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Recovery

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Feliks woke to his fur being brushed.

It was a familiar feeling. A hundred and fifty years ago his fur had come in and then kept coming in, so thick and plush he could stand in a rainstorm without any water reaching his skin. Water still hadn’t touched his skin when he went swimming, sliding into the river and finding himself dry, eyes seeing as easily as in air, ears and nose closed. Suspended, dreamlike.

Since then his fur had been brushed a thousand thousand times. Professional reasons, he needed to stay waterproof just as any Jäger needed to maintain their special skills. Decebal, tawny spotted hands wielding a comb — I’ll brush you but you have to brush me afterwards — had no such excuse for his preference for cleanliness. Just a sharp tongue and sharp claws for anyone who commented.

Decebal holding a teasel, claiming he was going to raid a shop for combs next town they passed, eyes narrowed with disgust at the inferior job it was doing. He’d complained about losing their combs, about the lack of alcohol, about having to sleep in trees for safety, about everything but the endless, echoing loneliness.

A woman, long ago in Mechanicsburg, hands carding through the fur on Feliks’ chest. ‘I never knew a Jäger could be so soft.’

‘Hy iz only soft on der outside, sveethot.’

Feliks was suspended in memories now, quiet and timeless, and he didn’t want to surface.

‘His fur’s so soft,’ said a voice, a woman’s voice like an echo. She sounded sad.

‘He voz almost as vain about it as Maxim iz about hiz hair,’ said Oggie. What was he doing here?

‘Hoy!’ Maxim’s voice was less surprising, where you found one you often found the other.

Worry rose through Feliks’ mind. This was a bad place. His brothers should not be here. ‘Nyuh.’ He twitched, hands clawing at fabric, one slow and weak with only two fingers moving.

‘Oh!’ A hand stroked over his head and a scent he’d been smelling all along suddenly wafted over him strongly enough to register. ‘Easy there. I’ve got you.’

She had him. Of course she had him. But there was nothing easy about it. Feliks wrenched his eyes open and threw himself sideways off the couch he was lying on to crumple to his knees at her feet.

‘Hyu!’ He couldn’t find the words for it, for the mingling of shame and adoration. She was beautiful. Her mother’s colouring and her father’s bearing and her grandfather’s fierce possessiveness — as if he was still something worth claiming. ‘They found hyu.’ Dimo standing by a control panel, watching with eyes like searchlights. Maxim fidgeting and Oggie grinning.

The Heterodyne’s cheek dimpled with her smile. ‘I found them.’ She reached down for his good hand. ‘I’m sorry it took me so long to find you.’

Feliks’ response was a choked whine, face buried in his hands.

‘Iz not hyu fault!’ Maxim said from behind him, fierce and abrupt.

‘Dot Spark iz dead anyvay,’ Dimo added, ever the practical one.

Feliks gulped a breath, Heterodyne scent nearly making him dizzy. ‘Hiz notes?’

‘Gone,’ said the Heterodyne, a stern note in her voice. She grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet. He stumbled, one of his feet nearly useless, and Oggie jumped forwards to take his weight. His brother and his Heterodyne steered him towards the window. They were on an airship, below them the labs where Feliks had spent so long were in flames. ‘Nothing is left,’ she said, arm around his ribs. ‘Nothing.’

The fire was beautiful. Red and orange predominating, green, blue, purple and yellow appearing in sudden bursts within the inferno. Maybe it would burn fierce enough to reach the cellars, melt away the bars.

‘Vot…’ Feliks asked shakily. ‘Vot now?’

The Heterodyne pulled him closer against her, as fierce as any of her ancestors, but strangely tender. ‘Now we go home.’