Actions

Work Header

Wild Above Rule or Art

Work Text:

‘I need a gesture, little man’, says Howard, and Vince pulls a face, eyebrows up and lips a moue and hands treading the air like paddles, and it is meant to be funny-- hah, Howard, see? A gesture, geddit? Smile, Howard, please-- but Howard’s eyes slam shut like portholes--

But no, that isn’t right; that story’s been told before, and elsewhere. Let me try again.

‘I need a gesture, little man’, says Howard. His Mathilde is on the ground at his side, though Howard usually carries her himself, her little paws splayed firm on the dirty wet brick amongst grit and greasy takeaway wrappers and bottlecaps and fag ends. Her whiskers twitch, nervous.

Vince, more than likely, is going to do something stupid. He usually does. No-one ever taught him how to handle these kinds of situations, you see.

But before he has a chance, Slightly flashes from his shoulder down to Mathilde, quicker than thought, flitting about her small furry body. Hummingbirds are not built for cuddling, but that doesn’t stop them trying, darting down and butting with the crown of their tiny head, mussing the ridiculous feathers of their crest as if they could shove Mathilde up out of the damp and the rubbish through sheer force of will.

‘We’re sorry, we’re sorry, we didn’t mean it, we didn’t think, don’t leave us, don’t leave us, please.’

And Vince, in shiny jumpsuit and six inch heels and gaudy cape, blushes hard, and wants nothing more than to hide under his fringe, perhaps childishly to simply drop to the dirty wet ground and pull the cape over his head-- if I can’t see you, you can’t see me-- like a shimmering, technicolour rock, and wait for Howard to leave. Because there’s no hiding that, is there? It’s his desperation and confusion there in Slightly’s tiny bird-voice, and they’re either a whole lot more stupid than Vince or a whole lot less, and willing to say it all out loud.

~~~~~~~~~

Now we’re going to go back. It’s out of order, but don’t worry; this is just an out-of-order sort of story.

~~~~~~~~~

The air is thick and golden, and under his feet-- patpatsquish, patpatsquish-- mud and mulch and leaves steam in the heat, until he's wading through a miasma that melts on his face, a rock-star soup of fog. At his side a shape, bigger than him (because no-one has told them they can’t be), furred and feathered and scaled all at once (because no-one has told them they can’t be), a chimera or a sphinx, though neither of them knows those names.

(in England, people will often tell them they can’t, but it will be a very long time before they start to listen)

He yelps and shouts and laughs to himself, and to the shape, and to the animals he passes, a stick in his hand and whacking away at tangling creepers and huge, waxy leaves like elephants’ ears. From above comes a sudden spill of shrieking and chittering, and Vince looks up and grins, recognising voices he knows.

‘Alright!’ he calls up to the pandemonium of parrots clustered in a tree, and the chimera-shape at his side shrink-snaps into a bird as well, winging up to join them. They churr a greeting, for a moment nearly indistinguishable from the company, all blues and greens and yellows and darting eyes like droplets of sap. But they and Vince both soon grow bored of that, and the feathers shift into glossy magpie black, a shiny silhouette amongst the profusion of colour. Blending in is good enough, for what it is, but Vince likes to look up and see that bit of himself amongst all the other birds, and know that that’s him.

~~~~~~~~~

‘It is customary’, Bryan tells Vince one day, in his deep voice, ‘for the dæmons of the parents to name the dæmon of the child.’

‘Oh’, says Vince.

He doesn’t have any parents. He has Bryan, and he has the animals, and he has his nameless someone, his constant shadow.

‘You could name them?’ He cups the offer in his hands like a pebble and holds it up to Bryan, and his someone shifts into a bat and flitters up to cling to his hair, nuzzling their pointy little face into his neck, but Bryan shakes his head.

------- or: his mum’s Gorbathol names them Slightly after a character in Peter Pan. Vince’s nan wrinkles her nose and sucks her teeth and tuts, and says stories are all well and good, but what about real life?

Vince prefers the stories. His mum isn’t much good at real life things (that's what his nan says, anyway, when she's in a bad mood; when she's in a good mood, she’ll just say that his mum isn’t well), but she tells the best stories Vince has ever heard-------

------ or: his mum is called Lahja Numminen, and she is a witch. Vince knows her whole name because that's what his nan calls her when she comes to visit, in a strange tight tone like the name was a living thing that might scramble away on its own if she didn’t hold it between her lips just right. His mum is the most beautiful woman in the world, Vince thinks, like an Amazon or a rock star, hair all combed by the wind and a profile that could slice right through the night, and her dæmon, Liijani, a great heron at her side.

Vince doesn't see his mum that often, but Liijani comes to visit, sometimes, at night, alone as only witch’s dæmons can, and nests down in Vince’s bed next to him like Vince was a bunch of eggs, and tell him fairy stories of the North until Vince drifts off, cuddled up to the downy warmth of his breast.

He has his mum’s eyes; witch’s eyes, too big and too bright, unnerving, and his nan sighs and smiles tiredly when Slightly finally settles. ‘Of course it’d be a bird’, she says. It makes him feel proud and a little sad all at once------

So he and his someone come up with a name on their own, sitting together in the dust of a dry, sunny clearing, clambering up trees because trees make for the best thinking spaces. Vince reckons it’s because they’re so old and still, they don’t have anything to do but think all day; stands to reason there’s lots of wisdom soaked up into those sturdy trunks. Neither of them, afterwards, can actually remember where they got the name Slightly from, though they both agree it suits them. It feels like home.

(It may well have been from one of the she-elephants Vince likes to clamber over and ride, feeling safe and tall on her broad back and breathing in the sweet, dusty smell of her hide, warmed from sun and her great beating heart. ‘D’you mind?’ he asks once, hanging down off the dome of her skull, and she laughs, a trumpet of amusement. ‘What, you treating me like your own personal mountain? You’re such a slight little thing, I hardly notice you’re there.’ Maybe. It doesn’t matter, really, where it came from.)

In the daytime, Slightly is birds and beetles and darting dragon-lizards, things bright and beautiful that make Vince smile. At night, though, they become bears and panthers and gorillas, and Vince curls up tight into them and lets their heartbeat lull him to sleep. Vince is small, clever and fleet (he thought for a time when he was small that he was actually a monkey, and his monkey parents had abandoned him for being so strange and hairless and deformed); there isn’t anything in the forest he can’t outrun. But it’s nice to know, when he’s asleep, that he doesn’t always have to.

~~~~~~~~~

The young Howard’s life is simpler. Howard always has two parents, though in some universes they get on better than others, and Howard always grows up in a house, eating overcooked broccoli and listening to Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald.

(in fact, that is not strictly true; there is at least one universe where he grew up listening to The Who and The Rolling Stones, and several where he is not a he at all, but those are stories that have already been told elsewhere)

Howard is always from Leeds, though sometimes he finds himself at school in London, for his mum’s soliciting business or to take care of his sick granddad, or because his parents thought the change would be good for him, even though the Moons have always mistrusted anyone south of (or on the wrong side of) the Pennines. This is so he can meet Vince Noir, because there is no universe in which Vince Noir is from Leeds.

~~~~~~~~~

Howard tries hard not to stare. There's a kid sitting alone at one end of the playground, busily scribbling away at the tarmac with chalks. That in itself isn’t unusual. What is is the boy’s dæmon, which is-- what? Howard reads a lot of books, and he’s only ever seen something like that in his Dictionary of World Mythologies, like a gryphon or a dragon, all gleaming pink and green and bronze, towering over the hunched shape of the boy.

He's fairly sure he isn't succeeding in not staring, a suspicion confirmed when the boy looks up, a startling flash of blue, and grins. ‘Alright?’

‘I didn’t think dæmons could take shapes like that.’

The boy shrugs. ‘Says who?’

Howard blinks. ‘Well. People', he says, like it should be self-evident, except he’s suddenly doubting it himself, trying to think whether anyone has ever actually told him that, or if it’s just one of those things he knows. Or thinks he knows.

‘Maybe I ain’t people, then!’ laughs the boy, and that seems to content him. Howard frowns, not at all sure how to slot that into the file folders he sometimes imagines he has inside his head.

-----or: ‘Oh’, Mathilde says, as soon as they see the kid, and Howard gives her a little dig under the ribs with his thumb, trying to quash his own disappointment. It isn’t the ridiculous hair, or the skinny, pointless little scarf, or even the cowboy boots studded with rhinestones; it's the hummingbird buzzing around him, throwing off little glints of multicoloured iridescence in the morning sunlight like the kid’s own personal disco ball. Flighty, insubstantial; a flashy bauble of a dæmon. Brilliant. Just what he really needs in a junior keeper.

‘I can see why Fossil wanted to hire him, anyway’, murmurs Mathilde wryly, and Howard grimaces. Almost immediately, though, he feels some small part of him warming to the kid. Fossil is a sleaze and a nutbox; this hummingbird kid is going to need someone to look after him.-----

-----or: Vince swings out of a tree and nearly falls on top of Howard while he's curled there reading (not hiding) during break. 'Alright!' he announces, his dæmon swinging down after him as a little monkey with tufty white cheeks. 'I was lookin' for a leopard, but a bear's way more English, innit? Probably better. You're Howard Moon, yeah? I'm Vince!' All this while his dæmon, still monkey-formed, clambers all over bear-Mathilde, clever little fingers combing through her rough fur with unembarrassed, friendly curiosity, and Howard, gawky and pale and ten years old, blinks at him and tries to determine whether this is a joke-----

There as many ways Vince and Howard meet as there are worlds for them to meet in; it would be a waste of my time and yours to attempt to detail them all, but be assured; if you can imagine it, there is somewhere where it happened..

~~~~~~~~~

For nearly two years, Howard and Mathilde pretend that she’d settled as a bear. They pretend so hard that they nearly forget they're pretending, and Howard would look in the mirror and imagine himself once he’d grown up, on the cover of a magazine, a renowned explorer in a faroff land, with his great bristling bear dæmon beside him.

It nearly works, that pretend, until Howard wakes up one night when he is twelve to a small, twitching nose being shoved into his side and a nervous little voice muttering that it's sorry, Howard, sorry.

And there she is, barely even denting the coverlet with the weight of her, a small rabbit with bright eyes, white with splotches of brown and grey. She can't quite meet his eye.

‘Oh’, says Howard, because he doesn't know what else to say. There's a strange feeling clutching at his vocal cords, resignation and bitter disappointment and embarrassment, but also, incongruously, something-- well, something settled. A novel rush to look at his dæmon and know yes, this is her. This is Howard. The feelings curdle together uncomfortably.

Mathilde squirms unhappily, her ears twitching. ‘I didn’t mean to. I was asleep, but then something felt… weird, and I woke up, and I’d changed.’

The clutching, curdling feeling in Howard’s stomach has risen to his chest, and now he feels a little bit blank, and a little like he wants to cry. ‘It’s okay’, he says, and his voice cracks, even though it isn't okay, but he has to at least have a go at convincing himself.

So he lays back down and lets his open eyes drift hazily in the warm brown dark of the room, and tries to let sleep come back. It doesn’t for what feels like a very long time, and eventually, snuffling, Mathilde hops over to press her new, warm little body against Howard’s face. He hadn't realised he was crying until he feels her little lapping tongue at his temple and the corner of his eye; after that, sleep doesn’t take long at all.

‘Oh!’ says his mother in the morning, when Howard shuffles into the kitchen. ‘I thought she’d settled.’

Howard doesn’t look at her. ‘Yeah, me too.’

At the table, his dad is busy going over lesson plans, but his little owl looks up at Howard and gives a little nod and a whistle. ‘Nowt wrong with that; good English animal, unfussy. Rabbits stick around; you ever try ridding the garden of one of those buggers?’

‘Oh, great’, Howard groans. ‘I’m a pest, thanks a lot.’

His dad just lifts his eyebrows silently, unfazed, and on her shoulder, his mum’s whiptail clicks his tongue. She plonks down a bowl of porridge across from him with an expression that's a little more understanding than is quite comfortable. ‘Go on, get that down you. You’ve got half an hour.’

His parents are one thing, but school will be worse. Howard contemplates faking sick, but he's too much of a coward, really, and on the bus surrounded by tired businessmen reading newspapers, he further contemplates just… not getting off, riding until he's well into the city where no-one would know that his dæmon wasn’t supposed to be a rabbit. Maybe he could go to the library.

He doesn't do that either.

‘Mathilde!’ Vince shouts as soon as he sees her new shape, bounding across the tarmac, and Howard winces, eyes reflexively darting around to see if anyone else is looking. Vince has a peculiar habit of addressing dæmons directly, rather than just speaking to their humans, like he’d got the memo that that was weird a little bit later than everyone else, and had trouble remembering it. Mathilde shies, trying to hide against Howard’s side, but Slightly shifts into an ocelot and pounces on her, purring roughly and trying to coax her out to play with bats from velvety paws.

'Slightly', Mathilde grumbles, as Howard blushes, batting back halfheartedly. 'Quit it, I'm not--'

'Aw, she's well cute', Vince enthuses, crouching down to get a better look at her, and Howard scowls.

'I didn't want cute, I wanted impressive. Who's gonna be impressed by me with a rabbit for a dæmon!?' His voice cracks a little in his distress, and his scowl deepens. He kicks at a broken little chunk of asphalt, and it skids away

Slightly promptly shifts again, this time into a leopard-- but a leopard with the shaggiest, silkiest fur Howard's ever seen, like a Persian cat with spots-- and winds themself around Mathilde, comfort whether she wants it or not. The firm passes of their rough tongue over Mathilde's back, grooming her new fur with earnest focus, do feel good, and despite himself, Howard feels a little flush of warmth.

Vince shrugs, and gives Howard a quick little hug around the waist. 'Yeah, but you're already a grumpy old bear, aren't you? Didn't really need a bear for a dæmon too, that's just overkill. 'S what I think, anyway.'

~~~~~~~

Vince’s Slightly doesn’t settle until he’s fifteen, long past everyone else in their year. He gets made fun of for it, but then, he gets made fun of for a lot, so one more thing hardly matters. He tells himself-- and the kids who mock him for it-- that he doesn't mind; growing up is well dull, anyway; he isn't ready to just be one thing forever. It's even mostly true. Some kids can't wait to settle; they huddle in groups and compare with their friends what they'd like their dæmons to settle as, what they think is likely, gossip about unfortunates who've ended up with a fish or a mole rat or a slug. Some of them have a pretty good idea, if their dæmons spend a lot of time in a particular sort of shape-- cat-shapes or reptiles or birds-- that they'll end up as something in that general vein. Slightly is... all sorts of things, and neither they nor Vince have any idea what they might eventually settle as.

They entertain themselves in the meantime trying on pop star dæmons; Bowie’s snake, Joan Jett’s panther, Gary Numan's shiny black beetle, Jagger's lemur. None of them really suit them as a final form, but they're fun, and they look fabulous, and that's the point. He's gonna be a pop star one day, might as well practise; maybe then there'll be kids with unsettled dæmons who'll play dress-up with whatever Slightly's form ends up being.

~~~~~~~

‘What is… she? He? It?’ Howard asks soon after they meet; it’s unsettling not to know. Vince laughs, misunderstanding the question.

‘They ain’t settled yet! We’re a bit young for that.’

‘No, they’re-- they’re a they?’

‘Oh, that.’ Vince shrugs. ‘Well, they ain’t a boy or a girl, so I guess they’re a they, right? I dunno if there’s a proper word for it.’

‘You could look it up’, Howard suggests, and Vince pulls a face. Howard amends his words. ‘I could look it up?’

And that makes Vince’s eyes glow, like Howard’s offered to do a whole lot more than look through a few dictionaries and encyclopaedias, and he bounces and grins up at him in a way that makes Howard feel a little dizzy. ‘Yeah? Genius!’

Howard comes back with words like genderless, and androgynous, and hermaphroditic, and Vince and Slightly sort through them like brightly coloured sweets, trying the flavour of each one in turn.

Even once they're grown up, people still get confused about Slightly's gender. Mostly, Vince figures out, it depends what they think he is, and they go from there; when he's Howard Moon's ugly wife or princess or that 70's lesbian looking one, then people call Slightly he; if they assume he's a man, then Slightly becomes female. Sometimes it's the other way 'round, expecting that any bloke as effete and girly as Vince must surely have a male dæmon. None of these is quite right in either regard, but none of them are entirely wrong either, and Vince and Slightly don't really mind. Mostly it just makes them laugh.

(Not always, but mostly, and those are the important times anyway)

~~~~~~~~~

Naboo the Enigma does not have a dæmon. He’s not human, after all, and there are a myriad of ways throughout the many universes in which the soul manifests. Vince is largely unfazed by this; he can talk to animals, he’s used to the idea; it’s not as if they’re soulless automatons just because they don’t have dæmons. They’re different from human people, that’s all. Bob Fossil and his chubby raccoon dæmon suspect that Naboo is some kind of devil or spirit of unknown provenance and purpose, and Naboo does nothing to dissuade him of this notion; he finds it too useful as a way of handling Fossil to bother being offended by it.

Dixon Bainbridge, when he first meets him, assumes that he's a severed drudge such as he’s seen on his travels. ‘Zombie, eh? Well done, Fossil; can’t find better workers. Little snip, and they’ll keep going until they fall over. And they won’t bitch about wages, hah!’

Fossil looks uneasy. ‘Get fucked’, Naboo says, without much expression, and Bainbridge’s glorious moustache bristles, along with the luxurious fur of his white cat dæmon. The cat hisses.

‘Well!’ he splutters, and then glares. ‘Wouldn’t get that kind of lip, for a start, if he was a zombie. Come on, Fossil, I’ve got better things to do.’

And he strides off, with Fossil scuttling behind him. Naboo shakes his head. ‘Ballbag.’

When he leaves the zoo, if he can’t be bothered to explain that no, he doesn’t have a dæmon, and no, he’s still perfectly healthy and whole, Naboo enlists Bollo to play the role. That Bollo is male attracts fewer odd looks than do his peculiar speech patterns. ‘Naboo man of few words’, Bollo grunts sometimes. ‘So am I.’ And people generally don’t pursue the subject, either because it would be rude, or because Naboo could very well hex them if he gets annoyed.

‘D’you mind?’ Vince asks him once. ‘Pretending to be Naboo’s dæmon, I mean. Having to stay by him all the time when you guys go out.’

‘Naboo say Bollo is like witch’s dæmon; can go long way from him without pulling.’

Which doesn’t really answer the question, but that’s that. Bollo doesn’t mind, really; Naboo is his friend, and he keeps him well in in hashcakes and alien telly, and a far more comfortable nest than he’d had at the zoo. He doesn’t doubt that Naboo would magick him up a pretend dæmon in return, were Bollo of a species expected to have one.

~~~~~~~~~

Howard Moon is a man with a deep regard for rules, for which we may consider him unfortunate, as he isn’t at all that good at following them. Oh, superficially, certainly, but down at the heart of him? Howard Moon has a jazzy soul. He comes at the world slantwise. But rules give him comfort.

Vince’s Slightly never quite breaks the great rule about touching, but they come close enough often enough that it sets Howard on edge. They buzz and flit about him, so close that he can feel the air of their wings, while Vince chatters on, oblivious to the way Howard’s whole body strings itself tighter and tighter. Mathilde rarely shares his nerves on these occasions. She sits tucked against his leg and glows with a quiet, private sense of rightness which only confuses Howard further.

There is a part of him, strange and wild, that imagines reaching out to catch the little bird in his hand-- Slightly is tiny, it would take only the one hand, his fingers cupped like a cage-- feeling the flicker-fast brush of feathers and the soft delicate warmth of them and the race of their flyspeck heart. That wild part of him wants that. The rest of him (and quite rightly too, as anyone could tell you) is horrified by the notion.

Howard is relieved, he tells himself, when Slightly does this less and less often after they leave the zoo. Good. Vince had to learn proper codes of behaviour one of these days.

~~~~~~~~~

When he's very little, a toddler for whom walking is still an art not entirely mastered, Bryan Ferry's ibex dæmon sometimes carries Vince around on his back. Vince clings to his huge, curling horns and laughs as he bounds up the sides of ravines and over great fallen trees with trunks that tower above Vince, even lying on their sides. Slightly (then merely his nameless someone) clings to Vince's hair as a gerbil, or zips behind as a bee, trying to keep pace, and when Vince dismounts, the ibex gives him a very gentle headbutt, to make Vince laugh again. Slightly sometimes tries on a mountain goat shape of their own, a spindly little kid with only the stubs of horns, as hard as they try for the magnificent spirals of Bryan's ibex.

Even as he gets older, Bryan will sometimes send his dæmon to fetch Vince, if he's off playing somewhere far out in the jungle and Bryan wants him back for something. That Bryan and his dæmon can go such distances from each other never occurs to Vince as an unusual thing, though he and Slightly can’t manage more than a few yards. Maybe it’s something that you learn when you grow up. He's easily big enough to carry Vince, even as a seven or eight or nine year old, and Vince will happily chat with him as they go. Bryan never makes any motion to touch Slightly, and so Vince does not actually know, until he is sent to London, that touching another person's dæmon is something one does not do. There are some rules it takes him a long time to learn, but that isn't one of them. That one he learns very quickly. Personal space of any sort will never come naturally to Vince, no-matter how old he gets, but that rule makes a kind of sense that doesn't need explanation.

~~~~~~~~~~

Old Gregg gets far, far too close to touching Mathilde several times more than Howard is comfortable with. Which is to say: any times at all. His lambent eyes focus on her covetously, webbed fingers twitching as he bobs on bent knees next to Howard and away again, like he can’t be still for a moment. ‘Mm, she’s like you; shiny little eyes just like yours, Howard. And all-- soft, yeah, that pretty fur, just like your hair, all soft smoky brown, bet she’d feel real nice to pet.’

Mathilde tucks herself as far into Howard’s jacket as she possibly can, trying hard not to shiver. Old Gregg’s octopus dæmon slithers in and out of puddles, wraps herself around stalagmites and Gregg’s legs and arms and neck, and he never pays any more attention to the sticky grip and curl of her tentacles than is necessary to give her a little stroke and a ‘Shh, Old Gregg’s talking t’Howard now.’

The delicate ruddy tips of her tentacles seem just as eager to make an acquaintance with Howard as the rest of Gregg, and as much as that puts him on horrible edge, there’s something pitiable about it too. That anyone should be that lonely, that desperate for connection… Howard doesn’t like to think about it.

~~~~~~~~~

'This is stupid', Mathilde snaps, as Howard painstakingly turns an empty coconut shell into something vaguely resembling a child's doll. 'It doesn't even look like a person.'

'Yeah, well, a man needs someone to talk to, Mathilde; even a crude facsimile is better than nothing.'

He shoots a dirty look over at the other side of the island, verdant with crookbacked palm trees and flowering bushes and shade; just like Vince, even when it was Howard who'd drawn the line. Mathilde makes a squeaky leporid sound of outrage, and bites him hard on the leg. It's sharp enough to tear through the tattered fabric of his once-trousers, and Howard yelps and claps a hand to the spot, startling and dropping the half-constructed coconut man to the sand.

'What was that!?'

'What'd you think you were doing?'

It takes Howard a moment to actually understand what she means, and once he does, he flushes dully. 'Well, that's not, I mean--'

'You mean you want someone to talk to who won't disagree with you', she says primly. It's an accusation, a condemnation, and Howard at least has the grace not to try and deny it. He just sits there, cross-legged in the sand, flushed under his tan, like a guilty and stubborn child under the gaze of his dæmon. Eventually, Mathilde huffs, stamping one of her strong back paws in the sand and shaking her head. 'Fine. You two have enlightening conversation once you get 'round to making him a brain; I'm going to go wash.'

She can't go far, obviously, and even angry and frustrated, she won't pull their bond to the point of pain, but she hops resolutely off a few yards, and sets to rolling and burrowing in the sand. It flies up around her in little plumes as she scratches and kicks and shakes herself, and Howard watches for a few moments, feeling strange. A dæmon isn't the same as a proper friend, that's all, someone else to talk to; she'll understand after she gets over herself. Vince wouldn't care about him talking to just Mathilde. Not that he should care if Vince notices; Vince is off on his side of the island and good riddance; Howard needs some time to himself. Or-- not to himself, that's why he's making himself a companion. He thinks. This island has done no favours for his cognitive processes, and he can think of no reason why his mind should continue to return to Vince. Just like him; getting up in Howard's brain and dancing around even when he's trying his very hardest to ignore him.

He shakes his head, and turns back to assembling his new coconut friend. He's gonna call him Milky Joe, he decides, as he works. A washed up tea towel and a tuft of palm fibre completes the look, or nearly; after an assessing pause, Howard sinks his fingers into the sand, the cool layer under the sun-heated surface, and unearths a shell, a little thing half cracked, and ties it around Milky Joe's neck with a bit of twine with an uncomfortably furtive feeling. His dæmon can be a crab.

~~~~~~~~~

On the other side of the island, Vince is scowling, because Howard's not there to see, and building himself the most glorious little house he can manage, given the limited materials. It's actually pretty fun, until he remembers why he's doing it, and then something uncomfortable and angry and twisty happens just under his breastbone, and he accidentally mangles one of the huge broad leaves he's using for thatch.

Slightly hums around him as he works, restless and fidgety, and Vince swipes crossly at them as they flit too close to his face. 'Could you do something useful instead of getting in me face all the time?'

They chitter a disdainful little noise, executing a midair figure eight meant to indicate, Hello? I'm like three inches long?. 'And how'm I s'posed to help you build a hut? I don't have hands, 'case you forgot. Can't exactly put up walls or thatch a roof.'

'Then go... I dunno, track me down some flowers to decorate it once I'm done.'

'What, track you down some flowers within a three yard radius?'

'Then just fucking shut up, alright?' Vince kicks uselessly at the pile of bamboo he'd collected; a few long stalks go bouncing away with a disconsolate clatter. 'It's bad enough having Howard go on at me, I don't need it from you as well! Ain't you supposed to be on my side?'

The sound Slightly makes is shrill with frustration; after a moment, they actually dive bomb Vince, and Vince flails away with a flurry of flapping hands. 'You're being stupid! Howard's being stupid!'

'I know Howard's being stupid', Vince sulks, and Slightly makes a sharp little fizzing noise at him.

'Just go talk to him; it's just a bloody line, it's not a wall, you can cross it if you want to.'

And like that, Vince's anger seems to melt out of him, and he falls back against the wall of the hut, sliding down to land on his arse in the sand with a thump. The hut, to his credit, barely even shakes. 'Yeah, well, Howard don't want me to, does he?'

And as much as they'd like to, Slightly can't deny that. Instead, they just sigh and alight on Vince's shoulder, nuzzling into his neck. 'You're still being stupid', they say, but gentler this time.

'Shut up', Vince says, and it's mostly a sigh.

The next day, Vince feels nearly ready to have a go at crossing the line, offering the proverbial olive branch. He'd been furious yesterday, and Howard could go fuck himself as far as he was concerned, but neither he nor Slightly have ever been the type to hold a grudge. It doesn't come naturally, most of the time, and doesn't really feel worth the effort. It's a new day and the weather on the island is always beautiful; the sun's out, the ocean's laughing in the background, maybe he'll invite Howard over to his hut for tea.

Except that there Howard is, sat apparently completely content, having a conversation with a coconut about fucking Sartre. And he tries, he really does, but Howard evidently would rather play little games by himself than let Vince into them. That thing under his sternum burns, now, to go with the twisting, and Slightly makes tiny, distressed noises in his ear as he stalks off. Fine. If that's how Howard wants to play it, fine. Vince has always been better at playing pretend than him anyway.

~~~~~~~~~

Vince makes so many coconut people that eventually, he stops bothering with giving them dæmons. It's not like it even matters, really; they don't need them.

~~~~~~~~~

The difficulty, of course, with externalised souls, is that if one is of a certain temperament, one can very easily fall into the trap of treating it as if it really were external-- other-- not a part of oneself at all. This is not, needless to say, healthy behaviour. A coping mechanism for any number of things, manifestation of a distancing, distrust of the fundamental self. Worlds like this one, where people have dæmons, are of course rife with symbolic language, commonly accepted beliefs about what this dæmon-shape or that says about its person. Most such are at best vast oversimplifications. But it is easy, if one is of a certain temperament, to start to believe those voices, instead of what one knows oneself.

There are several universes (most universes, in truth, even if they're not universes where he actually has a dæmon) in which Vince is of just such a temperament. Slightly is beautiful-- a flashy, iridescent bauble of a dæmon, perfect for the Prince of Camden. Vince can co-ordinate a hundred different outfits around their plumage, have them perch on his shoulder like a glam pirate with a parrot. And they don't talk to people anymore, not like they used to,

(except for Howard-- there is always an exception for Howard. It's the rules. But even there, even there, not as much as they used to)

not like when they were small and didn't know better. Then, Slightly would address people unprompted, or Vince dæmons, oblivious to the strange looks it drew them. Even as they’d got older-- at the zoo, or even after it got shut down-- any conversation with Vince would be with Slightly just as much as him, and none of his friends would be overly surprised by a hummingbird zipping up to greet them with a cheery ‘Awright?’ in Vince’s stead. Now, Vince mutters at them to 'just be quiet, alright? I don't need any of this lot thinking I'm trying to get ~intimate~ with them or something.' And he feels Slightly's discontent, of course he does, but he ignores it.

They both preen when tripped-out girls in bright tights and perspex coo over how pretty Slightly is, and little hands-- otter/monkey/lizard/rat/frog, they all blur together eventually-- reach to admire their plumage, the tiny, quivering quills of their crest. They're lucky, really, that Slightly's a hummingbird; it means that they, at least, don't have to try to be beautiful.

Later, tripping home on too-many drinks, too-high heels, too-much dancing, Slightly remembers when they were young, before they'd settled. Then they could have turned into a pony, a Great Dane, something big and solid that could have supported Vince when he stumbled, the way they'd used to be gorillas and tigers to hold him at night. Not that Slightly doesn't like their shape! They do; it's them, it suits them, but sometimes, sometimes. It'd be nice to feel useful. Capable.

~~~~~~~~~

There are bite marks sometimes, now, on Howard's arms, sharp little rabbity scars. Both Howard and Mathilde deny it has anything to do with them; a stapler mishap, run afoul of a gang of pigeons, got a little too lost in a jazz trance, that's all. He lives a dangerous life, Vince, life on the edge, yessir.

Sometimes, Slightly zips up accusingly (Howard imagines) to inspect them, wings a-whirr and little noodle-tongue tasting the air. 'Don't touch me!' Howard yelps, jerking back, and they all wait for Slightly to say, 'I wouldn't.'

Except that they don't. They hover, awkward, obstinate, their tiny black bead-eyes darting almost as much as Howard's. Howard blinks, stalled mid-recoil. Mathilde's whiskers twitch. Vince, when he realises what's going on, flushes cold white, and then red, points of feverish colour high in his cheeks, and then he storms forward, snatching Slightly right out of the air and stalking off without ever meeting Howard's eyes.

'The fuck are you doing?' his voice hisses as he thumps up the stairs, not for Howard's ears, but Howard hears it anyway. He sounds furious, or maybe on the verge of tears; Howard's too startled and confused to even begin to parse what that tone of voice means. He feels as shaky as if Vince had nearly touched Mathilde, instead of the other way around.

'What--?' he tries. 'I don't-- Mathilde?' He turns helplessly to her, crouched into a loaf on the countertop, the green lighting from below making her look strange, but she shakes her head, a rapid backandforth that makes her ears whip.

'Don't.' She suspects that she might get it, but she doesn't want to think about it, and she doesn't want Howard to either. 'Don't', she says again, and jumps to Howard, trusting him to catch her. He does, and she burrows her little face into Howard's chest, the warmth of his body. 'It's just Vince, yeah?'

~~~~~~~~~

The thing you must understand about the taboo is that to touch another person's dæmon is the greatest intimacy imaginable; greater than sex, greater than anything. To physically touch someone's soul, to be trusted with that-- if you are from a world where your soul lives inside your body, somewhere hidden and incorporeal, there is simply no comparison. And with a small, fragile dæmon such as a hummingbird, or those many people with insect dæmons, the damage that might be done by a clumsy hand is incalculable. Such trust must be given carefully. The one doing the touching feels nothing but the animal-shape; the warm or cool or slick of fur or feathers or scales, but the dæmon's person will feel that touch, like they'd reached right down inside them, into their ribcage, terribly and absolutely known.

Touching is acceptable, tacitly, between the dæmons of parents and their children, or between lovers, or-- occasionally-- between very, very close friends. In private, naturally; it would be crude to flaunt such a thing in public. In other circumstances, without that trust, it is the worst form of violation.

All of this is understood, but none of it quite takes into account what happens when someone both longs to be known and seen and held and safe, and dreads it.

~~~~~~~~

‘I need a gesture, little man’, says Howard. His Mathilde is on the ground at his side, though Howard usually carries her himself, her little paws splayed firm on the dirty wet brick amongst grit and greasy takeaway wrappers and bottlecaps and fag ends. Her whiskers twitch, nervous.

Vince, more than likely, is going to do something stupid. He usually does. No-one ever taught him how to handle these kinds of situations, you see.

But before he has a chance, Slightly flashes from his shoulder down to Mathilde, quicker than thought, flitting about her small furry body. Hummingbirds are not built for cuddling, but that doesn’t stop them trying, darting down and butting with the crown of their tiny head, mussing the ridiculous feathers of their crest as if they could shove Mathilde up out of the damp and the rubbish through sheer force of will.

‘We’re sorry, we’re sorry, we didn’t mean it, we didn’t think, don’t leave us, don’t leave us, please.’

A few automatic steps back, like some strange impulse to give them space or privacy, and Howard is... frozen. He doesn't know what he was expecting, but it certainly wasn't that. Don't leave us? Why would Vince be worried about Howard leaving? Vince is the one with a million friends, a hundred shinier and newer and more exciting things than Howard pulling him forever away from their shared little life. And Slightly-- well, they haven't been mute, precisely, lately, but they haven't spoken, like this, independent of Vince, the way they used to. And it is independent of Vince; he's vaguely aware, out of the corner of his eye, of Vince shrinking against the grimy brick of the wall, huddling into his magnificent cape like he could possibly hide in it. But only vaguely; his attention is transfixed by the two dæmons on the ground.

Mathilde twitches herself around, a tiny movement that brings her over and on top of Slightly, one paw very delicately pressing down on their tailfeathers, pinning them to the ground, and Slightly doesn't even try to resist. They're breathing hard, little breast rising and falling with panicked rapidity, and the elbow joints of their wings flick and flex in a way that isn't even a little about trying to escape or fly away. Mathilde looks down at them with her eyes-- dark gold, something amber and warm in the depths of the brown-- as narrowed as a rabbit’s can be, and Howard swallows hard.

Because that's the thing; Vince isn't just Vince, just like Howard isn't just Howard. And Mathilde feels, has felt, Howard's sorrow and confusion and anger and bitterness at Vince, but looking down at his tiny bright soul pinned under her paw, she feels something else, and that's something Howard hasn't lately felt towards Vince nearly as often as he used to. It’s intimate, sheltering; a tender, warm urge to wrap herself around Slightly and stubbornly protect them from the world. From themself. From Vince. It dawns on Howard, hazy as sodium-lamps in a thick London night, that he might not be the only one, lately, who gets in his own way.

He exhales a wobbly breath, and one of Mathilde's long ears flicks at him in silent affirmation, and then she bends to rub her face all along the length of Slightly's body, warm pressure for several of Howard's heartbeats-- many, many more of Slightly's, whose racing hummingbird heart he can sense more than actually feel, through his connection with Mathilde. And then she pulls back fractionally, and sets to grooming Slightly's breast feathers, her little tongue mussing them back against the grain, damp and warm.

From against the wall, Vince makes a strangled noise that sounds like a sob.

'Mathilde...' Howard tries, but she ignores him, her attention squarely on the hummingbird still pinned under her paw

'We've been trying', comes Slightly's squeaky little voice, sounding confused and desperate. 'I mean, we-- Vince has? Trying and trying, but you only paid less attention to us.'

'Why do you need our attention?' Mathilde's voice comes quiet and intense. 'You've got--'

'They don't-- I don't know! It's not the same, it's never the same; they're not-- they're not you, they don’t know us, they don’t even wanna know us, but if we're too stupid and you don't want us and we've only got them--!'

'Can we go home, Howard?' Vince interrupts. His voice is hoarse and tired, and Howard finally turns away from Slightly and Mathilde to look at him. It's hard to tell exactly in the shadows and muted streetlight of the alley, but Vince's cheeks are dark with mortification, and it looks like he might have been crying. Part of Howard wants Slightly to continue, to explain, because if that’s what’s under all of Vince’s bitchiness and brattiness and acting out, and Howard had had no idea… it feels like a zero gravity lurch from his gut right up to his eyeballs, something confusingly like guilt. But now is probably not the best time, and he lets out a long breath.

So Mathilde lifts her paw, freeing Slightly. But they don’t fly back to Vince right away, as both Howard and Mathilde expect; instead, they continue to lie there, just staring up at Mathilde, and she blinks back, nonplussed. After the space of a few breaths, she lowers her head to nuzzle at them again, a little nudge of her nose, and at that, with a hum like a tiny motor starting, Slightly darts up into a midair hover before zipping back to Vince, who catches them in his cupped hands. Howard catches only a few of the whispered words between them: what? and sorry, and didn’t know what else, and no, no, it wasn’t, we couldn’t--

’We should probably-- that fox’, he offers weakly, clearing his throat. ‘To save Naboo. I mean, uh, that was why you came to find me, wasn’t it? Before we go home.’

’Oh, yeah.’ Vince frowns a little sheepishly. ‘Forgot about that.’

World-saving seems a little much to ask for after all of that emotion and revelation, Howard thinks, but that’s just his luck, isn’t it. Somebody needs to save Naboo’s arse, even if the timing is terrible.

In this universe, Vince throws the cape away on the way home, after they've dealt with the Crack Fox and saved Naboo-- even though Howard hasn't said anything about it one way or another. He might have, earlier, but the moment to be angry about Vince's betrayal seems to have passed. He nearly trips over it as they walk, and, like that's the last injury he can take tonight, he spits, 'Fuck the cape!', ripping it off and wadding it up and slamming it viciously into a skip in another alley.

(Donnie the tramp finds it himself, later, the most beautiful cape he's ever seen, and feels very magnificent for about a week, until he's set upon by Shoreditch trendies, who feel that the cape would look much better with their meticulously crafted ensembles than Donnie's dirty anorak and corduroys. Donnie stabs one of them up, but the other still makes off with the cloak, leaving Donnie much as he was before. He takes the loss philosophically. 'Eh', he says, to no-one in particular. 'That's life, is that. Don't expect Mister Fancyknickers'll have it for much longer than I did.' He's right, as it happens, but this is neither the story of Donnie nor the cape; someone else can tell that tale.)

Mathilde is tucked firmly into her customary place under Howard's arm as they walk, and he holds her tight, more aware than he's been in a long time of the softness of her fur, her belly, her strong legs, the animal warmth of her. He feels a little like he's been crying, even though he hasn't, sort of drained and weightless and confused.

Next to him-- still shorter than Howard, even in those absurdly tall heels-- Vince is trying not to shiver. Without the cape, he's now only in his obscene vinyl jumpsuit, open to the navel and barely even managing to cover his nipples. Slightly's little claws scrabble a little at the material as they attempt to land on Vince's shoulder, unable to find a grip, and bitching quietly at him about it. ‘Just sit in my hair’, Vince mutters. ‘It’s probably all over the shop already.’

'Here-- here, Vince.' Howard shrugs out of his quilted binman's coat and hands it over to Vince. It's filthy, and Vince would probably normally declare it an assault on fashion and refuse even to touch it, but now, he only gives Howard a look like he's not sure he's being serious, and then takes it.

'Cheers', he says quietly, with an oddly twitchy little smile. It's absurdly huge on him when he pulls it on, but he zips it up with visible gratitude to have his bare chest covered. 'Least I'm wearing vinyl, yeah? The binman germs'll wipe right off.'

He says it with another small smile, a guardedly hopeful sort of expression that softens the mockery into something more like their old kind of banter, and when Howard tries a smile back, it comes easier than he thought it might. It's not a conversation-- and they probably will have to have some kind of conversation at some point, after all of that, even though the thought makes Howard want to curl up so tight he collapses into himself like a singularity-- but it's something.

~~~~~~~~~

No one universe, of course, is of itself any better than any other. A world is a world is a world, nothing more. But sometimes, the nature of a universe conspires to make some things just a little less painful for its people-- and their souls-- and for that we can be grateful.