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*

The High Court will not stop until they've found himself and Lyra. Asriel's enemies. Marisa's henchmen and her lovers.

(It's why he has no choice. He must keep her safe.)

Asriel cordially bids Malcolm and Alice farewell, seeing them off to the gyrocopter piloted by Thorold. He doesn't get inside. Jordan College would be their new home. He would see them again, and so would Lyra. Soon. Nugent has already informed him that the Consistorial Court of Discipline plans to intercept and punish anyone transporting a baby. They're all safer without Lyra.

Lyra, thrashing in her blankets, whines. Asriel gently shushes her, raising his overcoat to ward her and little Pantalaimon as the wind suddenly billows powerfully around them. The tiniest red dot of gyrocopter disappears into the melding blackness.

He will have to find another way.

*

Within debris and corpses floating listlessly in the Oxford Canal, a pair of great crested grebes skim through the water.

Asriel has left the powerboat with his men. They do not ask him what he intends to do, and Asriel would not tell them regardless.

He follows the current of the Isis River flooded out, paddling silently and strong, never breaking rhythm. Stelmaria peers around from the head of the narrowboat, unmoved. She eyes the long cloth sling tied against Asriel's front. Lyra remains sleeping noiselessly against his breast, drooling and gripping with a loose fist to Pantalaimon's silvery kitten-fur.

Up ahead, Asriel spots where the wharves and jetties have been drowned out. Eelmarkets fled as soon as the rain became too dense. But a single gyptian boat, dimly lit and painted with waxen azure streaks, comes alongside him. Two familiar faces.

"Lord Asriel? Iss'yeh?" Ruud shouts through his hands.

"It is, I'm afraid," Asriel replies in earnest. "But you must keep your voice down." He sets aside his oars and keeps one hand protectively to the lump of sling. A rope-ladder falls down to him. Asriel waits for Stelmaria to bound up, landing on deck, and then climbs, balancing himself on the wooden, painted ledge. "I have a passenger with me," he adds.

Nellie Koopman gasps in pure delight, crowding him as he exposes his baby daughter's face. Lyra scrunches her nose for a moment, uncomfortable to the freezing wind and making a low, exhausted wail, and then Asriel covers her.

Ruud and Nellie are siblings, with pale green eyes and ruddy skin. Fourteen or so. Both of the Koopman children lack experience in swimming. He rescued both of them out of a waterway when the Great Flood's storm intensified, as a three-person canoe flipped over. John Faa thanked him personally, but Asriel had not done it for recognition. He has a child. He understands. A parent's grieving would be unimaginable, endless agony in his mind.

"Oh goodness be…"

"Look at that!" Ruud beams, chuckling and tilting his head down on her. "A spitting image of yeh!"

Asriel's mouth quirks up. "You think so?"

"Most so!"

Hearing this warms Asriel far deeper than the baby's constant heat against him. He shifts the cloth, gazing over Lyra's dark, soft strands of hair in reverence. "Can you warm her inside, Nellie?" he asks, not looking up, murmuring. "She may need a change."

Nellie hums out in agreement, watching in anticipation as Lyra gets shifted into her careful, thin arms.

"If yous in trouble, my Lord… iss'best you come inside too," Ruud speaks up, frowning. "There's no shame in it."

Asriel's jaw clenches.

"I'll be a moment."

"You're welcome to stay with us. Both of you," Nellie murmurs. She smiles so widely and innocent. Innocent of all of the horrors that have existed until now, and of the danger in hiding Asriel and his baby daughter within the ranks of their people. "As long as you like."

He nods, assuring them, and doesn't move as the two gyptians head towards the boat's deck-entrance.

Once they're gone, Asriel feels as if his body can hardly stand. He pounds a fist onto the ledging, hard enough to bruise, and lowers his head. All he can picture is Lyra—Lyra, squalling, red-faced—Lyra, clutched desperately in Alice's hands, right before Asriel disregarded one of his men's commands and sped his own powerboat into the CCD's engine-propellers, driving them off.

There's never been a fear so profound, immediate in his mind than before Lyra was given to him on the floodwaters. Every precious second. He screamed for her, for Malcolm and Alice to pass her, as their damaged vessel began to sink fast.

"You must not think on that, Asriel…"

Stelmaria lifts on her back legs, weighing her forepaws onto his side. Asriel inhales sharply, opening his stinging-hot eyes. He rubs over her head as she nuzzles him, purring. His blunt, dirtied fingernails scratch down her muscular and silky neck.

"She should have been safe," he says, growling out the last words. "But they won't stop…"

"Neither will we."

*

Even in the moonlight, Asriel could glimpse the bridge separating the inn and St. Rosamund's priory. Green fields. Espaliers with fruit trees growing near sun-drenched, grey walls of buildings. The nun's delicate voices through closed and shuttered windows.

He hasn't the faintest if it all survived the Great Flood. He hasn't seen Brytian since Lyra was an infant.

They've traveled in and out of New France, and Asriel buys an abandoned, secluded property when Lyra becomes eleven years of age. Lines of plum and apple trees. The scent of fresh orchards beyond the high, iron-wrought gates. Lyra thrives while she's outdoors, dipping her toes into water fountains during summer and running through the yard, chasing Pantalaimon.

Lyra has neither her mother's or her father's eyes, but the solemn, dark quality that Asriel distinctly remembers from his mother. Her wide set eyes. Asriel's mother had sleek, golden coils and a tenacious nature that he is certain both Lyra and himself inherited.

It's been years.

He occasionally thinks of his plan for sending Lyra to Jordan College, and about the rebellion, but hears nothing of the Magisterium. Marisa Coulter seems like a pleasant and yet unpleasant memory now. Stelmaria prowls the corridor outside his study as Asriel keeps his notes on Dust, and of his researches into other worlds, hidden and locked from Lyra's gleeful, child-like interests.

*

A cry, so high-pitched, so devastated and agonised, echoes through the manor.

His heart surges right into the centre of Asriel's throat. He jolts out of reading a newspaper, lurching to his feet. The kitchen utensils knock over, clattering onto the floor. Stelmaria leaps ahead, hissing in apprehension, dashing for Lyra's bedchambers.

"LYRA!"

He stomps in, discovering her tangled within her colourful, heavy quilt.

Lyra cries out again, half-conscious and sobbing, and Pantalaimon as a ocelot echoes her in a long, pitiful whimper. She's seated upright, bowing over, when Asriel reaches her. Stelmaria joins him, hanging off the edge and whispering to a visibly distressed Pantalaimon. Sweat gleams to Lyra's forehead.

"Lyra—" Asriel grunts, staring in mild irritation as she lurches and thrashes out of his grip. "Lyra, child, be still—"

"No!"

"Hush, you're alright—"

"NO—!" she screams, nearly hysterical. Her features paler than usual and pinched. "No, no! No! Father, I—" Lyra struggles to go on, weeping and gulping for air as Asriel's thumb drags roughly over her cheek. He feels her tears like a permanent burn on him. "I—I saw—"

"You had a nightmare," he tells her, using a low, soft voice. "It wasn't real."

Her head shakes wildly. Lyra's dark, moistened eyes pin on him and something in Asriel's gut churns.

"It felt so real! So real!" she says, louder and angrier than before, quivering. "There was mist. I couldn't see through it. I couldn't see where I was but the water below my feet was oily. It smelled like death. And I got on a rowboat and I left Pan behind—I could feel us separating—" He can hear Stelmaria chuffing in alarm beside him. "How could I do that, Father—how could I—"

Lyra renews her weeping, and Asriel understands.

As a boy, he and Stelmaria would finally test their bond. Never out of cruelty, but a youthful, arrogant curiosity. Asriel walked apart from her, going over a mossy, ancient bridge, and felt that pain within moments. A kind of slow, deep pain. It twisted in every molecule of his being, liquefying his muscles and resonating the harsh, poisoned ache inside his teeth and heart. Asriel listened to Stelmaria lamenting, wanting so badly to return to him, crouching to the pebbled ground. Frightened. Humiliated.

He gave into the misery and fear and self-hatred eventually, turning around to face his daemon. His steel-blue eyes glistened and blinked rapidly, creating wet streaks down his face. His mouth flattened into a hard line. Stelmaria turned into a hawk then, flying to him while cawing in anguish, shifting into her favoured snow leopard appearance and pressing herself wholly to him.

Forcing away his past, Asriel hurries over the connecting room.

"Drink this," he orders, coming back to Lyra. She doesn't move from embracing Pantalaimon, burying her face completely into his red-and-brown fox coat. "Lyra, you must listen. Drink."

Lyra gazes up at the bottle in frustration, wiping off her cheeks and nose.

"Father—"

"Trust me."

She does. By all of the mysteries of this world, she truly does and Asriel cannot hope to change that.

The stench of medicinal brandy fills their nostrils. Lyra takes a mouthful, wincing and coughing and lying down. Pantalaimon curls to her worriedly. Asriel places the bottle on her tablestead, observing Lyra's drowsy expression. Her laboured breathing.

He cradles one of her arms to him, massaging down and smiling, his lips hovering over a wrist. He kisses there, featherlight, and kisses Lyra's palm in a routine and heartfelt gesture, cupping it to her own lips. Lyra's dark eyes flutter shut. She's quiet and shuddering all the while, her noises muffled by her own palm. Asriel cannot right this. But he can be there for her.

That's all could ever be done.

*