When Eliot was seventeen and a senior in high school, an army recruiter approached him at a job fair. At first, Eliot assumed that someone had told the recruiter about his martial arts skills, but he turned out to be wildly off the mark. It wasn’t really him the military wanted so much as his daemon, though they were pleased to find that the human part of the pair could also fight. Staff Sergeant Jones told Eliot and Bud about an elite program in the Marines for men with large predator daemons, daemons who could hold their own and carry out their own missions.
(“Well, mostly men,” Jones had admitted. “We’ve got a woman with this enormous lioness. She’s probably a dyke but don’t say that where she can hear you, haha,” and Eliot had awkwardly joined in the laughter.)
Jones himself had a bobcat, smaller than Bud but enough of a large predator to turn heads. He gave Eliot flyers, flattery, and promises, but it was a mostly unnecessary effort. Eliot and Bud had been sold nearly as soon as Jones had looked at the wolfdog with admiration rather than the usual fear, even if the look was tinged with covetousness.
They planned to enlist as soon as they turned eighteen, just a few weeks after high school graduation. This was the ticket out they’d been waiting for.
That spring, Eliot and his daemon went running in the woods nearly every afternoon after school. Between mixed martial arts and football, they’d already been in pretty good physical shape, but they wanted to build up endurance to make sure they’d do well in basic training.
“Hey, El?” Bud said, an unusual hesitance in her tone. It was just a week until graduation, one month until their birthday. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Eliot stopped jogging immediately, turning to his daemon in confusion. “Rosie, you can always talk to me. Since when do you gotta ask?” The very tip of her tail twitched and she slouched away from him. “Do you not want to enlist? There’s still time to change our mind, and you know Pop’ll be thrilled.”
He did his best to keep his own disappointment out of his tone, but it wasn’t necessary. His daemon straightened up indignantly and laughed. It was what Eliot thought of as her wolf laugh, all teeth.
“Hell naw, Eliot, I’m gonna be a soldier. They actually want me, me as I am, not an over-sized dog like half the people around here wanna pretend. We’re gonna see the world, and I’m going to be an asset, not an inconvenience.” She lifted her head like she was scenting for prey, ready to hunt.
Eliot sat down next to her, settling his back against the oak tree. He scratched her favorite spot behind her ears, reveling in the sensation of her soft fur and the quiet hum of contentment and love echoing through their bond as he touched her. It infuriated him, too, when people treated Bud’s size as an obstacle or her shape as a threat— it was one of the things he had in common with Aimee, that shared understanding of how it felt when people saw who you were as a problem to be solved or worked around and not something true and deep and glorious, worthy of celebration— but he hadn’t quite realized the effect it had on his daemon, being looked at like that.
“You know I don’t think of you like that, right?” he said, and it was almost the truth.
She fixed him with one blue eye and said, “Sure, Eliot, I know that,” and he knew she was lying, too.
“What did you want to talk about?” He tried to guess what might be bothering her that required a special conversation, if it wasn’t about their plans for the future. Maybe something about Aimee and David? Or Mike and Renee? Eliot still felt guilty for how he’d left the other boy, but, well, Mike had to know they couldn’t possibly actually be a couple, not like he was with Aimee.
Before he could get himself into that particular thought spiral again, Bud said, in a rush, “I want to change my name.”
She fidgeted, nosing at his fingers. “Rosebud just feels so cutesy, like it’s meant for someone small and sweet, not, well…” She flexed in illustration, her powerful muscles rippling under her fur, and Eliot saw immediately what she meant. His daemon was many things, but cutesy wasn’t one of them.
“Do you know what you want to switch to?” he asked. Through their bond, he felt her overwhelming love for him, her gratitude at being asked, at being treated like a true partner and not a mere extension of himself.
“Boudicca,” she answered. It took him a moment to place the name through the cloud of emotion she was sending to him.
“Like the queen?” He vaguely recalled something about Celts and Romans from his history class last year.
“The warrior queen,” Bud— Boudicca— corrected. “Defending her people, fighting for freedom.”
“Boudicca,” Eliot repeated. He started to grin. “Yeah, darling, that’s you.”
“Basil won’t be happy,” she cautioned, and Eliot felt cold. She was right, of course. Plant names were traditional for daemons in Pop’s family. Basil and Pop would see the name change as yet another rejection. Eliot had announced his intention to enlist after graduation a few weeks back, and things had been tense between him and his father since then. Pop had planned on Eliot joining him in the shop, a future of narrow aisles and customer service that Eliot dreaded.
“Basil’s already not happy,” Eliot said. “Basil hasn’t looked at either of us without puffing up in weeks.”
“Basil hasn’t looked at me without flinching at least a little ever since I settled,” she said bitterly. “Especially not since Mom…”
Eliot wanted to deny it but he knew it was true. Pop’s palpable discomfort with the wolfdog’s form had only worsened in the years since their mother had died in a work accident at the stables, saving the life of her teenage assistant in the process.
“It’s his loss,” Eliot said. “I happen to think you’re pretty great, Boudicca.” She flexed in response to the name and licked his cheek sloppily.
“Well, you’re alright, I guess,” she teased, and they continued their run, side-by-side.
The night before his eighteenth birthday, Eliot went to talk to his father one more time, hoping to get, if not his blessing, at least some kind of acceptance.
“You damn sure of this?” Pop asked, not looking up from the large bin of screws he was sorting. Eliot only knew that he had his dad’s full attention because of Basil’s unblinking gaze.
“Yeah, Pop, I’m sure,” Eliot said, struggling not to let his exasperation sneak into his tone. They’d only had this discussion a dozen times in the last weeks, but Eliot's conviction hadn't budged through his father's anger or his sister's tears, not with his daemon's hunger solid beside him.
Pop took a deep breath and fixed his gaze somewhere over Eliot’s head, as though he were critically examining the power drill display. He said, “What about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell?”
Bud went still the way a predator does when evaluating a threat, when deciding whether to intimidate or attack. “What about it?” Eliot said. His voice was rougher than he would’ve liked and he made another mental note to practice lying more. He wouldn’t be able to do any undercover work with a poker face like that.
Pop didn’t back down, still calmly staring just past his son. “You gon’ be okay with that?” he challenged. Basil flicked his tail, puffing up his neck flap.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Eliot asked. “I like women.” Eliot was far more used to physical sparring than the verbal variety, but all his instincts said the best way to protect a vulnerable spot would be to turn his opponent’s attack against them. He straightened up. “And since when do you care about gay rights so much?”
“Maybe I just think anyone asking you to die for them shouldn’t make you lie about who you are to do it.” Pop dropped another small screw into the appropriate bin.
“You. What.” Eliot heard a faint roaring in his ears. He could barely hear the echo of his own voice, and had the strange sensation that he was miles away watching the scene through a telescope.
“Now I ain’t gay,” Pop went on, “but, well, I know a li’l somethin’ about being harassed for it.”
Eliot stared at his Pop— his macho, hardware-store owning, widower pop— and drew a complete blank.
“It’s ‘cause of me,” Basil said, stretching. Eliot blinked at him— at him— and suddenly remembered every snide comment he’d heard about folks whose daemons were the same gender as they were. Somehow, he’d never really thought about that when it came to his own father.
“You know the stereotype about daemon gender is just a big ole pack o’ lies, but not everyone knows that, and me and Basil, we got pushed around a whole lot for it.” Pop shrugged. “It got us thinkin’, y’know, we didn’t choose to be like this, it’s just who we are. And we reckon gay folks didn’t choose it neither and they don’t deserve to be harassed for that, long as they don’t hurt no one. It ain’t a popular opinion round these parts, so I don’t discuss it a whole lot, but if that’s part of why you’re running, son, I’ll have your back here more than anyone in the military will.”
“I ain’t running,” Eliot protested, like that was the most important thing to clarify. “And I ain’t gay,” he added belatedly. He could hear how unconvincing it sounded even though it was true, he was sure it was true— gay men didn’t want women the way he wanted Aimee.
Pop continued sorting screws. “Okay, son, whatever you say. I ain’t gonna push you on that one. Just want you to know that I’m here if you ever decide there’s somethin’ you want to share. Like maybe why your friend Mike stopped coming over so much.” He glanced up to where Eliot stood, frozen. “But then, I guess you won’t be around for that conversation, what with your plans and all.” He said the word plans with the disdain he usually reserved for men who didn't know how to hold a hammer or fans of the Texas Longhorns.
Boudicca’s ears flicked even further back.
“You won’t be around for a lot of things if you enlist,” Pop continued. “June and Sage should be settling pretty soon, you know. And there’s Emma’s soccer games, of course, you know how your mom loved going to those.”
Eliot had been cold before. Now he felt feverish. Furious. Boudicca began to snarl, low in her throat, an almost silent rumble, but Pop was undeterred.
“You know June is thinking of restarting her riding lessons,” he went on. “She’s got it in her head that your mom would be upset to think that her children weren’t riding when she loved it so much it killed her. And you know, she probably ain’t wrong, but goddamn, I’d keep every one of you out of danger if I could. And here you are, determined to throw yourself into a warzone, like this family ain’t lost enough already.”
“How dare you,” Eliot said. “How dare you use Mom like that? Mom wanted me to be free, to be myself, and all you ever wanted was a carbon copy of yourself to boss around! You were so sure we’d end up just like you, it’s like you never looked at who we really are!” A crash interrupted him and both men jumped. Boudicca had bumped into a display, triggering a row of flashlights to fall over like dominoes.
Eliot gestured at the mess. “See?” he shouted. “We don’t belong here! We don’t belong in this shop, we don’t belong in this town, we don’t fucking fit!”
“Fine. Get yourself killed. Give your sisters another family member to only know through photo albums and stories.” Pop’s voice was even, but Basil flexed his claws and flicked like he was thinking about striking.
“I don’t plan to get myself killed,” Eliot said, exasperated.
Pop looked straight at Eliot this time and replied, “Neither did your mother.”
Eliot had nothing to say to that, so he turned and walked out. He and Boudicca both kept their ears pricked in case Pop called them back. They heard nothing.
Eliot went home— no, not home. He went back to the house, where he made dinner for his sisters. Nothing special, just some boxed mac and cheese. He tried to focus on stirring the powder into the milk, anything to avoid the replay of that conversation with Pop.
“So, you’re really leaving.” June slid smoothly onto a kitchen chair. In the same motion, Sage glided from her shoulder onto the kitchen table in the form of some kind of brown hawk. His sister wore her favorite shorts and t-shirt. Her hands and knees were still scraped up from the fall of her bicycle the week before, and several wisps of hair had escaped from her frizzy braid.
Eliot turned back to the stove, giving the macaroni a stir. “Yep, really leaving.” Bud, who had undoubtedly heard or smelled their sister coming long before Eliot had noticed, was already curled up at his feet, her muzzle facing towards the table. Only the twitching of her ears betrayed her tension.
“Pop still mad at you?” Her tone was light, curious, not accusatory, but Eliot still felt it between his shoulder blades.
“Pop ever not mad at me?” he snapped back, adding a little garlic powder to the sauce before taking it off the heat.
“Point,” June conceded. “He was going to have to realize you weren’t going to work for him one way or another, you know.”
He scooped a couple noodles out of the pot and tasted them. Way too soon, they were nearly raw. “You think?” he asked, when he felt he could say it with a steady voice.
“Mhmm,” she confirmed. “You just don’t fit there.” Her gesture took in both Eliot’s antsiness and Boudicca’s size. “But, well, you’re the son, and the oldest, so.” She shrugged. “I hope it works out for you, El, I really do.”
Sage leapt off the table, wings vanishing just before his paws hit the floor in the form of a small grey wolf. He nuzzled at Boudicca.
“Thanks,” Eliot said, and this time he couldn’t keep his voice steady. “I’ll miss you, Junie-girl.”
She scrunched up her nose. “Don’t call me that,” she said automatically. “You’ll keep in touch?”
“I’ll write regularly,” Eliot promised. It was a promise he would not keep, though sincerely made. Boudicca licked a tuft of Sage’s fur down. Eliot took another taste of the pasta. “Can you get Emma? Dinner’s just about ready, and she’s supposed to set the table.”
Without standing up, June yelled, “Emmmmaaa! Dinnertime!”
“Not what I meant,” Eliot said, though Boudicca’s tail kept wagging.
“Not hungry!” Emma yelled back.
“It’s mac and cheese!”
There was a pause, followed by a loud and deliberate stomping. Emma appeared in the doorway, Reed in her hands as a round and very spiky lizard. She glared at Eliot. “I’m here for mac’n’cheese, not to talk to you,” she said. “You’re leaving me.”
Eliot turned the burner off. “Okay, Emma,” he said wearily. This was another conversation he’d had too many times in the last few weeks. “As long as you eat something.” At June’s prompting, Emma went to the cabinet for bowls. He dumped the pasta into the colander, blinking in the sudden cloud of steam.
There was a loud bang, followed by two more crashes. Emma was setting the table as fiercely as she could manage.
Let her be, Boudicca said silently to Eliot.
They ate dinner in uncomfortable silence. Emma had seconds, and one scoop of thirds.
“Are you going to die?” she said abruptly.
“I mean, eventually?” Nothing in any of the pamphlets Sergeant Jones had given him had said anything about how to respond to your baby sister’s fear, but Eliot knew immediately that that had been the wrong answer, even without the dirty looks Boudicca, June, and Sage all gave him. Reed puffed up, emphasizing his spikiness even more.
“Sorry, not helpful,” Eliot mumbled, chewing on a mouthful of macaroni. Emma continued to glare at him. He sighed. “We ain’t at war right now,” he said. “It’s unlikely that I’ll see much active service. It’ll be rescue mission kinda stuff, protecting our ambassadors or whatever. It’s important to protect our country, to keep you safe. That’s what I’m going to be doing, okay?”
“I don’t want you to go,” Emma said, speaking more to her bowl than to Eliot. Reed glared at Sage, who shifted guiltily from the wolf form to a long skinny snake.
“This is something I have to do, Emma. You’ll understand one day.”
“Will I?” Emma scraped the last of the cheese sauce out of the bowl, licked her spoon, and stood from the table with a clatter. She stomped to the dishwasher, put the bowl and spoon in it, and stomped back to her room.
“Think she’ll ever forgive me?” Eliot asked June, trying and failing for lightness.
“Her?” June shrugged. “Probably. Pop? Don’t hold your breath, he’s still mad at Uncle Todd for stuff he did in high school.”
“You gonna be okay?” Boudicca asked.
“We’re always okay,” Sage said, tongue flickering. He wound himself around his human’s arm and over her shoulders, looking at their sibling. “You gotta do what you gotta do, Bud.”
There was a rumble Eliot instantly recognized as the garage door opening. “I gotta get out of here, June, I already said bye to Pop.”
June nodded, biting her lip. Sage shifted into a hummingbird, hovering anxiously next to her. “Say bye to Emma on your way out, even if she don’t answer. I’ll stall Pop.” She darted in for a hug, squeezing Eliot tightly. He rested his chin on her head and marveled at how tall she was getting, trying not to think of how tall she’d get while he was away.
“I’m proud of you, June,” he said. “Mom would be proud of you. I’ll see you next time I get leave, okay?”
He felt her nod against his chest and squeezed tightly one more time before letting go. “And say hi to Aimee for me!” she called after him. Somehow, June always knew.
Emma refused to answer his knock on her door and he was loathe to violate her safe space, so he called out his goodbyes through the wood and promised to write.
When Aimee Martin’s daemon settled as a horse, her father built an addition to the house that was part stable and part bedroom, a place where the two of them fit comfortably with wide doors and no stairs. It was an act of love and support from a proud father. Sometimes Eliot envied that support, the way Willie Martin had wasted no time making sure his daughter would be comfortable in her home, the way he prioritized accessibility and belonging.
That night, though, Eliot was mostly grateful that the set-up made it easy for him to sneak into his girlfriend’s bedroom. David arched his neck to nuzzle noses with Boudicca while Aimee watched them from her bed, already in the soft shorts and tanktop she preferred to pajamas.
“Said your goodbyes, then?” Aimee’s mouth twisted into her not-smile, the one she used when she was trying to hide some deeper emotion. Eliot had become fluent in Aimee’s expressions these last few years- or he thought he had, which wasn't quite the same thing.
Eliot shrugged. He sat on the bed and took off his shoes, turning his face away from her as he said, “Not sure my Pop’s ever gonna understand or forgive me for this one. Emma neither, really.”
Aimee placed a hand gently on his shoulder. “They love you a whole lot, El, they’ll come around. They’re gonna miss you so much.”
Boudicca’s ears flicked back and he knew she was thinking of Pop’s last words to them, something neither of them want to dwell on. His shoes safely removed, he twisted around to take Aimee’s tanned hand between his. “And what about you, beautiful?” he asked, bringing her hand to his mouth. His voice roughened. “You gonna miss me?”
“Me? I’ll hardly notice you’re gone,” she teased, and then her lips were on his, her cheek soft against his stubble, her hair silken between his fingers.
Aimee, Eliot, and their daemons had spent the last weeks talking on and off about the future. Eliot planned to do a four year tour in the military while Aimee helped her father at the stables and worked on her art, seeing each other whenever he had leave. Then he’d come back and they’d get married and figure it out from there. Aimee understood his itch to get out more than most, and there was a tradition of military service in her family. She wasn’t thrilled about him leaving, but she respected the call.
That night, Eliot let his body do the talking for him. All the things he’d wanted to say were said already, so he pressed kisses against her skin and memorized the grass-leather-horse smell of her.
In the morning, Aimee watched silently as he gathered his clothes. Boudicca nuzzled against David’s thighs but her eyes were on the horizon. “Well, I’ll be seein’ ya, I guess,” he said finally, when there was no more stalling.
She nodded. “Don’t die,” she ordered. “See ya around, Eliot.” She kissed his cheek, patted his shoulder, and waved him off.
When he looked back, she’d turned away to groom David’s mane, but the horse’s dark eyes followed Eliot and his daemon until they were out of sight.
“Happy birthday, Bud,” Eliot said, for want of something to say.
“Happy birthday,” his daemon agreed, lip curling in a wolfish grin. “This is it, El. Together forever, wherever our road may lead.”
And Eliot, with God in his heart and his daemon by his side, went to get a flag for his shoulder and a gun for his holster, and started on a path that would eventually take all those things away.