs completely. His chest expanded, his heart slowed. Finally. As both his tears and the cold sweat on his brow dried, he wiped the residual wetness away with his shirt sleeve. Then he stared at the garment as if it was a personal offence.

It would not do to perform his duty wearing this, Javert admonished himself with cold determination. With deliberate movements that belied his still-shaken state of mind, Javert got out of the torn shirt and pulled a fresh one from his closet to wear instead.

There was nothing for it, he decided as he put on his uniform jacket and buttoned it up. Wishing ill luck away never worked for anyone, and wishing none of this had ever happened wasn’t going to change that it had. He had made several grave mistakes in this matter. He would strive to learn from them, starting with the lesson that it didn’t pay to bare his heart to anyone. Be it wood, stone or flesh, it was not untouchable and allowing it to be damaged would impair him in his duty.

But he had been betrayed, of that there could be no doubt. He had been tricked and shamed by a mere convict! Yet he was well aware that his own failure to prevent it was as condemnable as Valjean’s efforts to make it happen. Those who fall must pay for their transgressions, indeed. The law would see Valjean rot in the chaingang for his deeds, if he wasn’t outright sentenced to death for breaking parole.

And Javert’s punishment would be that he should see the man he loved to such a fate.

Neither punishment was anything if not just. It was as it had to be. It was his duty to see that it would be. And this duty he would do, regardless of his personal feelings.

He fixed his cravat with agitated tug, grabbed his coat and his cane and marched out the door. From the moment he set foot outside, he was again the formidable and irreproachable Inspector Javert that the people of Montreuil knew him to be. Nothing about his looks or behavior betrayed that his world had fallen apart.

Nothing, except perhaps the skewed buckle of his leather cravat.