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Secrets in the Dark

Chapter Text

When Bernie thought back on it later, all she remembered was the noise. She knew there must have been light and pain too - zeppelins didn’t crash without those things - but they hadn’t registered as clearly as the explosion, the sound of tearing metal, the screams of her fellow passengers. And, of course, her own.

Indeed, she didn’t become aware of the pain for several hours; not until she was excavated from the smoking wreckage, her daemon managing to limp onto the stretcher with her, the rare anbaric lights of Damascus streaking past as she drifted in and out of consciousness and the mobile medics worked frantically to stabilise her condition before they reached the hospital.

She had been on her way back to Kandahar to resume her work with her regiment. She was a surgeon herself, one of the few women to ascend to that position in the Brytish Army. She’d been on leave from her post, pursuing other projects. Unfortunately, her time in Damascus had been largely fruitless, and she’d have little to report to her superiors when she could speak to them again. If she spoke to them again.

She could hear the surgeons whispering darkly as she swam in and out of awareness, could feel their anxiety as they stole glances at her and her daemon - a great Arctic wolf. Her daemon’s normally pristine white fur was caked and streaked with blood. Bernie wasn’t sure how much of it was hers, how much the wolf’s and how much belonged to the man who’d been standing next to them just before the explosion. A shudder ran through her at the thought. Her daemon, sensing her disquiet, scrambled up onto the bed and nestled against her side. Bernie wished she could reach up and run her fingers through the soft wolf fur, but her arms felt heavy as lead.

“Your daemon is very unusual,” she heard someone say, possibly a nurse. “What is his name?”

Bernie hissed through gritted teeth. “Her,” she grunted. “What’s her name.”

There was a brief hesitation before the nurse spoke again. “But,” she began, then seemed to force herself to stop. “What’s her name?” she tried again.

Briefly, Bernie considered being awkward by snapping that it was none of the woman’s business. But then another throb of pain shocked through her and sapped her of the strength to be intransigent. “Luna,” she muttered. “She’s called Luna.”

Luna tended to stand out wherever they went, wolf daemons being fairly out of the ordinary in this day and age, at least outside of Tartar lands. The propensity for members of her family to have their daemons settle as wolves was, however, not unheard of. She knew of a family named Faulkner whose daemons almost always settled as falcons, for example. Indeed, it was unclear whether the affinity for the bird had been the origin of the family name in the distant past, or vice versa. The same was true for the Wolfe family. However, her father and brothers’ daemons had all settled as slate-grey timber wolves. Luna was the only Arctic wolf dameon in their family in living memory and she was unusual for more than just her striking features. Most people’s daemons were of the opposite sex to their humans. No-one knew why some rare individuals were born with daemons of the same sex, but Bernie had heard a whisper that a certain faction of the Church was interested in looking into the matter, which could mean no good at all.

“I think we’re in trouble this time,” Luna whispered once the inquisitive nurse had disappeared to bother some other patient, her voice tight with pain and with the strain of trying to conceal it. Pointless, really, because Bernie could feel every ounce of it, every wave of agony, just as Luna could feel hers. They were, of course, really one being.

“Nonsense,” Bernie whispered back, her jaw tightening. “Been in far worse scrapes than this. Remember that time Higgins crashed the gyrocopter and we spent a month in plaster?” But even as she said it, she knew that this was worse. She couldn’t feel her feet, and hadn’t felt brave enough to ask one of the surgeons if her spinal cord had been compromised or if there was another, less sinister reason for the numbness. Forgetting the bravado, she felt Luna nestle closer to her, the great wolf burying her nose in Bernie’s neck. “I’d rather be dead than paralysed,” she murmured.

“Don’t be a fool,” Luna grumbled, but Bernie knew she felt the same. For a moment she breathed deeply, trying to be calmed by the closeness of Luna, the familiar animal smell of her, her warm weight and soft breath.

Just then, one of the conferring surgeons peeled away from the group and strode over to her side, his magpie daemon resting neatly on his shoulder. “How are you feeling?” he asked, but Bernie thought it was more for form’s sake than anything else.

“Like I was in a zeppelin that blew up,” she replied sharply. “Give me the prognosis.”

The unfamiliar doctor managed a wan smile. “You have unstable fractures in two of the vertebrae of your neck.”

Bernie felt the blood drain from her face, but she forced herself to breathe. Luna concealed her feelings much less successfully, unable to hold in a deep whine of pain and fear. Bernie, unable to move her arms to comfort her, rubbed her cheek against the soft fur of her daemon’s face and raised one eyebrow at the doctor. “When will you operate?”

The man’s daemon fluttered her wings, and he seemed to cringe. “There is also a problem with your heart. There has been damage...our heart surgeon fears that if it is not corrected at once, there may be a rupture before your neck can be repaired.”

Bernie felt her stomach twist. “And if you crack open my chest to fix my heart, my spinal cord will very likely suffer irreparable damage,” she extrapolated.

The unfamiliar doctor looked down at his hands and simply nodded.

Bernie took a deep breath, her mind racing. It was beginning to look like death or paralysis were, in fact, her two options. For a moment she almost got lost in quiet despair, and then she heard Luna grunt, “Together,” and her thoughts cleared.

“Do it together,” she said. “Monitor the heart while you work on the fractures - if it looks like rupturing, then crack me open.” She met her doctor’s eyes and stared at him meaningfully. “If there’s no realistic chance of saving the spinal cord, you needn’t work too hard for a successful outcome.”

The doctor blanched at that, his daemon squawking suddenly in surprise and disapproval. “I can’t do that, Dr Wolfe,” he said firmly. “Only our Lord can decide when to call a life into his arms.”

Bernie could practically hear Luna’s derisive voice, but her daemon held her tongue and Bernie just nodded tightly. “Then do your best to keep me both alive and whole, doctor.”

The next few minutes were a blur of activity, but at last Luna dropped heavily to the floor and climbed painfully onto the lower shelf of the gurney, specially designed to transport patients’ daemons, so they could be wheeled into theatre. She was dimly aware, as the anaesthetic began to take hold, of a priest performing the Last Rights.

It didn’t exactly fill her with confidence as she slid into the depths of unconsciousness.

When she woke again it was to pain like she’d never felt. Her whole body seemed to be throbbing with it, but she took some kind of comfort from that. If her legs hurt, she couldn’t be paralysed.

The doctor with the magpie daemon - Dr Amari - seemed pleased with her progress. “We almost lost you on the table,” he said. “But by God’s grace, we were able to save you. You’ve been very lucky.”

Bernie didn’t feel particularly lucky.

In the long days and weeks of her convalescence, her mind wandered back to the explosion more and more. She’d been tracking someone - an enemy - before she’d been forced to abandon the pursuit and return to Kandahar. Had she been compromised? Had the zeppelin been sabotaged somehow to target her? It seemed so unlikely, but she’d come to believe in a lot of unlikely things over the course of her eventful life, so she hadn’t ruled it out. Her mind spun conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory during her forced inactivity, and gradually the frustration of not knowing - and the pain of her slowly healing injuries - made her become more and more short with the nurses and junior surgeons sent to care for her.

“You can’t take your pain out on other people,” Luna snapped after Bernie had sent a young woman with a terrier daemon scuttling from the room on the brink of tears.

“I know,” Bernie snapped back. “I just...this bloody leg…”

Luna limped over to her and settled her head heavily onto Bernie’s right knee. “I know,” the daemon said gently. “I can feel it too, remember?”

Bernie let her hand settle on Luna’s shaggy head. “I know. I’m sorry. I’ll finally have to mention it to Amari when he comes round next, I suppose.” She frowned, wondering vaguely why this injury hadn’t been treated at the same time as the others. “The neck and the heart were urgent enough that I expect they thought the leg could wait,” she concluded at last.

“Hmm,” Luna hummed in response, and fell silent.

But when Bernie did finally bring up the pain in her leg to Dr Amari, she was met with a puzzled frown.

“I don’t understand,” he said, his daemon moving restlessly from foot to foot on his shoulder. “Your legs weren’t injured, Dr Wolfe. We’ve treated all of your injuries.”

Bernie’s face twisted in confusion. “But...I’m telling you, it hurts,” she insisted, then gestured at Luna. “Look at my daemon. She can barely walk.” And it was certainly true that Luna cut a rather pathetic figure, hobbling towards Bernie to demonstrate her invalidity to the doctor.

He seemed to hesitate for a moment, glancing between Bernie and Luna. “I wish you’d mentioned this pain earlier,” he said gently, then slipped out of the room to confer with a nurse outside. Bernie watched the back of his head, and then noticed that the magpie daemon was staring at Luna with what seemed almost like pity in her glassy eyes.

A few minutes later, Dr Amari came back into the room with a young nurse whose daemon was in the form of a capuchin monkey. “I’ve brought Nurse Safar here to examine your daemon,” he said solemnly. “With your permission.”

With a sinking feeling in the pit of stomach, Bernie nodded. Luna seemed to shrink before the monkey daemon, and Bernie felt her fear and dread like a knife in her own heart.

Gently, the monkey daemon began to examine Luna’s forelegs, testing the muscles and bones and joints. When he reached the knee joint of Luna’s right foreleg, the wolf yelped in pain and Bernie jerked too, her own leg blooming with what she now suddenly recognised as sympathetic agony. With a jolt, she understood that the pain in her leg had never truly been hers. It astounded her that she hadn’t realised it before, but of course both human and daemon felt the same pains and perhaps it wasn’t so surprising that things had become a little confused.

The nurse conferred in low tones with the doctor while the monkey daemon fussed and stroked Luna, like her mother’s daemon had done for her when she was a child and afraid of the dark.

“Dr Wolfe,” Dr Amari began gently, after nodding to the nurse that she could leave. “It appears...that is to say, I’m afraid that-”

“Spit it out, doctor,” she ground out between clenched teeth.

The magpie daemon bowed her head and fluttered her wings, seemingly unable to look at Luna. “We believe the only course of action is...amputation.”

The blood drained from Bernie’s face, leaving her as white as her daemon’s fur. Luna’s ears flattened against her skull. Bernie struggled to speak, to breathe. She had been prepared to hear that Luna was injured, that she’d require a lot of rest, some rehabilitation. She’d even been prepared to be told that her beloved daemon would be weakened permanently, that they would always bear some remnant of this pain. But this...this permanent, visible, unignorable sign of her own stubbornness and stupidity…

“If I’d told you about the pain earlier, could you have done something?” she finally managed to ask, her voice as colourless as her face.

Dr Amari hesitated. “Perhaps,” he admitted. “I’m sorry. This is the only way now.”

Bernie’s ears filled with static as he began to talk about the requirements for the surgery, the cedarwood operating table that would put Luna to sleep, the lengths to which the surgeon would go to avoid touching Luna any more than necessary.

“What?” Bernie said, the last of his words finally penetrating her consciousness.

He squirmed slightly. “I realise it is...distasteful, Dr Wolfe,” he said. “But the surgeon will be required to touch your daemon during the operation.” His natural disgust at the idea was obvious, but Bernie could tell he was doing his best to disguise that under a professional mask.

The thought of another’s hands on her beloved daemon filled Bernie with a deep and visceral loathing. It was the great taboo, something that was either innate to all creatures with daemons or learned at such a young age as it made no odds. In all her years, only one human being had ever touched Luna, and Bernie had loved that person like she was a part of her own soul.

“No,” she said firmly, tears glittering in her eyes. “No-one touches her. I’ll perform the operation myself.”

“You can’t!” the magpie daemon squawked, speaking to Bernie for the first time. Dr Amari shushed her before turning to Bernie with a pitying expression.

“Dr Wolfe, the pain you’d experience doing such an operation yourself-”

“-is a pain I’ll be feeling anyway,” Bernie interrupted forcefully. She set her jaw. “It’s my fault this is happening to her,” she said. “I won’t also subject her to the indignity of being touched by some stranger.”

Dr Amari opened his mouth as if to argue, but a low growl that came from deep in Luna’s throat made him snap his mouth closed again.

“Bernie will do the operation,” Luna said, her voice low and dangerous. “I won’t allow anyone else to touch me.”

Dr Amari stared at Luna for a long moment before his daemon fluttered off his shoulder. There wasn’t a lot of room for flying in the tiny room, but she managed to make her way to Luna almost gracefully and land between her shoulder blades. Neither human heard what passed between the two daemons, but in the end the magpie appeared satisfied and she flapped back to Dr Amari’s shoulder. He regarded her with some bewilderment, but she just shook her head.

At last he nodded. “I’ll go and make the preparations,” he said. “It’s best we do it quickly.”

When he was gone, Bernie slumped back against the pillows, tears stinging her eyes. Luna limped over to her and scrambled up onto the bed, leaning her body heavily against Bernie’s side. Breath coming in shallow gasps, Bernie opened her arms and let Luna collapse into them, burying her face in the soft fur of her neck. “I’m so sorry,” she gasped, her heart breaking.

“It’s not like you were the only one keeping quiet,” Luna murmured back, her voice vibrating gently against Bernie’s chest. “Too stoic and stubborn for our own good, aren’t we?”

Bernie nodded miserably, clutching Luna close to her, trying desperately to stretch out these last few moments when her dear companion would be entire and whole. But soon - much too soon - Dr Amari returned with an impossibly solemn look on his face and informed her that the operating theatre had been prepared.

Numbly, she slipped off the bed. Her right leg was in agony, but she was determined to walk into the surgery. Luna was at her side, bracing against her knee, almost holding her up despite the incredible pain Bernie knew she was in. “I’m sorry,” she whispered again, and the words tasted of salt.

The theatre was like any other in which she’d operated: clean, sterile, bright, cold. The only difference was the operating table, which was made of pure cedarwood. Cedarwood had a soporific effect on daemons, and it was by lying on this table that Luna would be able to sleep while Bernie remained conscious.

Bernie grunted as she kneeled down to face her daemon. Their eyes met and what felt like a lifetime’s worth of wordless communication passed between them in a single instant. Bernie couldn’t help but think back to a moment from her childhood, back on her father’s estate: Lord Wolfe calling for her, angry - she didn’t remember why - and his daemon, Dianae, leading him towards where she and Luna were hiding. Luna hadn’t settled then and had always refused to become a wolf, much to her father’s disapproval. Bernie remembered being terribly afraid, Luna wrapped around her neck in the form of a ferret and bristling with fury as Dianae and Lord Wolfe got closer and closer.

And then Bernie had felt Luna slip from her neck and onto the ground, her form shifting and changing as she did so, growing, lengthening, her snout extending and her ears sharpening until, somehow both slowly and all of a sudden, Bernie was staring in awe at a great Arctic wolf. She was tall and powerful and strong - larger than any true wolf, bigger than Dianae or any of her brothers’ daemons - and fierce too. Terrible and beautiful, her fur was as white as the full moon above them, and her muscles rippled beneath her skin as she placed herself between Bernie and her pursuers. Bernie could feel her strength flowing into her, and it had made her brave.

Her father and Dianae had stopped in their tracks and stood staring at Bernie and her wolf, anger forgotten. “Oh, well done,” her father said, his voice filled with a pride that Bernie was not used to hearing from him. For some reason, it made her angry.

“She didn’t change for you!” she yelled, and Luna turned her back on Bernie’s father, lowering herself to the ground so that Bernie - who was still small and light enough then - could climb onto her back.

When Bernie first sank her fingers into the soft fur of Luna’s neck, a feeling of calm and rightness flowed over her, like the tingling sensation of sinking into a warm bath on a cold day. She could tell Luna felt it too, because she was practically vibrating with suppressed excitement as Bernie clambered onto her back. Then, when the child was secure, Luna threw back her head and let out her first wolf howl.

Wild delight burst inside Bernie’s chest like the fireworks they’d had on Guy Fawkes’ night, and then Luna was running, bounding across the fields faster than any daemon of the household could run, because none of them could bring their humans along on their backs like this, and none could stray far from them either before the invisible thread that connected human to daemon would begin to tug painfully at their hearts. Bernie whooped for joy, her voice mingling with Luna’s howls, her nerves singing, and for the first time in her young life she truly felt that she and Luna were one being, the same creature in two forms, and the love she felt for her daemon in that moment was deeper and purer than any she’d ever felt for a human being.

Luna’s form never changed again after that night.

“You’ll never run like that again,” Bernie whispered, tears slipping unheeded down her cheeks.

“Well, you’re getting a bit old to be chasing along beside me,” Luna answered, her voice so forcefully cheerful that Bernie knew it was an act. “Chin up soldier. I’m just another patient.”

Bernie laughed through her tears. “A bit furrier than most,” she said, and Luna ducked her head in acknowledgement before lapping gently at Bernie’s cheeks, licking away her tears and doing everything she could to transmit her own strength to her dear human.

It took her five minutes to fall asleep after she climbed onto the operating table. Bernie had never seen Luna asleep before as, naturally, her daemon slept only when she did. It was very strange to see her like this, unaware, insensible to all sensation, whether pleasurable or painful. The pain in Bernie’s knee had receded more and more the further Luna had slipped into unconsciousness, and now she felt normal again, able to stand up straight and take her full weight on both legs without effort.

The instruments she’d need had been left to the side, but Bernie took one last moment to stroke and caress her daemon before reaching for them. At last, she could put it off no longer. She knew exactly where to cut, just above the knee to preserve as much of the leg as possible. The scalpel in her hand was steady, years of battlefield surgery having hardened her constitution to the extent that even this horrendous moment could be borne.

She felt the cut like her own flesh had been pierced. She cried out and nearly stumbled, before gritting her teeth and forcing herself to press on. Luna needed her. She couldn’t fail, and force the surgeons she knew were waiting just outside to take over, to touch her daemon in this vulnerable state. Angrily, she brushed a few traitorous tears away and set to work again, her scalpel cutting through skin and muscles and tendons before finding bone.

Her face chalk-white and her heart thumping, she placed the scalpel back down on the instrument tray and reached for the bone saw. Now her hands did tremble, but again she forced herself to proceed. Her breath was coming in deep, slow pants as she inhaled through her nose and exhaled tremulously through her mouth.

The sound of the saw cutting through Luna’s bone would live with her for the rest of her life. It would wake her screaming in the night, and return to her in weak moments during the day to seize at her heart like the cold grip of a ghost. It was excruciating, and she realised after a moment that some of the noise she could hear was a low, desperate keening emanating from her own throat, but she couldn’t seem to make herself be silent.

The operation seemed to last an eternity, but finally she felt the last of the resistance give, and she was holding Luna’s foreleg in her hands. She pulled it away from the rest of the wolf’s prone body, feeling sick and cold and clammy. For a moment the leg remained there, heavy and solid in her hands. But then it began to change, streaming away like smoke, dissolving into the air. Frantically she tried to hold on, to keep it with her somehow, but the tighter she held the more it seemed to flow away, like sand slipping through her fists at the beach.

Bernie had seen more than her share of death in her time. It was exactly what she’d seen happen to soldiers’ daemons when their humans died.

Numbly, Bernie turned back to Luna, still asleep and unaware of everything that had happened to her. There was just one last task to accomplish now. Silently, Bernie reached for the prepared needle and gut and began to suture the wound closed. Every pass of the needle was like a dagger in her own heart, but at last it was done, and she dropped the needle to the floor before collapsing forward, throwing her arms around Luna’s neck. Alone, without even her daemon’s familiar voice to ground her, Bernie broke down and began to weep, her body throbbing with pain like she’d never felt, but it was as nothing compared to the agony of her breaking heart.