SUMMARY: How Javert came to have a chameleon daemon, with bonus backstory. A prequel to "The Price One Must Pay."
CANON: Mostly book (daemon AU)
CHARACTERS: Javert and Javert's mother, gen
NOTES: This started out as a story to explain how Javert, a poor French boy, came to have a daemon in the shape of a tropical lizard in "The Price One Must Pay," but ended up as an exploration of a possible backstory for him, based on what (very little) Hugo gives in the book. The backstory is hence counter to current fandom trends, but I think plausible based on the book—I just wanted to do something different.
Brief daemon overview: daemons are a concept from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books. The basic idea is that daemons are sort of an external manifestation of your soul, in animal form. They can talk, and they can change shape until (typically) sometime around puberty, when they "settle" into their permanent form (in most cases). That's pretty much all you need to know for the purposes of this story.
Thanks to voksen and Sineala for betaing.
Javert always wished his daemon would settle as a dog.
His mother owned only one book, a slim age-yellowed folio of delicately colored drawings of strange animals, brightly colored birds and spotted cats and curiously shaped lizards. She could read a little, and when Javert was small, he would lean up against her, warm and safe in the circle of her arms with her cat daemon Marie purring against her hip, and Javert's Étienne in mouse form next to his ear. She would name the animals for him: Le léopard. Le pélican. Le caméléon.
Later, when she had gone out for the day to read the cards or wash laundry, Javert would pore over the book, trying to understand how the words on the page could turn into words on the tongue, and Étienne would amuse himself by taking on each form in turn, first a leopard, then a snake, snarling and slinking and slithering about the room.
But in the streets, before others, Étienne was most often a dog, a snappish mutt with a coat of all colors and a notched ear. Many of the people Javert saw in the towns they passed through had dog daemons; a dog was a good daemon for a respectable, hard-working citizen. People with dog daemons were reliable, loyal, honest.
He envied them.
Javert liked Toulon. With sailors and merchants always in and out of the port, strangers drew no particular comment. And he was not the only boy whose skin remained nut-brown even in winter. It was the first time in his life that no one stared at him.
He began to wonder if his father had been a sailor, one of the blacks from the East Indiamen that brought spices and other goods from Asia. But when he had asked, once, who his father was, his mother had wept and wept, and Marie had hissed at him. He had not dared to ask again.
He was not surprised when the knock in the night came.
There were two cops at the door, one older and hard-faced, with a pinched mouth, the other young and nervous. "Madame Javert?" said the older one. Javert watched his mother think about lying.
Instead she went all soft and meek. "Yes, officer. It is so late—"
"We have heard that you are telling fortunes."
"I?" she said, a hand pressed to her breast as if in shock. "Oh, no, monsieur, I am only a washerwoman and a seamstress, an honest woman! Tell me who has been saying this slander so I may defend myself!"
The young cop had been wandering around the room casually as she spoke, and he came to a stop before where Javert sat on the bed, wide-eyed and watching. He caught up the book of animals. "Here, what's this?"
The other cop took it and flipped through it, before making a noise of dismissal. "Just pictures," he said, dropping it on the floor. A loose page fluttered free, and it was all Javert could do to remain silent. It was best if the cops did not notice you, he knew that.
"I'd wager, Madame, that if we were to look for loose floorboards, we'd find one, wouldn't we? And under it your cards, no doubt, and perhaps your ill-gained money—if you haven't already spent it."
Javert's mother had gone pale, although she still contrived to look outraged at the claim. "No, monsieur, I am an honest woman! Please, I have a son-"
She collapsed to her knees, sobbing and clasping the hard-faced officer's hand. Javert saw the flash of a coin, and then the officer pulled away, his mouth twisting in disgust. "Don't touch me, woman!" He turned and looked at Javert, and Javert looked back. The man's daemon was a huge black mastiff. Étienne, still a mouse, hid under Javert's shirt-collar.
"We'll be gone by morning—"
The gaze broke. "See that you are," the officer said, coldly, turning back to Javert's mother.
"We were mistaken," he said curtly to the young cop. "Come, there's that other report to follow on, and I want my bed before dawn."
They left Toulon that night, and slept in a haystack near the road to Ollioules.
In the morning the farmer set his dogs on them.
Javert was vaguely aware of a throbbing pain in his temple and a wet stickiness down the side of his face. He was more aware of the other boy's daemon, a growling wolf, and Étienne in ferret form in Javert's arms, trembling and baring his teeth in rage.
"Leave me be. I have to deliver this message for Monsieur Thierry," he said, trying not to sound afraid. "He is expecting me." It was a lie, of course, but there was a whole pack of them, children and their daemons in wolf or dog or eagle form, circling around him, and he knew well how this went. They had only been in Cabannes for a month and already it was worse than any of the other towns.
Étienne leapt from his arms, then, changing in mid-air to that familiar canine shape, bracing his paws and growling back at the wolf, with the desperate courage of the fear that rooted Javert himself in place.
One of the girls gasped. "His daemon's a boy," she said, in a voice thick with disgust.
The older boy and his wolf daemon took a step back. All of them were looking at him with disgust now, not just contempt. Javert did not much care for himself, but for them to look at Étienne like that—he clenched his hands into fists at his side and licked his lips.
"Yes," he found himself saying, for he had never learned the trick of keeping his mouth shut when a beating was inevitable anyway. "Étienne is male. What of it? At least he's not a mange-ridden cur like yours, eh?"
"It's unnatural," the boy with the wolf daemon said, lip curling. "Unnatural as you, filth. Come on, leave the Javert boy be; you don't want to dirty yourself with his kind. He's dead to us."
He spat in Javert's face, then turned and left, the others trailing after him with their daemons.
"They're the filth," Étienne said, leaning against Javert's leg as Javert scrubbed at his face with his shirtsleeve. The cloth came away bloody, and his head ached, and now that they had gone he was trembling violently. At least they had not beaten him this time. "They don't matter."
His mother clucked and fussed when saw, and insisted on taking a wet cloth to his forehead. "Was it because of Étienne?" she asked, gently. "These provincials are so superstitious. I had hoped we could stay through the winter, but maybe it's time to move on."
No, he thought, without Étienne it would have been worse. It's because of you. It is because of you and me and what we are that we must always move on, or be chased out. He flinched away from her gentle touch. "I can do that myself," he muttered, snatching the cloth from her hand, and he ran to lick his wounds in solitude.
Now, when he looked at the book, Javert tried to read it. Under each illustration were some sentences, which he had never worried about before. He knew the names of the animals by heart, and perhaps, by carefully examining the letters and sounding the words out, he could unlock the mystery of the rest of the text.
If he could read, he could raise himself from the gutter. If he could read, he could become a respectable citizen, a man with a home, a man no one threw stones at or avoided in the street.
This he told himself, even when the letters swam in front of his eyes and he wanted to cry, certain he would never be able to decipher them. Étienne no longer changed forms as often as he had before; usually he simply curled by Javert's side in his favorite dog form, waiting patiently.
Javert felt only a kind of vicious triumph the day he laboriously managed to sound out the title: Les Animaux de l'Afrique. Africa! Little wonder the animals were so strange. He could scarcely imagine a place so far away.
By the end of the month, he could stumble his way through the rest of the text, which turned out to be simple descriptions of the animals. He did not enjoy it—he hardly even cared for the pictures anymore—but it gave him a grim sense of accomplishment.
"The chameleon can cha-change its color," he read, slowly. Étienne, who had shown more interest than usual that day, turned purple with green stripes, and Javert laughed a little. "Not like that, I think. Listen—can change its color to hide from birds or sn-snakes."
That was enough reading for one afternoon, he decided, as Étienne demonstrated his ability to mimic the pattern of the threadbare blanket. Javert felt very nearly happy, for the first time in as long as he could remember. He could read now. It was the first step.
Étienne would settle as a dog, and he would become the kind of person whose daemon was a dog.
Javert hardly even minded when they had to move on again.
At the end of winter when Javert was fifteen, his mother began coughing, and then took to her bed, shaking and complaining of the cold, although she burned to the touch. By the next morning she refused water, still coughing, and her skin had taken on a faint blue tinge.
She was dying, and there was no money for a doctor.
In her fever she rambled, talking of everything and nothing. "I saw this in the cards," she said once, her eyes bright and terrible, her grip on Javert's wrist like the grip of Death himself. "Death on a horse, coming for me...but I could not stop him."
Then she slept, for a little while, murmuring and tossing. He put cool clothes on her forehead, trying to bring the fever down, but she threw them off, shivering and pulling the blankets tighter around her bony shoulders. When had she grown so thin?
She woke once more, lucid, and told him everything. She told him about his father, sent to the bagne at Nîmes for theft. He had sent money, at first, and his sentence was only for ten years, but seven years in a letter had come, informing her of his death from typhoid. That had been only a little before Javert had asked who his father was.
She told him that he had been born in a prison. She had read the cards for the wrong person, and got six months. It was not the first time.
And then she clasped his hand, her grip too strong for a dying woman, and said in a tremulous voice, "You know I have always tried to do right by you, petit."
He stared at her hollow-eyed, desperate face. Her hair was plastered to her forehead with sweat. Her eyes begged. What did she want of him? To say she had done well? He looked at her and he thought of the dogs, the stones the children threw, the hard-eyed faces of the townsfolk. He thought of her lying to the cop in Toulon, the one who had let them leave instead of arresting her as the law demanded.
"I know you have tried," he said at last, because it was not a lie.
She closed her eyes and sighed, then coughed, a terrible wracking thing. "Will you fetch me another blanket? It is so cold...perhaps it will snow again tonight."
It was raining when they buried her in a pauper's grave on the outskirts of town, an icy early spring rain that soaked Javert's too-thin coat. He helped dig it, because he did not have enough money to do otherwise, and because he hoped the labor would warm him. It did not, and his teeth were chattering by the time they had dug a shallow grave. "It's too damned cold to keep on," one of the men said, and spat on the ground. "That'll have to do, unless you want to pay for more."
Javert shook his head. He could not pay for a deeper grave, not if he wanted to eat.
His mother felt heavier than he expected: she had been little more than skin and bones by the end, huge eyes in a skeletal face.
"Wait," he said, when the first spadeful of earth had fallen onto his mother's tattered skirt. He hardly recognized his own voice, and something in it, or in his face, made the grave-diggers fall back a step. Javert fumbled under his wet coat for a moment, then knelt by the grave.
He put the cards in her hand and tucked the book of animals under her arm.
They covered her with earth in silence.
"That one will end up in the galleys for certain," he heard one of the grave-diggers mutter as he turned to go.
"His kind have no place with decent people," said the other.
Yes, Javert thought with bitter humor, it is the galleys for me. Or—
"There is another path," Étienne murmured, into his ear. Étienne was in his chameleon form again, the lizard from the book, and Javert knew, somehow, that he had settled. There would be no other shapes. Javert was not the kind of person who had a dog for a daemon, but it did not bother him as much as he had feared. Whatever Étienne became, that was right. That was what he was meant to be.
"Another path," he said, quietly, and smiled, a baring of teeth that would have terrified any who saw.
And as Javert walked away from his childhood, buried in a shallow grave, Étienne's scales changed to match the faded black of Javert's coat, until it almost seemed that he was not there at all.
Years from now, when Javert is a young adjutant-guard in the bagne of Nîmes, where his father was once sentenced, a dying convict offers him an entire franc to write a letter.
It is a franc earned in sweat and blood under the lash, and no little thing to Javert, either. The convict offers it because he believes that Javert will write the letter if he promises to do so, where another guard would as likely take the franc and lie.
Javert does not know this, and he would care nothing for a convict's opinion if he did, but he curtly tells the man to send the franc to his family instead, and he writes the letter. He does not do it out of any sense of compassion for the man, who broke the law and was fairly sentenced. But Javert has not made it a practice to deny reasonable requests, and this request his wooden heart deems reasonable.
He has spent so long not thinking of his parents that he does not remember that once, another guard wrote such a letter to his own mother. A letter to break a woman's heart, to tell her that her husband is beyond the law and neither God nor Lucifer grants parole. There will be no more money for the children.
The convict's rasping, tearful thanks mean as little to him as the man's curses would have.
But he dreams of his mother that night, the way she looked in her pauper's grave in the rain, with the cards in her hand and the dirt falling to cover her.
The dream is gone by morning.
Many thanks to various people for discussion and debate about Javert's origins, childhood, and early career, including Soldan, AmZ, schwutthing, TheHighestPie, gehayi, melannen, skygiants, and probably a few others I've forgotten, whose thoughts definitely informed this, although I do not mean to suggest that any of them endorse this particular take.
I left Javert's race deliberately vague here: while it's possible he's half- (on his mother's side) or full Romani, and there's a good argument to be made for that, I don't think it's 100% unambiguous.
If he was born in the south of France, it's not wildly unlikely that he might be multiracial on his father's side, although from a Doyleist point of view I'm inclined to think Hugo would have beaten the reader over the head with that information. Still, I thought it was an interesting possibility to explore.
Étienne is indeed a male name in French, equivalent to English Stephen; every source I could find suggesting that it's a unisex or feminine name was uncited and in an English-speaking context. Not all French names ending in -ienne are feminine, and Étien is not a French name at all.