Alex should have been back by now.
It’s the one thought that keeps repeating in Bernie’s head over and over as she paces back and forth over the threadbare carpet of the tiny boarding house where they’d found lodging for the night.
“You’re going to wear a hole in the floor,” Luna says, but anxiety is radiating off the wolf in waves, her ears pricked, her eyes fixed on the street below their small third floor window.
They’d arrived in Constantinople mere hours before, laughing like tourists as they’d stepped off the zeppelin and plunged into the city. They’d looked like tourists too - that was, after all, their cover. Two women on holiday, shopping in the bazaars, sampling sizzling grilled meats from the food vendors, leaving coins in the hats of street performers. Who would guess at their true purpose? Certainly not the middle-aged man who’d shown them to their room, flirting the whole way; first with one, then the other.
“Poor bloke,” Alex had murmured when the door had closed behind him. She’d slid her arms round Bernie’s waist, pulling her closer. “Barking up two wrong trees.”
A sound from the street makes Bernie’s head snap round. “What was that?”
Luna shakes her shaggy head. “Just a cat.”
The city is full of strays. It’s famous for it.
Bernie resumes pacing. Why had she let Alex go alone? She’d only been planning to go a few streets away to buy some food, but that was no excuse. They were supposed to be totally on their guard at all times. That was what they were trained for. But it had been so long since they’d had the chance to be properly alone together. The afternoon had felt like a dream, like the cares of the world were far away. It had almost made them forget the danger they were always in.
“Alex,” she hisses. “Where are you?”
She’s just decided to go out and look for her when she feels Luna tense. Instantly she’s at the window, eyes scanning the dark. She sees nothing at first, just shadows. And then, in the mouth of an alley across the street, she sees the glint of an animal’s eyes reflecting back at her.
“It’s Kiburi,” Luna says, but Bernie already knows. She’s halfway to the door before she hears Luna follow her. In ten seconds, she’s bursting through the door to the street. In another ten, she’s at the mouth of the alley.
Kiburi’s voice is pained and weak, like just saying her name has taken every last piece of strength he has.
“Alex,” Bernie gasps, her heart in her throat. “Where?”
Kiburi is already stumbling down the alley, leading her to a patch of dark that is somehow darker than the rest.
Alex is crumpled on the ground, what little light there is shining off the blood staining the dust. It should be red, but it’s black. In her memory, everything of this horror will be stored in shades of grey.
“Alex,” Bernie gasps, collapsing beside her and reaching for her with trembling hands. She knows what to do - check the pulse, find the bleeding, apply pressure - but for a moment she is paralysed.
Alex’s eyes flicker open. “Bern,” she manages to croak, and then coughs. It sounds wet and rough, like something is very broken inside. When she stops, there’s blood on her lips.
“We need to get you to a hospital,” Bernie says, but Alex just shakes her head.
“It’s too late,” she murmurs, and the part of Bernie that is a trained and experienced trauma surgeon knows it’s true.
Still, she rebels. “I can’t just let you die.”
Alex smiles, somehow beautiful despite the pain. “Don’t have much choice, sweetheart.” The smile fades away. “Listen. You have to get out of here. We hurt him pretty bad, but he won’t be alone. They’ll be swarming these streets by midnight.”
Bernie shakes her head, her face a mask of pain. “Who?” she demands. “Who did this?”
Alex manages a bitter laugh. “Campbell.”
Bernie’s mind reels. Every operative knows that name. Edward Campbell - not one of the CCD’s top men, but one of its most feared. Any of their men would torture you if they caught you, but Edward Campbell was creative. And he enjoyed his work.
“He’s not supposed to be here,” she murmurs stupidly.
Another cough racks Alex's body and she cries out in pain, reaching for Bernie’s hand. “It doesn’t matter,” she gasps, squeezing so hard that Bernie can feel bone grind against bone. “I fought him off, Bern. I didn’t let him take me.”
Tears spring to Bernie’s eyes. “I know,” she whispers. “You did so well. So well.” Her free hand reaches for Alex’s hair, stroking it away from her sweaty brow.
Alex’s eyes meet hers. “I had to see you, one last time,” she murmurs. “Bern...I love you.”
She turns away, her hand reaching for Luna, and then a shiver passes through Bernie’s body, followed by a sensation of such warmth and comfort, like the feeling of sinking into a warmth bath on a cold day. She gasps. It’s like being surrounded by love; wrapped in it like a blanket made of flame. She feels Luna shudder beside her, leaning into Alex’s touch, whimpering with grief and joy, all mingled together.
She had no idea. No idea that anything could feel like this.
“Alex,” she breathes, reaching blindly for Kiburi. She has to give Alex this gift, has to show her that she loves her this much and more. There’s no time for words.
Her hands meet nothing but emptiness.
The lithe, proud, beautiful serval that was Alex’s life’s companion is gone, dissolved into the air like atoms of smoke. Beside her, but as if from a great distance, she hears Luna whine. Bernie knows without looking what she’ll find when she turns her head. She’s cold. Empty.
Bernie woke with a gasp, dripping sweat, the echo of Alex’s name still reverberating round her bedroom. Her eyes roamed wildly, desperate for purchase, for anything that would anchor her to this time and place and pull her out of the horror her mind had just replayed.
It was Luna’s voice. Bernie looked down to the foot of the bed in time to see her heave herself up and begin painfully hopping towards her. She opened her arms, her breath coming out in a huff when Luna collapsed into them and they fell back onto the pillows. But she welcomed the solid weight of her daemon, and pulled the wolf closer still as she buried her face in her fur.
“Been a while since we dreamed about that,” Luna murmured. Bernie just nodded, breathing deeply in an effort to calm her racing heart and quell the sobs she could feel rising in her throat. In the end she was only partially successful.
“Alex,” she whispered, so softly that even Luna wouldn’t have heard it if not for the link that connected them to each other. The tears came slowly at first and then all at once, like a dripping tap suddenly unleashed.
She had mourned for Alex alone and silently, carefully schooling her face and reactions in public to suggest no more than the appropriate levels of grief for a friend and comrade, killed in a senseless robbery gone wrong while on leave from her post. Only Luna had known the true depths of her despair, muffling her tears with her fur each night that they lay sleepless and alone in the endless dark, the clock ticking each interminable second away until dawn. But the pain had receded with time, like a wave leaving shore. Each time it returned it was lessened, or perhaps she was simply more used to it. Maybe she had spent so much time pretending to the world that she was unaffected that she had begun to convince herself too.
Perhaps it was describing it to Serena that had brought the images of that awful night floating back to the surface of her consciousness. Perhaps it was her investigation of Gaskell, with his connection to Alex’s killer. Perhaps it was something more complicated than that.
She had thought she would never love anyone again, after Alex. It had, after all, been improbability itself that she had found her in the first place. She had spent her whole adult life serving His Majesty’s Armed Forces, and while civilian Brytish society was barely tolerant of the existence of people like her, the army was openly hostile. She had accepted long ago that love was not something she could expect to find in her life, and she’d thought she was happy with that. She’d framed it in her mind as being independent and free, beholden to no-one. And then she’d met Alex and realised that love was a different kind of freedom.
What were the chances of finding that twice in one lifetime?
And yet she had. And she had tasted its sweetness all too briefly before losing it again: not to an external foe this time, but to her own hesitance to trust.
She pulled Luna closer still, surrounding herself with her daemon’s love and warmth, before the tears came again.
When she entered the basement labs on Wednesday, she was greeted by the sounds of friendly conversation and laughter. It made the place lighter, less dank and oppressive, but she reminded herself to still be on her guard. This was Gaskell’s domain; she, and the people she’d come to talk to, were merely his guests.
She lingered in the doorway of the anteroom for a moment before she entered, recognising Raf and his terrier daemon Gille straight away. They were sitting opposite a woman of about Bernie’s own age with short blonde hair and a neat vixen daemon at her feet. The woman sat primly with her hands clasped on her lap. Raf, meanwhile, was lounging on his own chair, laughing as he relayed a story about one of his students.
“He hadn’t done a jot of work all year,” he was saying, hands waving animatedly as he spoke. “Hadn’t handed in any of his assignments, hadn’t completed his coursework. The final exam was coming up and he’d managed to scrape together about five marks out of fifty up to that point. So he asked me ‘Mr di Lucca, how well do I have to do on the exam to pass this course?’” Raf grinned. “The pass mark was sixty. I said to him, ‘well, you’d need to get fifty-five marks for an exam worth fifty, so I don’t like your chances.’ Then he said ‘but what if I give 110%?’ Turned out he was failing mathematics as well.”
Bernie laughed, drawing both occupants of the room’s attention to her. “I had a sergeant major like that once,” she said, stepping over the threshold. “Always barking at recruits that they had to give 110% effort to get through his training. He didn’t like it much when someone finally got the courage to explain that was impossible.”
Raf had leapt to his feet when she entered the room, reaching out to shake her hand vigorously. “It’s Bernie, isn’t it? Serena’s friend?” He smiled cheerfully, leading her towards a free chair. “Roxanna, this is Bernie Wolfe, one of the doctors who works upstairs. Bernie, this is Roxanna MacMillan, my fellow volunteer.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Bernie said, inclining her head politely at the other woman.
“Hello,” Roxanna said, and her voice was as shy and timid as her daemon, who was cowering slightly behind a chair. Out of the corner of her eye, Bernie could just about see Luna leaning down to greet the little fox, and she recognised the moment Roxanna realised their kinship by the look in the other woman’s eyes. She visibly relaxed, letting out a slightly ragged breath. “Oh,” she said, beginning to smile. “You’re like us.”
The vixen daemon climbed out from behind the chair, every line of her body saying relief as she stepped delicately over to where Luna and Gille were crowded together. Bernie glanced at them all briefly, then returned her attention to Roxanna. “Yes,” she said. “I’m like you.” She gestured towards Raf as she explained. “I happened to run into Raf the other week with Professor Gaskell and he filled me in on a little of what you’re doing here. I saw the professor again earlier this week and he suggested I come along and speak to you both. I’m considering joining the project, you see.”
Raf nodded seriously. “I see,” he said. “Well, it’s good work. If I can help spare even one person what I’ve been through, it’ll be worth it.”
“Yes,” Roxanna agreed. “I think it’s very, very important.”
“What you’ve been through?” Bernie frowned. “Sorry, I thought this research was just about why our daemons are different than most people’s. Is there more to it?”
Leaning back in his chair slightly, Raf shook his head. “No, that’s it. But when Professor Gaskell understands why this happens, he’ll be one step closer to stopping it happening in the future.”
A cold shiver made its slow, meandering way down Bernie’s spine. “I see. And you - both of you - think that’s for the best, do you?”
“Oh, yes!” Roxanna leaned forward, her face more animated than Bernie had yet seen her. “It’s not natural, you surely must see that.”
Bernie had heard this argument before - from priests, from teachers, from members of her own family. It had never cut much ice with her, even as a child. Yes, they were rare. But so were people with green eyes, and she’d yet to hear anyone claim that green eyes were some kind of abomination.
“So, you think if something is not natural, it shouldn’t exist?” she said, returning Roxanna’s intense gaze. “What about anbaric cars? Zeppelins? Prosthetic limbs?”
Roxanna shook her head in frustration. “It’s not the same,” she insisted. “Those things were created through man’s God-given intelligence. Our daemons have another source.”
Bernie glanced to the floor where the three daemons were congregated together. Luna and Gille were laughing quietly, as if having shared a joke, but the fox had lowered her head, as though she were a schoolgirl that had just been chastened by a particularly feared headmaster. “You think our daemons come from the devil?” she asked, attempting to keep her voice neutral. She didn’t think she’d quite succeeded.
“I look at it a little differently,” Raf cut in. “I don’t think natural or unnatural matters much, in the grand scheme. After all, disease is natural. A virus is natural. But we don’t just leave these things be. We cure them, don’t we Doctor?”
“Ah,” Bernie replied immediately, warming to her subject. She had always been good at argument and debate, and this was another well-worn trope. “But that analogy only applies to things that do harm.”
Raf nodded. “Yes,” he agreed. “And I think this does do harm.” He looked at his daemon who had come to lean against his leg. “Not the daemons themselves, perhaps. But which of us hasn’t got into a fight or two when people realise what we are? Which of us hasn’t been treated differently?”
Bernie opened her mouth to reply, then snapped it closed with a force of will. She wasn’t here to argue against these people’s views, much as she vehemently disagreed. She was here to do a job.
“The girls at school used to make me work on my own,” Roxanna said quietly. “I was never invited to anyone’s house. Never had a friend.”
Raf’s face was pained. “I took a few lumps as a lad, I can tell you that.”
Childhood had been a difficult time for Bernie too. Her father had sent her to a boarding school in Cheshire as soon as she was old enough. She vividly remembered her first night there, the whispering in the dormitory that stopped the moment she entered, and the names spat at her in the dark after matron would leave each night. It hadn’t gone further than that until around a month after her arrival, when she’d woken suddenly one night with someone’s hand on her mouth and her wrists held down. In the darkness she’d just managed to pick out the face of Julie Wakeman - the queen bee of the school - at the centre of a small group of nervous girls. Her heart racing, Bernie had tried to call out for help, but the hand over her mouth muffled the sound.
“...maybe we shouldn’t…”
“...don’t let her scream…”
“...Julie, what if she tells…”
And then, from under the bed, a sound like nothing she’d ever heard had made everything stop. Someone with no imagination might have described the noise as a growl, but it was far wilder and fiercer than that, interspersed with an inhuman hissing and spitting.
“Didn’t one of you get her daemon?” Julie had demanded, but it was too late. Luna, her form not yet settled, had emerged from the dark. She was in the shape of a large wildcat, her fur standing on end, eyes spitting fire. The frightened little girls surrounding Bernie had dispersed in terror when she launched herself at them, but Julie Wakeman hadn’t been quick enough. Bernie remembered the fierceness of her anger as Luna sunk her claws into Julie’s goldfinch daemon, holding his frantic, squealing form in place as Bernie dragged herself out of bed. She’d looked around the dormitory, her eyes taking in every face watching what was happening, memorising them.
“You see?” she’d spat. “She’s better than all of you. Every one of you!” And then she’d turned her attention to the cowering Julie Wakeman.
None of them had given her any trouble after that night.
“Children can be cruel,” she said carefully, watching the way Roxanna had seemed to curl into herself.
“Yes,” the other woman agreed. She glanced at her fox daemon, a strange expression of mixed fear and pity on her face. “Brona and I have found adults to be just as cruel, Doctor Wolfe.”
Bernie’s heart ached for Roxanna’s obvious pain. Raf reached out and patted her thin shoulder, obviously equally empathetic. “Well, that’s why we’re here,” he said gently. “If we can help the professor stop others going through what we did, that’ll at least make it mean something.”
The conversation troubled Bernie for the rest of the day. She kept turning it over and over in her mind, trying to see Roxanna and Raf’s point of view. It hadn’t escaped her notice how Roxanna and Brona had kept carefully apart, never touching, never giving each other comfort. How much she must have been hurt in the past, Bernie thought, to so fully embrace the attitude that her daemon was a source of shame.
“Do you think we could ever have been like them?” she asked Luna as they walked home that night.
Luna shook her head gruffly. “Never.”
Bernie looked down at her daemon, her eyes tracing the familiar lines of her face, the strong muscles of her body, even the stump of her damaged leg. They had experienced hardship together, as much or more than Roxanna or Raf. Where those two had accepted it, been cowed by it, she and Luna had railed against it. And it had made them proud.
“You’re my strength,” she said, and suddenly remembered saying those very words months before, in a hospital in Damascus when she’d thought her life was over.
Luna looked up at her, her eyes twinkling. “I know,” she said.
Bernie laughed, her heart a little lighter than before. Still, what she’d learned from Raf and Roxanna was troubling. She would have to proceed with caution. But proceed she must.
She would have to become one of Gaskell’s volunteers.