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The Good Monster

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Serena Campbell has been at the monster game all her immortal life and in her opinion, frankly, there isn’t a thing about monstering she still has to learn. The double scream scare with a three quarter twist? She mastered that while humans were still sleeping in caves and her kind had to skulk in shadows. It’s much better now, of course. Under the bed is a much better place to rest before the main scare of the evening - it’s warm, usually carpeted, and wonderfully dark.

To her own kind, she has the appearance of a pleasant middle aged woman, with a cute chin dimple and chestnut hair just shading into silver. To the children she’s spent her existence scaring, she’s been all sorts. A sabre-toothed tiger. An alien. An axe-murderer. She liked being a clown best, she thinks. She hopes the new kid she’s been assigned will be afraid of clowns.

“Ruby Armstrong, eight years old, scared of...hmmph, the dark,” she mutters, flicking through her new kid’s file. Oh well, a bit boring, but she’s a professional. “Address...oh. Holby City Children’s Home.”

Somehow, despite her many, many years of service, she’s never ended up in an institutional setting before. Still, she thinks, it can’t be that different.

It’s different.

No parents to run into the room with hugs and love to keep her away. No night lights to cast helpful shadows. And the weirdest thing.

Bunk beds.

“Hi,” her under-the-bunk-mate says, holding out a hand. “I’m Bernie Wolfe.”

Working close to another monster is weird. Serena can’t let loose like she wants to. She can’t really make under the bed her own. “It’d be one thing if our scaring styles aligned,” she moans to her friend Fleur one afternoon, while Ruby’s at school. “But she just spends her whole time in her kid’s dreams. I like to be a bit more hands on.”

“Oh, believe me I know,” Fleur purrs, and Serena blushes as she waves her away. Honestly, you have one drunken fumble after a particularly good scaring session and some monsters never let you forget it.

Still, when she returns to under-the-bed buzzed on a couple more glasses of Shiraz than she should probably have had, she decides to broach the subject.

“Oh!” Bernie looks surprised, and a little shy. “I didn’t think you’d really noticed much about me.”

Serena bites back the immediate response that she’s noticed everything about Bernie. “So, why the dreams?” she says instead.

Bernie bites her lip, then smiles crookedly. “I’ll show you.”

Bernie’s kid is called Alishbah. She’s from Kabul, and she ended up in Holby after a series of long and dangerous journeys. She lost both her parents along the way, and now no-one is quite sure what to do with her. Bernie explains how she started with the usual scares: slime creatures, werewolves, creepy dolls with unblinking eyes. But nothing worked on Alishbah. She was unscareable.

“It wasn’t until I came into her dreams that I found out why,” Bernie says, taking Serena’s hand. They slip seamlessly into Alishbah’s dream and walk together through the outskirts of a refugee camp. It’s hot and noisy and the colours are slightly wrong, like they’re looking at everything through a film. They’re still holding hands.

“Where is she?” Serena asks, just as a blood curdling scream sounds in the distance, followed swiftly by a stutter of gunfire. Chaos erupts around them, swirling around one point in the centre. They go there and find Alishbah, alone, surrounded by gunmen with hard eyes and leering mouths.

Alishbah looks up at them, tears glittering in her eyes. "Help me," she pleads.

And with that the lanky blonde form Bernie wears for her own kind melts away like ice next to fire and reforms into a majestic, snarling wolf. She leaps into the circle with Alishbah, standing almost as tall as the girl herself. The gunmen shrink back until one remembers the rifle slung across his back and takes aim. But the wolf is bulletproof and fearless. Serena watches, enthralled, as she launches herself at first one man then another. In moments they are all gone, and Alishbah is alone again. But she’s smiling now, and throwing her arms around the wolf’s neck to cry tears of sweet relief into her soft fur.

“You see, it’s not that she’s unscareable,” Bernie explains. Her eyes are deep brown and liquid and her wolf voice is gruff. “It’s that she’s always scared.”

“Oh,” Serena murmurs, her own eyes burning. But they’re slipping out of the dream. The child is waking up - it’s morning, the sun just slipping over the horizon.

Bernie is back in her usual form, blushing slightly as she waits for Serena’s judgement. “I know it’s not usual,” she murmurs, but Serena interrupts her.

“It’s wonderful,” she says. “You’re wonderful.” Then she chokes out a gasp, her eyes flicking up to the bed where Ruby is just stirring awake. “Do you...do you think Ruby’s dreams are…”

Bernie smiles kindly. “I don’t know,” she says. “But I don’t think the kids who end up here...well, I think maybe they’ve been scared enough already.”

Serena flushes, ashamed, but Bernie cups her cheek before letting her fingers slide into her hair. “Will you show me how to do it?” Serena asks. “How to fight the nightmares?”

Bernie nods. “Of course,” she says, her eyes shining.

Which is how Serena Campbell discovered that there was something she still had to learn about the monster game after all. How to be a Guardian Monster.