It was dark, and dusty. His nostrils flared as he dragged in a sudden, shuddering breath. That smell… sweet and musty, like clothes that had been kept in an enclosed damp space for too long, like sweat and decay. Like pressed Sunday clothes and too much starch.
Valjean wasn't to know, but he was smelling the potpourri of death.
His death, to be completely exact.
He dragged in another lungful of musty air and blinked. Last thing he remembered was… what was it now? He had been cold for so many months. And he had been weak – him, the Jack of Toulon. Weak as a child and refusing to eat his potatoes…
Cosette! She had been – but no. No that could not be. Surely it was the ramblings of an old man's mind. Why was it so dark in here? And so confined? What was that smell?
For the first time in many months, Valjean felt a sudden rush of panic. He had hated enclosed spaces for a very long time. Ever since – well, ever since the incident with Fauchelevant and the cemetery. The sensation of being buried alive. Buried – Oh mon dieu!
Valjean looked up at the underside of a coffin's lid, and screamed, a raw, animal cry of panic. Not again. By God Himself, not again! He lashed out, clawing and hitting at the confining wood, flailing in a blind panic. He had to get out – had to get free. By God, they wouldn't stick him in here again!
Suddenly he could feel a crumbling of dry earth – and then his face was full of mud and dirt. A nightmare from the bad times in Toulon swept over him. Remembered pain, his fear of the cell, his longing for the clean fresh air of his woods, and then the nightmarish grey men which had grabbed him up and broken him into dust.
He'd tried to escape after that nightmare. It had terrified him.
It terrified him again now. The men seemed to clutch at him with their hands, grasping at his clothing, pressing him down into the mud.
Jean Valjean didn't notice his hands passing through the wood and dirt. He didn't notice the fresh air washing over his face as he clambered out of the ground, arms and legs flailing like a drowning man. He was choking with remembered fear, shivering and hysterical. Forces seemed to press down on his chest with the weight of the devil himself. He had ceased to be Valjean – ceased to exist beyond the fear. One hand grasped something cold and hard and clung to it for dear life.
Cold – a stone. A stone, grass… a tree? Darkness and fresh, oh bon dieu… rain. Sweet rain.
Jean Valjean raised his head and glanced feverishly around. It was dark and cold. Several stars guttered in the sky, candles about to blow out in the freezing winds. A light rain was falling, pattering over the ground… and the stones…
There were so many stones.
The fear that had been so close to passing away from Valjean returned so sharply that he choked on it. The graveyard? What was he doing in the graveyard at night?
A voice from behind him. A – familiar voice. Jean Valjean could live a thousand years and not forget that voice. He turned slowly, and looked up into the thin, gaunt face of Inspector Javert.
"Well?" The Inspector leaned forwards ever so slightly, his face made menacing by the cold light of a stray moonbeam. "What have you got to say for yourself, then?"
Jean spluttered, hiccoughed, and then – to his acute embarrassment – burst into tears.
Meeting one's dead arch-nemesis in a graveyard can sometimes have that effect.
Javert stared. It had been a surprise to feel the unmistakable tingling sensation which always accompanied the waking of a new ghost. Valjean was the only one who had been interred for anywhere near the three weeks necessary for the beaurocrats to work out the Heaven/Hell/Purgatory paperwork and come to their decision.
Perhaps he shouldn't have been surprised, but he had been rather expecting Saint Valjean to make the journey to the Pearly Gates (complete with their sickeningly cheerful cherubim and plenty of golden harps) without any trouble. He'd ticked all the boxes, hadn't he? Fed the poor, been kind to children, paid his tithe to the church. Presumably the old man had also gone to confessional… Javert would have given his year's salary to have had the chance to sit in on a few of those sessions.
'Bless me father, for I have sinned. I've lied to my adopted daughter and an entire nunnery.'
That would have been a good one.
Still, though it was a surprise – it was far from an unpleasant one. Javert had not asked to be a ghost, and – if given a choice – would have happily opted for Hell over Purgatory. Swanning around a Paris filled with the departed and the living without a soul – hah – to communicate with had been inhumanly boring.
Then Valjean had started visiting his grave. It had been amusing at first – and then fascinating. After the old man had died, Javert had realized that death without Valjean was a bleak and uninteresting prospect.
Jean Valjean was weeping hysterically on his own grave. He seemed terrified – scared out of his wits and shaking like a criminal caught without an alibi.
He huffed in irritation, and knelt down at Valjean's side. "I am not here to hurt you, gadzo."
"You're dead. It's a little out of my jurisdiction."
No response. If anything, the shaking grew worse.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Javert knew that there was an obvious remedy. He'd seen other people do it often enough at the Prefecture. Simple, no?
Javert checked cautiously over both shoulders. The graveyard was still and silent – black as the prefect's conscience and twice as cold as his heart. Stiffly, he reached out and placed an arm around Valjean's shoulders, pulling the older man into an awkward resemblance of a hug.
The sobbing stopped. Javert had the feeling this was from pure shock more than anything else.
How long was one meant to hold on for? Was five minutes enough?
"I – I'm dead?"
"Oui." These questions were easy. Javert wondered if he could get up now. Oddly, Valjean seemed to be – well – clinging. Was this normal?
"Why – what… where?"
"You're a ghost. This is purgatory. Congratulations."
There was a pause. Then Valjean rocked back on his heels and blinked at his surroundings. "Why are you in Purgatory?"
The tone, Javert decided as he got to his feet and straightened his jacket, was far from insulting. Therefore, he didn't use one of the two-hundred-and-fifty-three replies that he had used when asked said question in varying tones of disgusted horror by the other inhabitants of the non-corporal world. "I could ask you the same thing, Jack."
Valjean shuddered, and got slowly to his feet. "How long have I been dead?"
The interrogator in Javert wanted to latch onto the obvious subject change, but he shrugged it off. "Three weeks." He thought for a minute, and then added stiffly, "Your daughter comes by every day. The flowers are from her."
A silence filled the air. There was a lot to say, and absolutely no way to say it. Both men stood and looked studiously at the sky.
Valjean sighed. He seemed to have overcome his hysteria – finally. "Is there a police force in Purgatory?"
"Police?" Javert raised an eyebrow. "No."
The corners of Javert's mouth twitched up. "I suppose I could form one, if you think you'll miss us."
"That's kind of you, but I will survive the loss," Valjean said solemnly. "What does one do when one is a ghost?"
"Well – death isn't full of excitement and glory. I have yet to see any angels with fiery swords, or interesting demons. However…"
"There is a wineshop."
Valjean's eyebrows rose. "A wineshop?"
"Yes." Javert dusted off his hat, which he had been carrying under one arm, and put it on. "The wine is passable. The company is abominable. It will actually improve with your presence, Jack. "
"My word. It must be bad."
Valjean was grinning. Javert could not remember ever having seen the old reprobate grin before. It was a pleasant change. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a small snuffbox. It was empty.
Habits died hard. Even when one was a ghost. He pushed it back into his over-flowing pockets, made a mental note to sort them out sometime, and started to walk out of the graveyard. He had moved three steps before he realized Valjean had not moved.
Valjean glanced up, and then nodded. "Coming."
It was a cold night, and the stars were shining dimly in the sky. It was a night for spirits and ghosts to walk the earth. It was a night for haunting, and drinking wine. A night when old friendships might get broken, and old animosities might just have a chance to heal.
It was a good night.