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nothing on earth can silence

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Growing up, Nathan Ford was one of a half-dozen boys running around his neighborhood with daemons named Brigid, the grandchildren of Irish immigrants whose American parents wanted to honor their heritage without knowing all that much about it.  

When Jimmy Ford got drunk, he never tired of telling the story of seeing Brigid shimmer into existence as newborn Nathan took his first gasping breath, the tiny ball of downy feathers materializing next to him and opening her beak to cry out for attention. Jimmy would down a shot of whiskey and say, “You should’ve seen it! That little chick, not five minutes old and already demanding respect! That’s my boy!” 

And it was true that young Brigid favored bird forms, just like her parents. Daemon types often ran in families, after all, and for a while the main question the bookies asked was what type of bird young Ford would settle as, with long odds on her settling as anything else.

Nathan and Brigid roamed around Boston, trying out different forms. At McRory’s, watching Dad command the room, Brigid became a peregrine falcon like Saorlaith, enjoying the powerful wings and sharp vision. Later, as they got older, Brigid would watch Saorlaith and try out other raptors-- hawks and owls and eagles, while Jimmy Ford watched back, keeping his thoughts to himself. At home with Mom, Brigid would hop onto the counter next to Cían, two mourning doves sunbathing by the window. 

But it was on the streets with their friends that Brigid stretched her wings, mimicking the local birds with glee and a certain systematic precision, like she was crossing options off a list. They tried pigeons and crows, woodpeckers and bluejays, ducks and geese. Nathan went on the Swan Boats with Paul from school and the boys laughed themselves sick watching their swan daemons honk and splash. 

Once, Brigid joined a hummingbird at a rhododendron bush, but shifted quickly back into a pigeon and returned to Nathan’s shoulder. “Exhausting,” she ruled. “Not doing that again.” 

For two whole weeks when Nathan was eleven, Brigid was a seagull, and they made plans to run off to be a sailor. 

Yet as they grew older, Brigid moved on to other kinds of animals. She tried cats and dogs, foxes and squirrels. 

“I like walking on my own,” she explained to Nathan when he asked, cuddled in bed in the form of a tabby cat. “It feels more grounded. Stable. Flying is fun but it’s not like I can go very far, anyway. I don’t want to be carried everywhere.” 

Nathan scratched her ears. “You know I don’t mind carrying you,” he said. She nuzzled his face, tickling him with her whiskers. 

“I know,” she said lovingly. “I never doubted that. But all the same, I’d rather walk, I think.”  

Like nearly every other kid around, they visited the zoo and tried out more exotic animals-- gorillas, chimpanzees, zebras, anteaters, hyenas, even a small elephant-- but Brigid quickly returned to the more familiar forms, to Nate’s quiet relief. 

“It would’ve been awfully inconvenient to be an elephant,” he said when she called him on it. “And, well, we don’t need to be flashy.

“This is homier,” Brigid agreed, tongue lolling out as a fluffy cocker spaniel. “We could go nearly anywhere, like this.” 

The first time they went to McRory’s in dog form, Jimmy Ford sniffed and proceeded to ignore them. Nathan and Brigid watched their dad bully people under his daemon’s haughty eye. When they walked home together that night, Brigid trotting along as an Irish wolfhound, Jimmy said witheringly, “Dogs are for servants, you know.”

(It was a common enough stereotype-- dogs were supposed to be loyal and obedient, and there was a long history of vassals with dog daemons back in feudal times. On the other hand, dogs were also one of the most common daemon forms at all, so it just made statistical sense that many servants had dogs. And there was so much variety between breeds that it hardly made sense to assume a dog daemon always meant one thing. Nathan didn’t know that yet, though.) 

“Paul has a dog!” Nathan retorted, stung. It was true. His best friend Paul’s daemon, also named Brigid, had settled just two weeks earlier, as a St. Bernard that was nearly as large as he was. 

Jimmy snorted. “Yes, well, that’s Paul,” he said as though that should be obvious. “No son of mine will have a soul so common.”

Nathan said nothing. Next to him, Brigid shifted into a golden eagle, the largest raptor form she’d ever taken, large enough to make Saorlaith look like dinner. Jimmy’s eyebrows shot up and Saorlaith puffed up her feathers, but all he said was, “That’s more like it.” 

Jimmy Ford had time to get used to the idea of a son with a dog for a soul. For the next year, Brigid cycled through dog breeds like it was her job-- terriers, retrievers, labradors, sheepdogs--until one day as they were walking home from school, she shook her head out, flopped her ears, and said, “This is it, then.” 

Nate--he was going by Nate then, had been since he’d started high school-- stopped immediately and knelt down next to her. “We’re settled?” he asked breathlessly, running a hand down her short fur. She nodded, the motion sending ripples through her face and long ears. She was large, probably nearly two feet tall at the withers, though not quite as large as Paul’s St. Bernard. 

“Dad’s not going to be pleased,” she commented. Nate stroked her ears, feeling a thrill at the silky texture. He felt solid, strong, satisfied in a way he’d never known he was missing. 

I’m pleased,” he said firmly. “I’m...I’m so happy. Look at you, Brigid, you’re beautiful.” Her fur was reddish, with spots of black around her muzzle and down her back.  They rushed to the public library, where they were greeted with a knowing smile by the librarian in the animal section. She and her mouse daemon were delighted to point them in the right direction to identify their form more precisely. Nate and Brigid nodded to a girl with a small green snake curled around her wrist who was searching through the reptile section before sliding the huge book of dogs of the shelf. It didn't take long to find the description they were searching for, and they headed home, flush with new knowledge and confidence. 

They burst through the door and rushed to the kitchen, late for dinner. Their parents looked up, ready to repeat the lecture on coming home on time, but before they could explain themselves, Cían hooted in excitement and their mom's expression brightened. "You've settled, then?" she asked eagerly, standing up from the table to get a better look at Brigid. 

“We’re a bloodhound,” Nate announced proudly, one hand on Brigid’s head. 

“Awfully droopy, isn’t she,” their dad remarked, looking critically at the folds of Brigid’s face. 

“Jimmy!” Sarah scolded, elbowing her husband sharply.

“Sorry, sorry.” He gave Brigid another appraising look. “Well. At least she isn’t a poodle, then.” 

Nate might’ve wilted under that look a week before, but now he could feel the warm strength of his true soul standing grounded next to him. He stiffened his spine and smiled at his dad with all his teeth. “She’s a bloodhound,” he said, “And she’s perfect.” He paused. “You know, Dad, I read that peregrine falcons are highly prized as game birds.” Saorlaith began to preen, and Nate added, “In part because they’re so easy to train. Good servants like that, you know.” 

And he and his daemon went together to their room, leaving their father frozen behind them. 

(Later, much later, Jimmy Ford will stand on a dock in Boston, across from the grown son now running him out of town. He’ll look his boy with that dog next to him, and he’ll say, “You betrayed your own father. You're more ruthless than me. Crueler than me. Maybe you are better than me, huh? But I’ll tell you one thing, Nathan,” and here he will pause to stroke Saorlaith’s feathers, “I was wrong about that daemon of yours. You and me, Nathan, we’re both hunters.” He’ll shake his head and think of swooping down, full speed ahead, aiming for the kill, and he’ll finish, “I'm proud of you, son.” And Saorlaith will spring from his shoulder to circle around Brigid’s head and the two of them will head towards the boat, one walking and one flying, leaving man and bloodhound behind them.

But that is later.  Tonight, Nate will comb Brigid’s fur, and they will look at the moon, and they will talk about their dreams.) 

Chapter Text

Alec was nine--scrawny, underfed, with wildly varying grades in school--when he met Viola Hardison for the first time. She looked him up and down, sharp-eyed, and he could tell she was cataloguing every detail, from his frayed shirtsleeves to the inks-stains on his fingers and the daemon curled in his arms. He surveyed her right back, from her cloud of corkscrew curls (Alec was into alliteration just then) to her gold hoop earrings to her well-worn handbag.“I’m Viola,” she said, reaching out a hand for him to shake like a grown-up. 

“ ’m Alec,” Alec mumbled, glancing at his daemon. This was usually where adults expected him to introduce her, but Viola hadn’t introduced hers. 

“You don’t have to introduce your daemon, honey,” Viola said, correctly interpreting his hesitation. “In my family, it’s the tradition to only share our daemon’s names when we want to, with people we feel close to or who we trust. You don’t ever have to share that with me if you don’t want.” 

Her daemon was some kind of small mammal with brown fur and black stripes down his back. He was standing upright by Viola’s handbag. Alec guessed from the scuffing that he liked to ride around in the bag sometimes. In his arms, his daemon shifted to mimic the form. 

(They had learned that habit early on. Adults tended to be nicer to kids with daemons that matched theirs, intentionally or not, and Alec’s daemon was not above manipulating that if it kept them safer). 

“That everything?” she asked, nodding to his small suitcase and overstuffed backpack.

Alec nodded. He turned towards the social worker who had been his only constant (aside from his daemon, of course) these last few years. 

“You know how to reach me, Alec,” she said, her cuckoo daemon peering at him solicitously. He nodded again. She sighed. “That’s it for the paperwork, then,” she said, and reached to shake Viola’s hand. “Viola, you know the drill. Call me if you need anything, both of you.” 

She had already turned back to her paperwork before Alec and Viola had left the room.

 

In that first week, Viola introduced him to his three new foster sisters, tuna noodle casserole, and Star Trek. 

“You never seen Star Trek?” the oldest girl, Keisha, asked incredulously. 

Alec shrugged. “My last foster place were Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he explained quietly. “No TV.” 

All three girls--Keisha, Amber, and Jess--stared at him. 

“That’s a damn shame,” Viola said, coming into the room. Alec flinched. “Guess we’ll just have to catch you up,” she added cheerfully, herding the kids onto the couch. “We’ll start with the original series, then. Luckily for you, I’ve got it recorded.” She pulled out a video tape. 

“Next Generation is better, Nana, and you know it,” Amber said, her daemon draped over her shoulder as a garden snake. 

“Like hell it is,” Viola retorted, grinning. She aimed a gentler smile at Alec. “You’ll see,” she promised. “Soon you’ll be arguing about it with the rest of us.” She shot Amber a fierce glance. “And Data will never be as interesting as Spock, and you know it.” 

Later that night, as the girls were doing their homework, Alec helped Viola clean up in the kitchen. He hesitated at first, but at her prodding, soon began peppering her with questions about the episode, space travel, and Vulcan physiology. 

“And why do they look basically human?” he demanded. “I mean, do we really expect aliens to look just like us but pointier? And even if he’s half-human, don’t you think if he grew up on Vulcan, his daemon would be Vulcan animal?”

Viola’s daemon laughed, and Alec stopped speaking abruptly, shrinking back. “No, honey, I’m not laughing at you,” the daemon said. Her voice was low and musical, and Alec noted that he'd been wrong earlier about her gender. “I’m just pleased. I knew you’d fit in just fine around here.”

Alec froze. He’d never been directly addressed by an adult’s daemon before. But his daemon had it covered.

“They call me Alexa,” she said from his shoulder, chipmunk shaped.

Viola put down the plate, wiped her hands dry, and turned to face them. Her daemon, sprawled on the counter, said, “And what do you call you?”

She hesitated. No one had asked that before. “Alexa is fine, I guess,” she said. “We don’t have anything better.”

Viola smiled at them, gentle. “Alec and Alexa, huh?”

Alec nodded. “At the last place, everyone was like that, all matching names. John and Joanne, Mary and Mark. They were gonna call her Alice but we convinced them to go for Alexa, instead.” He thought with a pang about Mary and her little cocker spaniel, bossing him around. He’d thought, briefly, that that might’ve been a home. 

(Sometimes he wondered if that was where he’d started to go wrong there, the very first time they’d contradicted John. Or, well, to be exact, Alexa had suggested the alternate, and John and Joanne had exchanged looks. Joanne, a Canadian goose, had said, “Alexa works, I suppose, but you shouldn’t talk to other humans.” She nipped Alexa with her sharp beak. “It’s not modest, and it’s not godly. The daemon-human relationship is divine, and you sully God’s precious gift by exposing yourself to other people outside of the sacred bond of marriage.” It was the last time Alec ever heard her talk, though he became quite familiar with her loud honking in the morning. Alexa told him that Joanne sometimes spoke privately with her, but she refused to repeat anything the goose had said.) 

Something of the memory must’ve shown through on his face. Viola pursed her lips like she was going to say something cutting but had decided against it. “Well,” she said instead. “I’d be honored if you called me Nana. And this is Uhura.” 

Alec’s eyes lit up. “Uhura?” he asked eagerly. “Like from Star Trek?”

Nana winked at him. “Yeah, like Star Trek.” She ran a hand down Uhura’s back, smoothing the ruffled brown fur. “But not just that. It comes from Swahili, and it means freedom.”

“Freedom,” Alec mouthed to himself. It was a big concept. There was a sudden weight on his shoulder as Alexa shifted to match Uhura. 

“Freedom,” Nana repeated. “Like, for example, being able out figure out who you are and what you like. You try all different kinds of shapes, you hear?” 

Alexa shifted again, to a bright red cardinal, and Nana laughed. “Maybe on the weekend, if all y’all kids homework is done, we’ll introduce you to Star Wars.” 

 

In Alec Hardison’s earliest memories, his daemon mostly took the form of small burrowing creatures, mice or chipmunks or voles. Other kids in the system often had snarling dangerous daemons, all claws and teeth and spikes, and Alec understood why-- life was scary and adults were powerful and of course they would want to try to grab at whatever control, whatever defense, that they could manage. 

But his daemon had assured him that it was better to be seen as cute or harmless, that his best defense was to make adults want to defend him, and, as always, he trusted her. Now, under the approving gaze of Nana and Uhura, Alec and his daemon explored the way they’d always wanted to. Dogs were nice but boring, they agreed, and cats weren’t much better. 

“I’m not a pet,” Alexa said. She darted to peck at his face as a swift, then away before he could catch her. “Can’t cage me!” she shrilled. 

On one of her rare days off, Nana took the whole pack of them to the zoo, and the kids dared each other to try more and more challenging shapes. Nana cautioned them not to try anything too large--with the zoo always so crowded, they didn’t want to take up too much space or risk being touched, but Alec and his sibs tried every monkey in the primate house and every snake in the herpetarium. Julián had only been in the family for a few months at that point and it took some coaxing to get his daemon out of her favorite hedgehog shape. When Alexa and Dalia started grooming each other as matching ring-tailed lemurs, Uhura whispered to Alec, “We’re proud of you, honey,” and he felt like he could cast the world’s best Patronus.

 They had a big party when Keisha’s Solomon settled as a pale green corn snake, and again a year later when Amber’s daemon settled as a multicolored painted bunting and chose the name Amahle

“Many cultures have a custom to name or rename daemons at settling,” Nana explained when Alec asked. “That's what we did,” she added, smoothing Uhura’s fur in a gesture that had become familiar to him. “Star Trek wasn’t even around when we were born, it came out when we were your age, and seeing a Black woman on screen who wasn’t a maid or a nanny, who was in space like Neil Armstrong… it meant a lot, and it still does.” She glanced towards Alec’s daemon, a yellow warbler on his shoulder. “It’s part of becoming an adult, of defining yourself. No one has the right to tell you who you are, not a parent, not a teacher, not the government.” 

“So why didn’t Solomon change his name?” Alec asked.

“Didn’t you hear what I just said?” Nana responded, clicking her tongue. “That’s not for me to say. Only Solomon and Keisha could tell you that.”

(Alec did ask Keisha, and, wearing Solomon like a necktie, she told him that their names were the only thing they had left from their bio parents, and they wanted to keep that. Alexa, twined around Alec’s arm as a matching corn snake, quietly thanked their sister for sharing while Alec was speechless). 

 

By the time Alec was fourteen, his daemon spent her days switching between songbirds and her nights curled up next to him as some kind of furry mammal. Alec had become a talented violinist. He loved the complexity, the rising and falling notes, the way tiny notations on black and white translated to soaring melodies under his fingers. As he practiced harmonizing with his daemon, he felt confident that they were going to settle as a songbird like Amahle. 

“No need to rush,” Alexa told him whenever he started speculating. “I like having the choices now, the freedom. I don’t want to be stuck yet.” And she refused to say anything more on the subject.

Alec tried to be patient, even when Jess, two months younger than him, settled as a sleek black Lab. He went dutifully to classes, doodling musical notes in the margins. 

In the second semester of his sophomore year, Alec got signed up for a computer class. It turned out to be about coding, teaching the teens what made computers run, and how to write a basic program. At the end of their first week, they were given time to explore, giving a little virtual turtle orders. They were supposed to be able to tell it to draw a square, but Alec saw the potential unrolling in front of him like a concert. He wasn’t going to settle for the coding equivalent of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star when he could see the same notes being used for a symphony. 

He began typing, hesitantly at first, then faster, seeing in his imagination what each instruction would lead to. On his shoulder, Alexa, in robin shape, pecked his ear. “No, you missed a step,” she scolded. “Here, I’ll show you.”

She glided down to the keyboard and shifted into a raccoon shape, tapping the keyboard gently with her dexterous paws. “There, like that, see?” Alec squinted at the line of code and grinned.

“That is better,” he agreed. “I think I’ve got it now.” He turned back to his typing as his daemon hummed smugly. A moment later, she fell off the table with a thump. 

“What the fuck!” Alec yelped, her shock reverberating through him. He spared a moment for a quick glance towards the instructor, who was thankfully occupied on the other side of the room, before sliding off the chair to sit next to his daemon. 

“Baby, what happened?” he asked. She squirmed under his hand, patting herself down with her paws. 

“It’s dumb,” she said.

“You? Dumb? Never,” Alec assured her. 

She peeked up at him, her masked face giving it a comic look. “I jumped off the table to shift back into a bird in midair but it didn’t work. I’m stuck, Alec!”

“Stuck? You mean… settled?” 

She hissed, “Seems like it? I don’t know! I’ve never settled before!” 

Alec started to giggle. “We’re a raccoon?!? Have you even ever tried that shape before?” 

“I don’t think so?” she squeaked. “This is so weird.”

“Everything okay here?” It was the instructor, looking bewildered at the lanky teenager on the floor.

“Yeah,” Alec said quickly. “Sorry, I think we just settled? But if you hit enter, it should start drawing.”

“Oh! Congratulations!” the instructor said, his expression clearing. He leaned over and pressed a key. Under his increasingly impressed gaze, the little turtle on screen drew a recognizable sketch of R2D2. 

With his warm fluffy daemon cuddled close to his chest, Alec watched their work unfold and felt like the whole world was theirs for the taking. 

 

It was on the way home that they started second-guessing. She was too big to fit on his shoulder, too uncomfortable to fit in his backpack, and too small to walk safely next to him the way dog daemons usually did. 

(Besides, they were both extremely reluctant to allow any space between them. It was part of why she’d consistently rejected larger forms. In their whole lives, Alec and his daemon had only rarely been out of physical contact, and never for longer than a few minutes at a time.)

Eventually they managed to balance Alexa on top of the backpack, half-sprawled onto Alec’s shoulders, her fluffy tail tickling his nose, but the whole process was stressful enough to make them start to doubt themselves.

Then there was this:

“Nana doesn’t like raccoons,” Alexa said, peering nervously out the bus window. “Remember the fuss last fall?”

Alec did remember the war his foster mom had waged with the local raccoons all season. He certainly remembered her vicious language at finding garbage scattered across the front lawn for the fourth week in a row. “Well, as long as you don’t break into the garbage cans when you want a snack, I’m sure she’ll be fine,” he said, trying for humor and missing. 

She fidgeted, uneasy. He stroked her fur, admitting to himself that it was a far more comforting gesture than smoothing her feathers. 

“What if she doesn’t like us anymore?” Her voice was almost too quiet for Alec to hear.

“Hey, hey, baby,” he soothed, taking her into his arms. “Don’t you doubt Nana like that, Nana won’t abandon us, she promised.” He ran a finger over one of the stripes on her face, marveling at its perfection. “And hey, at least like this you can hug me back, yeah?”

She chuckled wetly and obligingly wrapped her arms around Alec’s neck, giving him a fierce hug. “I just… I can’t protect us anymore. We’re not tiny or harmless or cute, and I can’t mimic if I need to, and I can’t sing with you…”

“Hey!” Alec interrupted. “Baby, you are adorable. ” He bopped her nose. “And, well, it’s more that you don’t know how to protect us, not that you can’t, and if there’s anything we can do, it’s learn. Anything you can’t do, we’ll figure out a way around, love. And,” here he let some of the excitement he’d been trying to stifle in the face of her anxiety through, “girl, you can type! You can code! We can code! That’s so cool!”

She grinned and Alec felt his heart melt at the way the expression lit up her face.  I love you, he said silently through their connection, sending her all his overwhelming affection and delight. Out loud, he added, “Besides, baby, maybe it’s time I do some protecting for once.” 

 

He was feeling less confident as the time approached when Nana would be home from work. Keisha was already away at college, and Amber had soccer practice. Jess and Julián had made appropriately congratulatory noises (“About time, Alec! God, she’s cute! So excited for you!”) but they’d agreed to clear out so Alec and his daemon could speak to Nana themselves. 

They were in the kitchen making dinner when Nana came in, shedding her work stuff as she walked. It was their turn to cook, and they’d figured out pretty quickly that the raccoon shape was actually helpful in the kitchen, able to open boxes and stir pots, as long as she was careful to keep her fur away from the flame. 

“Smell good, Alec,” Nana said cheerfully. Uhura slipped easily out of her handbag and clambered onto the counter next to the raccoon.  “That’s a new form for you, isn’t it?”

“Hi, Nana,” Alec answered, shy in a way he hadn’t been since his first weeks living here. “Um, yeah, but it’s also our last one? We settled today.” 

Nana’s face lit up as Uhura began sniffing and poking at the raccoon. “Alec!” she exclaimed. “That’s wonderful!” She dropped the last of her bags and gave him a big hug, but stepped back as soon as she realized he was stiff and slow to respond. “What’s wrong, baby?”

Alec looked towards the counter, where his daemon had shrunk back from Uhura’s inspection. She always said the hardest stuff, but he’d be damned if he made her say this. He found his courage and his voice and said, “You hate raccoons.” 

“Oh, Alec, baby,” Nana sighed. On the counter, Uhura froze, nose twitching, the way meerkats stand sentry protect their colonies. (Alec had made a point to read up on meerkats once he figured out what Uhura was, back when he first came here). 

Nana took his cold, clammy, hand and squeezed. She said, “Yeah, Alec, I hated those fucking raccoons in the neighborhood. They’re thieves and they made a mess of the yard. But you know what I found most infuriating about them?”

“What?” Alec asked. He hated how small his voice had gotten.

“How damn clever they were. I couldn’t set a trap they wouldn’t get around or out of.” She smiled at him, gentle. “That’s you, Alec, so damn smart. So adaptable. I’m glad to see your true shape, because raccoons are tough and fierce and they can survive anywhere. You’re going to be just fine, Alec, and I’m so happy.” 

Tenderly, Uhura began grooming the raccoon’s fur. Told you so, he said silently to his daemon. She stuck her tongue out at him, but he could feel her joy and relief washing over him, and he grinned helplessly. 

 

At their settling party, Alec’s daemon announced that her name was Leia to the whole room, humans and daemons alike. Alec thought of all the rainy Saturday afternoons watching Star Wars with his siblings, of Princess Leia strangling her abuser with the chains he’d forced on her, Leia finding family across the galaxy and doing anything to protect them. He gathered his own Leia into his arms. Nana slung an arm over his shoulders, eyes shining, and he knew she was thinking of the same things. “Leia,” Nana said thoughtfully. “It suits you.” 

Chapter Text

Just as there was a tiny group of former boy sopranos who had unwillingly derailed a major concert by the untimely arrival of puberty and the cracking of their voices, in theatre circles, there was a tiny group of former child actors who had screwed up a play when their daemons settled at the most inconvenient moment. 

The woman who would one day be known as Sophie Devereaux was part of that exclusive club. 

She hadn’t always been into theatre. No, Lara-who-would-be-Sophie’s favorite subject (in school, at least) was geography. She and her daemon, called Andromeda then, would close their eyes and spin the globe. One would point, the other would stop the spin, and the two of them would look up the spot together and make plans for what they would do there. They’d go together to London’s famous museums, looking at the art and artifacts stolen from places far away, and promise each other that one day they’d see those places for themself. 

To that end, Lara and Andy worked hard on languages, too, first French, then Spanish and Italian. And if her maths scores suffered a bit, well, her teachers all agreed that she was a bright child who would do alright for herself, and that was enough for her exhausted Mum.

When Lara was ten, she and Andromeda came home from school to find Mum in a strange mood, and they had a conversation Lara would think about for the rest of her life.

“How was work?” Lara asked. 

“Marcie got the promotion,” Mum told her. “Assistant manager, after Lindsay left.” 

“Marcie?” Lara said indignantly. On her shoulder in bearded dragon form, her daemon puffed up her beard and bobbed her head angrily. “Marcie’s only been there two years! Way less than you!”

Mum shrugged. “Marcie’s got a cat. Nobody’s going to promote a mouse over a cat. Can’t have a mouse in a position of authority, you know.” She cupped Cedric in one palm, the fieldmouse daemon fitting perfectly in her callused hand. 

“That’s illegal,” Lara said, fresh from Year Five Civics. “It’s discrimination. And it’s wrong.” 

Mum chuckled a little, low in her throat, and Cedric squeaked his own laugh. “Oh, honey,” Mum said. “Yes, you’re quite right, but unfortunately the world just doesn’t work that way. It’s a cat and dog world, not a mouse one.” There was a twist to Mum's mouth that Lara recognized from Christmas dinners with Aunt Emily and her fluffy grey cat, whenever Aunt Emily started talking about her latest accomplishments.

“Doesn’t it make you angry?” Lara asked. 

Mum shrugged again and patted the chair next to her. Lara slid into it, Andy morphing into a hedgehog as she did. “They’re not all wrong, you know. We are a mouse, and we don’t like being the center of attention, and authority just means more people watching for when you screw up.” She smiled then, the little half-smirk Lara tried so hard to copy. “I give Marcie six months tops before she flames out.”

“It just isn’t fair,” Andy said, bristling. 

“Oh, princess, don’t I know it,” Mum replied, reaching over to ruffle Lara’s hair.

“It’s all about expectations,” Cedric said, watching them with his small bright eyes, nose twitching. “People see me and think meek, they think pushover and they treat us accordingly. And yes, we’d much rather avoid a fight whenever we can. We never want to get in a fight we’re sure to lose.” He slipped into Mum’s purse, open on the table, and returned with something shiny clutched between his front paws. “But that’s not all we are.” He pushed it over towards Andy, who shifted into a mouse to bring it to Lara. 

She picked up the small pearl earrings and looked inquiringly at her mother. 

“You’ve been wanting to get your ears pierced,” Mum said cheerfully. “Picked these up for you.” She smiled at her daughter, letting the girl make her own conclusions and waiting to see how she’d react. Lara thought about all the times she’d seen her mother dismissed (or worse) because her soul was, well, vermin, not something noble. She held the earrings up to the light and admired their glow. 

“Thanks, Mum,” she said instead of asking just how her mother got such lovely jewelry that she was quite sure was well out of their budget, and she was rewarded with that coveted smile.

(Even decades later, Sophie kept those pearls close. She wore them, hidden by her hair, to her own funeral.) 

But that night, alone in their room, Andy took the shape of the sleek black cat they avoided in front of their mother and Cedric. 

"No matter what you settle as, we won't let them dismiss us," Lara vowed, admiring the glossy sheen of the cat's dark fur.

Andromeda arched her back in a long stretch. "Never," she agreed, then paused, considering. "Not unless being dismissed gets us something else we want," she added, nuzzling Lara's cheek with her velvety nose. 

"We'll be rich and glamorous world travelers," Lara said. "So we'll be able to have anything we want. Like a princess." It was Mum's pet name for them--for Andy, really, named for the princess of Greek mythology. 

"A duchess, at the very least," Andy purred. She shifted into a corgi, like the queen's Arthur. "It's all about expectations, right? We can use those."

Lara scratched her daemon's ears, and they went to sleep dreaming of castles. 

 

After that, she started watching adult daemons closely, seeing how they interacted with each other and with their humans. Everyone seemed to place so much importance on form, but Lara didn’t have to look further than her own mum to see how much most people missed, how little they actually understood. For example, swans might mate for life, but you only had to see how Mr. Switford’s swan brushed her wing over Mrs. Kowalski’s goat to know that he hadn’t “mated” to his wife. And Lara saw. 

It was all about stories, she saw, the narratives people built themselves to force some structure onto the uncaring world. If you could shape what role people stuck you into, you could slip right into their narrative and take what you wanted. 

That was when she got into theatre. It was intoxicating before she really knew the meaning of that word, the heady sensation of standing exposed in front of a huge crowd ready to believe whatever she said, at least for a couple of hours. She could command attention and elicit emotion, all while keeping her true self tucked safely under masks both real and metaphorical. 

To her surprise, there was a great demand for young actors who had not yet settled. For convenience’s sake, most plays didn’t mention a specific daemon for their leads--or, if they did, it was only in general terms, “dog” or “bird” or “snake”. But there were always plays where daemon form was plot-relevant, or, like in Julius Caesar, a matter of historical record. No picture of Julius Caesar was complete without the enormous grey wolf Imperatrix by his side, but people with wolf daemons rarely went into acting. Shakespeare and his colleagues solved the problem the same way they managed female characters in an environment that forbade women from the stage--with prepubescent boys. Caesar-the-actor would be accompanied by a boy pre-settling, whose daemon would take the shape of the iconic wolf instead. Even in modern times, it was often easier to partner a talented adult actor with a child’s versatile daemon than to cast an adult with both serious acting chops and the appropriate daemon. That strategy always carried the risk, though, that the child’s daemon might settle just before or during the show, leaving them scrambling to find a replacement.

Lara caused a different problem. It was also Shakespeare, naturally enough, and she was playing Juliet. At the pivotal moment of the play, arguably even more iconic than the balcony scene, Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time at the masquerade, their palms touch as they dance, and their daemons settle as matching nightingales. Shakespeare didn't invent the idea that lovers with matching daemons were uniquely suited, nor that the catalyst for settling foretold one's destiny, but he did immortalize it in perfect iambic pentameter, influencing romances both tragic and comedic for the next centuries. 

On opening night, Andromeda leapt from the mouse form on Lara’s shoulder into bird form in midair, just as they had rehearsed. 

But it was the wrong bird. 

Later, Lara would maintain that it wouldn’t have been disastrous if “Romeo” had been slightly quicker on the uptake, if he’d just kept going with the flirtation instead of stopping the show to hiss at Andy that she’d screwed up. It wasn’t as though the audience were ornithologists, she argued, one bird could work just as well as another. Romeo, of course, responded witheringly that one didn’t need to be an ornithologist to tell the difference between a boring grey bird and the distinctive tan of the nightingale. After all, he sniped, there were nightingales printed on the front of every program, and went on to imply that she’d done it on purpose for attention. 

(That the boy was later caught in possession of cheat sheet during final exams, one he denied any knowledge of, was surely a coincidence). 

 

“A mockingbird,” Lara concluded, late that night. The daemon-librarian had  considerately agreed to stay late to help them find their answers, chatting quietly with Lara’s mum while Lara flipped through the reference books.

“I am sorry about the timing,” Andy said again, peering over her shoulder at the illustration in the book. 

Lara shrugged, trying not to think about it. “Well, at least our first stage production will certainly be memorable.”

“Maybe this means we’re destined for the stage,” Andy suggested. She ruffled her wings. Lara ran a finger down her back, reveling in the texture of the silky-soft feathers. 

“Must be,” she agreed. It was a nice thought, nicer than focusing on the breakdown of the production she'd worked so hard on. “Andromeda, darling, you’re beautiful.” The mockingbird shifted in what Lara would come to recognize as preening. 

“You’re happy then?” her daemon asked. “We’re not exactly...fierce.”

Lara smiled. Though she didn’t know it, it was nearly identical to her mother’s smirk. “Oh, we’re plenty fierce, dearest.” She pointed to the relevant passage in the book. “Mockingbirds defend their territories, and they never forget an enemy’s face. Anyone who underestimates us will have cause to regret it.”

Her daemon threw back her head and laughed, her black eyes glittering as the full-throated warble echoed around the empty library. “The world is ours for the taking,” she vowed.

And, in one way or another, it was.

Chapter Text

Throughout Eliot’s childhood, his parents had a running debate over what form his daemon would take when she settled. Pop insisted that Rosebud would be a reptile like her parents, but Mom was less sure.

Both parents loved repeating the story of how, when asked for his prediction, a three-year-old Eliot had proudly announced his intention to settle as a dinosaur, at which point Rosie had alarmed everyone by shifting into a crocodile large enough to eat the toddler in about three bites. 

“He’s just too hotheaded to settle as anything coldblooded,” Mom sighed as she carefully cleaned eight-year-old Eliot’s scrapes. Next to them, Rosebud shifted from a porcupine to a lizard bristling with spikes, just to be contrary. Reginald hissed in amusement from his regular spot curled around Mom’s wrist.

“He started it,” Eliot muttered sullenly. “We just...finished it.” It was true. The other boy had said Emma looked like a wrinkly old man, and Eliot had felt obliged to defend his newborn sister’s honor, even if he had admitted privately to Rosie that Emma really did look kinda like their grandpa. 

Dad chuckled. “You do always tell the boy to finish what he starts,”  he teased. 

Mom pursed her lips like she was annoyed, but twitches at the corner of her mouth and Reginald’s tail betrayed her actual feelings. Eliot knew she wasn’t annoyed. Reassured, Rosie shifted into a tabby cat. She leapt into his lap and curled into a contented ball, flicking her ears at Eliot in a silent command to pet her.

“See? Mammal," Mom said smugly.  

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Pop cautioned, resting a hand on the iguana next to him, careful as always to avoid the spines. “I’m still thinking some kind of snake.”

“I am right here, you know,” Rosie said without raising her head from Eliot’s knee. 

Mom and Pop exchanged one of those glances again. It was a very distinctive glance, something to do with parenting, but Eliot hadn’t figured out exactly what it meant yet. 

“Sorry, honey,” Mom said. “We’ll lay off. And we’ll be proud of you no matter what.” 

“What she said,” Dad agreed gruffly. “Even if it’s a dinosaur.”

 

But for all his parents’ speculation, Eliot and Rosebud had no idea what their final form would be, not even a hint. Bud liked the sleek muscle of her snake form and being able to wrap herself around Eliot, but she also liked having wings, and paws, and soft cozy fur. She liked the sharp hearing of her bat form, and the sensitive nose of her dogs forms. She liked being able to fly. She switched between forms like Pop switched between tools when working on a project, grabbing whatever was most useful at the moment and discarding it without regret when another form better fit her needs. 

As the years went by, Eliot and Bud explored the neighborhood, the fields, and the nearby woods. They went hunting with Dad and horseback riding with Mom. When no amount of grounding or extra chores could keep them from getting into fights, their parents signed them up for martial arts classes, hoping that would instill some discipline, or at the very least, give him a fair chance against the older kids he kept insisting on scuffling with. 

When Eliot was eleven, the most promising of the older kids at the stable settled as a turkey. With his daemon too big to ride and too slow to reliably keep up, settling put an end to Pat’s racing career before it had a chance to start. The most successful jockeys had small light daemons who could ride along without adding extra bulk, like the previous year’s Kentucky Derby winner with his hawk moth, or like Mom with her ribbon snake. It was deemed too dangerous for people with large daemons to ride, just in case the horse bolted and the daemon couldn’t keep up, severing the bond. 

As Eliot unsaddled his horse that afternoon, Bud slid from his shoulders and shifted from snake to border collie. She nuzzled at his knee. 

“What’s bothering you, El?” she asked, though she must have known or guessed. 

Eliot grunted, preferring to focus on currying the horse than talk about his feelings. But he couldn’t out-stubborn his daemon, and eventually he admitted, “It feels good when you’re big and strong, but it ain’t as good as riding.” He patted the horse’s side. “I don’t want to give this up.”

Bud sat on her haunches and went still, looking like one of those dog statues down by the library, all dignity and loyalty. She watched him finish caring for the horse and followed him out of the stable, pacing at his heels like a real dog. Together, they went to the fence to watch Mom finishing up her lesson, leading a child around the yard on one of the smaller ponies.

Rosebud stood on her hind legs, resting her paws on the fence rail so her head came nearly up to Eliot’s. “I can’t control what I settle as,” she said,” but I promise, El, I won’t take this from you.” 

“I can’t imagine you taking anything from me, Bud,” he said, and buried his hands in her soft fur. 

 

On his hunting trip with Pop that weekend, Eliot froze up with a huge wild turkey in his sights.

“What happened, son?” Pop asked, squinting over at him. “I know you coulda made that shot!”

Eliot fidgeted uncomfortably, lowering the shotgun carefully. “It’s just… Pat’s daemon settled as a turkey this week, and it just don't feel right to shoot one.” He glanced at his daemon, who shifted into a turkey as illustration.

“Ahh,” Pop sighed. “I guess we were overdue for this conversation.” He flipped the safety on his gun on and sat up, disturbing the camouflage they’d been trying to preserve.

“Those are good, smart, questions you’re asking,” Pop said. “You’re not the first person to be bothered by that kind of thing.” He paused. “You know, in lots of places, people eat iguanas.”

“Really?” Bud asked, shifting to match Basil. 

“Chicken of the trees,” Basil confirmed. 

“The basic answer to your question, why people are mostly okay with eating animals and not other people, is that animals don’t have souls, so it ain’t like eating a daemon or a person.” He shifted uncomfortably on the hard ground, scratching his nose with a gloved hand. “We ain’t ever discussed this before, Eliot, but do you know what happens to a daemon when their human dies?”

Rosebud shifted into her snake form and slithered into Eliot’s sleeve to wrap herself tightly around Eliot’s arm, skin on skin, feeling his pulse steady under her scales. 

Eliot shrugged, bringing his arm up to clutch his daemon against his chest. “I’m not sure, something to do with Dust? It’s gold on TV but I don’t really know what it is.”

Pop nodded, and Basil clambered on his lap. Apparently, even adults wanted to be close to their daemons when talking about death. “When someone dies, their daemon fades into golden Dust, like they talk about in church sometimes. It’s…. Well, it’s beautiful, actually, and it’s very sad, but there’s no body left behind, no blood or bones or meat. So it don’t bother me to eat meat or to hunt, because I know it’s real different than a daemon.” He shrugged. “But all the same, son, I couldn’t bring myself to eat iguana, and if you settled as a turkey, I’d likely stop doing this, too.” 

Under his jacket, still in snake-form, Bud made her way up to Eliot’s shoulders to peek out at their dad. “I like hunting,” she said, flickering her tongue in the cold air. “It’s very satisfying.” 

Pop grinned at her. “Glad to hear it, Rosie-girl.” 

They didn't end up bagging any turkeys that day, but there were other hunting trips, and Eliot had to admit that his daemon was right. There was a certain satisfying joy from a successful hunt that they didn't find elsewhere. 

 

Eliot and the other boys were playing a game of pick-up football on the first really warm day in the spring of eighth grade when Rosebud, owl-shaped, turned around so sharply that Eliot, running below her, bumped into another boy and they both tumbled to the ground. A moment later, Eliot heard a commotion from the picnic table where the eighth-grade girls sat and gossiped. He pulled himself up onto an elbow and stared.

Across the field, Eliot saw the distinctive withers and laid-back shoulders of a chestnut Morgan horse, maybe fifteen hands tall, and looking quite out of place on the school playground. Rosebud landed next to him, quivering in excitement. “It’s David!” she gasped. “He settled!” 

Eliot stood, absently helping the other boy to his feet and muttering his apologies. And yeah, there was little Aimee Martin from down the street, not even tall enough yet to reach her daemon’s withers. 

“He’s magnificent, ” Rosie sighed, shifting into a sheepdog. Eliot was more captivated by the fierce joy shining from Aimee’s face as she looked at her newly-settled daemon, but he did have to admit that David made for a magnificent horse.

At dinner that night, he told his parents and his sisters all about it, but Pop already knew.

“Willie came by the shop earlier,” Pop explained, chuckling. “Man looked torn between bursting in pride and totally panicking. That egret of his was pretty much bouncing off the walls. He’s gonna have some serious remodeling to do.”

“Why?” June asked. She was seven at the time. 

“Think about Gracie,” Mom said, referring to the pony on which June was learning to ride. “Can you imagine Gracie fitting in the kitchen?” 

June’s daemon flickered into a pony just long enough to dent the wall and knock a bowl off the counter with a loud clatter before shifting into a tabby cat and licking his paw as though he had no clue what had caused the damage. 

Emma, who was only four, giggled. Mom and Pop exchanged one of those distinctive parenting glances for a long moment until Basil chuckled and said, “Yeah, that was predictable.” 

“Wait, so what’s Aimee going to do? ” Eliot asked, eyes widening. “If David can’t even get in through the front door anymore, where are they going to sleep?” 

“At a guess, they’ll sleep at the barn tonight, and tomorrow Willie will get started on either building a bigger door for the house or making more of a living space in the barn for Aimee," Pop said. 

Mom added, her voice pensive, “Once upon a time, a daemon settling as a horse was a huge blessing. There were always problems with housing, but it could open up the world for someone who couldn’t afford a horse but suddenly had one, to travel or help out on the farm or join the cavalry. But these days, it’s more likely to limit opportunities--you can’t drive, or fly in an airplane, or work in an office building.” She stroked Reggie, curled in his usual place around her wrist. “We used to hope we’d settle as a horse but, well, that’s just not who we are.” 

“Horses are pretty,” Emma said, drawing out the word. “Is David pretty?”

“Very,” Rosie blurted. She shifted into a moth and ducked under Eliot’s shirt in embarrassment. Eliot squirmed and focused on twirling his spaghetti instead of making eye contact with anyone. 

Thankfully, Mom had his back. “Well, congratulations to the Martins, then,” she said. “June, what did you learn in class today?”

 

The thing was. 

The thing was, by the time Eliot was in high school, he’d seen several of his classmates’ daemons settle, as dogs or cats or squirrels or, in Aimee’s case, a horse so big she started homeschooling after that. And Eliot kept track of the adult daemons around him, and what kind of people they were attached to, and how that affected their lives. He saw a hunger in his peers, just before they settled, some kind of deep desire, some sense of who they were and what they wanted.

And the thing was, Eliot wasn’t hungry. He was good at most things he tried, whether that was football or fighting or hunting or riding or even playing the guitar. He loved the taste of victory but he wasn’t starving for it. 

 

As Eliot grew older, it seemed to him that the town grew smaller. He couldn’t go for a walk around the block with a cute girl without neighbors mentioning it to his parents or someone teasing him about it in church, and he had to be even more careful with the “walks” he wanted to take with the cute boys. He felt like a horse chomping at its bit, desperate to gallop free, or like some kind of wild animal cooped up in a cage too small. His parents despaired of the fights he was still getting into, and Eliot didn’t know how to explain the freedom he felt when the world narrowed to just him and his opponent, how everything sharpened and seemed more real. Only Rosebud understood how fighting cleared his mind, made him feel whole and solid and competent. 

“I don’t know what I want,” Rosie confided in him one afternoon. They were laying on their backs basking in the sunshine, the endless blue of the prairie sky. Rosie was in her fox form, small and sandy-haired. 

Eliot nibbled absently on a blade of grass. “You mean settling?” he asked.

She twitched an ear. “Not just that,” she answered. “I mean, that too, of course. I can’t think of a form I love enough to have it forever. But really I meant the whole future. El, when you imagine us in five, ten years, what do you see?” 

“Living here, I guess, working with Pop in the store. Maybe married to Aimee.” 

“But is that what you want , El?” When he didn’t answer immediately, she shifted into a hawk and flew straight up, as high as she could manage without getting too far away from him. Eliot looked at her silhouette against the sky, wings outstretched, straining at their bond. 

He sat up. “I don’t know, Bud,” he admitted. He held out an arm for her. “What do you want?” 

She flew back down and settled on his wrist, claws digging into his sleeve. “I just said I don’t know, weren’t you listening?” she snapped, then sighed. “I want… I want to see the ocean. I want to climb mountains, and smell the desert, and ride the train in a big city. I don’t want to stay here forever, El.” 

“Then we won’t,” he promised. As she spoke, new futures opened up before him, possibilities of traveling the world, of doing something different than he’d always expected. He felt the hope unfurling within him like her hawk’s wings stretched out against the sun. He cuddled Rosebud close and dreamed of new horizons. 

 

It would have been poetic, perhaps, if they’d settled then, but it was actually nearly two months later, with no particular precipitating event at all. Eliot simply woke up one morning to find Rosebud yawning wide, long teeth glinting in the sun. He reached out drowsily to scratch her triangular ears. As soon as his fingers touched the silken fur, he knew, and came awake all at once.

“We're a wolf,” he gasped, sitting up. Rosebud blinked at him and gave herself a shake, jostling the bed. She froze as they both registered how much more she weighed than any of her usual forms. 

“No,” she disagreed, jumping to the floor and twisting to look at herself. “Not a wolf, I don’t think.” 

“You look pretty wolfish,” Eliot countered, sliding onto the floor next to her and sinking his hands into her fur. He hesitated. “I’m not misunderstanding— you are—” 

“Settled,” she confirmed. They stared at each other in rising awe. He slipped his arms around her neck and held her close. 

“You won’t be able to ride,” she whispered into his hair. “I’m sorry.” 

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, which was a lie, and, “This matters more,” which was the truth. 

(One day, Eliot and his daemon would choose to attempt Separation, and though their discussion focused on the military advantages, the tactical pros and cons, unspoken between them lay the quiet hope of riding again. But that was still years away.) 

 

Mom gloated to Pop that Rosebud had settled as a mammal, which Eliot had expected. Both parents looked at the large apex predator in their midst with a poorly-hidden unease, which he had not. His sisters oohed over her form and accompanied him to the library to confirm that Rosebud was neither wolf nor dog but a hybrid of the two. 

There were people in town who looked at him differently after Bud settled, with cautious respect or apprehension, especially people whose daemons were what Eliot couldn’t help thinking of as prey. But Eliot, with his soul fierce and undeniable at his side, found he didn’t care all that much about their judgment. He and his daemon fixed their eyes on the horizon, and waited for the day when they could run towards it, together.