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i wrote, i think i am missing one of my ribs

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i wrote, i think i am missing one of my ribs

 

-

 

The first time Debbie sees Jasmine Thomas’ daemon, she thinks, oh.

Debbie is used to Dingles and to farms; to canines, on a sliding scale of sheepdog to feral wolf. She’s used to being a little girl in a den of wolves.

(Robert had a cat, but Robert’s a piece of shit who always thought he was better than everyone else even though he wasn’t.)

Jasmine Thomas is small and plain, with her hair in plaits and the tiniest owl Debbie’s ever seen perched on her shoulder. His name is Eustace. He is brown and Debbie puts her hand on her wolf’s back, thinking about how easy it would be: one jump, and a snapped neck.

Debbie thinks, oh. It is a certain kind of luxury to have a daemon like that. To know, as Debbie has never known, what it is to be safe.

With Jasmine, it is Debbie who is the predator. But the difference between Debbie and all the boys with wolves is that Debbie knows what it is to be prey.

 

-

 

Debbie’s daemon is an Ethiopian wolf. They had seen a picture in a book; just one, and that long before he settled, but you can’t really predict these things. Azariel looks like a fox, and that’s what they thought he was for a long time. Just another way she wasn’t quite right. Couldn't even get the Dingles properly.

 

Debbie had a baby when she was fifteen. Her daughter’s name is Sarah, and that’s after Andy’s mother, and her last name is Sugden, and that’s Andy’s, too. Azariel and Piper were supposed to name the baby’s daemon together but Debbie and Azariel didn’t want to, so Piper did all the naming alone. It’s funny because Andy’s adopted, so Sarah has nothing in common, biologically, with any of her names.

But Debbie’s not going to say that.

 

Robert had a cat. A panther. Her name was Senna and she had a way of looking at you, like she’d soon as rip you limb from limb as purr at you. There was something about it that drew you to it - maybe that she was dangerous, maybe that she didn’t like anyone else, the idea that she’d pick you, that she’d be around you.

You’d think Debbie ought to have a better sense of self-preservation than that.

There are a lot of things you would think about Debbie. She doesn’t like to be predictable, these days. Look at her mum and dad. Predictable doesn’t run in the family.

 

But wolves do. Wolves run in the family.

Debbie has always been the smallest and the least close. But still Mihal and Pahaliah, Grey wolf and Arctic, named their daughter’s daemon, even though they were too young for it, though they were brittle and furious and let her go.

And so he has an angel’s name.

And so, of course, he is a wolf.

 

You can say what you want about Debbie, but her daemon is a wolf, at least sort of. That means something.

She used to hate it, but she's getting better about that.

 

-

 

Ross Barton has a little dog, Taisa, a tiny terrier with boundless energy. She’s underfoot constantly and Debbie doesn’t mind, honestly. He’s predictable in a way that she thinks she might deserve. He’s the sort of unpredictable that makes sense to her. He’s a world she knows.

 

“You had a nightmare,” Ross says. He’s careful, touching her. Sometimes she thinks it’s funny; someone like Ross being careful with someone like Debbie.

“I have lots of nightmares,” Debbie says.

His daemon looks over at her, cautious.

Azariel huffs and puts a paw over her chest. He’s good with her because she’s small. It’s funny; they’re more comfortable when they’re the ones who have to take care. They spent too long with daemons who could take him in a fair fight.

She makes a soft, snuffling sound, and licks at his jaw, like she’s trying to calm him down. Ross has always had a fucked up sense of self-preservation, but he and Taisa are safe with Debbie and Azariel.

 

(Once, the panther stood up close to Azariel and he stiffened up his shoulders and raised his head and didn’t back down. It was terrifying. Not Cameron terrifying, but scary.)

 

Ross settles his palm on her shoulder. “If you want to talk about it-”

“I don’t,” she says, but she kisses his cheek anyway, because it’s not his fault. His stubble brushes against her lips. He smells of shower gel and soap. “It’s all right. You’re all right.”

He shivers, just a little.

She lets her face settle into the slope of his shoulder and breathes in, and breathes in.

 

She does not say: I dreamed of wings.

 

-

 

Jasmine’s daemon is the smallest owl native to the British Isles. He doesn’t like to be farther from her than absolutely necessary. Not like Azariel, who always tried to run, curious. When she was little, Debbie thought he would be a bird - a hawk, maybe, or a falcon. He was always testing the edges of their bond, going further and further until it hurt, and then just a step beyond.

Eustace tucks his head into his wing and stays on Jasmine’s shoulder. He’s not dull - he’s curious, looking into her books, looking into Debbie’s face - but he doesn’t stray. He is always whispering into her ear, like they don’t need anyone else. They are enough in themselves.

Debbie and Azariel have been their own world, too. But not like Jasmine and Eustace. They are their own because nobody else will have them. They don’t necessarily like being in it together; he is a wolf and she is a girl, and they are not like Chas or Charity, they don't know how to handle it.

Jasmine smiles, and it glows through her eyes and her whole face, and she makes Debbie feel -

Light.

 

Jasmine is: sweet, funny, kind, careful, smart.

Debbie is: trouble. Even Ashley, with his sheep daemon, knows it.

But Jasmine doesn’t. Jasmine just smiles at her, like everything is okay.

 

Everything in Debbie’s life is a mess. Nobody is talking to her, everyone hates her. She’s scratched up from the fucking Sugdens and her own fucking family and it’s just - and she’s left Sarah, and even Daz hates her. Her mum’s gone and her dad’s here, which is worse, honestly, if you ask Debbie.

But:

She’s here, with Jasmine. And Jasmine is kind to her and Laurel and Ashley don’t act like Debbie’s going to run off and ruin things, even if Laurel’s rabbit looks at her with wide and cautious eyes and Ashley’s sheep sniffs cautiously whenever Azariel is in a room.

Jasmine is on her side. Jasmine says, she’s all right, and her little owl fluffs up his wings and it’s like -

It’s like, nobody wants to stick up for Debbie. Not even the Dingles with all their wolves, and their sharp teeth.

But this little girl and her little owl - they’d put themselves between Debbie and Ashley, between Debbie and the Sugdens, between Debbie and Cain. And they wouldn’t ask for anything, they wouldn’t pause. They’d just do it because it was the right thing to do.

 

“It doesn’t feel real,” Azariel says.

Nothing feels real.

Debbie doesn’t really trust her daemon, but he is the only constant she has, so perhaps she does.

 

-

 

Debbie doesn’t touch Azariel very much. He doesn't like to be touched, and she doesn't like to do the touching.

Everything gets overwhelming -  the empty ache that is Jasmine's room, with nobody but them in it -  the memory of Andy's face, and Daz’, and even Robert’s. And worst of all -  Sarah.

She can’t help it, she’s crying. She’s thinking about Andy and Katie and everything she did wrong, everything they did wrong. She’s thinking about how she means nothing.

About how she couldn’t even get her daemon right.

She wraps her arms around herself and he jumps up, next to her, presses his nose against her side, like he never does. She reaches down for him, like she never does.

She feels -

Like she’s got her heart out, like she’s bleeding. Like it’s all going to leave her skin.

 

“Debbie?”

“Leave me alone, Jas.”

“Hey,” Jasmine says. She settles a hand on Debbie's back, between her shoulder blades.

Her little daemon flutters towards Azariel, and he snaps his teeth but Eustace doesn't flinch.

That’s the thing about Jasmine. She pushes and pushes, like she doesn’t even know that Debbie could hurt her.

She won’t let Debbie mope; won’t let Debbie sit in endless misery. She grabs the vodka from under the bed and her owl jumps across the bed to say, “You’re much better looking than Katie is, anyway,” in his soft little voice.

Debbie’s crying and her mascara has smudged but Jasmine’s warm, and here , and somehow that helps.

 

Debbie wakes up, and her head is on Jasmine’s shoulder. Her mouth is a little cottony from the vodka, but it isn’t too bad. She’s still got one earbud in; when she pulls it out she follows the cord to Jasmine’s face.

Jasmine’s eyes are shut and she’s sleep-warm under Debbie’s fingers, still. Eustace is tucked up against the pillow, head under his wing.

Azariel, sprawled across the foot of the bed, lifts his head to look at her. He blinks twice and she blinks back. His jaw is resting on Jasmine’s ankle; his paw is on her calf.

It should feel weird, but it doesn’t.

It just feels nice. Strange, but in a good way. Like they might be safe, Debbie and her wolf with this girl who smiles, like she can take anything they can throw at her.

 

-

 

The first time Debbie kisses Jasmine it’s a dare, practically. Debbie’s hands on Jasmine’s face and Jasmine’s mouth on Debbie’s mouth and Cain, laughing at her like he always laughs at her, and Ashley calling her name.

It’s a joke but it doesn’t feel like one. Not really. For a moment it feels like something else, but then Debbie is accidentally biting Jasmine’s lip and they’re both laughing, breathless.

 

Eustace flutters for a moment, like he’s hurt.

Azariel nudges him with a paw. Cheer up, take a joke.

 

“Debbie!” Ashley yells, again, and they break apart.

 

-

 

Ashley’s daemon is an ewe. She’s got big eyes and she looks at Debbie with the same sort of dull, beseeching stare that Debbie assumes Ashley uses on the congregation. Ashley's ewe and Laurel’s rabbit; between the two of them it's the biggest eyes in the world, like you could drown in the disappointment.

Azariel doesn’t really care. He does what he’s supposed to: head down, shoulders straight. Nobody's going to look after you so you look after yourself.

They can stand up to Ashley, anyway. He’s sweet, but sweet doesn’t get you very far. Not in a house of wolves.

 

Cain has a wolf, of course. Cain is a fucking Dingle.

She’s huge and terrifying.

Sometimes, Debbie dreams: Mihal with her teeth dripping and her eyes yellow, standing on Debbie’s chest, about to bite down. Mihal would. They threatened her enough times. There have been many times she almost did.

Debbie has nightmares, and in them there is a white wolf and a grey wolf and they are running, and Debbie is saying, please, please, please .

 

Sometimes, Ashley walks right into Wishing Well, and all the daemons gather round, and it makes Debbie nervous.

She likes Ashley well enough for herself; he’s kind, in a way that people aren’t. But she’s watched kind people, she’s watched her mum and her dad eat them alive, with their wolves and their dripping jaws.

The thing about Ashley that scares her is this: Jasmine would be so, so sad. Debbie doesn’t know if she could bear a world in which Jasmine was ever sad.

Sadness is for people like Debbie. Not for people like Jas.

 

-

 

Jasmine sneaks them into Tall Trees. She grins at Debbie, like she’s brave, with her little daemon fluttering his wings beside her, and they push hard on the doors and they give right open.

Azariel looks at Debbie, and Debbie feels her smile beam out of her.

 

“You’re the closest I’ve ever got to anyone, girl or boy,” Debbie says. “And that includes those I’ve slept with.” It feels like she’s giving something up.

Jasmine just smiles. “Well then,” she says. Like she’s got this secret, but she’s not keeping it from Debbie. Like Debbie is the secret. Like Debbie is something worth keeping.

Debbie goes back and round and puts her fingers back in Jasmine’s hair, and Eustace flutters down off Jasmine’s shoulder to land, curious, next to Azariel.

He cracks open one eye and looks at Jasmine’s little daemon.

“Look,” Debbie whispers.

Azariel stretches out a paw and Debbie's heart is pounding but he's just gentle, and Eustace chirps, and walks a little closer, fearless, on his tiny little claws.

And then they’re touching.

“I’ve never had a best mate before,” Debbie says.

Azariel leans forward and his nose brushes against Eustace’s chest, and Eustace chirps, this quiet bright sound.

He’s touched other daemons - Mihal, Pahaliah, Piper, Senna.

Never has he been like this. Cautious, careful.

They’ve lived a life full of people stronger and scarier and they thought that would keep them safe, that it might protect them, but it didn’t. It never does.

This is nice. This is just - someone Debbie likes, who likes her back. Maybe this is what they were missing, all those years alone.

 

Obviously, that’s when they get kicked out.

 

The air is cool on their faces, and they’re laughing; of course they’ve been thrown out, of course Debbie gets thrown out of everywhere she’s ever been. It doesn’t matter.

Nothing matters, because Jasmine and her little daemon stood up for them, like they always do.

“She’ll still shop us,” Jasmine says, laughing, breathless. Eustace flutters above them in the air, circling above their heads in bright, easy joy.

“Well I don’t care. I’ve got you to protect me.” Debbie takes a breath. “I think you’re amazing. I love being with you more than anyone.”

She does. That’s the thing. She does, and Azariel does.

Jasmine’s not - she should be weird, she should make Debbie upset. She’s lived a life that Debbie never got to have and Debbie ought to be jealous, by rights, but she isn’t. She’s just glad that Jasmine had it. She’s just glad to get to be around her.

“Seriously?” Eustace stalls, folds his wings and drops to Jasmine’s shoulder. She steadies him with a fingertip, but she’s still looking at Debbie. There’s something in her eyes - Debbie doesn’t know, not quite, but it’s unsteady and nervous and Debbie doesn’t want her to ever feel like she isn’t right, because this is Jas.

“Seriously,” Debbie says, with all the firmness she can muster, all the truth she can find.

And Jasmine leans in and kisses her.

Debbie doesn’t know what to do with that . She flinches, and her daemon steps forward, gets in between them.

“What are you doing?” Azariel asks. “Jasmine-”

Debbie doesn’t stick around to hear an answer. She just goes. And her daemon, he can bear to be far from her, but not that far, so he follows.

 

-

 

Debbie never sees Jasmine coming.

It’s scary, at first. Not knowing.

That’s why she runs.

 

But it’s Jasmine, so she comes back.

She thinks, she will always come back to Jasmine.

 

-

 

The first Dingle rule is this: never get caught.

 

Except: the vicarage gets burned down, and Debbie gets kicked out, and she wouldn’t give a toss except that Ashley and his big sheep daemon ask her to leave, and it’s back to the wolves - and away from Jas. Back to Mihal snapping every time Azariel breathes, and Azariel and Debbie snapping back.

She hates it.

 

Azariel settles on her lap, his jaw resting on her shoulder. He’s warm, and solid. He smells like sand and dust and being somewhere else.

“We could tell the truth. Chuck Daz in it.”

“No, we couldn't.” Jasmine and Eustace, they care about Daz and his little ferret. They were so proud of Debbie. It's the best lie she ever told.

Azariel sighs. She wraps her arms around him. His heart beats against hers.

They aren't usually like this, Debbie and her daemon. They don't want anyone to think they might be weak.

“They’re the best thing that ever happened to us,” he says.

She puts her face into his fur. It's scratchy on her face but it's not bad. “I know.”

“We can’t let them go,” he says. His paws scrabble against her hoodie.

She says, “Why are we always so stupid?”

He laughs. “Runs in the family. Look what we’ve got to work with.”

“I'm supposed to love you,” she says, quietly. “I'm supposed to be lovable,” he says. He pauses. “I'm sorry I wasn't a bird. I'm sorry we didn't get away. I'm sorry I didn't stop you with Andy, with Robert. With any of them.”

Debbie shakes her head. “We’re the same person, aren’t we? We made a bad choice.”

He says, “She kissed you.”

“We ran away,” Debbie says, quietly. “She said it didn’t mean anything, but she was lying.”

“She’s a bad liar,” he says. “We’re much better.”

She laughs. “That’s why we-”

 

He scrabbles backwards and looks at her, with his big eyes. “Debbie.”

She swallows. “Azariel,” she says.

“Better go find them, then,” he says.

 

-

 

Debbie isn’t the sort of person who touches her daemon for reassurance. It’s just - it’s an obvious tell, and Debbie is fifteen and a Dingle that actual Dingles don’t want anything to do with. She isn’t looking for more reasons to be a target.

But, standing outside the vicarage, waiting for Jasmine and Eustace to come out, she feels Azariel lean against her thigh and lets herself drop a hand to his neck, to tangle in the pelt at his nape.

 

They try not to play out their entire hand. They’re shaking, though.

“Come for a walk with us,” Azariel says, and Eustace squints down at him, but they agree.

 

It’s grey out. Grey in the graveyard, threatening rain. Debbie sticks her hands in her pockets but she feels warm inside, because Jasmine’s next to her, because Jasmine’s breathing and smiling and looking at Debbie like she doesn’t hate Debbie and that’s the best thing; Debbie’s never wanted anything more.

“You don’t think they’ll try and stop us seeing each other, do you?” It’s tentative. She’s not used to being tentative with Jasmine, but there’s a first time for everything.

“They could try,” Jasmine says, dismissive.

“What would you do if they did?” She sounds desperate, she thinks, but she just - she needs to know. They need to know.

“Debbie! They can’t stop us seeing each other. Not if we want to.”

“D’you promise?” Debbie thinks her voice might be shaking. “You won’t let it happen, will you?”

“Course I won’t.” Her daemon flutters off her shoulder, flapping down to the ground to stand with Azariel.

Debbie takes a breath, takes a step. “Look - I couldn’t handle it if they did. I love you, Jas.”

She leans forward and kisses Jasmine, and that’s - oh, that’s better, that’s exactly right. Her fingers on Jasmine’s face and Jasmine clutching at her, kissing her back - nobody’s getting bit this time, it’s just, it’s just good.

“Wait, Debbie -” Jasmine takes a step back, and she looks cautious, and Eustace looks nervous, too. “This isn’t about getting back at your dad, is it?”

Debbie shakes her head. “I’m not playing games.”

Azariel pads forward, to punctuate it. “We wouldn’t. Not about this.”

They couldn’t. They don’t have it in them. Debbie thinks, if she tried, if she did it again, her daemon would run so far they would both break.

Jasmine’s shoulders go loose in relief. “I love you too,” she says, breathless, bright. She’s so beautiful, Debbie thinks.

Debbie reaches out, and Eustace leans down so her fingertips can touch the top of his head. He’s so, so soft.

Jasmine grins. She’s got this smile - this soft, perfect smile she only smiles around Debbie. She reaches down and brushes her fingers over Azariel’s muzzle. They both feel it - like a feedback loop, the spark of it making Debbie smile, making Jasmine smile, too.

Debbie wants to kiss her again, but she doesn’t.

Jasmine shakes her head, and lifts her hand. “Right, I’d better get back. They’ll think I’ve gone to India for those teabags.” She’s still smiling. That would have stung, before, but it doesn’t now. Not now that Debbie knows. Not now that Debbie’s said the words, and Jasmine’s said them back.

Even the line of her back looks happy as she walks away. Her daemon sits on her shoulder, turned round to face them. He’s got such big eyes, in his little face, and they are lit up, too.

Debbie’s mouth hurts from smiling, and it feels warm from Jasmine’s lips. She traces her fingers over it, and yells, at Jasmine’s retreating shape, “And charge your mobile!”

 

She thinks she might be glowing.

Azariel says, “Is this what it's supposed to feel like?” He looks - she doesn’t think she’s ever seen him like this. Maybe with Andy and Piper, in the first days, but that was never like this. They were a person that Debbie and Azariel should never have trusted.

She kneels, next to a headstone, and reaches out for him. He noses at her fingertips. “I hope so,” she says, and she feels like she is lit up, like anyone who looked at her could see.

She feels like: she wouldn’t mind it, if everyone saw. She might like it, even. For them to know.

 

-

 

Jasmine gives her a bracelet, like a promise. Her fingers are cool on Debbie’s wrist, skating over the inside stretch of skin. It sparks.

It’s not supposed to spark, but it does.

Debbie loves Jasmine, and she might be in love with Jasmine, and it’s terrifying but it’s not, really, because of all the people in the world to trust - Jasmine wouldn’t hurt her. Jasmine hasn’t been hurt enough to know what it is to lash out.

Debbie was envious, for a long time, but that ship has sailed. Now she just wants to be close. As close as she can get.

She wants to hold onto Jasmine and kiss her and be with her. It’s like: as long as they are together nothing can touch Debbie. As long as they are together Jasmine is beautiful, and bright, and so Debbie isn’t quite as ugly, anymore. How could they be, if someone as beautiful as Jasmine wants them?

 

Jasmine wants to keep it a secret.

They want to yell about it, Debbie and Azariel. They want to shout it from the rooftops. They want everyone to know: we finally did something right. Finally, finally, finally.

They want everyone to see what they see: that Jasmine holds Debbie’s hand, that the world makes sense. That Debbie must be all right, because Jasmine loves her. That they aren’t ruined, after all.

 

Jasmine says, please just wait , and Debbie loves her, so she does.

It’s Jasmine. Jasmine wouldn’t let them down.

 

-

 

It’s fucking Cain. Of course it’s fucking Cain.

It’s revenge for Sarah and for - whatever it is that he hates about her, which is everything. She hates feeling like, small and pathetic and ugly, but he does it every time. His one great skill.

Debbie hates that despite all of this, despite everything, at the sight of Mihal’s jaws snapping at Eustace and his tiny darting wings, Azariel runs. Azariel goes to defend him.

That is what Debbie is. She should have known that this would happen. That she would, by proximity, by the force of her, take someone like Jasmine -

And make her like Cain.

 

Jasmine cries and cries and cries. Debbie hates it. Debbie hates seeing Jasmine hurt but she hates, more than that, that she let Jasmine hurt her.

 

“We really didn’t mean to hurt you,” Eustace says. His voice is soft. He has always sounded like this: like the wind, through the trees. “We - got in over our heads. We thought we could manage them and we couldn’t.

“The idea of him touching you makes me sick,” Debbie says.

“It was always you,” he says. “Debbie, it was always you.”

Jasmine is crying.

Azariel steps forward, and speaks for them both. “We don’t care,” he says. He sounds like a wolf. He sounds like the wolves in the woods, the ones that are Cain, are Charity.

He doesn’t sound like her.

But, that’s the thing; he is.

 

-

 

“Debbie!” It’s Sandy, in the cafe. His fox, lying flat across his feet, cracks her eyes open into little slits; Azariel ducks down to sniff at her, hello.

“Hiya,” she says, taking her coffee cup round. “How’s Ashley?”

He looks solemn, shakes his head. “Could be better, could be worse.”

That's not an invitation for more questions but he's still looking at her, so she sits.

“I’ve got a new number from Jasmine,” he says, and extends a little slip of paper with shaking hands. “I just thought you might like to have it.”

“Oh,” she says. Her fingers tremble, too. “Thanks, Sandy.”

His fox snuffles and bats at Azariel with a lazy paw; Azariel snorts and paws back.

Debbie folds up the paper and puts it in her pocket.

“It's been a long time,” Sandy says.

Debbie shrugs. “Not that long, really.”

He looks at her, long and thoughtful. “I suppose not.”

 

-

 

It’s so stupid; they aren't even together. Debbie loves Jasmine because that's the only way she knows to be near Jasmine. She forgives Jasmine anything, all things. It just takes time.

 

Jasmine is screaming. It cuts through them like a knife, like anything.

Azariel looks at Debbie and then they are running. They are running like they have never run before. Wolves are hunters, but wolves love. They have a fierceness about their love that is terrifying. She didn’t know that it was, until she saw what it was to be without it.

 

“Debbie,” Jasmine says. She’s shaking. There’s blood everywhere.

Shane's daemon is gone. He’s just - his daemon is gone. Debbie remembers: she was a shepherd, a big one, up to his thigh. A cop dog.

She used to snap at Azariel. He used to snap back. They’d only do it when Jasmine wasn’t around.

He’s just lying there. He looks pale and empty. Because he’s - because he’s fucking dead.

Because Jasmine started hitting him and didn't stop, and Debbie's throat is hoarse from screaming stop.

 

Azariel takes a step forward. Eustace goes to him, even as Debbie is screaming, even as Debbie is sobbing.

“We love them,” he says to her, with Jasmine's daemon pressed into his throat. “We have to fix this.”

Debbie wipes at her own face and pulls herself together.

 

They are a wolf, after all. They have spent all this time thinking, no, no, no, all this time trying to run away from it, from everything. All this time, they spent wishing they were a bird.

But Debbie’s daemon is a wolf and wolves protect, don’t they? That’s what Cain does. That’s what Charity does, in her own way. That’s what Eli does, even when he’s confused.

This is what she is . Maybe this is why they gave her Jasmine in the first place. Maybe it was all leading to this.

She has never wanted to protect anyone like she wants to protect Jasmine.

 

Jasmine is crying and Azariel goes to her, settles against her chest and she looks up, wide eyed.

“It's okay,” he says. “It's going to be okay.”

She looks at Debbie. Her eyes are wide and luminous, like her owl’s. “Debbie-”

Debbie nods.

Jasmine's fingers are bloody but they don't feel like it, pressed tight and tangled into Debbie's daemon’s fur. “I had to do it,” she says.

“You didn’t,” Debbie says. “You didn’t, Jas.”

But she did. There’s nothing they can do to take it back.

So: you move forward.

 

You wrap your arms around your best friend, and you feel her heart beat inside your chest, and her little daemon settles himself into the curve of your shoulder, pressing against your neck. And you’re screaming inside, but you hold them. You hold them, and you hold them.

And then you do what you must.

 

-

 

Debbie is the one with the wolf.

Jasmine has an owl.

 

Sometimes, when Debbie thinks about it, she lulls herself into believing it was the other way around. That she was the one who started hitting and didn't stop.

But it wasn't. It was Jasmine; little Jasmine with her little bird.

Jasmine, who Debbie loves. Jasmine, who Debbie wished she could be and then wished she could be with and then realised she wanted, more than anything else, in the entire world. In any possible universe, Debbie would love her.

Debbie would want her, this girl with her dark hair and her soft, cautious smile, and her little owl. And the blood, on her hands.

 

-

 

Jasmine’s daemon is a bird. Birds are not meant for cages. They are meant for open sky; they are meant to be free.

Debbie thought she could survive anything. She thought - she knew, she knows, she will know - you are a wolf and she is yours. You would live through anything for her. Jasmine would not bear this, so Debbie would do it for her.

Wolves are creatures of caves. Wolves endure. Wolves are fighters and that's what Debbie is, too. Debbie is tooth and claw. Jasmine is soft feathers, and a softer touch.

Debbie can take this prison sentence so Jasmine doesn’t have to. She has always fought for Jasmine, hasn’t she? Because Jasmine can’t do it herself. Debbie doesn’t want that for her. Debbie has never, ever wanted that for her.

Because Debbie had to fight and it ruined her. And Jasmine did not, and Jasmine is the best thing in the world.

 

In prison, she learned: you are a wolf, and wolves have packs. You have that which you love, and you protect it, and you’ll do anything, won’t you? You have to.

She learns that she loves her daughter. And she learns that she loves Jasmine.

She learns, oh, god. She thinks: Sarah. And it hurts, to realize. Everything that is worth learning hurts.

Sarah is hers like Jasmine is hers. Sarah is more .

She learns, that perhaps, if she had been offered the choice she would choose Sarah over Jasmine. If she could do it again, maybe she would do something.

She drowns in it, this realisation.

Her daemon presses himself against her body and they lie there, curled in their tiny bunk, and he says, I wish and she says, I know and when she cries it’s all right because he’s there. Because he’s hers.

 

“I love you,” she says.

He looks at her, wide-eyed, cautious. His paws are on her chest, a warm and familiar weight. “I love you, too.”

 

But Jasmine comes back. Jasmine and her soft-eyed owl burst into the courtroom; Jasmine, who they only ever wanted to save.

Jasmine, who clutches her hand as they are to be sentenced, with the beat of her heart caught in Debbie’s skin, and Debbie’s wolf daemon raises his head to press it against Jasmine’s side, and Jasmine’s little daemon who flutters, brightly, and settles on Debbie’s shoulder, with his claws like pinpricks against her skin and her heart is soaring despite this, despite everything.

And Jasmine’s daemon says, You have been so brave for us. We have to be brave now, too.

And Debbie says, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” until the words blur together, until she can’t breathe anymore. And then she says them again.

 

Four years. A lifetime, for a bird in a cage.

 

-

 

Jasmine smiles on the other side of the bars. She has this way of smiling, only for Debbie. This cautious, desperate, lit up thing. Like she doesn’t know if she’s allowed to have it, but she wants it, anyway.

 

“We’ll be here,” Debbie says. She wraps her arms around herself, holds on tight.“We’ll be here every weekend. We’ll - we won’t leave you, Jasmine. We can’t leave you.”

Jasmine is crying. Jasmine is crying and her little daemon is fluttering on her shoulder and Debbie has never hated the world so much as she hates it now.

Eustace flutters to her shoulder. They are not supposed to touch but the guards aren’t looking and for a moment his feathers brush her cheek and she is alight with it, with his love, with her own. “You can’t,” he says. “Please. We need to survive in here. We can’t - if it’s you.”

Debbie’s heart twists. Azariel dips his head and makes this noise - this rough, echoing thing.

“You protected us for so long,” Eustace says, and he is kind , that is the worst of it, that Jasmine being selfish looks like this, like anyone else’s kindness. “You know we’ll have to be someone else in here.”

Debbie is crying.

Azariel presses his nose to Jasmine's wrist. “All right,” he says. “All right.”

 

Debbie had this dream, inside, where they got away. Where she got in the car and met Jasmine and they just ran and kept running.

She used to hold onto it, like a photograph with faded edges that she could clutch to her chest.

Then she started to dream about Sarah.

 

But there was a moment, and she remembers it: she and Jasmine, in a cafe, maybe in France. Jasmine, laughing, with her hand in Debbie’s daemon’s fur. The sunlight in her hair, in her eyes, on the feathers of her daemon in flight above them. Debbie would lean across the table and kiss her, and then she would smile.

 

“You and me, we’re forever,” Jasmine says, and then she puts her hand over her heart. “We are, in here.”

Debbie is crying. Debbie is crying but she can’t look away, because she won’t be back, because this is the last time she’ll see Jasmine and her little owl daemon.

Azariel runs and the guard’s dog daemon herds him back. She is gentle, though. Cautious.

Debbie stares. Her vision is clouding up; too many tears. “Forever,” she says.

 

-


The car is quiet. She’s shaking, a little. She’s got the weight of Mihal’s last touch heavy on her shoulders, the smell of her lingering close in her mouth, in her nose. Mihal had stepped forward, pressed her nose to Debbie’s hand. Mihal barely ever touches her. It had felt real, like a proper goodbye.

Azariel looks at her, quietly, longing.

They’re thinking about Ross, and Robert: a fucking panther and a little dog, and a man and a gun. Everything fucking goes wrong. Absolutely everything. She couldn’t pick a decent person if she tried. She hasn’t, ever.

“We did, once,” he says. Sarah’s Oswyn, now a little red squirrel with grasping paws, clambers onto his shoulder. Azariel noses kindly at his chest. “Just the one time.”

Sarah yawns and leans against Debbie’s shoulder.

Debbie wraps one arm around her daughter, and presses a kiss to her hair. “Just once,” she says, wryly. “Terrible odds, don’t you reckon?”

“Pretty shit,” he agrees.

 

Her fingers are shaking. She pulls out her phone. She thinks about Sandy. She wasn’t supposed to keep the number; he’s old, and he’s confused, and Ashley is -

But she has it.

Her daemon’s eyes gleam. He blinks twice, pressing himself against her legs.

“Hello?”

“It’s Debbie.” She keeps her voice steady. Her heart is hammering in her mouth; in her lap Jack is fidgeting, his daemon fluttering from mouse to vole to sparrow and back again. She soothes him as best she can.

Debbie? ” That voice, around Debbie’s name: like a dream, like a lightning bolt.

“I’m going to France,” Debbie says. She puts her hand on Azariel’s neck and he presses into her. They are both shaking. “I was wondering - if you’d like to come.”

There’s a pause. A breath.

“Are you sure?”

Debbie swallows. “It’s been long enough, Jas. I miss you.”

“Okay, yeah. Okay.” Debbie knows this voice, even after all this time; she hears the tremor in it, the faintness. The want.

“You'll come?”

A pause, for fingertips to glide across an owl’s wings; for remembrance. “Yeah, I will.”

 

Debbie closes her eyes. For a moment she is sixteen years old, with the enormous wingbeats of a tiny owl setting the rhythm of her own heart.

She used to love Jasmine because she was what Debbie wanted to be; then she loved Jasmine because she had let Debbie save her. Now - now they are older, and Debbie has missed her so much.

She opens her eyes to meet the steady, unflinching gaze of her wolf daemon.

“Good,” she says.

 

-

 

i wrote, everyone else isn’t you. it turns out that’s a huge problem for me.