Disclaimer: Les Mis not mine; characters had been liberally messed with.

Note: Being that I currently have very (veeeeeery) limited access to computers, I'll write in sporadic fits, and without paying much attention to elegance of flow and style. Basically, either I write like this or I write nothing at all, and I'd like to get something resembling a story out there. This particular one has been stewing in my head for a good time now.

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"Shut the door behind you, Sergeant. And you, take a seat."

The last words were clearly meant for her and not the pimply youth, who was now latching the door. Fantine took a couple of shaky steps forward and lowered herself onto the rickety chair that stood in front of the inspector's desk. All in all, this adventure didn't look good for her, but at least she'd get to spend a while in the heated office. It was even warmer here than in the pub: the merrily burning fire had heated the stove a brilliant white-orange, and one heard brief, violent hisses whenever snow clumps from Javert's coat fell onto its iron grates.

Javert, who had sat down to his desk immediately after they arrived, seemed completely absorbed in his writing. Fantine looked on curiously. Having never mastered writing herself, she couldn't help but be slightly awed by the speed at which the inspector's pen flew over paper. The man never even went back over the written to cross out a word or pour some blotting sand over a mismark: words flowed onto the page without pause or blemish, like patterns woven by a Jacquard loom.

After signing his name with a flourish to the last sheet directly in front of him, Javert moved all three to the top of a growing pile next to his left elbow and finally turned towards his captive.

"Well?"

Fantine, who was starting to fall into a slumber on account of the warmth, shuddered at the sudden call and looked at the man sitting in front of her.

"Monsieur?" she heard herself lisp meekly.

Javert rolled his eyes humorlessly.

"Oh, don't be coy with me, you silly tart. We are not that freshly acquainted."

Fantine felt her chapped lips stretch into a weak smile.

"Whatever you say, Monsieur. Did you ask me something?"

Javert nodded and slowly tapped his pen on the desk.

"Have you got anything at all to say in your defence?" he inquired sarcastically.

Fantine shrugged. "He started it, Monsieur Javert, you've done seen so yourself."

"I haven't, but yes, several witnesses did inform me. But pay attention. I'm not asking why you got angry at the gentleman. I'm asking why you had to vent your anger by pummelling him. And don't tell me fibs that he started that too."

Javert put so much loathing into the word "gentleman" that Fantine couldn't help but smile. The inspector obviously didn't think much of idlers regardless of their place on the social ladder. Nevertheless, there was nothing more to say, and so she simply repeated:

"He started it."

Javert nodded again, then heaved a deep, theatrical sigh and rubbed his right temple.

"Sergeant, leave us alone for a minute," he said, fixing his grey eyes on a point in space somewhere above Fantine's bare shoulder. "Go make yourself useful outside and disperse the crowd."

The youth nodded with sad resignation and once again began to unlatch the front door that had taken him so long to shut.

According to municipal regulations, the door was supposed to have two well- oiled latches, but one of them had long ago rusted over entirely, and the remaining one was so bent that it always took a full three minutes to get it either into or out of the socket. This made opening and shutting the front door labors worthy of both Sisyphus and Heracles. Needless to say, the frustrating chore was always relegated to the poor sergeant, on account of his being the youngest and the lowest of rank.

Javert observed his young subordinate's struggle against the latch with a sadistic smirk. Ordering the kid around was one of the very few guilty pleasures this provincial hole of a town provided for him.

"Up to your old tricks again I see, Fantine," he murmured, once the sergeant had pulled the door firmly shut behind him.

Fantine couldn't help but notice that since the last time they had spoken, the inspector's face has become even more tired, that the creases around his mouth had deepened, and that his eyelids were slightly swollen and did not open fully when he spoke. Something in his tired and sickly expression struck Fantine as eerily familiar.

"I take it my last lecture fell upon deaf ears as well." Javert sounded the same as he looked: exhausted. "You've been drinking and brawling again. I should not be surprised, but I am. I really thought something would come out of our last conversation. You sounded so earnest."

Shamed by his words, Fantine looked down at her small, red hands lying folded on her lap. Javert stood up and took a few unhurried steps from his desk to the visitor's chair. When Fantine looked up again, the inspector's tall figure was looming right above her, an ominous black apparition bathed in the stove's orange glow. Javert looked like a lieutenant out of some elite demonic regiment, just emerged from a portal to Hades and ready to plunge back into it again with the soul of a sinner in his pitiless grasp. Fantine tried to swallow around the dry ball forming in her throat. Javert's grey eyes held her fast, like steel cables.

"You lied to me again."

Cold, official, and not subject to appeal, like the signature on a death warrant. Fantine felt her eyes mist over with tears.

"I didn't mean to, honest to God, Monsieur."

"You didn't mean to."

For some reason, that half-question jolted something in Fantine's memory: she suddenly recalled why the inspector's expression looked so familiar. Cecile used to stare at things just like that before she'd done herself in, thought Fantine, only she was also thin as a rake, every rib showing. And her eyes were always red and swollen, just like his. That last week she even stopped going home, just sat for hours out on the sidewalk outside the corner apothecary, legs folded under, staring into her own lap like there was something in it precious to her and invisible to the rest of us. And then one day she was gone, and none of the girls could find her again, until we all went back to her place and there she was, face down on her bed, right hand clenching tightly around a little brown bottle.. ..

"Ss-s-so. So so so," murmured Javert, more to himself than to Fantine. His fingers drummed out a little march on the table behind him. "So that's how things stand with us, I see." Javert raised his eyebrows. "Let's hear more," he exclaimed in an unnaturally merry voice and did something entirely peculiar: hopped onto his desk, landing on a clear space between papers and books, and sat there dangling his long legs, like a schoolboy during recess.

"Monsieur?" said Fantine, utterly confused by both the inspector's strange behavior and the sudden change in his mood.

Javert nodded forcefully in her direction, clearly urging her to speak on. A wave would have perhaps been more appropriate a gesture, but both of Javert's hands were shoved so deeply into his coat pockets that he resembled a manic Bicetre patient, tied up for misbehavior.

"Let's hear more about this. I love fairytales! Tell me more about how you meant to follow my orders but something once again deterred you. I'm all ears."

Fantine lowered her eyes again, but this time they were dry. He is mocking me, she thought with dry fury. What would he know about life on the streets, look at how posh he's got it, probably eats veal cutlets for supper every day and gets his washing done upstream, the cad.

"I spoke with Widow Doris, you know," continued Javert in the same light- hearted tone and still dangling his legs, but now with his eyes trained on the door. "She told me that you had not approached her to ask for a place in her establishment. In fact, she informed me, in that obnoxiously high- pitched nasal manner of hers, that 'the po-o-oor de-e-ear has not been by at all, but not at a-aall! Not even to visit with her girlfriends!'" Javert mimicked and raised a very black eyebrow at his captive. "Explain."

Fantine remained silent. How does a girl explain to a man, and one almost twice her age, that she'd rather walk the cold streets than work in a merry public house, because the girls working there are too pretty? And they were all so pretty.. .. So plump and rosy, with elegant wrists and merry dimples on their cheeks.. .. How could she hope to earn anything when they were around? Who would pick a withered, coughing, toothless whore when he could have one glowing with health?

"No answer? Then let us move on to the matter of your mandatory check-up."

Still facing Fantine, Javert reached behind him and groped blindly through the pile of papers. Finally, he turned back fully holding a handsome, thin folder of brown leather with side-stitching of thick black thread. Fantine almost jumped when the inspector casually tossed the folder into her lap. For a moment she stared at it dumbly, then looked up again.

"Flip through it and tell me if you notice any sheets of paper with your name on them," said Javert blandly and turned his head towards the door with a slight frown.

Careful not to leave smudges of snow and mud, Fantine opened the folder and looked over the neatly stitched together sheets. Each one held on top the name of a prostitute registered with the municipality (a few of the names rang familiar, most of them did not) and on the bottom, the rectangular black seal of the municipal police and also a round violet stamp that Fantine did not recognise.

"Well?" asked Javert somewhat distractedly. He was still watching the door.

"No, sir."

Javert finally turned his head back.

"'No sir' what?"

"There are no sheets with my name."

"A-hah! Now we are off and rolling. Do you know why there are no sheets here with your name on them?"

"Because I have not registered with the police."

Javert raised his eyebrows so high that they altogether disappeared underneath the hair that fell thickly over his forehead.

"And yet here we are, chatting away like a couple of old pals! Why is it do you think that I am aware of your existence, have full knowledge of your profession, and yet have not included you with others belonging to your sisterhood?"

"Because I.. .. I haven't gone.. .."

"Speak up, you hussy, I don't read lips!"

"Because I haven't gone to the doctor!" shouted Fantine, eyes dripping tears.

"Why not?" Metallic notes clanged in Javert's voice.

"I.. .. I.. .." This was too much for Fantine and she started to sob.