i. The Unending Day
Will looked at Mary Malone over a cup of tea, seeing her and yet feeling as though he himself wasn't actually present in this world. His world. He was nothing but a wolf's cry, a howling into the abyss, separated forever from his packmate. Numb with disbelief, he forced his mind to focus on things that needed to be done. He listened to the names of the agencies Mary mentioned to do with his mother and himself, nodding as she talked about her research and laboratory. He pretended not to notice when she stopped talking and her gaze grew distant. Her face brightened a bit when her dæmon hopped closer. Kirjava was curled up at Will's feet, silent and mourning with the power of a thousand blistering suns, relentless and inescapable. How ever were they going to bear it? It wasn't fair, none of it: not meeting his father only to see him cut down just as recognition had set in; not being given the gift to love, to know the sweetness of hours spent with part of your soul, only to choke on the cruelty of it being ripped away. There was no consolation for him: not being reunited with his mother, not going about whatever business he had at his age in this world. He was an empty maw, yet filled to bursting with anguish.
All he could do was drink tea, and listen, and hope with every cell in his body that every day for the rest of his life wasn't going to be like this. His whole substance was an ache, a bruise, a cry of despair and futility that he hoped, even though the pain made him remember fruit-stained lips and love and Lyra he hoped it would fade, because he couldn't bear a lifetime of this. He'd been strong for Lyra, but now, in the initial reality of separation, he was as shattered as the knife he'd forced himself to break mere hours before.
"We should go to bed," Kirjava said softly, and Will nodded.
"Mary," he said, scooting back from the rickety table, "it's been a long day. Do you mind if I find a place to sleep?"
Mary busied herself and found a spare blanket, procured a toothbrush and showed Will where the bathroom was. She paused in the doorway of the living room, a weighted moth that felt compelled to hover as though Will was a flame, a light to the worlds they had left behind. Her eyes were heavy with understanding, reflecting that which was now lost to them.
"I'll be in my room. If you can't sleep, or want to talk " she clarified, stumbling over the words in her eagerness to commiserate.
Will nodded gravely. "Thank you."
Once alone, Will tucked the blanket around him on the couch. Kirjava curled up in a space behind his bent knees. She missed Lyra too, and Pan; Kirjava had felt Lyra's fingers in her fur, knew the touch of one's beloved. Will couldn't help it and let silent, salty tears slide down his cheeks. He had to wipe his runny nose on his shirt, but he remained quiet. Lyra was right, they would both have to be fair to anyone they might marry off in the future. In the dark of this Oxford night, however, an Oxford in which Lyra simply wasn't there, Will fed on his bitterness and mourning until he was gorged.
Eventually he fell asleep.
* * * * *
ii. The Tenuous Embarking
"That's it for the delivery, Will. I'll deal with the paperwork and the driver if you'll start stacking boxes, right?"
Will headed back to the small warehouse room of the wine shop, putting the cases in order by type. It wasn't exactly a challenging job, working at Thresher's at the foot of Old High Street, but they stayed busy and he preferred the feel of the shop to that of Sainsbury's. There he'd also worked the till, but here he found he didn't mind dealing with the students of Oxford's many colleges because the overall clientele was diluted with a wide variety of Oxford's regular citizenry. As he hefted the boxes, noting the melodious clink of glass with each load, he let his mind wander. He didn't have a problem with the students per se; it was more that, even now, eight years later, they made him think of Lyra and her Oxford. She'd been so bright and inquisitive— and fearless. No doubt in her own world, in the parallel and unable to intersect version of Oxford which lay invisibly on them in his world, she'd become a Scholar in her own right. Will, in contrast, had gone into the work force as soon as he could.
"Hey Will!" Ian called out from the floor. "I could use some help here."
Will shook the tension out of his arms as he walked into the store to man a second till. There were four people waiting to be rung up by Ian.
As Will took his position and waved over the customers at the end of the queue, Ian flashed him a blazing smile. "Thanks mate," he said.
Ian was nearly always in a good mood, which Will appreciated. He'd also turned Will on to something that had made his rather dull life seem far more bearable: pot. Will didn't smoke nearly as much as Ian did, but it was a not-quite-daily habit and one that he found suited him well. After closing, he and Ian and sometimes the manager, Russ, would get stoned and go out to a pub. Will had picked up a few birds during their excursions, but he hadn't settled into anything more than a shag or two with any of them.
While ringing up another customer, Will pondered how much money he'd saved up. The notes were stashed in a lock box hidden behind his plates in the pantry. Russ had come to Oxford from Birmingham, and after hearing Russ' stories, Will had decided to move.
"Two pounds, seventy-two pence," he stated, dropping the change into the wide palm of a man in an ill-fitting, charcoal suit. "Cheers."
"Cheers," the man mumbled in reply, pocketing the coins and pulling the sack closer to his chest as he strode toward the door.
Kirjava snuck in as the door opened, sleek and graceful. She was never actually absent, of course, but since Will lived not far away from the shop, often his dæmon stayed at their small flat. He'd had a flickering thought of Lyra earlier as he'd rung up a customer. The woman's tawny, waved hair and curious, intelligent face, made Will think he was seeing his former loved one as she might appear now, in her early twenties. Doubtless such a line of thought had encouraged Kirjava to stick a bit more closely to him.
"Hi Will," she said so subtlely that no one else could hear. At times Will had figured the two of them communicated telepathically more than anything else, though sometimes he found he needed to hear her flute-like voice, so rare and precious in this world. He gave her a small, lop-sided smile as he watched her sidle over to Ian's till. Ian had a dæmon too, of course, though he didn't understand it and couldn't truly sense her— and he couldn't see Kirjava for that matter. She enjoyed Ian's company just as Will did, and she'd told Will that when Ian was particularly stoned, he did have a sense of his animal spirit, a sweet hedgehog named Ellana. How dæmons communicated with each other was beyond Will, especially here in his own Oxford, so he didn't badger Kirjava with how she knew such things.
When there was a temporary lull in the flow of customers, Will and Ian tidied up the shelves, replenishing any particularly popular wines.
"You should come over tonight!" Ian said jovially, his bright copper hair in its usual hopelessly mussed state.
"Sure!" Will enthused. His eyes glanced over to a heating vent where Kirjava had stretched out, basking in the warmth. "I'll bring some stout." While Threshers did sell beer, he and Ian preferred a brew not carried there in the shop.
"Brilliant. Say, I'll just duck out back for a few. You right out here?"
Will might have a fag or two later, but he hated smelling like smoke while he worked. Not to mention that Kirjava got sulky and standoffish when he smoked cigarettes.
Finally the shop was closed for the day. Ian clapped Will on the back as they turned to go their own ways. "See you soon. I'm getting takeout curry, so don't worry about finding something in your pantry to bring."
"My kitchen's bloody empty, regardless," Will said, chagrinned.
"Just bring the beer!" Ian called as he walked toward his flat, with the usual spring in his step.
"You should eat better," Kirjava scolded him as they walked to the corner shop he frequented.
"I should get out of here and get a real job," Will mumbled, pulling his jacket tightly against the wind. It was blustery and his eyes watered at the cold onslaught.
"You can't be a labourer because of your hand," His dæmon said, echoing a thought that often rattled quietly in the back recesses of Will's mind.
"I know," he said sharply. "I'm no scholar, either."
"You care about people," Kirjava said, leaving his side to wait outside at the corner of the small shop.
Will rolled his eyes. Soon, with two six-packs in tow, he was let into Ian's flat after a warm embrace. Kirjava purred and made a close but not touching circle around his friend's feet; her actions revealed how much Will trusted him, even though he'd not told him anything of substance about his past. Several times already he'd very nearly told Ian about his dad; about what had caused him to have lost two fingers; about the reality of other world and how part of his heart would never heal; about his affection and dependence on Kirjava. Both times she'd nipped at him, even though she'd been similarly drugged. Both times he'd thanked her, once the effects of the pot and alcohol had worn off.
"Sit down, sit down," Ian said, smiling broadly. "Make yourself at home, you practically live here anyway. I'll help you with that," he said as he took the sack with the beers to the kitchen.
A couple of hours later, both Will and Ian were quite stoned, and not a little drunk. At peace and feeling solidly content in his skin, Will stretched out on the floor, Kirjava's tail languorously drifting back and forth in the air. Ian was blathering on about something; Will squinted at him, trying to force Ellana to be visible as though he could make his dæmon visible by sheer determination. Sluggishly, the topic Ian was discussing drifted into Will's understanding like a soft rain.
"Reincarnation?" he said.
"Yeah. Pretty cool concept, don't you think?"
Will gave it a few moments of serious contemplation. His imagination was pulled to wildly delicious thoughts of him meeting Lyra again, off in the future sometime. They wouldn't be themselves, exactly— they'd have different names and be clothed in different skin, and might not have a clue as to why they would be immediately attracted to each other. But of course, that would be exactly what would happen. He would stumble across — or into — a young woman, or maybe she'd be a bit older. They'd feel they knew each other already, that their meeting was one of serendipity, that the universe had wanted, no, needed them to find one another again, and love each other as they had before
"Do you think you were alive before?" Will asked as he sat up, his interest fully piqued.
"Me? Sure." Ian sprawled lower in his rattan chair, a glass of whiskey perched on his knee, held precariously in his loose grip. "But I wasn't anyone important. Probably a gardener on some noble's land, or maybe a groomsman. I've always loved animals," he said, a wistful look descending onto his features. "You?"
Will thought about it and then looked unselfconsciously at Kirjava. She yawned, her delicate pink tongue arching between her teeth.
"Maybe. Probably, I s'pose. I might've been an explorer type."
"Died young, no doubt."
"Yeah," Will said, his tongue and creativity loosed as his veins thrummed with the chemicals buzzing in his system. "I was probably a mapmaker on a boat, searching for new lands, or mapping ones that nobody thought were real."
He took a slow sip of whiskey, the mellow burn sliding down his throat to lodge warmly in his chest.
"More importantly, though," he went on, fixing his gaze on Ian's rather slack-jawed face, "I'm going to come back. I have someone I need to meet, and this next time, we won't have to be apart."
Ian's ginger eyebrows arched in surprise. "Do tell!" he drawled. "I had no idea you were keeping such intriguing secrets. Who is she?"
Will felt Kirjava's warning look, but he soldiered on, careful not to give too much of his history away. "There was someone, when I was younger. She and I had to split up, but neither of us wanted it. We would've given anything to stay together " His voice faded as he recollected the feel of the cold blade of the subtle knife on his cheek, how it had broken into a trail of shards, and how he and Kirjava had so carefully retrieved every piece.
He refocussed on Ian, who now sat rapt, caught up in the storytelling. "But we couldn't. The price was too high. And I'll never see her again, never." Will paused to swallow the bitterness of those last words, easing their passage with another sip of liquor. "In the future, though, she could come back, and I could, too. We found each other this time, which was pretty bloody amazing, so we'll be able to again. I just know it. Next century, maybe. 2125," he said for emphasis.
Ian burst out laughing, a kindly, mellow sound. "What date?" he asked without a hint of insincerity.
"June fourth," Will said immediately, the date unpremeditated. "June fourth, 2125. I'll have to figure out where," he murmured to himself, his mind now utterly fixated on that meeting. He marveled at how certain he was about it all, and how fucking fantastic it would be to have his Lyra in his arms again, no matter what they looked like, or the names they would have.
"You're a nutter," Ian said affectionately, shaking his head. "Great story, though. You have me convinced! I've got to take a piss, then I'm off to bed. Too knackered to stay up. Even with your grand tales of being reunited with some bird you've never mentioned until now, I can barely keep my eyes open."
He stood up unsteadily from the chair, knees cracking.
"I'll be off home, then," Will said, the surety of his finding Lyra again beating a steady rhythm in his heart.
"All right. See you Tuesday!" Ian said, staggering down the corridor to his bathroom.
Back safely in his own narrow bed, Kirjava nestled against Will's chest in an unexpected but welcome physical solidarity.
"You don't really believe all that," she said sleepily, licking her paw to clean one ear before settling completely next to his thin t-shirt.
"I do," he said stubbornly through a yawn. "You do, too. Don't lie."
Kirjava didn't contradict him.
* * * * *
iii. The Mysterious Years
"Why can't I see his dæmon?" Will complained, though he knew the answer before Kirjava answered.
"The same reason you can't see anyone else's," she replied. Her rebuttal had no bite; she was as high as he was.
"Yes, but you know her name, and that she's a grass snake. You can sense her. It's not fair." He pushed one foot against the ground so that he swung a bit in the hammock, Kirjava watching him from the lawn through hooded eyes.
"Life's not fair," she reminded him, tilting her head before dropping it to groom her left foreleg.
"It's just so strange to be a dad," Will said, half to himself. "Anne's all right, but I didn't expect to be raising a baby with her."
Kirjava wisely kept her delicate mouth shut; Will knew all of her commentary on the subject already from the countless discussions he'd had with her. He did have a few mates here in Brum, and he'd told Ian the news when he'd gone back to Oxford for his annual midsummer's day pilgrimage. No one knew him as well as Kirjava, however, even though she continued to hold a few secrets to herself.
"You'll be around for Bruce, so stop fretting. You'll give yourself an ulcer," the inky cat scolded, pausing to look at him. Gracefully she padded the few steps to the hammock and leapt up onto his stomach.
"Ooof!" he grunted, grimacing for a few seconds until she situated herself into a comfortable position. He took a last, deep inhale from his joint, holding the potent smoke in his lungs before letting it out to drift into the balmy air.
"I mean to be a good dad for him," Will said, almost as much to reassure himself as anything else. "I've got a decent job, and I can't believe they're going to publish my book."
"Being a good father isn't just about money, you know that," Kirjava said, beginning to purr as Will rubbed the soft fur on her neck. "But I am proud of you. You didn't think you'd ever actually write any of that story down, much less have it get noticed by a publisher."
Will nodded, his fingers moving back and forth as he absentmindedly massaged Kirjava's neck and under her chin. "There are loads of things I never thought I'd be. Author was never even in my head until the words started coming out."
"You were inspired."
If Will hadn't known her nearly as well as himself, he'd have thought she was being sarcastic. "Yeah," he said, brooding. "Wish I could let Lyra know."
Kirjava seemed to sigh, her purring growing faint for a moment before resuming its louder rumble. "I know you do. You've got to be content with things as they are. Be thankful for what you do have: a decent place to live, a girl whose company's mostly all right, and a beautiful son."
Will smiled at the last part, thinking of the infant sleeping in his crib, still too new in the world to really resemble either of his parents. A twinge of melancholy seized him as he let himself wonder what a child would have looked like had he been allowed to stay with his first love.
"Don't," Kirjava cautioned, lifting her head to gaze at him, her eyes glowing as they reflected the light above the neighbour's shed. "Bruce is yours, he's real. Don't play what ifs with yourself, you've done quite enough of that in your book. You've got to live your life."
"I am," Will said petulantly. "I should check up on him in a few minutes."
The hammock had stilled again; with one leg that was draped over the side, he rocked his foot against the ground to create a gentle swinging motion.
"Mary says she can see her dæmon if she tries, and it's become easier and easier for her D'you think Bruce'll ever be able to see his?" he asked, relishing the solid feel of warm fur under his touch.
"See Petrichora? No, I don't think so. The only reason you see me and we're able to talk like this is because of that awful separation." Kirjava nuzzled against the slight paunch of Will's belly, a legacy of not enough exercise and too many ales. "That was in another world, one you might never have returned from. You and Dr. Malone are unique in this world."
"Don't remind me," Will grumbled. He didn't dwell on that tumultuous adventure very often. Just as he sometimes had a ghostly sensation of the presence of his missing fingers, from time to time he was assaulted by a gnawing ache in his heart, the loss of his one true mate branding its imprint by its very absence. Most of the time, however, he simply went about his life, shocked on occasion that he was nearly thirty, that he'd settled down — though not married — and now had a son.
He'd worked through an entire fantasy of what a life with Lyra could be off in a future century. The idea of reincarnation had put down roots in him, growing and spreading until he'd at last written down a highly modified version of his and Lyra's story, complete with their being reunited as yet another incarnation of lovers destined to find each other. In writing it down with detail and wild exuberance, he found the anguish had lessened its hold, at least in some ways. In others, it only solidified for him that this really would happen: that in his world, or Lyra's, or a yet undiscovered realm, they would indeed be drawn to one another. It was only a burden of time to bear between now and then as well as their deaths, and rebirths.
"We have a lot of life to live."
Kirjava's voice soothed him, gentle and comforting, like warm sand underfoot walking along the beach. "She doesn't want us to spend our days heavy with regret."
Buoyed by his visions for the future and a sense of well being enhanced by the weed he'd smoked, Will was swept away by hope. He saw a long life with the usual hills and valleys, holidays and birthdays and his annual visits to Oxford and seeing Mary Malone—
"You should email her," Kirjava said, stretching out a front paw. "Ask her about her research, but send pictures of Bruce as well. She'll want to be a part of his life, maybe even a godparent."
Will looked askance at his dæmon. "I don't bloody well think so."
"She wouldn't be a conventional godmother, given her history, but I suspect she'll offer."
"You're probably right."
Will yawned and stretched, unsettling Kirjava who let out an irritated meow. "Sorry. Time for me to go inside."
"Yes. I'll be with the baby," she murmured, flowing down to the ground and running up the steps to wait for Will to catch up and open the door.
After gazing on his sleeping son for a while, he left the room, Kirjava functioning as a sentry as she sat in a rocking chair. Will tucked himself into bed. Anne was asleep, for now; Will carefully spooned against her, ensuring that she didn't wake up. He breathed in her scent of jasmine, quotidian and familiar. As he began to fall asleep, he was overcome by a sense of deja-vu, of one of the angels from worlds long left behind speaking to him, holding a repaired subtle knife in her hand. He tried to speak, but then he shifted, and in the creaking of a bedspring, the representative of the bene-elim was gone. Will wiped irritably at the wetness on his cheek, and was claimed by dreams.
* * * * *
iv. The Long Hereafter
"I don't know why I bother," Kirjava said morosely, padding silently at Will's side.
"Because you have to," he replied, his augmented cheer a threnody which pulsed in time with his heartbeat.
His dæmon could go far distances from him; they'd tested it through the years and they both knew their limitations. But he desperately needed her, and she wasn't willing to abandon him, not now. She was worried about him, and he knew it, despite being at least two sheets to the wind.
It was Midsummer. He had taken his annual pilgrimage to Oxford, to the solid bench in the Botanic Gardens, just a hop and a jump from the Magdalene Bridge. Despite the auspices of the calendar, it was cold, but he didn't feel it. He'd buffered himself against his newfound solitude since his common-law wife and infant son had been killed in an auto accident. Will clutched his novel in his hands as he surreptitiously made his way to the far corner in the gardens, not paying the fee they'd imposed, pretending as though he was invisible. It was how he felt, after all. Why should anyone treat him any differently?
"Because you're not invisible," Kirjava hissed irritably, though she was bound to him and, therefore, equally intoxicated.
She growled, but continued along.
Will looked again at the novel and the inscription he'd written:
To Lyra— You're meant to get this, but as you know, the Knife's broken. If you get it anyway, this is for you, for us. Meet me. Next century.
I was always yours, and will be, again.
Soon he reached the bench, its wooden surface still sheltered by trees. He was heavy and soft with regret and anticipation; it thundered in his ears, deafening like an ocean tide.
"Will," Kirjava pleaded, but he'd already clambered onto the bench's surface and lay on his back. His feet were tucked to his thighs, his hands on his ankles, the book a sacrifice laid on his ribcage above his chest.
"If I could repair the Knife," he intoned, not knowing what else to do, his heart bloodied and lost, "I'd put this on your bench. If I could've found Iorek or someone to fix the Knife, I'd have done so. All so you could read this, and know. You're to meet me, in 2125. This is for you. I just can't bear it."
Dry-eyed, Will pulled his tracksuit top closer about him, feeling utterly as though he no longer belonged in this realm.
The voice was stern, and held such love that Will thought he'd burst with the sound of it. He squinched his eyes shut, holding only the image of terrible wings and unbearable dispassion. Xaphania tormented him, her otherworldly fingers seeking solace on his brow and jaw before she took the tome. Will opened his eyes at last, regarding her beautiful, remote face. When she spoke, he heard bells, the angel's voice, a rustling wind.
"I can't say that I'll ever get this to her. But perhaps I can."
Will nodded, his fingers empty, his hopes carried into the Oxford afternoon and the ethers