Kaylee and Flywheel
There wasn’t much in the way of personal possessions that Kaylee wanted to pack, but every mechanical part required and deserved special consideration in case it may be needed at home, and mayn’t where she was headed. As she threw clothing into her bag, Flywheel sorted the rare varieties of nut and bolt and chip and wire, separating them with his deft tiny hands to be placed in containers.
The voice in the open doorway, behind her and blocked from Flywheel’s line of sight, took them by surprise: “I don’t like this.”
Kaylee didn’t rise from her knees, but she immediately stopped what she was doing, twisting to look over her shoulder. “Daddy, it’s a job!”
He was hovering in the doorway, rubbing anxiously at the bridge of his long nose. His daemon, a mallard duck, quacked at Kaylee but wouldn’t come into the room. “I know it, I know it,” he replied. “I just don’t like you takin’ off to the big empty hardly knowin’ a whit about this ship or them who runs it.”
“Well as to that, the ship’s a Firefly,” said Kaylee, returning to folding her clothes to set them in her bag. “We ain’t seen a Firefly hereabouts in an age, huh? Just pieces of ‘em comin’ through the market. I had Bester take me inside this one for a look and we took to each other right away. Her name’s Serenity. I got her engine runnin’ and the cap’n was so pleased he offered me Bester’s place as mechanic on the spot.” She froze again, struck with a sudden thought. “Oh, poor Bester!”
Flywheel finished with the nuts and jumped to her shoulder to nuzzle her ear. “He’ll be fine.”
“Jian ta de gui, girl, it ain’t that bush-louse Bester I’m concernin’ about!” Daddy exploded. The duck stretched out and flapped her wings, stirring up the dust that had traveled in on Daddy’s boots.
Kaylee stood up, stretching to relieve the cramps from kneeling too long. “I hear that, Daddy, but I can swear to it, everything’s gonna be shiny. Anyway, there ain’t much of a choice anymore, right? Our prospects are fallin’ through left n’ right. Best bet for work is off-planet, and I’m the only one as can aweigh with ease to send money back to you.”
To emphasize the point, Flywheel launched from her shoulder and soared down to the floor, landing squarely in front of Daddy’s daemon. Nose to beak, they regarded each other for a moment, and then the duck bent her long neck and pulled a single feather from her wing, offering it to Flywheel.
“Don’t forget where you come from,” Daddy said, his voice husky with emotion.
The rest of her goodbyes were no easier, but Flywheel clung to the feather and rubbed his soft face against her neck and whispered to her about all of the amazing things they would see and do out in the Verse.
On board Serenity, everything fell into place. She met the crew, tossed her bag into a room of her very own, and helped the pilot get the ship into the air with a whoop. Kaylee emerged from the engine room greasy and smiling, only to be stopped in her tracks on her way back to her new bunk.
Standing in the corridor was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, wearing the most beautiful dress she had ever seen. A long-legged bird with a magnificent crest struck a pose beside her, personifying grace. Kaylee hadn’t thought that such an exotic daemon could even exist.
The stranger’s eyes swept up and down, and Kaylee’s cheeks burned with shame, knowing how she must look in comparison to such elegance. She began to stammer out an apology, but then a smooth pale hand was extended, for all the world like it expected to be shaken. “Hello. You must be the new mechanic. Mal has been telling us stories of your brilliance all day.”
“Don’t touch her!” Flywheel blurted out. “You’re all dirty!”
“He means me,” Kaylee clarified hastily. “I’m real sorry, it’s sure a pleasure to meet you, but here I’m gettin’ in your way when you must be off somewhere....distinguished.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” the woman laughed. “If my hand gets a smudge, that’s what sinks are for. My name is Inara. This is Mosaic.”
The crane dipped his head in greeting. Flywheel glided down to the floor, and Kaylee watched as the two daemons touched, nose to beak.
Inara and Mosaic
Whenever Inara was beautifying herself on the day of an engagement, Mosaic always spent the time preening. He began as she was towelling off from her shower, and as she dressed, arranged her hair, and applied her makeup, he moved from feather to feather, conversing with her between each one. Without fail they would finish at the same moment, Inara feeling satisfied that the image in the mirror was the one that she wanted the client to see, and Mosaic looking much the same, to the naked eye, as he always did.
Today, it was unlikely that anyone but the crew would see her, but she and Mosaic went through their routine just the same. The Guild’s teaching was to cultivate the habit of peak physical presentation until it became a part of oneself, and it had been years since Inara had felt comfortable wearing a casual outfit. The reasons behind the custom were practical as well as psychological -- a client might seek her out at any time, and it was equally damaging to appear onscreen looking slovenly as it was to reject the call -- but what mattered most to her was taking pride in her own work. She appreciated the face in the mirror, flawless and contented.
“I’m still uncertain about the young man on Persephone,” she said to Mosaic as she selected a palette of eyeshadow. “To be quite honest, if you hadn’t formed such a fixation on his daemon, I don’t think I would have paid him a second thought.”
The crane’s sinuous neck swiveled to regard her over his back. “Fixation? I simply pointed out that we had never seen one like her before.”
Inara laughed gently, remembering. “A wallaby. But you did like her. And so did I.”
“I would dance for her,” he stated. It was a promise he never made lightly, and not for every client that they had agreed upon together. Mosaic’s dance was beyond the mating display of any bird in nature. Every daemon who had been privileged enough to see it had been captivated. “But you’ll need to make up your mind about the man, first.”
She hesitated, the makeup brush halfway to her face. “I trust your judgment, Mosaic.” It was nothing but the truth. The Guild encouraged voluble conversation with one’s daemon whenever there was a private opportunity, as a way to work through any misgivings or complicated feelings and stay centered. Inara’s relationship with Mosaic had been completely healthy for as long as he had had his adult form.
“But you’re afraid he’ll try to touch me. Aren’t you?” He shook his crest and turned his attention back to his feathers, but not before adding, “I am.”
Inara sighed. “If only they would read the terms.” Most of them did, of course; it was a legal document, and not one to be taken lightly. But a sexually stimulated man could too easily reach out in a fit of passion, craving more connection, forgetting the limitations of this kind of union. And the senator’s son with the wallaby daemon, however swai his smile, was so young...
“I know who we should talk to,” said Mosaic.
“Why should we talk to anyone?”
He continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “The Shepherd. Pukutino. There’s no need to tell him the details.”
There was no need to tell him anything at all. Inara said as much, in clear phrasing, and her daemon nodded along and preened and preened until she had fastened the last pin into her elegantly cascading curls, and she thought that the topic was closed.
A few hours later she found herself deep in conversation with Shepherd Book. It was purely philosophical, of course, but when she hinted that she had some experience with non-consensual daemon touching, his sympathy was almost as comforting as the sizable gap he kept between himself and Mosaic.
Shepherd Book and Pukutino
Book found it amusing that so many liked to call him “preacher” when they had never heard him preach. The crew would probably be surprised to even find that he could; to them, the title of Shepherd meant that he read his Bible a lot and didn’t date. Those who were curious about his past were curious about the violent parts, and they knew better than to ask him about those.
But not everything was a secret. He wished he could have shown them how he would create a congregation out of thin air on the outer planets, in open-air chapels or town squares or any empty space. It might begin with a conversation among believers who wanted his advice, and then someone would overhear and ask a theological question, and more would gather as he offered them all that he knew. Or he might be asked in advance to speak -- settlements without a Shepherd in residence would perform their own blessings and rituals, but if he volunteered to deliver a sermon, he was seldom turned down.
As the crowd began to form, the clear high chirp of a cricket would draw them together. Heads turned to find the source of the unexpected sound, which rang out in the early morning or high noon or dead of night, any season on any planet. Some laughed when they realized it was just a daemon, perched on Book’s hand, which he held flat in front of him at chest level. Some wandered off at that point, uninterested in what would happen next.
Those who remained, remained in a hush, and the hush was never broken no matter how many joined the throng as the sermon played out. Sometimes he made a joke, and there would be laughter; sometimes he asked a question, and there would be answers; almost always, he would invite them to chant or sing with him, and then the joyful sound would ring out like thunder...but with the odd, very rare exception, nobody interrupted. Nobody tried to shout him down. The cricket’s song had cast a spell that held them there long after it ended.
Those who wanted to hear it again were not disappointed. Book would give his final blessing, and a different kind of music would fill the air: the ethereal sounds of nature given human intelligence and artistry. Children hugged daemons to their chests in the shapes of rabbits and dogs, and stared with wide eyes. Some of their parents might wipe away a tear as the last notes faded.
He felt a sincere kinship with everyone he met on these occasions, but he rarely forged a friendship that outlasted his time on their planet. That there was sorrow behind him, that the cricket’s name was Pukutino, that he would rather skip a meal than choke down another plate of the Alliance’s freeze-dried beans -- none of that served a purpose, not when they had come to hear about God.
On Serenity it was different. Malcolm would stride past and hurl out a cheerfully sarcastic question about why God couldn’t be bothered to send a little windfall to folks in dire straits, and his daemon, trotting along in his wake, would look up to Book’s shoulder and pin her ears back at Pukutino.
Without really meaning to, Book began writing a sermon in his head that he knew he would never have the chance to give. It was Mal’s daemon who inspired it, one day when he was trying to figure out exactly what breed of dog she was, and noticed something profoundly sad in her dark eyes. It was likely that Mal’s origins were in a place where every other person you met would have a dog just like her: a working animal, faithful and intelligent and sociable. Bred for herding sheep.
The title of ‘Shepherd’ was, of course, an unofficial name for priests, brought into common usage when people began to object to the more traditional ‘Father’. In Book’s imaginary sermon, he explained that he liked the image that the word shepherd evoked, and that it was the same word for a man in a field at night and for a dog that looked like Malcolm’s Mary Ellen. He went on to talk about how the purpose of the metaphor was not to portray others as mindless sheep, but to show that they were valued, worthy of protection and guidance.
He knew that he wouldn’t reach Mal with a sermon. But he hoped that one day it would occur to him on his own: there were two Shepherds on Serenity.
Malcolm and Mary Ellen
As a child, Mal used to love stories about the Sunset Riders, a band of nomads whose daemons had settled as horses. Too big to be brought safely into normal accommodations, the herd would run together over the plains all day, and set up camps at night so that there would never be more than a sheet of canvas between Rider and daemon.
In truth, he had thought that they were only a legend, at first. Once or twice he even saw one with his own eyes and remained unaware, for when they came into town to trade they wore a perfect disguise: a saddle and bridle on the horse, tailed by a sheepdog. The illusion was broken only if the dog ran away or the horse spoke, which did happen occasionally. It was a safe little town, and the Sunset Riders could relax their guard there.
The earliest memories that Mal could summon had Mary Ellen as a pony, and when he got old enough to go off on his own, she was a buckskin mare as often as she wasn’t. They rode out as far as they dared, and sometimes they would glimpse the Sunset herd from afar, ambling along on their varied horse-daemons with a string of pack mules following to carry their gear.
He had found a picture in a magazine once, an artist’s rendition of a Sunset Rider on his daemon with a topless woman up there with him, face to face, kissing him while her songbird daemon perched on his shoulder. Mal thought it was the sexiest thing he had ever seen. He ripped out the page and hid it carefully but took it out almost every night for months.
One day that would be him, when Mary Ellen finally settled and they joined the Sunset herd and had all kinds of adventures and let pretty girls ride double with him. He dutifully learned the trade from his family, but informed them all along that it was only temporary and they’d better have a backup plan for when he grew up. His father had laughed. “When I was your age, I was gonna be a star captain,” he said. “You hold onto those dreams, son. Mary Ellen will tell you when it’s time to let ‘em go.”
Mary Ellen, who had been kneading the bed in the form of a cat, sat up indignantly and stalked outside, and took her horse form as soon as Mal was out the door. “We’ll show him,” she said, and knelt to let him mount.
After his father died there had been no time for dreams. He no longer practiced the trade to keep his mother happy but to keep her alive. Mary Ellen was whatever she had to be, until she had been a border collie for a week and confessed to him that she didn’t know at what point she had lost the ability to be anything else.
Somehow, losing the chance to be a Rider made it easier to adjust when they went off to war. The future had been taken from them once; why shouldn’t it change again? Mary Ellen wasn’t a born fighter, but she could handle herself, and she knew how to lead. They rose quickly through the ranks.
During a long spell of downtime, Mal found he was able to tell Zoe about the Sunset Riders without a trace of bitterness, just because she was curious. He even laughed as he described that picture he had sweated over, finding it in his mind’s eye and realizing how hideously malproportioned it had really been. “And I wanted to be that buckaroo,” he chuckled. “Gracious Lord did intervene, praise Him.”
She smiled too, but her question caught him off guard: “How do you know the buckaroo was the Sunset Rider?”
“If the man and the girl were both on the horse, and the bird was on his shoulder, how do you know the horse was his daemon? Maybe she was the Sunset Rider.” She raised an eyebrow. Her daemon Trygg, a born fighter if Mal had ever seen one, pulled his lips back over a mouthful of gleaming fangs.
Mal looked at Mary Ellen, and she looked at him. “That does change matters a mite, don’t it?” she said.
Zoe, the truest friend a man could ask for, never told a soul about the picture. Of course, she never let him forget about it, either.
Zoe and Trygg
People underestimated Trygg all the time. He was dismissed offhand as a housecat, and even mistaken for a weasel once or twice. If Zoe had been looking for love, she probably would have encouraged the misconceptions, and tried to make her daemon purr and sit primly like the kind of domestic creature that men found desirable in a wife. But she was a warrior, and Trygg was a wildcat, and they had better ways to turn a misconception to their advantage.
After too many battles under her belt to count, Zoe knew what to expect when the two sides first faced each other in close combat. Nobody would target an evenly matched opponent if they had any choice in the matter. They went for whoever they thought they could defeat, so they could keep fighting instead of dying in the first round. Most never even realized that they were choosing; it was simply what happened.
Inevitably, a big man with a big daemon would take a look at Zoe, and focus on her in a way that made Trygg hiss, “He’s yours.” She was ready, when the man attacked. He, on the other hand, was never quite ready for her.
The daemon counterpart was always a fierce creature, a mastiff or wolverine or boa constrictor -- something that could make short work of a jaguarundi. They always knew it, too, so they never realized until it was too late that Trygg had one more thing to say before he took off at top speed: “She’s mine.” And then he would attack someone else’s daemon.
It wasn’t fair play, splitting up during a fight. It simply wasn’t done. But Zoe had learned, early and firmly, that the battlefield was no place for etiquette, and the moment of confusion that it caused when Trygg slipped away like a shadow had saved her life again and again. She was haunted by memories of daemons skidding to a halt, looking around in open astonishment, and then vanishing into Dust as she dispatched their humans. By that time, Trygg would be locked in combat with a cat his own size, or a bird, and Zoe had an opening to back him up and get her second kill.
When there was a chance to safely sleep, she curled herself around him and asked if they really had the right. His answer was always the same: “It’s no more than they’d do to us. It’s survival. If a man threatens us, you deal with him. If a rat threatens us, I devour her.”
They had followed Malcolm Reynolds into Serenity, twice, before she realized she had been asking the wrong question. Trygg had spent years stalking at her side with pinned ears and bristling whiskers, and when they were alone, he was still taut and alert, ready to face anything. She yearned to see him play, maybe roll onto his back and bat his paws at her. Somehow, he couldn’t process that they were safe now, and she thought she knew why.
“Can we be forgiven?” she whispered to him at last, and his answer came in a heaving sigh. “I don’t know.”
He was the spirit of violence. When he looked at another daemon, his only thought was to whether it was stronger or weaker than he was -- what kind of chance he would have if it came to a fight. Mary Ellen was exempt; he was accustomed to obeying her. He could be kind to the small and frail, knowing them to be harmless. But when that chatty pilot with his ridiculous mustache and his chatty woodpecker joined the crew, Trygg made a point of informing Zoe, in confidence, “I could catch her and crush her in my jaws and it would take me no more than ten seconds.”
She put all of her energy into unlearning war, and did her best to tolerate Wash and the thousand little annoyances that he brought with him. Gradually, she could see improvement. Her flashbacks came less frequently, and Trygg developed a peaceful way of washing his face while she read the news in the morning. She stopped trying to give Wash a hard time, or maybe he stopped trying to bother her.
The morning after the first time she slept with him, Trygg lay down across his bare chest, purring for all he was worth and flexing his claws in the air. Zoe jumped, sending Constance into a flutter, and then sat back and laughed in unbridled joy.
She had been such a fool. Trygg had been a fool, she could see it now clearly. The answer had been here all along. They were forgiven.
Wash and Constance
The joke was that New Cali, the city where Wash grew up, was the Rodent Capital of the Verse. Nearly everyone you met there had rat or squirrel or gerbil daemons, riding on shoulders or tucked in pockets, staying out of the way. It made some sense, given the overpopulation problem, that daemons would mature into forms that didn’t take much space, but nobody seemed to question the lack of flying creatures. Even city birds, like sparrows and pigeons, were as rare as tigers.
“It’s the sky,” Constance would tell him, even as she defiantly tried out every kind of bird that she could imagine. “It’s boring and it smells like niou-se. Nobody wants to fly in it.”
But Wash did want to fly. There was no flight school on the planet, so he set his sights off-world and studied what he could in the meantime. Books were good and computers were better, and he hung around spaceports whenever possible until pilots started to recognize him and laugh whenever they spotted the scrawny kid scoping out their ships and taking notes on their landings.
In spite of all that, his first real breakthrough came from Constance. She was swooping lazily around his room as a parakeet, and he was watching her flight path when he suddenly realized that the similarity between birds and spacecrafts was not just metaphorical. Nature had perfected aerodynamic travel long before human hands ever built an engine. “Do that launch again!” he said excitedly, and then, “Be a bigger bird and do it again!” and then “Come here and let me look at your wings! They’re shaped different! That’s why you took off different!”
She spent most of the next day as a bat. Following that, she was various species of insect, which proved to be even more enlightening: the anatomy of a beetle was nothing at all like a dragonfly or a bumblebee, let alone a bird or mammal. He made careful comparisons, sketching outlines of her wings each time and looking up facts about each animal, but they both soon grew weary of bugs. She wasn’t meant to be anything but a bird.
When she settled, though, it was as one of the only types of flighted avian that she had never tried before: a woodpecker with a long neck and a bright red crest, large enough to soar high but small enough to sit comfortably on his shoulder. “Starship accommodations tend toward a paucity of wood,” he warned her as they prepared to finally leave for flight school.
“Then I’ll have to peck on your skull,” she replied cheerfully.
As soon as they were enrolled, they began to see bird daemons on every shoulder, future pilots all of them. Wash was sure he had found his place, and his people.
That impression died quickly. Sometimes he seemed like the only one here who actually wanted to learn, who cared about aerodynamic theory and had independently studied techniques that he wouldn’t have a chance to implement until he was licensed. At other times, he could see how far his New Cali background had set him behind, and so could his peers, and they relished it. The only reason anyone was here was to build a foundation for a good career and move on, anyway. Wash didn’t get depressed, exactly, but he didn’t talk much either, except to Constance and that only when they were alone.
His first real job was on a freight ship with a crew of two hundred. At least eighty percent of them had reptilian or amphibious daemons. They were nice people, for the most part, but he had started to feel that he knew exactly what to expect when he met someone with a lizard on his shoulder, and that these weren’t his people either.
Serenity came along only after he had plenty of jobs and crews under his belt for comparison. She was the smallest ship he had ever travelled on, yet somehow the most diverse. There was no “typical” daemon here. A dog, a crane, a cricket...he asked Zoe, once they had gotten to know each other, if she found it peculiar at all, and she didn’t know what he meant. The Browncoats had been a ragtag bunch, too, where you’d rarely see the same kind of daemon twice.
Wash replied that he hadn’t seen a hyena daemon even once, which was the truth. He supposed most people would look at her and make the reasonable assumption that Jayne was a dangerous, opportunistic thug, but he also had the feeling that most thugs stayed dangerous because the people they met let themselves get pushed around. Constance wasn’t even wary around the hyena.
Instead, she found a way to amuse herself by dive-bombing Jaxon whenever she and Jayne weren’t looking. It resulted in some pretty scary-sounding snarls and a lot of incredulous looks from the rest of the crew, but Constance never lost a feather and Wash never got bullied.
It all worked out. Nobody here was anything like him. He had found his people.
Jayne and Jaxon
Everywhere he went it was always the same ruttin’ joke: “Which one’s Jaxon and which one’s Jayne?” Sometimes maybe it weren’t a joke so much as folk couldn’t fathom the fact, plain as day, that a man could be named Jayne and a man’s daemon didn’t have to be a deviant to bear the name of Jaxon.
She was the biggest and the toughest on Serenity, though that weren’t to say much. Mal had that dog with the tail always windshield-wiping, nothing to strike fear in a heart. Zoe’s weaselly brown cat, now, if he were a mite bigger he’d give Jaxon a run for the money, but he weren’t, so he didn’t.
The rest of ‘em didn’t factor. Kaylee’s little flying rodent could get swallowed whole if Jaxon decided one day she didn’t like him. Jayne thought it was fair in the meanwhile to stop letting that stripey-faced fuzzball land on her face and ride around on her head, but Jaxon never gave him more than a half-assed growl about it. Kaylee would look down and make little cooing noises about how cute they were, and Jayne couldn’t tell Jaxon to cut the crap and put her ferociousness back on, because there was a chance she’d ignore him and then everyone would see and laugh.
Inara had some kind of long-leg grass goose, which marked the first time a daemon had ever made Jayne curious, because what did a Companion’s clients do with her daemon? Touch him all over, he guessed, but maybe more than that. Maybe the bird used them long feathers to tickle the customer’s nethers. Maybe the Companion’s daemon’s job was to keep the fella occupied while the Companion picked up his daemon and touched her all over.
Jayne couldn’t stop thinking about it. One day Inara looked at the mud still dried on Jaxon’s legs from the last job, and said, real pleasant-like, “Mal has some brushes he uses on Mary Ellen. I’m sure Jaxon would like that too.”
Jaxon herself rejected the idea with a disdainful snort, and Jayne guffawed and explained, “She ain’t no pampered puppy like Mary Ellen. She’ll get the muck off herself when the mood hits her.”
Inara shrugged serenely. “It’s always worthwhile to have some bonding time with your daemon.”
“Bondin’ time?” he echoed, but he saw his opening to finally ask. “Why? Whaddaya do with your daemon?”
She smiled. “I talk to him, of course.”
Jayne and Jaxon shared a look of disbelieving. Why would anyone be needing to flap jaws with a partner that saw and heard everything you did, that knew what was in your head before you blurted it out anyway? Jaxon only ever spoke when she had something gorram useful to say, like “Duck” or “I smell food.”
The preacher had a bug daemon, not even one with a sting. Wash had an annoying noisy bird that swooped at Jaxon for no reason and pecked on metal when she wanted attention.
That fancypants doc, now, his daemon mighta been the second one what set Jayne’s mind to wondering. She was a brown rat creature, which the doc was always correcting about because he said she weren’t no rat but a mink. “Ain’t that just a variety o’ rat?” Jayne asked, and Doc got bent outta shape like it was an insult. Like Jayne couldn’t do better than that for an insult. Her name was Hysteria, or something like it. He got plenty of correction on that account, too, but he couldn’t properly remember the name on her and didn’t in particular care.
No, there was only one thing of interest ‘bout the mink daemon, and that were due to the doc’s kwong-juh duh sister. The witch, if ever there was one. The princess of raining danger on folks what was nearby.
The girl with no daemon.
There was some kinda story behind it but a sane world don’t just accept an explaining for a daemonless human walking about like the living. She moved normal, she ate, she talked like a real person even if it didn’t make no sense most of the time, and she knew she had something in the absent, but she couldn’t give anyone a hint on when she’d seen him last. Even her high-falutin’ brother didn’t know where the gorram daemon had gone, or why she could still go on without it.
It was the doc’s conviction that there was still something there to heal, and hell if he didn’t marry hisself to finding an answer, but Jayne didn’t know what he thought was a best case for a condition like the girl had. Was he gonna make her a new daemon? Trick her mind so’s she thought she didn’t need one?
Or was he planning to share Hysteria with her? The Tams spent a lot of time alone together. It gave Jayne chills to think about -- he liked some kink, but they was brother and sister. Maybe all they did in there was talk, like Inara and her educated bird.
But River never looked more normal than when she had her eyes on Simon’s daemon. Something was up with them.
Simon and Asteria
“I’m okay,” said Asteria softly, but there was strain in her bright black eyes. “She needed that. It wasn’t too much.”
Simon picked her up, one hand under her chest, the other cradling her hind end, and held her against his chest. On a better day she would have climbed to his shoulder, but she always took time to get her bearings after River had touched her. It seemed to be taking more out of her each time. River was becoming more reluctant to accept the invitation. River needed it more than ever.
When he rescued her he hadn’t known what to expect, but not this. He had seen her there, so alone, and his joy at finally coming to the end of his search evaporated as he realized it was only her body, so alone. He was too late and she was dead, and he hadn’t even known that was a possibility. Then she spoke and he saw he was wrong again, but he was still too late, her daemon was gone and she was so, so alone.
The medications that he prescribed her helped with her mental health, to some extent, but he had no idea how to treat her for a lost daemon. He didn’t think there was a doctor in the Verse who would know that, unless it was the ones who had done this to her. This was something spiritual, metaphysical. It should never have entered anyone’s mind that this was so much as a risk.
So to ease her suffering, he began to let Asteria play the part of River’s daemon. It was a poor substitute, but better than the stuffed animals that she held at night and eventually would rip to shreds in an ecstasy of grief. She was always tentative and ashamed when she stroked a hand down Asteria’s back, lingering on the luxuriously soft chocolate brown fur. For his part, Simon would sit nearby, jaw clenched, looking at anything but his daemon and sister. Sometimes he threw up afterward.
It wasn’t a sexual sensation, whatever the stereotypes said. It wasn’t even a sense of violation -- he loved River, she loved him, and this was consensual. But a connection this intimate was never meant to be sustained between family members, even if both of them had been at peak mental stability. Sharing River’s terror and emptiness was overwhelming for Asteria, who had once been so confident as she calmed and encouraged the daemons of Simon’s patients.
He missed those days. The compartment under the operating table was large enough to accommodate as many daemons as there were humans on and around the table, but Asteria was the one who would take charge. “You’ve been injured,” Simon could hear her say, even as he devoted all his attention to the patient’s human body. “We’re doing everything we can. You’re in the hands of a highly experienced trauma surgeon…”
She still craved that connection, he came to understand, more than he craved the prestige and comfort of his former position. He had been content to know that he was helping people, but she needed to be close, to find recognition and regard, even if it lasted only an hour. On Serenity, she sought out Flywheel when Simon hadn’t even realized he had been thinking about Kaylee; Asteria knew that if she lay down on a cushion, she would soon have the sugar glider cuddling up with her, letting her relax for once. She would have welcomed the attention from any daemon on the ship, but it was Flywheel who made her feel wanted.
“Her fur is so soft,” said River as Simon recovered from the ordeal with Asteria in his hands.
He tried to smile. “I always thought she settled as a mink because they’re discreet and they symbolize culture. Maybe the real reason was because someday you would need to pet her.”
“No.” River had that know-it-all tone that she still used to point things out, even if her understanding of the truth had become much less reliable as a source of knowledge. “Rich people on Earth That Was raised animals on fur farms and then slaughtered them and wore their skins as trophies. Like Reavers.” She threw him a challenging look. “That’s why Asteria is a mink.”
Simon felt a wave of returning nausea, but said nothing. Asteria lifted her head weakly. Her voice was stern: “Hush, mei mei. This isn’t a fur farm.”
Later on, Simon had to do some explaining for the rest of the crew. Everyone had heard River screaming her lungs out from her bunk, and everyone knew that Simon had been in there with her. They even banged on the door, asking if he needed help, and he had just barely managed to convince them that he had it under control, so naturally they were all waiting when he and Asteria emerged, alone.
“It was just an episode,” he assured them. “She’s fine.”
Mal’s dog pinned her ears, and Mal elucidated, “Well it’s a dazzlin’ ray of sunshine to hear that, but might I introduce you to the idea that if that sweet sister of yours gets it in her head to wring some weasel neck while we ain’t adjacent to change her mind, we’ll all of us be a sizable distance from ‘fine’ next time an episode airs and her brother-doctor ain’t alive to do anything about it.”
Simon frowned, looking from face to face and finding only fear or stoic concern on all of them. “She wouldn’t try to kill my daemon,” he said. “Why...why would you think something like that?”
“We heard,” Kaylee offered in a small voice. “We could hear some of what she was sayin’. ‘Break her. Break her.’”
He wished he could have just told them all not to worry, that it wasn’t what they thought, but he no longer had the luxury of safeguarding River’s privacy over all. “That’s not what she was saying,” he admitted with a sigh. “It was ‘Breaker’, not ‘Break her’.”
“Does that have any special significance?” Inara inquired.
“Yes.” Simon rubbed his hand over his face, trying not to think about how tired he was. “Her daemon was called Breaker.”
A dismayed hush fell over the listeners, broken by Jayne’s mutter: “Spookifyin’ gorram name fer a daemon, y’ ask me.”
Simon excused himself, and tried to pretend he was busy in the infirmary.
Things got worse the next day, not only for Simon and River but for everybody, and he was glad he had left her safe on the ship with Shepherd Book. What had started as a routine job (smuggling, which Simon realized had somehow become ‘routine’ since he had come to Serenity) led them into a chaotic situation with the corrupt local government and an organized crime ring that was trying to intercept and exploit the band of refugees who were now stuck at the port.
Malcolm was making every attempt to help the refugees while at the same time turning a profit and convincing everyone that the latter motive was his only one. Kaylee disappeared for hours, finally turning up with a child under each arm and no way to find their parents. Zoe and Wash got separated from each other, too, and his woodpecker daemon panicked briefly and began pecking on a tin roof to draw his wife out, making a cacophony that terrified everyone in the vicinity. Through it all, people kept talking about a warlock or a devil hiding among them, with no clear description of who this person was or why he had them so unnerved.
Late in the afternoon, in the temporary shelter that had been staked in an abandoned area of the port, Simon found himself holding a gun to someone’s head, and he knew it had gone too far. The standoff ended peacefully, and he retraced the steps that had brought him there and saw nothing that he could have done differently if given the chance, but he had no stomach for participating in this madness any longer no matter whose side he was on. He took Malcolm aside and thrust the gun back at him, handle first. “You didn’t need my help here,” he snapped. “Don’t tell me I’m coming as a field medic when all you really wanted was to use me as a distraction.”
Mal accepted and holstered the gun, unperturbed, but he was giving Simon a penetrating look, and his daemon was sniffing the ground and the air as if searching for something. “Damned if you don’t distract with the best of ‘em, though,” he mused, stroking his chin.
Asteria bristled on Simon’s shoulder. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’ve been drawin’ an abundance of eyes, Doc. Might be your fine features, then again, might not.”
Simon covered his face with his hands, overwhelmed. Everyone on the crew had agreed that the multitude of warrants for his arrest couldn’t have reached this backwater planet, but there was no other reason that he would be recognized. The Alliance had come for him, and he was going to be arrested any minute now. Him and River both. “You’re imagining it,” he informed Malcolm, a flimsy denial that got him nowhere.
“No,” interjected Inara. “I noticed it too.” She had been talking to everyone, everywhere, trying to work her way up to someone she could influence to make a difference, but it seemed like no such person existed. The government officials had no respect for Companions, and the local populace barely seemed to know what they were.
She glided closer, but instead of addressing Simon, she looked at the weary middle-aged man who had surrendered to Mal before it came to blows. “Why were you staring at him?” she asked. “He’s the least threatening person here, but you were the most frightened of him.”
The man didn’t look happy about answering, but he knuckled his forehead respectfully, sensing that Inara’s attire and manner signified her importance even if he didn’t know the details. “Weren’t afraid of him,” he explained. “Thought he was someone else. Warlock, maybe.”
Several voices groaned loudly, Simon’s among them. “Not this again,” he exhaled.
There was a flutter of protest from the man’s crow daemon, and he responded in a more insistent tone, pointing toward Asteria. “But I can see it ain’t you, on account o’ your…”
He was interrupted by a scream, coming from someone over on the other side of the port. Everyone on this side turned to look, some reaching for weapons, but there was no sign of violence, just a crowd pushing back to make way for one solitary figure. “‘Ere,” said the man with the crow. “That’s him.”
Without warning, Asteria scrambled down Simon’s leg and took off running, leaving him no choice but to follow her. She wasn’t afraid; she was going toward the alleged warlock, not away from him, and he was crouching and opening his hands as if to welcome her. Simon couldn’t begin to identify what he was feeling in this nightmare scenario, the betrayal of his own soul, until he caught up and could see the other clearly as he straightened up again with Asteria held in his arms.
Simon Tam was standing face-to-face with Simon Tam. There was no other way to interpret the young man who stared at him while clutching his own daemon to his chest. Perhaps he truly was a warlock. Simon would have wondered if he had an identical twin that he had never known about, but the doppelganger wasn’t a mirror image: he was a few years younger, wearing clothing that Simon remembered owning before he had left home. He looked as shocked as Simon felt, with an underlying desperation that spoke of tragedy beyond his own experiences, but the really telling thing was Asteria. She was comfortable sitting in his bare hands, and there was none of the jarring sensation that Simon felt whenever River touched her.
The young replica spoke hesitantly, just loud enough to be heard: “Simon?”
Fascinated, Simon reached out to touch him, almost involuntarily, but the other Simon cringed and stepped back in haste. He stooped to put Asteria down, and she returned to her rightful place. “We know him,” she said as Simon picked her up, and he took a deep breath, nodded, and greeted the other: “Breaker?”
Breaker’s eyes instantly filled with tears. “Is she near? Have I finally found her?”
“She’s near,” Simon assured him. “We can go to her as soon as the situation cools down here. Come sit with me. Explain what you can. You’re safe. I promise,” -- he thought he might be starting to cry, too -- “I promise I’ll keep you safe.”
Some of the crew had come closer while they were talking, and Simon turned to the nearest, Kaylee, and said, “This is River’s daemon. Can you help us keep people away from him?”
She covered her mouth with both hands, eyes wide, but she nodded, and her sugar glider daemon zoomed straight from her shoulder to Breaker’s. In another second she was passing on the message to Malcolm, and then guiding the daemons to a broke-down vehicle inside the port where they could huddle together away from all humans but Simon. Inara’s crane, Mosaic, joined them while Inara herself stayed respectfully outside the walls of the shelter, and Simon could see Zoe’s Trygg and Mal’s Mary Ellen prowling outside, keeping watch. Even Jayne’s hyena made herself a guardian for the moment.
“How did you manage to get around?” Simon asked, sliding into one of the hard plastic seats positioned across from Breaker.
He had both Asteria and Flywheel on his lap, with Mosaic’s beak resting on his knee, and he kept his gaze on the other daemons instead of Simon, but he responded clearly, in Simon’s own voice. “I can still change. If I have to. The rest of the time, I tried to pass as human. I had a mouse in my pocket so people would think it was my daemon, but it ran away when we landed here.”
“Didn’t you have people trying to touch you?” Simon asked, unthinking. River’s daemon looked up, with a shell-shocked expression that instantly brought to mind every vivid memory Simon had of River’s panic attacks, her sudden meltdowns that seemingly came from nowhere. “Of course,” he answered himself, feeling queasy. “We’ll get you home soon, Breaker. You’ll be whole again.”
River’s daemon looked no less miserable at the thought. “What if she doesn’t want me anymore?”
It should have been a risible idea, but there was no telling what was going on in River’s shattered mind, especially when it came to her self-perception. Her reunion with her soul would be the miracle that Simon had been waiting for, but he couldn’t fool himself: the work was just beginning. “If I know my sister at all,” he said carefully, “she’ll be afraid that you’re the one who doesn’t want her. Please, if you can, just show her she’s wrong.”
River and Breaker
River sat in the infirmary to wait. Simon and the others had been gone all day, but she knew that something terrible was happening. Or something good. It could have been both; they gave her the same feeling anyway.
Shepherd Book had wanted to keep an eye on her, so she told him she would remain sitting on the cot and he could watch her through the glass. She had kept her side of the bargain, feet up in front of her, hands laced together around her knees, and he had kept his, walking past every few minutes but not entering the room. First he had offered her books, games, music, food -- he was kind like that. He didn’t insist when she refused.
The thing that had been happening outside eventually came in, like waves crashing where the river meets the sea. It was shaped like her brother.
Her real brother watched through the glass, and did not enter the room. “Hello,” she said to Breaker.
“Hello,” he said back to her.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Can I hug you?” he asked.
He was nervous. She didn’t know why. Slowly, she slid one foot down to the floor, then the other, and when she was standing in front of him, she opened her arms and he stepped into them. His embrace felt just like Simon’s, but he smelled like her own clothing. “I’m sorry,” she replied, muffled against his chest.
When she let go, he sat down on the cot where she had been, and transformed into a white bird with wings that stretched nearly across the room. His beak made her laugh. His eyes were infinitely dark and full of wisdom. She touched his feathers with her fingertips and whispered, “Through the fog you came. Hail, in the name of God.”
“I won’t change again,” said Breaker. “I’m not Simon.”
“I know.” She knew, too, that he could fly for miles and miles, and their bond would not be broken. “We have to stay here, though.”
“I thought you would say that.” He flapped his long wings once, holding them half-open for a long moment before resettling them at his sides. “But I don’t know why.”
“Because Serenity has a daemon. We’re part of it. Look.”
Outside the infirmary windows, they saw Simon with Asteria balled up against his heart, Flywheel peeking out of Kaylee’s pocket, Shepherd Book holding Pukutino on his outstretched hand, Inara caressing Mosaic’s feathery crest, Zoe wearing Trygg like a fur collar, Constance on Wash’s shoulder, Jayne with his hand on Jaxon’s shoulder as her ears swiveled back and forth, and Mary Ellen with her paws up on the sill until Mal pushed her firmly back down. All of them were watching her. Most were smiling.
“Then we’ll stay,” Breaker affirmed. “What else have I missed?”